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‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

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

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

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

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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

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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

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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.

Paul Williamson on Serpent Handling

Paul Williamson

Paul Williamson

The use of serpents – more commonly known as ‘venomous snakes’ – within religious practices is by no means a new phenomenon within religious and cultural contexts. Certainly there are plenty of examples of where serpents have been power symbols both in totem and ritualistic traditions.  Moreover, many of the world’s population identify with serpent play as a potentially dangerous exercise. Within this risk potential, the serpent carries a variety of different auspicious meanings related to culture and/or the impermanence of life. The Southeast United States is no exception. The Appalachian Mountain region of the Southeast was geographically isolated in many parts from the rest of the United States until recently. This isolation coupled with the challenges of a rural socio-economic lifestyle created uncertainty within the minds of many inhabitants. Religious beliefs and practices provided meaning and certainty within an uncertain world. Serpent Handling traditions of Appalachia were no exception.

Serpent handling as a religious practice appeared within the first decade of the twentieth century. The practice emerged in east Tennessee and spread to other parts of the Southern Appalachian Mountain region of the United States. While many different groups, both Holiness and Pentecostal, enact the practice, the serpent handling groups themselves have no parent organization that binds them together. What binds the groups together is a sharing in diversity of belief with similar religious practices (Burton, 1993 pg. 20-21). Serpent handling sects are historically and philosophically linked to three forms of American Protestantism: Holiness, fundamentalism, and Pentecostalism, although typically many groups would identify their membership as Holiness (Hood, found in Brown & Mcdonald, 2000). The fundamentalists influence among serpent handlers is in their acceptance of a plain reading of the Bible when it is appropriate (Hood, Hill, & Williamson, 2005).

As handling serpents began spreading throughout the Southern Appalachians, the notoriety of serpent bite deaths increased (Hood & Williamson, 2008). Much of the public fascination with these traditions relates primarily to the dangerous practice of handling of serpents or drinking of poison as part of the religious ritual. Many outsider observers assume that serpent handling traditions are of one religion or of a single theology. Such an assumption cannot be further from the truth. Many of the churches diverge on issues of textual interpretation of the Bible and theology. Their only unifying practice is dictated within Mark 16. For those within these traditions, handling of serpents or drinking of poison is an issue of religious freedom. Most states have enacted laws outlawing the practice of serpent handling. Regardless of the legal discrimination or the physical risk to themselves, the serpent handling sects assume the risk to follow God’s commandment (Hood, 1998).

In this week’s podcast, Chris Silver and Dr Paul Williamson explore Williamson’s research, and by proxy his colleague Ralph W. Hood Jr. (see our podcast from 2 weeks ago) related to documentation of the Serpent Handling Sects of Appalachia. By some accounts these traditions are in decline due to globalization. Williamson has attempted to study these traditions qualitatively and quantitatively to better understand the profound sense of religious commitment and deeper meaning of the theology and practices of the Serpent Handling sects.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

WP WilliamsonW. Paul Williamson is professor of psychology at Henderson State University (USA), although he has not always been in academic research. He was previously a full-time clergy in a Pentecostal denomination for 17 years, but then became more interested in religion from a psychological perspective. This led to his studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology with training in both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. Applying these approaches to the psychology of religion, he has published work in the areas of mysticism, religious fundamentalism, Christian serpent handling, and, most recently, spiritual transformation within the context of substance abuse recovery. He has co-authored The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism (2005, Guilford Press), with Ralph W. Hood, Jr., and Peter C. Hill; and Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent Handling Tradition (2008; University of California Press), with Ralph W. Hood, Jr. He is a recipient of the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award and the Distinguished Service Award, both from the American Psychological Association, Division 36: Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

According to Williamson, “What so often is missing in research is a balanced approach in the psychological study of religious phenomena. It typically is either from the objective standpoint or from the subjective point of view. What is needed for a more complete understanding of a particular phenomenon is the blending together of both perspectives in the use of quantitative and qualitative methodologies.”

References:

  • Brown, Fred & Mcdonald, Jeanne (2000). The serpent handlers: three families and their faith. Blair publishing: Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
  • Burton, Thomas. (1993). Serpent handling believers. University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, Tennessee.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr., (1998).  “When the spirit maims and kills: social psychological considerations of the history of serpent handling sects and the narrative of handlers. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 8, 71-96.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Williamson, W. P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism.  New York: Guilford.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr. & Williamson, W. P. (2008).  The power and meaning of the Christian serpent- handling tradition.  Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press.

Vernacular Religion: Because you’ll Find More than the Devil in the Details

There is an important message embedded in Marion Bowman’s notion of “vernacular religion”–that when we plant our feet firmly on the ground, amidst the fray of religious life, we are confronted with the unmistakable heterogeneity of both belief and practice. As living people “do religion” on the ground it may not always resemble the religion of the Qur’an, the Vatican or your Buddhism 101 textbook. It should come as no surprise then that this type of grounded religion was understood for years as “folk religion,” or as folklorist Don Yoder put it “the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside with strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion” (Yoder 1974:14). The near synonym “popular religion” has also been used with frequency (e.g. Jolly 1996).

Yet, as we heard, Bowman objects to both “popular” and “folk” religion as scholarly categories because of what they imply in contradistinction. For instance, in regards to “popular religion” she says “so this is opposed to…unpopular religion?” But the problems run deeper.  “Folk religion” is hampered by a legacy of distinguishing the religion of the folk from, as Yoder put it “official religion” and thereby demeaning its value. Indeed this is true of “popular religion” as well (e.g. Vrijhof and Waardenburg 1979). So while Bowman credits Yoder for trying to rescue “folk religion” from this two-tiered structure and the negative valuation it gets within it, she chooses instead to follow one of Yoder’s former students, Leonard Primiano, in rejecting the term altogether (Primiano 1995; Bowman and Valk 2012).

Enter “vernacular religion.” Primiano succinctly defines the concept as “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand and interpret it,” and in her podcast Bowman also refers to it as “that everyday religion” (Primiano 1995:44). Here religious studies scholars and sociologists might respectively recognize a pair of conceptual cousins with similar parameters. As religious historian David Hall describes it, to focus on “lived religion” means looking at “religion as practiced and…the everyday thinking and doing of lay men and women” (Hall 1997:vii). In a similar vein sociologist Nancy Ammerman tells us that the study of “everyday religion” privileges “the experience of the nonexperts, the people who do not make a living being religious or thinking and writing about religious ideas” (Ammerman 2007:5). Yet these conceptual cousins might perhaps still evoke distinctions (like those between the church hierarchy and the laity or the expert and the nonexpert) that Bowman hopes vernacular religion more consciously elides. To Bowman there is a sense in which like “vernacular speech” or “vernacular architecture,” all religious forms are vernacular because all are context specific. In other words the beliefs and practices of religious experts and elites are just as vernacular as those of the laity. The same goes for the variety of religious forms within larger traditions. There is nothing more or less authentic about Hungarian Calvinism than Scottish Calvinism, for instance.

In this vein one might consider Frank Korom’s work on the Indo-Trinidadian celebration of Hosay an excellent example of vernacular religion scholarship, though Korom’s own interpretive frame centers around another linguistic analogy; creolization (Korom 2002). In his monograph, Hosay Trinidad, Korom traces how the somber Shiite commemoration of the death of the Imam Hussain, known as Muharram, was transformed into the carnivalesque Trinidadian celebration of Hosay. As it traveled across space and time Muharram/Hosay adapted to and incorporated various local customs, first on the Indian subcontinent then in the Caribbean. Hosay thus illustrates Bowman’s point that not only are religious vernaculars marked by context dependent differences, but they are formed out of them. As she puts it in the podcast, vernacular religious traditions are like vernacular architecture in that both are built out of local materials.

The idea of “building” a tradition also suggests a certain amount of agency or at least semi-conscious activity by vernacular religionists. Though Bowman never refers to Anne Swidler, one gets the sense that Swidler’s notion of culture as a “‘tool kit’ of symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems,” fits nicely with Bowman’s approach (Swidler 1986:273). While vernacular traditions are products of cultural tinkering they are simultaneously resources through which future tinkering is made possible. Contemporary Druids therefore use the vernacular Christian myth describing Joseph of Arimathea’s visit to Glastonbury to support the idea that there was an ancient druidic center of learning there. Why else would Joseph have traveled so far? Likewise the prevalence of Marian devotion (particularly involving St. Brigid) is reinterpreted by the Goddess community as evidence of the presence of the goddess Birdie in Glastonbury (Bowman 2004). Here we see how vernacular religion also provides an alternative to concepts of religious mixing like “syncretism,” which have undergone a sustained critique over the years for, among other things, devaluing agency and reinforcing a two-tiered dominant/subordinate relationship between traditions that are in creative contact with each other (Baird 1971; Korom 2002; Schmidt 2006).

But the championing of human agency also raises questions. How much agency and how much consciousness do individual practitioners actually have? In the podcast Bowman describes “folklore,” and hence the stuff of vernacular traditions, broadly as “mental furniture.” Like a chair in a room we utilize the artifacts of folklore without consciously thinking about the fact that they exist or how they are arranged. This unconscious dimension of folklore qua mental furniture begins to sound a bit more like Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus” than a cultural tool kit (Bourdieu 1977). While Swidler favorably compares her cultural tool kit to Bourdieu’s habitus one gets the sense that there is more conscious mastery involved in the utilization of cultural tools than there is in the activities of the “structuring structures” of the habitus. In fact Sherry Ortner has critiqued Bourdieu on these very grounds, claiming that Bourdieu insisted on “the inaccessibility to actors of the underlying logic of their practices.” Ortner suggests instead that people are “at least partially ‘knowing subjects’” who “have some ‘penetration’ into the ways in which they are formed by their circumstances” (Ortner 2005:34). I tend to agree with her.

Now what I find somewhat problematic with Bowman’s presentation of vernacular religion and folklore vis-à-vis agency and consciousness is not that Bowman is a Bourdieuian, since she’s clearly not. It’s that in the end I’m not sure that she’s carved out a firm position. As Primiano develops the notion of vernacular religion in his treatise he individuates it down to the concept of “uniculture” or “the personal discourse which we all carry on with ourselves as self-aware beings” (Primiano 1995:49). In other words, according to Primiano, individuals are capable of being cultures unto themselves in which beliefs and practices are formed out of self-contained relationships between one’s own thoughts. In the end I’m not sure what is gained by the reframing of cognitive processes as folklore other than the celebration of some sort of self-religion but one thing is evident—Primiano’s world is chock full of human agency. So where does Bowman stand?

In the podcast Bowman says that the study of folklore brings value to the study of religion by being about what people “actually” think and do as opposed to what they are supposed to think and do. Here Bowman is echoing Primiano who also writes about folklore dealing with the “actual beliefs of the people” (Primiano 1995:51). In one sense one could say, fair enough. Folklorists collect examples of beliefs and practices from actual practitioners, which may or may not align with what religious authorities proscribe for those practitioners. But how do we know that an informant is presenting a past mental state accurately, or even a present one without exaggeration or distortion? Primiano admits that “[h]uman beings do not always communicate what they believe to others because their individual beliefs can be substantially different. This fact is especially true concerning religious beliefs” (Primiano 1995:50).  Bowman also tells us that lived religion has always had a “mix and match” quality, but that sticking to the “official script” was so necessary in the past that only in the 20th century has there been a “glorious coming out” of what “people actually do.” Clearly neither Bowman nor Primiano believe that we’ve managed to transcend self-distortion entirely, so how productive is it then, in this context, to talk about the “actual?” Finally, and even more broadly what are we to assume about our informants’ capacities to understand the underlying logic of their practices no matter how earnest they are with us?

I don’t think there are easy answers to those questions, and I’m not sure that Bowman does either. In my view, her work unpacking vernacular religion in Glastonbury seems more nuanced than her description of the concept. For instance she depicts the ceremony of the Holy Thorn in a way that challenges assumptions about “official” Christianity in the U.K. as well as the variable meanings of the practice to Glastonbury’s locals (Bowman 2006). And when she describes Glastonbury as “a context in which cultural tradition, informal transmission and the personal experience of efficacy are likely to be as important as authoritative texts or religious professionals,” she doesn’t cast aside the professionals and their authoritative texts, but instead shows how the thoughts and actions of her informants complicate and are complicated by them (Bowman 2005:165). But in my opinion this type of nuance needs more adequate formulation in the theoretical description of vernacular religion, or else it could lead other adopters of the term to believe “the actual” is actually within their grasp. There is also a case to be made for Catherine Albanese’s suggestion that vernacular religion should be rescued from its radical individualism and repositioned within the communal frame one expects from something being likened to a communal linguistic practice (Albanese 1996:736). And in fact Bowman’s ethnographic work seems to reflect the communal model more than the individual one.

The final critique I would raise goes back to perhaps the essential premise behind Primiano’s creation of vernacular religion as a concept—the dissolving of the distinction between “official” and “unofficial” forms of religion. Both Primiano and Bowman make a strong case for scholars getting out of the business of accepting centralized, authoritative forms of religion as more authentic or even more ideal typical than local practices. However, this should not mean analytically abandoning such distinctions altogether because when they exist in the world we study they are bound to be part of the “mental furniture” of our informants. They are also bound, therefore to structure their religious experiences and practices. So while vernacular religion is invaluable in reminding scholars of the heterogeneity and ambiguity of religion as it is lived this reminder needs to be tempered by the realization that religious actors often work hard to demarcate and disambiguate their religious experiences and that such actions often have meaningful consequences. No study of religion can be complete without taking these consequences into account.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Albanese, C. L. 1996. “Religion and American Popular Culture: An Introductory Essay.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXIV(4):733–742.
  • Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. 2007. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives. Oxford University Press US.
  • Baird, Robert D. 1971. Category formation and the history of religions. Mouton.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2005. “Ancient Avalon, New Jerusalem, Heart Chakra of Planet Earth: the Local and the Global in Glastonbury.” Numen 52(2):157–190.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2004. “Procession and Possession in Glastonbury: Continuity, Change and the Manipulation of Tradition.” Folklore 115(3):273–285.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2006. “The Holy Thorn Ceremony: Revival, Rivalry and Civil Religion in Glastonbury.” Folklore 117(2):123–140.
  • Bowman, Marion, and Ülo Valk, eds. 2012. Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief. London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub.
  • Hall, David D, ed. 1997. Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  • Jolly, Karen Louise. 1996. Popular religion in late Saxon England: elf charms in context. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Korom, Frank J. 2002. Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Ortner, Sherry B. 2005. “Subjectivity and Cultural Critique.” Anthropological Theory 5(1):31 –52. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Primiano, Leonard Norman. 1995. “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife.” Western Folklore 54(1):37–56.
  • Schmidt, Bettina E. 2006. “The Creation of Afro-Caribbean Religions and their Incorporation of Christian Elements: A Critique against Syncretism.” Transformation (02653788) 23(4):236–243.
  • Swidler, Ann. 1986. “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.” American Sociological Review 51(2):273–286. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Vrijhof, P. H., and Jean Jacques Waardenburg. 1979. Official and Popular Religion: Analysis of a Theme for Religious Studies. Walter de Gruyter.
  • Yoder, Don. 1974. “Toward a Definition of Folk Religion.” Western Folklore 33(1):2–15. Retrieved June 20, 2012.

Podcasts

‘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.

Paul Williamson on Serpent Handling

Paul Williamson

Paul Williamson

The use of serpents – more commonly known as ‘venomous snakes’ – within religious practices is by no means a new phenomenon within religious and cultural contexts. Certainly there are plenty of examples of where serpents have been power symbols both in totem and ritualistic traditions.  Moreover, many of the world’s population identify with serpent play as a potentially dangerous exercise. Within this risk potential, the serpent carries a variety of different auspicious meanings related to culture and/or the impermanence of life. The Southeast United States is no exception. The Appalachian Mountain region of the Southeast was geographically isolated in many parts from the rest of the United States until recently. This isolation coupled with the challenges of a rural socio-economic lifestyle created uncertainty within the minds of many inhabitants. Religious beliefs and practices provided meaning and certainty within an uncertain world. Serpent Handling traditions of Appalachia were no exception.

Serpent handling as a religious practice appeared within the first decade of the twentieth century. The practice emerged in east Tennessee and spread to other parts of the Southern Appalachian Mountain region of the United States. While many different groups, both Holiness and Pentecostal, enact the practice, the serpent handling groups themselves have no parent organization that binds them together. What binds the groups together is a sharing in diversity of belief with similar religious practices (Burton, 1993 pg. 20-21). Serpent handling sects are historically and philosophically linked to three forms of American Protestantism: Holiness, fundamentalism, and Pentecostalism, although typically many groups would identify their membership as Holiness (Hood, found in Brown & Mcdonald, 2000). The fundamentalists influence among serpent handlers is in their acceptance of a plain reading of the Bible when it is appropriate (Hood, Hill, & Williamson, 2005).

As handling serpents began spreading throughout the Southern Appalachians, the notoriety of serpent bite deaths increased (Hood & Williamson, 2008). Much of the public fascination with these traditions relates primarily to the dangerous practice of handling of serpents or drinking of poison as part of the religious ritual. Many outsider observers assume that serpent handling traditions are of one religion or of a single theology. Such an assumption cannot be further from the truth. Many of the churches diverge on issues of textual interpretation of the Bible and theology. Their only unifying practice is dictated within Mark 16. For those within these traditions, handling of serpents or drinking of poison is an issue of religious freedom. Most states have enacted laws outlawing the practice of serpent handling. Regardless of the legal discrimination or the physical risk to themselves, the serpent handling sects assume the risk to follow God’s commandment (Hood, 1998).

In this week’s podcast, Chris Silver and Dr Paul Williamson explore Williamson’s research, and by proxy his colleague Ralph W. Hood Jr. (see our podcast from 2 weeks ago) related to documentation of the Serpent Handling Sects of Appalachia. By some accounts these traditions are in decline due to globalization. Williamson has attempted to study these traditions qualitatively and quantitatively to better understand the profound sense of religious commitment and deeper meaning of the theology and practices of the Serpent Handling sects.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

WP WilliamsonW. Paul Williamson is professor of psychology at Henderson State University (USA), although he has not always been in academic research. He was previously a full-time clergy in a Pentecostal denomination for 17 years, but then became more interested in religion from a psychological perspective. This led to his studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology with training in both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. Applying these approaches to the psychology of religion, he has published work in the areas of mysticism, religious fundamentalism, Christian serpent handling, and, most recently, spiritual transformation within the context of substance abuse recovery. He has co-authored The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism (2005, Guilford Press), with Ralph W. Hood, Jr., and Peter C. Hill; and Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent Handling Tradition (2008; University of California Press), with Ralph W. Hood, Jr. He is a recipient of the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award and the Distinguished Service Award, both from the American Psychological Association, Division 36: Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

According to Williamson, “What so often is missing in research is a balanced approach in the psychological study of religious phenomena. It typically is either from the objective standpoint or from the subjective point of view. What is needed for a more complete understanding of a particular phenomenon is the blending together of both perspectives in the use of quantitative and qualitative methodologies.”

References:

  • Brown, Fred & Mcdonald, Jeanne (2000). The serpent handlers: three families and their faith. Blair publishing: Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
  • Burton, Thomas. (1993). Serpent handling believers. University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, Tennessee.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr., (1998).  “When the spirit maims and kills: social psychological considerations of the history of serpent handling sects and the narrative of handlers. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 8, 71-96.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Williamson, W. P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism.  New York: Guilford.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr. & Williamson, W. P. (2008).  The power and meaning of the Christian serpent- handling tradition.  Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press.

Vernacular Religion: Because you’ll Find More than the Devil in the Details

There is an important message embedded in Marion Bowman’s notion of “vernacular religion”–that when we plant our feet firmly on the ground, amidst the fray of religious life, we are confronted with the unmistakable heterogeneity of both belief and practice. As living people “do religion” on the ground it may not always resemble the religion of the Qur’an, the Vatican or your Buddhism 101 textbook. It should come as no surprise then that this type of grounded religion was understood for years as “folk religion,” or as folklorist Don Yoder put it “the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside with strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion” (Yoder 1974:14). The near synonym “popular religion” has also been used with frequency (e.g. Jolly 1996).

Yet, as we heard, Bowman objects to both “popular” and “folk” religion as scholarly categories because of what they imply in contradistinction. For instance, in regards to “popular religion” she says “so this is opposed to…unpopular religion?” But the problems run deeper.  “Folk religion” is hampered by a legacy of distinguishing the religion of the folk from, as Yoder put it “official religion” and thereby demeaning its value. Indeed this is true of “popular religion” as well (e.g. Vrijhof and Waardenburg 1979). So while Bowman credits Yoder for trying to rescue “folk religion” from this two-tiered structure and the negative valuation it gets within it, she chooses instead to follow one of Yoder’s former students, Leonard Primiano, in rejecting the term altogether (Primiano 1995; Bowman and Valk 2012).

Enter “vernacular religion.” Primiano succinctly defines the concept as “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand and interpret it,” and in her podcast Bowman also refers to it as “that everyday religion” (Primiano 1995:44). Here religious studies scholars and sociologists might respectively recognize a pair of conceptual cousins with similar parameters. As religious historian David Hall describes it, to focus on “lived religion” means looking at “religion as practiced and…the everyday thinking and doing of lay men and women” (Hall 1997:vii). In a similar vein sociologist Nancy Ammerman tells us that the study of “everyday religion” privileges “the experience of the nonexperts, the people who do not make a living being religious or thinking and writing about religious ideas” (Ammerman 2007:5). Yet these conceptual cousins might perhaps still evoke distinctions (like those between the church hierarchy and the laity or the expert and the nonexpert) that Bowman hopes vernacular religion more consciously elides. To Bowman there is a sense in which like “vernacular speech” or “vernacular architecture,” all religious forms are vernacular because all are context specific. In other words the beliefs and practices of religious experts and elites are just as vernacular as those of the laity. The same goes for the variety of religious forms within larger traditions. There is nothing more or less authentic about Hungarian Calvinism than Scottish Calvinism, for instance.

In this vein one might consider Frank Korom’s work on the Indo-Trinidadian celebration of Hosay an excellent example of vernacular religion scholarship, though Korom’s own interpretive frame centers around another linguistic analogy; creolization (Korom 2002). In his monograph, Hosay Trinidad, Korom traces how the somber Shiite commemoration of the death of the Imam Hussain, known as Muharram, was transformed into the carnivalesque Trinidadian celebration of Hosay. As it traveled across space and time Muharram/Hosay adapted to and incorporated various local customs, first on the Indian subcontinent then in the Caribbean. Hosay thus illustrates Bowman’s point that not only are religious vernaculars marked by context dependent differences, but they are formed out of them. As she puts it in the podcast, vernacular religious traditions are like vernacular architecture in that both are built out of local materials.

The idea of “building” a tradition also suggests a certain amount of agency or at least semi-conscious activity by vernacular religionists. Though Bowman never refers to Anne Swidler, one gets the sense that Swidler’s notion of culture as a “‘tool kit’ of symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems,” fits nicely with Bowman’s approach (Swidler 1986:273). While vernacular traditions are products of cultural tinkering they are simultaneously resources through which future tinkering is made possible. Contemporary Druids therefore use the vernacular Christian myth describing Joseph of Arimathea’s visit to Glastonbury to support the idea that there was an ancient druidic center of learning there. Why else would Joseph have traveled so far? Likewise the prevalence of Marian devotion (particularly involving St. Brigid) is reinterpreted by the Goddess community as evidence of the presence of the goddess Birdie in Glastonbury (Bowman 2004). Here we see how vernacular religion also provides an alternative to concepts of religious mixing like “syncretism,” which have undergone a sustained critique over the years for, among other things, devaluing agency and reinforcing a two-tiered dominant/subordinate relationship between traditions that are in creative contact with each other (Baird 1971; Korom 2002; Schmidt 2006).

But the championing of human agency also raises questions. How much agency and how much consciousness do individual practitioners actually have? In the podcast Bowman describes “folklore,” and hence the stuff of vernacular traditions, broadly as “mental furniture.” Like a chair in a room we utilize the artifacts of folklore without consciously thinking about the fact that they exist or how they are arranged. This unconscious dimension of folklore qua mental furniture begins to sound a bit more like Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus” than a cultural tool kit (Bourdieu 1977). While Swidler favorably compares her cultural tool kit to Bourdieu’s habitus one gets the sense that there is more conscious mastery involved in the utilization of cultural tools than there is in the activities of the “structuring structures” of the habitus. In fact Sherry Ortner has critiqued Bourdieu on these very grounds, claiming that Bourdieu insisted on “the inaccessibility to actors of the underlying logic of their practices.” Ortner suggests instead that people are “at least partially ‘knowing subjects’” who “have some ‘penetration’ into the ways in which they are formed by their circumstances” (Ortner 2005:34). I tend to agree with her.

Now what I find somewhat problematic with Bowman’s presentation of vernacular religion and folklore vis-à-vis agency and consciousness is not that Bowman is a Bourdieuian, since she’s clearly not. It’s that in the end I’m not sure that she’s carved out a firm position. As Primiano develops the notion of vernacular religion in his treatise he individuates it down to the concept of “uniculture” or “the personal discourse which we all carry on with ourselves as self-aware beings” (Primiano 1995:49). In other words, according to Primiano, individuals are capable of being cultures unto themselves in which beliefs and practices are formed out of self-contained relationships between one’s own thoughts. In the end I’m not sure what is gained by the reframing of cognitive processes as folklore other than the celebration of some sort of self-religion but one thing is evident—Primiano’s world is chock full of human agency. So where does Bowman stand?

In the podcast Bowman says that the study of folklore brings value to the study of religion by being about what people “actually” think and do as opposed to what they are supposed to think and do. Here Bowman is echoing Primiano who also writes about folklore dealing with the “actual beliefs of the people” (Primiano 1995:51). In one sense one could say, fair enough. Folklorists collect examples of beliefs and practices from actual practitioners, which may or may not align with what religious authorities proscribe for those practitioners. But how do we know that an informant is presenting a past mental state accurately, or even a present one without exaggeration or distortion? Primiano admits that “[h]uman beings do not always communicate what they believe to others because their individual beliefs can be substantially different. This fact is especially true concerning religious beliefs” (Primiano 1995:50).  Bowman also tells us that lived religion has always had a “mix and match” quality, but that sticking to the “official script” was so necessary in the past that only in the 20th century has there been a “glorious coming out” of what “people actually do.” Clearly neither Bowman nor Primiano believe that we’ve managed to transcend self-distortion entirely, so how productive is it then, in this context, to talk about the “actual?” Finally, and even more broadly what are we to assume about our informants’ capacities to understand the underlying logic of their practices no matter how earnest they are with us?

I don’t think there are easy answers to those questions, and I’m not sure that Bowman does either. In my view, her work unpacking vernacular religion in Glastonbury seems more nuanced than her description of the concept. For instance she depicts the ceremony of the Holy Thorn in a way that challenges assumptions about “official” Christianity in the U.K. as well as the variable meanings of the practice to Glastonbury’s locals (Bowman 2006). And when she describes Glastonbury as “a context in which cultural tradition, informal transmission and the personal experience of efficacy are likely to be as important as authoritative texts or religious professionals,” she doesn’t cast aside the professionals and their authoritative texts, but instead shows how the thoughts and actions of her informants complicate and are complicated by them (Bowman 2005:165). But in my opinion this type of nuance needs more adequate formulation in the theoretical description of vernacular religion, or else it could lead other adopters of the term to believe “the actual” is actually within their grasp. There is also a case to be made for Catherine Albanese’s suggestion that vernacular religion should be rescued from its radical individualism and repositioned within the communal frame one expects from something being likened to a communal linguistic practice (Albanese 1996:736). And in fact Bowman’s ethnographic work seems to reflect the communal model more than the individual one.

The final critique I would raise goes back to perhaps the essential premise behind Primiano’s creation of vernacular religion as a concept—the dissolving of the distinction between “official” and “unofficial” forms of religion. Both Primiano and Bowman make a strong case for scholars getting out of the business of accepting centralized, authoritative forms of religion as more authentic or even more ideal typical than local practices. However, this should not mean analytically abandoning such distinctions altogether because when they exist in the world we study they are bound to be part of the “mental furniture” of our informants. They are also bound, therefore to structure their religious experiences and practices. So while vernacular religion is invaluable in reminding scholars of the heterogeneity and ambiguity of religion as it is lived this reminder needs to be tempered by the realization that religious actors often work hard to demarcate and disambiguate their religious experiences and that such actions often have meaningful consequences. No study of religion can be complete without taking these consequences into account.

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