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Radical experiences that can change worlds

Radicalisation, Fundamentalism and Terrorism are emotive topics in the 21st Century. All three terms are frequently the subject of distorted, and often highly prejudicial, usage in public discourse. It is precisely because of their contemporary relevance, a relevance that can literally have life-or-death consequences, that they are an important area for academic research. Matthew Francis’ podcast provides an excellent introduction to many of the problems caused by a simplified understanding of religion and radicalisation. As he argues, distinguishing between the three terms is crucial if we want to understand any of them and the processes that they are associated with. Not all radicals are terrorists, and not all terrorists are radicals. A narrow focus on particular forms of radicalism is limiting and dangerous, if we want to understand the processes involved we must view them in a broader context.

Radicalisation, Francis suggests, is almost synonymous with socialisation. It is the process, or processes, by which an individual or group come to hold ideas or beliefs that are deemed to be ‘radical.’ At its core, radicalisation is simply the process of religious or ideological change when that change occurs in a direction that is considered to be radical. The observation that ideas are not inherently radical, but that the term is a relative one that involves comparisons to social norms, is of critical importance. The value judgments that we ascribe to ideas are not innate to them but are instead reflections of our own beliefs. These beliefs and norms vary between societies and over time within society. It was not long ago that, in the United Kingdom, allowing women the right to vote, or homosexuals the right to marry, was considered radical and dangerous by the majority of people. Today, in many parts of the world, both of those ideas are still considered to be radical and dangerous. The ideas have not changed and yet our judgments of them have. The radical has become normal. Similarly, ideas that were once considered normative are now considered by many to be radical. The subjective nature of what is, and is not, considered radical requires researchers to suspend judgment about particular views and focus on the dynamics through which the beliefs and values of individuals change.

A second important insight into radicalisation discussed in the interview is that ‘sacred ideas’ are a core part of any and all ideologies. These are ideas, often implicit, that are considered to be absolutely true and non-negotiable. Secular examples include the belief that people have the right to freedom and self-determination, or that society has an obligation to protect children from abuse.  More controversial examples might be the belief that one’s own race or nation are superior, or that the strong deserve whatever they can take. Recognising that individuals can be radicalised to hold non-religious ideologies is important both to understand the processes of radicalisation but also to understand the growth of other social movements. These ideological movements are diverse and can come from either end of the political spectrum. Marxist ideologies and nationalisms and the emerging alt-right both involve strongly held, radical convictions. However, radicalisation is not always bad. New ideas can be improvements on old ones. Radicalisation, as a process of change, is not inherently good or bad but can be either depending on the particular ideologies involved.

Moving the frame of reference beyond just religious ideologies is an important step in the process of understanding radicalisation but it is also dangerous to go too far in that direction. Individuals who seek to sever the link between religious radicalisation and religion usually have good intentions and yet, as Francis suggests, that step is as misleading as portraying all religion as inherently bad. There are many individuals for whom religious motivations are of central importance and whose actions are driven by religiously radical ideas. For example, the conservative Christian who attacks an abortion clinic in order to prevent the ‘murder’ of the unborn does so out of deep religious conviction and without the belief that abortion is murder it is highly unlikely that they would commit such attacks. It is important to be aware of all the varying, and often conflicting, motivations that drive individuals to commit extreme actions in the name of an ideology but to focus purely on non-religious factors like economics would omit an important piece in the puzzle.

The work of Tanya Luhrmann (1991, 2004, 2012) is of relevance here. Her work has explored how individuals ‘learn’ to have spiritual experiences that reinforce developing worldviews. She describes this process of learning to attribute particular thoughts, feelings and experiences to a divine or otherwise supernatural source as ‘metakinesis’. Metakinesis, she argues, is similar to other learning processes that teach an individual to become an expert in a particular field. As an individual begins to view the world through a particular religious perspective, and interpret events in the way encouraged by the community they are joining, they find value in the traditions and practices. These practices, however, can do more than simply providing an interpretative framework for ambiguous events. The Spiritual Disciplines Project, an experiment that Luhrmann ran at Stanford University, showed that individual who pray or meditates repeatedly actually becomes more attuned to particular sensations and have increased spiritual experiences. These experiences reinforce the worldview that lead to the practice in the first place, frequently leading to increased immersion in it. Luhrmann’s early work with British magic-users and her more recent work with American Evangelicals both support the idea that religious practice can actually alter how individuals perceive and experience the world. This is, of course, a claim that many religious practitioners would agree with – spiritual practices are often intended to cultivate closer relationships with the divine. When studying radicalisation, the impact that spiritual experiences and practices can have on reinforcing ideological positions should not be neglected in favour of more ‘mundane’ influences. As Francis notes, the process of radicalisation is complex and nuanced. The role that spiritual experiences can play in encouraging individuals to adopt beliefs that are considered radical should not be overlooked. People gradually adopt ideologies through their experiences of the world and spiritual experiences can have an impact just like any other event that an individual considers significant.

It is only by appreciating and integrating the many different factors that cause people to adopt and disseminate beliefs that others consider strange or radical that we can fully understand the process of radicalisation. Doing so is important not only to devise strategies to counter the spread of ideas which are deemed dangerous but also to facilitate the spread of radical ideas that are deemed positive. Technological advances mean that ideas can now spread at a rate that was unthinkable mere decades ago. In this context, it is imperative that academics continue to focus their efforts on understanding the psychological and sociological dynamics by which ideas are spread. Equally, it is important that this research is communicated clearly and publically so that dangerous misconceptions are not allowed to flourish.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (1991). Persuasions of the witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (2004). Metakinesis: How god becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity. American Anthropologist, 106(3), 518–528. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with god. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Cognitive Science, Learning, and ‘Theory of Mind’

As I have responded to Tanya Luhrmann’s book elsewhere and am on record in terms of thinking it makes a major contribution to the cognitive science of religion (CSR) both in terms of its argument and its use of mixed (ethnographic and experimental) methods, I decided that rather than recycling comments that I have already made, it would make much more interesting to give you something of a meta-review of the scientifically-oriented reviews of her book. My initial thought was to focus on the review symposium in Religion, Brain & Behavior from last winter, but with help from Luhrmann, who graciously emailed me some additional reviews, I decided — at the last minute — to expand my scope.

But let me begin by summarizing what I take to be the scientific heart of her study, that is, her effort to offer a scientific answer to the question of how people — in this case, evangelical, charismatically-oriented Christians in Vineyard congregations in Chicago and the Bay Area — come not only to believe that it is possible to talk to God and God will answer but to experience this as actually happening. In her introduction, she explicitly positions her study in relation to some of the research in CSR that stresses the prevalence of belief in gods and other invisible beings, making the case that, while this belief may be widespread, people have to learn to actually hear God and this learning process is (1) difficult, (2) more difficult for some than others, and (3) when it occurs actually changes how people process information.

Each of these claims required different methods. The first, documenting the learning process, was primarily an ethnographic task, which she accomplished through two years of intensive involvement not just with the congregations but with small groups in which people learned to pray that were attached to the churches in both Chicago and the Bay Area. She discovered that some found it easier to learn to hear god than others through participant observation as well. There were the “prayer warriors” at one end of the spectrum and the poor guy, who was raised in the Vineyard church, who desperately wanted to hear god, but never did, at the other extreme. But Luhrmann didn’t just observe these differences. When they started to become apparent, she had them fill out several psychological scales, some of which they liked better than others. Their responses on a scale that reports their tendency to lose themselves in something — to become absorbed — correlated with their ability to learn to hear god. That was an interesting discovery that suggested that individual differences made a difference in how easily people learned to hear god, but it didn’t say if the learning process itself — the religious practices and spiritual disciplines changed how people processed their perceptions and sensations. To test this, she designed an ingenious field experiment in which she gave people iPods with tapes that they had to listen to for 30 minutes six days a week for four weeks (202-210). The experimental group got a modified version of Ignatius’ spiritual exercises in which they were asked to place themselves in a biblical scene and interact with the characters. The control group got a series of Luke Timothy Johnson’s lectures on the New Testament. They were given a series of cognitive tasks before and after the experiment to see if the imaginative exercises made a difference in how they processed information, e.g., resulted in their seeing mental images more vividly. She described these as “training effects” and there were connections between the training effects and individual differences on the absorption scale.

Luhrmann took these measurable changes in how they were processing information as suggesting that they were learning a new theory of mind. Here’s the key passage from the introduction:

In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to interpret the familiar experience of their own minds and bodies as not being own at all–but God’s. They learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness. … To do this, they need to develop a new theory of mind. That phrase theory of mind — has been used to describe the way a child learns to understand that other people have different beliefs and goals and intensions (Luhrmann, 2012, xxi-xxii).

This insight led to an expanded project, which she launched shortly after the book went to press and is still under way, in which she is comparing charismatic Christians in India (Chennai) and Ghana (Accra) to see if she finds local variations in theory of mind, that — she is hypothesizing — would suggest that culture influences the inferences we make about other people’s minds.

From a CSR perspective, this is actually her most controversial claim. Controversial, because theory of mind, which refers to our capacity to attribute mental states to ourselves and others is a central topic in developmental psychology and ethology, the study of other animals, where researchers are asking how this capacity develops in humans and whether it is present in other animals. What makes her claim controversial is that most developmental psychologists think this is a universal human capacity. There are other lines of research that question this and argue that “the standard psychological model for theory of mind is distinctively Euro-American.” Luhrmann is thus using her Vineyard research to raise the possibility that there are different theories of mind — local theories of mind — and asking whether these cultural differences make a fundamental difference in the way people draw inferences about another person’s intentions, feelings, and so on (Luhrmann, 2014, 83).

In the reviews I have looked at so far, reviewers did not address this controversial point head-on, but instead addressed it indirectly. Thus, some in the RBB symposium found her approach “too cognitive” – too dependent on an “information processing approach” — and advocated approaching the problem in light of research on embodied cognition (Strawn & Brown 2014), they and another reviewers thought she ought to pay more attention to explaining differences in terms of attachment processes (Strawn & Brown 2014, Sandage 2014). Others highlighted the role of emotion and still others the need to attend to motivation (Alcorta 2014, 54).

Whether her approach is “too cognitive” depends on how cognitive is defined. There is a narrow and a broader sense in which the term is used. Here I quote John Tooby & Leda Cosmides (1992, 65) on the definitional issues: “Some researchers use it in a narrow sense, to refer to so-called ‘higher mental’ processes, such as reasoning, as distinct from other psychological processes, such as ’emotion’ or ‘motivation’; that is, to refer to a concept that corresponds more or less to the folk notion of reasoning while in a calm frame of mind. In contrast, we [Tooby & Cosmides] are using the word cognitive in a different and more standard [cognitive science] sense. … We use … cognitive and information processing to refer to a language or level of analysis that can be used to precisely describe any psychological process: reasoning, emotion, motivation, and motor control can all be described in cognitive terms, whether the processes that give rise to them are conscious or unconscious, simple or complex. In cognitive science, the term mind refers to an information-processing description of the functioning of an organism’s brain.” So a cognitive science approach, as they and many others understand it, is a language for describing how we process all the incoming information available to us from our bodies and the entire environment in which we are situated – social, cultural, natural — in functional terms, that is in terms of what we do with it.

In terms of this understanding, what many of the reviewers distinguish as “not cognitive”, i.e., bodily sensations, emotions, and motivations, all can and should be considered within a cognitive, information processing approach as either input to be processed or output of the processing. Attachment processes are one of the ways of processing information. So in my mind, most of these reviewers missed the key question, which I think has to do with learning. If Luhrmann wants her work to speak to a CS audience, which I think she does, we need to be able to think about how Vineyard folks were learning — more or less well — in cognitive terms.

Pascal Boyer’s review for the HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory symposium basically does this, which to my mind makes it the most important — and illuminating — of the science-oriented reviews. Pascal Boyer is the author of Religion Explained and has been a leading figure in terms of CSR. His review firmly positions Luhrmann’s work within a cognitive, information processes perspective. Boyer picks up on Luhrmann’s central point: that people have to work hard to learn to hear God. He makes the obvious point that believing in god — however fervently — is not the same thing as feeling you are in the presence of and communicating with god. He points out that many anthropologists have glossed over this distinction, referring all the time to what the people they are studying believe and then offering this as an explanation for their behavior. Boyer generalized from Luhrmann’s research to suggest that most people hold their beliefs in a more tentative fashion, as a conjecture, that they have not necessarily, or perhaps only fleetingly, experienced first-hand as “real” in the sense that Luhrmann uses the term.

Boyer links this distinction between believing and experiencing to a basic cognitive science distinction between “intuitions,” which are normally processed rapidly and unconsciously, and “reflective beliefs” or “reflective processing” or “metacognition.” Most of what we find out about people’s beliefs are “reflective beliefs.” We process most bodily sensations, perceptions, and emotions intuitively without any reflection on the process at all. As he points out — and this is the key link — “religious representations are potentially much more compelling, attention-grabbing, and memorable when they are associated with intuitive content, preferably with perceptions” (Boyer 2013, 353). In other words, through slow learning processes we can learn to associate reflective beliefs with intuitively processed sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Doing so allows us to experience the reflective beliefs in a way that we would not otherwise be able to do. So the point here is that from an information processing perspective, the evangelical’s Luhrmann studied are learning to connect their conscious, reflective belief in god with intuitive, unconsciously processed emotions, perceptions, and sensations in a way that allows them to distinguish some of their inner thoughts as “theirs” and others as “god’s”.

So, let me tie this back into the theory of mind (ToM) issue. In her response to the RBB symposium, Luhrmann referred to a meeting of anthropologists and psychologists that she arranged at Stanford to see whether they had sufficient evidence to argue for “local theories of mind.” They came up with at least six such theories, one of them “the Euro-American modern supernaturalist theory of mind” (Luhrmann 2014, 82-83). In light of Boyer’s distinctions, what Luhrmann characterizes as local theories of mind are best understood as reflective or folk theories of mind. They are the beliefs that we and others have about how mind, body, and world are related. These beliefs may or may not have any relation to the evolved, intuitive, unconscious way that we intuit what is going on in the minds of others. In her RBB response, Luhrmann (2014, 83) acknowledges that there are a range of competing scientific views of ToM and cites two in her discussion – Scholl & Leslie (1999) and Astuti (2012) – that question her approach, stressing that theories about how something works may or may not tell us anything about how they actually work.

Thus, in Boyer’s terms, Luhrmann is asking whether reflective ToMs can influence intuitive ToM.   In asking that, we need to specify what we mean by influence. I think it is much more likely that reflective ToM can influence what inferences we draw about other people’s minds, but not so likely that it influences how we draw inferences about other people’s minds. By calling what people believe about the mind, body, world relationship “theory of mind,” Luhrmann risks over-associating these reflective beliefs with the intuitive process and overlooking the possibility that these beliefs about the relationship between mind, body, and world may come to seem real to people through association with other intuitive processes. So I think we need to consider the possibility that people can attach reflective/folk ToM to a range of sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Then the question we would need to ask would be how do people learn to experience THIS particular folk ToM, including our Euro-American secular one, as real?

 

References

Alcorta, Candace S. 2014. Modes of knowing: how kataphatic practice impacts our brains and behaviors. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 49-56.

Astuti, Rita. 2012. Some after dinner thoughts on theory of mind. Anthropology of this century 3 available in LSE Research Online at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/41536/

Boyer, Pascal. 2013. Why ‘belief’ is hard work: Implications of Tanya Luhrmann’s When God talks back. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 349-57.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2012. When God talks back. New York: Knopf.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2014. Response: Knowing God, attentional learning, and the local theory of mind. Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 78-90.

Sandage, Steven J. 2014. Attachment theory, relational spirituality, and varieties of evangelicals. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 59-65.

Scholl, Brian J. and Alan J. Leslie. 1999. Modularity, development, and ‘theory of mind.’ Mind & Language 14 (1), 131-153.

Strawn, Brad D. and Warren S. Brown. 2014. Living with evangelical paradoxes. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 65-72.

Tooby, John and Leda Cosmides. 1992. The psychological foundations of culture. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind, pp. 19-136. New York: Oxford University Press.

Having Coffee with God: Evangelical Interpretations of God as a Person Among People

Characteristics attributed to God often indicate apotheosis—some quality beyond human understanding, beyond worldly constraints. Commonly used terms include supernatural, omnipotent, and incorporeal, to name a few. Four decades ago, it would have seemed absurd to hear God characterized by American evangelical Christians in terms of personhood, with words such as audible, visible, or coffee-drinker. In this interview, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how God becomes real for certain groups of evangelicals and how practicing prayer through mental imagery can develop sensory awareness of God’s presence. Discussing the fieldwork of her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Luhrmann explains the experience of God, not as a distant transcendent deity, but as a figure who is entirely present and accessible through an intensely personal relationship.

Through years of fieldwork with members of The Vineyard Movement, a multi-branch American evangelical church, Luhrmann observed congregants in direct contact with their friend, God. Through Vineyard prayer practices, congregants develop what Luhrmann describes as a “new theory of mind” in which even mundane thoughts are interpreted as evidence of God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, xxi). In her RSP interview, she recalls a congregant suggesting that, to understand the experience of the divine in real time, she should treat God as a real person and literally have a cup of coffee with him. For American Christians raised on a more formal association with God, positioning him in such a casual role might seem like a return to the playground days of imaginary friends. However, congregants insist that the sense of God’s presence is not only external but also interactive.

Luhrmann posits this conceptualization of a highly participatory God as a natural development within the context of emerging pluralism in America. As she explains in her interview, it all began with “hippie Christians” of the 1960s (e.g. the “Jesus Freaks”) who wove charismatic traditions of Pentecostal Christianity into their philosophy and practices. Instead of dropping acid to contact a transcendent reality, they brought transcendence down to them, making God a “person among people.” Luhrmann suggests that this form of association with God has staying power, providing a way to keep God not only close in heart, but actually present in life.

Though a popular notion in contemporary charismatic evangelical thought, a personal relationship with God does not always come easily; it often requires a learning process of becoming comfortable with God’s presence. Vineyard churches encourage practicing pretend casual conversations with God. In a sense, congregants become comfortable with God by playing house with him, literally pouring him a cup of coffee and chatting. To reinforce God’s presence, prayer groups occasionally designate someone to stand in for him as a human surrogate. Additionally, members are encouraged to imagine God as a loving therapist who is genuinely interested in their lives and concerns.

So, is this imaginary-yet-real God accessible to anyone? Luhrmann observed that about one-quarter of her interviewees do not experience intense sensations of God’s presence, while others experience God so intensely and frequently that Vineyard members refer to them as “prayer warriors” (Luhrmann 2012, 155). To investigate these apparent differences, Luhrmann used the Tellegen Absorption Scale to evaluate subjects on proclivity for absorption, or tendency for becoming absorbed in their imaginations. Results reflected trends of higher scores relative to higher reports of what Luhrmann describes in the interview as “cool, weird spiritual experiences.” She concludes that sharpened mental representations of God described by congregants correlate with (1) belief in God’s direct presence through sensory experiences, (2) absorption tendencies, and (3) practice of imagining God’s presence.

Seemingly central to Lurhmann’s interest is how some congregants report “mental changes” following prayer practices, as if, through prayer training, their minds learn to sense God (Luhrmann 2012, 190). In her book When God Talks Back, she describes Vineyard groups that convene to improve prayer practices through kataphatic exercises, where congregants imagine themselves observing or participating in a biblical scene while paying close attention to sensory details of the experience. She studied the effects of these absorbing imaginative practices among congregants, finding this type of prayer to be more effective in enhancing vividness of mental imagery than listening to scriptural lectures or apophatic prayer (i.e. centering the mind on a spiritually meaningful word). Like training for a triathlon, regularly practicing absorption in this way strengthens sensory awareness, enabling congregants to “give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events,” thus becoming more receptive to (and conscious of) God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, 221-2).

From an etic perspective, it is difficult to accept claims of regularly and casually encountered religious experiences, especially when the caliber is so amplified as to relate a persistent (very real) presence of God. Yet, ironically, skeptics are not alone in facing the problem of interpreting the intangible; this challenge indeed characterizes the Vineyard experience at its core. As the process of sensing God requires an initially effortful imagination, congregants face the issue of discernment in determining the validity of their experiences. Luhrmann notes in the interview that congregants are often skeptical themselves; some even gossip about others who claim questionable divine requests. Interpreting divine inspiration requires the help of the community, with increasing urgency in cases of greater demands. To determine whether God’s instructions are real or imaginary, congregants employ a loose pattern of heuristics: (1) real God experiences are typically spontaneous and surprising; (2) the experience should realistically coincide with God’s expected behavior; (3) the credibility of an experience is valence-dependent; as Luhrmann suggests in the interview, Vineyard’s “teddy bear of a God” should inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.

Luhrmann makes a significant move by highlighting the interpretive challenge facing Vineyard congregants. She shows believers confronting the issue of maintaining faith in something that cannot be proven by scientific means. They are not shying away from epistemological evidence—they are actively engaged in altering their minds to welcome it in the form of God’s sensed presence. By illuminating the believer’s narrative, Luhrmann clarifies the spiritual experience that frequently halts discourse due to its internalized nature. She must be commended for this contribution to the enormous project of bridging the gap between believers and non-believers. For the sake of religious studies discourse, Luhrmann faces the tyrannical problem of communication head-on, enabling the possibility of respect through understanding.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012) When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.

Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 2

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this second part we ask “the epistemic/ontological question”: in studying these experiences, how far should we be concerned with the ontology? Would to do so be an abandonment of the scientific materialism which underpins the discipline, and therefore a slide back into theology? Or can there be a bigger model of materialism – a “complicated materialism”, to use Ann Taves’ expression – in which these phenomena might be suitably explicable? Or, as Bowie puts it, can we use “empathetic engagement” to adopt the ontology for research purposes? You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons and David Hufford. Part 1 can be downloaded here.

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

Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 1

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this first part, we ask, why has the study of “paranormal” experience been somewhat ignored by academia in general and Religious Studies in particular? Is the problem the term “paranormal”? What importance of these kinds of studies have for the field? Is there concern that such studies necessarily seek to justify the ontological claims of the paranormal? This latter issue is pursued in part two, to be broadcast this wednesday. Many of the scholars also offer advice for those interested in this area but are worried about “employability”. You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons, Stanley Krippner and David Hufford.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc. Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

From left to right, back row: Michael Murphy, Susan Greenwood, Jane Hartford, Jeffrey Kripal, Raphael Locke, David Hufford, Charles Emmons, Jack Hunter, Thomas E. Bullard, Stanley Krippner, Edward F. Kelly, Loriliai Biernacki. Middle row: Edith Turner, Tanya Luhrmann, Ann Taves, Deb Frost. Front row: Geoffrey Samuel, Antonia Mills, Fiona Bowie, Sam Yau, Frank Poletti, Paul Stoller, Gregory Shushan.

 

Podcasts

Radical experiences that can change worlds

Radicalisation, Fundamentalism and Terrorism are emotive topics in the 21st Century. All three terms are frequently the subject of distorted, and often highly prejudicial, usage in public discourse. It is precisely because of their contemporary relevance, a relevance that can literally have life-or-death consequences, that they are an important area for academic research. Matthew Francis’ podcast provides an excellent introduction to many of the problems caused by a simplified understanding of religion and radicalisation. As he argues, distinguishing between the three terms is crucial if we want to understand any of them and the processes that they are associated with. Not all radicals are terrorists, and not all terrorists are radicals. A narrow focus on particular forms of radicalism is limiting and dangerous, if we want to understand the processes involved we must view them in a broader context.

Radicalisation, Francis suggests, is almost synonymous with socialisation. It is the process, or processes, by which an individual or group come to hold ideas or beliefs that are deemed to be ‘radical.’ At its core, radicalisation is simply the process of religious or ideological change when that change occurs in a direction that is considered to be radical. The observation that ideas are not inherently radical, but that the term is a relative one that involves comparisons to social norms, is of critical importance. The value judgments that we ascribe to ideas are not innate to them but are instead reflections of our own beliefs. These beliefs and norms vary between societies and over time within society. It was not long ago that, in the United Kingdom, allowing women the right to vote, or homosexuals the right to marry, was considered radical and dangerous by the majority of people. Today, in many parts of the world, both of those ideas are still considered to be radical and dangerous. The ideas have not changed and yet our judgments of them have. The radical has become normal. Similarly, ideas that were once considered normative are now considered by many to be radical. The subjective nature of what is, and is not, considered radical requires researchers to suspend judgment about particular views and focus on the dynamics through which the beliefs and values of individuals change.

A second important insight into radicalisation discussed in the interview is that ‘sacred ideas’ are a core part of any and all ideologies. These are ideas, often implicit, that are considered to be absolutely true and non-negotiable. Secular examples include the belief that people have the right to freedom and self-determination, or that society has an obligation to protect children from abuse.  More controversial examples might be the belief that one’s own race or nation are superior, or that the strong deserve whatever they can take. Recognising that individuals can be radicalised to hold non-religious ideologies is important both to understand the processes of radicalisation but also to understand the growth of other social movements. These ideological movements are diverse and can come from either end of the political spectrum. Marxist ideologies and nationalisms and the emerging alt-right both involve strongly held, radical convictions. However, radicalisation is not always bad. New ideas can be improvements on old ones. Radicalisation, as a process of change, is not inherently good or bad but can be either depending on the particular ideologies involved.

Moving the frame of reference beyond just religious ideologies is an important step in the process of understanding radicalisation but it is also dangerous to go too far in that direction. Individuals who seek to sever the link between religious radicalisation and religion usually have good intentions and yet, as Francis suggests, that step is as misleading as portraying all religion as inherently bad. There are many individuals for whom religious motivations are of central importance and whose actions are driven by religiously radical ideas. For example, the conservative Christian who attacks an abortion clinic in order to prevent the ‘murder’ of the unborn does so out of deep religious conviction and without the belief that abortion is murder it is highly unlikely that they would commit such attacks. It is important to be aware of all the varying, and often conflicting, motivations that drive individuals to commit extreme actions in the name of an ideology but to focus purely on non-religious factors like economics would omit an important piece in the puzzle.

The work of Tanya Luhrmann (1991, 2004, 2012) is of relevance here. Her work has explored how individuals ‘learn’ to have spiritual experiences that reinforce developing worldviews. She describes this process of learning to attribute particular thoughts, feelings and experiences to a divine or otherwise supernatural source as ‘metakinesis’. Metakinesis, she argues, is similar to other learning processes that teach an individual to become an expert in a particular field. As an individual begins to view the world through a particular religious perspective, and interpret events in the way encouraged by the community they are joining, they find value in the traditions and practices. These practices, however, can do more than simply providing an interpretative framework for ambiguous events. The Spiritual Disciplines Project, an experiment that Luhrmann ran at Stanford University, showed that individual who pray or meditates repeatedly actually becomes more attuned to particular sensations and have increased spiritual experiences. These experiences reinforce the worldview that lead to the practice in the first place, frequently leading to increased immersion in it. Luhrmann’s early work with British magic-users and her more recent work with American Evangelicals both support the idea that religious practice can actually alter how individuals perceive and experience the world. This is, of course, a claim that many religious practitioners would agree with – spiritual practices are often intended to cultivate closer relationships with the divine. When studying radicalisation, the impact that spiritual experiences and practices can have on reinforcing ideological positions should not be neglected in favour of more ‘mundane’ influences. As Francis notes, the process of radicalisation is complex and nuanced. The role that spiritual experiences can play in encouraging individuals to adopt beliefs that are considered radical should not be overlooked. People gradually adopt ideologies through their experiences of the world and spiritual experiences can have an impact just like any other event that an individual considers significant.

It is only by appreciating and integrating the many different factors that cause people to adopt and disseminate beliefs that others consider strange or radical that we can fully understand the process of radicalisation. Doing so is important not only to devise strategies to counter the spread of ideas which are deemed dangerous but also to facilitate the spread of radical ideas that are deemed positive. Technological advances mean that ideas can now spread at a rate that was unthinkable mere decades ago. In this context, it is imperative that academics continue to focus their efforts on understanding the psychological and sociological dynamics by which ideas are spread. Equally, it is important that this research is communicated clearly and publically so that dangerous misconceptions are not allowed to flourish.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (1991). Persuasions of the witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (2004). Metakinesis: How god becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity. American Anthropologist, 106(3), 518–528. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with god. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Cognitive Science, Learning, and ‘Theory of Mind’

As I have responded to Tanya Luhrmann’s book elsewhere and am on record in terms of thinking it makes a major contribution to the cognitive science of religion (CSR) both in terms of its argument and its use of mixed (ethnographic and experimental) methods, I decided that rather than recycling comments that I have already made, it would make much more interesting to give you something of a meta-review of the scientifically-oriented reviews of her book. My initial thought was to focus on the review symposium in Religion, Brain & Behavior from last winter, but with help from Luhrmann, who graciously emailed me some additional reviews, I decided — at the last minute — to expand my scope.

But let me begin by summarizing what I take to be the scientific heart of her study, that is, her effort to offer a scientific answer to the question of how people — in this case, evangelical, charismatically-oriented Christians in Vineyard congregations in Chicago and the Bay Area — come not only to believe that it is possible to talk to God and God will answer but to experience this as actually happening. In her introduction, she explicitly positions her study in relation to some of the research in CSR that stresses the prevalence of belief in gods and other invisible beings, making the case that, while this belief may be widespread, people have to learn to actually hear God and this learning process is (1) difficult, (2) more difficult for some than others, and (3) when it occurs actually changes how people process information.

Each of these claims required different methods. The first, documenting the learning process, was primarily an ethnographic task, which she accomplished through two years of intensive involvement not just with the congregations but with small groups in which people learned to pray that were attached to the churches in both Chicago and the Bay Area. She discovered that some found it easier to learn to hear god than others through participant observation as well. There were the “prayer warriors” at one end of the spectrum and the poor guy, who was raised in the Vineyard church, who desperately wanted to hear god, but never did, at the other extreme. But Luhrmann didn’t just observe these differences. When they started to become apparent, she had them fill out several psychological scales, some of which they liked better than others. Their responses on a scale that reports their tendency to lose themselves in something — to become absorbed — correlated with their ability to learn to hear god. That was an interesting discovery that suggested that individual differences made a difference in how easily people learned to hear god, but it didn’t say if the learning process itself — the religious practices and spiritual disciplines changed how people processed their perceptions and sensations. To test this, she designed an ingenious field experiment in which she gave people iPods with tapes that they had to listen to for 30 minutes six days a week for four weeks (202-210). The experimental group got a modified version of Ignatius’ spiritual exercises in which they were asked to place themselves in a biblical scene and interact with the characters. The control group got a series of Luke Timothy Johnson’s lectures on the New Testament. They were given a series of cognitive tasks before and after the experiment to see if the imaginative exercises made a difference in how they processed information, e.g., resulted in their seeing mental images more vividly. She described these as “training effects” and there were connections between the training effects and individual differences on the absorption scale.

Luhrmann took these measurable changes in how they were processing information as suggesting that they were learning a new theory of mind. Here’s the key passage from the introduction:

In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to interpret the familiar experience of their own minds and bodies as not being own at all–but God’s. They learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness. … To do this, they need to develop a new theory of mind. That phrase theory of mind — has been used to describe the way a child learns to understand that other people have different beliefs and goals and intensions (Luhrmann, 2012, xxi-xxii).

This insight led to an expanded project, which she launched shortly after the book went to press and is still under way, in which she is comparing charismatic Christians in India (Chennai) and Ghana (Accra) to see if she finds local variations in theory of mind, that — she is hypothesizing — would suggest that culture influences the inferences we make about other people’s minds.

From a CSR perspective, this is actually her most controversial claim. Controversial, because theory of mind, which refers to our capacity to attribute mental states to ourselves and others is a central topic in developmental psychology and ethology, the study of other animals, where researchers are asking how this capacity develops in humans and whether it is present in other animals. What makes her claim controversial is that most developmental psychologists think this is a universal human capacity. There are other lines of research that question this and argue that “the standard psychological model for theory of mind is distinctively Euro-American.” Luhrmann is thus using her Vineyard research to raise the possibility that there are different theories of mind — local theories of mind — and asking whether these cultural differences make a fundamental difference in the way people draw inferences about another person’s intentions, feelings, and so on (Luhrmann, 2014, 83).

In the reviews I have looked at so far, reviewers did not address this controversial point head-on, but instead addressed it indirectly. Thus, some in the RBB symposium found her approach “too cognitive” – too dependent on an “information processing approach” — and advocated approaching the problem in light of research on embodied cognition (Strawn & Brown 2014), they and another reviewers thought she ought to pay more attention to explaining differences in terms of attachment processes (Strawn & Brown 2014, Sandage 2014). Others highlighted the role of emotion and still others the need to attend to motivation (Alcorta 2014, 54).

Whether her approach is “too cognitive” depends on how cognitive is defined. There is a narrow and a broader sense in which the term is used. Here I quote John Tooby & Leda Cosmides (1992, 65) on the definitional issues: “Some researchers use it in a narrow sense, to refer to so-called ‘higher mental’ processes, such as reasoning, as distinct from other psychological processes, such as ’emotion’ or ‘motivation’; that is, to refer to a concept that corresponds more or less to the folk notion of reasoning while in a calm frame of mind. In contrast, we [Tooby & Cosmides] are using the word cognitive in a different and more standard [cognitive science] sense. … We use … cognitive and information processing to refer to a language or level of analysis that can be used to precisely describe any psychological process: reasoning, emotion, motivation, and motor control can all be described in cognitive terms, whether the processes that give rise to them are conscious or unconscious, simple or complex. In cognitive science, the term mind refers to an information-processing description of the functioning of an organism’s brain.” So a cognitive science approach, as they and many others understand it, is a language for describing how we process all the incoming information available to us from our bodies and the entire environment in which we are situated – social, cultural, natural — in functional terms, that is in terms of what we do with it.

In terms of this understanding, what many of the reviewers distinguish as “not cognitive”, i.e., bodily sensations, emotions, and motivations, all can and should be considered within a cognitive, information processing approach as either input to be processed or output of the processing. Attachment processes are one of the ways of processing information. So in my mind, most of these reviewers missed the key question, which I think has to do with learning. If Luhrmann wants her work to speak to a CS audience, which I think she does, we need to be able to think about how Vineyard folks were learning — more or less well — in cognitive terms.

Pascal Boyer’s review for the HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory symposium basically does this, which to my mind makes it the most important — and illuminating — of the science-oriented reviews. Pascal Boyer is the author of Religion Explained and has been a leading figure in terms of CSR. His review firmly positions Luhrmann’s work within a cognitive, information processes perspective. Boyer picks up on Luhrmann’s central point: that people have to work hard to learn to hear God. He makes the obvious point that believing in god — however fervently — is not the same thing as feeling you are in the presence of and communicating with god. He points out that many anthropologists have glossed over this distinction, referring all the time to what the people they are studying believe and then offering this as an explanation for their behavior. Boyer generalized from Luhrmann’s research to suggest that most people hold their beliefs in a more tentative fashion, as a conjecture, that they have not necessarily, or perhaps only fleetingly, experienced first-hand as “real” in the sense that Luhrmann uses the term.

Boyer links this distinction between believing and experiencing to a basic cognitive science distinction between “intuitions,” which are normally processed rapidly and unconsciously, and “reflective beliefs” or “reflective processing” or “metacognition.” Most of what we find out about people’s beliefs are “reflective beliefs.” We process most bodily sensations, perceptions, and emotions intuitively without any reflection on the process at all. As he points out — and this is the key link — “religious representations are potentially much more compelling, attention-grabbing, and memorable when they are associated with intuitive content, preferably with perceptions” (Boyer 2013, 353). In other words, through slow learning processes we can learn to associate reflective beliefs with intuitively processed sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Doing so allows us to experience the reflective beliefs in a way that we would not otherwise be able to do. So the point here is that from an information processing perspective, the evangelical’s Luhrmann studied are learning to connect their conscious, reflective belief in god with intuitive, unconsciously processed emotions, perceptions, and sensations in a way that allows them to distinguish some of their inner thoughts as “theirs” and others as “god’s”.

So, let me tie this back into the theory of mind (ToM) issue. In her response to the RBB symposium, Luhrmann referred to a meeting of anthropologists and psychologists that she arranged at Stanford to see whether they had sufficient evidence to argue for “local theories of mind.” They came up with at least six such theories, one of them “the Euro-American modern supernaturalist theory of mind” (Luhrmann 2014, 82-83). In light of Boyer’s distinctions, what Luhrmann characterizes as local theories of mind are best understood as reflective or folk theories of mind. They are the beliefs that we and others have about how mind, body, and world are related. These beliefs may or may not have any relation to the evolved, intuitive, unconscious way that we intuit what is going on in the minds of others. In her RBB response, Luhrmann (2014, 83) acknowledges that there are a range of competing scientific views of ToM and cites two in her discussion – Scholl & Leslie (1999) and Astuti (2012) – that question her approach, stressing that theories about how something works may or may not tell us anything about how they actually work.

Thus, in Boyer’s terms, Luhrmann is asking whether reflective ToMs can influence intuitive ToM.   In asking that, we need to specify what we mean by influence. I think it is much more likely that reflective ToM can influence what inferences we draw about other people’s minds, but not so likely that it influences how we draw inferences about other people’s minds. By calling what people believe about the mind, body, world relationship “theory of mind,” Luhrmann risks over-associating these reflective beliefs with the intuitive process and overlooking the possibility that these beliefs about the relationship between mind, body, and world may come to seem real to people through association with other intuitive processes. So I think we need to consider the possibility that people can attach reflective/folk ToM to a range of sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Then the question we would need to ask would be how do people learn to experience THIS particular folk ToM, including our Euro-American secular one, as real?

 

References

Alcorta, Candace S. 2014. Modes of knowing: how kataphatic practice impacts our brains and behaviors. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 49-56.

Astuti, Rita. 2012. Some after dinner thoughts on theory of mind. Anthropology of this century 3 available in LSE Research Online at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/41536/

Boyer, Pascal. 2013. Why ‘belief’ is hard work: Implications of Tanya Luhrmann’s When God talks back. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 349-57.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2012. When God talks back. New York: Knopf.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2014. Response: Knowing God, attentional learning, and the local theory of mind. Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 78-90.

Sandage, Steven J. 2014. Attachment theory, relational spirituality, and varieties of evangelicals. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 59-65.

Scholl, Brian J. and Alan J. Leslie. 1999. Modularity, development, and ‘theory of mind.’ Mind & Language 14 (1), 131-153.

Strawn, Brad D. and Warren S. Brown. 2014. Living with evangelical paradoxes. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 65-72.

Tooby, John and Leda Cosmides. 1992. The psychological foundations of culture. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind, pp. 19-136. New York: Oxford University Press.

Having Coffee with God: Evangelical Interpretations of God as a Person Among People

Characteristics attributed to God often indicate apotheosis—some quality beyond human understanding, beyond worldly constraints. Commonly used terms include supernatural, omnipotent, and incorporeal, to name a few. Four decades ago, it would have seemed absurd to hear God characterized by American evangelical Christians in terms of personhood, with words such as audible, visible, or coffee-drinker. In this interview, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how God becomes real for certain groups of evangelicals and how practicing prayer through mental imagery can develop sensory awareness of God’s presence. Discussing the fieldwork of her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Luhrmann explains the experience of God, not as a distant transcendent deity, but as a figure who is entirely present and accessible through an intensely personal relationship.

Through years of fieldwork with members of The Vineyard Movement, a multi-branch American evangelical church, Luhrmann observed congregants in direct contact with their friend, God. Through Vineyard prayer practices, congregants develop what Luhrmann describes as a “new theory of mind” in which even mundane thoughts are interpreted as evidence of God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, xxi). In her RSP interview, she recalls a congregant suggesting that, to understand the experience of the divine in real time, she should treat God as a real person and literally have a cup of coffee with him. For American Christians raised on a more formal association with God, positioning him in such a casual role might seem like a return to the playground days of imaginary friends. However, congregants insist that the sense of God’s presence is not only external but also interactive.

Luhrmann posits this conceptualization of a highly participatory God as a natural development within the context of emerging pluralism in America. As she explains in her interview, it all began with “hippie Christians” of the 1960s (e.g. the “Jesus Freaks”) who wove charismatic traditions of Pentecostal Christianity into their philosophy and practices. Instead of dropping acid to contact a transcendent reality, they brought transcendence down to them, making God a “person among people.” Luhrmann suggests that this form of association with God has staying power, providing a way to keep God not only close in heart, but actually present in life.

Though a popular notion in contemporary charismatic evangelical thought, a personal relationship with God does not always come easily; it often requires a learning process of becoming comfortable with God’s presence. Vineyard churches encourage practicing pretend casual conversations with God. In a sense, congregants become comfortable with God by playing house with him, literally pouring him a cup of coffee and chatting. To reinforce God’s presence, prayer groups occasionally designate someone to stand in for him as a human surrogate. Additionally, members are encouraged to imagine God as a loving therapist who is genuinely interested in their lives and concerns.

So, is this imaginary-yet-real God accessible to anyone? Luhrmann observed that about one-quarter of her interviewees do not experience intense sensations of God’s presence, while others experience God so intensely and frequently that Vineyard members refer to them as “prayer warriors” (Luhrmann 2012, 155). To investigate these apparent differences, Luhrmann used the Tellegen Absorption Scale to evaluate subjects on proclivity for absorption, or tendency for becoming absorbed in their imaginations. Results reflected trends of higher scores relative to higher reports of what Luhrmann describes in the interview as “cool, weird spiritual experiences.” She concludes that sharpened mental representations of God described by congregants correlate with (1) belief in God’s direct presence through sensory experiences, (2) absorption tendencies, and (3) practice of imagining God’s presence.

Seemingly central to Lurhmann’s interest is how some congregants report “mental changes” following prayer practices, as if, through prayer training, their minds learn to sense God (Luhrmann 2012, 190). In her book When God Talks Back, she describes Vineyard groups that convene to improve prayer practices through kataphatic exercises, where congregants imagine themselves observing or participating in a biblical scene while paying close attention to sensory details of the experience. She studied the effects of these absorbing imaginative practices among congregants, finding this type of prayer to be more effective in enhancing vividness of mental imagery than listening to scriptural lectures or apophatic prayer (i.e. centering the mind on a spiritually meaningful word). Like training for a triathlon, regularly practicing absorption in this way strengthens sensory awareness, enabling congregants to “give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events,” thus becoming more receptive to (and conscious of) God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, 221-2).

From an etic perspective, it is difficult to accept claims of regularly and casually encountered religious experiences, especially when the caliber is so amplified as to relate a persistent (very real) presence of God. Yet, ironically, skeptics are not alone in facing the problem of interpreting the intangible; this challenge indeed characterizes the Vineyard experience at its core. As the process of sensing God requires an initially effortful imagination, congregants face the issue of discernment in determining the validity of their experiences. Luhrmann notes in the interview that congregants are often skeptical themselves; some even gossip about others who claim questionable divine requests. Interpreting divine inspiration requires the help of the community, with increasing urgency in cases of greater demands. To determine whether God’s instructions are real or imaginary, congregants employ a loose pattern of heuristics: (1) real God experiences are typically spontaneous and surprising; (2) the experience should realistically coincide with God’s expected behavior; (3) the credibility of an experience is valence-dependent; as Luhrmann suggests in the interview, Vineyard’s “teddy bear of a God” should inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.

Luhrmann makes a significant move by highlighting the interpretive challenge facing Vineyard congregants. She shows believers confronting the issue of maintaining faith in something that cannot be proven by scientific means. They are not shying away from epistemological evidence—they are actively engaged in altering their minds to welcome it in the form of God’s sensed presence. By illuminating the believer’s narrative, Luhrmann clarifies the spiritual experience that frequently halts discourse due to its internalized nature. She must be commended for this contribution to the enormous project of bridging the gap between believers and non-believers. For the sake of religious studies discourse, Luhrmann faces the tyrannical problem of communication head-on, enabling the possibility of respect through understanding.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012) When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.

Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 2

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this second part we ask “the epistemic/ontological question”: in studying these experiences, how far should we be concerned with the ontology? Would to do so be an abandonment of the scientific materialism which underpins the discipline, and therefore a slide back into theology? Or can there be a bigger model of materialism – a “complicated materialism”, to use Ann Taves’ expression – in which these phenomena might be suitably explicable? Or, as Bowie puts it, can we use “empathetic engagement” to adopt the ontology for research purposes? You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons and David Hufford. Part 1 can be downloaded here.

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

Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 1

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this first part, we ask, why has the study of “paranormal” experience been somewhat ignored by academia in general and Religious Studies in particular? Is the problem the term “paranormal”? What importance of these kinds of studies have for the field? Is there concern that such studies necessarily seek to justify the ontological claims of the paranormal? This latter issue is pursued in part two, to be broadcast this wednesday. Many of the scholars also offer advice for those interested in this area but are worried about “employability”. You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons, Stanley Krippner and David Hufford.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc. Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

From left to right, back row: Michael Murphy, Susan Greenwood, Jane Hartford, Jeffrey Kripal, Raphael Locke, David Hufford, Charles Emmons, Jack Hunter, Thomas E. Bullard, Stanley Krippner, Edward F. Kelly, Loriliai Biernacki. Middle row: Edith Turner, Tanya Luhrmann, Ann Taves, Deb Frost. Front row: Geoffrey Samuel, Antonia Mills, Fiona Bowie, Sam Yau, Frank Poletti, Paul Stoller, Gregory Shushan.