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Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

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Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

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

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

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Choosing Not to Hide Behind the Camera

Choosing not to hide behind the camera: A media producer’s perspective on religious literacy

A response to the Episode 320, “Religious Literacy is Social Justice” with Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst by Richard Wallis

There’s a fascinating moment in Netflix’s documentary series, The Family (August 2019), which tells the story of The Fellowship Foundation, a publicity-shy network of Evangelical men’s fellowship and support groups (or ‘prayer breakfasts’).  The series sets out to expose what it portrays as a highly secretive, dangerous, and anti-democratic organisation of politically-motivated, religious fundamentalists.  But it’s clear from the outset that the production team had what in the industry we call ‘a problem of access’.  They had been unable to gain permission to film an actual prayer breakfast.

Not until late in the production (featured in the fifth and final episode) did a group based in Portland, Oregon agree to be filmed, and then only on the condition that director Jesse Moss would participate in the group.   In consequence, we see the filmmaker for the first and only time.  As we witness him interacting and engaging with this group, a far more nuanced and interesting perspective on the film’s subject begins to emerge.  Moss uncomfortably finds himself confronted by some of the limitations of his own ‘objective’ perspective and, in particular, his privilege as a white filmmaker in the context of a group of mainly black men.  It was a penny-dropping moment.  The viewer shares the filmmaker’s discomfort in being momentarily exposed, unable to hide behind his camera.  It didn’t undermine the many problematic issues that the series legitimately raises about its subject.  But it demonstrated how much richer and more insightful it is when supposedly ‘objective’ perspectives are sometimes set aside and genuine engagement is allowed to take its place.

This Netflix viewing experience came to mind as I was listening to Dr. David McConeghy talk to Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst about Vermont University’s new undergraduate Certificate in Religious Literacy for Professions.  Morgenstein Fuerst explains how this program is intended to prepare undergraduate students to relate their own career aspirations (particularly those of education, journalism, social services, business, and health fields) to a religious literacy learning framed by principles of social justice.  I was struck by the same sense that religious ideas and practices are best understood not at arms-length (or from behind the camera) but up-close and personal.  We gain genuine insight into the lived experience of others when we allow ourselves to engage reflexively, sometimes having to set aside our own idea of what it means to be ‘objective’.

As a media practitioner and scholar, I worry about the poverty of public discourse about religion.  From the 1970s here in Europe (a designation in which I continue to include the UK), assumptions about the inexorable decline of religion came to dominate.  In fact, so normalised did the idea become of an unimpeded forward march towards secularization, that even the output of our public media specified as ‘religion’, was not unaffected by it.[i]  Recalling his time as a young television researcher in the BBC’s religious programmes department in the 1970s, Mark Thompson, now CEO of The New York Times, commented: ‘Even among religious program-makers … there was a real anxiety about whether religion as a thing in itself was a topic of any real interest. And outside the specialist departments, religion was marginal at best.’

The apparent revelation that ‘God is Back!’[i] has come as a rude awakening. During a period characterised by globalisation, migration, and increasingly complex connections between nations and cultures, religion is again being recognised as a major social, political, and cultural force.  But not without alarm and some bewilderment.  In this regard, the general public have been poorly served by our media and our education systems.  Religion may have resurfaced in the conversation, but engagement and insight are conspicuous by their absence.  Incomprehension and anxiety have not translated into the pursuit of understanding. Indeed, the quality of public discourse in the UK is so poor, it seems to me to be entirely appropriate to characterize it as a form of illiteracy, with all that the term implies.

Religious literacy is, of course, a slippery notion.  It can mean very different things to different people, and for some it may simply mean the study of religion.  But literacy is a salient metaphor because it implies a form of religious education that goes beyond mere factual knowledge about the subject.  Literacy suggests conversance with religious ideas and practices that are situated.  It embodies ‘the capacity to locate particular ideas within their historical, ethical, epistemological and social context’[ii] (Conroy, 2015: 169).  If it’s not applied, it isn’t really a literacy.

For these reasons, the application of religious understanding to areas of professional practice seem to me to be precisely on the button.  Embedding this at undergraduate level is exactly what programs of religious literacy ought to be doing.  I would have liked the podcast conversation to have gone further in exploring the social justice theme in more depth.  For me, this needed greater clarity of explanation and, ideally, some exemplification.  But I took it to mean helping students to see the world through the eyes of others, and that this should involve (among other things) being exposed to disparities of power that may implicate the student: it should mean becoming aware of the many injustices that we remain ignorant of when we shut down channels to other kinds of people.

As Larry Anderson, one of the Oregon group’s members in The Family, asks the director, Jesse Moss: ‘What are the lies that you have been telling yourself, and which one of those lies have you come to believe?’  It’s more comfortable to encounter such questions at arms-length, from the TV sofa, or the director’s chair.  But it’s the sort of question that can take us on a journey of understanding if we allow it to, and this is surely what we ought to mean when we talk about religious literacy.

[i] Hence the title of Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait’s God is Back published by Penguin in  2010.

[ii] James C. Conroy (2015) Religious illiteracy in school Religious Education. In Adam Dinham & Matthew Francis (eds), Religious literacy in policy and practice. Bristol: Policy Press. 167-186.

[i] A theme I develop in more detail in: Richard Wallis (2016) Channel 4 and the declining influence of organized religion on UK television. The case of Jesus: The Evidence. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 36 (4), 668-688.

After Secularization: Unbelief in Europe

“After Secularization: Unbelief in Europe” by Dick Houtman

After Secularization: Unbelief in Europe

Above, businesses increasingly invoke mindfulness, meditation, and other practices from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religious traditions as means for increasing productivity and decreasing work-related stress. They cite scientific evidence that such practices are beneficial to people regardless of individual religiosity.

Now that secularization has made non-religiousness the default option in large parts of Europe, the time has come to study what exactly this non-religiousness entails. This is the aim of Herbert and Bullock’s comparative project on ‘unbelief’ (as they prefer to call it) in contemporary Europe: mapping its manifestations and explaining its cross-national variation (see the interview podcast on this website). In what follows I identify what I see as the critical theoretical issues and suggest explanations for observed cross-national differences.

 

Secularization theory conceives of virtually anything that differs from traditional Christian religion as ‘non-religious’, ‘less religious’, or not ‘really religious’. The theory as such plays a major role in processes of religious authentication, i.e., forging discursive distinctions between ‘real religion’ and ‘less than real religion’ (Woodhead 2010). It in effect foregrounds similarities between manifestations of unbelief at the neglect of their differences, which is why in studies of unbelief it needs to be used with caution. In what follows I focus on varieties of unbelief that entail non-religious worldviews, inform cultural and social identities, and affect society beyond the strictly private realm. In doing so, I follow Weber’s (1963 [1922]) and Durkheim’s (1995 [1912]) classical distinctions between magic and religion, with the former addressing mere personal problems, often practical ones, and only the latter defining community (Durkheim) and offering salvation from suffering by pointing out what is good and what is bad, what should be done and what should be abstained from (Weber).

 

Secularization theory holds that religion gradually loses its social significance, which implies that secularization fosters religious indifference, as Steve Bruce (2002) has correctly observed. For in secularized societies there is simply not enough left of religion’s power to annoy the non-religious, let alone to make them suffer and incite opposition to religion. Indeed, when a century ago socialists identified religion as backward, irrational and ultimately evil, they precisely did so because of its massive public presence and power. Under these circumstances being non-religious almost inevitably amounted to being anti-religious, a pattern that exists until the present day in the still massively religious contexts of Southern-Europe as compared to North-Western Europe (Ribberink et al. 2013). The same applies to countries like Poland and Ireland today, where Catholicism has persisted because it has become a crucial marker of national identity and has as such found other work to do than relating people to the supernatural (Wallis & Bruce 1992). What secularization theory predicts, in short, is that in countries where religion has persisted, unbelievers tend towards militant anti-religiosity, because religion and anti-religious atheism thrive and decline in tandem (McGrath 2006).

 

Another issue, equally important from a theoretical point of view, is how those concerned justify their anti-religiosity. Sociological accounts of secularization often assume the unfolding of a process of rationalization that pushes back religion, with science and technology gradually taking over. This suggests that anti-religious postures and identities are typically legitimated by the authority of science, but it remains to be seen whether and where this still holds. For in the past half century in particular the most secularized Western-European countries appear to have witnessed a decline of the authority of science alongside that of religion. Back in the 1960s the so-called ‘counter culture’ critiqued science and technocracy as standing in the way of freedom rather than expanding it (for a philosophical elaboration see Horkheimer & Adorno 2002 [1944]). Since then, critiques of scientific rationalism and technocracy have not withered away but have only expanded and have, in the process, diffused from the libertarian left to the new populist right (Houtman et al. forthcoming).

Above, a meme illustrating an pro-science critique of religion highlighting the presumed fairy tale-like qualities of religion.

 

Yet, a few small-scale studies by students of mine suggest that anti-religious atheists in Belgium still rely heavily on the quintessential modern binary of ‘rationally informed scientific knowledge’ versus ‘irrational religious belief’ as well as on the modernist notion that science and knowledge bring progress, emancipation and freedom. I must confess that these findings came somewhat as a surprise to me, because they fly in the face of post-Frankfurt-school postmodernism, which disqualifies scientific and religious truth claims alike as not so much ‘true’ and ‘neutral’, but rather as embedded in discourses bound up with power and sustaining inequality. So how does this matter stand? Do justifications of anti-religiosity other than modern and rationalist ones play a role at all today beyond the postmodern left in the human sciences in academia?

Finally, newly emerged spirituality talk has attracted much attention in the past decades (Heelas and Woodhead 2005). Christian and secularization perspectives alike understand it as a manifestation of secularization, due to its allegedly privatized and individualized character. And indeed, those who espouse the discourse of spirituality pride themselves on their unbelief and are eager to escape the ‘religion’ label (“No, I am not religious: I want to follow my personal spiritual path”). This dismissive stance vis-à-vis religion entails religious boundary work aimed at distancing oneself from old-school Christian religion. Yet, the ‘spiritual, not religious’ moniker obscures how this spirituality entails an inner-worldly mysticism that constitutes a religion in and of itself, as Ernst Troeltsch already pointed out a century ago (1992 [ 1912]; see also Campbell 1978). It differs from traditional Christian religion in at least three fundamental respects, though: (i) In how the sacred is conceived (as an omnipresent immanent spirit or life force rather than a transcendent personal God); (ii) In how the religious truth can be appropriated (by personal experience or ‘gnosis’ rather than ‘belief’); and (iii) In how salvation from suffering can be attained (by listening to one’s ‘inner voice’ and aiming for personal authenticity and authentic selfhood rather than conforming to externally imposed demands) (Aupers & Houtman 2006, Houtman & Tromp forthcoming).

The various manifestations of unbelief differ widely in their capacity to forge group identities and play out beyond the strictly private realm. Superstition and religious indifference do not do so, which is why they are less important from a societal, political and sociological point of view. Anti-religious atheism, on the other hand, matters a lot beyond the private realm. It accuses religion of humiliating and damaging groups with identities that are considered deviant on religious grounds (e.g., women who dismiss traditional mother-caretaker roles or members of LGBTQ communities), especially so in less secularized parts of Europe. Incited by this understanding of religion as making the world a worse rather than a better place anti-religious atheism easily fosters organization and encourages political action.

Despite the still popular notion that contemporary spirituality is too privatized and individualized to have much social significance, this has become increasingly difficult to maintain. Surely, spirituality’s very character stands in the way of loyalty to church-like organizations and religious doctrines, but it does boast loyalty to what Campbell (2002 [1972]) has called ‘the cultic milieu’, a milieu to which the western mainstream has increasingly opened up. In the process, it has become clear that the public role of spirituality differs significantly from the ideological and political role that Christian religion used to play, and in many countries still plays. Guided by the spiritual motto, ‘One does not need to be sick to become better’, the public role of spirituality is more therapeutic than ideological and is played out in realms that range from work (Aupers & Houtman 2006, Zaidman 2009) to health care (Raaphorst & Houtman 2016, Zaidman 2017) and education (Brown 2019).

References

Aupers, Stef & Dick Houtman. (2006). Beyond the Spiritual Supermarket: The Social and Public Significance of New Age Spirituality. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 21 (2): 201-222.

Brown, Candy Gunther. (2019). Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion? Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Bruce, Steve. (2002). God is Dead: Secularisation in the West. Oxford: Blackwell.

Campbell, Colin. (1978). The Secret Religion of the Educated Classes. Sociology of Religion 39 (2): 146-156.

Campbell, Colin. (2002 [1972]). Chapter 2: The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularization. In Jeffrey Kaplan & Helene Lööw (Eds), The Cultic Milieu: Oppositional Subcultures in an Age of Globalization (pp. 12-25). Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Durkheim, Emile. (1995 [1912]). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.

Heelas, Paul & Linda Woodhead. (2005). The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Horkheimer, Max & Theodor W. Adorno. (2002 [1944]). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Houtman, Dick & Paul Tromp. (forthcoming). Post-Christian Spirituality: Misconceptions, Obstacles, Prospects. In Amy L. Ai, Kevin A. Harris & Paul Wink (Eds), Assessing Spirituality and Religion in a Diversified World: Beyond the Mainstream Perspective. New York: Springer.

Houtman, Dick, Stef Aupers & Rudi Laermans. (forthcoming). Introduction: Contesting the Authority of Science. In Dick Houtman, Stef Aupers & Rudi Laermans (Eds), Science under Siege: Contesting Scientific Authority in the Postmodern Era (https://www.dickhoutman.nl/mediatheek/get?id=446&guid=a015275422975698afd4465427465994cb2f3c46%C2%A0).

McGrath, Alister. (2006). The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: Doubleday.

Raaphorst, Nadine & Dick Houtman. (2016). A Necessary Evil That Does Not ‘Really’ Cure Disease: The Domestication of Biomedicine by Dutch Holistic General Practitioners. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine 20 (3): 242-257.

Ribberink, Egbert, Peter Achterberg & Dick Houtman. (2015). Are All Socialists Anti-Religious? Anti-Religiosity and the Socialist Left in 21 Western European Countries (1990-2008). Journal of Contemporary Religion 30 (3): 433-450.

Ribberink, Egbert, Peter Achterberg & Dick Houtman. (2013). Deprivatization of Disbelief? Non-Religiosity and Anti-Religiosity in 14 Western European Countries. Politics & Religion 6 (1): 101-120.

Troeltsch, Ernst. (1992 [1912]). The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (Two Volumes). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wallis, Roy & Steve Bruce. (1992). Secularization: The Orthodox Model. In Steve Bruce (Ed.), Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis (pp. 8-30). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. (1963 [1922]). The Sociology of Religion. Boston: Beacon Press.

Woodhead, Linda. (2010). Real Religion and Fuzzy Spirituality? Taking Sides in the Sociology of Religion. In Stef Aupers & Dick Houtman (Eds), Religions of Modernity: Relocating the Sacred to the Self and the Digital (pp. 31-48). Leiden: Brill.

Zaidman, Nurit. (2017). The Incorporation of Spiritual Care into Israeli Medical Organizations. In Shai Feraro & James R. Lewis (Eds), Contemporary Alternative Spiritualities in Israel (pp. 83-94). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zaidman, Nurit, Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni & Iris Nehemya. (2009). From Temples to Organizations: The Introduction and Packaging of Spirituality. Organization 16 (4): 597-621.

Brazilian politician and activist Marina Silva.

Fragile Triumph: The Enlightenment’s Ongoing Travail

Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera’s fascinating reflections on recent shifts Latin American conservatism underscore both the dominance and the fragility of secularism in the democracies of the western hemisphere. 

One can hardly imagine a better example of the triumph of secularity in public life than this account.  The authors Rivera discusses, and the networks they represent, have obviously learned their lesson: Science is the pathway to truth.  Science delivers certitude.  Science provides the heft needed to win arguments.  After a couple of centuries of zigzagging toward Enlightenment, the Latin American public sphere is today sufficiently secularized so as to force even the opponents of Enlightenment to resort to its own tactics and discourses in pursuit of power.  Whatever the quality of the “science” in question, the most salient revelation of this interview is that there exists adequate infrastructure within these networks to produce arguments buttressed, at least on the surface, in the same ways that intellectual and moral claims are established by the more dominant liberal parties.  Science = Authority.  It is now the coin of the realm.  In the desperately contested terrain of Latin America’s democracies, we should not be surprised by gold rushes.

But of course, the very existence of these authors and their constituencies is also evidence of the current and ongoing weakness of secularism as one dimension of a now aging revolutionary movement.  Advanced thinkers in Brazil and elsewhere may have once imagined positivism—to take one example of this movement—as a conquering presence, realigning minds with Reality and structuring societies in ways that would reflect Knowledge.  But the demise of such capital-lettered hopes is now an old story.  The postmodern critique of Enlightenment holds, even as postmodernism’s failure to establish a pathway to public order and authority looms daily before us.  We’re a long way from the hopeful, rationalist visions of Marx and Comte, of Bolívar and Sarmiento. 

Above, the Positivist Church of Brazil, founded in 1881 in Rio de Janeiro.

In this great vacuum older stories, ancient stories yet abide, and with them communities of actual citizens impelled by these stories—stories sustained by metaphysical visions and transcendent hopes, stories in which divinity yet rules humanity, and in which humanity yearns for communion with the divine.  These communities are certainly, as Rivera notes, no longer in tow to the old authority structures, whether it be the Vatican or the Westminster Standards.  But in the age of Pope Francis—and perhaps especially at this particular moment—it is well to point out that neither have those authority structures themselves maintained a narrow continuity with their earlier forms.  If these religious communities, whether Catholic or Protestant, are intellectually conflicted and even incoherent, scholars of religion, of all people, should surely expect as much.  David Tracy has recently observed that “Given our temperament, or needs, or our culture’s needs, we all choose particular fragments of the great traditions that we think are exceptionally valuable right now.”  “Science” is now one of those great traditions (whether positivistic scientists acknowledge it as such or not), and seekers of knowledge and power will avail themselves of it.  It will not, rest assured, be pretty. 

The present crisis of democracy afflicting us throughout the western hemisphere requires of us, among other things, a conception of rationality and knowledge that invites argument beyond science’s limits, and that is capable of fostering higher moral ideals than personal liberation.  Lyotard’s prescient read of our situation, now four decades old, registers, if anything, more convincingly today than it did in 1979.  “In the context of delegitimation, universities and the institutions of higher learning are called upon to create skills, and no longer ideals. . . . The transmission of knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite capable of guiding the nation toward its emancipation, but to supply the system with players capable of acceptably fulfilling their roles at the pragmatic posts required by the institution.” [1]  The pursuit of pragmatic skills may be sufficient for the economic sphere, for a time at least.  But these skills are, obviously, not sufficient for wellbeing in the broader public sphere, where morality must be debated and beliefs bared.  The delegitimized Enlightenment hope of a public sphere governed by scientific rationality and secular liberality needs to give way to a welcome of true epistemic difference.  There are religious people in the future.  A universal submission to the great modern institutions of Knowledge is not in the offing.  If, as Luke Timothy Johnson has recently put it, “the moral and religious” are in fact legitimate “modes of knowing,” this legitimacy must extend to the public sphere. 

This is not to say that all claims to knowledge emerging from any given community are equal—only that we must together arrive at a conception of rationality capable of honoring the most searching and time-honored forms that have emerged across our history—and forge a public sphere capable of such honoring.  The tragicomedy of our moment would be considerably less tragic and comic had what Johnson acidly calls “the etiolated language of the Enlightenment” not all but guaranteed such long-developing revanchist responses as we are now witnessing.  

There are other ways, ways that seek to bring serious thought undergirded by theological belief into the public sphere in a way that honors the pluralistic achievement of modernity without sacrificing conviction at the gate.  The example of the remarkable Brazilian politician and activist Marina Silva comes to mind.  A former Senator of the Republic, Minister of the Environment, the founder of a political party, and three times a presidential candidate, Silva, a Pentecostal, has over decades sought to articulate a compelling theological rationale for her politics, even as she has taken care to advance her vision in ways that speak to those beyond her ecclesiastical home.  The power of her example and argument has required both Christians and secularists to reexamine their usual assumptions about faith and politics.  Could any credibly claim the public square is not richer for her presence in it?[2]

Above, Silva was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activists for her work to protect the Amazon and its people.

If the foundational practices of political liberalism—the ballot, free speech—are not to be used as weapons against it, we must devote ourselves to constructing a more robust pluralism.  For their part, religious intellectuals and activists with more credibility than the authors of The Black Book of the New Left must work to develop networks and institutions within their communities that can foster the constructive public engagement upon which democracy so obviously depends—and which, at present, is in such evident short supply.


 

[1]Jean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Minneapolis, 1984), 48.

[2]For more background and commentary on Silva, see my essay, “What I Saw at the Revolution,” along with Janine Paden Morgan, “Emerging Creation Care Movement Among Brazilian Evangelicals,” both in Eric Miller and Ronald J. Morgan, Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look, in the Christianity and Renewal—Interdisciplinary Studies series, ed. Wolfgang Vondey and Amos Yong (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019): 119-136; 231-250.

The secularization of discourse in contemporary Latin American neoconservatism

Conservative discourse has had many faces in Latin America. For the most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Catholic Church had a monopoly, but was succeeded by the charismatic evangelical movements after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. As the Catholic Church took a more progressive turn, evangelical movements became the spokespersons for conservative views. Today, these discourses are being infused with scientific perspectives.

In this week’s podcast, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera explains how historical Latin American conservatism became neoconservatism. Though Latin America is diverse, conservatism has been a constant throughout the region’s history, intervening not only in the power plays of religious institutions, but also in the shaping of people’s everyday life conceptions of the world. Through a discussion of The Black Book of the New Left: Gender Ideology or Cultural Subversion by Argentinian authors Nicolás Marquez and Agustín Laje, Espinoza Rivera shows how neoconservatism has managed to influence these processes by developing a language of its own that blends “scientific” arguments with philosophical and historical analysis of the contemporary world political landscape. This language is popular among religious groups, including both Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Catholics today. Paradoxically, the diverse users of this language has generated a common tongue for anyone that wants to participate in current Latin American public arenas.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


The Secularisation of Discourse in Contemporary Latin American Neoconservatism

Podcast with Jerry Espinoza Rivera (21 October 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-secularisation-of-discourse-in-contemporary-latin -american-neoconservatism/

PDF for download available here.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Now we’re still in the fourth day of the EASR Conference 2019, in Tartu Estonia. And it has been a hectic week with a very, very rich learning experiences, sharing with colleagues and hearing about their research. And now I’m sitting here with Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Jerry Espinoza Rivera (JER): Thank you.

SC: And would you be so kind as to introduce yourself?

JER: I am a professor, assistant professor at the University of Costa Rica. I teach philosophy at the School of General Studies. And now I’m presenting a paper about the Latin American neoconservative discourse, here in Tartu.

SC: Perfect. And we welcome you here. It’s nice to know that here at the EASR we have Latin American representative scholars working, and that they take part not only in Latin America or in Spanish speaking countries, but also here in English speaking fields. And it’s very nice to know that our work is being known, in that sense.

JER: I agree.

SC: So, just to jump right in to the questions. The first question, I think, tries to frame your subject – especially here at the EASR: how can we understand conservatism in Latin America? So you can give us an overview.

JER. OK. I differentiate between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism in Latin America is closely related with the Catholic Church. You know that the Catholic Church has had a very strong influence in Latin America, especially in politics. And traditional conservatives have been closely related with Catholic thought. So in my presentation, I make a review of this ideological approach of the Catholic Church, especially during the 19th century. Because there is a big difference between the Catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council and after the Second Vatican Council. So the traditional conservativism is deeply closely related with the catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council. For example, the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council considered that the only salvation was possible inside the church. Nobody outside the church could be saved. And this traditional conservatism was based on the idea that only absolute truth was the Catholic truth. That’s quite a big difference between this traditional and the neoconservatives.

SC: And if you could give us somehow a comprehensive understanding of how the transition of conservatism to neo-conservatism happened? It was probably about the Second Vatican Council but in more contextualised forms? It would be interesting for the Listeners . . . . (5:00).

JER: Actually, I do research about not only the neoconservatives in Costa Rica but in Latin America. I use quite a famous book, right now in Latin America, written by two Argentinians. One is Agustín Laje and the other one is Nicolás Márquez. They wrote a very popular book at this moment that is called The Black Book of the New Left. It’s a book written to discredit what they call the New Left. And it’s very interesting to read in this book how they use, for example, the science in a different way than was used by the traditional conservatives. Because traditional conservatives were very sceptical about science – not only about science, but about reason in general. If you read, for example, the syllabus written by the Pope Pius IX, he condemned the use of science as it wasn’t the truth. It was considered an error by the Pope Pius IX. And that was traditional conservatism. In traditional conservatism, science was not the way to achieve the truth. The way to achieve the truth was the faith: faith in the Catholic Church. In neoconservatism it changed. If you read the book by Laje and Márquez you can see that they use the science as . . . they consider science as a kind of certainty; as absolute truth. It’s completely different. In this case, science is not a way to cut across below the faith, as it was in the traditional conservatism, but the absolute truth.

SC: So, you’ve mentioned the relation of conservatism to the Catholic Church and the neoconservatism that is shown in this book. It seems to me that they are different instances of institutionality. So does analysis of this book tell us something about religion in some way? In which way?

JER: That’s another very interesting issue: that this neoconservatism is not considered religious to conservatives. Of course, underground they are religious, but they don’t use the religious discourse to justify their ideas, they use science. They use another kind of justification. For example, in this book, the Black Book of the New Left, they never quote the Bible, because they try to demonstrate that it is science that demonstrates or proves that, for example, homosexuality is against nature. Or, for example, that life begins since conception. And it’s, of course, against the groups that support the legalisation of abortion. And there are many examples where they show how they use science, or a kind of discourse of science, to demonstrate their ideas.

SC: So, paradoxically it seems that traditional conservatism was against science and now neoconservatism is pro-science. But underneath they’re both religious (10:00). That’s very interesting to know. You mentioned something about homosexuality. To probe this issue more, I’d like to ask: what are the discursive forms that neoconservatism is playing?

JER: It’s interesting.to see how these neoconservatives, they build a kind of new enemy kind of antagonism for themselves. Their enemy is not now what it was during the cold war, for example, Communism. But now their enemy is more related with sexuality. And that’s why they use this term “gender ideology”. The term is essentially an empty signifier. What does it mean, when I say that is an empty signifier? That it doesn’t have any meaning. But they use it to attack, or to discredit for example ideas by Judith Butler or the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir or all their theories philosophers or thinkers that heave written about gender. So they create this concept. They call it gender ideology to discredit . . . . But not only to discredit these thinkers, but to discredit any policy or any fight related with sexual or reproductive rights. That’s why, for example, you can see in Latin America, how these groups attack for example, any decision related to legalisation of abortion. They call it gender ideology. Because they created a kind of enemy to discredit and they use this term, this signifier, to discredit any policy related with sexual and reproductive rights.

SC: Which is a thing I believe also I stayed in (audio unclear) and there was a tendency for the state to . . . or at least not everybody was in favour of reproductive rights or sexual rights.

JER: Yes. You can see how it was very important issue in Brazil during the last election. Jair Bolsonaro the President, he uses it, this discourse, to discredit his enemies. What does it mean? It means that it’s an important issue in Latin America, not only a discourse of minorities. What you can see in Brazil, you can see it in Colombia, in Peru, in Chile and many countries. This discourse of the neoconservatives has grown. In my country Costa Rica you can see it for example. Now there is a big conflict about the use of mixed toilets. It is, you can consider it like something very unimportant, but some religious groups, conservative groups, use it as an excuse to attack the government. And it’s a very good example of how the neoconservatives use these kinds of issues to discredit or to attack some policies (15:00).

SC: Like a point of entry for doing politics for Latin America?

JER: Yes. It’s interesting to see how Laje and Márquez, they are travelling across every region, every country, presenting their book. It’s interesting to see how, for example in Costa Rica, there was a big controversy about the presentation of this book, but you can see that they are looking for these kind of controversies. Because they know that it makes them famous. For example, in the case of Costa Rica, one of their presentations was forbidden at one of the Universities, because it was considered that it was discriminatory. So they made it a case, they made it an issue to become famous, because of the controversy that they generated.

SC: Also I believe that it’s not only dependent on this book. It’s got currency worldwide.

JER: Yes, of course. I use the book as an example. Because the book is incredibly famous and very popular. It’s interesting to see how a book that, if you read it the book it . . . academically, it’s very week, you know? Their arguments are very week. It’s very easy to refute them. But they know that there are many people who want to read this kind of argument. And that’s why, actually, the book, you can’t buy it; it’s free! So it’s easy for people to obtain the book. It’s interesting how they promote their ideas.

SC: And going back to this issue of traditional conservatism and neoconservatism: so it’s not related, neoconservatism, to the Catholic Church?

JER: No. that’s another difference with between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism was deeply, closely related with the Catholic Church, but neoconservatism not only includes Catholics, but also neo-Pentecostalist parties. For example in my country, in Costa Rica, there is a quite a big neo-Pentecostal party, who was there actually participated in the last election and was one of the parties that obtained more votes. It was a disputed presidency, with the candidate that finally won. But they obtained forty percent of the votes! It’s really, really big. And what’s interesting is to see that in spite of the fact that it was neo-Pentecostalist party, many Catholics voted for this candidate. Ten years ago it was unimaginable. It’s very interesting to see how this neoconservative discourse is attracting not only people who are traditional Catholics, but people who belong to other kinds of churches.

SC: Speaking of that, I think that, in sociological terms, it’s interesting how these concepts of the conservatives’ cause reached civil society(20:00). And that’s why I also want to ask, what effect does it have in the shared imaginary of the general public?

JER: Yes, the growth of these parties is not only a political phenomenon, but a social phenomenon. It’s extremely related . . . in the case of Brazil, for example, there was a big influence of WhatsApp in the election of Bolsonaro. That’s exactly the same case in Costa Rica. Social networks were very important in the final election. Because it’s easier to spread fake news through these kind of networks. Ten years ago, or twenty years ago it was more difficult to do these kind of things. Now, with social networks, it’s easier to spread this kind of fake news. You can see it in the United States, in the election of Trump. It is quite a similar process.

SC: Do you have any further remarks to kind-of sum up what we have been discussing so far?

JER: I just want to remark how dangerous is what’s happening right now, not only in Latin America but in many countries. Even here in Europe – you can see it in Poland, in Hungary and in Slovakia and other countries. It’s a new kind of politics that uses hatred towards some groups, minority groups, for example LGBT collectives, or the feminist groups. And this is new. And they use it because they realise that it’s quite popular. You know? This kind of discourse is quite popular. People easily believe these kind of ideas that you can read: things about “homosexualisation of the world” for example. It’s kind-of crazy ideas they are spreading, and it’s quite dangerous. You can see it happening in the United States in 2016, and you can see it in Brazil in the case of Latin America. And this phenomenon is spreading around the world.

SC: So it’s akin to . . . even to conspiracy theories?

JER: Yes. In the case of Latin America it’s even worse, I would say. Because it’s also related to the problems that are related with poverty, inequality and other problems that make that easier for these people to be attracted to this kind of discourse.

SC: Right. Well, Professor Espinoza, it was very nice to have you here at the Religious Studies Project and we hope to have you again, soon.

JER: Thank you.

SC: Thank you.

 

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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.

Is Secularism a World Religion?

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we are not the biggest fans of the World Religions Paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013, and the accompanying response that asked what Religious Studies should do “After the World Religions Paradigm…?” that prompted David and Chris, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume “published in February 2016 with Routledge. Listeners will also be relatively familiar with the concept of “secularism”, “the secular” and so on – particularly from our podcasts with Joseph Blankholm on “Permutations of the Secular” and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on “Understanding the Secular“. Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask “Is Secularism a World Religion?” Discussion starts with the entanglement of the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’, a brief discussion of the problems associated with the World Religions Paradigm, and then moves to the pedagogical merits and challenges of teaching ‘secularism/s’ within a World Religions model. We hope you enjoy this experiment!


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


(pssst…check out these podcasts below too!)

Is Religion Special? A Critical Look at Religion, Wellbeing, and Prosociality with Luke Galen

Is religion ‘sui generis,? with Russell McCutcheon

Secular Humanism with Tom Flynn

The Secularisation Thesis with Linda Woodhead

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


Podcast with Donovan Schaefer (28th November 2016)

Interviewed by Christopher R. Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin J. Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/is-secularism-a-world-religion/

Christopher R. Cotter (CC): Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we’re not the biggest fans of the “World religions” paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013 and the accompanying response that asked what religious studies should do after the world religions paradigm that prompted David and I, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon, and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume ‘After World religions’, published in February 2016.  Listeners will also be relatively familiar with concepts of Secularism, the secular, and so on, particularly from podcasts with Joe Blankholm on Permutations of the Secular and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on Understanding the Secular.  Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask, ‘is Secularism a world religion?’ So I’m joined today to discuss this question by Donovan Schaefer at the British Association for the Study of Religion’s annual conference at the University of Wolverhampton. Dr Schaefer is departmental lecturer in science and religion, in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University and his first book ‘Religious Affects, Animality, Evolution, and Power’ was published in November 2015 by Duke, and has current projects on the relationship between emotion, science, and Secularism. So Donovan, first off welcome to The Religious Studies Project.

Donovan Schaefer (DS): Thanks a lot Chris, thanks for having me.

(CC): It’s a pleasure. So first of all, in the spirit of rhetorically asking, why are we even asking this question? I mean, Secularism is surely as far removed from the category of world religions as we can get, I mean…why are you asking it?

(DS): Yeah, definitely. A lot of recent research has actually challenged that seemingly common-sensical argument that Secularism is the opposite of religion. This has come from a lot of different directions, historical analysis, cultural studies, even a lot of work in philosophy of religion has started to challenge this idea that there is a clear line between the secular and the religious.

(CC): Mm. And, because they’re so intertwined as concepts even if you were to accept they’re-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): opposites, you’ve always got the study…the opposites within…you know, you can’t know what religion is without studying it’s supposed opposite anyway.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely.

(CC): So, perhaps it would be best to start, I mean, we’ve covered the Secularisation Thesis and a lot of these topics in other podcasts but we should start with that, so let’s paint the context in which this question is being asked then.

(DS): Sure, so the Secularisation Thesis really gets off the ground in the 19th Century and it comes from a variety of different quarters in the sort of, early movements in sociology, some of the early conversations that are being asked in science and religion, late 20th Century, sorry, late 19th Century, philosophy of religion, all of these different conversations start to thematise this idea that religion is a specific thing in the world that is gradually going away.

(CC): Mmm.

(DS): Now, in the 20th century you have thinkers like Max Weber in sociology who formalise this, they make it, they make it even more of a kind of, article of social-scientific faith that religion is on a trajectory of decline. What happens though, is that, later in the 20th Century, you have these historical moments that start to challenge the Secularisation Thesis. So something like the rise of the religious right in the United States in the 1970s in reaction to things like the civil rights movement, or the (05:00) Roe V Wade Supreme Court ruling. The religious right by the mid to late 1970s has become an incredibly powerful force and of course in 1980 you have the election of Ronald Regan with a specifically Christian agenda backing him. Or even across the world, something like the Iranian revolution in 1978 to ’79 that creates a new Islamic Republic where previously there had been a secular state. Stuff like this, it’s just not supposed to happen according to the classical Secularisation narrative. There isn’t supposed to be a return of religion, religion is supposed to be evaporating. And that puts a, it puts pressure on the classical secularisation narrative. So scholars throughout the 1980s, 1990s and up to the present have started to ask questions about the secularisation narrative and have come up with a very robust dialogue about what went wrong with the classical secularisation paradigm and what will replace it.

(CC): Mmm. And that also sort of introduces an ideological element this sort of idea-

(DS): -Right.

 (CC): –that the notion of secularisation is itself a form of ideology, it’s a sort of…thinking of the way things should be-

(DS): Definitely, yeah.

(CC): -it’s not mirroring reality.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So we’ve already alluded to even if these things are dichotomous, obviously it’s studying them alongside each other so…many of us at Universities will be familiar with the standard introductory sort of  ‘here’s a survey of world religions’ like ‘Religion 101’ or something. So I think one of the questions you’re really asking is should… where’s the place of the secular in that sort of Religion 101 class?

(DS): Yeah, exactly.

(CC): Is it a World Religion, so if we’re going to segue into that, we’re going to need to talk about what is a world religion first of all, and then ask why we might want to try and fit the secular into that mould.

(DS): I mean I should really be asking you that but my take on it is that the idea of World religions again has its emergence in the 19th Century, it comes out of these 19th Century thinkers like Max Muller who are interested in making the study of religion into a science, they want to formalize the study of religion and turn it into something that moves away from the obviously supremacist classification scheme that had been used previously in Western Europe. That said though, Tomoko Masuzawa in her book ‘The Invention of World religions’ is actually…even though she spends a great deal of time sort of researching the archives, trying to find out where this paradigm comes from. Even she ultimately says she doesn’t know where it comes from. It emerges obviously through a sort of confluence of different conversations that are taking place throughout the 19th Century and early 20th century. Where precisely it comes from is…is a little bit opaque. Regardless, what we’re left with by the mid to late 20th Century is an understanding of religions as discrete objects that can be studied in the world that have particular histories, they’re often organised under a particular heading. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and they’re very often structured around a specific text and a specific set of practices. And that structure is something that has become, at least at the level of the dissemination of religious studies in terms of undergraduate teaching, central.

(CC): Yes.

(DS): How did I do?

(CC): You did well, Sir, you did well. And it’s…Yes, so it’s sort of ubiquitous in undergraduate teaching and it’s ubiquitous in society, you know-

(DS): -Right

(CC): –we think about ‘what is your religion’ as a question that makes sense to people and then we have these certain silos-

(DS): -Right

(CC): -that we try and put that into. So yes, this has been…regardless of the origins of it this has been subjected to a number of critiques right so, it’s very Protestant, for example –

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC): –that idea of a text and it being about belief, you can only have one faith and all that sort of thing. This seemingly objective model sort of becomes Oh…that’s a little bit Protestant.

(DS): Definitely. And also something that I think we can see as being a by-product of (10:00) a particular idiom of 19th Century science. 19th Century science it’s the age of classification, it’s the age of grand theories, and that prism divides up the world in a particular way, and I think we can see the World religions paradigm as being a product of that particular way of thinking about the world.

(CC): Mmm. And that particular way of thinking about the world is deeply connected with Colonialism as well.

(DS): Definitely.

(CC): We were encountering others and then classifying them.

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC): ‘Classify and conquer’ was, I think was Max Muller’s term. And then of course it encourages this notion that there is a thing called religion that is made manifest in various forms.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So Russ McCutcheon would take great issue with that.

(DS): Yeah.

(CC): So given all that problem with the World religions paradigm why would we want to try and fit Secularism into that model. What would be the point, shouldn’t we just be jettisoning it?

(DS): Yeah, right. Well, I mean, I have a few thoughts on that. I am not…I’m not blanketly hostile to the World religions paradigm. I think that …I would give it about a six out of ten or a seven out of ten in terms of a pedagogical tool for explaining religion to undergraduates, especially if we start from the assumption that many undergraduates are only going to take one religious studies class. Is the World religions paradigm the best way of doing that? I’m not sure. But I don’t think that it necessarily is evil. However, I do think that it needs to be deconstructed from within. I think that precisely as we’re teaching students within this framework we need to be calling attention to the limitations of this framework. And part of the reason why I think it’s important to talk about Secularism within that context is because I think that it sets the stage for conversation about the World religions paradigm in and of itself.

(CC): Mmm. Yes, and the paradigm, you know, I think it was my colleague Kate Daley-Bailey described it as, you know, it’s a useful way of getting people from one side of the road to the other-

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC):– and if that’s what you need to do, you get them there. But you can also along the way be explaining to them why you chose that why of doing it if it wasn’t the best…

(DS): Exactly. Yeah, right.

(CC): Okay, so… let’s do this then. Let’s take the World religions model and let’s take the notion of Secularism. So how are we going to go about answering the question is it a world religion?

(DS): Definitely. So this is where I want to get a conversation started. I don’t have clear answers to this but what I sort of see us doing is shuffling the deck of Secularism studies into the deck of the World religions paradigm and just seeing what comes out on the other end. So I think that, in terms of a kind of structure, an overall architecture to this, there would be two ways of doing it. So Secularism studies scholars have roughly speaking two ways of talking about Secularism. One of the ways of talking about it is to say that Secularism is itself a particular iteration of Protestant Christianity, that we have the version of Secularism that we have because we are an offshoot of a cultural historical context that defined religion in a particular way. This goes back to something you were saying earlier about the inextricability of the category of religion from the category of the secular. It’s precisely because we see religion as something that is potentially private, individualised, and belief orientated that religion is something that can be relegated to the private sphere and therefore… and therefore secularised, according to the conventional definition.

(CC): Yeah. So we can see that there’s sort of like a Hegelian dialectic there even-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -look to Feuerbach, and even… you know that we produce the… yeah the… As Christianity secularized… As Catholicism changed to Protestantism that started-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -started a transition.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely. Or even like, one thing that historians and especially intellectual historians like Jonathan Z. Smith, Talal Asad, when he’s wearing that hat, or someone like Craig Calhoun, they really liked to emphasize the beginning of modernity and the immediate aftermath of the Protestant reformation.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): So you could look at it theoretically in the way that religion gets defined as something that is personal rather than corporate. (15:00) You could look at it historically and the way that the resolution to the wars of religion that emerge in the aftermath of the reformation. The political…the political compromises that are made in that wake tend to make religion into something that is detachable, it’s something that is sort of, as Locke puts it, can be kept in the private sphere rather than the public sphere. All of these…all of these…all of these details of Protestantism, whether they’re sort of, part of the DNA of Protestantism or whether they’re sort of historical accidents that shoot off from Protestantism, they make up the coordinates of what would eventually become Secularism.

(CC): Okay.

(DS): So one of the ways that I could see us potentially integrating Secularism into the World religions classroom would be to talk about it as an offshoot from Christianity.

(CC): Mmhmm.

(DS): When we teach Christianity we teach Secularism as something that Christianity does in exactly the same way as you know, depending on how many days you have for teaching Christianity, you would give a sort of capsule history where you would talk about the great schisms, orthodoxy from Catholicism, Protestantism from Catholicism and then could also locate Secularism as, in a sense, another schism, as another permutation of Christianity that is part of the story of Christianity as a World Religion.

(CC): Mmm. And indeed, some of the annoyance that some proponents of Secularism feel with that approach to my mind indicates the very importance of taking that approach-

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): –because people don’t feel annoyance unless there’s some sort of deep connection to the category that you’re talking about.

(DS): I think that’s right and especially building on that if we’re talking about teaching students in a Western/Anglo/Euro/American context, we’re going to be teaching students who are going to be coming from a variety of faith positions some of whom will be coming from a non-faith position and probably see their status as neutral. They probably see the religions they’re looking at as in a sense, under glass, as something that is disconnected from where they are. And I think it’s important for those students to recognise that even the liberal Secular idiom that they might see themselves located within, has a history. That it, even it, the agenda of that is set by a particular set of Christian coordinates. Saba Mahmood has done some really excellent work on this, talking about the way that these sort of ostensibly secular legal codes throughout Europe actually privilege a kind of ghost of Christianity, that they are marshalled in the service of defending a sort of Christian heritage and they suppress other ways of being religious.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): Even when they…they give Christianity a special sort of protection. A perfect example of this would be like the Burkini ban-

(CC): –Yes.

(DS): -that’s been happening in the summer of 2016 where Burkinis, this article of clothing that seems like it would be inoffensive enough has actually become offensive to French Secularism. Precisely because it is encoding a set of Christian presuppositions about ways that you are Secular and religious.

(CC): On that note I saw that, it was in the Guardian, they were quoting sort of, the ruling and it said it might offend the people’s (non) religious (non) convictions.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So your non-religious non-conviction might be offended by it, there’s something interesting going on there.

(DS): Exactly. I think that that’s exactly…I think that that’s a really important pedagogical manoeuvre  with students is showing them how even our own liberal democratic structures have a sort of conserved Christian genetic coding in them. That’s not to create an equivalence, that’s not to say that the difference aren’t meaningful, it’s just to say that we need to…we need to take a critical eye on our own intellectual inheritance rather than presupposing it’s neutral. So all of that would be one way that I would see Secularism entering the World religions paradigm… structure. I think there’s another way though, which would be equally interesting.

(CC): Mhhmm.

(DS): So one of the ways that scholars working in the mode of critical Secularism studies have approached Secularism is to say there is not just one Secularism.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are in fact multiple Secularisms. This is the title of a book, an anthology (20:00) by Janet Jakobsen and Anne Pellegrini, ‘Secularisms’, and this, as I see it, is coming out of these two sort of, kind of, guiding lights of the critical Secularism studies field.  Talal Asad and Charles Taylor. So Talal Asad is very interested in this idea that the Secularism that we have is a result of a particular history and he says that rather than assuming that Secularism is going to be the same everywhere we anticipate a multiplicity of what he calls ‘formations of the Secular’.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are different Secularisms that correspond to different historical moments, and they have different priorities, they have different coordinates, they have different outcomes precisely because their starting points, the sort of ingredients out of, the landscape out of which they secularise is different. So his sort of cardinal example of this is the difference between Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity and Islam. Protestant Christianity de-ritualises religion so its version of Secularism is a version of Secularism that doesn’t pay a lot of attention to ritual, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to practices. Asad will say, you know, when we have formations of the secular emerging out of Islamic contexts we need to be attentive to the way that they are…that they are…that they always keep an eye on practices. And the version, the formations of the Secular that emerge in these other contexts will have a different configuration. Charles Taylor calls this…he calls this ‘the myth of the subtraction story’. The myth of the subtraction story is this idea that once you get rid of religion, you’re left with a neutral landscape.

(CC): Yeah. Indeed, yeah, I’ve always thought of using a quotation from my supervisor Kim Knott who just says that there is no neutral point from which to observe religion-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -we’re participants in that discourse. So would the logical outcome of that then be that if you were incorporating that Secularism(s) into the World religions classroom that you would sort of pair off-

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC):- you would teach Christianity and Christian Secularism, Islam and Islamic Secularism.

(DS): That’s what I’m thinking of. I’m, again, I’m presenting this conversationally, this isn’t something that I’m, I’m at a point where I could publish it but I think that we need to consider this possibility that the best way to teach Secularism within the context of the World religions classroom would be exactly this pairing, to say that Buddhist secularisms, Christian Secularisms, Jewish Secularisms, even we might want to get more specific than that, like Jewish Secularism in the United States, very different from Jewish Secularism in Israel. Islamic Secularism in Saudi Arabia is very different from Islamic Secularism in Iran. To thematise this I think would be a really productive way of getting Secularism into the conversation, but also raising this idea which I think is one of the challenges that you’ve, that you’ve sort of discussed very ably in your own work with Secularism, which is the way it creates a sort of silo model as you said it-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS):- of these religions being sort of ahistorical, sort of fixed compilations of ideas and practices that can be very easily, sort of clinically diagnosed as you know-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS): -you know like, okay, you’ve got, you’ve got your five pillars, you’ve got Islam. That’s not actually adequate, that’s never been adequate for teaching what religion is, but it’s particularly inadequate in the context of a situation, a global situation now, of accelerating mediatisation and globalisation where transactions between different traditions are becoming more and more…more and more rich. They’re just more and more…the dynamic between different traditions is becoming deeper and deeper. And I think that emphasising that localism of Secularism would be a way of raising that to the surface.

(CC): Mhhm. And this is exactly the sort of thing that we should be discussing at this conference, the theme being ‘religion beyond the textbook’.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So, conclusion then. So, are you going to do this?

(DS): Yeah, I think I will. I’m not in a situation right now where I teach world religions but as I think about, as I think about that syllabus next time that that portfolio falls into my lap it’s something that I’m actually quite excited to do, precisely because of the way that I think (25:00) it, it reciprocally calls attention to the limits of both the world religions paradigm, which I think is a useful, if limited, pedagogical tool, and the Secularisation narrative.

(CC): And how do we avoid…one of the main problems with subversively employing anything, so subversively employing the world religions category, is that your critical intent isn’t really communicated to the students, again as you say if they’ve come for a one semester course and then they’re gone, they’ve gone in and they’ve done the world religions course and they’ve come out. So say they’ve come to this course and they do a world religions and Secularisms thing and then they come out with this sort of very strict siloed model on Islamic Secularism is this, Christian Secularism is that, what, is there a danger there, going down that route, you could be sort of reifying the very distinction that we…

(DS): Yeah. I think all discourses have dangers. All discourses are going to be provisional ways of organising the abundance of information that is the world. And they’re always going to have certain limitations attached to them. I think that the best that we can do is inhabit those discourses with a sort of deconstructive eye. And my hope is that among other things I think that there are lots of ways of sort of reciprocally critiquing the world religions paradigm while teaching it. I’ve tried to do that in the past when I’ve taught world religions. I think that this method of introducing Secularism as a legitimate object of study within the architecture of the religions, world religions paradigm could be a way of amplifying that technique.

(CC): Yeah. And, you know, you can only resist the dominant expectations of your students so much before they stop coming to your classes and also I can see this being a really good exercise perhaps for higher level students, just to pose the question that we’ve asked-

(DS):- Right.

(CC): –is Secularism a world religion, set it as an essay topic or something, I can see some really excellent discussions happening there.

(DS): That would be fascinating. I mean, I think too, like, I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, that pedagogically that, I mean, there’s only so much we can do to sort of…there’s only so much we can do to sort of destabilise the way that students think, but I’m also…I’m also a firm believer in the pedagogical value of inhabiting something from the inside in order to destabilise it.

(CC): Mhhm.

(DS): Rather than standing so far outside of it that students can’t necessarily see what you’re doing.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): And my hope is, and again I mean, this is just an optimism, it’s not something that I’ve actually put into play, and really I see it more of just a conversation starter in pedagogy circles than anything, and my hope is that this practice of introducing Secularism as an object of study within the context of the world religions paradigm would be a way of inhabiting that paradigm from the inside and leaving students with a very vivid impression of its own limitations.

(CC): That is a wonderful way to end. Bang on half an hour, so thanks so much Donovan.

(DS): Thanks so much Chris, this was wonderful.

(CC): Well, I very much enjoyed recording that interview with Donovan and we both were in the session where he presented that paper at the BASR.

David Robertson: Yeah I was going to mention that, there was an odd moment there. It wasn’t the best attended of sessions, I don’t think it got the audience it deserves let’s put it that way, but I think there was eight or nine people in the room of whom two, two of, were myself and Chris. And he immediately showed a picture of our book, ‘The RSP Volume’ you know, After World Religions, which you should read if you haven’t, and started attacking our argument, which was-

(CC): He didn’t attack our argument!

(DR): I thought it was wonderful, I loved every minute of it [laughs].

(CC): But yeah, it was one of those lovely moments that was sort of the first proper one in my “career” in quotation marks. And so hopefully the catchy title there will have dragged in some listeners, you might have thought ‘what, what, that’s ridiculous!’ But hearing Donovan talk about it as an interesting thought experiment, as a way of dismantling in a way the hegemony of the paradigm itself.

(DR): Indeed, and problematizing the term and its application and the rest of it, and Chris and I have talked about an After After World Religions, be it a journal or a second volume of the book, and Donovan is going to contribute to that (30:00) hopefully, if and when it happens.

(CC): You hear that Donovan? You’re under contract now.

(DR): He gave me a verbal agreement and in Scotland that’s legally binding. It was in Helsinki.

(CC): And in Wolverhampton. Same difference.

(DR): Was it?

(CC): Yes.

(DR): Oh. Either way, I’m Scottish so that’s binding.

[they laugh].

(DR): I think we may be showing too much of the man behind the curtain this week.


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

Conversion and Deconversion as Concepts in the Sociology of Religion

Religious conversion has traditionally been understood as the abandonment of one religious identity for another, or a switch from no religious identification to a newly religious one. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and others have viewed conversion as a sudden, singular event in one’s life. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of new religious movements and the flowering of Asian religious traditions in the West, sociologists reformulated conversion as an active, gradual process of transformation.

Conversion, in these understandings, is not a changed subjective or ontological identity but rather a shift in one’s discursive universe, social relationships, and embodied practices, a new role learned through language, behavior, and interpersonal boundary maintenance. Similarly, deconversion and its scholarly synonyms (apostasy, alienation, disaffiliation, defection, exit, leaving) has many contexts, motivations, and processes, including loss of a specific religious experience, doubt or denial of beliefs, moral criticism, emotional suffering, and unlearning particular vocabularies and behaviors.

For this interview with Lynn Davidman, we focus on the concepts of conversion and deconversion*, illustrations of these processes in various contexts, what each term means and how each is experienced in someone’s life, the histories of these terms and their use in scholarship, and issues that arise from their conceptualization or use.

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, jelly beans, the artist formally known as “Prince” memorial T-shirts, and more.

*Our interview took place during the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting, held in Chicago. During our conversation, Davidman refers to comments made at an author-meets-critics panel about her new book which took place earlier that day.

*For more on conversion, see L. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (1993) and L. Rambo and C. Farhadian, The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (2014), as well as D. Snow and R. Machalek, “The Sociology of Conversion” (1984).

*For more on deconversion, see H. Streib et al, Deconversion (2009) and P. Zuckerman, Faith No More (2011).

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 2 February 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

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

We thank you for your contribution.

Calls for papers

7th Queering Paradigms Conference

June 11–12, 2016

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Deadline: April 4, 2016

More information

Undergraduate conference: “Faith and Power”

August 4–7, 2016

Central European University, Hungary

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information

Law and Religion Scholars Network

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: February 29, 2016

More information

Sacred stuff: Material culture and the geography of religion

August 30–September 2, 2016

London, UK

Deadline: February 8, 2016

More information

Religion, literature and culture: Lines in sand

September 9–11, 2016

University of Glasgow, UK

Deadline: April 18, 2016

More information

Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

More information

Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

Postgraduate Conference on Religion and Theology: “Perfection”

March 11–12, 2016

University of Bristol, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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Time and Myth: The Temporal and the Eternal

May 26–28, 2016

Masaryk University, Czech Republic

Deadline: March 15, 2016

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Fetish Boots and Running Shoes: Indecent Theology Today into Tomorrow

July 8, 2016

University of Winchester, UK

Deadline: March 7, 2016

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AAR 2016: Religion and Public Schools: International Perspectives Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Fieldwork: Doing Ethnographic Research

June 24, 2016

Birmingham City University, UK

Deadline: March 25, 2016

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Events

Inform seminar: New Religious Radicalisms

May 21, 2016

London School of Economics, UK

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Arbeitskreis interdisdisziplinäre Hexenforschung

February 18–20, 2016

Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany

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Research Methods in the Study of Religion

University of Kent, UK

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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Jobs

2 PhD positions in sociology project: “Postsecular Conflicts”

University of Innsbruck, Austria

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

3 PhD studentships

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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PhD position: “Multiple Secularities: Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”

University of Leipzig, Germany

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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PhD studentship: Cognitive Science of Religion

Belfast, UK; Aarhus, Denmark

Deadline: April 29, 2016

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Visiting Fellowship

Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Associate Professor, Full Professor: Jewish History/Studies

Case Western Research University, OH, United States

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Postdoctoral fellowship

University of Pennsylvania, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

Instructor: Buddhist Studies

Antioch University, OH, USA

Deadline: April 15, 2016

More information

Postdoctoral Fellowship: Chinese Buddhism

Columbia University, NY, USA

Deadline: April 20, 2016

More information

Report: 2015 Joint Conferences of the New Zealand and Australian Associations for the Study of Religion

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Bruno Marshall Shirley and John H. Shaver

The biennial conference of the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) and the annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions (AASR) were held together in Queenstown, New Zealand from December 8-10 2015. Interdisciplinary perspectives and theoretical approaches across the humanities and social sciences were evident in the wide-range of papers presented. Islam, and Asian religions more generally, were the most consistent objects of focus, perhaps unsurprising given Australasia’s proximity to Asia and recent increased media attention to the Islamic State.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The conference’s emphasis on Asia and Islam were evident in the keynote lectures. In a talk entitled “Creativity and Ethical Life in India,” Tulasi Srinivas (Emerson College) described religious innovations in Bangalore and the sense of “wonder” that they often inspire. She argued that scholars ought to take emerging religious practices seriously, rather than as anomalies or deviations from established, textually-based understandings of religion. Turning to Japan, Douglas Ezzy (University of Tasmania) argued that Shint­ō is best considered a “religion of practice” in contrast to those traditional conceptions of religion as belief-oriented. He suggested that while a non-Christian can attend mass at a Christian place of worship and not be “doing Christianity,” a tourist at a Shint­ō shrine participating in its various ritual practices might be said to be “doing Shint­ō.” For many Japanese Shint­ō is not associated with doctrinal belief (shūkyō), which allows people to engage with Shint­ō ritual practice while not accepting its cosmology. Some in the audience disagreed with Ezzy’s analysis of Shint­ō and its relationship to shūkyō, but his call for a renewed focus on religious practice was generally appreciated. Sally McAra (University of Auckland), looked at one traditionally Asian religion, Buddhism, in the Australasian context. She discussed the problems facing an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research among their own group, principally a difficulty in carrying out objective analyses, due to a positive bias towards group ideals.

The final keynote lecture, from Gary D. Bouma (Monash University), turned to Islam and to Western discourses about the “threat” that each other poses. Bouma argued that both anti-Western and anti-Muslim narratives shared several key features: both narratives assert that the “other” is incorrect in some way; each is reinforced due to media bias; and both narratives are responsible for the perpetuation of conflict. Bouma’s most significant point was that Religious Studies scholars have a responsibility to discredit these discourses – particularly anti-Muslim narratives in the West, such as those put forth by Trump or Abbot. These narratives, Bouma argued, serve to legitimise attempts to gain power at the expense of civil liberties, and/or to divert attention from their own violence (including structural violence, domestic violence, or even climate change).

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper "Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult," in the panel "Religion in/and Politics."

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper “Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult,” in the panel “Religion in/and Politics.”

The panel “Contemporary Religions” continued the central foci on Asian religions and Islam. A paper by Douglas Osto (Massey) (based on his forthcoming book, Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, Columbia UP, 2016) outlined the history of “Psychedelic Buddhism” from the 1950s into the present, and the changing attitudes of American Buddhist practitioners towards mind-altering drugs. Osto described how some practitioners used psychedelic drugs as a “door” to advanced states of mind, before graduating to “pure” meditation practices, while others (notably Joan Halifax) continued to use drugs to supplement their meditative practices. Although psychedelia has been investigated before, Osto’s study represents the first serious examination of psychedelic Buddhism as a non-systemic religious movement, and is sure to lead to further studies of other hybrid Buddhist practices in the West. Buddhism was also the focus of a panel on “Buddhist Tales and Territories,” which featured a paper by Chaisit Suwanvarangkul (University of Otago) on the relevance of dharmakāya and the tathāgatagarbha doctrine to Therāvada Buddhism, as well as to the Mahāyāna. Suwanvarangkul’s paper was partially in response to an earlier paper by Michael Radich (Victoria University of Wellington), presented at the 2007 Australian Association of Buddhist Studies conference, entitled “There is no Dhammakāya in the Pāli Canon.” Suwanvarangkul’s inclusion of the Chinese Āgama as Theravāda was the subject of some controversy, as Osto pointed out that, despite parallels to the Theravāda nikāya, the Chinese āgama contain several key differences from the Theravāda texts. The panel also included papers by Anna Halafoff and Matthew Clarke (both of Deakin University) on the role of Songdhammakalyani monastery (Thailand) in promoting gender equality; Chiew Hui Ho (University of Sydney) on Chinese tales about the Diamond Sutra and their role in encouraging faith; and Phra Akbordin Rattana (University of Otago) on the model of Buddha devotion expressed in the Mārabandha chapter of the Paṭhamasambodhi-kathā.

Papers in the panel “Religion and the State” shared a common theme of distinctions between “religious practice” and “political actions” breaking down, in cases drawn from China, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Melissa Inoue (University of Auckland) discussed China’s True Jesus Church and its “miraculous” discourse. She argued that by directing attention to this-worldly affairs, the discourse indirectly both critiques and affirms contemporary Chinese society and the stewardship of the party-state. Ben Schonthal (University of Otago) turned to Sri Lanka and the (legal) case of a Buddhist monk who was denied an application for a driver’s license on the grounds that it was not appropriate for monks to drive. He argued that this was fundamentally a problem of contested authority over religious practice in Sri Lanka, arising from an ambiguous constitutionalising of religion. Bruno M. Shirley (Victoria University of Wellington) called for a post-secular rethinking of “religious violence” using the case study of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Senā. Shirley suggested that explanations for religious violence, generally and in Sri Lanka specifically, have tended to assume a secularist dichotomy of “religion” and “politics” that is inadequate for dealing with the relationship between Buddhism, politics, and violence in Sri Lanka. Shirley suggested instead that we might reconsider this relationship within a framework of identity politics.

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper "Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion," in the panel "Naming Islamism."

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper “Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion,” in the panel “Naming Islamism.”

The panel “Naming Islamism,” was by far the most controversial of the conference. Will Sweetman (University of Otago), Christopher van der Krogt (Massey University), Douglas Pratt (University of Waikato), William E. Shepard (University of Canterbury), and audience members debated whether or not the Islamic State could be considered an authentic iteration of “Islam.” Van der Krogt argued that such a debate represents a misunderstanding of religion, and Islam in particular, while Sweetman argued that there is no basis for denying the Islamic State’s self-identification as Muslim. Several audience members disagreed with this assertion, instead arguing that Islam did indeed have some core norms and values with which the Islamic State does not conform. This panel also included less controversial papers by Shepard (University of Canterbury), on the development of Sayyid Qutb’s views on gender relations, and Pratt, on the Islamic State’s “theological ideology.”

Not all of the panels at the conference focussed on Asia or on Islam, and of these the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) panel is particularly notable for being the most empirically-oriented of the conference. The first NZAVS talk was delivered by the director of the study, Chris Sibley, a psychologist from the University of Auckland. Sibley described the breadth of the study and some of the many challenges inherent to large-scale longitudinal data collection. Joseph Bulbulia (Victoria University of Wellington) then detailed a few of the more significant findings pertaining to religion that have emerged from the NZAVS, including his work on the distinct “faith signatures” that span and defy traditional denominational categorization. Following these talks, Geoffrey Troughton (Victoria University of Wellington) described the history of the “Christian Not Further Declared (NFD)” designation in the New Zealand census, and then used NZAVS data to describe the demographic characteristics of those individuals that have recently come to identify with this tremendously growing group. The panel concluded with John Shaver (Victoria University of Wellington) describing the complex, but unique, picture of religion and prejudice/ tolerance in New Zealand. Although highly religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of many social groups (including ethnic and religious out-groups) than their secular counterparts, they are also less tolerant of some other groups (e.g., homosexuals). Shaver interpreted this pattern as a result of the differential flexibility of human values. He argued that those values associated with conservatism are necessary for the cultural transmission of religion and are therefore less free to vary across cultures, while those that are less relevant to transmission are subject to greater environmental influence.

Perhaps due to the University of Otago’s excellent choice to host the conference in scenic Queenstown, the conference was relatively well-attended by NZASR standards, and a strong Australian presence was a welcome addition to the conference’s academic and social events. While Asia and Islam were focal, the range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches made for interesting discussions, both in panels and informally. The conference demonstrated that the study of religions in New Zealand and Australia continues to broaden its interdisciplinary focus.

“Religion in Peru” — conference report, 2015

The conference, “Religion in Peru : Research itineraries from the social sciences,” was held at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima-Peru, 24 September 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Sidney Castillo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

The study of religion has deep roots in the South American country of Peru. Over twenty years ago, one of this country’s most eminent scholars of religion, the late Manuel Marzal, (1996) wrote an article detailing a century of religious studies in Peru. Since the dawn of social sciences in Peruvian academia, scholars from different schools of thought and institutions have applied their own perspectives to religion, from indigenism to Marxism—and of course the catholic church. These scholars wanted to get a grip on what means to be religious in Peru in order to better understand its people, however they also differed in key ways. For example, some have been concerned with religion as it may relate to establishing enduring political structures, to gain more adherents, or for good old fashioned criticism. Peru is a country rich with not only religious tradition, but also religious innovation. For example, we have both our equivalent of the Popol Vuh, the Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí [1] manuscript from the sixteenth century, and also a Peruvian new religious movement, the Asociación Evangélica de la Misión Israelita del Nuevo Pacto Universal from the twentieth century  as examples; this is why the conference presented different approaches to the study of religious phenomena, and discussed its relevance in the 21st century.

The conference was organized by the Master’s Degree in Sciences of Religion of the Faculty of Social Sciences from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, represented by its Coordinator, Jaime Regan and myself (Sidney Castillo) as organizer, in collaboration with the Students Center of Anthropology of the same university (CEAN in Spanish) and the Peruvian Academy of the Sciences of Religion (APECREL also in Spanish). The conference featured anthropological researches based on case study and comparative religion approaches, as well as sociological research in the field of secularism and state regulations, and the sciences of religion itself as an academic field. The scholars who participated in the event were Luis Millones (Professor Emeritus of Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos), Diego Huerta (University of Helsinki), Marco Huaco (University of Strasbourg) and Dorothea Ortmann (University of Rostock).

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

For myself, as an organizer, it was particularly fulfilling to see the conference auditorium packed and the scholars ready to take the lead on the subject that was of our interest. And it was also fulfilling because we had a lot of competition that day: three academic events in the same faculty at pretty much the same time! We can say then, that people is really getting interested in learning about religion outside mainstream means e.g. churches.

Luis Millones’s talk was about Apostle Santiago and the Moors (Millones : 2015). He presented his latest research done in San Lucas de Colan, a small town within the Paita province in the coastal part of Piura region. His ethnographic research provided an insiders appreciation of the festival offered to Santiago Apostle’s horse, Felipe, in which the image of the patron saint observes the symbolic representation of the horse battling against the Moors. The festival commands both a huge participation on money and coordination from the brotherhood of the saint. Millones viewed this as a means of obtaining prestige among the townsfolk. Interestingly, these kind of festivities are a staple in many different rural and urban places. Particularly, as it’s a way of recreating social bonds with fellow members of the community (or former communities since a lot of people that participate in these celebrations are migrants) by venerating the patron saint and having a huge party lasting several days.

In the second talk, Diego Huerta used a comparative approach in discussing two religious phenomenons comprising some of his past research: the pilgrimage of the Christ of Huamantanga in the outer part of Lima, in the Canta district ; and the (neo)paganism in the urban parts of Lima (Huerta : 2012). His aim was to put into question the factual realization of the secularization process in Peru, in order to examine folk religion and new religious movements as manifestations of an alternative religiosity. Huerta suggested that while the former is more related to popular interpretations of Catholicism, the latter stems more from a product of globalization, embedded in a culture of media driven information on different religious traditions. I found his presentation as indicating that not even tradition is written in stone, tradition changes.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

In the third presentation, Marco Huaco’s discussed the policy of laicidad, a.k.a. secularism in church-state relations (Huaco : 2013). He detailed the historical trajectory of the Peruvian constitutions, demonstrating their evolution, developing from constitutions of doctrinal confessionality towards constitutions of historical-sociological confessionality, finally arriving to the present day constitution. This constitution acknowledges the Catholic Church an important element of Peruvian society, and allows the State to take part in partnership with other religious denominations. This is highlighted by the 1980 Agreement between the Holy See and Peru, which he explained, has important consequences in the ordering of public policies (e.g., birth control and lgbt rights) and primary education.

The closing presentation was delivered by Dorothea Ortmann. In it, she presented how the Sciences of Religion was first established in Peru (Ortmann: 2002). Ortmann traced the beginnings of this development from the researches of Julio C. Tello, Rafael Larco Hoyle and Luis Válcarcel, where they tried to explain the syncretism process, noting the economic and political implications of these mixtures on many Andean deities. For example, the Lanzon of Chavin de Huantar and the Teja Amaru[2]. Ortmann discussed how researchers utilized the tools from different disciplines to explain this process (e.g. archaeology, linguistics and anthropology), in order to gain a wider overview of the Andean societies.

The variety of research that was presented at the conference allowed Peru’s academic community to gather a comprehensive entry into what the academic study of religion was and is, noting future possibilities for research. In echoing Ortmann’s sentiments, the academic study of religion in Peru has existed, at least to date, due to the personal interests and dedication of lone researchers (largely at their own costs) and not due to established monetary support from institutions. However, while some valuable research has been supported at religiously affiliated institutions (e.g., Centro de Estudios Teológicos de la Amazonía, Instituto de Pastoral Andina with the Allpanchis journal, Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas, Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones) other perspectives are needed, and at further distance from pastoral inspiration. Shedding some level of ties with the insider perspectives often provided via religious institutions will allow Peruvian academics to study religious phenomena from a variety of fresh perspectives[3].

 

That this conference took place at the National University of San Marcos was quite inspiring. This was the first university on the continent with a theology and arts faculty during the second half of the sixteenth century. Now, almost five hundred years later, Peruvian academics still have an interest in studying religion. However, our current perspectives and methodologies are far more diverse, and ever broadening. I remain optimistic that, in the near future, the academic study of religion in Peru will be as widespread and supported as other research areas. No doubt, this will be due in large part to the dedication and interest of Peruvian scholars, as this conference exemplifies.

References

Marzal, Manuel. (1996). “Un siglo de investigación de la religión en el Perú”. Anthropologica. Lima, volumen 14, número 14, pp. 7-28. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://revistas.pucp.edu.pe/index.php/anthropologica/article/view/1876/1809

Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015. http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935

Huaco, M. (2013). Procesos constituyentes y discursos contra-hegemónicos sobre laicidad, sexualidad y religión: Ecuador, Perú y Bolivia.  Buenos Aires: CLACSO. Accesed on: november 28, 2015.

http://biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar/clacso/sur-sur/20121108040727/ProcesosConstituyentes.pdf

Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://sisbib.unmsm.edu.pe/bibvirtual/libros/sociologia/c_religion/indice.htm

Huerta, D. (2012). De eclécticos e iniciados o una aproximación etnográfica a la práctica del (neo) paganismo en Lima. Licenciate thesis on Social Sciences with mention in Anthropology. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Faculty of Social Sciences.

 

[1] Gathered by Francisco de Avila around 1598, and then translated from quechua to spanish by Jose Maria Arguedas in the middle of the tweinthieth century, it’s the only text that accounts for the mainstream fundational mythos of Peru, prior to the spaniards arrival.

[2] The first deity refers to a monolith of 4.5 meters located in the Temple of Chavin. It depicted a zooantropomorphic god with feline and avian features (animals found in the jungle and andes respectively), and was the main deity of the Chavin culture (1000 B.C.). The second one refers to a clay shaped tile representing the Amaru god with features of a otorongo (the peruvian feline), symbolizing the resistance of the spanish influence on andean culture. Some of these tiles were found in southern andean part of Peru and date from the early XIX century.

[3] Many scholars of religion like the late Fernando Fuenzalida, Harold Hernández, Jaime Regan, Juan Ossio and our own speakers of the conference have been doing innovative work in this manner, since they have provided great insights regarding new religious movements, andean and amazonian religion, and the relationship of religion and politics.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 3 November 2015

Calls for papers

Conference: Art Approaching Science and Religion

May 11–13, 2016

Åbo Akademi University, Sweden

Deadline: June 15, 2016

More information

Conference: AAG 2016

March 29–April 2, 2016

San Francisco, CA, USA

Deadline: November 6, 2015

More information

Events

Conference: Moral Horizons

December 1–4, 2015

University of Melbourne, Australia

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Conference: New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions

December 8–10, 2015

Queenstown, New Zealand

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Conference: Transnational Religious Movements, Dialogue and Economic Development: The Hizmet Movement in Comparative Perspective

December 10–11, 2015

University of Turin, Italy

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Conference: Religious phenomena within the textbooks at the end of the school cycle: Mediterranean area and comparisons outside

December 2–4, 2015

Université du Maine, France

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Seminar: SocRel Response Day

November 5, 2015, 10:00 A.M. – 4:00 P.M.

Imperial Wharf, London, UK

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Workshop: Religious diversity in Asia

December 7–8, 2015

Aarhus University, Denmark

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Workshop: Political and public approaches to gender, secularism and multiculturalism

November 11–13, 2015

Lisbon, Portugal

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Jobs

Visiting Lecturer: Jewish Studies

Liverpool Hope University, UK

Deadline: N/A (urgent)

More information

Ph.D. position in religion

University of Agder, Norway

Deadline: January 12, 2016 (It says 2015, but it’s obviously a typo.)

More information

Postdoctoral Researcher: Religion and Media in Contemporary Societies

Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany

Deadline: November 13, 2015

More information

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 27 October 2015

Dear subscriber,

Please be aware that the previous Opportunities Digest contained two mistakes in the posting of the 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, which may have confused some readers. A corrected version of the listing is found below. 

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

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

We thank you for your contribution.

Calls for papers

Symposium: 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2016

Deadline: December 7, 2015

More information

Conference: Construction and disruption: The power of religion in the public sphere

July 12–14, 2016

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: December 11, 2015

More information

Conference: Heritage, Religion and Travel

May 27–29, 2016

Mersin Congress and Exhibitions Centre, Turkey

Deadline: December 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Landscape and Myth in North-Western Europe

April 6–8, 2016

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

Deadline: December 31, 2015

More information

Journal: Gamevironments

Topics: Gamevironments, Games, Religion, and Culture

Deadline: January 15, 2016

More information

Events

Conference: Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Schools

University of Leicester, UK

November 13, 2015

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Conference: Allaitement entre Humans et Animaux: Représentations et Pratiques de l’Antique à Aujourd’hui

November 12–14, 2015

Université de Genève, Switzerland

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Winter School: Interrelational Selves and Individualization

January 5–9, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

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Workshop: The Diversity of Nonreligion

November 12–14, 2015

University of Zürich, Switzerland

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Jobs

New managing editor

The Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network

Deadline: November 6, 2015

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4 new members for Editorial Board

Sociology

Deadlines vary

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Junior Professorship: Anthropology and History of Religion in South Asia

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: November 30, 2015

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Senior Lecturer/Lecturer in Politics/International Relations and Religion

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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Podcasts

Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

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


Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

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

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Choosing Not to Hide Behind the Camera

Choosing not to hide behind the camera: A media producer’s perspective on religious literacy

A response to the Episode 320, “Religious Literacy is Social Justice” with Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst by Richard Wallis

There’s a fascinating moment in Netflix’s documentary series, The Family (August 2019), which tells the story of The Fellowship Foundation, a publicity-shy network of Evangelical men’s fellowship and support groups (or ‘prayer breakfasts’).  The series sets out to expose what it portrays as a highly secretive, dangerous, and anti-democratic organisation of politically-motivated, religious fundamentalists.  But it’s clear from the outset that the production team had what in the industry we call ‘a problem of access’.  They had been unable to gain permission to film an actual prayer breakfast.

Not until late in the production (featured in the fifth and final episode) did a group based in Portland, Oregon agree to be filmed, and then only on the condition that director Jesse Moss would participate in the group.   In consequence, we see the filmmaker for the first and only time.  As we witness him interacting and engaging with this group, a far more nuanced and interesting perspective on the film’s subject begins to emerge.  Moss uncomfortably finds himself confronted by some of the limitations of his own ‘objective’ perspective and, in particular, his privilege as a white filmmaker in the context of a group of mainly black men.  It was a penny-dropping moment.  The viewer shares the filmmaker’s discomfort in being momentarily exposed, unable to hide behind his camera.  It didn’t undermine the many problematic issues that the series legitimately raises about its subject.  But it demonstrated how much richer and more insightful it is when supposedly ‘objective’ perspectives are sometimes set aside and genuine engagement is allowed to take its place.

This Netflix viewing experience came to mind as I was listening to Dr. David McConeghy talk to Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst about Vermont University’s new undergraduate Certificate in Religious Literacy for Professions.  Morgenstein Fuerst explains how this program is intended to prepare undergraduate students to relate their own career aspirations (particularly those of education, journalism, social services, business, and health fields) to a religious literacy learning framed by principles of social justice.  I was struck by the same sense that religious ideas and practices are best understood not at arms-length (or from behind the camera) but up-close and personal.  We gain genuine insight into the lived experience of others when we allow ourselves to engage reflexively, sometimes having to set aside our own idea of what it means to be ‘objective’.

As a media practitioner and scholar, I worry about the poverty of public discourse about religion.  From the 1970s here in Europe (a designation in which I continue to include the UK), assumptions about the inexorable decline of religion came to dominate.  In fact, so normalised did the idea become of an unimpeded forward march towards secularization, that even the output of our public media specified as ‘religion’, was not unaffected by it.[i]  Recalling his time as a young television researcher in the BBC’s religious programmes department in the 1970s, Mark Thompson, now CEO of The New York Times, commented: ‘Even among religious program-makers … there was a real anxiety about whether religion as a thing in itself was a topic of any real interest. And outside the specialist departments, religion was marginal at best.’

The apparent revelation that ‘God is Back!’[i] has come as a rude awakening. During a period characterised by globalisation, migration, and increasingly complex connections between nations and cultures, religion is again being recognised as a major social, political, and cultural force.  But not without alarm and some bewilderment.  In this regard, the general public have been poorly served by our media and our education systems.  Religion may have resurfaced in the conversation, but engagement and insight are conspicuous by their absence.  Incomprehension and anxiety have not translated into the pursuit of understanding. Indeed, the quality of public discourse in the UK is so poor, it seems to me to be entirely appropriate to characterize it as a form of illiteracy, with all that the term implies.

Religious literacy is, of course, a slippery notion.  It can mean very different things to different people, and for some it may simply mean the study of religion.  But literacy is a salient metaphor because it implies a form of religious education that goes beyond mere factual knowledge about the subject.  Literacy suggests conversance with religious ideas and practices that are situated.  It embodies ‘the capacity to locate particular ideas within their historical, ethical, epistemological and social context’[ii] (Conroy, 2015: 169).  If it’s not applied, it isn’t really a literacy.

For these reasons, the application of religious understanding to areas of professional practice seem to me to be precisely on the button.  Embedding this at undergraduate level is exactly what programs of religious literacy ought to be doing.  I would have liked the podcast conversation to have gone further in exploring the social justice theme in more depth.  For me, this needed greater clarity of explanation and, ideally, some exemplification.  But I took it to mean helping students to see the world through the eyes of others, and that this should involve (among other things) being exposed to disparities of power that may implicate the student: it should mean becoming aware of the many injustices that we remain ignorant of when we shut down channels to other kinds of people.

As Larry Anderson, one of the Oregon group’s members in The Family, asks the director, Jesse Moss: ‘What are the lies that you have been telling yourself, and which one of those lies have you come to believe?’  It’s more comfortable to encounter such questions at arms-length, from the TV sofa, or the director’s chair.  But it’s the sort of question that can take us on a journey of understanding if we allow it to, and this is surely what we ought to mean when we talk about religious literacy.

[i] Hence the title of Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait’s God is Back published by Penguin in  2010.

[ii] James C. Conroy (2015) Religious illiteracy in school Religious Education. In Adam Dinham & Matthew Francis (eds), Religious literacy in policy and practice. Bristol: Policy Press. 167-186.

[i] A theme I develop in more detail in: Richard Wallis (2016) Channel 4 and the declining influence of organized religion on UK television. The case of Jesus: The Evidence. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 36 (4), 668-688.

After Secularization: Unbelief in Europe

“After Secularization: Unbelief in Europe” by Dick Houtman

After Secularization: Unbelief in Europe

Above, businesses increasingly invoke mindfulness, meditation, and other practices from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religious traditions as means for increasing productivity and decreasing work-related stress. They cite scientific evidence that such practices are beneficial to people regardless of individual religiosity.

Now that secularization has made non-religiousness the default option in large parts of Europe, the time has come to study what exactly this non-religiousness entails. This is the aim of Herbert and Bullock’s comparative project on ‘unbelief’ (as they prefer to call it) in contemporary Europe: mapping its manifestations and explaining its cross-national variation (see the interview podcast on this website). In what follows I identify what I see as the critical theoretical issues and suggest explanations for observed cross-national differences.

 

Secularization theory conceives of virtually anything that differs from traditional Christian religion as ‘non-religious’, ‘less religious’, or not ‘really religious’. The theory as such plays a major role in processes of religious authentication, i.e., forging discursive distinctions between ‘real religion’ and ‘less than real religion’ (Woodhead 2010). It in effect foregrounds similarities between manifestations of unbelief at the neglect of their differences, which is why in studies of unbelief it needs to be used with caution. In what follows I focus on varieties of unbelief that entail non-religious worldviews, inform cultural and social identities, and affect society beyond the strictly private realm. In doing so, I follow Weber’s (1963 [1922]) and Durkheim’s (1995 [1912]) classical distinctions between magic and religion, with the former addressing mere personal problems, often practical ones, and only the latter defining community (Durkheim) and offering salvation from suffering by pointing out what is good and what is bad, what should be done and what should be abstained from (Weber).

 

Secularization theory holds that religion gradually loses its social significance, which implies that secularization fosters religious indifference, as Steve Bruce (2002) has correctly observed. For in secularized societies there is simply not enough left of religion’s power to annoy the non-religious, let alone to make them suffer and incite opposition to religion. Indeed, when a century ago socialists identified religion as backward, irrational and ultimately evil, they precisely did so because of its massive public presence and power. Under these circumstances being non-religious almost inevitably amounted to being anti-religious, a pattern that exists until the present day in the still massively religious contexts of Southern-Europe as compared to North-Western Europe (Ribberink et al. 2013). The same applies to countries like Poland and Ireland today, where Catholicism has persisted because it has become a crucial marker of national identity and has as such found other work to do than relating people to the supernatural (Wallis & Bruce 1992). What secularization theory predicts, in short, is that in countries where religion has persisted, unbelievers tend towards militant anti-religiosity, because religion and anti-religious atheism thrive and decline in tandem (McGrath 2006).

 

Another issue, equally important from a theoretical point of view, is how those concerned justify their anti-religiosity. Sociological accounts of secularization often assume the unfolding of a process of rationalization that pushes back religion, with science and technology gradually taking over. This suggests that anti-religious postures and identities are typically legitimated by the authority of science, but it remains to be seen whether and where this still holds. For in the past half century in particular the most secularized Western-European countries appear to have witnessed a decline of the authority of science alongside that of religion. Back in the 1960s the so-called ‘counter culture’ critiqued science and technocracy as standing in the way of freedom rather than expanding it (for a philosophical elaboration see Horkheimer & Adorno 2002 [1944]). Since then, critiques of scientific rationalism and technocracy have not withered away but have only expanded and have, in the process, diffused from the libertarian left to the new populist right (Houtman et al. forthcoming).

Above, a meme illustrating an pro-science critique of religion highlighting the presumed fairy tale-like qualities of religion.

 

Yet, a few small-scale studies by students of mine suggest that anti-religious atheists in Belgium still rely heavily on the quintessential modern binary of ‘rationally informed scientific knowledge’ versus ‘irrational religious belief’ as well as on the modernist notion that science and knowledge bring progress, emancipation and freedom. I must confess that these findings came somewhat as a surprise to me, because they fly in the face of post-Frankfurt-school postmodernism, which disqualifies scientific and religious truth claims alike as not so much ‘true’ and ‘neutral’, but rather as embedded in discourses bound up with power and sustaining inequality. So how does this matter stand? Do justifications of anti-religiosity other than modern and rationalist ones play a role at all today beyond the postmodern left in the human sciences in academia?

Finally, newly emerged spirituality talk has attracted much attention in the past decades (Heelas and Woodhead 2005). Christian and secularization perspectives alike understand it as a manifestation of secularization, due to its allegedly privatized and individualized character. And indeed, those who espouse the discourse of spirituality pride themselves on their unbelief and are eager to escape the ‘religion’ label (“No, I am not religious: I want to follow my personal spiritual path”). This dismissive stance vis-à-vis religion entails religious boundary work aimed at distancing oneself from old-school Christian religion. Yet, the ‘spiritual, not religious’ moniker obscures how this spirituality entails an inner-worldly mysticism that constitutes a religion in and of itself, as Ernst Troeltsch already pointed out a century ago (1992 [ 1912]; see also Campbell 1978). It differs from traditional Christian religion in at least three fundamental respects, though: (i) In how the sacred is conceived (as an omnipresent immanent spirit or life force rather than a transcendent personal God); (ii) In how the religious truth can be appropriated (by personal experience or ‘gnosis’ rather than ‘belief’); and (iii) In how salvation from suffering can be attained (by listening to one’s ‘inner voice’ and aiming for personal authenticity and authentic selfhood rather than conforming to externally imposed demands) (Aupers & Houtman 2006, Houtman & Tromp forthcoming).

The various manifestations of unbelief differ widely in their capacity to forge group identities and play out beyond the strictly private realm. Superstition and religious indifference do not do so, which is why they are less important from a societal, political and sociological point of view. Anti-religious atheism, on the other hand, matters a lot beyond the private realm. It accuses religion of humiliating and damaging groups with identities that are considered deviant on religious grounds (e.g., women who dismiss traditional mother-caretaker roles or members of LGBTQ communities), especially so in less secularized parts of Europe. Incited by this understanding of religion as making the world a worse rather than a better place anti-religious atheism easily fosters organization and encourages political action.

Despite the still popular notion that contemporary spirituality is too privatized and individualized to have much social significance, this has become increasingly difficult to maintain. Surely, spirituality’s very character stands in the way of loyalty to church-like organizations and religious doctrines, but it does boast loyalty to what Campbell (2002 [1972]) has called ‘the cultic milieu’, a milieu to which the western mainstream has increasingly opened up. In the process, it has become clear that the public role of spirituality differs significantly from the ideological and political role that Christian religion used to play, and in many countries still plays. Guided by the spiritual motto, ‘One does not need to be sick to become better’, the public role of spirituality is more therapeutic than ideological and is played out in realms that range from work (Aupers & Houtman 2006, Zaidman 2009) to health care (Raaphorst & Houtman 2016, Zaidman 2017) and education (Brown 2019).

References

Aupers, Stef & Dick Houtman. (2006). Beyond the Spiritual Supermarket: The Social and Public Significance of New Age Spirituality. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 21 (2): 201-222.

Brown, Candy Gunther. (2019). Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion? Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Bruce, Steve. (2002). God is Dead: Secularisation in the West. Oxford: Blackwell.

Campbell, Colin. (1978). The Secret Religion of the Educated Classes. Sociology of Religion 39 (2): 146-156.

Campbell, Colin. (2002 [1972]). Chapter 2: The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularization. In Jeffrey Kaplan & Helene Lööw (Eds), The Cultic Milieu: Oppositional Subcultures in an Age of Globalization (pp. 12-25). Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Durkheim, Emile. (1995 [1912]). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.

Heelas, Paul & Linda Woodhead. (2005). The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Horkheimer, Max & Theodor W. Adorno. (2002 [1944]). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Houtman, Dick & Paul Tromp. (forthcoming). Post-Christian Spirituality: Misconceptions, Obstacles, Prospects. In Amy L. Ai, Kevin A. Harris & Paul Wink (Eds), Assessing Spirituality and Religion in a Diversified World: Beyond the Mainstream Perspective. New York: Springer.

Houtman, Dick, Stef Aupers & Rudi Laermans. (forthcoming). Introduction: Contesting the Authority of Science. In Dick Houtman, Stef Aupers & Rudi Laermans (Eds), Science under Siege: Contesting Scientific Authority in the Postmodern Era (https://www.dickhoutman.nl/mediatheek/get?id=446&guid=a015275422975698afd4465427465994cb2f3c46%C2%A0).

McGrath, Alister. (2006). The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: Doubleday.

Raaphorst, Nadine & Dick Houtman. (2016). A Necessary Evil That Does Not ‘Really’ Cure Disease: The Domestication of Biomedicine by Dutch Holistic General Practitioners. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine 20 (3): 242-257.

Ribberink, Egbert, Peter Achterberg & Dick Houtman. (2015). Are All Socialists Anti-Religious? Anti-Religiosity and the Socialist Left in 21 Western European Countries (1990-2008). Journal of Contemporary Religion 30 (3): 433-450.

Ribberink, Egbert, Peter Achterberg & Dick Houtman. (2013). Deprivatization of Disbelief? Non-Religiosity and Anti-Religiosity in 14 Western European Countries. Politics & Religion 6 (1): 101-120.

Troeltsch, Ernst. (1992 [1912]). The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (Two Volumes). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wallis, Roy & Steve Bruce. (1992). Secularization: The Orthodox Model. In Steve Bruce (Ed.), Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis (pp. 8-30). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. (1963 [1922]). The Sociology of Religion. Boston: Beacon Press.

Woodhead, Linda. (2010). Real Religion and Fuzzy Spirituality? Taking Sides in the Sociology of Religion. In Stef Aupers & Dick Houtman (Eds), Religions of Modernity: Relocating the Sacred to the Self and the Digital (pp. 31-48). Leiden: Brill.

Zaidman, Nurit. (2017). The Incorporation of Spiritual Care into Israeli Medical Organizations. In Shai Feraro & James R. Lewis (Eds), Contemporary Alternative Spiritualities in Israel (pp. 83-94). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zaidman, Nurit, Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni & Iris Nehemya. (2009). From Temples to Organizations: The Introduction and Packaging of Spirituality. Organization 16 (4): 597-621.

Brazilian politician and activist Marina Silva.

Fragile Triumph: The Enlightenment’s Ongoing Travail

Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera’s fascinating reflections on recent shifts Latin American conservatism underscore both the dominance and the fragility of secularism in the democracies of the western hemisphere. 

One can hardly imagine a better example of the triumph of secularity in public life than this account.  The authors Rivera discusses, and the networks they represent, have obviously learned their lesson: Science is the pathway to truth.  Science delivers certitude.  Science provides the heft needed to win arguments.  After a couple of centuries of zigzagging toward Enlightenment, the Latin American public sphere is today sufficiently secularized so as to force even the opponents of Enlightenment to resort to its own tactics and discourses in pursuit of power.  Whatever the quality of the “science” in question, the most salient revelation of this interview is that there exists adequate infrastructure within these networks to produce arguments buttressed, at least on the surface, in the same ways that intellectual and moral claims are established by the more dominant liberal parties.  Science = Authority.  It is now the coin of the realm.  In the desperately contested terrain of Latin America’s democracies, we should not be surprised by gold rushes.

But of course, the very existence of these authors and their constituencies is also evidence of the current and ongoing weakness of secularism as one dimension of a now aging revolutionary movement.  Advanced thinkers in Brazil and elsewhere may have once imagined positivism—to take one example of this movement—as a conquering presence, realigning minds with Reality and structuring societies in ways that would reflect Knowledge.  But the demise of such capital-lettered hopes is now an old story.  The postmodern critique of Enlightenment holds, even as postmodernism’s failure to establish a pathway to public order and authority looms daily before us.  We’re a long way from the hopeful, rationalist visions of Marx and Comte, of Bolívar and Sarmiento. 

Above, the Positivist Church of Brazil, founded in 1881 in Rio de Janeiro.

In this great vacuum older stories, ancient stories yet abide, and with them communities of actual citizens impelled by these stories—stories sustained by metaphysical visions and transcendent hopes, stories in which divinity yet rules humanity, and in which humanity yearns for communion with the divine.  These communities are certainly, as Rivera notes, no longer in tow to the old authority structures, whether it be the Vatican or the Westminster Standards.  But in the age of Pope Francis—and perhaps especially at this particular moment—it is well to point out that neither have those authority structures themselves maintained a narrow continuity with their earlier forms.  If these religious communities, whether Catholic or Protestant, are intellectually conflicted and even incoherent, scholars of religion, of all people, should surely expect as much.  David Tracy has recently observed that “Given our temperament, or needs, or our culture’s needs, we all choose particular fragments of the great traditions that we think are exceptionally valuable right now.”  “Science” is now one of those great traditions (whether positivistic scientists acknowledge it as such or not), and seekers of knowledge and power will avail themselves of it.  It will not, rest assured, be pretty. 

The present crisis of democracy afflicting us throughout the western hemisphere requires of us, among other things, a conception of rationality and knowledge that invites argument beyond science’s limits, and that is capable of fostering higher moral ideals than personal liberation.  Lyotard’s prescient read of our situation, now four decades old, registers, if anything, more convincingly today than it did in 1979.  “In the context of delegitimation, universities and the institutions of higher learning are called upon to create skills, and no longer ideals. . . . The transmission of knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite capable of guiding the nation toward its emancipation, but to supply the system with players capable of acceptably fulfilling their roles at the pragmatic posts required by the institution.” [1]  The pursuit of pragmatic skills may be sufficient for the economic sphere, for a time at least.  But these skills are, obviously, not sufficient for wellbeing in the broader public sphere, where morality must be debated and beliefs bared.  The delegitimized Enlightenment hope of a public sphere governed by scientific rationality and secular liberality needs to give way to a welcome of true epistemic difference.  There are religious people in the future.  A universal submission to the great modern institutions of Knowledge is not in the offing.  If, as Luke Timothy Johnson has recently put it, “the moral and religious” are in fact legitimate “modes of knowing,” this legitimacy must extend to the public sphere. 

This is not to say that all claims to knowledge emerging from any given community are equal—only that we must together arrive at a conception of rationality capable of honoring the most searching and time-honored forms that have emerged across our history—and forge a public sphere capable of such honoring.  The tragicomedy of our moment would be considerably less tragic and comic had what Johnson acidly calls “the etiolated language of the Enlightenment” not all but guaranteed such long-developing revanchist responses as we are now witnessing.  

There are other ways, ways that seek to bring serious thought undergirded by theological belief into the public sphere in a way that honors the pluralistic achievement of modernity without sacrificing conviction at the gate.  The example of the remarkable Brazilian politician and activist Marina Silva comes to mind.  A former Senator of the Republic, Minister of the Environment, the founder of a political party, and three times a presidential candidate, Silva, a Pentecostal, has over decades sought to articulate a compelling theological rationale for her politics, even as she has taken care to advance her vision in ways that speak to those beyond her ecclesiastical home.  The power of her example and argument has required both Christians and secularists to reexamine their usual assumptions about faith and politics.  Could any credibly claim the public square is not richer for her presence in it?[2]

Above, Silva was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activists for her work to protect the Amazon and its people.

If the foundational practices of political liberalism—the ballot, free speech—are not to be used as weapons against it, we must devote ourselves to constructing a more robust pluralism.  For their part, religious intellectuals and activists with more credibility than the authors of The Black Book of the New Left must work to develop networks and institutions within their communities that can foster the constructive public engagement upon which democracy so obviously depends—and which, at present, is in such evident short supply.


 

[1]Jean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Minneapolis, 1984), 48.

[2]For more background and commentary on Silva, see my essay, “What I Saw at the Revolution,” along with Janine Paden Morgan, “Emerging Creation Care Movement Among Brazilian Evangelicals,” both in Eric Miller and Ronald J. Morgan, Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look, in the Christianity and Renewal—Interdisciplinary Studies series, ed. Wolfgang Vondey and Amos Yong (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019): 119-136; 231-250.

The secularization of discourse in contemporary Latin American neoconservatism

Conservative discourse has had many faces in Latin America. For the most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Catholic Church had a monopoly, but was succeeded by the charismatic evangelical movements after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. As the Catholic Church took a more progressive turn, evangelical movements became the spokespersons for conservative views. Today, these discourses are being infused with scientific perspectives.

In this week’s podcast, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera explains how historical Latin American conservatism became neoconservatism. Though Latin America is diverse, conservatism has been a constant throughout the region’s history, intervening not only in the power plays of religious institutions, but also in the shaping of people’s everyday life conceptions of the world. Through a discussion of The Black Book of the New Left: Gender Ideology or Cultural Subversion by Argentinian authors Nicolás Marquez and Agustín Laje, Espinoza Rivera shows how neoconservatism has managed to influence these processes by developing a language of its own that blends “scientific” arguments with philosophical and historical analysis of the contemporary world political landscape. This language is popular among religious groups, including both Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Catholics today. Paradoxically, the diverse users of this language has generated a common tongue for anyone that wants to participate in current Latin American public arenas.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


The Secularisation of Discourse in Contemporary Latin American Neoconservatism

Podcast with Jerry Espinoza Rivera (21 October 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-secularisation-of-discourse-in-contemporary-latin -american-neoconservatism/

PDF for download available here.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Now we’re still in the fourth day of the EASR Conference 2019, in Tartu Estonia. And it has been a hectic week with a very, very rich learning experiences, sharing with colleagues and hearing about their research. And now I’m sitting here with Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Jerry Espinoza Rivera (JER): Thank you.

SC: And would you be so kind as to introduce yourself?

JER: I am a professor, assistant professor at the University of Costa Rica. I teach philosophy at the School of General Studies. And now I’m presenting a paper about the Latin American neoconservative discourse, here in Tartu.

SC: Perfect. And we welcome you here. It’s nice to know that here at the EASR we have Latin American representative scholars working, and that they take part not only in Latin America or in Spanish speaking countries, but also here in English speaking fields. And it’s very nice to know that our work is being known, in that sense.

JER: I agree.

SC: So, just to jump right in to the questions. The first question, I think, tries to frame your subject – especially here at the EASR: how can we understand conservatism in Latin America? So you can give us an overview.

JER. OK. I differentiate between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism in Latin America is closely related with the Catholic Church. You know that the Catholic Church has had a very strong influence in Latin America, especially in politics. And traditional conservatives have been closely related with Catholic thought. So in my presentation, I make a review of this ideological approach of the Catholic Church, especially during the 19th century. Because there is a big difference between the Catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council and after the Second Vatican Council. So the traditional conservativism is deeply closely related with the catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council. For example, the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council considered that the only salvation was possible inside the church. Nobody outside the church could be saved. And this traditional conservatism was based on the idea that only absolute truth was the Catholic truth. That’s quite a big difference between this traditional and the neoconservatives.

SC: And if you could give us somehow a comprehensive understanding of how the transition of conservatism to neo-conservatism happened? It was probably about the Second Vatican Council but in more contextualised forms? It would be interesting for the Listeners . . . . (5:00).

JER: Actually, I do research about not only the neoconservatives in Costa Rica but in Latin America. I use quite a famous book, right now in Latin America, written by two Argentinians. One is Agustín Laje and the other one is Nicolás Márquez. They wrote a very popular book at this moment that is called The Black Book of the New Left. It’s a book written to discredit what they call the New Left. And it’s very interesting to read in this book how they use, for example, the science in a different way than was used by the traditional conservatives. Because traditional conservatives were very sceptical about science – not only about science, but about reason in general. If you read, for example, the syllabus written by the Pope Pius IX, he condemned the use of science as it wasn’t the truth. It was considered an error by the Pope Pius IX. And that was traditional conservatism. In traditional conservatism, science was not the way to achieve the truth. The way to achieve the truth was the faith: faith in the Catholic Church. In neoconservatism it changed. If you read the book by Laje and Márquez you can see that they use the science as . . . they consider science as a kind of certainty; as absolute truth. It’s completely different. In this case, science is not a way to cut across below the faith, as it was in the traditional conservatism, but the absolute truth.

SC: So, you’ve mentioned the relation of conservatism to the Catholic Church and the neoconservatism that is shown in this book. It seems to me that they are different instances of institutionality. So does analysis of this book tell us something about religion in some way? In which way?

JER: That’s another very interesting issue: that this neoconservatism is not considered religious to conservatives. Of course, underground they are religious, but they don’t use the religious discourse to justify their ideas, they use science. They use another kind of justification. For example, in this book, the Black Book of the New Left, they never quote the Bible, because they try to demonstrate that it is science that demonstrates or proves that, for example, homosexuality is against nature. Or, for example, that life begins since conception. And it’s, of course, against the groups that support the legalisation of abortion. And there are many examples where they show how they use science, or a kind of discourse of science, to demonstrate their ideas.

SC: So, paradoxically it seems that traditional conservatism was against science and now neoconservatism is pro-science. But underneath they’re both religious (10:00). That’s very interesting to know. You mentioned something about homosexuality. To probe this issue more, I’d like to ask: what are the discursive forms that neoconservatism is playing?

JER: It’s interesting.to see how these neoconservatives, they build a kind of new enemy kind of antagonism for themselves. Their enemy is not now what it was during the cold war, for example, Communism. But now their enemy is more related with sexuality. And that’s why they use this term “gender ideology”. The term is essentially an empty signifier. What does it mean, when I say that is an empty signifier? That it doesn’t have any meaning. But they use it to attack, or to discredit for example ideas by Judith Butler or the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir or all their theories philosophers or thinkers that heave written about gender. So they create this concept. They call it gender ideology to discredit . . . . But not only to discredit these thinkers, but to discredit any policy or any fight related with sexual or reproductive rights. That’s why, for example, you can see in Latin America, how these groups attack for example, any decision related to legalisation of abortion. They call it gender ideology. Because they created a kind of enemy to discredit and they use this term, this signifier, to discredit any policy related with sexual and reproductive rights.

SC: Which is a thing I believe also I stayed in (audio unclear) and there was a tendency for the state to . . . or at least not everybody was in favour of reproductive rights or sexual rights.

JER: Yes. You can see how it was very important issue in Brazil during the last election. Jair Bolsonaro the President, he uses it, this discourse, to discredit his enemies. What does it mean? It means that it’s an important issue in Latin America, not only a discourse of minorities. What you can see in Brazil, you can see it in Colombia, in Peru, in Chile and many countries. This discourse of the neoconservatives has grown. In my country Costa Rica you can see it for example. Now there is a big conflict about the use of mixed toilets. It is, you can consider it like something very unimportant, but some religious groups, conservative groups, use it as an excuse to attack the government. And it’s a very good example of how the neoconservatives use these kinds of issues to discredit or to attack some policies (15:00).

SC: Like a point of entry for doing politics for Latin America?

JER: Yes. It’s interesting to see how Laje and Márquez, they are travelling across every region, every country, presenting their book. It’s interesting to see how, for example in Costa Rica, there was a big controversy about the presentation of this book, but you can see that they are looking for these kind of controversies. Because they know that it makes them famous. For example, in the case of Costa Rica, one of their presentations was forbidden at one of the Universities, because it was considered that it was discriminatory. So they made it a case, they made it an issue to become famous, because of the controversy that they generated.

SC: Also I believe that it’s not only dependent on this book. It’s got currency worldwide.

JER: Yes, of course. I use the book as an example. Because the book is incredibly famous and very popular. It’s interesting to see how a book that, if you read it the book it . . . academically, it’s very week, you know? Their arguments are very week. It’s very easy to refute them. But they know that there are many people who want to read this kind of argument. And that’s why, actually, the book, you can’t buy it; it’s free! So it’s easy for people to obtain the book. It’s interesting how they promote their ideas.

SC: And going back to this issue of traditional conservatism and neoconservatism: so it’s not related, neoconservatism, to the Catholic Church?

JER: No. that’s another difference with between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism was deeply, closely related with the Catholic Church, but neoconservatism not only includes Catholics, but also neo-Pentecostalist parties. For example in my country, in Costa Rica, there is a quite a big neo-Pentecostal party, who was there actually participated in the last election and was one of the parties that obtained more votes. It was a disputed presidency, with the candidate that finally won. But they obtained forty percent of the votes! It’s really, really big. And what’s interesting is to see that in spite of the fact that it was neo-Pentecostalist party, many Catholics voted for this candidate. Ten years ago it was unimaginable. It’s very interesting to see how this neoconservative discourse is attracting not only people who are traditional Catholics, but people who belong to other kinds of churches.

SC: Speaking of that, I think that, in sociological terms, it’s interesting how these concepts of the conservatives’ cause reached civil society(20:00). And that’s why I also want to ask, what effect does it have in the shared imaginary of the general public?

JER: Yes, the growth of these parties is not only a political phenomenon, but a social phenomenon. It’s extremely related . . . in the case of Brazil, for example, there was a big influence of WhatsApp in the election of Bolsonaro. That’s exactly the same case in Costa Rica. Social networks were very important in the final election. Because it’s easier to spread fake news through these kind of networks. Ten years ago, or twenty years ago it was more difficult to do these kind of things. Now, with social networks, it’s easier to spread this kind of fake news. You can see it in the United States, in the election of Trump. It is quite a similar process.

SC: Do you have any further remarks to kind-of sum up what we have been discussing so far?

JER: I just want to remark how dangerous is what’s happening right now, not only in Latin America but in many countries. Even here in Europe – you can see it in Poland, in Hungary and in Slovakia and other countries. It’s a new kind of politics that uses hatred towards some groups, minority groups, for example LGBT collectives, or the feminist groups. And this is new. And they use it because they realise that it’s quite popular. You know? This kind of discourse is quite popular. People easily believe these kind of ideas that you can read: things about “homosexualisation of the world” for example. It’s kind-of crazy ideas they are spreading, and it’s quite dangerous. You can see it happening in the United States in 2016, and you can see it in Brazil in the case of Latin America. And this phenomenon is spreading around the world.

SC: So it’s akin to . . . even to conspiracy theories?

JER: Yes. In the case of Latin America it’s even worse, I would say. Because it’s also related to the problems that are related with poverty, inequality and other problems that make that easier for these people to be attracted to this kind of discourse.

SC: Right. Well, Professor Espinoza, it was very nice to have you here at the Religious Studies Project and we hope to have you again, soon.

JER: Thank you.

SC: Thank you.

 

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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.

Is Secularism a World Religion?

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we are not the biggest fans of the World Religions Paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013, and the accompanying response that asked what Religious Studies should do “After the World Religions Paradigm…?” that prompted David and Chris, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume “published in February 2016 with Routledge. Listeners will also be relatively familiar with the concept of “secularism”, “the secular” and so on – particularly from our podcasts with Joseph Blankholm on “Permutations of the Secular” and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on “Understanding the Secular“. Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask “Is Secularism a World Religion?” Discussion starts with the entanglement of the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’, a brief discussion of the problems associated with the World Religions Paradigm, and then moves to the pedagogical merits and challenges of teaching ‘secularism/s’ within a World Religions model. We hope you enjoy this experiment!


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


(pssst…check out these podcasts below too!)

Is Religion Special? A Critical Look at Religion, Wellbeing, and Prosociality with Luke Galen

Is religion ‘sui generis,? with Russell McCutcheon

Secular Humanism with Tom Flynn

The Secularisation Thesis with Linda Woodhead

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Podcast with Donovan Schaefer (28th November 2016)

Interviewed by Christopher R. Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin J. Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/is-secularism-a-world-religion/

Christopher R. Cotter (CC): Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we’re not the biggest fans of the “World religions” paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013 and the accompanying response that asked what religious studies should do after the world religions paradigm that prompted David and I, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon, and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume ‘After World religions’, published in February 2016.  Listeners will also be relatively familiar with concepts of Secularism, the secular, and so on, particularly from podcasts with Joe Blankholm on Permutations of the Secular and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on Understanding the Secular.  Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask, ‘is Secularism a world religion?’ So I’m joined today to discuss this question by Donovan Schaefer at the British Association for the Study of Religion’s annual conference at the University of Wolverhampton. Dr Schaefer is departmental lecturer in science and religion, in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University and his first book ‘Religious Affects, Animality, Evolution, and Power’ was published in November 2015 by Duke, and has current projects on the relationship between emotion, science, and Secularism. So Donovan, first off welcome to The Religious Studies Project.

Donovan Schaefer (DS): Thanks a lot Chris, thanks for having me.

(CC): It’s a pleasure. So first of all, in the spirit of rhetorically asking, why are we even asking this question? I mean, Secularism is surely as far removed from the category of world religions as we can get, I mean…why are you asking it?

(DS): Yeah, definitely. A lot of recent research has actually challenged that seemingly common-sensical argument that Secularism is the opposite of religion. This has come from a lot of different directions, historical analysis, cultural studies, even a lot of work in philosophy of religion has started to challenge this idea that there is a clear line between the secular and the religious.

(CC): Mm. And, because they’re so intertwined as concepts even if you were to accept they’re-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): opposites, you’ve always got the study…the opposites within…you know, you can’t know what religion is without studying it’s supposed opposite anyway.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely.

(CC): So, perhaps it would be best to start, I mean, we’ve covered the Secularisation Thesis and a lot of these topics in other podcasts but we should start with that, so let’s paint the context in which this question is being asked then.

(DS): Sure, so the Secularisation Thesis really gets off the ground in the 19th Century and it comes from a variety of different quarters in the sort of, early movements in sociology, some of the early conversations that are being asked in science and religion, late 20th Century, sorry, late 19th Century, philosophy of religion, all of these different conversations start to thematise this idea that religion is a specific thing in the world that is gradually going away.

(CC): Mmm.

(DS): Now, in the 20th century you have thinkers like Max Weber in sociology who formalise this, they make it, they make it even more of a kind of, article of social-scientific faith that religion is on a trajectory of decline. What happens though, is that, later in the 20th Century, you have these historical moments that start to challenge the Secularisation Thesis. So something like the rise of the religious right in the United States in the 1970s in reaction to things like the civil rights movement, or the (05:00) Roe V Wade Supreme Court ruling. The religious right by the mid to late 1970s has become an incredibly powerful force and of course in 1980 you have the election of Ronald Regan with a specifically Christian agenda backing him. Or even across the world, something like the Iranian revolution in 1978 to ’79 that creates a new Islamic Republic where previously there had been a secular state. Stuff like this, it’s just not supposed to happen according to the classical Secularisation narrative. There isn’t supposed to be a return of religion, religion is supposed to be evaporating. And that puts a, it puts pressure on the classical secularisation narrative. So scholars throughout the 1980s, 1990s and up to the present have started to ask questions about the secularisation narrative and have come up with a very robust dialogue about what went wrong with the classical secularisation paradigm and what will replace it.

(CC): Mmm. And that also sort of introduces an ideological element this sort of idea-

(DS): -Right.

 (CC): –that the notion of secularisation is itself a form of ideology, it’s a sort of…thinking of the way things should be-

(DS): Definitely, yeah.

(CC): -it’s not mirroring reality.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So we’ve already alluded to even if these things are dichotomous, obviously it’s studying them alongside each other so…many of us at Universities will be familiar with the standard introductory sort of  ‘here’s a survey of world religions’ like ‘Religion 101’ or something. So I think one of the questions you’re really asking is should… where’s the place of the secular in that sort of Religion 101 class?

(DS): Yeah, exactly.

(CC): Is it a World Religion, so if we’re going to segue into that, we’re going to need to talk about what is a world religion first of all, and then ask why we might want to try and fit the secular into that mould.

(DS): I mean I should really be asking you that but my take on it is that the idea of World religions again has its emergence in the 19th Century, it comes out of these 19th Century thinkers like Max Muller who are interested in making the study of religion into a science, they want to formalize the study of religion and turn it into something that moves away from the obviously supremacist classification scheme that had been used previously in Western Europe. That said though, Tomoko Masuzawa in her book ‘The Invention of World religions’ is actually…even though she spends a great deal of time sort of researching the archives, trying to find out where this paradigm comes from. Even she ultimately says she doesn’t know where it comes from. It emerges obviously through a sort of confluence of different conversations that are taking place throughout the 19th Century and early 20th century. Where precisely it comes from is…is a little bit opaque. Regardless, what we’re left with by the mid to late 20th Century is an understanding of religions as discrete objects that can be studied in the world that have particular histories, they’re often organised under a particular heading. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and they’re very often structured around a specific text and a specific set of practices. And that structure is something that has become, at least at the level of the dissemination of religious studies in terms of undergraduate teaching, central.

(CC): Yes.

(DS): How did I do?

(CC): You did well, Sir, you did well. And it’s…Yes, so it’s sort of ubiquitous in undergraduate teaching and it’s ubiquitous in society, you know-

(DS): -Right

(CC): –we think about ‘what is your religion’ as a question that makes sense to people and then we have these certain silos-

(DS): -Right

(CC): -that we try and put that into. So yes, this has been…regardless of the origins of it this has been subjected to a number of critiques right so, it’s very Protestant, for example –

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC): –that idea of a text and it being about belief, you can only have one faith and all that sort of thing. This seemingly objective model sort of becomes Oh…that’s a little bit Protestant.

(DS): Definitely. And also something that I think we can see as being a by-product of (10:00) a particular idiom of 19th Century science. 19th Century science it’s the age of classification, it’s the age of grand theories, and that prism divides up the world in a particular way, and I think we can see the World religions paradigm as being a product of that particular way of thinking about the world.

(CC): Mmm. And that particular way of thinking about the world is deeply connected with Colonialism as well.

(DS): Definitely.

(CC): We were encountering others and then classifying them.

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC): ‘Classify and conquer’ was, I think was Max Muller’s term. And then of course it encourages this notion that there is a thing called religion that is made manifest in various forms.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So Russ McCutcheon would take great issue with that.

(DS): Yeah.

(CC): So given all that problem with the World religions paradigm why would we want to try and fit Secularism into that model. What would be the point, shouldn’t we just be jettisoning it?

(DS): Yeah, right. Well, I mean, I have a few thoughts on that. I am not…I’m not blanketly hostile to the World religions paradigm. I think that …I would give it about a six out of ten or a seven out of ten in terms of a pedagogical tool for explaining religion to undergraduates, especially if we start from the assumption that many undergraduates are only going to take one religious studies class. Is the World religions paradigm the best way of doing that? I’m not sure. But I don’t think that it necessarily is evil. However, I do think that it needs to be deconstructed from within. I think that precisely as we’re teaching students within this framework we need to be calling attention to the limitations of this framework. And part of the reason why I think it’s important to talk about Secularism within that context is because I think that it sets the stage for conversation about the World religions paradigm in and of itself.

(CC): Mmm. Yes, and the paradigm, you know, I think it was my colleague Kate Daley-Bailey described it as, you know, it’s a useful way of getting people from one side of the road to the other-

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC):– and if that’s what you need to do, you get them there. But you can also along the way be explaining to them why you chose that why of doing it if it wasn’t the best…

(DS): Exactly. Yeah, right.

(CC): Okay, so… let’s do this then. Let’s take the World religions model and let’s take the notion of Secularism. So how are we going to go about answering the question is it a world religion?

(DS): Definitely. So this is where I want to get a conversation started. I don’t have clear answers to this but what I sort of see us doing is shuffling the deck of Secularism studies into the deck of the World religions paradigm and just seeing what comes out on the other end. So I think that, in terms of a kind of structure, an overall architecture to this, there would be two ways of doing it. So Secularism studies scholars have roughly speaking two ways of talking about Secularism. One of the ways of talking about it is to say that Secularism is itself a particular iteration of Protestant Christianity, that we have the version of Secularism that we have because we are an offshoot of a cultural historical context that defined religion in a particular way. This goes back to something you were saying earlier about the inextricability of the category of religion from the category of the secular. It’s precisely because we see religion as something that is potentially private, individualised, and belief orientated that religion is something that can be relegated to the private sphere and therefore… and therefore secularised, according to the conventional definition.

(CC): Yeah. So we can see that there’s sort of like a Hegelian dialectic there even-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -look to Feuerbach, and even… you know that we produce the… yeah the… As Christianity secularized… As Catholicism changed to Protestantism that started-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -started a transition.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely. Or even like, one thing that historians and especially intellectual historians like Jonathan Z. Smith, Talal Asad, when he’s wearing that hat, or someone like Craig Calhoun, they really liked to emphasize the beginning of modernity and the immediate aftermath of the Protestant reformation.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): So you could look at it theoretically in the way that religion gets defined as something that is personal rather than corporate. (15:00) You could look at it historically and the way that the resolution to the wars of religion that emerge in the aftermath of the reformation. The political…the political compromises that are made in that wake tend to make religion into something that is detachable, it’s something that is sort of, as Locke puts it, can be kept in the private sphere rather than the public sphere. All of these…all of these…all of these details of Protestantism, whether they’re sort of, part of the DNA of Protestantism or whether they’re sort of historical accidents that shoot off from Protestantism, they make up the coordinates of what would eventually become Secularism.

(CC): Okay.

(DS): So one of the ways that I could see us potentially integrating Secularism into the World religions classroom would be to talk about it as an offshoot from Christianity.

(CC): Mmhmm.

(DS): When we teach Christianity we teach Secularism as something that Christianity does in exactly the same way as you know, depending on how many days you have for teaching Christianity, you would give a sort of capsule history where you would talk about the great schisms, orthodoxy from Catholicism, Protestantism from Catholicism and then could also locate Secularism as, in a sense, another schism, as another permutation of Christianity that is part of the story of Christianity as a World Religion.

(CC): Mmm. And indeed, some of the annoyance that some proponents of Secularism feel with that approach to my mind indicates the very importance of taking that approach-

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): –because people don’t feel annoyance unless there’s some sort of deep connection to the category that you’re talking about.

(DS): I think that’s right and especially building on that if we’re talking about teaching students in a Western/Anglo/Euro/American context, we’re going to be teaching students who are going to be coming from a variety of faith positions some of whom will be coming from a non-faith position and probably see their status as neutral. They probably see the religions they’re looking at as in a sense, under glass, as something that is disconnected from where they are. And I think it’s important for those students to recognise that even the liberal Secular idiom that they might see themselves located within, has a history. That it, even it, the agenda of that is set by a particular set of Christian coordinates. Saba Mahmood has done some really excellent work on this, talking about the way that these sort of ostensibly secular legal codes throughout Europe actually privilege a kind of ghost of Christianity, that they are marshalled in the service of defending a sort of Christian heritage and they suppress other ways of being religious.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): Even when they…they give Christianity a special sort of protection. A perfect example of this would be like the Burkini ban-

(CC): –Yes.

(DS): -that’s been happening in the summer of 2016 where Burkinis, this article of clothing that seems like it would be inoffensive enough has actually become offensive to French Secularism. Precisely because it is encoding a set of Christian presuppositions about ways that you are Secular and religious.

(CC): On that note I saw that, it was in the Guardian, they were quoting sort of, the ruling and it said it might offend the people’s (non) religious (non) convictions.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So your non-religious non-conviction might be offended by it, there’s something interesting going on there.

(DS): Exactly. I think that that’s exactly…I think that that’s a really important pedagogical manoeuvre  with students is showing them how even our own liberal democratic structures have a sort of conserved Christian genetic coding in them. That’s not to create an equivalence, that’s not to say that the difference aren’t meaningful, it’s just to say that we need to…we need to take a critical eye on our own intellectual inheritance rather than presupposing it’s neutral. So all of that would be one way that I would see Secularism entering the World religions paradigm… structure. I think there’s another way though, which would be equally interesting.

(CC): Mhhmm.

(DS): So one of the ways that scholars working in the mode of critical Secularism studies have approached Secularism is to say there is not just one Secularism.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are in fact multiple Secularisms. This is the title of a book, an anthology (20:00) by Janet Jakobsen and Anne Pellegrini, ‘Secularisms’, and this, as I see it, is coming out of these two sort of, kind of, guiding lights of the critical Secularism studies field.  Talal Asad and Charles Taylor. So Talal Asad is very interested in this idea that the Secularism that we have is a result of a particular history and he says that rather than assuming that Secularism is going to be the same everywhere we anticipate a multiplicity of what he calls ‘formations of the Secular’.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are different Secularisms that correspond to different historical moments, and they have different priorities, they have different coordinates, they have different outcomes precisely because their starting points, the sort of ingredients out of, the landscape out of which they secularise is different. So his sort of cardinal example of this is the difference between Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity and Islam. Protestant Christianity de-ritualises religion so its version of Secularism is a version of Secularism that doesn’t pay a lot of attention to ritual, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to practices. Asad will say, you know, when we have formations of the secular emerging out of Islamic contexts we need to be attentive to the way that they are…that they are…that they always keep an eye on practices. And the version, the formations of the Secular that emerge in these other contexts will have a different configuration. Charles Taylor calls this…he calls this ‘the myth of the subtraction story’. The myth of the subtraction story is this idea that once you get rid of religion, you’re left with a neutral landscape.

(CC): Yeah. Indeed, yeah, I’ve always thought of using a quotation from my supervisor Kim Knott who just says that there is no neutral point from which to observe religion-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -we’re participants in that discourse. So would the logical outcome of that then be that if you were incorporating that Secularism(s) into the World religions classroom that you would sort of pair off-

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC):- you would teach Christianity and Christian Secularism, Islam and Islamic Secularism.

(DS): That’s what I’m thinking of. I’m, again, I’m presenting this conversationally, this isn’t something that I’m, I’m at a point where I could publish it but I think that we need to consider this possibility that the best way to teach Secularism within the context of the World religions classroom would be exactly this pairing, to say that Buddhist secularisms, Christian Secularisms, Jewish Secularisms, even we might want to get more specific than that, like Jewish Secularism in the United States, very different from Jewish Secularism in Israel. Islamic Secularism in Saudi Arabia is very different from Islamic Secularism in Iran. To thematise this I think would be a really productive way of getting Secularism into the conversation, but also raising this idea which I think is one of the challenges that you’ve, that you’ve sort of discussed very ably in your own work with Secularism, which is the way it creates a sort of silo model as you said it-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS):- of these religions being sort of ahistorical, sort of fixed compilations of ideas and practices that can be very easily, sort of clinically diagnosed as you know-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS): -you know like, okay, you’ve got, you’ve got your five pillars, you’ve got Islam. That’s not actually adequate, that’s never been adequate for teaching what religion is, but it’s particularly inadequate in the context of a situation, a global situation now, of accelerating mediatisation and globalisation where transactions between different traditions are becoming more and more…more and more rich. They’re just more and more…the dynamic between different traditions is becoming deeper and deeper. And I think that emphasising that localism of Secularism would be a way of raising that to the surface.

(CC): Mhhm. And this is exactly the sort of thing that we should be discussing at this conference, the theme being ‘religion beyond the textbook’.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So, conclusion then. So, are you going to do this?

(DS): Yeah, I think I will. I’m not in a situation right now where I teach world religions but as I think about, as I think about that syllabus next time that that portfolio falls into my lap it’s something that I’m actually quite excited to do, precisely because of the way that I think (25:00) it, it reciprocally calls attention to the limits of both the world religions paradigm, which I think is a useful, if limited, pedagogical tool, and the Secularisation narrative.

(CC): And how do we avoid…one of the main problems with subversively employing anything, so subversively employing the world religions category, is that your critical intent isn’t really communicated to the students, again as you say if they’ve come for a one semester course and then they’re gone, they’ve gone in and they’ve done the world religions course and they’ve come out. So say they’ve come to this course and they do a world religions and Secularisms thing and then they come out with this sort of very strict siloed model on Islamic Secularism is this, Christian Secularism is that, what, is there a danger there, going down that route, you could be sort of reifying the very distinction that we…

(DS): Yeah. I think all discourses have dangers. All discourses are going to be provisional ways of organising the abundance of information that is the world. And they’re always going to have certain limitations attached to them. I think that the best that we can do is inhabit those discourses with a sort of deconstructive eye. And my hope is that among other things I think that there are lots of ways of sort of reciprocally critiquing the world religions paradigm while teaching it. I’ve tried to do that in the past when I’ve taught world religions. I think that this method of introducing Secularism as a legitimate object of study within the architecture of the religions, world religions paradigm could be a way of amplifying that technique.

(CC): Yeah. And, you know, you can only resist the dominant expectations of your students so much before they stop coming to your classes and also I can see this being a really good exercise perhaps for higher level students, just to pose the question that we’ve asked-

(DS):- Right.

(CC): –is Secularism a world religion, set it as an essay topic or something, I can see some really excellent discussions happening there.

(DS): That would be fascinating. I mean, I think too, like, I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, that pedagogically that, I mean, there’s only so much we can do to sort of…there’s only so much we can do to sort of destabilise the way that students think, but I’m also…I’m also a firm believer in the pedagogical value of inhabiting something from the inside in order to destabilise it.

(CC): Mhhm.

(DS): Rather than standing so far outside of it that students can’t necessarily see what you’re doing.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): And my hope is, and again I mean, this is just an optimism, it’s not something that I’ve actually put into play, and really I see it more of just a conversation starter in pedagogy circles than anything, and my hope is that this practice of introducing Secularism as an object of study within the context of the world religions paradigm would be a way of inhabiting that paradigm from the inside and leaving students with a very vivid impression of its own limitations.

(CC): That is a wonderful way to end. Bang on half an hour, so thanks so much Donovan.

(DS): Thanks so much Chris, this was wonderful.

(CC): Well, I very much enjoyed recording that interview with Donovan and we both were in the session where he presented that paper at the BASR.

David Robertson: Yeah I was going to mention that, there was an odd moment there. It wasn’t the best attended of sessions, I don’t think it got the audience it deserves let’s put it that way, but I think there was eight or nine people in the room of whom two, two of, were myself and Chris. And he immediately showed a picture of our book, ‘The RSP Volume’ you know, After World Religions, which you should read if you haven’t, and started attacking our argument, which was-

(CC): He didn’t attack our argument!

(DR): I thought it was wonderful, I loved every minute of it [laughs].

(CC): But yeah, it was one of those lovely moments that was sort of the first proper one in my “career” in quotation marks. And so hopefully the catchy title there will have dragged in some listeners, you might have thought ‘what, what, that’s ridiculous!’ But hearing Donovan talk about it as an interesting thought experiment, as a way of dismantling in a way the hegemony of the paradigm itself.

(DR): Indeed, and problematizing the term and its application and the rest of it, and Chris and I have talked about an After After World Religions, be it a journal or a second volume of the book, and Donovan is going to contribute to that (30:00) hopefully, if and when it happens.

(CC): You hear that Donovan? You’re under contract now.

(DR): He gave me a verbal agreement and in Scotland that’s legally binding. It was in Helsinki.

(CC): And in Wolverhampton. Same difference.

(DR): Was it?

(CC): Yes.

(DR): Oh. Either way, I’m Scottish so that’s binding.

[they laugh].

(DR): I think we may be showing too much of the man behind the curtain this week.


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Conversion and Deconversion as Concepts in the Sociology of Religion

Religious conversion has traditionally been understood as the abandonment of one religious identity for another, or a switch from no religious identification to a newly religious one. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and others have viewed conversion as a sudden, singular event in one’s life. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of new religious movements and the flowering of Asian religious traditions in the West, sociologists reformulated conversion as an active, gradual process of transformation.

Conversion, in these understandings, is not a changed subjective or ontological identity but rather a shift in one’s discursive universe, social relationships, and embodied practices, a new role learned through language, behavior, and interpersonal boundary maintenance. Similarly, deconversion and its scholarly synonyms (apostasy, alienation, disaffiliation, defection, exit, leaving) has many contexts, motivations, and processes, including loss of a specific religious experience, doubt or denial of beliefs, moral criticism, emotional suffering, and unlearning particular vocabularies and behaviors.

For this interview with Lynn Davidman, we focus on the concepts of conversion and deconversion*, illustrations of these processes in various contexts, what each term means and how each is experienced in someone’s life, the histories of these terms and their use in scholarship, and issues that arise from their conceptualization or use.

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, jelly beans, the artist formally known as “Prince” memorial T-shirts, and more.

*Our interview took place during the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting, held in Chicago. During our conversation, Davidman refers to comments made at an author-meets-critics panel about her new book which took place earlier that day.

*For more on conversion, see L. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (1993) and L. Rambo and C. Farhadian, The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (2014), as well as D. Snow and R. Machalek, “The Sociology of Conversion” (1984).

*For more on deconversion, see H. Streib et al, Deconversion (2009) and P. Zuckerman, Faith No More (2011).

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 2 February 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

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

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Calls for papers

7th Queering Paradigms Conference

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Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

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June 24, 2016

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Inform seminar: New Religious Radicalisms

May 21, 2016

London School of Economics, UK

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February 18–20, 2016

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2 PhD positions in sociology project: “Postsecular Conflicts”

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PhD position: “Multiple Secularities: Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”

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PhD studentship: Cognitive Science of Religion

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Visiting Fellowship

Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

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Associate Professor, Full Professor: Jewish History/Studies

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Columbia University, NY, USA

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Report: 2015 Joint Conferences of the New Zealand and Australian Associations for the Study of Religion

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Bruno Marshall Shirley and John H. Shaver

The biennial conference of the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) and the annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions (AASR) were held together in Queenstown, New Zealand from December 8-10 2015. Interdisciplinary perspectives and theoretical approaches across the humanities and social sciences were evident in the wide-range of papers presented. Islam, and Asian religions more generally, were the most consistent objects of focus, perhaps unsurprising given Australasia’s proximity to Asia and recent increased media attention to the Islamic State.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The conference’s emphasis on Asia and Islam were evident in the keynote lectures. In a talk entitled “Creativity and Ethical Life in India,” Tulasi Srinivas (Emerson College) described religious innovations in Bangalore and the sense of “wonder” that they often inspire. She argued that scholars ought to take emerging religious practices seriously, rather than as anomalies or deviations from established, textually-based understandings of religion. Turning to Japan, Douglas Ezzy (University of Tasmania) argued that Shint­ō is best considered a “religion of practice” in contrast to those traditional conceptions of religion as belief-oriented. He suggested that while a non-Christian can attend mass at a Christian place of worship and not be “doing Christianity,” a tourist at a Shint­ō shrine participating in its various ritual practices might be said to be “doing Shint­ō.” For many Japanese Shint­ō is not associated with doctrinal belief (shūkyō), which allows people to engage with Shint­ō ritual practice while not accepting its cosmology. Some in the audience disagreed with Ezzy’s analysis of Shint­ō and its relationship to shūkyō, but his call for a renewed focus on religious practice was generally appreciated. Sally McAra (University of Auckland), looked at one traditionally Asian religion, Buddhism, in the Australasian context. She discussed the problems facing an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research among their own group, principally a difficulty in carrying out objective analyses, due to a positive bias towards group ideals.

The final keynote lecture, from Gary D. Bouma (Monash University), turned to Islam and to Western discourses about the “threat” that each other poses. Bouma argued that both anti-Western and anti-Muslim narratives shared several key features: both narratives assert that the “other” is incorrect in some way; each is reinforced due to media bias; and both narratives are responsible for the perpetuation of conflict. Bouma’s most significant point was that Religious Studies scholars have a responsibility to discredit these discourses – particularly anti-Muslim narratives in the West, such as those put forth by Trump or Abbot. These narratives, Bouma argued, serve to legitimise attempts to gain power at the expense of civil liberties, and/or to divert attention from their own violence (including structural violence, domestic violence, or even climate change).

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper "Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult," in the panel "Religion in/and Politics."

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper “Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult,” in the panel “Religion in/and Politics.”

The panel “Contemporary Religions” continued the central foci on Asian religions and Islam. A paper by Douglas Osto (Massey) (based on his forthcoming book, Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, Columbia UP, 2016) outlined the history of “Psychedelic Buddhism” from the 1950s into the present, and the changing attitudes of American Buddhist practitioners towards mind-altering drugs. Osto described how some practitioners used psychedelic drugs as a “door” to advanced states of mind, before graduating to “pure” meditation practices, while others (notably Joan Halifax) continued to use drugs to supplement their meditative practices. Although psychedelia has been investigated before, Osto’s study represents the first serious examination of psychedelic Buddhism as a non-systemic religious movement, and is sure to lead to further studies of other hybrid Buddhist practices in the West. Buddhism was also the focus of a panel on “Buddhist Tales and Territories,” which featured a paper by Chaisit Suwanvarangkul (University of Otago) on the relevance of dharmakāya and the tathāgatagarbha doctrine to Therāvada Buddhism, as well as to the Mahāyāna. Suwanvarangkul’s paper was partially in response to an earlier paper by Michael Radich (Victoria University of Wellington), presented at the 2007 Australian Association of Buddhist Studies conference, entitled “There is no Dhammakāya in the Pāli Canon.” Suwanvarangkul’s inclusion of the Chinese Āgama as Theravāda was the subject of some controversy, as Osto pointed out that, despite parallels to the Theravāda nikāya, the Chinese āgama contain several key differences from the Theravāda texts. The panel also included papers by Anna Halafoff and Matthew Clarke (both of Deakin University) on the role of Songdhammakalyani monastery (Thailand) in promoting gender equality; Chiew Hui Ho (University of Sydney) on Chinese tales about the Diamond Sutra and their role in encouraging faith; and Phra Akbordin Rattana (University of Otago) on the model of Buddha devotion expressed in the Mārabandha chapter of the Paṭhamasambodhi-kathā.

Papers in the panel “Religion and the State” shared a common theme of distinctions between “religious practice” and “political actions” breaking down, in cases drawn from China, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Melissa Inoue (University of Auckland) discussed China’s True Jesus Church and its “miraculous” discourse. She argued that by directing attention to this-worldly affairs, the discourse indirectly both critiques and affirms contemporary Chinese society and the stewardship of the party-state. Ben Schonthal (University of Otago) turned to Sri Lanka and the (legal) case of a Buddhist monk who was denied an application for a driver’s license on the grounds that it was not appropriate for monks to drive. He argued that this was fundamentally a problem of contested authority over religious practice in Sri Lanka, arising from an ambiguous constitutionalising of religion. Bruno M. Shirley (Victoria University of Wellington) called for a post-secular rethinking of “religious violence” using the case study of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Senā. Shirley suggested that explanations for religious violence, generally and in Sri Lanka specifically, have tended to assume a secularist dichotomy of “religion” and “politics” that is inadequate for dealing with the relationship between Buddhism, politics, and violence in Sri Lanka. Shirley suggested instead that we might reconsider this relationship within a framework of identity politics.

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper "Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion," in the panel "Naming Islamism."

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper “Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion,” in the panel “Naming Islamism.”

The panel “Naming Islamism,” was by far the most controversial of the conference. Will Sweetman (University of Otago), Christopher van der Krogt (Massey University), Douglas Pratt (University of Waikato), William E. Shepard (University of Canterbury), and audience members debated whether or not the Islamic State could be considered an authentic iteration of “Islam.” Van der Krogt argued that such a debate represents a misunderstanding of religion, and Islam in particular, while Sweetman argued that there is no basis for denying the Islamic State’s self-identification as Muslim. Several audience members disagreed with this assertion, instead arguing that Islam did indeed have some core norms and values with which the Islamic State does not conform. This panel also included less controversial papers by Shepard (University of Canterbury), on the development of Sayyid Qutb’s views on gender relations, and Pratt, on the Islamic State’s “theological ideology.”

Not all of the panels at the conference focussed on Asia or on Islam, and of these the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) panel is particularly notable for being the most empirically-oriented of the conference. The first NZAVS talk was delivered by the director of the study, Chris Sibley, a psychologist from the University of Auckland. Sibley described the breadth of the study and some of the many challenges inherent to large-scale longitudinal data collection. Joseph Bulbulia (Victoria University of Wellington) then detailed a few of the more significant findings pertaining to religion that have emerged from the NZAVS, including his work on the distinct “faith signatures” that span and defy traditional denominational categorization. Following these talks, Geoffrey Troughton (Victoria University of Wellington) described the history of the “Christian Not Further Declared (NFD)” designation in the New Zealand census, and then used NZAVS data to describe the demographic characteristics of those individuals that have recently come to identify with this tremendously growing group. The panel concluded with John Shaver (Victoria University of Wellington) describing the complex, but unique, picture of religion and prejudice/ tolerance in New Zealand. Although highly religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of many social groups (including ethnic and religious out-groups) than their secular counterparts, they are also less tolerant of some other groups (e.g., homosexuals). Shaver interpreted this pattern as a result of the differential flexibility of human values. He argued that those values associated with conservatism are necessary for the cultural transmission of religion and are therefore less free to vary across cultures, while those that are less relevant to transmission are subject to greater environmental influence.

Perhaps due to the University of Otago’s excellent choice to host the conference in scenic Queenstown, the conference was relatively well-attended by NZASR standards, and a strong Australian presence was a welcome addition to the conference’s academic and social events. While Asia and Islam were focal, the range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches made for interesting discussions, both in panels and informally. The conference demonstrated that the study of religions in New Zealand and Australia continues to broaden its interdisciplinary focus.

“Religion in Peru” — conference report, 2015

The conference, “Religion in Peru : Research itineraries from the social sciences,” was held at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima-Peru, 24 September 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Sidney Castillo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

The study of religion has deep roots in the South American country of Peru. Over twenty years ago, one of this country’s most eminent scholars of religion, the late Manuel Marzal, (1996) wrote an article detailing a century of religious studies in Peru. Since the dawn of social sciences in Peruvian academia, scholars from different schools of thought and institutions have applied their own perspectives to religion, from indigenism to Marxism—and of course the catholic church. These scholars wanted to get a grip on what means to be religious in Peru in order to better understand its people, however they also differed in key ways. For example, some have been concerned with religion as it may relate to establishing enduring political structures, to gain more adherents, or for good old fashioned criticism. Peru is a country rich with not only religious tradition, but also religious innovation. For example, we have both our equivalent of the Popol Vuh, the Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí [1] manuscript from the sixteenth century, and also a Peruvian new religious movement, the Asociación Evangélica de la Misión Israelita del Nuevo Pacto Universal from the twentieth century  as examples; this is why the conference presented different approaches to the study of religious phenomena, and discussed its relevance in the 21st century.

The conference was organized by the Master’s Degree in Sciences of Religion of the Faculty of Social Sciences from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, represented by its Coordinator, Jaime Regan and myself (Sidney Castillo) as organizer, in collaboration with the Students Center of Anthropology of the same university (CEAN in Spanish) and the Peruvian Academy of the Sciences of Religion (APECREL also in Spanish). The conference featured anthropological researches based on case study and comparative religion approaches, as well as sociological research in the field of secularism and state regulations, and the sciences of religion itself as an academic field. The scholars who participated in the event were Luis Millones (Professor Emeritus of Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos), Diego Huerta (University of Helsinki), Marco Huaco (University of Strasbourg) and Dorothea Ortmann (University of Rostock).

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

For myself, as an organizer, it was particularly fulfilling to see the conference auditorium packed and the scholars ready to take the lead on the subject that was of our interest. And it was also fulfilling because we had a lot of competition that day: three academic events in the same faculty at pretty much the same time! We can say then, that people is really getting interested in learning about religion outside mainstream means e.g. churches.

Luis Millones’s talk was about Apostle Santiago and the Moors (Millones : 2015). He presented his latest research done in San Lucas de Colan, a small town within the Paita province in the coastal part of Piura region. His ethnographic research provided an insiders appreciation of the festival offered to Santiago Apostle’s horse, Felipe, in which the image of the patron saint observes the symbolic representation of the horse battling against the Moors. The festival commands both a huge participation on money and coordination from the brotherhood of the saint. Millones viewed this as a means of obtaining prestige among the townsfolk. Interestingly, these kind of festivities are a staple in many different rural and urban places. Particularly, as it’s a way of recreating social bonds with fellow members of the community (or former communities since a lot of people that participate in these celebrations are migrants) by venerating the patron saint and having a huge party lasting several days.

In the second talk, Diego Huerta used a comparative approach in discussing two religious phenomenons comprising some of his past research: the pilgrimage of the Christ of Huamantanga in the outer part of Lima, in the Canta district ; and the (neo)paganism in the urban parts of Lima (Huerta : 2012). His aim was to put into question the factual realization of the secularization process in Peru, in order to examine folk religion and new religious movements as manifestations of an alternative religiosity. Huerta suggested that while the former is more related to popular interpretations of Catholicism, the latter stems more from a product of globalization, embedded in a culture of media driven information on different religious traditions. I found his presentation as indicating that not even tradition is written in stone, tradition changes.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

In the third presentation, Marco Huaco’s discussed the policy of laicidad, a.k.a. secularism in church-state relations (Huaco : 2013). He detailed the historical trajectory of the Peruvian constitutions, demonstrating their evolution, developing from constitutions of doctrinal confessionality towards constitutions of historical-sociological confessionality, finally arriving to the present day constitution. This constitution acknowledges the Catholic Church an important element of Peruvian society, and allows the State to take part in partnership with other religious denominations. This is highlighted by the 1980 Agreement between the Holy See and Peru, which he explained, has important consequences in the ordering of public policies (e.g., birth control and lgbt rights) and primary education.

The closing presentation was delivered by Dorothea Ortmann. In it, she presented how the Sciences of Religion was first established in Peru (Ortmann: 2002). Ortmann traced the beginnings of this development from the researches of Julio C. Tello, Rafael Larco Hoyle and Luis Válcarcel, where they tried to explain the syncretism process, noting the economic and political implications of these mixtures on many Andean deities. For example, the Lanzon of Chavin de Huantar and the Teja Amaru[2]. Ortmann discussed how researchers utilized the tools from different disciplines to explain this process (e.g. archaeology, linguistics and anthropology), in order to gain a wider overview of the Andean societies.

The variety of research that was presented at the conference allowed Peru’s academic community to gather a comprehensive entry into what the academic study of religion was and is, noting future possibilities for research. In echoing Ortmann’s sentiments, the academic study of religion in Peru has existed, at least to date, due to the personal interests and dedication of lone researchers (largely at their own costs) and not due to established monetary support from institutions. However, while some valuable research has been supported at religiously affiliated institutions (e.g., Centro de Estudios Teológicos de la Amazonía, Instituto de Pastoral Andina with the Allpanchis journal, Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas, Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones) other perspectives are needed, and at further distance from pastoral inspiration. Shedding some level of ties with the insider perspectives often provided via religious institutions will allow Peruvian academics to study religious phenomena from a variety of fresh perspectives[3].

 

That this conference took place at the National University of San Marcos was quite inspiring. This was the first university on the continent with a theology and arts faculty during the second half of the sixteenth century. Now, almost five hundred years later, Peruvian academics still have an interest in studying religion. However, our current perspectives and methodologies are far more diverse, and ever broadening. I remain optimistic that, in the near future, the academic study of religion in Peru will be as widespread and supported as other research areas. No doubt, this will be due in large part to the dedication and interest of Peruvian scholars, as this conference exemplifies.

References

Marzal, Manuel. (1996). “Un siglo de investigación de la religión en el Perú”. Anthropologica. Lima, volumen 14, número 14, pp. 7-28. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://revistas.pucp.edu.pe/index.php/anthropologica/article/view/1876/1809

Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015. http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935

Huaco, M. (2013). Procesos constituyentes y discursos contra-hegemónicos sobre laicidad, sexualidad y religión: Ecuador, Perú y Bolivia.  Buenos Aires: CLACSO. Accesed on: november 28, 2015.

http://biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar/clacso/sur-sur/20121108040727/ProcesosConstituyentes.pdf

Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. Accesed on: november 29, 2015. http://sisbib.unmsm.edu.pe/bibvirtual/libros/sociologia/c_religion/indice.htm

Huerta, D. (2012). De eclécticos e iniciados o una aproximación etnográfica a la práctica del (neo) paganismo en Lima. Licenciate thesis on Social Sciences with mention in Anthropology. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Faculty of Social Sciences.

 

[1] Gathered by Francisco de Avila around 1598, and then translated from quechua to spanish by Jose Maria Arguedas in the middle of the tweinthieth century, it’s the only text that accounts for the mainstream fundational mythos of Peru, prior to the spaniards arrival.

[2] The first deity refers to a monolith of 4.5 meters located in the Temple of Chavin. It depicted a zooantropomorphic god with feline and avian features (animals found in the jungle and andes respectively), and was the main deity of the Chavin culture (1000 B.C.). The second one refers to a clay shaped tile representing the Amaru god with features of a otorongo (the peruvian feline), symbolizing the resistance of the spanish influence on andean culture. Some of these tiles were found in southern andean part of Peru and date from the early XIX century.

[3] Many scholars of religion like the late Fernando Fuenzalida, Harold Hernández, Jaime Regan, Juan Ossio and our own speakers of the conference have been doing innovative work in this manner, since they have provided great insights regarding new religious movements, andean and amazonian religion, and the relationship of religion and politics.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 3 November 2015

Calls for papers

Conference: Art Approaching Science and Religion

May 11–13, 2016

Åbo Akademi University, Sweden

Deadline: June 15, 2016

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Conference: AAG 2016

March 29–April 2, 2016

San Francisco, CA, USA

Deadline: November 6, 2015

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Events

Conference: Moral Horizons

December 1–4, 2015

University of Melbourne, Australia

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Conference: New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions

December 8–10, 2015

Queenstown, New Zealand

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Conference: Transnational Religious Movements, Dialogue and Economic Development: The Hizmet Movement in Comparative Perspective

December 10–11, 2015

University of Turin, Italy

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Conference: Religious phenomena within the textbooks at the end of the school cycle: Mediterranean area and comparisons outside

December 2–4, 2015

Université du Maine, France

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Seminar: SocRel Response Day

November 5, 2015, 10:00 A.M. – 4:00 P.M.

Imperial Wharf, London, UK

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Workshop: Religious diversity in Asia

December 7–8, 2015

Aarhus University, Denmark

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Workshop: Political and public approaches to gender, secularism and multiculturalism

November 11–13, 2015

Lisbon, Portugal

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Jobs

Visiting Lecturer: Jewish Studies

Liverpool Hope University, UK

Deadline: N/A (urgent)

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Ph.D. position in religion

University of Agder, Norway

Deadline: January 12, 2016 (It says 2015, but it’s obviously a typo.)

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Postdoctoral Researcher: Religion and Media in Contemporary Societies

Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany

Deadline: November 13, 2015

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 27 October 2015

Dear subscriber,

Please be aware that the previous Opportunities Digest contained two mistakes in the posting of the 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, which may have confused some readers. A corrected version of the listing is found below. 

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

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

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Calls for papers

Symposium: 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2016

Deadline: December 7, 2015

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Conference: Construction and disruption: The power of religion in the public sphere

July 12–14, 2016

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: December 11, 2015

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Conference: Heritage, Religion and Travel

May 27–29, 2016

Mersin Congress and Exhibitions Centre, Turkey

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Conference: Landscape and Myth in North-Western Europe

April 6–8, 2016

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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Journal: Gamevironments

Topics: Gamevironments, Games, Religion, and Culture

Deadline: January 15, 2016

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Events

Conference: Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Schools

University of Leicester, UK

November 13, 2015

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Conference: Allaitement entre Humans et Animaux: Représentations et Pratiques de l’Antique à Aujourd’hui

November 12–14, 2015

Université de Genève, Switzerland

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Winter School: Interrelational Selves and Individualization

January 5–9, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

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Workshop: The Diversity of Nonreligion

November 12–14, 2015

University of Zürich, Switzerland

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Jobs

New managing editor

The Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network

Deadline: November 6, 2015

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4 new members for Editorial Board

Sociology

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Junior Professorship: Anthropology and History of Religion in South Asia

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: November 30, 2015

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Senior Lecturer/Lecturer in Politics/International Relations and Religion

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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