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Nonreligion, Religion, and Public Health

The link between religion/spirituality (RS) and health is a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology and sociology of religion, medical studies, and other disciplines. Although this research is usually limited to correlational studies, RS is often interpreted to be an important causal factor in positive health outcomes. This has led some academics, NGO’s, and governments to argue that the putative health benefits of RS might be harnessed for public health and public policy more broadly. For example, the United States Army has recently launched a “spiritual health” program, and in the United Kingdom there is an ongoing debate about whether mindfulness meditation should be taught in schools. Government initiatives aside, what if the nonreligious are equally as healthy? In this podcast, Thomas J. Coleman III interviews Dr. David Speed on how research using nonreligious and nonbelieving samples problematizes some of the underlying assumptions of the relationship between RS and public health.

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


Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health

Podcast with David Speed (22 April 2019).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Speed_-_Nonreligion,_Religion_and_Public_Health_1.1

Thomas Coleman (TC): Thank you for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project. I’m Thomas Coleman. And I have an interesting topic that I don’t believe we’ve broached before, on nonreligion and public health. And I have a special guest with us today to talk about this. But I kind-of wanted to provide the Listeners with a little bit of background first, before we introduce him. So the link between religion and public health is really a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology of religion, public health, medical studies and other disciplines. This research is often limited to correlational studies because the procedures required to test these things experimentally are either unfeasible or raise serious ethical considerations. For example, as psychologists it’s really hard for us to figure out how we could validly manipulate someone’s nonreligious or religious identification, their beliefs or their behaviour, in a laboratory setting. And university ethics committees have a problem with us kind-of assigning people to the cancer condition for an experiment. So we can’t do that! But when many of these aforementioned correlational studies – some of which we’ll talk about in a second – identify a relationship between religion and improved health, religion is often interpreted to be an important causal factor. And in today’s podcast I’m pleased to have with us Dr David Speed who is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick. And his own research has applied a critical perspective to the religion and health literature, specifically focusing on how the nonreligious have comparable health to the religious. David, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

David Speed (DS): Hi Tommy. Thanks for having me.

TC: Excellent, excellent. So I was hoping we could have a little discussion along the lines of religion, nonreligion – kind-of the intersection on public health more generally – but also from the perspective of just psychological and individual’s health.

DS: Sure.

TC: And I know – just pointing out some further relevance for the Listeners here – in the US I think the Department of Defence has a multimillion dollar initiative looking at “spiritual fitness training“ and in screening of troops. And I can see David grimacing right now! But you know, this underscores an important fact that many governments and public health researchers are not simply interested in understanding or studying the relationships between religion and health, but actually using the purported benefits of religion and spirituality to shape public policy. And then, a last example here, I’m reminded, because I’ve been living in the UK off and on for the past two years, of how the United Kingdom has recently funded mindfulness meditation interventions I think in over two hundred county wide schools. So I’m excited to get down to a critical discussion about the nature of religion and health with you David and see where it goes.

DS: That sounds wonderful.

TC: So where does some of your own research fit in at the nexus between religion and nonreligion, and personal health and health in general?

DS: So I guess I can start with my dissertation. I started my PhD in 2011 and I graduated in 2015. And when I got accepted into my PhD programme I was told by my adviser I had to pick a health-related topic. And like many grad students I didn’t really know initially what to study. I knew I wanted a PhD but wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. And essentially, I got to the point where I was considering, well, if I could study anything, what would I want to study? And I had a pre-existing interest in atheism and in religion and so I was like, “I wonder how those things relate to health?” And so you go to the literature, as one does. And I immediately found literally hundreds of thousands of citations or references to various religions. So I thought “Well, ok. Obviously someone’s been very busy!” Because this was my first real exposure to it. And then I was like, “OK, well I’m curious how atheism fits into this.” And I found, I think, fewer than maybe a dozen papers, two dozen papers addressing atheism and health. So right away I knew that there, obviously, just on the numbers scale, atheism and health was under-studied (5:00). So I was curious about how atheism fits within the religion and health paradigm. And I started going through the literature. And over and over again you see this recurring set of findings that you’ve alluded to in your intro, that “Religion equals better health; religion equals better health.” So, going to church is good, being religious is good, prayer is good, meditation is good, spirituality is good, religious affiliation is good, belief in God is good, yadayadayada!

TC: So, could you give us a few examples there, though? Because I was very general about that – where these relationships appear.

DS: Sure, so if you’re looking at, say, church-based studies, you’ll find that religious congregants who attend church more frequently are more likely to report, say, lower levels of depression. They might report better perceived well-being. If you’re looking at national studies you might find that people with higher levels of church attendance report better happiness. It varies from country to country. There’s a cultural effect that happens. But a lot of the positive literature really centres around the US where religion tends to be more dominant. There’s a smaller proportion for Canada, and the UK, and other areas. But generally, a lot of these studies just kind-of recurrently suggest that if you go to church, or if you’re religious, you might be more likely to go for screening behaviours for cancers; if you’re religious you might be more likely to feel empowered; if you are religious, or if you believe in God, you are more likely to be comfortable in a situation where you have to face your own mortality. Something like that.

TC: And so you’re kind-of reviewing the literature, here, as you’re doing your doctoral studies. And you uncover this stuff, and what happens? What has happened since then? What did that prompt you to test, do, or dig in deeper?

DS: So as I’m going through the literature, there’s a few things that I start noticing kind-of simultaneously. And what it was is, you know, you read a few papers and you say, “Ok. People are saying that going to church is good. Ok that’s fine. Whatever. They’re generalising by accident.” But whatever. So you go through a few more and then you’re like “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” So a lot of the studies – not all the studies, but a good chunk of the studies – they recruit from exclusively religious samples. So they’ll go to different church locations, they’ll ask congregants who are there, “How often do you go to church?”, “How happy are you?” and they’ll form a correlational relationship between these two ideas. And correlational research is not that. It’s difficult to make a causal argument with correlational data, but you can point to associations that are recurring. But if you are using an exclusively religious population in order to test something, you can’t generalise the benefits of whatever they’re doing to everyone, because not everyone’s part of that exclusive religious population. So if you sample like five Methodist churches in the Midwest, you can’t then say, “Well, everyone should go to church because of this sample.” You have to say, “Well, people who go to Methodist churches more frequently, congregants have better wellbeing.” That’s a fair conclusion. Now often the literature would say this in kind-of a round-about way. But they would often talk more broadly about the benefits of going to church, or the benefits of being religious, or prayer, or whatever. The other issue too is a lot of the research that is like large-scale is looking at outcomes that are intrinsically related to going to church frequently. So the classic one on this is slighting on the dependent variable. And self-rated health is one of the big benefits of being religious, or of scoring higher on measures of religion and spirituality or RS. So what researchers will do is go into say a religious organisation and they’ll say, “How often do you go to church?”, “How healthy do you think you are?” Or “Do you have any health issues?” They find that people who go to church more frequently report better perceived health and fewer health issues. Well, yes! Obviously! Because people who are really ill or people who have recurring health issues can’t get out and go to church frequently. That’s not shocking. It’s kind-of pointing out that, I don’t know, people who are going through some sort of medical treatment are somehow less healthy than people who don’t have to do that. Obviously they’re going through medical treatment because of the way they are, not because of some factor that’s driving the magic of that medical treatment! So this is a separate issue altogether is that if you’re slighting on the dependent variable, what essentially you’re going to do is that you’re limiting people who maybe on the lower end of that health, who would love to go to church more frequently but can’t (10:00). And the other issue with it – sorry I’m just rattling off a list of issues because this is my life!

TC: No. Perfect.

DS: Another one of the issues is that there was often a conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So it’s the idea that if you get really low levels of religiosity, so like: “I’m not religious, I don’t go to church, I don’t really pray”, the implicit conclusion or sometimes explicit conclusion of the researchers who do that kind of research would say, “Oh. These people embody secularism.” That is not an equivalent statement. The issue with that is, secularism is adhering to or taking specific positions on other topics, right? It’s not merely being apathetic towards religion, it’s endorsing other specific values that are more secular in nature. So there’s this conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So researchers will report, “You know religion’s healthier than secularism.” But they’re not assessing secularism the vast majority of the time. They’re just equating high secularism with low religiosity.

TC: And then we might say, more specifically, just secular nonreligious people per se. Because we’re used to, on the Religious Studies Project of course, taking a very critical approach to these terms. That’s something we don’t usually do in Psych of Religion although we should more. So just kind-of giving that to our Listeners as a blanket term here, you know, confusing people who probably self-identify as secular nonreligious with actually people who would identify as religious.

DS: Yes, absolutely. The biggest issue, though, for the research is that the mechanism driving the relationship between religion and health isn’t always clear. The big one that has the most support, I would argue is social support.

TC: Yes, I was going to say, what do mean by mechanism, here, in terms of driving? How does that work?

DS: Sure. So if you say that Advil is related to pain reduction, right? Advil is doing something – or Ibuprofen if we want to be non-brand specific – Ibuprofen is acting on your body in some biological way in order to produce the desired outcome. If the argument is that religion is connected with health, well, how is it connected with health? We can point at an association of high religion, high health, but why is that? What is the driving mechanism under-pinning that relationship? And arguably the strongest contender for that, from what I can see, is social support. And social support is associated with health. Social support is the perceived availability of resources around you from people. So I’m crying and I call my friend, will he or she console me? If I need money for rent until next week, will my friend have my back? If I really want to share about my day, will my wife humour me and listen to me talk about research for the 35th time that week? So that’s social support. So the more available social support a person has, and the higher degree of availability, the healthier they are. And this isn’t shocking. Like, having friends around you and having family and peers who you can rely on, that’s associated with good health. Religion’s associated with good health, this is true. But social support is also associated with religion. So people who are religious tend to report higher levels of social support. And to me this makes a lot of sense. Like, it would be astounding if you went to church on a weekly basis, or mosque on a weekly basis, or synagogue on a weekly basis and there was no social benefit to you. It would be astounding if that were the case. So the problem is . . . because the three of these things are inter-related, when you’re talking about social support. When we talk about religion benefitting health, a question that’s really important for researchers is “Why?” And if it’s social support, it gets more dicey about how we’re interpreting this then. Social support is a general benefit of social activities. It’s not a specific benefit of religion and spirituality.

TC: I was just going to get to asking that. Aren’t there some arguments that, maybe, religion is not the only source but, people might argue, a very good source of creating these social connections? How does that kind-of bode here? No – it’s not religion per se, but it is a really being driver of social connectedness?

DS: Sure. And I think that’s a very reasonable position to take. About half of my family I would describe as quite religious. They tend to go to church frequently. They tend to really enjoy church. But often they’re talking about. “So this happened in church . . .” or “So and so said this . . .” “I really like engaging with this person.” And it would be. . . . I think it’s a fantastic way of socialising with like-minded people. I think that’s wonderful (15:00). The problem is, is that the way this is presented within findings, and the way you often see justification for religious-oriented policy, say, like from government or from specific initiatives looking at improving spirituality in the fine young men and women of the United States is that you might see this as saying, “Oh well, religion is doing this.” It’s not social support via religion. It’s just religion. So last year I wrote a paper about this where I was discussing that it’s very frustrating talking about the benefits of religion when social support seems to be playing a major role in this. So, if you don’t mind I was going take an excerpt from that paper to help illustrate.

TC: Absolutely.

DS: I said, for example, “It is not difficult to imagine that persons who are active in chess clubs will have access to social support from their fellow members. Furthermore it is not unreasonable to imagine that more active members of chess clubs report better access to social support than less active members. However, if it were found that attendance at chess clubs was positively related to mammography it would be unusual for a researcher to frame these findings as ‘Chess enthusiasm promotes breast X-rays’. Instead, it would be likely argued that social support, which is accessible from any number of institutions including chess clubs, was responsible for increased screening behaviour. However in much of the existing religion and health literature a general benefit of social support, better screening in this case, appears to be presented as a specific benefit of religious activities.” And this is what I find very frustrating as a researcher: it would be shocking if going to church every week didn’t do something. But the important thing there is the social activity for it and not necessarily the religious angle for it. In fact there’s several studies where, when they’re controlling for social support – bringing in the relationship between religion and health, that relationship – the religion and health relationship goes to nothing. Because they’re controlling for social support. This doesn’t happen all the time. But it happens in several studies. And this is an important thing to consider. And finally I have one more point on this. I have one more quote on things that I find frustrating about the literature. It’s that even when researchers, when they work with looking at exclusively religious samples, they were . . . these are general samples, right? What they would do is they would describe everybody’s relationship between religion and health with a single type of consideration. So everyone got the same description of that relationship. So there was no real strong interest in looking at whether or not the relationship between religion and health was affected by other factors. Now researchers have tested moderation before. They find that, say, less-educated people tend to find a stronger benefit from religion and health.

TC: So we’re talking here about moderating factors being like level of education; maybe it only holds for lower or higher; or income, for example; or men versus women? Those kind of things. So I guess adding nuance to this “Religion is good for you!”

DS: The core thing, the frustrating thing is that when you’re looking at general samples you’re sampling people who are not religious, you’re sampling people who are not spiritual, you’re sampling people who are atheist, right? And there’s no reason to suspect that these people would value religion and spirituality to the same extent as someone who believes in God or is religious or spiritual. There should be no default assumption that these groups are equivalent to begin with. If you’re looking at say, sex-based differences like men versus women or males versus females you could say, “Well there’s no reason to suspect that one of these people would have a radically different relationship with religion.” They do not . . . their identity, or their moderating factor there, isn’t a religiously-slighted variable. If you’re looking at people who are atheist, though, that is something related to the very idea of religion and spirituality. If you’re looking at nonreligion that’s something that’s very much related to the idea, intrinsically, to religion and spirituality. But what had happened is that these previous studies they all treated everyone in the entire sample as having more or less the same expressed relationship between religion and health so they looked at sex as a moderating factor, age as a moderating factor, or education. But there was generally never any interest in looking at people who are not religious, whether or not they reported an equivalent relationship. So what the focus of my doctorate was on was looking at the idea of health outcomes and religious and spiritual beliefs and behaviours, but looking at whether or not people who were atheists, or nonreligious or not spiritual, whether or not they recorded a different linear relationship between those activities or beliefs and outcomes. And it turns out quite often they did. And quite often they reported a lower health score when they reported higher levels of religion and spirituality. So if you go to church, that’s fine (20:00). But you would, in this case, you would have to be religious really to see that same relationship. If you’re not religious and you’re attending church all the time, this has different health implications. So, problematically, if you’re saying that there is a monolithic relationship between religion and health you’re losing a lot of nuance there. Because religion and spirituality have benefits, but you have to have a religious and spiritual identity, which is conducive to you benefitting from those activities. So I jokingly say, “Well, my doctoral work, I got a PhD for saying ‘religion is healthy, but you’ve got to be religious to get that benefit.’” So it’s a kind of simplification, but no one had looked at that previously.

TC: And to add to this, I think that these are really important nuances particularly, again, in the domain of public policy and public health. For example, I’m thankful to have been a part of . . . they have different workshops put on by different places that have like week-long courses for private health care providers, government officials and so on, specifically informing them about the research on the relationship between religion, spirituality and health. And the takeaway from these . . . . They’re conducted very well, but there’s also, at the same time, a certain level of nuance that is just missing. And the takeaway message I hear when I’m in some of these presentations or venues or even reading books and chapters on religion and public health, is this kind-of assumption that since we now know . . . we’ve identified the . . . circumscribed the positive effects of religion here, well then: “Now that we’ve found the fountain of youth, let’s drink from it!”

DS: (Laughs)

TC: There’s almost this. . . . It’s not direct, and I’ve been very impressed in some of the more recent literature that has been taking into to consideration nonreligious concerns or saying, “We don’t know here . . .” but typically, it seems like there’s a blanket message that religion is good for a host of things, and we should use this; the government can grab a hold of this. And you’re saying that: “Kind-of . . . possibly . . . but . . !”

DS: Yes. Shockingly, there’s more nuance to this than “religion equals good health”. Because one of the things that really sticks out from the religion and health literature is when you look at people who are atheists, right? Atheists generally – we were discussing this prior to the show beginning. Atheists generally aren’t religious. They generally don’t go to church. They generally don’t score highly on religiosity measures. Atheists have really comparable health to believers. So if you . . . just logically, if you expect that high religiosity equals better health, then low religiosity should equal worse health. Atheists should be fairly unhealthy on average, just on that sort-of simplistic, somewhat reductionist perspective. But it’s not. It’s somewhat paradoxical. My colleague and I, Karen Hwang, we published paper called “The Healthy Heretic Paradox“, in which we looked at atheists who on the measures of health, using nationally representative data from America, we find that on average they tended to report comparable health to theists who were strong believers, despite the fact that they didn’t believe in God at all. So this showed there’s something of a fly in the ointment. Because if religion just uniformly benefits health, well people who are really not religious, like atheists, or they’re not – we’ll say atheists as the more extreme example – you wouldn’t really expect them to be healthy. But they are. Meaning that the description . . . it looks, at the very face value of it, that there’s something very wrong with how that relationship is being summarised.

TC: And I think there’s something fishy with the way that the relationship is interpreted both at the academic level and certainly bubbles up to policy and other things. What other studies have you conducted that speak to this, say, lack of nuance that was previously in the literature for this. And also I guess it would be strange to see . . . I can only think what the President of the US or different administrations what kind of flack they would take if they decided to prescribe kind-of atheism! Because it seems that people who did not believe in God more strongly had comparable health to the religious (25:00). So I was just kind-of interested in what other research and work you’ve conducted that can speak to this interesting . . . I don’t know if you want to call it a hydraulic relationship, maybe?

DS: Yes. Geez! I don’t know about the political thing, I’m not sure I feel comfortable answering whether or not the government should prescribe religious or atheistic beliefs. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable with the government doing that. Regardless of whether or not they prescribed atheism or theism. As to the research, so what I generally do . . . my research uses pre-existing datasets from Statistics Canada, from the General Social Survey out of the University of Chicago. I think it’s the National Opinion and Research Council. I think they do those studies. Anyway, so it’s data that’s publicly available to any researcher who is interested in doing it and has the competence and statistics to do assessment. But I published a little more than half a dozen studies on the topic between religion and health. In each case I’m looking at: OK, well let’s look at how this actually relates, and let’s try and distinguish between people who believe versus not believe, in terms of these outcomes. In virtually all cases I found, it’s that often when there’s a really strong positive relationship between religion and health say for believers, you would find a moderating effect for whether or not someone was an atheist. I published a study with the Journal of Religion and Health in 2016 or 17, I can’t remember now. But it was looking at data from Ontario which is the largest province, population-wise, in Canada. And I found that people who go to church they tend to report better health but . . I think it was satisfaction in life, maybe. But if you’re looking at the nonreligious people recording the same level of attendance then what you see is a very different relationship. It actually reports a negative relationship. Now this isn’t to mean that going to church is bad. It’s just you need more nuance when you’re discussing these things, especially at a public policy level. Because it’s not this panacea that fixes everything.

TC: So it seems like there’s a heavy interpretation factor here, where on one end, you know, the general trend might be to say, “Oh, look at the positive effects of – to use the recurring example – church attendance, here.” But then we would not want to conclude for example that less-religious or nonreligious people should avoid church like the plagues, because it apparently, you know has a harmful impact on their health. What we’re talking about here is not necessarily I guess a causal relationship.

DS: No, no. I think if you made like a group of nonbelievers go to church … Besides the ethical issues with that, I don’t think . . . I wouldn’t immediately suspect that all of them would be miserable and report increases in depression, or whatever. But the problem is that when you’re looking at how the academic findings are used and discussed in the broader social lens, how they’re used to inform public policy, or the potential they have to influence policy, there’s discussion about including… you know, default assuming that you should discuss religion and spirituality in clinical therapy. So there’s a real-world consequence to this type of finding. And the problem is that if you’re looking at these relationships and you’re potentially treating it as “more religion better health”, you’re losing a lot of the nuance; you’re losing sight of the personal idea that perhaps some people aren’t religious because they really are opposed to religion. And forcing them to address those topics or discuss those topics may not be a super-positive thing for those groups of people.

TC: I was going to say, I also think it points, to some degree, to our problems with interpreting the positive findings on religion and health then. Because we don’t . . . I guess that was the comparison I was trying to get at then. We wouldn’t kind-of say that church attendance hurts less-religious people in the same way we say, “Look, people . . “ we’re willing to make that inference that people who attend more do better. We wouldn’t make it one case, but we do in the other. But they’re kind-of conceptually similar . . . is what I hear you saying?

DS: Yes. Yes. So like so if you’re looking at . . . this hearkens back to some of what I do with my doctoral work (30:00). But what happens when you look at say irreligious groups, when they report really low levels of attendance or religiosity – really, really low levels of that – if you compared their average health levels to religious groups who report very high levels of religiosity or attendance, those two relationships, they’re about at the same place. And in cases where they are, say, statistically different, so at p value less than .05, the associated effect size of that – so the actual magnitude of difference between the groups – is really, really small. And often it’s trivially small. So the convention for Cohen’s d , which is a measure of effect size (not to get too far into those academic things at this point!) But anything less than a Cohen’s d of 0.2 is usually seen as trivial. It’s not really something to talk about. And if you’re talking about a social activity or the sociocultural perspectives influencing some sort of health outcome and you’re saying it’s happening at a level of a Cohen’s d of less than 0.2, you’re talking about something that you probably can’t really observe in everyday life. And the underlying mechanism isn’t clear because we’re not sure if it’s social support driving the majority of this relationship or not or if it’s another factor. It’s really hard to talk about that and convey a strong sense of meaning to those findings. I mean it’s statistically significant but that doesn’t mean of clinical relevance or of clinical importance.

TC: I think though, one of the examples I usually use when I’m teaching students or talking about significance in general is, you know, the difference between let’s say a football player who weighs 200 pounds versus one who weighs 200.1lbs. One is significantly heavier than the other, but it would be very odd to kind-of say, “Well the other guy weighs . . . he weighs significantly more than I do. I’m going to have to rethink the game here.” You know. No!

DS: Especially with large population samples. Any difference will become statistically significant with enough people sampled. And the reason is because error term gets progressively smaller with the more people you talk to. So if you have, say, one group has an IQ of 100, another one has an IQ of 110.1. If you sample millions of people and you’re able to find that one mean is 100, the other mean is 100.1, because you’ve sampled so many people, what’s going to end up happening is that it will come out as statistically significant but the associated effect is so tiny, like, why even bother talking about it? And religion health research isn’t quite there – there are cases where it’s really beneficial if you’re talking about optimism and outlook after, say, surgery or something. You’ll see higher levels of optimism or you’re feeling cared for because you’re protected by God. You might see some specific benefits in very specific cases, but in terms of, like, at public policy level, or on a national health level, the differences are often quite small. Not always, but often.

TC: Kind-of wrapping this up, and bringing this towards the end, here . . . I’m interested in talking a little bit about how religion and spirituality are conceptualised here. Now I know, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, per se . . . because one of the things I think the RSP prides itself on doing is deconstructing and exposing underlying structure and assumptions of precisely these kind of terms. But it’s something I think . . . well, public health professionals do not have extensive discussions about discursive practices, or what we would really mean when we use this word, or all the different things we’re lumping together! It’s the same with psychologists as well. It’s generally left to Religious Studies scholars and Humanities. So if you could, in closing here, kind-of bring us into perspective and how some of these studies conceptualise religion and spirituality and particularly from the vantage point of the nonreligious, right? Is it one of those things where everyone’s religious, you just have to find the right . . .?

DS: Personally, I’m not sure if there’s an academic consensus on this specifically. I’ve usually . . . concepts regarding religion tend to be better defined (35:00). So if you’re looking at say church attendance.

TC: Better defined than . . . ?

DS: Better than spirituality. So if you’re looking at assessments of attendance: “How often do you go to church?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that; “How often do you pray?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that. It’s self-reporting. You’re relying on people to provide you with data but that’s ok. But you can get a fairly objective standpoint. When you talk about religiosity you get into, what exactly does religiosity mean? There’s different conceptualisations of religiosity. One that people might be familiar with is intrinsic versus extrinsic. Intrinsic is, in a nutshell, religiosity because you see intrinsic values: with this religiosity you get something out of it, you see it’s rewarding or fulfilling in itself. Whereas extrinsic religiosity is kind-of treating religion as a means to an end. So it’s a tool in order to achieve a greater . . . So there’s kind-of some fuzziness around religiosity. But if you ask people how important they find religion is to them, or how religious do they see themselves you can tend to get a more or less consistent set of ways of assessing those specific behaviours or beliefs.

TC: I often also think that this gets us into kind-of “good religion” and “bad religion”. Particularly from a health perspective: there are consistently some negative social effects kind-of associated with varieties of fundamentalism. And it seems here that the same health professionals and researchers are keen to say, “Well, when we talk about religion we’re not meaning that kind – not the stuff that we think is bad for public health, or social cohesion.” Well, it depends on what we man by social cohesion, here. But I often notice that this gets into a good religion, versus bad. And so then that makes me think, “Well, aren’t you really just interested in things that are improving health or psychological wellbeing in general, instead of something religious per se?”

DS: Yes, and you can kind-of see this. This is more apparent within the spirituality literature, in my opinion. So if you’re looking at, say, just like pure religion it’s like, what do you believe? How often do you go to church? Are you religiously affiliated? You get fairly straightforward measures. People know what you’re talking about. People may disagree about whether or not this person’s a true member of this religious organisation, or whether or not they’re a member of that religious organisation. But there tends to be at least consensus on the idea of how you get to those questions. The spirituality literature, I find, is really vague about what that term means. And the way spirituality is assessed, it may not necessarily be intuitive for the laity. It’s just . . . it’s very, very broad in how it’s defined. So I wrote a paper for Skeptic a couple of years ago, where I point out some of the different definitions of spirituality. And one of them defines spirituality as “an inherent component of being human and is subjective, intangible and multi-dimensional”. That literally means anything you want it to mean! So, it doesn’t really matter if you and I are talking about spirituality. If you say “My aunt’s not religious but she’s spiritual,” I’m not sure exactly what you mean, but I understand what you’re trying to convey to me. But if researchers are talking about assessing spirituality they can’t just . . . “Oh yes, I totally know what you mean.” They actually have to quantify and describe and validate measures of spirituality. So when you see these validated measures or these assessments, you see a lot of questions in there that you may not – or at least I wouldn’t, and the people I’m talking to wouldn’t – see these as intrinsically spiritual. So there are questions like: “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong”, “I have a general sense of belonging”, “When I wrong someone I make an effort to apologise”. Those things are included as indicators of spirituality. And to me this is problematic on two different levels. One: this is, in a sense, gaming the system. You’ve chosen . . . or items are being chosen not because I see an obvious connection with spirituality. They might go together, there might be a reason for including these, that’s fine. These have been validated, I have no issue with that. I’m positive these researchers have done their due diligence and this is what has come out. But if you’re talking about spirituality with someone, you wouldn’t say like “Oh yes. When I wrong someone I apologise. That’s a spiritual thing.” Like, that’s a really select definition of spirituality (40:00). So if you’re finding that how well people are engaging socially is an intrinsic component of spirituality and you find that spirituality is related to health – well, yes. Social support and being able to interact, socially, well with other people is related to support. So it just is like a parallel . . . if you said that “I don’t smoke because it’s bad for me” and that’s a spiritual assessment and you find that people who score more highly on spirituality get less cancer, well, yeah! You’ve adjusted the framework of spirituality such that it includes not smoking. Well, of course that’s related to cancer rates, because that’s how that works! So the thing I find frustrating about the spirituality literature – and it’s a really interesting literature, people do genuinely good work in it – but it’s just the variability in what spirituality can mean. And the idea that you feel empowered, or you feel like you have purpose in life – that’s spirituality. I’ve never thought of those things as being spiritual before, like, prior to reading this literature. I’ve always just described that as, “Oh yes, I feel as if . . .I feel autonomy. I feel a sense of mastery.” So, when you’re connecting those measures of spirituality, or that definition of spirituality with health, I’m not shocked that that’s related to better health. But we already knew that from other fields. So my question is kind-of: if spirituality is doing something, what is the unique thing that spirituality is doing? How are you defining that? Is that a good . . . is that a reasonable definition that people would say, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely spirituality”? Or is this a hodge-podge of different areas that we’re just kind-of lumping together and saying it’s spirituality and saying, “Oh look, it’s ‘Spirituality – better health!’”

TC: Excellent. I was wondering if you had any kind-of summing up or parting phrase, or words, or thoughts for us on the relationship between religion, nonreligion and health?

DS: (Laughs).

TC: Something to send our Listeners away with? Something even more profound than what you’ve already said?

DS: I don’t know if I can go more profound! But religion is related to health. Like, correlationally we can establish that religion is related to health. If you’re religious and if you go to church, chances are you’re probably getting a benefit from it. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what the underlying mechanism is. If it’s the social support angle, if it’s because you have a better sense of coherency, is it because this really makes you feel like spiritually charged as a person? If you’re getting a benefit out of it, continue. Please continue doing it. Don’t be discouraged from not doing it. If you’re not religious and you are hearing all these things about, “Oh. Going to church is associated with better health,” the more elemental question you have to consider is, will this be good for you specifically? If most people are religious and most people benefit from going to church, fine! But that doesn’t incorporate everyone. So there has to be more nuance in the field. Religion is a wonderfully diverse, very complex socio-cultural construct. And chances are that its relationship with health is more complicated than a single edict of “Do more, be healthy!”

TC: Excellent. Dr David Speed, thank you for joining us on the Religious Studies Project.

DS: Thanks a lot for having me.


Citation Info: Speed, David and Thomas Coleman. 2019. “Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/nonreligion-religion-and-public-health/

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.

What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach

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

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


What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach

Podcast with Ville Husgafvel (15 April 2019).

Interviewed by Chris Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Husgafvel_-_What_is_Mindfulness_1.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC: Yes, I’ve heard that.

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

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

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

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

VH: Well, I’ll try to keep it short!

CC: Yes, just a couple of examples.

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

CC: All of these things!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

Vestal Nike and the Corporate Profit/Prophet

Above, an ad from Nike’s 2018 “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. 

By Mark Meehan
Responding to Religion as a Tactic of Governance, Interview with Naomi Goldenberg by David Robertson

He stares at you across a monochromatic abyss, calm, quiet, and serene. His eyes are dark and gentle, black wells holding no judgement but kindly offering peace.

His smile is just below the surface, an ethnic Mona Lisa. Seeing you seems to be pushing a grin to break the surface of his bearded face. He is deeply content and he wants you to join him. Just below his eyes, across a slightly crooked nose, lays a simple, softly pleading message of meaning to a nation void of belief: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Above, Nike’s fall 2018 ad campaign features Colin Kaepernick.

The new American Jesus comes to us from an omni-present deity named for a born-again Roman Goddess. Nike, whose most notable victories are now limited to the Olympics and an occasional US Open, has given voice to a prophet by the name of Kaepernick.

Like most prophets, he caused quite a stir. Some quickly denied his authority, willing to sacrifice offerings on an altar of fire to repudiate his message. Others shouted “Amen,” lining up at temples in generic suburban malls and gentrified city streets to offer their own sacrifice, wearing the sacred swoosh sign of their new prophet as public testimony to their belief.

A new, uniquely American prophet, filling the vestal void.

I kept seeing the face of Kaepernick as I listened to the fascinating podcast of David Robertson interviewing Naomi Goldenberg in Belfast, Scotland. Goldberg reminded us that “there is no religion in the Bible,” pointing toward the historically seamless integration of “faith” within a culture and its various forms of governance. She went on to note the danger posed by those who isolate and use “religion” today as a validating tool for their actions. Policy and practice by authorities can be draped in an authenticating cloak of mythic clout, creating momentum for a range of agendas.

Back in 1697, William Congreve wrote that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but I suspect the righteous wrath of a religious Republican is far more dangerous to me today.

As an American, I live in a society rife with what Goldenberg calls “religion as strategy.” Specific powers leverage “vestal elements” to hide, obscure, and somehow legitimize their actions. Conservative Christians have started to deploy every Evangelical’s favorite Biblical book, Isaiah, to help them reconcile Donald Trump’s propensity to brag about grabbing women by the genitals. “Evangelical thinker Lance Wallnau figured it out: Trump is a ‘modern-day Cyrus,’ an ancient Persian king chosen by God to ‘navigate in chaos,’” writes Tara Isabella Burton in Vox. Sure, Trump might grab an occasional woman, he might be a rancid racist, he might even spew blatant smears toward all who oppose him, but that never stopped God before!

Wallnau is the same man who proclaimed on Periscope that ““I’m just fed up with the fact that believers have to operate like the Jewish people did.” He said, “They all knew Jesus was the Messiah but nobody actually identified with him for fear of being put out of the synagogue. I mean, Donald Trump is that for me; you’ve got 50 million people that voted for him and you wouldn’t know where they are.” Naomi Goldberg couldn’t have put it more clearly as she talked about the use of “vestal states to mystify and legitimatize.” Wallnau, who claims an earned doctorate from a defunct diploma mill, understood the deeply rooted need for faith and authority and becomes the “Legitimizer in Chief” for American Evangelicals.

At the same time, another bastion of faith, the American wing of the Roman Catholic Church, is making daily headlines for its own abuses of religious power. Back in 2014, CBS News reported that “The Vatican revealed that over the past decade, it has defrocked 848 priests who raped or molested children and sanctioned another 2,572 with lesser penalties, providing the first ever breakdown of how it handled the more than 3,400 cases of abuse reported to the Holy See since 2004.” The Washington Post noted in August that “More than 300 Catholic priests across Pennsylvania sexually abused children over seven decades, protected by a hierarchy of church leaders who covered it up, according to a sweeping grand jury report released Tuesday. The investigation, one of the broadest inquiries into church sex abuse in U.S. history, identified 1,000 children who were victims, but reported that there probably are thousands more.”

So, with one arm of American Christianity lying in bed with Trump and another in the headlines for a rampant sexual abuse scandal that was systematically suppressed by Church leaders, where do Americans turn? Apparently, to Nike. The vacuum created by the blatant abuses of power by suddenly illegitimate authorities has exposed the spiritual needs of starving Americans, from sea to shining sea.

But of course, there is a catch. As Nike filled the spiritual void, another prophetic power, whose authority creates both staggering wealth and profound poverty, spoke. After the release of the ad, Nike’s stock soared. As Nike stepped into the vacuum of values with the message to “sacrifice everything,” the company netted a cool $6 billion in company value as the stock surged 36% on the year. Sacrifice, indeed.

Of course, our President resisted. As Goldberg noted in her talk, “Governments are always a little edgy, sensitive to takeover.” Trump wasn’t going to let Nike move in too easily, tweeting his dissent as Nike jumped on his religious bandwagon. On September 5th, the American President declared, “Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!” Sensitive? You bet.

Goldberg ended her talk with a call to action, a plea to make Religious Studies meaningful again by applying what is being done in classrooms and academic journals to real world issues. She challenged scholars to call out those who manipulate the power of religion for their own purposes. Americans are desperate for meaning, and their need marks them as easy targets for bullying on a playground of politics and capitalism. There is something redemptive in Nike’s ad, but we have to do what Goldberg challenged us to do: call out the abuse, even if it opens the door for another bully.

The Dark Goddess: A Post-Jungian Interpretation

by Patricia ‘Iolana, PhD

In an interview with Ross Downing, PhD candidate Áine Warren discusses her research into the ‘Dark Goddess’ at the University of Edinburgh. Drawn into this community of Dark Goddess adherents through her previous research into altars dedicated to the Celtic goddess The Morrigan, Warren examines similarities and differences among Dark Goddesses from various faith traditions including the Eastern Kali Ma, the Celtic Morrigan, and the Norse goddess Hel.

Focused on the female experience, discourse surrounding Dark Goddesses are as varied and complex as the myriad of goddesses that this sector of Goddess Spirituality entails. Warren accurately notes that, in this context, Dark, as a descriptor, refers to the nature of the goddess in question rather than a direct reference to skin colour. For example, the Black Madonna is often, and incorrectly, referred to as a Dark Goddess because of her dark skin, but that is not the nature in question here. In this context, Dark is indicative of what psychologist Carl Jung refers to as the ‘Shadow.’[i]

As Warren states, the Dark Goddess represents ‘part of nature relegated from society and religious practices.’ She is ‘not to be approached; not to be encouraged, and not to be approached within the self’, yet, for an adherent, working with the Dark Goddess is a vital part of any wholistic understanding of self and nature.  Mirroring my own ethnographic research within the Western Goddess Movement, Warren found that the Dark Goddess worshiped in the West bears striking similarities to Eastern Dark Goddesses despite historical and cultural differences.

However, while Warren has found a consensus on the nature of the Dark Goddess amongst the texts and YouTube communities that she is examining, not all adherents within contemporary Goddess Spirituality view the Dark Goddess in the same way.  In fact, the Dark, or Shadow aspect of Goddess, is a point of heated debate within the Goddess community amongst adherents, feminist theologians, and thealogians. Some Goddess Feminists, such as Carol P. Christ, refute the Dark Goddess as a projection of patriarchy.[ii] Christ favours the opinion that these ‘dark’ and often hostile characteristics applied to Dark Goddesses are a product of the patriarchal lens, which transmutes the goddess into a female hammer for male dominance. This is especially true with goddesses, such as Kali Ma and The Morrigan, who are intricately connected to the art of battle and warfare. Christ, understanding warfare as a patriarchal construct posits that this is an unnatural drive for feminine deities while others embrace the Dark Goddess as part of a greater whole Divine Being.[iii]

It is somewhat problematic to have a dialogue about the Dark Goddess without acknowledging the significant influence of the psychodynamics of Carl Gustav Jung. When asked about the connection between the Dark Goddess and Jung, Warren states that no one has ‘drawn that line’ between Jung and these practices. This is where one must wonder if it was a moment of Jungian synchronicity that Warren’s podcast made its way into my email inbox because my doctoral research directly connects Jung to the birth of the contemporary Western Goddess Movement. (For my conversation with Karen Tate on the topic, click here.) In fact, this isn’t just a ‘therapeutic’ element in Goddess Spirituality as Warren claims; Jung and his student M. Esther Harding who originally brought these ideas to American in the early 1900s have given birth to a psychodynamic Goddess-centred faith tradition. Over the years, Jung’s original ideas about Goddess, whom he often refers to as the Anima or the Anima Mundi (the World Soul), have been transformed by feminist theories beginning with Harding in 1935[iv]  and further revised by Naomi Goldenberg in 1976[v] through to Susan Rowland’s in-depth 2002 study Jung: A Feminist Revision and beyond into contemporary academic research such as my 2016 doctoral study[vi]  of Jung’s influence on the Western Goddess Movement, which traces the roots of a Western post-Jungian Goddess religion back to Jung and Harding through the analysis of an emerging thealogy (goddess-centred) found in contemporary women’s spiritual memoirs. The goddess who was once merely an archetypal theory for Jung (divine immanence in theological terms) has crossed the bridge from the psyche into the real world as various forms of the Goddess are understood as existing beyond the psyche in the natural world (transcendent in theological terms) and are actively worshiped as transcendent beings of divinity.

For Jung, the Dark Goddess is the epitome of one’s ‘Shadow’, and Jung’s concept of the ‘Shadow’ has theological implications. In Aion, Jung writes:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognising the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.[vii]

Jung’s model of psychological holism which he deems a path of Individuation[viii] begins with the crucial step of confronting one’s shadow and offers a distinctly feminine alternative to the patriarchal theological construct of sin and evil as disparate parts of ourselves that must be repressed and ignored; instead, Jung offers a system whereby one must integrate one’s shadow.  Not only does Jung ask individuals to stare into the face of their own evil, he asks individuals to embrace this part of themselves as a natural element, which is in direct opposition to the Christian doctrine of evil as the construct of Satan which must, at all costs to the ‘salvation’ of the individual, be avoided.

What post-Jungian Goddess Spirituality offers adherents, and especially women, is an alternate way to both describe and experience the ineffable. More importantly, Jung’s path to Goddess offers adherents a space where their own personal experiences are accepted without question or doubt. Validity is removed as an obstacle to belief. Jung writes:

…there is no question of belief, but of experienceReligious experience is absolute.  It is indisputable.  You can only say that you have never had such an experience, and your opponent will say: “Sorry, I have.” And there your discussion will come to an end.[ix] (emphasis added)

Jung’s theories and models offer an empowering and authentic internal source of power in Goddess. The Dark Goddess is either understood as one side of a multi-faceted Great Goddess (Magna Mater) or as individual goddesses in a pantheon of hundreds.[x] She is a force of death and destruction, and truly encountering a Dark Goddess comes with a steep price. Working with the Dark Goddess often brings the individual to a point of psychological deconstruction. Christine Downing eloquently speaks of her own interaction with the Dark Goddess Persephone in her 1981 memoir The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. Downing relates how facing fear, weakness, and helplessness brought a significant shift in her psyche. Persephone’s lesson (and the lesson of all Dark Goddesses) was that without weakness and fear one cannot truly know strength and courage. She teaches us that we are capable of both great love and compassion as well as great evil and terrible power. The Dark Goddess shows us our frailties, our weaknesses, and our strengths. She will destroy existing paradigms and provide the path to rebuilding one’s self anew – whole and complete as individuals – empowered. This is the true influence of the Dark Goddess.


  • [i] See Jung, Carl G. (1976) The Portable Jung. Hull RFC (Trans), Campbell J (ed). New York: Penguin Books, The Viking Portable Library, p145-147.
  • [ii] See Christ, Carol P. (1997) Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality. New York: Routledge; and (2003) She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine in the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • [iii] See Woodman, Marion and Dickson, Elinor. (1996) Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness. Boston: Shambhala Publications. Downing, Christine. (2007 [1981]) The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press. Wehr, Demaris S. (1987) Jung & Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press. Bolen, Jean Shinoda. (1984) Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives. New York: One Spirit.
  • [iv] See Harding, M. Esther. (1971) Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern. Introduction by CG Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
  • [v] Goldenberg, Naomi R. (1976) A Feminist Critique of Jung. In: Signs 2.2, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 443–449.
  • [vi] ‘Iolana, Patricia. (2016) Jung and Goddess: The Significance of Jungian and post-Jungian Theory to the Development of the Western Goddess Movement. Doctoral thesis, University of Glasgow. Publication forthcoming. See Also: (2018) ‘Jung’s Legacy: The Western Goddess Movement’. In: MacKian, S., Pile, S., and Bartonlini, N. (eds). (2018) Spaces of Spirituality. London: Routledge, 245-259.
  • [vii] Jung, Carl G. (1976) The Portable Jung. Hull RFC (Trans), Campbell J (ed). New York: Penguin Books, The Viking Portable Library, p144.
  • [viii] Jung, Carl G. (1968) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Second Edition. Hull RFC (Trans) Read Sir H, Fordham M, Adler G and McGuire W (eds) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XX, p275.
  • [ix] Jung Carl G. (1938) Psychology and Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p113.
  • [x] See Perera, Sylvia Brinton. (1981) Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women. Toronto: Inner City Books and Farrar, Janet and Farrar, Stewart. (1987) The Witches’ Goddess: The Feminine Principle of Divinity. Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing.

Protected: Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature (Classroom Edit)

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Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered… and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.

This interview was recorded at the June 2018 EASR Conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, where Susannah has delivered a paper entitled “What Gender is ‘Nature’? An approach to new age ecospirituality in theory and practice.” This interview was graciously facilitated by Moritz Klenk, and his podcast studio!

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, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Dickies one piece mechanic suits, and more.


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


Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast with Susannah Crockford (1 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Crockford_-_Ecospirituality,_Gender_and_Nature_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (C.C.): In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered . . . and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining me today to discuss these questions and more is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University. So for a start, Susannah, to the Religious Studies Project, welcome!

Susannah Crockford (SC): Thank you! Welcome.

CC: We are recording in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religion Conference, where Susannah has been delivering a paper earlier on called “What Gender is nature? An Approach to New Age Ecospirituality in Theory and Practice.” So I had the pleasure of being in the room. But before we get to today’s conversation I’ll just tell you that Dr Crockford’s a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University, which works on the NARMESH, or Narrating the Mesh project, investigating the contemporary narrative of the interrelations between humans and large gamut of non-human realities and its potential for staging, challenging and expanding the human imagination of the non-human. The research interests centre on the use of ethnography to explore narratives of spirituality, millenarianism and climate change. Her doctoral thesis was entitled “After the American Dream: Political Economy and Spirituality in Northern Arizona”. And that was awarded in July 2017 by LSE, following which she spent 9 months as a research officer for INFORM or the Information Network on New Religious Movements. And she has a number of forthcoming articles and chapters on topics relevant to today’s interview coming out in Religion, State and Society, Correspondences, Novo Religio and the Dictionary of Contemporary Esotericism. So, watch this space! I suppose some of them might have changed from forthcoming to published by the time this goes out, who knows?

SC: Probably. Hopefully. You never know.

CC: Yes. Academic publishing is a wonderful, wonderful world!

SC: We love it. We love it. (Laughs).

CC: So, we’re going to get to your case study in Arizona soon, but first of all: gender, nature, ecospirituality – how do you get here?

SC: How did I get here was very much through my fieldwork. Because these were the kind-of topics that came up when I was in Sedona and other places in Arizona. People talked about nature in a very gendered way. It was very striking to me just how much these discourses came up. So it was very much an empirical interest. I didn’t really set out to study ecological issues, or ecospirituality. I mean, I thought nature would be relevant when I got to the field. But I wasn’t so concerned with gender. But it’s kind-of one of these topics that it was going to be in my thesis, and then I didn’t have space. So I kind-of pushed it to one side. And then, for this conference, it kind-of came back. And I was like, “Oh yes! Now I can write my thing about gender and ecospirituality” and how New Age spirituality really kind-of inverts this gender binary, I think in a quite interesting, but also problematic, way. So that’s how it came about.

CC: Well how did you, more broadly, end up in Arizona?

SC: That’s a really good question.  And, I mean, there are several ways that I can date it back to. But let’s just say for the sake of simplicity I ended up in Arizona because I wanted to do a project on contemporary esotericism and I discovered Sedona, which is in Arizona, through a quite tragic case, actually of James Arthur Ray. He set himself up as this spiritual guru. And he ran a sweat lodge as part of a longer Rainbow Warrior workshop, where people paid $9000 to go and “unleash your spiritual warrior within”. And it was held in Sedona. And then three people died in this sweat lodge. It was in 2009. And I was reading about that in the news, because I was doing a lot of work on Shamanism at the time. And I was like, “Oh, That’s terrible.” But then I was like, “Oh there’s this place called Sedona that’s full of these New Age people and full of these things that they call vortexes. That would be a great place for an ethnographic study on contemporary esotericism!” So that, very briefly, is how I ended up in Arizona doing my fieldwork.

CC: I could ask you now to introduce us to Sedona, but maybe I should say first of all – because ecospirituality’s going to be coming up probably throughout the introduction . . . . So I know this is a very broad question but, in terms of the next twenty minutes, what are we meaning by ecospirituality? And then we’ll hear more about it.

SC: Yes, so I’m going to define it in a really simple way – which obviously some people might find simplistic – but: finding nature is, in some form, divinised, or finding divinity in nature. And doing that outside of the framework of some organised religion. So I think the difference between ecospirituality and say, like the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, for example. Like you can be concerned for the environment as a mainstream Christian, but I don’t think that’s ecospirituality. Because God, specifically, is not in nature for them. For people who are in some way engaged in ecospirituality the divine is in nature. It’s pantheistic. And it comes up in lots of different forms. Paganism is obviously a really prominent one, Wicca, and it’s obviously very prominent in New Age spiritualties that see nature as part of the energy of the universe, but in a very kind-of high vibrational form. So the energy of nature is one that has a very kind-of high spiritual level. So there’s a very clear association between nature and spirituality and, as we’ll get onto, women and femininity.

CC: And so it’s not environmentalism, and things like that?

SC: No. And that’s actually one of the main points I was making, today: that just because you find spirituality in nature, you think that nature has something to do with your understanding of God, doesn’t mean that you will actually engage in actions that might be considered environmentally friendly, or ecologically engaged, or in fact have anything to do with mitigating largescale ecological problems like pollution and climate change. These are separate things.

CC: Yes. And to the audio editors, we’re going to start banging the table!

SC: Sorry, I need to gesticulate!

CC: It’s alright. Hit me, instead of the table.

Both: (Laugh).

CC: Right. So let’s set the scene then. So, Sedona – a small town in Arizona. What makes it so interesting? You mentioned the vortexes earlier and things . . .

SC: Yes. So Sedona is a fascinating town. It is in Northern Arizona, which is higher up than Southern Arizona. So it’s not low desert with the big Saguaro cactuses which come to most people’s minds when they think about Arizona. It’s up in the mountains, it gets cold in the winter. They even have snow sometimes, but it’s also still, quite hot. Sedona has a river – which is quite rare in Arizona. So it has a fresh water source. So it has the incredible kind-of red rock canyons and the river running through it. There’s trees growing everywhere. So it’s very different from the rest of Arizona. And it’s this sense of landscape that is both striking and substantially different from that around it which I think makes it stand up in human perception as something that this is different enough that “I will perceive it, in some way, maybe, sublime – or even something to do with the divine.” Because a lot of people who live there think that Sedona is a sacred space, whether or not they’re engaged in New Age spirituality. People I spoke to there who were Christians said, you know, “This is a place where God has kind-of bestowed something special on the human race.” Because it is a very beautiful place. So it’s a town of about 17000 people. It is within the Red Rock Canyon. It has one main highway and then another bit splits off to a slightly southern community that’s called the Village of Oak Creek. But they’re all basically Sedona, they’re all pretty much one place. Even though municipally they’re two different places. And Sedona is a tourist resort. It has a lot of kind-of hotels and it has a lot of spas and timeshares, and people go there to enjoy nature, to go on holiday. A lot of people who own property there, own it as a second home. There’s even some kind-of super-rich people there, like John McCain who’s a Republican Senator, Sharon Stone apparently owned a house up the hill from where I first rented a room, in uptown. So there’s these three main locations in Sedona. Uptown has a lot of the stores and a lot of the very wealthy houses. You’ve got West Sedona where there’s a lot of the services, like the Post Office and the school. And it’s where a lot of my informants lived, because it’s a lot cheaper. And then you’ve got the village of Oak Creek which where a lot of retirees live. Because it’s a good place. There’s this phenomena in America of Snowbirds – of people who, once they retire, go and live somewhere sunny for the winter. And then, for the hot months – which are very, very hot – they go back up north to Michigan or Canada or wherever they’re from. So there’s a lot of Snowbirds in Sedona. So, as a town, it’s quite . . . I don’t know, it’s quite typical of small town America in lots of ways. You know, there’s the older people who own all the property and the young people work all the jobs, but don’t really have any resources. And then you’ve also got these things called vortexes. So there’s two ways of talking about the vortexes. Either you can say that there’s four, around town, which are all these kind-of very prominent red rock formations. There are lots of other red rock formations and they have all kinds of names. There’s one called Snoopy, because it looks a bit like Snoopy lying on his back. I never quite saw it myself, but you know people told me it looked like Snoopy anyway. And there’s Cathedral Rock which apparently used to be called Court Rock. And there’s another rock called Courthouse rock. And they got mixed up, and then suddenly Cathedral Rock became Cathedral Rock instead. So this is kind-of like historicity to the naming of the rocks. But they’re also given this kind-of eternal, almost like Eliadian essence of the divine, where people say, “No. They have this special energy. The Native Americans knew about this special energy, that’s why it was sacred to the local tribe s that lived here.” And the reason that people now say there are vortexes there is because this energy emanates from the earth – you know, it’s a real part of the landscape and that’s why we’re drawn there. So people do move there to go and have spiritual experiences. You know, people go on vacations and you know, there’s a lot of services there that cater for this market as well. You can get your aura photograph taken, you can go on a vortex tour. You can have a Shaman take you round to power spots and do rituals with you. So there is a market to it. But there’s also people who genuinely engage with these practices and move there because they feel like it’s a part of their spiritual path. They move there. They would tell me that they were called to Sedona that “the energy drew them in”. And then if they had to leave it was “the energy that spat them out”. And some people would say it was quite a common discourse in Sedona, that the energy could get so intense it could literally drive you crazy. There was a story of a woman who said that she had to leave because “the Red Rocks were screaming at her”. So, you know. There’s this idea that this is a very special place, it’s a very sacred place. But it’s also incredibly intense, and it can be very difficult to live there, both materially and spiritually – if that’s how you kind-of experience your world.

CC: So that’s an excellent scene-setting for the milieu, and the spiritual milieu in Sedona. But let’s focus in on the role of nature in this context, and these practices – and then also on gender. I imagine that you can probably talk about those at the same time.

SC: Yes. So nature is really prominent. I mean it would be prominent even with people who didn’t in any way engage with New Age spirituality. And something I should probably say here is that no-one actually called themselves a “New Ager” in Sedona. There was a shop called Centre for the New Age which has psychic where you can go and pay for readings. But if you ask people, “Are you a New Ager?” they would say, “No.” They call it spirituality and they’re quite comfortable with that. They don’t really care about all out disciplinary arguments about what’s spirituality, and what’s religion, and what’s what. They just say, “Yes, I’m spiritual.” Or “Yes, I’m interested in spirituality.” But they would never really call themselves New Agers – unless they were trying to sell a certain product and it helped them as a label. So the people who were engaged in some way in spirituality very often identified nature as a very prominent source of what they would consider kind-of spiritual practice. But also kind-of just the energy of the place. So for some people being spiritual literally just entailed going for hikes amongst the rocks, maybe meditating a bit, but just being close to the earth. And simply moving to Sedona was seen as way of getting closer to nature. Because it was this place of like astounding natural beauty. It was kind-of seen as embodying nature in a very visceral way. And you’ve also got other locations close by like the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, which is a larger series of mountains that were also considered sacred and kind-of also embodied this idea of big nature in a similar way. So, when it comes to gender, the experience of nature as sacred was very often feminised in the way they spoke about it. So, you know, obviously mother Earth is quite a common one. But in Sedona they would also talk about the Father Sky. So there’s this idea of gender emerging there already. So you’ve got Mother Earth on the one hand that complements father sky. They would talk about the divine feminine and the complement is the divine masculine. Now these are energies. And the shift that was once called the New Age – but now they talk about it much in terms like the ascension, they call it the shift, they call it the new paradigm – this is when the old male energies kind-of wither away and die and are supplanted with the dominance of the divine feminine. So the change that is called New Age spirituality, that change is a shift from something that’s coded as male to something that’s coded as female. And there are all kinds of associations with this gender binary. So male is aggressive, competitive, you know: men start wars, men destroy the planet, they have an extractive relationship to nature. Whereas the female principle is cooperative: it’s very in tune with emotions and it’s very connected to nature and celebrating the earth and being part of the earth. And so, something that came up in the panel today was . . . . This is a very old association between women and nature, but the way that association is framed is not always the same in all times and all places. So I thought one thing interesting that came up this morning was the feminine being associated with death, which made total sense to me. But that’s not there in the context in Sedona. Women are about life, they are about producing life. The feminine is the mother, is the nurturer, is the care giver. You know, this is the divine feminine principle. So it’s this very kind-of starkly-coded gender binary. And it doesn’t really change anything from what are the kind-of general gender associations in America more generally. It just inverts it and says that the feminine is better than the masculine. And you know, basically, it’s not even that women should be in charge – it’s just that everyone should embrace the feminine within them, and that that complementarity is part of the way that we will progress spiritually and socially. But it doesn’t really lend itself to any sense of action. And this is where we come back to this idea that ecospirituality is not the same as environmentalism. My informants weren’t in any way engaged in environmental politics. They didn’t really do anything that could be seen as particularly environmentally friendly. And in fact in the whole kind-of cosmology of the shift, or the ascension, it’s happening anyway. And the way it happens is like everyone working on their spiritual practice. It doesn’t happen by you going on protests or you switching to an electric car, or whatever. It happens by you sitting at home and meditating. Now from another perspective, you could see how that doesn’t help the environment at all. In fact, it breeds a certain passivity to social action. And means that people are going along with the same kind-of actions that are harming the planet. For example: driving cars, which release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon monoxide and all the other greenhouse gases. So there’s no sense of social action or social change. It’s all very inward. And everyone going on their spiritual path together cumulatively creates the change. It’s like the 100th monkey idea. Do you know what that is?

CC: Go for it.

SC: Well it’s like this credited idea from Bio-Anth – biological anthropology –

CC: Yes.

SC:   – that if, like, a certain number of monkeys – say 100 – learn a specific skill it will spread out through the rest of the monkeys by, like, collective consciousness. So that’s very dominant, at least amongst my informants in Sedona, that in fact it was detrimental to go out and do political action. I had this one informant who used to be very involved in NGOs, and going to other countries and trying to do development work. And then she said that all her protest work and all of her social action work had actually been making things worse, because she was so focussed on the negativity of these situations and instead she should stay in America and work on her spiritual path. And, you know, she did various kind-of workshops, and she was very much engaged in “embracing this divine feminine” herself. But that seems to basically involve going on these exclusive retreats to places like the Caribbean Islands, like the Bahamas, or like places in Aspen, Colorado, and getting women who had very high-paying jobs to go on them, so that they could go and “explore their divine feminine”, “work on their consciousness”, and “evolution”, and “inner-conscious entrepreneur”. And by doing that, she would help create way more positive action than she ever did working in NGOs. And, you know, so you can kind-of shift the perspective and go, “How is it helping by you kind-of creating all these places where everyone flies into these luxury resorts, has a lovely holiday, goes home, continues doing capitalism every day?” So . . .

CC: So you’ve done a good job of painting the relationship or lack of relationship, potentially, between environmentalism and ecospirituality, and sort of carving out what we’re meaning there. And we’ve spoken about the entanglements of gender and constructions of nature. But how are the two, I guess, entangled? These two: the ecospirituality on the one hand and this gendering of nature. Are there example you can maybe give of that entanglement of the two?

SC: So, how is ecospirituality entangled in gender? Well, I think it’s very much in this idea associating nature with the feminine – and that both of those things are given a positive valence regardless of what those actions actually are. So I could get very frustrated, in fact, in the field, with people talking about things that are nature and natural as thought that means it’s good for human health. So to take as an example: my informants generally liked to get water from the spring in Sedona because it came directly from the earth – and therefore it was good for them, right? But then it actually transpired that that stream had a very high level of naturally occurring anthrax, which is not good for human health. Now that’s entirely natural, in the sense that humans didn’t put it there. It was a part of the composition of the soil and the water in the area.

(Edited audio)

CC: Susannah has a correction to make to what she just said!

SC: Yes, so what I meant to say, instead of anthrax, was in fact arsenic. Arsenic is naturally occurring in water, not anthrax.

CC: Back to the interview!

(End of edit)

SC: Also, with the way this divine feminine principle got expressed in practice. So in my paper today, I talked about the work of an artist who . . . she did this whole series of paintings of the goddess. And it was all different kind-of instantiations of what she called the goddess energy. And it was all like faces of women growing out of trees, for example. And there’s this wonderful one called Blue Corn Woman, which she attached to a re-evaluation of Hopi myth that had something to do them surviving Atlantis because they listened to earth and knew when to go underground. And therefore they survived the cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis. So she had a whole series of paintings in this way. And, in person, she would always talk about the Goddess and how that was how she kind-of tried to live her life – it was in celebration of this divine feminine principle. And then this led to this very kind-of difficult lifestyle that she had, where she didn’t really want to go out and work because “emotionally, that didn’t suit her”. She wanted to do art, because that’s how she “expressed her soul”. But that meant she basically relied on men, who were variously infatuated with her, to support her financially. And she also had a fairly considerable drinking problem. And she drove her car while drunk. She had a blood alcohol level of like 0.3, now the legal limit is like 0.8 or 008, or something, so she was well over the legal limit. And she drove it into a fire station and wrecked the front of a fire station. And afterwards she was arrested, you know . . .  the process . . . . Let out . . . she blamed the fact that she had experienced childhood trauma. And it wasn’t that she was drunk, it was that she was having a “dissociative state” at the time, caused by her childhood trauma. So she, then, refused to come to court many times. She kept firing her lawyer. And this was . . . all she had to serve was a 90 day prison sentence and go on her way. And it took her three years to come to terms and just do that. So, why is this related to the divine feminine and nature? So it was this association between her emotions and her emotional state – the idea of herself as a woman and the idea of what is natural and what is natural for her – led to this lifestyle that is on one hand quite passive, and on the other hand not accepting any sense of social responsibility for her own action. Because she wasn’t responsible because she’d experienced this trauma. Therefore her emotions were such that she just had to express them. And I felt that that was actually quite problematic. Because, on the one hand you’ve got ecospirituality that’s seen as. . . in a way it’s seen as inevitable – you don’t have to do anything – so that breeds passivity on the social level. And then on a personal level it leads to a lack of accountability in your personal actions – or it can. Because you over-value your own emotions to the extent that the consequences of your emotional states are not dealt with. At least, I felt that in that case. Obviously I knew other people who, in different ways, were interested in kind-of the divine feminine aspects of spirituality. And they did quite productive things. So I don’t want to try and claim that everyone was like this. I’m saying that this is like . . . . The worst excesses of this kind-of association could lead to this kind-of situation. I knew someone else, for example, who felt that the divine feminine principle was how she should express her spirituality and she held Goddess wisdom workshops, and they were very fun, and that was fine. (Laughs) But again, I felt like there was this very simplistic association between femininity, nature and the sense of goodness. Like . . . that it was somehow inherent, and that you would just somehow know, as a woman, by being natural, the right thing to do. And I don’t think that that was always the case.

CC: Excellent. So we’re getting on in time, and I know I’ve got two more questions that I want to ask you before we get to the “what’s next on the agenda, for your research”. One is – you’ve just been speaking there a bit to this: what are the practical, social, political, real world – for want of a better term – effects of this gendering of nature, in your research experience? Why does it matter?

SC: OK. Why does it matter? I think it matters because we are in a time, in our society, when actually we really need to pay a great deal of attention to the environment and to ecology, not for the sake of the planet or of the environment in some disconnected way – because they will actually keep on going. What’s happening in terms of climate change is the erosion of the habitability of the planet for humans. You know, we’re destroying our own ecosystem, and we will be the ones that suffer for that eventually. And I think any of these discourses that kind-of separate off nature and the environment as something separate from humans are causing harm. And I think this particular kind-of ecospirituality in terms of the New Age, or whatever you want to a call it, is quite detrimental in terms of ecology, because it doesn’t put any kind-of real world action to the forefront. I think meditating is great, but I also think you need to accompany it with some form of action that will make your goals happen instead of just sitting back and thinking that it will happen inevitably. It’s like: prayer is great, but you should also get out there and do something about the social goals you want to achieve that go along with your religious ethics. So what I see a bit too much in this particular form is the “nature will just take care of these things.” That somehow Mother Nature is this caring powerful being and that that means it’s all going to be ok for humans. And that’s not the case. If we continue destroying our ecosystems humans will not continue living. You know, society will not continue. The planet will find a way to go on, because it’s the planet. So that’s why, in real world terms, I think it matters. I think I’m being a bit more evaluative and normative than I would ever be if I wrote any of this down, right now!

CC: That’s ok, you know.

SC: Is that ok? Because I really feel like that this is the defining important issue of our time. And if you’re not paying attention to it, if you’re not doing something useful about it, whatever that may be – even if it is just your individual actions – then actually, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.

CC: And just to riff on that normativity a little bit, I can imagine that actually, yes, part of this discourse enables people . . . like, people might feel that they are doing something.

SC: Yes. No, they absolutely think they’re doing . . . . They think they are the only ones that are doing something. Because they’re meditating and expecting the shift any moment through enhancing themselves spiritually. Which . . . from a Religious Studies perspective it’s fascinating! I could sit and describe the cosmology all day. But if we’re going to talk about real world effects and real problems, that’s not helping.

CC: Exactly. We should also just acknowledge that we’ve been speaking in terms of gender binaries here, but that is predominantly what’s going on in the discourse. It is . . . we’re talking in binaries.

SC: Yes, so I very much . . . . Perhaps we should flag that up? I’m not saying, “I believe that these gender binaries are natural.” I’m saying that in this context my informants naturalised these gender binaries: “There is male and there is female”. They don’t really think about any other formation of gender. And that’s the way they see it. I’m not saying that normatively that’s correct.

CC: Exactly. So this is the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been floating around the topic of religion and spirituality here. But could we . . . . We probably could have described a lot of the stuff that was going on without needing to invoke those terms. So I’m just wondering what the role, what role these terms are playing, or if there’s maybe other dynamics that could explain away this gendering of nature.

SC: Yes, so I think I’m probably going to say something that will annoy lots of people who do Religious Studies. But I think that if we’re going to talk about spirituality, for me it’s a very specific thing which is this form of spirituality that was once called New Age. And it has a specific cosmology. And if you go out there amongst people who actually engage in these practices you can see it coming through. And I always say the basic tenet of it is that everything is energy and all energy vibrates at a specific frequency. So I think that spirituality, so defined, is kind-of one of the big religious shifts that we’re currently going through. Spirituality isn’t just something that happens in Sedona. It’s not something that just happens in America. It’s a global phenomenon. One of the things that happens to me a lot as I talk about my work – especially to other anthropologists, which is my background – they’ll say, “Oh yes! People I know in Palestine are really into that, because it gets them over sectarian conflict.” “People in Indonesia that I work with are really interested in that right now, as a form of healing.” And it is spread around the globe. And it is offering people a way of doing religion that is not part of their typical traditional organised religion. And for some people that’s just like a breath of fresh air. For some people that’s, quite literally, a life-saver – that they don’t have to engage in these old sectarian conflicts anymore; that they can create a new way forward without becoming secular. Because a lot of people don’t actually want that. They want to still engage with some kind-of meta-empirical reality – whatever you want to use as a term for it. So I think that spirituality is a form of religion, and it’s one of the growing forms of religion. And if you want to pay attention to the trends in religion now, as it’s actually lived and experienced on a daily basis, then you should really pay attention to spirituality – especially because it doesn’t really show up on stats and censuses, because there’s not really a box to tick for it. And also, people who are into spirituality really don’t like definitions. They wouldn’t really call themselves spiritual in that sense, but if you talk to them about what they do, and if you ask them if they’re interested in spirituality they will “Yes”, and suddenly they will come up with all of these fascinating things that they do. So I think it’s something that has to be studied empirically through qualitative research. And I think it’s something that is probably a lot more prevalent than we realise. Because it doesn’t really show up on these top-down measurements that a lot of scholarship can rely on – not all of it, obviously.

CC: (Laughs). So we have a whirlwind here. And, of course, we’ll point listeners to these forthcoming works. And you’re working on this NARMESH project, just now?

SC: NARMESH, yes.

CC: And so, you’re probably going to say it’s what’s next for you. But do want to say a little bit about your work there, and also, perhaps, anything you would like to see happening in this field of gender, spirituality, nature?

SC: Ok. So NARMESH is one of these ERC projects which . . . I’m kind-of discovering that they all have these kind-of acronyms for what they’re called. It’s from “narrating the mesh” which is from eco-theorist Timothy Morton’s work. So, the mesh is his idea for how everything is interconnected. And our project is looking at narratives of the interconnection of humans and non-humans and climate. So the rest of the people on the project are looking at narratives in literary fiction – which is why I’m in the Literary Studies department – and I’m looking at personal narratives. So what I’ve been doing is taking interviews and doing some short bits of fieldwork amongst groups of people who are differently positioned in the wider climate change discourse. So that’s climate scientists, radical environmentalists or kind-of eco-philosophers and, also, people who do not accept that climate change is happening – or if it is, they do not accept the human role in climate change. So, what we might call deniers or climate change sceptics. So that’s my current work. I’m kind-of in the middle of doing the fieldwork for that over in Sweden, two weeks ago, amongst people who basically see the world as ending and that we’re living through this kind-of destruction of the world. And “how do we kind-of create a new culture?” So that’s what I’ve been doing most recently. In terms of gender, nature and eco spirituality, I think it’s a really fascinating field and it’s one that I think you can kind-of bring together a lot of diverse studies from antiquity, right through to contemporary work, to look at this kind-of question. You know: how is nature gendered? What do we mean by goddess spirituality? And I think it is something that’s quite neglected. I think it’s something that, for a long time, got relegated to that kind-of “women’s studies” area of Religious Studies, and a lot of people don’t see it as particularly interesting or relevant. So I think it’s one of those things, if people start looking at it and studying it, it will come up more and more as a really relevant and important part of everyday religious practice for a very widely placed diversity of people, in different traditions, and different  historical periods and times.

CC: And I’m sure that there’s a lot more that we could get into just there now – but we have run out of time, Listeners. That was an excellent interview Susannah Crockford, and we’re looking forward to all the interest that you will have piqued, and to hearing more from this developing project that you’ve got. NARMESH?

SC: NARMESH, great. Thank you so much.

CC: It does sound like a little farewell, doesn’t it? Narmesh!

SC: Narmesh!

Both: (Laugh).


Citation Info: Crockford, Susannah and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ecospirituality-gender-and-nature/

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: 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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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.

Podcasts

Nonreligion, Religion, and Public Health

The link between religion/spirituality (RS) and health is a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology and sociology of religion, medical studies, and other disciplines. Although this research is usually limited to correlational studies, RS is often interpreted to be an important causal factor in positive health outcomes. This has led some academics, NGO’s, and governments to argue that the putative health benefits of RS might be harnessed for public health and public policy more broadly. For example, the United States Army has recently launched a “spiritual health” program, and in the United Kingdom there is an ongoing debate about whether mindfulness meditation should be taught in schools. Government initiatives aside, what if the nonreligious are equally as healthy? In this podcast, Thomas J. Coleman III interviews Dr. David Speed on how research using nonreligious and nonbelieving samples problematizes some of the underlying assumptions of the relationship between RS and public health.

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, the original Buns of Steel VHS tape, G.I. Joes, and more.


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


Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health

Podcast with David Speed (22 April 2019).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Speed_-_Nonreligion,_Religion_and_Public_Health_1.1

Thomas Coleman (TC): Thank you for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project. I’m Thomas Coleman. And I have an interesting topic that I don’t believe we’ve broached before, on nonreligion and public health. And I have a special guest with us today to talk about this. But I kind-of wanted to provide the Listeners with a little bit of background first, before we introduce him. So the link between religion and public health is really a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology of religion, public health, medical studies and other disciplines. This research is often limited to correlational studies because the procedures required to test these things experimentally are either unfeasible or raise serious ethical considerations. For example, as psychologists it’s really hard for us to figure out how we could validly manipulate someone’s nonreligious or religious identification, their beliefs or their behaviour, in a laboratory setting. And university ethics committees have a problem with us kind-of assigning people to the cancer condition for an experiment. So we can’t do that! But when many of these aforementioned correlational studies – some of which we’ll talk about in a second – identify a relationship between religion and improved health, religion is often interpreted to be an important causal factor. And in today’s podcast I’m pleased to have with us Dr David Speed who is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick. And his own research has applied a critical perspective to the religion and health literature, specifically focusing on how the nonreligious have comparable health to the religious. David, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

David Speed (DS): Hi Tommy. Thanks for having me.

TC: Excellent, excellent. So I was hoping we could have a little discussion along the lines of religion, nonreligion – kind-of the intersection on public health more generally – but also from the perspective of just psychological and individual’s health.

DS: Sure.

TC: And I know – just pointing out some further relevance for the Listeners here – in the US I think the Department of Defence has a multimillion dollar initiative looking at “spiritual fitness training“ and in screening of troops. And I can see David grimacing right now! But you know, this underscores an important fact that many governments and public health researchers are not simply interested in understanding or studying the relationships between religion and health, but actually using the purported benefits of religion and spirituality to shape public policy. And then, a last example here, I’m reminded, because I’ve been living in the UK off and on for the past two years, of how the United Kingdom has recently funded mindfulness meditation interventions I think in over two hundred county wide schools. So I’m excited to get down to a critical discussion about the nature of religion and health with you David and see where it goes.

DS: That sounds wonderful.

TC: So where does some of your own research fit in at the nexus between religion and nonreligion, and personal health and health in general?

DS: So I guess I can start with my dissertation. I started my PhD in 2011 and I graduated in 2015. And when I got accepted into my PhD programme I was told by my adviser I had to pick a health-related topic. And like many grad students I didn’t really know initially what to study. I knew I wanted a PhD but wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. And essentially, I got to the point where I was considering, well, if I could study anything, what would I want to study? And I had a pre-existing interest in atheism and in religion and so I was like, “I wonder how those things relate to health?” And so you go to the literature, as one does. And I immediately found literally hundreds of thousands of citations or references to various religions. So I thought “Well, ok. Obviously someone’s been very busy!” Because this was my first real exposure to it. And then I was like, “OK, well I’m curious how atheism fits into this.” And I found, I think, fewer than maybe a dozen papers, two dozen papers addressing atheism and health. So right away I knew that there, obviously, just on the numbers scale, atheism and health was under-studied (5:00). So I was curious about how atheism fits within the religion and health paradigm. And I started going through the literature. And over and over again you see this recurring set of findings that you’ve alluded to in your intro, that “Religion equals better health; religion equals better health.” So, going to church is good, being religious is good, prayer is good, meditation is good, spirituality is good, religious affiliation is good, belief in God is good, yadayadayada!

TC: So, could you give us a few examples there, though? Because I was very general about that – where these relationships appear.

DS: Sure, so if you’re looking at, say, church-based studies, you’ll find that religious congregants who attend church more frequently are more likely to report, say, lower levels of depression. They might report better perceived well-being. If you’re looking at national studies you might find that people with higher levels of church attendance report better happiness. It varies from country to country. There’s a cultural effect that happens. But a lot of the positive literature really centres around the US where religion tends to be more dominant. There’s a smaller proportion for Canada, and the UK, and other areas. But generally, a lot of these studies just kind-of recurrently suggest that if you go to church, or if you’re religious, you might be more likely to go for screening behaviours for cancers; if you’re religious you might be more likely to feel empowered; if you are religious, or if you believe in God, you are more likely to be comfortable in a situation where you have to face your own mortality. Something like that.

TC: And so you’re kind-of reviewing the literature, here, as you’re doing your doctoral studies. And you uncover this stuff, and what happens? What has happened since then? What did that prompt you to test, do, or dig in deeper?

DS: So as I’m going through the literature, there’s a few things that I start noticing kind-of simultaneously. And what it was is, you know, you read a few papers and you say, “Ok. People are saying that going to church is good. Ok that’s fine. Whatever. They’re generalising by accident.” But whatever. So you go through a few more and then you’re like “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” So a lot of the studies – not all the studies, but a good chunk of the studies – they recruit from exclusively religious samples. So they’ll go to different church locations, they’ll ask congregants who are there, “How often do you go to church?”, “How happy are you?” and they’ll form a correlational relationship between these two ideas. And correlational research is not that. It’s difficult to make a causal argument with correlational data, but you can point to associations that are recurring. But if you are using an exclusively religious population in order to test something, you can’t generalise the benefits of whatever they’re doing to everyone, because not everyone’s part of that exclusive religious population. So if you sample like five Methodist churches in the Midwest, you can’t then say, “Well, everyone should go to church because of this sample.” You have to say, “Well, people who go to Methodist churches more frequently, congregants have better wellbeing.” That’s a fair conclusion. Now often the literature would say this in kind-of a round-about way. But they would often talk more broadly about the benefits of going to church, or the benefits of being religious, or prayer, or whatever. The other issue too is a lot of the research that is like large-scale is looking at outcomes that are intrinsically related to going to church frequently. So the classic one on this is slighting on the dependent variable. And self-rated health is one of the big benefits of being religious, or of scoring higher on measures of religion and spirituality or RS. So what researchers will do is go into say a religious organisation and they’ll say, “How often do you go to church?”, “How healthy do you think you are?” Or “Do you have any health issues?” They find that people who go to church more frequently report better perceived health and fewer health issues. Well, yes! Obviously! Because people who are really ill or people who have recurring health issues can’t get out and go to church frequently. That’s not shocking. It’s kind-of pointing out that, I don’t know, people who are going through some sort of medical treatment are somehow less healthy than people who don’t have to do that. Obviously they’re going through medical treatment because of the way they are, not because of some factor that’s driving the magic of that medical treatment! So this is a separate issue altogether is that if you’re slighting on the dependent variable, what essentially you’re going to do is that you’re limiting people who maybe on the lower end of that health, who would love to go to church more frequently but can’t (10:00). And the other issue with it – sorry I’m just rattling off a list of issues because this is my life!

TC: No. Perfect.

DS: Another one of the issues is that there was often a conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So it’s the idea that if you get really low levels of religiosity, so like: “I’m not religious, I don’t go to church, I don’t really pray”, the implicit conclusion or sometimes explicit conclusion of the researchers who do that kind of research would say, “Oh. These people embody secularism.” That is not an equivalent statement. The issue with that is, secularism is adhering to or taking specific positions on other topics, right? It’s not merely being apathetic towards religion, it’s endorsing other specific values that are more secular in nature. So there’s this conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So researchers will report, “You know religion’s healthier than secularism.” But they’re not assessing secularism the vast majority of the time. They’re just equating high secularism with low religiosity.

TC: And then we might say, more specifically, just secular nonreligious people per se. Because we’re used to, on the Religious Studies Project of course, taking a very critical approach to these terms. That’s something we don’t usually do in Psych of Religion although we should more. So just kind-of giving that to our Listeners as a blanket term here, you know, confusing people who probably self-identify as secular nonreligious with actually people who would identify as religious.

DS: Yes, absolutely. The biggest issue, though, for the research is that the mechanism driving the relationship between religion and health isn’t always clear. The big one that has the most support, I would argue is social support.

TC: Yes, I was going to say, what do mean by mechanism, here, in terms of driving? How does that work?

DS: Sure. So if you say that Advil is related to pain reduction, right? Advil is doing something – or Ibuprofen if we want to be non-brand specific – Ibuprofen is acting on your body in some biological way in order to produce the desired outcome. If the argument is that religion is connected with health, well, how is it connected with health? We can point at an association of high religion, high health, but why is that? What is the driving mechanism under-pinning that relationship? And arguably the strongest contender for that, from what I can see, is social support. And social support is associated with health. Social support is the perceived availability of resources around you from people. So I’m crying and I call my friend, will he or she console me? If I need money for rent until next week, will my friend have my back? If I really want to share about my day, will my wife humour me and listen to me talk about research for the 35th time that week? So that’s social support. So the more available social support a person has, and the higher degree of availability, the healthier they are. And this isn’t shocking. Like, having friends around you and having family and peers who you can rely on, that’s associated with good health. Religion’s associated with good health, this is true. But social support is also associated with religion. So people who are religious tend to report higher levels of social support. And to me this makes a lot of sense. Like, it would be astounding if you went to church on a weekly basis, or mosque on a weekly basis, or synagogue on a weekly basis and there was no social benefit to you. It would be astounding if that were the case. So the problem is . . . because the three of these things are inter-related, when you’re talking about social support. When we talk about religion benefitting health, a question that’s really important for researchers is “Why?” And if it’s social support, it gets more dicey about how we’re interpreting this then. Social support is a general benefit of social activities. It’s not a specific benefit of religion and spirituality.

TC: I was just going to get to asking that. Aren’t there some arguments that, maybe, religion is not the only source but, people might argue, a very good source of creating these social connections? How does that kind-of bode here? No – it’s not religion per se, but it is a really being driver of social connectedness?

DS: Sure. And I think that’s a very reasonable position to take. About half of my family I would describe as quite religious. They tend to go to church frequently. They tend to really enjoy church. But often they’re talking about. “So this happened in church . . .” or “So and so said this . . .” “I really like engaging with this person.” And it would be. . . . I think it’s a fantastic way of socialising with like-minded people. I think that’s wonderful (15:00). The problem is, is that the way this is presented within findings, and the way you often see justification for religious-oriented policy, say, like from government or from specific initiatives looking at improving spirituality in the fine young men and women of the United States is that you might see this as saying, “Oh well, religion is doing this.” It’s not social support via religion. It’s just religion. So last year I wrote a paper about this where I was discussing that it’s very frustrating talking about the benefits of religion when social support seems to be playing a major role in this. So, if you don’t mind I was going take an excerpt from that paper to help illustrate.

TC: Absolutely.

DS: I said, for example, “It is not difficult to imagine that persons who are active in chess clubs will have access to social support from their fellow members. Furthermore it is not unreasonable to imagine that more active members of chess clubs report better access to social support than less active members. However, if it were found that attendance at chess clubs was positively related to mammography it would be unusual for a researcher to frame these findings as ‘Chess enthusiasm promotes breast X-rays’. Instead, it would be likely argued that social support, which is accessible from any number of institutions including chess clubs, was responsible for increased screening behaviour. However in much of the existing religion and health literature a general benefit of social support, better screening in this case, appears to be presented as a specific benefit of religious activities.” And this is what I find very frustrating as a researcher: it would be shocking if going to church every week didn’t do something. But the important thing there is the social activity for it and not necessarily the religious angle for it. In fact there’s several studies where, when they’re controlling for social support – bringing in the relationship between religion and health, that relationship – the religion and health relationship goes to nothing. Because they’re controlling for social support. This doesn’t happen all the time. But it happens in several studies. And this is an important thing to consider. And finally I have one more point on this. I have one more quote on things that I find frustrating about the literature. It’s that even when researchers, when they work with looking at exclusively religious samples, they were . . . these are general samples, right? What they would do is they would describe everybody’s relationship between religion and health with a single type of consideration. So everyone got the same description of that relationship. So there was no real strong interest in looking at whether or not the relationship between religion and health was affected by other factors. Now researchers have tested moderation before. They find that, say, less-educated people tend to find a stronger benefit from religion and health.

TC: So we’re talking here about moderating factors being like level of education; maybe it only holds for lower or higher; or income, for example; or men versus women? Those kind of things. So I guess adding nuance to this “Religion is good for you!”

DS: The core thing, the frustrating thing is that when you’re looking at general samples you’re sampling people who are not religious, you’re sampling people who are not spiritual, you’re sampling people who are atheist, right? And there’s no reason to suspect that these people would value religion and spirituality to the same extent as someone who believes in God or is religious or spiritual. There should be no default assumption that these groups are equivalent to begin with. If you’re looking at say, sex-based differences like men versus women or males versus females you could say, “Well there’s no reason to suspect that one of these people would have a radically different relationship with religion.” They do not . . . their identity, or their moderating factor there, isn’t a religiously-slighted variable. If you’re looking at people who are atheist, though, that is something related to the very idea of religion and spirituality. If you’re looking at nonreligion that’s something that’s very much related to the idea, intrinsically, to religion and spirituality. But what had happened is that these previous studies they all treated everyone in the entire sample as having more or less the same expressed relationship between religion and health so they looked at sex as a moderating factor, age as a moderating factor, or education. But there was generally never any interest in looking at people who are not religious, whether or not they reported an equivalent relationship. So what the focus of my doctorate was on was looking at the idea of health outcomes and religious and spiritual beliefs and behaviours, but looking at whether or not people who were atheists, or nonreligious or not spiritual, whether or not they recorded a different linear relationship between those activities or beliefs and outcomes. And it turns out quite often they did. And quite often they reported a lower health score when they reported higher levels of religion and spirituality. So if you go to church, that’s fine (20:00). But you would, in this case, you would have to be religious really to see that same relationship. If you’re not religious and you’re attending church all the time, this has different health implications. So, problematically, if you’re saying that there is a monolithic relationship between religion and health you’re losing a lot of nuance there. Because religion and spirituality have benefits, but you have to have a religious and spiritual identity, which is conducive to you benefitting from those activities. So I jokingly say, “Well, my doctoral work, I got a PhD for saying ‘religion is healthy, but you’ve got to be religious to get that benefit.’” So it’s a kind of simplification, but no one had looked at that previously.

TC: And to add to this, I think that these are really important nuances particularly, again, in the domain of public policy and public health. For example, I’m thankful to have been a part of . . . they have different workshops put on by different places that have like week-long courses for private health care providers, government officials and so on, specifically informing them about the research on the relationship between religion, spirituality and health. And the takeaway from these . . . . They’re conducted very well, but there’s also, at the same time, a certain level of nuance that is just missing. And the takeaway message I hear when I’m in some of these presentations or venues or even reading books and chapters on religion and public health, is this kind-of assumption that since we now know . . . we’ve identified the . . . circumscribed the positive effects of religion here, well then: “Now that we’ve found the fountain of youth, let’s drink from it!”

DS: (Laughs)

TC: There’s almost this. . . . It’s not direct, and I’ve been very impressed in some of the more recent literature that has been taking into to consideration nonreligious concerns or saying, “We don’t know here . . .” but typically, it seems like there’s a blanket message that religion is good for a host of things, and we should use this; the government can grab a hold of this. And you’re saying that: “Kind-of . . . possibly . . . but . . !”

DS: Yes. Shockingly, there’s more nuance to this than “religion equals good health”. Because one of the things that really sticks out from the religion and health literature is when you look at people who are atheists, right? Atheists generally – we were discussing this prior to the show beginning. Atheists generally aren’t religious. They generally don’t go to church. They generally don’t score highly on religiosity measures. Atheists have really comparable health to believers. So if you . . . just logically, if you expect that high religiosity equals better health, then low religiosity should equal worse health. Atheists should be fairly unhealthy on average, just on that sort-of simplistic, somewhat reductionist perspective. But it’s not. It’s somewhat paradoxical. My colleague and I, Karen Hwang, we published paper called “The Healthy Heretic Paradox“, in which we looked at atheists who on the measures of health, using nationally representative data from America, we find that on average they tended to report comparable health to theists who were strong believers, despite the fact that they didn’t believe in God at all. So this showed there’s something of a fly in the ointment. Because if religion just uniformly benefits health, well people who are really not religious, like atheists, or they’re not – we’ll say atheists as the more extreme example – you wouldn’t really expect them to be healthy. But they are. Meaning that the description . . . it looks, at the very face value of it, that there’s something very wrong with how that relationship is being summarised.

TC: And I think there’s something fishy with the way that the relationship is interpreted both at the academic level and certainly bubbles up to policy and other things. What other studies have you conducted that speak to this, say, lack of nuance that was previously in the literature for this. And also I guess it would be strange to see . . . I can only think what the President of the US or different administrations what kind of flack they would take if they decided to prescribe kind-of atheism! Because it seems that people who did not believe in God more strongly had comparable health to the religious (25:00). So I was just kind-of interested in what other research and work you’ve conducted that can speak to this interesting . . . I don’t know if you want to call it a hydraulic relationship, maybe?

DS: Yes. Geez! I don’t know about the political thing, I’m not sure I feel comfortable answering whether or not the government should prescribe religious or atheistic beliefs. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable with the government doing that. Regardless of whether or not they prescribed atheism or theism. As to the research, so what I generally do . . . my research uses pre-existing datasets from Statistics Canada, from the General Social Survey out of the University of Chicago. I think it’s the National Opinion and Research Council. I think they do those studies. Anyway, so it’s data that’s publicly available to any researcher who is interested in doing it and has the competence and statistics to do assessment. But I published a little more than half a dozen studies on the topic between religion and health. In each case I’m looking at: OK, well let’s look at how this actually relates, and let’s try and distinguish between people who believe versus not believe, in terms of these outcomes. In virtually all cases I found, it’s that often when there’s a really strong positive relationship between religion and health say for believers, you would find a moderating effect for whether or not someone was an atheist. I published a study with the Journal of Religion and Health in 2016 or 17, I can’t remember now. But it was looking at data from Ontario which is the largest province, population-wise, in Canada. And I found that people who go to church they tend to report better health but . . I think it was satisfaction in life, maybe. But if you’re looking at the nonreligious people recording the same level of attendance then what you see is a very different relationship. It actually reports a negative relationship. Now this isn’t to mean that going to church is bad. It’s just you need more nuance when you’re discussing these things, especially at a public policy level. Because it’s not this panacea that fixes everything.

TC: So it seems like there’s a heavy interpretation factor here, where on one end, you know, the general trend might be to say, “Oh, look at the positive effects of – to use the recurring example – church attendance, here.” But then we would not want to conclude for example that less-religious or nonreligious people should avoid church like the plagues, because it apparently, you know has a harmful impact on their health. What we’re talking about here is not necessarily I guess a causal relationship.

DS: No, no. I think if you made like a group of nonbelievers go to church … Besides the ethical issues with that, I don’t think . . . I wouldn’t immediately suspect that all of them would be miserable and report increases in depression, or whatever. But the problem is that when you’re looking at how the academic findings are used and discussed in the broader social lens, how they’re used to inform public policy, or the potential they have to influence policy, there’s discussion about including… you know, default assuming that you should discuss religion and spirituality in clinical therapy. So there’s a real-world consequence to this type of finding. And the problem is that if you’re looking at these relationships and you’re potentially treating it as “more religion better health”, you’re losing a lot of the nuance; you’re losing sight of the personal idea that perhaps some people aren’t religious because they really are opposed to religion. And forcing them to address those topics or discuss those topics may not be a super-positive thing for those groups of people.

TC: I was going to say, I also think it points, to some degree, to our problems with interpreting the positive findings on religion and health then. Because we don’t . . . I guess that was the comparison I was trying to get at then. We wouldn’t kind-of say that church attendance hurts less-religious people in the same way we say, “Look, people . . “ we’re willing to make that inference that people who attend more do better. We wouldn’t make it one case, but we do in the other. But they’re kind-of conceptually similar . . . is what I hear you saying?

DS: Yes. Yes. So like so if you’re looking at . . . this hearkens back to some of what I do with my doctoral work (30:00). But what happens when you look at say irreligious groups, when they report really low levels of attendance or religiosity – really, really low levels of that – if you compared their average health levels to religious groups who report very high levels of religiosity or attendance, those two relationships, they’re about at the same place. And in cases where they are, say, statistically different, so at p value less than .05, the associated effect size of that – so the actual magnitude of difference between the groups – is really, really small. And often it’s trivially small. So the convention for Cohen’s d , which is a measure of effect size (not to get too far into those academic things at this point!) But anything less than a Cohen’s d of 0.2 is usually seen as trivial. It’s not really something to talk about. And if you’re talking about a social activity or the sociocultural perspectives influencing some sort of health outcome and you’re saying it’s happening at a level of a Cohen’s d of less than 0.2, you’re talking about something that you probably can’t really observe in everyday life. And the underlying mechanism isn’t clear because we’re not sure if it’s social support driving the majority of this relationship or not or if it’s another factor. It’s really hard to talk about that and convey a strong sense of meaning to those findings. I mean it’s statistically significant but that doesn’t mean of clinical relevance or of clinical importance.

TC: I think though, one of the examples I usually use when I’m teaching students or talking about significance in general is, you know, the difference between let’s say a football player who weighs 200 pounds versus one who weighs 200.1lbs. One is significantly heavier than the other, but it would be very odd to kind-of say, “Well the other guy weighs . . . he weighs significantly more than I do. I’m going to have to rethink the game here.” You know. No!

DS: Especially with large population samples. Any difference will become statistically significant with enough people sampled. And the reason is because error term gets progressively smaller with the more people you talk to. So if you have, say, one group has an IQ of 100, another one has an IQ of 110.1. If you sample millions of people and you’re able to find that one mean is 100, the other mean is 100.1, because you’ve sampled so many people, what’s going to end up happening is that it will come out as statistically significant but the associated effect is so tiny, like, why even bother talking about it? And religion health research isn’t quite there – there are cases where it’s really beneficial if you’re talking about optimism and outlook after, say, surgery or something. You’ll see higher levels of optimism or you’re feeling cared for because you’re protected by God. You might see some specific benefits in very specific cases, but in terms of, like, at public policy level, or on a national health level, the differences are often quite small. Not always, but often.

TC: Kind-of wrapping this up, and bringing this towards the end, here . . . I’m interested in talking a little bit about how religion and spirituality are conceptualised here. Now I know, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, per se . . . because one of the things I think the RSP prides itself on doing is deconstructing and exposing underlying structure and assumptions of precisely these kind of terms. But it’s something I think . . . well, public health professionals do not have extensive discussions about discursive practices, or what we would really mean when we use this word, or all the different things we’re lumping together! It’s the same with psychologists as well. It’s generally left to Religious Studies scholars and Humanities. So if you could, in closing here, kind-of bring us into perspective and how some of these studies conceptualise religion and spirituality and particularly from the vantage point of the nonreligious, right? Is it one of those things where everyone’s religious, you just have to find the right . . .?

DS: Personally, I’m not sure if there’s an academic consensus on this specifically. I’ve usually . . . concepts regarding religion tend to be better defined (35:00). So if you’re looking at say church attendance.

TC: Better defined than . . . ?

DS: Better than spirituality. So if you’re looking at assessments of attendance: “How often do you go to church?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that; “How often do you pray?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that. It’s self-reporting. You’re relying on people to provide you with data but that’s ok. But you can get a fairly objective standpoint. When you talk about religiosity you get into, what exactly does religiosity mean? There’s different conceptualisations of religiosity. One that people might be familiar with is intrinsic versus extrinsic. Intrinsic is, in a nutshell, religiosity because you see intrinsic values: with this religiosity you get something out of it, you see it’s rewarding or fulfilling in itself. Whereas extrinsic religiosity is kind-of treating religion as a means to an end. So it’s a tool in order to achieve a greater . . . So there’s kind-of some fuzziness around religiosity. But if you ask people how important they find religion is to them, or how religious do they see themselves you can tend to get a more or less consistent set of ways of assessing those specific behaviours or beliefs.

TC: I often also think that this gets us into kind-of “good religion” and “bad religion”. Particularly from a health perspective: there are consistently some negative social effects kind-of associated with varieties of fundamentalism. And it seems here that the same health professionals and researchers are keen to say, “Well, when we talk about religion we’re not meaning that kind – not the stuff that we think is bad for public health, or social cohesion.” Well, it depends on what we man by social cohesion, here. But I often notice that this gets into a good religion, versus bad. And so then that makes me think, “Well, aren’t you really just interested in things that are improving health or psychological wellbeing in general, instead of something religious per se?”

DS: Yes, and you can kind-of see this. This is more apparent within the spirituality literature, in my opinion. So if you’re looking at, say, just like pure religion it’s like, what do you believe? How often do you go to church? Are you religiously affiliated? You get fairly straightforward measures. People know what you’re talking about. People may disagree about whether or not this person’s a true member of this religious organisation, or whether or not they’re a member of that religious organisation. But there tends to be at least consensus on the idea of how you get to those questions. The spirituality literature, I find, is really vague about what that term means. And the way spirituality is assessed, it may not necessarily be intuitive for the laity. It’s just . . . it’s very, very broad in how it’s defined. So I wrote a paper for Skeptic a couple of years ago, where I point out some of the different definitions of spirituality. And one of them defines spirituality as “an inherent component of being human and is subjective, intangible and multi-dimensional”. That literally means anything you want it to mean! So, it doesn’t really matter if you and I are talking about spirituality. If you say “My aunt’s not religious but she’s spiritual,” I’m not sure exactly what you mean, but I understand what you’re trying to convey to me. But if researchers are talking about assessing spirituality they can’t just . . . “Oh yes, I totally know what you mean.” They actually have to quantify and describe and validate measures of spirituality. So when you see these validated measures or these assessments, you see a lot of questions in there that you may not – or at least I wouldn’t, and the people I’m talking to wouldn’t – see these as intrinsically spiritual. So there are questions like: “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong”, “I have a general sense of belonging”, “When I wrong someone I make an effort to apologise”. Those things are included as indicators of spirituality. And to me this is problematic on two different levels. One: this is, in a sense, gaming the system. You’ve chosen . . . or items are being chosen not because I see an obvious connection with spirituality. They might go together, there might be a reason for including these, that’s fine. These have been validated, I have no issue with that. I’m positive these researchers have done their due diligence and this is what has come out. But if you’re talking about spirituality with someone, you wouldn’t say like “Oh yes. When I wrong someone I apologise. That’s a spiritual thing.” Like, that’s a really select definition of spirituality (40:00). So if you’re finding that how well people are engaging socially is an intrinsic component of spirituality and you find that spirituality is related to health – well, yes. Social support and being able to interact, socially, well with other people is related to support. So it just is like a parallel . . . if you said that “I don’t smoke because it’s bad for me” and that’s a spiritual assessment and you find that people who score more highly on spirituality get less cancer, well, yeah! You’ve adjusted the framework of spirituality such that it includes not smoking. Well, of course that’s related to cancer rates, because that’s how that works! So the thing I find frustrating about the spirituality literature – and it’s a really interesting literature, people do genuinely good work in it – but it’s just the variability in what spirituality can mean. And the idea that you feel empowered, or you feel like you have purpose in life – that’s spirituality. I’ve never thought of those things as being spiritual before, like, prior to reading this literature. I’ve always just described that as, “Oh yes, I feel as if . . .I feel autonomy. I feel a sense of mastery.” So, when you’re connecting those measures of spirituality, or that definition of spirituality with health, I’m not shocked that that’s related to better health. But we already knew that from other fields. So my question is kind-of: if spirituality is doing something, what is the unique thing that spirituality is doing? How are you defining that? Is that a good . . . is that a reasonable definition that people would say, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely spirituality”? Or is this a hodge-podge of different areas that we’re just kind-of lumping together and saying it’s spirituality and saying, “Oh look, it’s ‘Spirituality – better health!’”

TC: Excellent. I was wondering if you had any kind-of summing up or parting phrase, or words, or thoughts for us on the relationship between religion, nonreligion and health?

DS: (Laughs).

TC: Something to send our Listeners away with? Something even more profound than what you’ve already said?

DS: I don’t know if I can go more profound! But religion is related to health. Like, correlationally we can establish that religion is related to health. If you’re religious and if you go to church, chances are you’re probably getting a benefit from it. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what the underlying mechanism is. If it’s the social support angle, if it’s because you have a better sense of coherency, is it because this really makes you feel like spiritually charged as a person? If you’re getting a benefit out of it, continue. Please continue doing it. Don’t be discouraged from not doing it. If you’re not religious and you are hearing all these things about, “Oh. Going to church is associated with better health,” the more elemental question you have to consider is, will this be good for you specifically? If most people are religious and most people benefit from going to church, fine! But that doesn’t incorporate everyone. So there has to be more nuance in the field. Religion is a wonderfully diverse, very complex socio-cultural construct. And chances are that its relationship with health is more complicated than a single edict of “Do more, be healthy!”

TC: Excellent. Dr David Speed, thank you for joining us on the Religious Studies Project.

DS: Thanks a lot for having me.


Citation Info: Speed, David and Thomas Coleman. 2019. “Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/nonreligion-religion-and-public-health/

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What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach

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

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


What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach

Podcast with Ville Husgafvel (15 April 2019).

Interviewed by Chris Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Husgafvel_-_What_is_Mindfulness_1.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC: Yes, I’ve heard that.

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

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

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

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

VH: Well, I’ll try to keep it short!

CC: Yes, just a couple of examples.

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

CC: All of these things!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Vestal Nike and the Corporate Profit/Prophet

Above, an ad from Nike’s 2018 “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. 

By Mark Meehan
Responding to Religion as a Tactic of Governance, Interview with Naomi Goldenberg by David Robertson

He stares at you across a monochromatic abyss, calm, quiet, and serene. His eyes are dark and gentle, black wells holding no judgement but kindly offering peace.

His smile is just below the surface, an ethnic Mona Lisa. Seeing you seems to be pushing a grin to break the surface of his bearded face. He is deeply content and he wants you to join him. Just below his eyes, across a slightly crooked nose, lays a simple, softly pleading message of meaning to a nation void of belief: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Above, Nike’s fall 2018 ad campaign features Colin Kaepernick.

The new American Jesus comes to us from an omni-present deity named for a born-again Roman Goddess. Nike, whose most notable victories are now limited to the Olympics and an occasional US Open, has given voice to a prophet by the name of Kaepernick.

Like most prophets, he caused quite a stir. Some quickly denied his authority, willing to sacrifice offerings on an altar of fire to repudiate his message. Others shouted “Amen,” lining up at temples in generic suburban malls and gentrified city streets to offer their own sacrifice, wearing the sacred swoosh sign of their new prophet as public testimony to their belief.

A new, uniquely American prophet, filling the vestal void.

I kept seeing the face of Kaepernick as I listened to the fascinating podcast of David Robertson interviewing Naomi Goldenberg in Belfast, Scotland. Goldberg reminded us that “there is no religion in the Bible,” pointing toward the historically seamless integration of “faith” within a culture and its various forms of governance. She went on to note the danger posed by those who isolate and use “religion” today as a validating tool for their actions. Policy and practice by authorities can be draped in an authenticating cloak of mythic clout, creating momentum for a range of agendas.

Back in 1697, William Congreve wrote that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but I suspect the righteous wrath of a religious Republican is far more dangerous to me today.

As an American, I live in a society rife with what Goldenberg calls “religion as strategy.” Specific powers leverage “vestal elements” to hide, obscure, and somehow legitimize their actions. Conservative Christians have started to deploy every Evangelical’s favorite Biblical book, Isaiah, to help them reconcile Donald Trump’s propensity to brag about grabbing women by the genitals. “Evangelical thinker Lance Wallnau figured it out: Trump is a ‘modern-day Cyrus,’ an ancient Persian king chosen by God to ‘navigate in chaos,’” writes Tara Isabella Burton in Vox. Sure, Trump might grab an occasional woman, he might be a rancid racist, he might even spew blatant smears toward all who oppose him, but that never stopped God before!

Wallnau is the same man who proclaimed on Periscope that ““I’m just fed up with the fact that believers have to operate like the Jewish people did.” He said, “They all knew Jesus was the Messiah but nobody actually identified with him for fear of being put out of the synagogue. I mean, Donald Trump is that for me; you’ve got 50 million people that voted for him and you wouldn’t know where they are.” Naomi Goldberg couldn’t have put it more clearly as she talked about the use of “vestal states to mystify and legitimatize.” Wallnau, who claims an earned doctorate from a defunct diploma mill, understood the deeply rooted need for faith and authority and becomes the “Legitimizer in Chief” for American Evangelicals.

At the same time, another bastion of faith, the American wing of the Roman Catholic Church, is making daily headlines for its own abuses of religious power. Back in 2014, CBS News reported that “The Vatican revealed that over the past decade, it has defrocked 848 priests who raped or molested children and sanctioned another 2,572 with lesser penalties, providing the first ever breakdown of how it handled the more than 3,400 cases of abuse reported to the Holy See since 2004.” The Washington Post noted in August that “More than 300 Catholic priests across Pennsylvania sexually abused children over seven decades, protected by a hierarchy of church leaders who covered it up, according to a sweeping grand jury report released Tuesday. The investigation, one of the broadest inquiries into church sex abuse in U.S. history, identified 1,000 children who were victims, but reported that there probably are thousands more.”

So, with one arm of American Christianity lying in bed with Trump and another in the headlines for a rampant sexual abuse scandal that was systematically suppressed by Church leaders, where do Americans turn? Apparently, to Nike. The vacuum created by the blatant abuses of power by suddenly illegitimate authorities has exposed the spiritual needs of starving Americans, from sea to shining sea.

But of course, there is a catch. As Nike filled the spiritual void, another prophetic power, whose authority creates both staggering wealth and profound poverty, spoke. After the release of the ad, Nike’s stock soared. As Nike stepped into the vacuum of values with the message to “sacrifice everything,” the company netted a cool $6 billion in company value as the stock surged 36% on the year. Sacrifice, indeed.

Of course, our President resisted. As Goldberg noted in her talk, “Governments are always a little edgy, sensitive to takeover.” Trump wasn’t going to let Nike move in too easily, tweeting his dissent as Nike jumped on his religious bandwagon. On September 5th, the American President declared, “Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!” Sensitive? You bet.

Goldberg ended her talk with a call to action, a plea to make Religious Studies meaningful again by applying what is being done in classrooms and academic journals to real world issues. She challenged scholars to call out those who manipulate the power of religion for their own purposes. Americans are desperate for meaning, and their need marks them as easy targets for bullying on a playground of politics and capitalism. There is something redemptive in Nike’s ad, but we have to do what Goldberg challenged us to do: call out the abuse, even if it opens the door for another bully.

The Dark Goddess: A Post-Jungian Interpretation

by Patricia ‘Iolana, PhD

In an interview with Ross Downing, PhD candidate Áine Warren discusses her research into the ‘Dark Goddess’ at the University of Edinburgh. Drawn into this community of Dark Goddess adherents through her previous research into altars dedicated to the Celtic goddess The Morrigan, Warren examines similarities and differences among Dark Goddesses from various faith traditions including the Eastern Kali Ma, the Celtic Morrigan, and the Norse goddess Hel.

Focused on the female experience, discourse surrounding Dark Goddesses are as varied and complex as the myriad of goddesses that this sector of Goddess Spirituality entails. Warren accurately notes that, in this context, Dark, as a descriptor, refers to the nature of the goddess in question rather than a direct reference to skin colour. For example, the Black Madonna is often, and incorrectly, referred to as a Dark Goddess because of her dark skin, but that is not the nature in question here. In this context, Dark is indicative of what psychologist Carl Jung refers to as the ‘Shadow.’[i]

As Warren states, the Dark Goddess represents ‘part of nature relegated from society and religious practices.’ She is ‘not to be approached; not to be encouraged, and not to be approached within the self’, yet, for an adherent, working with the Dark Goddess is a vital part of any wholistic understanding of self and nature.  Mirroring my own ethnographic research within the Western Goddess Movement, Warren found that the Dark Goddess worshiped in the West bears striking similarities to Eastern Dark Goddesses despite historical and cultural differences.

However, while Warren has found a consensus on the nature of the Dark Goddess amongst the texts and YouTube communities that she is examining, not all adherents within contemporary Goddess Spirituality view the Dark Goddess in the same way.  In fact, the Dark, or Shadow aspect of Goddess, is a point of heated debate within the Goddess community amongst adherents, feminist theologians, and thealogians. Some Goddess Feminists, such as Carol P. Christ, refute the Dark Goddess as a projection of patriarchy.[ii] Christ favours the opinion that these ‘dark’ and often hostile characteristics applied to Dark Goddesses are a product of the patriarchal lens, which transmutes the goddess into a female hammer for male dominance. This is especially true with goddesses, such as Kali Ma and The Morrigan, who are intricately connected to the art of battle and warfare. Christ, understanding warfare as a patriarchal construct posits that this is an unnatural drive for feminine deities while others embrace the Dark Goddess as part of a greater whole Divine Being.[iii]

It is somewhat problematic to have a dialogue about the Dark Goddess without acknowledging the significant influence of the psychodynamics of Carl Gustav Jung. When asked about the connection between the Dark Goddess and Jung, Warren states that no one has ‘drawn that line’ between Jung and these practices. This is where one must wonder if it was a moment of Jungian synchronicity that Warren’s podcast made its way into my email inbox because my doctoral research directly connects Jung to the birth of the contemporary Western Goddess Movement. (For my conversation with Karen Tate on the topic, click here.) In fact, this isn’t just a ‘therapeutic’ element in Goddess Spirituality as Warren claims; Jung and his student M. Esther Harding who originally brought these ideas to American in the early 1900s have given birth to a psychodynamic Goddess-centred faith tradition. Over the years, Jung’s original ideas about Goddess, whom he often refers to as the Anima or the Anima Mundi (the World Soul), have been transformed by feminist theories beginning with Harding in 1935[iv]  and further revised by Naomi Goldenberg in 1976[v] through to Susan Rowland’s in-depth 2002 study Jung: A Feminist Revision and beyond into contemporary academic research such as my 2016 doctoral study[vi]  of Jung’s influence on the Western Goddess Movement, which traces the roots of a Western post-Jungian Goddess religion back to Jung and Harding through the analysis of an emerging thealogy (goddess-centred) found in contemporary women’s spiritual memoirs. The goddess who was once merely an archetypal theory for Jung (divine immanence in theological terms) has crossed the bridge from the psyche into the real world as various forms of the Goddess are understood as existing beyond the psyche in the natural world (transcendent in theological terms) and are actively worshiped as transcendent beings of divinity.

For Jung, the Dark Goddess is the epitome of one’s ‘Shadow’, and Jung’s concept of the ‘Shadow’ has theological implications. In Aion, Jung writes:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognising the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.[vii]

Jung’s model of psychological holism which he deems a path of Individuation[viii] begins with the crucial step of confronting one’s shadow and offers a distinctly feminine alternative to the patriarchal theological construct of sin and evil as disparate parts of ourselves that must be repressed and ignored; instead, Jung offers a system whereby one must integrate one’s shadow.  Not only does Jung ask individuals to stare into the face of their own evil, he asks individuals to embrace this part of themselves as a natural element, which is in direct opposition to the Christian doctrine of evil as the construct of Satan which must, at all costs to the ‘salvation’ of the individual, be avoided.

What post-Jungian Goddess Spirituality offers adherents, and especially women, is an alternate way to both describe and experience the ineffable. More importantly, Jung’s path to Goddess offers adherents a space where their own personal experiences are accepted without question or doubt. Validity is removed as an obstacle to belief. Jung writes:

…there is no question of belief, but of experienceReligious experience is absolute.  It is indisputable.  You can only say that you have never had such an experience, and your opponent will say: “Sorry, I have.” And there your discussion will come to an end.[ix] (emphasis added)

Jung’s theories and models offer an empowering and authentic internal source of power in Goddess. The Dark Goddess is either understood as one side of a multi-faceted Great Goddess (Magna Mater) or as individual goddesses in a pantheon of hundreds.[x] She is a force of death and destruction, and truly encountering a Dark Goddess comes with a steep price. Working with the Dark Goddess often brings the individual to a point of psychological deconstruction. Christine Downing eloquently speaks of her own interaction with the Dark Goddess Persephone in her 1981 memoir The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. Downing relates how facing fear, weakness, and helplessness brought a significant shift in her psyche. Persephone’s lesson (and the lesson of all Dark Goddesses) was that without weakness and fear one cannot truly know strength and courage. She teaches us that we are capable of both great love and compassion as well as great evil and terrible power. The Dark Goddess shows us our frailties, our weaknesses, and our strengths. She will destroy existing paradigms and provide the path to rebuilding one’s self anew – whole and complete as individuals – empowered. This is the true influence of the Dark Goddess.


  • [i] See Jung, Carl G. (1976) The Portable Jung. Hull RFC (Trans), Campbell J (ed). New York: Penguin Books, The Viking Portable Library, p145-147.
  • [ii] See Christ, Carol P. (1997) Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality. New York: Routledge; and (2003) She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine in the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • [iii] See Woodman, Marion and Dickson, Elinor. (1996) Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness. Boston: Shambhala Publications. Downing, Christine. (2007 [1981]) The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press. Wehr, Demaris S. (1987) Jung & Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press. Bolen, Jean Shinoda. (1984) Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives. New York: One Spirit.
  • [iv] See Harding, M. Esther. (1971) Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern. Introduction by CG Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
  • [v] Goldenberg, Naomi R. (1976) A Feminist Critique of Jung. In: Signs 2.2, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 443–449.
  • [vi] ‘Iolana, Patricia. (2016) Jung and Goddess: The Significance of Jungian and post-Jungian Theory to the Development of the Western Goddess Movement. Doctoral thesis, University of Glasgow. Publication forthcoming. See Also: (2018) ‘Jung’s Legacy: The Western Goddess Movement’. In: MacKian, S., Pile, S., and Bartonlini, N. (eds). (2018) Spaces of Spirituality. London: Routledge, 245-259.
  • [vii] Jung, Carl G. (1976) The Portable Jung. Hull RFC (Trans), Campbell J (ed). New York: Penguin Books, The Viking Portable Library, p144.
  • [viii] Jung, Carl G. (1968) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Second Edition. Hull RFC (Trans) Read Sir H, Fordham M, Adler G and McGuire W (eds) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XX, p275.
  • [ix] Jung Carl G. (1938) Psychology and Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p113.
  • [x] See Perera, Sylvia Brinton. (1981) Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women. Toronto: Inner City Books and Farrar, Janet and Farrar, Stewart. (1987) The Witches’ Goddess: The Feminine Principle of Divinity. Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing.

Protected: Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature (Classroom Edit)

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Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered… and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.

This interview was recorded at the June 2018 EASR Conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, where Susannah has delivered a paper entitled “What Gender is ‘Nature’? An approach to new age ecospirituality in theory and practice.” This interview was graciously facilitated by Moritz Klenk, and his podcast studio!

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, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Dickies one piece mechanic suits, and more.


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


Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast with Susannah Crockford (1 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Crockford_-_Ecospirituality,_Gender_and_Nature_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (C.C.): In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered . . . and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining me today to discuss these questions and more is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University. So for a start, Susannah, to the Religious Studies Project, welcome!

Susannah Crockford (SC): Thank you! Welcome.

CC: We are recording in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religion Conference, where Susannah has been delivering a paper earlier on called “What Gender is nature? An Approach to New Age Ecospirituality in Theory and Practice.” So I had the pleasure of being in the room. But before we get to today’s conversation I’ll just tell you that Dr Crockford’s a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University, which works on the NARMESH, or Narrating the Mesh project, investigating the contemporary narrative of the interrelations between humans and large gamut of non-human realities and its potential for staging, challenging and expanding the human imagination of the non-human. The research interests centre on the use of ethnography to explore narratives of spirituality, millenarianism and climate change. Her doctoral thesis was entitled “After the American Dream: Political Economy and Spirituality in Northern Arizona”. And that was awarded in July 2017 by LSE, following which she spent 9 months as a research officer for INFORM or the Information Network on New Religious Movements. And she has a number of forthcoming articles and chapters on topics relevant to today’s interview coming out in Religion, State and Society, Correspondences, Novo Religio and the Dictionary of Contemporary Esotericism. So, watch this space! I suppose some of them might have changed from forthcoming to published by the time this goes out, who knows?

SC: Probably. Hopefully. You never know.

CC: Yes. Academic publishing is a wonderful, wonderful world!

SC: We love it. We love it. (Laughs).

CC: So, we’re going to get to your case study in Arizona soon, but first of all: gender, nature, ecospirituality – how do you get here?

SC: How did I get here was very much through my fieldwork. Because these were the kind-of topics that came up when I was in Sedona and other places in Arizona. People talked about nature in a very gendered way. It was very striking to me just how much these discourses came up. So it was very much an empirical interest. I didn’t really set out to study ecological issues, or ecospirituality. I mean, I thought nature would be relevant when I got to the field. But I wasn’t so concerned with gender. But it’s kind-of one of these topics that it was going to be in my thesis, and then I didn’t have space. So I kind-of pushed it to one side. And then, for this conference, it kind-of came back. And I was like, “Oh yes! Now I can write my thing about gender and ecospirituality” and how New Age spirituality really kind-of inverts this gender binary, I think in a quite interesting, but also problematic, way. So that’s how it came about.

CC: Well how did you, more broadly, end up in Arizona?

SC: That’s a really good question.  And, I mean, there are several ways that I can date it back to. But let’s just say for the sake of simplicity I ended up in Arizona because I wanted to do a project on contemporary esotericism and I discovered Sedona, which is in Arizona, through a quite tragic case, actually of James Arthur Ray. He set himself up as this spiritual guru. And he ran a sweat lodge as part of a longer Rainbow Warrior workshop, where people paid $9000 to go and “unleash your spiritual warrior within”. And it was held in Sedona. And then three people died in this sweat lodge. It was in 2009. And I was reading about that in the news, because I was doing a lot of work on Shamanism at the time. And I was like, “Oh, That’s terrible.” But then I was like, “Oh there’s this place called Sedona that’s full of these New Age people and full of these things that they call vortexes. That would be a great place for an ethnographic study on contemporary esotericism!” So that, very briefly, is how I ended up in Arizona doing my fieldwork.

CC: I could ask you now to introduce us to Sedona, but maybe I should say first of all – because ecospirituality’s going to be coming up probably throughout the introduction . . . . So I know this is a very broad question but, in terms of the next twenty minutes, what are we meaning by ecospirituality? And then we’ll hear more about it.

SC: Yes, so I’m going to define it in a really simple way – which obviously some people might find simplistic – but: finding nature is, in some form, divinised, or finding divinity in nature. And doing that outside of the framework of some organised religion. So I think the difference between ecospirituality and say, like the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, for example. Like you can be concerned for the environment as a mainstream Christian, but I don’t think that’s ecospirituality. Because God, specifically, is not in nature for them. For people who are in some way engaged in ecospirituality the divine is in nature. It’s pantheistic. And it comes up in lots of different forms. Paganism is obviously a really prominent one, Wicca, and it’s obviously very prominent in New Age spiritualties that see nature as part of the energy of the universe, but in a very kind-of high vibrational form. So the energy of nature is one that has a very kind-of high spiritual level. So there’s a very clear association between nature and spirituality and, as we’ll get onto, women and femininity.

CC: And so it’s not environmentalism, and things like that?

SC: No. And that’s actually one of the main points I was making, today: that just because you find spirituality in nature, you think that nature has something to do with your understanding of God, doesn’t mean that you will actually engage in actions that might be considered environmentally friendly, or ecologically engaged, or in fact have anything to do with mitigating largescale ecological problems like pollution and climate change. These are separate things.

CC: Yes. And to the audio editors, we’re going to start banging the table!

SC: Sorry, I need to gesticulate!

CC: It’s alright. Hit me, instead of the table.

Both: (Laugh).

CC: Right. So let’s set the scene then. So, Sedona – a small town in Arizona. What makes it so interesting? You mentioned the vortexes earlier and things . . .

SC: Yes. So Sedona is a fascinating town. It is in Northern Arizona, which is higher up than Southern Arizona. So it’s not low desert with the big Saguaro cactuses which come to most people’s minds when they think about Arizona. It’s up in the mountains, it gets cold in the winter. They even have snow sometimes, but it’s also still, quite hot. Sedona has a river – which is quite rare in Arizona. So it has a fresh water source. So it has the incredible kind-of red rock canyons and the river running through it. There’s trees growing everywhere. So it’s very different from the rest of Arizona. And it’s this sense of landscape that is both striking and substantially different from that around it which I think makes it stand up in human perception as something that this is different enough that “I will perceive it, in some way, maybe, sublime – or even something to do with the divine.” Because a lot of people who live there think that Sedona is a sacred space, whether or not they’re engaged in New Age spirituality. People I spoke to there who were Christians said, you know, “This is a place where God has kind-of bestowed something special on the human race.” Because it is a very beautiful place. So it’s a town of about 17000 people. It is within the Red Rock Canyon. It has one main highway and then another bit splits off to a slightly southern community that’s called the Village of Oak Creek. But they’re all basically Sedona, they’re all pretty much one place. Even though municipally they’re two different places. And Sedona is a tourist resort. It has a lot of kind-of hotels and it has a lot of spas and timeshares, and people go there to enjoy nature, to go on holiday. A lot of people who own property there, own it as a second home. There’s even some kind-of super-rich people there, like John McCain who’s a Republican Senator, Sharon Stone apparently owned a house up the hill from where I first rented a room, in uptown. So there’s these three main locations in Sedona. Uptown has a lot of the stores and a lot of the very wealthy houses. You’ve got West Sedona where there’s a lot of the services, like the Post Office and the school. And it’s where a lot of my informants lived, because it’s a lot cheaper. And then you’ve got the village of Oak Creek which where a lot of retirees live. Because it’s a good place. There’s this phenomena in America of Snowbirds – of people who, once they retire, go and live somewhere sunny for the winter. And then, for the hot months – which are very, very hot – they go back up north to Michigan or Canada or wherever they’re from. So there’s a lot of Snowbirds in Sedona. So, as a town, it’s quite . . . I don’t know, it’s quite typical of small town America in lots of ways. You know, there’s the older people who own all the property and the young people work all the jobs, but don’t really have any resources. And then you’ve also got these things called vortexes. So there’s two ways of talking about the vortexes. Either you can say that there’s four, around town, which are all these kind-of very prominent red rock formations. There are lots of other red rock formations and they have all kinds of names. There’s one called Snoopy, because it looks a bit like Snoopy lying on his back. I never quite saw it myself, but you know people told me it looked like Snoopy anyway. And there’s Cathedral Rock which apparently used to be called Court Rock. And there’s another rock called Courthouse rock. And they got mixed up, and then suddenly Cathedral Rock became Cathedral Rock instead. So this is kind-of like historicity to the naming of the rocks. But they’re also given this kind-of eternal, almost like Eliadian essence of the divine, where people say, “No. They have this special energy. The Native Americans knew about this special energy, that’s why it was sacred to the local tribe s that lived here.” And the reason that people now say there are vortexes there is because this energy emanates from the earth – you know, it’s a real part of the landscape and that’s why we’re drawn there. So people do move there to go and have spiritual experiences. You know, people go on vacations and you know, there’s a lot of services there that cater for this market as well. You can get your aura photograph taken, you can go on a vortex tour. You can have a Shaman take you round to power spots and do rituals with you. So there is a market to it. But there’s also people who genuinely engage with these practices and move there because they feel like it’s a part of their spiritual path. They move there. They would tell me that they were called to Sedona that “the energy drew them in”. And then if they had to leave it was “the energy that spat them out”. And some people would say it was quite a common discourse in Sedona, that the energy could get so intense it could literally drive you crazy. There was a story of a woman who said that she had to leave because “the Red Rocks were screaming at her”. So, you know. There’s this idea that this is a very special place, it’s a very sacred place. But it’s also incredibly intense, and it can be very difficult to live there, both materially and spiritually – if that’s how you kind-of experience your world.

CC: So that’s an excellent scene-setting for the milieu, and the spiritual milieu in Sedona. But let’s focus in on the role of nature in this context, and these practices – and then also on gender. I imagine that you can probably talk about those at the same time.

SC: Yes. So nature is really prominent. I mean it would be prominent even with people who didn’t in any way engage with New Age spirituality. And something I should probably say here is that no-one actually called themselves a “New Ager” in Sedona. There was a shop called Centre for the New Age which has psychic where you can go and pay for readings. But if you ask people, “Are you a New Ager?” they would say, “No.” They call it spirituality and they’re quite comfortable with that. They don’t really care about all out disciplinary arguments about what’s spirituality, and what’s religion, and what’s what. They just say, “Yes, I’m spiritual.” Or “Yes, I’m interested in spirituality.” But they would never really call themselves New Agers – unless they were trying to sell a certain product and it helped them as a label. So the people who were engaged in some way in spirituality very often identified nature as a very prominent source of what they would consider kind-of spiritual practice. But also kind-of just the energy of the place. So for some people being spiritual literally just entailed going for hikes amongst the rocks, maybe meditating a bit, but just being close to the earth. And simply moving to Sedona was seen as way of getting closer to nature. Because it was this place of like astounding natural beauty. It was kind-of seen as embodying nature in a very visceral way. And you’ve also got other locations close by like the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, which is a larger series of mountains that were also considered sacred and kind-of also embodied this idea of big nature in a similar way. So, when it comes to gender, the experience of nature as sacred was very often feminised in the way they spoke about it. So, you know, obviously mother Earth is quite a common one. But in Sedona they would also talk about the Father Sky. So there’s this idea of gender emerging there already. So you’ve got Mother Earth on the one hand that complements father sky. They would talk about the divine feminine and the complement is the divine masculine. Now these are energies. And the shift that was once called the New Age – but now they talk about it much in terms like the ascension, they call it the shift, they call it the new paradigm – this is when the old male energies kind-of wither away and die and are supplanted with the dominance of the divine feminine. So the change that is called New Age spirituality, that change is a shift from something that’s coded as male to something that’s coded as female. And there are all kinds of associations with this gender binary. So male is aggressive, competitive, you know: men start wars, men destroy the planet, they have an extractive relationship to nature. Whereas the female principle is cooperative: it’s very in tune with emotions and it’s very connected to nature and celebrating the earth and being part of the earth. And so, something that came up in the panel today was . . . . This is a very old association between women and nature, but the way that association is framed is not always the same in all times and all places. So I thought one thing interesting that came up this morning was the feminine being associated with death, which made total sense to me. But that’s not there in the context in Sedona. Women are about life, they are about producing life. The feminine is the mother, is the nurturer, is the care giver. You know, this is the divine feminine principle. So it’s this very kind-of starkly-coded gender binary. And it doesn’t really change anything from what are the kind-of general gender associations in America more generally. It just inverts it and says that the feminine is better than the masculine. And you know, basically, it’s not even that women should be in charge – it’s just that everyone should embrace the feminine within them, and that that complementarity is part of the way that we will progress spiritually and socially. But it doesn’t really lend itself to any sense of action. And this is where we come back to this idea that ecospirituality is not the same as environmentalism. My informants weren’t in any way engaged in environmental politics. They didn’t really do anything that could be seen as particularly environmentally friendly. And in fact in the whole kind-of cosmology of the shift, or the ascension, it’s happening anyway. And the way it happens is like everyone working on their spiritual practice. It doesn’t happen by you going on protests or you switching to an electric car, or whatever. It happens by you sitting at home and meditating. Now from another perspective, you could see how that doesn’t help the environment at all. In fact, it breeds a certain passivity to social action. And means that people are going along with the same kind-of actions that are harming the planet. For example: driving cars, which release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon monoxide and all the other greenhouse gases. So there’s no sense of social action or social change. It’s all very inward. And everyone going on their spiritual path together cumulatively creates the change. It’s like the 100th monkey idea. Do you know what that is?

CC: Go for it.

SC: Well it’s like this credited idea from Bio-Anth – biological anthropology –

CC: Yes.

SC:   – that if, like, a certain number of monkeys – say 100 – learn a specific skill it will spread out through the rest of the monkeys by, like, collective consciousness. So that’s very dominant, at least amongst my informants in Sedona, that in fact it was detrimental to go out and do political action. I had this one informant who used to be very involved in NGOs, and going to other countries and trying to do development work. And then she said that all her protest work and all of her social action work had actually been making things worse, because she was so focussed on the negativity of these situations and instead she should stay in America and work on her spiritual path. And, you know, she did various kind-of workshops, and she was very much engaged in “embracing this divine feminine” herself. But that seems to basically involve going on these exclusive retreats to places like the Caribbean Islands, like the Bahamas, or like places in Aspen, Colorado, and getting women who had very high-paying jobs to go on them, so that they could go and “explore their divine feminine”, “work on their consciousness”, and “evolution”, and “inner-conscious entrepreneur”. And by doing that, she would help create way more positive action than she ever did working in NGOs. And, you know, so you can kind-of shift the perspective and go, “How is it helping by you kind-of creating all these places where everyone flies into these luxury resorts, has a lovely holiday, goes home, continues doing capitalism every day?” So . . .

CC: So you’ve done a good job of painting the relationship or lack of relationship, potentially, between environmentalism and ecospirituality, and sort of carving out what we’re meaning there. And we’ve spoken about the entanglements of gender and constructions of nature. But how are the two, I guess, entangled? These two: the ecospirituality on the one hand and this gendering of nature. Are there example you can maybe give of that entanglement of the two?

SC: So, how is ecospirituality entangled in gender? Well, I think it’s very much in this idea associating nature with the feminine – and that both of those things are given a positive valence regardless of what those actions actually are. So I could get very frustrated, in fact, in the field, with people talking about things that are nature and natural as thought that means it’s good for human health. So to take as an example: my informants generally liked to get water from the spring in Sedona because it came directly from the earth – and therefore it was good for them, right? But then it actually transpired that that stream had a very high level of naturally occurring anthrax, which is not good for human health. Now that’s entirely natural, in the sense that humans didn’t put it there. It was a part of the composition of the soil and the water in the area.

(Edited audio)

CC: Susannah has a correction to make to what she just said!

SC: Yes, so what I meant to say, instead of anthrax, was in fact arsenic. Arsenic is naturally occurring in water, not anthrax.

CC: Back to the interview!

(End of edit)

SC: Also, with the way this divine feminine principle got expressed in practice. So in my paper today, I talked about the work of an artist who . . . she did this whole series of paintings of the goddess. And it was all different kind-of instantiations of what she called the goddess energy. And it was all like faces of women growing out of trees, for example. And there’s this wonderful one called Blue Corn Woman, which she attached to a re-evaluation of Hopi myth that had something to do them surviving Atlantis because they listened to earth and knew when to go underground. And therefore they survived the cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis. So she had a whole series of paintings in this way. And, in person, she would always talk about the Goddess and how that was how she kind-of tried to live her life – it was in celebration of this divine feminine principle. And then this led to this very kind-of difficult lifestyle that she had, where she didn’t really want to go out and work because “emotionally, that didn’t suit her”. She wanted to do art, because that’s how she “expressed her soul”. But that meant she basically relied on men, who were variously infatuated with her, to support her financially. And she also had a fairly considerable drinking problem. And she drove her car while drunk. She had a blood alcohol level of like 0.3, now the legal limit is like 0.8 or 008, or something, so she was well over the legal limit. And she drove it into a fire station and wrecked the front of a fire station. And afterwards she was arrested, you know . . .  the process . . . . Let out . . . she blamed the fact that she had experienced childhood trauma. And it wasn’t that she was drunk, it was that she was having a “dissociative state” at the time, caused by her childhood trauma. So she, then, refused to come to court many times. She kept firing her lawyer. And this was . . . all she had to serve was a 90 day prison sentence and go on her way. And it took her three years to come to terms and just do that. So, why is this related to the divine feminine and nature? So it was this association between her emotions and her emotional state – the idea of herself as a woman and the idea of what is natural and what is natural for her – led to this lifestyle that is on one hand quite passive, and on the other hand not accepting any sense of social responsibility for her own action. Because she wasn’t responsible because she’d experienced this trauma. Therefore her emotions were such that she just had to express them. And I felt that that was actually quite problematic. Because, on the one hand you’ve got ecospirituality that’s seen as. . . in a way it’s seen as inevitable – you don’t have to do anything – so that breeds passivity on the social level. And then on a personal level it leads to a lack of accountability in your personal actions – or it can. Because you over-value your own emotions to the extent that the consequences of your emotional states are not dealt with. At least, I felt that in that case. Obviously I knew other people who, in different ways, were interested in kind-of the divine feminine aspects of spirituality. And they did quite productive things. So I don’t want to try and claim that everyone was like this. I’m saying that this is like . . . . The worst excesses of this kind-of association could lead to this kind-of situation. I knew someone else, for example, who felt that the divine feminine principle was how she should express her spirituality and she held Goddess wisdom workshops, and they were very fun, and that was fine. (Laughs) But again, I felt like there was this very simplistic association between femininity, nature and the sense of goodness. Like . . . that it was somehow inherent, and that you would just somehow know, as a woman, by being natural, the right thing to do. And I don’t think that that was always the case.

CC: Excellent. So we’re getting on in time, and I know I’ve got two more questions that I want to ask you before we get to the “what’s next on the agenda, for your research”. One is – you’ve just been speaking there a bit to this: what are the practical, social, political, real world – for want of a better term – effects of this gendering of nature, in your research experience? Why does it matter?

SC: OK. Why does it matter? I think it matters because we are in a time, in our society, when actually we really need to pay a great deal of attention to the environment and to ecology, not for the sake of the planet or of the environment in some disconnected way – because they will actually keep on going. What’s happening in terms of climate change is the erosion of the habitability of the planet for humans. You know, we’re destroying our own ecosystem, and we will be the ones that suffer for that eventually. And I think any of these discourses that kind-of separate off nature and the environment as something separate from humans are causing harm. And I think this particular kind-of ecospirituality in terms of the New Age, or whatever you want to a call it, is quite detrimental in terms of ecology, because it doesn’t put any kind-of real world action to the forefront. I think meditating is great, but I also think you need to accompany it with some form of action that will make your goals happen instead of just sitting back and thinking that it will happen inevitably. It’s like: prayer is great, but you should also get out there and do something about the social goals you want to achieve that go along with your religious ethics. So what I see a bit too much in this particular form is the “nature will just take care of these things.” That somehow Mother Nature is this caring powerful being and that that means it’s all going to be ok for humans. And that’s not the case. If we continue destroying our ecosystems humans will not continue living. You know, society will not continue. The planet will find a way to go on, because it’s the planet. So that’s why, in real world terms, I think it matters. I think I’m being a bit more evaluative and normative than I would ever be if I wrote any of this down, right now!

CC: That’s ok, you know.

SC: Is that ok? Because I really feel like that this is the defining important issue of our time. And if you’re not paying attention to it, if you’re not doing something useful about it, whatever that may be – even if it is just your individual actions – then actually, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.

CC: And just to riff on that normativity a little bit, I can imagine that actually, yes, part of this discourse enables people . . . like, people might feel that they are doing something.

SC: Yes. No, they absolutely think they’re doing . . . . They think they are the only ones that are doing something. Because they’re meditating and expecting the shift any moment through enhancing themselves spiritually. Which . . . from a Religious Studies perspective it’s fascinating! I could sit and describe the cosmology all day. But if we’re going to talk about real world effects and real problems, that’s not helping.

CC: Exactly. We should also just acknowledge that we’ve been speaking in terms of gender binaries here, but that is predominantly what’s going on in the discourse. It is . . . we’re talking in binaries.

SC: Yes, so I very much . . . . Perhaps we should flag that up? I’m not saying, “I believe that these gender binaries are natural.” I’m saying that in this context my informants naturalised these gender binaries: “There is male and there is female”. They don’t really think about any other formation of gender. And that’s the way they see it. I’m not saying that normatively that’s correct.

CC: Exactly. So this is the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been floating around the topic of religion and spirituality here. But could we . . . . We probably could have described a lot of the stuff that was going on without needing to invoke those terms. So I’m just wondering what the role, what role these terms are playing, or if there’s maybe other dynamics that could explain away this gendering of nature.

SC: Yes, so I think I’m probably going to say something that will annoy lots of people who do Religious Studies. But I think that if we’re going to talk about spirituality, for me it’s a very specific thing which is this form of spirituality that was once called New Age. And it has a specific cosmology. And if you go out there amongst people who actually engage in these practices you can see it coming through. And I always say the basic tenet of it is that everything is energy and all energy vibrates at a specific frequency. So I think that spirituality, so defined, is kind-of one of the big religious shifts that we’re currently going through. Spirituality isn’t just something that happens in Sedona. It’s not something that just happens in America. It’s a global phenomenon. One of the things that happens to me a lot as I talk about my work – especially to other anthropologists, which is my background – they’ll say, “Oh yes! People I know in Palestine are really into that, because it gets them over sectarian conflict.” “People in Indonesia that I work with are really interested in that right now, as a form of healing.” And it is spread around the globe. And it is offering people a way of doing religion that is not part of their typical traditional organised religion. And for some people that’s just like a breath of fresh air. For some people that’s, quite literally, a life-saver – that they don’t have to engage in these old sectarian conflicts anymore; that they can create a new way forward without becoming secular. Because a lot of people don’t actually want that. They want to still engage with some kind-of meta-empirical reality – whatever you want to use as a term for it. So I think that spirituality is a form of religion, and it’s one of the growing forms of religion. And if you want to pay attention to the trends in religion now, as it’s actually lived and experienced on a daily basis, then you should really pay attention to spirituality – especially because it doesn’t really show up on stats and censuses, because there’s not really a box to tick for it. And also, people who are into spirituality really don’t like definitions. They wouldn’t really call themselves spiritual in that sense, but if you talk to them about what they do, and if you ask them if they’re interested in spirituality they will “Yes”, and suddenly they will come up with all of these fascinating things that they do. So I think it’s something that has to be studied empirically through qualitative research. And I think it’s something that is probably a lot more prevalent than we realise. Because it doesn’t really show up on these top-down measurements that a lot of scholarship can rely on – not all of it, obviously.

CC: (Laughs). So we have a whirlwind here. And, of course, we’ll point listeners to these forthcoming works. And you’re working on this NARMESH project, just now?

SC: NARMESH, yes.

CC: And so, you’re probably going to say it’s what’s next for you. But do want to say a little bit about your work there, and also, perhaps, anything you would like to see happening in this field of gender, spirituality, nature?

SC: Ok. So NARMESH is one of these ERC projects which . . . I’m kind-of discovering that they all have these kind-of acronyms for what they’re called. It’s from “narrating the mesh” which is from eco-theorist Timothy Morton’s work. So, the mesh is his idea for how everything is interconnected. And our project is looking at narratives of the interconnection of humans and non-humans and climate. So the rest of the people on the project are looking at narratives in literary fiction – which is why I’m in the Literary Studies department – and I’m looking at personal narratives. So what I’ve been doing is taking interviews and doing some short bits of fieldwork amongst groups of people who are differently positioned in the wider climate change discourse. So that’s climate scientists, radical environmentalists or kind-of eco-philosophers and, also, people who do not accept that climate change is happening – or if it is, they do not accept the human role in climate change. So, what we might call deniers or climate change sceptics. So that’s my current work. I’m kind-of in the middle of doing the fieldwork for that over in Sweden, two weeks ago, amongst people who basically see the world as ending and that we’re living through this kind-of destruction of the world. And “how do we kind-of create a new culture?” So that’s what I’ve been doing most recently. In terms of gender, nature and eco spirituality, I think it’s a really fascinating field and it’s one that I think you can kind-of bring together a lot of diverse studies from antiquity, right through to contemporary work, to look at this kind-of question. You know: how is nature gendered? What do we mean by goddess spirituality? And I think it is something that’s quite neglected. I think it’s something that, for a long time, got relegated to that kind-of “women’s studies” area of Religious Studies, and a lot of people don’t see it as particularly interesting or relevant. So I think it’s one of those things, if people start looking at it and studying it, it will come up more and more as a really relevant and important part of everyday religious practice for a very widely placed diversity of people, in different traditions, and different  historical periods and times.

CC: And I’m sure that there’s a lot more that we could get into just there now – but we have run out of time, Listeners. That was an excellent interview Susannah Crockford, and we’re looking forward to all the interest that you will have piqued, and to hearing more from this developing project that you’ve got. NARMESH?

SC: NARMESH, great. Thank you so much.

CC: It does sound like a little farewell, doesn’t it? Narmesh!

SC: Narmesh!

Both: (Laugh).


Citation Info: Crockford, Susannah and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ecospirituality-gender-and-nature/

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.

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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.”

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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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.