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African American Spiritual Churches

Dr. Guillory teaches religion at the University of Rochester, but her first love is natural science. After receiving a B.A. in Chemistry, she taught high school science for several years. She draws inspiration from the sciences in her current research as a religion scholar. In her investigations of African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. Guillory describes a “dynamical self,” a fluid state of identity shifting between the individual and the collective. Her knowledge of chemistry directly influenced this theory.

The African American Spiritual Churches are combinatory religious sites, which blend Protestant, Catholic, Spiritualist, Haitian Voodoo, and Benin’s traditional Vodun practices. Female leadership and business management has been essential in the history of these churches. Dr. Guillory’s upcoming book draws on years of archival research, ethnographic observation, and oral history interviews to tell the story of these churches from 1920 to the present day. Hurricane Katrina looms large in this story. Most of the physical churches were destroyed in the flooding — or the former inhabitants were not allowed to return as the government began eminent domain proceedings. Yet this religious community endures. Guillory is one of the first scholars to work with the Spiritual Churches, whose affairs remain largely private. Our interview concludes with a discussion of anthropological ethics and practice — how to earn the trust of a community, and how to tell someone else’s story without “stealing” that story.

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

African American Spiritual Churches

Podcast with Margarita Simon Guillory (29 January 2018).

Interviewed by Dan Gorman

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Guillory_-_African_American_Spiritual_Churches_1.1

 

Dan Gorman (DG): Professor Margarita Guillory, thank you for joining us today.

Margarita Guillory (MG): No problem. Thank you for inviting me.

DG: And today we’re going to be talking about your new book on African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans. Although, I’ve been reading your book proposal. I understand the final title has changed.

MG: Yes, instead of More Than Conjurers being the primary title, it’s now the secondary title. So it’s Spiritual and Social Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches: More than Conjurers.

DG: So, perhaps the reverse order of what you wanted originally?

MG: Yes! But for marketing purposes, More than Conjurers took second place. They really believe that they can market the book better with the Spiritual Churches being in the primary title.

DG: Now, just so people have some brief background – is this what you wrote your dissertation about?

MG: My dissertation was actually based upon ethnographic research pulled from spiritual churches in New Orleans. However, the dissertation was a little bit more theoretical, in that it focussed on the ways in which spiritualists in New Orleans utilise rituals and altars – both personal and public altars – to articulate a complex form of subjectivity that I sort of coined in the dissertation, called the “dynamical self”. So the dissertation was little bit more theoretical. I sort-of was able to use the dissertation to write a peer review article and two edited volume essays. However, it was a little narrow for the publisher’s taste. So I sort-of had to rework . . . . I wrote an entire new book, basically!

DG: I see. So when you mention the idea of the dynamical self, it brings to mind the grandiose theatrical aspect of religious worship. I mean, you could say there’s a dynamic self in many religions. But what’s unique about the way that people express their religious beliefs in these churches?

MG: I would say that the way in which I saw the “dynamic” is this sort of fluidity. Within the dissertation I sort of expand upon this fluid conception of the dynamic – and it’s called the dynamical self. But the dynamical self is this identity form that is sort-of the simultaneous expression of both a public collective identity, based upon association with shared qualities with the grou, but it’s also the construction of a personal identity form that’s based upon one’s uniqueness. And this is a theory that . . . . I didn’t go into these communities with this theory. This theory was really formulated based upon the data that I collected from the communities. So it’s totally the reverse. I went in with no sort-of expectation of what I would actually find. I just thought the communities were really, really interesting. And the data yielded the theory.

DG: So, a data-derived argument, rather than a data-driven argument.

MG: Exactly, exactly.

DG: Now, you came into Religious Studies . . . it’s sort of a second career in some ways. You were a high school science teacher, originally. So, how did your first background in natural science . . . how did that inform how you approached the study of religion?

MG: That’s a great question. And it’s a question that I’m asked quite frequently when people find out that I have a Bachelors in Chemistry. I have a profound love of the physical sciences, specifically Chemistry. You know, Chemistry has allowed me to . . . it has armed me and equipped me with a particular interpretive lens. The dynamical self, even though it’s derived upon the data that I retrieved from these Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, it’s really based upon this equilibrium state that sort-of occurs when you look at certain chemical reactions. So the theory – while based on the data that I retrieved from these churches – the way that I sort of nuanced it, was based upon chemical formulations of just basic equations, something that you’d learn in general Chemistry. So science just gives me a unique lens to view religion. Does that answer your question?

DG: I think so. I think I’m curious to know, do you identify as a Humanist or do you identify as a Social Scientist?

MG: Oh. I don’t like to be placed in a box! I think I am a unique scholar in that way, that I still sort-of follow some of the general trends that are going on in Chemistry, I have a great relationship with a couple of Chemists, even on our campus (5:00). I do use sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of religion. And I do consider myself a Humanist. So in that way, I think I’m sort of like a quilt. Which can be problematic for some people, but it works for me. This is why I can have these really collaborative interdisciplinary projects with people across disciplines and not feel uncomfortable. Because I feel like a piece of me as a scholar is vetted in these multiple disciples.

DG: Which brings me back to your book, when the publisher releases it in a few weeks, what . . . not genre – we know it’s a non-fiction monograph – but, the little stamp on the top cover that says what genre it is and what topic: how is it being sold? Is it history? Is it religion?

MG: Yes. Very good question. It has multiple genres. Because the book I wrote, like I said: a lot of the data that I collected while doing research for the dissertation will be used, but the approach is different. It’s different than the dissertation. The book basically examines the socio-political activities and the spiritual-therapeutic elements that are found in the Spiritual Churches in a really, in a coalescing sort of way. And so, in that way, because the book is political – looking at the political and social activism of these churches – and because it looks at the therapeutic function of these churches, the sort-of tag lines will be history – because I start with the first church in the 1920s and by the end of the book, the chapter on Post Katrina Spiritual Churches – so it’s historical but it’s also being publicised as religion in society. So you see that sort-of band where the sociology is also coming in. So they have marketed it in a variety of fields. Interestingly, they’ve even promoted it in what we would call like “Africana Religions”, So if you do a google search with my name under Voodoo or Hoodoo, my book will actually pop up. So they really cast a wide net when publicising the book.

DG: So I suppose the next question is, what is a Spiritual Church? Aren’t all churches spiritual?

MG: That’s a great question. African American Spiritual Churches that I research are a blended religious group. And I like that term “blended”. And what they’ve done, they have conjoined all of these various elements from institutionalised religions – and I’ll talk about them in just a moment – and they’ve created their own, unique religion. Specifically, the Spiritual Churches in New Orleans have conjoined Protestant traditions with a focus on Pentecostalism; they draw from their worship style. Catholicism is a major bedrock in spiritual churches in New Orleans, just because Catholicism is still the predominant religion that’s practised in New Orleans, in particular, and Louisiana, in general. They also incorporate American Spiritualism: the ability to communicate with the dead, that was birthed in Western New York, in Hydesville; and they also sort of conjoin and mix into their faith Hoodoo and Voodoo. And this notion of Voodoo is derived directly from Haitian Vodou. So when you look at sort of their belief system, and their ritual practices, you can see a little of all of these religions.

DG: So when we talk about Hoodoo – this was sort of an older white term used to describe it in some cases. I’m thinking of sort-of 1920s, white attempts to understand black religion. But Voodoo itself is sort of a combinative thing. You’ve got influences of Islam, Native American and Caribbean religions, Christianity. And, of course, there’s a longstanding debate in the study of African American religions: are these religions more – quote unquote – “African” or are they more “American”? Do you have any thoughts on that?

MG: Well I would say, if we specifically look at the system of Voodoo and I mean V-o-o-d-o-o, I would totally say that that is an American religion (10:00). It is a blended religion that is primarily based – even though you have these other elements like Christianity – it’s primarily based upon Haitian Vodou, V-o-d-o-u, that Haitian immigrants who emigrated very early to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution. A large population of Haitians immigrated to New Orleans and they took with them the religion. So, even though you have these other elements in Louisianan voodoo, the backbone of that religion is Haitian Vodou. And, of course, we know that Haitian Vodou -o-u- was derived from this combination of Catholicism but it comes directly from Benin.

DG: In West Africa?

MG: Exactly: Vodun. So, in that way, once the Vodou sort-of lands in New Orleans, in the South East, yes, it becomes this syncretic – and that’s not the term I like to use – but this sort-of blended type of religious tradition.

DG: So let’s walk through the genealogy from the top, then, beginning in Benin in West Africa. So this would be what kind of religion there? Are we talking about Islam or are we talking about traditional spiritual beliefs?

MG: So, Benin Vodun is an indigenous religion. It is a combination of – and that word might be seen as maybe a little charged – but it is sort-of a combination of the traditional religions that are being practised in Benin. But the scholarly term for it becomes Vodun.

DG: I see. So, then when slaves were brought to Haiti those indigenous religions are brought there. And then they encounter Spanish and French Catholicism, depending which side of the island they’re on.

MG: Exactly, yes.

DG: And then that finally goes to America, where you have the collisions that you’re describing.

MG: Right. Particularly in New Orleans.

DG: So how big a population are we talking about?

MG: That’s hard for me to say, like, quantitatively.

DG: Hundreds? Thousands?

MG: That’s hard for me to say quantitatively, off the cuff. But I could definitely have these sort of conversations, qualitatively. But that’s sort-of tough to derive. We can sort-of search and crunch the numbers but those numbers would be hard to derive.

DG: So let’s talk about some of the churches you studied, then. Were they packed to the gills on a Sunday?

MG: What’s interesting: pre –Katrina, the churches were packed. You had fifty-plus churches. Post-Katrina, those fifty-plus churches dwindled down to two churches in New Orleans.

DG: Is that because of population displacement?

MG: That’s part of the problem. So, part of the problem would be population displacement. And seventy percent of the fifty-plus churches that were operating in New Orleans pre-Katrina were located in the 9th Ward.

DG: (Whistles)

MG: So they were destroyed. And the last chapter of my book sort-of talks about that. The ways in which not only were some of them structurally destroyed but, because of some very difficult economical and political and structural changes that occurred in post-Katrina New Orleans, the lands of these churches – even if they were in a position where they could have restored the church – they were taken, and they were converted to green spaces.

DG: So was that eminent domain?

MG: Eminent domain. Many of the churches – I calculate about forty percent of the churches that were located in post-Katrina 9th Ward – were sort-of taken back by the City, via eminent domain.

DG: I see.

MG: So, there are multiple factors sort-of feeding into why these churches have dwindled down to two.

DG: Has gentrification also occurred?

MG: In the higher elevated levels of 9th Ward, gentrification is now occurring. They sort-of called this area Holy Cross. They built a school, they have a private developer that’s coming in. And I’m saying higher elevation, but it’s still below sea level! But it’s higher than the dominant part of the 9th Ward. It’s being gentrified.

DG: So they’re pushing out the poorer, mostly African American . . .

MG: Well they never let them back in, really. Because they never built . . . . In the 9th Ward, for people who did choose to come back they had no businesses, no stores. I think within the last two years they might have a health clinic. So the infrastructure wasn’t rebuilt for people to come back (15:00). So we can argue, was this intentional? Was this: “We’re going to let the 9th Ward return to nature so it can sort-of serve as the buffer, or the retention land, for other parts of New Orleans? So they won’t flood if we have another major storm, and if we have the breaching of the levees?” So it becomes very . . . and I try to unpack that in chapter five of my book. The ways in which the changing landscape around Spiritual Churches . . . . If you look at the changing landscape of spiritual churches it tells us a lot about other landscapes and shifting landscapes in New Orleans: demographic landscapes, social landscapes, economic landscapes, political landscapes. If you just focus on the Spiritual Churches we can see all of these sorts of dynamics that are going on, post-Katrina.

DG: So I’m assuming that the flood water has destroyed substantial amounts of material culture: archives . . .

MG: Oh, definitely.

DG: So what’s left? I mean, were you working in people’s attics, were you working in libraries?

MG: So no, actually, what was interesting is: when I first went to New Orleans it was in, maybe 2010, and many of the churches were still standing. They were in horrible condition, but they were still filled with all the material culture – covered in all sorts of mould and everything else. And of course I was in those places. So, some of the spiritual leaders who were really respected leaders in the city: Bishop Jackson, Bishop Stokes. He came from Detroit,to give me a tour. So before they began to tear these structures down . . . . Like, these structures are no longer standing in 2017 but I had the fortune to go while they were still there. Not only was I able to see what was in the inside, I took photos of the inside, I took photos of the outside. I do plan on publishing a book of photos of the before and after, so people can actually see what is happening in New Orleans, still today.

DG: But Spiritualists tend to be quite private. How did you gain this access? And this is something I’ve talked about in my past interviews: Douglas Brooks studying . . . . The only way to study some Hindu rituals is to gain the trust and become part of the community. Or Candy Gunther-Brown, who I spoke to – watching Evangelical yoga, but not participating. How did you get access to these communities?

MG: Well actually, one of the first scholars to publish a comprehensive work on Spiritual churches of New Orleans is Claude Jacobs. He’s now retired. He was at the University of Michigan. Him and my adviser at the time, Dr Anthony Pinn who’s also done some work on Spiritual Churches, they basically . . . . He went to Dr Jacobs and told him, “I have a student who’s interested in the Spiritual Churches.” And I was introduced to Archbishop William Stokes who has now passed on – as the Spiritualists say – to the other side. And it was through him. Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches. So he came to Houston – we flew him to Houston – and he and I basically spent two weeks together in Houston, just getting to know one another. I took him to different archives, I interviewed him. And so, basically, it was through him. But we had to sort-of . . . . He had to decide, in those two weeks, whether he was going to trust me, and actually introduce me and open the door or not. So, I guess, at the end of the two weeks – considering I’d published . . . like eighty percent of my scholarships is on Spiritual Churches – I must have gained his trust. Because he was coming from Detroit, he said he would be really excited about introducing me to people in New Orleans. So I won a Ford Dissertation Fellowship and I was able to pay for his travel and we spent a summer – this is how I actually first thought of it – we spent a summer in New Orleans together. And it was remarkable.

DG: Generating trust. . .

MG: Generating trust, and because

DG: . . . that you’re not stealing their stories.

MG: Exactly. And because he did not . . . . Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches, by that time over five decades, people trusted him. And they knew that he wouldn’t just bring, you know, anyone into the community that wasn’t going to sort-of take their religion and do something with it, in a really fundamental positive way (20:00).

DG: That’s the line between being curious and then between past scholars, who basically were stealing.

MG: Exactly. And I invested a lot of time. So this was like the groundwork. I wasn’t even really collecting data at this point. I was just building relationships. So, you asked me how did I get in – because they are very secretive. This is why there hasn’t been a lot of scholarship surrounding spiritual churches, because some people have mishandled what they’ve given the scholar. So I had to spend quite a bit of time building relationships. But once I’d built those relationships it was like the floodgates opened. They were so excited about sharing their faith with me.

DG: Professor Guillory, we’re almost out of time. I’d like to ask briefly: several of the early chapters in your book focus on female leaders in the church. Women like Mother Leafy Anderson. Could you just speak briefly about female leadership in the churches?

MG: I can. This is why I like the book that I’ve published, instead of turning the dissertation into a book. This book really highlights the political savviness, the entrepreneurial spirit of women in New Orleans, specifically from the early 1920s through the 1940s. These were women, women like Mother Leafy Anderson, Mother Catherine Seals, these were women who not only purchased property, but they built structures from the ground up. For instance Mother Leafy Anderson, she built her church from the ground up, property that she purchased, and the organisation that actually financed the building of her very lovely church for the 1920s, was the Italian Homestead Association. If you go and look at the history of the Italian Homestead Association in New Orleans they were not freely giving money to African Americans to build businesses and structure. That wasn’t their social function. They were committed to Italians, and Sicilians in particular, who were coming into New Orleans, actually utilising them as a pipeline to build and to invest in these communities. So it was really interesting that she was able to get them to finance . . . .

DG: And a completely different religion!

MG: Well what’s interesting is that her church – and I talk about this a bit in the book – was about thirty percent Sicilian.

DG: Well, that’s interesting! Which means the church was racially integrated in the1920s.

MG: It was. And also, Mother Catherine Seals, the manger was about twenty-five to thirty-five percent. We can’t get our hands wrapped around the exact number, but hers was also an integrated religious compound. And during her time there were segregation laws about cohabitation.

DG: And not only that, you had lynching!

MG: Exactly, exactly. And so these women – and this is what I love about the book – the book sort of highlights the courageous activities. And they were really savvy when it came to business, too. They had an entrepreneur sort-of model of earning money using a religion, in a way that was just . . . they were ahead of their time! They were like – I guess we would call them like our large megachurches today. They were like the megachurches of the 1920s, though the book really highlights the social activism and the ways in which these women also met the spiritual needs of the individuals, both black and white – which is amazing. The book sort-of talks about that, they were . . . . Yes, they wanted to be an anchor for the black community, but they also served the white population who were being marginalised by class and by ethnicity. They also served those populations as well.

DG: So just to wrap up, I’ll say that reminds me of – it’s a quite old book – but Arthur Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis

MG: Yes!

DG: So, for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar, Arthur Fauset, an African American scholar wrote this book in the 1940s about the urban religions, mostly in Philadelphia. And these were – like your Spiritual Churches – many of them small groups led by women, and they’re exercising creativity in ways that white society doesn’t want to allow them. And so Fauset also discusses the idea of, you know, foreign religions being translated in America. So, clearly, these questions are still viable and thought-provoking seventy years later.

MG: A perfect ending! (25:00)

DG: So, I will ask, what’s the next project?

MG: Oh. The next project? African American Religion in the Digital Age. So, while I’m still publishing essays and peer-reviewed articles on Spiritual Churches, I’m sort of moving in the direction of digital religion. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways in which people of African descent are utilising technical advances to express multiple forms of religion. So I’m working on a chapter now on black humanism and black atheism, and the way in which it’s promoted among Millennials using social media platforms.

DG: Be careful, you’ll be getting into transhumanism next!

MG: I know! (Laughs)

DG: Professor Guillory, thank you very much.

MG: Thank you very much, Dan.

Citation Info: Guillory, Margarita and Dan Gorman. 2018. “African American Spiritual Churches”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 26 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/african-american-spiritual-churches/

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Engaging with Religion and Populism

A response to “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”

by Thomas White

Read more

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

In this interview with Professor Bryan Turner at the Leeds SocRel 2017 conference, we discuss how the sociology of religion can work to stay central to sociology as a broader discipline, by focusing on how religion functions in contemporary political contexts.

Starting with a consideration of the role religion takes in American political discourse, particularly Trump’s appeals to evangelical communities, Turner discusses how the evangelical ideal of the ‘tender warrior’ can appeal to the blue collar, white, male, working class. This religiously-inflected form of populism is able to bear significant weight on political debates, for example around abortion. This can be compared to the apparent increase of populism in European politics, where the recent success of Emmanuel Macron in France appears to signal that this tide has been halted, for now. Looking even further afield, to Russia and the Philippines, ‘strongman’ politics have become increasingly prominent and relate to religion in different ways: Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillipines has a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church and the Pope, whilst Vladimir Putin allegedly keeps an Eastern Orthodox priest as a counsellor, in an attempt to link Russian identity to Orthodoxy. In many of these cases, religion features heavily in the national insider/outsider debate, further highlighting its salience in contemporary political discourse.

Following the lead of scholars such as Jose Casanova, Professor Turner brings the public and political role of religion into focus. By doing so, he argues, we can push the sociology of religion toward the realms of political theory, international relations, and race relations, thus creating an agenda in which the sociology of religion becomes increasingly mainstream and relevant to the world we live in, rather than fading into a marginal sub-field of sociology.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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, Snickers bars, pogs, and more.

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

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

Podcast with Bryan Turner (15 January 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Turner_-_The_Political_Relevance_of_The_Sociology_of_Religion1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop, I’m here at the SocRel Conference, 2017. And I have with me a man who needs very little introduction, thanks to the huge influence that he’s had on the field. I’m with Professor Bryan Turner. So, welcome. And thank you for being involved with the Religious Studies Project.

Bryan Turner (BT): It’s a pleasure.

SB: OK, so today we’re going to talk a little bit about teaching and Religious Studies, and some of the differences between the British, European and American context as well. So could we start off, perhaps, with just a little about how you became interested in this topic?

BT: Well, I was converted to Methodism when I was about 17 and I was on holiday in Greece with a group of Methodists. In the following year I went to East Germany, Moscow and through Russia by train, and became very interested in Sociology. So, if you put the two together, I was a kind of Methodist with an interest in Communism and Marxism, although the main influence on my work has been Max Weber. I came here, to the University of Leeds, to do a PhD. I was in the Methodist Society. I was the President of the Student Christian Movement, so I had those kind of involvements. And I was taught by a famous comparative religion expert, Trevor Ling, who was a Buddhist Scholar. And through him became very interested in comparative religion. I was appointed to the University of Aberdeen to teach the Sociology of Religion in 1970, I think it was, but very few students were interested in doing religion, so I had very few students! So I retrained as a medical sociologist, which partly explains my interest in the sociology of the body and how medicine and religion connect with each other. To be honest, the Sociology of Religion dropped out of my career a bit, for those sorts of reasons. I became very much interested in Max Weber so, at that level, religion was part of my agenda. But it was also mixed up with all the other things that I was interested in and doing work on. And, to sort-of finish this little biographical sketch, after 9/11 just about anybody with an interest in Islam was suddenly employable. And I had all these kind-of requests to revisit stuff that I’d done. Because my first book was 1974: Weber and Islam. I went to live in America in 2006, I think it was. And I spent a year at Wiley College and then ended up at the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York, where I’ve been teaching the Sociology of Comparative Religion. So perhaps I’d better say something about the teaching method, if you’d like?

SB: Yes, please do.

BT: Well, I try to make religions kind-of relevant to the world they’re living in. So, for example, during the Mitt Romney/Barack Obama presidential race there was a lot of material to work with. Mitt Romney was a Mormon. There was this huge debate in the Media about whether Mormonism was a religion. So that was an easy way in to talking about what we mean by religion, or Mormonism, or Christianity. And the other, of course, was the allegation that Obama was really a secret Muslim of some sort – we had all of those debates. And then, in 2016 when the Clinton/Trump confrontation started, there seemed to be almost nothing to get into. Because I kind-of listened to every debate and read all of the stuff I could possibly get hold of. But I think Clinton mentioned religion only like once, when she read a passage from the New Testament. Bernie Sanders once talked about his Jewish legacy in an interview, but it wasn’t really part of his campaign. And then we had Trump. How does Trump relate to religion? Because we all know – American exceptionalism – religion is prominent in the public sphere. Just about every textbook starts with de Tocqueville’s commentary on civil religion and so on, and so forth. And it seemed very difficult to actually believe that Trump could win the election, given the fact of these disclosures of his attitudes towards women, his groping of women. And Trump, of course, changed his position on just about everything. So, at one stage, Trump was pro-life – very much committed to that kind of agenda. (5:00) And then, of course, during the campaign it comes out that he’s actually totally opposed to Roe Vs Wade which was the legislation that made abortion possible for women. He came out very strongly in favour of removing that legislation to make abortion either impossible or increasingly difficult. But what sort-of emerged after the election is that he has quite strong support from the Evangelical Churches. And one reason is that within the Evangelical Churches there is a kind of crisis around masculinity. A lot of the Evangelical literature has been developing the idea of the “tender warrior”. This is the kind of dominant male who is in charge of the family. He is in charge of the family. The idea is that women’s role is domestic. And that women really kind-of prefer to be subordinated to men, rather than to be liberated. And that part of the crisis in America is connected with: the acceptance of gays in the military; the legislation that made possible same-sex marriage in some states; the general kind of reception of alternative forms of sexuality, particularly on the East Coast. So, some of this election was about the East Coast, versus the Southern States, and so forth. So Jerry Falwell has come about very much in favour of Trump. Trump visited Liberty University which is run by Falwell, one of the founders of the Moral Majority. And so, my puzzlement about how Trump can possibly get support from religious groups has been partly answered by this idea that there is a kind-of deep anxiety, in conservative America, about the status of men, connected to: the rise of women into pink collar occupations; the better performance of women in education; the growth, or the presence of influential women in leadership positions. You know – Merkel in Germany, the head of the IMF, the Fed and so forth – you see women in very powerful political positions. And, insofar as populism and Trump are connected to the erosion of the blue collar male white working class, you can kind-of understand, partly, why Trump is getting support from Evangelicals. But I would point out a couple of things. I mean, Trump and Clinton were the least-attractive, least-supported presidential candidates in the whole of American history. Clinton did win the popular vote, despite Trump’s claims that it was all fake. Trump has huge support from his base, but he’s still a very problematic figure in American culture, I think. And he has divided society right down the middle. And so one never knows what is going to happen next, really, in America.

SB: Could you say more about the idea of Populism itself, and how that concept has become more relevant, perhaps, at the moment?

BT: Yes. Well, people have been studying populism for a long time. And there are arguments that populism has been present in American politics for long time, such as the People’s Party and so forth. “Agrarian populism” has been a notion around for some time. But I agree with you that in the last twelve months populism has been everywhere: conferences, journal articles, books and so on, and so forth. And I mean, it looked at one stage as if the populist parties would swing through Europe with the Northern League and Golden Dawn, and the Freedom Party in Austria and so forth. And then we’ve had this pause, if you like, in which Macron in France has won the election and to some extent the popular vote for extreme positions on foreigners has been slowed down a bit. And then, I think, with Brexit which again . . . . I mean UKIP, having had some electoral success, has virtually disappeared as a party. And it looks as though the complexity of Brexit may grind it into the ground eventually, who knows? But a lot of the populist literature has been saying that Britain is slightly different from other societies, in that the populist vote is weaker than you’ll find in, say, Italy, and so forth. (10:00) I mean, one issue is to what extent Thatcherism was an earlier form of populism. She did want to change everything. She had these structural views about an inside and an outside. I mean, one of the defining characteristics of populism is that it divides the world into “us” and “them”. And then you’ve got the people on the one side and their enemies on the other. I mean, as we’ve heard in this conference, the enemies seem to be connecting to Muslim refugees in Europe and so forth. But again, looking at this from the outside – that is, from America – what struck me was the antagonism towards East Europeans. So, Polish people were being criticised by Conservative people who wanted to argue that the welfare state was being exploited by free-riders from other countries. So I don’t think it’s just Islam, there’s all sorts of other things going on about the insider and the outsider.

SB: Where do you see it going in the future?

BT: Well I was reminiscing . . . . In the 1960s and 1970s and really into the ’80s, I suppose, we had the three day week, we had the miners’ strike and we had the poll tax strikes. And whilst Thatcher was hugely popular – again amongst her base – and while she was, in many ways, the most successful Prime Minister we’ve had – she won three elections, etc. – living through that period, I mean, Britain did seem amazingly unstable. I mean, just visually, we had piles of rubbish piled up in the streets; electricity was very limited; I remember having to teach with no heating in the university, so we all wore hats and gloves to work, sitting in classrooms. And the current period feels like that as well. Because, I think, if Brexit fails the people that voted to leave will be deeply frustrated. I mean Nigel Farage has threatened to comeback into politics if that happened! The legislative mess – it’s horrendous. And then, looking at the broader picture, we’ve got what you might call “strong man politics” in the Philippines, in China, in Russia and so forth. And, to some extent, some of these figures at least are mobilising religion to bolster their position. I think very interesting is Putin, who allegedly has an Orthodox Priest – an Eastern Orthodox Priest – as a counsellor. He’s obviously appealing to Orthodoxy as a way of defining what it is to be Russian. It’s a fairly complicated picture, I think. Again, I suppose I should have said about Trump that Trump’s foreign policy is deeply worrying, because he seems to want to undermine many of the institutions that have bolstered European peace for 70 years or so. And there is this figure, Steve Bannon, who’s a conservative Catholic with an Irish background, who I think is mobilising Trump’s foreign policy. And I think that’s very problematic. So, from an academic point of view, I think religion is going to be very central to all of these debates, whether it’s conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, or Buddhists and Muslims in Asia, or Catholic and Pentecostals and Protestants elsewhere.

SB: How do you think scholars of religion or sociologists of religion are best approaching it?

BT: Well, in the talk I’m going to give this evening, I think sociology of religion kind-of bifurcates into those that have gone into spirituality and post-institutional churches, and those who follow people like José Casanova who are interested in public religion. My question is how we make the Sociology of Religion central to the sociological enterprise, as a whole. And I think the public religions debate pushes the sociology of religion into political theory, into international relations, into race relations and creates a kind of agenda where Sociology of Religion is once more part of the mainstream rather than a minority interest on the margins. This conference- I’m going to get the title of the conference wrong, but “On the Edge”: are we part of the periphery or part of the mainstream? I think it’s an important question. And I, personally, don’t want to be on the periphery. Sociology of Religion is central to the modern world. (15:00)If you look at everywhere, basically: Israel, Brazil, America, Germany, France – it’s difficult to find a country that doesn’t have some kind of religious issue going on. And I think it’s’ something we need to address, really.

SB: When you speak about the political aspects of, for example, race relations as well, do you think that there’s a certain amount of activism that could be involved in the Sociology of Religion?

BT: Well, I certainly think Sociology needs to contribute to a solution. And whether that’s social policy or becoming engaged in activism, I think is something we can’t sort-of predict in advance, so to speak. But I think sociologists can’t describe the mess we’re in without taking some responsibility for suggesting ways we might get out of this mess. Otherwise we might all bathe in misery and melancholy, and what would be the point of having a conference like this? We might as stay at home and be miserable! And this is too big a topic for this interview, but I tend to think sociologists are always looking at failure: failed institutions, failed constitutions, failed social movements, failed this, that and the other. And I think we need to turn this around a bit and say: well, ok, can we find any successful institutions, or successful social movements, or successful philosophies or whatever, that have improved the human condition – even if it’s for a short time? My argument is that no institution lasts for ever. They all have fluctuating histories – I mean of success and failure. But the idea that all institutions are failing is an impossible position to take. I tend to say that there’s no such thing as consistent pessimism, because we wouldn’t be having this interview if you and I were consistently pessimistic, I don’t think. You know, we’d be getting drunk or something!

SB: (Laughs).

BT: So I think, I mean I haven’t been an activist in that traditional sort of sense. But I’ve edited the journal Citizenship Studies for about 20 years, which I see as making a contribution to understanding the kind-of erosion of social rights over the last 30 years or so. And that citizenship, revitalised would be some kind of answer to questions about social solidarity and so forth. I’m beginning to lose my voice. I don’t know if we can keep this interview to a limited period, because I have to speak in a while?

SB: Yes. Just one more question?

BT: Yes, sure.

SB: Do you see, when you speak about citizenship, do you see any role for religion in that idea?

BT: Well, I mean there are arguments that a lot of our notions of rights come out of . . . . Some people would argue that a lot of our notions of rights come out of the Protestant Methodist tradition. But, more recently, the Catholic Church was to some extent responsible for developing the concept of human dignity, which was the underpinning to the Declaration of Human Rights. And then, I think, the Christian Democratic tradition was part of this sort-of development. But I think the Sociology of Religion could contribute a more sophisticated understanding of what Judaism is or Islam, or other religions, what Sikhism is about and so on. So as a basic educational role, to undermine false assumptions about – you know – what happens to Muslim women, what Judaism has been about.

SB: Professor Bryan Turner, thank you very much for your time.

BT: Thank you.

Citation Info: Turner, Bryan and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-political-relevance-of-the-sociology-of-religion/

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A World-Conscious Sociology of Religion?

A Response to James Spickard on “Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”

by Jonathan Tuckett

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Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

In this interview, recorded at the SocRel 2017 Annual Conference, Professor James Spickard talks about his latest project. Starting with a critique of North American sociology’s approach to religion, Spickard emphasises how our concepts of religion are historically grounded, arising from a particular time and place. How can we remedy this, and how can we look at our own concepts more critically and reflexively? Spickard presents three examples of how religion might be understood differently – from the point of view of Confucianism, Navajo religion, and the work of Arab scholar Ibn Khaldoun – and shows how these different approaches can alter our perspectives. What can Confucianism show us about North American church congregations? How can the work of Ibn Khaldoun affect our understandings of race and ethnicity? Building on ideas such as Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, Spickard explores how researchers could begin to move toward a ‘world-conscious sociology of religion’.

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

Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

Podcast with James V. Spickard  (23 October 2017).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Spickard_-_Alternative_Sociologies_of_Religion-_through_Non-Western_Eyes_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hi, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here with the RSP at SocREL 2017. I’m here with Professor James Spickard, from the University of Redlands. So, thank you for joining us today.

James Spickard (JS): It’s a pleasure.

SB: So we’re here to talk abut your newest publication: Alternative Sociologies of Religion:Through Non-Western Eyes. Could you tell us first a little bit about how you came to work on this topic?

JS: Well, every project is complex. And like every other scholar in the world, I’m in the midst of a series of conversations with various folks. Technically, I have a Religious Studies degree, but I’m trained in Anthropology and Sociology. I’m one of those few people who doesn’t make a distinction between them, except historically. So I’m very primed, as a theorist, I’m primed to look and see what the underlying presumptions are of any way of understanding what a particular phenomenon is. And since I’m studying religion and going on the American context, I’ve been reasonably appalled at the kinds of things that the American context can’t seem to understand. The first one of those that came up, during the ‘90s, was the inability of American Sociology of Religion to actually grasp experience in Religious Studies. I did my first fieldwork on one of the Japanese religions where the practitioners do something called (audio unclear). Which, crudely put, involves projecting invisible light out of the palms of peoples hands to clean the clouds off their spiritual bodies. And you can imagine why an anthropologist would be interested in this and I learned all sorts of wonderful anthropological things about it. But – and frankly I don’t much care what [the ritual] was – but it was the thing that attracted everybody. And the discipline of Sociology of Religion said, “Oh no, no, no. That can’t be right. Something else must be going on.” There must be, you know, the deprivation hypothesis or some . . . crap! And so, it wasn’t until a couple of folks did a survey where they asked a bunch of people involved with Asian religions, “Why are you attracted to it ?” And it wasn’t the social life, and it wasn’t connection with other people, and it wasn’t deprivation, it was “Hey, dude. Something happened to us when we were sitting in meditation.” And the discipline had no concepts for dealing with that. So Mary Jo Neitz  and I wrote a couple of articles about that and put together a series of ways of thinking about that. And I ended up working on some pieces based in Navajo religion where you don’t have churches, you don’t have priests. You’ve got myths, you’ve got belief systems, but there aren’t doctrines. But you’ve got these nine day and night ceremonies. And they were categorised as “symbolic”, but they’re not symbolic. I mean, why would you do something as symbolism for nine days and nights? It’s based on the experience, it picks people up from one place and moves them to someplace else. One thing leads to another there. I began working on Confucian ways of seeing what’s sacred in Confucian tradition. I was doing stuff on human rights and on the Confucian notion of human rights – which is a very different notion than in the West – and trying to get at that from the inside, following a series of  contemporary neo-Confucians into this notion of the relation of self. The self is constructed quite differently in Confucianism than it is in the West. And this sacred relationships of . . . . It’s all about relationships. And the sacred inheres in the connections between people and the practice and maintenance of Li, which we call ritual propriety, but it’s . . . . The maintenance of the relationships that create the self and create the social community generates virtue. But virtue isn’t individual, virtue is collective. So, it’s a whole different way of thinking about things. So I get these two things going on, then I got interested in the work of Ibn Khaldoun from the 14th century  who has a way of . . . he thinks about the concept of Asabiyya or group feeling. And it’s a form of social solidarity that is centred, centripetal, it draws things to the centre rather than being boundary oriented. (5:00) But he treats that Asabiyya as something that is generated by kinship, but also by Islam. And so, you know, you’ve got these three things: “What do I do with this stuff?” And it struck me that there was a narrative here. There’s a . . . well, where I end up – and I think the underlying place of this book – is that those are the three examples, but they’re not exhaustive. The argument is that all of our concepts, including Western concepts and Western sociological concepts are historically and culturally grounded. That is, they arise out of a particular time and place. And reading Manuel Vasquez’ article in Religions on the Edge, which is the theme of this conference. Vasquez points out the way in which in sociology’s origins, sociology treated religion as the “other” and so secularisation approaches are built into Sociology from the very beginning. And that was more articulate than I’d been able to get out of it. So, we have a beginning of a narrative. And I had already studied how religion is presented in American Sociology textbooks. And it is all about belief and organisations and morality and its all. . . it’s isolated in its own chapter, just as Sociology of Religion is isolated in the discipline at large. So what was the default view? How was it created? How was it a historical cultural product, that then lets us see certain things really, really well, but not see other things, not see experience, not see relationships, etc? So that’s the opening of the book. And then there’s a chapter where I dive deep – I love writing this stuff because you actually get to dive deeply into things and read everybody in the world. And dive into the Confucian material. And then I take that and I’ve written a chapter where I apply it. And, what would a Confucian sociologist see about American church life? Or church life in Europe? But I’m dealing with the American case here. What would that sociologist see that we don’t normally see? And the Confucian case is probably the most striking, that – despite the patriarchalism of China’s religion and Chinese culture in general – who maintains the sacred relationships that keep the congregation together? It’s women cooking church suppers. They’re doing – or in the Black African American church it’s called “kitchen ministry”, they’ve got a name for it, and it isn’t always women, just women, in African American churches. And in Midwestern Protestantism it is all women. And there’s a long history of church suppers forming the basis of the social church. In San Antonio, on the west side of San Antonio,  which is Latina area, people are in fact nominally Catholic, but people don’t really attend church very often. But there are women who will put on Christmas plays and they will do what they call a promesa, which is: if your nephew gets off drugs or something like that, you promise El Nino Dios that you will do one of these plays and that you will fed the neighbourhood. And the play people, the actors, come and they do the pastoral play, with shepherds and Jesus. And it’s a religious event. But it doesn’t happen in church. And so these women are not counted as religious in American quantitative sociology, they’re just not. We miss all of this richness because we don’t see it. So the relational notion, it wouldn’t necessarily put women at the centre, but it empirically puts them at the centre – which is this lovely irony – and Sociology doesn’t do that. Sociology ignores the role of women by and large. So, you know, then there’s two chapters on Ibn Khaldoun and two chapters on what the Navajo, or what you would do with a Navajo approach. (10:00) And one of them outlines  what the Navajo would do – how Navajo philosophy works and the notion of ritual as creating the original beauty, order its hózhó is the term, creating the beauty, order etc that was present at the creation. And at the creation it was done, in the myth, by thought and speech. Long Life Boy and Happiness Girl who take out this bundle, and they unroll the bundle and they do this sand painting. And that’s what happens in the ceremony: they unroll the bundle, they do the sand painting, they recreate the original perfection. And people experience that connection. So then I take that and apply it. And this was actually an article that I had written in 2005, based on 13 years of fieldwork with a radical Catholic group that you can read the house mass that that group does every week, or did at that time every week, as a way of recreating the world, a sense of rightness, a sense of beauty, or of order in the lives of people who spent their time working with homeless folks, or sitting in at the Cathedral because the Bishop isn’t spending enough money or poor people. Or sitting in at City Hall so that they will release (audio unclear) so that the poor people don’t have to put their stuff all over the street. Those are . . . how do you recreate that world? Well it’s the ritual that does it. And there’s other things too, but the overall argument is that  if we go to these other places and take a look at what other concepts are there, it’s like if you’re a photographer, and I’m a photographer, so I look at it: you hold the camera; you point the camera at something; you frame it, based on whatever; and you take a photo you get something, you see something. If you take twenty steps around to your right or left and take a picture you’ll see something else. And so, what I’m advocating is that if we look at these other cultural, historical settings and places we can get notions, we can locate our camera in different places. The three I happen to choose are ones – I mean there are others, I suggest some in the last chapter, but I could only handle three. From the first article that dealt with some of this stuff to now, I think it’s . . . well, it’s been twenty-eight years. No, twenty-six years. Which is a long time, thank you very much! But the project really only gelled about eleven years ago. Anyway that’s a long answer to a short question!

SB: It’s great.

JS: So, where do you want to go next?

SB: Well, one thing that we could ask would be why you chose to, or why you prefer to go to these other perspectives – such as the Navajo or the Chinese Confucian perspective – rather than looking for relational theories kind-of closer to home?

JS: Well. You can get there by going closer to home. And when I first looked at experience, and wrote the first set of articles on experience I went two places: one, to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –who’s an American, or Hungarian American psychologist – who looks at the phenomenon of attention and how when you attend to something deeply the ego shifts and the experience of the ego, in that strict Husserlian phenomenological sense, the experience that you have of the world changes. And I went to that and I went to the work of Alfred Schütz, particularly his article on making music together. And Mary Jo Neitz and I wrote a piece on that, her coming out of feminist theory and my coming out of whatever it is I come out of. But we’re fellow travellers on this particular trip. And those were spots in the Western tradition where we could find it. And Schütz basically argues, and I think he’s right, when you listen to music it’s a polythetic experience. That is, there are multiple things happening, it unrolls in time and rituals unroll in time. You can’t grasp a ritual just like you can’t grasp a symphony in a set of words. But you have to play it again. And if you don’t play it again then you lose something. And putting the two – Csikszentmihalyi and Shütz – together, what those rituals do is they focus our attention on different places. And how well you know the ritual . . . Csikszentmihalyi talks about this distinction between the difference between anxiety and boredom (15:00) If you know it too well, you’re bored. If you don’t know it at all, you’re anxious. If you’re exactly on the right spot, then your experience transforms. And so I’m using that to look at Navajo ritual, but I’m also using a Navajo theology to look at the Catholic ritual. Because . . . what is it accomplishing? It rights the world again, it puts the world back in order. And I think that’s significant. Sure, you can get there in another way. Nobody has. Sure, you don’t have to go to China to find out about relationalism. Nobody’s done it. And my complaint, my criticism and I said this in my review of the book Religion on the Edge, is that people are laying out all of these critiques of standard sociology and then what they put in their place are really not very good understandings of symbolic interactionism, not even going to Mead’s Philosophy of the Act where there really is some good stuff, but going  back to Goffman, going to things that don’t actually produce anything new. So the wish is fine, but there’s no delivery. If you go. . . . It’s like travelling. You go some place else. Here I am, an American, sitting in a British conference. People think differently – we have two countries divided by the same language (that’s not my line, it’s probably Churchill. I don’t know who it is) But you begin to see things in a different way. And so I think it’s important, for example, to go and read Ibn Khaldoun even though we don’t have a cyclical . . . I didn’t go to his cyclical notion of history – and Brad  Turner at one point wrote that the problem with Khaldoun is that he has no theory of modernisation. Well, that’s right, but that isn’t where you go in this case. What are the concepts that work? And then realising and we think of him as an historian and he thought of himself as a judge on the Islamic tradition. He was trying to justify Islam, and a particular kind of anti-Sufi Islam which we might call Islamism today, based on the ability of that Islam to overcome kin divisions and create a larger community where people are tied together by ritual. Well, those are really interesting ideas. What do they illumine about a particular case that we wouldn’t otherwise see? In that case, since I haven’t described that one yet,  I use that lens to look at the miracles of magic origin in Bosnia, in the Marian apparition in Bosnia, in 1981 and ongoing. And that was in the sociological literature as a religious experience, and as a religious event. And of course, it was. Then, ten years later, they have this ethnic war in that place, which is then described as an ethnic experience, and an ethnic event. Which of course it was. What’s the relationship between the two of these? Is religion creating social solidarity which then becomes tied up with the ethnic line? because you can’t tell a Croat from a Serb unless you ask as Bosnian what prayers they learned as child. Is it an instrumental way of killing people? In that case, I actually decide that Ibn Khaldoun doesn’t do it right, because he has the centre-focussed notion of  pulling people together. And the war makes it  very clear that this was an edge focussed way of dividing people. but we still learn something by putting ethnicity and religion in the same frame, where they do not appear in standard sociology. Could we get there? Sure we could get there, but nobody’s done it. I mean, it standardly isn’t done. And so that’s why I did this. Now that’s reason one. There’s reason two, which is: my previous book – I write slowly – is on ethnography and  critique of un-reflexive ethnography in the study of religion. And it brought some of the material from anthropology into Sociology and into Religious Studies. So that’s the notion of how ethnographers need to be aware of their own position in the process of doing their ethnography. (20:00)And one of the articles in there has eight different levels of representation in the ethnographic process. I didn’t write that one but it’s a brilliant piece by Shawn Landres. Uh, I discovered there’s a ninth. But, you know, these are the kinds of things we have to think about. Ethnography is now- it’s sort of de rigueur that it’s reflexive. We are not, in the historical cultural position of late nineteenth century France and Germany and the United States. We’re in this sort of emerging global world where there’re connections all over the place. It’s after colonialism but it’s not post-colonial. And that’s particularly true because the post-colonial people are still doing anti-colonialism, effectively. But we’re in a world where we have to begin thinking about it as not a unipolar world. And there’s a long history in Sociology, not just American, and in Anthropology as well. We make the concepts, we export the concepts, folks in other places apply those to their own situations and frequently misunderstand what’s going on. Not their fault. And there’s been a counter-push to, “Ok how do you develop an indigenous sociologies?” and so on.  And the ISA has sponsored some. Some of them are worthwhile, some of them are not. But we live in a world where we’re beginning to have to talk from one another and learn from one another and so on. And so the second reason for going elsewhere is to remind ourselves that we’re not the centre of the universe. Probably my favourite line in the book is the line in the last chapter where, you know: “Only men are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as gender; only white people are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as race; only heterosexuals are allowed to imagine that there are not these wonderful and glorious and multiple forms of sexuality; and only people living at the centre of the empire can imagine that the empire doesn’t matter. So that’s where we are. And here I am a white male heterosexual inhabitant of the empire and I can’t forget that. And so what are the responsibilities? How do we move from that polarity to do something where we are all at least in conversation with one another? And I spent the last couple of chapters wrestling with questions of  Orientalism, questions of cultural appropriation, and the questions of what is the epistemological grounding of what a global sociology would be. And my first title for the book, the one I sent it to the publisher with, was “Through Non-Western eyes: Towards a World-Conscious Sociology of Religion”. And in many ways, that’s the best description of what the book is about. The marketing department of course, said, “No. You can’t do that. We want Global Sociology”. I said, “No, that’s white male, blahblahblah.” And so we fought for a month, and two months, and then the editor came up with the title we have. I received a copy of the book the day after “alternative facts” became an American political meme. And part of me said, “Oh my God!” and the other part of me said, “Instant Karma for the marketing department.” And yet it also does describe what’s going on. Because it’s not saying, “These are the only ways to do things,” but “these are three models of what we could be doing”. And there’s was dealing with the concept of (audio unclear), that had to do with Latina religious agency. And Nigerian, Professor (audio unclear) was dealing with some (audio unclear) concepts and there are some other people who’ve pursued these.And they’re great. They’re beyond me. I can’t dive into all of those, I’d bee doing this for the next forty life times. But the stuff is out there. Some of it’s good. Some of it isn’t. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t. Some of the stuff that I think works might not work as well as I think it does. Other things that I think don’t work, might work better, but this is the conversation we have to be having.  (25:00) So there’s a sense that what I’m trying to do here is – well, as the subtitle [suggests], decentring the sociology of religion. Which is the subtitle of the Bender et al. book. It’s the theme of the conference.

SB: One final question. How do you hope the book might be used by other scholars or students?

JS:I hope people will read it. You know. You always want people to read your book.And in this case, one of the reasons it’s taken so long to write is that I try to write for . . . I don’t just write for specialists. I try to have the prose be readable by people who are literate and interested in things. I actually write for my father, but he’s dead. So I don’t actually write for him. Somebody who can understand, who is not a scholar but can understand wel- reasoned argument. So I tell stories. And other people will have stories. And if people . . . what I hope is that people will understand what it is I’m trying to do and then figure out ways that they might want to do something similar.Well, there a whole series of fellow travellers here, because I’m not the only person: Raewyn Connell’s book, Southern Theory– it’s a fellow traveller with that. And in that book she looks at a very Western question about the nature of colonialism. But from the point of view of people who have been suffering from colonialism. Not the same question but parallel. Mary Jo Neitz’ work on Feminist Theory, Feminist Sociologies of Religion is a connected work. Meredith McGuire’s work on Lived Religion is . . . . These are things breaking down the sort of standard modal of how religion works and looking at things through other lenses. Now I of course have criticisms of all of those – of things that they catch and things that they don’t catch – but that doesn’t matter if people read this, appreciate the stories, figure out, “Well how does this change how I think about what it is I’m doing, and what might I do differently?” That’s great. And if people then say, “OK, I’m going to engage with people who are really coming from a fundamentally different place.” This is the ethnographer in me. I said that my first fieldwork was with one of the main Japanese religions so I had to immerse myself in a completely different way of thinking about the world. And that, I think, that’s kind-of our duty at this point. Unless we want to ignore the fact that there’s an empire around us, and I can’t do that.

SB: Professor Spickard, thank you very much for your time.

JS: Sure. Thanks a lot.

Citation Info: Spickard, James V. and Sammy Bishop. 2017. “ Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/alternative-sociologies-of-religion-through-non-western-eyes/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, 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.

Religious Studies Opportunities Digest – 16 May 2017

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Conference: CenSAMM: 500 years: The Reformation and its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, United Kingdom

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Anthology: Routledge International Handbook of Religion in Global Society

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November 16–19, 2017

Istanbul, Turkey

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November 13–15, 2017

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July 5, 2017

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December 7–9, 2017

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September 4–6, 2017

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Special issue: Diabolus in singulis est: The Devil, Satan and Lucifer

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Conference: Sacred Space and Sacred places. Expressions and Experiences of Lived Religion

May 23–25, 2017

Bari, Italy

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Visiting Scholar: Jewish Studies

Indiana University, USA

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AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

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, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Sociology of Religion – and Religious Studies?

“You got your sociology of religion in my religious studies!” “You got religious studies in my sociology of religion!” – DELICIOUS

What makes the sociology of religion and Religious Studies distinct from each other – if anything? Paul-Francois Tremlett, Titus Hjelm and David Robertson discuss what the two approaches have in common, and how they differ. Importantly, they consider how they might learn from each other. Does the sociology of religion over-rely on surveys, or could RS benefit from such large-scale data? Is Religious Studies overly-concerned with theory and definitions, or could sociology benefit from a more critically-nuanced approach? Why is it that sociologists seem to have the ear of policy-makers when RS scholars do not?

This episode is the sixth in a series of seven entitled “New Directions in the Sociology of Religion”, co-produced with SOCREL to celebrate their 40th anniversary.

Be sure to check out the other podcasts in this series, such as ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan,  ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie, ‘Researching Radicalisation‘ with Matthew Francis, and ‘Religion, youth, and Intergenerationality‘ with Naomi Thompson.

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, Wu Tang Clan gear, Cornish sea salt, and more.

 

Evangelicalism and Civic Space

evangelicalchristianIn this podcast, Anna Strhan talks to Katie Aston about her research among evangelical Christians, exploring their search for coherence in the contemporary city. How do the members of conservative Anglican congregations negotiate their place in a secular multicultural society, and deal with issues of sexuality, parenthood, human rights, etc? The focus of the discussion is on subjectivity – both bodily and among one another. Anna’s work is an interesting example of a multidisciplinary approach to religious studies, bringing in sociology, philosophy and anthropology.

This episode is part of the Sociology of Religion in the UK series, sponsored by Introduction to the Sociology of Religion, and Dawn Llewellyn on “Religion and Feminism“.

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, Nicholas Cage pillow cases, Gordon Lightfoot’s greatest hits, and more.

An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion

What is the sociology of religion? What are its particular concerns, dominant themes and defining methodologies? Where did it begin, and how has it evolved? This interview with Grace Davie introduces this important and historically influential approach to the study of religion.

In conversation with David G Robertson, Professor Davie – herself a highly respected theorist of religious change – discuss the four tasks of the sociology of religion; some early sociologists and their relationship to the social changes of their time; modernity, secularisation and a more recent social shift, the Internet; and how Europe may be the exception in the modern world, rather than the model by which all other states will necessarily proceed. They conclude by reminding listeners that we must always keep our theories foremost in our thinking, because they are as socially and historically contextual as the data we use them to interpret.

The Changing Nature of Religion, or our podcasts on Emile Durkheim, Claude Levi-Strauss, Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Marxist Approaches, Bricolage and more…

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 20 September 2016

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Calls for papers

Conference: EASR 2017

September 18–21, 2017

University of Leuven, Belgium

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April 4–6, 2017

University of Manchester, UK

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April 11–13, 2017

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: November 30, 2016

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Conference: Irreverence and the Sacred: Critical Studies in the History of Religion

November 4–6, 2016

University of Chicago, USA

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Conference: Old Norse Mythology: Paganism Past

October 29–30, 2016

University of California, Berkely, USA

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Conference: Megachurches and Social Engagement in London

November 1, 2016, 10:00 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

London, UK

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Public forum: Muslim Immigration in Europe: Masculinity, Politics, and Law

September 23, 2016, 6:00 – 7:30 p.m.

Cork, Ireland

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Assistant Professor: Sociology of Religion

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

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University of Southern California, USA

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University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, USA

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University of Virginia, USA

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Washington University in St. Louis, USA

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University of South Wales, UK

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University of Erfurt

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LMU München, Germany

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Deadline: October 10, 2016

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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.

“Understanding Religious Change” – 2015 ASR Conference Report

77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR), 20-22 August 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Amanda Schutz, PhD student in the School of Sociology, University of Arizona.

The theme of this year’s annual ASR meeting was a familiar one among social science conferences: understanding change. In her presidential address, “Complex Religion: Interrogating Assumptions of Independence in the Study of Religion,” ASR president Melissa Wilde urged sociologists to consider religion a variable of paramount importance, alongside commonly examined ones like race, class, and gender. She stressed that religion remains one of society’s most significant “self-sorting mechanisms” and marveled at its persistent relevance in helping us make sense of the social world. Wilde admitted she chose the theme “Understanding Religious Change” early on in her tenure as ASR president; but as the conference drew nearer, she became “struck by the ways it doesn’t change at all.” Indeed, listening to the many presentations, an alternative conference theme could have easily followed the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

These two ideas—religious change and religion’s stability—are not as conflicting as they appear on the surface. Sociologists often embrace this contradiction of simultaneous progress and stasis. We set out to explain cases that are worthy of sociological inquiry precisely because they challenge working assumptions in some respect. Yet at the same time, we rely on the stability of patterns and trends to lend credence to new ideas: we set out to prove that what we suspect is happening isn’t just white noise, coincidence, or spurious, but something real and consistent. Sociologists attempt to explain new social occurrences (change) with reliable, reproducible data (stability). Several presentations at the ASR annual meeting demonstrated this alternative conference theme; three of them are discussed here.[i]

One of the most prominent recent changes in the American religious landscape is the rise of the “nones,” or those who claim no particular religious affiliation. Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith explore the emergence of a more visible and actualized form of nonreligion in their recent book Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Ryan Cragun, Warren Goldstein, and Jesse Smith participated in an Author Meets Critics session devoted to this book. While these critics pointed out that some of the organizational history was inaccurate, nonreligious labels (e.g., atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist) are not interchangeable, and the book would have benefited from more direct engagement with social movement literature, the overall reception was warm. As atheists as a collective continue to grow and organize, their place in the social world—and the religious world—is worth examining.

However, as “atheist” becomes an increasingly legitimate and salient social identity and atheists organize into groups that increasingly resemble typical social movements, atheism, in many ways, resembles religion. Indeed, Cimino (who was unaccompanied by his co-author) pointed out that atheists often use religious metaphors, practice secular rituals, and may even refer to their gatherings as “atheist church.” This might not be surprising, as some have argued religious terminology is the best we currently have to describe nonreligious beliefs, practices, and ideologies. The Q&A following the panel ended with a short but lively discussion on whether atheism actually is a religion. The argument goes: if an ideology becomes dogmatic and questioning prevailing wisdom is not tolerated, that ideology has morphed into something akin to religion. In other words, if atheists believe without a doubt that god(s) does not exist, they are, in fact, religious atheists. However, the extent to which atheists as a whole accept such a proposition is debatable.

Another presentation added important details to this discussion of nones, and also demonstrated that reinforcement of the status quo can sometimes accompany change. In his presentation “The Dechurching of America: Why People are Increasingly ‘Done’ with the Church…but not with God” (based on work co-authored with Ashleigh Hope), Josh Packard admitted that the trend toward disaffiliation has been impossible for scholars of religion to ignore, and many have discussed at length how and why people lose their faith. (It is also important to note that next year’s ASR conference theme will explore varieties of nonreligion, continuing these conversations in greater depth.)

However, scholars of religion are quick to point out that “no affiliation” is not synonymous with “no belief,” and that the nones are comprised largely of those who still retain some level of religious or spiritual belief, despite disengagement from organized religion. Packard quoted several respondents emphasizing that although they have left the church, they have not abandoned their faith. Indeed, this movement away from institutionalized religion is becoming a popular area of study, as researchers are looking more closely at the various combinations of believing and belonging, which include groups like the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNRs) and cultural Christians (e.g. Orestes “Pat” Hastings, who received this year’s McNamara Student Paper Award and presented “Not A Lonely Crowd? Social Connectedness, Religious Attendance, and the Spiritual But Not Religious”).

A third presentation demonstrating this alternative theme, titled “The Rhetoric of Obedience: Gender, Religion, and Family Life in a Modernizing Indonesian City,” took place during the Presidential Panel on religion and gender. Rachel Rinaldo discussed how the rhetoric of submission among Muslim couples is more complex than we might expect. While men remain the head of the family, whose primary obligation is supporting wife and children, it is not unusual for wives work outside the home—though they often must ask permission of their husbands. There are inconsistencies in this worldview, Rinaldo adds: yes, women are by and large considered equal to men, but their utmost responsibility is the home, where they are expected to obey their husbands.

However, Rinaldo points out that as women become more involved in public life, public and private spheres becomes more discrete; consequently, as women become more visibly independent and their roles more varied, the rhetoric of submission in the home becomes stronger. The workplace may be an “escape” where women are increasingly welcomed (or at least tolerated), but the household is the “last bastion” of women; it is not as affected by social change as the public sphere. And if women need to be reminded to obey, Rinaldo suggests, that means there must be contexts where they’re not. Because the culture of many Muslim societies is changing, if people still wish to continue traditions privately, they must use religion as a justification of such arrangements—not culture.

landon schnabel presenting.

landon schnabel presenting.

Though conference themes are intended to encompass the largest possible range of presentations, the meeting included many panels with varying relevance to the theme of religious change. This included panels dedicated to the intersection of religion with topics like health, the environment, gender, sexuality, violence, and politics. This year’s meeting also introduced the ASR’s first attempt at a Graduate Student Mentoring Lunch, which saw a handful of senior scholars discussing their areas of expertise with graduate students. Rhys Williams, a former ASR president, expressed that graduate students today are forging connections with others in outside departments much more than they have in the past, confirming that conferences like ASR have become an integral part in the development of scholars’ early careers.

You can see the program for the 77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in its entirety here. Next year’s annual meeting will take place 19-21 August 2016 in Seattle, Washington, and the theme will be “Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion.”

[i] Discussion of presentations is based on those sessions I was able to attend. Also, as a researcher of nonreligion myself, I was prone to see these presentations as particularly exemplifying the theme of religious change.

Conference report: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

The postgraduate “Conference on Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics” was held 11-12 of September 2015 at the University of Aberdeen, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The conference was sponsored by the College of Arts and Social Sciences and Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Rethinking Boundaries" 2015 conference

“Rethinking Boundaries” 2015 conference

The conference included keynote talks from both Timothy Fitzgerald and Abby Day; it also included over 30 postgraduate presentations, workshop sessions offered by Aberdeen staff, and lots of tea breaks that allowed for participants to get to know each other, all within the walls of the historic King’s College. The conference was multidisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about boundaries in the study of religion and politics (e.g. religious/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism).

The conference began with a keynote address from Timothy Fitzgerald, Reader in Religion, University of Stirling, entitled “Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Fitzgerald argued that liberal journalists and academics, while attempting to provide factual reportage, tend unconsciously to reproduce ancient “us and them” narratives. Fitzgerald described a basic discourse among journalists that legitimates rational liberal modernity against all perceived forms of backwardness and irrational barbarity (e.g. Fitzgerald offered the example of western views of Islamic countries). In western discourse, he said, the assumption is that faith, unlike nonreligious secularity, has a propensity to irrational violence. Thus western discourse pits rational western civility against the other’s medieval barbarity and western secular logical reasonableness against the other’s inability to settle their differences through negotiation, free market relations, and respect for private property. He drew attention to what he called “myths of the modern,” with one example being the distinction between the religious and the nonreligious secular, and explained how these myths are perpetuated by a range of agencies, including the media, politicians, and academics, but also including constitutions and the courts.  According to Fitzgerald, the problem with these “us and them” narratives is that “nations”, “geopolitics”, and “faith” are used in academic discourse and public rhetoric as if their meanings are self-evident and universal in their application, whereas Fitzgerald feels any claim to universal truth is problematic (for example, Fitzgerald holds that there is no true meaning of the term “God” outside someone’s or some community’s assertion that there is). Fitzgerald argued that the secular/religious binary also needs to be seen as an ideological position (rather than a self-evident truth), as the secular/religious binary is usually argued from a secular perspective (here he critiqued Edward Said, author of the famous Orientalism, on the basis that Said does not deconstruct secular reason and its dichotomous relation to religion and fails to see his secular/religious binary as an ideological position).

Timothy Fitzgerald

Timothy Fitzgerald

The postgraduate presentations were diverse. My presentation on “Intra-Evangelical Conflict on the Topic of Islam” fell within the session entitled “Conceptions of Islam” which also included a thoughtful presentation from the conference organizer Sarah Hynek on “Approaching the Categories of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” But the conference was certainly not entirely focused on Islam, and it also included sessions on a variety of topics such as “Approaching Atheism and New Atheism” and “Shaping Congregations.”

One of the most controversial postgraduate papers presented at the conference came from Armen Oganessian, who is pursuing a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen. Oganessian proposed that if we were to view politics, or the public sphere, as a “marketplace of ideas,” that would allow us to move beyond the religious/secular binary that dominates western thought. In this “marketplace of ideas” framework, we should view all ideologies, concepts, or moralities as having a societal value, and politics as a kind of flea market for any given worldview to sell their perspective on how to govern the society. This framework frees religious thought of its unfair stereotype of only being suited for one’s private life, putting it on an even footing with all other worldviews.  This would mean, for example, that the Buddhist would have the right, just like the socialist, to construct a foreign policy based on the beliefs and morals of his worldview and then have that policy be evaluated solely on its potential effects on the society (societal value) rather than on its religious underpinnings. Then any given individual, any given member of the said society, would be able to “purchase” either the Buddhist’s or the socialist’s–or parts of either’s—foreign policy. Then that foreign policy, or the parts of a foreign policy, most frequently purchased would be the ones adopted by the society, whether it be religious or not. Oganessian’s marketplace of ideas was highly criticized during the question and comment period. One critic argued that the “marketplace of ideas” would inherently favor capitalism. Some questioned the individual’s intellectual purchasing capabilities (e.g. people are too stupid to decide for themselves where to shop). Another critic argued that had Europe gone with the popular ideals of the Catholic Church, Europe would still be in the Dark Ages—a point with which Oganessian disagreed, noting that we cannot predict what would have happened with certainty and mentioning the possibility that perhaps we would be more advanced now.

Johan Rasanayagam hosted a workshop on “Approaching the Category of Islam.” Johan undergirded the workshop with readings from Talal Asad on The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam and Samuli Schielke on Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Makes Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life. The workshop explored the issue of how to study Islamic communities without making Islam the object. Rasanayagam described his own personal research, which focuses on Muslims in Uzbekistan and what their moral understanding is of what it means to be a Muslim. He found that for some Uzbekistani Muslims, “being Muslim” might involve activities that one would typically think of as religious or Islamic –like going to the mosque, fasting, etc.  But for many it also involves being a good neighbor, marrying their kids off properly, contributing to the community—basically, according to Rasanayagam, just being a good person. So the conclusion Rasanayagam came to at the end was that Islam, if it ever becomes an object at all, only becomes so within the moral self of one particular Muslim and that one Muslim’s “Islam” is different from every other Muslim’s “Islam.” According to Rasanayagam, when one tries to make Islam an object it automatically loses value and distorts reality. Thus, Rasanayagam ended up moving away from “Islam” and looking at the formation of moral selves, who just happen to be Muslim. Rasanayagam argued that rather than looking at the Muslim community or Islam, one should focus on the process by which something comes into being and continues.

Two other workshops were included: ‘Identity and Belief/Non-Belief” led by Marta Trzebiatowska and “Religion and Politics as Categories of the Modern State” led by Trevor Stack.

Abby Day

Abby Day

The conferences ended with a keynote address from Abby Day, Reader in Race, Faith and Culture, Goldsmiths University of London, on “Believing in the Future: The Religious and Non-religious Stories Young Adults Tell.” Day shared her findings from researching “Generation A” (grandmothers of Generation X) and the story of decline of mainstream Protestant Christianity mainly in the UK. Day contrasted these older women and the younger generation that they raised and how Generation A vs. Generation X differ on what they want from religion and what can be learned about religious change. Much of the conference content sympathized with the postmodern distrust of language and sought to deconstruct words/phrases such as “belong to a faith community,” “God,” and “Islam.” The conference left me with questions about how constructive deconstructing is and how far it may distance our research from the everyday reality of those we are researching. Can a distrust of language be solved with more language?

As with all multidisciplinary exchanges, it was refreshing and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields.

 

Podcasts

African American Spiritual Churches

Dr. Guillory teaches religion at the University of Rochester, but her first love is natural science. After receiving a B.A. in Chemistry, she taught high school science for several years. She draws inspiration from the sciences in her current research as a religion scholar. In her investigations of African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. Guillory describes a “dynamical self,” a fluid state of identity shifting between the individual and the collective. Her knowledge of chemistry directly influenced this theory.

The African American Spiritual Churches are combinatory religious sites, which blend Protestant, Catholic, Spiritualist, Haitian Voodoo, and Benin’s traditional Vodun practices. Female leadership and business management has been essential in the history of these churches. Dr. Guillory’s upcoming book draws on years of archival research, ethnographic observation, and oral history interviews to tell the story of these churches from 1920 to the present day. Hurricane Katrina looms large in this story. Most of the physical churches were destroyed in the flooding — or the former inhabitants were not allowed to return as the government began eminent domain proceedings. Yet this religious community endures. Guillory is one of the first scholars to work with the Spiritual Churches, whose affairs remain largely private. Our interview concludes with a discussion of anthropological ethics and practice — how to earn the trust of a community, and how to tell someone else’s story without “stealing” that story.

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, comic books, Haitian rum, and more.

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

African American Spiritual Churches

Podcast with Margarita Simon Guillory (29 January 2018).

Interviewed by Dan Gorman

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Guillory_-_African_American_Spiritual_Churches_1.1

 

Dan Gorman (DG): Professor Margarita Guillory, thank you for joining us today.

Margarita Guillory (MG): No problem. Thank you for inviting me.

DG: And today we’re going to be talking about your new book on African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans. Although, I’ve been reading your book proposal. I understand the final title has changed.

MG: Yes, instead of More Than Conjurers being the primary title, it’s now the secondary title. So it’s Spiritual and Social Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches: More than Conjurers.

DG: So, perhaps the reverse order of what you wanted originally?

MG: Yes! But for marketing purposes, More than Conjurers took second place. They really believe that they can market the book better with the Spiritual Churches being in the primary title.

DG: Now, just so people have some brief background – is this what you wrote your dissertation about?

MG: My dissertation was actually based upon ethnographic research pulled from spiritual churches in New Orleans. However, the dissertation was a little bit more theoretical, in that it focussed on the ways in which spiritualists in New Orleans utilise rituals and altars – both personal and public altars – to articulate a complex form of subjectivity that I sort of coined in the dissertation, called the “dynamical self”. So the dissertation was little bit more theoretical. I sort-of was able to use the dissertation to write a peer review article and two edited volume essays. However, it was a little narrow for the publisher’s taste. So I sort-of had to rework . . . . I wrote an entire new book, basically!

DG: I see. So when you mention the idea of the dynamical self, it brings to mind the grandiose theatrical aspect of religious worship. I mean, you could say there’s a dynamic self in many religions. But what’s unique about the way that people express their religious beliefs in these churches?

MG: I would say that the way in which I saw the “dynamic” is this sort of fluidity. Within the dissertation I sort of expand upon this fluid conception of the dynamic – and it’s called the dynamical self. But the dynamical self is this identity form that is sort-of the simultaneous expression of both a public collective identity, based upon association with shared qualities with the grou, but it’s also the construction of a personal identity form that’s based upon one’s uniqueness. And this is a theory that . . . . I didn’t go into these communities with this theory. This theory was really formulated based upon the data that I collected from the communities. So it’s totally the reverse. I went in with no sort-of expectation of what I would actually find. I just thought the communities were really, really interesting. And the data yielded the theory.

DG: So, a data-derived argument, rather than a data-driven argument.

MG: Exactly, exactly.

DG: Now, you came into Religious Studies . . . it’s sort of a second career in some ways. You were a high school science teacher, originally. So, how did your first background in natural science . . . how did that inform how you approached the study of religion?

MG: That’s a great question. And it’s a question that I’m asked quite frequently when people find out that I have a Bachelors in Chemistry. I have a profound love of the physical sciences, specifically Chemistry. You know, Chemistry has allowed me to . . . it has armed me and equipped me with a particular interpretive lens. The dynamical self, even though it’s derived upon the data that I retrieved from these Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, it’s really based upon this equilibrium state that sort-of occurs when you look at certain chemical reactions. So the theory – while based on the data that I retrieved from these churches – the way that I sort of nuanced it, was based upon chemical formulations of just basic equations, something that you’d learn in general Chemistry. So science just gives me a unique lens to view religion. Does that answer your question?

DG: I think so. I think I’m curious to know, do you identify as a Humanist or do you identify as a Social Scientist?

MG: Oh. I don’t like to be placed in a box! I think I am a unique scholar in that way, that I still sort-of follow some of the general trends that are going on in Chemistry, I have a great relationship with a couple of Chemists, even on our campus (5:00). I do use sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of religion. And I do consider myself a Humanist. So in that way, I think I’m sort of like a quilt. Which can be problematic for some people, but it works for me. This is why I can have these really collaborative interdisciplinary projects with people across disciplines and not feel uncomfortable. Because I feel like a piece of me as a scholar is vetted in these multiple disciples.

DG: Which brings me back to your book, when the publisher releases it in a few weeks, what . . . not genre – we know it’s a non-fiction monograph – but, the little stamp on the top cover that says what genre it is and what topic: how is it being sold? Is it history? Is it religion?

MG: Yes. Very good question. It has multiple genres. Because the book I wrote, like I said: a lot of the data that I collected while doing research for the dissertation will be used, but the approach is different. It’s different than the dissertation. The book basically examines the socio-political activities and the spiritual-therapeutic elements that are found in the Spiritual Churches in a really, in a coalescing sort of way. And so, in that way, because the book is political – looking at the political and social activism of these churches – and because it looks at the therapeutic function of these churches, the sort-of tag lines will be history – because I start with the first church in the 1920s and by the end of the book, the chapter on Post Katrina Spiritual Churches – so it’s historical but it’s also being publicised as religion in society. So you see that sort-of band where the sociology is also coming in. So they have marketed it in a variety of fields. Interestingly, they’ve even promoted it in what we would call like “Africana Religions”, So if you do a google search with my name under Voodoo or Hoodoo, my book will actually pop up. So they really cast a wide net when publicising the book.

DG: So I suppose the next question is, what is a Spiritual Church? Aren’t all churches spiritual?

MG: That’s a great question. African American Spiritual Churches that I research are a blended religious group. And I like that term “blended”. And what they’ve done, they have conjoined all of these various elements from institutionalised religions – and I’ll talk about them in just a moment – and they’ve created their own, unique religion. Specifically, the Spiritual Churches in New Orleans have conjoined Protestant traditions with a focus on Pentecostalism; they draw from their worship style. Catholicism is a major bedrock in spiritual churches in New Orleans, just because Catholicism is still the predominant religion that’s practised in New Orleans, in particular, and Louisiana, in general. They also incorporate American Spiritualism: the ability to communicate with the dead, that was birthed in Western New York, in Hydesville; and they also sort of conjoin and mix into their faith Hoodoo and Voodoo. And this notion of Voodoo is derived directly from Haitian Vodou. So when you look at sort of their belief system, and their ritual practices, you can see a little of all of these religions.

DG: So when we talk about Hoodoo – this was sort of an older white term used to describe it in some cases. I’m thinking of sort-of 1920s, white attempts to understand black religion. But Voodoo itself is sort of a combinative thing. You’ve got influences of Islam, Native American and Caribbean religions, Christianity. And, of course, there’s a longstanding debate in the study of African American religions: are these religions more – quote unquote – “African” or are they more “American”? Do you have any thoughts on that?

MG: Well I would say, if we specifically look at the system of Voodoo and I mean V-o-o-d-o-o, I would totally say that that is an American religion (10:00). It is a blended religion that is primarily based – even though you have these other elements like Christianity – it’s primarily based upon Haitian Vodou, V-o-d-o-u, that Haitian immigrants who emigrated very early to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution. A large population of Haitians immigrated to New Orleans and they took with them the religion. So, even though you have these other elements in Louisianan voodoo, the backbone of that religion is Haitian Vodou. And, of course, we know that Haitian Vodou -o-u- was derived from this combination of Catholicism but it comes directly from Benin.

DG: In West Africa?

MG: Exactly: Vodun. So, in that way, once the Vodou sort-of lands in New Orleans, in the South East, yes, it becomes this syncretic – and that’s not the term I like to use – but this sort-of blended type of religious tradition.

DG: So let’s walk through the genealogy from the top, then, beginning in Benin in West Africa. So this would be what kind of religion there? Are we talking about Islam or are we talking about traditional spiritual beliefs?

MG: So, Benin Vodun is an indigenous religion. It is a combination of – and that word might be seen as maybe a little charged – but it is sort-of a combination of the traditional religions that are being practised in Benin. But the scholarly term for it becomes Vodun.

DG: I see. So, then when slaves were brought to Haiti those indigenous religions are brought there. And then they encounter Spanish and French Catholicism, depending which side of the island they’re on.

MG: Exactly, yes.

DG: And then that finally goes to America, where you have the collisions that you’re describing.

MG: Right. Particularly in New Orleans.

DG: So how big a population are we talking about?

MG: That’s hard for me to say, like, quantitatively.

DG: Hundreds? Thousands?

MG: That’s hard for me to say quantitatively, off the cuff. But I could definitely have these sort of conversations, qualitatively. But that’s sort-of tough to derive. We can sort-of search and crunch the numbers but those numbers would be hard to derive.

DG: So let’s talk about some of the churches you studied, then. Were they packed to the gills on a Sunday?

MG: What’s interesting: pre –Katrina, the churches were packed. You had fifty-plus churches. Post-Katrina, those fifty-plus churches dwindled down to two churches in New Orleans.

DG: Is that because of population displacement?

MG: That’s part of the problem. So, part of the problem would be population displacement. And seventy percent of the fifty-plus churches that were operating in New Orleans pre-Katrina were located in the 9th Ward.

DG: (Whistles)

MG: So they were destroyed. And the last chapter of my book sort-of talks about that. The ways in which not only were some of them structurally destroyed but, because of some very difficult economical and political and structural changes that occurred in post-Katrina New Orleans, the lands of these churches – even if they were in a position where they could have restored the church – they were taken, and they were converted to green spaces.

DG: So was that eminent domain?

MG: Eminent domain. Many of the churches – I calculate about forty percent of the churches that were located in post-Katrina 9th Ward – were sort-of taken back by the City, via eminent domain.

DG: I see.

MG: So, there are multiple factors sort-of feeding into why these churches have dwindled down to two.

DG: Has gentrification also occurred?

MG: In the higher elevated levels of 9th Ward, gentrification is now occurring. They sort-of called this area Holy Cross. They built a school, they have a private developer that’s coming in. And I’m saying higher elevation, but it’s still below sea level! But it’s higher than the dominant part of the 9th Ward. It’s being gentrified.

DG: So they’re pushing out the poorer, mostly African American . . .

MG: Well they never let them back in, really. Because they never built . . . . In the 9th Ward, for people who did choose to come back they had no businesses, no stores. I think within the last two years they might have a health clinic. So the infrastructure wasn’t rebuilt for people to come back (15:00). So we can argue, was this intentional? Was this: “We’re going to let the 9th Ward return to nature so it can sort-of serve as the buffer, or the retention land, for other parts of New Orleans? So they won’t flood if we have another major storm, and if we have the breaching of the levees?” So it becomes very . . . and I try to unpack that in chapter five of my book. The ways in which the changing landscape around Spiritual Churches . . . . If you look at the changing landscape of spiritual churches it tells us a lot about other landscapes and shifting landscapes in New Orleans: demographic landscapes, social landscapes, economic landscapes, political landscapes. If you just focus on the Spiritual Churches we can see all of these sorts of dynamics that are going on, post-Katrina.

DG: So I’m assuming that the flood water has destroyed substantial amounts of material culture: archives . . .

MG: Oh, definitely.

DG: So what’s left? I mean, were you working in people’s attics, were you working in libraries?

MG: So no, actually, what was interesting is: when I first went to New Orleans it was in, maybe 2010, and many of the churches were still standing. They were in horrible condition, but they were still filled with all the material culture – covered in all sorts of mould and everything else. And of course I was in those places. So, some of the spiritual leaders who were really respected leaders in the city: Bishop Jackson, Bishop Stokes. He came from Detroit,to give me a tour. So before they began to tear these structures down . . . . Like, these structures are no longer standing in 2017 but I had the fortune to go while they were still there. Not only was I able to see what was in the inside, I took photos of the inside, I took photos of the outside. I do plan on publishing a book of photos of the before and after, so people can actually see what is happening in New Orleans, still today.

DG: But Spiritualists tend to be quite private. How did you gain this access? And this is something I’ve talked about in my past interviews: Douglas Brooks studying . . . . The only way to study some Hindu rituals is to gain the trust and become part of the community. Or Candy Gunther-Brown, who I spoke to – watching Evangelical yoga, but not participating. How did you get access to these communities?

MG: Well actually, one of the first scholars to publish a comprehensive work on Spiritual churches of New Orleans is Claude Jacobs. He’s now retired. He was at the University of Michigan. Him and my adviser at the time, Dr Anthony Pinn who’s also done some work on Spiritual Churches, they basically . . . . He went to Dr Jacobs and told him, “I have a student who’s interested in the Spiritual Churches.” And I was introduced to Archbishop William Stokes who has now passed on – as the Spiritualists say – to the other side. And it was through him. Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches. So he came to Houston – we flew him to Houston – and he and I basically spent two weeks together in Houston, just getting to know one another. I took him to different archives, I interviewed him. And so, basically, it was through him. But we had to sort-of . . . . He had to decide, in those two weeks, whether he was going to trust me, and actually introduce me and open the door or not. So, I guess, at the end of the two weeks – considering I’d published . . . like eighty percent of my scholarships is on Spiritual Churches – I must have gained his trust. Because he was coming from Detroit, he said he would be really excited about introducing me to people in New Orleans. So I won a Ford Dissertation Fellowship and I was able to pay for his travel and we spent a summer – this is how I actually first thought of it – we spent a summer in New Orleans together. And it was remarkable.

DG: Generating trust. . .

MG: Generating trust, and because

DG: . . . that you’re not stealing their stories.

MG: Exactly. And because he did not . . . . Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches, by that time over five decades, people trusted him. And they knew that he wouldn’t just bring, you know, anyone into the community that wasn’t going to sort-of take their religion and do something with it, in a really fundamental positive way (20:00).

DG: That’s the line between being curious and then between past scholars, who basically were stealing.

MG: Exactly. And I invested a lot of time. So this was like the groundwork. I wasn’t even really collecting data at this point. I was just building relationships. So, you asked me how did I get in – because they are very secretive. This is why there hasn’t been a lot of scholarship surrounding spiritual churches, because some people have mishandled what they’ve given the scholar. So I had to spend quite a bit of time building relationships. But once I’d built those relationships it was like the floodgates opened. They were so excited about sharing their faith with me.

DG: Professor Guillory, we’re almost out of time. I’d like to ask briefly: several of the early chapters in your book focus on female leaders in the church. Women like Mother Leafy Anderson. Could you just speak briefly about female leadership in the churches?

MG: I can. This is why I like the book that I’ve published, instead of turning the dissertation into a book. This book really highlights the political savviness, the entrepreneurial spirit of women in New Orleans, specifically from the early 1920s through the 1940s. These were women, women like Mother Leafy Anderson, Mother Catherine Seals, these were women who not only purchased property, but they built structures from the ground up. For instance Mother Leafy Anderson, she built her church from the ground up, property that she purchased, and the organisation that actually financed the building of her very lovely church for the 1920s, was the Italian Homestead Association. If you go and look at the history of the Italian Homestead Association in New Orleans they were not freely giving money to African Americans to build businesses and structure. That wasn’t their social function. They were committed to Italians, and Sicilians in particular, who were coming into New Orleans, actually utilising them as a pipeline to build and to invest in these communities. So it was really interesting that she was able to get them to finance . . . .

DG: And a completely different religion!

MG: Well what’s interesting is that her church – and I talk about this a bit in the book – was about thirty percent Sicilian.

DG: Well, that’s interesting! Which means the church was racially integrated in the1920s.

MG: It was. And also, Mother Catherine Seals, the manger was about twenty-five to thirty-five percent. We can’t get our hands wrapped around the exact number, but hers was also an integrated religious compound. And during her time there were segregation laws about cohabitation.

DG: And not only that, you had lynching!

MG: Exactly, exactly. And so these women – and this is what I love about the book – the book sort of highlights the courageous activities. And they were really savvy when it came to business, too. They had an entrepreneur sort-of model of earning money using a religion, in a way that was just . . . they were ahead of their time! They were like – I guess we would call them like our large megachurches today. They were like the megachurches of the 1920s, though the book really highlights the social activism and the ways in which these women also met the spiritual needs of the individuals, both black and white – which is amazing. The book sort-of talks about that, they were . . . . Yes, they wanted to be an anchor for the black community, but they also served the white population who were being marginalised by class and by ethnicity. They also served those populations as well.

DG: So just to wrap up, I’ll say that reminds me of – it’s a quite old book – but Arthur Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis

MG: Yes!

DG: So, for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar, Arthur Fauset, an African American scholar wrote this book in the 1940s about the urban religions, mostly in Philadelphia. And these were – like your Spiritual Churches – many of them small groups led by women, and they’re exercising creativity in ways that white society doesn’t want to allow them. And so Fauset also discusses the idea of, you know, foreign religions being translated in America. So, clearly, these questions are still viable and thought-provoking seventy years later.

MG: A perfect ending! (25:00)

DG: So, I will ask, what’s the next project?

MG: Oh. The next project? African American Religion in the Digital Age. So, while I’m still publishing essays and peer-reviewed articles on Spiritual Churches, I’m sort of moving in the direction of digital religion. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways in which people of African descent are utilising technical advances to express multiple forms of religion. So I’m working on a chapter now on black humanism and black atheism, and the way in which it’s promoted among Millennials using social media platforms.

DG: Be careful, you’ll be getting into transhumanism next!

MG: I know! (Laughs)

DG: Professor Guillory, thank you very much.

MG: Thank you very much, Dan.

Citation Info: Guillory, Margarita and Dan Gorman. 2018. “African American Spiritual Churches”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 26 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/african-american-spiritual-churches/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, 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.

Engaging with Religion and Populism

A response to “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”

by Thomas White

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The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

In this interview with Professor Bryan Turner at the Leeds SocRel 2017 conference, we discuss how the sociology of religion can work to stay central to sociology as a broader discipline, by focusing on how religion functions in contemporary political contexts.

Starting with a consideration of the role religion takes in American political discourse, particularly Trump’s appeals to evangelical communities, Turner discusses how the evangelical ideal of the ‘tender warrior’ can appeal to the blue collar, white, male, working class. This religiously-inflected form of populism is able to bear significant weight on political debates, for example around abortion. This can be compared to the apparent increase of populism in European politics, where the recent success of Emmanuel Macron in France appears to signal that this tide has been halted, for now. Looking even further afield, to Russia and the Philippines, ‘strongman’ politics have become increasingly prominent and relate to religion in different ways: Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillipines has a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church and the Pope, whilst Vladimir Putin allegedly keeps an Eastern Orthodox priest as a counsellor, in an attempt to link Russian identity to Orthodoxy. In many of these cases, religion features heavily in the national insider/outsider debate, further highlighting its salience in contemporary political discourse.

Following the lead of scholars such as Jose Casanova, Professor Turner brings the public and political role of religion into focus. By doing so, he argues, we can push the sociology of religion toward the realms of political theory, international relations, and race relations, thus creating an agenda in which the sociology of religion becomes increasingly mainstream and relevant to the world we live in, rather than fading into a marginal sub-field of sociology.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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, Snickers bars, pogs, and more.

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

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

Podcast with Bryan Turner (15 January 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Turner_-_The_Political_Relevance_of_The_Sociology_of_Religion1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop, I’m here at the SocRel Conference, 2017. And I have with me a man who needs very little introduction, thanks to the huge influence that he’s had on the field. I’m with Professor Bryan Turner. So, welcome. And thank you for being involved with the Religious Studies Project.

Bryan Turner (BT): It’s a pleasure.

SB: OK, so today we’re going to talk a little bit about teaching and Religious Studies, and some of the differences between the British, European and American context as well. So could we start off, perhaps, with just a little about how you became interested in this topic?

BT: Well, I was converted to Methodism when I was about 17 and I was on holiday in Greece with a group of Methodists. In the following year I went to East Germany, Moscow and through Russia by train, and became very interested in Sociology. So, if you put the two together, I was a kind of Methodist with an interest in Communism and Marxism, although the main influence on my work has been Max Weber. I came here, to the University of Leeds, to do a PhD. I was in the Methodist Society. I was the President of the Student Christian Movement, so I had those kind of involvements. And I was taught by a famous comparative religion expert, Trevor Ling, who was a Buddhist Scholar. And through him became very interested in comparative religion. I was appointed to the University of Aberdeen to teach the Sociology of Religion in 1970, I think it was, but very few students were interested in doing religion, so I had very few students! So I retrained as a medical sociologist, which partly explains my interest in the sociology of the body and how medicine and religion connect with each other. To be honest, the Sociology of Religion dropped out of my career a bit, for those sorts of reasons. I became very much interested in Max Weber so, at that level, religion was part of my agenda. But it was also mixed up with all the other things that I was interested in and doing work on. And, to sort-of finish this little biographical sketch, after 9/11 just about anybody with an interest in Islam was suddenly employable. And I had all these kind-of requests to revisit stuff that I’d done. Because my first book was 1974: Weber and Islam. I went to live in America in 2006, I think it was. And I spent a year at Wiley College and then ended up at the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York, where I’ve been teaching the Sociology of Comparative Religion. So perhaps I’d better say something about the teaching method, if you’d like?

SB: Yes, please do.

BT: Well, I try to make religions kind-of relevant to the world they’re living in. So, for example, during the Mitt Romney/Barack Obama presidential race there was a lot of material to work with. Mitt Romney was a Mormon. There was this huge debate in the Media about whether Mormonism was a religion. So that was an easy way in to talking about what we mean by religion, or Mormonism, or Christianity. And the other, of course, was the allegation that Obama was really a secret Muslim of some sort – we had all of those debates. And then, in 2016 when the Clinton/Trump confrontation started, there seemed to be almost nothing to get into. Because I kind-of listened to every debate and read all of the stuff I could possibly get hold of. But I think Clinton mentioned religion only like once, when she read a passage from the New Testament. Bernie Sanders once talked about his Jewish legacy in an interview, but it wasn’t really part of his campaign. And then we had Trump. How does Trump relate to religion? Because we all know – American exceptionalism – religion is prominent in the public sphere. Just about every textbook starts with de Tocqueville’s commentary on civil religion and so on, and so forth. And it seemed very difficult to actually believe that Trump could win the election, given the fact of these disclosures of his attitudes towards women, his groping of women. And Trump, of course, changed his position on just about everything. So, at one stage, Trump was pro-life – very much committed to that kind of agenda. (5:00) And then, of course, during the campaign it comes out that he’s actually totally opposed to Roe Vs Wade which was the legislation that made abortion possible for women. He came out very strongly in favour of removing that legislation to make abortion either impossible or increasingly difficult. But what sort-of emerged after the election is that he has quite strong support from the Evangelical Churches. And one reason is that within the Evangelical Churches there is a kind of crisis around masculinity. A lot of the Evangelical literature has been developing the idea of the “tender warrior”. This is the kind of dominant male who is in charge of the family. He is in charge of the family. The idea is that women’s role is domestic. And that women really kind-of prefer to be subordinated to men, rather than to be liberated. And that part of the crisis in America is connected with: the acceptance of gays in the military; the legislation that made possible same-sex marriage in some states; the general kind of reception of alternative forms of sexuality, particularly on the East Coast. So, some of this election was about the East Coast, versus the Southern States, and so forth. So Jerry Falwell has come about very much in favour of Trump. Trump visited Liberty University which is run by Falwell, one of the founders of the Moral Majority. And so, my puzzlement about how Trump can possibly get support from religious groups has been partly answered by this idea that there is a kind-of deep anxiety, in conservative America, about the status of men, connected to: the rise of women into pink collar occupations; the better performance of women in education; the growth, or the presence of influential women in leadership positions. You know – Merkel in Germany, the head of the IMF, the Fed and so forth – you see women in very powerful political positions. And, insofar as populism and Trump are connected to the erosion of the blue collar male white working class, you can kind-of understand, partly, why Trump is getting support from Evangelicals. But I would point out a couple of things. I mean, Trump and Clinton were the least-attractive, least-supported presidential candidates in the whole of American history. Clinton did win the popular vote, despite Trump’s claims that it was all fake. Trump has huge support from his base, but he’s still a very problematic figure in American culture, I think. And he has divided society right down the middle. And so one never knows what is going to happen next, really, in America.

SB: Could you say more about the idea of Populism itself, and how that concept has become more relevant, perhaps, at the moment?

BT: Yes. Well, people have been studying populism for a long time. And there are arguments that populism has been present in American politics for long time, such as the People’s Party and so forth. “Agrarian populism” has been a notion around for some time. But I agree with you that in the last twelve months populism has been everywhere: conferences, journal articles, books and so on, and so forth. And I mean, it looked at one stage as if the populist parties would swing through Europe with the Northern League and Golden Dawn, and the Freedom Party in Austria and so forth. And then we’ve had this pause, if you like, in which Macron in France has won the election and to some extent the popular vote for extreme positions on foreigners has been slowed down a bit. And then, I think, with Brexit which again . . . . I mean UKIP, having had some electoral success, has virtually disappeared as a party. And it looks as though the complexity of Brexit may grind it into the ground eventually, who knows? But a lot of the populist literature has been saying that Britain is slightly different from other societies, in that the populist vote is weaker than you’ll find in, say, Italy, and so forth. (10:00) I mean, one issue is to what extent Thatcherism was an earlier form of populism. She did want to change everything. She had these structural views about an inside and an outside. I mean, one of the defining characteristics of populism is that it divides the world into “us” and “them”. And then you’ve got the people on the one side and their enemies on the other. I mean, as we’ve heard in this conference, the enemies seem to be connecting to Muslim refugees in Europe and so forth. But again, looking at this from the outside – that is, from America – what struck me was the antagonism towards East Europeans. So, Polish people were being criticised by Conservative people who wanted to argue that the welfare state was being exploited by free-riders from other countries. So I don’t think it’s just Islam, there’s all sorts of other things going on about the insider and the outsider.

SB: Where do you see it going in the future?

BT: Well I was reminiscing . . . . In the 1960s and 1970s and really into the ’80s, I suppose, we had the three day week, we had the miners’ strike and we had the poll tax strikes. And whilst Thatcher was hugely popular – again amongst her base – and while she was, in many ways, the most successful Prime Minister we’ve had – she won three elections, etc. – living through that period, I mean, Britain did seem amazingly unstable. I mean, just visually, we had piles of rubbish piled up in the streets; electricity was very limited; I remember having to teach with no heating in the university, so we all wore hats and gloves to work, sitting in classrooms. And the current period feels like that as well. Because, I think, if Brexit fails the people that voted to leave will be deeply frustrated. I mean Nigel Farage has threatened to comeback into politics if that happened! The legislative mess – it’s horrendous. And then, looking at the broader picture, we’ve got what you might call “strong man politics” in the Philippines, in China, in Russia and so forth. And, to some extent, some of these figures at least are mobilising religion to bolster their position. I think very interesting is Putin, who allegedly has an Orthodox Priest – an Eastern Orthodox Priest – as a counsellor. He’s obviously appealing to Orthodoxy as a way of defining what it is to be Russian. It’s a fairly complicated picture, I think. Again, I suppose I should have said about Trump that Trump’s foreign policy is deeply worrying, because he seems to want to undermine many of the institutions that have bolstered European peace for 70 years or so. And there is this figure, Steve Bannon, who’s a conservative Catholic with an Irish background, who I think is mobilising Trump’s foreign policy. And I think that’s very problematic. So, from an academic point of view, I think religion is going to be very central to all of these debates, whether it’s conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, or Buddhists and Muslims in Asia, or Catholic and Pentecostals and Protestants elsewhere.

SB: How do you think scholars of religion or sociologists of religion are best approaching it?

BT: Well, in the talk I’m going to give this evening, I think sociology of religion kind-of bifurcates into those that have gone into spirituality and post-institutional churches, and those who follow people like José Casanova who are interested in public religion. My question is how we make the Sociology of Religion central to the sociological enterprise, as a whole. And I think the public religions debate pushes the sociology of religion into political theory, into international relations, into race relations and creates a kind of agenda where Sociology of Religion is once more part of the mainstream rather than a minority interest on the margins. This conference- I’m going to get the title of the conference wrong, but “On the Edge”: are we part of the periphery or part of the mainstream? I think it’s an important question. And I, personally, don’t want to be on the periphery. Sociology of Religion is central to the modern world. (15:00)If you look at everywhere, basically: Israel, Brazil, America, Germany, France – it’s difficult to find a country that doesn’t have some kind of religious issue going on. And I think it’s’ something we need to address, really.

SB: When you speak about the political aspects of, for example, race relations as well, do you think that there’s a certain amount of activism that could be involved in the Sociology of Religion?

BT: Well, I certainly think Sociology needs to contribute to a solution. And whether that’s social policy or becoming engaged in activism, I think is something we can’t sort-of predict in advance, so to speak. But I think sociologists can’t describe the mess we’re in without taking some responsibility for suggesting ways we might get out of this mess. Otherwise we might all bathe in misery and melancholy, and what would be the point of having a conference like this? We might as stay at home and be miserable! And this is too big a topic for this interview, but I tend to think sociologists are always looking at failure: failed institutions, failed constitutions, failed social movements, failed this, that and the other. And I think we need to turn this around a bit and say: well, ok, can we find any successful institutions, or successful social movements, or successful philosophies or whatever, that have improved the human condition – even if it’s for a short time? My argument is that no institution lasts for ever. They all have fluctuating histories – I mean of success and failure. But the idea that all institutions are failing is an impossible position to take. I tend to say that there’s no such thing as consistent pessimism, because we wouldn’t be having this interview if you and I were consistently pessimistic, I don’t think. You know, we’d be getting drunk or something!

SB: (Laughs).

BT: So I think, I mean I haven’t been an activist in that traditional sort of sense. But I’ve edited the journal Citizenship Studies for about 20 years, which I see as making a contribution to understanding the kind-of erosion of social rights over the last 30 years or so. And that citizenship, revitalised would be some kind of answer to questions about social solidarity and so forth. I’m beginning to lose my voice. I don’t know if we can keep this interview to a limited period, because I have to speak in a while?

SB: Yes. Just one more question?

BT: Yes, sure.

SB: Do you see, when you speak about citizenship, do you see any role for religion in that idea?

BT: Well, I mean there are arguments that a lot of our notions of rights come out of . . . . Some people would argue that a lot of our notions of rights come out of the Protestant Methodist tradition. But, more recently, the Catholic Church was to some extent responsible for developing the concept of human dignity, which was the underpinning to the Declaration of Human Rights. And then, I think, the Christian Democratic tradition was part of this sort-of development. But I think the Sociology of Religion could contribute a more sophisticated understanding of what Judaism is or Islam, or other religions, what Sikhism is about and so on. So as a basic educational role, to undermine false assumptions about – you know – what happens to Muslim women, what Judaism has been about.

SB: Professor Bryan Turner, thank you very much for your time.

BT: Thank you.

Citation Info: Turner, Bryan and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-political-relevance-of-the-sociology-of-religion/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, 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.

A World-Conscious Sociology of Religion?

A Response to James Spickard on “Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”

by Jonathan Tuckett

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Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

In this interview, recorded at the SocRel 2017 Annual Conference, Professor James Spickard talks about his latest project. Starting with a critique of North American sociology’s approach to religion, Spickard emphasises how our concepts of religion are historically grounded, arising from a particular time and place. How can we remedy this, and how can we look at our own concepts more critically and reflexively? Spickard presents three examples of how religion might be understood differently – from the point of view of Confucianism, Navajo religion, and the work of Arab scholar Ibn Khaldoun – and shows how these different approaches can alter our perspectives. What can Confucianism show us about North American church congregations? How can the work of Ibn Khaldoun affect our understandings of race and ethnicity? Building on ideas such as Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, Spickard explores how researchers could begin to move toward a ‘world-conscious sociology of religion’.

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, Athlete’s foot powder, hot sauce, and more.

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

Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

Podcast with James V. Spickard  (23 October 2017).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Spickard_-_Alternative_Sociologies_of_Religion-_through_Non-Western_Eyes_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hi, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here with the RSP at SocREL 2017. I’m here with Professor James Spickard, from the University of Redlands. So, thank you for joining us today.

James Spickard (JS): It’s a pleasure.

SB: So we’re here to talk abut your newest publication: Alternative Sociologies of Religion:Through Non-Western Eyes. Could you tell us first a little bit about how you came to work on this topic?

JS: Well, every project is complex. And like every other scholar in the world, I’m in the midst of a series of conversations with various folks. Technically, I have a Religious Studies degree, but I’m trained in Anthropology and Sociology. I’m one of those few people who doesn’t make a distinction between them, except historically. So I’m very primed, as a theorist, I’m primed to look and see what the underlying presumptions are of any way of understanding what a particular phenomenon is. And since I’m studying religion and going on the American context, I’ve been reasonably appalled at the kinds of things that the American context can’t seem to understand. The first one of those that came up, during the ‘90s, was the inability of American Sociology of Religion to actually grasp experience in Religious Studies. I did my first fieldwork on one of the Japanese religions where the practitioners do something called (audio unclear). Which, crudely put, involves projecting invisible light out of the palms of peoples hands to clean the clouds off their spiritual bodies. And you can imagine why an anthropologist would be interested in this and I learned all sorts of wonderful anthropological things about it. But – and frankly I don’t much care what [the ritual] was – but it was the thing that attracted everybody. And the discipline of Sociology of Religion said, “Oh no, no, no. That can’t be right. Something else must be going on.” There must be, you know, the deprivation hypothesis or some . . . crap! And so, it wasn’t until a couple of folks did a survey where they asked a bunch of people involved with Asian religions, “Why are you attracted to it ?” And it wasn’t the social life, and it wasn’t connection with other people, and it wasn’t deprivation, it was “Hey, dude. Something happened to us when we were sitting in meditation.” And the discipline had no concepts for dealing with that. So Mary Jo Neitz  and I wrote a couple of articles about that and put together a series of ways of thinking about that. And I ended up working on some pieces based in Navajo religion where you don’t have churches, you don’t have priests. You’ve got myths, you’ve got belief systems, but there aren’t doctrines. But you’ve got these nine day and night ceremonies. And they were categorised as “symbolic”, but they’re not symbolic. I mean, why would you do something as symbolism for nine days and nights? It’s based on the experience, it picks people up from one place and moves them to someplace else. One thing leads to another there. I began working on Confucian ways of seeing what’s sacred in Confucian tradition. I was doing stuff on human rights and on the Confucian notion of human rights – which is a very different notion than in the West – and trying to get at that from the inside, following a series of  contemporary neo-Confucians into this notion of the relation of self. The self is constructed quite differently in Confucianism than it is in the West. And this sacred relationships of . . . . It’s all about relationships. And the sacred inheres in the connections between people and the practice and maintenance of Li, which we call ritual propriety, but it’s . . . . The maintenance of the relationships that create the self and create the social community generates virtue. But virtue isn’t individual, virtue is collective. So, it’s a whole different way of thinking about things. So I get these two things going on, then I got interested in the work of Ibn Khaldoun from the 14th century  who has a way of . . . he thinks about the concept of Asabiyya or group feeling. And it’s a form of social solidarity that is centred, centripetal, it draws things to the centre rather than being boundary oriented. (5:00) But he treats that Asabiyya as something that is generated by kinship, but also by Islam. And so, you know, you’ve got these three things: “What do I do with this stuff?” And it struck me that there was a narrative here. There’s a . . . well, where I end up – and I think the underlying place of this book – is that those are the three examples, but they’re not exhaustive. The argument is that all of our concepts, including Western concepts and Western sociological concepts are historically and culturally grounded. That is, they arise out of a particular time and place. And reading Manuel Vasquez’ article in Religions on the Edge, which is the theme of this conference. Vasquez points out the way in which in sociology’s origins, sociology treated religion as the “other” and so secularisation approaches are built into Sociology from the very beginning. And that was more articulate than I’d been able to get out of it. So, we have a beginning of a narrative. And I had already studied how religion is presented in American Sociology textbooks. And it is all about belief and organisations and morality and its all. . . it’s isolated in its own chapter, just as Sociology of Religion is isolated in the discipline at large. So what was the default view? How was it created? How was it a historical cultural product, that then lets us see certain things really, really well, but not see other things, not see experience, not see relationships, etc? So that’s the opening of the book. And then there’s a chapter where I dive deep – I love writing this stuff because you actually get to dive deeply into things and read everybody in the world. And dive into the Confucian material. And then I take that and I’ve written a chapter where I apply it. And, what would a Confucian sociologist see about American church life? Or church life in Europe? But I’m dealing with the American case here. What would that sociologist see that we don’t normally see? And the Confucian case is probably the most striking, that – despite the patriarchalism of China’s religion and Chinese culture in general – who maintains the sacred relationships that keep the congregation together? It’s women cooking church suppers. They’re doing – or in the Black African American church it’s called “kitchen ministry”, they’ve got a name for it, and it isn’t always women, just women, in African American churches. And in Midwestern Protestantism it is all women. And there’s a long history of church suppers forming the basis of the social church. In San Antonio, on the west side of San Antonio,  which is Latina area, people are in fact nominally Catholic, but people don’t really attend church very often. But there are women who will put on Christmas plays and they will do what they call a promesa, which is: if your nephew gets off drugs or something like that, you promise El Nino Dios that you will do one of these plays and that you will fed the neighbourhood. And the play people, the actors, come and they do the pastoral play, with shepherds and Jesus. And it’s a religious event. But it doesn’t happen in church. And so these women are not counted as religious in American quantitative sociology, they’re just not. We miss all of this richness because we don’t see it. So the relational notion, it wouldn’t necessarily put women at the centre, but it empirically puts them at the centre – which is this lovely irony – and Sociology doesn’t do that. Sociology ignores the role of women by and large. So, you know, then there’s two chapters on Ibn Khaldoun and two chapters on what the Navajo, or what you would do with a Navajo approach. (10:00) And one of them outlines  what the Navajo would do – how Navajo philosophy works and the notion of ritual as creating the original beauty, order its hózhó is the term, creating the beauty, order etc that was present at the creation. And at the creation it was done, in the myth, by thought and speech. Long Life Boy and Happiness Girl who take out this bundle, and they unroll the bundle and they do this sand painting. And that’s what happens in the ceremony: they unroll the bundle, they do the sand painting, they recreate the original perfection. And people experience that connection. So then I take that and apply it. And this was actually an article that I had written in 2005, based on 13 years of fieldwork with a radical Catholic group that you can read the house mass that that group does every week, or did at that time every week, as a way of recreating the world, a sense of rightness, a sense of beauty, or of order in the lives of people who spent their time working with homeless folks, or sitting in at the Cathedral because the Bishop isn’t spending enough money or poor people. Or sitting in at City Hall so that they will release (audio unclear) so that the poor people don’t have to put their stuff all over the street. Those are . . . how do you recreate that world? Well it’s the ritual that does it. And there’s other things too, but the overall argument is that  if we go to these other places and take a look at what other concepts are there, it’s like if you’re a photographer, and I’m a photographer, so I look at it: you hold the camera; you point the camera at something; you frame it, based on whatever; and you take a photo you get something, you see something. If you take twenty steps around to your right or left and take a picture you’ll see something else. And so, what I’m advocating is that if we look at these other cultural, historical settings and places we can get notions, we can locate our camera in different places. The three I happen to choose are ones – I mean there are others, I suggest some in the last chapter, but I could only handle three. From the first article that dealt with some of this stuff to now, I think it’s . . . well, it’s been twenty-eight years. No, twenty-six years. Which is a long time, thank you very much! But the project really only gelled about eleven years ago. Anyway that’s a long answer to a short question!

SB: It’s great.

JS: So, where do you want to go next?

SB: Well, one thing that we could ask would be why you chose to, or why you prefer to go to these other perspectives – such as the Navajo or the Chinese Confucian perspective – rather than looking for relational theories kind-of closer to home?

JS: Well. You can get there by going closer to home. And when I first looked at experience, and wrote the first set of articles on experience I went two places: one, to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –who’s an American, or Hungarian American psychologist – who looks at the phenomenon of attention and how when you attend to something deeply the ego shifts and the experience of the ego, in that strict Husserlian phenomenological sense, the experience that you have of the world changes. And I went to that and I went to the work of Alfred Schütz, particularly his article on making music together. And Mary Jo Neitz and I wrote a piece on that, her coming out of feminist theory and my coming out of whatever it is I come out of. But we’re fellow travellers on this particular trip. And those were spots in the Western tradition where we could find it. And Schütz basically argues, and I think he’s right, when you listen to music it’s a polythetic experience. That is, there are multiple things happening, it unrolls in time and rituals unroll in time. You can’t grasp a ritual just like you can’t grasp a symphony in a set of words. But you have to play it again. And if you don’t play it again then you lose something. And putting the two – Csikszentmihalyi and Shütz – together, what those rituals do is they focus our attention on different places. And how well you know the ritual . . . Csikszentmihalyi talks about this distinction between the difference between anxiety and boredom (15:00) If you know it too well, you’re bored. If you don’t know it at all, you’re anxious. If you’re exactly on the right spot, then your experience transforms. And so I’m using that to look at Navajo ritual, but I’m also using a Navajo theology to look at the Catholic ritual. Because . . . what is it accomplishing? It rights the world again, it puts the world back in order. And I think that’s significant. Sure, you can get there in another way. Nobody has. Sure, you don’t have to go to China to find out about relationalism. Nobody’s done it. And my complaint, my criticism and I said this in my review of the book Religion on the Edge, is that people are laying out all of these critiques of standard sociology and then what they put in their place are really not very good understandings of symbolic interactionism, not even going to Mead’s Philosophy of the Act where there really is some good stuff, but going  back to Goffman, going to things that don’t actually produce anything new. So the wish is fine, but there’s no delivery. If you go. . . . It’s like travelling. You go some place else. Here I am, an American, sitting in a British conference. People think differently – we have two countries divided by the same language (that’s not my line, it’s probably Churchill. I don’t know who it is) But you begin to see things in a different way. And so I think it’s important, for example, to go and read Ibn Khaldoun even though we don’t have a cyclical . . . I didn’t go to his cyclical notion of history – and Brad  Turner at one point wrote that the problem with Khaldoun is that he has no theory of modernisation. Well, that’s right, but that isn’t where you go in this case. What are the concepts that work? And then realising and we think of him as an historian and he thought of himself as a judge on the Islamic tradition. He was trying to justify Islam, and a particular kind of anti-Sufi Islam which we might call Islamism today, based on the ability of that Islam to overcome kin divisions and create a larger community where people are tied together by ritual. Well, those are really interesting ideas. What do they illumine about a particular case that we wouldn’t otherwise see? In that case, since I haven’t described that one yet,  I use that lens to look at the miracles of magic origin in Bosnia, in the Marian apparition in Bosnia, in 1981 and ongoing. And that was in the sociological literature as a religious experience, and as a religious event. And of course, it was. Then, ten years later, they have this ethnic war in that place, which is then described as an ethnic experience, and an ethnic event. Which of course it was. What’s the relationship between the two of these? Is religion creating social solidarity which then becomes tied up with the ethnic line? because you can’t tell a Croat from a Serb unless you ask as Bosnian what prayers they learned as child. Is it an instrumental way of killing people? In that case, I actually decide that Ibn Khaldoun doesn’t do it right, because he has the centre-focussed notion of  pulling people together. And the war makes it  very clear that this was an edge focussed way of dividing people. but we still learn something by putting ethnicity and religion in the same frame, where they do not appear in standard sociology. Could we get there? Sure we could get there, but nobody’s done it. I mean, it standardly isn’t done. And so that’s why I did this. Now that’s reason one. There’s reason two, which is: my previous book – I write slowly – is on ethnography and  critique of un-reflexive ethnography in the study of religion. And it brought some of the material from anthropology into Sociology and into Religious Studies. So that’s the notion of how ethnographers need to be aware of their own position in the process of doing their ethnography. (20:00)And one of the articles in there has eight different levels of representation in the ethnographic process. I didn’t write that one but it’s a brilliant piece by Shawn Landres. Uh, I discovered there’s a ninth. But, you know, these are the kinds of things we have to think about. Ethnography is now- it’s sort of de rigueur that it’s reflexive. We are not, in the historical cultural position of late nineteenth century France and Germany and the United States. We’re in this sort of emerging global world where there’re connections all over the place. It’s after colonialism but it’s not post-colonial. And that’s particularly true because the post-colonial people are still doing anti-colonialism, effectively. But we’re in a world where we have to begin thinking about it as not a unipolar world. And there’s a long history in Sociology, not just American, and in Anthropology as well. We make the concepts, we export the concepts, folks in other places apply those to their own situations and frequently misunderstand what’s going on. Not their fault. And there’s been a counter-push to, “Ok how do you develop an indigenous sociologies?” and so on.  And the ISA has sponsored some. Some of them are worthwhile, some of them are not. But we live in a world where we’re beginning to have to talk from one another and learn from one another and so on. And so the second reason for going elsewhere is to remind ourselves that we’re not the centre of the universe. Probably my favourite line in the book is the line in the last chapter where, you know: “Only men are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as gender; only white people are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as race; only heterosexuals are allowed to imagine that there are not these wonderful and glorious and multiple forms of sexuality; and only people living at the centre of the empire can imagine that the empire doesn’t matter. So that’s where we are. And here I am a white male heterosexual inhabitant of the empire and I can’t forget that. And so what are the responsibilities? How do we move from that polarity to do something where we are all at least in conversation with one another? And I spent the last couple of chapters wrestling with questions of  Orientalism, questions of cultural appropriation, and the questions of what is the epistemological grounding of what a global sociology would be. And my first title for the book, the one I sent it to the publisher with, was “Through Non-Western eyes: Towards a World-Conscious Sociology of Religion”. And in many ways, that’s the best description of what the book is about. The marketing department of course, said, “No. You can’t do that. We want Global Sociology”. I said, “No, that’s white male, blahblahblah.” And so we fought for a month, and two months, and then the editor came up with the title we have. I received a copy of the book the day after “alternative facts” became an American political meme. And part of me said, “Oh my God!” and the other part of me said, “Instant Karma for the marketing department.” And yet it also does describe what’s going on. Because it’s not saying, “These are the only ways to do things,” but “these are three models of what we could be doing”. And there’s was dealing with the concept of (audio unclear), that had to do with Latina religious agency. And Nigerian, Professor (audio unclear) was dealing with some (audio unclear) concepts and there are some other people who’ve pursued these.And they’re great. They’re beyond me. I can’t dive into all of those, I’d bee doing this for the next forty life times. But the stuff is out there. Some of it’s good. Some of it isn’t. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t. Some of the stuff that I think works might not work as well as I think it does. Other things that I think don’t work, might work better, but this is the conversation we have to be having.  (25:00) So there’s a sense that what I’m trying to do here is – well, as the subtitle [suggests], decentring the sociology of religion. Which is the subtitle of the Bender et al. book. It’s the theme of the conference.

SB: One final question. How do you hope the book might be used by other scholars or students?

JS:I hope people will read it. You know. You always want people to read your book.And in this case, one of the reasons it’s taken so long to write is that I try to write for . . . I don’t just write for specialists. I try to have the prose be readable by people who are literate and interested in things. I actually write for my father, but he’s dead. So I don’t actually write for him. Somebody who can understand, who is not a scholar but can understand wel- reasoned argument. So I tell stories. And other people will have stories. And if people . . . what I hope is that people will understand what it is I’m trying to do and then figure out ways that they might want to do something similar.Well, there a whole series of fellow travellers here, because I’m not the only person: Raewyn Connell’s book, Southern Theory– it’s a fellow traveller with that. And in that book she looks at a very Western question about the nature of colonialism. But from the point of view of people who have been suffering from colonialism. Not the same question but parallel. Mary Jo Neitz’ work on Feminist Theory, Feminist Sociologies of Religion is a connected work. Meredith McGuire’s work on Lived Religion is . . . . These are things breaking down the sort of standard modal of how religion works and looking at things through other lenses. Now I of course have criticisms of all of those – of things that they catch and things that they don’t catch – but that doesn’t matter if people read this, appreciate the stories, figure out, “Well how does this change how I think about what it is I’m doing, and what might I do differently?” That’s great. And if people then say, “OK, I’m going to engage with people who are really coming from a fundamentally different place.” This is the ethnographer in me. I said that my first fieldwork was with one of the main Japanese religions so I had to immerse myself in a completely different way of thinking about the world. And that, I think, that’s kind-of our duty at this point. Unless we want to ignore the fact that there’s an empire around us, and I can’t do that.

SB: Professor Spickard, thank you very much for your time.

JS: Sure. Thanks a lot.

Citation Info: Spickard, James V. and Sammy Bishop. 2017. “ Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/alternative-sociologies-of-religion-through-non-western-eyes/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Religious Studies Opportunities Digest – 16 May 2017

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Conference: CenSAMM: 500 years: The Reformation and its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

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Anthology: Routledge International Handbook of Religion in Global Society

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November 16–19, 2017

Istanbul, Turkey

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November 13–15, 2017

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July 5, 2017

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September 4–6, 2017

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Conference: Sacred Space and Sacred places. Expressions and Experiences of Lived Religion

May 23–25, 2017

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AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

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, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Sociology of Religion – and Religious Studies?

“You got your sociology of religion in my religious studies!” “You got religious studies in my sociology of religion!” – DELICIOUS

What makes the sociology of religion and Religious Studies distinct from each other – if anything? Paul-Francois Tremlett, Titus Hjelm and David Robertson discuss what the two approaches have in common, and how they differ. Importantly, they consider how they might learn from each other. Does the sociology of religion over-rely on surveys, or could RS benefit from such large-scale data? Is Religious Studies overly-concerned with theory and definitions, or could sociology benefit from a more critically-nuanced approach? Why is it that sociologists seem to have the ear of policy-makers when RS scholars do not?

This episode is the sixth in a series of seven entitled “New Directions in the Sociology of Religion”, co-produced with SOCREL to celebrate their 40th anniversary.

Be sure to check out the other podcasts in this series, such as ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan,  ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie, ‘Researching Radicalisation‘ with Matthew Francis, and ‘Religion, youth, and Intergenerationality‘ with Naomi Thompson.

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, Wu Tang Clan gear, Cornish sea salt, and more.

 

Evangelicalism and Civic Space

evangelicalchristianIn this podcast, Anna Strhan talks to Katie Aston about her research among evangelical Christians, exploring their search for coherence in the contemporary city. How do the members of conservative Anglican congregations negotiate their place in a secular multicultural society, and deal with issues of sexuality, parenthood, human rights, etc? The focus of the discussion is on subjectivity – both bodily and among one another. Anna’s work is an interesting example of a multidisciplinary approach to religious studies, bringing in sociology, philosophy and anthropology.

This episode is part of the Sociology of Religion in the UK series, sponsored by Introduction to the Sociology of Religion, and Dawn Llewellyn on “Religion and Feminism“.

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, Nicholas Cage pillow cases, Gordon Lightfoot’s greatest hits, and more.

An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion

What is the sociology of religion? What are its particular concerns, dominant themes and defining methodologies? Where did it begin, and how has it evolved? This interview with Grace Davie introduces this important and historically influential approach to the study of religion.

In conversation with David G Robertson, Professor Davie – herself a highly respected theorist of religious change – discuss the four tasks of the sociology of religion; some early sociologists and their relationship to the social changes of their time; modernity, secularisation and a more recent social shift, the Internet; and how Europe may be the exception in the modern world, rather than the model by which all other states will necessarily proceed. They conclude by reminding listeners that we must always keep our theories foremost in our thinking, because they are as socially and historically contextual as the data we use them to interpret.

The Changing Nature of Religion, or our podcasts on Emile Durkheim, Claude Levi-Strauss, Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Marxist Approaches, Bricolage and more…

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 20 September 2016

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November 1, 2016, 10:00 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

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September 23, 2016, 6:00 – 7:30 p.m.

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University of Erfurt

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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.

“Understanding Religious Change” – 2015 ASR Conference Report

77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR), 20-22 August 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Amanda Schutz, PhD student in the School of Sociology, University of Arizona.

The theme of this year’s annual ASR meeting was a familiar one among social science conferences: understanding change. In her presidential address, “Complex Religion: Interrogating Assumptions of Independence in the Study of Religion,” ASR president Melissa Wilde urged sociologists to consider religion a variable of paramount importance, alongside commonly examined ones like race, class, and gender. She stressed that religion remains one of society’s most significant “self-sorting mechanisms” and marveled at its persistent relevance in helping us make sense of the social world. Wilde admitted she chose the theme “Understanding Religious Change” early on in her tenure as ASR president; but as the conference drew nearer, she became “struck by the ways it doesn’t change at all.” Indeed, listening to the many presentations, an alternative conference theme could have easily followed the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

These two ideas—religious change and religion’s stability—are not as conflicting as they appear on the surface. Sociologists often embrace this contradiction of simultaneous progress and stasis. We set out to explain cases that are worthy of sociological inquiry precisely because they challenge working assumptions in some respect. Yet at the same time, we rely on the stability of patterns and trends to lend credence to new ideas: we set out to prove that what we suspect is happening isn’t just white noise, coincidence, or spurious, but something real and consistent. Sociologists attempt to explain new social occurrences (change) with reliable, reproducible data (stability). Several presentations at the ASR annual meeting demonstrated this alternative conference theme; three of them are discussed here.[i]

One of the most prominent recent changes in the American religious landscape is the rise of the “nones,” or those who claim no particular religious affiliation. Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith explore the emergence of a more visible and actualized form of nonreligion in their recent book Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Ryan Cragun, Warren Goldstein, and Jesse Smith participated in an Author Meets Critics session devoted to this book. While these critics pointed out that some of the organizational history was inaccurate, nonreligious labels (e.g., atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist) are not interchangeable, and the book would have benefited from more direct engagement with social movement literature, the overall reception was warm. As atheists as a collective continue to grow and organize, their place in the social world—and the religious world—is worth examining.

However, as “atheist” becomes an increasingly legitimate and salient social identity and atheists organize into groups that increasingly resemble typical social movements, atheism, in many ways, resembles religion. Indeed, Cimino (who was unaccompanied by his co-author) pointed out that atheists often use religious metaphors, practice secular rituals, and may even refer to their gatherings as “atheist church.” This might not be surprising, as some have argued religious terminology is the best we currently have to describe nonreligious beliefs, practices, and ideologies. The Q&A following the panel ended with a short but lively discussion on whether atheism actually is a religion. The argument goes: if an ideology becomes dogmatic and questioning prevailing wisdom is not tolerated, that ideology has morphed into something akin to religion. In other words, if atheists believe without a doubt that god(s) does not exist, they are, in fact, religious atheists. However, the extent to which atheists as a whole accept such a proposition is debatable.

Another presentation added important details to this discussion of nones, and also demonstrated that reinforcement of the status quo can sometimes accompany change. In his presentation “The Dechurching of America: Why People are Increasingly ‘Done’ with the Church…but not with God” (based on work co-authored with Ashleigh Hope), Josh Packard admitted that the trend toward disaffiliation has been impossible for scholars of religion to ignore, and many have discussed at length how and why people lose their faith. (It is also important to note that next year’s ASR conference theme will explore varieties of nonreligion, continuing these conversations in greater depth.)

However, scholars of religion are quick to point out that “no affiliation” is not synonymous with “no belief,” and that the nones are comprised largely of those who still retain some level of religious or spiritual belief, despite disengagement from organized religion. Packard quoted several respondents emphasizing that although they have left the church, they have not abandoned their faith. Indeed, this movement away from institutionalized religion is becoming a popular area of study, as researchers are looking more closely at the various combinations of believing and belonging, which include groups like the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNRs) and cultural Christians (e.g. Orestes “Pat” Hastings, who received this year’s McNamara Student Paper Award and presented “Not A Lonely Crowd? Social Connectedness, Religious Attendance, and the Spiritual But Not Religious”).

A third presentation demonstrating this alternative theme, titled “The Rhetoric of Obedience: Gender, Religion, and Family Life in a Modernizing Indonesian City,” took place during the Presidential Panel on religion and gender. Rachel Rinaldo discussed how the rhetoric of submission among Muslim couples is more complex than we might expect. While men remain the head of the family, whose primary obligation is supporting wife and children, it is not unusual for wives work outside the home—though they often must ask permission of their husbands. There are inconsistencies in this worldview, Rinaldo adds: yes, women are by and large considered equal to men, but their utmost responsibility is the home, where they are expected to obey their husbands.

However, Rinaldo points out that as women become more involved in public life, public and private spheres becomes more discrete; consequently, as women become more visibly independent and their roles more varied, the rhetoric of submission in the home becomes stronger. The workplace may be an “escape” where women are increasingly welcomed (or at least tolerated), but the household is the “last bastion” of women; it is not as affected by social change as the public sphere. And if women need to be reminded to obey, Rinaldo suggests, that means there must be contexts where they’re not. Because the culture of many Muslim societies is changing, if people still wish to continue traditions privately, they must use religion as a justification of such arrangements—not culture.

landon schnabel presenting.

landon schnabel presenting.

Though conference themes are intended to encompass the largest possible range of presentations, the meeting included many panels with varying relevance to the theme of religious change. This included panels dedicated to the intersection of religion with topics like health, the environment, gender, sexuality, violence, and politics. This year’s meeting also introduced the ASR’s first attempt at a Graduate Student Mentoring Lunch, which saw a handful of senior scholars discussing their areas of expertise with graduate students. Rhys Williams, a former ASR president, expressed that graduate students today are forging connections with others in outside departments much more than they have in the past, confirming that conferences like ASR have become an integral part in the development of scholars’ early careers.

You can see the program for the 77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in its entirety here. Next year’s annual meeting will take place 19-21 August 2016 in Seattle, Washington, and the theme will be “Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion.”

[i] Discussion of presentations is based on those sessions I was able to attend. Also, as a researcher of nonreligion myself, I was prone to see these presentations as particularly exemplifying the theme of religious change.

Conference report: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

The postgraduate “Conference on Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics” was held 11-12 of September 2015 at the University of Aberdeen, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The conference was sponsored by the College of Arts and Social Sciences and Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Rethinking Boundaries" 2015 conference

“Rethinking Boundaries” 2015 conference

The conference included keynote talks from both Timothy Fitzgerald and Abby Day; it also included over 30 postgraduate presentations, workshop sessions offered by Aberdeen staff, and lots of tea breaks that allowed for participants to get to know each other, all within the walls of the historic King’s College. The conference was multidisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about boundaries in the study of religion and politics (e.g. religious/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism).

The conference began with a keynote address from Timothy Fitzgerald, Reader in Religion, University of Stirling, entitled “Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Fitzgerald argued that liberal journalists and academics, while attempting to provide factual reportage, tend unconsciously to reproduce ancient “us and them” narratives. Fitzgerald described a basic discourse among journalists that legitimates rational liberal modernity against all perceived forms of backwardness and irrational barbarity (e.g. Fitzgerald offered the example of western views of Islamic countries). In western discourse, he said, the assumption is that faith, unlike nonreligious secularity, has a propensity to irrational violence. Thus western discourse pits rational western civility against the other’s medieval barbarity and western secular logical reasonableness against the other’s inability to settle their differences through negotiation, free market relations, and respect for private property. He drew attention to what he called “myths of the modern,” with one example being the distinction between the religious and the nonreligious secular, and explained how these myths are perpetuated by a range of agencies, including the media, politicians, and academics, but also including constitutions and the courts.  According to Fitzgerald, the problem with these “us and them” narratives is that “nations”, “geopolitics”, and “faith” are used in academic discourse and public rhetoric as if their meanings are self-evident and universal in their application, whereas Fitzgerald feels any claim to universal truth is problematic (for example, Fitzgerald holds that there is no true meaning of the term “God” outside someone’s or some community’s assertion that there is). Fitzgerald argued that the secular/religious binary also needs to be seen as an ideological position (rather than a self-evident truth), as the secular/religious binary is usually argued from a secular perspective (here he critiqued Edward Said, author of the famous Orientalism, on the basis that Said does not deconstruct secular reason and its dichotomous relation to religion and fails to see his secular/religious binary as an ideological position).

Timothy Fitzgerald

Timothy Fitzgerald

The postgraduate presentations were diverse. My presentation on “Intra-Evangelical Conflict on the Topic of Islam” fell within the session entitled “Conceptions of Islam” which also included a thoughtful presentation from the conference organizer Sarah Hynek on “Approaching the Categories of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” But the conference was certainly not entirely focused on Islam, and it also included sessions on a variety of topics such as “Approaching Atheism and New Atheism” and “Shaping Congregations.”

One of the most controversial postgraduate papers presented at the conference came from Armen Oganessian, who is pursuing a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen. Oganessian proposed that if we were to view politics, or the public sphere, as a “marketplace of ideas,” that would allow us to move beyond the religious/secular binary that dominates western thought. In this “marketplace of ideas” framework, we should view all ideologies, concepts, or moralities as having a societal value, and politics as a kind of flea market for any given worldview to sell their perspective on how to govern the society. This framework frees religious thought of its unfair stereotype of only being suited for one’s private life, putting it on an even footing with all other worldviews.  This would mean, for example, that the Buddhist would have the right, just like the socialist, to construct a foreign policy based on the beliefs and morals of his worldview and then have that policy be evaluated solely on its potential effects on the society (societal value) rather than on its religious underpinnings. Then any given individual, any given member of the said society, would be able to “purchase” either the Buddhist’s or the socialist’s–or parts of either’s—foreign policy. Then that foreign policy, or the parts of a foreign policy, most frequently purchased would be the ones adopted by the society, whether it be religious or not. Oganessian’s marketplace of ideas was highly criticized during the question and comment period. One critic argued that the “marketplace of ideas” would inherently favor capitalism. Some questioned the individual’s intellectual purchasing capabilities (e.g. people are too stupid to decide for themselves where to shop). Another critic argued that had Europe gone with the popular ideals of the Catholic Church, Europe would still be in the Dark Ages—a point with which Oganessian disagreed, noting that we cannot predict what would have happened with certainty and mentioning the possibility that perhaps we would be more advanced now.

Johan Rasanayagam hosted a workshop on “Approaching the Category of Islam.” Johan undergirded the workshop with readings from Talal Asad on The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam and Samuli Schielke on Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Makes Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life. The workshop explored the issue of how to study Islamic communities without making Islam the object. Rasanayagam described his own personal research, which focuses on Muslims in Uzbekistan and what their moral understanding is of what it means to be a Muslim. He found that for some Uzbekistani Muslims, “being Muslim” might involve activities that one would typically think of as religious or Islamic –like going to the mosque, fasting, etc.  But for many it also involves being a good neighbor, marrying their kids off properly, contributing to the community—basically, according to Rasanayagam, just being a good person. So the conclusion Rasanayagam came to at the end was that Islam, if it ever becomes an object at all, only becomes so within the moral self of one particular Muslim and that one Muslim’s “Islam” is different from every other Muslim’s “Islam.” According to Rasanayagam, when one tries to make Islam an object it automatically loses value and distorts reality. Thus, Rasanayagam ended up moving away from “Islam” and looking at the formation of moral selves, who just happen to be Muslim. Rasanayagam argued that rather than looking at the Muslim community or Islam, one should focus on the process by which something comes into being and continues.

Two other workshops were included: ‘Identity and Belief/Non-Belief” led by Marta Trzebiatowska and “Religion and Politics as Categories of the Modern State” led by Trevor Stack.

Abby Day

Abby Day

The conferences ended with a keynote address from Abby Day, Reader in Race, Faith and Culture, Goldsmiths University of London, on “Believing in the Future: The Religious and Non-religious Stories Young Adults Tell.” Day shared her findings from researching “Generation A” (grandmothers of Generation X) and the story of decline of mainstream Protestant Christianity mainly in the UK. Day contrasted these older women and the younger generation that they raised and how Generation A vs. Generation X differ on what they want from religion and what can be learned about religious change. Much of the conference content sympathized with the postmodern distrust of language and sought to deconstruct words/phrases such as “belong to a faith community,” “God,” and “Islam.” The conference left me with questions about how constructive deconstructing is and how far it may distance our research from the everyday reality of those we are researching. Can a distrust of language be solved with more language?

As with all multidisciplinary exchanges, it was refreshing and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields.