What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach

Any casual user of social media can’t have missed the increasing number of adverts for dozens of ‘mindfulness’ apps. Perhaps you have encountered the term in the workplace or in a healthcare setting? It seems that, in the contemporary West, mindfulness is everywhere. But what is it? How popular is it? What is its connection to particular forms of Buddhism? Can it ever be considered wholly secular or is it necessarily religious? And why does this matter, and for whom? Today, Chris is joined by Ville Husgafvel of the University of Helsinki to discuss these important questions surrounding an increasingly pervasive phenomenon that has received little engagement from the critical religious studies community.

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What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach

Podcast with Ville Husgafvel (15 April 2019).

Interviewed by Chris Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Husgafvel_-_What_is_Mindfulness_1.1

Chris Cotter (CC): Anyone who spends any time on line or on social media these days, hasn’t managed to avoid adverts for different mindfulness applications and mindfulness courses that one can go on. Mindfulness seems to be a buzz-word in all manner of business and economics, but also throughout various religious groups and religion-related groups. But what on earth is mindfulness? Is it religious? Is it secular? Is it connected to Buddhism in some way? What are its Buddhist origins? Why does it matter? Someone who’s much better equipped to answer these questions than I am is Ville Husgafvel of the University of Helsinki. I hope I pronounced that approximately right. I had it a moment ago! Now, he’s a PhD student here in Study of Religions with research interests in contemporary mindfulness practices, Buddhist meditation, Buddhist modernism, and so on. And he’s also spent a year working at SOAS, University of London, working there on his dissertation topic. He’s got a number of publications in the area on Buddhism in Finland and one in Temenos the Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, entitled “On the Buddhist Roots of Contemporary Nonreligious Mindfulness Practice: moving beyond sectarian and essentialist approaches.” And we’ll link to that on the website. And he’s also got a forthcoming manuscript on “The ‘Universal Dharma Foundation’ of Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction“, so he clearly knows his stuff. He’s enthusiastic about his topic. So, first off, Ville – welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Ville Husgafvel (VH): Thank you very much, Chris.

CC: Thank you for joining me. So, big questions. We’ve got a lot to discuss here. But just for anyone – whether they’ve seen those adverts for mindfulness apps or whether they’ve not seen them – what, broadly, are we talking about? Just in a few sentences, what is mindfulness? Then we can dive into the analysis.

VH: Well, that is a question worth a dissertation of its own! But, in short, mindfulness cannot be grasped unless it’s tied to some specific context. Because it’s a broad abstract category. And it has its roots in the Buddhist tradition, in the really earliest layer of texts. You can discuss mindfulness as part of the noble eightfold path leading to the cessation of suffering, and right mindfulness is one part of that path. But the descriptions of mindfulness are varied. It can be discussed and defined in very specific ways as “keeping in mind”: keeping in mind the object of meditation; or in a broad way, keeping in mind certain Buddhist perspectives on things; and, more broadly, it can be just clear, lucid awareness of things – being alert. But since the Seventies – especially after the Nineties – it has become part of the medical, therapeutic or psychological vocabulary also. And here, many Buddhist connotations are left aside. And it’s more about, you would say, self-regulation of attention and with an attitude of acceptance towards the present moment experience. So if you look at psychological studies and discussions that would be the definition. But within Buddhism there are various interpretations, depending on the tradition and the viewpoints, within the massive family of traditions known as Buddhism.

CC: And I’m sure we’ll get into some of that over the next half an hour. But, this incredibly broad topic – what drew you to it? I mean, you’re doing your PhD study on it, so you must be interested. But why? How did you get to this point?

VH: Well, many strands. One is a personal interest in meditation for decades already. And the other is scholarly interest. During my BA and MA studies I was always interested in the concept of religion and the interplay between Buddhist traditions and Western culture: how the Western concept of religion, for example, changed in the encounters with Buddhist traditions – and also how Buddhism changed in the exchange with Western philosophies and natural sciences (5:00). And so the influences have gone both ways. But then again, when I was thinking about the PhD topic I wanted it to have relevance in the society we live in. So I saw that when these mindfulness-based practices, mindfulness-based programmes, which are increasingly being used in the mainstream medicine, healthcare, education, corporate worlds, I saw that there would be discussion of the links to Buddhism. And I was seeing that, especially in Finland with a strong history in evangelical Christianity, there would be some prejudice on practices based on Buddhism and Buddhist mediation. And a lot of discussion which is not necessarily based on research, but on opinions and very superficial knowledge of things. So I was wondering: maybe a scholar of religion could provide some facts for the discussion?

CC: Excellent. So there are a lot of questions that we could ask here, and we’ll probably get to some of them now. Is mindfulness secular? Is it cultural appropriation? Is it religious? Is it Buddhist? What kind of Buddhist? Which form of mindfulness are we talking about? Who is saying what? Why does it matter? So hopefully we’ll get to some of those questions. But it would be good, before we get there, if we could talk about the how questions. So you’ve been interested in this broad topic and some of these questions, but how have you gone about doing that research? I know that in your articles, certainly, you’ve been looking at a specific form of mindfulness, so you might want to tell us about the individual lineage there, and sort-of what are your sources? And things like that?

VH: Yes. Thanks. Well it’s really important, because the field of mindfulness practices is vast. It goes from traditional Buddhist practices up to some military interventions where mindfulness practices are used to train soldiers.

CC: Yes, I’ve heard that.

VH: So the question of which mindfulness you are talking about is very important, in order to say anything relevant on the topic. So I was interested in the interplay between how Buddhist practices are interpreted and decontextualized in Western therapeutic secular settings. And, in this process, one particular mindfulness-based programme, called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, (MBSR) is a bridge builder. It’s the first mindfulness-based programme to be introduced in Western secular settings. In a hospital, Massachusetts University Hospital stress reduction clinic, was the place at the end of the Seventies. And it was based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed the programme, based on his extensive practice in various Buddhist traditions and reading. But he was also a scientist and a PhD from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in molecular biology. So he was able to translate certain Buddhist perspectives and practices in a language that could be introduced in a hospital setting. And so this programme called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction is my focus. And I’m interested from two viewpoints. One is a textual study of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work, the person who developed it: how he describes the practice, and its Buddhist roots; and what kind of Buddhist elements can be found there; and how he describes his own practice history – which traditions were relevant. But then, I’m also interested in the lived practice: how MBSR is taught in Finland. And I did ethnographic fieldwork in an MBSR teacher training course for one year, participating with them, and meeting and recording discussion with the teachers. So I want to see, also, what’s the difference between a textual representation of the practice and what is actually happening in the field? And then, during the research process, I also had a chance to do an interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn to ask some personal questions and to go beyond the stuff that’s written in the books (10:00). So it was really, really valuable. And so it gave me a lot of insight for the research.

CC: Yes. So it sounds like you’ve got a lot to go on. So let’s dive in to some of those questions the, so I’ve got one of my undergrad students, Immy, is working on a dissertation on mindfulness at the moment. And she was asking, “Can contemporary mindfulness be considered simply a form of Buddhist modernism?” She said? So, is it simply a modernised form of Buddhist practice, or what’s going on? And what would we even mean by “Buddhist” in that context? Maybe you can use that as a springboard into some of your research.

VH: Yes. Really interesting question, and it goes right into the heart of things. So if you try to do any comparison between Buddhist mindfulness and contemporary mindfulness, the first question is: which Buddhism are we talking about, in the variety of traditions approaches, interpretations? Theravāda Buddhism, Mahāyāna Buddhism, Vajrayāna, and geographical areal areas? And there’s also one very important distinction between traditionalistic interpretations of doctrine and practice and then modernistic interpretations. In short, Buddhist modernism is an interplay . . . how Buddhism starts to change. How Buddhist traditions, and particular Buddhist teachers, started to reform Buddhist teachings and practices in an interplay with Western philosophy, with colonial powers, Christian missionaries. And they somehow formed a view of Buddhism which was able to argue for being compatible with scientific rational thought. But at the same time, provide meaning that was seen as the field for religion at the time. And this discourse has continued, until our days. There’s still, often, many more positive views on Buddhism, even if religions in general are seen as somehow in a negative light. And in this rationalisation of Buddhist doctrine, many Buddhist teachings were interpreted in the light of psychology instead of cosmology or metaphysics. And so it’s definitely a strand, an ongoing process, which has both occurred in Asia and the West. And if you look at the tradition that Jon Kabat-Zinn practised in, they are very much modernised versions of Buddhism. So he practised in the Insight Meditation Society, which is a society teaching Theravāda-based vipassanā meditation, based especially on certain Burmese meditation lineages. And then also had a personal practice with a Korean Zen teacher and was influenced by many publications by many modern Buddhist teachers. So I think the Buddhism which influenced these modern mindfulness-based practices was a very modernised version of Buddhism. And within these practices, the rationalisation and the scientific evidence of efficacy just went even, like, much further. So, in a way, it’s the same process which was somehow continuing the process of Buddhist modernism. But whether it’s relevant to call them Buddhist any more is a matter of much debate. Because there is no Buddhist self-identity any more. Not only in the programmes, but in the majority of the practitioners. And no Buddhist author of these refers to (Buddhism as) a legitimation of the practices. The legitimacy is based on the scientific research, on the efficacy of certain meditation practices. So there’s no straight-forward answer.

CC: Clearly. It might be helpful just to take us through, perhaps just some of the practices and the sort of philosophies associated with mindfulness-based stress reduction. Just to give a flavour of exactly what might be involved. But also if you can maybe relate this to where those can be traced to historically, whilst you’re doing it, perhaps?

VH: Well, I’ll try to keep it short!

CC: Yes, just a couple of examples.

VH; Being very short, MBSR and most of the mindfulness-based practice programmes which are derived from MBSR are taught as eight week courses (15:00). And the main components are certain sitting meditation practices starting with awareness of your breath, awareness of body sensation, awareness of sounds and thought processes, and these kind-of open awareness practices of being alert to the present moment, experiencing all its varieties. But also, certain body scan meditations where you scan different . . . keeping the present-moment focus on different body parts and going through, systematically, all the body areas. And then certain simple yoga movements with the same kind of present-moment accepting, non-judgemental, attention. But also certain aspects or informal practices that . . . . Trying to become more aware of the automatic relations that you have in everyday life, on encountering people during your work life, in your free time and your social life. And also, paying attention to what kind of reactions are linked to agreeable situations and those which are not so agreeable. And observing the automatic responses and tendencies, and trying to become aware of those. And then, slowly, perhaps also understanding which ones are maybe useful, and pragmatic and which might be not so functional and perhaps creating unnecessary distress in various situations. So that’s the basic practice, in short. And the elements are found in many Buddhist meditative traditions. The same focus on pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations; what kind of reactions do we have? And how our conditioned reactions maybe harmful or not harmful, and conducive to friendliness and compassion or to hatred, greed, ignorance. And these kind of perspectives are found both in Buddhist contexts and these contemporary mindfulness contexts. So there’s a lot of shared ground. And some argue that the shared ground goes only as far as these psychological processes are involved. But if you look a bit deeper into the books, into the discussions, there are also what I would call “ontological” elements, which are not necessarily in any contradiction with our so-called physical, natural scientific views. But seeing human beings as part of a larger whole, a larger social whole, a larger ecological whole and also part of a larger universe. And this kind of realisation might have a profound impact on your self-identity, and also on your ethical behaviour: understanding that my wellbeing might be very much connected to the wellbeing of my nearest and dearest but also my work communities and also the ecological side of . . . . It’s quite obvious that we like fresh air and clean water and not the other way around. So the meditation practice may, for some, have more ethical, ontological sides to it and it can be more apart of self-identity. I would use the word, “existential” practice. But for others it may be only a way to come to terms with chronic pain, or migraine, or, after knee surgery, how to deal with the constant pain. And that’s the function of meditation practice. So it’s this sort-of wide variety. And depending on the interpretation, some interpretations might come more close to Buddhist or existential or spiritual or

CC: All of these things!

VH: And for some it’s clearly a medical, therapeutic practice, and that’s the end of it. So I’m very cautious of giving any fixed labels on mindfulness practices. And that’s one finding and something that I want to bring to discussions always, when three’s a discussion on mindfulness practices (20:00). It’s not a unitary phenomenon. It’s not monolithic.

CC: So, just sticking with the Buddhist interpretation, or seeing as . . . . It seems to be the case that the predominant interpretation has been that it’s come directly through Theravāda Buddhism. And you would challenge that, wouldn’t you? Why is there that interpretation that it’s largely a Theravāda practice?

VH: That’s one more specific finding, and a topic I discuss in both of my articles. That there’s a dominant narrative that contemporary mindfulness practices are mainly based on Theravada Buddhist vipassanā practices and, especially in their modern form, linked to particular Burmese vipassanā traditions dating back to Ledi Sayadaw, U ba Khin , SN Goenka or the lineage of Mahāsi Sayadaw and his students. And these are the lineages were very influential for the Insight Meditation Society teachers: Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield from whom Kabat-Zinn learned meditation. But these interpretations neglected that Kabat-Zinn was also a Zen student in training for years. And was very much influenced by Mahayana Buddhist ideas. And why is this important? If we pick certain Buddhist sources, texts, modern teachers and if we compare those texts and teachings to contemporary forms of mindfulness, it’s easy to create a picture where they seem very separate – the objectives of practice and the forms of practice. And so you can easily make an argument that contemporary mindfulness is anything but Buddhist. It can be the antithesis of Buddhism, by picking up certain sources. But if you pick on other sources, the image is very different. And the practices are much more connected and continuous. And especially if you pick sources from Mahayana Zen and modernised interpretations of Zen practice, as in the Book of Shunryū Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind which Kabat-Zinn often refers to. Or the practice of Thich Nhat Hanh a famous Vietnamese peace activist, poet and mindfulness teacher. So this is quite important, which traditions actually were relevant in the formation of mindfulness, if we want to do any comparison on the continuity of ideas and practices. So this is my argument that we need to look more at the Mahayana sources.

CC: Absolutely. So just thinking – I mean I know this, maybe, isn’t exactly relevant to the research that you’ve been doing, but in many contexts there’ve been debates, they have these debates about, is this a religious practice? Is this a secular practice? And I know you would very much, as a critical scholar, want to come down on a line of: it depends who’s being asked and what’s a stake and why they want it to be what it is. But can you, maybe, tell us about some of those debates that have happened? Maybe specific instances where people have been arguing that it clearly is Buddhist, or that it clearly is just spiritual, or that it’s clearly secular, and maybe give us some examples of those public debates?

VH: Well, the basic outline. It’s a narrative that in contemporary mindfulness programmes meditation is taught independently of Buddhism or Buddhist religiosity – and what does it mean to be independent from that? That’s a question. And in many scientific studies focussing on the effects of meditation practice and mindfulness practice, it’s usually taken for granted that these are secular practices which may have Buddhist roots, (25:00) or roots in Asian Wisdom Traditions or something else, but don’t have any philosophical or ethical connections to those practices, or the beliefs of those traditions. So it’s a very instrumental, technical view of meditation. It’s about self-regulation and certain attitudes. And of course, this kind of framing opens the doors to bring meditation into the mainstream: into public healthcare, into public education, into schools, in corporate contexts where Buddhist meditation would never be appropriate. But then again, if you look at the contents and the techniques, there’s much more from Buddhist traditions than only some particular techniques. So some have argued that it’s not possible to do a clear-cut separation of taking only the meditation and leaving everything else aside. And the discussion is very much similar to the debates around yoga, and the use of yoga. And there’s been, in the US, court cases deciding whether particular yoga programme is appropriate to be used in public schools. And these similar kind of questions are raised in relation to mindfulness-based programmes. Even though so far they never went into court, yet. But there are scholars . . . usually the same scholars who argue that yoga should be seen in a religious light and that the public school is not the place for yoga programmes, usually mindfulness is seen in the same way. And it’s obvious because they share many things in common and it’s sometimes very difficult to do any clear-cut separation between meditation practice, mindfulness practice and yoga practice. But so some argue for clear religious elements which would close the door; that it’s not appropriate for public contexts. But the majority voice is that they are secular in this way that it’s appropriate to teach in public context. But many scholars recently questioned these both as very simplistic. Rather they say that these could be seen as both secular practices and hybrid practices which people can interpret within religious frames, Buddhist frames or secular frames. And it can never be determined on the level of whether a mindfulness practice is this or that. We must look into the individual mindfulness-based programmes. And even within certain mindfulness-based programmes we need to see how a certain individual frames the meditation practice. Then we can say something meaningful, whether it is Buddhist, religious, secular or what. So of course, in the general way, usually the journalist asks and people want very simple clear-cut answers, whether or not. . . . And the scholar says: “Well, if you look from this point it appears Buddhist, if you look from another point it appears secular.” And so it’s not an easy question to answer.

CC: Exactly. But it’s a fascinating sort of test case for just demonstrating all of those issues around that religious/ secular binary. And hopefully it can help undercut that binary and, you know, we won’t be saying it is that or it is that. But there are so many other practices, that maybe are more familiar in the West, that are more connected to, let’s say, Christianity, that traditional Westerners would be quite happy to say “Oh that’s nothing to do with religion.” But it’s when this strange exotic, “other” thing comes in that decoupling, or acknowledging that fluidity and it being two things at the same time, seems to become quite problematic for people.

VH: Yes. I often say that we have this conception or matrix of systems of classification. And when we encounter things that doesn’t fit then we must change the system of classification. And in the same way that Buddhist tradition, when it was first encountered in the colonial period and by the early Orientalist scholars, it changed the way religion was seen (30:00). And I think now what’s happening is that there are many other related movements and practices in this therapeutic, spiritual, self-help, self-improvement field that don’t really fit into the clear-cut classification of secular/ religious. And there’s often this . . . it’s not clear-cut whether it’s spiritual, post-secular . . . something which is very vague and very problematic also. Because it doesn’t say much about the things that we observe. And I think, as you said, mindfulness practice is a very good test ground for building hypotheses, and improving our terminology and concepts relating to this new empirical data that appears in current cultural milieux.

CC: Absolutely. So just as a final question, I mean, you’ve been telling us a lot about the research that you’ve been doing. What’s next for you? And, maybe, what are some of the future directions that you see mindfulness research in general going in? Like are there some big areas where research is needed or you’d like to see research? Or where you would like to do it?

VH: Well, I think there’s still a handful in doing the dissertation itself! So right now, in my own research I’m going deeper into the ethnographic material. So far I’ve only focused on Buddhist texts and the texts of Jon Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness manuals and source books. So now I’m focusing on my ethnographic fieldwork material and looking how MBSR and mindfulness is taught in Finland and how future MBSR teachers are instructed to become teachers: what elements are emphasised, and what elements are possibly left out? So I hope, in the future, there will be much more ethnographic focus. Because the texts can tell us only so much. And what’s happening in the field is nuanced. And I personally hope to have a possibility, after the dissertation, to work on interviewing on individual meditation practices, within both Buddhist communities and in modern contemporary mindfulness communities, and shed light on the variety of interpretation and frames in which meditation can be useful and meaningful for individuals.

CC: Fantastic. Yes it could well be that the discourses might be quite similar, yet the objects populating the discourses are the differences. We shall see. Thank you so much, Ville for joining us on the Religious Studies Project.

VH: Thank you so much, Chris. It’s been a pleasure.

Citation Info: Husgafvel, Ville and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-is-mindfulness-a-critical-religious-studies-approach/

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The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic states, has a reputation of being one of the most secularized countries in Europe. Although the visibility of religion is rising, being ‘not religious’ is still considered normative. Estonia is a context in which notions and debates on religion, atheism, and indifference are interrelated in complex ways with the history of Estonian nationalism, and two foreign religious-secular regimes: German Lutheran and Soviet Atheism. In this interview, Chris and Atko Remmel discuss why the Estonian context is – or should be – interesting to scholars of ‘religion’. What happened during the Soviet era? What about the academic study of religion in Estonia? How did the strong connection between Estonian national identity and ‘atheism’ develop? How does this play out in the contemporary context?

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, and concludes by looking ahead to the 2019 EASR conference in Tartu, Estonia.

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

The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Podcast with Atko Remmel (28 January 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Remmel_-_The_Study_of_Religion_and_National_Identity_in_Estonia_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): The Estonian case in the study of religion is something that we’ve not really talked about very much on the Religious Studies Project. But I am speaking to you right now from the EASR conference in Bern where I’ve been hearing quite a bit about it. I’ve heard some papers, and it was even mentioned quite a bit in one of the keynote lectures yesterday. And so I thought it would be fantastic to get Atko Remmel, who I’ve known for a number of years now, onto the RSP to talk about the Estonian context, the study of religion in Estonia and some of the complex intersections between religion, non-religion, nationalism in this context that’s sort of been dominated historically by two foreign religious secular regimes: the German Lutheran Church and Soviet atheism. So first of all, Atko Remmel, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Religious Studies Project.

Atko Remmel (AR): It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s an absolute pleasure. Just to say, Atko is senior researcher in Religious Studies and also a researcher in Cultural Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia. And his work discusses religion, religious indifference, national identity and more, in Estonia, which is set as I’ve indicated, to be one of the most secularised countries in Europe. He has a number of publications in this broad area, including one called “Religion Interrupted: Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia“, which is in a book, in which I and a number of RSP friends have chapters, that’s called Religious Indifference: New Perspectives from Studies on Secularisation and Non-religion, edited by Johannes Quack and Kora Schuh. And Atko is also the PI on one of the Understanding Unbelief projects, looking at Estonia. But we’ll not be talking too much about that just today. So, many of our Listeners out there may never have really thought much about the Estonian context at all. So, perhaps the way to start would be a broad introduction to Estonia, I guess, in relation to religion. A potted history! Away you go!

AR: Well, Estonia is a small country, by the Baltic Sea – one of the northern-most Baltic countries. And yes, it’s known for its very far-reaching secularisation.

CC: Yes. So we’ll be talking a lot about that in a moment, but the study of religion in Estonia: is that something relatively new – like Religious Studies, at an academic institution?

AR: Well actually, no. But to answer this question we have to look back into history. So, during the Soviet Union the only possibility to study religion was within the framework of Scientific Atheism. And another possibility was Folkloristics, where folk beliefs were studied as a part of national heritage. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Scientific Atheism of course faded away. And the Study of Religion was newly established under the label of Theology which, in Estonia, is an umbrella term for both Theology and the Study of Religion. And this, I would say, in the early days was more influenced by theological thinking. But in the last decade it has moved towards the Study of Religion. And the focus is on religious change, new religious movements, but mostly it’s still about Christian churches and their relationship to the state. And apart from that, religion is still studied under the discipline of Folkloristics, which in the Estonian context is another umbrella term that covers anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, but also folkloristics in its traditional sense. Since Estonia is in a bit better position than other Finno-Ugric nations that were incorporated into the Soviet Union, my colleagues have a keen interest towards their religious situation, language and so on.

CC: And of course, we’ll be hearing at the end of the interview, I hope, about a certain conference that’s going to be happening in Estonia, hosted by the Estonia Association. So it’s clearly been something that’s developing there. You mentioned the Soviet times there, and I suppose anything that we’re going to talk about in the rest of this interview will probably require a bit of historical contextualisation. So the stereotype we have is obviously (5:00) Soviets were not a massive fan of religion – suppression – end of Soviet time – maybe some sort of resurgence. But let’s . . . . Give me an actual picture.

AR: Well, it’s correct that the usual understanding of Soviet anti-religious policy is understood as something monolithic that was uniform from the start to the end. But actually, there were quite big changes in religious policy. And in some periods it was harsher, and other times less harsh. And after the Second World War, during Stalin‘s reign, the question of religion was sort-of secondary. But it changed radically under Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated an anti-religious campaign that lasted from 1958 until 1964. And in Estonia this policy had three main directions: the first one was so-called administration of the churches, which meant that different kind of legislative restrictions and direct control over the inner life of Churches; the second one was ethics propaganda for newspapers and lectures; and the third one was the development of Soviet secular rituals, to substitute religious rituals. And I would say that this administration and secular rituals were most effective. And as a result they manged to create an interruption in religious tradition, and to get rid of religion from public space. This, of course, didn’t mean that they managed to turn people into atheists. And, apart from the years of the Khrushchev anti-religious drive, atheist propaganda was actually not very visible. And atheism was one of so-called “red” subjects closely associated with the hated Soviet ideology. And also the level of atheist propaganda was quite low. And therefore it didn’t appeal to people. And so the result was widespread indifference both towards religion and atheism – like a sort of ideological vacuum, which was filled with all kinds of things when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. And this actually explains why Estonians, while considering themselves not religious, have a plethora of different beliefs and practices and so on, which are usually – in student terms – alternative spiritualties.

CC: Excellent. Thanks for that. This might be putting you on the spot a little bit. But, just for those of our Listeners who aren’t familiar with the dates, could you maybe give us the key dates in the 20th century, in Estonian history?

AR: In Estonian history . . . . Well, Estonia was at first occupied by Soviet forces in 1940, then again in 1944, then Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev was pushed aside in 1964, and then finally the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

CC: Fantastic. I just wanted to make sure that we got that in there. I guess if our Listeners have seen “The Death of Stalin” they might be familiar with Khrushchev.

AR: Yes.

CC: Excellent. So you’ve already alluded, there, to the suppression of religion and how this, maybe, largely succeeded in the public space. But a lot of your work, then, has been focussing upon contemporary surveys, and how effective this might have been on individual lives. So, let’s get specifically into your own research. You might just want to tell us a little bit about your research journey – the kind of questions that you’ve been asking – and then, what it can tell us about religious indifference, non-religion. And then we’ll get onto this national identity element, as well.

AR: Well . . . long story short. I started out as a historian and my PhD thesis was on the institutions that were involved in Soviet anti-religious policy. It was mainly archival work. And by the time it was finished, in 2011, then the research on non-religion was already booming. (10:00) And then I got interested in how this Soviet background influences contemporary Estonian society. And by that time Estonians had already discovered this forgotten link between atheism and Estonian national identity. So for the last 4-5 years I have tried to keep a track on what’s happening in Estonian society, in connection with religion and non-religiosity. And I’m currently involved in several projects that touch these subjects. And one of them is on the Relocation of the Sacred around the Baltic Sea, which is led by my good colleague from Sweden, David Thurfjell. And it deals with the relationship between secularisation and nature spirituality. Another approach, which you already mentioned, was this Understanding Unbelief. And, in addition, we are – together with colleagues from the Czech Republic – we are compiling an edited volume with a preliminary title: Atheism and Freethinking in Central and Eastern Europe, which focusses on the twentieth and twenty-first century. And it’s a combination of historical and sociological approaches. And, hopefully, will be the first comprehensive overview of the development of current states of secular developments in that region.

CC: Fantastic. So how about we dive right into it, then? One of my favourite anecdotes from your presentation yesterday – and this might serve as a useful starter – was when the survey question, “Should the churches modernise?” was being asked. And people who were religious, people who were non-religious were maybe ticking agree, slightly agree, don’t have any opinion, vastly disagree. All over the place. And when you actually got to your qualitative work, the story was, “Should the churches modernise? Should they have electricity? Should they have Wi-Fi?” So, even the vocabulary of the questions were sort-of indicating what you might describe as secularisation of language.

AR: Yes.

CC: So, maybe that’s a way into the conversation?

AR: Yes, well. This religious gap, or this era of indifference, it’s really interesting how it has influenced society. And one of my research interests is the language my informants use, and I have identified some really interesting features. And one of them is that words or terms, religious terms, they have very negative connotations. One of the most loaded words is probably, “believer”. That has an association with mental abnormality or ignorance. And this is of course one of the successes of atheist propaganda. And I also have heard from my Russian colleagues, when they interview people and ask, “Are you a believer?” The response was “No, I’m normal.”

CC: (Laughs).

AR: And another thing – that you mentioned – is religious illiteracy. And also this secularisation of language. So this religious illiteracy: since religion in Estonian Society has had really low visibility, people sort-of don’t recognise the appearances of it. And they also are unable to express their thoughts about religion because of the lack of knowledge. And there is a really interesting story. In Turto there is a Marian Church that was turned into a gym during the Soviet era. And the bell tower was demolished and so on. But it still had the very specific features of a sacral building, like large arched windows and so on. I heard from my informants that when they were children, during the Soviet period, that when this building was finally given back to the congregation and turned into a sacral building again, they were really surprised when they learned that it was actually a church building! So we can call it a “religious blindness”, or something like that. And secularisation of language is the third interesting feature which I have found. It’s actually not so much secularisation. (15:00) It’s more like de-Christianisation: when religious terms have run dry of their Christian context. This example of church is sort of a text-book example. Where church is understood only as a building, not an organisation, or a group of people. So it can create a lot of confusion. So, yes. And then I got interested in that, because I had a hunch that non-religious people might not understand the questions in the surveys in the way they were meant to. And to some extent it seems to be true. And also it seems to be true that many questions asked in the surveys just prompt the answers, and have no relevance to people before and after that. So I’m a bit hesitant how meaningful this collected data is. And, of course, it’s always a problem but it can have much more serious results in a context where religious illiteracy is more widespread.

CC: Absolutely. It might help if we get some percentages here. I know that you had them in your presentation. You mightn’t have them to hand. But in certain surveys it’s quite an extraordinarily high number of, we might say, atheists – you might say non-identifiers, depending what the survey is. But then, on this national identity front, I notice that there was a large population of Russian Orthodox in Estonia. And so, maybe you could comment on the sort of connection between – I don’t know – Estonia, and atheism, and Russian Orthodoxy as it plays out?

AR: Yes. The point seems to be that orthodoxy is much stickier than Lutheranism. And the story with Estonians is that one of the things is the Estonian national narrative, which is a construct from 19th century, and tells a story about the Estonians’ everlasting fight for freedom. And there are two types of national narratives. One is the Golden past, another is the Promised Land. And Estonian one is the Golden Past type. But, usually, this Golden Past refers to the time where the country was very powerful, great kings and so on. But in the Estonian case this Golden Past is located into pre-Christian times. And Christianity is sort-of seen as responsible for its demise. And another thing is this connection between Estonian nationality and atheism. And it’s a really interesting story. But it has actually very little to do with believing or not believing in the existence of God, and rather it started out as an ethnic conflict. So the background is that Estonians were Christianised in the 13th century, during the Northern Crusades. And after that they were ruled by different other nations, until the 20th century. And this 19th century Romanticism resulted in the rise of Estonian national consciousness. And by that time, Estonia was incorporated to the Russian Empire, but Estonians were ruled by a Baltic German upper class. So most of the clergy was also German. So the Church was not perceived as Estonian, but more like German. Now, in 1905 there was a revolution in Russian Empire, and in Estonia as well. But in Estonia it took a sort-of nationalist form, so it was a fight for national autonomy. And the revolution was soon crushed and punitive squads started to do their work. And many people were executed. And then many Estonians accused German pastors that they didn’t protect their parish members, and rather collaborated with the troops. And, as a result, many Estonians didn’t go to Church any more. And, in return, Baltic Germans accused Estonians of atheism. And during the Soviet era, atheist propaganda, of course, made good use of both motives. (20:00) And then it created a new story of Estonians as historically being very sceptical towards religion, or being a religiously lukewarm nation. So in 2005 the Eurobarometer survey was published, and that revealed that only 16% of Estonians believe in a personal God. And all this information was happily put together. And Estonians started to understand themselves as the least religious – or most atheistic – country in the world, despite the fact that the survey covered only Europe!

CC: (Laughs).

AR: However, Estonians are actually not the only ones with this claim, and similar motives are present also in the Czech Republic, in Denmark, in Sweden, and in the Netherlands. So I question which country will be the least religious or most atheistic. It’s probably going to be a new Olympic Games discipline or something like that!

CC: Yes! And I wonder what the prize will be?

AR: (Laughs). God!

CC: You also had a leaflet in your presentation that said, “If you are an Estonian. . .” and listed a few things. It said ,“you do not believe in God . . . unless it’s Eurovision!” (Laughs).

AR: Right!

CC: Now I’ve only really got one more question before we talk about that important conference. But presumably, this isn’t getting the whole picture. You were showing a lot of nuance yesterday, and a lot of the beliefs and practices that these so-called non-believers, non-identifiers subscribe to. So maybe you could add a bit more nuance to this contemporary situation?

AR: Well, I will say that when we are talking about non- believers or atheists, then it basically boils down . . . that means that we are taking their identity as primary indicator, when we are talking in this way. Then, of course, the meaning of atheism in the Estonian case is sort-of different than in the Western context. It doesn’t mean the explicit denial of God, or something like that. Rather it refers to just not being Christian. And since atheism is the only known secular tradition in the Estonian context it has a very, very wide meaning.

CC: Excellent. So we are at about 25 minutes, which is a perfect time for me to just say that obviously we’re recording at the EASR in Bern, in Switzerland. But the 2019 EASR is in Tartu in Estonia. So perhaps you could maybe sell the conference a little bit? Just in terms of why might people want to come? But also, you could give us a hint of the intellectual thrust of the conference.

AR: The topic of the conference is “Religion: Continuations and Disruptions”. And, you know, conferences are very much like birthday parties. When you like the people, then you go! And at the same time they are like sort of style parties. And the topic gives the debates this general direction. So this topic was, of course, inspired by Eastern European recent history – which is actually a continuation of different disruptions. And this notion applies to religion as well. And religion and the understanding of religion is constantly changing. So we thought that it would give a good direction for our style party, to become fruitful basis for discussing whatever changes occur in regard to religion. But other than that, Tartu is just a very lovely town. And by the way, our restaurant street is just 50 metres from the conference venue! And for the conference party we have a place called Gunpowder Cellar, which is really an old gunpowder cellar that is turned into a restaurant and claims to be a pub with the highest ceiling in the world. Which is around 11 metres.

CC: So, the highest ceiling in the world and the lowest religiosity in the world!

AR: (Laughs). Exactly! They go together, hand-in-hand!

CC: Fantastic! One final question. (25:00) This conference that we’re at right now, the theme is “Multiple Religious Identities.” So, maybe, just a final thought from you on how the Estonian context and that conference theme of multiple religious identities maybe speak to each other? Or not?

AR: Of course they speak to each other: they are both religion-related. But, of course, there are continuations of religious identities, and all this overlapping and constant changing. So I would say this: our conference in Tartu will be a mental continuation of this topic here.

CC: Excellent! Well, Listeners, if you want to continue with a mental continuation, in about a year’s time we should have a number of podcasts from Tartu for you! But, for now, thanks for that really expansive, but also quite specific, teaser for the situation in Estonia and for your own research. So do check out Atko’s profile. And thank you very much!

AR: Thank you!

Citation Info: Remmel, Atko and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-study-of-religion-and-national-identity-in-estonia/

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Magic and Modernity

This conversation between Richard Irvine, Theodoros Kyriakides and David G. Robertson concerns magical thinking in the modern world. We may think that such ideas are confined to the fringes in the secular, post-Enlightenment world, but this is not necessarily the case. We talk about Weber’s rationalisation and James Frazer’s evolutionary model of modernity, and how they relate to ideas of belief, and magic. We then look at examples from Orkney and Cyprus to show these ideas in play. This is an interview that will be of interest to all students of secularity, modernity and belief.

This interview was recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference in Feb 2018, and is based on the “Magical thinking in contexts and situations of unbelief” project, part of the Understanding Unbelief programme.

*We apologise for the recent, increasingly frequent disruption to the availability of the RSP website. It has taken a lot of time and energy, but we have now successfully migrated the website to a different hosting provider, and this should resolve the issue. Many thanks for your continued support, and here’s to the rest of 2018!

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

Magic and Modernity

Podcast with Richard Irvine and Theodoros Kyriakides

(26 March 2018).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Irvine_and_Kyriakides_-_Magic_and_Modernity_1.1


David Robertson (DR): I’m joining you again from Milton Keynes, where I’m at the Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Conference. And today I’m joined by Richard Irvine and Theo Kyriakides who have a project called Magical Thinking in Contexts and Situations of Unbelief, which is part of the bigger Understanding Unbelief project. Today they’re going to be talking about magical thinking in contemporary, “modern” society – with quote marks on it. So, welcome to the Project!

Richard Irvine (RI): Thank you very much.

Theo Kyriakides (TK): Thanks for having us.

DR: So yes, Richard, perhaps you could tell us about the project that you’re working on?

RI: I mean, the basic set of questions we’re asking, it comes out of reflections on the secularisation thesis, the general idea being that: as societies become more apparently rationalised, more secularised – as you see fewer people directly affiliating with religious groups – surely the follow-on from this would be that there’s less space in society for practices that we might term “magic”, for thinking about the world as an enchanted place. But, in actual fact, what we see in our different field sites is that even with people who would define themselves as non-believers, who would see themselves as outside of religious structures and, indeed, rejecting forms of belief, there still seems to be this place in their life for reflecting on what is unknowable and trying to engage with it in different ways. And so, really, what we want to say is that, rather than secularisation squeezing magic out of contemporary life, out of modern life, that in fact secularisation seems to open up new spaces that magic can grow within.

TK: Yes. Just to add that, if you take the notion of modernity, it was Max Weber who kind-of predicted the disenchantment of modernity. It was kind-of a prophecy. When would you say that was, about 1920s?

RI: Yes. He’s speaking, in Science as Vocation, just after the First World War.

TK: Yes. And obviously it’s taken some criticism. But, to an extent I guess, somebody can make the argument that modernity is disenchanted with magic. So, yes. That’s our starting point: to see to what extent disenchantment can allow magical phenomenon to manifest.

RI: Yes. Because I mean, what I was talking about this morning with Science as Vocation, which I mentioned in that lecture, what Weber does is he says . . . . He’s addressing those two students. And obviously, they think they’re very smart. And he’s saying, “You think you’re smart. How much do you actually know? Because, if you think about natives and tribes elsewhere in the world, they have a great store of their knowledge.” So he says, you know, “You board a street car. You don’t know how it propels itself unless you’re a physicist. You buy things without really any notion of why sometimes you can get less or more for the money, whereas in many societies, in fact, people have an understanding of where their food comes from, they have an understanding of . . . .” So he’s saying, in fact, in modern, technologically advanced, specialised societies there’s actually far less of a portion of the total knowledge that we have. So in that, he’s saying, “Yes, we are becoming more rationalised. But does that necessarily mean that we are entering into a state of being more knowing? So, in a sense, the secularisation thesis, as Weber sets it up, allows for this space of enchantment, rather than disenchantment. Because what you have there is that whole space of unknowing about everything that isn’t your very particular job within the division of labour.

DR: But there was another model of modernity, which actually might be slightly earlier, but was certainly in currency around the same time: the whole James Frazer model, in which modernity, you know, building on evolutionary models – Darwinism, social Darwinism, basically – that we moved from superstition and magic, to religion, to science. And so that modernity was, as you said, it was a prediction but it was a prediction, in that model, which does replace magical thinking completely. So Weber’s model of modernity is definitely not the only version of it that’s going around at the same time.

TK: Yes. What’s interesting about Frazer’s work is that it perseveres. He’s taken so much critique for being a cultural evolutionist or primitivist, because he presents this linear trajectory which societies have to be following in order to be legitimised as modern, right? So he’s a kind of . . . I think anthropologists have the knee-jerk reaction of denouncing the evolutionary model. But, at the same time, he’s well-known, you know. People talk about him. People who are not anthropologists know about Frazer’s work. And, in an ironic twist, the trajectory that he kind-of presented as evolutionary –that work, that corpus of work – kind-of substantiates magical belief in modernity as well, in my opinion: the way that magical traditions can become reiterated in modernity through Frazer’s work, anyway.

RI: So, would you say, when people are buying and reading The Golden Bough . . .

TK: Yes.

RI: Because you can still get it in those editions, for £2 or something. So when people buy it, are they looking for magic, rather than . . . ? What is it they’re looking for in there? And is it that disenchanted, I suppose?

TK: Yes, I think the book has a certain allure. I don’t know why people are going to read it, but the fact that you . . . take the back cover: it’s to do with magic,

DR: It’s very readable, it’s very accessible even to non-academics. It does that sweeping grand theory that . . . It boils down to quite simple . . . there’s one central narrative.

RI: And he was a tremendous publicist. Contemporary academics could learn a lot from him about getting their ideas into a mass marketplace!

TK: Absolutely!

DR: Actually, you could make the argument that Frazer’s work is a form of magical thinking in itself, in that he connects all these disparate elements and links them together into a grand narrative. It’s that sort of knowledge that we see in a lot of schools of Occultism, for instance. But when you guys are talking about, you know, magic, magical thinking and all these kind of terms – break that down, how you’re using that for us. You already mentioned ideas of the ineffable, earlier on. I don’t think you used the term ineffable, but you said something similar. But there’s also a kind of practical aspect, as well. So break down how you’re using ideas of magic.

TK: So I think the way we kind-of use the term magical thinking, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with people subscribing to existing magical traditions or practices. It also has to do with the way by which they can develop their own worldviews and philosophies that have the underlying assumption of magical efficacy. So magical efficacy can adopt characteristics of contagious efficacy or automatic efficacy, or what Frazer called sympathetic and contagious magic. So yes, once again, it’s not necessarily people following explicit magical traditions, but also developing their own ways of understanding and dwelling in the world, which can adopt those characteristics that anthropologists associate with magical traditions, in a more implicit manner.

RI: I mean, one of the things we talked about in terms of how we were defining magic in the project – you can shoot this down if you think I’m being too specific about it! But it’s important to think about, especially in what we’re talking about as a modern context, it’s important to think about individual practices that people adopt in order to make sense of the world around them; in order to, in certain ways, gain some kind of mode of control over the world around them. So I think that emphasis – that is classic in most anthropological theory – that what we’re talking about here are certainly social practices that exist within a social space, but which are in the domain of individual actions, rather than necessarily religious ritual which brings social groups together. But I think that that’s quite important in a way, for talking about the modern world because, in fact, as has been repeatedly pointed out, we’re seeing more and more individualisation, more and more fragmentation in how people . . . You know: the whole designation of people talking about themselves a spiritual but not religious, these kinds of things. It’s often about this idea that people are being more idiosyncratic, more personal, in how they engage with the world, and what is potentially unknowable. But something I mentioned this morning which I think is a really interesting case in point, because it’s a contested one: recently Sally Le Page launching an attack on water companies in the UK for, in her terms, practising magic. Because she says she contacted these water companies and they said, “Yes, we’re divining, we’re going out with dowsing rods.” Or, “Some of the people who work for us are going out with divining rods and they’re looking for water. And that’s part of the battery of things that are used.” Now what’s interesting there is, immediately she leaps to this idea that this is magic because it’s something which doesn’t necessarily fit with our hypothetical deduction method of science. So this is a thing which we should have been left behind, once we’d worked out proper scientific ways of finding water. But, in fact, when I talk to people in Orkney – some of whom do rely on divining in order to find where to bore for water – this works. This is practical knowledge that people have of the landscape and where to find water. So, they’re not necessarily – and I think this is an important point – they’re not necessarily thinking of it, or describing it as magic. But, certainly, they would reject the idea that simply because something doesn’t fit with what is tested and known, according to the parameters of science, they’re not going to reject it just because of that. They’re not going to say, “Oh well it doesn’t fit with the peer-reviewed literature. I’m not going to divine for water anymore!” In fact, this is practical knowledge of the landscape and that’s what they go with.

DR: It seems to me that really you’ve got two different kinds of magic in play there, and I think this is common across the board. It’s not meant as a criticism of you, but rather for the listener in terms of how we are using the term discursively. So on the one hand you said, that it was something that wasn’t part of a recognised religious tradition, it wasn’t about religious communities but it was used by the individual. But then we shifted to talking about it as something which wasn’t . . . that was a practice that was thought of as having efficacy, but not through appeals to science.

RI: Mmm.

DR: So those are two quite different things, are they not?

TK: Yes. That’s a good question. One of the reasons that the project is interesting to me, as well, is that people have lost touch with what magic is. Because if you go to initial ethnographic studies, like magic is not just a belief in the supernatural, or belief in, you know, Gods or spiritual beings. Magic is also like a system of practices which have actual ways of reproducing societal structures and kinships. And I think, as Richard said, modernity kind-of led to the fragmentation of the individual and, in a way, led to the fragmentation of magic as well. So we can talk about this later as well, that magic has certain polysemy.

DG: Yes.

TK: Like people understand what magic is in different ways. So, to use Richard’s language from this morning, today there is a certain archaeology of magic. The word magic has been hidden under kind-of layers of modernity, layers of science, and so, in a way, we’re kind-of conducting an archaeology of how people relocate these traces of magical thinking in the everyday.

RI: And in terms of whether or not . . . . I mean, this is always going to be kind -of the problem both methodologically and theoretically. Because when you’re talking about something like magic you’re talking about something which has simultaneously been the locus of thousands and thousands of papers or theorisation, and also something which is in the popular imagination. I think Graham Jones, which you’ve read quite a lot, Theo, but Graham Jones in his recent book – what’s the title?

TK: Magic’s Reason

RI: Magic’s Reason. That’s very interesting because Graham Jones did his PhD with – what I suppose a lot of people would associate with magic – he did his PhD on stage magic. But he’s gone through this archaeology, to use the word, he’s gone through this to look at, well: what does this idea of magic and performance say about the longer strands of magic that were available in European and American culture? Rather than this being a different thing. So the basic problem here is that we are talking about something which is everyday language and can’t necessarily be . . .

TK: labelled.

RI: labelled purely from the point of view of sociological or other theories – which is so much the case in Religious Studies.

DR: Yes.

RI: Because we don’t have ownership over these words. And you can’t necessarily say. . . So sometimes that does mean that you’re involved in shifts . . . . So, you know, with the Sally Le Page example, what’s interesting is that she’s using magic in that particular way. She’s using magic in – we would say – the Frazerian way: this is what society should have evolved beyond.

TK: It’s backwards, yes.

RI: Yes. Now when you have people who are simultaneously saying “I’m an unbeliever, I’ve gone beyond, I don’t hold with religion, I don’t hold with people telling me what to believe,” well, from a Frazerian point of view, right, they’ve stepped into the next level: they’re beyond religion. But what’s curious there, from the point of view of these conflicting views of magic is: hang on! They’ve stepped into that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve left it behind. In fact, what it means is they’re rejecting religious authority structures, but they may also reject authority structures which are rationalist authority structures. So you’ve got these conflicts of an idea of magic as a failed form of science, which is one model, coming into contact with a practical way of engaging with a world which is full of unknowable things. And it’s full of unknowable things because of the nature of a society where – to go back to this point – it’s so specialised. We know less and less about the whole store of knowledge, because we only really have proper understanding of the tiny bit of the division of labour that we’ve got – if even that!

TK: Officially, I don’t use the word “magic” when I do fieldwork a lot. So I’m not going to ask people “Do you believe or practise magic?” Because, as Richard said, it kind-of ended up being a signifier of irrationality and backwardness. So I might use the local term in the Cypriot dialect for magic. But what’s interesting is that once something’s labelled as magic, it’s labelled as irrational, kind-of excluded from the normative order of things. But at the same time, to take the case of the dowsing example, it is something that people did without questioning. Like, the fact that they went around . . . . Maybe they were questioning it in their heads, but the fact that this practice was being reproduced is interesting. They were going around divining for water and that this was a practice that had, you know, attributes of magical thinking, but was nevertheless naturalised into the normative order of things.

RI: I mean one interesting conversation we were having earlier, with one of the other participants of the conference, struck me as a great example of magical thinking. We were talking about how there’s lots of debates about how in court, when you make your oath, you know, well, what of an unbeliever? Should an unbeliever be allowed to – and this is contested in many places – should an unbeliever be allowed to not make an oath on the Bible? Well, how do they make an oath? But what’s interesting in a lot of these debates, is not . . . . The focus is on whether the Bible is there or not. But the actual question of the oath isn’t necessarily called into question. That, somehow, that performative act of making an oath has a transformative effect on the truthful quality of the entire thing. Now, it’s quite striking that that’s still something which is at the heart of . . . it’s a part of our legacy. It’s at the heart of our ideas about what constitutes the rule of law. Now, ultimately, these are ideas of magical thinking, which I think in some respects, go unexamined. And our task isn’t . . . well certainly, I don’t see our task as being to, in some way, debunk these, or to suggest . . . But, rather, to give lie to the idea that a modern, secularised, rationalised – you can add in all kinds of words for this – leaves these things behind. I mean I suppose I’ve come right back to killing the Ghost of Frazer, again. But that wasn’t my intention when I started this sentence!

TK: He’s already dead, so . . .

RI: (Laughs)

DR: Just to go back to something Theo was saying, there. I mean, a couple of times recently I’ve been thinking about – and this came up during my fieldwork on conspiracy and UFO communities – is the idea that sometimes these things are in the subjunctive mode. And I think this is particularly pertinent when we talk about things like dowsing, but also alternative therapies. One thing I found was that it was almost always . . . it was very common for people to get into new age, or UFO, or conspiracy communities through alternative health care, essentially because they had chronic illness of one type or another. And so, when the scientific mainstream treatments didn’t work, they were prepared to try anything. They would try them in the subjunctive mode, to see if they work. And then, when one of them works for whatever reason, that then is a confirmation that, “Oh, some of these things do work, even though science says it’s not true.” And this leads them to then embrace a number of other possible things in the subjunctive mode. And I think that dowsing is like that. The council is probably thinking, “Well, I don’t know if it works or not – but it might work!” You know, if it has given us results then, fine. I’m not going to be thinking too much about whether it’s scientific or not. And you find the same thing in acupuncture treatment on the NHS. They’re prepared to pay for acupuncture, or sometimes aromatherapy and things. And they’re like “Well it doesn’t matter if it’s only working because it’s a placebo. If it’s working, it’s working.”

TK: So subjectivity kind-of demands maintaining a certain propensity to the potential of something to be unknowable.

DR: Yes. The rational justification for it is secondary to the practical application, or the function.

TK: Yes. There’s this famous phrase I like from Jeanne Favret-Saada’s work: “I know that magic is a joke, but still . . .” You know, it’s that tension that the unbeliever can oscillate with that magical thinking emerges from. I know that magic is a joke, or it doesn’t exist, but still . . . And she borrows this from psychanalyst Octave Mannoni, who kind-of deals with subjectivity in terms of magical thinking, as well. So that was a phrase that was kind-of foundational in the theoretical foundations that we tackle.

RI: I mean, I think the way that you’ve talked about the “evil eye” is a very good example of that. Because you talk about the way that in certain modes this can be used seriously.

TK: yes. So the evil eye, in Cyprus, on certain occasions can be used as decoration on people’s shoes and T-shirts or things, or houses in general. But, under certain occasions, it is granted much more magical qualities by the people using it, so under occasions of uncertainty or stress. Even the other day, I talked to people and they tell me: “I don’t really believe in the evil eye. I don’t acknowledge that it’s in my house. But sometimes, if I’m having a bad day, or I’m having bad thoughts, I might just think about it. I might look at it.”

RI: It sort of goes back to what you were saying about, “I know this is a joke, but still . . .” I mean that, there’s certain sense of what unbelief would involve, which should end after the first part: “I know it’s a joke,” full stop. But that’s not what we see in the messiness of everyday life. It’s: I know, but that doesn’t mean that there are not – in the subjective mode – there maybe other contexts in which I might want this to . . . . or, at least, I cannot be sure that there is not. So it’s better to do it just in case.

DR: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Martin Stringer’s work.

RI: It came up in the discussion today, yes

DR: But he talks about situational belief, and exactly the same sort of idea where – and this actually relates to the sort of subjunctive example I gave before. If you asked this person, “Do you believe in the chi flowing around the body?” They’d say, “No”. But when it came down to, “If I try this, I might be able to put that aside for long enough that it works!” Or, people don’t tend to believe in prophecy or speaking to dead. But if their husband or loved one has just died, they might have an overwhelming desire to speak to them. In which case, they enter a different mode of expressing belief.

RI: I mean, I was saying this in the discussion earlier. One of the things I find interesting in this work is that you have . . . particularly, this situation that he discusses in relation to the dead and practices, to do with communication with the dead, even among people who would not necessarily see themselves as believers. And that’s very interesting in the context of . . . . And one of the reasons why I chose Orkney to do this fieldwork is that you have a landscape here which is very much archaeologically defined by the presence of these Neolithic tombs. It’s recognised as being a landscape of the dead. And, indeed, the cemeteries – even though the kirks themselves may have been made into private houses or just falling down – the cemeteries retain that kind of space. And that, to me, is something that’s quite interesting. Because, in essence, you can have a personal stance in relation to: “I don’t believe that it is possible to communicate with the dead,” for example. You can have that as a personal stance, but you’re still living in a landscape where reminders of the dead are all around you. And I think one of the issues at stake, here, is how do you simultaneously engage with a personal stance which says, “I know this is all nonsense”, say, and also a recognition that there is an entire world, which is around you, which is built on the idea that there is some continuity of the dead, that there is some possibility . . . that there is a continuing involvement of the dead in social life? And part of what is interesting, then, in terms of the practices that people adopt, is how they might find a way of dealing with that unknowability of the landscape which surrounds them. So, I think – we were talking about this earlier – so the idea that you can adopt a stance in relation to objects which is not purely materialistic, or in relation to a landscape, which is not purely materialistic: it doesn’t seem to be that that is completely incompatible with people nevertheless expressing their personal set of beliefs as materialistic sort of beliefs. So that stance in relation to these things.

DR: One of the things I like – and we’re getting close to time – but one of the things I like most about your project is the two case studies that you’re comparing in Orkney and Cyprus. And at first glance they’re quite different. One of them is familiar to me, one of them is completely alien. Tell me a little bit about how you see these two case studies working together. What are the potential kind of tensions and possible similarities that you see there, that you can tease out in the comparison?

RI: Well they’re both islands. (Laughs)

All: (Laugh)

DR: Let’s start with that!

TK: I think the two things that we’ve identified thus far are – do you want to talk about anti-authoritarianism?


TK: And I’ll do unknowability.

RI: Yes. I mean, I think that one of the – we weren’t aware of this. This is a part of anthropology and ethnography in general: you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen until you get into the field. There is a leap of faith in anthropology. And it was only, really, once we started comparing notes that we realised that one of the things that was quite central, in both of these cases, was that people who spoke about themselves as unbelievers were doing so as an anti-authoritarian stance: that this was a way of saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to define what you believe in; that people shouldn’t tell you what to think, as though you don’t ken yourself. And that’s very striking in the Orcadian example that most people spoke about the idea that, in essence, religion was part of a power structure, which was a power structure associated with those who were property owners, etc; that it was something that they didn’t feel they should be subject to – and which has very long lines in histories of dissent in the Church of Scotland, too, which rejects the idea of patronage from the church, by the by. But it was interesting, when I started comparing notes with Theo, that we realised, especially among – correct me if I’m wrong – especially among the young people, who would describe themselves as atheists or non-believers, it was that sense of an anti-clericalism, an anti-authoritarian stance.

TK: Yes, a sort of a knee-jerk reaction against dogmatic depictions of religion in Cyprus. In Cyprus the rise of the republic kind-of parallels the rise of the Cypriot church. Our first President was a clergyman and so on. So the church and state kind of dovetail together. And I think that ended up in this gesture: of kind-of distancing yourself from religious authority.

RI: Yes. But just to segue into you talking about unknowability. One of the crucial things, then, if you’ve identified that when we’re talking about unbelief, we’re not necessarily talking about an idea of rationalism, which says, “The world is now knowable.” It’s saying, “What I’m rejecting is being told what to believe, here.” It still leaves openness to the possibility that there is an unknowability in society . . .

TK: Yes. It’s a good segue. So with your research, as well, I find the question of the conspiratorial subject very interesting. Because it kind-of denotes, you know – UFO cultures are associated with counter-culture in the US.

DR: Yes.

TK: And I think it’s likewise: people who distance themselves from governmental and religious authority, only to try to put the pieces together themselves. So, usually, following a conspiracy theory or formulating a conspiracy is like a practice of connecting the dots, you know. And I think that’s what we’re trying to figure out with unbelievers as well, in both occasions. So once you make that swift dismissal of normative understanding of religion, where do you go from there? And it’s usually people plunging into that grey area of religious beliefs and social norms and kind-of devising their own worldviews and perspectives.

RI: Which I think, in a way, brings us full circle. Because if your starting point in talking about modernity is that, in essence, as individuals there’s so much that we don’t know . . . . We might assume that somebody else knows it, or we hope that somebody knows how to make planes work, or whatever. We hope there’s somebody who understands all these things. But, on an individual level, it’s left to us to piece those things together and to try and work out what those chains of causality are.

TK: Yes. I think there’s a greater point to be made about – an ontological point – to be made about unknowability, about the unknowability of relations. Like, social relations can never be complete. Like, our understanding of the world can never be complete. And I think there’s two or three ethnographies I read on witchcraft, and they start – the ethnographer says, “I’ve never seen a witch.” It’s like, on the first page. Is it Nils‘ book on The Empty Seashell?

RI: Mmm.

TK: That’s the starting line: I’ve never seen a witch. The locals have never seen a witch. But nevertheless, because of this, people’s awareness of their fragmented understanding of the world they can entertain the possibility of the witch.

RI: And I think that’s a core thing and one of our theoretical influences in a way. In Evans-Pritchard’s classic study of witchcraft – in which he debunks the idea that may have been common at the time, that these are people with a primitive mind-set who don’t understand the rules of cause and effect – he says, “No. They think through exactly the same mind-set as us.” If somebody dies whilst sleeping under the granary, then do you ask why that is? Well, if the explanation is witchcraft, that doesn’t mean that they dismiss the fact that termites ate through the legs, and that’s why the granary fell down. There’s a question of, “but why did termites eat through the legs of the granary at that point, when that person was sleeping under it? And he says, “Now this is the same the logic that we operate on. It’s just that we dismiss why questions as legitimate questions.” So we have all kinds of means of explaining these how questions, of explaining physical causality, but the problem of the why is generally dismissed as a legitimate question to ask. But it remains as a problem. And it remains a problem that people grapple with, in their everyday lives. And they do so in ways that sometimes can be referred to as magical.

DR: It does bring us full circle. And we are not immune from answering why questions at the Religious Studies Project. And the why of why we have to stop now, is that we’ve run out of time! I want to thank you both for taking part and, hopefully, we can have you back on another day, to continue the conversation.

TK: Sure.

RI: Hope so. Thank you.

Citation Info: Irvine, Richard, Theodoros Kyriakides and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Magic and Modernity”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 March 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/magic-and-modernity/

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South American church-state relations

imgPolitics and social institutions are inseparable. Whether we take a look at small-scale or complex societies, we can find that politics is involved with economics, kinship with hierarchy, and of course, religion with the state. The relationship between the last two has been shaped by numerous processes throughout human history; but, if we place our attention in the history of the western world, we can identify a turning point, one that started with the first waves of enlightened thought (eighteenth century), continuing with the posterior massive drop-out of catholic religiosity, and culminating with the total separation of religion and the state. In this podcast, Sidney Castillo interviews professor Marco Huaco Palomino as he addresses the nuances of secularity in several Latin American countries.

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