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The Blog Assignment: Confronting “Spirituality” in Teaching Religious Studies

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

In this second of a two-part series, Richard Ascough adds his voice to Sharday Mosurinjohn’s reflections on a new blog post assignment used in a course on Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion taught through the School of Religion at Queen’s University. In the earlier post, Sharday noted that she learned two key lessons: that students are concerned about what it means to be “critical” in a public posting and that they do not have a level of digital literacy that one might expect in a generation that grew up fully immersed in digital technologies. In this follow-up post, Sharday and Richard discuss strengths and weaknesses in students’ digital literacy and explore how understanding one of the weaknesses might actually help us understand a particularly troublesome religious studies concept – what they consider a “threshold concept.”

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Spirituality

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

‘Spirituality’ is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse on religion, but despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses ‘spirituality’ as shallow and commercialised. Boaz Huss argues that “the vehement and disparaging criticism of contemporary spirituality is stimulated by the threat that this new cultural category poses to entrenched scholarly assumptions and research practices” (2014, 58).

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

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

Spirituality

Podcast with Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe (11 June 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Huss and Sutcliffe – Spirituality 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Spirituality is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse in religion but, despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses it as shallow and commercialised. To discuss spirituality I’m joined today by Boaz Huss, a professor of Jewish thought at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and also by Steve Sutcliffe who is senior lecturer in Religious Studies, here at the University of Edinburgh, where we’re speaking today. So, we thought we could maybe start, then, by setting out . . . well, setting out the stall. Tell us about spirituality, and particularly the way it emerges as an identifier during the New Age and the post-war period.

Steven Sutcliffe (SS): Ok. Well I could start and say something about that. But it’s very good to have Boaz here to join in the discussion. So, welcome to Boaz.

Boaz Huss (BH): It’s good to be here.

SS: I came across spirituality, and became pretty-much convinced of its significance as a cultural category, when I was researching the so-called New Age movement. And in the work that I did on that, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a very strong movement that we could call New Age. There was a term New Age, which was mobilised in a whole series of networks, but, increasingly, what scholars were calling the New Age movement after the 1970s was better understood as a network of people whose preferred term was becoming spirituality, sometimes qualified by “mind-body-spirit spirituality”, and sometimes “holistic spirituality”. Often just “spirituality”. And that this kind of shift seems to have been happening particularly, I would say, since after the 1960s, or the post-war period, is important as well. But of course there’s also a complicated and lengthy genealogy of the term emerging, and a number of different groups as well. So it’s a very complex but lively cultural category about which we still know very little, I think.

DR: And what are some of the sort-of themes and motifs that we can pick out in this discourse of spirituality, and the various other terms?

SS: Well I think, I mean, Boaz will have his own ideas here. For me, I’ve been interested in how it is often a kind of signifier for a form of what we might call vitalism, in some ways. There’s something more bubbling away in social life, and beyond social life, that the old category of religion, for users, doesn’t adequately tackle. Spirituality – a bit more nebulous, a bit more amorphous, but actually does quite a good job, through that nebulosity and amorphousness, in pointing to something that people feel. You know: “There’s a something more going on here. Things have got more life to them. They’ve got more energy. There’s something else going on.” So that’s been the route which I’ve been interested in, in the term. Why people are using it to point to this feeling that there’s something more going on in life.

DR: And maybe we can turn to Boaz, then. How does this . . . ? There’s a shift there. When spirituality starts to get picked up by the New Age movement, it changes its meaning. It’s not a new term, but it takes on a new set of connotations.

BH: Yes, yes definitely. I think there is . . . . Very similar to Steven, I was very much impressed by the prominent presence of spirituality as a term in contemporary New Age movements when I was working on in Israel – contemporary Kabbalistic movements – and, actually, also amongst my friends. It’s a term that’s very much alive and very easily used by people to define themselves. Now what, for me, was striking – maybe because I’m a historian and I started my work working on evil in Judaism and religions in the early modern period – is this really significant shift of meaning in spirituality. Because spirituality is a very old term, actually. It is a Biblical term, very prominent, signifying spirit in contrast to the body, to materiality, corporeality. And it played a very important role in medieval Christian theology, in translation – also in Jewish theology. And it seemed to me that the use today is very different and, actually, I think the two main centres of the use of the term in early modern period changed (5:00). One is the juxtaposition of spirituality to corporeality and materiality, which was very central. And today people use the term spiritual applying it to corporeal, material things: yoga, sports, martial arts, healing etc. And the other thing was the detachment from religion. Because spirituality was considered the core of religion, related, part of religion, and really the core of Christianity and religion. And today, I think the term that caught my attention was “spiritual but not religious”. Which . . . I think people tend to dismiss it. Well a lot of people use it, but some scholars, at least, dismiss this notion as they’re saying it. But actually they are religious or secular. But I think we should take it very seriously that people choose to define secularity in opposition to a term that spirituality came from and that is religious.

DR: Except, yes, as well as the “spiritual but not religious”, you are seeing very recently – in the last ten years or so – the churches making a kind-of reclaiming of that. And you’ll see “spiritual AND religious” pop up. So it’s not so much that . . . . I mean, from the point of view of these religious practitioners, spirituality is still the ur-concept with religion being part of that. So it’s shifting in different ways, even in the last few years.

SS: Well it’s a very user-friendly concept, isn’t it? And it’s also a multi-functional concept, I think. So the user-friendliness is that it’s got a warmth and a vitality to it, I think, that religion doesn’t have. And religion in popular parlance has been demonised, in a sense – stereotyped as this oppressive, institutional force. You’ll often hear the term “institutional religion” which is juxtaposed to “free-floating spirituality” or something like that. So it’s a kind of attractive word for people. But it’s also multi-functional, I think. It does various things at different levels for different audiences. And I think, for the folks who might have been involved in New Age and related networks, it fulfils that function of a fairly free-wheeling, personal, networked approach and discourse. But it’s also been picked up – and this is interesting as well, I think – it’s also been picked up in sort-of Government policy, educational health circles. So we have, here in the UK – as you probably know, Boaz – we’ve got spiritual chaplains now, in NHS hospitals. We have spirituality as a kind of perennial all-encompassing term in interfaith circles. We have various think-tank’s exploring the meaning of spirituality in cultural life. And so it’s a term . . . these uses of the term are not all doing the same thing. Sometimes they’re camouflaging various positions behind them. They’re ways of putting new pawns on the chess board to advance rather concealed causes. And other times they’re much more grass-roots and naive in their use.

DR: And that reminds me of the way that interfaith is often used, with a rather ecumenical agenda behind it: “We might as well team up in order to promote religion in the public sphere.” And spirituality is another way of doing that, of course. Because if you accept that, “OK, maybe religions don’t have a place, but spirituality does.” And so, “Who shall we get to speak for spirituality? Let’s get, you know, somebody from the Church of England.”

SS: Yes. Indeed

BH: I think it shows the cultural power of this term, that it’s adopted. Now what’s interesting . . . you know the people related to churches don’t go back to, I don’t know, early spiritual practices. They adopt spirituality from its modern, unchurched use and it comes together. It enters the churches with yoga, with Tai Chi classes, with other New Age . . . . So I see that as part of, really, the language of New Age and spirituality, also entering new places. And you said, also, of course medicine, government and business.

SS: Yes – business, indeed.

BH: Business is very strong. So I think that shows really, somehow, the relevance: it’s a good term for people today – if not, they wouldn’t use it. There’s something very, I think, serious and significant about it. (10:00) And I think the tendency of some scholars to dismiss it – it’s really, you know, not looking at something very interesting that’s going on around us.

SS: Yes. Yes. That might be an opportunity, some of the scholars . . . two books come to mind that have been very critical, often in a slightly polemical way about this, which is Kimberley Lau’s book: New Age Capitalism, and then, also, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book: Selling Spirituality. Now, both of those books have got a similar purpose. Kimberley Lau works out quite a sophisticated account of ideology, and how spirituality is an ideology, in her book – but she’s still got this kind of criticism. In the case of Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book, it seems to be more about a slightly nostalgic reach back to authentic, good-old religion, as opposed to this nasty, sort-of . . .

BH: Capitalist . . .

SS: Yes. However, what I was going to say is, if it is a multi-functional term, there is one angle of it that it seems to me in which the Carrette and King critique is correct: in businesses, as we just mentioned, there can be a sense in which spirituality is a way of producing a happier work force, a more comfortable workforce, a more productive workforce. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the whole of the picture. So that was what I was saying about how it’s a multifunctional kind of discourse. It’s layered or stacked with different kinds of uses or goals.

DR: I think an important aspect of it, to take in parallel with that sort-of neoliberal critique, is the Jungian kind of psychological idea. And those aren’t separate, but you see the growth of psychological Jungian ideas in the business sphere, particularly because it’s well, you know . . . . The Marxist critique is that by treating the mental health issues that arise because of neoliberalism, then it allows neoliberalism to continue as an economic model. But of course, that’s also the foundational model of large parts of the New Age movement.

SS: Right.

DR: You know – the sense of the self, and the purpose of life being to develop the self. Which, as well, maybe points to this blurring between the idea of the spirit as something not the body, but simultaneously also the body.

SS: Yes, that reminds me a bit of Paul Heelas’ work on self-spirituality or self-religion that he was developing a while ago, where- I mean he’s been critiqued by Matthew Wood and others, for having a rather asocial model of the self – which I think is right. But nevertheless he was pointing, in some of his early work, to one of these telephone marketing companies who were working on the idea that if you were in touch with your “true whole self” when you were at work, you would get better business results in your cold-calling of people. If you were doing that, and were “present in yourself”, that would have an impact.

DR: You would have authenticity.

SS: Yes. And you would be “at cause” and not “at effect”, which is what happens if you are not in touch with yourself – you are just acted upon. So there seems to be something about being in touch with the self that is an important part of the ideology of spirituality – whether that comes through practice is another thing.

BH: I want to go back to this point of neoliberalism, because I think it’s important. I think, definitely, the recognition that there is a connection is true. I think it merges neoliberal ideology, and post-modern culture, and post-capitalistic global economics: they and spirituality all emerge at the same period, and sometimes there’s an overlap between the social compositions of the people who are involved. But I think the fact that there are similarities, and there is interconnection between, doesn’t mean that spirituality is a disguised neoliberal ideology. It can be also a response, sometimes, to neoliberalism. So, from that point of view, I think the connection is definitely there. As I said, we can look at spirituality as a kind of post-modern, new cultural formation, and New Age also, but that doesn’t mean that it identifies with other post-modern cultural formations. And, again sometimes it is. I think, on the one hand, you can show points where it strengthens neoliberal ideology, but also other groups – there are so many varieties of spiritualties and New Age – that are a response and trying to undermine it. But still, again, I’ve seen it’s something very relevant. And, you know, we live in a post-modern, late-capitalistic society. The cultural formations that we use – and I think all of us are part of them, to a certain degree – you know, they are those which are relevant to our society, and of course they are interconnected (15:00). But this nostalgia that you mentioned, I think it’s not relevant to criticise spirituality. I don’t see my role as a scholar to give marks or grade religious and spiritual phenomena, but to try to understand the function.

SS: Yes.

DR: Because of course, I mean, the churches in the early twentieth century or earlier – kind-of in the earlier economic systems with the nation state and these kind of things – there are examples of institutional religion working with the state, and working against the state, then. And there are examples of New Age and spirituality working with the state and against the state now. It’s no different. But, of course, if you’re looking at it from a nostalgic point of view, with this modern organisation of the state, and you’re looking for things that look like the church you grew up in, then maybe you are going to come to that conclusion.

SS: In terms of that counter-cultural impetus, I think Paul Heelas talks about what he most recently calls New Age Spiritualties of Life. He says something like “a gentle counter-flow” or something like that. He’s kind-of not going full on for the kind of counter-cultural stances of the ’60s, but he’s saying there is some kind of modest critique here, in the stuff he’s looking at. And sort-of connected with that, with the data for the Kendal project – that Spiritual Revolution book that Paul did with Linda Woodhead. And there they did quite a lot of valuable data – I mean, now it’s a little bit old perhaps, the early 2000s it was – but there was clearly a correlation between the folks participating in the holistic milieu in Kendal and environmental, ecological, Green values. And there was also a correlation, when asked in the various questionnaires and interviews, with left-of-centre political attitudes as well. So I go some way towards saying, here’s one small body of evidence that bears out what you’re saying, Boaz. It’s not only a question of being subsumed by neoliberal positions. There is agency here in a more political – small p . . . .

DR: But this language is also taken up wholesale amongst the sort of New Right, and the conspiracy milieu that I look at. I mean, when I was down looking at . . . . Ok, so most of the case studies I looked at were left-leaning. But certainly in the right wing – it’s a little bit blurred because we tend to focus on US data, and of course US data strongly identifies as Christian. But if you look at the right outside of the US, there’s a strong association with spirituality. And you can find, for example, Red Ice Radio podcast, on a TV show out of Sweden, started off doing very much kind of New Age and healing kind of stuff and have gradually moved over until they’re now just completely right-wing, pagan-identifying. But you can see in the space of a few years there, as they make that shift, you still have language of spirituality and “higher purpose” and all these kind of things, focus on health practices – all of these things are still there, so that discourse is not restricted to the left at all.

BH: A few years ago we had a project on the politics of the New Age. Actually, my interest in spirituality started from that project. And, again, it became very clear first of all that, in difference to the self-declaration of many spiritualist and New Agers, “We are not interested in politics”, they are involved in politics. But you can find the combination, you can find New Age practices and use of spiritual terminology in the extreme right, religious, national right in Israel and, of course – what you would more expect – in the left and Green movements, etc. So it really is applied . . . and I think, again, showing that it’s a key cultural concept that can be used by very different political and ideological agendas. And I think it’s interesting. Actually, I think the use is quite similar. It’s not that they just use it and each one gives it a completely different . . . . They integrate it in very different ideologies, but the practices themselves: you go and do some kind of violent political act in the evening, and in the morning you grow organic vegetables and do meditation practices etc., and connect with the nature around you!

SS: (Laughs) OK. Yes!

DR: And lots of food! (20:00) You know, like eating pro-biotic and vegetarian diets and all this stuff. It’s right across the board.

BH: It’s very interesting, the use of the New Age terminology to justify, for instance, violence. That’s a natural, you know, part of the . . . . But the extreme right movements will say revenge is something very basic. And because of that, we can do revenge acts. Because that’s part of going back to nature, connecting with the earth. It’s amazing to see this combination!

SS: And so that raises the question: it sounds to me as though you’re saying that spirituality, as a concept, has travelled very well in Israel for example, in non-Christian contexts. Because it’s often seemed to me that there are some kind of affinities with a kind of a post-Christian culture and a spirituality discourse. But it seems clear, even if that’s the case, that it can acculturate elsewhere quite happily. So there’s no problem with secular Jews, religious Jews, all kinds of folk picking up the term in an Israeli context?

BH: Yes. I think it would be all across the board. But I think you will find some kind of American / Western connection. Even in ultra. Because many of the ultra-Orthodox movements, many of the people, of the members, are actually returning to religion. So, actually, they’ve had that grounding or acquaintance. But it’s so available and present here, that even if you grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family you know, it’s available, the practices and terminology are there. So they are easily reached. And I believe it’s similar in, at least in Westernised and middle-class populations also in other non-Christina cultures: Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco, you will find, again, language of spiritual and definitely the New Age practices.

SS: Yes.

BH: Very interesting to look at . . .

DR: And in Asia as well. In Japan and China, particularly.

BH: Japan, definitely, yes.

DR: Yes. Which you actually mentioned something about this, Boaz, in one of the papers I read, about how this was essentially swapping a dualistic Western model for an Eastern monistic model. And I wonder if actually that would indicate that this would have quite a lot of currency in Asian countries? Because it kind of maps much better than the imported model of religion, and spirituality.

BH: Yes, I’m not sure how it goes in all this. It’s the pizza effect. You know of coming . . . receiving back Indian meditation practices after they were Westernised, and then incorporating them back. Similar things with Kabbalah for instance, with New Kabbalah and then integrated. So there is some kind of coming back, but I think I would be hesitant to say that there’s something . . . . Definitely many practices were borrowed from non-Christian cultures, but to say that they’re more open to them because of that . . . . I would put more emphasis on the globalisation. This is part of that.

DR: I haven’t made myself very clear. What I mean is that the model of talking about spirituality, rather than talking about religion and the secular, makes more sense in an Asian country where they were never things that were separate to start with.

SS: Oh I see, right, right.

DR: So if you were going to import a Western construct, then spirituality works better than religion and the secular. Does that make sense?

SS: Yes. That’s clearer, yes. But I mean, so what is it? It starts the same . . . . I mean, I’m not convinced that there is one discourse. There are several different layered and stacked discourses, but they probably share something in common. What is it they share in common? And why are these discourses so attractive? What are they doing? What kind of empowerment, or status or capital are they giving people? Do you have any developed thoughts on this, Boaz? What’s the attraction?

BH: Not today! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs) Not right now, yes!

SS: (Laughs) But this is the million-dollar question, I think, yes.

BH: But again, I think some of the emphasis of the New Age practices and this concept spirituality are really in line with contemporary ideologies, ways of living. As I suggested, and as you just said, the strict separation between religious and secular had its role in modernity. And it seems it doesn’t have that role (now) (25:00). And people can use something new – which, again, I don’t want to say it’s a new way of going back to religion, because I think it’s something different. But, really, having a position which they don’t have to define as secular or religious, and making those borders between them, and then really giving what is called spiritual meaning for body practices, for instance, seems positive, in a positive way, regarding the body – giving it a value that wasn’t there, I think, in Christian medieval early modern culture. Maybe the globalisation tendency . . . I think of all of us, of tourism, of cultural consumption etc. – so you can pick from many different cultures, all those practices – this is something the concept of spirituality enables, which the concept of religion didn’t. You know, you couldn’t go to church and practice yoga. It was uncomfortable, I assume, in the early twentieth century! Today, you can go to church and have a yoga practice. And, exactly as you said, this is justified using the term spirituality.

DR: And I suspect, as well, that modern communications technology means that although people would have been doing heterodox practices – sometimes practices from outside but sometimes folk kind of things – the degree to which we were aware that other people were doing them was limited. You know, you’d have to know somebody pretty well to know that they were also making charms or doing healings or these kind of things. Whereas now we know that everywhere . . . It’s vernacular and there are all sorts of heterodox things going on in every Christian group. But when we didn’t have those ways of communicating, and all the knowledge was mandated from the church authorities, that wasn’t the impression you would have got. So it’s not only changed the degree to which these are available, it’s changed the fact that we now know that it’s been available and everybody does it. And it’s fine.

BH: The idea of self, for instance: it’s so central to our culture. Criticise it or not, we are not in a communal culture any more. And so the self – I think that’s a wonderful expression. And Paul has hit the nail, you know, with this “self-spirituality”. It’s not God spirituality and it’s not . . . the self is in the centre. Self-improvement, self-progress: that’s the core value of our society. I think, in a way, we’re all part of it. I think similar things happen in the university. What happens now . The whole concept of knowledge as something practical, something that improves our life. That’s the most important thing. And that’s exactly what spirituality offers people: a way of having something practical that doesn’t take too much of your time – which, again, it’s not necessarily negative.

SS: Is it a bit like having your cake and eating it? You know that phrase where you kind-of can have the best of both worlds. You can – at the personal, embodied and relational level – you can have something more than is vouchsafed by a purely secular materialist regime. But one does not have to go the whole hog. One does not have to go the whole way into a more developed, or fully blown, practice or identification.

BH: Yes, I think it’s a bit too critical for my part . . .

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Because, again, I . .

SS: Well, I mean it descriptively rather than . . .

DR: (Laughs).

BH: You want your cake and not! (Laughs).

SS: Well, that’s true!

BH: I don’t know. The difference between psychoanalysis and contemporary clinical psychology, which is treatment: I think it’s the same direction, and it’s not necessarily bad. You don’t have the time, or you don’t have the justification of, you know, digging into your past for hours on the sofa. That’s something that was ok for certain people, of course – quite limited to people in the early mid-twentieth century! Now, today, people want to go to a session that will improve their mental or psychological (wellbeing), going for three or four times, having some time. And I think that’s also what spirituality . . . . You don’t have to read the whole Hindu literature in order to do yoga! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. Well, you know, in which case that fits neoliberalism quite well! Because we’re getting to increasing productivity and minimalising work (30:00).

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s not necessarily the same.

SS: OK. Well in that case, what about the question of secularisation? Because in one or two of your writings you have suggested that there is some kind of push back here, or a reversing of the conditions of secularisation, or of the qualifications, shall we say, of the conditions of secularisation. But in fact what you’ve just said would be used by strong secularisation theorists to say, “Well, that’s exactly it! This is just a kind-of boost of secular conditions.”

BH: No I think secularisation and religionisation . . . . We’re speaking about secularisation, but actually the interesting term – one interesting term – is “religionisation”

SS: Religionisation.

BH: Because the assumption that there is a process of . . . . Secularisation assumes that before, there was a state of religion, of religiosity, and then secularisation came and started, you know, going forth and maybe now coming back. I see the process of secularisation working in tandem with the process of religionisation. These are two concepts that started in Western Europe in early-modern/ modern period and were applied to other cultures. It wasn’t there before – neither religion, nor secularity. And then we had this process. And I think now we have a different process. It’s not that it’s going back. It’s still in play, of course. Religionisation is looking at things and saying, “Ahh! This is a religion.” Or looking at myself and saying, “I’m religious, so I’m behaving in such and such. . . . That’s what I believe.” That’s the process of religionisation. Or secularisation – the same thing: “This is secular, so it’s supposed to behave like secular. . . . I’m secular so there are certain things that I do, and that I don’t do.” And I think that’s not relevant to many people today, who say, “No I’m not secular, I’m not religious, it’s not relevant, I’m spiritual.”

SS: Yes. Right.

BH: And then they start doing things which are really . . . and look – kind-of things like yoga and going to church sometimes, and swimming. And saying, “Wow, I have a spiritual experience now!” And all those new things. So I don’t see it as part of secularisation. It’s something basically different.

SS: So is it the case that just as people like Timothy Fitzgerald have argued that the religious and the secular are kind-of co-constitutive, so secularisation and religionisation are kind-of mutually generating each other? And what we have here is now a different kind of situation that transcends that, or has moved beyond those kinds of concerns?

BH: Yes. I think that spirituality actually corroborates and strengthens the position of Fitzgerald and McCutcheon and Talal Asad, because it shows that not only in non-Western cultures or pre-modern cultures, there was no concept of religion and secular – also in our society, Western society, they knew it. It didn’t disappear, this concept. I don’t think they will disappear. But there is a new option which is neither secular nor religion. So I think that strengthens their point that it’s not something universal.

DR: Yes. Well. Any last thoughts on the sort-of . . . the situation in the field, in our field? How do we move forward? How do we start to deal with this within Religious Studies?

SS: Good question. Well I don’t know about you, Boaz, and I know a bit about David, but teaching this material is an interesting challenge. And here, in many ways, this is a whole topic in itself. David has written an edited work on this. But we tend to still . . . . In Religious studies, or the Study of Religions, we’re very much constrained by a very hegemonic model of religion as World Religions: these big institutional blocks of things that are almost like corporate institutions that are said to have these kinds of identities. And that really does constrain how you can insert this material into the curriculum to teach to students. Because I do think as well as theorising this material, and researching it, we need to be able to try and educate the next generation of students who will come and take our place so that we can get more work done on this. I mean it’s not just an idle contemporary issue. One would say that they – whole worlds of what gets called the occult, the esoteric – have been very, very important in the last couple of hundred years at least, but are scarcely researched at all (35:00). They scarcely get the resources to work with them that, you know, Judaism, the various Christianities, the various Judaisms get. So, it’s a real question about how we can bring to people’s attention the significance of this stuff, working with such conservative paradigms of religion – which themselves are the product of the very conditions you’re describing.

DR: Religionisation!

SS: I mean, I teach a course called “New Spiritualties” and I’ve been beavering away at this course for years. I don’t know if you do any teaching in this line, about this material, where you are, Boaz?

BH: Yes. I’m in a different position, because I’m in a department of Jewish Studies. But in a way, it’s similar, because it’s also very conservative. I think not many departments of Jewish thought would . . . But, definitely, I give courses on New age Kabbalah, contemporary Kabbalah, sometimes even wider New Age ( topics) – although that’s stepping the line, because it’s not even Jewish!

All: (Laugh).

BH: But definitely, I think – and it’s good that we are doing it. When I started, I received very negative reactions from some of my colleagues who really sneered at: “You’re not doing serious scholarship! What happened Boaz? You were a serious scholar. How can you leave manuscripts and go and study . . . !” But I think, slowly – that was twenty years ago – I think our work is . . . . I think it’s changing, and people are much more in academia now, open to working, and recognising the significance of the (audio unclear) or what you’re calling spirituality or New age or religiosity.

SS: Well I do think the key there, in terms of the academic capital of the project, is to connect the debates with larger debates about religion and modernity, religion and secularisation, consumption, political ideologies, economics, all that kind of thing. And, I think, when we start to do that we find more colleagues taking us seriously, both in the field of various studies of religion, but outside of that in cultural studies and Sociology. Do you think that’s the case, David? Because you’ve always connected these things to wider processes.

DR: Yes. And partly the problem is that there also hasn’t been a lot of work on this kind of material from within the Critical Religion . . . you know, that approach. That’s tended to focus more on historical genealogy. And we’re now starting to get things like Aaron Hughes’ work on Islam, for instance. But there still needs to be a focussed project looking at the emergence of New Age spirituality and other alternative religious movements, within the critical history of the idea of religion and the category of religion. But absolutely, yes, that’s how we need to establish the importance of what we’re doing. And that will also help us to move . . . as so much of that work is done from an insider perspective, unfortunately. It’s a whole other conversation, but it’s worth mentioning. But yes, absolutely, I agree with what both of you are saying. We just need to get enough of a foothold in the academy that we can actually do this work. And I think, with hindsight, it will be clear what the importance of it was.

SS: Right.

BH: I think it’s also a question of connecting. Because I think there’s more work done than you’re aware of. Sometimes I meet someone: “Wow! You’re doing the same! I didn’t know that you were working on that!” So there’s a group working on new religiosities in Turkey – very interesting. Quite a large group. Many of them Francophones – so that maybe where there’s less connection. There’s also the question of different academic cultures. But there are people working on it in Morocco, and I think that’s fascinating. And I ‘m very happy to be here to meet you! I think those connections between scholars who are working, sometimes, in corners – that’s also very important.

DR: Because, of course, there are no institutes where we can do this work! That’s the problem!

SS: No, I think that’s right. I mean Jean-Francois Mayer, the Swiss scholar, put me onto a paper, through his Relgioscope Foundation, about new spiritualties in Azerbaijan, for example. Very interesting paper. And then as you say, there’s Morocco, there’s Turkey, but there’s also new spiritualties in sort-of Catholic contexts like Mexico, as well. So you’re probably right.

BH: South America – there’s a lot going on there.

SS: Sure. So here’s . . . It’s a question of connecting, and a question of resources to do the connecting as well, of course. Because, in my view, academia doesn’t free-float. It’s always dependent on money and institutional support.

DR: OK. Well that’s a good point to end on, I think. It’s relatively positive, but realistic! (40:00)

All: (Laugh).

DR: So – thanks to you, Boaz, and to Steve, for this very stimulating conversation. Thank you both.

BH: Thank you, David.

SS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Huss, Boaz, Steven Sutcliffe and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spirituality/

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

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

The Blog Assignment: “Authentic” Learning about Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion?

The Blog Assignment:

“Authentic” Learning about Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion?

Sharday Mosurinjohn

In this first post of a two-part series Sharday Mosurinjohn reflects on the outcome of a new assignment that was intended to invite students to write in a way that was both familiar to their usual online communication (short and social media-based) and scholarly. The results led her to rethink the meaning of “authentic learning” (pedagogical approaches that empower learners to collaborate with one another – and in this case, professional scholars – to engage real-world complex problems) when it comes to digital information and communication technologies. In the second post, she and colleague Richard Ascough (School of Religion, Queen’s University) will discuss strengths and weaknesses in students’ digital literacy and explore how understanding one of the weaknesses might actually help us understand a particularly troublesome religious studies concept – what they consider a “threshold concept.”

Read more

Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Ko-Lee hot & Spicy Go Noodles, and more.

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

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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Psychology and religious studies: Towards greater understanding

Christopher Harding is a historian whose work explores how religion and the ‘psy-disciplines’ have interacted in the world. As he notes in his interview with Krittika Bhattacharjee these constitute a very broad range of academic disciplines and various insights from these disciplines have been applied by different groups and cultures in different ways. Some of these uses of psychological insight by individuals and groups lead to clashes with religious insights and beliefs – but it is misleading to see these clashes as being between the psy-disciplines themselves and religion(s). They are instead fascinating case studies of how worldviews syncretize, a process that occurs both beyond and within academia.

This article will focus on something slightly different and look at the interactions between the psy-disciplines and religious studies. There is considerable overlap between the subject areas of religious studies and the psychological sciences but often theories and methodologies do not cross the divide between the social sciences and the humanities. Psychology, and the other psy-diciplines, have a lot to offer religious studies. They also have much that they can and should learn from religious studies in turn. Working together, and allowing the strengths of the two disciplines to complement each other, has the potential to advance both fields and is probably necessary if either discipline wants to gain a full appreciation for its shared subject matter.

Psychology is a discipline that cuts across many others. Although it is often perceived narrowly, as either experimental or clinical psychology, it is a much broader and more diverse discipline. Psychology brings a range of rigorous methodological tools to the study of human (and animal) life and these can be applied to the study of religion at many different levels – from examining internal experiences through to the social dynamics of groups and the influence of culture. Questions such as: “How do people experience the world?” “What do people believe?” “Why do they believe it?” and “How do these beliefs influence behaviour?” are all central concerns to psychologists.

My own academic background was originally in Theology & Religious Studies. I moved into Psychology, as a postgraduate, because many of the same tools and theories that are useful to explore other aspects of human life are also appropriate for the study of the religious and the spiritual. Extensive research has been conducted by psychologists, and continues to be conducted, exploring beliefs, values and perceptions. However, despite being a central part of the lives of so many people, religion and spirituality continues to be a fringe concern for many psychologists – perhaps because they are frequently perceived as being unscientific. However, an increasing number of psychologists are now turning their attention to issues of religion and spirituality, with organisations like the International Association for the Psychology of Religion and the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality making considerable progress.

Even though psychology has developed a wide range of excellent and rigorous tools that can be applied to the study of religions and spiritualities, inadequate religious literacy can lead to theoretical naivety. Too much psychological research continues to be focused on North America and Europe and to accept, often uncritically, a Judeo-Christian perspective. Psychological research into religions and spirituality also continues to show insufficient awareness of the complexity and diversity of religious beliefs and groups.

Scholars in religious studies tend to be much more aware of global diversity and to research the lived experiences of communities that are far removed from the undergraduate populations of Western universities that psychologists often rely on for their work. Ethnographic approaches can yield incredibly rich data, and years studying particular communities can lead to a depth of expertise and understanding that psychologists cannot easily gain. The recent moves in religious studies towards appreciating lived religion, and of critically examining what religion even is, are ones that the psychology of religion also needs to take – but it is an area where it currently lags behind.

As a researcher who keeps a foot in each camp, I can appreciate both the strengths and weaknesses of each discipline’s approaches. I am also acutely aware that it is unrealistic to expect individual scholars to be experts in both fields – let alone in cognate disciplines like the anthropology and sociology of religion too. The solution, I believe, is to encourage far greater interdisciplinary collaboration between the fields. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ and ‘Impact’ are currently buzzwords in academia but they are both crucial concepts for the academic study of religion. Religion and beliefs cut across so many facets of life and can have profound consequences on the world – so understanding what people are doing and why is critical.

Combing the greater religious literacy, and more globally sensitive perspectives, of religious studies scholars with the expertise and methodologies of psychologists, and other social scientists, about human beliefs and behaviours has the potential to significantly enhance human understanding. Such collaborations can sharpen research tools and increase the validity of findings. Interdisciplinary teams, combining social scientists and humanities scholars, can approach problems from multiple perspectives and untangle webs of complexity that each would struggle to do alone. Working together, interdisciplinary teams can both explore concrete problems with real implications and enrich their parent disciplines.

Religion and the Psy-Disciplines

Thank you Charles Schulz!

A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university counselor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy – bears thinking about.

In this podcast, Dr. Christopher Harding uses his research on psychoanalysis and Buddhism in modern Japan to tackle the two-way dialogue between religion and the psy-disciplines. How have these shaped each other, and what are tensions between them?

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


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


Podcast with Christopher Harding (27 March 2017).

Interviewed by Krittika Bhattacharjee.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Krittika Bhattacharjee (KB): A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university councillor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and where mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis – bears thinking about. Speaking to us today about the psy-disciplines we have Dr Christopher Harding, who is a lecturer in Asian History at the University of Edinburgh. Chris is a cultural historian, working primarily in Japan and India. He has most recently published a co-edited volume called Religion and Psychotherapy in Modern Japan, which was published in hardback in 2014 and comes out in paperback next month. Chris is also a journalist who has collaborated with the BBC and was one of BBC Radio 3’s “ New Generation Thinkers” . Thank you for being here with the Religious Studies Project, Chris.

Christopher Harding (CH): Thank you.

KB: Just to start us off, could you tell us a little bit about the psy-disciplines?

CH: Yes. So when we use the phrase “ the psy-disciplines”  I guess we’re normally thinking of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy. So, psychiatry is often thought about as the poor relation of medicine. It’s the discipline of medicine which most people wouldn’t think of going into. Maybe now[they would], but a few years ago – certainly prior to the 1950s – it was the discipline associated with guesswork, with asylums heaving with people that were difficult to treat – really because their object of enquiry was so difficult: the human inner life.They were trying to guess at it, finding ways of examining it from the outside, or making some use of peoples’ own testimonies. It was very, very difficult to try to work out what was going on, to form theories and to form diagnoses. Things improved  in the 1950s and 1960s with new forms of drugs. And now, with new means of scanning and new sorts of theories, things are getting a little bit better. But, for a while, it was medicine’s poor relation. Psychology, most people will know of: working with experimental data, primarily, but also doing some work in the clinical setting. And then psychotherapy, I suppose really, from Freud, Jung onwards, and Carl Rogers – now we have any number of modalities. So, those three things working together, often we would call them the psy-disciplines. And each one has had its own relationship with different religious traditions in different parts of the world.

KB: How has this relationship traditionally been conceived?

CH: I suppose, early on. . . the period that I work on most is the end of the 19th century into the 20th century . . .  Early on there was a relationship of some hostility – especially, I suppose, with Sigmund Freud and with early Freudians. We know Sigmund Freud had his particular views on what religion is really all about,  but also, some would say that his views were actually more nuanced than he was often given credit for. But some of the people early on, who were attracted to psychoanalysis, were attracted to it as a way of fulfilling the good parts of religion – distilling and fulfilling the good parts of religion and getting rid of the rest – and helping people whose lives had been damaged very early on, often by religious upbringings. Particularly if there was harshness in the family background, a heavy emphasis on certain forms of behaviour, a moralising dynamic etc., lots of people would say, in that early generation of psychoanalysis, the kind of thing that Richard Dawkins says, which is that religion is child abuse. And so, from the religious side of things, people worried that that critique could become quite influential.They also worried that the human person was being reduced to a mere organism, or a mere machine, or that your personhood was really the outcome of your upbringing. So they thought that there were all sorts of reductions going on that really threatened the underpinnings of all sorts of different religious traditions .(5:00) But, I suppose, Christian religious traditions in the West were the ones who were initially objecting to people like Freud, but also psychology in general. Because the whole premise of psychology to them seemed wrong: that you can meaningfully study the human person purely in a natural scientific way.

KB: And so this is the context from which, in some ways, your own work departs.Is that right?

CH: Yes, that’s right. I suppose it’s partly from a professional historical context, but it’s partly because I was coming across work in Christianity and Buddhism – contemporary Christianity and Buddhism in the US,  in Japan, the UK and elsewhere – where there seemed to be this mixing and mingling of what seemed to me to be psychological language to talk about the emotional life and theories of childhood on the one hand, and your kind of standard religious stories, theories, theologies, philosophies on the other. And I wasn’t really sure what people were doing when they were mixing these two languages. Often you would get a kind of an opening pitch from an apologist of a particular religious tradition where they would say, “Come on, surely your life is a mess? There must be more to this. You must be suffering stress. You’re angry hurt people!”  And then they kind of shift into the pitch – the religious pitch. You see that in plenty of Christian traditions and books ,and the Dalai Llama and Japanese organisations do the same sort of thing. And I was just wondering, what is exactly is their view of being human, that they’re mixing these two things together, these two, three or four registers of language together, in trying to make a pitch? Is the kind-of emotional-psychological [language] a facade? Is it just that initial pitch to get people interested? Or are these worlds actually doing business in a way that could be very interesting and very fruitful? And I wanted to find a way of almost taking them to task, piecing their language apart, and saying, “ Where are you getting these bits and pieces from? What do you actually mean when you talk about what the emotional life is; what the significance of the emotional life is; how we might lead it in a religious or spiritual way?” And I was really looking around for ways of doing that – digging away, really, at some of the language of contemporary religion and spirituality.

KB: While also seeing them as part of a larger. . .  “ market place”  might not be the right word, but certainly, all of them as part of this milieu together? So language is shared, but they’re also part of the same network – you used the word “business” –  doing business with each other?

CH: Yes, I think so. There was a great book, which came out about ten years or so ago,  by Richard King and Jeremy Carrette: Selling Spirituality – a wonderful book which really helped get me thinking about this. I think one of the things they were concerned about was  –  it was broader than the mental health dynamic, which interests me – but it was this critique of late capitalist culture that exploits religious traditions for techniques or ideas that kind-of keep people going as producers and consumers. So there is that element to it, I suppose, as well. And the sense of doing business again – I think we can get into the history of this a little bit later on – but my basic take on it is: there are very positive ways in which they can do business – the psy-disciplines and various religious traditions . And they have been since the 1940s and 1950s at least, once this kind of initial Freudian hump of Freudian coldness between them was overcome. But there were also ways in which they could be antagonistic, or confusing, possibly quite manipulative when they’re used together. I suppose a prime example, that some listeners may have heard of, would be the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks on Tokyo underground, in 1995. Aum Shinrikyo talks about its being the love-child of Buddhism and pop-psychology – that kind of all-encompassing embrace of the world, all-encompassing take on the human person, which really reeled in quite a few people. And you get into the territory of , some people might say, brainwashing, I suppose. But certainly, having such an all-encompassing explanation of the world that it’s hard to fight your way out of it again. That’s potentially what religion and the psy-disciplines do, when they work together, is that they give you no other interpretative options. Almost anything that you might think, or feel, or desire, or do can be quite convincingly interpreted by this uber-framework that together they seem to create. (10:00) And, for that reason, it can have negative as well as positive consequences.

KB: It’s also worth talking about the kind of tensions that you’ve brought up. But I thought, before we get to a more in-depth analysis of the tensions, I thought we could also talk about what you called the “ two-way dialogue”  that happens between the psy-disciplines and religion. What did you mean by two-way dialogue?

CH: I suppose, that they find useful things in one another. So some of the more positive bits of dialogue, in terms of a Buddhist tradition, let’s maybe talk about Japan in this regard: Buddhist traditions making use of the modern psy-discipline. You get this trend around Asia, certainly in India, certainly in Japan, in the late 19th century, where countries that have been very much affected by European colonialism – whether it’s, as it were, boots on the ground, or it’s more of a kind-of cultural imperialism – they’re looking for ways of pushing back against colonial knowledge, against the whole sort-of Western canon. And what some groups do – I’m thinking maybe Swami Vivekananda in India and Hinduism, and a guy called Inoue Enryo in Japan who’s what-you-might-call a Buddhist modernist – what they do is, they look back into their own traditions and they say, “ Well actually, in Hinduism or in Buddhism you will find insights that match and trump those of the Western world. And that one of the ways in which we can state that case clearly to people is by spring cleaning Buddhism, spring cleaning Hinduism: reviving our religious traditions, but in a viable modern format.”  And someone like Inoue Enryo finds the psy-disciplines really useful. Because what we can do is separate out “ true mystery”   – the true mysteries of life – from the false ones. Psychology will tell us what the false ones are because we can investigate people’s patterns of thought, and we can find out why they believe in silly things like ghosts or goblins, that then leaves them free to redirect human wonderment and awe and faith and trust to true mystery. So it’s good for people and it’s good for a Buddhist tradition, because a tradition that looks to be anti-modern in Japan can suddenly present itself as being definitively modern and being worthy of people’s trust and their taxes. And, at the same time, you can say that Buddhism actually, in its own right, is the world’s finest psychology and always has been. And you see, of course, lots of people now who engage with Buddhism will say first-and-foremost that it’s a very convincing picture of what it’s like to be a human being. “It’s first-and-foremost a psychology and then we’ll take it from there.” You might want to call it a religion, you might not, but it can borrow in those sorts of ways. Some examples of how the Christian tradition has borrowed from the psy-disciplines are forms of spiritual direction which are open to the influence of someone’s upbringing on the way they think about God, on the way they process guilt, on the way they worry about sin. It doesn’t mean that you’re jettisoning all the teaching of the Christian tradition, but it means you’re more aware of how human beings work and you can help people who might be stuck. So now lots of monks and nuns and priests will get a certain degree of basic counselling training, so that they can help people. Things might get to a point where they need to refer on, perhaps to a therapist or to a psychiatrist, but these basic learnings can actually be very, very useful in their work.

KB: On the Buddhism example specifically, I wanted to ask a little bit about Kosawa Heisaku, who you speak a bit about in your book, referring to him as the Father of Modern Psychoanalysis in Japan. Is that accurate?

CH: Yes, absolutely.

KB: And I was really interested to see an example in the flesh of mixing Shin Buddhism, in particular, with Freudian ideas of psychoanalysis and the way he used both of those traditions to create his own practice. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

CH: Yes, a very brief potted biography I suppose. Kosawa Heisaku was a student of psychiatry first, in Northern Japan, in the 1920s. He encountered psychoanalysis a little bit through one of his mentors who’d studied in the US. But Kosawa wasn’t really convinced with the way he was teaching it, so he actually went to Vienna, met Freud, worked with Freud and his circle in Vienna – only really for a year or so – and he had an analysis there and came back to Japan. He opened his own clinic in Tokyo and this is where he seems to have started to develop this kind of fusion of the two. It seems to have been the case with him that he saw Buddhism in Japan as being under threat. And he wanted to find a way – a little bit like Inoue Enryo I mentioned earlier –  he wanted to find a way of showing people what Buddhism really aimed at, what Buddhism was really about.(15:00) And on, an individual basis, he wanted to help his clients work towards, really, an experience that some people would say had a fair bit in common with enlightenment. His theory was basically that, if a client is in psychoanalysis for a certain period of time, they have a kind of releasing of all sorts of material from the unconscious, bit by bit, which gives them a certain amount of freedom. But what it also does is it shows them something which is absolutely key in Shin Buddhism, which is that human beings are, right down to the ground, corrupted; that we cannot really achieve anything useful, in terms of our own salvation, for ourselves and by ourselves,; that we need the help of – what Shin Buddhism talks about as “ other power” – Amida Buddha. It’s alright to discuss that in conceptual terms, in philosophical terms, but it doesn’t get you there. So Kosawa’s idea was that, actually, one of the things that does get you there, that goes beyond the philosophical conversation about things, is to be face to face with the therapist to tell them all the things you’ve done, all the things you’re thinking and all the things you secretly want. To get into all that material you suddenly see the reality of your corruptness and your helplessness. And by doing that, by seeing that, almost you can’t help yourself. By going through that process, then, you open yourself out onto realising that you need to rely completely upon other power, which is a key goal for Shin Buddhism.

KB: Almost like an involuntary confession?

CH: I think that’s absolutely right, that’s a lovely way of putting it. Because, while confession is voluntary, you’re still in control of the terms aren’t you? It’s only when you come face to face with things that you really don’t have any control over, that you finally feel helpless in the face of,  that’s the real moment of conversion for Kosawa and in Shin Buddhism. So that is how Kosawa sees the usefulness of psychoanalysis. He told one of his students,who I interviewed as part of my work, that unless psychoanalysis can bring people to that kind of an experience then it’ll never succeed in Japan, or anywhere else, actually. And now it’s a bit of a minority sport in Japan, so perhaps he was right! But I think the core of what he was getting at – this is back in the 1930 and early 1940s – is quite similar to some of the work that goes on now, trying to link up psychoanalysis with Buddhism: people like Mark Epstein, Jack Engler and others.I see quite a lot of what Kosawa was trying to get at being fulfilled and worked through in their writing.

KB: Was he seen to be religious at the time? Because of course, in Japan, religion itself would be a contested word. Was he seen to be religious, even at the time that he was practising in the 1930s and 40s?

CH: Some of his students. . . It’s often difficult to make a division – and its probably silly to try to make a division, actually – between the extent to which Kosawa was religious and the extent to which he was a man of his times. There were therapists like him and others working in Japan, in the early thirties and forties, who saw it as their role to be a kind-of kindly, but actually quite straightforwardly didactic father-figure for their clients. So, rather than being in the kind-of classic mirror as a therapist – where you simply reflect the client back to themselves and you don’t have much of your own input – Kosawa would give quite heavy advice. Some of his students described him as being quite motherly. There were other therapists around at the time: one of them I’m thinking of, another psychoanalyst, who would invite his clients – young male clients – out to his countryside home where he and his wife lived, spend the weekend with them and fulfil the father role that they’d never had. And so, after the war, lots of people would criticise Kosawa and others for having that kind-of really heavy paternalism in their work. Some of them said that was because he was a Buddhist, others said that was just because he was a man of his era. The theory behind therapy in Japan at this point – also the theory behind hypnosis, actually – was that it would only work if it was practised by a superior on an inferior. So women couldn’t be hypnotists or therapists for men, because they couldn’t give that kind of guiding element that a superior could give to an inferior. So Kosawa was a product of his time both in that kind of paternalistic sense, I think. . .  but also, his students would have recognised him, pretty straightforwardly, as a Buddhist. And they said, “ This is a disaster!”  Because psychoanalysis is supposed to be a science. You have to keep the two things separate. (20:00) Kosawa’s thing was that in the consulting room there would be no talk of Buddhism, but after your consultation you could come next door, have a cup of tea, and  he might unroll a couple of Buddhist Sutras and talk you through a bit of Buddhism if you were interested, as some of his young clients were. So, I think he would have identified as both. And his view was always that psychoanalysis was a proper science, and Buddhism – as it really should be understood – were really operating completely in tandem. And that if Freud had had a less narrow view of what religion meant – because Kosawa thought Freud was kind of shackled to a Judeo-Christian understanding of religion, and a very narrow one even at that – if Freud had had a wider understanding of what religion really was, he’d have seen that psychoanalysis and religion were really two sides of the same coin.

KB: That’s an interesting idea as well. Because, if we broaden our scope now from Japan to general understandings of the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines, the question that this particular case raises for me is: how do we  isolate religion, then? For example, in palliative care and end-of-life care it’s quite common now, I think – especially in certain countries – to incorporate mindfulness or meditations as part of palliative care. We’ve already seen, in the Kosawa example, someone who seemed to walk between religiously prescribed rules. He’s also a father figure . . . and [there are] cultural constructions of gender there as well, with his paternalism that you talked about. So, how do we isolate what is religion here? If you were to see meditation as part of palliative care practice would you see that as religious, or a cultural formation, or a product of its time? Does the question make sense?

CH: Yes it does. I suppose people are thinking through this in Japan in the context of end-of-life care, and also in the context of disaster care, say after the Earthquake Tsunami and nuclear meltdown disasters in 2011, in Japan. In the aftermath of that there was quite a lot of work done by Buddhists. And they’d been thinking through, “How do we pursue this kind of work and not upset the people that we’re dealing with?”  I think their view would be that all the care they offer is religious, but it’s how they present it. What can seem like quite simple things: what are they going to wear while they go about this care ; whether its on a vihara ward – which is a Buddhist end-of-life care ward – or working in disaster care; are you going to come in civilian clothing or are you going to dress in your Buddhist robes; are you going to use Buddhist language, prayers , rituals or are you going to use the language of psychology and psycho therapy? What they’ve found is. . .  I think their key aim is that you meet people where they are. Some people want all the trappings of Buddhism. That’s what is going to make them feel comfortable because it’s what is familiar. They absolutely don’t want to be talked to after a disaster or towards the end-of-life, about their feelings. Not a conversation that they want to have. So for those sorts of people you can move more towards these familiar signs and symbols of classical religion, as it were. But for others, still really doing religious care, you can now call it spiritual care instead – in Japan they make a distinction – where you won’t have your Buddhist uniform on, and you won’t be using that sort of language. Instead you’ll shift more towards the language of psychotherapy and counselling, if that’s what you think people want. And in order to get onto some public hospital wards in Japan you have to do that. Because there’s a clear separation, in Japan, being made of religion and the state. But this coming-together of psy-disciplines in the training – you now have clinical chaplains being trained in Japan from all sorts of religious backgrounds – that coming-together allows them to gently shift the emphasis depending on who they’re dealing with. For them it’s religiously inspired, so it’s all religious care. But what it looks like to, as it were, the consumer or the receiver of it, it’s endlessly flexible. And, I think, that’s what they see as being so useful about it. I don’t think they would make any fundamental distinction between religious and non-religious there. It’s about the nuances of presentation and perception.

KB: But how about when you take the case in Japan and try and apply it elsewhere, try and apply it in the contemporary situation in the UK for example, or in countries that do not have that very specific set of circumstances that we’re speaking about there? How would you isolate religion in those cases? Is it an East-West divide?

CH: (25:00) No, I think something very similar goes on. I recently wrote a piece for Aeon magazine on end-of-life care at two hospices in Edinburgh, and the concept of spirituality and whether that’s useful or not to people. And I was surprised to find a lot the interviewees say that spirituality is actually not a useful concept at all, because it carries so much of the baggage of religion. And for a lot of people, if you are religious then you just want to see the chaplain, or whoever the representative might be. You’re fairly clear on who you want to go to. But, for the vast majority of other people, neither religion nor spirituality is something they want to hear about. But what you do instead is, you find ways of being with people, forms of care. So: listening; closeness; sometimes even physical forms of care, like a bed bath; whatever it might be that, from a certain perspective, yes, you could talk about it as being religious.There’s a focus there on being, on attentiveness to the person you’re with, as opposed to doing – doing for them – rushing around a hospice ward. But you’re not employing any of the traditional language of religion or spirituality. A lot of the workers I talked to said that people would just be put off by that kind of thing. Because they’d say, “ Look, it’s too late for me now to go on some big search for the meaning of life and the meaning of the world. I need something that goes beyond concepts, or that goes beyond a fundamental change in who I am and how I look at the world.” [They] need something that,  some people would argue , was actually closer to the core of religion or a religious tradition like Christianity, which is love and acceptance, and showing that kind of thing. So I think in some of end-of-life care, that is more what people are doing than getting bogged down in the language of religion and spirituality. Again, one of the professors I interviewed at St Columba’s hospice said “ It’s really about training nurses in how to “ be”  with their patients, rather than just “ do”  for them. Do you know what I mean? Just running around and changing sheets and whatnot. Actually learning how to be with them is what they want. And whether the language of spirituality helps or not, that’s really a secondary consideration.

KB: And that’s interesting because that also gives us a sense of something we spoke of at the beginning: the idea of tension between different ideas of religion, spirituality and the psy-disciplines. And it’s interesting here because we see for the first time that tension between those who receive the care as opposed to seeing the tensions at an institutional level, or how they’re being interpreted by practitioner,  if that makes sense. So that’s very interesting. I think there was also a previous Religious Studies Project Podcast by Dr Harold Koenig, from Duke, and he’s spoken about how – I think the talk was about religion and spirituality and health. Speaking about, particularly, coping and how religious belief helps in coping, which seems interesting. A final point of tension, then: can you think of a specific example when the idea of healing itself is defined differently from a religious standpoint and then from the psy-discipline standpoint? Because they might be working with different ideas of what is transgressive, or what is disorderly, and so their ideas of what health is, and what healing is, might also differ.

CH: I suppose that’s true, yes. There’s an interesting parallel between working on religion and the psy-disciplines on the one hand and working on what’s called trans-cultural psychiatry and psychotherapy on the other. Because, in that latter area, what you find is that any form of psychotherapy, almost any form of psychotherapy is based on assumptions about what a human being is, what’s ideal for them what’s good for them. I suppose a psychotherapist might respond by saying that that ideal is something which gets generated over time in the relationship between the therapist and the client. The therapist isn’t there to say at the outset: “Here is the kind of person I’m trying to turn you into.”  So I accept that possible objection. But I think there’s a deeper sense in which there are certain assumptions, at least, in play. And if you transfer that back over to religion and the psy-disciplines – one of the things I try to do – I have a framework I tried to put together to work out exactly what bothers me about this relationship and how I want to investigate it. And I think one is the nature of the human person. And so, what does it mean to be healed? Does it mean to go back out and be once again a kind of coping, productive member of your society?(30:00) Or does it mean to go back out into your society and have a more prophetic role, and say, “Actually this is wrong, and that’s wrong. And the reason why I suffer from stress or anxiety or depression isn’t just that I’m wrong, or I’m failing to cope, it’s that the world around me is disordered.”  Those sorts of judgements, which border on the moral, are the sorts of things that would be comfortable to people with what we might call a religious background and less so to people who perhaps have a more secular orientation.Social justice can cross both lines, obviously. But I think in forms of psychotherapy and healing which have more of an explicit religious orientation, that element of judgement, which I suppose now is more pushed out onto the outside world – because the danger of internalising that judgement has become much more clear – that kind of judgement has become much more common, you see it more often. But one final thing on healing, which is: one of the things that I think can undermine healing is the difficulty, when religion and the psy-disciplines come together, of people making the same mistakes about the kind of language that they’re using. So there’s a writer called Jack Engler who writes about Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. So there are all these key terms in Buddhism which can be really badly misinterpreted if you’re not careful, and if Buddhism and the psy-disciplines come together in the wrong way. For example, a Buddhist concept like “ no self”  can easily be taken up and used by someone who has very low self-esteem and finds the idea of there being a fundamental unreality about themselves comforting. But they’re using it counter-phobicly, they’re using it in the wrong way. And actually they’re digging themselves a deeper hole, by using the idea of no self to justify very, very low feelings about themselves and wallow in it. He has a really nice line which, I think, cuts across  a lot of what we’ve been talking about. He says, “ You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”  So, in his scheme, there is a role for the psy-disciplines in clarifying a person’s sense of themselves, building up an ego in the sense of a healthy single subject – not being narcissistic and arrogant and self-obsessed  but being a healthy subject – who is then able to cope with what Buddhism would say is the ontological fact that there is no self. And it’s mistakes over language that can come up when religion and the psy-disciplines come together that I think can often be quite damaging, that can give people either false hope or the wrong sort of hope, or just confuse them worse than they were confused before. And, in turn, can either undermine healing in particular contexts or just undermine their growth in a bigger way. Which is why I think interrogating the use of language in this dialogue is such an important task.

KB: I’m keeping an eye on the time, this will be the last question. It strikes me that this idea of being nuanced, being careful about how language is used. . .  would you say this is one direction in which you hope to see the field grow? And that’s the last question: what direction can this field, that you’re working in, grow? Specifically of course, in Religious Studies: where can we go next?

CH: I wouldn’t presume to tell Religious Studies where to go! I’m just a plain old historian. But in response to the question, which I think is a good one,  what I would probably like to see and encourage is more of a creative and honest focus on the antagonisms that arise when religion and the psy-disciplines get together. Because I think we hear a lot, both within academia but also the wider world of publishing, YouTube, everywhere else, of the complementarities. There’s a great book by Frances Spufford: Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can  Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. A beautiful, beautiful book – highly recommended . But that kind of talk about how religion and our understanding, via the psy-disciplines, about what a human person is; how these things work together so well; how one can be a great means of explanation for the other; how one can draw a person into the other . . . . I think all of that’s true, and all of it’s wonderful.But there needs to be more of a focus on where these things actually break down; where they’re offering views of the world which simply aren’t compatible and people shouldn’t be told that they are; or where mistakes and confusions can arise that actually cause people suffering. And by trying to investigate those better and clarifying them and trying to be honest about them, I think the field gets more interesting and less harm is done to people as a result. So that’s the one big area I’d like to see that happen.

KB: OK. So on that important note, thank you very much, Dr Chris Harding, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.


Citation:  Harding, Christopher. and Krittika Bhattacharjee. 2017. “ Religion and the Psy-Disciplines”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 March 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 March 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-and-the-psy-disciplines/

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

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

Healing and higher power: a response to Dr Wendy Dossett

Headlines warning of the social fallout from alcohol and drug addiction often fail to record the remarkable fact that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have successfully “recovered” from these often devastating dependencies.  The highly lauded “12 Steps” programme, that has fronted the decades long efforts of both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, as well as similar organisations, have undoubtedly saved many lives.

At the heart of this success story is an acceptance of a spiritual “higher power” available to all, one which supersedes mere will power and puts them on the road to recovery. In her interview Dr Wendy Dossett explains that Bill Wilson and Dr Robert Smith, founders of the AA and the 12 Steps programme, were influenced by the religious practices of the Oxford Group, a conservative evangelical form of Protestantism, which looked back to the early Christian church for its inspiration. As a result the pair believed alcoholism was a “spiritual malady”.

However, Dossett agrees that this “higher power” in no way automatically means the “God of religion”.  The religious studies academic, a senior lecturer at Chester University, tells the interviewer this higher power “can be anything so long as it is not will power”. Discussing her research she explains that while some of the recovered addicts she spoke to about their experiences identified this power with God, others variously described it as the “spirit of the universe”, nature, or even ”the force” – an echo of Star Wars.  On the other hand, a number felt this power was derived from fellow addicts in their recovery group, while some associated it with their friends and one even initially identified it as the ‘unconditional love’ from her cat.

Dossett makes clear it is essential that religious studies researchers listen to, value and document the experiences of the practitioners of contemporary spiritualities.  And it is equally appropriate for them to use their subject knowledge and skills to identify the religious elements and separate them out so that they did not unduly influence the interpretation of their findings. What resulted in her work “is the actual experience of people who work these programmes”.

It is worthwhile at this stage to point out that while Dossett describes of what she has discovered, what the ‘higher power’ or ‘spirituality’ can mean to others, she offers no definition of her own. I suggest that this disinclination to define the words limits or even forecloses their meaning.  To support her view that the ‘higher power’ is not necessarily religious she referred to Robert C. Fuller’s book (Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, OUP, 2001) which made it clear that although organisations like AA were spiritual they were not aligned to any religion or faith and had no “requirements of belief to be a member”. However does this not beg the familiar question: can we genuinely understand spirituality without relating it to religion or metaphysics?  Can we legitimately define it to be whatever anyone wants it to be at any particular time?  Is there not a danger that a concept like spirituality, when deprived of a specific definition, loses its depth and profundity?

In a direct challenge to those unprepared to countenance a metaphysical view viewpoint, the late Vaclav Havel once warned: “Man is not an omnipotent master of the universe, allowed to do with impunity whatever he thinks, or whatever suits him at the moment.”  The former Czech president and philosopher continued: “The world we live in is made of an immensely complex and mysterious tissue about which we know very little and which we must treat with utmost humility” [i]. It seems to me Havel’s reference to the “immensely complex and mysterious tissue” helps, to some extent, in explaining the concept of spirituality associated with the 12 Steps’ “higher power” and the remarkable recoveries Dossett documented in her research.  And I certainly feel the importance Havel gives to “humility” is mirrored by Dossett’s sensitive approach to her research group and the analysis of her findings.

While those that reject the concept of God can never associate the “higher power” with the divine, it is obviously still appropriate to explore if a metaphysical force might lie at the back of this power and, if so, what it might be. After all the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in the late 1930s, are undeniably Christian.

Given these Christian origins, it is relevant to look at the accounts of Jesus’ healings. Like those the programme has successfully treated, Jesus, too, spoke of a “higher power”, although he called it the “kingdom of heaven”.  Interestingly, he also said that he could do nothing on his own[ii], a remark that, in my view, alludes to a “power greater than ourselves”, a phrase 12 Steps participants have also used when explaining their recovery. The Bible clearly links Jesus’ view of the kingdom of heaven with the power he healed by.  Furthermore, later New Testament writings show others in the early Christian Church echoed Jesus’ cures.

But even Christians, particularly within the last 150 years, have often found it hard to regard Jesus’ healings as anything other than myths or natural events.  Paul Tillich recognised this neglect of the healing aspect of Jesus. He wrote that the Gospels ‘abound in stories of healing; but we are responsible, ministers, laymen, theologians, who forgot that “Saviour” means “healer”, he who makes whole and sane what is broken and insane, in body and mind’ [iii]Thus he identifies healing as an essential element of salvation.

Nevertheless, not only has the healing element of Christianity gone largely unacknowledged, it has in fact been almost subsumed by the advances of modern medicine. Be that as it may, many Christians combine their prayers with the work of doctors. In my research on Christianity and healing I am aware of several studies that identify the health benefits of a combined approach to healing such as those done by Harold G. Koenig at the Centre for Spirituality, Theology and Health, Duke University, North Carolina.

One denomination of Christianity was founded specifically on the practice of healing through reliance on the power of God alone. The French sociologist, Regis Dericquebourg, using the Weberian typification of ‘ideal types’, defines The Church of Christ, Scientist as the “first healing church”[iv].  Started by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879 – Christian Science was a precursor to the approach of the Oxford Group in that it looks to “primitive Christianity” for its inspiration and practice [v]. According to its own periodicals it claims hundreds of thousands of recoveries and cures, many accompanied by medical diagnoses.

If Jesus healed two millennia ago, if subsequent Christians have also used similar healing powers down the centuries, and, if the healings reported by Christian Scientists are genuine, it is plausible that the “higher power” of the 12 steps programme is sourced in a divine power It is beyond the scope of this commentary to explore what kind of divine power this is, but given the roots of the AA, it is likely to correspond with a Christian understanding of God. Whatever the case, the recoveries and healing experiences of those who use a ‘higher power’ are too numerous and too well documented for it not to evoke further study as to how it works and where it comes from. For all its reticence to use religious terminology and perhaps because of it, Dossett’s research indicates that the answers are going to be new and surprising.

Endnotes

[i] The New York Times, 3 June 1992

[ii] Luke 17: 21

[iii] Tillich P, The New Being, Scribner, New York, 1955, p42

[iv] Dericquebourg R, ‘Christian Science: The first healing church’ presented at The Evolutions of Christian Science in Scholarly Perspective seminar, April 23/24 2015, FVG Wilrijk-Antwerp, Belgium. Published in Acta Comparanda Subsidia ll, FVG, June 2015

[v] Church Manual, Christian Science Publishing Society, Boston, p17

Religion, Spirituality, and Addiction Recovery

What is the relationship between ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’, ‘addiction’ and ‘addiction recovery’? What are we meaning by ‘addiction’? Is it socially constructed? Why are we even talking about a relationship between these concepts? Can religion be conceptualized as an addiction? how might a specifically Religious Studies approach help us to productively engage with this particularly sensitive area? And, as ever, how might we go about conducting such research? These are just a few of the questions discussed in today’s podcast, where Chris speaks with Dr Wendy Dossett of the University of Chester, UK.

Be sure to take a peek at some of Wendy’s other scholarship, like the book Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion.

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

BDSM as Religious Practice

RqdefaultIn this interview Alison Robertson gives an insight to her doctoral research on BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, and Submission) as religious practice. Throughout her research, Robertson has examined the relationship between BDSM and religiosity, drawing interesting questions on the nature of religion as a category, the role of self-inflicted/positive pain in religious practice.

IMG_20160418_154835This interview considers the methods of approaching a study of BDSM, the dreaded ethical clearance, and interview participants’ responses to the categorization of their experience as ‘religious’. Robertson’s research poses important questions for the wider academy, including what other ‘extreme’ practices could be deemed religious, and the difficulty in identifying differences between ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ experiences.

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

Identity and Capitalism

This interview with Craig Martin explores the limits of identity formation under modern Capitalism. Martin’s work Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie focuses on the ways in which culture and religion are produced for consumption.

Have we ignored the ways in which identity is produced and reproduced under capitalism’s pressure? The casual use of the term “spirituality” today has become one way literary works have created a space where the social conditions of religious identity appear as identity forming. Cultivating spiritual cache may seem benign, but Martin argues here for a critical gaze about the ways in which even our most basic claims about religious identity are constructed in ways that obscure rather that clarify the cultural pressures and structures that surround us.

Social Constructionism, and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion, as well as Craig Martin’s previous podcast appearances. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Gilbert & Sullivan librettos, ruby slippers, and more.

See you in the next life? Cognitive foundations of reincarnation beliefs

Human reincarnation: Same person, different body, another life. From established theological doctrines to local folk beliefs, the idea that deceased individuals may be “reborn” into the body of another can be found all over the world (White, In press). Since the writings of philosopher John Locke in the 17th century, establishing personal identity has primarily focused on memory. The interplay between memories and what constitutes a person’s identity plays an interesting role in reincarnation beliefs. For example, when juxtaposed alongside theologies that teach that the individual undergoes mental or physical changes in the process of rebirth, how can this same individual be identified in the new life if they have undergone changes (White, 2015)? In this podcast, Dr. Claire White brings the tools of cognitive science of religion (CSR) to bear on this question and several others surrounding reincarnation beliefs.  

Dr. White begins  by discussing the ongoing research at her laboratory at California State University, Northridge. She goes on to introduce the topic of reincarnation, noting that only recently has CSR paid much attention to these types of beliefs. While conceptual scaffolding surrounding the idea of reincarnation can vary widely from culture to culture, Dr. White draws on some of her recent research pointing out that many similarities exist in how individuals reason about and discern the pre-rebirth identities of the reincarnated. In closing, Dr. White shares some preliminary insights gathered from her ethnography of “past-life groups” in the western United States. Interested in why some individuals may be attracted to these groups, she suggests the groups may function as a form of psychotherapy and self-actualization for those attending.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion and Memory, and Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, small dinosaur figurines, poppy seeds, and more.

Many thanks to NAASR for facilitating the recording of this interview.

References

  • White, C. (2015). Establishing Personal Identity in Reincarnation: Minds and Bodies Reconsidered. Journal Of Cognition And Culture, 15(3-4), 402-429. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/15685373-12342158
  • White, C. (In press). The Cognitive Foundations of Reincarnation. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion and Planetary Ethics

Whitney Bauman discusses with George Ioannides some of the potential and difficult answers to these questions and more, revealing how the field of religion and ecology can go some way in helping to visualise and constitute a planetary, hybrid, ethical community of ecospiritual, biohistorical, and multispecies subjects.

Speaking of religions as “eco-social constructions across multiple species, over multiple generations, and over multiple histories,” Bauman puts forward an ethics of understanding ourselves and others as planetary creatures, and understanding religion, science, and nature as non-foundational, non-substantive categories.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, biodegradable refuse sacks, poppy seeds and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Bron Taylor on Religion after Darwin, and Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms, and the Question of the Anthropocene.

Mysticism, Spirituality, and Boats at the IAPR 2015 World Congress

The International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR) 2015 World Congress was held on August 17th-20th. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Alex Uzdavines, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

It’d be too much to say that I finally “get” horizontal transcendence (Coleman, Silver, & Hood, In Press), but I certainly got a horizontally transcendent experience at the IAPR 2015 World Congress in Istanbul, Turkey. Obviously, I was on a boat. It might have been related to the truly international collection of researchers discussing fascinating things (shop talk and otherwise) while enjoying a flagrantly stunning day on the  Bosphorous. Although on reflection, the sea-sickness meds probably didn’t hurt. Regardless, there were several points along the way where I found myself disconnected, floating for a moment in a sense of overwhelming peace and happiness. Of course, I might have also been primed for this experience by a symposium the day before, which stuck (and has continued to stick) in my mind.

 Jesper Sørensen presenting.

Jesper Sørensen

One could almost describe the first invited symposium of the conference, organized by Heinz Streib, as magical, although not the kind I usually deal with. Magic, Mysticism, Spirituality: Religion’s Fellow Species delivered exactly what was promised, as series of interesting talks on areas which are both components of and discreet from religion more broadly. After an introduction by Dr. Streib which outlined both the usefulness and problems with using prototypical categories like the ones dealt with in the symposium, Jesper Sørensen outlined his work in fractioning the idea of magic. He discussed both the discreet components of what it is (people have a goal with doing it, the causal mechanism is opaque, ritualized, etc.) and that before we can synthesize these components together to study magic as a whole, we need to develop and explore hypotheses about the discreet components. For instance, when thinking about ritual behavior one component might be a need to negate strong causal expectations or develop weak ones. He used the ritual of Christian Communion as an example, “There’s no intuitive schema for why eating bread leads to grace,” but the ritual surrounding the cracker consumption develops a causal link where there otherwise might not be one. For me, this discussion highlighted the furor surrounding the desecration of a communion wafer by PZ Myers, and perhaps explained some of the underlying cognitive reasons behind it.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

symposium from the APA Division 36 mid-year conference. It also, in some ways, ran counter to Sørensen’s discussion of the need to explore the individual components of higher-order factors before working with the factors themselves. Of course, much of this has to do with what one means by, “reductionism.” Nevertheless, Hood described the push to make the psychology of religion fit into mainstream psychology by jettisoning many of the variables and ideas unique to religion and theology. Instead early researchers framed the sub-field using the same variables as the rest of psychology, but with some being more salient within a religious context than others. In doing so, the field might have lost out on exploring some of the more ineffable experiences that are associated with mysticism. This jettisoning is reflected in a lack of critical history among the current crop of handbooks on the psychology of religion and spirituality. They don’t discuss the tensions and interplay between the fields of psychology and theology which have led to the current state of the psychology of religion.

The final talk, presented by Streib, dealt with the semantics of spirituality and his work exploring the subfactors which may comprise this construct. He presented the results of several principal component analyses on data derived from a content analysis of open responses from roughly 1700 Germans and Americans on what they considered to be, “spirituality.” The participants had a wide range of belief identifications within the religious, spiritual, and nonreligious spectrum, allowing Streib and the other researchers to get a wider range of meanings than what might be found in a purely theistic sample. The PCAs generated ten different subfactors nested along three higher-order axes and, when taken together, define the range of meanings which grew out of their content analysis of the qualitative data. In particular, I was interested in how the three axes worked to explain some of the tension which can occur when trying to stitch together the definitions of “spirituality” generated by both believers and nonbelievers. In particular, the axes Mystical vs. Humanistic Transcending (something beyond, higher self) and Theistic vs. Nontheistic Transcending (higher power(s), part of religion) seem to be a big step towards shaving off some of the “fuzz” which often surrounds findings that rely on measures of “spirituality” which don’t take into account that different people can come at that term from very different meanings.

However, the big issue that was (and is) still in my mind after these three talks was the idea of supernaturalism vs. naturalism and the tensions between these that Hood raised. Here, Sørensen’s work seemed to be placed firmly within the realm of the naturalistic by breaking magic down into the cognitive processes that go into the beliefs surrounding it. Yet this doesn’t seem to be hitting on the “ineffable” components that may be unique to religion and mystical experience, which magic certainly seems to be a part of. Similarly, the two axes presented by Streib (which I discussed here) seem to imply a dichotomy of spirituality that is supernaturalistically versus naturalistically derived. Most of the constructs he presented seemed to sit more on the side of the “supernatural” with “natural” spirituality seemingly defined more in opposition, similarly to how theistic nonbelief is defined mostly in opposition to or as absence of theistic belief, rather than being a thing within itself. In effect, is it possible that people who identify as “neither religious, nor spiritual,” yet experience similar feelings of connectedness to those who identify as “spiritual,” have just removed the “spirit” component which implies the supernatural, while still retaining the other components of the term? It’s hard to say, but I’m looking forward to seeing more work (and producing some myself!) to try and figure this out.

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

My particular focus on this symposium came out of its relationship to my own work and what I feel are some of the major discussions going on in our field rather than out of lack of other fascinating talks to cover, not to mention the boat trip. However, several examples pertaining to nonbelief and nonbelievers can be found in Thomas Coleman’s forthcoming report for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Blog. Further, due to travel difficulties among the other presenters, Peter Hill gracefully carried an entire symposium on measurement with a discussion of his work generating a scale to measure Intellectual Humility and Paul Harris’ keynote about how children only seem to come to believe in magical and miraculous thinking when they have a religious upbringing (as opposed to magical and miraculous thinking being native) is worthy of its own discrete report.

The academic quality of the conference alone was strong enough to make this one of the best conference experiences in my career so far. However, given the stunning beauty of the location, the warmth and kindness of our hosts from Marmara and İzmir Katip Çelebi Universities and the Center for Islamic Studies (special mention going to Kenan Sevinç both for much of the photography throughout the conference and helping me navigate a Turkish pharmacy so I could go on the boat trip), I suspect this conference will stand out in my memory for a long time to come.

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

References

Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F., & Hood, R. W. Jr. (In Press). “…if the universe is beautiful, we’re part of that beauty.” – A ‘Neither Religious nor Spiritual’ Biography as Horizontal Transcendence In Streib, H. & Hood, R. (Eds.) The Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality. Dordrecht, NL:
Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-21245-6_22

2015 APA Convention Report (Religion and Spirituality Research)

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by David Bradley, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

The American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention was held in Toronto, Ontario from August 6 through August 9, 2015.  Conferences often have an organizing theme, but the APA Convention is simply too big to be focused on one or two themes.  To give you a sense of scale, here is what was happening at 1 PM on Thursday of the convention: 46 symposia or paper sessions, 3 invited talks, and 119 posters.  And that’s just official APA programming – many of APA’s 54 divisions, including Division 36 (the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality), offer informal programming in hotel suites.  The atmosphere for the APA conference this year was a bit strange, and reminders of the recently released Hoffman Report, which detailed the relationship between the APA leadership and support for enhanced interrogation/torture by the U.S. government.  Several people could be seen wearing t-shirts or pins bearing the statement “First, do no harm,” and the Hoffman Report was often referenced in Q&A portions of talks, even when only tangentially related to the topic at hand (as is standard for post-talk Q&As).

David Bradley with "Super" Phil Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

David Bradley with “Super” Philip Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Despite the thousands of offerings, there were only three or four sessions across the entire convention that hit at the truly important topics (i.e., my own area of research).  I have tried to expand my coverage of the conference to address matters of secondary importance, but I apologize in advance for giving such a limited view of the large, diverse convention.

At any large conference, it’s often the poster sessions that are most engaging, and this was true here as well.  The poster format is well-suited for conversations about the details of a study, and in a large conference like APA, there are enough posters that a handful will be interesting and at least one will be important (see above regarding the definition of important).  Namele Gutierrez (Pepperdine University, abstract available here) conducted a study of friendships at a Christian college.  Participants were asked about their own religiosity, their best friend’s religiosity, and the strength of their relationship.  Students with low self-reported religiosity (below a median-split) reported having friendships that were stronger (deeper and more supportive) if the student reported that the best friend was highly religious (above a median-split).  This relationship was not seen among students with above-the-median self-reported religiosity.  Effect sizes were small but significant.  The reasons for this effect could not be addressed by the data, but I wonder if the context – a Christian university – is important here.  Perhaps the religious nature of the university prevents individuals with low religiosity from being as open and supportive, even with close friends.

Also at the poster session, Courtney Nelson (Texas A&M, abstract available here) reported findings from a study on the relationship between religious vs. nonreligious psychologists’ self-reported ability to do treatment planning for client problems with vs. without religious content.  Predictably, the primary finding was that nonreligious psychologists were more hesitant regarding their ability to accurately conduct treatment planning for religious clients.  The author concluded that this study implied the need for increased training on religious/spiritual matters in graduate schools.  That may be useful for a number of reasons, but since this study included no measure of accuracy of treatment planning, it seems that an equally valid route would be to spend time in training programs reassuring nonreligious therapists of their ability to work with people who are not like them, which would likely increase their self-reported ability to conduct treatment planning.  Or, perhaps, the confidence of religious therapists should be reduced: perhaps religious therapists are too confident in their ability to conceptualize religious material, simply because they themselves are religious, though the meaning of religion in the client’s life may be quite different from the psychologist’s.

Regretfully, I had to pull myself away from the poster session before I could plumb its full wonders to attend another paper session.  The abstracts for the rest of the poster session can be found here.

The next session I attended was the Division 36 Data Blitz featuring six five-minute presentations from graduate students, including your correspondent.  All of the presentations were excellent, but I would like to single out the presentation John Jones (University of Detroit Mercy, abstract available here).  Much has been made about the discrepancies in religiosity between academic psychologists and the general public.  However, this presentation presented data to the effect that while academic psychologists have rates of religious identification much lower than the general U.S. public, their rates of belief in “God or something divine” were close to (though still lower than) the general public.  This might point to psychologists having a more individualistic notion of religion and spirituality, separate from the notions of traditional organized religion.  Whereas before, the conflict appeared to be between nonreligious psychology and religious public, perhaps the conflict is more between liberal notions of supernatural spirituality (popular in academia) and traditional conceptions of religion (popular in the general public, though perhaps less now than in the past).

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

One Division 36 symposium featured four talks relying on religious priming.  Three of the talks used contextual priming (conducting a study in a church vs. a classroom, or in front of a chapel vs. in front of a science center, or in front of a cathedral vs. in a secular civic square) and one study used websites (asking participants to evaluate the design of one of two websites created by the researcher, identical except for religious content).  Priming religiosity was found to: reduce the need for dissonance reduction and increase decision certainty; increase prejudice toward LGB individuals; and increase prosociality. I find priming fascinating as an increasingly controversial method in psychology, but remain skeptical of its importance, though this may be because all of my priming studies have failed so far.

Division 36 also hosted a symposium on the experiences of nonreligious and LGBTQ individuals, featuring three talks.  Two of the talks, by Zhen Cheng (University of Oregon) and Jacob Sawyer (Columbia University), introduced new measures of microaggressions against nonreligious people and experiences of anti-atheist discrimination, respectively.  Both talks linked experiences of anti-nonbeliever sentiment to lower scores on several measures of psychological well-being.  The existence of anti-atheist/anti-nonreligious sentiment has been well-documented, and I’m glad that the psychological impact of these experiences are finally being explored.  The third talk, by Kimberly Applewhite (Yeshiva University), used excellent qualitative, grounded theory methodology to explore the experiences of individuals who currently identified as members of the LDS Church (Mormon) and were LGB identified.  These participants often struggled to progress through the stages of faith development and LGB development simultaneously – indeed, the title of the talk, taken from a quotation from a participant, was “The Conflict is Constant.”  More high-quality qualitative work, please!

11863297_10205742746822141_4995918497479033784_nFinally, my time with Division 36 at APA concluded with a talk by Will Gervais (University of Kentucky), who was given the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award.  His talk was an overview of his research on the psychological underpinnings of belief in God, and therefore nonbelief in God.  For a good overview of his approach, see his article in Trends in Cognitive Science and the RSP interview with Will Gervais.

Podcasts

The Blog Assignment: Confronting “Spirituality” in Teaching Religious Studies

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

In this second of a two-part series, Richard Ascough adds his voice to Sharday Mosurinjohn’s reflections on a new blog post assignment used in a course on Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion taught through the School of Religion at Queen’s University. In the earlier post, Sharday noted that she learned two key lessons: that students are concerned about what it means to be “critical” in a public posting and that they do not have a level of digital literacy that one might expect in a generation that grew up fully immersed in digital technologies. In this follow-up post, Sharday and Richard discuss strengths and weaknesses in students’ digital literacy and explore how understanding one of the weaknesses might actually help us understand a particularly troublesome religious studies concept – what they consider a “threshold concept.”

Read more

Spirituality

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

‘Spirituality’ is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse on religion, but despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses ‘spirituality’ as shallow and commercialised. Boaz Huss argues that “the vehement and disparaging criticism of contemporary spirituality is stimulated by the threat that this new cultural category poses to entrenched scholarly assumptions and research practices” (2014, 58).

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

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

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

Spirituality

Podcast with Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe (11 June 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Huss and Sutcliffe – Spirituality 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Spirituality is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse in religion but, despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses it as shallow and commercialised. To discuss spirituality I’m joined today by Boaz Huss, a professor of Jewish thought at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and also by Steve Sutcliffe who is senior lecturer in Religious Studies, here at the University of Edinburgh, where we’re speaking today. So, we thought we could maybe start, then, by setting out . . . well, setting out the stall. Tell us about spirituality, and particularly the way it emerges as an identifier during the New Age and the post-war period.

Steven Sutcliffe (SS): Ok. Well I could start and say something about that. But it’s very good to have Boaz here to join in the discussion. So, welcome to Boaz.

Boaz Huss (BH): It’s good to be here.

SS: I came across spirituality, and became pretty-much convinced of its significance as a cultural category, when I was researching the so-called New Age movement. And in the work that I did on that, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a very strong movement that we could call New Age. There was a term New Age, which was mobilised in a whole series of networks, but, increasingly, what scholars were calling the New Age movement after the 1970s was better understood as a network of people whose preferred term was becoming spirituality, sometimes qualified by “mind-body-spirit spirituality”, and sometimes “holistic spirituality”. Often just “spirituality”. And that this kind of shift seems to have been happening particularly, I would say, since after the 1960s, or the post-war period, is important as well. But of course there’s also a complicated and lengthy genealogy of the term emerging, and a number of different groups as well. So it’s a very complex but lively cultural category about which we still know very little, I think.

DR: And what are some of the sort-of themes and motifs that we can pick out in this discourse of spirituality, and the various other terms?

SS: Well I think, I mean, Boaz will have his own ideas here. For me, I’ve been interested in how it is often a kind of signifier for a form of what we might call vitalism, in some ways. There’s something more bubbling away in social life, and beyond social life, that the old category of religion, for users, doesn’t adequately tackle. Spirituality – a bit more nebulous, a bit more amorphous, but actually does quite a good job, through that nebulosity and amorphousness, in pointing to something that people feel. You know: “There’s a something more going on here. Things have got more life to them. They’ve got more energy. There’s something else going on.” So that’s been the route which I’ve been interested in, in the term. Why people are using it to point to this feeling that there’s something more going on in life.

DR: And maybe we can turn to Boaz, then. How does this . . . ? There’s a shift there. When spirituality starts to get picked up by the New Age movement, it changes its meaning. It’s not a new term, but it takes on a new set of connotations.

BH: Yes, yes definitely. I think there is . . . . Very similar to Steven, I was very much impressed by the prominent presence of spirituality as a term in contemporary New Age movements when I was working on in Israel – contemporary Kabbalistic movements – and, actually, also amongst my friends. It’s a term that’s very much alive and very easily used by people to define themselves. Now what, for me, was striking – maybe because I’m a historian and I started my work working on evil in Judaism and religions in the early modern period – is this really significant shift of meaning in spirituality. Because spirituality is a very old term, actually. It is a Biblical term, very prominent, signifying spirit in contrast to the body, to materiality, corporeality. And it played a very important role in medieval Christian theology, in translation – also in Jewish theology. And it seemed to me that the use today is very different and, actually, I think the two main centres of the use of the term in early modern period changed (5:00). One is the juxtaposition of spirituality to corporeality and materiality, which was very central. And today people use the term spiritual applying it to corporeal, material things: yoga, sports, martial arts, healing etc. And the other thing was the detachment from religion. Because spirituality was considered the core of religion, related, part of religion, and really the core of Christianity and religion. And today, I think the term that caught my attention was “spiritual but not religious”. Which . . . I think people tend to dismiss it. Well a lot of people use it, but some scholars, at least, dismiss this notion as they’re saying it. But actually they are religious or secular. But I think we should take it very seriously that people choose to define secularity in opposition to a term that spirituality came from and that is religious.

DR: Except, yes, as well as the “spiritual but not religious”, you are seeing very recently – in the last ten years or so – the churches making a kind-of reclaiming of that. And you’ll see “spiritual AND religious” pop up. So it’s not so much that . . . . I mean, from the point of view of these religious practitioners, spirituality is still the ur-concept with religion being part of that. So it’s shifting in different ways, even in the last few years.

SS: Well it’s a very user-friendly concept, isn’t it? And it’s also a multi-functional concept, I think. So the user-friendliness is that it’s got a warmth and a vitality to it, I think, that religion doesn’t have. And religion in popular parlance has been demonised, in a sense – stereotyped as this oppressive, institutional force. You’ll often hear the term “institutional religion” which is juxtaposed to “free-floating spirituality” or something like that. So it’s a kind of attractive word for people. But it’s also multi-functional, I think. It does various things at different levels for different audiences. And I think, for the folks who might have been involved in New Age and related networks, it fulfils that function of a fairly free-wheeling, personal, networked approach and discourse. But it’s also been picked up – and this is interesting as well, I think – it’s also been picked up in sort-of Government policy, educational health circles. So we have, here in the UK – as you probably know, Boaz – we’ve got spiritual chaplains now, in NHS hospitals. We have spirituality as a kind of perennial all-encompassing term in interfaith circles. We have various think-tank’s exploring the meaning of spirituality in cultural life. And so it’s a term . . . these uses of the term are not all doing the same thing. Sometimes they’re camouflaging various positions behind them. They’re ways of putting new pawns on the chess board to advance rather concealed causes. And other times they’re much more grass-roots and naive in their use.

DR: And that reminds me of the way that interfaith is often used, with a rather ecumenical agenda behind it: “We might as well team up in order to promote religion in the public sphere.” And spirituality is another way of doing that, of course. Because if you accept that, “OK, maybe religions don’t have a place, but spirituality does.” And so, “Who shall we get to speak for spirituality? Let’s get, you know, somebody from the Church of England.”

SS: Yes. Indeed

BH: I think it shows the cultural power of this term, that it’s adopted. Now what’s interesting . . . you know the people related to churches don’t go back to, I don’t know, early spiritual practices. They adopt spirituality from its modern, unchurched use and it comes together. It enters the churches with yoga, with Tai Chi classes, with other New Age . . . . So I see that as part of, really, the language of New Age and spirituality, also entering new places. And you said, also, of course medicine, government and business.

SS: Yes – business, indeed.

BH: Business is very strong. So I think that shows really, somehow, the relevance: it’s a good term for people today – if not, they wouldn’t use it. There’s something very, I think, serious and significant about it. (10:00) And I think the tendency of some scholars to dismiss it – it’s really, you know, not looking at something very interesting that’s going on around us.

SS: Yes. Yes. That might be an opportunity, some of the scholars . . . two books come to mind that have been very critical, often in a slightly polemical way about this, which is Kimberley Lau’s book: New Age Capitalism, and then, also, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book: Selling Spirituality. Now, both of those books have got a similar purpose. Kimberley Lau works out quite a sophisticated account of ideology, and how spirituality is an ideology, in her book – but she’s still got this kind of criticism. In the case of Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book, it seems to be more about a slightly nostalgic reach back to authentic, good-old religion, as opposed to this nasty, sort-of . . .

BH: Capitalist . . .

SS: Yes. However, what I was going to say is, if it is a multi-functional term, there is one angle of it that it seems to me in which the Carrette and King critique is correct: in businesses, as we just mentioned, there can be a sense in which spirituality is a way of producing a happier work force, a more comfortable workforce, a more productive workforce. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the whole of the picture. So that was what I was saying about how it’s a multifunctional kind of discourse. It’s layered or stacked with different kinds of uses or goals.

DR: I think an important aspect of it, to take in parallel with that sort-of neoliberal critique, is the Jungian kind of psychological idea. And those aren’t separate, but you see the growth of psychological Jungian ideas in the business sphere, particularly because it’s well, you know . . . . The Marxist critique is that by treating the mental health issues that arise because of neoliberalism, then it allows neoliberalism to continue as an economic model. But of course, that’s also the foundational model of large parts of the New Age movement.

SS: Right.

DR: You know – the sense of the self, and the purpose of life being to develop the self. Which, as well, maybe points to this blurring between the idea of the spirit as something not the body, but simultaneously also the body.

SS: Yes, that reminds me a bit of Paul Heelas’ work on self-spirituality or self-religion that he was developing a while ago, where- I mean he’s been critiqued by Matthew Wood and others, for having a rather asocial model of the self – which I think is right. But nevertheless he was pointing, in some of his early work, to one of these telephone marketing companies who were working on the idea that if you were in touch with your “true whole self” when you were at work, you would get better business results in your cold-calling of people. If you were doing that, and were “present in yourself”, that would have an impact.

DR: You would have authenticity.

SS: Yes. And you would be “at cause” and not “at effect”, which is what happens if you are not in touch with yourself – you are just acted upon. So there seems to be something about being in touch with the self that is an important part of the ideology of spirituality – whether that comes through practice is another thing.

BH: I want to go back to this point of neoliberalism, because I think it’s important. I think, definitely, the recognition that there is a connection is true. I think it merges neoliberal ideology, and post-modern culture, and post-capitalistic global economics: they and spirituality all emerge at the same period, and sometimes there’s an overlap between the social compositions of the people who are involved. But I think the fact that there are similarities, and there is interconnection between, doesn’t mean that spirituality is a disguised neoliberal ideology. It can be also a response, sometimes, to neoliberalism. So, from that point of view, I think the connection is definitely there. As I said, we can look at spirituality as a kind of post-modern, new cultural formation, and New Age also, but that doesn’t mean that it identifies with other post-modern cultural formations. And, again sometimes it is. I think, on the one hand, you can show points where it strengthens neoliberal ideology, but also other groups – there are so many varieties of spiritualties and New Age – that are a response and trying to undermine it. But still, again, I’ve seen it’s something very relevant. And, you know, we live in a post-modern, late-capitalistic society. The cultural formations that we use – and I think all of us are part of them, to a certain degree – you know, they are those which are relevant to our society, and of course they are interconnected (15:00). But this nostalgia that you mentioned, I think it’s not relevant to criticise spirituality. I don’t see my role as a scholar to give marks or grade religious and spiritual phenomena, but to try to understand the function.

SS: Yes.

DR: Because of course, I mean, the churches in the early twentieth century or earlier – kind-of in the earlier economic systems with the nation state and these kind of things – there are examples of institutional religion working with the state, and working against the state, then. And there are examples of New Age and spirituality working with the state and against the state now. It’s no different. But, of course, if you’re looking at it from a nostalgic point of view, with this modern organisation of the state, and you’re looking for things that look like the church you grew up in, then maybe you are going to come to that conclusion.

SS: In terms of that counter-cultural impetus, I think Paul Heelas talks about what he most recently calls New Age Spiritualties of Life. He says something like “a gentle counter-flow” or something like that. He’s kind-of not going full on for the kind of counter-cultural stances of the ’60s, but he’s saying there is some kind of modest critique here, in the stuff he’s looking at. And sort-of connected with that, with the data for the Kendal project – that Spiritual Revolution book that Paul did with Linda Woodhead. And there they did quite a lot of valuable data – I mean, now it’s a little bit old perhaps, the early 2000s it was – but there was clearly a correlation between the folks participating in the holistic milieu in Kendal and environmental, ecological, Green values. And there was also a correlation, when asked in the various questionnaires and interviews, with left-of-centre political attitudes as well. So I go some way towards saying, here’s one small body of evidence that bears out what you’re saying, Boaz. It’s not only a question of being subsumed by neoliberal positions. There is agency here in a more political – small p . . . .

DR: But this language is also taken up wholesale amongst the sort of New Right, and the conspiracy milieu that I look at. I mean, when I was down looking at . . . . Ok, so most of the case studies I looked at were left-leaning. But certainly in the right wing – it’s a little bit blurred because we tend to focus on US data, and of course US data strongly identifies as Christian. But if you look at the right outside of the US, there’s a strong association with spirituality. And you can find, for example, Red Ice Radio podcast, on a TV show out of Sweden, started off doing very much kind of New Age and healing kind of stuff and have gradually moved over until they’re now just completely right-wing, pagan-identifying. But you can see in the space of a few years there, as they make that shift, you still have language of spirituality and “higher purpose” and all these kind of things, focus on health practices – all of these things are still there, so that discourse is not restricted to the left at all.

BH: A few years ago we had a project on the politics of the New Age. Actually, my interest in spirituality started from that project. And, again, it became very clear first of all that, in difference to the self-declaration of many spiritualist and New Agers, “We are not interested in politics”, they are involved in politics. But you can find the combination, you can find New Age practices and use of spiritual terminology in the extreme right, religious, national right in Israel and, of course – what you would more expect – in the left and Green movements, etc. So it really is applied . . . and I think, again, showing that it’s a key cultural concept that can be used by very different political and ideological agendas. And I think it’s interesting. Actually, I think the use is quite similar. It’s not that they just use it and each one gives it a completely different . . . . They integrate it in very different ideologies, but the practices themselves: you go and do some kind of violent political act in the evening, and in the morning you grow organic vegetables and do meditation practices etc., and connect with the nature around you!

SS: (Laughs) OK. Yes!

DR: And lots of food! (20:00) You know, like eating pro-biotic and vegetarian diets and all this stuff. It’s right across the board.

BH: It’s very interesting, the use of the New Age terminology to justify, for instance, violence. That’s a natural, you know, part of the . . . . But the extreme right movements will say revenge is something very basic. And because of that, we can do revenge acts. Because that’s part of going back to nature, connecting with the earth. It’s amazing to see this combination!

SS: And so that raises the question: it sounds to me as though you’re saying that spirituality, as a concept, has travelled very well in Israel for example, in non-Christian contexts. Because it’s often seemed to me that there are some kind of affinities with a kind of a post-Christian culture and a spirituality discourse. But it seems clear, even if that’s the case, that it can acculturate elsewhere quite happily. So there’s no problem with secular Jews, religious Jews, all kinds of folk picking up the term in an Israeli context?

BH: Yes. I think it would be all across the board. But I think you will find some kind of American / Western connection. Even in ultra. Because many of the ultra-Orthodox movements, many of the people, of the members, are actually returning to religion. So, actually, they’ve had that grounding or acquaintance. But it’s so available and present here, that even if you grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family you know, it’s available, the practices and terminology are there. So they are easily reached. And I believe it’s similar in, at least in Westernised and middle-class populations also in other non-Christina cultures: Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco, you will find, again, language of spiritual and definitely the New Age practices.

SS: Yes.

BH: Very interesting to look at . . .

DR: And in Asia as well. In Japan and China, particularly.

BH: Japan, definitely, yes.

DR: Yes. Which you actually mentioned something about this, Boaz, in one of the papers I read, about how this was essentially swapping a dualistic Western model for an Eastern monistic model. And I wonder if actually that would indicate that this would have quite a lot of currency in Asian countries? Because it kind of maps much better than the imported model of religion, and spirituality.

BH: Yes, I’m not sure how it goes in all this. It’s the pizza effect. You know of coming . . . receiving back Indian meditation practices after they were Westernised, and then incorporating them back. Similar things with Kabbalah for instance, with New Kabbalah and then integrated. So there is some kind of coming back, but I think I would be hesitant to say that there’s something . . . . Definitely many practices were borrowed from non-Christian cultures, but to say that they’re more open to them because of that . . . . I would put more emphasis on the globalisation. This is part of that.

DR: I haven’t made myself very clear. What I mean is that the model of talking about spirituality, rather than talking about religion and the secular, makes more sense in an Asian country where they were never things that were separate to start with.

SS: Oh I see, right, right.

DR: So if you were going to import a Western construct, then spirituality works better than religion and the secular. Does that make sense?

SS: Yes. That’s clearer, yes. But I mean, so what is it? It starts the same . . . . I mean, I’m not convinced that there is one discourse. There are several different layered and stacked discourses, but they probably share something in common. What is it they share in common? And why are these discourses so attractive? What are they doing? What kind of empowerment, or status or capital are they giving people? Do you have any developed thoughts on this, Boaz? What’s the attraction?

BH: Not today! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs) Not right now, yes!

SS: (Laughs) But this is the million-dollar question, I think, yes.

BH: But again, I think some of the emphasis of the New Age practices and this concept spirituality are really in line with contemporary ideologies, ways of living. As I suggested, and as you just said, the strict separation between religious and secular had its role in modernity. And it seems it doesn’t have that role (now) (25:00). And people can use something new – which, again, I don’t want to say it’s a new way of going back to religion, because I think it’s something different. But, really, having a position which they don’t have to define as secular or religious, and making those borders between them, and then really giving what is called spiritual meaning for body practices, for instance, seems positive, in a positive way, regarding the body – giving it a value that wasn’t there, I think, in Christian medieval early modern culture. Maybe the globalisation tendency . . . I think of all of us, of tourism, of cultural consumption etc. – so you can pick from many different cultures, all those practices – this is something the concept of spirituality enables, which the concept of religion didn’t. You know, you couldn’t go to church and practice yoga. It was uncomfortable, I assume, in the early twentieth century! Today, you can go to church and have a yoga practice. And, exactly as you said, this is justified using the term spirituality.

DR: And I suspect, as well, that modern communications technology means that although people would have been doing heterodox practices – sometimes practices from outside but sometimes folk kind of things – the degree to which we were aware that other people were doing them was limited. You know, you’d have to know somebody pretty well to know that they were also making charms or doing healings or these kind of things. Whereas now we know that everywhere . . . It’s vernacular and there are all sorts of heterodox things going on in every Christian group. But when we didn’t have those ways of communicating, and all the knowledge was mandated from the church authorities, that wasn’t the impression you would have got. So it’s not only changed the degree to which these are available, it’s changed the fact that we now know that it’s been available and everybody does it. And it’s fine.

BH: The idea of self, for instance: it’s so central to our culture. Criticise it or not, we are not in a communal culture any more. And so the self – I think that’s a wonderful expression. And Paul has hit the nail, you know, with this “self-spirituality”. It’s not God spirituality and it’s not . . . the self is in the centre. Self-improvement, self-progress: that’s the core value of our society. I think, in a way, we’re all part of it. I think similar things happen in the university. What happens now . The whole concept of knowledge as something practical, something that improves our life. That’s the most important thing. And that’s exactly what spirituality offers people: a way of having something practical that doesn’t take too much of your time – which, again, it’s not necessarily negative.

SS: Is it a bit like having your cake and eating it? You know that phrase where you kind-of can have the best of both worlds. You can – at the personal, embodied and relational level – you can have something more than is vouchsafed by a purely secular materialist regime. But one does not have to go the whole hog. One does not have to go the whole way into a more developed, or fully blown, practice or identification.

BH: Yes, I think it’s a bit too critical for my part . . .

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Because, again, I . .

SS: Well, I mean it descriptively rather than . . .

DR: (Laughs).

BH: You want your cake and not! (Laughs).

SS: Well, that’s true!

BH: I don’t know. The difference between psychoanalysis and contemporary clinical psychology, which is treatment: I think it’s the same direction, and it’s not necessarily bad. You don’t have the time, or you don’t have the justification of, you know, digging into your past for hours on the sofa. That’s something that was ok for certain people, of course – quite limited to people in the early mid-twentieth century! Now, today, people want to go to a session that will improve their mental or psychological (wellbeing), going for three or four times, having some time. And I think that’s also what spirituality . . . . You don’t have to read the whole Hindu literature in order to do yoga! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. Well, you know, in which case that fits neoliberalism quite well! Because we’re getting to increasing productivity and minimalising work (30:00).

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s not necessarily the same.

SS: OK. Well in that case, what about the question of secularisation? Because in one or two of your writings you have suggested that there is some kind of push back here, or a reversing of the conditions of secularisation, or of the qualifications, shall we say, of the conditions of secularisation. But in fact what you’ve just said would be used by strong secularisation theorists to say, “Well, that’s exactly it! This is just a kind-of boost of secular conditions.”

BH: No I think secularisation and religionisation . . . . We’re speaking about secularisation, but actually the interesting term – one interesting term – is “religionisation”

SS: Religionisation.

BH: Because the assumption that there is a process of . . . . Secularisation assumes that before, there was a state of religion, of religiosity, and then secularisation came and started, you know, going forth and maybe now coming back. I see the process of secularisation working in tandem with the process of religionisation. These are two concepts that started in Western Europe in early-modern/ modern period and were applied to other cultures. It wasn’t there before – neither religion, nor secularity. And then we had this process. And I think now we have a different process. It’s not that it’s going back. It’s still in play, of course. Religionisation is looking at things and saying, “Ahh! This is a religion.” Or looking at myself and saying, “I’m religious, so I’m behaving in such and such. . . . That’s what I believe.” That’s the process of religionisation. Or secularisation – the same thing: “This is secular, so it’s supposed to behave like secular. . . . I’m secular so there are certain things that I do, and that I don’t do.” And I think that’s not relevant to many people today, who say, “No I’m not secular, I’m not religious, it’s not relevant, I’m spiritual.”

SS: Yes. Right.

BH: And then they start doing things which are really . . . and look – kind-of things like yoga and going to church sometimes, and swimming. And saying, “Wow, I have a spiritual experience now!” And all those new things. So I don’t see it as part of secularisation. It’s something basically different.

SS: So is it the case that just as people like Timothy Fitzgerald have argued that the religious and the secular are kind-of co-constitutive, so secularisation and religionisation are kind-of mutually generating each other? And what we have here is now a different kind of situation that transcends that, or has moved beyond those kinds of concerns?

BH: Yes. I think that spirituality actually corroborates and strengthens the position of Fitzgerald and McCutcheon and Talal Asad, because it shows that not only in non-Western cultures or pre-modern cultures, there was no concept of religion and secular – also in our society, Western society, they knew it. It didn’t disappear, this concept. I don’t think they will disappear. But there is a new option which is neither secular nor religion. So I think that strengthens their point that it’s not something universal.

DR: Yes. Well. Any last thoughts on the sort-of . . . the situation in the field, in our field? How do we move forward? How do we start to deal with this within Religious Studies?

SS: Good question. Well I don’t know about you, Boaz, and I know a bit about David, but teaching this material is an interesting challenge. And here, in many ways, this is a whole topic in itself. David has written an edited work on this. But we tend to still . . . . In Religious studies, or the Study of Religions, we’re very much constrained by a very hegemonic model of religion as World Religions: these big institutional blocks of things that are almost like corporate institutions that are said to have these kinds of identities. And that really does constrain how you can insert this material into the curriculum to teach to students. Because I do think as well as theorising this material, and researching it, we need to be able to try and educate the next generation of students who will come and take our place so that we can get more work done on this. I mean it’s not just an idle contemporary issue. One would say that they – whole worlds of what gets called the occult, the esoteric – have been very, very important in the last couple of hundred years at least, but are scarcely researched at all (35:00). They scarcely get the resources to work with them that, you know, Judaism, the various Christianities, the various Judaisms get. So, it’s a real question about how we can bring to people’s attention the significance of this stuff, working with such conservative paradigms of religion – which themselves are the product of the very conditions you’re describing.

DR: Religionisation!

SS: I mean, I teach a course called “New Spiritualties” and I’ve been beavering away at this course for years. I don’t know if you do any teaching in this line, about this material, where you are, Boaz?

BH: Yes. I’m in a different position, because I’m in a department of Jewish Studies. But in a way, it’s similar, because it’s also very conservative. I think not many departments of Jewish thought would . . . But, definitely, I give courses on New age Kabbalah, contemporary Kabbalah, sometimes even wider New Age ( topics) – although that’s stepping the line, because it’s not even Jewish!

All: (Laugh).

BH: But definitely, I think – and it’s good that we are doing it. When I started, I received very negative reactions from some of my colleagues who really sneered at: “You’re not doing serious scholarship! What happened Boaz? You were a serious scholar. How can you leave manuscripts and go and study . . . !” But I think, slowly – that was twenty years ago – I think our work is . . . . I think it’s changing, and people are much more in academia now, open to working, and recognising the significance of the (audio unclear) or what you’re calling spirituality or New age or religiosity.

SS: Well I do think the key there, in terms of the academic capital of the project, is to connect the debates with larger debates about religion and modernity, religion and secularisation, consumption, political ideologies, economics, all that kind of thing. And, I think, when we start to do that we find more colleagues taking us seriously, both in the field of various studies of religion, but outside of that in cultural studies and Sociology. Do you think that’s the case, David? Because you’ve always connected these things to wider processes.

DR: Yes. And partly the problem is that there also hasn’t been a lot of work on this kind of material from within the Critical Religion . . . you know, that approach. That’s tended to focus more on historical genealogy. And we’re now starting to get things like Aaron Hughes’ work on Islam, for instance. But there still needs to be a focussed project looking at the emergence of New Age spirituality and other alternative religious movements, within the critical history of the idea of religion and the category of religion. But absolutely, yes, that’s how we need to establish the importance of what we’re doing. And that will also help us to move . . . as so much of that work is done from an insider perspective, unfortunately. It’s a whole other conversation, but it’s worth mentioning. But yes, absolutely, I agree with what both of you are saying. We just need to get enough of a foothold in the academy that we can actually do this work. And I think, with hindsight, it will be clear what the importance of it was.

SS: Right.

BH: I think it’s also a question of connecting. Because I think there’s more work done than you’re aware of. Sometimes I meet someone: “Wow! You’re doing the same! I didn’t know that you were working on that!” So there’s a group working on new religiosities in Turkey – very interesting. Quite a large group. Many of them Francophones – so that maybe where there’s less connection. There’s also the question of different academic cultures. But there are people working on it in Morocco, and I think that’s fascinating. And I ‘m very happy to be here to meet you! I think those connections between scholars who are working, sometimes, in corners – that’s also very important.

DR: Because, of course, there are no institutes where we can do this work! That’s the problem!

SS: No, I think that’s right. I mean Jean-Francois Mayer, the Swiss scholar, put me onto a paper, through his Relgioscope Foundation, about new spiritualties in Azerbaijan, for example. Very interesting paper. And then as you say, there’s Morocco, there’s Turkey, but there’s also new spiritualties in sort-of Catholic contexts like Mexico, as well. So you’re probably right.

BH: South America – there’s a lot going on there.

SS: Sure. So here’s . . . It’s a question of connecting, and a question of resources to do the connecting as well, of course. Because, in my view, academia doesn’t free-float. It’s always dependent on money and institutional support.

DR: OK. Well that’s a good point to end on, I think. It’s relatively positive, but realistic! (40:00)

All: (Laugh).

DR: So – thanks to you, Boaz, and to Steve, for this very stimulating conversation. Thank you both.

BH: Thank you, David.

SS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Huss, Boaz, Steven Sutcliffe and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spirituality/

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

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

The Blog Assignment: “Authentic” Learning about Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion?

The Blog Assignment:

“Authentic” Learning about Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion?

Sharday Mosurinjohn

In this first post of a two-part series Sharday Mosurinjohn reflects on the outcome of a new assignment that was intended to invite students to write in a way that was both familiar to their usual online communication (short and social media-based) and scholarly. The results led her to rethink the meaning of “authentic learning” (pedagogical approaches that empower learners to collaborate with one another – and in this case, professional scholars – to engage real-world complex problems) when it comes to digital information and communication technologies. In the second post, she and colleague Richard Ascough (School of Religion, Queen’s University) will discuss strengths and weaknesses in students’ digital literacy and explore how understanding one of the weaknesses might actually help us understand a particularly troublesome religious studies concept – what they consider a “threshold concept.”

Read more

Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Ko-Lee hot & Spicy Go Noodles, and more.

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

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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Psychology and religious studies: Towards greater understanding

Christopher Harding is a historian whose work explores how religion and the ‘psy-disciplines’ have interacted in the world. As he notes in his interview with Krittika Bhattacharjee these constitute a very broad range of academic disciplines and various insights from these disciplines have been applied by different groups and cultures in different ways. Some of these uses of psychological insight by individuals and groups lead to clashes with religious insights and beliefs – but it is misleading to see these clashes as being between the psy-disciplines themselves and religion(s). They are instead fascinating case studies of how worldviews syncretize, a process that occurs both beyond and within academia.

This article will focus on something slightly different and look at the interactions between the psy-disciplines and religious studies. There is considerable overlap between the subject areas of religious studies and the psychological sciences but often theories and methodologies do not cross the divide between the social sciences and the humanities. Psychology, and the other psy-diciplines, have a lot to offer religious studies. They also have much that they can and should learn from religious studies in turn. Working together, and allowing the strengths of the two disciplines to complement each other, has the potential to advance both fields and is probably necessary if either discipline wants to gain a full appreciation for its shared subject matter.

Psychology is a discipline that cuts across many others. Although it is often perceived narrowly, as either experimental or clinical psychology, it is a much broader and more diverse discipline. Psychology brings a range of rigorous methodological tools to the study of human (and animal) life and these can be applied to the study of religion at many different levels – from examining internal experiences through to the social dynamics of groups and the influence of culture. Questions such as: “How do people experience the world?” “What do people believe?” “Why do they believe it?” and “How do these beliefs influence behaviour?” are all central concerns to psychologists.

My own academic background was originally in Theology & Religious Studies. I moved into Psychology, as a postgraduate, because many of the same tools and theories that are useful to explore other aspects of human life are also appropriate for the study of the religious and the spiritual. Extensive research has been conducted by psychologists, and continues to be conducted, exploring beliefs, values and perceptions. However, despite being a central part of the lives of so many people, religion and spirituality continues to be a fringe concern for many psychologists – perhaps because they are frequently perceived as being unscientific. However, an increasing number of psychologists are now turning their attention to issues of religion and spirituality, with organisations like the International Association for the Psychology of Religion and the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality making considerable progress.

Even though psychology has developed a wide range of excellent and rigorous tools that can be applied to the study of religions and spiritualities, inadequate religious literacy can lead to theoretical naivety. Too much psychological research continues to be focused on North America and Europe and to accept, often uncritically, a Judeo-Christian perspective. Psychological research into religions and spirituality also continues to show insufficient awareness of the complexity and diversity of religious beliefs and groups.

Scholars in religious studies tend to be much more aware of global diversity and to research the lived experiences of communities that are far removed from the undergraduate populations of Western universities that psychologists often rely on for their work. Ethnographic approaches can yield incredibly rich data, and years studying particular communities can lead to a depth of expertise and understanding that psychologists cannot easily gain. The recent moves in religious studies towards appreciating lived religion, and of critically examining what religion even is, are ones that the psychology of religion also needs to take – but it is an area where it currently lags behind.

As a researcher who keeps a foot in each camp, I can appreciate both the strengths and weaknesses of each discipline’s approaches. I am also acutely aware that it is unrealistic to expect individual scholars to be experts in both fields – let alone in cognate disciplines like the anthropology and sociology of religion too. The solution, I believe, is to encourage far greater interdisciplinary collaboration between the fields. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ and ‘Impact’ are currently buzzwords in academia but they are both crucial concepts for the academic study of religion. Religion and beliefs cut across so many facets of life and can have profound consequences on the world – so understanding what people are doing and why is critical.

Combing the greater religious literacy, and more globally sensitive perspectives, of religious studies scholars with the expertise and methodologies of psychologists, and other social scientists, about human beliefs and behaviours has the potential to significantly enhance human understanding. Such collaborations can sharpen research tools and increase the validity of findings. Interdisciplinary teams, combining social scientists and humanities scholars, can approach problems from multiple perspectives and untangle webs of complexity that each would struggle to do alone. Working together, interdisciplinary teams can both explore concrete problems with real implications and enrich their parent disciplines.

Religion and the Psy-Disciplines

Thank you Charles Schulz!

A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university counselor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy – bears thinking about.

In this podcast, Dr. Christopher Harding uses his research on psychoanalysis and Buddhism in modern Japan to tackle the two-way dialogue between religion and the psy-disciplines. How have these shaped each other, and what are tensions between them?

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


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


Podcast with Christopher Harding (27 March 2017).

Interviewed by Krittika Bhattacharjee.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Krittika Bhattacharjee (KB): A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university councillor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and where mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis – bears thinking about. Speaking to us today about the psy-disciplines we have Dr Christopher Harding, who is a lecturer in Asian History at the University of Edinburgh. Chris is a cultural historian, working primarily in Japan and India. He has most recently published a co-edited volume called Religion and Psychotherapy in Modern Japan, which was published in hardback in 2014 and comes out in paperback next month. Chris is also a journalist who has collaborated with the BBC and was one of BBC Radio 3’s “ New Generation Thinkers” . Thank you for being here with the Religious Studies Project, Chris.

Christopher Harding (CH): Thank you.

KB: Just to start us off, could you tell us a little bit about the psy-disciplines?

CH: Yes. So when we use the phrase “ the psy-disciplines”  I guess we’re normally thinking of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy. So, psychiatry is often thought about as the poor relation of medicine. It’s the discipline of medicine which most people wouldn’t think of going into. Maybe now[they would], but a few years ago – certainly prior to the 1950s – it was the discipline associated with guesswork, with asylums heaving with people that were difficult to treat – really because their object of enquiry was so difficult: the human inner life.They were trying to guess at it, finding ways of examining it from the outside, or making some use of peoples’ own testimonies. It was very, very difficult to try to work out what was going on, to form theories and to form diagnoses. Things improved  in the 1950s and 1960s with new forms of drugs. And now, with new means of scanning and new sorts of theories, things are getting a little bit better. But, for a while, it was medicine’s poor relation. Psychology, most people will know of: working with experimental data, primarily, but also doing some work in the clinical setting. And then psychotherapy, I suppose really, from Freud, Jung onwards, and Carl Rogers – now we have any number of modalities. So, those three things working together, often we would call them the psy-disciplines. And each one has had its own relationship with different religious traditions in different parts of the world.

KB: How has this relationship traditionally been conceived?

CH: I suppose, early on. . . the period that I work on most is the end of the 19th century into the 20th century . . .  Early on there was a relationship of some hostility – especially, I suppose, with Sigmund Freud and with early Freudians. We know Sigmund Freud had his particular views on what religion is really all about,  but also, some would say that his views were actually more nuanced than he was often given credit for. But some of the people early on, who were attracted to psychoanalysis, were attracted to it as a way of fulfilling the good parts of religion – distilling and fulfilling the good parts of religion and getting rid of the rest – and helping people whose lives had been damaged very early on, often by religious upbringings. Particularly if there was harshness in the family background, a heavy emphasis on certain forms of behaviour, a moralising dynamic etc., lots of people would say, in that early generation of psychoanalysis, the kind of thing that Richard Dawkins says, which is that religion is child abuse. And so, from the religious side of things, people worried that that critique could become quite influential.They also worried that the human person was being reduced to a mere organism, or a mere machine, or that your personhood was really the outcome of your upbringing. So they thought that there were all sorts of reductions going on that really threatened the underpinnings of all sorts of different religious traditions .(5:00) But, I suppose, Christian religious traditions in the West were the ones who were initially objecting to people like Freud, but also psychology in general. Because the whole premise of psychology to them seemed wrong: that you can meaningfully study the human person purely in a natural scientific way.

KB: And so this is the context from which, in some ways, your own work departs.Is that right?

CH: Yes, that’s right. I suppose it’s partly from a professional historical context, but it’s partly because I was coming across work in Christianity and Buddhism – contemporary Christianity and Buddhism in the US,  in Japan, the UK and elsewhere – where there seemed to be this mixing and mingling of what seemed to me to be psychological language to talk about the emotional life and theories of childhood on the one hand, and your kind of standard religious stories, theories, theologies, philosophies on the other. And I wasn’t really sure what people were doing when they were mixing these two languages. Often you would get a kind of an opening pitch from an apologist of a particular religious tradition where they would say, “Come on, surely your life is a mess? There must be more to this. You must be suffering stress. You’re angry hurt people!”  And then they kind of shift into the pitch – the religious pitch. You see that in plenty of Christian traditions and books ,and the Dalai Llama and Japanese organisations do the same sort of thing. And I was just wondering, what is exactly is their view of being human, that they’re mixing these two things together, these two, three or four registers of language together, in trying to make a pitch? Is the kind-of emotional-psychological [language] a facade? Is it just that initial pitch to get people interested? Or are these worlds actually doing business in a way that could be very interesting and very fruitful? And I wanted to find a way of almost taking them to task, piecing their language apart, and saying, “ Where are you getting these bits and pieces from? What do you actually mean when you talk about what the emotional life is; what the significance of the emotional life is; how we might lead it in a religious or spiritual way?” And I was really looking around for ways of doing that – digging away, really, at some of the language of contemporary religion and spirituality.

KB: While also seeing them as part of a larger. . .  “ market place”  might not be the right word, but certainly, all of them as part of this milieu together? So language is shared, but they’re also part of the same network – you used the word “business” –  doing business with each other?

CH: Yes, I think so. There was a great book, which came out about ten years or so ago,  by Richard King and Jeremy Carrette: Selling Spirituality – a wonderful book which really helped get me thinking about this. I think one of the things they were concerned about was  –  it was broader than the mental health dynamic, which interests me – but it was this critique of late capitalist culture that exploits religious traditions for techniques or ideas that kind-of keep people going as producers and consumers. So there is that element to it, I suppose, as well. And the sense of doing business again – I think we can get into the history of this a little bit later on – but my basic take on it is: there are very positive ways in which they can do business – the psy-disciplines and various religious traditions . And they have been since the 1940s and 1950s at least, once this kind of initial Freudian hump of Freudian coldness between them was overcome. But there were also ways in which they could be antagonistic, or confusing, possibly quite manipulative when they’re used together. I suppose a prime example, that some listeners may have heard of, would be the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks on Tokyo underground, in 1995. Aum Shinrikyo talks about its being the love-child of Buddhism and pop-psychology – that kind of all-encompassing embrace of the world, all-encompassing take on the human person, which really reeled in quite a few people. And you get into the territory of , some people might say, brainwashing, I suppose. But certainly, having such an all-encompassing explanation of the world that it’s hard to fight your way out of it again. That’s potentially what religion and the psy-disciplines do, when they work together, is that they give you no other interpretative options. Almost anything that you might think, or feel, or desire, or do can be quite convincingly interpreted by this uber-framework that together they seem to create. (10:00) And, for that reason, it can have negative as well as positive consequences.

KB: It’s also worth talking about the kind of tensions that you’ve brought up. But I thought, before we get to a more in-depth analysis of the tensions, I thought we could also talk about what you called the “ two-way dialogue”  that happens between the psy-disciplines and religion. What did you mean by two-way dialogue?

CH: I suppose, that they find useful things in one another. So some of the more positive bits of dialogue, in terms of a Buddhist tradition, let’s maybe talk about Japan in this regard: Buddhist traditions making use of the modern psy-discipline. You get this trend around Asia, certainly in India, certainly in Japan, in the late 19th century, where countries that have been very much affected by European colonialism – whether it’s, as it were, boots on the ground, or it’s more of a kind-of cultural imperialism – they’re looking for ways of pushing back against colonial knowledge, against the whole sort-of Western canon. And what some groups do – I’m thinking maybe Swami Vivekananda in India and Hinduism, and a guy called Inoue Enryo in Japan who’s what-you-might-call a Buddhist modernist – what they do is, they look back into their own traditions and they say, “ Well actually, in Hinduism or in Buddhism you will find insights that match and trump those of the Western world. And that one of the ways in which we can state that case clearly to people is by spring cleaning Buddhism, spring cleaning Hinduism: reviving our religious traditions, but in a viable modern format.”  And someone like Inoue Enryo finds the psy-disciplines really useful. Because what we can do is separate out “ true mystery”   – the true mysteries of life – from the false ones. Psychology will tell us what the false ones are because we can investigate people’s patterns of thought, and we can find out why they believe in silly things like ghosts or goblins, that then leaves them free to redirect human wonderment and awe and faith and trust to true mystery. So it’s good for people and it’s good for a Buddhist tradition, because a tradition that looks to be anti-modern in Japan can suddenly present itself as being definitively modern and being worthy of people’s trust and their taxes. And, at the same time, you can say that Buddhism actually, in its own right, is the world’s finest psychology and always has been. And you see, of course, lots of people now who engage with Buddhism will say first-and-foremost that it’s a very convincing picture of what it’s like to be a human being. “It’s first-and-foremost a psychology and then we’ll take it from there.” You might want to call it a religion, you might not, but it can borrow in those sorts of ways. Some examples of how the Christian tradition has borrowed from the psy-disciplines are forms of spiritual direction which are open to the influence of someone’s upbringing on the way they think about God, on the way they process guilt, on the way they worry about sin. It doesn’t mean that you’re jettisoning all the teaching of the Christian tradition, but it means you’re more aware of how human beings work and you can help people who might be stuck. So now lots of monks and nuns and priests will get a certain degree of basic counselling training, so that they can help people. Things might get to a point where they need to refer on, perhaps to a therapist or to a psychiatrist, but these basic learnings can actually be very, very useful in their work.

KB: On the Buddhism example specifically, I wanted to ask a little bit about Kosawa Heisaku, who you speak a bit about in your book, referring to him as the Father of Modern Psychoanalysis in Japan. Is that accurate?

CH: Yes, absolutely.

KB: And I was really interested to see an example in the flesh of mixing Shin Buddhism, in particular, with Freudian ideas of psychoanalysis and the way he used both of those traditions to create his own practice. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

CH: Yes, a very brief potted biography I suppose. Kosawa Heisaku was a student of psychiatry first, in Northern Japan, in the 1920s. He encountered psychoanalysis a little bit through one of his mentors who’d studied in the US. But Kosawa wasn’t really convinced with the way he was teaching it, so he actually went to Vienna, met Freud, worked with Freud and his circle in Vienna – only really for a year or so – and he had an analysis there and came back to Japan. He opened his own clinic in Tokyo and this is where he seems to have started to develop this kind of fusion of the two. It seems to have been the case with him that he saw Buddhism in Japan as being under threat. And he wanted to find a way – a little bit like Inoue Enryo I mentioned earlier –  he wanted to find a way of showing people what Buddhism really aimed at, what Buddhism was really about.(15:00) And on, an individual basis, he wanted to help his clients work towards, really, an experience that some people would say had a fair bit in common with enlightenment. His theory was basically that, if a client is in psychoanalysis for a certain period of time, they have a kind of releasing of all sorts of material from the unconscious, bit by bit, which gives them a certain amount of freedom. But what it also does is it shows them something which is absolutely key in Shin Buddhism, which is that human beings are, right down to the ground, corrupted; that we cannot really achieve anything useful, in terms of our own salvation, for ourselves and by ourselves,; that we need the help of – what Shin Buddhism talks about as “ other power” – Amida Buddha. It’s alright to discuss that in conceptual terms, in philosophical terms, but it doesn’t get you there. So Kosawa’s idea was that, actually, one of the things that does get you there, that goes beyond the philosophical conversation about things, is to be face to face with the therapist to tell them all the things you’ve done, all the things you’re thinking and all the things you secretly want. To get into all that material you suddenly see the reality of your corruptness and your helplessness. And by doing that, by seeing that, almost you can’t help yourself. By going through that process, then, you open yourself out onto realising that you need to rely completely upon other power, which is a key goal for Shin Buddhism.

KB: Almost like an involuntary confession?

CH: I think that’s absolutely right, that’s a lovely way of putting it. Because, while confession is voluntary, you’re still in control of the terms aren’t you? It’s only when you come face to face with things that you really don’t have any control over, that you finally feel helpless in the face of,  that’s the real moment of conversion for Kosawa and in Shin Buddhism. So that is how Kosawa sees the usefulness of psychoanalysis. He told one of his students,who I interviewed as part of my work, that unless psychoanalysis can bring people to that kind of an experience then it’ll never succeed in Japan, or anywhere else, actually. And now it’s a bit of a minority sport in Japan, so perhaps he was right! But I think the core of what he was getting at – this is back in the 1930 and early 1940s – is quite similar to some of the work that goes on now, trying to link up psychoanalysis with Buddhism: people like Mark Epstein, Jack Engler and others.I see quite a lot of what Kosawa was trying to get at being fulfilled and worked through in their writing.

KB: Was he seen to be religious at the time? Because of course, in Japan, religion itself would be a contested word. Was he seen to be religious, even at the time that he was practising in the 1930s and 40s?

CH: Some of his students. . . It’s often difficult to make a division – and its probably silly to try to make a division, actually – between the extent to which Kosawa was religious and the extent to which he was a man of his times. There were therapists like him and others working in Japan, in the early thirties and forties, who saw it as their role to be a kind-of kindly, but actually quite straightforwardly didactic father-figure for their clients. So, rather than being in the kind-of classic mirror as a therapist – where you simply reflect the client back to themselves and you don’t have much of your own input – Kosawa would give quite heavy advice. Some of his students described him as being quite motherly. There were other therapists around at the time: one of them I’m thinking of, another psychoanalyst, who would invite his clients – young male clients – out to his countryside home where he and his wife lived, spend the weekend with them and fulfil the father role that they’d never had. And so, after the war, lots of people would criticise Kosawa and others for having that kind-of really heavy paternalism in their work. Some of them said that was because he was a Buddhist, others said that was just because he was a man of his era. The theory behind therapy in Japan at this point – also the theory behind hypnosis, actually – was that it would only work if it was practised by a superior on an inferior. So women couldn’t be hypnotists or therapists for men, because they couldn’t give that kind of guiding element that a superior could give to an inferior. So Kosawa was a product of his time both in that kind of paternalistic sense, I think. . .  but also, his students would have recognised him, pretty straightforwardly, as a Buddhist. And they said, “ This is a disaster!”  Because psychoanalysis is supposed to be a science. You have to keep the two things separate. (20:00) Kosawa’s thing was that in the consulting room there would be no talk of Buddhism, but after your consultation you could come next door, have a cup of tea, and  he might unroll a couple of Buddhist Sutras and talk you through a bit of Buddhism if you were interested, as some of his young clients were. So, I think he would have identified as both. And his view was always that psychoanalysis was a proper science, and Buddhism – as it really should be understood – were really operating completely in tandem. And that if Freud had had a less narrow view of what religion meant – because Kosawa thought Freud was kind of shackled to a Judeo-Christian understanding of religion, and a very narrow one even at that – if Freud had had a wider understanding of what religion really was, he’d have seen that psychoanalysis and religion were really two sides of the same coin.

KB: That’s an interesting idea as well. Because, if we broaden our scope now from Japan to general understandings of the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines, the question that this particular case raises for me is: how do we  isolate religion, then? For example, in palliative care and end-of-life care it’s quite common now, I think – especially in certain countries – to incorporate mindfulness or meditations as part of palliative care. We’ve already seen, in the Kosawa example, someone who seemed to walk between religiously prescribed rules. He’s also a father figure . . . and [there are] cultural constructions of gender there as well, with his paternalism that you talked about. So, how do we isolate what is religion here? If you were to see meditation as part of palliative care practice would you see that as religious, or a cultural formation, or a product of its time? Does the question make sense?

CH: Yes it does. I suppose people are thinking through this in Japan in the context of end-of-life care, and also in the context of disaster care, say after the Earthquake Tsunami and nuclear meltdown disasters in 2011, in Japan. In the aftermath of that there was quite a lot of work done by Buddhists. And they’d been thinking through, “How do we pursue this kind of work and not upset the people that we’re dealing with?”  I think their view would be that all the care they offer is religious, but it’s how they present it. What can seem like quite simple things: what are they going to wear while they go about this care ; whether its on a vihara ward – which is a Buddhist end-of-life care ward – or working in disaster care; are you going to come in civilian clothing or are you going to dress in your Buddhist robes; are you going to use Buddhist language, prayers , rituals or are you going to use the language of psychology and psycho therapy? What they’ve found is. . .  I think their key aim is that you meet people where they are. Some people want all the trappings of Buddhism. That’s what is going to make them feel comfortable because it’s what is familiar. They absolutely don’t want to be talked to after a disaster or towards the end-of-life, about their feelings. Not a conversation that they want to have. So for those sorts of people you can move more towards these familiar signs and symbols of classical religion, as it were. But for others, still really doing religious care, you can now call it spiritual care instead – in Japan they make a distinction – where you won’t have your Buddhist uniform on, and you won’t be using that sort of language. Instead you’ll shift more towards the language of psychotherapy and counselling, if that’s what you think people want. And in order to get onto some public hospital wards in Japan you have to do that. Because there’s a clear separation, in Japan, being made of religion and the state. But this coming-together of psy-disciplines in the training – you now have clinical chaplains being trained in Japan from all sorts of religious backgrounds – that coming-together allows them to gently shift the emphasis depending on who they’re dealing with. For them it’s religiously inspired, so it’s all religious care. But what it looks like to, as it were, the consumer or the receiver of it, it’s endlessly flexible. And, I think, that’s what they see as being so useful about it. I don’t think they would make any fundamental distinction between religious and non-religious there. It’s about the nuances of presentation and perception.

KB: But how about when you take the case in Japan and try and apply it elsewhere, try and apply it in the contemporary situation in the UK for example, or in countries that do not have that very specific set of circumstances that we’re speaking about there? How would you isolate religion in those cases? Is it an East-West divide?

CH: (25:00) No, I think something very similar goes on. I recently wrote a piece for Aeon magazine on end-of-life care at two hospices in Edinburgh, and the concept of spirituality and whether that’s useful or not to people. And I was surprised to find a lot the interviewees say that spirituality is actually not a useful concept at all, because it carries so much of the baggage of religion. And for a lot of people, if you are religious then you just want to see the chaplain, or whoever the representative might be. You’re fairly clear on who you want to go to. But, for the vast majority of other people, neither religion nor spirituality is something they want to hear about. But what you do instead is, you find ways of being with people, forms of care. So: listening; closeness; sometimes even physical forms of care, like a bed bath; whatever it might be that, from a certain perspective, yes, you could talk about it as being religious.There’s a focus there on being, on attentiveness to the person you’re with, as opposed to doing – doing for them – rushing around a hospice ward. But you’re not employing any of the traditional language of religion or spirituality. A lot of the workers I talked to said that people would just be put off by that kind of thing. Because they’d say, “ Look, it’s too late for me now to go on some big search for the meaning of life and the meaning of the world. I need something that goes beyond concepts, or that goes beyond a fundamental change in who I am and how I look at the world.” [They] need something that,  some people would argue , was actually closer to the core of religion or a religious tradition like Christianity, which is love and acceptance, and showing that kind of thing. So I think in some of end-of-life care, that is more what people are doing than getting bogged down in the language of religion and spirituality. Again, one of the professors I interviewed at St Columba’s hospice said “ It’s really about training nurses in how to “ be”  with their patients, rather than just “ do”  for them. Do you know what I mean? Just running around and changing sheets and whatnot. Actually learning how to be with them is what they want. And whether the language of spirituality helps or not, that’s really a secondary consideration.

KB: And that’s interesting because that also gives us a sense of something we spoke of at the beginning: the idea of tension between different ideas of religion, spirituality and the psy-disciplines. And it’s interesting here because we see for the first time that tension between those who receive the care as opposed to seeing the tensions at an institutional level, or how they’re being interpreted by practitioner,  if that makes sense. So that’s very interesting. I think there was also a previous Religious Studies Project Podcast by Dr Harold Koenig, from Duke, and he’s spoken about how – I think the talk was about religion and spirituality and health. Speaking about, particularly, coping and how religious belief helps in coping, which seems interesting. A final point of tension, then: can you think of a specific example when the idea of healing itself is defined differently from a religious standpoint and then from the psy-discipline standpoint? Because they might be working with different ideas of what is transgressive, or what is disorderly, and so their ideas of what health is, and what healing is, might also differ.

CH: I suppose that’s true, yes. There’s an interesting parallel between working on religion and the psy-disciplines on the one hand and working on what’s called trans-cultural psychiatry and psychotherapy on the other. Because, in that latter area, what you find is that any form of psychotherapy, almost any form of psychotherapy is based on assumptions about what a human being is, what’s ideal for them what’s good for them. I suppose a psychotherapist might respond by saying that that ideal is something which gets generated over time in the relationship between the therapist and the client. The therapist isn’t there to say at the outset: “Here is the kind of person I’m trying to turn you into.”  So I accept that possible objection. But I think there’s a deeper sense in which there are certain assumptions, at least, in play. And if you transfer that back over to religion and the psy-disciplines – one of the things I try to do – I have a framework I tried to put together to work out exactly what bothers me about this relationship and how I want to investigate it. And I think one is the nature of the human person. And so, what does it mean to be healed? Does it mean to go back out and be once again a kind of coping, productive member of your society?(30:00) Or does it mean to go back out into your society and have a more prophetic role, and say, “Actually this is wrong, and that’s wrong. And the reason why I suffer from stress or anxiety or depression isn’t just that I’m wrong, or I’m failing to cope, it’s that the world around me is disordered.”  Those sorts of judgements, which border on the moral, are the sorts of things that would be comfortable to people with what we might call a religious background and less so to people who perhaps have a more secular orientation.Social justice can cross both lines, obviously. But I think in forms of psychotherapy and healing which have more of an explicit religious orientation, that element of judgement, which I suppose now is more pushed out onto the outside world – because the danger of internalising that judgement has become much more clear – that kind of judgement has become much more common, you see it more often. But one final thing on healing, which is: one of the things that I think can undermine healing is the difficulty, when religion and the psy-disciplines come together, of people making the same mistakes about the kind of language that they’re using. So there’s a writer called Jack Engler who writes about Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. So there are all these key terms in Buddhism which can be really badly misinterpreted if you’re not careful, and if Buddhism and the psy-disciplines come together in the wrong way. For example, a Buddhist concept like “ no self”  can easily be taken up and used by someone who has very low self-esteem and finds the idea of there being a fundamental unreality about themselves comforting. But they’re using it counter-phobicly, they’re using it in the wrong way. And actually they’re digging themselves a deeper hole, by using the idea of no self to justify very, very low feelings about themselves and wallow in it. He has a really nice line which, I think, cuts across  a lot of what we’ve been talking about. He says, “ You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”  So, in his scheme, there is a role for the psy-disciplines in clarifying a person’s sense of themselves, building up an ego in the sense of a healthy single subject – not being narcissistic and arrogant and self-obsessed  but being a healthy subject – who is then able to cope with what Buddhism would say is the ontological fact that there is no self. And it’s mistakes over language that can come up when religion and the psy-disciplines come together that I think can often be quite damaging, that can give people either false hope or the wrong sort of hope, or just confuse them worse than they were confused before. And, in turn, can either undermine healing in particular contexts or just undermine their growth in a bigger way. Which is why I think interrogating the use of language in this dialogue is such an important task.

KB: I’m keeping an eye on the time, this will be the last question. It strikes me that this idea of being nuanced, being careful about how language is used. . .  would you say this is one direction in which you hope to see the field grow? And that’s the last question: what direction can this field, that you’re working in, grow? Specifically of course, in Religious Studies: where can we go next?

CH: I wouldn’t presume to tell Religious Studies where to go! I’m just a plain old historian. But in response to the question, which I think is a good one,  what I would probably like to see and encourage is more of a creative and honest focus on the antagonisms that arise when religion and the psy-disciplines get together. Because I think we hear a lot, both within academia but also the wider world of publishing, YouTube, everywhere else, of the complementarities. There’s a great book by Frances Spufford: Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can  Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. A beautiful, beautiful book – highly recommended . But that kind of talk about how religion and our understanding, via the psy-disciplines, about what a human person is; how these things work together so well; how one can be a great means of explanation for the other; how one can draw a person into the other . . . . I think all of that’s true, and all of it’s wonderful.But there needs to be more of a focus on where these things actually break down; where they’re offering views of the world which simply aren’t compatible and people shouldn’t be told that they are; or where mistakes and confusions can arise that actually cause people suffering. And by trying to investigate those better and clarifying them and trying to be honest about them, I think the field gets more interesting and less harm is done to people as a result. So that’s the one big area I’d like to see that happen.

KB: OK. So on that important note, thank you very much, Dr Chris Harding, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.


Citation:  Harding, Christopher. and Krittika Bhattacharjee. 2017. “ Religion and the Psy-Disciplines”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 March 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 March 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-and-the-psy-disciplines/

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

Healing and higher power: a response to Dr Wendy Dossett

Headlines warning of the social fallout from alcohol and drug addiction often fail to record the remarkable fact that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have successfully “recovered” from these often devastating dependencies.  The highly lauded “12 Steps” programme, that has fronted the decades long efforts of both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, as well as similar organisations, have undoubtedly saved many lives.

At the heart of this success story is an acceptance of a spiritual “higher power” available to all, one which supersedes mere will power and puts them on the road to recovery. In her interview Dr Wendy Dossett explains that Bill Wilson and Dr Robert Smith, founders of the AA and the 12 Steps programme, were influenced by the religious practices of the Oxford Group, a conservative evangelical form of Protestantism, which looked back to the early Christian church for its inspiration. As a result the pair believed alcoholism was a “spiritual malady”.

However, Dossett agrees that this “higher power” in no way automatically means the “God of religion”.  The religious studies academic, a senior lecturer at Chester University, tells the interviewer this higher power “can be anything so long as it is not will power”. Discussing her research she explains that while some of the recovered addicts she spoke to about their experiences identified this power with God, others variously described it as the “spirit of the universe”, nature, or even ”the force” – an echo of Star Wars.  On the other hand, a number felt this power was derived from fellow addicts in their recovery group, while some associated it with their friends and one even initially identified it as the ‘unconditional love’ from her cat.

Dossett makes clear it is essential that religious studies researchers listen to, value and document the experiences of the practitioners of contemporary spiritualities.  And it is equally appropriate for them to use their subject knowledge and skills to identify the religious elements and separate them out so that they did not unduly influence the interpretation of their findings. What resulted in her work “is the actual experience of people who work these programmes”.

It is worthwhile at this stage to point out that while Dossett describes of what she has discovered, what the ‘higher power’ or ‘spirituality’ can mean to others, she offers no definition of her own. I suggest that this disinclination to define the words limits or even forecloses their meaning.  To support her view that the ‘higher power’ is not necessarily religious she referred to Robert C. Fuller’s book (Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, OUP, 2001) which made it clear that although organisations like AA were spiritual they were not aligned to any religion or faith and had no “requirements of belief to be a member”. However does this not beg the familiar question: can we genuinely understand spirituality without relating it to religion or metaphysics?  Can we legitimately define it to be whatever anyone wants it to be at any particular time?  Is there not a danger that a concept like spirituality, when deprived of a specific definition, loses its depth and profundity?

In a direct challenge to those unprepared to countenance a metaphysical view viewpoint, the late Vaclav Havel once warned: “Man is not an omnipotent master of the universe, allowed to do with impunity whatever he thinks, or whatever suits him at the moment.”  The former Czech president and philosopher continued: “The world we live in is made of an immensely complex and mysterious tissue about which we know very little and which we must treat with utmost humility” [i]. It seems to me Havel’s reference to the “immensely complex and mysterious tissue” helps, to some extent, in explaining the concept of spirituality associated with the 12 Steps’ “higher power” and the remarkable recoveries Dossett documented in her research.  And I certainly feel the importance Havel gives to “humility” is mirrored by Dossett’s sensitive approach to her research group and the analysis of her findings.

While those that reject the concept of God can never associate the “higher power” with the divine, it is obviously still appropriate to explore if a metaphysical force might lie at the back of this power and, if so, what it might be. After all the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in the late 1930s, are undeniably Christian.

Given these Christian origins, it is relevant to look at the accounts of Jesus’ healings. Like those the programme has successfully treated, Jesus, too, spoke of a “higher power”, although he called it the “kingdom of heaven”.  Interestingly, he also said that he could do nothing on his own[ii], a remark that, in my view, alludes to a “power greater than ourselves”, a phrase 12 Steps participants have also used when explaining their recovery. The Bible clearly links Jesus’ view of the kingdom of heaven with the power he healed by.  Furthermore, later New Testament writings show others in the early Christian Church echoed Jesus’ cures.

But even Christians, particularly within the last 150 years, have often found it hard to regard Jesus’ healings as anything other than myths or natural events.  Paul Tillich recognised this neglect of the healing aspect of Jesus. He wrote that the Gospels ‘abound in stories of healing; but we are responsible, ministers, laymen, theologians, who forgot that “Saviour” means “healer”, he who makes whole and sane what is broken and insane, in body and mind’ [iii]Thus he identifies healing as an essential element of salvation.

Nevertheless, not only has the healing element of Christianity gone largely unacknowledged, it has in fact been almost subsumed by the advances of modern medicine. Be that as it may, many Christians combine their prayers with the work of doctors. In my research on Christianity and healing I am aware of several studies that identify the health benefits of a combined approach to healing such as those done by Harold G. Koenig at the Centre for Spirituality, Theology and Health, Duke University, North Carolina.

One denomination of Christianity was founded specifically on the practice of healing through reliance on the power of God alone. The French sociologist, Regis Dericquebourg, using the Weberian typification of ‘ideal types’, defines The Church of Christ, Scientist as the “first healing church”[iv].  Started by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879 – Christian Science was a precursor to the approach of the Oxford Group in that it looks to “primitive Christianity” for its inspiration and practice [v]. According to its own periodicals it claims hundreds of thousands of recoveries and cures, many accompanied by medical diagnoses.

If Jesus healed two millennia ago, if subsequent Christians have also used similar healing powers down the centuries, and, if the healings reported by Christian Scientists are genuine, it is plausible that the “higher power” of the 12 steps programme is sourced in a divine power It is beyond the scope of this commentary to explore what kind of divine power this is, but given the roots of the AA, it is likely to correspond with a Christian understanding of God. Whatever the case, the recoveries and healing experiences of those who use a ‘higher power’ are too numerous and too well documented for it not to evoke further study as to how it works and where it comes from. For all its reticence to use religious terminology and perhaps because of it, Dossett’s research indicates that the answers are going to be new and surprising.

Endnotes

[i] The New York Times, 3 June 1992

[ii] Luke 17: 21

[iii] Tillich P, The New Being, Scribner, New York, 1955, p42

[iv] Dericquebourg R, ‘Christian Science: The first healing church’ presented at The Evolutions of Christian Science in Scholarly Perspective seminar, April 23/24 2015, FVG Wilrijk-Antwerp, Belgium. Published in Acta Comparanda Subsidia ll, FVG, June 2015

[v] Church Manual, Christian Science Publishing Society, Boston, p17

Religion, Spirituality, and Addiction Recovery

What is the relationship between ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’, ‘addiction’ and ‘addiction recovery’? What are we meaning by ‘addiction’? Is it socially constructed? Why are we even talking about a relationship between these concepts? Can religion be conceptualized as an addiction? how might a specifically Religious Studies approach help us to productively engage with this particularly sensitive area? And, as ever, how might we go about conducting such research? These are just a few of the questions discussed in today’s podcast, where Chris speaks with Dr Wendy Dossett of the University of Chester, UK.

Be sure to take a peek at some of Wendy’s other scholarship, like the book Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion.

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

BDSM as Religious Practice

RqdefaultIn this interview Alison Robertson gives an insight to her doctoral research on BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, and Submission) as religious practice. Throughout her research, Robertson has examined the relationship between BDSM and religiosity, drawing interesting questions on the nature of religion as a category, the role of self-inflicted/positive pain in religious practice.

IMG_20160418_154835This interview considers the methods of approaching a study of BDSM, the dreaded ethical clearance, and interview participants’ responses to the categorization of their experience as ‘religious’. Robertson’s research poses important questions for the wider academy, including what other ‘extreme’ practices could be deemed religious, and the difficulty in identifying differences between ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ experiences.

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

Identity and Capitalism

This interview with Craig Martin explores the limits of identity formation under modern Capitalism. Martin’s work Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie focuses on the ways in which culture and religion are produced for consumption.

Have we ignored the ways in which identity is produced and reproduced under capitalism’s pressure? The casual use of the term “spirituality” today has become one way literary works have created a space where the social conditions of religious identity appear as identity forming. Cultivating spiritual cache may seem benign, but Martin argues here for a critical gaze about the ways in which even our most basic claims about religious identity are constructed in ways that obscure rather that clarify the cultural pressures and structures that surround us.

Social Constructionism, and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion, as well as Craig Martin’s previous podcast appearances. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Gilbert & Sullivan librettos, ruby slippers, and more.

See you in the next life? Cognitive foundations of reincarnation beliefs

Human reincarnation: Same person, different body, another life. From established theological doctrines to local folk beliefs, the idea that deceased individuals may be “reborn” into the body of another can be found all over the world (White, In press). Since the writings of philosopher John Locke in the 17th century, establishing personal identity has primarily focused on memory. The interplay between memories and what constitutes a person’s identity plays an interesting role in reincarnation beliefs. For example, when juxtaposed alongside theologies that teach that the individual undergoes mental or physical changes in the process of rebirth, how can this same individual be identified in the new life if they have undergone changes (White, 2015)? In this podcast, Dr. Claire White brings the tools of cognitive science of religion (CSR) to bear on this question and several others surrounding reincarnation beliefs.  

Dr. White begins  by discussing the ongoing research at her laboratory at California State University, Northridge. She goes on to introduce the topic of reincarnation, noting that only recently has CSR paid much attention to these types of beliefs. While conceptual scaffolding surrounding the idea of reincarnation can vary widely from culture to culture, Dr. White draws on some of her recent research pointing out that many similarities exist in how individuals reason about and discern the pre-rebirth identities of the reincarnated. In closing, Dr. White shares some preliminary insights gathered from her ethnography of “past-life groups” in the western United States. Interested in why some individuals may be attracted to these groups, she suggests the groups may function as a form of psychotherapy and self-actualization for those attending.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion and Memory, and Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, small dinosaur figurines, poppy seeds, and more.

Many thanks to NAASR for facilitating the recording of this interview.

References

  • White, C. (2015). Establishing Personal Identity in Reincarnation: Minds and Bodies Reconsidered. Journal Of Cognition And Culture, 15(3-4), 402-429. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/15685373-12342158
  • White, C. (In press). The Cognitive Foundations of Reincarnation. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion and Planetary Ethics

Whitney Bauman discusses with George Ioannides some of the potential and difficult answers to these questions and more, revealing how the field of religion and ecology can go some way in helping to visualise and constitute a planetary, hybrid, ethical community of ecospiritual, biohistorical, and multispecies subjects.

Speaking of religions as “eco-social constructions across multiple species, over multiple generations, and over multiple histories,” Bauman puts forward an ethics of understanding ourselves and others as planetary creatures, and understanding religion, science, and nature as non-foundational, non-substantive categories.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, biodegradable refuse sacks, poppy seeds and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Bron Taylor on Religion after Darwin, and Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms, and the Question of the Anthropocene.

Mysticism, Spirituality, and Boats at the IAPR 2015 World Congress

The International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR) 2015 World Congress was held on August 17th-20th. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Alex Uzdavines, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

It’d be too much to say that I finally “get” horizontal transcendence (Coleman, Silver, & Hood, In Press), but I certainly got a horizontally transcendent experience at the IAPR 2015 World Congress in Istanbul, Turkey. Obviously, I was on a boat. It might have been related to the truly international collection of researchers discussing fascinating things (shop talk and otherwise) while enjoying a flagrantly stunning day on the  Bosphorous. Although on reflection, the sea-sickness meds probably didn’t hurt. Regardless, there were several points along the way where I found myself disconnected, floating for a moment in a sense of overwhelming peace and happiness. Of course, I might have also been primed for this experience by a symposium the day before, which stuck (and has continued to stick) in my mind.

 Jesper Sørensen presenting.

Jesper Sørensen

One could almost describe the first invited symposium of the conference, organized by Heinz Streib, as magical, although not the kind I usually deal with. Magic, Mysticism, Spirituality: Religion’s Fellow Species delivered exactly what was promised, as series of interesting talks on areas which are both components of and discreet from religion more broadly. After an introduction by Dr. Streib which outlined both the usefulness and problems with using prototypical categories like the ones dealt with in the symposium, Jesper Sørensen outlined his work in fractioning the idea of magic. He discussed both the discreet components of what it is (people have a goal with doing it, the causal mechanism is opaque, ritualized, etc.) and that before we can synthesize these components together to study magic as a whole, we need to develop and explore hypotheses about the discreet components. For instance, when thinking about ritual behavior one component might be a need to negate strong causal expectations or develop weak ones. He used the ritual of Christian Communion as an example, “There’s no intuitive schema for why eating bread leads to grace,” but the ritual surrounding the cracker consumption develops a causal link where there otherwise might not be one. For me, this discussion highlighted the furor surrounding the desecration of a communion wafer by PZ Myers, and perhaps explained some of the underlying cognitive reasons behind it.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

symposium from the APA Division 36 mid-year conference. It also, in some ways, ran counter to Sørensen’s discussion of the need to explore the individual components of higher-order factors before working with the factors themselves. Of course, much of this has to do with what one means by, “reductionism.” Nevertheless, Hood described the push to make the psychology of religion fit into mainstream psychology by jettisoning many of the variables and ideas unique to religion and theology. Instead early researchers framed the sub-field using the same variables as the rest of psychology, but with some being more salient within a religious context than others. In doing so, the field might have lost out on exploring some of the more ineffable experiences that are associated with mysticism. This jettisoning is reflected in a lack of critical history among the current crop of handbooks on the psychology of religion and spirituality. They don’t discuss the tensions and interplay between the fields of psychology and theology which have led to the current state of the psychology of religion.

The final talk, presented by Streib, dealt with the semantics of spirituality and his work exploring the subfactors which may comprise this construct. He presented the results of several principal component analyses on data derived from a content analysis of open responses from roughly 1700 Germans and Americans on what they considered to be, “spirituality.” The participants had a wide range of belief identifications within the religious, spiritual, and nonreligious spectrum, allowing Streib and the other researchers to get a wider range of meanings than what might be found in a purely theistic sample. The PCAs generated ten different subfactors nested along three higher-order axes and, when taken together, define the range of meanings which grew out of their content analysis of the qualitative data. In particular, I was interested in how the three axes worked to explain some of the tension which can occur when trying to stitch together the definitions of “spirituality” generated by both believers and nonbelievers. In particular, the axes Mystical vs. Humanistic Transcending (something beyond, higher self) and Theistic vs. Nontheistic Transcending (higher power(s), part of religion) seem to be a big step towards shaving off some of the “fuzz” which often surrounds findings that rely on measures of “spirituality” which don’t take into account that different people can come at that term from very different meanings.

However, the big issue that was (and is) still in my mind after these three talks was the idea of supernaturalism vs. naturalism and the tensions between these that Hood raised. Here, Sørensen’s work seemed to be placed firmly within the realm of the naturalistic by breaking magic down into the cognitive processes that go into the beliefs surrounding it. Yet this doesn’t seem to be hitting on the “ineffable” components that may be unique to religion and mystical experience, which magic certainly seems to be a part of. Similarly, the two axes presented by Streib (which I discussed here) seem to imply a dichotomy of spirituality that is supernaturalistically versus naturalistically derived. Most of the constructs he presented seemed to sit more on the side of the “supernatural” with “natural” spirituality seemingly defined more in opposition, similarly to how theistic nonbelief is defined mostly in opposition to or as absence of theistic belief, rather than being a thing within itself. In effect, is it possible that people who identify as “neither religious, nor spiritual,” yet experience similar feelings of connectedness to those who identify as “spiritual,” have just removed the “spirit” component which implies the supernatural, while still retaining the other components of the term? It’s hard to say, but I’m looking forward to seeing more work (and producing some myself!) to try and figure this out.

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

My particular focus on this symposium came out of its relationship to my own work and what I feel are some of the major discussions going on in our field rather than out of lack of other fascinating talks to cover, not to mention the boat trip. However, several examples pertaining to nonbelief and nonbelievers can be found in Thomas Coleman’s forthcoming report for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Blog. Further, due to travel difficulties among the other presenters, Peter Hill gracefully carried an entire symposium on measurement with a discussion of his work generating a scale to measure Intellectual Humility and Paul Harris’ keynote about how children only seem to come to believe in magical and miraculous thinking when they have a religious upbringing (as opposed to magical and miraculous thinking being native) is worthy of its own discrete report.

The academic quality of the conference alone was strong enough to make this one of the best conference experiences in my career so far. However, given the stunning beauty of the location, the warmth and kindness of our hosts from Marmara and İzmir Katip Çelebi Universities and the Center for Islamic Studies (special mention going to Kenan Sevinç both for much of the photography throughout the conference and helping me navigate a Turkish pharmacy so I could go on the boat trip), I suspect this conference will stand out in my memory for a long time to come.

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

References

Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F., & Hood, R. W. Jr. (In Press). “…if the universe is beautiful, we’re part of that beauty.” – A ‘Neither Religious nor Spiritual’ Biography as Horizontal Transcendence In Streib, H. & Hood, R. (Eds.) The Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality. Dordrecht, NL:
Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-21245-6_22

2015 APA Convention Report (Religion and Spirituality Research)

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by David Bradley, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

The American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention was held in Toronto, Ontario from August 6 through August 9, 2015.  Conferences often have an organizing theme, but the APA Convention is simply too big to be focused on one or two themes.  To give you a sense of scale, here is what was happening at 1 PM on Thursday of the convention: 46 symposia or paper sessions, 3 invited talks, and 119 posters.  And that’s just official APA programming – many of APA’s 54 divisions, including Division 36 (the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality), offer informal programming in hotel suites.  The atmosphere for the APA conference this year was a bit strange, and reminders of the recently released Hoffman Report, which detailed the relationship between the APA leadership and support for enhanced interrogation/torture by the U.S. government.  Several people could be seen wearing t-shirts or pins bearing the statement “First, do no harm,” and the Hoffman Report was often referenced in Q&A portions of talks, even when only tangentially related to the topic at hand (as is standard for post-talk Q&As).

David Bradley with "Super" Phil Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

David Bradley with “Super” Philip Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Despite the thousands of offerings, there were only three or four sessions across the entire convention that hit at the truly important topics (i.e., my own area of research).  I have tried to expand my coverage of the conference to address matters of secondary importance, but I apologize in advance for giving such a limited view of the large, diverse convention.

At any large conference, it’s often the poster sessions that are most engaging, and this was true here as well.  The poster format is well-suited for conversations about the details of a study, and in a large conference like APA, there are enough posters that a handful will be interesting and at least one will be important (see above regarding the definition of important).  Namele Gutierrez (Pepperdine University, abstract available here) conducted a study of friendships at a Christian college.  Participants were asked about their own religiosity, their best friend’s religiosity, and the strength of their relationship.  Students with low self-reported religiosity (below a median-split) reported having friendships that were stronger (deeper and more supportive) if the student reported that the best friend was highly religious (above a median-split).  This relationship was not seen among students with above-the-median self-reported religiosity.  Effect sizes were small but significant.  The reasons for this effect could not be addressed by the data, but I wonder if the context – a Christian university – is important here.  Perhaps the religious nature of the university prevents individuals with low religiosity from being as open and supportive, even with close friends.

Also at the poster session, Courtney Nelson (Texas A&M, abstract available here) reported findings from a study on the relationship between religious vs. nonreligious psychologists’ self-reported ability to do treatment planning for client problems with vs. without religious content.  Predictably, the primary finding was that nonreligious psychologists were more hesitant regarding their ability to accurately conduct treatment planning for religious clients.  The author concluded that this study implied the need for increased training on religious/spiritual matters in graduate schools.  That may be useful for a number of reasons, but since this study included no measure of accuracy of treatment planning, it seems that an equally valid route would be to spend time in training programs reassuring nonreligious therapists of their ability to work with people who are not like them, which would likely increase their self-reported ability to conduct treatment planning.  Or, perhaps, the confidence of religious therapists should be reduced: perhaps religious therapists are too confident in their ability to conceptualize religious material, simply because they themselves are religious, though the meaning of religion in the client’s life may be quite different from the psychologist’s.

Regretfully, I had to pull myself away from the poster session before I could plumb its full wonders to attend another paper session.  The abstracts for the rest of the poster session can be found here.

The next session I attended was the Division 36 Data Blitz featuring six five-minute presentations from graduate students, including your correspondent.  All of the presentations were excellent, but I would like to single out the presentation John Jones (University of Detroit Mercy, abstract available here).  Much has been made about the discrepancies in religiosity between academic psychologists and the general public.  However, this presentation presented data to the effect that while academic psychologists have rates of religious identification much lower than the general U.S. public, their rates of belief in “God or something divine” were close to (though still lower than) the general public.  This might point to psychologists having a more individualistic notion of religion and spirituality, separate from the notions of traditional organized religion.  Whereas before, the conflict appeared to be between nonreligious psychology and religious public, perhaps the conflict is more between liberal notions of supernatural spirituality (popular in academia) and traditional conceptions of religion (popular in the general public, though perhaps less now than in the past).

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

One Division 36 symposium featured four talks relying on religious priming.  Three of the talks used contextual priming (conducting a study in a church vs. a classroom, or in front of a chapel vs. in front of a science center, or in front of a cathedral vs. in a secular civic square) and one study used websites (asking participants to evaluate the design of one of two websites created by the researcher, identical except for religious content).  Priming religiosity was found to: reduce the need for dissonance reduction and increase decision certainty; increase prejudice toward LGB individuals; and increase prosociality. I find priming fascinating as an increasingly controversial method in psychology, but remain skeptical of its importance, though this may be because all of my priming studies have failed so far.

Division 36 also hosted a symposium on the experiences of nonreligious and LGBTQ individuals, featuring three talks.  Two of the talks, by Zhen Cheng (University of Oregon) and Jacob Sawyer (Columbia University), introduced new measures of microaggressions against nonreligious people and experiences of anti-atheist discrimination, respectively.  Both talks linked experiences of anti-nonbeliever sentiment to lower scores on several measures of psychological well-being.  The existence of anti-atheist/anti-nonreligious sentiment has been well-documented, and I’m glad that the psychological impact of these experiences are finally being explored.  The third talk, by Kimberly Applewhite (Yeshiva University), used excellent qualitative, grounded theory methodology to explore the experiences of individuals who currently identified as members of the LDS Church (Mormon) and were LGB identified.  These participants often struggled to progress through the stages of faith development and LGB development simultaneously – indeed, the title of the talk, taken from a quotation from a participant, was “The Conflict is Constant.”  More high-quality qualitative work, please!

11863297_10205742746822141_4995918497479033784_nFinally, my time with Division 36 at APA concluded with a talk by Will Gervais (University of Kentucky), who was given the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award.  His talk was an overview of his research on the psychological underpinnings of belief in God, and therefore nonbelief in God.  For a good overview of his approach, see his article in Trends in Cognitive Science and the RSP interview with Will Gervais.