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Time Travel and Fictions of Science

In 1856, Edward Burnett Tylor, of inscribed with “Huitzilopochtli the god of war, Teoyaomiqui his wife, and Mictlanteuctli the god of hell” all compiled into a gruesome symbol of Aztec religion.  “There is little doubt,” Tylor opined, “that this is the famous war-idol which stood on the great teocalli of Mexico, and before which so many thousands of human victims were sacrificed.”  The famous sculpture, now surveying its victims in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park, took on an early identification as a female divinity and passed into common culture as Coatlicue (“She of the Serpent Skirt”).  She is now, so a more recent theory holds, not simply the earth/mother goddess, but a representation of a tzitzimitl, one of any number of female sacred personages of ambivalent powers and actions.  At their worst, the tzitzimime (pl.) could be “star demons” descending to devour humans, but for the most part these female powers, in good Aztec fashion pivoted around duality, a complementarity that balanced threat with surety in their various avatars.

Tylor’s observations about the “war goddess” and Mexico overall, peering into its barbaric past through the residual survivals of a culture he predicted would fall to the United States, is a good mix of science and great deal of fiction.  While not exactly “science fiction” as we have come to know the genre, travelling forward from his time we can see how the spectacle and rudeness of Aztec ritual and human sacrifice aided Tylor in his scientific speculations on the evolution of cultures and the pre-modern human mind at work as it grasped to understand the natural world.  Ever the scientist, Tylor studded his travelogue with the best resources of his time, quoting Lord Kingsborough on Mexican antiquities, Humboldt’s meticulous measurement and mapping on Mexico a half century earlier, and he even provides the reader with a “Table of Aztec roots” to be compared with Sanskrit and related Indo-European forms.  Yet despite his best scholarly efforts, Tylor’s Anahuac is “fiction” in the same way that Europeans have drawn on their vast reservoir of myths, legends, and stories of Amazons and the Lost Tribes of Israel in their mastery of the Americas.  Columbus (in)famously believed he was near the Garden of Eden as he entered the Orinoco in 1498.  So, too, Tylor, while careful to dismiss any number of arguments claiming “supposed Aztec-Bible traditions,” cannot contain his wonder at the similarities between the Aztec and Hindu cosmogonies, and Aztec and Asian calendrics and astronomy (“resemblances in the signs used that seem too close for chance”).

Much, much later, or maybe much, much earlier – we will never know exactly when – Dr. Who and his companions dropped from the stars, landing smack dab in the middle of the great Aztec high priest Yetaxa’s tomb sometime in the 15th century.   We mere humans saw it in 1964, in one of the first serials of what is, arguably, television’s most successful franchises of any genre.  As far as science fiction television goes, Dr. Who is the gold standard for its quirkiness, kitschy but effective visuals, and astonishing insight into humanicity.  For Americans, the enigmatic but ever pragmatic Dr. Who remains the incarnation of British “clever.”

In Aztecs, one of the travellers, Barbara, is mistaken for a reincarnation of the dead priest Yetaxa.  And, never mind that Yetaxa, who was male reincarnates dw50revaztecs3as a woman, for as Barbara/Yetaxa notes, it is the spirit of Yetaxa, not the human form that counts (more on this later).   Because Barbara is a history teacher with, conveniently, a specialization in Aztec history she knows the Spanish will arrive and destroy the Aztec empire.  Thinking that if she can play out her ersatz goddess role she can rid the Aztecs of human sacrifice, preserving only the good in Aztec culture, and thus convince Cortes to spare them from destruction.  “You can’t rewrite history!” warns the Doctor.  “Not one line!”  Ultimately, Barbara/Yetaxa fails to thwart human sacrifice, and as they say, the rest is history.

What the writers of the Aztecs serial couldn’t know was that their fiction turned out to be closer to the idea of Nahua “divinity” than Tylor’s educated view.  Like most scholars of Aztec religion, Tylor believed that Aztec “gods” bore similarities with Indo-Europeans too close to ignore.  Like his comparison of Nahuatl words to Sanskrit and Greek, Tylor continued the common error of classifying the Aztec teteo to the Olympian pantheon.  Science fiction’s imaginative leap away from the pantheon model to Yetaxa’s spirit leaping from body to body is much more in line with our current understanding of how sacred power worked in ancient Mexico.

As scholars of religion engage the thought experiments in science fiction, we are forced to think and imagine beyond the building blocks of the previous generation’s knowledge.  Tylor might have benefitted from taking on the colossal Mexican Coatlicue monolith on its own terms rather than fall back on the work of earlier speculators like Kingsborough.  Maybe, like our ancestor ape-men confronting the black stela in 2001: A Space Odyssey and being catapulted a million years into space-travelling homo sapiens, Tylor would have made the leap from mere scientist into more provocative, certainly more compelling and lyrical interpretations of the stone goddess.  On a number of occasions, reading Tylor’s travelogue suggests that, indeed, he had found his way into Dr. Who’s TARDIS, travelled through time and space and landed in Mexico.  But unlike the curiosity and cleverness of the Dr. Who travellers, Tylor ‘s imagination was limited by his ethnocentrism and stodginess.  For him, Mexico continued its pitiable decline, a “second-hand” culture as he saw it.  Because Mexicans were “totally incapable of governing themselves” as he saw it, it was inevitable and positive that this failed state be swallowed up by the United States.  For Tylor then, travelling back to Aztec Mexico through the archeological remains at Cholula and Xochicalco, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and displays of ancient objects in museums restored for him the glories of ancient Mexico which at the time were mostly fictions of science.

 

 

Popular Culture, Dr. Who, and Religion

 

It’s a big universe, and sometimes things get lost in time and space. For instance, this 2013 interview with Dr. James F. McGrath was recorded but then fell into a metaphorical black hole (i.e. the potential podcast series never debuted). Fortunately, his discussion of topics including the soul, the religious ethics of artificial intelligence, and the function of science fiction on informing audiences’ spiritual sensibilities all remain (relatively) timeless. To start, he addresses the unique challenges of working across disciplines in pursuit of analyzing popular culture currently, then shifts to an exploration of religion’s study in the future. Along the way, McGrath and interviewer A. David Lewis namecheck famous characters such as Captain Kirk and Doctor Who in the effort to illustrate complex notions of the soul embedded in secular entertainments. Enjoy a trip to the past — that looks to the future!

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, Chia Pets, hot sauce, and more.

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.

Divine Inspiration Revisited

 

When encountered for the first time, the idea of a fiction-based religion might seem quite ’far out’ and counter-intuitive. How is it possible to mix together religion (that, supposedly, deals with faith and so with a truth of some sort) and works of popular culture, which are clearly created by human imagination, and so are by definition not true?

And yet, this mixing does not seem to be a problem to the adherents of Jediism, Matrixism, and so forth. There are several groups that draw their inspiration from works of fiction, and yet declare religiosity. Apparently, fiction can offer inspiration to spiritual activities just as well as material traditionally regarded as spiritual and religious. What we seem to have at hand is a phenomenon that leaks out of our previous categories of religion, and in doing so poses a challenge to our understanding of religion and especially its connection to wider social and cultural phenomena.

The interview with Markus Davidsen explains comprehensively the basic ideas of a fiction-based religion. Davidsen defines a fiction-based religion as ”real religion in the real world, – which takes much of its inspiration from a fictional text”. Davidsen argues that these movements are more than fandom. For example, even though the adherents to Jediism do recognize the fact that Star Wars is fictional story, they still maintain that it refers to something that is real on some level. They might also argue, according to Davidsen, that all other religions are based on human invention as well, and so make the distinction between ‘real religion’ and their fiction-based religion less clear.

The aspect that interests me the most is the apparent diffusion of different ‘spheres’ of culture and society. In a fiction-based religion, an overlap of two categories is clearly present: religion and popular culture. But there are also other overlaps. For example, the argument that all religions are based on fiction seems like a very ’secular’ statement. So it seems that adherents to these new religious or spiritual endeavors have adopted certain ideas from a society in which traditional religions with their exclusive truth claims have largely lost their plausibility. As this introductory video to Pastafarianism puts it: ”(W)ith so many to choose from, how do we know which, if any, holds the truth?” But even adopting this view does not mean that religiosity would vanish altogether. Apparently, equally false can be inverted to equally true. Furthermore, it legitimizes the use of rather unconventional sources of spiritual inspiration. If all religions are ultimately based on human invention, what divides old prophecies and mythologies from the new ones?

Like many other forms of diffuse religiosity and spirituality of present day, fiction-based religions operate in an environment of open-ended systems, in which individuals are free to combine a view that suits their spiritual needs. Teemu Taira has called this type of religiosity ”liquid”, a term derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquid modernity. His work emphasizes the fact that we cannot handle religion as a distinct phenomenon separated from the broader societal and cultural context (Taira, 2006, 7-8). Coming closer to fiction-based religions, Carole M. Cusack has worked on what she calls ”invented religions”, which are new religions that openly declare their origin in human creativity. This term encompasses fiction-based religions as well as others, such as Discordianism and Church of the SubGenius, which are usually deemed as parody religions. Cusack also emphasizes the socio-cultural context of these religions, and her monograph Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith shows how these forms of religiosity are a quite logical consequence of modern consumerism, individualism and appreciation for novelty. (Cusack, 2010 8-25.)

Taira describes liquid religiosity as being focused on the self. The experience of the individual is the most important religious authority. This is only logical in a liquid modern world, where great narratives have lost their plausibility, traditional identities are being deconstructed and external truths might prove fragile and change the next day (Taira 2006, 68-71,75). Consequently, what is ‘true’ for an individual is what matters to him or her individually. This is a very pragmatic sense of reality. If it works, it is true – at least true enough. This kind of view is naturally well suited for a highly pluralist situation, where increasing numbers of religious groups and identities exist next to each other. Taira also suggests that in liquid religiosity, there might be a shift in emphasis from intellectual content to the affective side of religiosity: meaningful feelings and experiences of empowerments it brings. (Taira 2006, 47-51.)

Fiction-based religions are a nice example of how different spheres of society and culture are actually tightly interntwined, and that they constantly affect and interfere with each others. Religion among other ‘spheres’ does not develop in a vaccuum. Also, as Davidsen concludes at the end of the interview, religion is ”something that happens in social interaction and negotiation”. Something is not religious per se, but it is made religious by people who claim it as such.

Religion does not disappear, even though some of its traditional forms might lose their value in the eyes of some people. But religion does change. Fiction-based religions are a good example of this change.

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

 

References:

CUSACK, Carole M, 2010: Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

TAIRA, Teemu, 2006: Notkea uskonto.  Published in the Eetos julkaisuja series. Turku: Eetos

Fiction-Based Religions

The majority of those who identified as a Jedi on the 2001 UK census were mounting a more-or-less satirical or playful act of non-compliance; nevertheless, a certain proportion of those were telling the truth. How does a religion constructed from the fictional Star Wars universe problematise how we conceptualise other religions, and the stories they involve?  And what makes certain stories able to transcend their fictional origins and become myths?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Markus Altena Davidsen is a PhD candidate at the universities of Aarhus, Denmark and Leiden, Netherlands, and assistant lecturer in the sociology of religion in Leiden. Since 2009, he has been working on a PhD project entitled “Fiction-based Religions: The Use of Fiction in Contemporary Religious Bricolage”. In this project, Davidsen attempts to do three things. Firstly, he maps the various ways on which religious groups since the 1960s have been integrating elements from Tolkien’s literary mythology with beliefs and practices from more established religious traditions. This material is used to develop a typology of forms of religious bricolage (harmonising, domesticating, archetypal etc.) which are also at work in alternative spirituality in general. Secondly, he looks at how Tolkien religionists legitimise their religious practice (to themselves and others) given that it is based on a work of fiction. These accounts are compared with what cognitive theory has to say about narratives and plausibility construction. Thirdly, Davidsen treats how the internet has facilitated the emergence of a self-conscious spiritual Tolkien milieu. Some preliminary conclusions from the project are presented in the forthcoming article “The Spiritual Milieu Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”, in Adam Possamai (ed.), Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, in the series Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion 5, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 185-204.

You can keep up with Markus’s work on Invented Religions. And you may enjoy Markus and Carole’s contributions to our edited episode on “The Future of Religious Studies“.

Podcasts

Time Travel and Fictions of Science

In 1856, Edward Burnett Tylor, of inscribed with “Huitzilopochtli the god of war, Teoyaomiqui his wife, and Mictlanteuctli the god of hell” all compiled into a gruesome symbol of Aztec religion.  “There is little doubt,” Tylor opined, “that this is the famous war-idol which stood on the great teocalli of Mexico, and before which so many thousands of human victims were sacrificed.”  The famous sculpture, now surveying its victims in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park, took on an early identification as a female divinity and passed into common culture as Coatlicue (“She of the Serpent Skirt”).  She is now, so a more recent theory holds, not simply the earth/mother goddess, but a representation of a tzitzimitl, one of any number of female sacred personages of ambivalent powers and actions.  At their worst, the tzitzimime (pl.) could be “star demons” descending to devour humans, but for the most part these female powers, in good Aztec fashion pivoted around duality, a complementarity that balanced threat with surety in their various avatars.

Tylor’s observations about the “war goddess” and Mexico overall, peering into its barbaric past through the residual survivals of a culture he predicted would fall to the United States, is a good mix of science and great deal of fiction.  While not exactly “science fiction” as we have come to know the genre, travelling forward from his time we can see how the spectacle and rudeness of Aztec ritual and human sacrifice aided Tylor in his scientific speculations on the evolution of cultures and the pre-modern human mind at work as it grasped to understand the natural world.  Ever the scientist, Tylor studded his travelogue with the best resources of his time, quoting Lord Kingsborough on Mexican antiquities, Humboldt’s meticulous measurement and mapping on Mexico a half century earlier, and he even provides the reader with a “Table of Aztec roots” to be compared with Sanskrit and related Indo-European forms.  Yet despite his best scholarly efforts, Tylor’s Anahuac is “fiction” in the same way that Europeans have drawn on their vast reservoir of myths, legends, and stories of Amazons and the Lost Tribes of Israel in their mastery of the Americas.  Columbus (in)famously believed he was near the Garden of Eden as he entered the Orinoco in 1498.  So, too, Tylor, while careful to dismiss any number of arguments claiming “supposed Aztec-Bible traditions,” cannot contain his wonder at the similarities between the Aztec and Hindu cosmogonies, and Aztec and Asian calendrics and astronomy (“resemblances in the signs used that seem too close for chance”).

Much, much later, or maybe much, much earlier – we will never know exactly when – Dr. Who and his companions dropped from the stars, landing smack dab in the middle of the great Aztec high priest Yetaxa’s tomb sometime in the 15th century.   We mere humans saw it in 1964, in one of the first serials of what is, arguably, television’s most successful franchises of any genre.  As far as science fiction television goes, Dr. Who is the gold standard for its quirkiness, kitschy but effective visuals, and astonishing insight into humanicity.  For Americans, the enigmatic but ever pragmatic Dr. Who remains the incarnation of British “clever.”

In Aztecs, one of the travellers, Barbara, is mistaken for a reincarnation of the dead priest Yetaxa.  And, never mind that Yetaxa, who was male reincarnates dw50revaztecs3as a woman, for as Barbara/Yetaxa notes, it is the spirit of Yetaxa, not the human form that counts (more on this later).   Because Barbara is a history teacher with, conveniently, a specialization in Aztec history she knows the Spanish will arrive and destroy the Aztec empire.  Thinking that if she can play out her ersatz goddess role she can rid the Aztecs of human sacrifice, preserving only the good in Aztec culture, and thus convince Cortes to spare them from destruction.  “You can’t rewrite history!” warns the Doctor.  “Not one line!”  Ultimately, Barbara/Yetaxa fails to thwart human sacrifice, and as they say, the rest is history.

What the writers of the Aztecs serial couldn’t know was that their fiction turned out to be closer to the idea of Nahua “divinity” than Tylor’s educated view.  Like most scholars of Aztec religion, Tylor believed that Aztec “gods” bore similarities with Indo-Europeans too close to ignore.  Like his comparison of Nahuatl words to Sanskrit and Greek, Tylor continued the common error of classifying the Aztec teteo to the Olympian pantheon.  Science fiction’s imaginative leap away from the pantheon model to Yetaxa’s spirit leaping from body to body is much more in line with our current understanding of how sacred power worked in ancient Mexico.

As scholars of religion engage the thought experiments in science fiction, we are forced to think and imagine beyond the building blocks of the previous generation’s knowledge.  Tylor might have benefitted from taking on the colossal Mexican Coatlicue monolith on its own terms rather than fall back on the work of earlier speculators like Kingsborough.  Maybe, like our ancestor ape-men confronting the black stela in 2001: A Space Odyssey and being catapulted a million years into space-travelling homo sapiens, Tylor would have made the leap from mere scientist into more provocative, certainly more compelling and lyrical interpretations of the stone goddess.  On a number of occasions, reading Tylor’s travelogue suggests that, indeed, he had found his way into Dr. Who’s TARDIS, travelled through time and space and landed in Mexico.  But unlike the curiosity and cleverness of the Dr. Who travellers, Tylor ‘s imagination was limited by his ethnocentrism and stodginess.  For him, Mexico continued its pitiable decline, a “second-hand” culture as he saw it.  Because Mexicans were “totally incapable of governing themselves” as he saw it, it was inevitable and positive that this failed state be swallowed up by the United States.  For Tylor then, travelling back to Aztec Mexico through the archeological remains at Cholula and Xochicalco, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and displays of ancient objects in museums restored for him the glories of ancient Mexico which at the time were mostly fictions of science.

 

 

Popular Culture, Dr. Who, and Religion

 

It’s a big universe, and sometimes things get lost in time and space. For instance, this 2013 interview with Dr. James F. McGrath was recorded but then fell into a metaphorical black hole (i.e. the potential podcast series never debuted). Fortunately, his discussion of topics including the soul, the religious ethics of artificial intelligence, and the function of science fiction on informing audiences’ spiritual sensibilities all remain (relatively) timeless. To start, he addresses the unique challenges of working across disciplines in pursuit of analyzing popular culture currently, then shifts to an exploration of religion’s study in the future. Along the way, McGrath and interviewer A. David Lewis namecheck famous characters such as Captain Kirk and Doctor Who in the effort to illustrate complex notions of the soul embedded in secular entertainments. Enjoy a trip to the past — that looks to the future!

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, Chia Pets, hot sauce, and more.

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.

Divine Inspiration Revisited

 

When encountered for the first time, the idea of a fiction-based religion might seem quite ’far out’ and counter-intuitive. How is it possible to mix together religion (that, supposedly, deals with faith and so with a truth of some sort) and works of popular culture, which are clearly created by human imagination, and so are by definition not true?

And yet, this mixing does not seem to be a problem to the adherents of Jediism, Matrixism, and so forth. There are several groups that draw their inspiration from works of fiction, and yet declare religiosity. Apparently, fiction can offer inspiration to spiritual activities just as well as material traditionally regarded as spiritual and religious. What we seem to have at hand is a phenomenon that leaks out of our previous categories of religion, and in doing so poses a challenge to our understanding of religion and especially its connection to wider social and cultural phenomena.

The interview with Markus Davidsen explains comprehensively the basic ideas of a fiction-based religion. Davidsen defines a fiction-based religion as ”real religion in the real world, – which takes much of its inspiration from a fictional text”. Davidsen argues that these movements are more than fandom. For example, even though the adherents to Jediism do recognize the fact that Star Wars is fictional story, they still maintain that it refers to something that is real on some level. They might also argue, according to Davidsen, that all other religions are based on human invention as well, and so make the distinction between ‘real religion’ and their fiction-based religion less clear.

The aspect that interests me the most is the apparent diffusion of different ‘spheres’ of culture and society. In a fiction-based religion, an overlap of two categories is clearly present: religion and popular culture. But there are also other overlaps. For example, the argument that all religions are based on fiction seems like a very ’secular’ statement. So it seems that adherents to these new religious or spiritual endeavors have adopted certain ideas from a society in which traditional religions with their exclusive truth claims have largely lost their plausibility. As this introductory video to Pastafarianism puts it: ”(W)ith so many to choose from, how do we know which, if any, holds the truth?” But even adopting this view does not mean that religiosity would vanish altogether. Apparently, equally false can be inverted to equally true. Furthermore, it legitimizes the use of rather unconventional sources of spiritual inspiration. If all religions are ultimately based on human invention, what divides old prophecies and mythologies from the new ones?

Like many other forms of diffuse religiosity and spirituality of present day, fiction-based religions operate in an environment of open-ended systems, in which individuals are free to combine a view that suits their spiritual needs. Teemu Taira has called this type of religiosity ”liquid”, a term derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquid modernity. His work emphasizes the fact that we cannot handle religion as a distinct phenomenon separated from the broader societal and cultural context (Taira, 2006, 7-8). Coming closer to fiction-based religions, Carole M. Cusack has worked on what she calls ”invented religions”, which are new religions that openly declare their origin in human creativity. This term encompasses fiction-based religions as well as others, such as Discordianism and Church of the SubGenius, which are usually deemed as parody religions. Cusack also emphasizes the socio-cultural context of these religions, and her monograph Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith shows how these forms of religiosity are a quite logical consequence of modern consumerism, individualism and appreciation for novelty. (Cusack, 2010 8-25.)

Taira describes liquid religiosity as being focused on the self. The experience of the individual is the most important religious authority. This is only logical in a liquid modern world, where great narratives have lost their plausibility, traditional identities are being deconstructed and external truths might prove fragile and change the next day (Taira 2006, 68-71,75). Consequently, what is ‘true’ for an individual is what matters to him or her individually. This is a very pragmatic sense of reality. If it works, it is true – at least true enough. This kind of view is naturally well suited for a highly pluralist situation, where increasing numbers of religious groups and identities exist next to each other. Taira also suggests that in liquid religiosity, there might be a shift in emphasis from intellectual content to the affective side of religiosity: meaningful feelings and experiences of empowerments it brings. (Taira 2006, 47-51.)

Fiction-based religions are a nice example of how different spheres of society and culture are actually tightly interntwined, and that they constantly affect and interfere with each others. Religion among other ‘spheres’ does not develop in a vaccuum. Also, as Davidsen concludes at the end of the interview, religion is ”something that happens in social interaction and negotiation”. Something is not religious per se, but it is made religious by people who claim it as such.

Religion does not disappear, even though some of its traditional forms might lose their value in the eyes of some people. But religion does change. Fiction-based religions are a good example of this change.

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

 

References:

CUSACK, Carole M, 2010: Invented Religions. Imagination, Fiction and Faith. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

TAIRA, Teemu, 2006: Notkea uskonto.  Published in the Eetos julkaisuja series. Turku: Eetos

Fiction-Based Religions

The majority of those who identified as a Jedi on the 2001 UK census were mounting a more-or-less satirical or playful act of non-compliance; nevertheless, a certain proportion of those were telling the truth. How does a religion constructed from the fictional Star Wars universe problematise how we conceptualise other religions, and the stories they involve?  And what makes certain stories able to transcend their fictional origins and become myths?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Markus Altena Davidsen is a PhD candidate at the universities of Aarhus, Denmark and Leiden, Netherlands, and assistant lecturer in the sociology of religion in Leiden. Since 2009, he has been working on a PhD project entitled “Fiction-based Religions: The Use of Fiction in Contemporary Religious Bricolage”. In this project, Davidsen attempts to do three things. Firstly, he maps the various ways on which religious groups since the 1960s have been integrating elements from Tolkien’s literary mythology with beliefs and practices from more established religious traditions. This material is used to develop a typology of forms of religious bricolage (harmonising, domesticating, archetypal etc.) which are also at work in alternative spirituality in general. Secondly, he looks at how Tolkien religionists legitimise their religious practice (to themselves and others) given that it is based on a work of fiction. These accounts are compared with what cognitive theory has to say about narratives and plausibility construction. Thirdly, Davidsen treats how the internet has facilitated the emergence of a self-conscious spiritual Tolkien milieu. Some preliminary conclusions from the project are presented in the forthcoming article “The Spiritual Milieu Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”, in Adam Possamai (ed.), Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, in the series Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion 5, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 185-204.

You can keep up with Markus’s work on Invented Religions. And you may enjoy Markus and Carole’s contributions to our edited episode on “The Future of Religious Studies“.