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Framing, Observing, and Exhibiting Yoga: A Response to Bruce Sullivan

Writing on the state of yoga in America today tends to frame discussions on the topic with statistics that attest yoga’s current popularity: the thousands of studios, the millions of practitioners, or the billions of dollars in annual revenue the yoga industry generates. The repetition of these figures runs the risk of rendering them trite, but ignoring this crucial context in which to place American yoga runs a greater risk of projecting one’s misrepresentative assumptions onto a much larger whole.

Where then does Bruce Sullivan’s research on the practice of yoga in museums— both in his interview for the Religious Studies Project and in his chapter on the subject in the edited volume Sacred Objects in Secular Places: Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums— fit in this context? Yoga performance in museums is certainly novel and intriguing, and offers a potentially fruitful perspective to think about current understandings of yoga. Yet, it also becomes problematic to extend the transposition of an ordinary yoga class into a museum beyond novelty or intrigue, and perceive it as either a widespread practice, strange anomaly, or indicative of modern yoga’s drifting from a traditional center.

Sullivan describes these events as occurring with significant frequency in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Britain). He lards this observation with an impressive catalogue of museums hosting yoga events. Descriptors such as “diverse array,” “many,” “popular,” and “numerous” do the heavy lifting of reminding the reader how pervasive this practice has become.

Yet despite these efforts to quantify a growing and easily-discovered phenomenon, putting these numbers in their statistical contexts makes clear that this growing trend is a microcosm, dwarfed by traditional museum patronage and yogic practice. There are almost 35,000 museums in the United States alone, a number larger than the combined total locations of McDonald’s and Starbucks. When placed alongside the vast number of yoga practitioners, an honest assessment would see even the most complete accounting of yoga in museums as being a miniscule part of the whole of either. It is possible to go online as Sullivan did and create similar lists and descriptions of wine and beer tasting events at dozens of zoos around the country, but the presence of “Brew at the Zoo” and “Roar and Pour” events would not tell us much more beyond the fact that lots of people enjoy drinking alcohol and zoos have a vested interest in generating money and increasing the number of visitors.

The reasons for these yoga events, as Sullivan recognizes, are pragmatic and symbiotic. Like other public outreach, hosting yoga classes offers museums a range of benefits such as publicity, gift shop and café sales, and new visitors.  Surveys— such as the same frequent source for the size of the yoga industry in America, the large-scale 2016 “Yoga in American Study” conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance—find the vast majority of people practicing yoga doing so in health clubs or gyms, community centers, or in the privacy of their own homes, rather than in dedicated yoga studios. Yet yoga devotees like the idea of performing their art in public places. One of every five practitioners surveyed attended a yoga event in a public place; three out of every four are interested in doing so in the future. It is simply a mutually beneficial exchange: museums gain new visitors and yoga practitioners get a desired change of scenery.

It is difficult not to see Sullivan’s preoccupation with yoga in museums as an example of what Catherine Albanese termed “show-and-tell scholarship”— work at the intersection of religious studies and popular culture that consists of “unearthing still one more custom, practice, belief, or piece of spiritual paraphernalia that no one yet among scholars had discovered.”[1] The originality and quality of this brand of scholarship, therefore depends on the novelty of the finding. The underlying assumption in both the interview for the Religious Studies Project and Sullivan’s chapter is that there is something incongruous, if not slightly absurd, about rows of people going through a Vinyasa class under the shadow of an art institution’s paintings and statuary. We would not expect a similar analysis of a wedding reception being hosted in the ballroom of a Freemasonic Lodge, or weekly Bingo night in the community center attached to a Catholic church, but something about yoga in museums seems to present a heightened contradiction between the perceived sacred and secular. The highpoint of the interview and the namesake of Sullivan’s chapter, the pair of New Age yoga students who believe that they are “reconsecrating the icons” of Buddhist images and Hindu statues that surround them in the museum through their yogic asanas, seem to embody this antinomy.

Yet the tension between sacred and secular that Sullivan finds so remarkable traffics in an overemphasis on the nature we want to attribute to both museums and yoga. Many of the features that make us assume museums are secular like their fundraising and promotion, or the commerce done within their walls, are shared by a large number of various religious institutions around the world. As Sullivan notes in the introduction to his edited volume by way of Carol Duncan’s work, museums often share much in common with religious sites. Museums are often spaces set apart from the mundane world, where singular objects of admiration can be encountered in a ritualistic fashion, and thus cultivate powerful experiences in their visitors. As Anne Murphy suggests in a description of the displaying of Sikh artifacts in the Sacred Objects in Secular Places volume, in some cases it is hard to tell where veneration begins and curation ends.

Further, studies suggest that no more than a small percentage of those who practice yoga see themselves as doing anything spiritual. Those familiar with Mark Singleton’s 2010 work Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and the evidence it marshals to show the strong influence of Western bodybuilding, gymnastics, and physical culture on the formation of yoga as we now know it, would not be surprised to learn that three-quarters of American yogis practice other forms of physical exercise such as running, cycling, or weight-lifting. The closest thing to a spiritual motivation for yoga that we can find among the top five reasons for Americans who start yoga is “stress relief,” which is a factor for little more than one-half of respondents. A yoga class in a museum could be seen just as much as a secular practice in a quasi-religious space as a quasi-religious practice in a secular space.

Even the two “reconsecrators” in Sullivan’s interview and chapter are surrounded by other forms on the periphery of modern yoga— “vino yoga,” “acryo-yoga,” and the “yoga rave”— that are softly implied through their inclusion and descriptions to also “get yoga wrong” to lesser extents. Recently in the UK’s Independent, the scholar Jim Mallinson contended, “(Yoga’s) such a big multifarious tradition you can find precedents for almost anything.” The variety and complexity of yoga’s long history ensures there is almost nothing today— naked yoga, yoga with dogs, yoga paired with cannabis— without a possible, tentative analogue from the past. More importantly, there is also no single, stable core of authentic yogic tradition that can be used as a stable reference point to adjudicate the legitimacy of contemporary yogic practice.

While anecdotes can provide intriguing or illustrative examples, there is a danger in holding up a select few and taking them as representatives of a larger phenomenon. Anecdotal examples often say as much about who has chosen them as those who are chosen. Sullivan’s understanding of contemporary yoga seems to be built partially upon his personal experience with B.K.S. Iyengar and his style of yoga— which may explain his fascination and amusement with the variety of less austere and more experimental forms of practice he describes— but mostly upon older textual sources such as the Yoga Sutra, Hatha Pradipika, Bhagavad Gita, and Shvetashvatara Upanishad.

An example of this is one of the most intriguing parts of Sullivan’s work on yoga in museums— “the idea that yoga practice in a museum setting enables one more fully to appreciate an artwork or an object of religious significance,” (45) a concept that is mentioned by several museums and Sullivan contrasts with earlier texts such as the Yoga Sutra and Gita, in which yoga was associated with a withdrawal from the senses, not a heightening or relishing of them. Again, there is a risk in taking statements by professional promoters of museums at face value. In light of how much yoga has changed over millennia from those texts to its contemporary practice, there is also something a bit unfair in judging the latter by the standards of the former. While many serious yoga teachers like to imagine a link between their practice and ancient Indian traditions, and museum organizers want to present the yoga events they host in a flattering light by gesturing to the same mythic source, this maybe be for critics and participants alike an observation of something simply not there.

One link between yogic practice and museums may come from viewing yogis, yoga teachers, and yoga promoters as performing work comparable to museums in the nearly century and a half history of modern yoga’s global spread. As museums curate, exhibit, frame, spotlight, and annotate their works to an anticipated audience, yoga has similarly been consciously displayed and promoted. Modern yoga’s history can be emplotted through the way it has exhibited itself.

The yogis witnessed by early Europeans in India aggressively displayed themselves in public venues with exaggerated poses and dress to receive alms. As accounts of yogis made their way to the United States at the turn of the century, the understanding of yoga as mental and magical was mirrored in the ways it was staged to a range of audiences: Vaudeville stage magicians adopted exotic Indian personae, several American-born magicians alternated between performing mentalist routines and offering teachings on yoga, and several Indian-born yoga teachers accentuated their public lectures with displays of magic, most notably Yogananda, who employed a claimed  Polish count and an Egyptian wonder-worker (born and raised in Italy) to demonstrate the magical powers of yoga.

During the interwar decades, it was common for the dozens of yoga teachers who travelled across the country to shift their public persona by altering their names and places of origin, adding real and fictitious titles and degrees, and adjusting their claims for what their yoga was and what it could do for its practitioners. One was more likely to find notices for yoga classes and lectures at this time in the entertainment section of the newspaper than alongside the church notices.

By the time of the Second World War, the work of Swami Kuvalayananda in India retailed in his visually-rich medical journal Yoga Mimamsa had begun to shift American ideas of yoga itself by framing the physical practice of hatha yoga with demonstrable scientific reasoning and practical, worldly results.  The success of his venture set the stage for mass market paperback books and television programs by American yoga teachers such as Richard Hittleman and Lilias Folan. Perhaps even more significant in yoga’s development than its adoption by much of the late-1960s Counterculture was its embrace by popular fitness culture that was facilitated by television and later millions of VHS tapes and DVDs with figures like Baron Baptiste and Rodney Yee and allowed for yoga to be done at any time in one’s own home.

Today, yoga as individual physical practice— done through the body for the body— can be seen in the ubiquitous manner of exhibiting the toned yoga body through photographs and social media, and how still images and video can function as credentials for many practitioners and instructors. Perhaps the strongest testament to the popularity of yoga is the number and variety of venues it is practiced in. It has become so commonly practiced that it can be found in health clubs, community centers, parks, private homes–and even in the occasional yoga class on display at a museum.

References 

[1] Catherine Albanese, “Forum: How I Changed My Mind,” for Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter 2004), pp. 3-10.

New Horizons in the Sociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?

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

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

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

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

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

Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

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, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

The Truthiness of Consciousness as the Sacred

Here Be Monsters

DWM01

Seven or so minutes into David Robertson’s interview with Rice University’s Jeffrey Kripal, Kripal cuts to the heart of an issue that plagues contemporary religious studies scholars: Do we have the tools and will to seriously examine experiences of the fantastic in the present age?

In my response today, I hope to achieve two things. First, I want to discuss Kripal’s presentation of the field’s latent crisis of emic/etic perspective regarding religious experiences. His explorations of the fantastic should be exciting to many listeners. Go right ahead and take a look at Mutants and Mystics (2011) or Authors of the Impossible (2010). They are worth your time, and I believe it is possible that in the interview he undersold the significance of attempts toward understanding the resurgence of supernaturalism in our present era.

Second, I think it is necessary to challenge the way Kripal avoided the field’s problem with sui generis approaches to religious and paranormal experiences. Elevating consciousness as a replacement for older comparative, phenomenological categories such as the holy, sacred, or numinous does not escape the established critiques from folks like Russell McCutcheon or Tim Fitzgerald. It only defers judgment until some future moment when science can better explain consciousness or paranormal experiences in material ways. Or, worse still, it takes the gambit that scholars can never truly understand our world through observation. Many beginners in religious studies are advised to consider naturalism as the cornerstone of our field. If we supplant it by admitting that consciousness is sui generis and unknowable, as Kripal appears inclined to do, then are we not trying yet again to move religious studies out of the humanities or human sciences and back into the realm of theology? (Or simply rehashing the arguments over comparativism between Paden and Wiebe from the late 1990s?) Though our field may not fully embrace the scientific method as its methodology of choice, its premises of knowledge acquired through empirical observation and verification remain the philosophical bulwark for our work.

In sum, Kripal’s approach identifies new territory for scholarly exploration of paranormal experiences, but it also limits those explorations by failing to heed the lessons learned in previous expeditions. Ironically, the monsters were marked on the map; we should have believed the stories.

The Lasso of Truth

wonder woman with lasso

Supernatural. Paranormal. Fantastic. What are the boundaries for discussing these phenomenon? Do we take a skeptic’s approach and deconstruct an informant’s experience with the lenses of scientific reductionism? Shall we build a social world that frames phenomenal experiences to explain them away as historical products of pre-scientific thinking and superstition? Are we bound to believe the stories in full or analyze them as if they were so?

I see one version of our field’s history as haunted by these questions. It is a procession of ghosts fighting over the issue of the experience of the religious–the sacred legacy stretching from James and Durkheim through Otto to Eliade and J. Z. Smith. Modernity’s crisis of truth, the onset of relativism and deconstructionism, has meant that religious studies has been continually frustrated over the issue of authenticity in its sources and subjects. How can we know that ancient religious agents really believed the bear would lie down and offer itself to the hunters as a sacrifice (my favorite example from J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion)? Perhaps this is the thorn in our side from our Protestant legacy. We are left to forever doubt our own interpretative models and be stuck between the absolutism of the insider’s emotion and the skepticism of the outsider’s inability to be or think like the insider.

Kripal’s presentation of the key issue in the study of the fantastic goes like this: If something fantastic happened in the past, then we are better able to feel sympathy for that experience because it is historical. If we cast it aside or call it superstition, then we do so without harming a living informant. It is a difficult part of our work when we must listen to an informant tell an extraordinary tale and then reserve judgment on whether we think the story is true. It is not just that telling someone face-to-face that you do not believe their story is difficult. In practice, this breaks the boundaries for gathering observations. We can then be won or lost as listeners who also believe or understand. Historians are blessed with a distance that fosters objectivity rooted in naturalism and skepticism. Within the field, supernatural explanations do indeed seem to fall beyond the pale as truths. The “ontological shock” of the past is not accessible in the present.

When studying living agents, however, Kripal argues that our field has been largely “unwilling to take the fantastic seriously in the present.” This lack of seriousness can be a micro-aggression of disbelief or scoffing at an exaggerated tale. Or it can be the scientific dismissal of an experience by explanations rejected by the observer themselves. But it was real to me, they might say. Are we to reply “I do not believe you”? The question of the authenticity and reality of these experiences are the heart of the issue for those who experience the supernatural or paranormal. Thus, Kripal says he does not “understand how as scholars we can just bracket [the question of ontological truth]. I understand why we can’t answer that question, but I don’t agree that we should just push that question off to the side.”

Indeed, for most of the last century ethnography demanded that observers bracket their own worldviews. Were you pursuing your interpretations (the etic) or the interpretations of your subjects (the emic)? Even modern concessions to the role of observers in influencing the things they document, as in the work of Karen McCarthy Brown, do so in ways that highlight the distance between the ethnographer’s world and the world of her subjects.

Kripal says that to deal with the paranormal, observers cannot be phenomenologists secluded from the truth claims of their subjects. Truth–that of the informant and the observer–is collapsed into a shared faculty of experience called consciousness. “These most extreme and fantastic religious experiences,” he says, “might well be our best clues as to what the nature of consciousness really is, below or above our social egos and these sort of superficial forms of awareness that you or I are in at the moment.” Kripal need not believe the particular details of alien abduction or out-of-body teleportation because the mode of experiencing these events is real–it is our consciousness and that makes it “the ground of all religious experience.” It is “the new sacred.”

There are plenty of ways to discuss this remarkable exchange, but Kripal falls back on the narrative that led our field to criticize Eliade or Otto’s claims that the sacred was sui generis. Consciousness, he says, is sui generis.

Part of the effect of this radical move is that Kripal is binding his informants with, to borrow a popular culture reference, a lasso of truth. He compels them, wills them to be truthful because the ground of the experience cannot lie to them. After all, it was their experience. If I am following correctly, our informants merit our trust not on the details of their experience, but rather on the mode of experiencing. Those experiences then fall either on the side of the ego and the everyday or the side of the extraordinary where consciousness is universal, groundless or “empty.”

Shall we put aside the issue that we have not explained how to differentiate between types of experiences apart from the informant or the observer’s explanations? Or how groundless experiences in our consciousness are anything other than wordplay for the sacred? How have we improved our lot by this shift to the term consciousness? Have we not just substituted ego and emptiness for homo faber and homo religiosus?

Like Kripal, I think it is unlikely that most (or perhaps any) informants are describing an experience from our world when they narrate an alien abduction. So I fail to see how we can do significantly more than say they have told him a story they believe is true. As observers receiving such a story, I find it our duty to walk the line that holds us from letting the veracity of a claim dictate our field’s observational models or orientations. A single informant’s truth is anecdote, not evidence. Nor does a body of similar anecdotes become truth through the weight of repetition. If corroborating evidence fails to appear, it does not rob an anecdote of meaning or significance. For we do not set our business upon the truth-claim, but rather on the value of the story. Though Kripal acknowledges his informants’ desire to place ontologies at the center of their experiences, this should not compel us to then reassert the grounds of our field’s ontologies. Should we not feel uneasy when told that it is appropriate to do so? Have we really escaped the trouble of sui generis critiques by replacing the sacred with an something that Kripal says cannot be measured or known “in principle because it is not an object”? Though we need not be utter materialists or empiricists to do our work, are we not placing our interpretations at risk when we place them on immeasurable and unknowable foundations?

 

 

Truthiness

Capture

Fox Mulder and his iconic “I want to believe” poster from The X-Files

Let me try another tack to conclude my thoughts on the issue of truth and its relationship to scholarly discussions of the paranormal and supernatural. In the pilot episode of his television show The Colbert Report in 2005, Stephen Colbert introduced western audiences to truthiness. “We’re divided between those that think with their heads and those that know with their hearts,” Colbert said. “The truthiness is that anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” Truthiness is the simulacrum of the truth we wish existed “in our gut.” Or, as he said in an interview for The Onion, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.”

So how should we then perceive experiences of the paranormal? Is it the truth of the sacred in the gut of religious studies? Or is it a semblance of truth that feels better than the materialistic, reductionist alternative? Are these our only options?

In Authors of the Impossible, Kripal attempted to show how both religious and scientific registers came to be seen as failing to explain paranormal experiences for a wide range of pseudo-religious personalities. For folks like Charles Fort, for instance, science had all the answers. Later, science became a target of great skepticism, a “trickster” that appeared to offer answers but could not actually explain much that mattered. In Kripal’s hands, this argument takes a new shape: if science cannot address consciousness and it is universal, then perhaps it is that substance or ground upon which the sacred can also be found. It seems to have a sense of truth to it. It feels like it could make the fantastic possible. But how are we to be sure?

Pivoting in the last few minutes, Kripal argues that the thing that we need to truly understand paranormal experiences is symbolic imagination. In our efforts to embrace difference and “demonize” sameness, we seem to have lost the ability to appreciate radical experiences. We are too interested in reducing the world to scientific claims and are insulated from the opportunities of experiences that break the mold. This is the mystical invitation–the root of much inspiration for authors of science fiction and comic books in Mutants and Mystics–that reveals the paradigm shift Kripal asks for: to have the field deal with the paranormal. Can we treat the fantastic seriously on these terms? Let us know how you feel in the comments.

Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

Emile Durkheim

durkheim

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)  is widely regarded as the founder of sociology, and has been enormously influential on the entirety of the modern social sciences. The author of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, and The Division of Labor in Society among others, he is perhaps most well-known in Religious Studies for his definition of religion as

“a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them” (1965 [1912]: 62).

Within this well-worn definition we can glimpse the basic foundations of an entire approach to the study of religion, which places emphasis upon the role of social interaction and discourse in ‘setting things apart’ – in constructing the ‘sacred’ and the ‘religious’- rather than assuming or advocating for an inherent, sui generis, religion.

In this wide ranging and in-depth interview with Chris, Ivan Strenski discusses Durkheim’s life and work in a broader context, tracing his impact through the ‘Durkheimian school’ – which includes Claude Levi-Strauss – and presenting an understanding of the academic study of religion as a Durkheimian project.

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 participating in the ‘sacralizing’ of the social and buying your Christmas presents etc.

This is the final episode in a series on early 20th century theorists of religion. The first featured Robert Segal on C. G. Jung and the second featured Paul-François Tremlett on Claude Levi-Strauss.

A Field Little Plowed? The Study of Religion and the Built Environment Today

 

Let me begin with a mythological allusion. The Roman god Janus was often depicted with two faces to signify his interstitial nature. He looked into the future and past, and oversaw beginnings and endings. He marked the boundaries between inside and outside. Janus, the gateway god, seems a suitable reference for my polarized reaction to Durham University Senior Lecturer Peter Collins’s interview on “Religion and the Built Environment.”

Head of Janus, Vatican museum, Rome (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

From one perspective, I was delighted to hear a fascinating discussion of how Collins came to study the built environment early in his career. Using his experience studying an adjacent Quaker meetinghouse and an Anglican church, he demonstrates the many joys of reading the built environment closely. It is obvious, too, that he is productively sharing his skills with his students in the field. Teaching undergraduates the value of examining the built environment is a true service to the academy. We should all be so lucky to have Durham Cathedral or delightfully juxtaposed religious buildings down the road for our students to explore! [This material begins at 11:15 in the interview.]

From another perspective, however, I feel quite at odds with his view that religion and the built environment remains a “field little plowed.” The dissertation I am finishing at the moment in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for instance, begins with the premise that the built environment has been over-emphasized to the detriment of other modes of creating and maintaining sacred space.While I nodded enthusiastically when he praised Lindsay Jones’s The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture. (It is a fascinating and under-utilized two-volume theoretical work.) I confess that I gritted my teeth when he recommend Pierre Bourdieu’s 1971 essay ”The Berber House.” In 2013 we are still falling back on structuralism to look at religious buildings? (Jones, for his part, would probably be shocked.)

However, lest I be uncharitable to a colleague across the Atlantic, I think that my unease may be less disagreement than the simple product of differences in geography, discipline, and the years between our training. Collins is a social anthropologist who specializes in, among many things, Quakerism in 17th and 18th century England. I am a religious studies scholar who specializes in sacred space in the contemporary United States. I am finishing my degree in June, while he has been publishing for over 15 years.

It reminds me somewhat of Hans Rosling’s famous TEDTalk “Let my dataset change your mindset.” Our conceptions about the world, Rosling argued in relation to the division between first and third world, are not shaped by the time we live in, but by the year our teachers were born. Obviously this is overstating the case. 15 years isn’t that long. And academic discourse is not global health. I think it is telling, however, that my own Master’s degree adviser Peter Williams published his bibliographic essay for The Material History of American Religion Project on “The Built Environment of American Religion: The State of the Art”in 1995. He began by saying “Until recently, the study of America’s religious architecture and landscape was something that had largely fallen through the cracks of academe.” Collins similarly says there is very little on the built environment today. It is “fairly sparse” in Anthropology or there is “very little” in the Sociology of religion and only “slightly more prominent” in Religious Studies. I think–although I don’t have elegant charts to make my case–that today this characterization misses the mark.

Perhaps the fundamental challenge to a mighty wave of studies about the built environment, as Collins explores in the interview, occurs when we move beyond defining the critical terms (religion, built environment, material culture, etc.). When we look at the scholarship on the built environment we are forced to consult an ever-widening set of theories and methods. History, Anthropology, Sociology, Religious Studies, Gender Studies, Architectural History, Visual Studies, Literature, and so on all have contributions to the study of the built environment. The list is as broad as the academy itself. Yet, teaching our students the skills necessary to interpret and think critically about the built environment is a significant obstacle.

Durham Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

I also fully agree that a major issue is how easy it is to overlook the built environment all around us. Collins said, rather earthily, that he wondered “if sometimes it is because buildings are so bloody obvious, so huge and so manifest, that we don’t see them.” Isn’t this the very joke from David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech?

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

For Collins, the environment is humanity’s water. It is “all of that which exists outside of the human being,” and it includes those elements that humans build. If we want to be sensitive to it, then we must cultivate sensibilities that make it visible and legible. Since the scholarship surrounding the built environment comes from across the academy, it can be a tangle of interdisciplinary webs. Structuralism of the type Bourdieu presents in “The Berber House,” I would be the first to confess, can be a way to untangle this web or even avoid it altogether.

Collins later wonders why, when speaking about Jones’ comparative architectural model, so little has been done with it. If you brave Jones’s volumes, you will understand why. It is terrifically complex. It is also not something that can be presented without modification to undergraduates. [Jones is discussed  in the final 15 minutes or so of the interview.] Nevertheless, its presence here is an indication that the conversation may be evolving in ways that will promote its use in the future.

We are still confronting the double challenges of interdisciplinary expansion and, shall we say, legibility or transferability to our students and the public. The close-reading of the Quaker meetinghouse that Collins offers is a strong demonstration that the rewards of overcoming these challenges are high. I can contribute to these rewards by recommending a few recent titles that deal with the built environment in satisfying and novel ways. A comprehensive list, such as that offered by Williams above, is probably not possible without first retreating bookishly to the corners of the academy where our own disciplines lie. In that respect, the few items in my bibliography reflect my contemporary American biases. I also take “built environment” to indicate much more than simply religious buildings. This is a product not merely of my research in spatial theory and place studies, but of my interests in expanding the study of sacred space beyond the walls of the church. I encourage everyone to continue the discussion and add their own favorite recent items on religion and the built environment in the comments.

Selected Bibliography on Religion and the Built Environment since 1990

  • Chidester, David, and Edward T. Linenthal, eds. American Sacred Space. Edited by Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein, Religion in North America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Diamond, Etan. And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Caronlina Press, 1999.
  • Eiesland, Nancy L. A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecology in a Southern Exurb. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  • Farmer, Jared. On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Francaviglia, Richard V. Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin. Reno & Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2003.
  • Griffith, James S. . Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.
  • Jones, Lindsay. The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison. 2 vols, Religions of the World. Cambridge, MA: Distributed by Harvard University Press for Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 2000.
  • Kieckhefer, Richard Theology in Stone: Church Architecture From Byzantium to Berkeley. London: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Kilde, Jeanne Halgren. When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Kerstetter, Todd M. God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • Lane, Belden C. Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. Expanded ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. Sacred Ground : Americans and Their Battlefields. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Livezey, Lowell W., ed. Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City. Edited by Peter J. Paris, Religion, Race, and Ethnicity. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • Loveland, Anne C. and Otis B. Wheeler. From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History. St. Louis: University of Missouri Press, 2003.
  • Mazur, Eric Michael and Kate McCarthy, ed. God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • McGreevy, John T. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Metcalf, Barbara Daly, ed. Making Muslim Sacred Space in North American and Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Meyer, Jeffrey F. . Myths in Stone: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Nelson, Louis P. American Sanctuary: Understanding Sacred Spaces. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006. 
  • Orsi, Bob, ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Sheldrake, Philip. Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Treviño, Roberto R. The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. America’s ChurchThe National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital. London: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Shrine in Miami. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Williams, Peter W. Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States. Edited by Conrad Cherry, Public Expressions of Religion in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  • Wilford, Justin G. Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
  • Winston, Diane. Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Upton, Dell. Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
  • Zepp, Jr., Ira G. The New Religious Image of Urban America: The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center. 2nd ed. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_n

Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

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.

About the Author:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) Oxford University Press
  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
  • Stringer, M.D. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum
  • Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volumes 1 & 2 (1871) John Murray

[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.

Why should we keep paying attention to Otto?

 

Is it necessary, helpful even, to only study religion if you are not religious? Does the secular scholar of, say Hinduism, stand to be a better scholar than another with the same training but who happens to personally be Hindu? Does having a personal involvement in the group that one is studying assist one in understanding Otto’s numinous?

 

 

Why should we keep paying attention to Otto?

By Chris Duncan

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 14th November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Robert Orsi on Rudolf Otto (12 November 2012).

In this interview with Robert Orsi, Religious Studies Professor from Northwestern University, Jonathon and Dr. Orsi discuss the seemingly evergreen writer Rudolf Otto. After a brief discussion over Otto’s more well-known ideas of the numinous and mysterium tremendum the two hit on an intriguing line of talk, one that I have been mulling over in the back of my mind for several months now without really ever noticing it much: as scholars of religion, should we ourselves be religious? Further, if we should be religious, should we be practitioners of the groups that we study? Naturally, I am restricting my definition of “we” to mean those who are non-theologians; perhaps scientists of religion would be apt also.

I have always personally held the position that no scholar of religion could honestly use that title if they were themselves religious. Maybe because specifically, the secular, non-biased scholarship was, to my eye, more brutally honest or willing to discuss the positives in addition to the negatives of particular religious traditions rather than  trying to explain away the negatives. However, recently and unknowingly I may have been changing my mind. For, could someone who studies humans not also be human; must someone who studies Germans not have any form of German connections? Or, as I am beginning to think, does having a personal zeal and insider understanding of a religious tradition make one a more suitable observer/scholar?

The argument over whether religious studies should be either theological or secular study has been an on-going process for decades now, with secular study having held the upper hand for the majority of that time. With the boom of the natural sciences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came the separation of those who study religion in order to actively participate within it, and those who study religion for non-theological purposes. In 1963, the National Association of Bible Instructors changed its name to the American Academy of Religion, and since then there has continued a steady march towards secular, non-religious scholarly study of religions. However, in the journal of this same organization, the September 2012 edition, Donald Wiebe and Luther Martin lament that though platitudes of secular, unbiased study are tossed about in public, in execution, university programs, particularly American programs, “all reveal a continuing influence of theology on the field [of religious studies] worldwide.” So, what is one to do? Is it necessary, helpful even, to only study religion if you are not religious? Does the secular scholar of, say Hinduism, stand to be a better scholar than another with the same training but who happens to personally be Hindu? Does having a personal involvement in the group that one is studying assist one in understanding Otto’s numinous?

No to the first two, but to the last; maybe.

Undeniably there must be some form of separation from observer and the object of observation but rather than have an argument over the theological or secular study of religion, perhaps scholars should be focused on a more narrow question: why does our field consider that a scholar must be Richard Dawkins-like in order to study religion? Is it not possible to study, say American Pentecostals, from an extremely in-depth, personal platform without considering this to be theology? So long as the scholar is clear about bracketing their personal ties to their subject, there should be no problem with a devout Muslim teaching courses on Islam, indeed who would be better to write a chapter on Islam than a Muslim? Perhaps our beloved field should be less concerned with labeling scholars and worrying what their personal influences MIGHT be and stick to examining the output of scholars. By continuing this internal struggle over how best to regulate the study of religion, scholars are willingly allowing our field to crumble and be overtaken by Anthropology and the Cognitive Sciences. In short, a house divided falls entirely; so let us allow theologians to preach, independently we scientists of religion can continue to write and to teach and then we can critique the finished product rather than becoming manic, wondering how to best defend ourselves from the bullies who want our funding. If religious studies is on par with the other sciences (which I believe it is) why do we not simply allow our work to speak for itself and stop being so scared of our colleagues’ possible ulterior motives? Rather than continue to debate whether Otto wrote theology or secular, scientific works on religion, let’s simply use what he wrote in the most useful manner that we can muster.

 

 

Reference:

Martin, Luther H., & Wiebe, Donald. (2012). Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 3, 587.

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.

 

About the Author:

Chris Duncan is currently in the final year of the undergrad Religious Studies program at Arizona State University, with an emphasis on Hinduism. He will be moving into the  Graduate program in the same field next year.

Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto was a highly influential figure in the history of Religious Studies, but whether that influence was for good or not is a debatable issue. His ideas about the sui generis nature of the religious experience and of an irreductible numinous or sacred foreshadow the work of scholars such as Eliade, but proved highly divisive for scholars and practitioners alike.

In this interview with Jonathan, Robert Orsi talks us through who Otto was, and why his ideas proved controversial. They then discuss whether scholars should still be paying attention to Otto – do his ideas still matter today?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Robert Orsi is the first holder of the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies. Before coming to Northwestern, he taught at Fordham University at Lincoln Center from 1981 to 1988; Indiana University from 1988 to 2001; and Harvard Divinity School and Harvard University from 2001 to 2007, where he was Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (2003-2007). In 2002-2003, he was president of the American Academy of Religion. Professor Orsi studies America religious history and contemporary practice; American Catholicism in both historical and ethnographic perspective; and he is widely recognized also for his work on theory and method for the study of religion.

In 2004 Robert Orsi published Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them which received an Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion and was one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2005. More recently he published The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies.

Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular

In recent years, the centrality of ‘the sacred’ to the academic study of religion has come under sustained attack in recent years due to the apparent (un)conscious assumption amongst its advocates of an ‘ontological phenomenon that transcends signification’ (Lynch 2012, 15). It is against this backdrop that Gordon Lynch sets out – in his recent book, The Sacred in the Modern World, and in his interview with Jonathan Tuckett – to rehabilitate the ‘sacred’ as a viable academic concept, to map out a cultural sociology of the sacred, and to ‘conceptualise the focus of [the sociology of religion…] beyond the study of traditional, institutional forms of religion’ (2012, 3).

In this response I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students (Cotter 2011), in combination with my engagement with Lynch’s book (which I would thoroughly recommend), as a springboard to suggestively open up the complex relationship between the concepts religion, nonreligion and the secular.

Some Terms

The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, religion/nonreligion, sacred/secular for example. However, I suggest that it is generally unhelpful to speak of rigid dichotomies when considering these terms, and in some contexts it makes sense to refer to two triads – sacred/mundane/profane and religion/secular/nonreligion – from which terms can be combined to provide compound designations which apply to distinct real-world phenomena.

Let us defer to Lynch for an understanding of the first of these triads. He defines the sacred as ‘what people collectively experience as absolute, non-contingent realities which present normative claims over the meanings and conduct of social life’ (2012, 29). Against this backdrop, the profane is defined as ‘the evil that threatens this sacred form and pollutes whatever it comes into contact with’ whilst the mundane constitutes ‘the logics, practices, and spaces of everyday life’ (2012, 26). There are a number of things which I find compelling about this account: firstly, this makes no ‘claim that there is an actual ontological referent for sacred forms (ibid, 15). Secondly, it provides a space for the mundane, and allows us to potentially conceptualise degrees of sacredness/profanity and commitments to multiple sacred forms. Finally, as Lynch effectively demonstrates in the interview, this account shows that the sacred is not an exclusively religious category. As Kim Knott (2013) writes, citing Viekko Antonnen:

The ‘sacred’ (or its equivalent in other languages) can be attributed by people in non-theological as well as theological contexts, irrespective of the nature of their belief systems: ‘It is not a uniquely religious category…’ (Anttonen 2000, 274)

Turning to religion/secular/nonreligion, I take Lois Lee’s definition of non-religion, as ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’(2012a, 131), and the secular as a space where ‘religion is not the primary or immediate reference point’ (Lee 2011, 3). From this it is clear that nonreligion’ does not simply refer to everything which is not explicitly ‘religious’. It is also clear that the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’ are, ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This also enables me to run away from the problem of defining religion until another time, because in the context of the examples below, definitions of ‘religion’ (and its semantically parasitic other, ‘nonreligion’) were left open to the interpretation of my research participants

With these basic and brief understandings of these terms in mind, it makes a great deal of sense for Kim Knott to write that:

“… those forging social identities in secular contexts – who draw on non-religious commitments and beliefs including atheism, humanism and secularism – mark as ‘sacred’ those occasions (such as marriage), persons (a lover), things (a ring), places (a registry office) and principles (equality and justice) that they value above all others, and that they see as set apart and inviolable: those things that may be deemed to be both secular and sacred.” (2013)

A Scottish Example

My study – which will only be given the briefest of introductions now – involved engaging with the narratives of undergraduate students at the University of Edinburgh via electronic questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, taking Abby Day’s ‘researching belief without asking religious questions’ (2009) approach as a basic model. Ultimately, the students were classified into a ideal-typical five-fold typology of naturalistic, humanistic, spiritual, familial and philosophical, with a key outcome being that these types were ‘independent of religious categories’ (Quack 2011, 2) . Full details of results, sampling strategy, methods, interview schedules etc can be found in my dissertation.

Secular Sacreds

In terms of beliefs and self-identification, many of the students were what could be described as substantively nonreligious i.e. the terms with which they described themselves, and their reported beliefs, stood in contradistinction to what they understood to be ‘religion’ (for a rigorous and in-depth treatment of substantive nonreligiosity, see Lee (2012b)). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in diverse ways which were always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to my five types. To take the example of Courtney – a 21 year-old ‘humanistic’ student from the US – discourse became noticeably hostile when ‘religion’ was considered in conjunction with ‘sacred’ humanitarian values (in this instance, when the topic of ‘Faith Schools’ was raised):

Eugh. I don’t… I just… ew it, it [the term] gives me a visceral reaction because I believe so strongly that if… due to my own experience of, you know, if you don’t tell a kid about religion they’ll turn out atheist because everyone’s born an atheist, like I… I truly believe that and I just, I mean it’s… I hesitate to use such a… like a militant sounding phrase but it’s indoctrination of children and it just… it makes me very uneasy…

Then we have Niamh, a 19 year-old student from England, who is an example of what I would term a ‘familial’ student. For these students, beliefs, faith and values were frequently located in the ‘sacred’ family unit. In the following section of interview, Niamh has just described how her Protestant grandmother disowned Niamh’s father when he married her Catholic mother. Her father then went through a particularly traumatic emotional period after his own father died, since he had effectively been ostracised from the family:

…but after all of that with my mum and dad I just stopped going [to church] altogether… like I’d been quite religious before that but I just stopped… like… partly because I was too busy trying to get my mother out of bed, but partly because I just didn’t… I just thought it was a pile of crap basically, like… em… and, yeah that kind of… because up until then I suppose I had quite an easy life, like we’d never had a lot of money but I’d always had… emotionally there’d always been everything there, eh, and then suddenly there wasn’t and I had to sort… I suppose it made me like… because now if my … my mum stuck by my dad through everything, and that kind of made me feel like now I have to… you know you don’t give up on relationships even if… even if they’re going to shit you don’t… you don’t give up, you stick by people because if you don’t they might be in a mess, like my dad basically said if my mum had left him he’d have sh’… he’d have killed himself, so like now I like sort of have this view that you stick by people through as long as you can bear to, you know, and I guess that affects a lot…

I’m not saying that these are the only sacreds in their lives but that through their narratives they were the primary sacreds by which they were classified in my typology. If it comes down to the wire, to use a phrase from Kim Knott’s forthcoming chapter, these ‘trump’ other sacred values. Niamh actually placed a great deal of importance on her former religion but was willing to abandon it because of what it had done to her relationships: ‘it [religion] was always about family relationships and politics, basically, it was never about faith’. Courtney seemed to really value her nonreligiosity, but was willing to set it to the side when humanitarian issues were at stake: ‘I’d prefer if [charities] were secular, but I’m not going to quibble when you’re doing charity’. Although religion and nonreligion were referred to in both quotations, they were of secondary importance to the sacred values concerned, which could be described as their secular sacreds. Therefore, in this situation we have substantively nonreligious students, whose lives are oriented around a number of secular sacreds with different degrees of sacredness and which trump both religion and nonreligion.

This understanding of secular sacreds should not be seen as implying that these sacreds are solely the domain of secular individuals, and although I can understand Lynch’s uneasiness about the term, I agree with Knott (2013) that the addition of ‘secular’ is necessary at this stage, due to the uncritical conflation of ‘sacred’ with ‘religious’ in much prior scholarship.

The Sacred Secular

In terms of the relative importance (‘salience’ – see Day 2011) and practice of religion, many of these students appeared functionally secular, i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. Few were members of ‘nonreligious’ organisations, and some participated in religious activities for the sake of relatives, or persisted in communal religious worship regardless of disagreements with many fundamental aspects of the religion’s teaching or personal crises of faith. Although I don’t have space to go into my deliberations here, evidence such as this led me to conclude that ‘being nonreligious’ does not play a major part in most of these students’ lives.

However, stating that one aspect of a person’s life is not the most important does not imply that this aspect is unimportant. Most claimed that their nonreligiosity came to the fore when challenged by particular situations – particularly when their sacred values are challenged.

‘The “sacred” can be located in reversible category positions, whether in things pure or impure, licit or forbidden (taboo), fixed or unfixed, violable or sacrosanct.’ (Anttonen 2005, 198) Various things, places and people are set apart according to time and context. The boundaries that become the focus of sacred-making discourse and activities have the potential to erupt as sites of struggle but for much of the time lie dormant and, as such, invisible. (Knott 2013)

At such moments of eruption, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In fact, in some cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives. For instance:

…everyone’s always talking about like religious tolerance and that. I’m definitely tolerant towards people of all religions and no more so to like one than any other, um, but I’m not really tolerant of like public religion. I really dislike public religion and the fact that we’ve got an established church [in the UK … and that] everything’s allowed to be sort of quietly… quietly influenced by religion, and that annoys me.  (Harriet, 19, F)

There is a lot here which I think could be developed, and which I intend to develop during the course of my PhD, but basically what I wanted to suggest was that nonreligion is a complex substantive phenomenon characterised by a relationship of difference to prevailing religion, and the adoption of secular sacreds by individuals and, perhaps, sacralising the secular itself. Reframing understandings of (non)religion according to types of sacred which are independent of religious categories, allows (non)religious identities to be conceptualised to acknowledge the simultaneous intersection of multiple subjectively compatible (yet seemingly contradictory) religious and/or nonreligious identities, and paves the way for scholars to take religion seriously whilst avoiding unwarranted reverence. Paradoxically, if it provides robust models which work regardless of individual self-descriptions, it could also add to the growing critique of the usefulness of ‘religion’ as an analytic category.

[NB – This response is based on a presentation given at the BASR conference in Winchester, September 2012.]

References

  • Anttonen, Veikko. 2000. ‘Sacred’. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T McCutcheon, 271–282. London: Cassell.
  • ———. 2005. ‘Space, Body and the Notion of Boundary: A Category-Theoretical Approach to Religion’. Temenos: Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion 41 (2): 185–201.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. ‘Toward a Typology of “Nonreligion”: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. http://www.academia.edu/1329691/Toward_a_Typology_of_Nonreligion_A_Qualitative_Analysis_of_Everyday_Narratives_of_Scottish_University_Students.
  • ———. 2012. ‘Scottish Students, Their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular: Borders, Boundaries and Transgressions in the Study of “Nonreligion”’. In  University of Winchester.
  • Day, Abby. 2009. ‘Researching Belief Without Asking Religious Questions’. Fieldwork in Religion 4 (1): 86–104.
  • ———. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. ‘The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?’ In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2011. ‘NSRN Glossary (unpublished Paper)’. In NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-glossary-28-aprl-2011-lois-lee1.pdf
  • ———. 2012a. ‘Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’. Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • ———. 2012b. ‘Being Secular: Toward Separate Sociologies of Secularity, Nonreligion and Epistemological Culture’. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Cambridge: University of Cambridge.
  • Lynch, Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Quack, Johannes. 2011. ‘Modes of Non-religiosity’. In  NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-terminology-conference-5-may-2011-johannes-quack-nonreligion-stream1.pdf.

The Sacred

Religion and the Sacred, the Sacred and religion. Two words that seemingly go together like hand in glove but just how accurate is that? When we talk about religion it’s very hard not to talk about the Sacred but when we talk about the Sacred does this mean we have to talk about religion? What does the Sacred even mean? This introduction began with “Sacred” but it may well be more appropriate to write “sacred”. Whether capitalised or not, the sacred is a predominant topic in many forms of discourse and not all these are necessarily religious in nature.

This week we discuss the sacred and all its connotations with Gordon Lynch. The sacred is not, it seems, just a religion-only category and many aspects of modern secular societies are pervaded with such a notion. But if the sacred isn’t a religion only category where does that leave religion? Should there be departments of Religious Studies at all, or should we be replacing them with Sacred Studies? We discuss the potentially far reaching implications that a shift in focus from Religion to the Sacred can have on academia.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular.

Gordon Lynch is the Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent where he teaches on the sacred in modern Western Society. Professor Lynch has published a number of works including an edited volume with Jolyon Mitchell and has recently published two books on the sacred, The Sacred in the Modern World and On the Sacred. If you’d like to know more about Professor Lynch’s work on the sacred you can find out more information on his blog as well as access some of his own learning resources.

 

Material Religion

The study of religion and materiality is an important and fast-growing sub-discipline in the contemporary Religious Studies scene. According to the editors of the premier journal in this area, the aptly named ‘Material Religion‘, scholars in this area

explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts. No less important than these material forms are the many different practices that put them to work. Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, pilgrimage, display, magic, liturgy and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious material culture constructs the worlds of belief.

In this interview with Chris, Professor David Morgan takes the listener on an exciting tour of what this field has to offer, providing his own definition of material religion, and discussing empirical case studies and theoretical insights relating to religion in popular consumer culture, the sacred gaze, space and place, the internet, and more.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And please, take moment to rate us.

David Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1990. He has published several books and dozens of essays on the history of religious visual culture, on art history and critical theory, and on religion and media. His most recent book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012). Recent works include: The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007) and two volumes that Morgan edited and contributed to: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (Routledge, 2010) and Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008). Earlier works include Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998), Protestants and Pictures (Oxford, 1999), and The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005). Morgan is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.”

This interview was recorded at the Religion and Society Programme‘s ‘Sacred Practices of Everyday Life’ Conference in Edinburgh in May 2012, and we are very grateful to all involved for facilitating this discussion. It also forms part of a short series of podcasts on Material/Embodied religion, continuing next week with Marta Tzrebiatowska on “Why are Women more Religious than Men?”.

Editors’ Picks 3: Jay Demerath on Functionalist Religion and the Substantive Sacred

Week three of our Editors’ Picks. Chris tells us why he (and his fiancée) liked Jay Demerath’s interview on substantive and functionalist definitions of religion.

Could the difficulties associated with the academic conceptualisation of “religion” be overcome by changing our focus instead to “the sacred”? Jay Demerath tells Chris why we should define religion substantively – that is, in terms of specific attributes like rituals, deities or dogmas – but the sacred in terms of the function it serves in the lives of individuals and cultures. From this perspective, religion can be considered one of a number of potential sources of the sacred.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. Please take a moment to rate us while you’re there.

Jay Demerath is currently the Emile Durkheim Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has been a faculty member since 1972, including ten years as Chair. Prior to UMass, he received a 1958 A.B. from Harvard and a 1964 Ph.D from the U. Of California, Berkeley before rising from Instructor to Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and serving as Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association. Among his many publications, he is author or editor of fourteen books, including the award-winning Crossing the Gods: World Religions and Worldly Politics (2001) and the recent Sage Handbook for the Sociology of Religion (2008). The current Chair-elect of the Religion Section of the American Sociological Association, he is also past-President of the Eastern Sociological Society, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

Of particular relevance to this interview is his paper from 2000, The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove, from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 39, p. 1–11. Here’s the abstract:

This paper contends that the social scientific study of religion has long labored under a chafing constraint and a misleading premise. It suggests that our primary focus should be on the sacred, and that religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred. Defining religion “substantively” but the sacred “functionally” helps toresolve a long-standing tension in the field. Broadened conceptions of the sacred and of “sacralization” help to defuse the conflict among the two very different versions of secularization theory: the “all-or-nothing” versus the “middle range.” Meanwhile, a conceptual typology of the sacred pivots around the intersections of two distinctions (compensatory vs. confirmatory and marginal vs. institutional). This generates four distinct scenarios: the sacred as integrative, the sacred as quest, the sacred as collectivity, and the sacred as counter-culture. The paper concludes with three admonitions for research in the area.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment

The South Fork Dam once stood high above the city of Johnstown Pennsylvania, erected to supply water to one of the many canal systems that made up the early American interstate trade route.  Purchased by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing club in 1881, the massive body of water behind the dam, Lake Conemaugh, was made part of an exclusive mountain resort for the wealthy from nearby Pittsburgh.  Over the next eight years frequent inspections found the South Fork Dam to have many foundational flaws, as well as a number of recurring surface cracks.  With gilded aesthetics in mind these cracks were mended by rudimentary patchwork, a temporary slathering of mud and straw.  On the rainy afternoon of May 31st, 1889 the dam melted under the pressure of the swelling lake, releasing a surging wall of water onto the city below.  By the time the water receded 2,209 people had perished in one of the worst “natural” disasters in US history.

As anecdotes go, this is a pretty good one.  The impudence of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club contributed to the idea that by solving surface issues with a little patchwork the real problem at the foundation would equally be resolved.  In the field of academia we come across this sort of logic quite regularly; more so, it seems, in the category of religious studies.

Sean Bean as Odysseus in the movie ‘Troy’

It seems fair to say that ours is a rather dangerous vocation, not dangerous in the way a dam keeper’s job might be dangerous on an afternoon of heavy rain, but dangerous in that we bravely tread the waters of humanity’s inner-most sacred beliefs and practices.  This is not a gentle sea by any means.  Tempests rise up unexpectedly, detouring our crossing with tangential distractions—much like those which plagued that long adrift Greek hero, Odysseus.  Like him, we too seem impassioned to return to something genuine and practical, longing to once again stand on familiar soil; and we are ever creative in our ways of doing so.

Recently, Professor Jay Demerath took up such a challenge, which formed the basis for his interview with Chris Cotter.  Promoting the replacement of the ambiguous term “religion” with the functional term “sacred,” Demerath’s novel approach at interpreting that which stands out against the profane or secular comes with two critical issues: definition and application.

Definition

Demerath originally proposed this turn from “religion” to “sacred” in his deliberately misquoted “Varieties of Sacred Experience,” nominally linking his amended term with the foundations of religious studies in William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience.”  This calculated revision brings Demerath’s proposition into the context of debate between experience and belief as designated by the modern ambiguity of “religion” and his novelized sobriquet, “sacred.”  As he states, “religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred,” (Demerath 2000) and that the ambiguity which anchors itself to the definition of religion can easily be weighed by defining it substantively, while interpreting its consequences, “the sacred,” functionally.  This is a methodological proposition which focuses not on the encompassing importance of “religion” but rather on what it is that individuals—or groups—take to be “sacred.”  By divesting religion and sacred between substantive and functionalist, assigning “religion” to the “category of activity” and seeing the “sacred” as a “statement of function” both terms seem to work in their application

This is further demonstrated in his polythetic method of deciphering that which individuals and social groups set apart as being “sacred.”  In the interview, when asked how sociologists navigate the ambiguity of what is sacred or not, he suggests a sort of polythetic taxonomy when it comes to deciphering what is sacred to the people under examination.  By developing a “kind of a checklist of behaviors that are associated with what might be a sacred commitment,” such as is found in certain categorical methodologies (Saler 1993, Smith 1996, Smart 1997), he believes we can properly decipher what “people do, what they don’t do, what they believe, what they don’t believe, what they observe and don’t observe.”  Furthermore, this alludes to a stipulation of terms, rather than a dependence on real definitions (Baird 1971).  Both techniques reveal a method which assists us in accessing the “priority” of the religious person’s “commitments, the commitments in their life, and the convictions in their life.” (Demerath 2012).

However, Demerath is also navigating very dangerous waters here, steering between narrow straights where on one side awaits the swirling temptress of a definition of religion, and on the other the horrifically multifaceted monster of misapplication.  For example, if removed from his sociological context, how does his term “sacred” differ from that of “religious?”  One of the advantages with stipulative definitions is that they must be anchored to a particular study, the borders of which Demerath’s proposition seems to push against.  Consider if we categorically formed a stipulative interpretation of the traditional term “religious” as pertaining to the consequences of the practitioner’s “religion,” would we not be able to equally balance out the ambiguity found in “religion?”  Would using a stipulated interpretation of “religious” as the function of a person acting under the substantive form of “religion” not be the same?  While Demerath responds to a similar question in the interview by legitimating his use of the “sacred” as something that does not need to transcend our world to some other-worldly deity, he is limiting himself to a “definition” of religion devoted to a transcendental relationship between man and deity.  This seems, again, a difference between “religion” and “religious” as equally as it pertains to the difference between “religion” and the “sacred.”  This is an issue of definition and application.  Where his turn from the sociology of religion to the sociology of the sacred succeeds and fails is within this issue.  By pushing against these borders his stipulation begins to sink into the periphery of real definition.  Fortunately he saves himself with the life-raft of an applicative example.

Application

Ethan

Ethan Quillen

The decision of United States vs. Seeger is about as close to a “definition” of religion the United States Supreme Court is legally allowed to make.  The disestablishment clause of the 1st Amendment—Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion—is a collection of ten words which make the United States exceptional to religiously established nations such as England and Scotland.  It also creates quite the conundrum when cases like these come to the Court’s attention.  The Seeger case did not occur ex nihilo, but was rather the result of the decisions in Everson vs. Board and Torcaso vs. Watkins, steps made by the court over twenty years of social and political change in a country seeking an umbrellic identity between the end of World War II and the turbulent second half of a decade that saw the assassination of John F. Kennedy at one end, and the resignation of Richard M. Nixon at the other.

This brief circumnavigation speaks directly to Demerath’s application of the term sacred.  When seen through the lens of American legal amendments, wherein the “belief in and devotion to goodness and virtue for their own sakes,” and a religious “faith in a purely ethical creed” amounts to a “a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God,” what is construed as “sacred,” the “ultimate concern” may seem counter to even the most liberal applications of “religion.” (U.S. vs. Seeger)  By amending the qualifications of article 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act to accommodate Daniel Seeger’s philosophical views, the function of Tillich’s substantive definition, as accepted by the Court as a standard by which to measure the religiousness of the individual, “religious” and “sacred” become stipulative suggestions, pliable by what might justify a sacred belief.  Thus, in a nation devoted to a sense of individual sacralization, the nation of Sheilaism (Bellah et al.), Demerath’s reassignment of transcendental “religion” with “sacred” seems justified.

Conclusion

While the legitimation of his using “sacred” rather than “religion” seems justified in the above sample, it still seems a patchwork fix rather than a foundational repair.  It should be said, though, that this is not so much a critique of Demerath’s thesis, but of the idea in promoting a new term as the replacement of an old one.  Perhaps this is due to the definitive style it seems to imply at the suggestion of “sacred studies” rather than “religious studies.”  New terms are not always the best way to fix a foundational issue such as the ambiguity of “religion” in a global context.  Instead, we would benefit far greater by digging up and unpacking what we mean by terms when studying the practitioners who make them sacred in specific contexts.  The stipulation of an established, utilitarian term like “religious” to mean the actions of individuals seeking what they deem foundationally sacred relieves the pressures of ambiguity just as equally as “sacred,” especially because of its relationship and differentiation from “religion.”  Perhaps a good argument against Demerath’s contextual use of “sacred” might be a change from the “sociology of religion” to the “sociology of the religious.”

Definitions of religion seem the ever-widening Charybdis in the field of religious studies—in all its forms.  In our contemporary world we tend to find ourselves more absent-mindedly sailing toward the yawning mouth of that swirling vortex known as “a definition of religion.”  We need to be cautious with the application of new terms.  We seem too often prone to kneejerk patchwork, slathering layer upon layer of temporary fixes, either impudent in our knowledge of foundational issues, or victims of deep denial.  We long to resolve ambiguity by applying more ambiguity, when we should just dig up the foundation and rebuild.  These waters are dangerous, and without precaution we appear more and more drawn into the riptide of circular academia where, once swallowed up, we run the risk of drowning in a sea of uncertainty.

References and Suggested Reading

  • Robert D. Baird.  Category Formations and the History of Religions.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah.  Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah, et al.  Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • James L. Cox.  “Afterword: Separating Religion from the ‘Sacred:’ Methodological Agnosticism and the Future of Religious Studies” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Jay Demerath.  “The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove” in the Journal for theScientific Study of Religion, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2000.
  • ———.   “Defining Religion and Modifying Religious “Bodies:” Secularizing the Sacred and Sacralizing the Secular” in Phil Zuckerman, ed.  Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1: Issues, Concepts, and Definitions. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.
  • ———. Religious Studies Project Interview with Jay Demerath on Substantive Religion and the Functionalist Sacred (12 March 2012).
  • David McCullough. The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating “Natural” Disasters America has Ever Known. NewYork: Touchstone, 1987.
  • Ethan Gjerset Quillen, 2011. Rejecting the Definitive: A Contextual Examination of Three Historical Stages of Atheism and the Legality of an American Freedom from Religion.  MA Thesis, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
  • Bensor Saler.  Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories.  New York: E.J. Brill, 1993.
  • Ninian Smart.  Dimensions of the Sacred: Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs.  New York: Fontana Press, 1997.
  • Jonathan Z. Smith  “A Matter of Class: Taxonomies of Religion” in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 89, No. 4, 1996.
  • Terence Thomas.  “‘The Sacred’ as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
  • Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961)
  • United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965)
  • Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970)

Podcasts

Framing, Observing, and Exhibiting Yoga: A Response to Bruce Sullivan

Writing on the state of yoga in America today tends to frame discussions on the topic with statistics that attest yoga’s current popularity: the thousands of studios, the millions of practitioners, or the billions of dollars in annual revenue the yoga industry generates. The repetition of these figures runs the risk of rendering them trite, but ignoring this crucial context in which to place American yoga runs a greater risk of projecting one’s misrepresentative assumptions onto a much larger whole.

Where then does Bruce Sullivan’s research on the practice of yoga in museums— both in his interview for the Religious Studies Project and in his chapter on the subject in the edited volume Sacred Objects in Secular Places: Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums— fit in this context? Yoga performance in museums is certainly novel and intriguing, and offers a potentially fruitful perspective to think about current understandings of yoga. Yet, it also becomes problematic to extend the transposition of an ordinary yoga class into a museum beyond novelty or intrigue, and perceive it as either a widespread practice, strange anomaly, or indicative of modern yoga’s drifting from a traditional center.

Sullivan describes these events as occurring with significant frequency in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Britain). He lards this observation with an impressive catalogue of museums hosting yoga events. Descriptors such as “diverse array,” “many,” “popular,” and “numerous” do the heavy lifting of reminding the reader how pervasive this practice has become.

Yet despite these efforts to quantify a growing and easily-discovered phenomenon, putting these numbers in their statistical contexts makes clear that this growing trend is a microcosm, dwarfed by traditional museum patronage and yogic practice. There are almost 35,000 museums in the United States alone, a number larger than the combined total locations of McDonald’s and Starbucks. When placed alongside the vast number of yoga practitioners, an honest assessment would see even the most complete accounting of yoga in museums as being a miniscule part of the whole of either. It is possible to go online as Sullivan did and create similar lists and descriptions of wine and beer tasting events at dozens of zoos around the country, but the presence of “Brew at the Zoo” and “Roar and Pour” events would not tell us much more beyond the fact that lots of people enjoy drinking alcohol and zoos have a vested interest in generating money and increasing the number of visitors.

The reasons for these yoga events, as Sullivan recognizes, are pragmatic and symbiotic. Like other public outreach, hosting yoga classes offers museums a range of benefits such as publicity, gift shop and café sales, and new visitors.  Surveys— such as the same frequent source for the size of the yoga industry in America, the large-scale 2016 “Yoga in American Study” conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance—find the vast majority of people practicing yoga doing so in health clubs or gyms, community centers, or in the privacy of their own homes, rather than in dedicated yoga studios. Yet yoga devotees like the idea of performing their art in public places. One of every five practitioners surveyed attended a yoga event in a public place; three out of every four are interested in doing so in the future. It is simply a mutually beneficial exchange: museums gain new visitors and yoga practitioners get a desired change of scenery.

It is difficult not to see Sullivan’s preoccupation with yoga in museums as an example of what Catherine Albanese termed “show-and-tell scholarship”— work at the intersection of religious studies and popular culture that consists of “unearthing still one more custom, practice, belief, or piece of spiritual paraphernalia that no one yet among scholars had discovered.”[1] The originality and quality of this brand of scholarship, therefore depends on the novelty of the finding. The underlying assumption in both the interview for the Religious Studies Project and Sullivan’s chapter is that there is something incongruous, if not slightly absurd, about rows of people going through a Vinyasa class under the shadow of an art institution’s paintings and statuary. We would not expect a similar analysis of a wedding reception being hosted in the ballroom of a Freemasonic Lodge, or weekly Bingo night in the community center attached to a Catholic church, but something about yoga in museums seems to present a heightened contradiction between the perceived sacred and secular. The highpoint of the interview and the namesake of Sullivan’s chapter, the pair of New Age yoga students who believe that they are “reconsecrating the icons” of Buddhist images and Hindu statues that surround them in the museum through their yogic asanas, seem to embody this antinomy.

Yet the tension between sacred and secular that Sullivan finds so remarkable traffics in an overemphasis on the nature we want to attribute to both museums and yoga. Many of the features that make us assume museums are secular like their fundraising and promotion, or the commerce done within their walls, are shared by a large number of various religious institutions around the world. As Sullivan notes in the introduction to his edited volume by way of Carol Duncan’s work, museums often share much in common with religious sites. Museums are often spaces set apart from the mundane world, where singular objects of admiration can be encountered in a ritualistic fashion, and thus cultivate powerful experiences in their visitors. As Anne Murphy suggests in a description of the displaying of Sikh artifacts in the Sacred Objects in Secular Places volume, in some cases it is hard to tell where veneration begins and curation ends.

Further, studies suggest that no more than a small percentage of those who practice yoga see themselves as doing anything spiritual. Those familiar with Mark Singleton’s 2010 work Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and the evidence it marshals to show the strong influence of Western bodybuilding, gymnastics, and physical culture on the formation of yoga as we now know it, would not be surprised to learn that three-quarters of American yogis practice other forms of physical exercise such as running, cycling, or weight-lifting. The closest thing to a spiritual motivation for yoga that we can find among the top five reasons for Americans who start yoga is “stress relief,” which is a factor for little more than one-half of respondents. A yoga class in a museum could be seen just as much as a secular practice in a quasi-religious space as a quasi-religious practice in a secular space.

Even the two “reconsecrators” in Sullivan’s interview and chapter are surrounded by other forms on the periphery of modern yoga— “vino yoga,” “acryo-yoga,” and the “yoga rave”— that are softly implied through their inclusion and descriptions to also “get yoga wrong” to lesser extents. Recently in the UK’s Independent, the scholar Jim Mallinson contended, “(Yoga’s) such a big multifarious tradition you can find precedents for almost anything.” The variety and complexity of yoga’s long history ensures there is almost nothing today— naked yoga, yoga with dogs, yoga paired with cannabis— without a possible, tentative analogue from the past. More importantly, there is also no single, stable core of authentic yogic tradition that can be used as a stable reference point to adjudicate the legitimacy of contemporary yogic practice.

While anecdotes can provide intriguing or illustrative examples, there is a danger in holding up a select few and taking them as representatives of a larger phenomenon. Anecdotal examples often say as much about who has chosen them as those who are chosen. Sullivan’s understanding of contemporary yoga seems to be built partially upon his personal experience with B.K.S. Iyengar and his style of yoga— which may explain his fascination and amusement with the variety of less austere and more experimental forms of practice he describes— but mostly upon older textual sources such as the Yoga Sutra, Hatha Pradipika, Bhagavad Gita, and Shvetashvatara Upanishad.

An example of this is one of the most intriguing parts of Sullivan’s work on yoga in museums— “the idea that yoga practice in a museum setting enables one more fully to appreciate an artwork or an object of religious significance,” (45) a concept that is mentioned by several museums and Sullivan contrasts with earlier texts such as the Yoga Sutra and Gita, in which yoga was associated with a withdrawal from the senses, not a heightening or relishing of them. Again, there is a risk in taking statements by professional promoters of museums at face value. In light of how much yoga has changed over millennia from those texts to its contemporary practice, there is also something a bit unfair in judging the latter by the standards of the former. While many serious yoga teachers like to imagine a link between their practice and ancient Indian traditions, and museum organizers want to present the yoga events they host in a flattering light by gesturing to the same mythic source, this maybe be for critics and participants alike an observation of something simply not there.

One link between yogic practice and museums may come from viewing yogis, yoga teachers, and yoga promoters as performing work comparable to museums in the nearly century and a half history of modern yoga’s global spread. As museums curate, exhibit, frame, spotlight, and annotate their works to an anticipated audience, yoga has similarly been consciously displayed and promoted. Modern yoga’s history can be emplotted through the way it has exhibited itself.

The yogis witnessed by early Europeans in India aggressively displayed themselves in public venues with exaggerated poses and dress to receive alms. As accounts of yogis made their way to the United States at the turn of the century, the understanding of yoga as mental and magical was mirrored in the ways it was staged to a range of audiences: Vaudeville stage magicians adopted exotic Indian personae, several American-born magicians alternated between performing mentalist routines and offering teachings on yoga, and several Indian-born yoga teachers accentuated their public lectures with displays of magic, most notably Yogananda, who employed a claimed  Polish count and an Egyptian wonder-worker (born and raised in Italy) to demonstrate the magical powers of yoga.

During the interwar decades, it was common for the dozens of yoga teachers who travelled across the country to shift their public persona by altering their names and places of origin, adding real and fictitious titles and degrees, and adjusting their claims for what their yoga was and what it could do for its practitioners. One was more likely to find notices for yoga classes and lectures at this time in the entertainment section of the newspaper than alongside the church notices.

By the time of the Second World War, the work of Swami Kuvalayananda in India retailed in his visually-rich medical journal Yoga Mimamsa had begun to shift American ideas of yoga itself by framing the physical practice of hatha yoga with demonstrable scientific reasoning and practical, worldly results.  The success of his venture set the stage for mass market paperback books and television programs by American yoga teachers such as Richard Hittleman and Lilias Folan. Perhaps even more significant in yoga’s development than its adoption by much of the late-1960s Counterculture was its embrace by popular fitness culture that was facilitated by television and later millions of VHS tapes and DVDs with figures like Baron Baptiste and Rodney Yee and allowed for yoga to be done at any time in one’s own home.

Today, yoga as individual physical practice— done through the body for the body— can be seen in the ubiquitous manner of exhibiting the toned yoga body through photographs and social media, and how still images and video can function as credentials for many practitioners and instructors. Perhaps the strongest testament to the popularity of yoga is the number and variety of venues it is practiced in. It has become so commonly practiced that it can be found in health clubs, community centers, parks, private homes–and even in the occasional yoga class on display at a museum.

References 

[1] Catherine Albanese, “Forum: How I Changed My Mind,” for Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter 2004), pp. 3-10.

New Horizons in the Sociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?

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

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

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

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

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

Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

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, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

The Truthiness of Consciousness as the Sacred

Here Be Monsters

DWM01

Seven or so minutes into David Robertson’s interview with Rice University’s Jeffrey Kripal, Kripal cuts to the heart of an issue that plagues contemporary religious studies scholars: Do we have the tools and will to seriously examine experiences of the fantastic in the present age?

In my response today, I hope to achieve two things. First, I want to discuss Kripal’s presentation of the field’s latent crisis of emic/etic perspective regarding religious experiences. His explorations of the fantastic should be exciting to many listeners. Go right ahead and take a look at Mutants and Mystics (2011) or Authors of the Impossible (2010). They are worth your time, and I believe it is possible that in the interview he undersold the significance of attempts toward understanding the resurgence of supernaturalism in our present era.

Second, I think it is necessary to challenge the way Kripal avoided the field’s problem with sui generis approaches to religious and paranormal experiences. Elevating consciousness as a replacement for older comparative, phenomenological categories such as the holy, sacred, or numinous does not escape the established critiques from folks like Russell McCutcheon or Tim Fitzgerald. It only defers judgment until some future moment when science can better explain consciousness or paranormal experiences in material ways. Or, worse still, it takes the gambit that scholars can never truly understand our world through observation. Many beginners in religious studies are advised to consider naturalism as the cornerstone of our field. If we supplant it by admitting that consciousness is sui generis and unknowable, as Kripal appears inclined to do, then are we not trying yet again to move religious studies out of the humanities or human sciences and back into the realm of theology? (Or simply rehashing the arguments over comparativism between Paden and Wiebe from the late 1990s?) Though our field may not fully embrace the scientific method as its methodology of choice, its premises of knowledge acquired through empirical observation and verification remain the philosophical bulwark for our work.

In sum, Kripal’s approach identifies new territory for scholarly exploration of paranormal experiences, but it also limits those explorations by failing to heed the lessons learned in previous expeditions. Ironically, the monsters were marked on the map; we should have believed the stories.

The Lasso of Truth

wonder woman with lasso

Supernatural. Paranormal. Fantastic. What are the boundaries for discussing these phenomenon? Do we take a skeptic’s approach and deconstruct an informant’s experience with the lenses of scientific reductionism? Shall we build a social world that frames phenomenal experiences to explain them away as historical products of pre-scientific thinking and superstition? Are we bound to believe the stories in full or analyze them as if they were so?

I see one version of our field’s history as haunted by these questions. It is a procession of ghosts fighting over the issue of the experience of the religious–the sacred legacy stretching from James and Durkheim through Otto to Eliade and J. Z. Smith. Modernity’s crisis of truth, the onset of relativism and deconstructionism, has meant that religious studies has been continually frustrated over the issue of authenticity in its sources and subjects. How can we know that ancient religious agents really believed the bear would lie down and offer itself to the hunters as a sacrifice (my favorite example from J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion)? Perhaps this is the thorn in our side from our Protestant legacy. We are left to forever doubt our own interpretative models and be stuck between the absolutism of the insider’s emotion and the skepticism of the outsider’s inability to be or think like the insider.

Kripal’s presentation of the key issue in the study of the fantastic goes like this: If something fantastic happened in the past, then we are better able to feel sympathy for that experience because it is historical. If we cast it aside or call it superstition, then we do so without harming a living informant. It is a difficult part of our work when we must listen to an informant tell an extraordinary tale and then reserve judgment on whether we think the story is true. It is not just that telling someone face-to-face that you do not believe their story is difficult. In practice, this breaks the boundaries for gathering observations. We can then be won or lost as listeners who also believe or understand. Historians are blessed with a distance that fosters objectivity rooted in naturalism and skepticism. Within the field, supernatural explanations do indeed seem to fall beyond the pale as truths. The “ontological shock” of the past is not accessible in the present.

When studying living agents, however, Kripal argues that our field has been largely “unwilling to take the fantastic seriously in the present.” This lack of seriousness can be a micro-aggression of disbelief or scoffing at an exaggerated tale. Or it can be the scientific dismissal of an experience by explanations rejected by the observer themselves. But it was real to me, they might say. Are we to reply “I do not believe you”? The question of the authenticity and reality of these experiences are the heart of the issue for those who experience the supernatural or paranormal. Thus, Kripal says he does not “understand how as scholars we can just bracket [the question of ontological truth]. I understand why we can’t answer that question, but I don’t agree that we should just push that question off to the side.”

Indeed, for most of the last century ethnography demanded that observers bracket their own worldviews. Were you pursuing your interpretations (the etic) or the interpretations of your subjects (the emic)? Even modern concessions to the role of observers in influencing the things they document, as in the work of Karen McCarthy Brown, do so in ways that highlight the distance between the ethnographer’s world and the world of her subjects.

Kripal says that to deal with the paranormal, observers cannot be phenomenologists secluded from the truth claims of their subjects. Truth–that of the informant and the observer–is collapsed into a shared faculty of experience called consciousness. “These most extreme and fantastic religious experiences,” he says, “might well be our best clues as to what the nature of consciousness really is, below or above our social egos and these sort of superficial forms of awareness that you or I are in at the moment.” Kripal need not believe the particular details of alien abduction or out-of-body teleportation because the mode of experiencing these events is real–it is our consciousness and that makes it “the ground of all religious experience.” It is “the new sacred.”

There are plenty of ways to discuss this remarkable exchange, but Kripal falls back on the narrative that led our field to criticize Eliade or Otto’s claims that the sacred was sui generis. Consciousness, he says, is sui generis.

Part of the effect of this radical move is that Kripal is binding his informants with, to borrow a popular culture reference, a lasso of truth. He compels them, wills them to be truthful because the ground of the experience cannot lie to them. After all, it was their experience. If I am following correctly, our informants merit our trust not on the details of their experience, but rather on the mode of experiencing. Those experiences then fall either on the side of the ego and the everyday or the side of the extraordinary where consciousness is universal, groundless or “empty.”

Shall we put aside the issue that we have not explained how to differentiate between types of experiences apart from the informant or the observer’s explanations? Or how groundless experiences in our consciousness are anything other than wordplay for the sacred? How have we improved our lot by this shift to the term consciousness? Have we not just substituted ego and emptiness for homo faber and homo religiosus?

Like Kripal, I think it is unlikely that most (or perhaps any) informants are describing an experience from our world when they narrate an alien abduction. So I fail to see how we can do significantly more than say they have told him a story they believe is true. As observers receiving such a story, I find it our duty to walk the line that holds us from letting the veracity of a claim dictate our field’s observational models or orientations. A single informant’s truth is anecdote, not evidence. Nor does a body of similar anecdotes become truth through the weight of repetition. If corroborating evidence fails to appear, it does not rob an anecdote of meaning or significance. For we do not set our business upon the truth-claim, but rather on the value of the story. Though Kripal acknowledges his informants’ desire to place ontologies at the center of their experiences, this should not compel us to then reassert the grounds of our field’s ontologies. Should we not feel uneasy when told that it is appropriate to do so? Have we really escaped the trouble of sui generis critiques by replacing the sacred with an something that Kripal says cannot be measured or known “in principle because it is not an object”? Though we need not be utter materialists or empiricists to do our work, are we not placing our interpretations at risk when we place them on immeasurable and unknowable foundations?

 

 

Truthiness

Capture

Fox Mulder and his iconic “I want to believe” poster from The X-Files

Let me try another tack to conclude my thoughts on the issue of truth and its relationship to scholarly discussions of the paranormal and supernatural. In the pilot episode of his television show The Colbert Report in 2005, Stephen Colbert introduced western audiences to truthiness. “We’re divided between those that think with their heads and those that know with their hearts,” Colbert said. “The truthiness is that anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” Truthiness is the simulacrum of the truth we wish existed “in our gut.” Or, as he said in an interview for The Onion, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.”

So how should we then perceive experiences of the paranormal? Is it the truth of the sacred in the gut of religious studies? Or is it a semblance of truth that feels better than the materialistic, reductionist alternative? Are these our only options?

In Authors of the Impossible, Kripal attempted to show how both religious and scientific registers came to be seen as failing to explain paranormal experiences for a wide range of pseudo-religious personalities. For folks like Charles Fort, for instance, science had all the answers. Later, science became a target of great skepticism, a “trickster” that appeared to offer answers but could not actually explain much that mattered. In Kripal’s hands, this argument takes a new shape: if science cannot address consciousness and it is universal, then perhaps it is that substance or ground upon which the sacred can also be found. It seems to have a sense of truth to it. It feels like it could make the fantastic possible. But how are we to be sure?

Pivoting in the last few minutes, Kripal argues that the thing that we need to truly understand paranormal experiences is symbolic imagination. In our efforts to embrace difference and “demonize” sameness, we seem to have lost the ability to appreciate radical experiences. We are too interested in reducing the world to scientific claims and are insulated from the opportunities of experiences that break the mold. This is the mystical invitation–the root of much inspiration for authors of science fiction and comic books in Mutants and Mystics–that reveals the paradigm shift Kripal asks for: to have the field deal with the paranormal. Can we treat the fantastic seriously on these terms? Let us know how you feel in the comments.

Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

Emile Durkheim

durkheim

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)  is widely regarded as the founder of sociology, and has been enormously influential on the entirety of the modern social sciences. The author of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, and The Division of Labor in Society among others, he is perhaps most well-known in Religious Studies for his definition of religion as

“a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them” (1965 [1912]: 62).

Within this well-worn definition we can glimpse the basic foundations of an entire approach to the study of religion, which places emphasis upon the role of social interaction and discourse in ‘setting things apart’ – in constructing the ‘sacred’ and the ‘religious’- rather than assuming or advocating for an inherent, sui generis, religion.

In this wide ranging and in-depth interview with Chris, Ivan Strenski discusses Durkheim’s life and work in a broader context, tracing his impact through the ‘Durkheimian school’ – which includes Claude Levi-Strauss – and presenting an understanding of the academic study of religion as a Durkheimian project.

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 participating in the ‘sacralizing’ of the social and buying your Christmas presents etc.

This is the final episode in a series on early 20th century theorists of religion. The first featured Robert Segal on C. G. Jung and the second featured Paul-François Tremlett on Claude Levi-Strauss.

A Field Little Plowed? The Study of Religion and the Built Environment Today

 

Let me begin with a mythological allusion. The Roman god Janus was often depicted with two faces to signify his interstitial nature. He looked into the future and past, and oversaw beginnings and endings. He marked the boundaries between inside and outside. Janus, the gateway god, seems a suitable reference for my polarized reaction to Durham University Senior Lecturer Peter Collins’s interview on “Religion and the Built Environment.”

Head of Janus, Vatican museum, Rome (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

From one perspective, I was delighted to hear a fascinating discussion of how Collins came to study the built environment early in his career. Using his experience studying an adjacent Quaker meetinghouse and an Anglican church, he demonstrates the many joys of reading the built environment closely. It is obvious, too, that he is productively sharing his skills with his students in the field. Teaching undergraduates the value of examining the built environment is a true service to the academy. We should all be so lucky to have Durham Cathedral or delightfully juxtaposed religious buildings down the road for our students to explore! [This material begins at 11:15 in the interview.]

From another perspective, however, I feel quite at odds with his view that religion and the built environment remains a “field little plowed.” The dissertation I am finishing at the moment in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for instance, begins with the premise that the built environment has been over-emphasized to the detriment of other modes of creating and maintaining sacred space.While I nodded enthusiastically when he praised Lindsay Jones’s The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture. (It is a fascinating and under-utilized two-volume theoretical work.) I confess that I gritted my teeth when he recommend Pierre Bourdieu’s 1971 essay ”The Berber House.” In 2013 we are still falling back on structuralism to look at religious buildings? (Jones, for his part, would probably be shocked.)

However, lest I be uncharitable to a colleague across the Atlantic, I think that my unease may be less disagreement than the simple product of differences in geography, discipline, and the years between our training. Collins is a social anthropologist who specializes in, among many things, Quakerism in 17th and 18th century England. I am a religious studies scholar who specializes in sacred space in the contemporary United States. I am finishing my degree in June, while he has been publishing for over 15 years.

It reminds me somewhat of Hans Rosling’s famous TEDTalk “Let my dataset change your mindset.” Our conceptions about the world, Rosling argued in relation to the division between first and third world, are not shaped by the time we live in, but by the year our teachers were born. Obviously this is overstating the case. 15 years isn’t that long. And academic discourse is not global health. I think it is telling, however, that my own Master’s degree adviser Peter Williams published his bibliographic essay for The Material History of American Religion Project on “The Built Environment of American Religion: The State of the Art”in 1995. He began by saying “Until recently, the study of America’s religious architecture and landscape was something that had largely fallen through the cracks of academe.” Collins similarly says there is very little on the built environment today. It is “fairly sparse” in Anthropology or there is “very little” in the Sociology of religion and only “slightly more prominent” in Religious Studies. I think–although I don’t have elegant charts to make my case–that today this characterization misses the mark.

Perhaps the fundamental challenge to a mighty wave of studies about the built environment, as Collins explores in the interview, occurs when we move beyond defining the critical terms (religion, built environment, material culture, etc.). When we look at the scholarship on the built environment we are forced to consult an ever-widening set of theories and methods. History, Anthropology, Sociology, Religious Studies, Gender Studies, Architectural History, Visual Studies, Literature, and so on all have contributions to the study of the built environment. The list is as broad as the academy itself. Yet, teaching our students the skills necessary to interpret and think critically about the built environment is a significant obstacle.

Durham Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

I also fully agree that a major issue is how easy it is to overlook the built environment all around us. Collins said, rather earthily, that he wondered “if sometimes it is because buildings are so bloody obvious, so huge and so manifest, that we don’t see them.” Isn’t this the very joke from David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech?

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

For Collins, the environment is humanity’s water. It is “all of that which exists outside of the human being,” and it includes those elements that humans build. If we want to be sensitive to it, then we must cultivate sensibilities that make it visible and legible. Since the scholarship surrounding the built environment comes from across the academy, it can be a tangle of interdisciplinary webs. Structuralism of the type Bourdieu presents in “The Berber House,” I would be the first to confess, can be a way to untangle this web or even avoid it altogether.

Collins later wonders why, when speaking about Jones’ comparative architectural model, so little has been done with it. If you brave Jones’s volumes, you will understand why. It is terrifically complex. It is also not something that can be presented without modification to undergraduates. [Jones is discussed  in the final 15 minutes or so of the interview.] Nevertheless, its presence here is an indication that the conversation may be evolving in ways that will promote its use in the future.

We are still confronting the double challenges of interdisciplinary expansion and, shall we say, legibility or transferability to our students and the public. The close-reading of the Quaker meetinghouse that Collins offers is a strong demonstration that the rewards of overcoming these challenges are high. I can contribute to these rewards by recommending a few recent titles that deal with the built environment in satisfying and novel ways. A comprehensive list, such as that offered by Williams above, is probably not possible without first retreating bookishly to the corners of the academy where our own disciplines lie. In that respect, the few items in my bibliography reflect my contemporary American biases. I also take “built environment” to indicate much more than simply religious buildings. This is a product not merely of my research in spatial theory and place studies, but of my interests in expanding the study of sacred space beyond the walls of the church. I encourage everyone to continue the discussion and add their own favorite recent items on religion and the built environment in the comments.

Selected Bibliography on Religion and the Built Environment since 1990

  • Chidester, David, and Edward T. Linenthal, eds. American Sacred Space. Edited by Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein, Religion in North America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Diamond, Etan. And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Caronlina Press, 1999.
  • Eiesland, Nancy L. A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecology in a Southern Exurb. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  • Farmer, Jared. On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Francaviglia, Richard V. Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin. Reno & Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2003.
  • Griffith, James S. . Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.
  • Jones, Lindsay. The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison. 2 vols, Religions of the World. Cambridge, MA: Distributed by Harvard University Press for Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 2000.
  • Kieckhefer, Richard Theology in Stone: Church Architecture From Byzantium to Berkeley. London: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Kilde, Jeanne Halgren. When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Kerstetter, Todd M. God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • Lane, Belden C. Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. Expanded ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. Sacred Ground : Americans and Their Battlefields. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Livezey, Lowell W., ed. Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City. Edited by Peter J. Paris, Religion, Race, and Ethnicity. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • Loveland, Anne C. and Otis B. Wheeler. From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History. St. Louis: University of Missouri Press, 2003.
  • Mazur, Eric Michael and Kate McCarthy, ed. God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • McGreevy, John T. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Metcalf, Barbara Daly, ed. Making Muslim Sacred Space in North American and Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Meyer, Jeffrey F. . Myths in Stone: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Nelson, Louis P. American Sanctuary: Understanding Sacred Spaces. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006. 
  • Orsi, Bob, ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Sheldrake, Philip. Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Treviño, Roberto R. The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. America’s ChurchThe National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital. London: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Shrine in Miami. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Williams, Peter W. Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States. Edited by Conrad Cherry, Public Expressions of Religion in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  • Wilford, Justin G. Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
  • Winston, Diane. Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Upton, Dell. Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
  • Zepp, Jr., Ira G. The New Religious Image of Urban America: The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center. 2nd ed. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_n

Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

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.

About the Author:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) Oxford University Press
  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
  • Stringer, M.D. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum
  • Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volumes 1 & 2 (1871) John Murray

[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.

Why should we keep paying attention to Otto?

 

Is it necessary, helpful even, to only study religion if you are not religious? Does the secular scholar of, say Hinduism, stand to be a better scholar than another with the same training but who happens to personally be Hindu? Does having a personal involvement in the group that one is studying assist one in understanding Otto’s numinous?

 

 

Why should we keep paying attention to Otto?

By Chris Duncan

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 14th November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Robert Orsi on Rudolf Otto (12 November 2012).

In this interview with Robert Orsi, Religious Studies Professor from Northwestern University, Jonathon and Dr. Orsi discuss the seemingly evergreen writer Rudolf Otto. After a brief discussion over Otto’s more well-known ideas of the numinous and mysterium tremendum the two hit on an intriguing line of talk, one that I have been mulling over in the back of my mind for several months now without really ever noticing it much: as scholars of religion, should we ourselves be religious? Further, if we should be religious, should we be practitioners of the groups that we study? Naturally, I am restricting my definition of “we” to mean those who are non-theologians; perhaps scientists of religion would be apt also.

I have always personally held the position that no scholar of religion could honestly use that title if they were themselves religious. Maybe because specifically, the secular, non-biased scholarship was, to my eye, more brutally honest or willing to discuss the positives in addition to the negatives of particular religious traditions rather than  trying to explain away the negatives. However, recently and unknowingly I may have been changing my mind. For, could someone who studies humans not also be human; must someone who studies Germans not have any form of German connections? Or, as I am beginning to think, does having a personal zeal and insider understanding of a religious tradition make one a more suitable observer/scholar?

The argument over whether religious studies should be either theological or secular study has been an on-going process for decades now, with secular study having held the upper hand for the majority of that time. With the boom of the natural sciences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came the separation of those who study religion in order to actively participate within it, and those who study religion for non-theological purposes. In 1963, the National Association of Bible Instructors changed its name to the American Academy of Religion, and since then there has continued a steady march towards secular, non-religious scholarly study of religions. However, in the journal of this same organization, the September 2012 edition, Donald Wiebe and Luther Martin lament that though platitudes of secular, unbiased study are tossed about in public, in execution, university programs, particularly American programs, “all reveal a continuing influence of theology on the field [of religious studies] worldwide.” So, what is one to do? Is it necessary, helpful even, to only study religion if you are not religious? Does the secular scholar of, say Hinduism, stand to be a better scholar than another with the same training but who happens to personally be Hindu? Does having a personal involvement in the group that one is studying assist one in understanding Otto’s numinous?

No to the first two, but to the last; maybe.

Undeniably there must be some form of separation from observer and the object of observation but rather than have an argument over the theological or secular study of religion, perhaps scholars should be focused on a more narrow question: why does our field consider that a scholar must be Richard Dawkins-like in order to study religion? Is it not possible to study, say American Pentecostals, from an extremely in-depth, personal platform without considering this to be theology? So long as the scholar is clear about bracketing their personal ties to their subject, there should be no problem with a devout Muslim teaching courses on Islam, indeed who would be better to write a chapter on Islam than a Muslim? Perhaps our beloved field should be less concerned with labeling scholars and worrying what their personal influences MIGHT be and stick to examining the output of scholars. By continuing this internal struggle over how best to regulate the study of religion, scholars are willingly allowing our field to crumble and be overtaken by Anthropology and the Cognitive Sciences. In short, a house divided falls entirely; so let us allow theologians to preach, independently we scientists of religion can continue to write and to teach and then we can critique the finished product rather than becoming manic, wondering how to best defend ourselves from the bullies who want our funding. If religious studies is on par with the other sciences (which I believe it is) why do we not simply allow our work to speak for itself and stop being so scared of our colleagues’ possible ulterior motives? Rather than continue to debate whether Otto wrote theology or secular, scientific works on religion, let’s simply use what he wrote in the most useful manner that we can muster.

 

 

Reference:

Martin, Luther H., & Wiebe, Donald. (2012). Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 3, 587.

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.

 

About the Author:

Chris Duncan is currently in the final year of the undergrad Religious Studies program at Arizona State University, with an emphasis on Hinduism. He will be moving into the  Graduate program in the same field next year.

Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto was a highly influential figure in the history of Religious Studies, but whether that influence was for good or not is a debatable issue. His ideas about the sui generis nature of the religious experience and of an irreductible numinous or sacred foreshadow the work of scholars such as Eliade, but proved highly divisive for scholars and practitioners alike.

In this interview with Jonathan, Robert Orsi talks us through who Otto was, and why his ideas proved controversial. They then discuss whether scholars should still be paying attention to Otto – do his ideas still matter today?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Robert Orsi is the first holder of the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies. Before coming to Northwestern, he taught at Fordham University at Lincoln Center from 1981 to 1988; Indiana University from 1988 to 2001; and Harvard Divinity School and Harvard University from 2001 to 2007, where he was Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (2003-2007). In 2002-2003, he was president of the American Academy of Religion. Professor Orsi studies America religious history and contemporary practice; American Catholicism in both historical and ethnographic perspective; and he is widely recognized also for his work on theory and method for the study of religion.

In 2004 Robert Orsi published Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them which received an Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion and was one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2005. More recently he published The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies.

Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular

In recent years, the centrality of ‘the sacred’ to the academic study of religion has come under sustained attack in recent years due to the apparent (un)conscious assumption amongst its advocates of an ‘ontological phenomenon that transcends signification’ (Lynch 2012, 15). It is against this backdrop that Gordon Lynch sets out – in his recent book, The Sacred in the Modern World, and in his interview with Jonathan Tuckett – to rehabilitate the ‘sacred’ as a viable academic concept, to map out a cultural sociology of the sacred, and to ‘conceptualise the focus of [the sociology of religion…] beyond the study of traditional, institutional forms of religion’ (2012, 3).

In this response I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students (Cotter 2011), in combination with my engagement with Lynch’s book (which I would thoroughly recommend), as a springboard to suggestively open up the complex relationship between the concepts religion, nonreligion and the secular.

Some Terms

The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, religion/nonreligion, sacred/secular for example. However, I suggest that it is generally unhelpful to speak of rigid dichotomies when considering these terms, and in some contexts it makes sense to refer to two triads – sacred/mundane/profane and religion/secular/nonreligion – from which terms can be combined to provide compound designations which apply to distinct real-world phenomena.

Let us defer to Lynch for an understanding of the first of these triads. He defines the sacred as ‘what people collectively experience as absolute, non-contingent realities which present normative claims over the meanings and conduct of social life’ (2012, 29). Against this backdrop, the profane is defined as ‘the evil that threatens this sacred form and pollutes whatever it comes into contact with’ whilst the mundane constitutes ‘the logics, practices, and spaces of everyday life’ (2012, 26). There are a number of things which I find compelling about this account: firstly, this makes no ‘claim that there is an actual ontological referent for sacred forms (ibid, 15). Secondly, it provides a space for the mundane, and allows us to potentially conceptualise degrees of sacredness/profanity and commitments to multiple sacred forms. Finally, as Lynch effectively demonstrates in the interview, this account shows that the sacred is not an exclusively religious category. As Kim Knott (2013) writes, citing Viekko Antonnen:

The ‘sacred’ (or its equivalent in other languages) can be attributed by people in non-theological as well as theological contexts, irrespective of the nature of their belief systems: ‘It is not a uniquely religious category…’ (Anttonen 2000, 274)

Turning to religion/secular/nonreligion, I take Lois Lee’s definition of non-religion, as ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’(2012a, 131), and the secular as a space where ‘religion is not the primary or immediate reference point’ (Lee 2011, 3). From this it is clear that nonreligion’ does not simply refer to everything which is not explicitly ‘religious’. It is also clear that the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’ are, ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This also enables me to run away from the problem of defining religion until another time, because in the context of the examples below, definitions of ‘religion’ (and its semantically parasitic other, ‘nonreligion’) were left open to the interpretation of my research participants

With these basic and brief understandings of these terms in mind, it makes a great deal of sense for Kim Knott to write that:

“… those forging social identities in secular contexts – who draw on non-religious commitments and beliefs including atheism, humanism and secularism – mark as ‘sacred’ those occasions (such as marriage), persons (a lover), things (a ring), places (a registry office) and principles (equality and justice) that they value above all others, and that they see as set apart and inviolable: those things that may be deemed to be both secular and sacred.” (2013)

A Scottish Example

My study – which will only be given the briefest of introductions now – involved engaging with the narratives of undergraduate students at the University of Edinburgh via electronic questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, taking Abby Day’s ‘researching belief without asking religious questions’ (2009) approach as a basic model. Ultimately, the students were classified into a ideal-typical five-fold typology of naturalistic, humanistic, spiritual, familial and philosophical, with a key outcome being that these types were ‘independent of religious categories’ (Quack 2011, 2) . Full details of results, sampling strategy, methods, interview schedules etc can be found in my dissertation.

Secular Sacreds

In terms of beliefs and self-identification, many of the students were what could be described as substantively nonreligious i.e. the terms with which they described themselves, and their reported beliefs, stood in contradistinction to what they understood to be ‘religion’ (for a rigorous and in-depth treatment of substantive nonreligiosity, see Lee (2012b)). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in diverse ways which were always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to my five types. To take the example of Courtney – a 21 year-old ‘humanistic’ student from the US – discourse became noticeably hostile when ‘religion’ was considered in conjunction with ‘sacred’ humanitarian values (in this instance, when the topic of ‘Faith Schools’ was raised):

Eugh. I don’t… I just… ew it, it [the term] gives me a visceral reaction because I believe so strongly that if… due to my own experience of, you know, if you don’t tell a kid about religion they’ll turn out atheist because everyone’s born an atheist, like I… I truly believe that and I just, I mean it’s… I hesitate to use such a… like a militant sounding phrase but it’s indoctrination of children and it just… it makes me very uneasy…

Then we have Niamh, a 19 year-old student from England, who is an example of what I would term a ‘familial’ student. For these students, beliefs, faith and values were frequently located in the ‘sacred’ family unit. In the following section of interview, Niamh has just described how her Protestant grandmother disowned Niamh’s father when he married her Catholic mother. Her father then went through a particularly traumatic emotional period after his own father died, since he had effectively been ostracised from the family:

…but after all of that with my mum and dad I just stopped going [to church] altogether… like I’d been quite religious before that but I just stopped… like… partly because I was too busy trying to get my mother out of bed, but partly because I just didn’t… I just thought it was a pile of crap basically, like… em… and, yeah that kind of… because up until then I suppose I had quite an easy life, like we’d never had a lot of money but I’d always had… emotionally there’d always been everything there, eh, and then suddenly there wasn’t and I had to sort… I suppose it made me like… because now if my … my mum stuck by my dad through everything, and that kind of made me feel like now I have to… you know you don’t give up on relationships even if… even if they’re going to shit you don’t… you don’t give up, you stick by people because if you don’t they might be in a mess, like my dad basically said if my mum had left him he’d have sh’… he’d have killed himself, so like now I like sort of have this view that you stick by people through as long as you can bear to, you know, and I guess that affects a lot…

I’m not saying that these are the only sacreds in their lives but that through their narratives they were the primary sacreds by which they were classified in my typology. If it comes down to the wire, to use a phrase from Kim Knott’s forthcoming chapter, these ‘trump’ other sacred values. Niamh actually placed a great deal of importance on her former religion but was willing to abandon it because of what it had done to her relationships: ‘it [religion] was always about family relationships and politics, basically, it was never about faith’. Courtney seemed to really value her nonreligiosity, but was willing to set it to the side when humanitarian issues were at stake: ‘I’d prefer if [charities] were secular, but I’m not going to quibble when you’re doing charity’. Although religion and nonreligion were referred to in both quotations, they were of secondary importance to the sacred values concerned, which could be described as their secular sacreds. Therefore, in this situation we have substantively nonreligious students, whose lives are oriented around a number of secular sacreds with different degrees of sacredness and which trump both religion and nonreligion.

This understanding of secular sacreds should not be seen as implying that these sacreds are solely the domain of secular individuals, and although I can understand Lynch’s uneasiness about the term, I agree with Knott (2013) that the addition of ‘secular’ is necessary at this stage, due to the uncritical conflation of ‘sacred’ with ‘religious’ in much prior scholarship.

The Sacred Secular

In terms of the relative importance (‘salience’ – see Day 2011) and practice of religion, many of these students appeared functionally secular, i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. Few were members of ‘nonreligious’ organisations, and some participated in religious activities for the sake of relatives, or persisted in communal religious worship regardless of disagreements with many fundamental aspects of the religion’s teaching or personal crises of faith. Although I don’t have space to go into my deliberations here, evidence such as this led me to conclude that ‘being nonreligious’ does not play a major part in most of these students’ lives.

However, stating that one aspect of a person’s life is not the most important does not imply that this aspect is unimportant. Most claimed that their nonreligiosity came to the fore when challenged by particular situations – particularly when their sacred values are challenged.

‘The “sacred” can be located in reversible category positions, whether in things pure or impure, licit or forbidden (taboo), fixed or unfixed, violable or sacrosanct.’ (Anttonen 2005, 198) Various things, places and people are set apart according to time and context. The boundaries that become the focus of sacred-making discourse and activities have the potential to erupt as sites of struggle but for much of the time lie dormant and, as such, invisible. (Knott 2013)

At such moments of eruption, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In fact, in some cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives. For instance:

…everyone’s always talking about like religious tolerance and that. I’m definitely tolerant towards people of all religions and no more so to like one than any other, um, but I’m not really tolerant of like public religion. I really dislike public religion and the fact that we’ve got an established church [in the UK … and that] everything’s allowed to be sort of quietly… quietly influenced by religion, and that annoys me.  (Harriet, 19, F)

There is a lot here which I think could be developed, and which I intend to develop during the course of my PhD, but basically what I wanted to suggest was that nonreligion is a complex substantive phenomenon characterised by a relationship of difference to prevailing religion, and the adoption of secular sacreds by individuals and, perhaps, sacralising the secular itself. Reframing understandings of (non)religion according to types of sacred which are independent of religious categories, allows (non)religious identities to be conceptualised to acknowledge the simultaneous intersection of multiple subjectively compatible (yet seemingly contradictory) religious and/or nonreligious identities, and paves the way for scholars to take religion seriously whilst avoiding unwarranted reverence. Paradoxically, if it provides robust models which work regardless of individual self-descriptions, it could also add to the growing critique of the usefulness of ‘religion’ as an analytic category.

[NB – This response is based on a presentation given at the BASR conference in Winchester, September 2012.]

References

  • Anttonen, Veikko. 2000. ‘Sacred’. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T McCutcheon, 271–282. London: Cassell.
  • ———. 2005. ‘Space, Body and the Notion of Boundary: A Category-Theoretical Approach to Religion’. Temenos: Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion 41 (2): 185–201.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. ‘Toward a Typology of “Nonreligion”: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. http://www.academia.edu/1329691/Toward_a_Typology_of_Nonreligion_A_Qualitative_Analysis_of_Everyday_Narratives_of_Scottish_University_Students.
  • ———. 2012. ‘Scottish Students, Their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular: Borders, Boundaries and Transgressions in the Study of “Nonreligion”’. In  University of Winchester.
  • Day, Abby. 2009. ‘Researching Belief Without Asking Religious Questions’. Fieldwork in Religion 4 (1): 86–104.
  • ———. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. ‘The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?’ In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2011. ‘NSRN Glossary (unpublished Paper)’. In NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-glossary-28-aprl-2011-lois-lee1.pdf
  • ———. 2012a. ‘Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’. Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • ———. 2012b. ‘Being Secular: Toward Separate Sociologies of Secularity, Nonreligion and Epistemological Culture’. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Cambridge: University of Cambridge.
  • Lynch, Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Quack, Johannes. 2011. ‘Modes of Non-religiosity’. In  NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-terminology-conference-5-may-2011-johannes-quack-nonreligion-stream1.pdf.

The Sacred

Religion and the Sacred, the Sacred and religion. Two words that seemingly go together like hand in glove but just how accurate is that? When we talk about religion it’s very hard not to talk about the Sacred but when we talk about the Sacred does this mean we have to talk about religion? What does the Sacred even mean? This introduction began with “Sacred” but it may well be more appropriate to write “sacred”. Whether capitalised or not, the sacred is a predominant topic in many forms of discourse and not all these are necessarily religious in nature.

This week we discuss the sacred and all its connotations with Gordon Lynch. The sacred is not, it seems, just a religion-only category and many aspects of modern secular societies are pervaded with such a notion. But if the sacred isn’t a religion only category where does that leave religion? Should there be departments of Religious Studies at all, or should we be replacing them with Sacred Studies? We discuss the potentially far reaching implications that a shift in focus from Religion to the Sacred can have on academia.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular.

Gordon Lynch is the Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent where he teaches on the sacred in modern Western Society. Professor Lynch has published a number of works including an edited volume with Jolyon Mitchell and has recently published two books on the sacred, The Sacred in the Modern World and On the Sacred. If you’d like to know more about Professor Lynch’s work on the sacred you can find out more information on his blog as well as access some of his own learning resources.

 

Material Religion

The study of religion and materiality is an important and fast-growing sub-discipline in the contemporary Religious Studies scene. According to the editors of the premier journal in this area, the aptly named ‘Material Religion‘, scholars in this area

explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts. No less important than these material forms are the many different practices that put them to work. Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, pilgrimage, display, magic, liturgy and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious material culture constructs the worlds of belief.

In this interview with Chris, Professor David Morgan takes the listener on an exciting tour of what this field has to offer, providing his own definition of material religion, and discussing empirical case studies and theoretical insights relating to religion in popular consumer culture, the sacred gaze, space and place, the internet, and more.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And please, take moment to rate us.

David Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1990. He has published several books and dozens of essays on the history of religious visual culture, on art history and critical theory, and on religion and media. His most recent book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012). Recent works include: The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007) and two volumes that Morgan edited and contributed to: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (Routledge, 2010) and Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008). Earlier works include Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998), Protestants and Pictures (Oxford, 1999), and The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005). Morgan is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.”

This interview was recorded at the Religion and Society Programme‘s ‘Sacred Practices of Everyday Life’ Conference in Edinburgh in May 2012, and we are very grateful to all involved for facilitating this discussion. It also forms part of a short series of podcasts on Material/Embodied religion, continuing next week with Marta Tzrebiatowska on “Why are Women more Religious than Men?”.

Editors’ Picks 3: Jay Demerath on Functionalist Religion and the Substantive Sacred

Week three of our Editors’ Picks. Chris tells us why he (and his fiancée) liked Jay Demerath’s interview on substantive and functionalist definitions of religion.

Could the difficulties associated with the academic conceptualisation of “religion” be overcome by changing our focus instead to “the sacred”? Jay Demerath tells Chris why we should define religion substantively – that is, in terms of specific attributes like rituals, deities or dogmas – but the sacred in terms of the function it serves in the lives of individuals and cultures. From this perspective, religion can be considered one of a number of potential sources of the sacred.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. Please take a moment to rate us while you’re there.

Jay Demerath is currently the Emile Durkheim Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has been a faculty member since 1972, including ten years as Chair. Prior to UMass, he received a 1958 A.B. from Harvard and a 1964 Ph.D from the U. Of California, Berkeley before rising from Instructor to Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and serving as Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association. Among his many publications, he is author or editor of fourteen books, including the award-winning Crossing the Gods: World Religions and Worldly Politics (2001) and the recent Sage Handbook for the Sociology of Religion (2008). The current Chair-elect of the Religion Section of the American Sociological Association, he is also past-President of the Eastern Sociological Society, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

Of particular relevance to this interview is his paper from 2000, The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove, from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 39, p. 1–11. Here’s the abstract:

This paper contends that the social scientific study of religion has long labored under a chafing constraint and a misleading premise. It suggests that our primary focus should be on the sacred, and that religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred. Defining religion “substantively” but the sacred “functionally” helps toresolve a long-standing tension in the field. Broadened conceptions of the sacred and of “sacralization” help to defuse the conflict among the two very different versions of secularization theory: the “all-or-nothing” versus the “middle range.” Meanwhile, a conceptual typology of the sacred pivots around the intersections of two distinctions (compensatory vs. confirmatory and marginal vs. institutional). This generates four distinct scenarios: the sacred as integrative, the sacred as quest, the sacred as collectivity, and the sacred as counter-culture. The paper concludes with three admonitions for research in the area.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment

The South Fork Dam once stood high above the city of Johnstown Pennsylvania, erected to supply water to one of the many canal systems that made up the early American interstate trade route.  Purchased by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing club in 1881, the massive body of water behind the dam, Lake Conemaugh, was made part of an exclusive mountain resort for the wealthy from nearby Pittsburgh.  Over the next eight years frequent inspections found the South Fork Dam to have many foundational flaws, as well as a number of recurring surface cracks.  With gilded aesthetics in mind these cracks were mended by rudimentary patchwork, a temporary slathering of mud and straw.  On the rainy afternoon of May 31st, 1889 the dam melted under the pressure of the swelling lake, releasing a surging wall of water onto the city below.  By the time the water receded 2,209 people had perished in one of the worst “natural” disasters in US history.

As anecdotes go, this is a pretty good one.  The impudence of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club contributed to the idea that by solving surface issues with a little patchwork the real problem at the foundation would equally be resolved.  In the field of academia we come across this sort of logic quite regularly; more so, it seems, in the category of religious studies.

Sean Bean as Odysseus in the movie ‘Troy’

It seems fair to say that ours is a rather dangerous vocation, not dangerous in the way a dam keeper’s job might be dangerous on an afternoon of heavy rain, but dangerous in that we bravely tread the waters of humanity’s inner-most sacred beliefs and practices.  This is not a gentle sea by any means.  Tempests rise up unexpectedly, detouring our crossing with tangential distractions—much like those which plagued that long adrift Greek hero, Odysseus.  Like him, we too seem impassioned to return to something genuine and practical, longing to once again stand on familiar soil; and we are ever creative in our ways of doing so.

Recently, Professor Jay Demerath took up such a challenge, which formed the basis for his interview with Chris Cotter.  Promoting the replacement of the ambiguous term “religion” with the functional term “sacred,” Demerath’s novel approach at interpreting that which stands out against the profane or secular comes with two critical issues: definition and application.

Definition

Demerath originally proposed this turn from “religion” to “sacred” in his deliberately misquoted “Varieties of Sacred Experience,” nominally linking his amended term with the foundations of religious studies in William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience.”  This calculated revision brings Demerath’s proposition into the context of debate between experience and belief as designated by the modern ambiguity of “religion” and his novelized sobriquet, “sacred.”  As he states, “religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred,” (Demerath 2000) and that the ambiguity which anchors itself to the definition of religion can easily be weighed by defining it substantively, while interpreting its consequences, “the sacred,” functionally.  This is a methodological proposition which focuses not on the encompassing importance of “religion” but rather on what it is that individuals—or groups—take to be “sacred.”  By divesting religion and sacred between substantive and functionalist, assigning “religion” to the “category of activity” and seeing the “sacred” as a “statement of function” both terms seem to work in their application

This is further demonstrated in his polythetic method of deciphering that which individuals and social groups set apart as being “sacred.”  In the interview, when asked how sociologists navigate the ambiguity of what is sacred or not, he suggests a sort of polythetic taxonomy when it comes to deciphering what is sacred to the people under examination.  By developing a “kind of a checklist of behaviors that are associated with what might be a sacred commitment,” such as is found in certain categorical methodologies (Saler 1993, Smith 1996, Smart 1997), he believes we can properly decipher what “people do, what they don’t do, what they believe, what they don’t believe, what they observe and don’t observe.”  Furthermore, this alludes to a stipulation of terms, rather than a dependence on real definitions (Baird 1971).  Both techniques reveal a method which assists us in accessing the “priority” of the religious person’s “commitments, the commitments in their life, and the convictions in their life.” (Demerath 2012).

However, Demerath is also navigating very dangerous waters here, steering between narrow straights where on one side awaits the swirling temptress of a definition of religion, and on the other the horrifically multifaceted monster of misapplication.  For example, if removed from his sociological context, how does his term “sacred” differ from that of “religious?”  One of the advantages with stipulative definitions is that they must be anchored to a particular study, the borders of which Demerath’s proposition seems to push against.  Consider if we categorically formed a stipulative interpretation of the traditional term “religious” as pertaining to the consequences of the practitioner’s “religion,” would we not be able to equally balance out the ambiguity found in “religion?”  Would using a stipulated interpretation of “religious” as the function of a person acting under the substantive form of “religion” not be the same?  While Demerath responds to a similar question in the interview by legitimating his use of the “sacred” as something that does not need to transcend our world to some other-worldly deity, he is limiting himself to a “definition” of religion devoted to a transcendental relationship between man and deity.  This seems, again, a difference between “religion” and “religious” as equally as it pertains to the difference between “religion” and the “sacred.”  This is an issue of definition and application.  Where his turn from the sociology of religion to the sociology of the sacred succeeds and fails is within this issue.  By pushing against these borders his stipulation begins to sink into the periphery of real definition.  Fortunately he saves himself with the life-raft of an applicative example.

Application

Ethan

Ethan Quillen

The decision of United States vs. Seeger is about as close to a “definition” of religion the United States Supreme Court is legally allowed to make.  The disestablishment clause of the 1st Amendment—Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion—is a collection of ten words which make the United States exceptional to religiously established nations such as England and Scotland.  It also creates quite the conundrum when cases like these come to the Court’s attention.  The Seeger case did not occur ex nihilo, but was rather the result of the decisions in Everson vs. Board and Torcaso vs. Watkins, steps made by the court over twenty years of social and political change in a country seeking an umbrellic identity between the end of World War II and the turbulent second half of a decade that saw the assassination of John F. Kennedy at one end, and the resignation of Richard M. Nixon at the other.

This brief circumnavigation speaks directly to Demerath’s application of the term sacred.  When seen through the lens of American legal amendments, wherein the “belief in and devotion to goodness and virtue for their own sakes,” and a religious “faith in a purely ethical creed” amounts to a “a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God,” what is construed as “sacred,” the “ultimate concern” may seem counter to even the most liberal applications of “religion.” (U.S. vs. Seeger)  By amending the qualifications of article 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act to accommodate Daniel Seeger’s philosophical views, the function of Tillich’s substantive definition, as accepted by the Court as a standard by which to measure the religiousness of the individual, “religious” and “sacred” become stipulative suggestions, pliable by what might justify a sacred belief.  Thus, in a nation devoted to a sense of individual sacralization, the nation of Sheilaism (Bellah et al.), Demerath’s reassignment of transcendental “religion” with “sacred” seems justified.

Conclusion

While the legitimation of his using “sacred” rather than “religion” seems justified in the above sample, it still seems a patchwork fix rather than a foundational repair.  It should be said, though, that this is not so much a critique of Demerath’s thesis, but of the idea in promoting a new term as the replacement of an old one.  Perhaps this is due to the definitive style it seems to imply at the suggestion of “sacred studies” rather than “religious studies.”  New terms are not always the best way to fix a foundational issue such as the ambiguity of “religion” in a global context.  Instead, we would benefit far greater by digging up and unpacking what we mean by terms when studying the practitioners who make them sacred in specific contexts.  The stipulation of an established, utilitarian term like “religious” to mean the actions of individuals seeking what they deem foundationally sacred relieves the pressures of ambiguity just as equally as “sacred,” especially because of its relationship and differentiation from “religion.”  Perhaps a good argument against Demerath’s contextual use of “sacred” might be a change from the “sociology of religion” to the “sociology of the religious.”

Definitions of religion seem the ever-widening Charybdis in the field of religious studies—in all its forms.  In our contemporary world we tend to find ourselves more absent-mindedly sailing toward the yawning mouth of that swirling vortex known as “a definition of religion.”  We need to be cautious with the application of new terms.  We seem too often prone to kneejerk patchwork, slathering layer upon layer of temporary fixes, either impudent in our knowledge of foundational issues, or victims of deep denial.  We long to resolve ambiguity by applying more ambiguity, when we should just dig up the foundation and rebuild.  These waters are dangerous, and without precaution we appear more and more drawn into the riptide of circular academia where, once swallowed up, we run the risk of drowning in a sea of uncertainty.

References and Suggested Reading

  • Robert D. Baird.  Category Formations and the History of Religions.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah.  Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah, et al.  Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • James L. Cox.  “Afterword: Separating Religion from the ‘Sacred:’ Methodological Agnosticism and the Future of Religious Studies” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Jay Demerath.  “The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove” in the Journal for theScientific Study of Religion, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2000.
  • ———.   “Defining Religion and Modifying Religious “Bodies:” Secularizing the Sacred and Sacralizing the Secular” in Phil Zuckerman, ed.  Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1: Issues, Concepts, and Definitions. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.
  • ———. Religious Studies Project Interview with Jay Demerath on Substantive Religion and the Functionalist Sacred (12 March 2012).
  • David McCullough. The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating “Natural” Disasters America has Ever Known. NewYork: Touchstone, 1987.
  • Ethan Gjerset Quillen, 2011. Rejecting the Definitive: A Contextual Examination of Three Historical Stages of Atheism and the Legality of an American Freedom from Religion.  MA Thesis, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
  • Bensor Saler.  Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories.  New York: E.J. Brill, 1993.
  • Ninian Smart.  Dimensions of the Sacred: Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs.  New York: Fontana Press, 1997.
  • Jonathan Z. Smith  “A Matter of Class: Taxonomies of Religion” in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 89, No. 4, 1996.
  • Terence Thomas.  “‘The Sacred’ as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
  • Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961)
  • United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965)
  • Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970)