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What is the point of of academic conferences?: A roundtable discussion

At the European Association for the Study of Religions’ Annual Conference in Bern (June 2018), five members of the RSP team – Sammy Bishop, Chris Cotter, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca and Tom White – gathered together on the final day of the conference to discuss academic conferences in general – the good, the bad and the ugly. Why attend conferences? What is the point? What else could we do instead that might be a better use of our time? And how did we find having a fully-functional podcast studio set up at this conference? These are just a few of the issues that crop up in this lively roundtable discussion, facilitated by the inestimable Moritz Klenk.

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


EASR Roundtable 2018: What is the Point of Academic Conferences?

Podcast with Chris Cotter, Sammy Bishop, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca and Tom White (24 September 2018).

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Audio and transcript available at: EASR_Roundtable_2018_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to the podcast studio in Bern, Switzerland, on the final day of the European Association for the Study of Religions Conference on Multiple Religious Identities. I’m Chris Cotter, and I’m joined here for an impromptu roundtable with some of my esteemed colleagues. I’m going to say, let’s go round to my right. So I’m Chris, and you should all know me, Listeners, and if you don’t, then: what are you doing? I don’t know. Who have we got here?

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop. I am a PhD student, based in Edinburgh, and also I’m involved with the Religious Studies Project, sometimes interviewing, sometimes helping out in other respects. And it is great to be here.

Angela Puca (AP): I’m Angela Puca and I’m also a PhD student, but at Leeds Trinity University. And I don’t know why I’m here, (laughter) but I’m happy to . . .

CC: We’ll find out, later. And there’s a man behind the sound desk there with a beard that is more impressive than mine!

Moritz Klenk (MK): You’re so kind! My name is Moritz Klenk and I’m also a PhD student, here – from Bern. I’m doing a PhD somewhere between Sociology of Religion, epistemology and the academic Study of Religion – or whatever the most recent name of this discipline might be. And also I’m a podcaster. And this is why I have built this studio for this conference. And I’m very happy to see it in such good use.

CC: And Listeners will really be appreciating the sexy sound quality of everything that has been coming out of this conference! Who’s the last individual?

Tom White (TW): And lastly . . .

CC: And least . . .

TW: And least – last and least – Tom White. I’m also a PhD candidate, from the University of Otago – where it is very wintry, in the South Island of New Zealand – mostly looking at religion, law and climate change in Fiji.

CC: So Moritz, you’ve got us all together here, so I’m going to pass over to you to stir the pot, as it were.

MK: Cheers. So the idea I had in mind, when thinking about making this a reality to come together for a last roundtable at this conference, was actually just . . . I would be interested in some reflections and possible criticism of the conference and what is happening here. Because every one of us, I assume, is getting used to travelling to conferences like these, telling others about his or her research. And so we are . . . . This is what we are doing. This is one part of our business. And so we, I think, can take the time to reflect a bit on what we are actually doing here. If it is the discourse we are all looking for, are we so interested in it? Or if not this, then what else do we do here? And to have a conversation. Because, at least – I’m already telling you what I was experiencing – but I think it is the most important thing you can experience, in these kinds of conferences and events, is that you get into conversations sometimes, and they are very fascinating. Sometimes you want to find your way out of them (Laughter).

CC: Claw your own eyes out sometimes . . .

MK: Yes, also that. (Laughter). But a conversation seemed to be the fitting end of that kind of event. So yes, I’m very glad that you all joined me for this and I’d be interested in your opinion about this conference. I’m a bit biased because I’m a local. So, this happens in Bern, so I shouldn’t start I guess. But maybe some of you have impressions, ideas?

CC: Well, my immediate reaction is that I have spent so much time podcasting! And I decided that this conference would be a chance for me to film various little bits of video and whatnot – which has been a useful experience. I think it’s really ramped up the engagement from folk who hadn’t been able to be here. But my actual impression of this particular conference has been somewhat limited, because I’ve been running around so much. I have seen something like, I don’t know, ten to fifteen papers. (5:00) But that’s not quite . . . you should normally be expecting to see maybe at least double that. So, perhaps someone who . . . . Well, Angela has been probably been the most participatory because the rest of us have been running around doing podcasts.

AP: I’ve been running around from one paper to another, or from a panel to another – so still running! Yes, this was my first EASR Conference and I really enjoyed it. Maybe the only criticism I have is that all the panels on the same topic were at the same time. So it was really difficult. There were, for example, some time slots where I really wished I had the gift of ubiquity and other timeslots there was really nothing relevant to my research – of course, still interesting panels, but not quite relevant to my research. So I would have liked to attend more panels on my research, which were actually there, but at the same time as others.

MK: But maybe this was also the intention, in a way, to bring together scholars from different research areas and to give them, by this kind of overlap . . . . I don’t know if that was the intention. I chose to interpret it in that very friendly way. But I think, to give them a chance to look beyond their own work they’re doing; to see the broader field of the European Studies of Religion, what people are doing. This is also I think the only chance you will get, because normally you’re . . .

CC: That’s a fair point, actually, I would say. Because you come to conferences and at the start of this conference I thought, “Oh. Damn. There’s about five or six different panels on the ‘nones’, the ‘secular’ and all this kind of stuff. I’m going to have to go to those.” But, equally, I’ve kind-of heard all I need to hear, perhaps . . . not all I need to hear. But if I want to approach these scholars, I can approach them; we can have dialogue anyway. But I sort-of felt I was going to have to attend them, because they were there, because I didn’t want to miss out on that key snippet. At the end of the day I actually didn’t go to that many, because of my podcasting schedule and whatnot. But I sometimes do find at a conference that it’s the panels that you go to just because it “sounds vaguely interesting, but isn’t quite connected to your research”, that you can suddenly find, actually, there’s a really good connection. And it opens up a whole new vista, in a way that you aren’t ever going to just pick up a journal article that’s just not on your topic and read it – much as we would all like to. There’s only so many hours in the day! So a conference can do that, that way. Has anyone had that sort of revelation at this one, that we a saw a paper that we didn’t really . . . that we went along to because it was in a panel with something else, or because there was nothing else in the schedule?

TW: I’ve ended up going to a lot of education, or the kind-of “role of religion in schools”, “schools as ideological production sites” whereby people are being trained in citizenship, or where schools are “sites of contested religious identities”: the crucifix; the burka. And, without any intention, I’ve ended up having quite an education in religion-focussed conference – which isn’t really my discipline or my key area, but has been quite nice to move into that and become more familiar with that subject area. But, yes, I think there is a point in picking a theme and trying to go deep, rather than doing a random pick-and-mix of entire breadth of the discipline. Because it loses a certain coherency. And that coherency with the education panels, I’ve really enjoyed.

SB: Just on the topic of themes as well: I was thinking about conference themes, and how this one was “multiple religious identities”. And I don’t know how many papers actually speak to that, that I’ve been to. And then, I was just kind-of wondering . . . sometimes, what the point of having a theme of the conference is. Because everyone knows that, at the EASR, you’ll go if you want to present a paper. And sometimes you can mould it to the conference theme, just for the sake of it. Sometimes there just seems like a bit of a facade, I think.

CC: My one bit of input on that . . . well I’m sure I’ll end up having a bit more . . . ! So, I’ve been doing a history project, on the British Association of the Study of Religions. For a number of years, now, we’ve ended up having a conference theme. But when I went back through the record, the conferences didn’t used to have themes. (10:00) Back in the day, it was just like sort-of ten old white men gathering in effectively a living room and having a chat. There would be one paper, and that was the conference. It then expanded to two papers, one in the evening and then one the following morning. And that’s what the Association was for decades. And then, as things grew and grew, it got bigger. And then they started to have an annual lecture. But there still wasn’t a conference theme. And then what seems to have happened at some point in the mid-‘90s a couple of years after the annual lecture was established, the annual lecture then became the conference theme. It was like, “We’re going to have a keynote. They’ll speak on this.” Then it seems to be people try and get everyone to speak around that topic. And I suppose the justification is that it’s away for having a relatively coherent conversation – but that never really happens! Conferences might produce a conference volume of key papers. But I think most conferences I go to now would even struggle to find enough coherency for that volume. And it’s been proposed at the BASR, recently, that perhaps we just abandon the theme and say that it’s a conference for scholars working in, or on, religion in Britain – and just leave it at that. And tell them what the keynotes are. And the keynotes might produce a certain sort of discourse just by their power position as being the keynote speeches. But, yes. It’s unclear, now, what the utility is. Any thoughts from the others?

TW: Well I think it also relates to . . . you know, you can only go to so many conferences each year. I mean, I’m in New Zealand so, you know, unless the conference is in New Zealand it’s a very expensive exercise going to conferences. So how do you select which ones to go to?

AP: That’s a good question.

CC: And maybe that is where the theme comes into play? Because, yes, there’ll be a core constituency who’d go to every European Association Conference, right? But for others who don’t have that luxury, then having a theme provides a justification.

AP: I don’t know whether the theme actually helps you with that, to be honest. (Laughs).

SB: I think if you want to present your research then you’ll present your research – never mind the theme.

AP: I guess, once you go to a conference, you will find scholars sort-of in your field that can give you feed-back, that you can network with. So it’s not something that a theme will help you with, I feel.

TW: I mean, what are the criteria with which you choose a conference? The exotic location? The location of your family on the travel route? Networking opportunities? Who else is going to be there, and what kind of feedback you might get on your paper? You know, and it’s a juggle between all of these different issues, isn’t it? Some more honourable and some more profane.

AP: Not always purely professional.

CC: And that’s ok, isn’t it? It’s one of the, I’d say, many perks of an academic life. We can all bitch and moan about all the various stresses and strains. But all the travelling to conferences is one of the perks.

SB: Definitely.

CC: Sometimes it’s funded. Sometimes one decides, “Well, I need a holiday, anyway. And that might be a good environment to go to . . .” Mostly I do it based on the sort-of network of scholars. I go to BASR, now, every single year. And it will continue, because that’s become my sort of family. It’s a much smaller conference. This is my first European one since 2013 – again because of the financial commitment is quite heavy. But I would have come regardless of what the theme was. But then, there are other conferences. Like, there’s the Non-religion and Secularity Research one in a few weeks, and I’ll go to that because of the topic. Yes. But that’s more to do with network. I don’t think I’ve ever actually gone to a conference because of a specific theme. It’s more I’ve gone . . . I want to go to that organisation’s conference, rather than . . .

SB: Although even though I’ve just been saying that themes are pointless: this years’ BASR, I only put in a paper because it did directly relate to my research, and I felt like I probably should!

MK: (15:00) Well, I think the theme of conferences, although not the only criteria, at least invite people to talk about something different or just look at it from a different angle than they are normally doing. And they’re normally telling people about their research. And so . . . for applying to get a paper in, you have to, at least . . . I don’t know . . . tentatively, put in some reference to the conference theme. And I think it’s a good way. It would be better – or sometimes I think it could be better – if people are directly invited to talk about this: “I know this person, I know him or her. He or she might be an expert on this or that. I would like to hear her talk about this, although it might not be the current research project she’s working on. But inviting her to say something about that would help to . . . I don’t know, stimulate another kind of conversation than just repeating myself.”

CC: Three points: I said I was going to . . . (Laughs). I think we’re maybe having two conversations. We shouldn’t allow the behaviour of scholars who tend to just go, “Well, I’ll fire in whatever paper anyway, and just put a vague allusion to the theme in.” That’s what we default to doing. But the ideal, where everyone actually engages with the theme, that’s maybe still the ideal to aim for. We shouldn’t be conflating behaviours with ideals. Another point is that some of us . . . I’ve certainly had experience of being at very small conferences that you might more describe as workshops. I’ve been at one on atheist identities, one on religious indifference, where there’s maybe fifteen to twenty-five scholars and it’s very intense, very focussed discussion. And those conferences have always produced, for me, the best outputs. So maybe there’s a scale thing? The final point is, I’ve got a friend who is in Business Studies, in marketing. And she was telling me, she was applying for her first conference. And the selection criteria are very different. You have to write your entire paper ahead, submit it, and then they accept it or reject it. And then you come and present a shortened version of your paper. So we’re used to presenting a very short vague abstract, and conferences tend to be eager for people to come. Whereas, if the conference was having thousands more people than they could actually take applying then the selection criteria would be quite different, and the coherence of the conference would probably be much higher than it is in our discipline.

MK: I’m not sure if you could actually call that kind of workshop experience you had a conference. Because I think that would just mix up terms, and put it in a better light than conferences deserve, I guess!

CC: (Laughs).

MK: Because at least in my experience – and I go to different conferences in Religious Studies, but also in Sociology – I never find the discourse there. I just find repetition. Never actually something really new or interesting – or just a few papers presented. And this is in kind of a contradiction to the bare fact that there are more and more conferences that you could go to and you should attend – or you’re supposed to, if you want to . . . I don’t know, work on your career, or something like that. So I find it really challenging to think about what to do at conferences. What is it we are doing, when we are doing conferencing? And I think, more and more, it turns out to be just some occasion you meet each other and talk to each other, yet the papers and the panels are so full of papers and panels in such a short time, that . . .

CC: But is that ok? In the sense that . . . because I’ve often said that sometimes the papers are the excuse. They’re the excuse for the funding, they’re the excuse that you give, to justify to yourself for going. And sometimes I’ve found them . . . . You know, I will use a conference paper as a way to force myself to write something that I’d been meaning to write for ages. But then, the valuable things are the things like we’re doing right now, or in the coffee breaks, or at an excellent night out dancing to “The Thriller” with Steve Sutcliffe and Giovanni Casadio the other night! (20:00) (Laughter). Those are the things that stay with you, and sort-of humanise the scholarship. But then, also, all the conversations that happen around a conference . . .

SB: In which case, do you think more time should be dedicated to social interactions? Like, you could have . . . take one panel out and just say: “People who want to gather in a room and talk about this topic . . .” – have a round table?

CC: But they wouldn’t . . .

MK: If it’s too much time between the panels they would not – they would just leave. They would split up in very small groups. Friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time, and then they leave the venue. And then they are all scattered all round the city. And I think some of the conversations that you have between the panellists – this was something I was thinking about the other day: some of the conversations you have between the panellists are actually gaining from the fact that you have to run off just in a few minutes. So you get to your point very quickly – and hope you find some laughs – and then go on your daily routine, at these conferences! So I think if you’re there too long, with a break between, this might not happen.

SB: But if it wasn’t a break. If it was, like, “This room can be dedicated to this subject,” then have a conversation about it when you got there.

CC: Would you?

SB: I think I would like to. (Laughs). Don’t sound so sceptical!

MK: (Laughs). Well, maybe you shouldn’t call it “a room that you go to to have the conversations”, but maybe you can call it a podcasting studio and also have the ability to record!

SB: Yes. If conversation’s valuable thing it would be good to facilitate that, you know?

CC: And my facetious thing there is that maybe there are ways that are slightly more innovative than, “Here’s a room, go and talk.”

SB: Well that is a basic presentation of it! (Laughs).

CC: But the spirit of it, I think, is probably quite good. More . . . like more barbeques, for example! I’m not saying they all need to be filled with free alcohol and things. But if there was a barbecue every night and all these conversations . . . . Well, then, maybe not as many people would come every night. But those are the places where the exciting things happen.

TW: What do we think about the stratification of people at various levels in their academic careers? You know, having a junior scholars’ meeting tends to be something a lot of conferences are doing these days. Workshops for post-graduates. There hasn’t really been that here. It’s generally been far less hierarchically organised. But to some degree, what do you miss out from not having those . . . not having kind-of a post-graduate talking shop, or being a bit more aware of facilitating meetings through the hierarchy – which is still a very kind-of important aspect of university institutions. So should we be doing it by topics? Or should we perhaps be doing it by kind of you know career experience? Any thoughts on that?

SB: I think I prefer it by topic. I don’t know if that’s because in Edinburgh I feel like I have a good post-graduate community, where we can share post-graduate experiences in that way. And obviously it would be good to come across other post-grads from other places but I feel like I would benefit more from meeting people at all levels, within my subject area. And it would be great if some of them were also post-grads at the same level as me. But also people who have more experience and more range, I think.

AP: Yes. I usually prefer people with more experience just because they can teach me something about how to improve my research, and how to do stuff, basically. But of course, even a conversation on a topic with a post-grad can be beneficial as well.

CC: Yes, the more democratising things are the better, as far as I’m concerned. I do like it when you get to rub alongside people right at the top end of the field, and at the bottom end, and where titles don’t really matter. I mean, like, last night we were just casually sitting with Veikko Antonnen and just having a beer, talking. There was no pretence of, you know, “He’s really important. We should be deferring here.”

SB: I mean sometimes you don’t realise who they are until afterwards, anyway.

CC: Which is even better as well. There was one thing I remember: Peggy Morgan organised the BASR’s 40th Anniversary Conference. She said she insisted on not having name labels, because it means that you go around the conference and you spent the whole time peering at everyone’s chests – maybe somewhat inappropriately – trying to see what their name is (25:00). And everyone’s looking around for a better person to talk to. They’re waiting to catch that name. And apparently the objection was, “But you could be talking to someone really important, and not realise it!” And her justification was, “Well maybe that’s the point. If you want to introduce yourself, you introduce yourself. If you want to know someone’s name, you ask them their name.” A lot of the name badges thing can actually be a way of kind-of spoiling those conversations a little bit, I know.

TW: It does save you from the forgetting of names once you’ve already been introduced.

AP: And also, especially when you have so many people from different countries. It’s really hard to catch the name properly, unless you have a tag.

MK: Yes, and also I think it is also kind of a misconception of how networks and networking works. I mean, in a network your value is defined by being a knot and the ties you have. So the name is some kind of a label of this knot. So talking to someone who has a name, or might have a name, also means you get the connections you might be looking for. So if it is for just coming together and talk about research questions, or something you’re really interested in topic-wise or something, then this might be a good idea to get rid of badges. But if not, if it is for networking, then it’s really helpful . . . I mean, like helping to find people.

CC: Yes. I have seen instances where you spot a name badge, and you don’t know what the person looks like, but you do know their research. And then you spot the name badge and it’s like: “Yes! Hello! I should speak to you!” Exactly. But that was just feeding into . . . going right back to what Tom was saying: do we want to be coming to this sort of conference and having sitting down just with early career people? Well that’s what we’re doing right now, isn’t it?

MK: Yes it is. And it’s not surprising, I think. Because all the others are busy doing business as usual. So podcasting is not something that is not quite usual yet, maybe. Maybe we could also talk about this institution of podcasting studio at conferences, as an opportunity to get together and record some conversations . . . to be proving the real thing we are looking for at these kind of events? But coming back to the question, I think it’s sometimes might be the only way to get the input you need. Because from established professors you normally tend to get just the usual thing you find in their books and papers.

TW: I think the point I was driving at – and I’m not sure if there’s a difference between, say a European conference and an American conference. My suspicion – completely ungrounded – is that an American conference might have more stratified forums where, as early career researchers, you could meet up. But that’s not for sociability. This is the professionalisation of the trade. And there’s a lot more to this than simply knowing your topic very well. And perhaps doing workshops where you are kind-of professionalised to a degree, would provide that additional aspect to attending a conference – particularly for early career researchers – than just simply attending topic-based panels would provide. So I think that was kind of where I as ruminating around. But of course there’s drawbacks to that as well. Because you are missing out on the more interesting stuff and just learning the CV-building skills. And so on and so forth.

MK: Just reminding of Paul (audio unclear) analysis of “anything goes”, and the critique of the method, and stuff. He showed that the innovative research is not coming from the old established ones, but from those who haven’t read the “important books” you should have read at that time, or didn’t understand it. And then you innovate the hell out this . . . endeavour we call academia. So that might be the place of being here.

CC: Exactly! Well, we’ve always seen the Religious Studies Project as a way of . . . you know . . . . There are all these existing academic structures there: there’s hierarchies, there’s conferences, there’s journals and everything. (30:00) And we never saw the RSP as a way of supplanting that, but as a way of kind-of democratising things a bit; as a way of humanising scholarship and having conversations, alongside what’s going on, and in an alternative fashion; providing ways of accessing research and ideas that are maybe a little bit more irreverent, a little more accessible. And still acknowledging that the other structures are there. But, you know – do we want to be professionalised? Well, to an extent, yes! We have to be . . .

TW: We want to be employed!

CC: We want to be employed, but equally there’s a lot going on in the existing structures that is there just because of habit and tradition and authority. And these little ways, these little things that we’re doing, will hopefully be ways of challenging that or just forcing it to justify itself. I’m speaking in huge generalities here, but . . . . Things shouldn’t be done the way that they are done, just because . . . . And so, having little things that come in and go: “Mmm?”

MK: Well I don’t think that this is actually speaking in huge generalities. I think this is the concrete reality you could experience in these kind of conferences: these connections and power struggles within academia. You can really experience it here. And so I would agree that there might be a reason why we’re not professionalising in a way that, I don’t know, businesses have to . . . . Or get together just for networking purposes only. Because if we are no longer interested in our research topics, then we are no longer researchers!

CC: Exactly. Tom, you may not want to talk about this, but you’re just about to go to Honk Kong to a quite different conference. And you were describing, I guess maybe, the perceived differences. And that might be a useful thing to bring in . . . ?

TW: Yes. Well I think the first thing to say is that I haven’t been there yet. So these are all kind-of anticipations which could be completely grounded in my misunderstandings. But it’s a big public law conference in Hong Kong. And something like 39 concurrent panels, so I’m not sure how many delegates that adds up to – but pretty huge. But I was at the Law and Society Conference in Otago last year and because you’ve got a lot of lawyers going to these conferences, it’s not just academics. It’s a far more kind-of mixing of people who apply the trade, and people who research. And there was a slickness to them: everyone was smartly dressed; and PowerPoints ran to time; and often they would be synchronised with the rehearsed script. And it is impressive when people provide a far more slick presentation. I’m not sure if the ideas rea any better! [Laughter]. But there was a sense that, you know, corporatisation isn’t all bad. And if it’s a more efficient and more crisp delivery, and if the PowerPoints aren’t failing, and people are IT savvy, and they’ve been told to reduce their paper to three or four points – because that’s what people are able to remember, and you want you papers to be efficacious and to walk away with the key concepts – that aspect of the professionalization, I think, is worthwhile learning from and replicating. Whether the horse will take to water, or whether we’ll continue to try and preserve some of the more romantic off-the-cuff presentations that do take place in more Humanities-based subjects, is something . . . I don’t know how things will turn out. It will be very interesting to see how the Hong Kong conference differs from this one.

CC: I must say that there’s a spectrum of conference presentation, right? You’ve got the sort-of very slick end and then you’ve got this off-the-cuff end. And then, somewhere in the middle, you’ve got the reading of a pre-prepared thing – which I tend to probably do far too often. But the ones that I enjoy are either the ones that are very slick, or the ones that are almost entirely off-the-cuff. You know, they’ve got an idea and they just turn up (35:00). And they’ve got a couple of points and they speak around it. And they don’t really know where it’s going to go before it happens. But it can be great.

SB: You do need a certain amount of confidence in yourself as an academic to be able to do that, I think.

TW: Again I think that comes back to the point of professionalisation. Because it gives you those structures with which to be confident through. I don’t think people just emerge confident individuals. They’re given the training. And that kind of aspect, I think, is perhaps undervalued, or not explored enough, or not given enough assistance to people in their early careers.

MK: Well, I would be interested in what you think about the formats that actually prepare one to go to these conferences: what other teaching that may be required, to be prepared presenting in front of an academic professional crowd. Or is there anything you learn during studies and various programmes and universities? Is there something that is reflected in the courses or the structure of the programmes? And is it also reflected in what is worth doing career-wise. Because I have the impression that, at the end, it counts what you have written. And the papers you published in possibly well-known and established peer-reviewed journals. And the books you published. And among us there are only a few people who already published books. But yes, I think this is what counts. And it does not count to be able to get a straight sentence out in front of a crowd listening to you. And in a way I think, this just is reflected . . .

AP: Somehow it does, because it allows you to network in an academic sense. And that will lead to publications in some cases.

MK: Ok. But this also, just already prepares you for another written publication.

AP: Yes. But I think that with your presentation you will catch the attention on yourself as a researcher and on your research topic. So other people who are interested can contact you even afterwards,

CC: And it’s not necessarily just connected to feeding into publications. I suppose, what are academic outputs? They’re publications, they’re large research projects and everything. But you’ve got no idea . . . . And I’ve seen some presentations here that I’ve immediately thought, “I need to contact that person for this other project, down the line.” Or sometimes it will be someone else tells you about a paper that they heard, that you weren’t at, and that personal recommendation can be enough that you will then look at the conference programme, find out who that person was and then seek them out in some sort of other way.

MK: Well my questions were just related to the idea that we might need a professionalisation of conferences. And this sleek point of presenting, 5 points only . . .

TW: I’m saying it through gritted teeth.

MK: I hope so, yes. Because the reason that we don’t have that kind of well, established, elaborate presentation style is because we’re not teaching at universities, and it doesn’t count that much as writing papers properly. And then to read, to hold a paper, literally, and to read a paper you wrote, that is the thing you do. We have nothing else! I mean, podcast has just started to get a standing in the discipline.

CC: Yes. And the podcasts I recorded yesterday evening, for example, with Carmen Becker, went really well in the sense that she had a narrative worked out for her paper. So she had a twenty-minute narrative, which provided an excellent structure for what ended up being a thirty-five-minute podcast. But we did the same content in a much more – I hope, and Listeners can let me know – conversational and accessible way. We got through it all, but the act of it being a conversation was an alternative presentation format, that will hopefully have complemented the presentation (40:00). But maybe, just to put the spotlight on Angela: you’re relatively new to the conference circuit in a sense, so you might be . . . . What preparation did you get before you stepped up to the podium to deliver your first few papers?

AP: Well, actually, I found it quite easy to present in front of people. Because I’ve been teaching for a few years. And I also do some lecturing. So, yes. And also, well my degrees were in Italy, so at the University of Naples. And there, you have to do a lot of exams – there are presentations but without a PowerPoint. You have to orally answer quite a few questions in a well-structured way. So I think that helped me to organise how I elaborate on my thought and on my research. But yes, maybe the only thing would be to . . . . Yes, I spoke to my supervisor, of course, about what would be the main point that I had to address. So it’s like a sort of introduction.

CC: That is what I was thinking. From my outside observation you seem to have a very supportive supervisor in Suzanne Owen. I know that I’ve had very supportive supervisors and now being mentored by Kim Knott and Steve Sutcliffe, who have sort-of walked me through a lot of these things that might seem quite daunting in an academic career. And I think that, for me, like the first few conferences I went to and everything, having a couple of more established advocates guiding me around, introducing me to people – that really helped.

AP: Sometimes it can also help when you have interests beside academia. For example, in my case, I think that since I’ve been a singer for quite a few years, I think that helped me. Because when I ‘m up there it’s like being on a stage and you have to perform. So I think that doing . . . even other kinds of activities – besides academia – that can help you be more relaxed in front of people, can also help.

TW: Yes, by comparison, my hobby is long distance running. (Laughter). I don’t think that’s comparable to the kind of sociability aspect . . .

AP: I guess the other, for example, might be another . . .

CC: Well the long distance running will help you deal with the long keynote lecture in the warm rooms . . . !

MK: Both are different ways to deal with stage fright. The one can run off easily, the other can perform!

CC: Exactly. But you wanted to say something . . . ?

SB: Yes. Just a couple of things. Because the first EASR was the one in Helsinki two years ago, I think, and I didn’t present at that one. And I purposefully went just so I could go to a European conference, suss out the level of things that were happening there. And yes, I had people like Steve Sutcliffe and the whole . . . I think they were referred to as the Edinburgh Mafia at the time, because there was so many of us! And it was really nice just having those people there to introduce me, and not having the pressure to present, but be able to just suss out the situation. And then also, back in Edinburgh, I think in the first year of my PhD, we did a smaller . . . we called it a Post-Grad Colloquium. And that was one where people from all over the Divinity School would present. I can’t remember whether it was a five or ten-minute paper. But they tried to organise it in a very professional way. And I think the day before there’d been a different conference at New College, and Marian Bowman was in Edinburgh and so she came to the Colloquium. So it was quite nice to have a certain level of professionalism there, only have to present for ten minutes. And it was a really good trial run for future presentations.

MK: But isn’t it strange that we already fulfil all the requirements of a conference and presenting professionally, even if we’re just doing post grad or that kind of meeting and workshops just for us, for our sakes, for our research, just to get into conversation and find other people talking about interesting topics. We could do this in many different ways. We could also just meet for podcasting, for example .Just to bring it up once more! (Laughter). Because I think the format is so different. And this kind of professionalisation . . . of the peer pressure you then feel at these big conferences like EASR, or other conferences. (45:00) It’s strange, I think, that we already assume all that professionalism is, in that way that we experience it later. And there is no change. There is no real . . . I don’t know. There is no real development in presentation style.

CC: Yes. We could probably come up with a lot of optimistic things that . . . and think, “Well, surely we could be doing this networking without endless collaboration, without having to have the big carbon footprint and come to this place and sit through lots of papers?” I don’t know how much we would all . . . actually. The existence of the structure acts as gravitational pull, and people make time for it. But, just another anecdote: I think it’s maybe over 5 years ago now, that Russell McCutcheon added me as a Friend on Facebook. And I remember it happening and being “Wow! He’s added me as a Friend on Facebook!” And I’ve still never met him face to face. And, I don’t know . . . I think he was aware of the Religious Studies Project and was just purposefully setting out to network and create the network

MK: Yes. We think of Russell T. McCutcheon as the kind of RSP Twitter-bot. Because he reads everything you guys Tweet!

CC: Yes. And he engages. But I’ve now collaborated with him on a number of publications; I’ve been to conferences that he has helped organise, even though he didn’t end up going there; we’ll bounce around Facebook messages and Twitter conversations and I’m now part of his Culture On The Edge thing. And all of this has happened without ever needing to go to a conference. And there’s been a lot of productive collaboration there. And I’m not saying that we all need to start Facebook stalking and adding people that we’ve never met before. Because that is just weird, and there are issues with that. (Laughter). But there are other ways perhaps than necessarily coming to a physical space and productive scholarly collaboration can happen. We just maybe need to ignore or think outside the large powerful pull that these things have.

SB: And you do need certain ways of making you and your research visible. Because, obviously, you have the platform that Russell was then able to find you on. So it’s just ways of making that work, as well.

MK: And the reason I brought this up again is because I think that, with podcasting, we have the kind of medium that gets out conversations in a proper way. And make it possible to quote podcasts, as well. And I think that only a few of those established scholars in the discipline already know how many downloads those podcasts get. If they knew, I think they would realise that their papers in their established and beloved journals never ever will find so many readers than those podcasts find downloads.

CC: We have already, in this conversation, had more impact than probably every other scholar . . . !

MK: And more listeners than any dissertation ever written!

SB: Yes. And we briefly touched on it earlier. And you were saying that you go to a conference to present only to then write a paper afterwards. Whereas podcasting occupies that in-between space where you can be quoted on it, you don’t have to produce this written piece afterwards.

CC: Exactly. We’re coming up to 12 O’clock, which is going to be our time for getting out. I’m using my “radio host” thing which Moritz has been railing against the whole time. Moritz, I think, would have us talking for another three hours.

MK: Yes. Definitely. There’s no time limit. There’s always space in the Internet.

CC: There is always space in the Internet. And this is a point to remember. So hopefully, Listeners, you’ve enjoyed this conversation. And it’s, maybe, given you some food for thought about conferencing and maybe alternative ways that you can augment that. And one way would be to participate in the conversation surrounding this podcast. You could record your own podcast and respond in that way; YouTube – there’s all the social media options and website options for writing written responses. Don’t be afraid. Just get out there and say it. A lot of people seem to not really like typing written comments on the website.

MK: But then you should definitely establish a way to get audio comments as well. So it’s very easy to record them with WhatsApp or voice memo apps on smart phones (50:00). So you could send it easily and in a very nice format. And you could include them in the podcasts.

CC: That would be a brilliant idea, Moritz! Thank you for that!

MK: You’re welcome.

CC: So, Listeners, thanks for listening. We should all say that I suppose. So, from all five of us here in Switzerland:

All: Thanks for listening!


Citation Info: Cotter, Christopher, Sammy Bishop, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca, Tom White. 2018. “What is the Point of Academic Conferences?”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 September 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 September 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/easr-roundtable-2108-what-is-the-point-of-academic-conferences/

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

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

Religion and its Publics (Part 2)

In the last feature of the “semester” we’re continuing with the video format. A couple of months ago the RSP attended the Open University’s conference on Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives. I went about asking the pundits a couple of questions about Religion and its Publics. This week we have the second question (link for Part 1 in the sidebar).  Read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

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

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

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

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

JJS: Oh, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JJS: Yes, sorry!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SSJ: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

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

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

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

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

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives

Ex-member testimony can be a difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical, even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless due to the danger of adaption and fiction. So a question remains, how should religious studies scholars deal with such testimony. Do we treat it as fact, fiction, faction, or something else altogether? In this interview at the 2017 British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR) Conference, Breann Fallon chats to Dr George Chryssides about ex-member narratives and the use of such primary sources in the work of religious studies scholars. Issues of identity creation, the alteration of narratives, the use of “faction” as evidence, and case studies from ex-member Jehovah’s Witnesses come together in this interview to create a compelling case for a renewed focus on ex-member testimony.

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

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member narratives

Podcast with George Chryssides (20 November 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Chryssides- Changing Your Story 1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): Ex-member testimony can be difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical – even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless. So how do we deal with such testimonies, especially considering the increasing forms of such testimony that now comes with social media? What role do such accounts play in the creation of identity for ex-members? To discuss this topic today, I have with me Dr George Chryssides. George is a long-term friend of the Religious Studies Project and is Honorary Research Fellow at York St John University and the University of Birmingham, having been head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton from 2001- 2008. He has written extensively on New Religious Movements, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recent publications include the Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, co-edited with Benjamin E. Zeller; and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change. George is Co-Vice Chair of INFORM, the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, based at the LSE and was founded by Eileen Barker in 1988. George is also on various Editorial boards and panels and is currently co-editing an anthology entitled The Insider-Outsider Debate together with Stephen Gregg. He’s also editing an anthology for the Routledge Inform Series entitled Minority Religions in Europe and the Middle East. So thank you very much for joining us today, George.

George Chryssides (GC): My pleasure, thanks for inviting me.

BF: So I was wondering if we could just start with a discussion of how different scholars deal with ex-member testimonies, and what your opinion is of different ways of dealing with such testimony.

GC: Well, there are inevitably a handful of scholars who support the anti-cult movement – although they don’t like it being called the anti-cult movement – but there is a body that is somewhat hostile and they tend to privilege the ex-member. They will say that the ex-member has been inside, now he or she is outside. So they’ve seen it from both points of view and are in a better position than someone like myself that has never joined a new religious movement. So that’s one point of view. There are others like James Beckford, who say: well, if you’ve come out of a new religious movement, like the Jehovah’s witnesses, then your testimony is going to be biased. Maybe you’re going to be a bit embarrassed at having been involved in a group that’s not very popular and has an unusual worldview. So, you’d devise some kind of explanation about how and why you joined, and how you got disillusioned, and how you were conned into joining, maybe, and how you were deceived and so on. James Beckford thinks that the ex-member “devises a scenario”, as he puts it, to account for entry and exit. There are other scholars like Lonnie Cliver and Brian Wilson who have said their testimony is totally invalid, we should disregard it totally. It’s worthless. Now I don’t go along with that, either. Because, I think, particularly when you read written ex-members accounts, ok they’re biased, but we’re always taught to evaluate our sources so it’s important to see why they’re saying what they do; what it is that might be true; what sounds plausible. You triangulate your information, what other people have said. Very often, you can get unwitting testimony about conditions within an organisation. There’s a lot of good material you get, particularly from high-ranking ex-members: people that have for example, in one case, been on the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now they don’t publish their minutes or anything like that, so until Raymond Franz’ book came out I don’t think any of us had much of a clue what actually went on, on the governing body: how they voted on things, what sort of topics they discussed. And that’s really interesting. We shouldn’t just say “Well, that’s an ex-member: he got cheesed-off with the movement. We’re not going to listen to it.” Because that way you would lose a lot of very good information.

BF: So there’s sort-of this element of “the fact that’s behind the supposed fiction”, that we can kind-of draw out from testimonies, I guess?

GC: Yes, well, fact and fiction tend to kind-of blend into each other (5:00). Actually, that’s some work I would like to do as a piece of follow up research on JW’s. Because there are a lot of narratives. And it’s a pity I didn’t get my act together on this before this particular conference, which is on narratives. Because you get some narratives that claim to be absolutely factual. You get others that are, on their own account, works of fiction. There are stories invented about Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then, in between, you get pieces of . . . some people call them “faction”: a cross between fact and fiction. They’ll say: well this is based on such and such a congregation, but we’re not telling the reader who it is because of confidentiality. And actually there is a wealth of literature out there about what it means for a Jehovah’s Witness to be out doing house-to-house work, staffing a literature cart and things like that. And, in some cases, how they fudge the statistics that they report back to their elders. I think things like that are really fascinating, because you can’t get that in copies of the Watchtower, for example. So that’s a future project, reading up on the fiction/faction narrative and seeing what one can get out of it.

BF: So how do you think that we should be dealing with ex-member testimonies in your opinion?

GC: Well, what I’m presenting at this conference is the view that ex-member testimony is about one’s identity. Because you can have different identities depending on what your interests are. Ok, so maybe you kind-of dabbled in a hobby for a couple of weeks and got fed up with it? That’s not part of your identity. And there are some people that actually go along to a new religious movement in that kind of role. They’ll maybe go along for a couple of weeks, or maybe just the once, then decide it’s not for them. Or decide they don’t like being out at night, or something like that. And we don’t hear so much of these testimonies, because they’re not very interesting. So, when a religion is not part of one’s identity you don’t need to invent a story about why you came out. I mean, I don’t need to invent a story about why I gave up stamp collecting or something like that.

BF: (laughs)

GC: So, on the other hand, if the religion has been a big part of your identity – maybe it’s been your paid employment even – then you’re going to have problems coming out. You’re going to have to think: how do I shape a new identity? And it can be even practical things that are involved, like: how do I get a job? Where will live? Who are my friends going to be? Because maybe some of them will keep up with you, but probably most of them won’t. So it’s a whole new life that you’re inventing, in that sort of case. So people have to find ways of doing that. In some extreme cases the ex-member has made ex-membership part of his or her own identity, perhaps being a so-called cult counsellor. There are people that have made their professions out of that – not all that many, but you tend to hear about them more than the others, because they’re prominent. They’ve got a lot to say about the movement. And there is a saying: “You can get the member out of the cult, but you can’t get the cult out of the member.”

BF: That’s very interesting.

GC: So that’s true about these people. Actually, they’re very good informants, some of them, if you can get them tamed and talking to you. There are a couple that will send me lots of extremely good information about the Unification Church. So usually, if I want to know something, I will write to them to say, “I’ve heard about so-and-so, what do you know about it?” And then I’ll get back a lot of good information. Kind-of mentally they’re still in the movement, even though – in terms of what they believe and what they practise – they’re out of it.

BF: So, in that sort of way, you’re finding these testimonies really useful. Do you think there’s a difference between different types of testimony? We’ve already talked about fact and fiction, but you know: a biography as opposed to writing to your ex-members that you are familiar with, as opposed to perhaps something on social media (10:00)? Is there a difference between using those different types, do you think? Is there one you prefer?

GC: Absolutely. I think a lot of stuff that’s not terribly worthwhile is the stuff you get on bulletin boards from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. A lot of it is misinformation. A lot of it is actually very hostile. And even the treatment that they’re getting in Russia, which is quite appalling. I don’t know if you’ve been following that at all? The authorities have closed them down and confiscated all their properties. And on some of these anti-JW sites you’re getting people saying “I wish they had done it sooner.”

BF: Oh, wow!

GC: Yes, there’s no kind-of sympathy for these people, whatever their beliefs might be. So there’s not a lot of point in reading much of that kind of stuff. Except that it tells you more about the person that’s writing than it does about the movement itself. But, on the other hand, there are some very good ex-members that can give you some good information.

BF: Definitely. I think we should delve more into this idea of identity and creating that- I don’t know what you would call it. Do you think they would create an “ex-member persona”?

GC: Some of them do. I can decide, if I’m an ex-member, whether I want to make a feature out of that: whether I want to tell people, “Yes I was a Jehovah’s Witness and this is very much a part of my life having been one.” Now, actually, I do know of one former JW elder who has actually become a Church of Scotland minister. Now, I don’t know much about him, but I can see that somebody could make a feature out of that and say, “ Well, that’s been my past life and now I’ve kind-of seen the light”, or however he wants to put it. I have heard of one other Church of Scotland minister who served a long prison sentence as a murderer and then he repented and made good, and evidently he makes a feature out of that. Because it’s got a good Biblical message about conversion – you know, Paul writing to the Romans: he lists a whole lot of misdeeds that people committed and then he says “and some of such were you”. So it’s all very Biblical, if you want to do it that way and say, “Well, that’s my past life but now it’s all changed thanks to Jesus Christ”, or whatever. That’s one way of creating your new identity. Another way of changing your identity is simply to conceal it and say, “Well I’m not going to talk about this. I’m just going to get on with my new life.” So there are different ways of creating this new identity, but one way or another, if religion has been a major part of your life and you’re coming out, then there is an identity problem and you do need to think, well: Who am I? What do I want to be? And how do I want to shape up his new life that’s lying ahead?

BF: Do you think that as scholars we need to be aware of this identity change when we’re looking at ex-member testimonies: how they’ve come out of whatever movement they were a part of; and how they’ve transitioned into (a new life); whether they’ve been really open about it; whether they’ve concealed it and then been open about it. Is that something we need to take into consideration when looking at these testimonies, which ones we really should be looking at for evidence?

GC: Well absolutely, because evaluating your sources means asking questions like: who is telling me this? What is their motivation? How much knowledge do they have? Sometimes people can pretend to have more knowledge than they really do about the movement that they’re in. A lot of ex-JWs will say “Well, the society has got a history of field prophecy.” Now I don’t think that’s true; that’s a popular myth that is propagated by ex-members. I’m not saying they’ve never ever revised a date or given it a new meaning. But there’s one website that goes through every year from 1877, when I think the society was first getting going, and then giving some kind of prophetic statement they’ve made and how it failed. And that’s not really correct exposition of what they’re saying (15:00). So I think we really do need to ask, what is the degree of knowledge that this person has? Because there can be a view that if you’ve been inside you know all about it. And I think anyone that follows a religion doesn’t know all about it. You can’t know all about your religion, it’s just too big a subject.

BF: Yes. I’m going to throw a bit of a left-field question at you that I didn’t tell you I was going to ask.

GC: Oh dear!

BF: We always get this sort-of image of ex-members coming together, and then forming an ex-member group. Has that come across in your work?

GC: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of that. And I think that’s part of forming a new identity because you need to have friends. Friends need to have things in common. And the obvious thing in common that you’ve got if you’re an ex-member is being an ex-member. So yes, there are JW groups. I’ve been invited to go to one or two different events, but I feel I’d be gate-crashing!

BF: Yes!

GC: But they get together from time to time. And I’d be interested to know what they talk about, because they often say, “You don’t have to talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses if you come to our meet.” Now, whether they actually talk about JWs or whether they talk about some other interests that they’ve got, I don’t know. But that would be interesting. But yes that’s part of shaping your identity, to get an ex-member group going. Of course I think the ex-member group is more a kind of phenomenon in itself that’s worth noting if you’re a scholar. I suspect that in the ex-member group you get a kind of snowball effect of all the kind of moans that they’ve got about the Watchtower Society. I see some of their stuff on Facebook and that seems to be how it works. Somebody will put something on, maybe about Russia, and then somebody will add a rude comment about it. And it tends to kind-of further a lack of sympathy.

BF: It would be interesting to look at how social media have played a role in creating those new ex-member groups. Because of course, with social media, people from all over the globe can come together and sort of share their stories. Do you think social media has had a big part in ex-member testimony and getting that out there?

GC: Absolutely, yes. There are one or two well-known websites, or are they websites or . . . I never know what the right terminology is about cyber space . . . but I think it’s a Facebook Group about How Well Do You Know Your Moon? And that’s about the Unification Church. That’s actually got a lot of good information there. It’s not just people slagging them off. But, yes, the obvious thing about social media is that we don’t need to have our friends sitting opposite each other the way we’re sitting opposite. You can get them from any part of the globe and you don’t have to meet up with them, physically. But then again, the fact that you’ve got this group enables you to organise these physical meetings, which they do.

BF: It would be interesting to know, with the advent of social media, if that is encouraging more people to go to groups – people who may have, without social media, sort-of concealed it on their own. But that idea that social media can bring so many people together. It would be interesting to know whether there had been more people willing to join an ex-member group because of social media. Because you can kind-of dip your toe in with Facebook, before you go to a meeting. It’s almost the complete reverse of joining the movement in the first place.

GC: Yes, I think that’s probably right. The other question is whether it might actually encourage people to join a group by giving publicity. I remember when I was researching the Unification Church in the early days, there were two kind-of improbable people who had come along to this seminar. In fact, the Unification Church didn’t seem to want these people to join. Because they weren’t very bright, I think they were unemployed, looking for somewhere to live and that’s not what they were after. And I think they may even have been psychologically disturbed. So, a new religion won’t want to get a reputation for attracting the wrong people. But they had come along and I asked them, “What brought you here? (20:00) Weren’t you put off by the bad publicity the Unification Church was getting?” And they said, “Oh no. What we had heard actually made us interested and want to come.” So there can be this kind-of reverse effect. You might think, “Well, I wonder what this is about?”

BF: Yes. I just think social media has taken a completely different road for so much of our study, particularly with testimony and people being able to share their voice and share their opinion. Before we finish up – you’re presenting today at BASR – is there anything from your paper that you’d like to add to the talk, that we haven’t discussed so far?

GC; Well I think we’ve been, how long have we been talking now? It’s been a lot more than 20 minutes and my talk is only 20 minutes, so I think I’ve probably added quite a bit. It’s actually going to be part of a chapter in the Anthology on the Insider and Outsider debate that Stephen Gregg and I are getting together. So there will be a kind-of longer discussion. What I will be saying in the paper also –which we didn’t cover, but it’s a bit more technical – is about the kind of typologies of ex-members. People like David Bromley and Massimo Introvigne distinguish between different types. And they distinguish on the basis of how the person came out of the movement and what sort of conditions made them come out. What I’m suggesting is that these typologies have got their limitations. Sociologists talk about “ideal types” and I think that’s one of the problems about sociology: when have you got an ideal type and when have you just got a model that’s too crude for the purposes that you’re using it? So I think an account of ex-members has got to go beyond distinctions like “the defector”, “the ordinary leave-taker”, “the apostate”. There are all sorts of types of leaver, depending on the identity that they’ve created for themselves within the movement. So whether they’re just an unbaptised publisher as the rank is called in the Jehovah’s witnesses, or whether you’re one of the 144,000 in the governing body, right at the top, these kinds of the distinctions of the type of member you are will affect the way you leave. It will also affect the story you give about leaving and about life in the organisation.

BF: It’s almost sort-of an identity wave. You know: I was this, and then that’s affected how my identity has come out of the movement. I think your talk is going to be so interesting, I’m very excited.

GC: I hope so.

BF: Thank you so much for joining us today. And I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.

GC: Well, thanks very much. And thanks again for the invitation.

BF: It’s our pleasure.

Citation Info: Chryssides, George and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member Narratives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 20 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/changing-your-story-assessing-ex-member-narratives/

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.

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

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Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam 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, Tiger Balm, and more.


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


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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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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.

Comedy, Comedians, and Church: The Interplay between Religion and Humor

mosehair-450x548Beyond the irony of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Tony-Award winning musical, the Book of Mormon, or the use of a funny meme or two in the classroom, religion and humour are perhaps not two concepts one often considers together. However, the interplay between religion and humour comes in many forms; comedy films, stand-up comedy, musicals, satire, and kitsch products are just a few platforms in which religion and humor come together. In this RSP interview from our friends in Australia, Dr Elisha McIntyre discusses her research into religion and humour, particularly looking at comedic work The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well as a broad range of evangelical comedians. McIntyre discusses the use of religious comedy as a point of entertainment as well as an identity solidifier, evangelical tool, and preaching format within Christianity.

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Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies: Disciplines, Fields, and the Limits of Dialogue

As it happens, just two and a half weeks ago, I was in the audience of a panel called ‘Rethinking Theory, Methods, and Data: A Conversation between Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion’ presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.  The panel was advertised as a ‘conversation’ discussing the: ‘overlaps and differences between the role of theory, method and the collection of data in the respective fields. Panelists will focus on “what counts” as data and how religious studies and sociology of religion can mutually benefit from this discussion.’

Whilst the papers were generally very well-conceived and presented, it was the subsequent Q&A session with the audience that revealed a number of so-called fault lines as well as a general lack of consensus on what exactly religious studies is: discipline or field.  Indeed, it seemed that those with a background in religious studies were generally more open to the idea of their academic arena being framed in terms of a broad ‘field of study’ in which many disciplines and approaches participate.  Yet, those representing the sociology of religion seemed more keen to posit religious studies as a stand-alone ‘discipline’, complete with its own questions, methods, and theories.  When an audience member suggested that to insist on religious studies as a distinct and entirely separate discipline was also to limit even further the appropriate ‘house’ for the sociology of religion, one panelist argued steadfastly that that was not a problem; the sociology of religion was firmly located within sociology departments at the institutional level and had its own associations and publications to prove its established position within academia generally.

This seems to be a particularly American response – as pointed out by Paul-Francois Tremlett and Titus Hjelm in their interview with David Robertson.  Whilst many sociologists of religion in American are, indeed, ‘housed’ in sociology departments where they teach courses beyond those focused on religion, the picture is quite different in the UK and elsewhere.  In the latter contexts, sociology of religion is most frequently encountered within departments of theology and religion, or religious studies.  Indeed, it was refreshing to hear Tremlett and Hjelm agree on this and note that the sociology of religion is therefore sometimes understandably uncomfortable in its own arrangements with higher education as it attempts to maintain a cohesive (and coherent) body of scholarship detached from departments of social science and within a strikingly amorphous and ill-defined branch of the academy.  What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that the scenarios on both sides of the Atlantic highlight a consequent desire to distinguish between a discipline and a field of study.

I concur with those on the panel as well as with Tremlett and Hjelm, then, that such a distinction seems warranted and helpful as we grapple with the nature of religious studies and its relationship to the sociology of religion.  Setting aside the argument that could be made concerning sociology of religion’s status as a ‘sub-discipline’ of sociology – an argument that hardly seems rebutted by the presence of organizations and publications dedicated to the sociology of religion – it does seem clear that a classificatory disparity exists here.  Religious studies has always included a number of approaches, methods, theories, lines of inquiry, etc.  In some sense, religious studies is a both/and endeavour: it is both science-based and humanities-based, both data-driven and theory-driven, both political and apolitical.  At the very least, it contains the potential to be any number of those things.  Accordingly, Hjelm’s observation that religious studies spends too much time looking inward, debating the definitions and theories of religion rather than analysing instances of religion, is likely astute.  As a large inclusive field, religious studies was perhaps always doomed to expend a great deal of energy on self-definition and self-clarification.

Yet, sociology of religion seems a narrower discipline, right?  It has a history traceable to Durkheim and Weber, perhaps Marx as well.  It is ostensibly science-based and data-driven.  Therefore, as both Tremlett and Hjelm suggested it is perhaps more amenable to, or palatable for, the uses put to it by politicians, journalists, and some of those involved in public policy.  In other words, sociology of religion is perhaps more scientific than religious studies because the latter’s scientific qualities are diluted by the presence of non-, or less, scientific approaches.  That being said, it does appear that putting sociology of religion ‘in conversation’ with religious studies is something like putting an apple in conversation with an orange, or putting an apple in conversation with the fresh produce section of the supermarket.  Although such an analogy is doubtlessly flawed in significant ways, it does serve to highlight one of the most striking aspects of these discussions.  To what extent is this a dialogue, a two-way conversation?

I suggest that the answer may be found in the issue of theory.  If an academic discipline is not only defined by a set of acceptable methods, a focused realm for data collection, and a cannon of resources but also is made to include the ‘development of theory’ – a characteristic highlighted as belonging to the sociology of religion but not to religious studies by members of that same AAR panel – then we begin to see the relationship of a discipline to a field more clearly.  Religious studies arguably has its own cannon, acceptable methods, and circumscribed territories for data gathering, even its own popularly used theories, but it is more difficult to contend that it has produced those theories apart from the contributions of the individual disciplines comprising the larger field.  As the interviewees noted, something like ‘lived religion’ as a concept came to religious studies from the sociology of religion.  Likewise, one can easily highlight yet again that the history of religious studies is a history of the development of other narrower disciplines like sociology and anthropology who analysed religion as a central focus of their own agendas.

For those of us working in British religious studies contexts, this relationship is witnessed on a daily basis.  My own department, for example, consists of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars all engaged in the study of religion.  The field of religious studies, thus, encompasses massively diverse disciplinary perspectives and questions.  Large varieties of methods and theories are used to explore and analyse equally broad sets of phenomena.  Somewhere in the cacophony, sociology of religion is speaking to the religious studies enterprise.  It is offering up ideas and methods, sure, but it is also developing theories which may subsequently support or engender the work of other scholars in religious studies.  In the end, the relationship of the discipline to the field is possibly, justifiably, unilateral.  The sociology of religion may have something to say to religious studies, but I am not sure what religious studies has to say to the sociology of religion.  Of course, by placing sociologists of religion in departments of religious studies for a few generations, we may just find out how the latter shapes the former.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 December 2016

Dear subscriber,

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

How about having your notification posted with the Religious Studies Project’s weekly Opportunities Digest? It’s easy, just send them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com, which is now back in order!

Don’t worry if you keep sending to oppsdigest@gmail.com; e-mails will be forwarded to the proper address.

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You can find previous Opportunities Digests here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/categ…/opportunities/

Calls for papers

Conference: EASR 2017: Communicating Religion

September 18–21, 2017

University of Leuven, Belgium

Deadline: December 31, 2016

More information

Conference: North Atlantic Catholic Communities in Rome, 1622–1939

June 6–7, 2017

Rome, Italy

Deadline: December 30, 2016

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Conference: Religion & Power

March 23–24, 2017

UNC Charlotte, USA

Deadline: January 7, 2017

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Conference: The Cognition of Belief

June 2, 2017

Georgetown University, USA

Deadline: February 17, 2017

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Conference: Háskóli Íslands Student Conference on the Medieval North

April 7–8, 2017

University of Iceland, Iceland

Deadline: January 5, 2017

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Conference: The Religious and Ethnic Future of Europe: An International Conference

June 12–13, 2017

Åbo Akademi University, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2017

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Journal: The Graduate Journal of Harvard Divinity School

2017 issue

Deadline: January 10, 2017

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Journal: Nova Religio

Special issue: Peoples Temple and Jonestown

Deadline: February 28, 2017

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Events

Conference: “Too Small a World”: Catholics Sisters as Global Missionaries

April 6, 2017

Chicago, USA

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Jobs and funding

Grants

Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, USA

Deadlines: December 31, 2016; April 1, 2017; October 1, 2017

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Part-time Teaching Fellow in Religious Studies

University of Aberdeen, UK

Deadline: December 18, 2016

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PhD positions

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 17, 2017

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Research fellowships

University of Leeds, UK

Deadline: February 1, 2017

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Scholarships: Guest Doctoral Students

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: December 18, 2016

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Scholarships: Female Junior Scholars

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: December 18, 2016

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New Horizons in the Sociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 6 December 2016

Dear subscriber,

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

How about having your notification posted with the Religious Studies Project’s weekly Opportunities Digest? It’s easy, just send them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com, which is now back in order!

Don’t worry if you keep sending to oppsdigest@gmail.com; e-mails will be forwarded to the proper address.

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You can find previous Opportunities Digests here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/categ…/opportunities/

Calls for papers

Congress: Chilean Society for the Sciences of Religions: Dialog, eduction and religious tolerance

May 23–26, 2017

Concepción, Chile

Deadline: N/A

More information

ISSR panel: Global Pentecostal Charismatic Christianities

July 4–7, 2017

Lausanne, Switzerland

Deadline: January 10, 2017

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Journal: Scuola Democratia

Special issue: “Schools and Religious Identities: Challenges and Dilemmas of the New Millennium”

Deadline: January 15, 2017

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Symposium: CenSAMM I: Violence and Millenarian Movements

April 6–7, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: December 31, 2016

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Workshop: Religion & Heritage on Display

February 4, 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

London, UK

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Events

Conference: EASR 2018: Multiple Religious Identities

June 17–21

Bern, Switzerland

More information to follow in February 2017

Conference: Mythology and “Nation Building”: N.F.S. Grundtvig and His Contemporaries

January 26–27, 2017

Paris, France

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Exhibition: Aftermath Dislocation Principle

December 13–23, 2016

Bedford, UK

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Open access

Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: “Religion and Race”

Table of contents

Jobs

Assistant Professor: Religious Studies

St. Thomas University, Canada
Deadline: January 13, 2017

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Lecturer: Archaeology and Ancient History

University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Deadline: December 16, 2016

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M.A. Scholarships: Jameel

Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK

Deadline: March 20, 2017

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Ph.D. Studentships: Theology and Religious Studies

University of Leeds, UK

Deadline: February 1, 2017

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Tenure-track Assistant Professor: History of Comparative Religion

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Deadline: January 15, 2017

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Podcasts

What is the point of of academic conferences?: A roundtable discussion

At the European Association for the Study of Religions’ Annual Conference in Bern (June 2018), five members of the RSP team – Sammy Bishop, Chris Cotter, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca and Tom White – gathered together on the final day of the conference to discuss academic conferences in general – the good, the bad and the ugly. Why attend conferences? What is the point? What else could we do instead that might be a better use of our time? And how did we find having a fully-functional podcast studio set up at this conference? These are just a few of the issues that crop up in this lively roundtable discussion, facilitated by the inestimable Moritz Klenk.

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, pickles, duct tape, and more.


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


EASR Roundtable 2018: What is the Point of Academic Conferences?

Podcast with Chris Cotter, Sammy Bishop, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca and Tom White (24 September 2018).

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Audio and transcript available at: EASR_Roundtable_2018_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to the podcast studio in Bern, Switzerland, on the final day of the European Association for the Study of Religions Conference on Multiple Religious Identities. I’m Chris Cotter, and I’m joined here for an impromptu roundtable with some of my esteemed colleagues. I’m going to say, let’s go round to my right. So I’m Chris, and you should all know me, Listeners, and if you don’t, then: what are you doing? I don’t know. Who have we got here?

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop. I am a PhD student, based in Edinburgh, and also I’m involved with the Religious Studies Project, sometimes interviewing, sometimes helping out in other respects. And it is great to be here.

Angela Puca (AP): I’m Angela Puca and I’m also a PhD student, but at Leeds Trinity University. And I don’t know why I’m here, (laughter) but I’m happy to . . .

CC: We’ll find out, later. And there’s a man behind the sound desk there with a beard that is more impressive than mine!

Moritz Klenk (MK): You’re so kind! My name is Moritz Klenk and I’m also a PhD student, here – from Bern. I’m doing a PhD somewhere between Sociology of Religion, epistemology and the academic Study of Religion – or whatever the most recent name of this discipline might be. And also I’m a podcaster. And this is why I have built this studio for this conference. And I’m very happy to see it in such good use.

CC: And Listeners will really be appreciating the sexy sound quality of everything that has been coming out of this conference! Who’s the last individual?

Tom White (TW): And lastly . . .

CC: And least . . .

TW: And least – last and least – Tom White. I’m also a PhD candidate, from the University of Otago – where it is very wintry, in the South Island of New Zealand – mostly looking at religion, law and climate change in Fiji.

CC: So Moritz, you’ve got us all together here, so I’m going to pass over to you to stir the pot, as it were.

MK: Cheers. So the idea I had in mind, when thinking about making this a reality to come together for a last roundtable at this conference, was actually just . . . I would be interested in some reflections and possible criticism of the conference and what is happening here. Because every one of us, I assume, is getting used to travelling to conferences like these, telling others about his or her research. And so we are . . . . This is what we are doing. This is one part of our business. And so we, I think, can take the time to reflect a bit on what we are actually doing here. If it is the discourse we are all looking for, are we so interested in it? Or if not this, then what else do we do here? And to have a conversation. Because, at least – I’m already telling you what I was experiencing – but I think it is the most important thing you can experience, in these kinds of conferences and events, is that you get into conversations sometimes, and they are very fascinating. Sometimes you want to find your way out of them (Laughter).

CC: Claw your own eyes out sometimes . . .

MK: Yes, also that. (Laughter). But a conversation seemed to be the fitting end of that kind of event. So yes, I’m very glad that you all joined me for this and I’d be interested in your opinion about this conference. I’m a bit biased because I’m a local. So, this happens in Bern, so I shouldn’t start I guess. But maybe some of you have impressions, ideas?

CC: Well, my immediate reaction is that I have spent so much time podcasting! And I decided that this conference would be a chance for me to film various little bits of video and whatnot – which has been a useful experience. I think it’s really ramped up the engagement from folk who hadn’t been able to be here. But my actual impression of this particular conference has been somewhat limited, because I’ve been running around so much. I have seen something like, I don’t know, ten to fifteen papers. (5:00) But that’s not quite . . . you should normally be expecting to see maybe at least double that. So, perhaps someone who . . . . Well, Angela has been probably been the most participatory because the rest of us have been running around doing podcasts.

AP: I’ve been running around from one paper to another, or from a panel to another – so still running! Yes, this was my first EASR Conference and I really enjoyed it. Maybe the only criticism I have is that all the panels on the same topic were at the same time. So it was really difficult. There were, for example, some time slots where I really wished I had the gift of ubiquity and other timeslots there was really nothing relevant to my research – of course, still interesting panels, but not quite relevant to my research. So I would have liked to attend more panels on my research, which were actually there, but at the same time as others.

MK: But maybe this was also the intention, in a way, to bring together scholars from different research areas and to give them, by this kind of overlap . . . . I don’t know if that was the intention. I chose to interpret it in that very friendly way. But I think, to give them a chance to look beyond their own work they’re doing; to see the broader field of the European Studies of Religion, what people are doing. This is also I think the only chance you will get, because normally you’re . . .

CC: That’s a fair point, actually, I would say. Because you come to conferences and at the start of this conference I thought, “Oh. Damn. There’s about five or six different panels on the ‘nones’, the ‘secular’ and all this kind of stuff. I’m going to have to go to those.” But, equally, I’ve kind-of heard all I need to hear, perhaps . . . not all I need to hear. But if I want to approach these scholars, I can approach them; we can have dialogue anyway. But I sort-of felt I was going to have to attend them, because they were there, because I didn’t want to miss out on that key snippet. At the end of the day I actually didn’t go to that many, because of my podcasting schedule and whatnot. But I sometimes do find at a conference that it’s the panels that you go to just because it “sounds vaguely interesting, but isn’t quite connected to your research”, that you can suddenly find, actually, there’s a really good connection. And it opens up a whole new vista, in a way that you aren’t ever going to just pick up a journal article that’s just not on your topic and read it – much as we would all like to. There’s only so many hours in the day! So a conference can do that, that way. Has anyone had that sort of revelation at this one, that we a saw a paper that we didn’t really . . . that we went along to because it was in a panel with something else, or because there was nothing else in the schedule?

TW: I’ve ended up going to a lot of education, or the kind-of “role of religion in schools”, “schools as ideological production sites” whereby people are being trained in citizenship, or where schools are “sites of contested religious identities”: the crucifix; the burka. And, without any intention, I’ve ended up having quite an education in religion-focussed conference – which isn’t really my discipline or my key area, but has been quite nice to move into that and become more familiar with that subject area. But, yes, I think there is a point in picking a theme and trying to go deep, rather than doing a random pick-and-mix of entire breadth of the discipline. Because it loses a certain coherency. And that coherency with the education panels, I’ve really enjoyed.

SB: Just on the topic of themes as well: I was thinking about conference themes, and how this one was “multiple religious identities”. And I don’t know how many papers actually speak to that, that I’ve been to. And then, I was just kind-of wondering . . . sometimes, what the point of having a theme of the conference is. Because everyone knows that, at the EASR, you’ll go if you want to present a paper. And sometimes you can mould it to the conference theme, just for the sake of it. Sometimes there just seems like a bit of a facade, I think.

CC: My one bit of input on that . . . well I’m sure I’ll end up having a bit more . . . ! So, I’ve been doing a history project, on the British Association of the Study of Religions. For a number of years, now, we’ve ended up having a conference theme. But when I went back through the record, the conferences didn’t used to have themes. (10:00) Back in the day, it was just like sort-of ten old white men gathering in effectively a living room and having a chat. There would be one paper, and that was the conference. It then expanded to two papers, one in the evening and then one the following morning. And that’s what the Association was for decades. And then, as things grew and grew, it got bigger. And then they started to have an annual lecture. But there still wasn’t a conference theme. And then what seems to have happened at some point in the mid-‘90s a couple of years after the annual lecture was established, the annual lecture then became the conference theme. It was like, “We’re going to have a keynote. They’ll speak on this.” Then it seems to be people try and get everyone to speak around that topic. And I suppose the justification is that it’s away for having a relatively coherent conversation – but that never really happens! Conferences might produce a conference volume of key papers. But I think most conferences I go to now would even struggle to find enough coherency for that volume. And it’s been proposed at the BASR, recently, that perhaps we just abandon the theme and say that it’s a conference for scholars working in, or on, religion in Britain – and just leave it at that. And tell them what the keynotes are. And the keynotes might produce a certain sort of discourse just by their power position as being the keynote speeches. But, yes. It’s unclear, now, what the utility is. Any thoughts from the others?

TW: Well I think it also relates to . . . you know, you can only go to so many conferences each year. I mean, I’m in New Zealand so, you know, unless the conference is in New Zealand it’s a very expensive exercise going to conferences. So how do you select which ones to go to?

AP: That’s a good question.

CC: And maybe that is where the theme comes into play? Because, yes, there’ll be a core constituency who’d go to every European Association Conference, right? But for others who don’t have that luxury, then having a theme provides a justification.

AP: I don’t know whether the theme actually helps you with that, to be honest. (Laughs).

SB: I think if you want to present your research then you’ll present your research – never mind the theme.

AP: I guess, once you go to a conference, you will find scholars sort-of in your field that can give you feed-back, that you can network with. So it’s not something that a theme will help you with, I feel.

TW: I mean, what are the criteria with which you choose a conference? The exotic location? The location of your family on the travel route? Networking opportunities? Who else is going to be there, and what kind of feedback you might get on your paper? You know, and it’s a juggle between all of these different issues, isn’t it? Some more honourable and some more profane.

AP: Not always purely professional.

CC: And that’s ok, isn’t it? It’s one of the, I’d say, many perks of an academic life. We can all bitch and moan about all the various stresses and strains. But all the travelling to conferences is one of the perks.

SB: Definitely.

CC: Sometimes it’s funded. Sometimes one decides, “Well, I need a holiday, anyway. And that might be a good environment to go to . . .” Mostly I do it based on the sort-of network of scholars. I go to BASR, now, every single year. And it will continue, because that’s become my sort of family. It’s a much smaller conference. This is my first European one since 2013 – again because of the financial commitment is quite heavy. But I would have come regardless of what the theme was. But then, there are other conferences. Like, there’s the Non-religion and Secularity Research one in a few weeks, and I’ll go to that because of the topic. Yes. But that’s more to do with network. I don’t think I’ve ever actually gone to a conference because of a specific theme. It’s more I’ve gone . . . I want to go to that organisation’s conference, rather than . . .

SB: Although even though I’ve just been saying that themes are pointless: this years’ BASR, I only put in a paper because it did directly relate to my research, and I felt like I probably should!

MK: (15:00) Well, I think the theme of conferences, although not the only criteria, at least invite people to talk about something different or just look at it from a different angle than they are normally doing. And they’re normally telling people about their research. And so . . . for applying to get a paper in, you have to, at least . . . I don’t know . . . tentatively, put in some reference to the conference theme. And I think it’s a good way. It would be better – or sometimes I think it could be better – if people are directly invited to talk about this: “I know this person, I know him or her. He or she might be an expert on this or that. I would like to hear her talk about this, although it might not be the current research project she’s working on. But inviting her to say something about that would help to . . . I don’t know, stimulate another kind of conversation than just repeating myself.”

CC: Three points: I said I was going to . . . (Laughs). I think we’re maybe having two conversations. We shouldn’t allow the behaviour of scholars who tend to just go, “Well, I’ll fire in whatever paper anyway, and just put a vague allusion to the theme in.” That’s what we default to doing. But the ideal, where everyone actually engages with the theme, that’s maybe still the ideal to aim for. We shouldn’t be conflating behaviours with ideals. Another point is that some of us . . . I’ve certainly had experience of being at very small conferences that you might more describe as workshops. I’ve been at one on atheist identities, one on religious indifference, where there’s maybe fifteen to twenty-five scholars and it’s very intense, very focussed discussion. And those conferences have always produced, for me, the best outputs. So maybe there’s a scale thing? The final point is, I’ve got a friend who is in Business Studies, in marketing. And she was telling me, she was applying for her first conference. And the selection criteria are very different. You have to write your entire paper ahead, submit it, and then they accept it or reject it. And then you come and present a shortened version of your paper. So we’re used to presenting a very short vague abstract, and conferences tend to be eager for people to come. Whereas, if the conference was having thousands more people than they could actually take applying then the selection criteria would be quite different, and the coherence of the conference would probably be much higher than it is in our discipline.

MK: I’m not sure if you could actually call that kind of workshop experience you had a conference. Because I think that would just mix up terms, and put it in a better light than conferences deserve, I guess!

CC: (Laughs).

MK: Because at least in my experience – and I go to different conferences in Religious Studies, but also in Sociology – I never find the discourse there. I just find repetition. Never actually something really new or interesting – or just a few papers presented. And this is in kind of a contradiction to the bare fact that there are more and more conferences that you could go to and you should attend – or you’re supposed to, if you want to . . . I don’t know, work on your career, or something like that. So I find it really challenging to think about what to do at conferences. What is it we are doing, when we are doing conferencing? And I think, more and more, it turns out to be just some occasion you meet each other and talk to each other, yet the papers and the panels are so full of papers and panels in such a short time, that . . .

CC: But is that ok? In the sense that . . . because I’ve often said that sometimes the papers are the excuse. They’re the excuse for the funding, they’re the excuse that you give, to justify to yourself for going. And sometimes I’ve found them . . . . You know, I will use a conference paper as a way to force myself to write something that I’d been meaning to write for ages. But then, the valuable things are the things like we’re doing right now, or in the coffee breaks, or at an excellent night out dancing to “The Thriller” with Steve Sutcliffe and Giovanni Casadio the other night! (20:00) (Laughter). Those are the things that stay with you, and sort-of humanise the scholarship. But then, also, all the conversations that happen around a conference . . .

SB: In which case, do you think more time should be dedicated to social interactions? Like, you could have . . . take one panel out and just say: “People who want to gather in a room and talk about this topic . . .” – have a round table?

CC: But they wouldn’t . . .

MK: If it’s too much time between the panels they would not – they would just leave. They would split up in very small groups. Friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time, and then they leave the venue. And then they are all scattered all round the city. And I think some of the conversations that you have between the panellists – this was something I was thinking about the other day: some of the conversations you have between the panellists are actually gaining from the fact that you have to run off just in a few minutes. So you get to your point very quickly – and hope you find some laughs – and then go on your daily routine, at these conferences! So I think if you’re there too long, with a break between, this might not happen.

SB: But if it wasn’t a break. If it was, like, “This room can be dedicated to this subject,” then have a conversation about it when you got there.

CC: Would you?

SB: I think I would like to. (Laughs). Don’t sound so sceptical!

MK: (Laughs). Well, maybe you shouldn’t call it “a room that you go to to have the conversations”, but maybe you can call it a podcasting studio and also have the ability to record!

SB: Yes. If conversation’s valuable thing it would be good to facilitate that, you know?

CC: And my facetious thing there is that maybe there are ways that are slightly more innovative than, “Here’s a room, go and talk.”

SB: Well that is a basic presentation of it! (Laughs).

CC: But the spirit of it, I think, is probably quite good. More . . . like more barbeques, for example! I’m not saying they all need to be filled with free alcohol and things. But if there was a barbecue every night and all these conversations . . . . Well, then, maybe not as many people would come every night. But those are the places where the exciting things happen.

TW: What do we think about the stratification of people at various levels in their academic careers? You know, having a junior scholars’ meeting tends to be something a lot of conferences are doing these days. Workshops for post-graduates. There hasn’t really been that here. It’s generally been far less hierarchically organised. But to some degree, what do you miss out from not having those . . . not having kind-of a post-graduate talking shop, or being a bit more aware of facilitating meetings through the hierarchy – which is still a very kind-of important aspect of university institutions. So should we be doing it by topics? Or should we perhaps be doing it by kind of you know career experience? Any thoughts on that?

SB: I think I prefer it by topic. I don’t know if that’s because in Edinburgh I feel like I have a good post-graduate community, where we can share post-graduate experiences in that way. And obviously it would be good to come across other post-grads from other places but I feel like I would benefit more from meeting people at all levels, within my subject area. And it would be great if some of them were also post-grads at the same level as me. But also people who have more experience and more range, I think.

AP: Yes. I usually prefer people with more experience just because they can teach me something about how to improve my research, and how to do stuff, basically. But of course, even a conversation on a topic with a post-grad can be beneficial as well.

CC: Yes, the more democratising things are the better, as far as I’m concerned. I do like it when you get to rub alongside people right at the top end of the field, and at the bottom end, and where titles don’t really matter. I mean, like, last night we were just casually sitting with Veikko Antonnen and just having a beer, talking. There was no pretence of, you know, “He’s really important. We should be deferring here.”

SB: I mean sometimes you don’t realise who they are until afterwards, anyway.

CC: Which is even better as well. There was one thing I remember: Peggy Morgan organised the BASR’s 40th Anniversary Conference. She said she insisted on not having name labels, because it means that you go around the conference and you spent the whole time peering at everyone’s chests – maybe somewhat inappropriately – trying to see what their name is (25:00). And everyone’s looking around for a better person to talk to. They’re waiting to catch that name. And apparently the objection was, “But you could be talking to someone really important, and not realise it!” And her justification was, “Well maybe that’s the point. If you want to introduce yourself, you introduce yourself. If you want to know someone’s name, you ask them their name.” A lot of the name badges thing can actually be a way of kind-of spoiling those conversations a little bit, I know.

TW: It does save you from the forgetting of names once you’ve already been introduced.

AP: And also, especially when you have so many people from different countries. It’s really hard to catch the name properly, unless you have a tag.

MK: Yes, and also I think it is also kind of a misconception of how networks and networking works. I mean, in a network your value is defined by being a knot and the ties you have. So the name is some kind of a label of this knot. So talking to someone who has a name, or might have a name, also means you get the connections you might be looking for. So if it is for just coming together and talk about research questions, or something you’re really interested in topic-wise or something, then this might be a good idea to get rid of badges. But if not, if it is for networking, then it’s really helpful . . . I mean, like helping to find people.

CC: Yes. I have seen instances where you spot a name badge, and you don’t know what the person looks like, but you do know their research. And then you spot the name badge and it’s like: “Yes! Hello! I should speak to you!” Exactly. But that was just feeding into . . . going right back to what Tom was saying: do we want to be coming to this sort of conference and having sitting down just with early career people? Well that’s what we’re doing right now, isn’t it?

MK: Yes it is. And it’s not surprising, I think. Because all the others are busy doing business as usual. So podcasting is not something that is not quite usual yet, maybe. Maybe we could also talk about this institution of podcasting studio at conferences, as an opportunity to get together and record some conversations . . . to be proving the real thing we are looking for at these kind of events? But coming back to the question, I think it’s sometimes might be the only way to get the input you need. Because from established professors you normally tend to get just the usual thing you find in their books and papers.

TW: I think the point I was driving at – and I’m not sure if there’s a difference between, say a European conference and an American conference. My suspicion – completely ungrounded – is that an American conference might have more stratified forums where, as early career researchers, you could meet up. But that’s not for sociability. This is the professionalisation of the trade. And there’s a lot more to this than simply knowing your topic very well. And perhaps doing workshops where you are kind-of professionalised to a degree, would provide that additional aspect to attending a conference – particularly for early career researchers – than just simply attending topic-based panels would provide. So I think that was kind of where I as ruminating around. But of course there’s drawbacks to that as well. Because you are missing out on the more interesting stuff and just learning the CV-building skills. And so on and so forth.

MK: Just reminding of Paul (audio unclear) analysis of “anything goes”, and the critique of the method, and stuff. He showed that the innovative research is not coming from the old established ones, but from those who haven’t read the “important books” you should have read at that time, or didn’t understand it. And then you innovate the hell out this . . . endeavour we call academia. So that might be the place of being here.

CC: Exactly! Well, we’ve always seen the Religious Studies Project as a way of . . . you know . . . . There are all these existing academic structures there: there’s hierarchies, there’s conferences, there’s journals and everything. (30:00) And we never saw the RSP as a way of supplanting that, but as a way of kind-of democratising things a bit; as a way of humanising scholarship and having conversations, alongside what’s going on, and in an alternative fashion; providing ways of accessing research and ideas that are maybe a little bit more irreverent, a little more accessible. And still acknowledging that the other structures are there. But, you know – do we want to be professionalised? Well, to an extent, yes! We have to be . . .

TW: We want to be employed!

CC: We want to be employed, but equally there’s a lot going on in the existing structures that is there just because of habit and tradition and authority. And these little ways, these little things that we’re doing, will hopefully be ways of challenging that or just forcing it to justify itself. I’m speaking in huge generalities here, but . . . . Things shouldn’t be done the way that they are done, just because . . . . And so, having little things that come in and go: “Mmm?”

MK: Well I don’t think that this is actually speaking in huge generalities. I think this is the concrete reality you could experience in these kind of conferences: these connections and power struggles within academia. You can really experience it here. And so I would agree that there might be a reason why we’re not professionalising in a way that, I don’t know, businesses have to . . . . Or get together just for networking purposes only. Because if we are no longer interested in our research topics, then we are no longer researchers!

CC: Exactly. Tom, you may not want to talk about this, but you’re just about to go to Honk Kong to a quite different conference. And you were describing, I guess maybe, the perceived differences. And that might be a useful thing to bring in . . . ?

TW: Yes. Well I think the first thing to say is that I haven’t been there yet. So these are all kind-of anticipations which could be completely grounded in my misunderstandings. But it’s a big public law conference in Hong Kong. And something like 39 concurrent panels, so I’m not sure how many delegates that adds up to – but pretty huge. But I was at the Law and Society Conference in Otago last year and because you’ve got a lot of lawyers going to these conferences, it’s not just academics. It’s a far more kind-of mixing of people who apply the trade, and people who research. And there was a slickness to them: everyone was smartly dressed; and PowerPoints ran to time; and often they would be synchronised with the rehearsed script. And it is impressive when people provide a far more slick presentation. I’m not sure if the ideas rea any better! [Laughter]. But there was a sense that, you know, corporatisation isn’t all bad. And if it’s a more efficient and more crisp delivery, and if the PowerPoints aren’t failing, and people are IT savvy, and they’ve been told to reduce their paper to three or four points – because that’s what people are able to remember, and you want you papers to be efficacious and to walk away with the key concepts – that aspect of the professionalization, I think, is worthwhile learning from and replicating. Whether the horse will take to water, or whether we’ll continue to try and preserve some of the more romantic off-the-cuff presentations that do take place in more Humanities-based subjects, is something . . . I don’t know how things will turn out. It will be very interesting to see how the Hong Kong conference differs from this one.

CC: I must say that there’s a spectrum of conference presentation, right? You’ve got the sort-of very slick end and then you’ve got this off-the-cuff end. And then, somewhere in the middle, you’ve got the reading of a pre-prepared thing – which I tend to probably do far too often. But the ones that I enjoy are either the ones that are very slick, or the ones that are almost entirely off-the-cuff. You know, they’ve got an idea and they just turn up (35:00). And they’ve got a couple of points and they speak around it. And they don’t really know where it’s going to go before it happens. But it can be great.

SB: You do need a certain amount of confidence in yourself as an academic to be able to do that, I think.

TW: Again I think that comes back to the point of professionalisation. Because it gives you those structures with which to be confident through. I don’t think people just emerge confident individuals. They’re given the training. And that kind of aspect, I think, is perhaps undervalued, or not explored enough, or not given enough assistance to people in their early careers.

MK: Well, I would be interested in what you think about the formats that actually prepare one to go to these conferences: what other teaching that may be required, to be prepared presenting in front of an academic professional crowd. Or is there anything you learn during studies and various programmes and universities? Is there something that is reflected in the courses or the structure of the programmes? And is it also reflected in what is worth doing career-wise. Because I have the impression that, at the end, it counts what you have written. And the papers you published in possibly well-known and established peer-reviewed journals. And the books you published. And among us there are only a few people who already published books. But yes, I think this is what counts. And it does not count to be able to get a straight sentence out in front of a crowd listening to you. And in a way I think, this just is reflected . . .

AP: Somehow it does, because it allows you to network in an academic sense. And that will lead to publications in some cases.

MK: Ok. But this also, just already prepares you for another written publication.

AP: Yes. But I think that with your presentation you will catch the attention on yourself as a researcher and on your research topic. So other people who are interested can contact you even afterwards,

CC: And it’s not necessarily just connected to feeding into publications. I suppose, what are academic outputs? They’re publications, they’re large research projects and everything. But you’ve got no idea . . . . And I’ve seen some presentations here that I’ve immediately thought, “I need to contact that person for this other project, down the line.” Or sometimes it will be someone else tells you about a paper that they heard, that you weren’t at, and that personal recommendation can be enough that you will then look at the conference programme, find out who that person was and then seek them out in some sort of other way.

MK: Well my questions were just related to the idea that we might need a professionalisation of conferences. And this sleek point of presenting, 5 points only . . .

TW: I’m saying it through gritted teeth.

MK: I hope so, yes. Because the reason that we don’t have that kind of well, established, elaborate presentation style is because we’re not teaching at universities, and it doesn’t count that much as writing papers properly. And then to read, to hold a paper, literally, and to read a paper you wrote, that is the thing you do. We have nothing else! I mean, podcast has just started to get a standing in the discipline.

CC: Yes. And the podcasts I recorded yesterday evening, for example, with Carmen Becker, went really well in the sense that she had a narrative worked out for her paper. So she had a twenty-minute narrative, which provided an excellent structure for what ended up being a thirty-five-minute podcast. But we did the same content in a much more – I hope, and Listeners can let me know – conversational and accessible way. We got through it all, but the act of it being a conversation was an alternative presentation format, that will hopefully have complemented the presentation (40:00). But maybe, just to put the spotlight on Angela: you’re relatively new to the conference circuit in a sense, so you might be . . . . What preparation did you get before you stepped up to the podium to deliver your first few papers?

AP: Well, actually, I found it quite easy to present in front of people. Because I’ve been teaching for a few years. And I also do some lecturing. So, yes. And also, well my degrees were in Italy, so at the University of Naples. And there, you have to do a lot of exams – there are presentations but without a PowerPoint. You have to orally answer quite a few questions in a well-structured way. So I think that helped me to organise how I elaborate on my thought and on my research. But yes, maybe the only thing would be to . . . . Yes, I spoke to my supervisor, of course, about what would be the main point that I had to address. So it’s like a sort of introduction.

CC: That is what I was thinking. From my outside observation you seem to have a very supportive supervisor in Suzanne Owen. I know that I’ve had very supportive supervisors and now being mentored by Kim Knott and Steve Sutcliffe, who have sort-of walked me through a lot of these things that might seem quite daunting in an academic career. And I think that, for me, like the first few conferences I went to and everything, having a couple of more established advocates guiding me around, introducing me to people – that really helped.

AP: Sometimes it can also help when you have interests beside academia. For example, in my case, I think that since I’ve been a singer for quite a few years, I think that helped me. Because when I ‘m up there it’s like being on a stage and you have to perform. So I think that doing . . . even other kinds of activities – besides academia – that can help you be more relaxed in front of people, can also help.

TW: Yes, by comparison, my hobby is long distance running. (Laughter). I don’t think that’s comparable to the kind of sociability aspect . . .

AP: I guess the other, for example, might be another . . .

CC: Well the long distance running will help you deal with the long keynote lecture in the warm rooms . . . !

MK: Both are different ways to deal with stage fright. The one can run off easily, the other can perform!

CC: Exactly. But you wanted to say something . . . ?

SB: Yes. Just a couple of things. Because the first EASR was the one in Helsinki two years ago, I think, and I didn’t present at that one. And I purposefully went just so I could go to a European conference, suss out the level of things that were happening there. And yes, I had people like Steve Sutcliffe and the whole . . . I think they were referred to as the Edinburgh Mafia at the time, because there was so many of us! And it was really nice just having those people there to introduce me, and not having the pressure to present, but be able to just suss out the situation. And then also, back in Edinburgh, I think in the first year of my PhD, we did a smaller . . . we called it a Post-Grad Colloquium. And that was one where people from all over the Divinity School would present. I can’t remember whether it was a five or ten-minute paper. But they tried to organise it in a very professional way. And I think the day before there’d been a different conference at New College, and Marian Bowman was in Edinburgh and so she came to the Colloquium. So it was quite nice to have a certain level of professionalism there, only have to present for ten minutes. And it was a really good trial run for future presentations.

MK: But isn’t it strange that we already fulfil all the requirements of a conference and presenting professionally, even if we’re just doing post grad or that kind of meeting and workshops just for us, for our sakes, for our research, just to get into conversation and find other people talking about interesting topics. We could do this in many different ways. We could also just meet for podcasting, for example .Just to bring it up once more! (Laughter). Because I think the format is so different. And this kind of professionalisation . . . of the peer pressure you then feel at these big conferences like EASR, or other conferences. (45:00) It’s strange, I think, that we already assume all that professionalism is, in that way that we experience it later. And there is no change. There is no real . . . I don’t know. There is no real development in presentation style.

CC: Yes. We could probably come up with a lot of optimistic things that . . . and think, “Well, surely we could be doing this networking without endless collaboration, without having to have the big carbon footprint and come to this place and sit through lots of papers?” I don’t know how much we would all . . . actually. The existence of the structure acts as gravitational pull, and people make time for it. But, just another anecdote: I think it’s maybe over 5 years ago now, that Russell McCutcheon added me as a Friend on Facebook. And I remember it happening and being “Wow! He’s added me as a Friend on Facebook!” And I’ve still never met him face to face. And, I don’t know . . . I think he was aware of the Religious Studies Project and was just purposefully setting out to network and create the network

MK: Yes. We think of Russell T. McCutcheon as the kind of RSP Twitter-bot. Because he reads everything you guys Tweet!

CC: Yes. And he engages. But I’ve now collaborated with him on a number of publications; I’ve been to conferences that he has helped organise, even though he didn’t end up going there; we’ll bounce around Facebook messages and Twitter conversations and I’m now part of his Culture On The Edge thing. And all of this has happened without ever needing to go to a conference. And there’s been a lot of productive collaboration there. And I’m not saying that we all need to start Facebook stalking and adding people that we’ve never met before. Because that is just weird, and there are issues with that. (Laughter). But there are other ways perhaps than necessarily coming to a physical space and productive scholarly collaboration can happen. We just maybe need to ignore or think outside the large powerful pull that these things have.

SB: And you do need certain ways of making you and your research visible. Because, obviously, you have the platform that Russell was then able to find you on. So it’s just ways of making that work, as well.

MK: And the reason I brought this up again is because I think that, with podcasting, we have the kind of medium that gets out conversations in a proper way. And make it possible to quote podcasts, as well. And I think that only a few of those established scholars in the discipline already know how many downloads those podcasts get. If they knew, I think they would realise that their papers in their established and beloved journals never ever will find so many readers than those podcasts find downloads.

CC: We have already, in this conversation, had more impact than probably every other scholar . . . !

MK: And more listeners than any dissertation ever written!

SB: Yes. And we briefly touched on it earlier. And you were saying that you go to a conference to present only to then write a paper afterwards. Whereas podcasting occupies that in-between space where you can be quoted on it, you don’t have to produce this written piece afterwards.

CC: Exactly. We’re coming up to 12 O’clock, which is going to be our time for getting out. I’m using my “radio host” thing which Moritz has been railing against the whole time. Moritz, I think, would have us talking for another three hours.

MK: Yes. Definitely. There’s no time limit. There’s always space in the Internet.

CC: There is always space in the Internet. And this is a point to remember. So hopefully, Listeners, you’ve enjoyed this conversation. And it’s, maybe, given you some food for thought about conferencing and maybe alternative ways that you can augment that. And one way would be to participate in the conversation surrounding this podcast. You could record your own podcast and respond in that way; YouTube – there’s all the social media options and website options for writing written responses. Don’t be afraid. Just get out there and say it. A lot of people seem to not really like typing written comments on the website.

MK: But then you should definitely establish a way to get audio comments as well. So it’s very easy to record them with WhatsApp or voice memo apps on smart phones (50:00). So you could send it easily and in a very nice format. And you could include them in the podcasts.

CC: That would be a brilliant idea, Moritz! Thank you for that!

MK: You’re welcome.

CC: So, Listeners, thanks for listening. We should all say that I suppose. So, from all five of us here in Switzerland:

All: Thanks for listening!


Citation Info: Cotter, Christopher, Sammy Bishop, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca, Tom White. 2018. “What is the Point of Academic Conferences?”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 September 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 September 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/easr-roundtable-2108-what-is-the-point-of-academic-conferences/

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

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

Religion and its Publics (Part 2)

In the last feature of the “semester” we’re continuing with the video format. A couple of months ago the RSP attended the Open University’s conference on Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives. I went about asking the pundits a couple of questions about Religion and its Publics. This week we have the second question (link for Part 1 in the sidebar).  Read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

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

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

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

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

JJS: Oh, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JJS: Yes, sorry!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SSJ: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

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

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

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

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

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives

Ex-member testimony can be a difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical, even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless due to the danger of adaption and fiction. So a question remains, how should religious studies scholars deal with such testimony. Do we treat it as fact, fiction, faction, or something else altogether? In this interview at the 2017 British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR) Conference, Breann Fallon chats to Dr George Chryssides about ex-member narratives and the use of such primary sources in the work of religious studies scholars. Issues of identity creation, the alteration of narratives, the use of “faction” as evidence, and case studies from ex-member Jehovah’s Witnesses come together in this interview to create a compelling case for a renewed focus on ex-member testimony.

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

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

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member narratives

Podcast with George Chryssides (20 November 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Chryssides- Changing Your Story 1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): Ex-member testimony can be difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical – even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless. So how do we deal with such testimonies, especially considering the increasing forms of such testimony that now comes with social media? What role do such accounts play in the creation of identity for ex-members? To discuss this topic today, I have with me Dr George Chryssides. George is a long-term friend of the Religious Studies Project and is Honorary Research Fellow at York St John University and the University of Birmingham, having been head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton from 2001- 2008. He has written extensively on New Religious Movements, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recent publications include the Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, co-edited with Benjamin E. Zeller; and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change. George is Co-Vice Chair of INFORM, the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, based at the LSE and was founded by Eileen Barker in 1988. George is also on various Editorial boards and panels and is currently co-editing an anthology entitled The Insider-Outsider Debate together with Stephen Gregg. He’s also editing an anthology for the Routledge Inform Series entitled Minority Religions in Europe and the Middle East. So thank you very much for joining us today, George.

George Chryssides (GC): My pleasure, thanks for inviting me.

BF: So I was wondering if we could just start with a discussion of how different scholars deal with ex-member testimonies, and what your opinion is of different ways of dealing with such testimony.

GC: Well, there are inevitably a handful of scholars who support the anti-cult movement – although they don’t like it being called the anti-cult movement – but there is a body that is somewhat hostile and they tend to privilege the ex-member. They will say that the ex-member has been inside, now he or she is outside. So they’ve seen it from both points of view and are in a better position than someone like myself that has never joined a new religious movement. So that’s one point of view. There are others like James Beckford, who say: well, if you’ve come out of a new religious movement, like the Jehovah’s witnesses, then your testimony is going to be biased. Maybe you’re going to be a bit embarrassed at having been involved in a group that’s not very popular and has an unusual worldview. So, you’d devise some kind of explanation about how and why you joined, and how you got disillusioned, and how you were conned into joining, maybe, and how you were deceived and so on. James Beckford thinks that the ex-member “devises a scenario”, as he puts it, to account for entry and exit. There are other scholars like Lonnie Cliver and Brian Wilson who have said their testimony is totally invalid, we should disregard it totally. It’s worthless. Now I don’t go along with that, either. Because, I think, particularly when you read written ex-members accounts, ok they’re biased, but we’re always taught to evaluate our sources so it’s important to see why they’re saying what they do; what it is that might be true; what sounds plausible. You triangulate your information, what other people have said. Very often, you can get unwitting testimony about conditions within an organisation. There’s a lot of good material you get, particularly from high-ranking ex-members: people that have for example, in one case, been on the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now they don’t publish their minutes or anything like that, so until Raymond Franz’ book came out I don’t think any of us had much of a clue what actually went on, on the governing body: how they voted on things, what sort of topics they discussed. And that’s really interesting. We shouldn’t just say “Well, that’s an ex-member: he got cheesed-off with the movement. We’re not going to listen to it.” Because that way you would lose a lot of very good information.

BF: So there’s sort-of this element of “the fact that’s behind the supposed fiction”, that we can kind-of draw out from testimonies, I guess?

GC: Yes, well, fact and fiction tend to kind-of blend into each other (5:00). Actually, that’s some work I would like to do as a piece of follow up research on JW’s. Because there are a lot of narratives. And it’s a pity I didn’t get my act together on this before this particular conference, which is on narratives. Because you get some narratives that claim to be absolutely factual. You get others that are, on their own account, works of fiction. There are stories invented about Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then, in between, you get pieces of . . . some people call them “faction”: a cross between fact and fiction. They’ll say: well this is based on such and such a congregation, but we’re not telling the reader who it is because of confidentiality. And actually there is a wealth of literature out there about what it means for a Jehovah’s Witness to be out doing house-to-house work, staffing a literature cart and things like that. And, in some cases, how they fudge the statistics that they report back to their elders. I think things like that are really fascinating, because you can’t get that in copies of the Watchtower, for example. So that’s a future project, reading up on the fiction/faction narrative and seeing what one can get out of it.

BF: So how do you think that we should be dealing with ex-member testimonies in your opinion?

GC: Well, what I’m presenting at this conference is the view that ex-member testimony is about one’s identity. Because you can have different identities depending on what your interests are. Ok, so maybe you kind-of dabbled in a hobby for a couple of weeks and got fed up with it? That’s not part of your identity. And there are some people that actually go along to a new religious movement in that kind of role. They’ll maybe go along for a couple of weeks, or maybe just the once, then decide it’s not for them. Or decide they don’t like being out at night, or something like that. And we don’t hear so much of these testimonies, because they’re not very interesting. So, when a religion is not part of one’s identity you don’t need to invent a story about why you came out. I mean, I don’t need to invent a story about why I gave up stamp collecting or something like that.

BF: (laughs)

GC: So, on the other hand, if the religion has been a big part of your identity – maybe it’s been your paid employment even – then you’re going to have problems coming out. You’re going to have to think: how do I shape a new identity? And it can be even practical things that are involved, like: how do I get a job? Where will live? Who are my friends going to be? Because maybe some of them will keep up with you, but probably most of them won’t. So it’s a whole new life that you’re inventing, in that sort of case. So people have to find ways of doing that. In some extreme cases the ex-member has made ex-membership part of his or her own identity, perhaps being a so-called cult counsellor. There are people that have made their professions out of that – not all that many, but you tend to hear about them more than the others, because they’re prominent. They’ve got a lot to say about the movement. And there is a saying: “You can get the member out of the cult, but you can’t get the cult out of the member.”

BF: That’s very interesting.

GC: So that’s true about these people. Actually, they’re very good informants, some of them, if you can get them tamed and talking to you. There are a couple that will send me lots of extremely good information about the Unification Church. So usually, if I want to know something, I will write to them to say, “I’ve heard about so-and-so, what do you know about it?” And then I’ll get back a lot of good information. Kind-of mentally they’re still in the movement, even though – in terms of what they believe and what they practise – they’re out of it.

BF: So, in that sort of way, you’re finding these testimonies really useful. Do you think there’s a difference between different types of testimony? We’ve already talked about fact and fiction, but you know: a biography as opposed to writing to your ex-members that you are familiar with, as opposed to perhaps something on social media (10:00)? Is there a difference between using those different types, do you think? Is there one you prefer?

GC: Absolutely. I think a lot of stuff that’s not terribly worthwhile is the stuff you get on bulletin boards from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. A lot of it is misinformation. A lot of it is actually very hostile. And even the treatment that they’re getting in Russia, which is quite appalling. I don’t know if you’ve been following that at all? The authorities have closed them down and confiscated all their properties. And on some of these anti-JW sites you’re getting people saying “I wish they had done it sooner.”

BF: Oh, wow!

GC: Yes, there’s no kind-of sympathy for these people, whatever their beliefs might be. So there’s not a lot of point in reading much of that kind of stuff. Except that it tells you more about the person that’s writing than it does about the movement itself. But, on the other hand, there are some very good ex-members that can give you some good information.

BF: Definitely. I think we should delve more into this idea of identity and creating that- I don’t know what you would call it. Do you think they would create an “ex-member persona”?

GC: Some of them do. I can decide, if I’m an ex-member, whether I want to make a feature out of that: whether I want to tell people, “Yes I was a Jehovah’s Witness and this is very much a part of my life having been one.” Now, actually, I do know of one former JW elder who has actually become a Church of Scotland minister. Now, I don’t know much about him, but I can see that somebody could make a feature out of that and say, “ Well, that’s been my past life and now I’ve kind-of seen the light”, or however he wants to put it. I have heard of one other Church of Scotland minister who served a long prison sentence as a murderer and then he repented and made good, and evidently he makes a feature out of that. Because it’s got a good Biblical message about conversion – you know, Paul writing to the Romans: he lists a whole lot of misdeeds that people committed and then he says “and some of such were you”. So it’s all very Biblical, if you want to do it that way and say, “Well, that’s my past life but now it’s all changed thanks to Jesus Christ”, or whatever. That’s one way of creating your new identity. Another way of changing your identity is simply to conceal it and say, “Well I’m not going to talk about this. I’m just going to get on with my new life.” So there are different ways of creating this new identity, but one way or another, if religion has been a major part of your life and you’re coming out, then there is an identity problem and you do need to think, well: Who am I? What do I want to be? And how do I want to shape up his new life that’s lying ahead?

BF: Do you think that as scholars we need to be aware of this identity change when we’re looking at ex-member testimonies: how they’ve come out of whatever movement they were a part of; and how they’ve transitioned into (a new life); whether they’ve been really open about it; whether they’ve concealed it and then been open about it. Is that something we need to take into consideration when looking at these testimonies, which ones we really should be looking at for evidence?

GC: Well absolutely, because evaluating your sources means asking questions like: who is telling me this? What is their motivation? How much knowledge do they have? Sometimes people can pretend to have more knowledge than they really do about the movement that they’re in. A lot of ex-JWs will say “Well, the society has got a history of field prophecy.” Now I don’t think that’s true; that’s a popular myth that is propagated by ex-members. I’m not saying they’ve never ever revised a date or given it a new meaning. But there’s one website that goes through every year from 1877, when I think the society was first getting going, and then giving some kind of prophetic statement they’ve made and how it failed. And that’s not really correct exposition of what they’re saying (15:00). So I think we really do need to ask, what is the degree of knowledge that this person has? Because there can be a view that if you’ve been inside you know all about it. And I think anyone that follows a religion doesn’t know all about it. You can’t know all about your religion, it’s just too big a subject.

BF: Yes. I’m going to throw a bit of a left-field question at you that I didn’t tell you I was going to ask.

GC: Oh dear!

BF: We always get this sort-of image of ex-members coming together, and then forming an ex-member group. Has that come across in your work?

GC: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of that. And I think that’s part of forming a new identity because you need to have friends. Friends need to have things in common. And the obvious thing in common that you’ve got if you’re an ex-member is being an ex-member. So yes, there are JW groups. I’ve been invited to go to one or two different events, but I feel I’d be gate-crashing!

BF: Yes!

GC: But they get together from time to time. And I’d be interested to know what they talk about, because they often say, “You don’t have to talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses if you come to our meet.” Now, whether they actually talk about JWs or whether they talk about some other interests that they’ve got, I don’t know. But that would be interesting. But yes that’s part of shaping your identity, to get an ex-member group going. Of course I think the ex-member group is more a kind of phenomenon in itself that’s worth noting if you’re a scholar. I suspect that in the ex-member group you get a kind of snowball effect of all the kind of moans that they’ve got about the Watchtower Society. I see some of their stuff on Facebook and that seems to be how it works. Somebody will put something on, maybe about Russia, and then somebody will add a rude comment about it. And it tends to kind-of further a lack of sympathy.

BF: It would be interesting to look at how social media have played a role in creating those new ex-member groups. Because of course, with social media, people from all over the globe can come together and sort of share their stories. Do you think social media has had a big part in ex-member testimony and getting that out there?

GC: Absolutely, yes. There are one or two well-known websites, or are they websites or . . . I never know what the right terminology is about cyber space . . . but I think it’s a Facebook Group about How Well Do You Know Your Moon? And that’s about the Unification Church. That’s actually got a lot of good information there. It’s not just people slagging them off. But, yes, the obvious thing about social media is that we don’t need to have our friends sitting opposite each other the way we’re sitting opposite. You can get them from any part of the globe and you don’t have to meet up with them, physically. But then again, the fact that you’ve got this group enables you to organise these physical meetings, which they do.

BF: It would be interesting to know, with the advent of social media, if that is encouraging more people to go to groups – people who may have, without social media, sort-of concealed it on their own. But that idea that social media can bring so many people together. It would be interesting to know whether there had been more people willing to join an ex-member group because of social media. Because you can kind-of dip your toe in with Facebook, before you go to a meeting. It’s almost the complete reverse of joining the movement in the first place.

GC: Yes, I think that’s probably right. The other question is whether it might actually encourage people to join a group by giving publicity. I remember when I was researching the Unification Church in the early days, there were two kind-of improbable people who had come along to this seminar. In fact, the Unification Church didn’t seem to want these people to join. Because they weren’t very bright, I think they were unemployed, looking for somewhere to live and that’s not what they were after. And I think they may even have been psychologically disturbed. So, a new religion won’t want to get a reputation for attracting the wrong people. But they had come along and I asked them, “What brought you here? (20:00) Weren’t you put off by the bad publicity the Unification Church was getting?” And they said, “Oh no. What we had heard actually made us interested and want to come.” So there can be this kind-of reverse effect. You might think, “Well, I wonder what this is about?”

BF: Yes. I just think social media has taken a completely different road for so much of our study, particularly with testimony and people being able to share their voice and share their opinion. Before we finish up – you’re presenting today at BASR – is there anything from your paper that you’d like to add to the talk, that we haven’t discussed so far?

GC; Well I think we’ve been, how long have we been talking now? It’s been a lot more than 20 minutes and my talk is only 20 minutes, so I think I’ve probably added quite a bit. It’s actually going to be part of a chapter in the Anthology on the Insider and Outsider debate that Stephen Gregg and I are getting together. So there will be a kind-of longer discussion. What I will be saying in the paper also –which we didn’t cover, but it’s a bit more technical – is about the kind of typologies of ex-members. People like David Bromley and Massimo Introvigne distinguish between different types. And they distinguish on the basis of how the person came out of the movement and what sort of conditions made them come out. What I’m suggesting is that these typologies have got their limitations. Sociologists talk about “ideal types” and I think that’s one of the problems about sociology: when have you got an ideal type and when have you just got a model that’s too crude for the purposes that you’re using it? So I think an account of ex-members has got to go beyond distinctions like “the defector”, “the ordinary leave-taker”, “the apostate”. There are all sorts of types of leaver, depending on the identity that they’ve created for themselves within the movement. So whether they’re just an unbaptised publisher as the rank is called in the Jehovah’s witnesses, or whether you’re one of the 144,000 in the governing body, right at the top, these kinds of the distinctions of the type of member you are will affect the way you leave. It will also affect the story you give about leaving and about life in the organisation.

BF: It’s almost sort-of an identity wave. You know: I was this, and then that’s affected how my identity has come out of the movement. I think your talk is going to be so interesting, I’m very excited.

GC: I hope so.

BF: Thank you so much for joining us today. And I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.

GC: Well, thanks very much. And thanks again for the invitation.

BF: It’s our pleasure.

Citation Info: Chryssides, George and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member Narratives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 20 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/changing-your-story-assessing-ex-member-narratives/

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Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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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.

Comedy, Comedians, and Church: The Interplay between Religion and Humor

mosehair-450x548Beyond the irony of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Tony-Award winning musical, the Book of Mormon, or the use of a funny meme or two in the classroom, religion and humour are perhaps not two concepts one often considers together. However, the interplay between religion and humour comes in many forms; comedy films, stand-up comedy, musicals, satire, and kitsch products are just a few platforms in which religion and humor come together. In this RSP interview from our friends in Australia, Dr Elisha McIntyre discusses her research into religion and humour, particularly looking at comedic work The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well as a broad range of evangelical comedians. McIntyre discusses the use of religious comedy as a point of entertainment as well as an identity solidifier, evangelical tool, and preaching format within Christianity.

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, whoopee cushions, hand buzzers, and other comedic classics.

Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies: Disciplines, Fields, and the Limits of Dialogue

As it happens, just two and a half weeks ago, I was in the audience of a panel called ‘Rethinking Theory, Methods, and Data: A Conversation between Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion’ presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.  The panel was advertised as a ‘conversation’ discussing the: ‘overlaps and differences between the role of theory, method and the collection of data in the respective fields. Panelists will focus on “what counts” as data and how religious studies and sociology of religion can mutually benefit from this discussion.’

Whilst the papers were generally very well-conceived and presented, it was the subsequent Q&A session with the audience that revealed a number of so-called fault lines as well as a general lack of consensus on what exactly religious studies is: discipline or field.  Indeed, it seemed that those with a background in religious studies were generally more open to the idea of their academic arena being framed in terms of a broad ‘field of study’ in which many disciplines and approaches participate.  Yet, those representing the sociology of religion seemed more keen to posit religious studies as a stand-alone ‘discipline’, complete with its own questions, methods, and theories.  When an audience member suggested that to insist on religious studies as a distinct and entirely separate discipline was also to limit even further the appropriate ‘house’ for the sociology of religion, one panelist argued steadfastly that that was not a problem; the sociology of religion was firmly located within sociology departments at the institutional level and had its own associations and publications to prove its established position within academia generally.

This seems to be a particularly American response – as pointed out by Paul-Francois Tremlett and Titus Hjelm in their interview with David Robertson.  Whilst many sociologists of religion in American are, indeed, ‘housed’ in sociology departments where they teach courses beyond those focused on religion, the picture is quite different in the UK and elsewhere.  In the latter contexts, sociology of religion is most frequently encountered within departments of theology and religion, or religious studies.  Indeed, it was refreshing to hear Tremlett and Hjelm agree on this and note that the sociology of religion is therefore sometimes understandably uncomfortable in its own arrangements with higher education as it attempts to maintain a cohesive (and coherent) body of scholarship detached from departments of social science and within a strikingly amorphous and ill-defined branch of the academy.  What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that the scenarios on both sides of the Atlantic highlight a consequent desire to distinguish between a discipline and a field of study.

I concur with those on the panel as well as with Tremlett and Hjelm, then, that such a distinction seems warranted and helpful as we grapple with the nature of religious studies and its relationship to the sociology of religion.  Setting aside the argument that could be made concerning sociology of religion’s status as a ‘sub-discipline’ of sociology – an argument that hardly seems rebutted by the presence of organizations and publications dedicated to the sociology of religion – it does seem clear that a classificatory disparity exists here.  Religious studies has always included a number of approaches, methods, theories, lines of inquiry, etc.  In some sense, religious studies is a both/and endeavour: it is both science-based and humanities-based, both data-driven and theory-driven, both political and apolitical.  At the very least, it contains the potential to be any number of those things.  Accordingly, Hjelm’s observation that religious studies spends too much time looking inward, debating the definitions and theories of religion rather than analysing instances of religion, is likely astute.  As a large inclusive field, religious studies was perhaps always doomed to expend a great deal of energy on self-definition and self-clarification.

Yet, sociology of religion seems a narrower discipline, right?  It has a history traceable to Durkheim and Weber, perhaps Marx as well.  It is ostensibly science-based and data-driven.  Therefore, as both Tremlett and Hjelm suggested it is perhaps more amenable to, or palatable for, the uses put to it by politicians, journalists, and some of those involved in public policy.  In other words, sociology of religion is perhaps more scientific than religious studies because the latter’s scientific qualities are diluted by the presence of non-, or less, scientific approaches.  That being said, it does appear that putting sociology of religion ‘in conversation’ with religious studies is something like putting an apple in conversation with an orange, or putting an apple in conversation with the fresh produce section of the supermarket.  Although such an analogy is doubtlessly flawed in significant ways, it does serve to highlight one of the most striking aspects of these discussions.  To what extent is this a dialogue, a two-way conversation?

I suggest that the answer may be found in the issue of theory.  If an academic discipline is not only defined by a set of acceptable methods, a focused realm for data collection, and a cannon of resources but also is made to include the ‘development of theory’ – a characteristic highlighted as belonging to the sociology of religion but not to religious studies by members of that same AAR panel – then we begin to see the relationship of a discipline to a field more clearly.  Religious studies arguably has its own cannon, acceptable methods, and circumscribed territories for data gathering, even its own popularly used theories, but it is more difficult to contend that it has produced those theories apart from the contributions of the individual disciplines comprising the larger field.  As the interviewees noted, something like ‘lived religion’ as a concept came to religious studies from the sociology of religion.  Likewise, one can easily highlight yet again that the history of religious studies is a history of the development of other narrower disciplines like sociology and anthropology who analysed religion as a central focus of their own agendas.

For those of us working in British religious studies contexts, this relationship is witnessed on a daily basis.  My own department, for example, consists of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars all engaged in the study of religion.  The field of religious studies, thus, encompasses massively diverse disciplinary perspectives and questions.  Large varieties of methods and theories are used to explore and analyse equally broad sets of phenomena.  Somewhere in the cacophony, sociology of religion is speaking to the religious studies enterprise.  It is offering up ideas and methods, sure, but it is also developing theories which may subsequently support or engender the work of other scholars in religious studies.  In the end, the relationship of the discipline to the field is possibly, justifiably, unilateral.  The sociology of religion may have something to say to religious studies, but I am not sure what religious studies has to say to the sociology of religion.  Of course, by placing sociologists of religion in departments of religious studies for a few generations, we may just find out how the latter shapes the former.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 December 2016

Dear subscriber,

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

How about having your notification posted with the Religious Studies Project’s weekly Opportunities Digest? It’s easy, just send them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com, which is now back in order!

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Calls for papers

Conference: EASR 2017: Communicating Religion

September 18–21, 2017

University of Leuven, Belgium

Deadline: December 31, 2016

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Conference: North Atlantic Catholic Communities in Rome, 1622–1939

June 6–7, 2017

Rome, Italy

Deadline: December 30, 2016

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Conference: Religion & Power

March 23–24, 2017

UNC Charlotte, USA

Deadline: January 7, 2017

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Conference: The Cognition of Belief

June 2, 2017

Georgetown University, USA

Deadline: February 17, 2017

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Conference: Háskóli Íslands Student Conference on the Medieval North

April 7–8, 2017

University of Iceland, Iceland

Deadline: January 5, 2017

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Conference: The Religious and Ethnic Future of Europe: An International Conference

June 12–13, 2017

Åbo Akademi University, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2017

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Journal: The Graduate Journal of Harvard Divinity School

2017 issue

Deadline: January 10, 2017

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Journal: Nova Religio

Special issue: Peoples Temple and Jonestown

Deadline: February 28, 2017

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Conference: “Too Small a World”: Catholics Sisters as Global Missionaries

April 6, 2017

Chicago, USA

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Grants

Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, USA

Deadlines: December 31, 2016; April 1, 2017; October 1, 2017

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University of Aberdeen, UK

Deadline: December 18, 2016

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Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 17, 2017

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University of Leeds, UK

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University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: December 18, 2016

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University of Erfurt, Germany

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New Horizons in the Sociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 6 December 2016

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Calls for papers

Congress: Chilean Society for the Sciences of Religions: Dialog, eduction and religious tolerance

May 23–26, 2017

Concepción, Chile

Deadline: N/A

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ISSR panel: Global Pentecostal Charismatic Christianities

July 4–7, 2017

Lausanne, Switzerland

Deadline: January 10, 2017

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Journal: Scuola Democratia

Special issue: “Schools and Religious Identities: Challenges and Dilemmas of the New Millennium”

Deadline: January 15, 2017

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Symposium: CenSAMM I: Violence and Millenarian Movements

April 6–7, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: December 31, 2016

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Workshop: Religion & Heritage on Display

February 4, 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

London, UK

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Events

Conference: EASR 2018: Multiple Religious Identities

June 17–21

Bern, Switzerland

More information to follow in February 2017

Conference: Mythology and “Nation Building”: N.F.S. Grundtvig and His Contemporaries

January 26–27, 2017

Paris, France

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Exhibition: Aftermath Dislocation Principle

December 13–23, 2016

Bedford, UK

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Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: “Religion and Race”

Table of contents

Jobs

Assistant Professor: Religious Studies

St. Thomas University, Canada
Deadline: January 13, 2017

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University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Deadline: December 16, 2016

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Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK

Deadline: March 20, 2017

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University of Leeds, UK

Deadline: February 1, 2017

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Tenure-track Assistant Professor: History of Comparative Religion

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Deadline: January 15, 2017

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