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Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work

Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work by Craig Martin

Above, religion as a term appears in opposition to cult in a meme.

Tim Fitzgerald’s The Ideology of Religious Studies is, in my opinion, a modern classic in the field of the academic study of religion. In graduate school I read that book and his later, equally useful volume, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. I’ve also found value in some of his other works, including Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (in particular, I highly recommend the chapter titled “Radical, Religious and Violent” in the latter book). Tim’s work has been highly influential on aspects of my own, and I’m deeply indebted to his work; consequently, it’s difficult to respond to his RSP interview, other than to say “hear, hear!” Instead of responding by offering a criticism of anything Tim said in this podcast, let me expand or highlight two of the lessons I think we can learn from his description of his own intellectual journey.

 

To start with where the interview ends, one of the most important insights I’ve learned from Tim’s work is that the various concepts opposed to “religious”—such as “non-religious,” “secular,” “science,” or, in some cases, “spiritual”—are central to the rhetorical function of the term “religious.” In general, what I find objectionable about how the concept of “religion” is deployed in particular social contexts is the (dubious) rhetorical work it does in relationship to whatever is imagined or legitimated as its (superior) opposite. Some discourses devalue religion in relationship to science, while some discourses devalue religion in relationship to spirituality. Because of the normative connotations hung on these rhetorical oppositions, the use of the term religion often entails propping up its opposite as superior by contrast. There’s nothing new about this—these uses are articulated upon the legacy of modern Euro-American discourses that once distinguished true religion from false religion, distinguished religion from enthusiasm or superstition, distinguished sincere, inward belief from outward, dead ritual, or distinguished advanced, individualist societies from backward, primitive savages who don’t realize they are slaves to the collective. All of that is to say, one thing I’ve learned from Tim is that in order to understand how the concept of religion functions in practice, we should look at what it is being distinguished from and ask whether some social practices or social formations are being privileged or condemned with the discursive contrast.

 

Above, some forms of Christianity use memes to define religion negatively and in opposition to a more “authentic” experience of faith.

 

The second lesson I think we should take away is that intellectual growth requires exposure to new ideas, often ideas from other fields or disciplines. Tim describes having traveled to parts of the globe where English is not the primary language, thereby learning how people who use a different language see or divide up the world differently. Similarly, Tim also describes reading widely outside the field of religious studies. Like Tim, I’ve attempted to read as widely as I can, particularly in those university disciplines that help us understand human societies: history, anthropology, sociology, social psychology, political science, legal studies, economics, feminist theory, queer theory, critical theory, critical race theory, and some forms of philosophy. Along the way, I’ve attempted to integrate the knowledge from these different fields or disciplines, making connections where theories or claims overlap, or noting where some approaches allow me to answer some of my questions in a more sophisticated way than other approaches. Why recreate the wheel in one field if the theoretical wheel has already been built in another?

 

A significant consequence of attempting to read so widely is that my views and my vocabulary have changed over time, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes dramatically. In addition, I’ve come to the conclusion that our views and vocabularies must change as circumstances change. Pick up a psychology textbook from fifty years ago, and you’ll see a considerably different vocabulary and set of theories than you would if you picked up one published in 2020. Things are moving so quickly in computer science that they don’t even publish books anymore—by the time a book is published, its content is out of date. Sadly, we don’t see the same growth in religious studies, where one of our best-selling and most-often-used textbooks—Huston Smith’s volume—has undergone relatively minor revisions since first published in 1958. Prentice Hall’s bestseller, The Sacred Quest, isn’t quite as old but nevertheless adopts a phenomenological approach that is just as outdated as Smith’s. There’s a reason that medical doctors no longer refer to the four humours, just as physicists no longer refer to an invisible “ether.” By contrast, we’re still utilizing a century-old theory of world religions that has been shown to have originally been built out of racist European colonialist assumptions (see, in particular, Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, or Tim Murphy’s Politics of Spirit: Phenomenology, Genealogy, Religion). We can and should do better.

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Tim Fitzgerald is one of the foundational figures in the critical study of religion, and his seminal volume, The Ideology of Religious Studies, was published twenty years ago this year. In this interview – the first of a two-part retrospective – we discuss his career and how his studies in Hinduism and his time spent in Japan led him to question the relationship of categories like caste and ritual to the broader category ‘religion’. His realisation was that religion is such a broad category that it can include almost everything. We discuss the historical development of the category, and its roots in Protestant theological ideas, and the political movements of the eighteenth century. This leads into a critique of the essentialist assumptions hidden by the category, and the phenomenological ideas in its use in academia, and its function as a tool in power relations.

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (17 February 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-problem-with-religion-and-related-categories/

PDF of this transcription at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Fitzgerald_-_The_Problem_with_Religion_1.1.pdf

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Timothy Fitzgerald, returning to the Religious Studies Project after a few years. Tim is originally from the UK but now based in Brisbane, where he is a Visiting Research Professor at the University of Queensland in the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He’s one of the most prominent figures in the critical study of religion. And this interview is taking place at the 20 years since the publication of The Ideology of Religious Studies – which was a kind-of watershed text in the emergence of the critical religion. And the approach that we, at the RSP, have been pushing since day one, I guess. So first of all, Tim – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project, and thanks for making the time.

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Thanks for inviting me. It’s good to be with you.

DR: It’s been difficult to get this interview arranged, so I’m glad that it’s finally happening! Let’s start assuming that the Listener probably hasn’t read The Ideology of Religious Studies – or may not have read The Ideology of Religious Studies. Let’s start with a little bit of your back story. How did you get there from, you know, your first degree in RS – the same way that we all sort-of start, with whichever religion we decide to specialise in – how did you get there?

TF: Yes, well there are different possible starting points, but I agree the degree in Religious Studies that I did at Kings College London is a good place to start. I did that degree in ‘75-’77, and it was a really good degree. I learnt a lot from it. I’m glad I did it. It was well-taught. It was well-organised in a lot of ways. And it was all about religion, right? So we had eight or nine courses that lasted over the period of three years: three of them were in the philosophy of religion, one was in anthropology of religion, one in sociology of religion, one in psychology of religion. And then, in addition, we had to study two world religions. The world religions model was very well established, obviously, at that time. And that was in the mid-seventies. Ninian Smart was very prominent, and the whole sort-of Religious Studies education scene was pretty much dominated by the word religions model, as you know. Now, we did all of these studies of religion and one issue which came up for me was the question of what religion actually means. . . what it referred to. Because you know in a lot of the sub-disciplines – like the anthropology of religion, or the philosophy of religion – there’s a sort of genre of writing concerned with defining what religion is. And one of the things that struck me – and I suppose anybody else who read these different approaches to the definition of religion – one of the things that struck me was that there were so much room for disagreement. That basically the meaning of religion, the referent of religion was thoroughly contested. But that didn’t lead anybody to question whether we should have departments of Religious Studies focussed on researching a term which cannot be defined, and about which there is such a degree of (laughs) conflict or contestation. So that was really what I came out of Kings College London with. That was a very valuable thing. I think, in a way, one could say that the degree was successful because it taught me how to reflect critically. And – lo and behold! – I was reflecting critically on the very category that was at the heart of all of these studies that we were reading.

DR: Well, despite the sort-of prominence of Ninian Smart’s approach, it sounds like it was actually quite a methodological, or at least theoretical, undergraduate course (5:00) – much more so than you would find in most places nowadays, I think – with this sort-of . . . an entire course on the philosophy of religion, and entire course on the psychology of religion. You know, I don’t think courses look like that anymore.

TF: Right. Well it was good, yes. I enjoyed it. And I got a huge amount . . . .We did a lot of philosophy and, for example, we did philosophy in the sense of history of ideas, but it involved looking at particular writers, particular thinkers in some depth – and this was very much the sort-of Anglo-American analytical side of philosophy. We didn’t study any of the . . . we didn’t study many of the French or German philosophers. Of course Wittgenstein was very important, and one of the ways in which philosophers of religion and many others have tried to find a solution to this definitional problem is through Wittgenstein’s language games, and the idea that the meaning of a word comes from its uses. Those are important insights, but they don’t actually for me solve the definitional problem. And in fact I’ve had quite extended arguments about this with people like Benson Saler, who’s a great defender of Wittgenstein’s family resemblance kind-of approach to defining the meaning of words. But I think it has problems. So The Ideology of Religious Studies includes a great deal of argument about the way that Wittgenstein’s arguments are used to find a solution to the definitional problem.

DR: Well, hopefully we can get to that later on. I want to kind-of walk the Listener to there. Because I think, actually, the story of how you got there is quite interesting in itself. So we talked before about when you started looking at Buddhism and Hinduism, after your PhD, that the lack of referent in the category of religion, it began to hit home. You began to get some sort-of clear historical examples of that.

TF: Yes. I got a job in a college of higher education – Hertfordshire College of Higher Education – in 1980. It was my first full-time job. And one of my responsibilities was to teach Hinduism and Buddhism. And when I joined we had two degrees. One was the Education degrees . . . one was the Education degree for teachers. So there were a lot . . . it was a teacher training college originally, I think. And then there was a new BA in Humanities, of which the Study of Religion provided some pretty substantial segments . . . courses. So I was teaching on those two. And I mean the students would ask me . . . I was teaching Hinduism and Buddhism as a world religion, but feeling very uncomfortable with it. Because I could see the problems. And they’re vast essentialisations, aren’t they, based on texts, or on edited and selected versions of texts? And the idea of Hinduism is taught very much in the sort-of history of ideas fashion – or used to be. So, there’s a whole series of dates that you need to learn. And you need to learn the basic doctrines. But one thing that this complex construct Hinduism, taught as a religion, doesn’t do is to explain the wider context in which these abstracted textual references and concepts exist. And, of course, caste is a particularly problematic term (10:00). If you read world religion text books you will get references about Hinduism, you’ll constantly get references to caste, but nobody explains it properly. What is caste? It’s presented as though it’s a kind-of religious injunction on the division of labour, or something. It’s not . . . the actual way in which caste operates is not really explained. And in order to find that out you have to go into anthropology. So I was reading a huge amount of anthropology to supplement my world religion experience. Because anthropologists . . . and sometimes anthropologists are also interested in history. But the point is that anthropologists actually go and try and come into contact with this abstraction caste. And at that time, particularly Louis Dumont – who wrote the classic book Homo Hierarchicus – he dominated the field of Indian anthropology. But there were lots of other important anthropologists – Srinivas, for example. But I read a lot of anthropology. And this was in response, after all, to my students’ demands. Because, actually, a lot of the students were thinking in very practical ways – and perfectly legitimately. They weren’t really interested in the doctrine of salvation according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. They were interested in why women wear a mark in their forehead, or how marriages happen, or what different people eat. They wanted to know about the actual practicalities of the village economy. How does caste actually operate within a village community? And these are very . . . further questions that I would be asked would be: how can caste operate in huge cities, like Bombay and Delhi, where there are so many people? Surely your caste identity simply gets lost? These kinds of practical and interesting questions. And here was I, teaching Hinduism and Buddhism – but I’d never even been to India! And that just seemed to me to be wrong. So I organised a research trip. It wasn’t brilliantly well organised. But basically, my research was going to be on caste, untouchability and the effect of colonial institutions. And whether the improvements and progress of liberal political economy had really helped to liberate people from the caste system. And one particular Indian leader was drawn to my attention, and that was Dr BR Ambedkar. And Ambedkar became a real source of great interest to me. So I managed to go to India for four months in the 1980s. I got some money together and I just spent four months in India, meeting people, and just trying to understand what India looks like, smells like, feels like.

DR: I know that you’ve got an interest in Mary Douglas’ work. And talking about caste there, I immediately start thinking of purity, and danger, and ideas of cleanliness. And I don’t know if she’s . . . I know her ideas are applicable so much wider than simply talking about religions. And certainly the way that these – kind-of well-discussed, being the obvious thing – but, “in-group” and “out-group” structures are kind-of ritualised but mystified in cultures.

TF: Yes.

DR: It immediately jumps to mind. And I know that you’re a fan of hers. So was that where you got to her work, as well?

TF: At first I was getting it more from Louis Dumont, who also really belonged to the French school of sociology: L’École Sociologique. He was a Durkheimian in many ways, as was Mary Douglas (15:00). And Durkheim had been a big influence on me when I was doing my degree at Kings College London. And for a long time I thought of myself, in a sense, as a Durkheimian. And I read Dumont through a Durkheimian perspective. But Dumont was very much putting the purity/pollution binary as the kind-of definition – almost the central characteristic – of the caste system. So you get the Brahmins as pure, and the Untouchables as impure. And a whole number of other castes in between, sort-of lining up in relative degrees of purity and pollution. And it’s a very useful way of looking at it. Of course, there was huge debate about these things in Indian anthropology and sociology. But I think nobody would doubt that Dumont’s picking on this binary is the sort-of outside limits of what could be thought in terms of social or human relations, rather. But, yes, Mary Douglas came hot on the heels, after Louis Dumont, as one of the people that I read, and one of the people that I have really enjoyed teaching. I think she’s been generally really helpful. One point that I would like to make, actually – since we’re talking about Durkheim, Dumont, Mary Douglas, I think you can see a kind of progressive move from the sort-of empirical ethnographic approach to sociology or anthropology towards the idea of . . . well, I’m calling them signalling systems. What Durkheim meant by a totemic system, or a system of collective representations. What I think you get in all of these writers is a move towards reading signs and their relationships as being the fundamental point of understanding anybody’s collective life.

DR: Would you agree that it’s maybe a progress from a structuralist into a poststructuralist view?

TF: Well, yes. I think so. But, I mean, Dumont is usually considered to be a structuralist. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people don’t read him very much now. Or they don’t seem to. But I think his work is actually very subtle in a lot of ways. And it’s very rich. He also wrote, as well as Homo Hierearchicus, he also wrote a book . . . . Well, he wrote From Mandeville to Marx. And he also wrote a collection of essays called Essays on Individualism, where he tried to show how, whereas in India the individual is always outside the world, structurally speaking and symbolically speaking, in the European Christian traditions the individual started off as outside the world but moved to become the in-wordly individual, basically as a result of modern capitalism. Or as a characteristic of modern capitalism. Whereas individuals used to sort-of go to the desert and separate themselves from the rest of the main body of humanity, in the search for salvation or some kind-of self-discovery – you know, you think of those hermits and renouncers in early Christian Europe, and they’ve existed all the way through . . . . Well in India you get a very, very ancient tradition of renunciation, where people symbolically . . . where people renounce their family (20:00), their village, their family name, their normal activities, clothes, profession, and really, in a sense, become a living non-person: they perform their own cremation, symbolically, by cremating their old clothes and various symbols of their previous life; so they become an out-worldly individual. They become an individual because they separated themselves from the collective, symbolically and physically. And they’ve now become something rather special, and sacred, and powerful by moving out of the normal collective which in India would be very much about caste, caste membership – moving out of that, and becoming a kind-of individual. Actually, most renouncers in India join ashrams. They belong to some kind of an organisation. They often have a guru. But nevertheless, Dumont was reading this at the symbolic level: that this is a move from identity defined by the collective, to a kind-of out-worldly identity. An individual identity. So his story was that, as a result of the Reformation, and then developments of various forms of Calvinism –where there was a very strong emphasis on the lonely individual working in the world – so the individual becomes, instead of being an out-worldly value, becomes the central in-worldly value of modern capitalist society. I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it.

DR: Very much so. After your research on India and teaching at the higher education college, you then moved to Japan for three years. And again, there’s another kind-of shift in your work there. So tell us about that.

TF: Yes, sure. Well, just as India had really shocked me and given me a different perspective on the world and also on myself. . . . I think it’s quite important – not for egotistical reasons – but it’s quite important to realise that one has internalised a great deal of shared common symbolic life which constructs our individuality. And that, when you move out of that shared symbolic life, your consciousness is quite vulnerable and you change a lot. Some people call it culture shock. But it’s to do with a reorientation of values. Well, going to Japan was even more like that because Japan is completely different from India and is very different from Britain. And going to Japan to live, this is because I met Noriko my wife, who’s Japanese, in London. And we had our first, our son, James – he was born in London. But then we almost immediately went to Japan, because I’d been offered a job there. And you know, her father was asking me to go and live in Japan for a while. He didn’t want to lose his daughter to a foreigner, which was perfectly understandable. (Laughs). Just suddenly disappear to London and never be seen again! So I was lucky, I was invited to a university in Japan called Aichi Gakuin, which was in Nagoya. And I had to do a lot of English teaching. But I did also have a status as a research academic. Yes, working in Japan, I had to very quickly start learning Japanese, because I didn’t know a word of Japanese when I went there! And I was there for several years. And it was very . . . it was hugely valuable. I mean my children are bilingual. They still speak Japanese with their mother. My Japanese was never fully fluent, but by the time I left I could more than survive there. You know, for the last six or seven years I was living there alone because Noriko and the children had gone back to London. And that was a fantastic impetus for me. And I went there when I was over forty, I ought to add. I was forty years old when I first went to Japan.

DR: And I can vouch that, in your forties, trying to learn a new language is not easy! (25:00)

TF: No. Not at all. Especially when it’s a non-European one. But I did learn a huge amount. And I’ve never regretted that. I regret that I couldn’t enter into academic debates with Japanese. That was just too a stretch too far. You really need to be trained in Japanese language from an earlier age and do it thoroughly. But never the less, I learned so much. And I tell you one of the main things it did was to re-orientate me, as I was explaining about India. It doesn’t mean to say that I idealised Japan. I was a big critic of Japan as a foreigner, living in Japan, but at the same time there are lots of things I really admired about the way Japanese people do things, the way they organised . . . . There a lots of things that I learnt from being in Japan.

DR: One important one, though, I think is the idea of translating categories. Japan certainly in conversations I have in RS, it’s very useful as an example where the idea of religion in the way that we think of it generally just doesn’t really work. And yet they’ve been kind-of forced to take it on to some degree as a result of colonial forces in the 19th century particularly. And yet, our Western hegemonic classifications don’t really map onto Japanese society very well. Would that be fair to say?

TF: Yes I think that is fair. I think it’s true, and in fact that’s been one of the themes of quite a lot of published work on Japan, my own published work. You know, just to give you a practical example, when I was teaching English in the universities – it was really boring by the way, because most of the Japanese didn’t want to learn English, and I don’t blame them. Why should they? They’re perfectly happy speaking their own language. But also it’s the way that English is taught, or languages in general are taught in Japan. And so I found myself teaching a large class of twenty or thirty students who were sitting in absolutely straight lines, desks in straight lines. They would often self-gender. So you’d get the men sitting on one side of the room and the women on the other. Not always, but they’d quite often do that. It was a bit like an extension of the Japanese school system – very disciplined. You don’t ever question the teacher. And basically, the teacher is there to speak and the students are there to listen. It’s very difficult under those circumstances to have a conversation class, as they jokingly used to call them. But, because I was trying to develop confidence in speaking Japanese, I used to sometimes try to start a conversation in an English class in Japanese, which was a shocking experience for my students: (A) because, well, you just don’t do that kind of thing, and (B) because, well, they had to suffer the very unskilful pronunciation and grammatical forms that I was producing. But nevertheless, you know, it was something that I was determined to do. Because I wanted to show them that I was prepared to make a fool of myself in trying to speak Japanese in front of a lot of students, therefore I’m not going to laugh at them if they’re feeling embarrassed about their English. That’s not what I’m there for. I’m there to encourage and to help with communication skills. Stuff like that. So in these circumstances, one of the conversations I used to like to have is “What does religion mean to you?” And I would sometimes ask it in English and then ask it again in Japanese using the Japanese term shūkyō, which is the current dominant translation for religion. And the students, you know, quite often in these circumstances nobody will reply (30:00); there’s just a deathly silence. But quite often I found if I was a bit persistent, they’d say, “Oh, religion is Christianity. It’s nothing to do with me.” (Laughs) Some would say Christianity and Buddhism are religion. And I’d say, well what about the matsuri, the festivals? What about all your visits to the temple and the shrine? Are these . . .? What about the way that you pay respects to your ancestors in the home? Or these kinds of things? And they would just respond and say, “Oh no, no. That’s not religion. That’s our customs. That’s Japanese customs. That’s the way we live.” So you see, the distinction between religion and what foreign and Japanese scholars of religion will describe as religious practices – for most people they’re not. And I think that that was something that I needed to learn, you know.

DR: Yes, I wonder how . . . I mean there’s certainly a way of looking at everyday – what gets called “lived religion” or “vernacular” religion a lot of the time, now. Certainly, thinking about most of my kind-of relatives and friends growing up in a working class area in the highlands, that’s mostly the way that they talk about religion as well. “Religion? Oh it’s the wee frieze at the high kirk”, or whatever. But going to speak to your gran at the grave or, you know, these kind-of ritual behaviours around twenty-first birthdays, or Christmastime, or Hogmanay, or whatever – they weren’t really thought of as religion. But I can’t help but think if there was a sort-of 1930’s anthropologist in that situation he would be describing all of these as kind-of “primitive religious rituals”.

TF: Well, yes. Except that . . . basically “primitive”, I don’t think contemporaries would call them primitive.

DR: No, no.

TF: No. I know exactly what you mean. There’s a whole tradition of making other people’s practices look as though they’re somehow backward, lower on the evolutionary scale, less sophisticated. But I think also there is the complication that there is a kind-of meta level, say the constitutional level, the level of constitutional, and the level of judiciary concerning what religion means. And this is basically adopted from Europe. And it’s quite a long story but it involves talking about . . . . In the mid-nineteenth century, the Americans were becoming very powerful, they were quite imperialistic. The United States of America, which had liberated people from the tyranny of a European monarch . . . .

DR: I want to pick that up at the start of the next interview. Because I don’t think we’ve got time to do it justice now.

TF: No, I think it is a very long one that. Because I think we need to talk about the way in which religion because inscribed in the US constitution.

DR: Absolutely. So we’ll pick that one up there in the next episode. But for now, let’s just . . . . Whilst you were in Japan, you wrote The Ideology of Religious Studies. So tell us a little bit about the overall argument there. I mean, certainly reading that as . . . I was either towards the end of being an undergrad, or at the start of postgraduate studies. (35:00) It was the first sustained argument challenging religions, world religions, the phenomenological approach which had been so sort-of central to the way that they taught at Edinburgh. And so, just briefly sum up where you were when you wrote that monograph.

TF: Well, as you say, I was in Japan. And it was the culmination of . . . I mean I’d been publishing about Japan during the ‘90s. For example, I was reading books on Japanese religion in English but written by Japanese scholars who had either written their contribution in English or it had been translated. But one thing that struck me. There was one particular volume which was quite authoritative. I mean, it had been published and financed under the auspices of the ministry of culture in Japan. And there were five or six professors who contributed special chapters to it: one on Japanese Buddhism, one on Japanese Shinto, one on Japanese Confucianism, one on Japanese nature religion, one on, sorry, folk religion, and one or two others. One on Christianity in Japan, I think. There are very few Christians in Japan. But what struck me about all of these writers was that (A) they were all specialising in a particular religion, or a particular religious tradition, which they set out to describe for the reader. But, at the same time, every single one of them said that, actually, this is a very artificial distinction. Because, really, you can’t talk about Shinto without talking about Confucianism and Buddhism. And the same with the others. Because they’re all . . . they’re all part of our lives. We don’t really choose between them. It’s not as though “I’m a Shintoist, but not a Buddhist”. And the idea that “I’m not a Confucianist” is difficult to swallow. The point is that there was a contradiction inherent in what they were saying. And it was the same contradiction that I’d encountered . . . well I’d encountered it in India in a particular way, but also in the definitional problems, in the degree that I did: that there was a disparity between what people were saying in one part of the text and what they were saying in another part. So my first article about Japan was published . . . I can’t remember now . . . in the early nineties. Was it ‘93? ‘94? ‘95? And it was called Japanese Religion as Ritual Order

DR: 1993.

TF: 1993. Ok. And it was published I think, in Religion. And I was trying to point out what I’ve just told you in that article. I called it Japanese Religion as Ritual Order, because I was trying to find a term which would give me some kind-of a base. And “ritual” seemed to be a very useful one. Because ritual . . . we can use the term ritual to describe either side of the binary. You know, you can have religious rituals and secular rituals. But rituals was a term which I hoped I would be able to use in order to avoid using this binary religion/secular. Because it didn’t seem to me to work. So I looked at all the ways in which the Japanese ritualised their everyday lives, in all the institutions, in the household, in the schools, in the universities, in the corporations, in the small businesses, in the services. Every institutional practice is the ritual which constructs seniors and juniors, that’s one of the things it does. It’s imbued with respect language, and different levels of language. There is an issue about social space, so people distance themselves in a certain way. Bowing is an obvious example of the ritualization of everyday life (40:00). So I wanted to try and subvert this essentialising dichotomy – between religion on the one hand, and the rest of secular life on the other – and show that it’s much more like a ritual continuum. And that went in very much to The Ideology of Religious Studies.

DR: For me, the most kind-of impactful realisation in it was the critique of phenomenology, the phenomenological method, as kind-of essentialist and maybe even crypto-theological. Together with the sort-of largest critique of the category as essentially . . . without that kind-of essence to it. Like, the term was essentially meaningless, unless it was referring to this sui generis kind-of essence. And that, for me, was the most impactful part of that argument. I don’t know if that was central for you, but that was . . .

TF: I think of course it is central, yes. I mean, one of the points of my argument was that religion is actually used to describe and classify so much that it becomes empty of any specific content. And then, if you look at the actual range of usages of the term religion, there’s a religion of everything. And yet at the same time in this either/or essentialising binary with the non-religious secular. Now there’s something very interesting there, that on the one hand you’ve got a category which can be used so widely that you’re beginning to wonder: is anything not religion or religious? And on the other hand, it’s held together in this essentially either/or binary. It’s either religion or it’s not religion – which gives it the appearance of having a very determinate and definitive reference. Do you see what I’m saying?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TF: And it also raises the question about: if we can’t define the religion side of the binary, then we can’t find the limits of the secular side either. And my work in The Ideology of Religious Studies was very much about destabilising politics and society as the generic abstraction for sociology. And a lot of the stuff was aimed at Ninian Smart, but also much more widely. I mean, I discussed a lot of different theorists in The Ideology of Religious Studies. And I wanted to undermine these grand dichotomies. But as soon as you question the limits of the secular, then you’re also questioning politics, or the idea of society, or the idea of culture.

DR: And that’s exactly where we’re going to pick up in the next part of this interview. But, for now: thank you, Tim.

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

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

Santa Muerte and the Interplay of Cultures on Dia de los Muertos

In Mexico, it may appear to outsiders that there is a trifecta of death. After all, there is the Day of the Dead, La Catrina and Santa Muerte. But these are distinct from one another, although often conflated by outsiders.

 

Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on the 1st and 2nd November. This is a time when Mexicans reminisce about their ancestors, honouring the deceased and in many ways keeping them alive through memories and altars that they build to commemorate them. The famous French sociologist and contemporary of Durkheim, [Robert] Hertz postulated that through mortuary rites, such as funerals, people come to accept the new status of the deceased as a departed member of society, someone who will no longer participate in the activities of the living; someone who no longer has any social effect. Still today in the Western world, when we lose a family or friend, the idea is to grieve and let go. For Westerners, the funeral is a mortuary rite of transition to accept this dramatic transformation in status. However, the Day of the Dead contradicts Hertz’s theory and attests to a starkly different stance in Mexico towards the deceased when compared to the Western attitude. 

 

The dearly departed in Mexico play an active part every year in the lives of the living on the Day of the Dead. Mexicans do not let go of the deceased but rather recall them. The dead, if not honoured correctly, according to some Mexicans, in particular in rural locales, may even pose a threat to the living by bringing them bad luck, potentially cursing them and their ventures. This belief substantiates the social force of the deceased in Mexico and the effect they continue to have on the living long past their demise. Time, money and energy is invested in the deceased, despite their lack of a physical presence. Indeed, a tangible manifestation appears that symbolises the dead when altars are fabricated for them. 

 

Altars constructed to honour the deceased are symbolic expressions or representations of the departed and the love that the living still have for them. They signify the undying bond between living and dead. These altars consist of a photo of the dead surrounded by their favourite objects which are given as ofrendas, offerings, to welcome them and show these souls that they have not been forgotten. Children typically receive toys, candy, sweet tamales, fruit, and other such victuals. Adults receive libations of their favourite alcoholic beverages, their preferred dishes and possibly cigarettes. Sugar skulls, known as calaveras de azúcar, also celebrate the dead. They are inscribed with the name of a deceased relative and placed on altars. A sweet bread is baked called pan de muerto which is gifted to the dead and also eaten by the living, particularly at gravesites where the dead are commemorated. 

 

 Children are honoured in processions and graveyards on November 1st on the Dia de los Innocentes, or Dia de los Angelitos, and adults on November 2nd. Albeit if young adults who would typically be honoured on November 1st died in a particularly violent fashion, and of unnatural causes they are often honoured on November 2nd, since in some ways their traumatised soul can no longer be deemed innocent. 

 

The Day of the Dead is a hybrid tradition that meshes Indigenous death worship and Catholic practice. Veneration of ancestors was at the fulcrum of many Indigenous people’s religious praxes, as was worship of death deities, and not only for the Aztec, as Dr. Chesnut points out in the interview. In my research, I have encountered a wide range of beliefs in death deities and rites of ancestor veneration amongst to name but a few the Maya, the Zapotec and the Mixtec.  For example, the Maya regularly held blood-letting rituals. The Mayan King, and other nobles would be bled, often by piercing their tongues or ears with a serrated stingray tail and other jagged objects. This loss of blood ensured possession by what was known as the serpents of vision. These serpents, depicted in iconography as gargantuan snakes, served as a gateway from the physical world to the realm of spirits, that is to say ancestors, who were called on for advice. Still today, Mexicans converse with the dead during commemorations and may ask for their blessings in their future endeavours.

 

Many Indigenous Mexican peoples had special days of the week or a month dedicated to death deities in the pre-Hispanic era, as Dr. Chesnut points out in reference to the Aztec. The Catholic Church sought to annihilate these Indigenous religious activities, but soon realised that they could not exscind them entirely thus instead focused on finding paths of accommodation, enforcing Church rites and beliefs where there was enough contiguity with Indigenous customs for Catholic conventions to be adopted zealously. One of these events was the Catholic holiday, All Saints Day, which rather than becoming simply assimilated, was re-mapped according to Indigenous choreography thus blooming into a syncretic rite of cultural concrescence. 

Santa Muerte also hails from the Mexican cultural tradition that relates to death deities and death worship. Some devotees, as Dr. Chesnut points out in the podcast, have linked her to Aztec death goddess Mictecacihuatl, nevertheless we must go beyond the obvious link with the Aztec, as I have stated, and consider the wider cultural importance of death veneration across many of the variegated Indigenous peoples of pre-Hispanic Mexico. Furthermore, although Santa Muerte has Indigenous origins, she is very much a modern death deity who once again must be understood in terms of her hybridity and as an example of the fact that faith is always in perpetuum mobile, altering to fit the zeitgeist, sine qua non it would not survive. 

 

Following on from [Fernand] Braudel, I believe that culture although continually being reinvented in new guises in line with l’air du temps, is characterised by the longue durée, and moreover, even if there is continuity there is also alteration. Thus religion, like most cultural phenomena, is marked by a dialectic of permanence and change as I argue in my forthcoming book ‘Daughters of Death: Female Followers of Santa Muerte’. Veneration to Santa Muerte must be seen through this optic. She is a symbolic complex and much as she hails in part from pre-Colombian mythic structures, she is also distinctly modern, or more aptly, post-modern given that she is amoral and there is no one single version of Santa Muerte. There is no single grand metanarrative that can explain the Bone Mother’s many facets, nor one answer that can elucidate the way in which she appeals to manifold groups of people, from narcos to lovesick housewives. 

 

In her cloaks of many colours, which Dr. Chesnut has described in the podcast, she may provide favours of all sorts to a wide demographic of devotees. In her black gown, she is known for bringing death to enemies, and in her red mantle she aids women with the return of an errant husband, whilst dressed in white, the Bony Lady brings peace and cleansing. Santa Muerte is even protean in her many iconographic depictions. There is sexy Santa Muerte, who dressed in a miniskirt, with a generous bust somehow seems at odds with her cadaverous qualities, incarnating the Hollywood-inspired male fantasies of narcos. Then there is Aztec Santa Muerte who with flamboyant feather headdress incorporates pastiche components from an imagined pre-Hispanic past that is neither spurious nor genuine, but an invention of the past, presupposing past symbolisms and creatively reinterpreting them in a dialectic of continuity and change.

Ultimately, we must understand Santa Muerte as a death saint who is the product of history and the interplay of cultures. She is the fruit of a multitude of relations and events that over time continue to this day to propel the incessant development of an ever-mushrooming group of devotees, which now stretches across the globe.

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

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

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

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

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Podcast with Douglas Ezzy (5 March 2018).

Interviewed by Breanne Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DE: Yes

BF: Were they the words you used?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DE: Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death, Music, and Ritual: Contemporary Requiems in the Commemoration of Death and Violence

Apparently, the only two certain things in life are death and taxes. In terms of the former, the requiem has held its grip up until contemporary times. While popular requiems, such as those composed by Mozart and Rutter are still performed, newly composed requiems, or requiem-like pieces are growing in popularity in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. These requiems make use of previously employed lyrics and composition techniques, but some also rework these elements or leaving them behind entirely. From Mozart, to hip-hop, to haiku, contemporary music for the commemoration of death is variegated in its composition. In this interview, Breann Fallon discusses contemporary requiems with Associate Professor M.J.M. Hoondert of Tilburg University while at the 2016 European Association for the Study of Religions conference in Helsinki. Hoondert highlights the variety of contemporary requiems, noting their different styles, imagery, and convergences, but also the intended affect of the works. In particular, Hoondert discusses the step away from the liturgy associated with requiems as way for today’s individual to deal with death or violence in their own way. Still, it is clear that the ritual elements of the requiem remains, hence where this contemporary music fits into the sacral landscape is up for debate.

Also, be sure to check out DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory with Jonathan Jong

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

A Critical Introduction to the History, Beliefs, and Practices of Wiccans

In this interview Ethan Doyle White, author of the book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, introduces his systematic overview of the contested history and multifaceted developments of Wicca. White presents his own methodological approaches and theoretical data utilising both emic and etic sources in a thematic framework. Based on the sheer number of people identifying as Wiccans, book sales, the media, and the popularity of the term, White argues that Wicca is truly the most popular and widespread expression of modern Paganism. He then discusses the ‘invented’ claims of Wicca being a continuity of European pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices, the relationship between religion and magic in Wiccan discourse in reference to theological elements and ritual practices that define Wicca, and then a cross-comparison of Wiccans and self-proclaimed practitioners of ‘Traditional Witchcraft’. White also discusses the divide in Wicca over more traditionally inclined practitioners and more modern eclectic practitioners. Regarding the socio-political dimensions of Wicca, White examines ways in which Wiccan discourse can be conceived as a political activist movement regarding gender rights, environmental issues, and socio-economic policies. On a final note, White dissects the current academic debate on the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of scholars who are Wiccans studying other practitioners of Wicca, and concludes by presenting his own view on what the future holds for Wicca.

Listeners might also be interested in our podcasts on 21st Century Irish Paganism, Druidry and the Definition of Religion, and Animism, amongst others. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, smudging sticks, besomes, and more.

Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

In this interview, we discuss the history and development of yoga in its South Asian contexts, and then examine its transformations across the globe into the contemporary era.

In its earliest uses, the word “yoga” meant “yoke,” primarily yoking a warhorse to a chariot. In the classical period, yoga took on a variety of other meanings, including yoking the mind-body complex through meditative practices, such as breath control and mantras, to achieve liberation. Yoga was an analysis of perception and cognition, whereby to know something is to be it; higher states of consciousness could expand individuals into the universe and even to omniscience. Yoga also included achieving superpowers through sexual and other bodily alchemical practices, allowing practitioners to see through things and to take over other human bodies. In tantric yoga, which developed during the medieval period, the goal became not union with the absolute but rather to become a living god, a yogi, through occult practices. In hatha yoga, practitioners regulated their breath and channeled vital fluids within the body, via chakras, in order to achieve awakening and supernatural powers. Contemporary forms of yoga as postural practice developed from Hindu Vedanta, Indian nationalism, the Orientalist resurrection of the Yoga Sutras, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and other sources, and constitute a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of yoga. Even more recently, the study of yoga in North America has been riven by debates about what counts as “authentic” yoga and who gets to make such claims authoritatively, as the Hindu America Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign can attest.

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

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

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We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

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Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

More information

Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

More information

Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

More information

Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

More information

Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

More information

Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

More information

Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

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.uk,Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, ritual paraphernalia, model airplanes, and more.

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.

The Burning Saints, Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria

greece-firewalkingIt’s dark outside. The moon hangs in the sky and the soft smell of smoke permeates the warm air as it stings your eyes. Looking down, you notice the glow from burning coals, as hot as 535 degrees C, scattered on the ground below. The trancelike rhythm from the beating drums fills your ears as the Patron Saints Constantine and Helen are honored in the town of Agia Eleni in Northern Greece. The whole village surrounds you and they share in your moment, as the richness of the surrounding imagery and importance of the ritual consumes the senses. You are in a sublime state of ecstasy as the glowing coals lay before you. But, will you walk across? When Saint Constantine calls you to become a firewalker – you answer – at least if you are one of the Anastenaria.

In his interview with Thomas Coleman for The Religious Studies Project, experimental anthropologist, Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas, discusses his ethnography of the fire walking rituals of the Anastenaria. The Anastenaria are Orthodox Christians in Northern Greece who celebrate the Saints Constantine and Helen in a two part ritual cycle each year. They have no written texts, as the tradition and myths encompassing the firewalkers are passed down orally through story telling and by participation in ritual. Their tradition is, as Xygalatas writes (2012, p. 2) “a good example of a physically and emotionally arousing ritual, and such rituals raise a very important question regarding their participants’ motivation: why do people engage in extreme, costly ritual activities, that offer no obvious advantage but entail evident risks?” Widely known and respected for bringing experimental methods into the tough and fast paced conditions entailed by fieldwork on extreme rituals, Xygalatas combines rich description with scientific explanation to present a portrait of the Anastenaria that holds firm to the ‘anthropological attitude’ of understanding, while also providing an explanation for why people may behave the way they do.

anastenaria1

The interview begins with a discussion of the cultural context of the Anastenaria in Greece, noting widespread discrimination against their religious practices by the government and Greek Orthodox Church. He explains some of the shared beliefs the Anastenaria hold and describes the ritual cycle for the festival of St. Constantine and St. Helen. But, why would anyone be compelled to walk across burning coals? Xygalatas goes on to highlight the underlying cognitive and physiological mechanisms that may contribute to participation in extreme rituals, discusses the transmission of beliefs and revelation in the Anastenaria and highlights the importance and meaning of the rituals. In closing, Dr. Xygalatas shares a very personal moment from additional fieldwork in Spain that turned himself, the researcher, into the subject being researched.

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.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References

Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints cognition and culture in the fire-walking rituals of the Anastenaria. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

Ritual, Religion, and the Evolutionary Foundations of Human Culture

Although it is more than 150 years since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species (1859), it is only in recent decades that the evolutionary paradigm has become properly elaborated. But despite the wide range of developments across archaeology and the physical sciences, evolutionary treatments of religion have remained few and far between, with most prominent ones coming from the hyper-partisan scholars of the New Atheist movement. But that situation has begun to change. Although works such as Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999) began to lay the ground for a more nuanced treatment, the publication of Robert Bellah’s groundbreaking new work, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011), signals a new era in the study of long-term religious and cultural history in which scientific, social-scientific and historical approaches can be properly brought into conversation.

Donald_memoryOne of the key figures behind Bellah’s work is evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald, who spoke with Jack Tsonis at the 2013 AAR meeting in Baltimore about his paper “Ritual, Religion, and the Drama of Daily Life: The continued dominance of mimetic representation”.  In addition to an overview of Donald’s work and a discussion about ritual in the basic sense of “culturally patterned sequences of expression”, Jack also asks Professor Donald about the way that Bellah has used his ideas, which reveals a subtle but important difference in emphasis. This interview will fascinate anybody interested in the evolution of human culture, and helps to scramble the common notion that there is a clear distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” behaviour.

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.

Santo Daime

My first experience of Santo Daime occurred in 2005 during research for a book on the non-mainstream religious scene in Brazil (A. Dawson, 2007). Pretty much unprepared for the sensory feast of a Santo Daime ritual, I was visually struck by the colourful ‘uniforms’ and brightly decorated ceremonial space. The strongly rhythmical and fervently sung ‘hymns’ also made an impact, as did the powerful smell and bitter taste of the religious sacrament which practitioners call ‘Daime’. A psychoactive beverage more commonly known as ‘ayahuasca’, the sacrament of Daime and its psychotropic effects further added to the intense sensory stimulation which abides as an enduring memory of my earliest encounter with Santo Daime. Staged within the mountainous terrain of a national park hundreds of miles north of São Paulo, the ritual contents and format originally forged in the Amazon region of north-west Brazil did not seem particularly out of place. However, unlike the poor, mixed-race community which first elaborated Santo Daime as part of its semi-rural subsistence lifestyle, the ritual participants with whom I was celebrating were overwhelmingly drawn from Brazil’s predominantly white urban middle class. Whereas the uniforms, songs and sacrament were very much of the Amazon region, those wearing, singing and consuming the ceremonial accoutrements of Santo Daime certainly were not. By no means discordant, the juxtaposition of Amazonian origins and urban-professional appropriation nevertheless piqued my academic interest. (Dawson 2013, 1)

Upon receiving an email notification through the BASR mailing list about Andrew Dawson’s recently published monograph, Santo Daime: A New World Religion, the RSP’s academic interest was certainly piqued. Thus, towards the end of May 2013, Chris made the arduous journey from his office at one end of B Floor, County South, Lancaster University, to Dr Dawson’s at the other, to discuss this fascinating and engaging book, Santo Daime in general, the various ethical problems associated with conducting this kind of field research, the intentionally multifaceted subtitle ‘New World Religion’, and much more.

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, continuing next week with Mitra Barua speaking to Chris Silver about immigrant Buddhism in the West, and ending in two weeks time with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

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.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

Religion and Food

Religion and Food are two elements which one rarely sees receiving extended and combined scholarly attention. However, even the briefest of brainstorms yields a wide variety of examples which could be “brought to the table” (to use a pun from today’s interview).

Some interactions involve the consumption of food – think of the traditional image of the Jewish Shabbat or Hindu Diwali celebrations; others involve restrictions – be that in terms of diet (such as Jain vegetarianism) or food intake (such as the Muslim month of Ramadan). The Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist might be conceptualized as the intake of food and drink by some, whilst others may find this whole notion deeply offensive, preferring to understand these elements as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And this discourse can be perpetuated in ostensibly ‘secular’ contexts, such as the recently reported release of the new “Ghost Burger” at Chicago’s Kuma’s Corner restaurant, made with a red wine reduction and topped with an unconsecrated Communion wafer (thanks to Sarah Veale of Mysteria Misc. Maxima for the heads up).

This week, Chris and David kick back in Edinburgh’s Doctor’s Bar and bring you an interview with Chris Silver speaking to Professor Michel Desjardins of Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, on this fascinating topic. Connections are made with recent turns in the academic study of religion (gender, materiality etc.), and other areas of study such as religion and nutrition/health. This wide ranging interview builds a strong case for greater scholarly attention to be focused upon this more quotidian aspect of human life, with some stimulating anecdotes and methodological considerations along the way, We are not responsible for any over-eating which may occur as a result of listening to this tantalizing interview…

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.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in consumer culture in your own way.

This podcast is the penultimate in our series on religion and cultural production, featuring interviews with François Gauthier on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media, and Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production.

Podcasts

Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work

Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work by Craig Martin

Above, religion as a term appears in opposition to cult in a meme.

Tim Fitzgerald’s The Ideology of Religious Studies is, in my opinion, a modern classic in the field of the academic study of religion. In graduate school I read that book and his later, equally useful volume, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. I’ve also found value in some of his other works, including Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (in particular, I highly recommend the chapter titled “Radical, Religious and Violent” in the latter book). Tim’s work has been highly influential on aspects of my own, and I’m deeply indebted to his work; consequently, it’s difficult to respond to his RSP interview, other than to say “hear, hear!” Instead of responding by offering a criticism of anything Tim said in this podcast, let me expand or highlight two of the lessons I think we can learn from his description of his own intellectual journey.

 

To start with where the interview ends, one of the most important insights I’ve learned from Tim’s work is that the various concepts opposed to “religious”—such as “non-religious,” “secular,” “science,” or, in some cases, “spiritual”—are central to the rhetorical function of the term “religious.” In general, what I find objectionable about how the concept of “religion” is deployed in particular social contexts is the (dubious) rhetorical work it does in relationship to whatever is imagined or legitimated as its (superior) opposite. Some discourses devalue religion in relationship to science, while some discourses devalue religion in relationship to spirituality. Because of the normative connotations hung on these rhetorical oppositions, the use of the term religion often entails propping up its opposite as superior by contrast. There’s nothing new about this—these uses are articulated upon the legacy of modern Euro-American discourses that once distinguished true religion from false religion, distinguished religion from enthusiasm or superstition, distinguished sincere, inward belief from outward, dead ritual, or distinguished advanced, individualist societies from backward, primitive savages who don’t realize they are slaves to the collective. All of that is to say, one thing I’ve learned from Tim is that in order to understand how the concept of religion functions in practice, we should look at what it is being distinguished from and ask whether some social practices or social formations are being privileged or condemned with the discursive contrast.

 

Above, some forms of Christianity use memes to define religion negatively and in opposition to a more “authentic” experience of faith.

 

The second lesson I think we should take away is that intellectual growth requires exposure to new ideas, often ideas from other fields or disciplines. Tim describes having traveled to parts of the globe where English is not the primary language, thereby learning how people who use a different language see or divide up the world differently. Similarly, Tim also describes reading widely outside the field of religious studies. Like Tim, I’ve attempted to read as widely as I can, particularly in those university disciplines that help us understand human societies: history, anthropology, sociology, social psychology, political science, legal studies, economics, feminist theory, queer theory, critical theory, critical race theory, and some forms of philosophy. Along the way, I’ve attempted to integrate the knowledge from these different fields or disciplines, making connections where theories or claims overlap, or noting where some approaches allow me to answer some of my questions in a more sophisticated way than other approaches. Why recreate the wheel in one field if the theoretical wheel has already been built in another?

 

A significant consequence of attempting to read so widely is that my views and my vocabulary have changed over time, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes dramatically. In addition, I’ve come to the conclusion that our views and vocabularies must change as circumstances change. Pick up a psychology textbook from fifty years ago, and you’ll see a considerably different vocabulary and set of theories than you would if you picked up one published in 2020. Things are moving so quickly in computer science that they don’t even publish books anymore—by the time a book is published, its content is out of date. Sadly, we don’t see the same growth in religious studies, where one of our best-selling and most-often-used textbooks—Huston Smith’s volume—has undergone relatively minor revisions since first published in 1958. Prentice Hall’s bestseller, The Sacred Quest, isn’t quite as old but nevertheless adopts a phenomenological approach that is just as outdated as Smith’s. There’s a reason that medical doctors no longer refer to the four humours, just as physicists no longer refer to an invisible “ether.” By contrast, we’re still utilizing a century-old theory of world religions that has been shown to have originally been built out of racist European colonialist assumptions (see, in particular, Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, or Tim Murphy’s Politics of Spirit: Phenomenology, Genealogy, Religion). We can and should do better.

Protected: The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories) (Classroom Edit)

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Tim Fitzgerald is one of the foundational figures in the critical study of religion, and his seminal volume, The Ideology of Religious Studies, was published twenty years ago this year. In this interview – the first of a two-part retrospective – we discuss his career and how his studies in Hinduism and his time spent in Japan led him to question the relationship of categories like caste and ritual to the broader category ‘religion’. His realisation was that religion is such a broad category that it can include almost everything. We discuss the historical development of the category, and its roots in Protestant theological ideas, and the political movements of the eighteenth century. This leads into a critique of the essentialist assumptions hidden by the category, and the phenomenological ideas in its use in academia, and its function as a tool in power relations.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (17 February 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-problem-with-religion-and-related-categories/

PDF of this transcription at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Fitzgerald_-_The_Problem_with_Religion_1.1.pdf

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Timothy Fitzgerald, returning to the Religious Studies Project after a few years. Tim is originally from the UK but now based in Brisbane, where he is a Visiting Research Professor at the University of Queensland in the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He’s one of the most prominent figures in the critical study of religion. And this interview is taking place at the 20 years since the publication of The Ideology of Religious Studies – which was a kind-of watershed text in the emergence of the critical religion. And the approach that we, at the RSP, have been pushing since day one, I guess. So first of all, Tim – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project, and thanks for making the time.

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Thanks for inviting me. It’s good to be with you.

DR: It’s been difficult to get this interview arranged, so I’m glad that it’s finally happening! Let’s start assuming that the Listener probably hasn’t read The Ideology of Religious Studies – or may not have read The Ideology of Religious Studies. Let’s start with a little bit of your back story. How did you get there from, you know, your first degree in RS – the same way that we all sort-of start, with whichever religion we decide to specialise in – how did you get there?

TF: Yes, well there are different possible starting points, but I agree the degree in Religious Studies that I did at Kings College London is a good place to start. I did that degree in ‘75-’77, and it was a really good degree. I learnt a lot from it. I’m glad I did it. It was well-taught. It was well-organised in a lot of ways. And it was all about religion, right? So we had eight or nine courses that lasted over the period of three years: three of them were in the philosophy of religion, one was in anthropology of religion, one in sociology of religion, one in psychology of religion. And then, in addition, we had to study two world religions. The world religions model was very well established, obviously, at that time. And that was in the mid-seventies. Ninian Smart was very prominent, and the whole sort-of Religious Studies education scene was pretty much dominated by the word religions model, as you know. Now, we did all of these studies of religion and one issue which came up for me was the question of what religion actually means. . . what it referred to. Because you know in a lot of the sub-disciplines – like the anthropology of religion, or the philosophy of religion – there’s a sort of genre of writing concerned with defining what religion is. And one of the things that struck me – and I suppose anybody else who read these different approaches to the definition of religion – one of the things that struck me was that there were so much room for disagreement. That basically the meaning of religion, the referent of religion was thoroughly contested. But that didn’t lead anybody to question whether we should have departments of Religious Studies focussed on researching a term which cannot be defined, and about which there is such a degree of (laughs) conflict or contestation. So that was really what I came out of Kings College London with. That was a very valuable thing. I think, in a way, one could say that the degree was successful because it taught me how to reflect critically. And – lo and behold! – I was reflecting critically on the very category that was at the heart of all of these studies that we were reading.

DR: Well, despite the sort-of prominence of Ninian Smart’s approach, it sounds like it was actually quite a methodological, or at least theoretical, undergraduate course (5:00) – much more so than you would find in most places nowadays, I think – with this sort-of . . . an entire course on the philosophy of religion, and entire course on the psychology of religion. You know, I don’t think courses look like that anymore.

TF: Right. Well it was good, yes. I enjoyed it. And I got a huge amount . . . .We did a lot of philosophy and, for example, we did philosophy in the sense of history of ideas, but it involved looking at particular writers, particular thinkers in some depth – and this was very much the sort-of Anglo-American analytical side of philosophy. We didn’t study any of the . . . we didn’t study many of the French or German philosophers. Of course Wittgenstein was very important, and one of the ways in which philosophers of religion and many others have tried to find a solution to this definitional problem is through Wittgenstein’s language games, and the idea that the meaning of a word comes from its uses. Those are important insights, but they don’t actually for me solve the definitional problem. And in fact I’ve had quite extended arguments about this with people like Benson Saler, who’s a great defender of Wittgenstein’s family resemblance kind-of approach to defining the meaning of words. But I think it has problems. So The Ideology of Religious Studies includes a great deal of argument about the way that Wittgenstein’s arguments are used to find a solution to the definitional problem.

DR: Well, hopefully we can get to that later on. I want to kind-of walk the Listener to there. Because I think, actually, the story of how you got there is quite interesting in itself. So we talked before about when you started looking at Buddhism and Hinduism, after your PhD, that the lack of referent in the category of religion, it began to hit home. You began to get some sort-of clear historical examples of that.

TF: Yes. I got a job in a college of higher education – Hertfordshire College of Higher Education – in 1980. It was my first full-time job. And one of my responsibilities was to teach Hinduism and Buddhism. And when I joined we had two degrees. One was the Education degrees . . . one was the Education degree for teachers. So there were a lot . . . it was a teacher training college originally, I think. And then there was a new BA in Humanities, of which the Study of Religion provided some pretty substantial segments . . . courses. So I was teaching on those two. And I mean the students would ask me . . . I was teaching Hinduism and Buddhism as a world religion, but feeling very uncomfortable with it. Because I could see the problems. And they’re vast essentialisations, aren’t they, based on texts, or on edited and selected versions of texts? And the idea of Hinduism is taught very much in the sort-of history of ideas fashion – or used to be. So, there’s a whole series of dates that you need to learn. And you need to learn the basic doctrines. But one thing that this complex construct Hinduism, taught as a religion, doesn’t do is to explain the wider context in which these abstracted textual references and concepts exist. And, of course, caste is a particularly problematic term (10:00). If you read world religion text books you will get references about Hinduism, you’ll constantly get references to caste, but nobody explains it properly. What is caste? It’s presented as though it’s a kind-of religious injunction on the division of labour, or something. It’s not . . . the actual way in which caste operates is not really explained. And in order to find that out you have to go into anthropology. So I was reading a huge amount of anthropology to supplement my world religion experience. Because anthropologists . . . and sometimes anthropologists are also interested in history. But the point is that anthropologists actually go and try and come into contact with this abstraction caste. And at that time, particularly Louis Dumont – who wrote the classic book Homo Hierarchicus – he dominated the field of Indian anthropology. But there were lots of other important anthropologists – Srinivas, for example. But I read a lot of anthropology. And this was in response, after all, to my students’ demands. Because, actually, a lot of the students were thinking in very practical ways – and perfectly legitimately. They weren’t really interested in the doctrine of salvation according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. They were interested in why women wear a mark in their forehead, or how marriages happen, or what different people eat. They wanted to know about the actual practicalities of the village economy. How does caste actually operate within a village community? And these are very . . . further questions that I would be asked would be: how can caste operate in huge cities, like Bombay and Delhi, where there are so many people? Surely your caste identity simply gets lost? These kinds of practical and interesting questions. And here was I, teaching Hinduism and Buddhism – but I’d never even been to India! And that just seemed to me to be wrong. So I organised a research trip. It wasn’t brilliantly well organised. But basically, my research was going to be on caste, untouchability and the effect of colonial institutions. And whether the improvements and progress of liberal political economy had really helped to liberate people from the caste system. And one particular Indian leader was drawn to my attention, and that was Dr BR Ambedkar. And Ambedkar became a real source of great interest to me. So I managed to go to India for four months in the 1980s. I got some money together and I just spent four months in India, meeting people, and just trying to understand what India looks like, smells like, feels like.

DR: I know that you’ve got an interest in Mary Douglas’ work. And talking about caste there, I immediately start thinking of purity, and danger, and ideas of cleanliness. And I don’t know if she’s . . . I know her ideas are applicable so much wider than simply talking about religions. And certainly the way that these – kind-of well-discussed, being the obvious thing – but, “in-group” and “out-group” structures are kind-of ritualised but mystified in cultures.

TF: Yes.

DR: It immediately jumps to mind. And I know that you’re a fan of hers. So was that where you got to her work, as well?

TF: At first I was getting it more from Louis Dumont, who also really belonged to the French school of sociology: L’École Sociologique. He was a Durkheimian in many ways, as was Mary Douglas (15:00). And Durkheim had been a big influence on me when I was doing my degree at Kings College London. And for a long time I thought of myself, in a sense, as a Durkheimian. And I read Dumont through a Durkheimian perspective. But Dumont was very much putting the purity/pollution binary as the kind-of definition – almost the central characteristic – of the caste system. So you get the Brahmins as pure, and the Untouchables as impure. And a whole number of other castes in between, sort-of lining up in relative degrees of purity and pollution. And it’s a very useful way of looking at it. Of course, there was huge debate about these things in Indian anthropology and sociology. But I think nobody would doubt that Dumont’s picking on this binary is the sort-of outside limits of what could be thought in terms of social or human relations, rather. But, yes, Mary Douglas came hot on the heels, after Louis Dumont, as one of the people that I read, and one of the people that I have really enjoyed teaching. I think she’s been generally really helpful. One point that I would like to make, actually – since we’re talking about Durkheim, Dumont, Mary Douglas, I think you can see a kind of progressive move from the sort-of empirical ethnographic approach to sociology or anthropology towards the idea of . . . well, I’m calling them signalling systems. What Durkheim meant by a totemic system, or a system of collective representations. What I think you get in all of these writers is a move towards reading signs and their relationships as being the fundamental point of understanding anybody’s collective life.

DR: Would you agree that it’s maybe a progress from a structuralist into a poststructuralist view?

TF: Well, yes. I think so. But, I mean, Dumont is usually considered to be a structuralist. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people don’t read him very much now. Or they don’t seem to. But I think his work is actually very subtle in a lot of ways. And it’s very rich. He also wrote, as well as Homo Hierearchicus, he also wrote a book . . . . Well, he wrote From Mandeville to Marx. And he also wrote a collection of essays called Essays on Individualism, where he tried to show how, whereas in India the individual is always outside the world, structurally speaking and symbolically speaking, in the European Christian traditions the individual started off as outside the world but moved to become the in-wordly individual, basically as a result of modern capitalism. Or as a characteristic of modern capitalism. Whereas individuals used to sort-of go to the desert and separate themselves from the rest of the main body of humanity, in the search for salvation or some kind-of self-discovery – you know, you think of those hermits and renouncers in early Christian Europe, and they’ve existed all the way through . . . . Well in India you get a very, very ancient tradition of renunciation, where people symbolically . . . where people renounce their family (20:00), their village, their family name, their normal activities, clothes, profession, and really, in a sense, become a living non-person: they perform their own cremation, symbolically, by cremating their old clothes and various symbols of their previous life; so they become an out-worldly individual. They become an individual because they separated themselves from the collective, symbolically and physically. And they’ve now become something rather special, and sacred, and powerful by moving out of the normal collective which in India would be very much about caste, caste membership – moving out of that, and becoming a kind-of individual. Actually, most renouncers in India join ashrams. They belong to some kind of an organisation. They often have a guru. But nevertheless, Dumont was reading this at the symbolic level: that this is a move from identity defined by the collective, to a kind-of out-worldly identity. An individual identity. So his story was that, as a result of the Reformation, and then developments of various forms of Calvinism –where there was a very strong emphasis on the lonely individual working in the world – so the individual becomes, instead of being an out-worldly value, becomes the central in-worldly value of modern capitalist society. I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it.

DR: Very much so. After your research on India and teaching at the higher education college, you then moved to Japan for three years. And again, there’s another kind-of shift in your work there. So tell us about that.

TF: Yes, sure. Well, just as India had really shocked me and given me a different perspective on the world and also on myself. . . . I think it’s quite important – not for egotistical reasons – but it’s quite important to realise that one has internalised a great deal of shared common symbolic life which constructs our individuality. And that, when you move out of that shared symbolic life, your consciousness is quite vulnerable and you change a lot. Some people call it culture shock. But it’s to do with a reorientation of values. Well, going to Japan was even more like that because Japan is completely different from India and is very different from Britain. And going to Japan to live, this is because I met Noriko my wife, who’s Japanese, in London. And we had our first, our son, James – he was born in London. But then we almost immediately went to Japan, because I’d been offered a job there. And you know, her father was asking me to go and live in Japan for a while. He didn’t want to lose his daughter to a foreigner, which was perfectly understandable. (Laughs). Just suddenly disappear to London and never be seen again! So I was lucky, I was invited to a university in Japan called Aichi Gakuin, which was in Nagoya. And I had to do a lot of English teaching. But I did also have a status as a research academic. Yes, working in Japan, I had to very quickly start learning Japanese, because I didn’t know a word of Japanese when I went there! And I was there for several years. And it was very . . . it was hugely valuable. I mean my children are bilingual. They still speak Japanese with their mother. My Japanese was never fully fluent, but by the time I left I could more than survive there. You know, for the last six or seven years I was living there alone because Noriko and the children had gone back to London. And that was a fantastic impetus for me. And I went there when I was over forty, I ought to add. I was forty years old when I first went to Japan.

DR: And I can vouch that, in your forties, trying to learn a new language is not easy! (25:00)

TF: No. Not at all. Especially when it’s a non-European one. But I did learn a huge amount. And I’ve never regretted that. I regret that I couldn’t enter into academic debates with Japanese. That was just too a stretch too far. You really need to be trained in Japanese language from an earlier age and do it thoroughly. But never the less, I learned so much. And I tell you one of the main things it did was to re-orientate me, as I was explaining about India. It doesn’t mean to say that I idealised Japan. I was a big critic of Japan as a foreigner, living in Japan, but at the same time there are lots of things I really admired about the way Japanese people do things, the way they organised . . . . There a lots of things that I learnt from being in Japan.

DR: One important one, though, I think is the idea of translating categories. Japan certainly in conversations I have in RS, it’s very useful as an example where the idea of religion in the way that we think of it generally just doesn’t really work. And yet they’ve been kind-of forced to take it on to some degree as a result of colonial forces in the 19th century particularly. And yet, our Western hegemonic classifications don’t really map onto Japanese society very well. Would that be fair to say?

TF: Yes I think that is fair. I think it’s true, and in fact that’s been one of the themes of quite a lot of published work on Japan, my own published work. You know, just to give you a practical example, when I was teaching English in the universities – it was really boring by the way, because most of the Japanese didn’t want to learn English, and I don’t blame them. Why should they? They’re perfectly happy speaking their own language. But also it’s the way that English is taught, or languages in general are taught in Japan. And so I found myself teaching a large class of twenty or thirty students who were sitting in absolutely straight lines, desks in straight lines. They would often self-gender. So you’d get the men sitting on one side of the room and the women on the other. Not always, but they’d quite often do that. It was a bit like an extension of the Japanese school system – very disciplined. You don’t ever question the teacher. And basically, the teacher is there to speak and the students are there to listen. It’s very difficult under those circumstances to have a conversation class, as they jokingly used to call them. But, because I was trying to develop confidence in speaking Japanese, I used to sometimes try to start a conversation in an English class in Japanese, which was a shocking experience for my students: (A) because, well, you just don’t do that kind of thing, and (B) because, well, they had to suffer the very unskilful pronunciation and grammatical forms that I was producing. But nevertheless, you know, it was something that I was determined to do. Because I wanted to show them that I was prepared to make a fool of myself in trying to speak Japanese in front of a lot of students, therefore I’m not going to laugh at them if they’re feeling embarrassed about their English. That’s not what I’m there for. I’m there to encourage and to help with communication skills. Stuff like that. So in these circumstances, one of the conversations I used to like to have is “What does religion mean to you?” And I would sometimes ask it in English and then ask it again in Japanese using the Japanese term shūkyō, which is the current dominant translation for religion. And the students, you know, quite often in these circumstances nobody will reply (30:00); there’s just a deathly silence. But quite often I found if I was a bit persistent, they’d say, “Oh, religion is Christianity. It’s nothing to do with me.” (Laughs) Some would say Christianity and Buddhism are religion. And I’d say, well what about the matsuri, the festivals? What about all your visits to the temple and the shrine? Are these . . .? What about the way that you pay respects to your ancestors in the home? Or these kinds of things? And they would just respond and say, “Oh no, no. That’s not religion. That’s our customs. That’s Japanese customs. That’s the way we live.” So you see, the distinction between religion and what foreign and Japanese scholars of religion will describe as religious practices – for most people they’re not. And I think that that was something that I needed to learn, you know.

DR: Yes, I wonder how . . . I mean there’s certainly a way of looking at everyday – what gets called “lived religion” or “vernacular” religion a lot of the time, now. Certainly, thinking about most of my kind-of relatives and friends growing up in a working class area in the highlands, that’s mostly the way that they talk about religion as well. “Religion? Oh it’s the wee frieze at the high kirk”, or whatever. But going to speak to your gran at the grave or, you know, these kind-of ritual behaviours around twenty-first birthdays, or Christmastime, or Hogmanay, or whatever – they weren’t really thought of as religion. But I can’t help but think if there was a sort-of 1930’s anthropologist in that situation he would be describing all of these as kind-of “primitive religious rituals”.

TF: Well, yes. Except that . . . basically “primitive”, I don’t think contemporaries would call them primitive.

DR: No, no.

TF: No. I know exactly what you mean. There’s a whole tradition of making other people’s practices look as though they’re somehow backward, lower on the evolutionary scale, less sophisticated. But I think also there is the complication that there is a kind-of meta level, say the constitutional level, the level of constitutional, and the level of judiciary concerning what religion means. And this is basically adopted from Europe. And it’s quite a long story but it involves talking about . . . . In the mid-nineteenth century, the Americans were becoming very powerful, they were quite imperialistic. The United States of America, which had liberated people from the tyranny of a European monarch . . . .

DR: I want to pick that up at the start of the next interview. Because I don’t think we’ve got time to do it justice now.

TF: No, I think it is a very long one that. Because I think we need to talk about the way in which religion because inscribed in the US constitution.

DR: Absolutely. So we’ll pick that one up there in the next episode. But for now, let’s just . . . . Whilst you were in Japan, you wrote The Ideology of Religious Studies. So tell us a little bit about the overall argument there. I mean, certainly reading that as . . . I was either towards the end of being an undergrad, or at the start of postgraduate studies. (35:00) It was the first sustained argument challenging religions, world religions, the phenomenological approach which had been so sort-of central to the way that they taught at Edinburgh. And so, just briefly sum up where you were when you wrote that monograph.

TF: Well, as you say, I was in Japan. And it was the culmination of . . . I mean I’d been publishing about Japan during the ‘90s. For example, I was reading books on Japanese religion in English but written by Japanese scholars who had either written their contribution in English or it had been translated. But one thing that struck me. There was one particular volume which was quite authoritative. I mean, it had been published and financed under the auspices of the ministry of culture in Japan. And there were five or six professors who contributed special chapters to it: one on Japanese Buddhism, one on Japanese Shinto, one on Japanese Confucianism, one on Japanese nature religion, one on, sorry, folk religion, and one or two others. One on Christianity in Japan, I think. There are very few Christians in Japan. But what struck me about all of these writers was that (A) they were all specialising in a particular religion, or a particular religious tradition, which they set out to describe for the reader. But, at the same time, every single one of them said that, actually, this is a very artificial distinction. Because, really, you can’t talk about Shinto without talking about Confucianism and Buddhism. And the same with the others. Because they’re all . . . they’re all part of our lives. We don’t really choose between them. It’s not as though “I’m a Shintoist, but not a Buddhist”. And the idea that “I’m not a Confucianist” is difficult to swallow. The point is that there was a contradiction inherent in what they were saying. And it was the same contradiction that I’d encountered . . . well I’d encountered it in India in a particular way, but also in the definitional problems, in the degree that I did: that there was a disparity between what people were saying in one part of the text and what they were saying in another part. So my first article about Japan was published . . . I can’t remember now . . . in the early nineties. Was it ‘93? ‘94? ‘95? And it was called Japanese Religion as Ritual Order

DR: 1993.

TF: 1993. Ok. And it was published I think, in Religion. And I was trying to point out what I’ve just told you in that article. I called it Japanese Religion as Ritual Order, because I was trying to find a term which would give me some kind-of a base. And “ritual” seemed to be a very useful one. Because ritual . . . we can use the term ritual to describe either side of the binary. You know, you can have religious rituals and secular rituals. But rituals was a term which I hoped I would be able to use in order to avoid using this binary religion/secular. Because it didn’t seem to me to work. So I looked at all the ways in which the Japanese ritualised their everyday lives, in all the institutions, in the household, in the schools, in the universities, in the corporations, in the small businesses, in the services. Every institutional practice is the ritual which constructs seniors and juniors, that’s one of the things it does. It’s imbued with respect language, and different levels of language. There is an issue about social space, so people distance themselves in a certain way. Bowing is an obvious example of the ritualization of everyday life (40:00). So I wanted to try and subvert this essentialising dichotomy – between religion on the one hand, and the rest of secular life on the other – and show that it’s much more like a ritual continuum. And that went in very much to The Ideology of Religious Studies.

DR: For me, the most kind-of impactful realisation in it was the critique of phenomenology, the phenomenological method, as kind-of essentialist and maybe even crypto-theological. Together with the sort-of largest critique of the category as essentially . . . without that kind-of essence to it. Like, the term was essentially meaningless, unless it was referring to this sui generis kind-of essence. And that, for me, was the most impactful part of that argument. I don’t know if that was central for you, but that was . . .

TF: I think of course it is central, yes. I mean, one of the points of my argument was that religion is actually used to describe and classify so much that it becomes empty of any specific content. And then, if you look at the actual range of usages of the term religion, there’s a religion of everything. And yet at the same time in this either/or essentialising binary with the non-religious secular. Now there’s something very interesting there, that on the one hand you’ve got a category which can be used so widely that you’re beginning to wonder: is anything not religion or religious? And on the other hand, it’s held together in this essentially either/or binary. It’s either religion or it’s not religion – which gives it the appearance of having a very determinate and definitive reference. Do you see what I’m saying?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TF: And it also raises the question about: if we can’t define the religion side of the binary, then we can’t find the limits of the secular side either. And my work in The Ideology of Religious Studies was very much about destabilising politics and society as the generic abstraction for sociology. And a lot of the stuff was aimed at Ninian Smart, but also much more widely. I mean, I discussed a lot of different theorists in The Ideology of Religious Studies. And I wanted to undermine these grand dichotomies. But as soon as you question the limits of the secular, then you’re also questioning politics, or the idea of society, or the idea of culture.

DR: And that’s exactly where we’re going to pick up in the next part of this interview. But, for now: thank you, Tim.

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Santa Muerte and the Interplay of Cultures on Dia de los Muertos

In Mexico, it may appear to outsiders that there is a trifecta of death. After all, there is the Day of the Dead, La Catrina and Santa Muerte. But these are distinct from one another, although often conflated by outsiders.

 

Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on the 1st and 2nd November. This is a time when Mexicans reminisce about their ancestors, honouring the deceased and in many ways keeping them alive through memories and altars that they build to commemorate them. The famous French sociologist and contemporary of Durkheim, [Robert] Hertz postulated that through mortuary rites, such as funerals, people come to accept the new status of the deceased as a departed member of society, someone who will no longer participate in the activities of the living; someone who no longer has any social effect. Still today in the Western world, when we lose a family or friend, the idea is to grieve and let go. For Westerners, the funeral is a mortuary rite of transition to accept this dramatic transformation in status. However, the Day of the Dead contradicts Hertz’s theory and attests to a starkly different stance in Mexico towards the deceased when compared to the Western attitude. 

 

The dearly departed in Mexico play an active part every year in the lives of the living on the Day of the Dead. Mexicans do not let go of the deceased but rather recall them. The dead, if not honoured correctly, according to some Mexicans, in particular in rural locales, may even pose a threat to the living by bringing them bad luck, potentially cursing them and their ventures. This belief substantiates the social force of the deceased in Mexico and the effect they continue to have on the living long past their demise. Time, money and energy is invested in the deceased, despite their lack of a physical presence. Indeed, a tangible manifestation appears that symbolises the dead when altars are fabricated for them. 

 

Altars constructed to honour the deceased are symbolic expressions or representations of the departed and the love that the living still have for them. They signify the undying bond between living and dead. These altars consist of a photo of the dead surrounded by their favourite objects which are given as ofrendas, offerings, to welcome them and show these souls that they have not been forgotten. Children typically receive toys, candy, sweet tamales, fruit, and other such victuals. Adults receive libations of their favourite alcoholic beverages, their preferred dishes and possibly cigarettes. Sugar skulls, known as calaveras de azúcar, also celebrate the dead. They are inscribed with the name of a deceased relative and placed on altars. A sweet bread is baked called pan de muerto which is gifted to the dead and also eaten by the living, particularly at gravesites where the dead are commemorated. 

 

 Children are honoured in processions and graveyards on November 1st on the Dia de los Innocentes, or Dia de los Angelitos, and adults on November 2nd. Albeit if young adults who would typically be honoured on November 1st died in a particularly violent fashion, and of unnatural causes they are often honoured on November 2nd, since in some ways their traumatised soul can no longer be deemed innocent. 

 

The Day of the Dead is a hybrid tradition that meshes Indigenous death worship and Catholic practice. Veneration of ancestors was at the fulcrum of many Indigenous people’s religious praxes, as was worship of death deities, and not only for the Aztec, as Dr. Chesnut points out in the interview. In my research, I have encountered a wide range of beliefs in death deities and rites of ancestor veneration amongst to name but a few the Maya, the Zapotec and the Mixtec.  For example, the Maya regularly held blood-letting rituals. The Mayan King, and other nobles would be bled, often by piercing their tongues or ears with a serrated stingray tail and other jagged objects. This loss of blood ensured possession by what was known as the serpents of vision. These serpents, depicted in iconography as gargantuan snakes, served as a gateway from the physical world to the realm of spirits, that is to say ancestors, who were called on for advice. Still today, Mexicans converse with the dead during commemorations and may ask for their blessings in their future endeavours.

 

Many Indigenous Mexican peoples had special days of the week or a month dedicated to death deities in the pre-Hispanic era, as Dr. Chesnut points out in reference to the Aztec. The Catholic Church sought to annihilate these Indigenous religious activities, but soon realised that they could not exscind them entirely thus instead focused on finding paths of accommodation, enforcing Church rites and beliefs where there was enough contiguity with Indigenous customs for Catholic conventions to be adopted zealously. One of these events was the Catholic holiday, All Saints Day, which rather than becoming simply assimilated, was re-mapped according to Indigenous choreography thus blooming into a syncretic rite of cultural concrescence. 

Santa Muerte also hails from the Mexican cultural tradition that relates to death deities and death worship. Some devotees, as Dr. Chesnut points out in the podcast, have linked her to Aztec death goddess Mictecacihuatl, nevertheless we must go beyond the obvious link with the Aztec, as I have stated, and consider the wider cultural importance of death veneration across many of the variegated Indigenous peoples of pre-Hispanic Mexico. Furthermore, although Santa Muerte has Indigenous origins, she is very much a modern death deity who once again must be understood in terms of her hybridity and as an example of the fact that faith is always in perpetuum mobile, altering to fit the zeitgeist, sine qua non it would not survive. 

 

Following on from [Fernand] Braudel, I believe that culture although continually being reinvented in new guises in line with l’air du temps, is characterised by the longue durée, and moreover, even if there is continuity there is also alteration. Thus religion, like most cultural phenomena, is marked by a dialectic of permanence and change as I argue in my forthcoming book ‘Daughters of Death: Female Followers of Santa Muerte’. Veneration to Santa Muerte must be seen through this optic. She is a symbolic complex and much as she hails in part from pre-Colombian mythic structures, she is also distinctly modern, or more aptly, post-modern given that she is amoral and there is no one single version of Santa Muerte. There is no single grand metanarrative that can explain the Bone Mother’s many facets, nor one answer that can elucidate the way in which she appeals to manifold groups of people, from narcos to lovesick housewives. 

 

In her cloaks of many colours, which Dr. Chesnut has described in the podcast, she may provide favours of all sorts to a wide demographic of devotees. In her black gown, she is known for bringing death to enemies, and in her red mantle she aids women with the return of an errant husband, whilst dressed in white, the Bony Lady brings peace and cleansing. Santa Muerte is even protean in her many iconographic depictions. There is sexy Santa Muerte, who dressed in a miniskirt, with a generous bust somehow seems at odds with her cadaverous qualities, incarnating the Hollywood-inspired male fantasies of narcos. Then there is Aztec Santa Muerte who with flamboyant feather headdress incorporates pastiche components from an imagined pre-Hispanic past that is neither spurious nor genuine, but an invention of the past, presupposing past symbolisms and creatively reinterpreting them in a dialectic of continuity and change.

Ultimately, we must understand Santa Muerte as a death saint who is the product of history and the interplay of cultures. She is the fruit of a multitude of relations and events that over time continue to this day to propel the incessant development of an ever-mushrooming group of devotees, which now stretches across the globe.

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

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

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

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

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Podcast with Douglas Ezzy (5 March 2018).

Interviewed by Breanne Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DE: Yes

BF: Were they the words you used?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DE: Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death, Music, and Ritual: Contemporary Requiems in the Commemoration of Death and Violence

Apparently, the only two certain things in life are death and taxes. In terms of the former, the requiem has held its grip up until contemporary times. While popular requiems, such as those composed by Mozart and Rutter are still performed, newly composed requiems, or requiem-like pieces are growing in popularity in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. These requiems make use of previously employed lyrics and composition techniques, but some also rework these elements or leaving them behind entirely. From Mozart, to hip-hop, to haiku, contemporary music for the commemoration of death is variegated in its composition. In this interview, Breann Fallon discusses contemporary requiems with Associate Professor M.J.M. Hoondert of Tilburg University while at the 2016 European Association for the Study of Religions conference in Helsinki. Hoondert highlights the variety of contemporary requiems, noting their different styles, imagery, and convergences, but also the intended affect of the works. In particular, Hoondert discusses the step away from the liturgy associated with requiems as way for today’s individual to deal with death or violence in their own way. Still, it is clear that the ritual elements of the requiem remains, hence where this contemporary music fits into the sacral landscape is up for debate.

Also, be sure to check out DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory with Jonathan Jong

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

A Critical Introduction to the History, Beliefs, and Practices of Wiccans

In this interview Ethan Doyle White, author of the book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, introduces his systematic overview of the contested history and multifaceted developments of Wicca. White presents his own methodological approaches and theoretical data utilising both emic and etic sources in a thematic framework. Based on the sheer number of people identifying as Wiccans, book sales, the media, and the popularity of the term, White argues that Wicca is truly the most popular and widespread expression of modern Paganism. He then discusses the ‘invented’ claims of Wicca being a continuity of European pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices, the relationship between religion and magic in Wiccan discourse in reference to theological elements and ritual practices that define Wicca, and then a cross-comparison of Wiccans and self-proclaimed practitioners of ‘Traditional Witchcraft’. White also discusses the divide in Wicca over more traditionally inclined practitioners and more modern eclectic practitioners. Regarding the socio-political dimensions of Wicca, White examines ways in which Wiccan discourse can be conceived as a political activist movement regarding gender rights, environmental issues, and socio-economic policies. On a final note, White dissects the current academic debate on the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of scholars who are Wiccans studying other practitioners of Wicca, and concludes by presenting his own view on what the future holds for Wicca.

Listeners might also be interested in our podcasts on 21st Century Irish Paganism, Druidry and the Definition of Religion, and Animism, amongst others. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, smudging sticks, besomes, and more.

Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

In this interview, we discuss the history and development of yoga in its South Asian contexts, and then examine its transformations across the globe into the contemporary era.

In its earliest uses, the word “yoga” meant “yoke,” primarily yoking a warhorse to a chariot. In the classical period, yoga took on a variety of other meanings, including yoking the mind-body complex through meditative practices, such as breath control and mantras, to achieve liberation. Yoga was an analysis of perception and cognition, whereby to know something is to be it; higher states of consciousness could expand individuals into the universe and even to omniscience. Yoga also included achieving superpowers through sexual and other bodily alchemical practices, allowing practitioners to see through things and to take over other human bodies. In tantric yoga, which developed during the medieval period, the goal became not union with the absolute but rather to become a living god, a yogi, through occult practices. In hatha yoga, practitioners regulated their breath and channeled vital fluids within the body, via chakras, in order to achieve awakening and supernatural powers. Contemporary forms of yoga as postural practice developed from Hindu Vedanta, Indian nationalism, the Orientalist resurrection of the Yoga Sutras, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and other sources, and constitute a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of yoga. Even more recently, the study of yoga in North America has been riven by debates about what counts as “authentic” yoga and who gets to make such claims authoritatively, as the Hindu America Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign can attest.

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

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

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Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

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Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

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Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

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Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

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Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

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Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

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Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

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Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

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Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

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Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

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Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

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Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

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The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

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.uk,Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, ritual paraphernalia, model airplanes, and more.

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.

The Burning Saints, Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria

greece-firewalkingIt’s dark outside. The moon hangs in the sky and the soft smell of smoke permeates the warm air as it stings your eyes. Looking down, you notice the glow from burning coals, as hot as 535 degrees C, scattered on the ground below. The trancelike rhythm from the beating drums fills your ears as the Patron Saints Constantine and Helen are honored in the town of Agia Eleni in Northern Greece. The whole village surrounds you and they share in your moment, as the richness of the surrounding imagery and importance of the ritual consumes the senses. You are in a sublime state of ecstasy as the glowing coals lay before you. But, will you walk across? When Saint Constantine calls you to become a firewalker – you answer – at least if you are one of the Anastenaria.

In his interview with Thomas Coleman for The Religious Studies Project, experimental anthropologist, Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas, discusses his ethnography of the fire walking rituals of the Anastenaria. The Anastenaria are Orthodox Christians in Northern Greece who celebrate the Saints Constantine and Helen in a two part ritual cycle each year. They have no written texts, as the tradition and myths encompassing the firewalkers are passed down orally through story telling and by participation in ritual. Their tradition is, as Xygalatas writes (2012, p. 2) “a good example of a physically and emotionally arousing ritual, and such rituals raise a very important question regarding their participants’ motivation: why do people engage in extreme, costly ritual activities, that offer no obvious advantage but entail evident risks?” Widely known and respected for bringing experimental methods into the tough and fast paced conditions entailed by fieldwork on extreme rituals, Xygalatas combines rich description with scientific explanation to present a portrait of the Anastenaria that holds firm to the ‘anthropological attitude’ of understanding, while also providing an explanation for why people may behave the way they do.

anastenaria1

The interview begins with a discussion of the cultural context of the Anastenaria in Greece, noting widespread discrimination against their religious practices by the government and Greek Orthodox Church. He explains some of the shared beliefs the Anastenaria hold and describes the ritual cycle for the festival of St. Constantine and St. Helen. But, why would anyone be compelled to walk across burning coals? Xygalatas goes on to highlight the underlying cognitive and physiological mechanisms that may contribute to participation in extreme rituals, discusses the transmission of beliefs and revelation in the Anastenaria and highlights the importance and meaning of the rituals. In closing, Dr. Xygalatas shares a very personal moment from additional fieldwork in Spain that turned himself, the researcher, into the subject being researched.

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.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References

Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints cognition and culture in the fire-walking rituals of the Anastenaria. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

Ritual, Religion, and the Evolutionary Foundations of Human Culture

Although it is more than 150 years since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species (1859), it is only in recent decades that the evolutionary paradigm has become properly elaborated. But despite the wide range of developments across archaeology and the physical sciences, evolutionary treatments of religion have remained few and far between, with most prominent ones coming from the hyper-partisan scholars of the New Atheist movement. But that situation has begun to change. Although works such as Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999) began to lay the ground for a more nuanced treatment, the publication of Robert Bellah’s groundbreaking new work, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011), signals a new era in the study of long-term religious and cultural history in which scientific, social-scientific and historical approaches can be properly brought into conversation.

Donald_memoryOne of the key figures behind Bellah’s work is evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald, who spoke with Jack Tsonis at the 2013 AAR meeting in Baltimore about his paper “Ritual, Religion, and the Drama of Daily Life: The continued dominance of mimetic representation”.  In addition to an overview of Donald’s work and a discussion about ritual in the basic sense of “culturally patterned sequences of expression”, Jack also asks Professor Donald about the way that Bellah has used his ideas, which reveals a subtle but important difference in emphasis. This interview will fascinate anybody interested in the evolution of human culture, and helps to scramble the common notion that there is a clear distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” behaviour.

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.

Santo Daime

My first experience of Santo Daime occurred in 2005 during research for a book on the non-mainstream religious scene in Brazil (A. Dawson, 2007). Pretty much unprepared for the sensory feast of a Santo Daime ritual, I was visually struck by the colourful ‘uniforms’ and brightly decorated ceremonial space. The strongly rhythmical and fervently sung ‘hymns’ also made an impact, as did the powerful smell and bitter taste of the religious sacrament which practitioners call ‘Daime’. A psychoactive beverage more commonly known as ‘ayahuasca’, the sacrament of Daime and its psychotropic effects further added to the intense sensory stimulation which abides as an enduring memory of my earliest encounter with Santo Daime. Staged within the mountainous terrain of a national park hundreds of miles north of São Paulo, the ritual contents and format originally forged in the Amazon region of north-west Brazil did not seem particularly out of place. However, unlike the poor, mixed-race community which first elaborated Santo Daime as part of its semi-rural subsistence lifestyle, the ritual participants with whom I was celebrating were overwhelmingly drawn from Brazil’s predominantly white urban middle class. Whereas the uniforms, songs and sacrament were very much of the Amazon region, those wearing, singing and consuming the ceremonial accoutrements of Santo Daime certainly were not. By no means discordant, the juxtaposition of Amazonian origins and urban-professional appropriation nevertheless piqued my academic interest. (Dawson 2013, 1)

Upon receiving an email notification through the BASR mailing list about Andrew Dawson’s recently published monograph, Santo Daime: A New World Religion, the RSP’s academic interest was certainly piqued. Thus, towards the end of May 2013, Chris made the arduous journey from his office at one end of B Floor, County South, Lancaster University, to Dr Dawson’s at the other, to discuss this fascinating and engaging book, Santo Daime in general, the various ethical problems associated with conducting this kind of field research, the intentionally multifaceted subtitle ‘New World Religion’, and much more.

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, continuing next week with Mitra Barua speaking to Chris Silver about immigrant Buddhism in the West, and ending in two weeks time with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

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.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

Religion and Food

Religion and Food are two elements which one rarely sees receiving extended and combined scholarly attention. However, even the briefest of brainstorms yields a wide variety of examples which could be “brought to the table” (to use a pun from today’s interview).

Some interactions involve the consumption of food – think of the traditional image of the Jewish Shabbat or Hindu Diwali celebrations; others involve restrictions – be that in terms of diet (such as Jain vegetarianism) or food intake (such as the Muslim month of Ramadan). The Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist might be conceptualized as the intake of food and drink by some, whilst others may find this whole notion deeply offensive, preferring to understand these elements as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And this discourse can be perpetuated in ostensibly ‘secular’ contexts, such as the recently reported release of the new “Ghost Burger” at Chicago’s Kuma’s Corner restaurant, made with a red wine reduction and topped with an unconsecrated Communion wafer (thanks to Sarah Veale of Mysteria Misc. Maxima for the heads up).

This week, Chris and David kick back in Edinburgh’s Doctor’s Bar and bring you an interview with Chris Silver speaking to Professor Michel Desjardins of Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, on this fascinating topic. Connections are made with recent turns in the academic study of religion (gender, materiality etc.), and other areas of study such as religion and nutrition/health. This wide ranging interview builds a strong case for greater scholarly attention to be focused upon this more quotidian aspect of human life, with some stimulating anecdotes and methodological considerations along the way, We are not responsible for any over-eating which may occur as a result of listening to this tantalizing interview…

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.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in consumer culture in your own way.

This podcast is the penultimate in our series on religion and cultural production, featuring interviews with François Gauthier on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media, and Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production.