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“Understanding Religious Change” – 2015 ASR Conference Report

77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR), 20-22 August 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Amanda Schutz, PhD student in the School of Sociology, University of Arizona.

The theme of this year’s annual ASR meeting was a familiar one among social science conferences: understanding change. In her presidential address, “Complex Religion: Interrogating Assumptions of Independence in the Study of Religion,” ASR president Melissa Wilde urged sociologists to consider religion a variable of paramount importance, alongside commonly examined ones like race, class, and gender. She stressed that religion remains one of society’s most significant “self-sorting mechanisms” and marveled at its persistent relevance in helping us make sense of the social world. Wilde admitted she chose the theme “Understanding Religious Change” early on in her tenure as ASR president; but as the conference drew nearer, she became “struck by the ways it doesn’t change at all.” Indeed, listening to the many presentations, an alternative conference theme could have easily followed the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

These two ideas—religious change and religion’s stability—are not as conflicting as they appear on the surface. Sociologists often embrace this contradiction of simultaneous progress and stasis. We set out to explain cases that are worthy of sociological inquiry precisely because they challenge working assumptions in some respect. Yet at the same time, we rely on the stability of patterns and trends to lend credence to new ideas: we set out to prove that what we suspect is happening isn’t just white noise, coincidence, or spurious, but something real and consistent. Sociologists attempt to explain new social occurrences (change) with reliable, reproducible data (stability). Several presentations at the ASR annual meeting demonstrated this alternative conference theme; three of them are discussed here.[i]

One of the most prominent recent changes in the American religious landscape is the rise of the “nones,” or those who claim no particular religious affiliation. Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith explore the emergence of a more visible and actualized form of nonreligion in their recent book Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Ryan Cragun, Warren Goldstein, and Jesse Smith participated in an Author Meets Critics session devoted to this book. While these critics pointed out that some of the organizational history was inaccurate, nonreligious labels (e.g., atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist) are not interchangeable, and the book would have benefited from more direct engagement with social movement literature, the overall reception was warm. As atheists as a collective continue to grow and organize, their place in the social world—and the religious world—is worth examining.

However, as “atheist” becomes an increasingly legitimate and salient social identity and atheists organize into groups that increasingly resemble typical social movements, atheism, in many ways, resembles religion. Indeed, Cimino (who was unaccompanied by his co-author) pointed out that atheists often use religious metaphors, practice secular rituals, and may even refer to their gatherings as “atheist church.” This might not be surprising, as some have argued religious terminology is the best we currently have to describe nonreligious beliefs, practices, and ideologies. The Q&A following the panel ended with a short but lively discussion on whether atheism actually is a religion. The argument goes: if an ideology becomes dogmatic and questioning prevailing wisdom is not tolerated, that ideology has morphed into something akin to religion. In other words, if atheists believe without a doubt that god(s) does not exist, they are, in fact, religious atheists. However, the extent to which atheists as a whole accept such a proposition is debatable.

Another presentation added important details to this discussion of nones, and also demonstrated that reinforcement of the status quo can sometimes accompany change. In his presentation “The Dechurching of America: Why People are Increasingly ‘Done’ with the Church…but not with God” (based on work co-authored with Ashleigh Hope), Josh Packard admitted that the trend toward disaffiliation has been impossible for scholars of religion to ignore, and many have discussed at length how and why people lose their faith. (It is also important to note that next year’s ASR conference theme will explore varieties of nonreligion, continuing these conversations in greater depth.)

However, scholars of religion are quick to point out that “no affiliation” is not synonymous with “no belief,” and that the nones are comprised largely of those who still retain some level of religious or spiritual belief, despite disengagement from organized religion. Packard quoted several respondents emphasizing that although they have left the church, they have not abandoned their faith. Indeed, this movement away from institutionalized religion is becoming a popular area of study, as researchers are looking more closely at the various combinations of believing and belonging, which include groups like the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNRs) and cultural Christians (e.g. Orestes “Pat” Hastings, who received this year’s McNamara Student Paper Award and presented “Not A Lonely Crowd? Social Connectedness, Religious Attendance, and the Spiritual But Not Religious”).

A third presentation demonstrating this alternative theme, titled “The Rhetoric of Obedience: Gender, Religion, and Family Life in a Modernizing Indonesian City,” took place during the Presidential Panel on religion and gender. Rachel Rinaldo discussed how the rhetoric of submission among Muslim couples is more complex than we might expect. While men remain the head of the family, whose primary obligation is supporting wife and children, it is not unusual for wives work outside the home—though they often must ask permission of their husbands. There are inconsistencies in this worldview, Rinaldo adds: yes, women are by and large considered equal to men, but their utmost responsibility is the home, where they are expected to obey their husbands.

However, Rinaldo points out that as women become more involved in public life, public and private spheres becomes more discrete; consequently, as women become more visibly independent and their roles more varied, the rhetoric of submission in the home becomes stronger. The workplace may be an “escape” where women are increasingly welcomed (or at least tolerated), but the household is the “last bastion” of women; it is not as affected by social change as the public sphere. And if women need to be reminded to obey, Rinaldo suggests, that means there must be contexts where they’re not. Because the culture of many Muslim societies is changing, if people still wish to continue traditions privately, they must use religion as a justification of such arrangements—not culture.

landon schnabel presenting.

landon schnabel presenting.

Though conference themes are intended to encompass the largest possible range of presentations, the meeting included many panels with varying relevance to the theme of religious change. This included panels dedicated to the intersection of religion with topics like health, the environment, gender, sexuality, violence, and politics. This year’s meeting also introduced the ASR’s first attempt at a Graduate Student Mentoring Lunch, which saw a handful of senior scholars discussing their areas of expertise with graduate students. Rhys Williams, a former ASR president, expressed that graduate students today are forging connections with others in outside departments much more than they have in the past, confirming that conferences like ASR have become an integral part in the development of scholars’ early careers.

You can see the program for the 77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in its entirety here. Next year’s annual meeting will take place 19-21 August 2016 in Seattle, Washington, and the theme will be “Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion.”

[i] Discussion of presentations is based on those sessions I was able to attend. Also, as a researcher of nonreligion myself, I was prone to see these presentations as particularly exemplifying the theme of religious change.

Conference report: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

The postgraduate “Conference on Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics” was held 11-12 of September 2015 at the University of Aberdeen, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The conference was sponsored by the College of Arts and Social Sciences and Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Rethinking Boundaries" 2015 conference

“Rethinking Boundaries” 2015 conference

The conference included keynote talks from both Timothy Fitzgerald and Abby Day; it also included over 30 postgraduate presentations, workshop sessions offered by Aberdeen staff, and lots of tea breaks that allowed for participants to get to know each other, all within the walls of the historic King’s College. The conference was multidisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about boundaries in the study of religion and politics (e.g. religious/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism).

The conference began with a keynote address from Timothy Fitzgerald, Reader in Religion, University of Stirling, entitled “Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Fitzgerald argued that liberal journalists and academics, while attempting to provide factual reportage, tend unconsciously to reproduce ancient “us and them” narratives. Fitzgerald described a basic discourse among journalists that legitimates rational liberal modernity against all perceived forms of backwardness and irrational barbarity (e.g. Fitzgerald offered the example of western views of Islamic countries). In western discourse, he said, the assumption is that faith, unlike nonreligious secularity, has a propensity to irrational violence. Thus western discourse pits rational western civility against the other’s medieval barbarity and western secular logical reasonableness against the other’s inability to settle their differences through negotiation, free market relations, and respect for private property. He drew attention to what he called “myths of the modern,” with one example being the distinction between the religious and the nonreligious secular, and explained how these myths are perpetuated by a range of agencies, including the media, politicians, and academics, but also including constitutions and the courts.  According to Fitzgerald, the problem with these “us and them” narratives is that “nations”, “geopolitics”, and “faith” are used in academic discourse and public rhetoric as if their meanings are self-evident and universal in their application, whereas Fitzgerald feels any claim to universal truth is problematic (for example, Fitzgerald holds that there is no true meaning of the term “God” outside someone’s or some community’s assertion that there is). Fitzgerald argued that the secular/religious binary also needs to be seen as an ideological position (rather than a self-evident truth), as the secular/religious binary is usually argued from a secular perspective (here he critiqued Edward Said, author of the famous Orientalism, on the basis that Said does not deconstruct secular reason and its dichotomous relation to religion and fails to see his secular/religious binary as an ideological position).

Timothy Fitzgerald

Timothy Fitzgerald

The postgraduate presentations were diverse. My presentation on “Intra-Evangelical Conflict on the Topic of Islam” fell within the session entitled “Conceptions of Islam” which also included a thoughtful presentation from the conference organizer Sarah Hynek on “Approaching the Categories of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” But the conference was certainly not entirely focused on Islam, and it also included sessions on a variety of topics such as “Approaching Atheism and New Atheism” and “Shaping Congregations.”

One of the most controversial postgraduate papers presented at the conference came from Armen Oganessian, who is pursuing a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen. Oganessian proposed that if we were to view politics, or the public sphere, as a “marketplace of ideas,” that would allow us to move beyond the religious/secular binary that dominates western thought. In this “marketplace of ideas” framework, we should view all ideologies, concepts, or moralities as having a societal value, and politics as a kind of flea market for any given worldview to sell their perspective on how to govern the society. This framework frees religious thought of its unfair stereotype of only being suited for one’s private life, putting it on an even footing with all other worldviews.  This would mean, for example, that the Buddhist would have the right, just like the socialist, to construct a foreign policy based on the beliefs and morals of his worldview and then have that policy be evaluated solely on its potential effects on the society (societal value) rather than on its religious underpinnings. Then any given individual, any given member of the said society, would be able to “purchase” either the Buddhist’s or the socialist’s–or parts of either’s—foreign policy. Then that foreign policy, or the parts of a foreign policy, most frequently purchased would be the ones adopted by the society, whether it be religious or not. Oganessian’s marketplace of ideas was highly criticized during the question and comment period. One critic argued that the “marketplace of ideas” would inherently favor capitalism. Some questioned the individual’s intellectual purchasing capabilities (e.g. people are too stupid to decide for themselves where to shop). Another critic argued that had Europe gone with the popular ideals of the Catholic Church, Europe would still be in the Dark Ages—a point with which Oganessian disagreed, noting that we cannot predict what would have happened with certainty and mentioning the possibility that perhaps we would be more advanced now.

Johan Rasanayagam hosted a workshop on “Approaching the Category of Islam.” Johan undergirded the workshop with readings from Talal Asad on The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam and Samuli Schielke on Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Makes Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life. The workshop explored the issue of how to study Islamic communities without making Islam the object. Rasanayagam described his own personal research, which focuses on Muslims in Uzbekistan and what their moral understanding is of what it means to be a Muslim. He found that for some Uzbekistani Muslims, “being Muslim” might involve activities that one would typically think of as religious or Islamic –like going to the mosque, fasting, etc.  But for many it also involves being a good neighbor, marrying their kids off properly, contributing to the community—basically, according to Rasanayagam, just being a good person. So the conclusion Rasanayagam came to at the end was that Islam, if it ever becomes an object at all, only becomes so within the moral self of one particular Muslim and that one Muslim’s “Islam” is different from every other Muslim’s “Islam.” According to Rasanayagam, when one tries to make Islam an object it automatically loses value and distorts reality. Thus, Rasanayagam ended up moving away from “Islam” and looking at the formation of moral selves, who just happen to be Muslim. Rasanayagam argued that rather than looking at the Muslim community or Islam, one should focus on the process by which something comes into being and continues.

Two other workshops were included: ‘Identity and Belief/Non-Belief” led by Marta Trzebiatowska and “Religion and Politics as Categories of the Modern State” led by Trevor Stack.

Abby Day

Abby Day

The conferences ended with a keynote address from Abby Day, Reader in Race, Faith and Culture, Goldsmiths University of London, on “Believing in the Future: The Religious and Non-religious Stories Young Adults Tell.” Day shared her findings from researching “Generation A” (grandmothers of Generation X) and the story of decline of mainstream Protestant Christianity mainly in the UK. Day contrasted these older women and the younger generation that they raised and how Generation A vs. Generation X differ on what they want from religion and what can be learned about religious change. Much of the conference content sympathized with the postmodern distrust of language and sought to deconstruct words/phrases such as “belong to a faith community,” “God,” and “Islam.” The conference left me with questions about how constructive deconstructing is and how far it may distance our research from the everyday reality of those we are researching. Can a distrust of language be solved with more language?

As with all multidisciplinary exchanges, it was refreshing and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields.

 

Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

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For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’ – 2015 CESNUR Conference Report

CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions, Torino) Annual Conference 2015, Tallinn University, Estonia, 17-20 June. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Prof. Carole M. Cusack, Department of Studies in Religion, The University of Sydney

The 2015 CESNUR conference was held at University of Tallin, Estonia, and was organized by Dr Ringo Ringvee (The Estonian Ministry of Interior). The theme was ‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’. There were no plenary lectures, although the interesting address by Massimo Introvigne (President of CESNUR) at the conference dinner at the Von Krahl Theatre, on Friday 19 June, ‘The Sociology of Religious Movements and the Sociology of Time in Conversation’ performed something of that function. As CESNUR is an organization that welcomes members of new religions, there were ‘insider’ papers and responses from members of the Twelve Tribes, the Plymouth Brethren, and the Church of Scientology, among others.

Academic presentations included: Liselotte Frisk and Sanja Nilsson (Dalarna University), ‘Upbringing and Schooling of the Children of the Exclusive Brethren: The Swedish Perspective’; Bernard Doherty (Macquarie University), ‘Spooks and Scientologists: Secrecy, Surveillance, and Subversion in Cold War Australia, 1954-1983’; Tommy Ramstedt (Abo Akademi University), ‘Credibility, Authority, and the Paranormal: The Relation Between Science and Paranormal Claims Within the Finnish Alternative Spiritual Milieu’; Timothy Miller (University of Kansas), ‘Will the Hutterites Survive the 21st Century?’; Carole M. Cusack (University of Sydney), ‘Gurdjieff and Sufism: A Contested Relationship’; and Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney), ‘Kenja: Unique Australian NRM or Auditing Without an E-Meter?’

Tallinn, Estonia

The International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR) held its third two-yearly meeting since it began in 2009 during the conference. This was a successful gathering that acknowledged the quality of the first five years of the International Journal for the Study of New Religion (Volumes 1-4 under the editorship of Carole M. Cusack and Liselotte Frisk, and Volume 5 under the current editorial team of Alex Norman and Asbjørn Dyrendal) and developed plans for the future, as the new President, Milda Ališauskienė (Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania) was elected. The meeting thanked the outgoing President, Jean François Mayer (Religioscope Institute, Switzerland). The ISSNR sponsored sessions at CESNUR as did it at the EASR in Budapest in September 2011.

The conference was well-attended, though the absence of long-time CESNUR stalwart J. Gordon Melton (Baylor University and the Institute for the Study of American Religion) due to extreme weather conditions that presented him travelling was noted by all. At the conference’s close after lunch on Saturday 20 June, members were taken by bus to the first of a series of sacred sites in Tallin, the Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak). The bus then dropped the group off in Toompea, the upper town, and Ringo Ringvee guided through sites including: the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral (from the outside); St Mary’s Cathedral (Dome Church or Toomkirik), the oldest church in Tallinn, formerly Catholic and now Lutheran; and the fascinating Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is a unobtrusively nested within the town walls, with a crypt filled with folk art, and a church with a distinctive iconostasis. The dedication is to the Virgin With Three Hands, and the complex also houses a crafts business, a small monastery, and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre. CESNUR 2016 will be in Seoul, Korea, from 28-30 June.

— Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

CSENUR 2015 online conference proceedings available HERE.

 

 

 

2015 Conference on Religion and American Culture Report

The Biennial “Conference on Religion and American Culture” was held June 4 to June 7, 2015 in Indianapolis. The conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Jeffrey Wheatley, a PhD student at Northwestern University.

This was my second visit to RAAC, which follows the fishbowl format (one whose physical layout is similar to a UFC cage match, but the audience gets to participate). The format makes RAAC a great venue for assessing current and future trends in the study of religion and the United States. Unfortunately, I cannot relate all of the great perspectives, questions, and arguments in a single blog post. Instead I will focus on two topics that prompted some (not all!) of the liveliest discussion. Interested to know more? Feel free to examine the conference program. I recommend combing through the conversation that took place on Twitter by searching #RAAC2015. You also can look forward to reading the proceedings, which will eventually be published.

We Need Some Space

Two panels focused on how we spatially frame the study of Religion and American Culture: “American Religion and Global Flows” and “’Religion in the Americas’ as an Organizational Paradigm.” Both on some level critiqued the dominance of national boundaries in delineating what we study and how we study it. Scholars, especially those interested in power, have much to gain by looking at transnational networks.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

Zareena Grewal discussed her research on Muslim communities in the United States and suggested that we need not lose sight of the importance of ideas in a transnational focus. For example: race, she argued, is intricately connected to theological conversations. For Muslims in the United States, religion and race are negotiated through transnational networks whose main nodes are elsewhere, primarily in the Middle East. Kristy Nabhan-Warren, in a paper that would continue to be referenced throughout the conference, emphasized the importance of story-telling and the need for scholars to listen, both to our subjects of study and our students. Over-reliance on paradigms, she cautioned, can hinder our capacity to let subjects speak. Sylvester Johnson argued we need to highlight the framework of the “Americas” in graduate programs. Such training is useful not for going beyond the nation-state, he suggested, but to understand the importance of settler colonialism in the formation of many nation-states, including the United States. The Americas framework is also conducive for incorporating perspectives beyond (yet not to the exclusion of) the Anglo-American Protestantism that dominates the study of American religions.

Commenting, Stephen Prothero raised an important question: are we arguing that global flows in particular demand more scholarship? Or are we suggesting that the global is one geographical frame out of many (e.g., a single church, a neighborhood, a city or local region, a state, a nation, etc . . .)? And how might we relate these various scales in reference to one another? The question of scale seems to me to be not just about where and who we study, but about what we study and how we study it.

Beginning and Ending with Religion and “Religion”

RAAC began with Robert Orsi commenting on what the study of religion means when religion has become “religion.” The final panel, although technically entitled “Liberalism vs. Pluralism” and inspired by Kathryn Lofton’s comment at RAAC 2013 about the defeat of pluralism, ultimately returned to this question. As Ariel Schwartz noted, the room quickly went beyond what was stated in the printed program. The last panel quickly became a sweeping debate over Foucauldian genealogy, studies of secularism, and the question of what constitutes the proper objects/subjects of the study of religion. (Perhaps we can revisit liberalism and pluralism in 2017?)

Stephen Prothero jump-started the conversation by pointing to John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America as an example of a rupture in the study of religion away from lived religion, bodies, and historical story-telling towards an emphasis on the construction of categories, especially our own as scholars of religion. The hard-earned fruits of the former, he suggested, might be obscured by the latter. Referencing Sydney Ahlstrom’s classic work, Prothero asked, can we study the religious history of the American people, or must we study the “religious” “history” of the “American” “people”? Prothero asked the audience to picture two doors. The first is genealogical. The second, which he chooses, is the historical ethnographic. Pamela Klassen defended genealogy, pointing to important work that excavates the norms of liberal Protestantism embedded in discourses of pluralism. During the comments, Leigh Schmidt wondered if we can find a middle ground between stories about people in the sense Prothero intended and the importance of categories.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The conversation brought up a number of questions. Is the door metaphor providing us with a false dichotomy? Is the construction of categories necessarily separate from the intimate lives of real people? Why is Modern’s book the main example of the genealogical method? Is genealogy only about scholarly categories? How might the practices of story-telling, emphasized throughout the weekend, relate to the genealogical method? Is “jargon” a crucial part of our scholarly community or a hindrance to the publicity and relevance of our writing? Cara Burnidge, playing with Prothero’s metaphor, asked the room to consider the following: what framework allows for these two doors? That is: this conversation is not only about our field in the abstract. The conversation is about the field’s institutional future, its relationship with other disciplines, and the job prospects of younger scholars.

Overall, this panel was the closest we got to a UFC match. A number of passionate comments from the panelists and the audience signaled the high stakes of the questions posed. It was an all-around provocative conversation.

Final Thoughts

In my effort to provide a thick account of the conference by focusing on two topics, I am leaving out a number of great panels, papers, and comments that deserve attention. These include but are not limited to: Judith Weisenfeld’s use of the language “religio-racial” and her question of who gets included in the category of “new religious movements”; a lively conversation on the descriptive and prescriptive uses of “civil religion”; and two panels on capitalism that touched on the dominance of neoliberalism, religion’s role in organized labor, and, as Chip Callahan pushed for, a call to attend to how particular practices of work shape and are shaped by particular worldviews. To be honest, most scholars working on religion and the United States (and/or the Americas!) would benefit from reading the proceedings.

Speaking as a graduate student, I want to conclude by noting how RAAC, and similarly organized small-scale conferences that focus on the direction of a particular field, are incredibly useful. Especially for younger scholars, these are energizing conferences that allow you to better contextualize your work in ongoing discussions. We are accustomed to thinking of methodological, theoretical, and historiographical “turns” within a progressive linear timeline. RAAC collapses these turns into a single dynamic space, with contributors of each turn participating. Such a discussion revealed how the pasts and futures of the field are, in fact, very much present and intimate. I look forward to meeting new scholars, visiting and revisiting high-stakes debates, and seeing familiar faces in 2017.

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” – 2015 ISASR Conference Report

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR), Trinity College Dublin, May 11th 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Dr. Eoin O’Mahony, Department of Geography, St Patrick’s College DCU

The fourth annual conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions took place at Trinity College Dublin on May 11th. It was organised in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub Art & Humanities Institute and sponsored by the Department of Religions & Theology, TCD. This year, it took a novel turn. In place of an event over two or three days, it was in the form of a research slam, a format set to test the garrulous nature of the academic. This was to take account of the IAHR Congress in Erfurt later this summer. Following an opening address from the outgoing president of the Association, Dr. Patrick Claffey, the slam began in earnest. The Society has a relatively small number of members but we had twelve presentations, seven minutes and one carefully monitored countdown clock.

Chris Heinhold (University of Chester) told us about his theory-building approach to investigating modern British Shia identity. Chris is about to embark on intensive fieldwork but has already noted how being part of a diaspora is performative. As a researcher and migrant himself, he has made attempts to build a flexible theory based on data collection. How culture is remembered and mythologised formed the centre of the contribution by Deirdre Nuttall (independent researcher). The stories we tell ourselves influence the way we act and the story of Ireland has been told largely through Roman Catholic action. She has found that the lives of a working class Protestant minority are largely absent from the folklore archives. Early attempts at nation building in Ireland reinforced a Catholic retelling of the myths at the expense of a shrinking Protestant minority.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

In further tales of cultural erasure, Jenny Butler (University College Cork) told us about Irish fairy beliefs. She is trying to address the academic deficit in this subject. In most academic studies of Irish culture, the focus is on fairy beliefs as “explaining away” rather than as an animistic worldview; for example, there is a focus on folk stories in which fairies are blamed mostly for the ill-effects of human interaction with nature and fairies were often said to be the cause of infant loss or disability and even bad harvests. Her dialogical and anthropological approach is making an attempt to plait strands of research that currently run in parallel.

Lawrence Cox (Maynooth University) brought us on a lyrical journey of the lives of Buddhist monks from Ireland to Asia. He narrated these accounts through the letters sent by these monks in a poetic stroll through space and time. Tadhg Foley (NUI Galway) told us about the wanderings of Max Arthur McAuliffe. McAuliffe’s efforts to avoid responsibility for his progeny was bested only by his commitment to translating Sikh holy texts. Christopher Cotter (Lancaster University) brought us on a technical journey across continents. Christopher walked us through the process by which the Religious Studies Project manages content and podcasts across time zones and continents using online collaborative software.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Ireland’s missionary past was recalled in a presentation by (UCC’s) Yuwu Shan. His new research on the Columban missions to China over the course of 150 years shows us that globalisation is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. Through the archive available to him in Dalgan Park, the Columban order’s world headquarters based in Kildare, Ireland, Shan brought their long history in China to life. He is working with photographs and other material to reconstruct the efforts of the holy order navigating turbulent political revolution. Colette Colfer (WIT) and I outlined our initial data from a new project mapping the warehouse worship spaces of Dublin and Waterford, two very different cities. Our work is focused on the ways that warehouses form community around Pentecostal churches and mosques, often defying a visible centrality usually reserved for religious space in Ireland, a majority Catholic country. We are planning a lot more fieldwork. Alexandra Greiser (Trinity College Dublin) told us about transhumanism and how it may be developing into a new universalism through a scientific discourse. This forms part of a larger project she is working on that will take a comparative perspective and a possible account of multiple modernities. Bringing the universal to the local, Vlad Kmec (UCD) told us about his research on the formation of religious identity among migrants to Ireland. He is conducting focus groups with young people and adults among the Czech and Polish communities to examine the functional and substantive roles of religion in migrant lives.

Eoin O'Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Eoin O’Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Olivia Wilkinson (TCD) is interested in the role of faith based organisations in disaster relief efforts. She has conducted extensive participatory methods in her fieldwork in the Philippines as a way to examine what is counted as faith based in the post-Haiyan aid process. What gets prioritised and, perhaps more importantly, what does not is of central concern to her research. James Kapaló (UCC) told us about a relatively new network called the Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre. Its main work is to build comparative perspectives on these endangered of marginalised worldviews and their cultural expressions. The projects here are engaged forms of research and encouraging of a counter-hegemonical perspective for these forms of knowledge. Some were running to the seven minute bell, others seemed to have timed it perfectly to 6 minutes and 57 seconds.

Our slamming over, Brian Bocking (outgoing secretary) recalled for us how far the academic study of religions in Ireland had come in a few short years. Brian has been instrumental in founding and developing the ISASR, as well as the Department of Study of Religions at UCC (the only department of its kind in Ireland) and in his short lecture, summarised for us why the academic study of religions remains vital. He drew a crucial distinction using an analogy between astrology and astronomy. For astrologers, a cosmological system of belief in the power of star alignment forms the basis for earthly action. Among astronomers, the gathering of evidence about the composition of star systems helps us to understand our place in the universe. Both are concerned with the stars but equally both observe from a position of relative powerlessness over their object of study. The academic study of religions, in this way, is just as bound by tradition and human agency as their confessional co-researchers in Theology.

The day’s proceedings were rounded off with a book launch. The book, Muslims in Ireland: Past and Present (Edinburgh UP), is the first complete study of a little known Muslim presence in Europe. Two of its five editors, Oliver Scharbrodt (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) and Tuula Sakaranaho (Univ. of Helsinki) spoke about the purpose of the book, its meaning to the academic study of religions in Ireland. Its remaining editors, Adil Hussain Khan (Loyola University, New Orleans), Vivian Ibrahim (Univ. of Mississippi) and Yafa Shanneik (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) were acknowledged. Edinburgh University Press sponsored the reception that followed and the Silk Road Café provided wonderful food. The conference as a whole points to a secure future for the small and yet vital academic study of religions in a country with a long tradition of theological investigation. It is not that one pushes the other out of the light of investigation. Rather, it is the academy investing itself with a way to specify the meaning, location and features of religious culture.

Dressing in Skins of Gods: New Approaches to Aztec Religion

Molly Bassett is an enthusiastic advocate for studying Mesoamerican religion, a welcome new direction in Religious Studies. She credits the critical mentorship of David Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of Latin America Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Although she does not mention this, his influence makes her an intellectual “granddaughter” of Mircea Eliade, who was Carrasco’s principal advisor at the University of Chicago and to whom Carrasco has paid special homage in Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective (Carrasco and Law 2009). Mostly due to a dearth of qualified teachers, interpretation of Mesoamerican religions has been undertaken by individuals with little or no formal training in religious studies. As a result, many have made their way into this field via an autodidactic approach. On the upside, Bassett emphasizes how Mesoamerican studies push scholars to be interdisciplinary. Her work on the rich Florentine Codex, the Codex Mexicanus, and other 16th century sources builds on prior work by art historians such as Diana Magaloni (a student of Mary Miller at Yale) as well as linguists, ethnohistorians, paleographers, and archaeologists.

Bassett rightly notes the preconceptions and prejudices that students typically bring to studies of the Aztecs, among them notions of human sacrifice (which, given divine reciprocity, might be better understood as “human gifting”), cannibalism (or anthropophagy, both actual and metaphorical), and other forms of ambiguous violence. These have been the subject of a brilliant essay, “Ethics and Ethnocentricity in Interpretation and Critique: Challenges to the Anthropology of Corporeality and Death,” by archaeologist Arthur Demarest (Vanderbilt) in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians (Chacon & Dye 2008). He outlines radically different conceptions of blood and bodies among Spanish and Aztecs, noting, for example, that Spanish horror at Aztec rituals was shaped by specific Christian beliefs about the sanctity of the blood and body of Christ, human mortality and corporality, ethnocentric perceptions that condition Western consciousness even today. For the Aztecs, flaying humans and wearing their skin inside-out (as was done with the Culhua princess) represented a profoundly different conception of personhood and corporality. Just as a hardcore vegetarian, vegan, or animal rights activist might recoil at a supermarket meat counter or a leather goods shop, Spanish reactions to Aztec practices were conditioned by distinctly non-universal values and beliefs. As Demarest writes, “Neither ethnocentric revulsion nor ethnocentric purification can substitute for elucidating, as best we can, the nature and meaning of the beliefs and practices of other societies.”

From another perspective, recent scholarship on Mesoamerican religions has been influenced by Mircea Eliade in a persistent fashion that has yet to be critically addressed. For example, discussions of Olmec and Maya religious art and iconography refer routinely to concepts of an axis mundi, a tripartite cosmology, “shamanism,” and archetypes of the World Tree and Cosmic Mountain that come directly from Eliade’s work. However, these often lack direct citations, much less critical analyses based on the history and context of Eliade’s ideas (an example of this would be the 1993 book Maya Cosmos, by Friedel, Schele, and Parker, but a pervasive use of these concepts persists to the present). These and related concepts are often taken for granted by art historians, but their tacit acceptance merits a closer analysis by scholars in Religious Studies, who may be prepared to evaluate the influence of Eliade on fields of study other than their own and to offer alternative models. One recent work relevant to Bassett’s research as well as interdisciplinary methodology is Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerican and Central America (Orr and Looper 2014), which considers cultures much earlier than the Aztecs, ones contemporary with early Judaism and Christianity, but lacks a Religious Studies approach.

Mesoamericanists and other specialists in pre-Hispanic cultures of Latin America often question Kirchhoff’s original 1943 model of “Mesoamerica” and its utility for understanding broader interaction in the southern U.S., Caribbean basin, southern Central America, and northern South America. Interestingly, in the same article, Kirchhoff also proposed the notion of a “Chibchan” area to the south, one that has now become even more relevant given recent announcements of the “discovery” of a “lost city” or “vanished civilization” in non-Mesoamerican eastern Honduras. Yes, Mesoamerican religion is a fascinating and stimulating area for more Religious Studies scholarship, but I’m sure Bassett would enthusiastically agree that this extends to approaches to religion throughout the Americas. She says, “Puritans pale by comparison to Aztecs,” but they also pale in comparison to Mayas, Chibchas, Taínos, Moches, Tiwanakus, Incas, and many, many others. It would be nice to think that her work is just the beginning of a Renaissance of sorts in the study of indigenous American religions and their deep and complex intersections with Christian, New Age, and other contemporary practices. For example, the rich variety of New Religious Movements (NRMs) in Latin America and the U.S. that assert neo-Aztec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican identities call for evaluation on their own terms.

Xipe Totec (“Our Lord the Flayed One”) wears the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim. “Wearing people’s skins” is powerful imagery, tied to how we understand them by putting “skins” (such as “religion”) on them.

Bassett’s emphasis on questions and methodological toolkits is especially valuable. These should include theoretical toolkits specific to Religious Studies. Mesoamerican religion is fertile ground for a host of new approaches that go well beyond traditional (Eliadean) comparative studies. Public fascination with “ancient” civilizations of Mexico (including ones such as the Aztecs that are no more ancient than Leonardo da Vinci) derive from Romantic notions that can be traced to myths of Lost Tribes and lost continents, recurrent tropes in traditions from Mormons to New Age traditions that have sought to both “other” and to mistakenly identify Native peoples. A detailed knowledge of the history of Mesoamerican studies, both scholarly and vernacular, as well as contemporary scholarship by archaeologists, art historians, and ethnohistorians is essential for approaching these. Bassett refers to how Aztecs may have sought to dress Cortes in order to treat him as a “god”. We must consider the adornments with which we dress pre-Hispanic indigenous religion in special skins in order to make it comprehensible to us. Of course, this includes even the manufactured skin of “religion” itself.

Conference Report: The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association, 2014

by Robert Arrowood, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

IMG_5225On October 31 – November 2, the Marriot Hotel of downtown Indianapolis, Indiana hosted the 2014 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in conjuncture with the Religious Research Association (RRA). The major theme for SSSR was “Building Bridges” and beautifully illustrated on the program cover by Kenan Sevinc. From my understanding, this was the first year that the program was in colour. This theme had several interpretations in which it meant building bridges within the study of religion, cross discipline research, and across countries, just to name a few. The major theme for RRA was Revisiting Gender and Religion. The program chair for this conference was Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

The first day of the conference began with several sessions during the morning. The overall topics were quite broad ranging from “Research Perspective on the Church of England,” “Biological and Evolutionary Aspects of Religion,” and “Navigating ‘Norms’ in Society,” among many others. One such presentation from “Navigating ‘Norms’ in Society” was by Cory Anderson from Ohio State University who spoke of the Amish-Mennonite culture of Central America. Anderson spoke of his time living with different Amish-Mennonite communities in Central America and the conversation of non-born Amish-Mennonites into the faith. Interestingly, this religion is growing in popularity in this area. Presentations such as these continued until 11:30 in which a lunch was served in honor of all new members to the society and to present IMG_5242award to many of the presenters. Further, several business items were discussed during this lunch. Of interest, the conference boasted a record number of individual paper acceptances (over 430), 70 organized sessions, and more than 600 people from different backgrounds in attendance. Additionally, 36 different countries were represented through various paper presentations. Although the program chair and committee were concerned that attendance would be sparse due to holding the conference on Halloween, it is clear from these number that this was not the case.

Following the lunch, sessions began again with diverse topics such as “Young People, Religion and Diversity,” Language, Theology, and Space,” and “Advances in Prayer Research.” Of special interest was the panel titled “Secularism & Nonreligion Journal – panel on Atheism and Secularism,” convened by Barry Kosmin. Several researchers presented including John Shook from the University of Buffalo, Ryan Cragun from the University of Tampa, Christopher Silver from the University of Tennessee, and Thomas J. Coleman III from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This panel boasted one of the highest attendances in the conference with standing room only in the back. Specifically, “The Six Types of Nonbelief,” by Silver, presented a new taxonomy system for identifying different types of atheism and secularism.

Following the completion of the last presentations for the day, Oxford University Press hosted a new book reception followed by an address by the president of RRA, Joy Charlton from Swarthmore College entitled “Revisiting Gender and Religion,” in concurrence with the RRA theme. The day concluded with three receptions for Graduate Students held at TGI Fridays and a special reception hosted by outgoing SSSR president Jim Richardson honoring those that attended from outside of the USA. A general reception was also held for anyone in attendance to attend.

Saturday began with several paper sessions in the morning with topics ranging from “Church Renewal and Evangelization,” “Sex and Religion,” and “Religion in China” to mention a few. Jun Lu from Purdue University presented on the Chinese governments leading propaganda news source’s inclusion of Christianity in many of its articles. Interestingly, many of these articles were in favour of the religion. IMG_5264Following the many morning presentation, a special plenary lecture was held honouring Dr. Jack Shand titled “Legacy: Who was Jack Shand?” The program chair, Dr. Hood, personally requested this presentation be prepared and presented. Dr. Shand was a member of the Society and upon his death donated a generous gift to SSSR. This presentation was based on an examination of the unprocessed archives of Dr. Shand providing a nice glimpse into his history and his legacy. Following a break for lunch, the conference continued with more panels such as “Religious and Social Identity,” “Research on Pentecostalism,” and “Exploring Catholicism.” One very interesting (and quite unique) presentation by Joshua Ambrosuis was on religion’s impact on space exploration. Ambrosuis suggested that many religions that are opposed to space travel may experience a decline if space colonization does occur in the future due to not making themselves available to those that do colonize space. The day concluded witha presidential address by James Richardson from the University of Nevada entitled, “Managing Religion and the ‘Judicialization’ of Religious Freedom” followed by a reception for anyone in attendance. Following the reception, a special plenary was held providing the debut of Andrew Johnson’s documentary entitled, “If I Give My Soul: Pentecostalism in Rio’s Prisons.”

The final day of the conference had a slightly smaller attendance due to many scholars having to catch plane flights early that morning or even the previous evening. Sunday’s schedule was the same as the previous days with the exception that only morning presentations were given. These presentations ranged from several topics including “God, the Father: Influences of God Attachment and Image,” “Religion, From the East to the West,” and “Young People, Religion and Diversity.” Of special interest was the author meets critic session, “Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity” by Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. This was one of the more popular sessions purely based on the number in attendance, especially considering the decrease in those there and it being one of the last sessions. This session, of which I had the honour to convene, allowed three other scholars to comment and critique Dr. Beit-Hallahmi’s book. These “critics” included Dr. Michael Nielsen from Southern Georgia University, Coleman (mentioned previously), and Dr. David Wulff from Wheaton College. Dr. Beit-Hallahmi was allowed to address and comment on each criticism or question posed by the three “critics.” The panel ended with a large picture session with Dr. Beit-Hallahmi, the critics, audience members, and I.

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Overall, the conference included several diverse presentations and was able to boast several record breaking achievements. Many disciplines were represented with scholars representing History, Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, different religious affiliations and church denominations, and many others. To my dismay as a psychologist, psychology was somewhat less represented in comparison to many of the other disciplines. Considering the overall theme of Building Bridges and cross collaborative research, I hope to see this discipline increase in attendance in upcoming conferences. The next annual meeting of SSSR and RRA will be held October 23 – 25th, 2015 in Newport Beach California. A call for papers has already been issued.

Taking Witchcraft and Possessions Seriously with Philip Almond

In this interview with Philip Almond, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland and Deputy Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, listeners are treated to a wide-ranging survey of the past decade of Almond’s work on witchcraft and demonic possession in early modern England. Beginning with Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Almond was among those that refocused discussions of this material to de-emphasize narratives and methods that had been located too centrally in the twentieth and not the sixteenth century. Witchcraft and possession were not medical phenomenon in any modern sense. They could not be written off as simple psychological episodes. Nor was it appropriate to bring modern tropes of mental health, rationalism, or religion as a private belief into the discussion of what people in the 16th to 18th centuries experienced.

Perhaps this discourse is largely a boon following Stuart Clark’s seminal Thinking With Demons (Oxford University Press, 1999). This included not just Almond’s Demonic Possession, but also Moshe Sluhovosky’s Believe Not Every Spirit (University of Chicago Press, 2007) and Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (Routlege, 2004) among many other fine volumes. As a body of scholarship, these works have increasingly sought to excise the present from its intrusive role in the analysis of the past. Can we discuss our historical subjects without seeing them as moderns who are simply living in the past? If this is familiar, you might be remembering some version of the steady drumbeat of David Lowenthal’s now clichéd dictate that the past is a foreign country.

Among historians (and anthropologists) this over-commitment to context may feel weatherworn, but for those in religious studies today it should be axiomatic. If a physician’s first pledge is to “do no harm,” then the scholar of religion must vow to “take religion seriously.” Almond’s reluctance to reduce witchcraft or possession to mere psychology is not on its face a rejection of reductionism writ large. He suggests early in the interview that he believes the root cause of the rise of possessions is millennialism or apocalypticism. Though we might be inclined to see witchcraft as a religious rebuttal to modernism, Almond appears unconvinced that the phenomenon can be a clear response to our contemporary understanding of this distinctive period of European history. “It’s too big a story,” he says, especially when a more obvious alternative is the specific consequences of the Reformation for individual branches of Christianity. If you’ll forgive the pun, the Devil is most certainly in the details.

What is striking about Almond’s consistent efforts to see the immediate and local contexts for witchcraft is the way it suggests that even our modern debates about the definition of religion are secondary to the challenges of historically-situated scholarship. To those who may have earlier leapt to ask, ‘what is the “religion” that we are taking seriously in the case of Almond’s subjects?’, the response is two-fold.

First, recognize how thoroughly such an inquiry is situated in the present. Such a modern scholarly category imposes an unwarranted discourse on our beleaguered subjects. It cannot possibly matter to long-gone early modern Europeans. Such inquiries benefit only us. If some version of the category advances our understanding of the relevance and significance of our subjects, it does not change the facts of our subjects’ experiences. After all, if we read the cultural guides about our “foreign country,” we haven’t changed the country’s citizens. Indeed, the danger is that in reading such a guide, we will change the citizens to appear to us as our guidebooks say they are. When the past has provided us as many truly excellent documents as early modern Europe has on witchcraft and possessions, what need have we to inject ourselves into their discussions? We have the details we need to compose a full picture of the era, its subjects, and much of the discourse surrounding demonic possession.

Second, Almond explains that it is the disconnects and differences between past and present that fuel his curiosity. Why is the past different? The efforts one must expend to answer such a question are wasted if we rush hurriedly to the present for some payoff about today’s society. While one duty of the scholar is to articulate the value of their work for the community that receives it, the receiving community must do the accompanying work of explaining why the present is different. This is a difference that matters to those of us today. It is also a disjuncture in scholarly products. When we fail to cleanly separate the line between past and present, as some works discussing demonic possession have done, the end result is a work that is likely to say more about how our modern ideas about religion or psychology succeed or fail in being persuasive in telling stories about the past for those in the present. A good story is not necessarily the same thing as excellent scholarship. In the former, readers are entertained and may find new ways to appreciate the differences of the present from the past. Only in the latter, however, are we likely to get a sense of what our subjects thought about witchcraft and possession. And then, if we so choose, we might ask, how central such ideas were to those things we would today describe as religious. I suspect, however, that even this mild extension is largely an exercise in anachronism.

I like to ask myself the following question of historically situated works. Are they tied so tightly to the moment when they were written that in the future they are likelier to be studied as representations of the scholarly moment of their production rather than for what they had to say about their subjects? I would like to think many of us strive to put the history of our subjects forward and not to become mere historiographical bywords for future scholars. I recommend Almond’s recent works as excellent models of being serious about the history of witchcraft and possession so that we might better understand that past on its own terms.

A Response by James Cox to Bjørn Ola Tafjord on the Classification ‘Indigenous Religions’

Bjorn Tafjord begins his interview for the Religious Studies Project helpfully by outlining three usages of the term Indigenous Religions: 1) as a class or classification into which certain characteristics fit or they do not fit; 2) as a relational, historically conditioned term; 3) as an ethno-political category that has been used, for example, in land claims by indigenous peoples. He does not see these as contradictory ways of speaking of Indigenous Religions, but in many ways as complementary, although towards the conclusion of his interview, he appears to be advocating for a relational-historical use of the term. He makes it clear that how the category is used depends on the context of those employing it, whether academics, colonial or post-colonial powers or indigenous peoples themselves. In other words, no language use is neutral; it always has implications both for those doing the describing and that which is being described.

Bjorn Tafjord claims that one consequence of the way I have defined Indigenous Religions, first in my book From Primitive to Indigenous and then in my own article in my edited book Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions,as restricted to communities that are kinship-orientated and identified by location or place, is that I have ‘boxed’ them in, or trapped them in a rigid conceptual framework. Only in one sense is this correct, since my intention was to identify unambiguously the meaning of a term about which so much loose language has been employed that in some cases it is impossible to know what content is being conveyed when it is used. We seldom allow such imprecise language in ordinary speech as we do when we employ the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religion’. I am not referring here just in terms of popular understandings or even how the terms are used in the media, but I am drawing attention to the common practice even among academics where frequently the meaning of these terms is simply taken for granted, or at the very least remains entirely implicit. I have argued that we need to begin by stating what we mean by the language we employ, not as a final or definitive claim to have circumscribed a category, but as a pragmatic way of beginning dialogue by being absolutely explicit about our meanings and intentions. Rather than ‘boxing in’ the category ‘Indigenous Religions’ this opens it up by encouraging scholars to clarify their denotative and connotative uses of terms and thereby make it possible to debate their interpretations analytically and critically.

What I find most confusing about Bjorn’s argument, which he makes towards the conclusion of the interview is when, after complaining that the term Indigenous Religions has been reified, he then calls ‘dangerous’ the assumption that Indigenous Religions are the religions of indigenous peoples. He seems to suggest that we need to dissociate the category ‘Indigenous Religion’ from the people who can fit into this classification. This is like saying ‘Christianity’ is a religion devoid of Christians. This doubly confuses the situation by moving the historical study of religion backward at least a century while at the same time re-enforcing the ‘world religions paradigm’. What I think Bjorn wants to suggest is not that we divorce a religion from its adherents, but that for historical and even political reasons we do not imply that indigenous peoples cannot be indigenous if they adhere to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions with cosmologies that are non-local and that we do not ignore the dynamic interactions that historically have transformed the global and local interactions when religious adherents meet and mutually influence one another. This is how I understand the meaning of the late Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian, when he claimed that Christianity is Africa’s new indigenous religion. He meant that Christianity had been so transformed in Africa that it had taken on indigenous roots, but at the same time had transformed traditional indigenous world-views. In this sense, of course, the academic study of Indigenous Religions cannot exclude Christian, Buddhist or other historical and relational contexts, but this is not the same as saying that the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religions’ do not refer to those who practise the traditions under study.

This then brings me back to my own definition, which I have always insisted provides a starting-point for discussion. I am fully aware that the study of Indigenous Religions is not a study of ‘disappearing’ peoples. This idea was held quite firmly by early anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer in Australia who studied the central desert peoples as living remnants of a ‘Stone Age’ people soon to become extinct. By defining Indigenous Religions as focused primarily on ancestors and as rooted in location, I have restricted the term in a way that then opens up wide permutations of ancestral and localised traditions as they are affected by modernity, globalisation, travel and mass communication, including indigenous people living in diaspora and those who, as in the case of the Yoruba of Nigeria, have transmitted their traditions around the world almost as missionaries by providing a universal source of healing and well-being.

I want to add just one last word on the overall interview (not attributable entirely to Bjorn Tafjord), which, if left unstated, would leave the persistent barrage against belief in religion still unchallenged. The current reaction against the role belief plays in religion is built somewhat naively on the assumption that scholars of religion continue to depict, describe and teach religion as if it were obtained from a textbook on systematic Christian theology. This, of course, could be said to characterise flawed earlier books written about the religions of the world, but this does not mean that the cognitive side of religion should be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. For example, it would be impossible for a spirit medium to go into a trance and for the assembled community to speak to the spirit directly if an underlying belief in the power of spirits to influence human circumstances were not present. It simply would not happen. What we believe affects how we experience the world and how we behave in it. Of course, this is not just a one-directional dynamic: experiences influence beliefs and behaviours, just as behaviours have an impact on our experiences and beliefs. Nonetheless, the current tendency to debunk beliefs as a Protestant left-over is too obvious and does not take into account the complex relationships between cognitions, experiences and actions, as is being shown increasingly within the cognitive science of religion and has been evident in cognitive-behavioural psychology for a very long time.

Between the Lab and the Field: Xygalatas and the Science of Extreme Rituals

The research project of Dimitris Xygalatas is part of a growing trend in cognitive approaches to human sociality. This trend involves breaking down the boundary between the lab and the field; sometimes this involves bringing the field into the lab—an approach not uncommon to many social psychologists—and other times it involves bringing the lab into the field—an approach favored and in many ways pioneered by Xygalatas. His work, which is well-presented in his (relatively) new book The Burning Saints: Cognition and Culture in the Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria(Xygalatas, 2012), is a great example of this trend. Breaking down the boundary between the research lab and the “field site” is becoming more common beyond the boundaries of religious studies and anthropology.

I think it is worthwhile to explain a little more what is meant by “breaking down the boundary between the lab and the field”. Xygalatas notes that there has been a tension between those researchers who say that the lab is a great research environment because it allows one to control for extraneous variables, on the one hand, and those who say the lab is too sterile to adequately address questions relating to human action in the real world, on the other. For reasons that are discussed in many forums and at greater length than I can offer here (in religious studies, the work of Ted Slingerland and Ann Taves come to mind), both sides of the debate have good points. However, what Xygalatas and others do is question the dichotomy between “the lab” and “the field.” Xygalatas and others have published a number of studies that take lab-based measures deployed in the field (for examples see Konvalinka et al., 2011; Xygalatas, Mitkidis, et al., 2013; Xygalatas, Schjoedt, et al., 2013). Some of these methods are common to anthropology, such as coded interviews (Xygalatas, 2007, 2012). Other methods are common to social psychology, such as measures of identity. Still other of his methods are common to physiology, such as monitoring heart rate as a proxy for arousal.

What is most important about the integrated approach, and why this approach needs to be embraced by both the humanities and the sciences, is its ability to quantifiably study human action and social groups in situ. It corrects for sterile lab environments that suffer from a lack of ecological validity and often suffer from significant sampling issues (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). However it also allows for a quantification that can provide the opportunity for statistical testing to understand and compare groups. It also gives us a method for getting past the issues of relying solely on self-reporting. An empirical and theoretically grounded approach, like the one presented by Xygalatas, creates a very interesting foundation for a truly comparative approach to religions; one that it could be argued has been the focus of secular religious approaches since Max Müller. For the sciences, such an approach offers a more “realistic” look at human sociality. For instance, understanding what happens during certain social events can be reconstructed to an extremely limited extent in the lab. However, bringing lab techniques into the field gets around this issue. Furthermore, there are many things that researchers can’t recreate in the lab because it would be unethical for a researcher to ask participants to walk over hot coals, pierce themselves with rods, or carry great burdens for long distances in intense heat. However, many individuals do such actions of their own volition because it is an important part of many societies. Without taking an approach along the lines of Xygalatas’, researchers would not be able to get a truly scientific understanding of these experiences.

Thaipusam participant (Singaporean version of the same ritual that Xygalatas studies in Mauritius) Photo by Justin Lane

Thaipusam participant (Singaporean version of the same ritual that Xygalatas studies in Mauritius) Photo by Justin Lane

Although I believe that Xygalatas’ research project is a good example of a scientific approach to religion, I would argue that there is a second approach that works best in conjunction with an approach such as Xygalatas’, and this approach utilizes “big data.” Recently, I discussed in a very general way how the use of computational approaches can offer a valid and interdisciplinary approach to understanding complex human social systems (Lane, 2013). In this article I mentioned that there is a large depository of data from our digital lives that remains basically untouched, at least by academic researchers. Over the past few years, a number of scholars have teamed up with the private sector (either directly or indirectly) in order to gather and analyze data. Examples of this include work with Facebook (Backstrom, Boldi, Rosa, Ugander, & Vigna, 2012), Twitter (Goldberg, Hayvanovych, & Magdon-Ismail, 2010; Gonçalves, Perra, & Vespignani, 2011; Lerman, Ghosh, & Surachawala, 2010; Ritter, Preston, & Hernandez, 2013), and Microsoft (Leskovec & Horvitz, 2008). Many researchers are also supplementing this data approach with what has been termed “reality mining” (Eagle & Pentland, 2005). This “reality mining” uses our online data, mobile phone data, or sociometric badges—devices designed to collect data on our interactions in real time—in order to collect data on social interactions (see Pentland, 2014 for an overview). Researchers can leverage these highly quantified data sets (as well as construct their own) to test hypotheses concerning human sociality. What is human religiosity if not some social phenomenon? Of course, there are many definitions of religion; however, if you take social interactions away from any of them, you are likely left with a definition that is at least lacking. While these data sets are not always recording information about religious beliefs and behaviors, they are recording—with great precision—the social fabric of human organizations. This fabric, that until recently we haven’t really known that much about in any quantified sense, is the foundation of religion as well as other social phenomena such as culture, politics, and economics. I think that a convergence or dialogue between the computational/big data approach—that gives a very broad and precise view of sociality—and Xygalatas’ experimental anthropological approach—that gives an in depth and explanatory view—could create a framework for studying religion that can answer questions without denying the role of context, the role of the individual, or the role of the inter-personal relationships.

 

 

References

Backstrom, L., Boldi, P., Rosa, M., Ugander, J., & Vigna, S. (2012). Four Degrees of Separation (No. arXiv:1111.4570v3) (p. 13). Retrieved from http://arxiv.org/abs/1111.4570

Eagle, N., & Pentland, A. (2005). Reality mining: sensing complex social systems. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 10(4), 255–268. doi:10.1007/s00779-005-0046-3

Goldberg, M. K., Hayvanovych, M., & Magdon-Ismail, M. (2010). Measuring Similarity between Sets of Overlapping Clusters. In IEEE International Conference on Social Computing (pp. 303–308). doi:10.1109/SocialCom.2010.50

Gonçalves, B., Perra, N., & Vespignani, A. (2011). Modeling users’ activity on twitter networks: validation of Dunbar’s number. PloS One, 6(8), e22656. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022656

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61–83; discussion 83–135. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999152X

Konvalinka, I., Xygalatas, D., Bulbulia, J., Schjødt, U., Jegindø, E., & Wallot, S. (2011). Synchronized arousal between performers and related spectators in a fire-walking ritual. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(20), 8514–8519. doi:10.1073/pnas.1016955108/-/DCSupplemental.www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1016955108

Lane, J. E. (2013). Method, Theory, and Multi-Agent Artificial Intelligence: Creating computer models of complex social interaction. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 1(2), 161–180.

Lerman, K., Ghosh, R., & Surachawala, T. (2010). Social Contagion: An Empirical Study of Information Spread on Digg and Twitter Follower Graphs. In Proceedings of the Fourth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media.

Leskovec, J., & Horvitz, E. (2008). Planetary-scale views on a large instant-messaging network. Proceeding of the 17th International Conference on World Wide Web – WWW ’08, 915–924. doi:10.1145/1367497.1367620

Pentland, A. (2014). Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science. London: Scribe.

Ritter, R. S., Preston, J. L., & Hernandez, I. (2013). Happy Tweets: Christians Are Happier, More Socially Connected, and Less Analytical Than Atheists on Twitter. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi:10.1177/1948550613492345

Xygalatas, D. (2007). Firewalking in northern Greece: A cognitive approach to high-arousal rituals. Queen’s University, Belfast.

Xygalatas, D. (2012). The Burning Saints: Cognition and Culture in the Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria. Bristol, CT: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Xygalatas, D., Mitkidis, P., Fischer, R., Reddish, P., Skewes, J., Geertz, A. W., … Bulbulia, J. (2013). Extreme rituals promote prosociality. Psychological Science, 24(8), 1602–5. doi:10.1177/0956797612472910

Xygalatas, D., Schjoedt, U., Bulbulia, J., Konvalinka, I., Jegindo, M., Reddish, P., … Roepstoff, A. (2013). Autobiographical Memory in a Fire-Walking Ritual.

Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.

Roundtable on Religious Studies and Academic Credibility beyond ‘World Religions’

A while back a few of us gathered for what became the first of a ‘successful’ bout of roundtables conducted by a cadre of ‘amazing people’ with differing and ‘unique’ opinions. In that first ‘test’ for the ones that would follow, six of us gathered together to discuss the ‘future of religious studies.’

A few highlights from that recording are the revelation that what one does with a degree in religious studies inevitably leads toward a fine career at Starbucks, that ‘relativity,’ being one step from ‘subjectivity,’ is the ‘post-modernist quagmire of death and destruction that will consume all academic fields if it’s allowed to spread too far,’ and that we ourselves, despite the wishes of many, are not, in fact, the future of religious studies.

After that first attempt came many others and the RSP has blossomed nicely. A few of us finished the degrees that were at that time ‘in-progress’ and moved on—and away—from Edinburgh. This last September we were given the opportunity—thanks to romance—to all be back in town, and arranged a ‘reunion-of-sorts.’ This time, our conversation was a bit less organized, but by no means less interesting. A few of us had begun working on Ph.D. programs, and a few of us had just entered into the early-to-final stages of those begun around the time of the first recording. We sat in the same seats, in the same room, and sipped the same canned cocktails as before. Interestingly, our positions, opinions, and arguments seem both old and new, the result of time working together, learning each other’s personalities, and becoming closer friends and colleagues. Please share in our discussion, comment, discuss on your own and, as always, thanks for listening.

Kevin came back to Edinburgh, cap in hand. Liam thought this was a brilliant thing!

Kevin came back to Edinburgh, cap in hand. Liam thought this was a brilliant thing!

Many thanks to Ethan for penning this prose.

Guthrie’s Anthropomorphism Helped Bring Religious Studies into the Modern Academic Age

Without theories such as that presented by Prof. Guthrie, particularly in his book Faces in the Clouds (1993), the current move towards an empirical study of religious beliefs and behaviors would likely have never taken root in anthropology and religious studies. (Strong claim warning!) Without moving these disciplines into an arena where their claims are subject to falsification, they would not be able to participate in modern scholarship and would have made little progress since their founding in the 19th century.[1]

It was during my time as an undergraduate student at the picture Admittedly, my first reaction to the theory was something along the lines of “so what, that’s fairly obvious”. That is until I started to supplement Guthrie’s ideas with those of Pascal Boyer (2001), in particular, his findings that “minimally counterintuitive” concepts (i.e. those concepts that violate our expectations of what should be) are more likely to be remembered. These two points combined go a long way toward explaining why religious concepts such as gods, spirits, ancestors, etc. are created and persist throughout human populations. It was at this point that I started to understand the elegance and true theoretical power of what Guthrie was moving towards: that due to the similarities of the human brain, which is an organ that functions similarly in humans cross-culturally, the mind is likely to produce patterns of belief and behavior in accordance with that functioning. Furthermore, this can be used as a foundation for creating an empirically viable cross-cultural study of contemporary and historical religious movements.

Shortly after that, I became very interested in a phenomena common to new religious movements: the deification of their leader as a god or sole proprietor of the divine. This phenomena (also known as apotheosis) can be observed in the leaders of many NRMs from Jim Jones of the People’s Temple/Jonestown (see Layton, 1999; Nelson, 2006; Reiterman, 1982), to Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate (see DiAngelo, 2007), to David Koresh of the Branch Davidians (see Newport, 2006; Tabor & Gallagher, 1997), to the Rev. Moon of the Unification Church (see Barker, 1984). This odd pattern held to many other religious groups in other cultures and historical periods (Lane, 2012); e.g. Early Christianity, Greco-Roman religion, many African initiated churches, and also NRMs in Asia such as Aum Shinrikyo. These patterns may be contextually unique, but similarities emerge when they are viewed at the level of human cognition, and Guthrie’s work largely set the framework for such an approach. After all, how can one have a scientific understanding of New Age religions (Lane, 2013a) or UFO cults (Lane, 2013b) without understanding the spirits, ‘energies’, UFOs, and extraterrestrials that inhabit those religious worlds? Guthrie provided, for the first time, a theoretical basis for such a research project.

Guthrie’s work is—in the religious studies world—standing on the shoulders of giants as he himself notes that the patterns that he describes are similar to those noticed by Spinoza, Hume, Tylor, and others from the fields of anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies. Guthrie’s ultimate contribution is situating this already-observed pattern within an empirically viable theoretical paradigm: that of evolutionary psychology. His work—as he mentions—was even the theoretical motivation for the Hyperactive (or ‘Hypersensitive’) Agency Detection Device (HADD); a cognitive mechanism now well known to the cognitive science of religion (see Barrett, 2004).

Guthrie’s work opens a “Pandora’s Box” to the scholar and student of religion. Not only does it act as a “gateway drug” for the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), it calls those interested in religion to begin to look at their subject through a different lens, one that is constrained by the empirical findings of psychology. Although “cognitive science” is more of an umbrella term that encompasses a dedication to understanding “information processing” generally and involves the fields of neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, computer science, and even history, CSR has mostly focused its efforts on empirical findings in psychology or utilizing the cognitive findings as an interpretive framework oftentimes focusing ultimately on semiotics or phenomenology. Ultimately, this rests shamelessly on theoretical commitments of epistemological positivism and scientific reduction, that is to say, the idea that we can actually know something and that observable phenomena can largely be reduced to their constituent parts (and that these parts can in turn act as objects of study). This is where you realize that inside of “Pandora’s Box” is Alice’s “rabbit hole”: if you reduce “religion”—as an evolutionary “spandrel” (a by-product that exists due to human evolution, but is not itself an adaptation)—can you reduce the cognitive mechanisms of your “spandrel” to the neuronal firings and neuro-transmitters of the brain? Can those interactions be reduced to the chemical reactions that govern the laws of biology? In one sense, these questions are easily answered with a practical statement: “no, we have neither the knowledge nor power (nor funding) to answer these questions in the foreseeable future”.

But, is there another answer to the overly-reductionist[2] tendencies of the empirical study of religion? I argue that there is. Guthrie places his theory solidly in the realm of evolutionary psychology. In the field of evolutionary studies, there are very strange things happening. For instance, the acceptance of complex and dynamic systems as commonplace often destroys the preconceived supremacy of linear thinking that is so ubiquitous in psychology. The idea that epigenetics is a very real force and that our experiences within our lifetime might affect the lives of our offspring, even to the genetic level, complicates the reductionist approach to anything operating within evolutionary studies.

Guthrie’s work, within an evolutionary approach, shows this point quite elegantly. The idea that we “anthropomorphize” signals in our environment involves three things: the raw input signal from the environment; the mental mechanisms that change the input signal (i.e. our “thinking” about the stimulus); and an output signal (such as the anthropomorphized representation in the mind). With this sort of system (operating in every human brain in a social group), even if the mechanism of perception were the same in each and every human brain (i.e. perfectly symmetrical), the fact that we experience different perceptions would allow for nearly infinite complexity by the time the cognitive system produces some output. This could be demonstrated by simply viewing something at a different angle, one which creates a face and one which doesn’t, as the “Martian face” on the cover of Guthrie’s book so brilliantly demonstrates (when light hits the mountain at a certain angle it looks like a face, but from other angles it does not).

This near-chaotic complexity may seem daunting, and rightly so, but scholars have already proposed theories of religious ritual systems that are compatible with both the broad theoretical claims of Guthrie (and directly utilize his work) but are also flexible enough to make predictions about the contextualized cultural forms that are observed in the historical, ethnographic, and now empirical records. While they have been viewed as competing but largely compatible theories, the work of Whitehouse on the theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity (2000, 2002, 2004) and that of E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley on ritual competence theory (Lawson & McCauley, 1990; McCauley & Lawson, 2002) both present structured arguments for the description and analysis of religious ritual systems that are amenable to the complexities of evolutionary perspectives (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011; Lane, 2011; McCauley & Lawson, 2002; Turchin, Whitehouse, Francois, Slingerland, & Collard, 2012).

In conclusion, Guthrie’s work was critical to ushering in a new period of study for scholars of religion; one which embraces both the abstract similarities and patterns noticed by early scholars such as Eliade (1959) and Durkhiem (1912) as well as the contextualized complexity so staunchly defended by cultural anthropologists. Guthrie’s work is situated between the two, in a tradition joined by scholars looking to test predictions with data first popularized by Stark & Bainbridge’s A Theory of Religion (1996) and being moved forward by research institutes such as the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and LEVYNA at Masaryk University, which push us into a brave new scientific world of supercomputers, big data, and a real understanding of the mind and what makes us human. It is this middle ground that also seems to be exciting droves of students to again take up the social sciences but in a way that is just as social as ever, but more scientific than its founders could have imagined.

References

Atkinson, Q. D., & Whitehouse, H. (2011). The cultural morphospace of ritual form. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(1), 50–62. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.09.002

Barker, E. (1984). The Making of a “Moonie”: Choice or Brainwashing. Oxford & New York: Blackwell Publishers.

Barrett, J. L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

DiAngelo, R. (2007). Beyond Human Mind: The Soul Evolution of Heaven’s Gate. Beverly Hills, CA: Rio DiAngelo.

Durkheim, E. (1912). The elementary forms of religious life. (C. Cosman & M. Cladis, Eds.) (2001 Oxfor.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eliade, M. (1959). The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion (1987 Editi.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lane, J. E. (2011). Ordo ab Chao: Ritual Competence Theory as a Cognitive Model for the Simulation of Religious Sociality. In Society for Complex Systems in Cognitive Science. Boston, MA.

Lane, J. E. (2012). Ritual Schism, Instability, and Form: Agency and Its Effect on New and Schismatic Religious Movements. Saarbrücken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing.

Lane, J. E. (2013a). New Age Religions. In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-8265-8_1497

Lane, J. E. (2013b). UFO Cults. In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-8265-8_1498

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Layton, D. (1999). Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple. New York: Anchor Books.

McCauley, R. N., & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nelson, S. (2006). Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple. United States of America: Public Broadcasting Station.

Newport, K. G. C. (2006). The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reiterman, T. (1982). Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: Dutton.

Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. S. (1996). A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Tabor, J. D., & Gallagher, E. (1997). Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley: University of Calafornia Press.

Turchin, P., Whitehouse, H., Francois, P., Slingerland, E., & Collard, M. (2012). A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, 3(2), 271–293. Retrieved from http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/2v8119hf

Whitehouse, H. (2000). Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, H. (2002). Modes of Religiosity: Towards a Cognitive Explanation of the Socioloplitical Dynamics of Religion. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 14, 293–315.

Whitehouse, H. (2004). Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

 

 


[1] Now that you’ve read the strong claim, a point of clarification: this is not to say that religious studies without any empirical focus is not useful. To the contrary, many of the theories produced by the history and philosophy of religions are very useful and have informed the empirical approach. I would suggest that the empirical and traditional forms of religious studies work together and that each is weaker without the other.

[2] I say “overly” because researchers who do brilliant scientific work might overlook how their findings contribute to an understanding of “religion” or reduce so far down that it doesn’t address anything about “religion” any more than it addresses any other human social phenomena.

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

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

Podcasts

“Understanding Religious Change” – 2015 ASR Conference Report

77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR), 20-22 August 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Amanda Schutz, PhD student in the School of Sociology, University of Arizona.

The theme of this year’s annual ASR meeting was a familiar one among social science conferences: understanding change. In her presidential address, “Complex Religion: Interrogating Assumptions of Independence in the Study of Religion,” ASR president Melissa Wilde urged sociologists to consider religion a variable of paramount importance, alongside commonly examined ones like race, class, and gender. She stressed that religion remains one of society’s most significant “self-sorting mechanisms” and marveled at its persistent relevance in helping us make sense of the social world. Wilde admitted she chose the theme “Understanding Religious Change” early on in her tenure as ASR president; but as the conference drew nearer, she became “struck by the ways it doesn’t change at all.” Indeed, listening to the many presentations, an alternative conference theme could have easily followed the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

These two ideas—religious change and religion’s stability—are not as conflicting as they appear on the surface. Sociologists often embrace this contradiction of simultaneous progress and stasis. We set out to explain cases that are worthy of sociological inquiry precisely because they challenge working assumptions in some respect. Yet at the same time, we rely on the stability of patterns and trends to lend credence to new ideas: we set out to prove that what we suspect is happening isn’t just white noise, coincidence, or spurious, but something real and consistent. Sociologists attempt to explain new social occurrences (change) with reliable, reproducible data (stability). Several presentations at the ASR annual meeting demonstrated this alternative conference theme; three of them are discussed here.[i]

One of the most prominent recent changes in the American religious landscape is the rise of the “nones,” or those who claim no particular religious affiliation. Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith explore the emergence of a more visible and actualized form of nonreligion in their recent book Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Ryan Cragun, Warren Goldstein, and Jesse Smith participated in an Author Meets Critics session devoted to this book. While these critics pointed out that some of the organizational history was inaccurate, nonreligious labels (e.g., atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist) are not interchangeable, and the book would have benefited from more direct engagement with social movement literature, the overall reception was warm. As atheists as a collective continue to grow and organize, their place in the social world—and the religious world—is worth examining.

However, as “atheist” becomes an increasingly legitimate and salient social identity and atheists organize into groups that increasingly resemble typical social movements, atheism, in many ways, resembles religion. Indeed, Cimino (who was unaccompanied by his co-author) pointed out that atheists often use religious metaphors, practice secular rituals, and may even refer to their gatherings as “atheist church.” This might not be surprising, as some have argued religious terminology is the best we currently have to describe nonreligious beliefs, practices, and ideologies. The Q&A following the panel ended with a short but lively discussion on whether atheism actually is a religion. The argument goes: if an ideology becomes dogmatic and questioning prevailing wisdom is not tolerated, that ideology has morphed into something akin to religion. In other words, if atheists believe without a doubt that god(s) does not exist, they are, in fact, religious atheists. However, the extent to which atheists as a whole accept such a proposition is debatable.

Another presentation added important details to this discussion of nones, and also demonstrated that reinforcement of the status quo can sometimes accompany change. In his presentation “The Dechurching of America: Why People are Increasingly ‘Done’ with the Church…but not with God” (based on work co-authored with Ashleigh Hope), Josh Packard admitted that the trend toward disaffiliation has been impossible for scholars of religion to ignore, and many have discussed at length how and why people lose their faith. (It is also important to note that next year’s ASR conference theme will explore varieties of nonreligion, continuing these conversations in greater depth.)

However, scholars of religion are quick to point out that “no affiliation” is not synonymous with “no belief,” and that the nones are comprised largely of those who still retain some level of religious or spiritual belief, despite disengagement from organized religion. Packard quoted several respondents emphasizing that although they have left the church, they have not abandoned their faith. Indeed, this movement away from institutionalized religion is becoming a popular area of study, as researchers are looking more closely at the various combinations of believing and belonging, which include groups like the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNRs) and cultural Christians (e.g. Orestes “Pat” Hastings, who received this year’s McNamara Student Paper Award and presented “Not A Lonely Crowd? Social Connectedness, Religious Attendance, and the Spiritual But Not Religious”).

A third presentation demonstrating this alternative theme, titled “The Rhetoric of Obedience: Gender, Religion, and Family Life in a Modernizing Indonesian City,” took place during the Presidential Panel on religion and gender. Rachel Rinaldo discussed how the rhetoric of submission among Muslim couples is more complex than we might expect. While men remain the head of the family, whose primary obligation is supporting wife and children, it is not unusual for wives work outside the home—though they often must ask permission of their husbands. There are inconsistencies in this worldview, Rinaldo adds: yes, women are by and large considered equal to men, but their utmost responsibility is the home, where they are expected to obey their husbands.

However, Rinaldo points out that as women become more involved in public life, public and private spheres becomes more discrete; consequently, as women become more visibly independent and their roles more varied, the rhetoric of submission in the home becomes stronger. The workplace may be an “escape” where women are increasingly welcomed (or at least tolerated), but the household is the “last bastion” of women; it is not as affected by social change as the public sphere. And if women need to be reminded to obey, Rinaldo suggests, that means there must be contexts where they’re not. Because the culture of many Muslim societies is changing, if people still wish to continue traditions privately, they must use religion as a justification of such arrangements—not culture.

landon schnabel presenting.

landon schnabel presenting.

Though conference themes are intended to encompass the largest possible range of presentations, the meeting included many panels with varying relevance to the theme of religious change. This included panels dedicated to the intersection of religion with topics like health, the environment, gender, sexuality, violence, and politics. This year’s meeting also introduced the ASR’s first attempt at a Graduate Student Mentoring Lunch, which saw a handful of senior scholars discussing their areas of expertise with graduate students. Rhys Williams, a former ASR president, expressed that graduate students today are forging connections with others in outside departments much more than they have in the past, confirming that conferences like ASR have become an integral part in the development of scholars’ early careers.

You can see the program for the 77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in its entirety here. Next year’s annual meeting will take place 19-21 August 2016 in Seattle, Washington, and the theme will be “Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion.”

[i] Discussion of presentations is based on those sessions I was able to attend. Also, as a researcher of nonreligion myself, I was prone to see these presentations as particularly exemplifying the theme of religious change.

Conference report: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

The postgraduate “Conference on Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics” was held 11-12 of September 2015 at the University of Aberdeen, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The conference was sponsored by the College of Arts and Social Sciences and Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Rethinking Boundaries" 2015 conference

“Rethinking Boundaries” 2015 conference

The conference included keynote talks from both Timothy Fitzgerald and Abby Day; it also included over 30 postgraduate presentations, workshop sessions offered by Aberdeen staff, and lots of tea breaks that allowed for participants to get to know each other, all within the walls of the historic King’s College. The conference was multidisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about boundaries in the study of religion and politics (e.g. religious/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism).

The conference began with a keynote address from Timothy Fitzgerald, Reader in Religion, University of Stirling, entitled “Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Fitzgerald argued that liberal journalists and academics, while attempting to provide factual reportage, tend unconsciously to reproduce ancient “us and them” narratives. Fitzgerald described a basic discourse among journalists that legitimates rational liberal modernity against all perceived forms of backwardness and irrational barbarity (e.g. Fitzgerald offered the example of western views of Islamic countries). In western discourse, he said, the assumption is that faith, unlike nonreligious secularity, has a propensity to irrational violence. Thus western discourse pits rational western civility against the other’s medieval barbarity and western secular logical reasonableness against the other’s inability to settle their differences through negotiation, free market relations, and respect for private property. He drew attention to what he called “myths of the modern,” with one example being the distinction between the religious and the nonreligious secular, and explained how these myths are perpetuated by a range of agencies, including the media, politicians, and academics, but also including constitutions and the courts.  According to Fitzgerald, the problem with these “us and them” narratives is that “nations”, “geopolitics”, and “faith” are used in academic discourse and public rhetoric as if their meanings are self-evident and universal in their application, whereas Fitzgerald feels any claim to universal truth is problematic (for example, Fitzgerald holds that there is no true meaning of the term “God” outside someone’s or some community’s assertion that there is). Fitzgerald argued that the secular/religious binary also needs to be seen as an ideological position (rather than a self-evident truth), as the secular/religious binary is usually argued from a secular perspective (here he critiqued Edward Said, author of the famous Orientalism, on the basis that Said does not deconstruct secular reason and its dichotomous relation to religion and fails to see his secular/religious binary as an ideological position).

Timothy Fitzgerald

Timothy Fitzgerald

The postgraduate presentations were diverse. My presentation on “Intra-Evangelical Conflict on the Topic of Islam” fell within the session entitled “Conceptions of Islam” which also included a thoughtful presentation from the conference organizer Sarah Hynek on “Approaching the Categories of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” But the conference was certainly not entirely focused on Islam, and it also included sessions on a variety of topics such as “Approaching Atheism and New Atheism” and “Shaping Congregations.”

One of the most controversial postgraduate papers presented at the conference came from Armen Oganessian, who is pursuing a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen. Oganessian proposed that if we were to view politics, or the public sphere, as a “marketplace of ideas,” that would allow us to move beyond the religious/secular binary that dominates western thought. In this “marketplace of ideas” framework, we should view all ideologies, concepts, or moralities as having a societal value, and politics as a kind of flea market for any given worldview to sell their perspective on how to govern the society. This framework frees religious thought of its unfair stereotype of only being suited for one’s private life, putting it on an even footing with all other worldviews.  This would mean, for example, that the Buddhist would have the right, just like the socialist, to construct a foreign policy based on the beliefs and morals of his worldview and then have that policy be evaluated solely on its potential effects on the society (societal value) rather than on its religious underpinnings. Then any given individual, any given member of the said society, would be able to “purchase” either the Buddhist’s or the socialist’s–or parts of either’s—foreign policy. Then that foreign policy, or the parts of a foreign policy, most frequently purchased would be the ones adopted by the society, whether it be religious or not. Oganessian’s marketplace of ideas was highly criticized during the question and comment period. One critic argued that the “marketplace of ideas” would inherently favor capitalism. Some questioned the individual’s intellectual purchasing capabilities (e.g. people are too stupid to decide for themselves where to shop). Another critic argued that had Europe gone with the popular ideals of the Catholic Church, Europe would still be in the Dark Ages—a point with which Oganessian disagreed, noting that we cannot predict what would have happened with certainty and mentioning the possibility that perhaps we would be more advanced now.

Johan Rasanayagam hosted a workshop on “Approaching the Category of Islam.” Johan undergirded the workshop with readings from Talal Asad on The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam and Samuli Schielke on Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Makes Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life. The workshop explored the issue of how to study Islamic communities without making Islam the object. Rasanayagam described his own personal research, which focuses on Muslims in Uzbekistan and what their moral understanding is of what it means to be a Muslim. He found that for some Uzbekistani Muslims, “being Muslim” might involve activities that one would typically think of as religious or Islamic –like going to the mosque, fasting, etc.  But for many it also involves being a good neighbor, marrying their kids off properly, contributing to the community—basically, according to Rasanayagam, just being a good person. So the conclusion Rasanayagam came to at the end was that Islam, if it ever becomes an object at all, only becomes so within the moral self of one particular Muslim and that one Muslim’s “Islam” is different from every other Muslim’s “Islam.” According to Rasanayagam, when one tries to make Islam an object it automatically loses value and distorts reality. Thus, Rasanayagam ended up moving away from “Islam” and looking at the formation of moral selves, who just happen to be Muslim. Rasanayagam argued that rather than looking at the Muslim community or Islam, one should focus on the process by which something comes into being and continues.

Two other workshops were included: ‘Identity and Belief/Non-Belief” led by Marta Trzebiatowska and “Religion and Politics as Categories of the Modern State” led by Trevor Stack.

Abby Day

Abby Day

The conferences ended with a keynote address from Abby Day, Reader in Race, Faith and Culture, Goldsmiths University of London, on “Believing in the Future: The Religious and Non-religious Stories Young Adults Tell.” Day shared her findings from researching “Generation A” (grandmothers of Generation X) and the story of decline of mainstream Protestant Christianity mainly in the UK. Day contrasted these older women and the younger generation that they raised and how Generation A vs. Generation X differ on what they want from religion and what can be learned about religious change. Much of the conference content sympathized with the postmodern distrust of language and sought to deconstruct words/phrases such as “belong to a faith community,” “God,” and “Islam.” The conference left me with questions about how constructive deconstructing is and how far it may distance our research from the everyday reality of those we are researching. Can a distrust of language be solved with more language?

As with all multidisciplinary exchanges, it was refreshing and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields.

 

Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

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For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’ – 2015 CESNUR Conference Report

CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions, Torino) Annual Conference 2015, Tallinn University, Estonia, 17-20 June. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Prof. Carole M. Cusack, Department of Studies in Religion, The University of Sydney

The 2015 CESNUR conference was held at University of Tallin, Estonia, and was organized by Dr Ringo Ringvee (The Estonian Ministry of Interior). The theme was ‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’. There were no plenary lectures, although the interesting address by Massimo Introvigne (President of CESNUR) at the conference dinner at the Von Krahl Theatre, on Friday 19 June, ‘The Sociology of Religious Movements and the Sociology of Time in Conversation’ performed something of that function. As CESNUR is an organization that welcomes members of new religions, there were ‘insider’ papers and responses from members of the Twelve Tribes, the Plymouth Brethren, and the Church of Scientology, among others.

Academic presentations included: Liselotte Frisk and Sanja Nilsson (Dalarna University), ‘Upbringing and Schooling of the Children of the Exclusive Brethren: The Swedish Perspective’; Bernard Doherty (Macquarie University), ‘Spooks and Scientologists: Secrecy, Surveillance, and Subversion in Cold War Australia, 1954-1983’; Tommy Ramstedt (Abo Akademi University), ‘Credibility, Authority, and the Paranormal: The Relation Between Science and Paranormal Claims Within the Finnish Alternative Spiritual Milieu’; Timothy Miller (University of Kansas), ‘Will the Hutterites Survive the 21st Century?’; Carole M. Cusack (University of Sydney), ‘Gurdjieff and Sufism: A Contested Relationship’; and Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney), ‘Kenja: Unique Australian NRM or Auditing Without an E-Meter?’

Tallinn, Estonia

The International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR) held its third two-yearly meeting since it began in 2009 during the conference. This was a successful gathering that acknowledged the quality of the first five years of the International Journal for the Study of New Religion (Volumes 1-4 under the editorship of Carole M. Cusack and Liselotte Frisk, and Volume 5 under the current editorial team of Alex Norman and Asbjørn Dyrendal) and developed plans for the future, as the new President, Milda Ališauskienė (Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania) was elected. The meeting thanked the outgoing President, Jean François Mayer (Religioscope Institute, Switzerland). The ISSNR sponsored sessions at CESNUR as did it at the EASR in Budapest in September 2011.

The conference was well-attended, though the absence of long-time CESNUR stalwart J. Gordon Melton (Baylor University and the Institute for the Study of American Religion) due to extreme weather conditions that presented him travelling was noted by all. At the conference’s close after lunch on Saturday 20 June, members were taken by bus to the first of a series of sacred sites in Tallin, the Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak). The bus then dropped the group off in Toompea, the upper town, and Ringo Ringvee guided through sites including: the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral (from the outside); St Mary’s Cathedral (Dome Church or Toomkirik), the oldest church in Tallinn, formerly Catholic and now Lutheran; and the fascinating Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is a unobtrusively nested within the town walls, with a crypt filled with folk art, and a church with a distinctive iconostasis. The dedication is to the Virgin With Three Hands, and the complex also houses a crafts business, a small monastery, and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre. CESNUR 2016 will be in Seoul, Korea, from 28-30 June.

— Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

CSENUR 2015 online conference proceedings available HERE.

 

 

 

2015 Conference on Religion and American Culture Report

The Biennial “Conference on Religion and American Culture” was held June 4 to June 7, 2015 in Indianapolis. The conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Jeffrey Wheatley, a PhD student at Northwestern University.

This was my second visit to RAAC, which follows the fishbowl format (one whose physical layout is similar to a UFC cage match, but the audience gets to participate). The format makes RAAC a great venue for assessing current and future trends in the study of religion and the United States. Unfortunately, I cannot relate all of the great perspectives, questions, and arguments in a single blog post. Instead I will focus on two topics that prompted some (not all!) of the liveliest discussion. Interested to know more? Feel free to examine the conference program. I recommend combing through the conversation that took place on Twitter by searching #RAAC2015. You also can look forward to reading the proceedings, which will eventually be published.

We Need Some Space

Two panels focused on how we spatially frame the study of Religion and American Culture: “American Religion and Global Flows” and “’Religion in the Americas’ as an Organizational Paradigm.” Both on some level critiqued the dominance of national boundaries in delineating what we study and how we study it. Scholars, especially those interested in power, have much to gain by looking at transnational networks.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

Zareena Grewal discussed her research on Muslim communities in the United States and suggested that we need not lose sight of the importance of ideas in a transnational focus. For example: race, she argued, is intricately connected to theological conversations. For Muslims in the United States, religion and race are negotiated through transnational networks whose main nodes are elsewhere, primarily in the Middle East. Kristy Nabhan-Warren, in a paper that would continue to be referenced throughout the conference, emphasized the importance of story-telling and the need for scholars to listen, both to our subjects of study and our students. Over-reliance on paradigms, she cautioned, can hinder our capacity to let subjects speak. Sylvester Johnson argued we need to highlight the framework of the “Americas” in graduate programs. Such training is useful not for going beyond the nation-state, he suggested, but to understand the importance of settler colonialism in the formation of many nation-states, including the United States. The Americas framework is also conducive for incorporating perspectives beyond (yet not to the exclusion of) the Anglo-American Protestantism that dominates the study of American religions.

Commenting, Stephen Prothero raised an important question: are we arguing that global flows in particular demand more scholarship? Or are we suggesting that the global is one geographical frame out of many (e.g., a single church, a neighborhood, a city or local region, a state, a nation, etc . . .)? And how might we relate these various scales in reference to one another? The question of scale seems to me to be not just about where and who we study, but about what we study and how we study it.

Beginning and Ending with Religion and “Religion”

RAAC began with Robert Orsi commenting on what the study of religion means when religion has become “religion.” The final panel, although technically entitled “Liberalism vs. Pluralism” and inspired by Kathryn Lofton’s comment at RAAC 2013 about the defeat of pluralism, ultimately returned to this question. As Ariel Schwartz noted, the room quickly went beyond what was stated in the printed program. The last panel quickly became a sweeping debate over Foucauldian genealogy, studies of secularism, and the question of what constitutes the proper objects/subjects of the study of religion. (Perhaps we can revisit liberalism and pluralism in 2017?)

Stephen Prothero jump-started the conversation by pointing to John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America as an example of a rupture in the study of religion away from lived religion, bodies, and historical story-telling towards an emphasis on the construction of categories, especially our own as scholars of religion. The hard-earned fruits of the former, he suggested, might be obscured by the latter. Referencing Sydney Ahlstrom’s classic work, Prothero asked, can we study the religious history of the American people, or must we study the “religious” “history” of the “American” “people”? Prothero asked the audience to picture two doors. The first is genealogical. The second, which he chooses, is the historical ethnographic. Pamela Klassen defended genealogy, pointing to important work that excavates the norms of liberal Protestantism embedded in discourses of pluralism. During the comments, Leigh Schmidt wondered if we can find a middle ground between stories about people in the sense Prothero intended and the importance of categories.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The conversation brought up a number of questions. Is the door metaphor providing us with a false dichotomy? Is the construction of categories necessarily separate from the intimate lives of real people? Why is Modern’s book the main example of the genealogical method? Is genealogy only about scholarly categories? How might the practices of story-telling, emphasized throughout the weekend, relate to the genealogical method? Is “jargon” a crucial part of our scholarly community or a hindrance to the publicity and relevance of our writing? Cara Burnidge, playing with Prothero’s metaphor, asked the room to consider the following: what framework allows for these two doors? That is: this conversation is not only about our field in the abstract. The conversation is about the field’s institutional future, its relationship with other disciplines, and the job prospects of younger scholars.

Overall, this panel was the closest we got to a UFC match. A number of passionate comments from the panelists and the audience signaled the high stakes of the questions posed. It was an all-around provocative conversation.

Final Thoughts

In my effort to provide a thick account of the conference by focusing on two topics, I am leaving out a number of great panels, papers, and comments that deserve attention. These include but are not limited to: Judith Weisenfeld’s use of the language “religio-racial” and her question of who gets included in the category of “new religious movements”; a lively conversation on the descriptive and prescriptive uses of “civil religion”; and two panels on capitalism that touched on the dominance of neoliberalism, religion’s role in organized labor, and, as Chip Callahan pushed for, a call to attend to how particular practices of work shape and are shaped by particular worldviews. To be honest, most scholars working on religion and the United States (and/or the Americas!) would benefit from reading the proceedings.

Speaking as a graduate student, I want to conclude by noting how RAAC, and similarly organized small-scale conferences that focus on the direction of a particular field, are incredibly useful. Especially for younger scholars, these are energizing conferences that allow you to better contextualize your work in ongoing discussions. We are accustomed to thinking of methodological, theoretical, and historiographical “turns” within a progressive linear timeline. RAAC collapses these turns into a single dynamic space, with contributors of each turn participating. Such a discussion revealed how the pasts and futures of the field are, in fact, very much present and intimate. I look forward to meeting new scholars, visiting and revisiting high-stakes debates, and seeing familiar faces in 2017.

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” – 2015 ISASR Conference Report

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR), Trinity College Dublin, May 11th 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Dr. Eoin O’Mahony, Department of Geography, St Patrick’s College DCU

The fourth annual conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions took place at Trinity College Dublin on May 11th. It was organised in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub Art & Humanities Institute and sponsored by the Department of Religions & Theology, TCD. This year, it took a novel turn. In place of an event over two or three days, it was in the form of a research slam, a format set to test the garrulous nature of the academic. This was to take account of the IAHR Congress in Erfurt later this summer. Following an opening address from the outgoing president of the Association, Dr. Patrick Claffey, the slam began in earnest. The Society has a relatively small number of members but we had twelve presentations, seven minutes and one carefully monitored countdown clock.

Chris Heinhold (University of Chester) told us about his theory-building approach to investigating modern British Shia identity. Chris is about to embark on intensive fieldwork but has already noted how being part of a diaspora is performative. As a researcher and migrant himself, he has made attempts to build a flexible theory based on data collection. How culture is remembered and mythologised formed the centre of the contribution by Deirdre Nuttall (independent researcher). The stories we tell ourselves influence the way we act and the story of Ireland has been told largely through Roman Catholic action. She has found that the lives of a working class Protestant minority are largely absent from the folklore archives. Early attempts at nation building in Ireland reinforced a Catholic retelling of the myths at the expense of a shrinking Protestant minority.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

In further tales of cultural erasure, Jenny Butler (University College Cork) told us about Irish fairy beliefs. She is trying to address the academic deficit in this subject. In most academic studies of Irish culture, the focus is on fairy beliefs as “explaining away” rather than as an animistic worldview; for example, there is a focus on folk stories in which fairies are blamed mostly for the ill-effects of human interaction with nature and fairies were often said to be the cause of infant loss or disability and even bad harvests. Her dialogical and anthropological approach is making an attempt to plait strands of research that currently run in parallel.

Lawrence Cox (Maynooth University) brought us on a lyrical journey of the lives of Buddhist monks from Ireland to Asia. He narrated these accounts through the letters sent by these monks in a poetic stroll through space and time. Tadhg Foley (NUI Galway) told us about the wanderings of Max Arthur McAuliffe. McAuliffe’s efforts to avoid responsibility for his progeny was bested only by his commitment to translating Sikh holy texts. Christopher Cotter (Lancaster University) brought us on a technical journey across continents. Christopher walked us through the process by which the Religious Studies Project manages content and podcasts across time zones and continents using online collaborative software.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Ireland’s missionary past was recalled in a presentation by (UCC’s) Yuwu Shan. His new research on the Columban missions to China over the course of 150 years shows us that globalisation is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. Through the archive available to him in Dalgan Park, the Columban order’s world headquarters based in Kildare, Ireland, Shan brought their long history in China to life. He is working with photographs and other material to reconstruct the efforts of the holy order navigating turbulent political revolution. Colette Colfer (WIT) and I outlined our initial data from a new project mapping the warehouse worship spaces of Dublin and Waterford, two very different cities. Our work is focused on the ways that warehouses form community around Pentecostal churches and mosques, often defying a visible centrality usually reserved for religious space in Ireland, a majority Catholic country. We are planning a lot more fieldwork. Alexandra Greiser (Trinity College Dublin) told us about transhumanism and how it may be developing into a new universalism through a scientific discourse. This forms part of a larger project she is working on that will take a comparative perspective and a possible account of multiple modernities. Bringing the universal to the local, Vlad Kmec (UCD) told us about his research on the formation of religious identity among migrants to Ireland. He is conducting focus groups with young people and adults among the Czech and Polish communities to examine the functional and substantive roles of religion in migrant lives.

Eoin O'Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Eoin O’Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Olivia Wilkinson (TCD) is interested in the role of faith based organisations in disaster relief efforts. She has conducted extensive participatory methods in her fieldwork in the Philippines as a way to examine what is counted as faith based in the post-Haiyan aid process. What gets prioritised and, perhaps more importantly, what does not is of central concern to her research. James Kapaló (UCC) told us about a relatively new network called the Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre. Its main work is to build comparative perspectives on these endangered of marginalised worldviews and their cultural expressions. The projects here are engaged forms of research and encouraging of a counter-hegemonical perspective for these forms of knowledge. Some were running to the seven minute bell, others seemed to have timed it perfectly to 6 minutes and 57 seconds.

Our slamming over, Brian Bocking (outgoing secretary) recalled for us how far the academic study of religions in Ireland had come in a few short years. Brian has been instrumental in founding and developing the ISASR, as well as the Department of Study of Religions at UCC (the only department of its kind in Ireland) and in his short lecture, summarised for us why the academic study of religions remains vital. He drew a crucial distinction using an analogy between astrology and astronomy. For astrologers, a cosmological system of belief in the power of star alignment forms the basis for earthly action. Among astronomers, the gathering of evidence about the composition of star systems helps us to understand our place in the universe. Both are concerned with the stars but equally both observe from a position of relative powerlessness over their object of study. The academic study of religions, in this way, is just as bound by tradition and human agency as their confessional co-researchers in Theology.

The day’s proceedings were rounded off with a book launch. The book, Muslims in Ireland: Past and Present (Edinburgh UP), is the first complete study of a little known Muslim presence in Europe. Two of its five editors, Oliver Scharbrodt (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) and Tuula Sakaranaho (Univ. of Helsinki) spoke about the purpose of the book, its meaning to the academic study of religions in Ireland. Its remaining editors, Adil Hussain Khan (Loyola University, New Orleans), Vivian Ibrahim (Univ. of Mississippi) and Yafa Shanneik (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) were acknowledged. Edinburgh University Press sponsored the reception that followed and the Silk Road Café provided wonderful food. The conference as a whole points to a secure future for the small and yet vital academic study of religions in a country with a long tradition of theological investigation. It is not that one pushes the other out of the light of investigation. Rather, it is the academy investing itself with a way to specify the meaning, location and features of religious culture.

Dressing in Skins of Gods: New Approaches to Aztec Religion

Molly Bassett is an enthusiastic advocate for studying Mesoamerican religion, a welcome new direction in Religious Studies. She credits the critical mentorship of David Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of Latin America Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Although she does not mention this, his influence makes her an intellectual “granddaughter” of Mircea Eliade, who was Carrasco’s principal advisor at the University of Chicago and to whom Carrasco has paid special homage in Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective (Carrasco and Law 2009). Mostly due to a dearth of qualified teachers, interpretation of Mesoamerican religions has been undertaken by individuals with little or no formal training in religious studies. As a result, many have made their way into this field via an autodidactic approach. On the upside, Bassett emphasizes how Mesoamerican studies push scholars to be interdisciplinary. Her work on the rich Florentine Codex, the Codex Mexicanus, and other 16th century sources builds on prior work by art historians such as Diana Magaloni (a student of Mary Miller at Yale) as well as linguists, ethnohistorians, paleographers, and archaeologists.

Bassett rightly notes the preconceptions and prejudices that students typically bring to studies of the Aztecs, among them notions of human sacrifice (which, given divine reciprocity, might be better understood as “human gifting”), cannibalism (or anthropophagy, both actual and metaphorical), and other forms of ambiguous violence. These have been the subject of a brilliant essay, “Ethics and Ethnocentricity in Interpretation and Critique: Challenges to the Anthropology of Corporeality and Death,” by archaeologist Arthur Demarest (Vanderbilt) in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians (Chacon & Dye 2008). He outlines radically different conceptions of blood and bodies among Spanish and Aztecs, noting, for example, that Spanish horror at Aztec rituals was shaped by specific Christian beliefs about the sanctity of the blood and body of Christ, human mortality and corporality, ethnocentric perceptions that condition Western consciousness even today. For the Aztecs, flaying humans and wearing their skin inside-out (as was done with the Culhua princess) represented a profoundly different conception of personhood and corporality. Just as a hardcore vegetarian, vegan, or animal rights activist might recoil at a supermarket meat counter or a leather goods shop, Spanish reactions to Aztec practices were conditioned by distinctly non-universal values and beliefs. As Demarest writes, “Neither ethnocentric revulsion nor ethnocentric purification can substitute for elucidating, as best we can, the nature and meaning of the beliefs and practices of other societies.”

From another perspective, recent scholarship on Mesoamerican religions has been influenced by Mircea Eliade in a persistent fashion that has yet to be critically addressed. For example, discussions of Olmec and Maya religious art and iconography refer routinely to concepts of an axis mundi, a tripartite cosmology, “shamanism,” and archetypes of the World Tree and Cosmic Mountain that come directly from Eliade’s work. However, these often lack direct citations, much less critical analyses based on the history and context of Eliade’s ideas (an example of this would be the 1993 book Maya Cosmos, by Friedel, Schele, and Parker, but a pervasive use of these concepts persists to the present). These and related concepts are often taken for granted by art historians, but their tacit acceptance merits a closer analysis by scholars in Religious Studies, who may be prepared to evaluate the influence of Eliade on fields of study other than their own and to offer alternative models. One recent work relevant to Bassett’s research as well as interdisciplinary methodology is Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerican and Central America (Orr and Looper 2014), which considers cultures much earlier than the Aztecs, ones contemporary with early Judaism and Christianity, but lacks a Religious Studies approach.

Mesoamericanists and other specialists in pre-Hispanic cultures of Latin America often question Kirchhoff’s original 1943 model of “Mesoamerica” and its utility for understanding broader interaction in the southern U.S., Caribbean basin, southern Central America, and northern South America. Interestingly, in the same article, Kirchhoff also proposed the notion of a “Chibchan” area to the south, one that has now become even more relevant given recent announcements of the “discovery” of a “lost city” or “vanished civilization” in non-Mesoamerican eastern Honduras. Yes, Mesoamerican religion is a fascinating and stimulating area for more Religious Studies scholarship, but I’m sure Bassett would enthusiastically agree that this extends to approaches to religion throughout the Americas. She says, “Puritans pale by comparison to Aztecs,” but they also pale in comparison to Mayas, Chibchas, Taínos, Moches, Tiwanakus, Incas, and many, many others. It would be nice to think that her work is just the beginning of a Renaissance of sorts in the study of indigenous American religions and their deep and complex intersections with Christian, New Age, and other contemporary practices. For example, the rich variety of New Religious Movements (NRMs) in Latin America and the U.S. that assert neo-Aztec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican identities call for evaluation on their own terms.

Xipe Totec (“Our Lord the Flayed One”) wears the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim. “Wearing people’s skins” is powerful imagery, tied to how we understand them by putting “skins” (such as “religion”) on them.

Bassett’s emphasis on questions and methodological toolkits is especially valuable. These should include theoretical toolkits specific to Religious Studies. Mesoamerican religion is fertile ground for a host of new approaches that go well beyond traditional (Eliadean) comparative studies. Public fascination with “ancient” civilizations of Mexico (including ones such as the Aztecs that are no more ancient than Leonardo da Vinci) derive from Romantic notions that can be traced to myths of Lost Tribes and lost continents, recurrent tropes in traditions from Mormons to New Age traditions that have sought to both “other” and to mistakenly identify Native peoples. A detailed knowledge of the history of Mesoamerican studies, both scholarly and vernacular, as well as contemporary scholarship by archaeologists, art historians, and ethnohistorians is essential for approaching these. Bassett refers to how Aztecs may have sought to dress Cortes in order to treat him as a “god”. We must consider the adornments with which we dress pre-Hispanic indigenous religion in special skins in order to make it comprehensible to us. Of course, this includes even the manufactured skin of “religion” itself.

Conference Report: The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association, 2014

by Robert Arrowood, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

IMG_5225On October 31 – November 2, the Marriot Hotel of downtown Indianapolis, Indiana hosted the 2014 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in conjuncture with the Religious Research Association (RRA). The major theme for SSSR was “Building Bridges” and beautifully illustrated on the program cover by Kenan Sevinc. From my understanding, this was the first year that the program was in colour. This theme had several interpretations in which it meant building bridges within the study of religion, cross discipline research, and across countries, just to name a few. The major theme for RRA was Revisiting Gender and Religion. The program chair for this conference was Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

The first day of the conference began with several sessions during the morning. The overall topics were quite broad ranging from “Research Perspective on the Church of England,” “Biological and Evolutionary Aspects of Religion,” and “Navigating ‘Norms’ in Society,” among many others. One such presentation from “Navigating ‘Norms’ in Society” was by Cory Anderson from Ohio State University who spoke of the Amish-Mennonite culture of Central America. Anderson spoke of his time living with different Amish-Mennonite communities in Central America and the conversation of non-born Amish-Mennonites into the faith. Interestingly, this religion is growing in popularity in this area. Presentations such as these continued until 11:30 in which a lunch was served in honor of all new members to the society and to present IMG_5242award to many of the presenters. Further, several business items were discussed during this lunch. Of interest, the conference boasted a record number of individual paper acceptances (over 430), 70 organized sessions, and more than 600 people from different backgrounds in attendance. Additionally, 36 different countries were represented through various paper presentations. Although the program chair and committee were concerned that attendance would be sparse due to holding the conference on Halloween, it is clear from these number that this was not the case.

Following the lunch, sessions began again with diverse topics such as “Young People, Religion and Diversity,” Language, Theology, and Space,” and “Advances in Prayer Research.” Of special interest was the panel titled “Secularism & Nonreligion Journal – panel on Atheism and Secularism,” convened by Barry Kosmin. Several researchers presented including John Shook from the University of Buffalo, Ryan Cragun from the University of Tampa, Christopher Silver from the University of Tennessee, and Thomas J. Coleman III from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This panel boasted one of the highest attendances in the conference with standing room only in the back. Specifically, “The Six Types of Nonbelief,” by Silver, presented a new taxonomy system for identifying different types of atheism and secularism.

Following the completion of the last presentations for the day, Oxford University Press hosted a new book reception followed by an address by the president of RRA, Joy Charlton from Swarthmore College entitled “Revisiting Gender and Religion,” in concurrence with the RRA theme. The day concluded with three receptions for Graduate Students held at TGI Fridays and a special reception hosted by outgoing SSSR president Jim Richardson honoring those that attended from outside of the USA. A general reception was also held for anyone in attendance to attend.

Saturday began with several paper sessions in the morning with topics ranging from “Church Renewal and Evangelization,” “Sex and Religion,” and “Religion in China” to mention a few. Jun Lu from Purdue University presented on the Chinese governments leading propaganda news source’s inclusion of Christianity in many of its articles. Interestingly, many of these articles were in favour of the religion. IMG_5264Following the many morning presentation, a special plenary lecture was held honouring Dr. Jack Shand titled “Legacy: Who was Jack Shand?” The program chair, Dr. Hood, personally requested this presentation be prepared and presented. Dr. Shand was a member of the Society and upon his death donated a generous gift to SSSR. This presentation was based on an examination of the unprocessed archives of Dr. Shand providing a nice glimpse into his history and his legacy. Following a break for lunch, the conference continued with more panels such as “Religious and Social Identity,” “Research on Pentecostalism,” and “Exploring Catholicism.” One very interesting (and quite unique) presentation by Joshua Ambrosuis was on religion’s impact on space exploration. Ambrosuis suggested that many religions that are opposed to space travel may experience a decline if space colonization does occur in the future due to not making themselves available to those that do colonize space. The day concluded witha presidential address by James Richardson from the University of Nevada entitled, “Managing Religion and the ‘Judicialization’ of Religious Freedom” followed by a reception for anyone in attendance. Following the reception, a special plenary was held providing the debut of Andrew Johnson’s documentary entitled, “If I Give My Soul: Pentecostalism in Rio’s Prisons.”

The final day of the conference had a slightly smaller attendance due to many scholars having to catch plane flights early that morning or even the previous evening. Sunday’s schedule was the same as the previous days with the exception that only morning presentations were given. These presentations ranged from several topics including “God, the Father: Influences of God Attachment and Image,” “Religion, From the East to the West,” and “Young People, Religion and Diversity.” Of special interest was the author meets critic session, “Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity” by Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. This was one of the more popular sessions purely based on the number in attendance, especially considering the decrease in those there and it being one of the last sessions. This session, of which I had the honour to convene, allowed three other scholars to comment and critique Dr. Beit-Hallahmi’s book. These “critics” included Dr. Michael Nielsen from Southern Georgia University, Coleman (mentioned previously), and Dr. David Wulff from Wheaton College. Dr. Beit-Hallahmi was allowed to address and comment on each criticism or question posed by the three “critics.” The panel ended with a large picture session with Dr. Beit-Hallahmi, the critics, audience members, and I.

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Overall, the conference included several diverse presentations and was able to boast several record breaking achievements. Many disciplines were represented with scholars representing History, Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, different religious affiliations and church denominations, and many others. To my dismay as a psychologist, psychology was somewhat less represented in comparison to many of the other disciplines. Considering the overall theme of Building Bridges and cross collaborative research, I hope to see this discipline increase in attendance in upcoming conferences. The next annual meeting of SSSR and RRA will be held October 23 – 25th, 2015 in Newport Beach California. A call for papers has already been issued.

Taking Witchcraft and Possessions Seriously with Philip Almond

In this interview with Philip Almond, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland and Deputy Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, listeners are treated to a wide-ranging survey of the past decade of Almond’s work on witchcraft and demonic possession in early modern England. Beginning with Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Almond was among those that refocused discussions of this material to de-emphasize narratives and methods that had been located too centrally in the twentieth and not the sixteenth century. Witchcraft and possession were not medical phenomenon in any modern sense. They could not be written off as simple psychological episodes. Nor was it appropriate to bring modern tropes of mental health, rationalism, or religion as a private belief into the discussion of what people in the 16th to 18th centuries experienced.

Perhaps this discourse is largely a boon following Stuart Clark’s seminal Thinking With Demons (Oxford University Press, 1999). This included not just Almond’s Demonic Possession, but also Moshe Sluhovosky’s Believe Not Every Spirit (University of Chicago Press, 2007) and Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (Routlege, 2004) among many other fine volumes. As a body of scholarship, these works have increasingly sought to excise the present from its intrusive role in the analysis of the past. Can we discuss our historical subjects without seeing them as moderns who are simply living in the past? If this is familiar, you might be remembering some version of the steady drumbeat of David Lowenthal’s now clichéd dictate that the past is a foreign country.

Among historians (and anthropologists) this over-commitment to context may feel weatherworn, but for those in religious studies today it should be axiomatic. If a physician’s first pledge is to “do no harm,” then the scholar of religion must vow to “take religion seriously.” Almond’s reluctance to reduce witchcraft or possession to mere psychology is not on its face a rejection of reductionism writ large. He suggests early in the interview that he believes the root cause of the rise of possessions is millennialism or apocalypticism. Though we might be inclined to see witchcraft as a religious rebuttal to modernism, Almond appears unconvinced that the phenomenon can be a clear response to our contemporary understanding of this distinctive period of European history. “It’s too big a story,” he says, especially when a more obvious alternative is the specific consequences of the Reformation for individual branches of Christianity. If you’ll forgive the pun, the Devil is most certainly in the details.

What is striking about Almond’s consistent efforts to see the immediate and local contexts for witchcraft is the way it suggests that even our modern debates about the definition of religion are secondary to the challenges of historically-situated scholarship. To those who may have earlier leapt to ask, ‘what is the “religion” that we are taking seriously in the case of Almond’s subjects?’, the response is two-fold.

First, recognize how thoroughly such an inquiry is situated in the present. Such a modern scholarly category imposes an unwarranted discourse on our beleaguered subjects. It cannot possibly matter to long-gone early modern Europeans. Such inquiries benefit only us. If some version of the category advances our understanding of the relevance and significance of our subjects, it does not change the facts of our subjects’ experiences. After all, if we read the cultural guides about our “foreign country,” we haven’t changed the country’s citizens. Indeed, the danger is that in reading such a guide, we will change the citizens to appear to us as our guidebooks say they are. When the past has provided us as many truly excellent documents as early modern Europe has on witchcraft and possessions, what need have we to inject ourselves into their discussions? We have the details we need to compose a full picture of the era, its subjects, and much of the discourse surrounding demonic possession.

Second, Almond explains that it is the disconnects and differences between past and present that fuel his curiosity. Why is the past different? The efforts one must expend to answer such a question are wasted if we rush hurriedly to the present for some payoff about today’s society. While one duty of the scholar is to articulate the value of their work for the community that receives it, the receiving community must do the accompanying work of explaining why the present is different. This is a difference that matters to those of us today. It is also a disjuncture in scholarly products. When we fail to cleanly separate the line between past and present, as some works discussing demonic possession have done, the end result is a work that is likely to say more about how our modern ideas about religion or psychology succeed or fail in being persuasive in telling stories about the past for those in the present. A good story is not necessarily the same thing as excellent scholarship. In the former, readers are entertained and may find new ways to appreciate the differences of the present from the past. Only in the latter, however, are we likely to get a sense of what our subjects thought about witchcraft and possession. And then, if we so choose, we might ask, how central such ideas were to those things we would today describe as religious. I suspect, however, that even this mild extension is largely an exercise in anachronism.

I like to ask myself the following question of historically situated works. Are they tied so tightly to the moment when they were written that in the future they are likelier to be studied as representations of the scholarly moment of their production rather than for what they had to say about their subjects? I would like to think many of us strive to put the history of our subjects forward and not to become mere historiographical bywords for future scholars. I recommend Almond’s recent works as excellent models of being serious about the history of witchcraft and possession so that we might better understand that past on its own terms.

A Response by James Cox to Bjørn Ola Tafjord on the Classification ‘Indigenous Religions’

Bjorn Tafjord begins his interview for the Religious Studies Project helpfully by outlining three usages of the term Indigenous Religions: 1) as a class or classification into which certain characteristics fit or they do not fit; 2) as a relational, historically conditioned term; 3) as an ethno-political category that has been used, for example, in land claims by indigenous peoples. He does not see these as contradictory ways of speaking of Indigenous Religions, but in many ways as complementary, although towards the conclusion of his interview, he appears to be advocating for a relational-historical use of the term. He makes it clear that how the category is used depends on the context of those employing it, whether academics, colonial or post-colonial powers or indigenous peoples themselves. In other words, no language use is neutral; it always has implications both for those doing the describing and that which is being described.

Bjorn Tafjord claims that one consequence of the way I have defined Indigenous Religions, first in my book From Primitive to Indigenous and then in my own article in my edited book Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions,as restricted to communities that are kinship-orientated and identified by location or place, is that I have ‘boxed’ them in, or trapped them in a rigid conceptual framework. Only in one sense is this correct, since my intention was to identify unambiguously the meaning of a term about which so much loose language has been employed that in some cases it is impossible to know what content is being conveyed when it is used. We seldom allow such imprecise language in ordinary speech as we do when we employ the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religion’. I am not referring here just in terms of popular understandings or even how the terms are used in the media, but I am drawing attention to the common practice even among academics where frequently the meaning of these terms is simply taken for granted, or at the very least remains entirely implicit. I have argued that we need to begin by stating what we mean by the language we employ, not as a final or definitive claim to have circumscribed a category, but as a pragmatic way of beginning dialogue by being absolutely explicit about our meanings and intentions. Rather than ‘boxing in’ the category ‘Indigenous Religions’ this opens it up by encouraging scholars to clarify their denotative and connotative uses of terms and thereby make it possible to debate their interpretations analytically and critically.

What I find most confusing about Bjorn’s argument, which he makes towards the conclusion of the interview is when, after complaining that the term Indigenous Religions has been reified, he then calls ‘dangerous’ the assumption that Indigenous Religions are the religions of indigenous peoples. He seems to suggest that we need to dissociate the category ‘Indigenous Religion’ from the people who can fit into this classification. This is like saying ‘Christianity’ is a religion devoid of Christians. This doubly confuses the situation by moving the historical study of religion backward at least a century while at the same time re-enforcing the ‘world religions paradigm’. What I think Bjorn wants to suggest is not that we divorce a religion from its adherents, but that for historical and even political reasons we do not imply that indigenous peoples cannot be indigenous if they adhere to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions with cosmologies that are non-local and that we do not ignore the dynamic interactions that historically have transformed the global and local interactions when religious adherents meet and mutually influence one another. This is how I understand the meaning of the late Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian, when he claimed that Christianity is Africa’s new indigenous religion. He meant that Christianity had been so transformed in Africa that it had taken on indigenous roots, but at the same time had transformed traditional indigenous world-views. In this sense, of course, the academic study of Indigenous Religions cannot exclude Christian, Buddhist or other historical and relational contexts, but this is not the same as saying that the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religions’ do not refer to those who practise the traditions under study.

This then brings me back to my own definition, which I have always insisted provides a starting-point for discussion. I am fully aware that the study of Indigenous Religions is not a study of ‘disappearing’ peoples. This idea was held quite firmly by early anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer in Australia who studied the central desert peoples as living remnants of a ‘Stone Age’ people soon to become extinct. By defining Indigenous Religions as focused primarily on ancestors and as rooted in location, I have restricted the term in a way that then opens up wide permutations of ancestral and localised traditions as they are affected by modernity, globalisation, travel and mass communication, including indigenous people living in diaspora and those who, as in the case of the Yoruba of Nigeria, have transmitted their traditions around the world almost as missionaries by providing a universal source of healing and well-being.

I want to add just one last word on the overall interview (not attributable entirely to Bjorn Tafjord), which, if left unstated, would leave the persistent barrage against belief in religion still unchallenged. The current reaction against the role belief plays in religion is built somewhat naively on the assumption that scholars of religion continue to depict, describe and teach religion as if it were obtained from a textbook on systematic Christian theology. This, of course, could be said to characterise flawed earlier books written about the religions of the world, but this does not mean that the cognitive side of religion should be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. For example, it would be impossible for a spirit medium to go into a trance and for the assembled community to speak to the spirit directly if an underlying belief in the power of spirits to influence human circumstances were not present. It simply would not happen. What we believe affects how we experience the world and how we behave in it. Of course, this is not just a one-directional dynamic: experiences influence beliefs and behaviours, just as behaviours have an impact on our experiences and beliefs. Nonetheless, the current tendency to debunk beliefs as a Protestant left-over is too obvious and does not take into account the complex relationships between cognitions, experiences and actions, as is being shown increasingly within the cognitive science of religion and has been evident in cognitive-behavioural psychology for a very long time.

Between the Lab and the Field: Xygalatas and the Science of Extreme Rituals

The research project of Dimitris Xygalatas is part of a growing trend in cognitive approaches to human sociality. This trend involves breaking down the boundary between the lab and the field; sometimes this involves bringing the field into the lab—an approach not uncommon to many social psychologists—and other times it involves bringing the lab into the field—an approach favored and in many ways pioneered by Xygalatas. His work, which is well-presented in his (relatively) new book The Burning Saints: Cognition and Culture in the Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria(Xygalatas, 2012), is a great example of this trend. Breaking down the boundary between the research lab and the “field site” is becoming more common beyond the boundaries of religious studies and anthropology.

I think it is worthwhile to explain a little more what is meant by “breaking down the boundary between the lab and the field”. Xygalatas notes that there has been a tension between those researchers who say that the lab is a great research environment because it allows one to control for extraneous variables, on the one hand, and those who say the lab is too sterile to adequately address questions relating to human action in the real world, on the other. For reasons that are discussed in many forums and at greater length than I can offer here (in religious studies, the work of Ted Slingerland and Ann Taves come to mind), both sides of the debate have good points. However, what Xygalatas and others do is question the dichotomy between “the lab” and “the field.” Xygalatas and others have published a number of studies that take lab-based measures deployed in the field (for examples see Konvalinka et al., 2011; Xygalatas, Mitkidis, et al., 2013; Xygalatas, Schjoedt, et al., 2013). Some of these methods are common to anthropology, such as coded interviews (Xygalatas, 2007, 2012). Other methods are common to social psychology, such as measures of identity. Still other of his methods are common to physiology, such as monitoring heart rate as a proxy for arousal.

What is most important about the integrated approach, and why this approach needs to be embraced by both the humanities and the sciences, is its ability to quantifiably study human action and social groups in situ. It corrects for sterile lab environments that suffer from a lack of ecological validity and often suffer from significant sampling issues (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). However it also allows for a quantification that can provide the opportunity for statistical testing to understand and compare groups. It also gives us a method for getting past the issues of relying solely on self-reporting. An empirical and theoretically grounded approach, like the one presented by Xygalatas, creates a very interesting foundation for a truly comparative approach to religions; one that it could be argued has been the focus of secular religious approaches since Max Müller. For the sciences, such an approach offers a more “realistic” look at human sociality. For instance, understanding what happens during certain social events can be reconstructed to an extremely limited extent in the lab. However, bringing lab techniques into the field gets around this issue. Furthermore, there are many things that researchers can’t recreate in the lab because it would be unethical for a researcher to ask participants to walk over hot coals, pierce themselves with rods, or carry great burdens for long distances in intense heat. However, many individuals do such actions of their own volition because it is an important part of many societies. Without taking an approach along the lines of Xygalatas’, researchers would not be able to get a truly scientific understanding of these experiences.

Thaipusam participant (Singaporean version of the same ritual that Xygalatas studies in Mauritius) Photo by Justin Lane

Thaipusam participant (Singaporean version of the same ritual that Xygalatas studies in Mauritius) Photo by Justin Lane

Although I believe that Xygalatas’ research project is a good example of a scientific approach to religion, I would argue that there is a second approach that works best in conjunction with an approach such as Xygalatas’, and this approach utilizes “big data.” Recently, I discussed in a very general way how the use of computational approaches can offer a valid and interdisciplinary approach to understanding complex human social systems (Lane, 2013). In this article I mentioned that there is a large depository of data from our digital lives that remains basically untouched, at least by academic researchers. Over the past few years, a number of scholars have teamed up with the private sector (either directly or indirectly) in order to gather and analyze data. Examples of this include work with Facebook (Backstrom, Boldi, Rosa, Ugander, & Vigna, 2012), Twitter (Goldberg, Hayvanovych, & Magdon-Ismail, 2010; Gonçalves, Perra, & Vespignani, 2011; Lerman, Ghosh, & Surachawala, 2010; Ritter, Preston, & Hernandez, 2013), and Microsoft (Leskovec & Horvitz, 2008). Many researchers are also supplementing this data approach with what has been termed “reality mining” (Eagle & Pentland, 2005). This “reality mining” uses our online data, mobile phone data, or sociometric badges—devices designed to collect data on our interactions in real time—in order to collect data on social interactions (see Pentland, 2014 for an overview). Researchers can leverage these highly quantified data sets (as well as construct their own) to test hypotheses concerning human sociality. What is human religiosity if not some social phenomenon? Of course, there are many definitions of religion; however, if you take social interactions away from any of them, you are likely left with a definition that is at least lacking. While these data sets are not always recording information about religious beliefs and behaviors, they are recording—with great precision—the social fabric of human organizations. This fabric, that until recently we haven’t really known that much about in any quantified sense, is the foundation of religion as well as other social phenomena such as culture, politics, and economics. I think that a convergence or dialogue between the computational/big data approach—that gives a very broad and precise view of sociality—and Xygalatas’ experimental anthropological approach—that gives an in depth and explanatory view—could create a framework for studying religion that can answer questions without denying the role of context, the role of the individual, or the role of the inter-personal relationships.

 

 

References

Backstrom, L., Boldi, P., Rosa, M., Ugander, J., & Vigna, S. (2012). Four Degrees of Separation (No. arXiv:1111.4570v3) (p. 13). Retrieved from http://arxiv.org/abs/1111.4570

Eagle, N., & Pentland, A. (2005). Reality mining: sensing complex social systems. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 10(4), 255–268. doi:10.1007/s00779-005-0046-3

Goldberg, M. K., Hayvanovych, M., & Magdon-Ismail, M. (2010). Measuring Similarity between Sets of Overlapping Clusters. In IEEE International Conference on Social Computing (pp. 303–308). doi:10.1109/SocialCom.2010.50

Gonçalves, B., Perra, N., & Vespignani, A. (2011). Modeling users’ activity on twitter networks: validation of Dunbar’s number. PloS One, 6(8), e22656. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022656

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61–83; discussion 83–135. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999152X

Konvalinka, I., Xygalatas, D., Bulbulia, J., Schjødt, U., Jegindø, E., & Wallot, S. (2011). Synchronized arousal between performers and related spectators in a fire-walking ritual. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(20), 8514–8519. doi:10.1073/pnas.1016955108/-/DCSupplemental.www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1016955108

Lane, J. E. (2013). Method, Theory, and Multi-Agent Artificial Intelligence: Creating computer models of complex social interaction. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 1(2), 161–180.

Lerman, K., Ghosh, R., & Surachawala, T. (2010). Social Contagion: An Empirical Study of Information Spread on Digg and Twitter Follower Graphs. In Proceedings of the Fourth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media.

Leskovec, J., & Horvitz, E. (2008). Planetary-scale views on a large instant-messaging network. Proceeding of the 17th International Conference on World Wide Web – WWW ’08, 915–924. doi:10.1145/1367497.1367620

Pentland, A. (2014). Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science. London: Scribe.

Ritter, R. S., Preston, J. L., & Hernandez, I. (2013). Happy Tweets: Christians Are Happier, More Socially Connected, and Less Analytical Than Atheists on Twitter. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi:10.1177/1948550613492345

Xygalatas, D. (2007). Firewalking in northern Greece: A cognitive approach to high-arousal rituals. Queen’s University, Belfast.

Xygalatas, D. (2012). The Burning Saints: Cognition and Culture in the Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria. Bristol, CT: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Xygalatas, D., Mitkidis, P., Fischer, R., Reddish, P., Skewes, J., Geertz, A. W., … Bulbulia, J. (2013). Extreme rituals promote prosociality. Psychological Science, 24(8), 1602–5. doi:10.1177/0956797612472910

Xygalatas, D., Schjoedt, U., Bulbulia, J., Konvalinka, I., Jegindo, M., Reddish, P., … Roepstoff, A. (2013). Autobiographical Memory in a Fire-Walking Ritual.

Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.

Roundtable on Religious Studies and Academic Credibility beyond ‘World Religions’

A while back a few of us gathered for what became the first of a ‘successful’ bout of roundtables conducted by a cadre of ‘amazing people’ with differing and ‘unique’ opinions. In that first ‘test’ for the ones that would follow, six of us gathered together to discuss the ‘future of religious studies.’

A few highlights from that recording are the revelation that what one does with a degree in religious studies inevitably leads toward a fine career at Starbucks, that ‘relativity,’ being one step from ‘subjectivity,’ is the ‘post-modernist quagmire of death and destruction that will consume all academic fields if it’s allowed to spread too far,’ and that we ourselves, despite the wishes of many, are not, in fact, the future of religious studies.

After that first attempt came many others and the RSP has blossomed nicely. A few of us finished the degrees that were at that time ‘in-progress’ and moved on—and away—from Edinburgh. This last September we were given the opportunity—thanks to romance—to all be back in town, and arranged a ‘reunion-of-sorts.’ This time, our conversation was a bit less organized, but by no means less interesting. A few of us had begun working on Ph.D. programs, and a few of us had just entered into the early-to-final stages of those begun around the time of the first recording. We sat in the same seats, in the same room, and sipped the same canned cocktails as before. Interestingly, our positions, opinions, and arguments seem both old and new, the result of time working together, learning each other’s personalities, and becoming closer friends and colleagues. Please share in our discussion, comment, discuss on your own and, as always, thanks for listening.

Kevin came back to Edinburgh, cap in hand. Liam thought this was a brilliant thing!

Kevin came back to Edinburgh, cap in hand. Liam thought this was a brilliant thing!

Many thanks to Ethan for penning this prose.

Guthrie’s Anthropomorphism Helped Bring Religious Studies into the Modern Academic Age

Without theories such as that presented by Prof. Guthrie, particularly in his book Faces in the Clouds (1993), the current move towards an empirical study of religious beliefs and behaviors would likely have never taken root in anthropology and religious studies. (Strong claim warning!) Without moving these disciplines into an arena where their claims are subject to falsification, they would not be able to participate in modern scholarship and would have made little progress since their founding in the 19th century.[1]

It was during my time as an undergraduate student at the picture Admittedly, my first reaction to the theory was something along the lines of “so what, that’s fairly obvious”. That is until I started to supplement Guthrie’s ideas with those of Pascal Boyer (2001), in particular, his findings that “minimally counterintuitive” concepts (i.e. those concepts that violate our expectations of what should be) are more likely to be remembered. These two points combined go a long way toward explaining why religious concepts such as gods, spirits, ancestors, etc. are created and persist throughout human populations. It was at this point that I started to understand the elegance and true theoretical power of what Guthrie was moving towards: that due to the similarities of the human brain, which is an organ that functions similarly in humans cross-culturally, the mind is likely to produce patterns of belief and behavior in accordance with that functioning. Furthermore, this can be used as a foundation for creating an empirically viable cross-cultural study of contemporary and historical religious movements.

Shortly after that, I became very interested in a phenomena common to new religious movements: the deification of their leader as a god or sole proprietor of the divine. This phenomena (also known as apotheosis) can be observed in the leaders of many NRMs from Jim Jones of the People’s Temple/Jonestown (see Layton, 1999; Nelson, 2006; Reiterman, 1982), to Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate (see DiAngelo, 2007), to David Koresh of the Branch Davidians (see Newport, 2006; Tabor & Gallagher, 1997), to the Rev. Moon of the Unification Church (see Barker, 1984). This odd pattern held to many other religious groups in other cultures and historical periods (Lane, 2012); e.g. Early Christianity, Greco-Roman religion, many African initiated churches, and also NRMs in Asia such as Aum Shinrikyo. These patterns may be contextually unique, but similarities emerge when they are viewed at the level of human cognition, and Guthrie’s work largely set the framework for such an approach. After all, how can one have a scientific understanding of New Age religions (Lane, 2013a) or UFO cults (Lane, 2013b) without understanding the spirits, ‘energies’, UFOs, and extraterrestrials that inhabit those religious worlds? Guthrie provided, for the first time, a theoretical basis for such a research project.

Guthrie’s work is—in the religious studies world—standing on the shoulders of giants as he himself notes that the patterns that he describes are similar to those noticed by Spinoza, Hume, Tylor, and others from the fields of anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies. Guthrie’s ultimate contribution is situating this already-observed pattern within an empirically viable theoretical paradigm: that of evolutionary psychology. His work—as he mentions—was even the theoretical motivation for the Hyperactive (or ‘Hypersensitive’) Agency Detection Device (HADD); a cognitive mechanism now well known to the cognitive science of religion (see Barrett, 2004).

Guthrie’s work opens a “Pandora’s Box” to the scholar and student of religion. Not only does it act as a “gateway drug” for the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), it calls those interested in religion to begin to look at their subject through a different lens, one that is constrained by the empirical findings of psychology. Although “cognitive science” is more of an umbrella term that encompasses a dedication to understanding “information processing” generally and involves the fields of neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, computer science, and even history, CSR has mostly focused its efforts on empirical findings in psychology or utilizing the cognitive findings as an interpretive framework oftentimes focusing ultimately on semiotics or phenomenology. Ultimately, this rests shamelessly on theoretical commitments of epistemological positivism and scientific reduction, that is to say, the idea that we can actually know something and that observable phenomena can largely be reduced to their constituent parts (and that these parts can in turn act as objects of study). This is where you realize that inside of “Pandora’s Box” is Alice’s “rabbit hole”: if you reduce “religion”—as an evolutionary “spandrel” (a by-product that exists due to human evolution, but is not itself an adaptation)—can you reduce the cognitive mechanisms of your “spandrel” to the neuronal firings and neuro-transmitters of the brain? Can those interactions be reduced to the chemical reactions that govern the laws of biology? In one sense, these questions are easily answered with a practical statement: “no, we have neither the knowledge nor power (nor funding) to answer these questions in the foreseeable future”.

But, is there another answer to the overly-reductionist[2] tendencies of the empirical study of religion? I argue that there is. Guthrie places his theory solidly in the realm of evolutionary psychology. In the field of evolutionary studies, there are very strange things happening. For instance, the acceptance of complex and dynamic systems as commonplace often destroys the preconceived supremacy of linear thinking that is so ubiquitous in psychology. The idea that epigenetics is a very real force and that our experiences within our lifetime might affect the lives of our offspring, even to the genetic level, complicates the reductionist approach to anything operating within evolutionary studies.

Guthrie’s work, within an evolutionary approach, shows this point quite elegantly. The idea that we “anthropomorphize” signals in our environment involves three things: the raw input signal from the environment; the mental mechanisms that change the input signal (i.e. our “thinking” about the stimulus); and an output signal (such as the anthropomorphized representation in the mind). With this sort of system (operating in every human brain in a social group), even if the mechanism of perception were the same in each and every human brain (i.e. perfectly symmetrical), the fact that we experience different perceptions would allow for nearly infinite complexity by the time the cognitive system produces some output. This could be demonstrated by simply viewing something at a different angle, one which creates a face and one which doesn’t, as the “Martian face” on the cover of Guthrie’s book so brilliantly demonstrates (when light hits the mountain at a certain angle it looks like a face, but from other angles it does not).

This near-chaotic complexity may seem daunting, and rightly so, but scholars have already proposed theories of religious ritual systems that are compatible with both the broad theoretical claims of Guthrie (and directly utilize his work) but are also flexible enough to make predictions about the contextualized cultural forms that are observed in the historical, ethnographic, and now empirical records. While they have been viewed as competing but largely compatible theories, the work of Whitehouse on the theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity (2000, 2002, 2004) and that of E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley on ritual competence theory (Lawson & McCauley, 1990; McCauley & Lawson, 2002) both present structured arguments for the description and analysis of religious ritual systems that are amenable to the complexities of evolutionary perspectives (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011; Lane, 2011; McCauley & Lawson, 2002; Turchin, Whitehouse, Francois, Slingerland, & Collard, 2012).

In conclusion, Guthrie’s work was critical to ushering in a new period of study for scholars of religion; one which embraces both the abstract similarities and patterns noticed by early scholars such as Eliade (1959) and Durkhiem (1912) as well as the contextualized complexity so staunchly defended by cultural anthropologists. Guthrie’s work is situated between the two, in a tradition joined by scholars looking to test predictions with data first popularized by Stark & Bainbridge’s A Theory of Religion (1996) and being moved forward by research institutes such as the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and LEVYNA at Masaryk University, which push us into a brave new scientific world of supercomputers, big data, and a real understanding of the mind and what makes us human. It is this middle ground that also seems to be exciting droves of students to again take up the social sciences but in a way that is just as social as ever, but more scientific than its founders could have imagined.

References

Atkinson, Q. D., & Whitehouse, H. (2011). The cultural morphospace of ritual form. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(1), 50–62. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.09.002

Barker, E. (1984). The Making of a “Moonie”: Choice or Brainwashing. Oxford & New York: Blackwell Publishers.

Barrett, J. L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

DiAngelo, R. (2007). Beyond Human Mind: The Soul Evolution of Heaven’s Gate. Beverly Hills, CA: Rio DiAngelo.

Durkheim, E. (1912). The elementary forms of religious life. (C. Cosman & M. Cladis, Eds.) (2001 Oxfor.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eliade, M. (1959). The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion (1987 Editi.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lane, J. E. (2011). Ordo ab Chao: Ritual Competence Theory as a Cognitive Model for the Simulation of Religious Sociality. In Society for Complex Systems in Cognitive Science. Boston, MA.

Lane, J. E. (2012). Ritual Schism, Instability, and Form: Agency and Its Effect on New and Schismatic Religious Movements. Saarbrücken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing.

Lane, J. E. (2013a). New Age Religions. In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-8265-8_1497

Lane, J. E. (2013b). UFO Cults. In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-8265-8_1498

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Layton, D. (1999). Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple. New York: Anchor Books.

McCauley, R. N., & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nelson, S. (2006). Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple. United States of America: Public Broadcasting Station.

Newport, K. G. C. (2006). The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reiterman, T. (1982). Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: Dutton.

Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. S. (1996). A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Tabor, J. D., & Gallagher, E. (1997). Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley: University of Calafornia Press.

Turchin, P., Whitehouse, H., Francois, P., Slingerland, E., & Collard, M. (2012). A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, 3(2), 271–293. Retrieved from http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/2v8119hf

Whitehouse, H. (2000). Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, H. (2002). Modes of Religiosity: Towards a Cognitive Explanation of the Socioloplitical Dynamics of Religion. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 14, 293–315.

Whitehouse, H. (2004). Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

 

 


[1] Now that you’ve read the strong claim, a point of clarification: this is not to say that religious studies without any empirical focus is not useful. To the contrary, many of the theories produced by the history and philosophy of religions are very useful and have informed the empirical approach. I would suggest that the empirical and traditional forms of religious studies work together and that each is weaker without the other.

[2] I say “overly” because researchers who do brilliant scientific work might overlook how their findings contribute to an understanding of “religion” or reduce so far down that it doesn’t address anything about “religion” any more than it addresses any other human social phenomena.

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

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