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2015 Conference on Religion and American Culture Report

The Biennial “Conference on Religion and American Culture” was held June 4 to June 7, 2015 in Indianapolis. The conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Jeffrey Wheatley, a PhD student at Northwestern University.

This was my second visit to RAAC, which follows the fishbowl format (one whose physical layout is similar to a UFC cage match, but the audience gets to participate). The format makes RAAC a great venue for assessing current and future trends in the study of religion and the United States. Unfortunately, I cannot relate all of the great perspectives, questions, and arguments in a single blog post. Instead I will focus on two topics that prompted some (not all!) of the liveliest discussion. Interested to know more? Feel free to examine the conference program. I recommend combing through the conversation that took place on Twitter by searching #RAAC2015. You also can look forward to reading the proceedings, which will eventually be published.

We Need Some Space

Two panels focused on how we spatially frame the study of Religion and American Culture: “American Religion and Global Flows” and “’Religion in the Americas’ as an Organizational Paradigm.” Both on some level critiqued the dominance of national boundaries in delineating what we study and how we study it. Scholars, especially those interested in power, have much to gain by looking at transnational networks.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

Zareena Grewal discussed her research on Muslim communities in the United States and suggested that we need not lose sight of the importance of ideas in a transnational focus. For example: race, she argued, is intricately connected to theological conversations. For Muslims in the United States, religion and race are negotiated through transnational networks whose main nodes are elsewhere, primarily in the Middle East. Kristy Nabhan-Warren, in a paper that would continue to be referenced throughout the conference, emphasized the importance of story-telling and the need for scholars to listen, both to our subjects of study and our students. Over-reliance on paradigms, she cautioned, can hinder our capacity to let subjects speak. Sylvester Johnson argued we need to highlight the framework of the “Americas” in graduate programs. Such training is useful not for going beyond the nation-state, he suggested, but to understand the importance of settler colonialism in the formation of many nation-states, including the United States. The Americas framework is also conducive for incorporating perspectives beyond (yet not to the exclusion of) the Anglo-American Protestantism that dominates the study of American religions.

Commenting, Stephen Prothero raised an important question: are we arguing that global flows in particular demand more scholarship? Or are we suggesting that the global is one geographical frame out of many (e.g., a single church, a neighborhood, a city or local region, a state, a nation, etc . . .)? And how might we relate these various scales in reference to one another? The question of scale seems to me to be not just about where and who we study, but about what we study and how we study it.

Beginning and Ending with Religion and “Religion”

RAAC began with Robert Orsi commenting on what the study of religion means when religion has become “religion.” The final panel, although technically entitled “Liberalism vs. Pluralism” and inspired by Kathryn Lofton’s comment at RAAC 2013 about the defeat of pluralism, ultimately returned to this question. As Ariel Schwartz noted, the room quickly went beyond what was stated in the printed program. The last panel quickly became a sweeping debate over Foucauldian genealogy, studies of secularism, and the question of what constitutes the proper objects/subjects of the study of religion. (Perhaps we can revisit liberalism and pluralism in 2017?)

Stephen Prothero jump-started the conversation by pointing to John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America as an example of a rupture in the study of religion away from lived religion, bodies, and historical story-telling towards an emphasis on the construction of categories, especially our own as scholars of religion. The hard-earned fruits of the former, he suggested, might be obscured by the latter. Referencing Sydney Ahlstrom’s classic work, Prothero asked, can we study the religious history of the American people, or must we study the “religious” “history” of the “American” “people”? Prothero asked the audience to picture two doors. The first is genealogical. The second, which he chooses, is the historical ethnographic. Pamela Klassen defended genealogy, pointing to important work that excavates the norms of liberal Protestantism embedded in discourses of pluralism. During the comments, Leigh Schmidt wondered if we can find a middle ground between stories about people in the sense Prothero intended and the importance of categories.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The conversation brought up a number of questions. Is the door metaphor providing us with a false dichotomy? Is the construction of categories necessarily separate from the intimate lives of real people? Why is Modern’s book the main example of the genealogical method? Is genealogy only about scholarly categories? How might the practices of story-telling, emphasized throughout the weekend, relate to the genealogical method? Is “jargon” a crucial part of our scholarly community or a hindrance to the publicity and relevance of our writing? Cara Burnidge, playing with Prothero’s metaphor, asked the room to consider the following: what framework allows for these two doors? That is: this conversation is not only about our field in the abstract. The conversation is about the field’s institutional future, its relationship with other disciplines, and the job prospects of younger scholars.

Overall, this panel was the closest we got to a UFC match. A number of passionate comments from the panelists and the audience signaled the high stakes of the questions posed. It was an all-around provocative conversation.

Final Thoughts

In my effort to provide a thick account of the conference by focusing on two topics, I am leaving out a number of great panels, papers, and comments that deserve attention. These include but are not limited to: Judith Weisenfeld’s use of the language “religio-racial” and her question of who gets included in the category of “new religious movements”; a lively conversation on the descriptive and prescriptive uses of “civil religion”; and two panels on capitalism that touched on the dominance of neoliberalism, religion’s role in organized labor, and, as Chip Callahan pushed for, a call to attend to how particular practices of work shape and are shaped by particular worldviews. To be honest, most scholars working on religion and the United States (and/or the Americas!) would benefit from reading the proceedings.

Speaking as a graduate student, I want to conclude by noting how RAAC, and similarly organized small-scale conferences that focus on the direction of a particular field, are incredibly useful. Especially for younger scholars, these are energizing conferences that allow you to better contextualize your work in ongoing discussions. We are accustomed to thinking of methodological, theoretical, and historiographical “turns” within a progressive linear timeline. RAAC collapses these turns into a single dynamic space, with contributors of each turn participating. Such a discussion revealed how the pasts and futures of the field are, in fact, very much present and intimate. I look forward to meeting new scholars, visiting and revisiting high-stakes debates, and seeing familiar faces in 2017.

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” – 2015 ISASR Conference Report

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR), Trinity College Dublin, May 11th 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Dr. Eoin O’Mahony, Department of Geography, St Patrick’s College DCU

The fourth annual conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions took place at Trinity College Dublin on May 11th. It was organised in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub Art & Humanities Institute and sponsored by the Department of Religions & Theology, TCD. This year, it took a novel turn. In place of an event over two or three days, it was in the form of a research slam, a format set to test the garrulous nature of the academic. This was to take account of the IAHR Congress in Erfurt later this summer. Following an opening address from the outgoing president of the Association, Dr. Patrick Claffey, the slam began in earnest. The Society has a relatively small number of members but we had twelve presentations, seven minutes and one carefully monitored countdown clock.

Chris Heinhold (University of Chester) told us about his theory-building approach to investigating modern British Shia identity. Chris is about to embark on intensive fieldwork but has already noted how being part of a diaspora is performative. As a researcher and migrant himself, he has made attempts to build a flexible theory based on data collection. How culture is remembered and mythologised formed the centre of the contribution by Deirdre Nuttall (independent researcher). The stories we tell ourselves influence the way we act and the story of Ireland has been told largely through Roman Catholic action. She has found that the lives of a working class Protestant minority are largely absent from the folklore archives. Early attempts at nation building in Ireland reinforced a Catholic retelling of the myths at the expense of a shrinking Protestant minority.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

In further tales of cultural erasure, Jenny Butler (University College Cork) told us about Irish fairy beliefs. She is trying to address the academic deficit in this subject. In most academic studies of Irish culture, the focus is on fairy beliefs as “explaining away” rather than as an animistic worldview; for example, there is a focus on folk stories in which fairies are blamed mostly for the ill-effects of human interaction with nature and fairies were often said to be the cause of infant loss or disability and even bad harvests. Her dialogical and anthropological approach is making an attempt to plait strands of research that currently run in parallel.

Lawrence Cox (Maynooth University) brought us on a lyrical journey of the lives of Buddhist monks from Ireland to Asia. He narrated these accounts through the letters sent by these monks in a poetic stroll through space and time. Tadhg Foley (NUI Galway) told us about the wanderings of Max Arthur McAuliffe. McAuliffe’s efforts to avoid responsibility for his progeny was bested only by his commitment to translating Sikh holy texts. Christopher Cotter (Lancaster University) brought us on a technical journey across continents. Christopher walked us through the process by which the Religious Studies Project manages content and podcasts across time zones and continents using online collaborative software.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Ireland’s missionary past was recalled in a presentation by (UCC’s) Yuwu Shan. His new research on the Columban missions to China over the course of 150 years shows us that globalisation is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. Through the archive available to him in Dalgan Park, the Columban order’s world headquarters based in Kildare, Ireland, Shan brought their long history in China to life. He is working with photographs and other material to reconstruct the efforts of the holy order navigating turbulent political revolution. Colette Colfer (WIT) and I outlined our initial data from a new project mapping the warehouse worship spaces of Dublin and Waterford, two very different cities. Our work is focused on the ways that warehouses form community around Pentecostal churches and mosques, often defying a visible centrality usually reserved for religious space in Ireland, a majority Catholic country. We are planning a lot more fieldwork. Alexandra Greiser (Trinity College Dublin) told us about transhumanism and how it may be developing into a new universalism through a scientific discourse. This forms part of a larger project she is working on that will take a comparative perspective and a possible account of multiple modernities. Bringing the universal to the local, Vlad Kmec (UCD) told us about his research on the formation of religious identity among migrants to Ireland. He is conducting focus groups with young people and adults among the Czech and Polish communities to examine the functional and substantive roles of religion in migrant lives.

Eoin O'Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Eoin O’Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Olivia Wilkinson (TCD) is interested in the role of faith based organisations in disaster relief efforts. She has conducted extensive participatory methods in her fieldwork in the Philippines as a way to examine what is counted as faith based in the post-Haiyan aid process. What gets prioritised and, perhaps more importantly, what does not is of central concern to her research. James Kapaló (UCC) told us about a relatively new network called the Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre. Its main work is to build comparative perspectives on these endangered of marginalised worldviews and their cultural expressions. The projects here are engaged forms of research and encouraging of a counter-hegemonical perspective for these forms of knowledge. Some were running to the seven minute bell, others seemed to have timed it perfectly to 6 minutes and 57 seconds.

Our slamming over, Brian Bocking (outgoing secretary) recalled for us how far the academic study of religions in Ireland had come in a few short years. Brian has been instrumental in founding and developing the ISASR, as well as the Department of Study of Religions at UCC (the only department of its kind in Ireland) and in his short lecture, summarised for us why the academic study of religions remains vital. He drew a crucial distinction using an analogy between astrology and astronomy. For astrologers, a cosmological system of belief in the power of star alignment forms the basis for earthly action. Among astronomers, the gathering of evidence about the composition of star systems helps us to understand our place in the universe. Both are concerned with the stars but equally both observe from a position of relative powerlessness over their object of study. The academic study of religions, in this way, is just as bound by tradition and human agency as their confessional co-researchers in Theology.

The day’s proceedings were rounded off with a book launch. The book, Muslims in Ireland: Past and Present (Edinburgh UP), is the first complete study of a little known Muslim presence in Europe. Two of its five editors, Oliver Scharbrodt (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) and Tuula Sakaranaho (Univ. of Helsinki) spoke about the purpose of the book, its meaning to the academic study of religions in Ireland. Its remaining editors, Adil Hussain Khan (Loyola University, New Orleans), Vivian Ibrahim (Univ. of Mississippi) and Yafa Shanneik (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) were acknowledged. Edinburgh University Press sponsored the reception that followed and the Silk Road Café provided wonderful food. The conference as a whole points to a secure future for the small and yet vital academic study of religions in a country with a long tradition of theological investigation. It is not that one pushes the other out of the light of investigation. Rather, it is the academy investing itself with a way to specify the meaning, location and features of religious culture.

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” – BSA Conference Report

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” British Sociological Association (BSA), University of Glasgow, 15-17 April 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Rachel Hanemann.

The British Sociological Association’s conference was held this year at the University of Glasgow.  The conference theme was “Societies in Transition: Progression and Regression, although many of the papers I saw raised questions about transition, but showed a sociologist’s reticence to comment on the positivity or negativity of one’s observations.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

The three keynote lectures centred on underprivileged or oppressed groups in transition.  Alice Goffman (University of Wisconsin-Madison) spoke about her book On the Run, exploring the criminalization of young black men in the United States.  Colin Samson (University of Essex) spoke on “The Idea of Progress and Indigenous Peoples: contemporary legacies of an enduring Eurocentric prophecy”, examining the historical treatment of non-European indigenous peoples at the hands of European ideas of progress.  Samson then used this historical lens to discuss the contemporary situation of the Innu peoples of the Labrador-Quebec Peninsula in Canada. Guy Standing (SOAS, University of London) spoke on “The Precariat’s Magna Carta: from denizens to citizens”, outlining a “Precariat Charter” for today’s precariat, a class of millions of people experiencing a diversity of insecurities and being denied identity.

As always, the streams and papers featured at the BSA were varied and numerous.  Although it was impossible to see them all, one highlight for me was the Sociology of Religion stream, particularly those papers that proposed new methods or areas of research.  Titus Hjelm’s (University College London) talk, “Towards a Discursive Sociology of Religion and the State”, proposed a “discursive sociology” approach to religion-state relations, broadening the focus from legislative outcomes to the act of legislation, the discussions, processes and negotiations that produce policy outcomes.  Peter Hemming (Cardiff University) spoke on “Faith-Based Schooling in Rural Communities”, pointing out that larger discussions about urban, multi-faith school communities exclude the small, rural Anglican primary schools that make up the majority of faith-based schooling in the UK.  Tim Hutchings (Durham University) spoke on “The Bible in (Virtual) Community: Accountability in Digital Religion”.  Hutchings first summarised the findings from his research on the Youversion Bible App, before asking questions about religious authority online.  The Scoiology of Religion stream plenary featured Steve Bruce (University of Aberdeen) speaking about the decline of religion in Britain.

The Race, Ethnicity, and Migration stream on Islamophobia also bears mention.  Shamim Miah (University of Huddersfield) discussed “Trojan Horse and the Racial State: Race, Religion and Securitisation”, arguing that the Trojan Horse controversy led to the embedding of a particular secularization agenda in Britain’s schools.  Aurélien Mondon’s (University of Bath) and Aaron Winter’s (University of East London) talk, “Breaking Taboos or Strengthening the Status Quo: Islamophobia in the Name of Liberalism in France and America” presented a fascinating account of the role of liberal Islamophobia, which couches attacks on Islam in a pseudo-progressive position of protecting liberal freedoms, in political and cultural discourse in France and America, as well as in the UK.  Finally, Tania Saeed (University of Oxford), spoke on “Islamophobia: Experiential Accounts of Pakistani and British Pakistani Muslim Women in England.”  Her talk focused on the individual lived experience of a number of women, highlighting the intersection between race, ethnicity, and religion in public perception.  The three papers worked well together as commentaries on Islamophobia at the levels of legislation, media and public discourse, and individual experience.

Pierre Bourdieu’s work was heavily present at this year’s BSA conference, as numerous Twitter discussions of “theorist BINGO” pointed out.  The Sociology of Education stream featured a panel on the application of Bourdieu’s habitus to the social sciences, in which Cristina Costa (University of Strathclyde), Cirian Burke (Ulster University), Alan France (University of Auckland), and Mark Murphy (University of Glasgow) offered methodological examples of the application of a Bourdieusian framework from their own research on education.  In the Sociology of Religion stream, M. Angelica Thumala Olave (University of Edinburgh) presented her work with Susie Donnelly (University of Edinburgh), asking “With or without Bourdieu?  The Uses of His Approach for the Study of Religious and Cultural Change”.

The Presidential event, held at the end of the final day, asked the question, “Is there a British society?”  President Lynn Jamieson (University of Edinburgh) chaired a panel of Michael Rosie (University of Edinburgh), Nasar Meer (University of Strathclyde), Ann Pheonix (IOE, University of London), and Aaron Winter (University of East London), who gave brief responses before opening the discussion to the floor.  Ann Phoenix effectively summed up the discussion with her response, “Is there a British society?  Yes…there are many!”

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

Understanding the Secular

Fitzgerald 2007, 54).

In many cases, conceptualizations of the secular are imagined only after the category of religion has been populated with ‘the good stuff’, with the secular receiving decidedly less good stuff (perhaps an understatement in certain contexts). In this view, the secular was an afterthought, a ‘second-class citizen’ so to speak. However, what happens if the scholarly lens is shifted towards the ‘secular’, with ‘religion’ being placed on the back burner? In Thomas Coleman’s interview for The Religious Studies Project, he sits down with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John R. Shook to discuss all things ’secular‘. Making their own contributions to the discourse, Shook and Zuckerman briefly discuss the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Secularism they are co-editing, the growing field of secular studies, what it might mean to ’be secular‘, different secularisms, and offer up two different views of the relationship between categories such as ’religion‘ and ’secular‘.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

References

  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baby Boomers, Quest Culture, and Spiritual Seeking

Wade Clark Roof is Emeritus Professor of Religion and Society in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the director of the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life. He has published many books and articles on religion in the United States, especially focusing on developments within liberal Protestantism and American mainline congregations, the spiritual journeys of the Baby Boom generation and their effect on the spiritual marketplace, and religious pluralism and civil religion. These investigations have traced the contours of post-WWII American religious and social life, revealing the protean fluidity of “religion” and “spirituality” as scholarly and popular categories.

In this interview with Dusty Hoesly, discussion focuses on Roof’s work on the Baby Boom generation and beyond, particularly as expressed in his books A Generation of Seekers (1993) and Spiritual Marketplace (1999). In these books, Roof combined survey data with panel studies and interviews across a broad spectrum of Americans to describe the “quest culture” and “spiritual seeking” at the heart of America’s changing religious landscape, one which prizes “reflexive spirituality” amidst an increasingly pluralistic and evolving spiritual marketplace.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly as the season known by many in certain contexts as “Christmas” is just around the corner, and this might have some impact upon the buying habits of visitors to our website in contexts where this term has particular “meaning” invested in it, due to the particular histories and power structures of those contexts.

The Logics of Bricolage Reconsidered: A Cognitive Approach to Individuals and Their Constraints

An Important Intervention

Veronique Altglas is to be commended for her intervention into the contemporary academic discussions and (often uncritical) usage of the concept of bricolage. As she rightly suggests, the naïve view that the acts of cultural improvisation of a modern bricoleur are unconstrained and unlimited by anything beyond the free and willful activity of his or her own individual whims is long overdue for retirement. And, in the wake of her efforts, one certainly hopes that the analytic appeal to such a naïve sense of radical cognitive autonomy becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

However, I must admit that I do wonder to what degree such an extreme view ever actually had a significant conceptual hold over sociological analysis in the first place. Throughout her interview, Altglas is very careful to emphasize that, of course, bricoleurs cannot be so extravagantly free in their acts of picking and mixing among cultural representations because, after all, not all cultural resources are available to them. This is both an important intervention and, simultaneously, a rather obvious and nearly tautological point: people cannot pick from, or mix with, resources that are not available to them. One wonders if there were ever actually any scholars who would have argued otherwise, or who have genuinely suggested that cultural context plays no role whatsoever in the syncretic activities of modern bricoleurs.

Even Thomas Luckmann, who Altglas uses as her go-to example of a sociologist who supposedly endorses this radically individualistic stance, doesn’t really express such an extreme view as the one that Altglas uses as her foil. She quotes Luckmann as having said that, in the case of contemporary bricoleurs, “anything goes,” and suggests this view as indicative of a position that holds the creative powers of the bricoleur to be “unlimited.” However, in the very sentence that Altglas is quoting, Luckmann, himself, characterizes his claim as little more than a suggestive “exaggeration” (Luckmann 1979, 136; cited in Altglas 2014, 2). In fact, what Luckmann had in mind here seems to be precisely the same point that Altglas herself eventually comes around to in the final portion of her RSP interview: When religious organizations begin to lose their hold as authoritative interpreters of available cultural representations, especially in a context of easy access to a large and highly diverse spectrum of informational resources, this can result in a situation, as Dr. Altglas seems to agree, in which, due to a context of “religious deregulation in modern societies,” as she puts it, “a dimension of choice and diversity” becomes a relevant factor in analyzing the types of constraints on, as well as, I would add, the types of empowerments toward, bricolage that are present in this kind of institutionally deregulated social environment

A Further Appeal to the Individual as a Relevant Level of Analysis

This response, then, is not so much a defense of the scholarly value of the concept of bricolage, as I am not particularly invested in its use. This is, however, a defense of the academic interest in the individual, which I take to be inclusive of the variety of ways that the activities of individuals are constrained, or not, in any given context. It is an insistence that all macro-scale social phenomena are composed of a large number of micro-scale processes among individual humans. To that degree, it is important to notice that while, indeed, all acts of bricolage are constrained, they are certainly not all equally constrained and, indeed, some contexts may encourage bricolage while others might act, relatively speaking, to diminish its occurrence. There are always, in any act of cultural improvisation, a unique array of factors which go into determining whether any particular representation will be chosen as the tool for a particular job at a particular time by a particular individual. However, Altglas’ analysis would seem to overemphasize the importance of external, social factors and, as a result, downplays other significant, internal, cognitive factors that are inevitably in play during any act of bricolage. Indeed, Dan Sperber has emphasized that,

“[t]hough which factors will contribute to the explanation of a particular strain of representations cannot be decided in advance, in every case, some of the factors to be considered will be psychological, and some will be environmental or ecological (taking the environment to begin at the individual organism’s nerve endings and to include, for each organism, all the organisms it interacts with)” (Sperber 1996, 84).

To the extent that it is, indeed, true that scholars have tended to ignore what Sperber calls the environmental or ecological factors that influence the reception, retention, and further conceptual utilization of available cultural representations, Altglas’ attempt to bring environmental factors, such as nationality or economic class, back into focus is an important correction to an analytic oversight. It is also important, however, to insist that she be careful not to pull too far in the other direction toward an equally lopsided type of analysis which leaves the mental or psychological factors largely unconsidered. Since, as Sperber notes, both will be present in every case, when a potential bricoleur encounters a cultural representation, both psychological and environmental factors need to be considered when analyzing constraints on, and empowerments toward, the utilization of that representation for an act of bricolage.

Potentially pertinent psychological factors include the ease with which a particular representation can be memorized, the existence of background knowledge in relationship to which the representation is relevant, and a motivation to communicate the content of the representation. Ecological factors, include the recurrence of situations in which the representation gives rise to, or contributes to, appropriate action, the availability of external memory stores (writing in particular), and the existence of institutions engaged in the transmission of the representation” (Sperber 1996, 84).

But, where does that leave us? To my reading, it leaves us with quite a wide spectrum of potential degrees of constraint on the abilities of individuals to pick and mix cultural representations. Are there some contexts in which such constraints are more oppressive toward innovation than others? Are there, on the contrary, some contexts in which interpretive freedom is relatively more unconstrained? Does the relevant question, then, become not simply ‘when is bricolage taking place’, but, rather, to what degree is the density and regularity of the practice of bricolage itself encouraged or constrained by different psycho-socio-cultural contexts?

Individualism and Organizations: On the Selection of Case Studies

I will look forward with anticipation toward the studies that Altglas has signaled that she is interested in pursuing in the future. I think that analyses of “bricolage in more conservative religious settings” or in “in messianic congregations” might provide important accounts of exactly to what degree institutional settings might constrain (or even empower) certain acts of bricolage. I would argue, however, that ultimately, as important as such studies will inevitably be, they cannot adequately address the question that Altglas most seems to want to address, which is the issue of religious individualism. I fear that in her eagerness to debunk Sheilaism, Altglas has failed to select representative case studies for her analysis. Given an attempt to investigate radical individualism, the choice to undertake that examination through the sociological analysis of religious organizations (Altglas’ study is based on fieldwork among Siddha Yoga and Sivananda Centers and the Kabbalah Center) that are rooted in particular cultural traditions would seem to obviate any serious chance at arriving at the desired conclusions. It is simply an analysis of the wrong data. In the introduction to her book, Altglas attempts to account for this oversight but, ultimately, her mea culpa does not overcome the problem.

“The readers might wonder why these case studies in particular have been selected. For a start, new religious movements (NRMs), as circumscribed groups with a specific teaching, represent good settings to the production and appropriation of religious resources. These processes in less ‘formative’ (Wood 2009) environments, such as those designated New Age, are more diffuse and therefore less easy to study” (Altglas 2014, 19).

In other words, the very populations that would be most appropriate to a study of religious individualism are here claimed to be too difficult to study, precisely because they are so individualistic and lack a central organizational hub from which to launch the study. Now, don’t get me wrong, as someone who spends his time studying these ‘non-formative’ communities of discourse, I am well aware that what she says is true. It can certainly be much more difficult to systematically study a decentralized milieu than to study a centrally-organized group with a more clearly delineated membership (though it certainly need not be inherently more difficult to do so—I’m quite sure that I’ve had more success with analyzing many of my decentered populations of interest than others have had getting access to, for instance, the inner realms of Scientology). For those of us who have spent quite a lot of time and effort investigating such ‘non-formative’ milieus, however, Altglas’ justification for her selection of case studies is not likely to be satisfying, when we note that the materials that we specialize in are shrugged off so effortlessly, as though that omission were, in the end, unlikely to actually inform the conclusions drawn from the study. In that sense, Altglas has provided us a particularly intriguing analysis of the of the constraints on activities of bricolage among members of the movements that she has studied, but, in order to corroborate her broader arguments against considerations of more radically individual combinatory practices, a study is still needed of the right kinds of case studies to address those issues, and that has not been accomplished here.

This discrepancy becomes clear in some of Altglas’ comments during the interview. For instance, she describes a potential bricoleur “doing a bit of yoga and then, perhaps, after two or three years, deciding that meditation is better.” This hardly sounds like the kind of highly individualized bricolage that we would be interested in so much as it appears to be an instance of serial participation in different activities. This seems miles apart from the types of improvisational cultural combinations that I would want to study in terms of bricolage or anything that might be considered a pronounced variety of individualism. If we really want to look at the types of bricolage that many of the scholars that Altglas critiques are actually interested in, we’d want to look at people creating websites which lay out their beliefs that link, for instance, Jesus’ last words on the cross, the Mayan calendar, Atlantis, Freemasonry, the electric telegraph, Vedic astrology, UFOs, the secret government, the Galactic Federation of Light, and the psychoactive properties of the pineal gland into some sort of ‘cohesive’ narrative that makes sense to them (at some point in time). There are millions of people like this out there in the world who don’t actively participate in centrally-organized religious communities, who don’t have a local group of peers to share metaphysical discourse with, and who develop their views primarily through reading books, participating in online forums, listening to music, watching YouTube, and the like. These individuals, too, are, of course, not unlimited in their improvisational capabilities. They also only have certain cultural resources available to them. They exist in a certain kind of society that instills certain kinds of values. Nonetheless, many of these individuals are significantly less constrained in their acts of bricolage than many others who explore religious themes only in the context of an established community or from within a particularly restrictive national setting (e.g. North Korea). Indeed, many of these individuals exist in social contexts that actually empower them to participate in copious acts of bricolage. The outlook of the Perennial Philosophy, in particular, which sees all religious traditions as equally fair game for religious inspiration as they are all taken as access points to a single, universal truth, dominates contemporary alternative spirituality, and, in many ways, actually demands those who adopt such a viewpoint to become rampant bricoleurs. While these modern bricoleurs still face very real and very important constraints, it is pertinent for scholars to take note of the ways in which their acts of bricolage are undertaken in a more highly individualized manner than is common in many more traditional, institutional religious settings. The question then should not be simply whether or not individuals are free or constrained in their combinatory endeavors, but rather how free or constrained they are in any given context and, thus, precisely how individualistic they are being. In the final analysis, all constraints are certainly not equal.

References

Altglas, Veronique. 2014. From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luckmann, Thomas. 1979. “The Structural Conditions of Religious Consciousness in Modern Societies.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6, pp. 121-137.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Os serés matáves: Pentecostalism in the Prisons of Rio

BRASIL-997Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a city of over six million people; it is known for its exotic nightlife, white sand beaches, crystal blue water, and of course, one of the most famous bosa nova songs ever: The Girl From Ipanema. However, beyond the sunny beaches, veritable entertainment, and soothing music lies a very different scene – the Rio de Janeiro prison system. Inside the towering grey concrete walls live Rio’s os serés matáves, or roughly translated into English as, “the killable people”These “killable people” are comprised mostly of proletariat and unemployed minorities with crimes ranging from the benign to the bloody. Gangs rule the prison and every day at 6 pm deafening war cries echo out from within the concrete walls as prison gangs scream allegiance to their “commander” – the head gang leader who runs the prison. The guards largely remain on the outskirts of the prison, they don’t control much of what happens within, as it is too dangerous to go inside. [Note: While the prison system is, of course, very dangerous, the guards’ absence is also due to the penology practiced in that country.]

_MG_9222

Dr. Johnson inside the prison with other inmates during worship.

For Brazil’s “killable people”, there are two prevalent ways to deal with the relative hell of prison – both involving allegiance and devotion. You can give your life to the gang or give your life to God. Only three types of people dare to venture into the heart of a Rio de Janeiro prison: the condemned, the pentecostal pastors leading the prison ministry, and curiously brave sociologists such as Dr. Andrew Johnson.

 

BRASIL-1017-1

In his interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Dr. Johnson begins by discussing the preparation leading up to his ethnography of the Pentecostal prison ministries in Rio de Janero Brazil. He takes the listener through the streets and slums of Rio, and into a prison cell-block. Here, we learn about the gang life that largely runs the prison, and the “gang like” life (Pentecostal prison ministries) that can provide a temporary escape from the physically and psychologically damaging conditions of the jail, and might just provide eternal redemption through the faith of the pious prisoner. Johnson discusses the role of politics in the prison system, why Pentecostalism dominates the jails in a predominately catholic country such as Brazil, and “answers” the question of how to tell if someone is truly faithful. He discusses how prisoners are viewed by their community after their release, and upon conversion as an allegedly devout pentecostal. In closing, Dr. Johnson speculates about the future of pentecostal prison ministries in Brazil, and argues for “the religious lives of inmates being taken seriously apart from recidivism rates”.

Be sure to check out Dr. Johnson’s plenary address, the world debut of his documentary If I Give My Soul, at the 2014 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Indianapolis Indiana October 31st – November 2nd. You can register for the conference here: SSSR registration link.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular

Jürgen Habermas is a preeminent philosopher and social theorist whose work explores the formation of the public sphere as well as how to invigorate participatory democracy. He is well known for his theory of communicative action, which claims that reason, or rationality, is the mechanism for emancipation from the social problems posed by modernity. In his earlier work, Habermas mostly ignored religion, contending that it was not rational enough to be included in public debate. But over the past decade, he has begun to reexamine religion in light of its persistence in the modern world, calling this a turn toward post-secular society. He argues that religion deserves a place in public debate, but that religious people need to translate their views into rational, secular language if they want to participate in the public sphere. This week’s podcast features Dusty Hoesly of the University of California at Santa Barbara speaking with Michelle Dillon, Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, at the 2013 SSSR Conference in Boston.

While Dillon embraces Habermas’ turn toward religion and his recognition of its emancipatory potential, she critiques his post-secular theorizing, arguing that Habermas ignores the rational contestation of ideas within religions; marginalizes the centrality of emotion, tradition, and spirituality to religion; and fails to recognize religion’s intertwining with the secular.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your philosophical tomes etc.

 

Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

“First came the temple, then the city” –Klaus Schmidt

The above quotation from archaeologist Klaus Schmidt (Norenzayan, 2013) provides a succinct way of phrasing a provocative thesis that has been proposed in the sciences. That is to say, and from this point of view, that religion was not merely a result of the transformation from a hunter-gather lifestyle to a more sedentary, agricultural, domicile based life – it was the very catalyst. Or, as Norenzayan puts it, “religion transformed cooperation and conflict”.

hunter-gatherers

Hunter-gatherers

Archaeological sites such as Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, tell scientists a lot about the priorities of humans with the retreat of the last Ice Age – the Gods demanded worship. This claim, which puts ‘religion’ first in the development of ‘society’, is the result of interpretations of data such as Gobekli Tepe that suggest that Homo sapiens were interested in building places of worship before they were interested in building permanent homes and domesticating livestock (see Schmidt, 2000).

Scottish Philosopher David Hume espoused a view that situated religion not in the realm of the supernatural, but in the natural, arising from the inclinations and dispositions of the human mind. Sociologist Emile Durkheim conceptualized religion’s primary function as a social glue that binds individuals together through the establishment of do’s and don’t’s which acted as credible and authoritative sources which enabled the flourishing and maintenance of society. In his book Big Gods, Norenzayan combines both of these prior views with evidential support from various scientific disciplines.

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Ara Norenzayan begins by posing an interesting question. How do we explain the transition from small, tight-knit communities (the norm from a historical perspective) to the large-scale societies we know today? In answering this question Norenzayan puts the idea of Big Gods front and center, Big Gods being those that are omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and act as moralizing agents. Norenzayan then covers what he labels as “The Eight Principles of Big Gods” (Norenzayan, 2013), and closes by presenting an interesting analogy, placing many of the modern secular institutions we have today (e.g. police departments and governments) in the role previously occupied solely by religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:

  • Norenzayan, A. 2013. Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

There be Spoilers Here: Durkheim, ‘Breaking Bad,’ and the Uncertainty of Religious Theory

Have you been watching ‘Breaking Bad’?

It had been six years since Professor Strenski and I had spoken.  Six years since I sat in the back of his Method and Theory course at UC Riverside, and since I had first read his Thinking about Religion.  I had recently decided to ‘apply myself,’ had returned to ‘academia,’ gotten lost on the way toward a very rewarding degree in Art History, and was, for the first time, learning about the varying methods and theories of religious study.  It was in that class where I first heard of Emile Durkheim.  As I would discover later, Professor Strenski’s style of teaching, the way he explained that particular Frenchman’s social theory, about his unified system of beliefs, his elementary forms, was different from the usual method.  Rather than merely prattle on about relative-to-sacred–this, and set-apart-that, Professor Strenski taught us about the man.  Biography was the key.  Knowing why Durkheim defined religion as he did, rather than just how, would give us a fuller understanding, a clearer focus, on the subtle elements binding his definition to his distinct worldview.  

The question of whether I had been watching ‘Breaking Bad’ had two parts: had I seen the most recent episode; and was I able to watch the show at all while living in Scotland?  My answer was in the affirmative—though I chose not to share with him the ‘quasi-legal’ means of my viewing.  He responded with an excited smile and we talked a moment about the writing, the plot points leading up to the finale, the inevitable demise of Walter White.

When I think back on it, one thing I truly enjoyed about Professor Strenski’s book—as well as his teaching style—was his ability to tangentially veer off topic while not losing complete track of the subject at hand.  Tangents, I have always felt, are the instructor’s greatest tool.  Not only do they assist in keeping the student’s attention, but as metaphor, paint the instruction in different hues than mere black and white.  For instance, when we look at the underlying components of Durkheim’s theory of religion, his idea about ‘God and Society,’ it becomes reducibly contextualized by means of the socially problematic milieu of his academic upbringing.  In his Thinking about Religion, Strenski emphasizes this influence by exploring the political backdrop against which Durkheim spent his “formative years:” a France sunk in national depression; the eastern départements of Alsace and Lorraine lost to the Prussians in the defeat of Napoleon III in 1871; a “national humiliation and desire for revenge;” all of this especially significant to a young secular Jew growing up on France’s eastern border with Imperial Germany.[1]  It is not difficult, then, to follow these sociological actions toward Durkheim’s equal and opposite reaction from “traditional religious loyalties” toward becoming a “truly religious devotee of France.”[2]  We see here the origins, the chemical elements combined to form in Durkheim’s theory a focus toward establishing a “secure and viable social order in modern France.”[3]  Society, social structure, sociability, all necessary components in establishing not just an identity, but a national dignity, a challenging cohesion of social and individual; these things were etched into Durkheim’s psyche as he wrote his notable texts, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).  

We focused our discussion on the writing, on the elegance and patience demonstrated in Vince Gilligan’s unwillingness to rush the narrative along.  How his use of music, of song lyrics, revealed a sort of meta-narrative.  Ours were isolated voices.  Upon hearing my colleague in the study of all things Atheism, Chris Cotter, would be doing an interview with the Professor who introduced me to Durkheim, Freud, Marx, Weber, et al. at the joint BASR/EASR in Liverpool, I insisted he pass along my regards.  More than that, Mr. Cotter ensured we’d have a few moments to catch up.  Having enjoyed the conference’s gala dinner, the Professor and I withdrew ourselves from the dining hall/college bar for a quiet space to recollect.  Once alone, I noticed our American accents no longer seemed so alien.  In our short discussion, even on ‘Breaking Bad,’ it was pleasurably refreshing to hear a similar accent, an analogous vernacular returned back to me.  We had created, in our brief chat concerning an American drama about a chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin, a sort of fusion of consciences: two Americans, in England, at a joint European and British conference on Religion, Migration, and Mutation enjoying a shared and direct experience, an isolated circle of ‘home.’  Our conversation turned to themes in the narrative.  He remarked about the ‘science’ in the show, the metaphor of Walter White referring to himself as Heisenberg, the oft-misunderstood principle about uncertainty.  We returned to whether ‘Heisenberg’ would die in the final episode.  Would all his scheming, his obsession with ‘taking care of his family,’ his murders and mayhem, actually pay off in the end?  Or, more likely, was this all leading to the only possible conclusion: his death, either by the cancer choking his lungs, or through the choices he had made in the last two years of his life?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beM28FLdAzk]

Concerning Durkheim’s social theory of religion, Strenski demarcates two views: a reductionist and a non-reductionist reading.  The former reveals a rather clear reduction of the “object” of religion to society.  As a consequence, Durkheim believed that “religious experiences” were really just “misperceived experiences of social forces.”[4]  Thus, there is “no experience of God”—at least none that we could prove—but rather “shared and direct experiences of society,” the power of which “feels” like an experience of God.[5]  In the context of ‘identity,’ Strenski labels this reading as ‘D1’ for Durkheim no. 1.  ‘God≡Society.’[6]  Concerning causation, this equation concludes that the “underlying reality of religious experience,” and thus the “nature of God,” is society.  In contrast, the non-reductionist reading, a mirrored perspective of the first, flips the equation: ‘Society≡God.’  Durkheim no. 2 expresses “nothing less” than the idea that society has a “religious, or at the very least, spiritual, nature.”[7] 

Our conversation was brief, but cordial.  He was departing the conference early and I had at least two more bottles of wine to ingest.  Yet, all that evening, and into the hangover of the next day, I kept thinking about the implications of the subject of our chat.  Walter White—‘Heisenberg’—argued from the very beginning that chemistry was the study of change, not matter.  It was the study of growth and decay, of transformation, migration, mutation.  Even up to his almost perfectly composed death, Walter White believed he was actively involved in the physical study of change.  Cancer, chemotherapy, cooking, wealth, power, murder, and eventual termination.  These elements formed his social milieu, his split identity, his life’s continuing uncertainty.  If nothing else, I suppose my conversation with Professor Strenski further reminded me that uncertainty is indeed a universal principle.  The more we focus on and attempt to understand a thing (the position), the farther we get from actually making any sense of it (its momentum).  Durkheim witnessed this, and I believe we see it repeated over and over in the context of religious study.  As we think about religion, then think about thinking about religion, then so on and so forth, we engage in a trans-generational discourse, a social discussion that enigmatically matches the very theories we seek to understand.  We become, in that very process, aspects of those theories, especially in the ways we translate them, teach them to each other, engage in tangents.  The more we change, the more they change, the less certain an original meaning ever seems possible.  Perhaps, then, Durkheim was right.  Perhaps my shared and direct experience with Professor Strenski, two Americans abroad, discussing a culturally popular, and truly ‘American’ drama, formed some sort of experience of God.  Perhaps our experience is an ideal example, a tangent, on how one might explain Durkheim’s theory of equating society to God and vice versa. 

I’m not entirely certain.  Perhaps it’s best to think on it a bit more. 

Readings

  • Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion.  Malden: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, John A. Spaulding and George Simpsons, trans.  New york: Free Press, 1979
  • Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Carol Cosman, trans.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Werner Heisenberg. “On the Perceptual Content of Quantum Theoretical Kinematics and Mechanics.” Zeitschrift für Physik, Vol. 43 (1927): 172-198. English Translation by John A. Wheeler and Wojciech Zurek, eds. Quantum Theory and Measurement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983: 62-84.
  • Vince Gilligan, Creator, Breaking Bad: Seasons 1-5, Produced by AMC.

[1] Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion (Malden: Blackwell, 2006), 290.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 295.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interestingly, the ‘≡’ symbol here denotes in physics, particularly in relation to an identity, a sense of equality.  See also Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 295.

[7] Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 296.

Emile Durkheim

durkheim

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

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

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

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

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in the ‘sacralizing’ of the social and buying your Christmas presents etc.

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

Belief, Belonging, and Academic Careers

Almost twenty years ago, Grace Davie observed that despite plenty of studies into the ‘exotic edges’ of religion, ‘the picture in the middle remains remarkably blurred’. Seeking to address this imbalance and engage with the ‘beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’, Abby Day‘s recent book, Believing in Belonging (the first topic for this interview), builds upon her doctoral and later postdoctoral fieldwork, beginning within small communities in Yorkshire, and extending to a number of modern industrialised nations.

in this interview with Chris, recorded at the 2013 BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference at Durham University, Day introduces listeners to the concept of ‘belief’ and sets out her own inductive approach, using semi-structured interviews, whereby definitions were allowed to arise from the field. Her central thesis acts as a focal point for a wide-ranging and insightful discussion on a variety of topics from nationalism and secularisation, to the usefulness of censuses as tools for measuring ‘religion’, to gender and belief in destiny. These themes are also picked up and developed in a recent volume published by Ashgate – Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular – which was co-edited by Abby, Chris, and Giselle Vincett.

Wearing one of her other hats, Abby also presents regularly on how to build an academic career, win research funding, and get articles published, and has published the books academic publishing and building an academic career.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

Heavy Metal as Religion and Secularization as Ideology

Heavy metal as religion and secularization as ideology: a sociological approach

By Mohammad Magout, University of Leipzig, Germany

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 9 October 2013, in response to François Gauthier’s interview on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture (7 October 2013).

In this thought-provoking interview, Professor François Gauthier from the University of Fribourg gives his remarks on a variety of theoretical, methodological, and empirical issues in social sciences. It would be impossible to cover even a tenth of those issues within the limits of this brief article, so I will restrict my response to two themes only: defining religion and critiquing secularization theory and post-secularity.

Gauthier states at the beginning of the podcast that current social theory fails to explain some recent developments in the social world, particularly in reference to subcultures and popular protest movements. He specifically criticizes sociologists of religion for not recognizing certain cultural notions, practices, or movements as religious even when people involved declare them as such. He says that if ravers, for example, believe rave to be just as religious as Catholicism, then sociologists should adjust their definitions of religion in order to accommodate rave as a religious phenomenon.

While I acknowledge that in social research there is always the risk of imposing inadequate, external categories on meanings conveyed by informants, I do have considerable reservations about conflating informants’ self-descriptions with theoretical terms. By saying that rave culture is as religious as Catholicism, a raver might be, for example, making a statement of identity; that is, defining his/her identity as a raver against or in relation to a Catholic identity, which is, of course, a personal right that no one should deny him/her. From a scientific perspective, however, “religion” is a theoretical term that is used to categorize and analyze a specific class of social phenomena. If we were to leave it solely to informants to decide which theoretical concepts and categories apply to them, social research would become very fragmented and incomparable, because different people can and do use complicated terms such as “religion” in widely different ways. Of course, their perspective is important and one should always take it into consideration, but scientific research requires at least some minimum degree of uniformity and consistency in the application of terms and categories.

I am not very well-informed about rave culture, but I can say something about another music-based youth culture with which I am familiar—both as a researcher and as a member—namely, heavy metal. Heavy metal can be seen as one of the most “quasi-religious” youth cultures, not only because religious imagery and symbolism are embedded in heavy metal lyrically, sonically, and visually, but also because of the “striking resemblance” between many aspects of heavy metal (especially live concerts) and religious rituals (Weinstein 2000, p. 231-2). Heavy metal, in addition, defines itself explicitly against traditional religion (Christianity in particular), which in a few extreme cases has reached the level of waging an open war against it (as it was the case with some members of the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990’s who were involved in dozens of arson attacks against churches). Some people have even considered heavy metal to be their “religion.” There was a campaign in the United Kingdom to answer the question about religion in the 2011 census with “heavy metal,” which resulted in more people identifying their “religion” as “heavy metal” than Scientology, Baha’ism, or Taoism.

Even if we grant that some of those who reported their religion as “heavy metal” were serious about it, does that justify changing our definitions of religion, so that they can accommodate heavy metal together with Christianity, Hinduism, Shamanism, and ancient Egyptian religion in the same analytical category? I myself do not think so, and no one so far—to the best of my knowledge—has presented a convincing case of the conceptual and analytical utility of treating a youth culture such as heavy metal as some type of religion.[i]

Gauthier seems to justify his position by stating that religion in the past few decades has morphed into something different than it used to be. It is now more concerned with personal life-style, identity, and morality, rather than correct belief and clerical institutions. This perhaps makes religion (at least some forms of contemporary religion) closer to youth cultures than traditional or institutional religion, which may justify grouping them together in the same category. Still this is not enough to change our definitions of religion. I think social scientists need to be a bit “conservative” about their definitions and conceptual frameworks in order to maintain the consistency of their work and measure change when it occurs. As stated by Steve Bruce, “Fixity of definition is not a refusal to recognize change; it is essential to describing change” (2009, p. 9).

Gauthier concludes his interview by warning us not to repeat the failure of secularization theory by adopting post-secularity, which he refers to as “the greatest threat to sociology of religion today.” He says quite bluntly, “Let’s try not to be as stupid, as ideological.” Since I originally conceived my PhD research project in terms of secularization theory, and have now started to drift toward post-secularity, I felt somehow challenged by Gauthier’s strong words. My intention in this article, nevertheless, is not to present a defense of secularization and post-secularity—especially given that I acknowledge many of the criticisms of these concepts—but rather to problematize one particular critique, which is the claim that secularization and post-secularity are based on certain ideologies or philosophical ideas.

First of all, I would like to say that I do not disagree with this critique: yes, secularization theories often reflected a modernist understanding of history and social change, and post-secularity is a concept that emerged in philosophical and normative discussions of the role of religion in the public sphere in contemporary Western societies. The problem is that many social scientists, in dismissing these concepts as ideologically biased, tend to gloss over the ideologies behind them as sociologically irrelevant. The impact of ideologies on social theory might be something undesirable, albeit unavoidable, but their impact on society is of utmost importance to the social scientist.

Modernism, in its various manifestations (liberalism, communism, nationalism, colonialism, etc.), has transformed our world, including religion, irreversibly.[ii] Most modern states—together with their political, legal, educational, and economic systems—have more or less been established along the lines of some modernist ideology that may have actively sought to marginalize, control, or privatize religion.[iii] Of course, how this might have developed or to what extent it has worked out in different contexts is widely variable. What is certain, I think, is that these ideologies have shaped and continue to shape the world today, despite the fragmentation of their hegemony and the rise of alternative ideologies. It is therefore implausible to think they have hardly changed anything with regard to religion, as some staunch critics of secularization seem to imply (e.g. Stark 1999).

The question I am trying to frame is related to the more general issue of the complicated relationship between ideology and social theory. Social science, more than any other branch of science, is prone to the undesired influence of philosophical and ideological perspectives. The question is, then, how should social scientists deal with ideologically-infused theories without glossing over the ideologies behind them? I don’t have a straightforward answer to this question, but I can refer to Gauthier’s nuanced approach to studying neo-liberalism, which he outlines in his interview.

Gauthier criticizes rational-choice/market theories of religion for interpreting religion in economic terms, as if it were a commercial product. In doing so, these theories fail to understand and explain the relationship between religious change and neo-liberalism, which is not only a dominant economic theory or political ideology, Gauthier asserts, but also a “cultural ideology” that conditions our ways of thinking and behaving. He stresses that any examination of religion, politics, or social relations is not adequate without taking into consideration the impact of neo-liberalism and consumerism, which have become the “structuring” force of our societies. In other words, while Gauthier rejects rational-choice/market theories of religion, he does not dismiss neo-liberalism and emphasizes the importance of studying its impact on religion.

The same approach, in my opinion, should be applied to secularization theory and post-secularity. Criticisms of secularization as an ideologically-infused theory should not make us gloss over its constituting ideology and the concrete sociological implications of this ideology. Similarly, the philosophical origins of the concept of post-secularity do not mean that it is irrelevant for social scientists. One should remember that the boundaries between social theory and social philosophy are not clear-cut and that philosophers and theologians are playing an important role—perhaps more than sociologists—in setting the parameters for public debates about religion (Turner 2012, p. 649). This is not only a matter of intellectual debates, but also of policy-making. There are religious groups, public institutions, and political organizations which are adopting, in one way or another, a “post-secular perspective” toward religion and society and making their policies accordingly. One domain in which this current is becoming evident is academia as some earlier research (Schmalzbauer and Mahoney 2009) and also my ongoing research project on Ismaili institutions of higher education in London seem to suggest.

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

References

  • Bruce, S. (2009) “The Importance of Social Science in the Study of Religion”, Fieldwork in Religion, Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 7–28.
  • Casanova, J. (2012) “Are We Still Secular? Explorations on the Secular and the Post-Secular”, in Nynäs, P., Lassander, M. and Utriainen, T. (Eds.), Post-secular society, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J, pp. 27–46.
  • Moberg, M. (2012) “Religion in Popular Music or Popular Music as Religion? A Critical Review of Scholarly Writing on the Place of Religion in Metal Music and Culture”, Popular Music and Society, Vol. 35 No. 1, pp. 113–130.
  • Schmalzbauer, J. and Mahoney, K. (2009) “Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy”, SSRC Working Papers. Available at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/post-secular-academy.pdf (Accessed 6 June 2013)
  • Stark, R. (1999) “Secularization, R.I.P”, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 60 No. 3, pp. 249–273.
  • Turner, B.S. (2010) “Religion in a Post-secular Society”, in Turner, B.S. (Ed.), The new Blackwell companion to the sociology of religion, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp. 649–667.
  • Weinstein, D. (2000) Heavy metal: the music and its culture. New York: Da Capo Press.


[i] For a survey of literature on the relationship between heavy metal and religion, see Moberg (2012).

[ii] This is what José Casanova calls “secularism as stadial consciousness,” i.e. secularism as a philosophy of history, according to which humanity progressively “emancipates” itself from religion. Secularization thereby functions as a “self-fulfilling theory” (2012, p. 31-2).

[iii] Another common criticism of secularization theory is its Euro-centrism, which is true, but it is almost forgotten that not very long time ago European powers ruled most countries of the world, established their political systems, wrote their laws, educated their elites, and planned their economies. This certainly does not entail that these countries should follow the same trajectories of modernization followed earlier by European countries, but it does mean that European ideas, theories, and ideologies are very relevant to other countries too.

Podcasts

2015 Conference on Religion and American Culture Report

The Biennial “Conference on Religion and American Culture” was held June 4 to June 7, 2015 in Indianapolis. The conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Jeffrey Wheatley, a PhD student at Northwestern University.

This was my second visit to RAAC, which follows the fishbowl format (one whose physical layout is similar to a UFC cage match, but the audience gets to participate). The format makes RAAC a great venue for assessing current and future trends in the study of religion and the United States. Unfortunately, I cannot relate all of the great perspectives, questions, and arguments in a single blog post. Instead I will focus on two topics that prompted some (not all!) of the liveliest discussion. Interested to know more? Feel free to examine the conference program. I recommend combing through the conversation that took place on Twitter by searching #RAAC2015. You also can look forward to reading the proceedings, which will eventually be published.

We Need Some Space

Two panels focused on how we spatially frame the study of Religion and American Culture: “American Religion and Global Flows” and “’Religion in the Americas’ as an Organizational Paradigm.” Both on some level critiqued the dominance of national boundaries in delineating what we study and how we study it. Scholars, especially those interested in power, have much to gain by looking at transnational networks.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

Zareena Grewal discussed her research on Muslim communities in the United States and suggested that we need not lose sight of the importance of ideas in a transnational focus. For example: race, she argued, is intricately connected to theological conversations. For Muslims in the United States, religion and race are negotiated through transnational networks whose main nodes are elsewhere, primarily in the Middle East. Kristy Nabhan-Warren, in a paper that would continue to be referenced throughout the conference, emphasized the importance of story-telling and the need for scholars to listen, both to our subjects of study and our students. Over-reliance on paradigms, she cautioned, can hinder our capacity to let subjects speak. Sylvester Johnson argued we need to highlight the framework of the “Americas” in graduate programs. Such training is useful not for going beyond the nation-state, he suggested, but to understand the importance of settler colonialism in the formation of many nation-states, including the United States. The Americas framework is also conducive for incorporating perspectives beyond (yet not to the exclusion of) the Anglo-American Protestantism that dominates the study of American religions.

Commenting, Stephen Prothero raised an important question: are we arguing that global flows in particular demand more scholarship? Or are we suggesting that the global is one geographical frame out of many (e.g., a single church, a neighborhood, a city or local region, a state, a nation, etc . . .)? And how might we relate these various scales in reference to one another? The question of scale seems to me to be not just about where and who we study, but about what we study and how we study it.

Beginning and Ending with Religion and “Religion”

RAAC began with Robert Orsi commenting on what the study of religion means when religion has become “religion.” The final panel, although technically entitled “Liberalism vs. Pluralism” and inspired by Kathryn Lofton’s comment at RAAC 2013 about the defeat of pluralism, ultimately returned to this question. As Ariel Schwartz noted, the room quickly went beyond what was stated in the printed program. The last panel quickly became a sweeping debate over Foucauldian genealogy, studies of secularism, and the question of what constitutes the proper objects/subjects of the study of religion. (Perhaps we can revisit liberalism and pluralism in 2017?)

Stephen Prothero jump-started the conversation by pointing to John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America as an example of a rupture in the study of religion away from lived religion, bodies, and historical story-telling towards an emphasis on the construction of categories, especially our own as scholars of religion. The hard-earned fruits of the former, he suggested, might be obscured by the latter. Referencing Sydney Ahlstrom’s classic work, Prothero asked, can we study the religious history of the American people, or must we study the “religious” “history” of the “American” “people”? Prothero asked the audience to picture two doors. The first is genealogical. The second, which he chooses, is the historical ethnographic. Pamela Klassen defended genealogy, pointing to important work that excavates the norms of liberal Protestantism embedded in discourses of pluralism. During the comments, Leigh Schmidt wondered if we can find a middle ground between stories about people in the sense Prothero intended and the importance of categories.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The conversation brought up a number of questions. Is the door metaphor providing us with a false dichotomy? Is the construction of categories necessarily separate from the intimate lives of real people? Why is Modern’s book the main example of the genealogical method? Is genealogy only about scholarly categories? How might the practices of story-telling, emphasized throughout the weekend, relate to the genealogical method? Is “jargon” a crucial part of our scholarly community or a hindrance to the publicity and relevance of our writing? Cara Burnidge, playing with Prothero’s metaphor, asked the room to consider the following: what framework allows for these two doors? That is: this conversation is not only about our field in the abstract. The conversation is about the field’s institutional future, its relationship with other disciplines, and the job prospects of younger scholars.

Overall, this panel was the closest we got to a UFC match. A number of passionate comments from the panelists and the audience signaled the high stakes of the questions posed. It was an all-around provocative conversation.

Final Thoughts

In my effort to provide a thick account of the conference by focusing on two topics, I am leaving out a number of great panels, papers, and comments that deserve attention. These include but are not limited to: Judith Weisenfeld’s use of the language “religio-racial” and her question of who gets included in the category of “new religious movements”; a lively conversation on the descriptive and prescriptive uses of “civil religion”; and two panels on capitalism that touched on the dominance of neoliberalism, religion’s role in organized labor, and, as Chip Callahan pushed for, a call to attend to how particular practices of work shape and are shaped by particular worldviews. To be honest, most scholars working on religion and the United States (and/or the Americas!) would benefit from reading the proceedings.

Speaking as a graduate student, I want to conclude by noting how RAAC, and similarly organized small-scale conferences that focus on the direction of a particular field, are incredibly useful. Especially for younger scholars, these are energizing conferences that allow you to better contextualize your work in ongoing discussions. We are accustomed to thinking of methodological, theoretical, and historiographical “turns” within a progressive linear timeline. RAAC collapses these turns into a single dynamic space, with contributors of each turn participating. Such a discussion revealed how the pasts and futures of the field are, in fact, very much present and intimate. I look forward to meeting new scholars, visiting and revisiting high-stakes debates, and seeing familiar faces in 2017.

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” – 2015 ISASR Conference Report

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR), Trinity College Dublin, May 11th 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Dr. Eoin O’Mahony, Department of Geography, St Patrick’s College DCU

The fourth annual conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions took place at Trinity College Dublin on May 11th. It was organised in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub Art & Humanities Institute and sponsored by the Department of Religions & Theology, TCD. This year, it took a novel turn. In place of an event over two or three days, it was in the form of a research slam, a format set to test the garrulous nature of the academic. This was to take account of the IAHR Congress in Erfurt later this summer. Following an opening address from the outgoing president of the Association, Dr. Patrick Claffey, the slam began in earnest. The Society has a relatively small number of members but we had twelve presentations, seven minutes and one carefully monitored countdown clock.

Chris Heinhold (University of Chester) told us about his theory-building approach to investigating modern British Shia identity. Chris is about to embark on intensive fieldwork but has already noted how being part of a diaspora is performative. As a researcher and migrant himself, he has made attempts to build a flexible theory based on data collection. How culture is remembered and mythologised formed the centre of the contribution by Deirdre Nuttall (independent researcher). The stories we tell ourselves influence the way we act and the story of Ireland has been told largely through Roman Catholic action. She has found that the lives of a working class Protestant minority are largely absent from the folklore archives. Early attempts at nation building in Ireland reinforced a Catholic retelling of the myths at the expense of a shrinking Protestant minority.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

In further tales of cultural erasure, Jenny Butler (University College Cork) told us about Irish fairy beliefs. She is trying to address the academic deficit in this subject. In most academic studies of Irish culture, the focus is on fairy beliefs as “explaining away” rather than as an animistic worldview; for example, there is a focus on folk stories in which fairies are blamed mostly for the ill-effects of human interaction with nature and fairies were often said to be the cause of infant loss or disability and even bad harvests. Her dialogical and anthropological approach is making an attempt to plait strands of research that currently run in parallel.

Lawrence Cox (Maynooth University) brought us on a lyrical journey of the lives of Buddhist monks from Ireland to Asia. He narrated these accounts through the letters sent by these monks in a poetic stroll through space and time. Tadhg Foley (NUI Galway) told us about the wanderings of Max Arthur McAuliffe. McAuliffe’s efforts to avoid responsibility for his progeny was bested only by his commitment to translating Sikh holy texts. Christopher Cotter (Lancaster University) brought us on a technical journey across continents. Christopher walked us through the process by which the Religious Studies Project manages content and podcasts across time zones and continents using online collaborative software.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Ireland’s missionary past was recalled in a presentation by (UCC’s) Yuwu Shan. His new research on the Columban missions to China over the course of 150 years shows us that globalisation is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. Through the archive available to him in Dalgan Park, the Columban order’s world headquarters based in Kildare, Ireland, Shan brought their long history in China to life. He is working with photographs and other material to reconstruct the efforts of the holy order navigating turbulent political revolution. Colette Colfer (WIT) and I outlined our initial data from a new project mapping the warehouse worship spaces of Dublin and Waterford, two very different cities. Our work is focused on the ways that warehouses form community around Pentecostal churches and mosques, often defying a visible centrality usually reserved for religious space in Ireland, a majority Catholic country. We are planning a lot more fieldwork. Alexandra Greiser (Trinity College Dublin) told us about transhumanism and how it may be developing into a new universalism through a scientific discourse. This forms part of a larger project she is working on that will take a comparative perspective and a possible account of multiple modernities. Bringing the universal to the local, Vlad Kmec (UCD) told us about his research on the formation of religious identity among migrants to Ireland. He is conducting focus groups with young people and adults among the Czech and Polish communities to examine the functional and substantive roles of religion in migrant lives.

Eoin O'Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Eoin O’Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Olivia Wilkinson (TCD) is interested in the role of faith based organisations in disaster relief efforts. She has conducted extensive participatory methods in her fieldwork in the Philippines as a way to examine what is counted as faith based in the post-Haiyan aid process. What gets prioritised and, perhaps more importantly, what does not is of central concern to her research. James Kapaló (UCC) told us about a relatively new network called the Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre. Its main work is to build comparative perspectives on these endangered of marginalised worldviews and their cultural expressions. The projects here are engaged forms of research and encouraging of a counter-hegemonical perspective for these forms of knowledge. Some were running to the seven minute bell, others seemed to have timed it perfectly to 6 minutes and 57 seconds.

Our slamming over, Brian Bocking (outgoing secretary) recalled for us how far the academic study of religions in Ireland had come in a few short years. Brian has been instrumental in founding and developing the ISASR, as well as the Department of Study of Religions at UCC (the only department of its kind in Ireland) and in his short lecture, summarised for us why the academic study of religions remains vital. He drew a crucial distinction using an analogy between astrology and astronomy. For astrologers, a cosmological system of belief in the power of star alignment forms the basis for earthly action. Among astronomers, the gathering of evidence about the composition of star systems helps us to understand our place in the universe. Both are concerned with the stars but equally both observe from a position of relative powerlessness over their object of study. The academic study of religions, in this way, is just as bound by tradition and human agency as their confessional co-researchers in Theology.

The day’s proceedings were rounded off with a book launch. The book, Muslims in Ireland: Past and Present (Edinburgh UP), is the first complete study of a little known Muslim presence in Europe. Two of its five editors, Oliver Scharbrodt (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) and Tuula Sakaranaho (Univ. of Helsinki) spoke about the purpose of the book, its meaning to the academic study of religions in Ireland. Its remaining editors, Adil Hussain Khan (Loyola University, New Orleans), Vivian Ibrahim (Univ. of Mississippi) and Yafa Shanneik (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) were acknowledged. Edinburgh University Press sponsored the reception that followed and the Silk Road Café provided wonderful food. The conference as a whole points to a secure future for the small and yet vital academic study of religions in a country with a long tradition of theological investigation. It is not that one pushes the other out of the light of investigation. Rather, it is the academy investing itself with a way to specify the meaning, location and features of religious culture.

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” – BSA Conference Report

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” British Sociological Association (BSA), University of Glasgow, 15-17 April 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Rachel Hanemann.

The British Sociological Association’s conference was held this year at the University of Glasgow.  The conference theme was “Societies in Transition: Progression and Regression, although many of the papers I saw raised questions about transition, but showed a sociologist’s reticence to comment on the positivity or negativity of one’s observations.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

The three keynote lectures centred on underprivileged or oppressed groups in transition.  Alice Goffman (University of Wisconsin-Madison) spoke about her book On the Run, exploring the criminalization of young black men in the United States.  Colin Samson (University of Essex) spoke on “The Idea of Progress and Indigenous Peoples: contemporary legacies of an enduring Eurocentric prophecy”, examining the historical treatment of non-European indigenous peoples at the hands of European ideas of progress.  Samson then used this historical lens to discuss the contemporary situation of the Innu peoples of the Labrador-Quebec Peninsula in Canada. Guy Standing (SOAS, University of London) spoke on “The Precariat’s Magna Carta: from denizens to citizens”, outlining a “Precariat Charter” for today’s precariat, a class of millions of people experiencing a diversity of insecurities and being denied identity.

As always, the streams and papers featured at the BSA were varied and numerous.  Although it was impossible to see them all, one highlight for me was the Sociology of Religion stream, particularly those papers that proposed new methods or areas of research.  Titus Hjelm’s (University College London) talk, “Towards a Discursive Sociology of Religion and the State”, proposed a “discursive sociology” approach to religion-state relations, broadening the focus from legislative outcomes to the act of legislation, the discussions, processes and negotiations that produce policy outcomes.  Peter Hemming (Cardiff University) spoke on “Faith-Based Schooling in Rural Communities”, pointing out that larger discussions about urban, multi-faith school communities exclude the small, rural Anglican primary schools that make up the majority of faith-based schooling in the UK.  Tim Hutchings (Durham University) spoke on “The Bible in (Virtual) Community: Accountability in Digital Religion”.  Hutchings first summarised the findings from his research on the Youversion Bible App, before asking questions about religious authority online.  The Scoiology of Religion stream plenary featured Steve Bruce (University of Aberdeen) speaking about the decline of religion in Britain.

The Race, Ethnicity, and Migration stream on Islamophobia also bears mention.  Shamim Miah (University of Huddersfield) discussed “Trojan Horse and the Racial State: Race, Religion and Securitisation”, arguing that the Trojan Horse controversy led to the embedding of a particular secularization agenda in Britain’s schools.  Aurélien Mondon’s (University of Bath) and Aaron Winter’s (University of East London) talk, “Breaking Taboos or Strengthening the Status Quo: Islamophobia in the Name of Liberalism in France and America” presented a fascinating account of the role of liberal Islamophobia, which couches attacks on Islam in a pseudo-progressive position of protecting liberal freedoms, in political and cultural discourse in France and America, as well as in the UK.  Finally, Tania Saeed (University of Oxford), spoke on “Islamophobia: Experiential Accounts of Pakistani and British Pakistani Muslim Women in England.”  Her talk focused on the individual lived experience of a number of women, highlighting the intersection between race, ethnicity, and religion in public perception.  The three papers worked well together as commentaries on Islamophobia at the levels of legislation, media and public discourse, and individual experience.

Pierre Bourdieu’s work was heavily present at this year’s BSA conference, as numerous Twitter discussions of “theorist BINGO” pointed out.  The Sociology of Education stream featured a panel on the application of Bourdieu’s habitus to the social sciences, in which Cristina Costa (University of Strathclyde), Cirian Burke (Ulster University), Alan France (University of Auckland), and Mark Murphy (University of Glasgow) offered methodological examples of the application of a Bourdieusian framework from their own research on education.  In the Sociology of Religion stream, M. Angelica Thumala Olave (University of Edinburgh) presented her work with Susie Donnelly (University of Edinburgh), asking “With or without Bourdieu?  The Uses of His Approach for the Study of Religious and Cultural Change”.

The Presidential event, held at the end of the final day, asked the question, “Is there a British society?”  President Lynn Jamieson (University of Edinburgh) chaired a panel of Michael Rosie (University of Edinburgh), Nasar Meer (University of Strathclyde), Ann Pheonix (IOE, University of London), and Aaron Winter (University of East London), who gave brief responses before opening the discussion to the floor.  Ann Phoenix effectively summed up the discussion with her response, “Is there a British society?  Yes…there are many!”

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

Understanding the Secular

Fitzgerald 2007, 54).

In many cases, conceptualizations of the secular are imagined only after the category of religion has been populated with ‘the good stuff’, with the secular receiving decidedly less good stuff (perhaps an understatement in certain contexts). In this view, the secular was an afterthought, a ‘second-class citizen’ so to speak. However, what happens if the scholarly lens is shifted towards the ‘secular’, with ‘religion’ being placed on the back burner? In Thomas Coleman’s interview for The Religious Studies Project, he sits down with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John R. Shook to discuss all things ’secular‘. Making their own contributions to the discourse, Shook and Zuckerman briefly discuss the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Secularism they are co-editing, the growing field of secular studies, what it might mean to ’be secular‘, different secularisms, and offer up two different views of the relationship between categories such as ’religion‘ and ’secular‘.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

References

  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baby Boomers, Quest Culture, and Spiritual Seeking

Wade Clark Roof is Emeritus Professor of Religion and Society in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the director of the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life. He has published many books and articles on religion in the United States, especially focusing on developments within liberal Protestantism and American mainline congregations, the spiritual journeys of the Baby Boom generation and their effect on the spiritual marketplace, and religious pluralism and civil religion. These investigations have traced the contours of post-WWII American religious and social life, revealing the protean fluidity of “religion” and “spirituality” as scholarly and popular categories.

In this interview with Dusty Hoesly, discussion focuses on Roof’s work on the Baby Boom generation and beyond, particularly as expressed in his books A Generation of Seekers (1993) and Spiritual Marketplace (1999). In these books, Roof combined survey data with panel studies and interviews across a broad spectrum of Americans to describe the “quest culture” and “spiritual seeking” at the heart of America’s changing religious landscape, one which prizes “reflexive spirituality” amidst an increasingly pluralistic and evolving spiritual marketplace.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly as the season known by many in certain contexts as “Christmas” is just around the corner, and this might have some impact upon the buying habits of visitors to our website in contexts where this term has particular “meaning” invested in it, due to the particular histories and power structures of those contexts.

The Logics of Bricolage Reconsidered: A Cognitive Approach to Individuals and Their Constraints

An Important Intervention

Veronique Altglas is to be commended for her intervention into the contemporary academic discussions and (often uncritical) usage of the concept of bricolage. As she rightly suggests, the naïve view that the acts of cultural improvisation of a modern bricoleur are unconstrained and unlimited by anything beyond the free and willful activity of his or her own individual whims is long overdue for retirement. And, in the wake of her efforts, one certainly hopes that the analytic appeal to such a naïve sense of radical cognitive autonomy becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

However, I must admit that I do wonder to what degree such an extreme view ever actually had a significant conceptual hold over sociological analysis in the first place. Throughout her interview, Altglas is very careful to emphasize that, of course, bricoleurs cannot be so extravagantly free in their acts of picking and mixing among cultural representations because, after all, not all cultural resources are available to them. This is both an important intervention and, simultaneously, a rather obvious and nearly tautological point: people cannot pick from, or mix with, resources that are not available to them. One wonders if there were ever actually any scholars who would have argued otherwise, or who have genuinely suggested that cultural context plays no role whatsoever in the syncretic activities of modern bricoleurs.

Even Thomas Luckmann, who Altglas uses as her go-to example of a sociologist who supposedly endorses this radically individualistic stance, doesn’t really express such an extreme view as the one that Altglas uses as her foil. She quotes Luckmann as having said that, in the case of contemporary bricoleurs, “anything goes,” and suggests this view as indicative of a position that holds the creative powers of the bricoleur to be “unlimited.” However, in the very sentence that Altglas is quoting, Luckmann, himself, characterizes his claim as little more than a suggestive “exaggeration” (Luckmann 1979, 136; cited in Altglas 2014, 2). In fact, what Luckmann had in mind here seems to be precisely the same point that Altglas herself eventually comes around to in the final portion of her RSP interview: When religious organizations begin to lose their hold as authoritative interpreters of available cultural representations, especially in a context of easy access to a large and highly diverse spectrum of informational resources, this can result in a situation, as Dr. Altglas seems to agree, in which, due to a context of “religious deregulation in modern societies,” as she puts it, “a dimension of choice and diversity” becomes a relevant factor in analyzing the types of constraints on, as well as, I would add, the types of empowerments toward, bricolage that are present in this kind of institutionally deregulated social environment

A Further Appeal to the Individual as a Relevant Level of Analysis

This response, then, is not so much a defense of the scholarly value of the concept of bricolage, as I am not particularly invested in its use. This is, however, a defense of the academic interest in the individual, which I take to be inclusive of the variety of ways that the activities of individuals are constrained, or not, in any given context. It is an insistence that all macro-scale social phenomena are composed of a large number of micro-scale processes among individual humans. To that degree, it is important to notice that while, indeed, all acts of bricolage are constrained, they are certainly not all equally constrained and, indeed, some contexts may encourage bricolage while others might act, relatively speaking, to diminish its occurrence. There are always, in any act of cultural improvisation, a unique array of factors which go into determining whether any particular representation will be chosen as the tool for a particular job at a particular time by a particular individual. However, Altglas’ analysis would seem to overemphasize the importance of external, social factors and, as a result, downplays other significant, internal, cognitive factors that are inevitably in play during any act of bricolage. Indeed, Dan Sperber has emphasized that,

“[t]hough which factors will contribute to the explanation of a particular strain of representations cannot be decided in advance, in every case, some of the factors to be considered will be psychological, and some will be environmental or ecological (taking the environment to begin at the individual organism’s nerve endings and to include, for each organism, all the organisms it interacts with)” (Sperber 1996, 84).

To the extent that it is, indeed, true that scholars have tended to ignore what Sperber calls the environmental or ecological factors that influence the reception, retention, and further conceptual utilization of available cultural representations, Altglas’ attempt to bring environmental factors, such as nationality or economic class, back into focus is an important correction to an analytic oversight. It is also important, however, to insist that she be careful not to pull too far in the other direction toward an equally lopsided type of analysis which leaves the mental or psychological factors largely unconsidered. Since, as Sperber notes, both will be present in every case, when a potential bricoleur encounters a cultural representation, both psychological and environmental factors need to be considered when analyzing constraints on, and empowerments toward, the utilization of that representation for an act of bricolage.

Potentially pertinent psychological factors include the ease with which a particular representation can be memorized, the existence of background knowledge in relationship to which the representation is relevant, and a motivation to communicate the content of the representation. Ecological factors, include the recurrence of situations in which the representation gives rise to, or contributes to, appropriate action, the availability of external memory stores (writing in particular), and the existence of institutions engaged in the transmission of the representation” (Sperber 1996, 84).

But, where does that leave us? To my reading, it leaves us with quite a wide spectrum of potential degrees of constraint on the abilities of individuals to pick and mix cultural representations. Are there some contexts in which such constraints are more oppressive toward innovation than others? Are there, on the contrary, some contexts in which interpretive freedom is relatively more unconstrained? Does the relevant question, then, become not simply ‘when is bricolage taking place’, but, rather, to what degree is the density and regularity of the practice of bricolage itself encouraged or constrained by different psycho-socio-cultural contexts?

Individualism and Organizations: On the Selection of Case Studies

I will look forward with anticipation toward the studies that Altglas has signaled that she is interested in pursuing in the future. I think that analyses of “bricolage in more conservative religious settings” or in “in messianic congregations” might provide important accounts of exactly to what degree institutional settings might constrain (or even empower) certain acts of bricolage. I would argue, however, that ultimately, as important as such studies will inevitably be, they cannot adequately address the question that Altglas most seems to want to address, which is the issue of religious individualism. I fear that in her eagerness to debunk Sheilaism, Altglas has failed to select representative case studies for her analysis. Given an attempt to investigate radical individualism, the choice to undertake that examination through the sociological analysis of religious organizations (Altglas’ study is based on fieldwork among Siddha Yoga and Sivananda Centers and the Kabbalah Center) that are rooted in particular cultural traditions would seem to obviate any serious chance at arriving at the desired conclusions. It is simply an analysis of the wrong data. In the introduction to her book, Altglas attempts to account for this oversight but, ultimately, her mea culpa does not overcome the problem.

“The readers might wonder why these case studies in particular have been selected. For a start, new religious movements (NRMs), as circumscribed groups with a specific teaching, represent good settings to the production and appropriation of religious resources. These processes in less ‘formative’ (Wood 2009) environments, such as those designated New Age, are more diffuse and therefore less easy to study” (Altglas 2014, 19).

In other words, the very populations that would be most appropriate to a study of religious individualism are here claimed to be too difficult to study, precisely because they are so individualistic and lack a central organizational hub from which to launch the study. Now, don’t get me wrong, as someone who spends his time studying these ‘non-formative’ communities of discourse, I am well aware that what she says is true. It can certainly be much more difficult to systematically study a decentralized milieu than to study a centrally-organized group with a more clearly delineated membership (though it certainly need not be inherently more difficult to do so—I’m quite sure that I’ve had more success with analyzing many of my decentered populations of interest than others have had getting access to, for instance, the inner realms of Scientology). For those of us who have spent quite a lot of time and effort investigating such ‘non-formative’ milieus, however, Altglas’ justification for her selection of case studies is not likely to be satisfying, when we note that the materials that we specialize in are shrugged off so effortlessly, as though that omission were, in the end, unlikely to actually inform the conclusions drawn from the study. In that sense, Altglas has provided us a particularly intriguing analysis of the of the constraints on activities of bricolage among members of the movements that she has studied, but, in order to corroborate her broader arguments against considerations of more radically individual combinatory practices, a study is still needed of the right kinds of case studies to address those issues, and that has not been accomplished here.

This discrepancy becomes clear in some of Altglas’ comments during the interview. For instance, she describes a potential bricoleur “doing a bit of yoga and then, perhaps, after two or three years, deciding that meditation is better.” This hardly sounds like the kind of highly individualized bricolage that we would be interested in so much as it appears to be an instance of serial participation in different activities. This seems miles apart from the types of improvisational cultural combinations that I would want to study in terms of bricolage or anything that might be considered a pronounced variety of individualism. If we really want to look at the types of bricolage that many of the scholars that Altglas critiques are actually interested in, we’d want to look at people creating websites which lay out their beliefs that link, for instance, Jesus’ last words on the cross, the Mayan calendar, Atlantis, Freemasonry, the electric telegraph, Vedic astrology, UFOs, the secret government, the Galactic Federation of Light, and the psychoactive properties of the pineal gland into some sort of ‘cohesive’ narrative that makes sense to them (at some point in time). There are millions of people like this out there in the world who don’t actively participate in centrally-organized religious communities, who don’t have a local group of peers to share metaphysical discourse with, and who develop their views primarily through reading books, participating in online forums, listening to music, watching YouTube, and the like. These individuals, too, are, of course, not unlimited in their improvisational capabilities. They also only have certain cultural resources available to them. They exist in a certain kind of society that instills certain kinds of values. Nonetheless, many of these individuals are significantly less constrained in their acts of bricolage than many others who explore religious themes only in the context of an established community or from within a particularly restrictive national setting (e.g. North Korea). Indeed, many of these individuals exist in social contexts that actually empower them to participate in copious acts of bricolage. The outlook of the Perennial Philosophy, in particular, which sees all religious traditions as equally fair game for religious inspiration as they are all taken as access points to a single, universal truth, dominates contemporary alternative spirituality, and, in many ways, actually demands those who adopt such a viewpoint to become rampant bricoleurs. While these modern bricoleurs still face very real and very important constraints, it is pertinent for scholars to take note of the ways in which their acts of bricolage are undertaken in a more highly individualized manner than is common in many more traditional, institutional religious settings. The question then should not be simply whether or not individuals are free or constrained in their combinatory endeavors, but rather how free or constrained they are in any given context and, thus, precisely how individualistic they are being. In the final analysis, all constraints are certainly not equal.

References

Altglas, Veronique. 2014. From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luckmann, Thomas. 1979. “The Structural Conditions of Religious Consciousness in Modern Societies.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6, pp. 121-137.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Os serés matáves: Pentecostalism in the Prisons of Rio

BRASIL-997Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a city of over six million people; it is known for its exotic nightlife, white sand beaches, crystal blue water, and of course, one of the most famous bosa nova songs ever: The Girl From Ipanema. However, beyond the sunny beaches, veritable entertainment, and soothing music lies a very different scene – the Rio de Janeiro prison system. Inside the towering grey concrete walls live Rio’s os serés matáves, or roughly translated into English as, “the killable people”These “killable people” are comprised mostly of proletariat and unemployed minorities with crimes ranging from the benign to the bloody. Gangs rule the prison and every day at 6 pm deafening war cries echo out from within the concrete walls as prison gangs scream allegiance to their “commander” – the head gang leader who runs the prison. The guards largely remain on the outskirts of the prison, they don’t control much of what happens within, as it is too dangerous to go inside. [Note: While the prison system is, of course, very dangerous, the guards’ absence is also due to the penology practiced in that country.]

_MG_9222

Dr. Johnson inside the prison with other inmates during worship.

For Brazil’s “killable people”, there are two prevalent ways to deal with the relative hell of prison – both involving allegiance and devotion. You can give your life to the gang or give your life to God. Only three types of people dare to venture into the heart of a Rio de Janeiro prison: the condemned, the pentecostal pastors leading the prison ministry, and curiously brave sociologists such as Dr. Andrew Johnson.

 

BRASIL-1017-1

In his interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Dr. Johnson begins by discussing the preparation leading up to his ethnography of the Pentecostal prison ministries in Rio de Janero Brazil. He takes the listener through the streets and slums of Rio, and into a prison cell-block. Here, we learn about the gang life that largely runs the prison, and the “gang like” life (Pentecostal prison ministries) that can provide a temporary escape from the physically and psychologically damaging conditions of the jail, and might just provide eternal redemption through the faith of the pious prisoner. Johnson discusses the role of politics in the prison system, why Pentecostalism dominates the jails in a predominately catholic country such as Brazil, and “answers” the question of how to tell if someone is truly faithful. He discusses how prisoners are viewed by their community after their release, and upon conversion as an allegedly devout pentecostal. In closing, Dr. Johnson speculates about the future of pentecostal prison ministries in Brazil, and argues for “the religious lives of inmates being taken seriously apart from recidivism rates”.

Be sure to check out Dr. Johnson’s plenary address, the world debut of his documentary If I Give My Soul, at the 2014 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Indianapolis Indiana October 31st – November 2nd. You can register for the conference here: SSSR registration link.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular

Jürgen Habermas is a preeminent philosopher and social theorist whose work explores the formation of the public sphere as well as how to invigorate participatory democracy. He is well known for his theory of communicative action, which claims that reason, or rationality, is the mechanism for emancipation from the social problems posed by modernity. In his earlier work, Habermas mostly ignored religion, contending that it was not rational enough to be included in public debate. But over the past decade, he has begun to reexamine religion in light of its persistence in the modern world, calling this a turn toward post-secular society. He argues that religion deserves a place in public debate, but that religious people need to translate their views into rational, secular language if they want to participate in the public sphere. This week’s podcast features Dusty Hoesly of the University of California at Santa Barbara speaking with Michelle Dillon, Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, at the 2013 SSSR Conference in Boston.

While Dillon embraces Habermas’ turn toward religion and his recognition of its emancipatory potential, she critiques his post-secular theorizing, arguing that Habermas ignores the rational contestation of ideas within religions; marginalizes the centrality of emotion, tradition, and spirituality to religion; and fails to recognize religion’s intertwining with the secular.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your philosophical tomes etc.

 

Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

“First came the temple, then the city” –Klaus Schmidt

The above quotation from archaeologist Klaus Schmidt (Norenzayan, 2013) provides a succinct way of phrasing a provocative thesis that has been proposed in the sciences. That is to say, and from this point of view, that religion was not merely a result of the transformation from a hunter-gather lifestyle to a more sedentary, agricultural, domicile based life – it was the very catalyst. Or, as Norenzayan puts it, “religion transformed cooperation and conflict”.

hunter-gatherers

Hunter-gatherers

Archaeological sites such as Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, tell scientists a lot about the priorities of humans with the retreat of the last Ice Age – the Gods demanded worship. This claim, which puts ‘religion’ first in the development of ‘society’, is the result of interpretations of data such as Gobekli Tepe that suggest that Homo sapiens were interested in building places of worship before they were interested in building permanent homes and domesticating livestock (see Schmidt, 2000).

Scottish Philosopher David Hume espoused a view that situated religion not in the realm of the supernatural, but in the natural, arising from the inclinations and dispositions of the human mind. Sociologist Emile Durkheim conceptualized religion’s primary function as a social glue that binds individuals together through the establishment of do’s and don’t’s which acted as credible and authoritative sources which enabled the flourishing and maintenance of society. In his book Big Gods, Norenzayan combines both of these prior views with evidential support from various scientific disciplines.

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Ara Norenzayan begins by posing an interesting question. How do we explain the transition from small, tight-knit communities (the norm from a historical perspective) to the large-scale societies we know today? In answering this question Norenzayan puts the idea of Big Gods front and center, Big Gods being those that are omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and act as moralizing agents. Norenzayan then covers what he labels as “The Eight Principles of Big Gods” (Norenzayan, 2013), and closes by presenting an interesting analogy, placing many of the modern secular institutions we have today (e.g. police departments and governments) in the role previously occupied solely by religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:

  • Norenzayan, A. 2013. Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

There be Spoilers Here: Durkheim, ‘Breaking Bad,’ and the Uncertainty of Religious Theory

Have you been watching ‘Breaking Bad’?

It had been six years since Professor Strenski and I had spoken.  Six years since I sat in the back of his Method and Theory course at UC Riverside, and since I had first read his Thinking about Religion.  I had recently decided to ‘apply myself,’ had returned to ‘academia,’ gotten lost on the way toward a very rewarding degree in Art History, and was, for the first time, learning about the varying methods and theories of religious study.  It was in that class where I first heard of Emile Durkheim.  As I would discover later, Professor Strenski’s style of teaching, the way he explained that particular Frenchman’s social theory, about his unified system of beliefs, his elementary forms, was different from the usual method.  Rather than merely prattle on about relative-to-sacred–this, and set-apart-that, Professor Strenski taught us about the man.  Biography was the key.  Knowing why Durkheim defined religion as he did, rather than just how, would give us a fuller understanding, a clearer focus, on the subtle elements binding his definition to his distinct worldview.  

The question of whether I had been watching ‘Breaking Bad’ had two parts: had I seen the most recent episode; and was I able to watch the show at all while living in Scotland?  My answer was in the affirmative—though I chose not to share with him the ‘quasi-legal’ means of my viewing.  He responded with an excited smile and we talked a moment about the writing, the plot points leading up to the finale, the inevitable demise of Walter White.

When I think back on it, one thing I truly enjoyed about Professor Strenski’s book—as well as his teaching style—was his ability to tangentially veer off topic while not losing complete track of the subject at hand.  Tangents, I have always felt, are the instructor’s greatest tool.  Not only do they assist in keeping the student’s attention, but as metaphor, paint the instruction in different hues than mere black and white.  For instance, when we look at the underlying components of Durkheim’s theory of religion, his idea about ‘God and Society,’ it becomes reducibly contextualized by means of the socially problematic milieu of his academic upbringing.  In his Thinking about Religion, Strenski emphasizes this influence by exploring the political backdrop against which Durkheim spent his “formative years:” a France sunk in national depression; the eastern départements of Alsace and Lorraine lost to the Prussians in the defeat of Napoleon III in 1871; a “national humiliation and desire for revenge;” all of this especially significant to a young secular Jew growing up on France’s eastern border with Imperial Germany.[1]  It is not difficult, then, to follow these sociological actions toward Durkheim’s equal and opposite reaction from “traditional religious loyalties” toward becoming a “truly religious devotee of France.”[2]  We see here the origins, the chemical elements combined to form in Durkheim’s theory a focus toward establishing a “secure and viable social order in modern France.”[3]  Society, social structure, sociability, all necessary components in establishing not just an identity, but a national dignity, a challenging cohesion of social and individual; these things were etched into Durkheim’s psyche as he wrote his notable texts, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).  

We focused our discussion on the writing, on the elegance and patience demonstrated in Vince Gilligan’s unwillingness to rush the narrative along.  How his use of music, of song lyrics, revealed a sort of meta-narrative.  Ours were isolated voices.  Upon hearing my colleague in the study of all things Atheism, Chris Cotter, would be doing an interview with the Professor who introduced me to Durkheim, Freud, Marx, Weber, et al. at the joint BASR/EASR in Liverpool, I insisted he pass along my regards.  More than that, Mr. Cotter ensured we’d have a few moments to catch up.  Having enjoyed the conference’s gala dinner, the Professor and I withdrew ourselves from the dining hall/college bar for a quiet space to recollect.  Once alone, I noticed our American accents no longer seemed so alien.  In our short discussion, even on ‘Breaking Bad,’ it was pleasurably refreshing to hear a similar accent, an analogous vernacular returned back to me.  We had created, in our brief chat concerning an American drama about a chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin, a sort of fusion of consciences: two Americans, in England, at a joint European and British conference on Religion, Migration, and Mutation enjoying a shared and direct experience, an isolated circle of ‘home.’  Our conversation turned to themes in the narrative.  He remarked about the ‘science’ in the show, the metaphor of Walter White referring to himself as Heisenberg, the oft-misunderstood principle about uncertainty.  We returned to whether ‘Heisenberg’ would die in the final episode.  Would all his scheming, his obsession with ‘taking care of his family,’ his murders and mayhem, actually pay off in the end?  Or, more likely, was this all leading to the only possible conclusion: his death, either by the cancer choking his lungs, or through the choices he had made in the last two years of his life?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beM28FLdAzk]

Concerning Durkheim’s social theory of religion, Strenski demarcates two views: a reductionist and a non-reductionist reading.  The former reveals a rather clear reduction of the “object” of religion to society.  As a consequence, Durkheim believed that “religious experiences” were really just “misperceived experiences of social forces.”[4]  Thus, there is “no experience of God”—at least none that we could prove—but rather “shared and direct experiences of society,” the power of which “feels” like an experience of God.[5]  In the context of ‘identity,’ Strenski labels this reading as ‘D1’ for Durkheim no. 1.  ‘God≡Society.’[6]  Concerning causation, this equation concludes that the “underlying reality of religious experience,” and thus the “nature of God,” is society.  In contrast, the non-reductionist reading, a mirrored perspective of the first, flips the equation: ‘Society≡God.’  Durkheim no. 2 expresses “nothing less” than the idea that society has a “religious, or at the very least, spiritual, nature.”[7] 

Our conversation was brief, but cordial.  He was departing the conference early and I had at least two more bottles of wine to ingest.  Yet, all that evening, and into the hangover of the next day, I kept thinking about the implications of the subject of our chat.  Walter White—‘Heisenberg’—argued from the very beginning that chemistry was the study of change, not matter.  It was the study of growth and decay, of transformation, migration, mutation.  Even up to his almost perfectly composed death, Walter White believed he was actively involved in the physical study of change.  Cancer, chemotherapy, cooking, wealth, power, murder, and eventual termination.  These elements formed his social milieu, his split identity, his life’s continuing uncertainty.  If nothing else, I suppose my conversation with Professor Strenski further reminded me that uncertainty is indeed a universal principle.  The more we focus on and attempt to understand a thing (the position), the farther we get from actually making any sense of it (its momentum).  Durkheim witnessed this, and I believe we see it repeated over and over in the context of religious study.  As we think about religion, then think about thinking about religion, then so on and so forth, we engage in a trans-generational discourse, a social discussion that enigmatically matches the very theories we seek to understand.  We become, in that very process, aspects of those theories, especially in the ways we translate them, teach them to each other, engage in tangents.  The more we change, the more they change, the less certain an original meaning ever seems possible.  Perhaps, then, Durkheim was right.  Perhaps my shared and direct experience with Professor Strenski, two Americans abroad, discussing a culturally popular, and truly ‘American’ drama, formed some sort of experience of God.  Perhaps our experience is an ideal example, a tangent, on how one might explain Durkheim’s theory of equating society to God and vice versa. 

I’m not entirely certain.  Perhaps it’s best to think on it a bit more. 

Readings

  • Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion.  Malden: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, John A. Spaulding and George Simpsons, trans.  New york: Free Press, 1979
  • Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Carol Cosman, trans.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Werner Heisenberg. “On the Perceptual Content of Quantum Theoretical Kinematics and Mechanics.” Zeitschrift für Physik, Vol. 43 (1927): 172-198. English Translation by John A. Wheeler and Wojciech Zurek, eds. Quantum Theory and Measurement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983: 62-84.
  • Vince Gilligan, Creator, Breaking Bad: Seasons 1-5, Produced by AMC.

[1] Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion (Malden: Blackwell, 2006), 290.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 295.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interestingly, the ‘≡’ symbol here denotes in physics, particularly in relation to an identity, a sense of equality.  See also Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 295.

[7] Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 296.

Emile Durkheim

durkheim

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

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

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

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

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in the ‘sacralizing’ of the social and buying your Christmas presents etc.

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

Belief, Belonging, and Academic Careers

Almost twenty years ago, Grace Davie observed that despite plenty of studies into the ‘exotic edges’ of religion, ‘the picture in the middle remains remarkably blurred’. Seeking to address this imbalance and engage with the ‘beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’, Abby Day‘s recent book, Believing in Belonging (the first topic for this interview), builds upon her doctoral and later postdoctoral fieldwork, beginning within small communities in Yorkshire, and extending to a number of modern industrialised nations.

in this interview with Chris, recorded at the 2013 BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference at Durham University, Day introduces listeners to the concept of ‘belief’ and sets out her own inductive approach, using semi-structured interviews, whereby definitions were allowed to arise from the field. Her central thesis acts as a focal point for a wide-ranging and insightful discussion on a variety of topics from nationalism and secularisation, to the usefulness of censuses as tools for measuring ‘religion’, to gender and belief in destiny. These themes are also picked up and developed in a recent volume published by Ashgate – Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular – which was co-edited by Abby, Chris, and Giselle Vincett.

Wearing one of her other hats, Abby also presents regularly on how to build an academic career, win research funding, and get articles published, and has published the books academic publishing and building an academic career.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

Heavy Metal as Religion and Secularization as Ideology

Heavy metal as religion and secularization as ideology: a sociological approach

By Mohammad Magout, University of Leipzig, Germany

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 9 October 2013, in response to François Gauthier’s interview on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture (7 October 2013).

In this thought-provoking interview, Professor François Gauthier from the University of Fribourg gives his remarks on a variety of theoretical, methodological, and empirical issues in social sciences. It would be impossible to cover even a tenth of those issues within the limits of this brief article, so I will restrict my response to two themes only: defining religion and critiquing secularization theory and post-secularity.

Gauthier states at the beginning of the podcast that current social theory fails to explain some recent developments in the social world, particularly in reference to subcultures and popular protest movements. He specifically criticizes sociologists of religion for not recognizing certain cultural notions, practices, or movements as religious even when people involved declare them as such. He says that if ravers, for example, believe rave to be just as religious as Catholicism, then sociologists should adjust their definitions of religion in order to accommodate rave as a religious phenomenon.

While I acknowledge that in social research there is always the risk of imposing inadequate, external categories on meanings conveyed by informants, I do have considerable reservations about conflating informants’ self-descriptions with theoretical terms. By saying that rave culture is as religious as Catholicism, a raver might be, for example, making a statement of identity; that is, defining his/her identity as a raver against or in relation to a Catholic identity, which is, of course, a personal right that no one should deny him/her. From a scientific perspective, however, “religion” is a theoretical term that is used to categorize and analyze a specific class of social phenomena. If we were to leave it solely to informants to decide which theoretical concepts and categories apply to them, social research would become very fragmented and incomparable, because different people can and do use complicated terms such as “religion” in widely different ways. Of course, their perspective is important and one should always take it into consideration, but scientific research requires at least some minimum degree of uniformity and consistency in the application of terms and categories.

I am not very well-informed about rave culture, but I can say something about another music-based youth culture with which I am familiar—both as a researcher and as a member—namely, heavy metal. Heavy metal can be seen as one of the most “quasi-religious” youth cultures, not only because religious imagery and symbolism are embedded in heavy metal lyrically, sonically, and visually, but also because of the “striking resemblance” between many aspects of heavy metal (especially live concerts) and religious rituals (Weinstein 2000, p. 231-2). Heavy metal, in addition, defines itself explicitly against traditional religion (Christianity in particular), which in a few extreme cases has reached the level of waging an open war against it (as it was the case with some members of the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990’s who were involved in dozens of arson attacks against churches). Some people have even considered heavy metal to be their “religion.” There was a campaign in the United Kingdom to answer the question about religion in the 2011 census with “heavy metal,” which resulted in more people identifying their “religion” as “heavy metal” than Scientology, Baha’ism, or Taoism.

Even if we grant that some of those who reported their religion as “heavy metal” were serious about it, does that justify changing our definitions of religion, so that they can accommodate heavy metal together with Christianity, Hinduism, Shamanism, and ancient Egyptian religion in the same analytical category? I myself do not think so, and no one so far—to the best of my knowledge—has presented a convincing case of the conceptual and analytical utility of treating a youth culture such as heavy metal as some type of religion.[i]

Gauthier seems to justify his position by stating that religion in the past few decades has morphed into something different than it used to be. It is now more concerned with personal life-style, identity, and morality, rather than correct belief and clerical institutions. This perhaps makes religion (at least some forms of contemporary religion) closer to youth cultures than traditional or institutional religion, which may justify grouping them together in the same category. Still this is not enough to change our definitions of religion. I think social scientists need to be a bit “conservative” about their definitions and conceptual frameworks in order to maintain the consistency of their work and measure change when it occurs. As stated by Steve Bruce, “Fixity of definition is not a refusal to recognize change; it is essential to describing change” (2009, p. 9).

Gauthier concludes his interview by warning us not to repeat the failure of secularization theory by adopting post-secularity, which he refers to as “the greatest threat to sociology of religion today.” He says quite bluntly, “Let’s try not to be as stupid, as ideological.” Since I originally conceived my PhD research project in terms of secularization theory, and have now started to drift toward post-secularity, I felt somehow challenged by Gauthier’s strong words. My intention in this article, nevertheless, is not to present a defense of secularization and post-secularity—especially given that I acknowledge many of the criticisms of these concepts—but rather to problematize one particular critique, which is the claim that secularization and post-secularity are based on certain ideologies or philosophical ideas.

First of all, I would like to say that I do not disagree with this critique: yes, secularization theories often reflected a modernist understanding of history and social change, and post-secularity is a concept that emerged in philosophical and normative discussions of the role of religion in the public sphere in contemporary Western societies. The problem is that many social scientists, in dismissing these concepts as ideologically biased, tend to gloss over the ideologies behind them as sociologically irrelevant. The impact of ideologies on social theory might be something undesirable, albeit unavoidable, but their impact on society is of utmost importance to the social scientist.

Modernism, in its various manifestations (liberalism, communism, nationalism, colonialism, etc.), has transformed our world, including religion, irreversibly.[ii] Most modern states—together with their political, legal, educational, and economic systems—have more or less been established along the lines of some modernist ideology that may have actively sought to marginalize, control, or privatize religion.[iii] Of course, how this might have developed or to what extent it has worked out in different contexts is widely variable. What is certain, I think, is that these ideologies have shaped and continue to shape the world today, despite the fragmentation of their hegemony and the rise of alternative ideologies. It is therefore implausible to think they have hardly changed anything with regard to religion, as some staunch critics of secularization seem to imply (e.g. Stark 1999).

The question I am trying to frame is related to the more general issue of the complicated relationship between ideology and social theory. Social science, more than any other branch of science, is prone to the undesired influence of philosophical and ideological perspectives. The question is, then, how should social scientists deal with ideologically-infused theories without glossing over the ideologies behind them? I don’t have a straightforward answer to this question, but I can refer to Gauthier’s nuanced approach to studying neo-liberalism, which he outlines in his interview.

Gauthier criticizes rational-choice/market theories of religion for interpreting religion in economic terms, as if it were a commercial product. In doing so, these theories fail to understand and explain the relationship between religious change and neo-liberalism, which is not only a dominant economic theory or political ideology, Gauthier asserts, but also a “cultural ideology” that conditions our ways of thinking and behaving. He stresses that any examination of religion, politics, or social relations is not adequate without taking into consideration the impact of neo-liberalism and consumerism, which have become the “structuring” force of our societies. In other words, while Gauthier rejects rational-choice/market theories of religion, he does not dismiss neo-liberalism and emphasizes the importance of studying its impact on religion.

The same approach, in my opinion, should be applied to secularization theory and post-secularity. Criticisms of secularization as an ideologically-infused theory should not make us gloss over its constituting ideology and the concrete sociological implications of this ideology. Similarly, the philosophical origins of the concept of post-secularity do not mean that it is irrelevant for social scientists. One should remember that the boundaries between social theory and social philosophy are not clear-cut and that philosophers and theologians are playing an important role—perhaps more than sociologists—in setting the parameters for public debates about religion (Turner 2012, p. 649). This is not only a matter of intellectual debates, but also of policy-making. There are religious groups, public institutions, and political organizations which are adopting, in one way or another, a “post-secular perspective” toward religion and society and making their policies accordingly. One domain in which this current is becoming evident is academia as some earlier research (Schmalzbauer and Mahoney 2009) and also my ongoing research project on Ismaili institutions of higher education in London seem to suggest.

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References

  • Bruce, S. (2009) “The Importance of Social Science in the Study of Religion”, Fieldwork in Religion, Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 7–28.
  • Casanova, J. (2012) “Are We Still Secular? Explorations on the Secular and the Post-Secular”, in Nynäs, P., Lassander, M. and Utriainen, T. (Eds.), Post-secular society, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J, pp. 27–46.
  • Moberg, M. (2012) “Religion in Popular Music or Popular Music as Religion? A Critical Review of Scholarly Writing on the Place of Religion in Metal Music and Culture”, Popular Music and Society, Vol. 35 No. 1, pp. 113–130.
  • Schmalzbauer, J. and Mahoney, K. (2009) “Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy”, SSRC Working Papers. Available at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/post-secular-academy.pdf (Accessed 6 June 2013)
  • Stark, R. (1999) “Secularization, R.I.P”, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 60 No. 3, pp. 249–273.
  • Turner, B.S. (2010) “Religion in a Post-secular Society”, in Turner, B.S. (Ed.), The new Blackwell companion to the sociology of religion, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp. 649–667.
  • Weinstein, D. (2000) Heavy metal: the music and its culture. New York: Da Capo Press.


[i] For a survey of literature on the relationship between heavy metal and religion, see Moberg (2012).

[ii] This is what José Casanova calls “secularism as stadial consciousness,” i.e. secularism as a philosophy of history, according to which humanity progressively “emancipates” itself from religion. Secularization thereby functions as a “self-fulfilling theory” (2012, p. 31-2).

[iii] Another common criticism of secularization theory is its Euro-centrism, which is true, but it is almost forgotten that not very long time ago European powers ruled most countries of the world, established their political systems, wrote their laws, educated their elites, and planned their economies. This certainly does not entail that these countries should follow the same trajectories of modernization followed earlier by European countries, but it does mean that European ideas, theories, and ideologies are very relevant to other countries too.