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Theoretical Veganism: Practicing Religious Studies without Religion

Aside from being an oxymoron, the thought of “meatless meatballs” can elicit strong reactions, whether of disgust, confusion, or hunger. Such products are capable of breeding suspicion, whether in regards to their taste, their origins, or their status as “food.” After all, what exactly is meatless meat? Although certainly contradictory in a sense, it has become code for a certain type of alternative or imitation product, which might be used for any of a number of reasons.

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

Of course, it is not just claims to being meat-free that are capable of raising suspicions. When I recently ordered a hamburger at a popular fast food chain, I found myself questioning, like many others before me, what exactly made up the “meat” I was being served. Although the contents of the patty of what I will call beef is presented as being fairly self-evident, often with labels such as “real beef,” “100% beef,” etc., there are plenty of questions worth asking about how that patty came into existence. What meat is used? What fillers are used? What were the cows being fed? What were their living conditions? Were they healthy? How was the meat handled? Whatever the answers, one thing is clear, the makeup of that burger reflects the interests of the corporation making a profit off of it. How can they save money on ingredients? How do they make the most profit? As with so many other things, it is important to know who benefits. That is perhaps why there have been so many rumors online about the supposed indiscretions of fast food corporations. Take for example the numerous articles and even an art project about McDonald’s hamburgers that show no signs of mold even years after purchase.

Although the corporations are not always guilty of the accusations made against them, the food industry nonetheless serves as a fascinating case study for understanding rhetoric and identification. What happens if we start applying this level of suspicion to the category of religion? Scholars have been doing this for years, although the results have been mixed. One such approach, deconstructing the concept of “religion,” has increasingly come into vogue in the study of religion in recent years, but the practical import of this approach is still hotly debated. After all, as the title of Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 response to Timothy Fitzgerald asks pointedly, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What?” If the word is really bound up with the values of the so-called West, and especially with Protestant values, if its meaning if ambiguous, varied, and dependent upon the interests of the person using the word, how then ought the scholar to proceed? Schilbrack’s answer is “critical realism,” which seeks balance between criticality towards how terminology is used and knowledge of pre- or non-linguistic realities. On this approach, the question is whether or not a definition of religion can be made that is useful for understanding those realities.  Rather than constructing a “working definition,” others, like Daniel Dubuisson, suggest alternative language that they see as less value laden, such as “cosmographic formations.”

At this point, enter Teemu Taira’s work. In studying Karhun kansa (People of the bear), a small, officially recognized, religious group in Finland, with about thirty members, Taira takes an interesting and seemingly useful approach: he does not define religion at all, nor does he use it as a descriptive category. Instead, he is interested in studying how other people are using the word “religion,” with Karhun kansa serving as just one case study within the varied contexts in which “religion” is used discursively. There are benefits and drawbacks to being classified as a religion, as Taira points out in regards to the ability to perform marriage ceremonies and to be afforded certain legal rights and protections. On the other hand, groups might also try and skirt around those definitions when it suits their social or political interests. What do we do as scholars when people want to call themselves spiritual but not religious, claim to be philosophy rather than religion, or when Christians say they have a relationship, not a religion? We could impose terminology on these people, but does this get us closer to some sort of reality?

Perhaps it is time to stop treating the word “religion” as a tool of the scholar and to start treating it as the very object of study. On this account, theoretical veganism would be the refusal to use either religion or religion by-products, which I would suggest are the terms used by scholars that are roughly synonymous with religion but supposedly free of the same trappings, such as Dubuisson’s “cosmographic formations.”

My own research focuses on discourses surrounding “science and religion,” where I also consider the word “religion” (and the word “science” for that matter) to be the thing worth investigating rather than a way of describing my subject matter. I care not at all for how these concepts relate, because once deconstructed, it is hard to find any sort of connection left to those non-discursive realities that are of interest to the critical realists. Instead, it seems to me to be worth asking the important and seemingly oft-repeated mantra, “Who benefits?”

If we throw out every word that can be deconstructed, we may end up with scarcely any language left to use. Furthermore, as Taira notes, scholars are not disinterested observers, since analyzing discourse is itself a discursive practice, making scholars part of the world they study, so there will never be an interest-free vocabulary. Nonetheless, if a word is not useful, it may be better to relegate it to the junk heap. When presenting research at a conference a couple years ago, a senior scholar asked me about the possibilities for a viable definition of religion. In responding, I was reminded of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s apocryphal response to Napoleon when asked about the place of God in his work, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

References

Dubuisson, Daniel. 2003. The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. Trans. William Sayers. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2013. “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What? A Case for Critical Realism.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 107-112.

The Deconstruction of Religion: So What?

In his interview with the RSP, Teemu Taira refers to his work as in some sense a response to Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 paper, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?” However, I don’t find it speaking to the concerns of Schilbrack’s paper. This, is not to question the excellence of Taira’s work, scholarship, or methodology, all of which I am deeply impressed with. I want to make that clear at the outset; my aim or critique here is not of Taira’s own work or methods but rather a specific way of understanding and using deconstruction that has emerged in the study of religion. It is the take on the deconstructive project which is at stake.

Schilbrack contrasts the deconstruction of religion he finds in Timothy Fitzgerald, and I may note principle adherents such as Russell McCutcheon, with what he sees as his own approach. He identifies agreement on three main points which I may briefly gloss as follows:

  • What we call religion is created by human discourse and behaviour.
  • “Religion” exists only in relation to other terms, the most important of which is “secular”.
  • The separation of the religious and secular as distinct spheres is a modern phenomenon.

So far, so good. I imagine we are all agreed. This accords with Taira’s own discussion of these terms I think. Where I agree with Schilbrack, against many deconstructivists, is that we then have to continue speaking of religion because rather than being merely an empty signifier, or a phantasm, those phenomena we have called and termed religious, or as religions, have a reality in the world.

Taira argues that he is following Schilbrack by showing the “What Next.” As such, he gives his case studies of traditions which people have termed religion and showing the social, political, and power issues involved in claiming or employing the term. However, Taira is very clear that he never says what the term “religion” is. It is merely his object of study, or, rather, religion itself is not his object of study (how can it be when it has no real existence); it is other people’s use of the term that he studies and analyses. At several points in the interview, Taira is clear in stating that he makes no claim as to whether anything is or is not a religion, nor does he try and give any definition to the term. It remains for him an empty signifier which others fill.

It is on the refusal to try and define or even to engage in discourse about how the term may be used that I see the problem arising. Notably, my problem is not with deconstructionism itself, nor do I want to argue here what “properly” follows Derrida. I am critiquing a particular tradition, or employment of, deconstruction which is the fashionable modus operandi of many scholars in the study of religion. So why do I see it as a problem? I will break this down into four points, though each is related to the others.

First, as Schilbrack notes it becomes “an end in itself.” It says: “Look, this is what other people think religion is, but I know better: there is no religion. So, now I can uncover their power games.” Practiced simply as a tool, it fails to engage the social reality that actually exists.

Second, such deconstruction actually shows nothing new. Whether or not we had deconstructed religion we can see that there are social, financial, legal, etc. benefits to being a religion. We could also see that people claim the term or deny it (to others) to give advantage or prestige.

Third, often deconstructing “religion” becomes facile or sacred. Facile because it is common for deconstructivists to argue that we cannot separate religion from culture, however, “culture” itself is an equally problematic term of contemporary Western provenance.(Or else we are told “religion” can be analysed by relation to other deconstructable terms like law, politics, etc.); Sacred, because “religion” is set apart as uniquely problematic, constructed, and “false;” it can be analysed by reference to, or seen as a part of, politics, law, culture but only “religion” is such an empty signifier that it can have no analytic validity. (How would we show this?)

Fourth, even if we show that many terms such as politics, law, culture, society, are also constructed (generally in relation to each other) we still get no further if we simply say all words are empty signifiers (which in one sense, of course, they are). We stay with the first problem that it is a meaningless deconstruction. Once done we simply ask: “So what?”. I will suggest the reasons for this are twofold: firstly, theoretical and linguistic; secondly, political.

Theory: scholars who deconstruct without re-construction undertake a feeble version of deconstruction that undermines itself (often without realising it). Every word has a history and baggage that comes with it. If we play the deconstructivist game of showing that religion, culture, politics, theory, method, society, medicine, science and every term is unstable then simply we are left unable to speak. Indeed, the words which we used to destabilise others are themselves unstable. It is meaningless unless we must say how and why we will choose to use certain words, and reflexively acknowledge our place within a lineage of speaking (as noted, some scholars try and get round this by treating “religion” as its own sacred category).

Politics: many scholars of religion argue that to be part of a “critical”, or “properly scholarly”, tradition they must avoid any advocacy, simply being analysts of other people’s discourse. However, as Taira notes: “Analysing discourse is itself a discursive practice.” To claim, therefore, simply to be analysing other people’s discourse and never to define the term yourself is an impossible act. The discourse on the term creates discourse. Indeed, by refusing to say how it may be used, the scholar is being a political animal. To play on a well-known adage: “To refuse to speak is itself a political act;” “to refuse to be an advocate, is to support the status quo;” “to refuse to define, is itself a form of definition.” Schilbrack observes that saying the borders of nation states are arbitrary and imagined human constructs when people are fighting and dying over them is at best unhelpful. Pretending to be objective analysts of other people’s discourse and the borders of what is and is not religion is equally unhelpful. The modern scholar of religion risks becoming an academic laughing stock not because he uses an outdated and outmoded concept of “religion” but by refusing to admit that it really does exist as a social reality and to engage in discussion about how to use the term. It is bad deconstruction, bad scholarship, and bad politics.

References

Kevin Schilbrack, 2013, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?: A Case for Critical Realism”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 1, pp. 107-12.

There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat: Comments on Kocku von Stuckrad’s Discursive Approach

There is more than one discursive approach in religious studies. In his interview with the RSP, professor Kocku von Stuckrad outlines some of the key issues that are relevant for constructing a discourse theoretical framework for religious studies. As I have tried to contribute to a similar framework in some of my publications, it comes as no surprise that my overall approach to von Stuckrad’s interview is highly appreciative. Therefore, I shall simply add some nuances to the interview by demonstrating how von Stuckrad’s approach could be located within the field of discursive approaches as being only one, though very relevant, version.

Von Stuckrad begins to delineate his approach by distinguishing it from more linguistic discursive approaches, including so-called critical discourse analysis (CDA) (represented by Norman Fairclough and Ruth Wodak, for instance), and talks about a ‘sociology of knowledge’ approach. The distinction itself is pedagogically useful, although we are not really talking about two different approaches, but rather a variety of approaches in a continuum – some are more linguistically oriented, designed for detailed analysis of texts, whereas others are oriented more historically, designed for thinking about large-scale historical organization of a plurality of knowledge through discourses (represented by Michel Foucault, among others).

I would even suggest that despite the obvious and deep theoretical differences and disagreements between Fairclough and Foucault (see Taira 2016a; 2016b), the choice between them – if they are taken to represent two common options – often depends on the research design. In my experience, it is often the case that students prefer linguistically oriented versions simply because they find it easier to apply to the analysis of texts. Indeed, in this context it would be better to refer to Fairclough’s model as ‘textually oriented discourse analysis’ (TODA), as this properly highlights the difference with a Foucauldian approach. To simply talk about ‘critical discourse analysis’ does not convey the difference, because ‘critical’ could be applied to both Fairclough and Foucault (despite the fact that Fairclough’s understanding of what counts as ‘critical’ is not the same as Foucault’s).

Von Stuckrad correctly emphasizes that discursive research is not simply a study of a particular word or text, but a study of practices and institutions. As I see it, this applies – or at least should apply – not only to the ‘sociology of knowledge’ approach von Stuckrad prefers, but also to critical discourse analysis.

Research Perspective, Method, or Both?

The interview does not say much about how to use discursive methods. Indeed, von Stuckrad highlights the historical narratives in how discourse on religion operates and prefers to write about a ‘discursive research perspective’ (von Stuckrad 2014: 15) rather than discourse analysis as a method. It is telling that in The Scientification of Religion (2014, 18) he lists eight methods appropriate for (his version of) discursive study, but he does not mention discourse analysis. I agree with him that, as a theoretical framework, a discursive approach can utilize many methods, depending on the research design, but discourse analysis is certainly one of them.

There are other examples within the discursive study of religion in which the methodological dimension of discourse analysis is addressed in a ‘how to do’ manner. One is mine (Taira 2013a) and the other – with a slightly different emphasis – is written by Titus Hjelm (2011). This is also a good opportunity to advertise a forthcoming volume edited by Frans Wijsen and Kocku von Stuckrad (Wijsen and von Stuckrad 2016). Its contributions, including original chapters by von Stuckrad, Hjelm and myself, among others, deal with many of the details von Stuckrad mentions in the interview, but they also help us to situate von Stuckrad’s approach as only one useful opportunity among a diversity of options with different nuances.

One of the interesting aspects in the interview is that, given that the method part is neglected, von Stuckrad talks about epistemology. As is often the case, the discussion uses – perhaps in order to bring in the listeners – the traditional terms and distinctions, such as realism versus relativism (often realism versus anti-realism). Von Stuckrad even says, approvingly, that American philosopher Richard Rorty provides a very intelligent form of relativism.

The problem is that practically no one self-identifies as relativist; it is a label addressed by opponents. This is also the case within discursive approaches: some versions cling to a realist standpoint and criticize others as relativists. This applies to Fairclough’s criticism of Foucault and I guess some might say the same thing about von Stuckrad. My question is, then, should those whose versions are accused of being relativist stop talking about realism and relativism and invent new ways to talk if the standard terms do not do justice to their position? It is true that Rorty wrote about himself as a ‘so-called relativist’, but he never seriously defined himself as such, simply because the term is embedded in a discourse that he wishes to discard. As Rorty (1999, xviii) stated: ‘We must repudiate the vocabulary our opponents use, and not let them impose it upon us.’

Are analytical definitions of religion necessary?

In the interview, von Stuckrad talks about three scholarly debates relevant for discursive research: crisis of representation, situated observer, and essentialism. These complex and significant issues have been addressed carefully in many disciplines in recent decades. However, it seems to me to be perfectly possible for someone to agree on the problem of representation, highlight the importance of reflecting on the situatedness of observer, challenge essentialism and still show no particular interest in problematizing analytical definitions of religion. Therefore, I wish to highlight the distinction between studying ‘religious discourse’ and discourses on ‘religion.’ (Taira 2016a, 2016b.)

The first approach defines what counts as religion and examines its constituent parts, its key distinctions, and its functions in society at large. An example of this kind of discursive approach is the work of Bruce Lincoln. Religion, according to him, is ‘discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal’ (Lincoln 2012, 1). Lincoln starts the analysis of ‘religious discourse’ with a definition of religion. It allows him to write about the relation between religion and culture and use concepts such as ‘religious conflict,’ ‘religions of resistance,’ ‘religions of revolution’ and count how many ‘religious words and phrases’ there are in bin Laden’s and Bush’s speeches (Lincoln 2003).

Many people find Lincoln’s research so useful that standard definitions are worth pursuing, and I have no problem with that. However, in order to understand the variety of discursive approaches, I find it relevant to emphasize the difference between discursive approaches that use analytical definitions and discursive approaches that study how the category of ‘religion’ is used, defined, and negotiated in organizing social practices. The starting point of the second type of discursive approach is to avoid analytical definitions of ‘religion’. Rather, the focus is on studying how something comes to be classified as and called ‘religion’ and how it is connected to social practices and power relations. For an example of how the analysis is different in the context of ’deliberately invented religions’ depending on whether an analytical definition of religion is used, see Taira 2013b.

To be fair to von Stuckrad, he talks a little bit about the distinction in the interview and provides examples of how some strands become part of discourse on religion. However, I find the distinction worth underlining when navigating between different versions of discursive approaches. It may not be the most important distinction for someone who is interested in applying discursive approaches in the humanities and social sciences in general, but it connects such approaches to core debates concerning the study of religion by asking, what are the analytical terms we use and which terms need to be defined?

References

Fairclough, Norman 1992. Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity.

Foucault, Michel 2002. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Hjelm, Titus 2011. Discourse analysis. Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion. London: Routledge, 134–150.

Lincoln, Bruce 2003. Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lincoln, Bruce 2012. Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars. Critical Explorations in the History of Religions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rorty, Richard 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin.

Taira, Teemu 2013a. Making Space for Discursive Study in Religious Studies. Religion 43(1): 26–45.

Taira, Teemu 2013b. The Category of ‘Invented Religion’: A New Opportunity for Studying Discourses on ‘Religion’. Culture and Religion 14(4) 477–493.

Taira, Teemu 2016a. Doing Things with “Religion”: Discursive Approach in Rethinking the World Religions Paradigm. Christopher R. Cotter and David G. Robertson (eds), After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. London: Routledge.

Taira, Teemu 2016b. Discourse on ‘Religion’ in Organizing Social Practices: Theoretical and Practical Considerations. Frans Wijsen & Kocku von Stuckrad (eds), Making Religion: Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion. Leiden: Brill.

Von Stuckrad, Kocku 2014. The Scientification of Religion: An Historical Study of Discursive Change, 1800–2000. Boston/Berlin: De Gruyter.

Wijsen, Frans and Von Stuckrad, Kocku (eds) 2016. Making Religion: Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion. Leiden: Brill

 

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

By Matthew C. Durham, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Teemu Taira on Religion and the Media (8 April 2013).

In their discussion of Religion and the Media, Christopher Cotter and Dr. Teemu Taira touch on some rather deceptively salient points.  Dr. Taira’s comments about the media as a means of establishing a collective identity springs first to mind.  If this is true, and it does not seem controversial to assume such, the responsibility placed upon the media is tremendous.  This is especially so if we also assume that the role of the media is to accurately convey reality as it is.  Perhaps this is too idealized an expectation?  After all, members of the media are just as tied to their own biases, expectations, and subjective viewpoints as any of the rest of us.

But regardless of the sometimes overwhelming complexities in conveying an accurately factual picture of reality, it seems reasonable to expect of the media that it can separate at least some of the proverbial chaff from the wheat.To wit; some ideas, when surreptitiously conflated, present a picture of reality that is about as far from factual as is possible.  Dr. Taira mentions a particular example of this when he discusses the use of the ambiguous “Christian Nation” concept.  His description of its use in the UK seems strongly akin to how it is used here in the USA, in that its meaning varies between something along the lines of “we recognize our cultural Christian heritage” to “our legal system should reflect Christian theology.” This sort of factual versus normative ambiguity can serve multiple purposes, and in cases like these it is important to determine who benefits from it such that we can decide whether perpetuating it does a disservice to our collective epistemic integrity.

In this particular example, Dr. Taira notes that this ambiguity can be very beneficial to liberal Christianity in maintaining its cultural pre-eminence.  While it is not immediately clear why Dr. Taira limited this benefit to only liberal Christianity in the UK (Given the theological ambiguity in the term “Christian,” it would seem to potentially benefit conservative Christianity just as well.), the overall point is well taken.  When the media fails to determine or disclose the intent or interests of a speaker, it can be seen as little more than a mindless megaphone.  This problem is compounded in light of Dr. Taira’s comments about the tendency amongst religion reporters to be more religious (and more friendly to religion) than the surrounding population.  These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Other important areas of study require (or strongly encourage) that investigators acknowledge their personal interest in certain outcomes.  Investigators in clinical drug trials, for example, must provide disclosure of financial interest prior to their involvement in a study such that their methodology and the integrity of their data can be evaluated with appropriate caveats.  And beyond the personal benefits of cultivating this level of honesty, such disclosure can also benefit us in that it can strongly motivate the development of ever more thorough research methodology.  A researcher who provides potential critics with disclosure of his or her biases, for example, is going to be all the more motivated to preempt any undue influences from those biases – thus preventing critics from dismissing the research on grounds of undue bias.

It might be suggested that, due to the very different contexts in which the two operate, the media should not be held to the same standards as are academic or clinical researchers.  But if we intend that the media be not only a means to establish a collective identity,but that it also function to inform us through an attempt at accurately conveying a factual picture of reality; then there would seem to be some potential benefit in the media looking to academic or clinical research for guidance.

One of these potential benefits may be in counteracting epistemic and moral polarization through the tendency in media consumers to seek out only those media providers that they perceive as confirming or reinforcing their own expectations, biases, or connections to other people or groups with which they share significant commitments.  Dan Kahan’s research on communication of scientific information, for example, suggests that people not only seek out providers of information who appear to reflect their own values, but that they develop a form of “protective cognition” that pre-emptively determines what sort of information is credible.   People whose values are more egalitarian and who are suspicious of industry, for example, might see industrial activities as being more risky and thus more appropriately subject to restriction or regulation.  And they will likely seek out media providers who reflect those values.

Kahan’s research suggests, though, that presenters of scientific information can preclude this tendency and reduce polarization by muddling up expectations.  Kahan tested this by pairing experts whose appearance (besuited and gray-haired versus denim-shirted and bearded) and publication history fit particular cultural expectations.  He then paired these experts with arguments that contradicted those expectations.  The besuited and gray-haired expert, for example, presented arguments in favor of the scientific legitimacy of climate change while the denim-shirted and bearded expert criticized it.  Without these expectations to rely upon, “people shifted their positions and polarization disappeared.”

It seems quite plausible that the results of Kahan’s research could also be applied to more than just the presentation of scientific information.  If part of the media’s purpose is to genuinely inform us rather than to reinforce our existing polarized beliefs, then there may be a lesson to be learned here.  The lesson is not that the media should attempt to push any particular idea for broader cultural acceptance.  Rather, and to again reference Kahan, perhaps the media could confound those expectations in such a way as to create an opportunity for a more honest and open-minded consideration of the best information available?

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

About the author:

In his professional capacity, Matthew Durham has worked in over 150 studies in the field of cancer research as a Regulatory Coordinator for a large physician owned oncology practice.  He spends most days striving to learn and improve upon a variety of industry best practices, as well as devise useful metrics through which the efficacy of those practices can be evaluated.  In his academic life, he is an Undergraduate Philosophy and Religion major at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga whose main areas of focus are religious exegesis, religious epistemology, and philosophy of science.  His current interest is in studying the cognitive processes through which religious experiences are both interpreted and later recalled.  Most importantly, he is the lucky husband of an exceptional woman and the proud father of a precocious toddler.

References

Kahan, D. (2010). Fixing the communications failure. Nature, 296-297.

Religion and the Media

The study of religion in the media is an interdisciplinary field which has been of interest for scholars in media studies, religious studies and sociology among others. In this interview, Christopher Cotter and Teemu Taira discuss the relevance of study of religion in the media from the religious studies point of view as well as the media discourse on religion – the ways in which media covers religion, functions as defining what counts as religion and negotiates its social location. Dr Taira points out the possible contribution of religious studies, addresses some methodological questions in studying religion in the media, examines media’s approaches to religion, and finishes with a look at the potential futures of the area of study.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

The interview refers to the project ‘Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular Sacred: A Longitudinal Study of British Newspaper and Television Representations and Their Reception’ in which Taira worked at the University of Leeds between 2008 and 2010. It was part of the AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ Programme, conducted by Kim Knott, Elizabeth Poole and Teemu Taira. The main output of the project is the forthcoming book Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular (Ashgate), co-authored by Knott, Poole & Taira.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a selection of his English language publications relevant to this interview, see ‘further reading’ (below). For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies.

Teemu has also prepared the following very helpful further reading list:

 

  • Hjarvard, Stig & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2012. Mediatization and Religion: Nordic perspectives. Gothenburg: Nordicom.
  • Lynch, Gordon & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2011. Special issue on the mediatization of religion. Culture and Religion 12(2).
  • Mutanen, Annikka 2009. To Do, or Not Do God: Faith in British and Finnish journalism. Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper. http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/Publications/fellows__papers/2008-2009/Mutanen_-_To_do__or_not_do_God.pdf
  • Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Researching religion in British newspapers and television. Linda Woodhead (ed.), How to Research Religion: Handbook of methods in practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stout, Daniel 2012. Media and Religion: Foundations of an emerging field. London: Routledge.
  • Taira, Teemu 2010. Religion as a discursive technique: The politics of classifying Wicca. Journal of Contemporary Religion 25(3): 379–394.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013. Making space for discursive study in Religious Studies. Religion 43(1): 1–20.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Does the old media’s religion coverage matter in time of digital religion? Tore Ahlbäck (ed.), Digital Religion. Åbo: Donner Institute for Religious and Cultural History.
  • Taira, Teemu; Poole, Elizabeth & Knott, Kim 2012. Religion in the British media today. Jolyon Mitchell & Owen Gower (eds), Religion and the News. Farnham: Ashgate, 31–43.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Christianity, secularism and religious diversity in the British media. David Herbert, Marie Gillespie & Anita Greenhill (eds), Social Media, Religion and Spirituality. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu, forthcoming. Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular. Farnham: Ashgate.

 

Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies

How we can position the study of non-religion within the discipline of Religious Studies? Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Those of you who have been listening to the Religious Studies Project for some time will be somewhat familiar with the emerging sub-field of ‘non-religion’ studies. Perhaps you have listened to our podcast with Lois Lee, the founder of the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network, and wanted to know more? Or maybe you have heard Chris’s incessant ‘yes, but what about the ‘ non-religious?’ question in interviews and roundtables and wondered what this all has to do with Religious Studies? Whether or not either of these happened, we hope that you will enjoy this roundtable discussion with Dr Louise Connelly, Christopher Cotter, Dr Frans Jespers, Ethan Quillen, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, and Dr Teemu Taira.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

At the suggestion of Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Chris convened a group of scholars to discuss the study of non-religion within a Religious Studies framework. How do we define non-religion? What does such a demarcation have to offer our discipline? What is the scholar’s role in assigning labels such as ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious to individuals or groups who may eschew such labels? Are the ‘spiritual but not religious’ to be considered ‘non-religious’? And why would we even want to use the term ‘non-religion’ anyway? These questions and more form the basis of what became quite a lively discussion.

L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.

 

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, oracademia.edu page for a full CV.

Frans Jespers is associate professor of Science of Religion at the Faculty of Theology of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands (Frans, please do send a bio when you get a chance – sorry about our lack of information in English!)

 

 

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Religion in the 2011 UK Census

An ’emergency broadcast’ from the Religious Studies Project… featuring George Chryssides, Bettina Schmidt, Teemu Taira, Beth Singler, Christopher Cotter, and David Robertson.

The results of the 2011 census were published this Tuesday (11/12/2012), and immediately the media -old and new – were occupied with statistics about “religion” in England and Wales in 2011 as compared to 2001. We couldn’t avoid the opportunity to comment, and to apply the sort of analysis RS scholars are singularly qualified to apply. What did the census actually say, and how did the press report it? Why does it matter, and how can we use the data more constructively?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some data:

Thanks to all for taking part at short notice:

 

George D. Chryssides is Honorary Research Fellow in Contemporary Religion at the University of Birmingham. He studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and has taught in several British universities, becoming Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in 2001. He has a particular interest in new religious movements, on which he has published extensively. Recent publications include Christians in the Twenty-First Century (with Margaret Z Wilkins), published by Equinox (2010). His second edition of Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements is also out, dated 2012. His website, www.religion21.com, includes several resources which may be useful, including “From Jesus Christ to Father Christmas — an attempt to define the scope and subject-matter of Christianity”. You may also wish to see Russell T. McCutcheon’s edited volume The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion.

Dr Bettina Schmidt is Senior lecturer in the study of religions in the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Her PhD concerned ethnicity and religion, focusing on Santeria and Spiritism in Puerto Rico (University of Marburg, 1996), and she went on to post-doctoral work in cultural theories and Caribbean religions (University of Marburg, 2001). Dr Schmidt has worked as a lecturer in anthropology for various German universities, as well as Visiting Professor at the City University of New York and of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru. At the moment she is member of the board of editors of the journal Indiana, an annual journal of the Ibero American Institute in Berlin, and of the journalCurare, a journal of medical anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, published by the AG Ethnomedicine, and Secretary of the BASR.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Beth Singler is a PhD candidate at Cambridge University, UK. Her research focuses on New Religious Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries, particularly those with an online community or an experimental relationship with popular culture. Beth’s MPhil research on the development online of a religion of Anorexia has been presented in papers at Interface 2011 (“Theology in the 3rd Millennium: Studying New Religious Movements on the Internet, the Case of the Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadim”) and at BASR 2011 (“When Ritual Cannot End – The Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadic Asceticism”). Jediism was the focus of a paper for BASR 2012, (“Jedi Ltd. or Limited Jedi? Jediism and the Changing Domains of Religious Conflict in New Religious Movements”) and she is currently working on a chapter examining how online New Religious Movements such as Jediism and Freezone Scientology deal with disputes and legal issues for a forthcoming book on religion and legal pluralism. Her PhD thesis examines the evolution of a New Age category of Self, Indigo Children, and has the provisional title: “The Indigo Children: New Age Experiments with Self and Science”. See her Academia.edu page for more details, or follow her @bvlsingler on Twitter.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

Podcasts

Theoretical Veganism: Practicing Religious Studies without Religion

Aside from being an oxymoron, the thought of “meatless meatballs” can elicit strong reactions, whether of disgust, confusion, or hunger. Such products are capable of breeding suspicion, whether in regards to their taste, their origins, or their status as “food.” After all, what exactly is meatless meat? Although certainly contradictory in a sense, it has become code for a certain type of alternative or imitation product, which might be used for any of a number of reasons.

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

Of course, it is not just claims to being meat-free that are capable of raising suspicions. When I recently ordered a hamburger at a popular fast food chain, I found myself questioning, like many others before me, what exactly made up the “meat” I was being served. Although the contents of the patty of what I will call beef is presented as being fairly self-evident, often with labels such as “real beef,” “100% beef,” etc., there are plenty of questions worth asking about how that patty came into existence. What meat is used? What fillers are used? What were the cows being fed? What were their living conditions? Were they healthy? How was the meat handled? Whatever the answers, one thing is clear, the makeup of that burger reflects the interests of the corporation making a profit off of it. How can they save money on ingredients? How do they make the most profit? As with so many other things, it is important to know who benefits. That is perhaps why there have been so many rumors online about the supposed indiscretions of fast food corporations. Take for example the numerous articles and even an art project about McDonald’s hamburgers that show no signs of mold even years after purchase.

Although the corporations are not always guilty of the accusations made against them, the food industry nonetheless serves as a fascinating case study for understanding rhetoric and identification. What happens if we start applying this level of suspicion to the category of religion? Scholars have been doing this for years, although the results have been mixed. One such approach, deconstructing the concept of “religion,” has increasingly come into vogue in the study of religion in recent years, but the practical import of this approach is still hotly debated. After all, as the title of Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 response to Timothy Fitzgerald asks pointedly, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What?” If the word is really bound up with the values of the so-called West, and especially with Protestant values, if its meaning if ambiguous, varied, and dependent upon the interests of the person using the word, how then ought the scholar to proceed? Schilbrack’s answer is “critical realism,” which seeks balance between criticality towards how terminology is used and knowledge of pre- or non-linguistic realities. On this approach, the question is whether or not a definition of religion can be made that is useful for understanding those realities.  Rather than constructing a “working definition,” others, like Daniel Dubuisson, suggest alternative language that they see as less value laden, such as “cosmographic formations.”

At this point, enter Teemu Taira’s work. In studying Karhun kansa (People of the bear), a small, officially recognized, religious group in Finland, with about thirty members, Taira takes an interesting and seemingly useful approach: he does not define religion at all, nor does he use it as a descriptive category. Instead, he is interested in studying how other people are using the word “religion,” with Karhun kansa serving as just one case study within the varied contexts in which “religion” is used discursively. There are benefits and drawbacks to being classified as a religion, as Taira points out in regards to the ability to perform marriage ceremonies and to be afforded certain legal rights and protections. On the other hand, groups might also try and skirt around those definitions when it suits their social or political interests. What do we do as scholars when people want to call themselves spiritual but not religious, claim to be philosophy rather than religion, or when Christians say they have a relationship, not a religion? We could impose terminology on these people, but does this get us closer to some sort of reality?

Perhaps it is time to stop treating the word “religion” as a tool of the scholar and to start treating it as the very object of study. On this account, theoretical veganism would be the refusal to use either religion or religion by-products, which I would suggest are the terms used by scholars that are roughly synonymous with religion but supposedly free of the same trappings, such as Dubuisson’s “cosmographic formations.”

My own research focuses on discourses surrounding “science and religion,” where I also consider the word “religion” (and the word “science” for that matter) to be the thing worth investigating rather than a way of describing my subject matter. I care not at all for how these concepts relate, because once deconstructed, it is hard to find any sort of connection left to those non-discursive realities that are of interest to the critical realists. Instead, it seems to me to be worth asking the important and seemingly oft-repeated mantra, “Who benefits?”

If we throw out every word that can be deconstructed, we may end up with scarcely any language left to use. Furthermore, as Taira notes, scholars are not disinterested observers, since analyzing discourse is itself a discursive practice, making scholars part of the world they study, so there will never be an interest-free vocabulary. Nonetheless, if a word is not useful, it may be better to relegate it to the junk heap. When presenting research at a conference a couple years ago, a senior scholar asked me about the possibilities for a viable definition of religion. In responding, I was reminded of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s apocryphal response to Napoleon when asked about the place of God in his work, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

References

Dubuisson, Daniel. 2003. The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. Trans. William Sayers. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2013. “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What? A Case for Critical Realism.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 107-112.

The Deconstruction of Religion: So What?

In his interview with the RSP, Teemu Taira refers to his work as in some sense a response to Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 paper, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?” However, I don’t find it speaking to the concerns of Schilbrack’s paper. This, is not to question the excellence of Taira’s work, scholarship, or methodology, all of which I am deeply impressed with. I want to make that clear at the outset; my aim or critique here is not of Taira’s own work or methods but rather a specific way of understanding and using deconstruction that has emerged in the study of religion. It is the take on the deconstructive project which is at stake.

Schilbrack contrasts the deconstruction of religion he finds in Timothy Fitzgerald, and I may note principle adherents such as Russell McCutcheon, with what he sees as his own approach. He identifies agreement on three main points which I may briefly gloss as follows:

  • What we call religion is created by human discourse and behaviour.
  • “Religion” exists only in relation to other terms, the most important of which is “secular”.
  • The separation of the religious and secular as distinct spheres is a modern phenomenon.

So far, so good. I imagine we are all agreed. This accords with Taira’s own discussion of these terms I think. Where I agree with Schilbrack, against many deconstructivists, is that we then have to continue speaking of religion because rather than being merely an empty signifier, or a phantasm, those phenomena we have called and termed religious, or as religions, have a reality in the world.

Taira argues that he is following Schilbrack by showing the “What Next.” As such, he gives his case studies of traditions which people have termed religion and showing the social, political, and power issues involved in claiming or employing the term. However, Taira is very clear that he never says what the term “religion” is. It is merely his object of study, or, rather, religion itself is not his object of study (how can it be when it has no real existence); it is other people’s use of the term that he studies and analyses. At several points in the interview, Taira is clear in stating that he makes no claim as to whether anything is or is not a religion, nor does he try and give any definition to the term. It remains for him an empty signifier which others fill.

It is on the refusal to try and define or even to engage in discourse about how the term may be used that I see the problem arising. Notably, my problem is not with deconstructionism itself, nor do I want to argue here what “properly” follows Derrida. I am critiquing a particular tradition, or employment of, deconstruction which is the fashionable modus operandi of many scholars in the study of religion. So why do I see it as a problem? I will break this down into four points, though each is related to the others.

First, as Schilbrack notes it becomes “an end in itself.” It says: “Look, this is what other people think religion is, but I know better: there is no religion. So, now I can uncover their power games.” Practiced simply as a tool, it fails to engage the social reality that actually exists.

Second, such deconstruction actually shows nothing new. Whether or not we had deconstructed religion we can see that there are social, financial, legal, etc. benefits to being a religion. We could also see that people claim the term or deny it (to others) to give advantage or prestige.

Third, often deconstructing “religion” becomes facile or sacred. Facile because it is common for deconstructivists to argue that we cannot separate religion from culture, however, “culture” itself is an equally problematic term of contemporary Western provenance.(Or else we are told “religion” can be analysed by relation to other deconstructable terms like law, politics, etc.); Sacred, because “religion” is set apart as uniquely problematic, constructed, and “false;” it can be analysed by reference to, or seen as a part of, politics, law, culture but only “religion” is such an empty signifier that it can have no analytic validity. (How would we show this?)

Fourth, even if we show that many terms such as politics, law, culture, society, are also constructed (generally in relation to each other) we still get no further if we simply say all words are empty signifiers (which in one sense, of course, they are). We stay with the first problem that it is a meaningless deconstruction. Once done we simply ask: “So what?”. I will suggest the reasons for this are twofold: firstly, theoretical and linguistic; secondly, political.

Theory: scholars who deconstruct without re-construction undertake a feeble version of deconstruction that undermines itself (often without realising it). Every word has a history and baggage that comes with it. If we play the deconstructivist game of showing that religion, culture, politics, theory, method, society, medicine, science and every term is unstable then simply we are left unable to speak. Indeed, the words which we used to destabilise others are themselves unstable. It is meaningless unless we must say how and why we will choose to use certain words, and reflexively acknowledge our place within a lineage of speaking (as noted, some scholars try and get round this by treating “religion” as its own sacred category).

Politics: many scholars of religion argue that to be part of a “critical”, or “properly scholarly”, tradition they must avoid any advocacy, simply being analysts of other people’s discourse. However, as Taira notes: “Analysing discourse is itself a discursive practice.” To claim, therefore, simply to be analysing other people’s discourse and never to define the term yourself is an impossible act. The discourse on the term creates discourse. Indeed, by refusing to say how it may be used, the scholar is being a political animal. To play on a well-known adage: “To refuse to speak is itself a political act;” “to refuse to be an advocate, is to support the status quo;” “to refuse to define, is itself a form of definition.” Schilbrack observes that saying the borders of nation states are arbitrary and imagined human constructs when people are fighting and dying over them is at best unhelpful. Pretending to be objective analysts of other people’s discourse and the borders of what is and is not religion is equally unhelpful. The modern scholar of religion risks becoming an academic laughing stock not because he uses an outdated and outmoded concept of “religion” but by refusing to admit that it really does exist as a social reality and to engage in discussion about how to use the term. It is bad deconstruction, bad scholarship, and bad politics.

References

Kevin Schilbrack, 2013, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?: A Case for Critical Realism”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 1, pp. 107-12.

There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat: Comments on Kocku von Stuckrad’s Discursive Approach

There is more than one discursive approach in religious studies. In his interview with the RSP, professor Kocku von Stuckrad outlines some of the key issues that are relevant for constructing a discourse theoretical framework for religious studies. As I have tried to contribute to a similar framework in some of my publications, it comes as no surprise that my overall approach to von Stuckrad’s interview is highly appreciative. Therefore, I shall simply add some nuances to the interview by demonstrating how von Stuckrad’s approach could be located within the field of discursive approaches as being only one, though very relevant, version.

Von Stuckrad begins to delineate his approach by distinguishing it from more linguistic discursive approaches, including so-called critical discourse analysis (CDA) (represented by Norman Fairclough and Ruth Wodak, for instance), and talks about a ‘sociology of knowledge’ approach. The distinction itself is pedagogically useful, although we are not really talking about two different approaches, but rather a variety of approaches in a continuum – some are more linguistically oriented, designed for detailed analysis of texts, whereas others are oriented more historically, designed for thinking about large-scale historical organization of a plurality of knowledge through discourses (represented by Michel Foucault, among others).

I would even suggest that despite the obvious and deep theoretical differences and disagreements between Fairclough and Foucault (see Taira 2016a; 2016b), the choice between them – if they are taken to represent two common options – often depends on the research design. In my experience, it is often the case that students prefer linguistically oriented versions simply because they find it easier to apply to the analysis of texts. Indeed, in this context it would be better to refer to Fairclough’s model as ‘textually oriented discourse analysis’ (TODA), as this properly highlights the difference with a Foucauldian approach. To simply talk about ‘critical discourse analysis’ does not convey the difference, because ‘critical’ could be applied to both Fairclough and Foucault (despite the fact that Fairclough’s understanding of what counts as ‘critical’ is not the same as Foucault’s).

Von Stuckrad correctly emphasizes that discursive research is not simply a study of a particular word or text, but a study of practices and institutions. As I see it, this applies – or at least should apply – not only to the ‘sociology of knowledge’ approach von Stuckrad prefers, but also to critical discourse analysis.

Research Perspective, Method, or Both?

The interview does not say much about how to use discursive methods. Indeed, von Stuckrad highlights the historical narratives in how discourse on religion operates and prefers to write about a ‘discursive research perspective’ (von Stuckrad 2014: 15) rather than discourse analysis as a method. It is telling that in The Scientification of Religion (2014, 18) he lists eight methods appropriate for (his version of) discursive study, but he does not mention discourse analysis. I agree with him that, as a theoretical framework, a discursive approach can utilize many methods, depending on the research design, but discourse analysis is certainly one of them.

There are other examples within the discursive study of religion in which the methodological dimension of discourse analysis is addressed in a ‘how to do’ manner. One is mine (Taira 2013a) and the other – with a slightly different emphasis – is written by Titus Hjelm (2011). This is also a good opportunity to advertise a forthcoming volume edited by Frans Wijsen and Kocku von Stuckrad (Wijsen and von Stuckrad 2016). Its contributions, including original chapters by von Stuckrad, Hjelm and myself, among others, deal with many of the details von Stuckrad mentions in the interview, but they also help us to situate von Stuckrad’s approach as only one useful opportunity among a diversity of options with different nuances.

One of the interesting aspects in the interview is that, given that the method part is neglected, von Stuckrad talks about epistemology. As is often the case, the discussion uses – perhaps in order to bring in the listeners – the traditional terms and distinctions, such as realism versus relativism (often realism versus anti-realism). Von Stuckrad even says, approvingly, that American philosopher Richard Rorty provides a very intelligent form of relativism.

The problem is that practically no one self-identifies as relativist; it is a label addressed by opponents. This is also the case within discursive approaches: some versions cling to a realist standpoint and criticize others as relativists. This applies to Fairclough’s criticism of Foucault and I guess some might say the same thing about von Stuckrad. My question is, then, should those whose versions are accused of being relativist stop talking about realism and relativism and invent new ways to talk if the standard terms do not do justice to their position? It is true that Rorty wrote about himself as a ‘so-called relativist’, but he never seriously defined himself as such, simply because the term is embedded in a discourse that he wishes to discard. As Rorty (1999, xviii) stated: ‘We must repudiate the vocabulary our opponents use, and not let them impose it upon us.’

Are analytical definitions of religion necessary?

In the interview, von Stuckrad talks about three scholarly debates relevant for discursive research: crisis of representation, situated observer, and essentialism. These complex and significant issues have been addressed carefully in many disciplines in recent decades. However, it seems to me to be perfectly possible for someone to agree on the problem of representation, highlight the importance of reflecting on the situatedness of observer, challenge essentialism and still show no particular interest in problematizing analytical definitions of religion. Therefore, I wish to highlight the distinction between studying ‘religious discourse’ and discourses on ‘religion.’ (Taira 2016a, 2016b.)

The first approach defines what counts as religion and examines its constituent parts, its key distinctions, and its functions in society at large. An example of this kind of discursive approach is the work of Bruce Lincoln. Religion, according to him, is ‘discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal’ (Lincoln 2012, 1). Lincoln starts the analysis of ‘religious discourse’ with a definition of religion. It allows him to write about the relation between religion and culture and use concepts such as ‘religious conflict,’ ‘religions of resistance,’ ‘religions of revolution’ and count how many ‘religious words and phrases’ there are in bin Laden’s and Bush’s speeches (Lincoln 2003).

Many people find Lincoln’s research so useful that standard definitions are worth pursuing, and I have no problem with that. However, in order to understand the variety of discursive approaches, I find it relevant to emphasize the difference between discursive approaches that use analytical definitions and discursive approaches that study how the category of ‘religion’ is used, defined, and negotiated in organizing social practices. The starting point of the second type of discursive approach is to avoid analytical definitions of ‘religion’. Rather, the focus is on studying how something comes to be classified as and called ‘religion’ and how it is connected to social practices and power relations. For an example of how the analysis is different in the context of ’deliberately invented religions’ depending on whether an analytical definition of religion is used, see Taira 2013b.

To be fair to von Stuckrad, he talks a little bit about the distinction in the interview and provides examples of how some strands become part of discourse on religion. However, I find the distinction worth underlining when navigating between different versions of discursive approaches. It may not be the most important distinction for someone who is interested in applying discursive approaches in the humanities and social sciences in general, but it connects such approaches to core debates concerning the study of religion by asking, what are the analytical terms we use and which terms need to be defined?

References

Fairclough, Norman 1992. Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity.

Foucault, Michel 2002. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Hjelm, Titus 2011. Discourse analysis. Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion. London: Routledge, 134–150.

Lincoln, Bruce 2003. Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lincoln, Bruce 2012. Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars. Critical Explorations in the History of Religions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rorty, Richard 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin.

Taira, Teemu 2013a. Making Space for Discursive Study in Religious Studies. Religion 43(1): 26–45.

Taira, Teemu 2013b. The Category of ‘Invented Religion’: A New Opportunity for Studying Discourses on ‘Religion’. Culture and Religion 14(4) 477–493.

Taira, Teemu 2016a. Doing Things with “Religion”: Discursive Approach in Rethinking the World Religions Paradigm. Christopher R. Cotter and David G. Robertson (eds), After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. London: Routledge.

Taira, Teemu 2016b. Discourse on ‘Religion’ in Organizing Social Practices: Theoretical and Practical Considerations. Frans Wijsen & Kocku von Stuckrad (eds), Making Religion: Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion. Leiden: Brill.

Von Stuckrad, Kocku 2014. The Scientification of Religion: An Historical Study of Discursive Change, 1800–2000. Boston/Berlin: De Gruyter.

Wijsen, Frans and Von Stuckrad, Kocku (eds) 2016. Making Religion: Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion. Leiden: Brill

 

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

By Matthew C. Durham, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Teemu Taira on Religion and the Media (8 April 2013).

In their discussion of Religion and the Media, Christopher Cotter and Dr. Teemu Taira touch on some rather deceptively salient points.  Dr. Taira’s comments about the media as a means of establishing a collective identity springs first to mind.  If this is true, and it does not seem controversial to assume such, the responsibility placed upon the media is tremendous.  This is especially so if we also assume that the role of the media is to accurately convey reality as it is.  Perhaps this is too idealized an expectation?  After all, members of the media are just as tied to their own biases, expectations, and subjective viewpoints as any of the rest of us.

But regardless of the sometimes overwhelming complexities in conveying an accurately factual picture of reality, it seems reasonable to expect of the media that it can separate at least some of the proverbial chaff from the wheat.To wit; some ideas, when surreptitiously conflated, present a picture of reality that is about as far from factual as is possible.  Dr. Taira mentions a particular example of this when he discusses the use of the ambiguous “Christian Nation” concept.  His description of its use in the UK seems strongly akin to how it is used here in the USA, in that its meaning varies between something along the lines of “we recognize our cultural Christian heritage” to “our legal system should reflect Christian theology.” This sort of factual versus normative ambiguity can serve multiple purposes, and in cases like these it is important to determine who benefits from it such that we can decide whether perpetuating it does a disservice to our collective epistemic integrity.

In this particular example, Dr. Taira notes that this ambiguity can be very beneficial to liberal Christianity in maintaining its cultural pre-eminence.  While it is not immediately clear why Dr. Taira limited this benefit to only liberal Christianity in the UK (Given the theological ambiguity in the term “Christian,” it would seem to potentially benefit conservative Christianity just as well.), the overall point is well taken.  When the media fails to determine or disclose the intent or interests of a speaker, it can be seen as little more than a mindless megaphone.  This problem is compounded in light of Dr. Taira’s comments about the tendency amongst religion reporters to be more religious (and more friendly to religion) than the surrounding population.  These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Other important areas of study require (or strongly encourage) that investigators acknowledge their personal interest in certain outcomes.  Investigators in clinical drug trials, for example, must provide disclosure of financial interest prior to their involvement in a study such that their methodology and the integrity of their data can be evaluated with appropriate caveats.  And beyond the personal benefits of cultivating this level of honesty, such disclosure can also benefit us in that it can strongly motivate the development of ever more thorough research methodology.  A researcher who provides potential critics with disclosure of his or her biases, for example, is going to be all the more motivated to preempt any undue influences from those biases – thus preventing critics from dismissing the research on grounds of undue bias.

It might be suggested that, due to the very different contexts in which the two operate, the media should not be held to the same standards as are academic or clinical researchers.  But if we intend that the media be not only a means to establish a collective identity,but that it also function to inform us through an attempt at accurately conveying a factual picture of reality; then there would seem to be some potential benefit in the media looking to academic or clinical research for guidance.

One of these potential benefits may be in counteracting epistemic and moral polarization through the tendency in media consumers to seek out only those media providers that they perceive as confirming or reinforcing their own expectations, biases, or connections to other people or groups with which they share significant commitments.  Dan Kahan’s research on communication of scientific information, for example, suggests that people not only seek out providers of information who appear to reflect their own values, but that they develop a form of “protective cognition” that pre-emptively determines what sort of information is credible.   People whose values are more egalitarian and who are suspicious of industry, for example, might see industrial activities as being more risky and thus more appropriately subject to restriction or regulation.  And they will likely seek out media providers who reflect those values.

Kahan’s research suggests, though, that presenters of scientific information can preclude this tendency and reduce polarization by muddling up expectations.  Kahan tested this by pairing experts whose appearance (besuited and gray-haired versus denim-shirted and bearded) and publication history fit particular cultural expectations.  He then paired these experts with arguments that contradicted those expectations.  The besuited and gray-haired expert, for example, presented arguments in favor of the scientific legitimacy of climate change while the denim-shirted and bearded expert criticized it.  Without these expectations to rely upon, “people shifted their positions and polarization disappeared.”

It seems quite plausible that the results of Kahan’s research could also be applied to more than just the presentation of scientific information.  If part of the media’s purpose is to genuinely inform us rather than to reinforce our existing polarized beliefs, then there may be a lesson to be learned here.  The lesson is not that the media should attempt to push any particular idea for broader cultural acceptance.  Rather, and to again reference Kahan, perhaps the media could confound those expectations in such a way as to create an opportunity for a more honest and open-minded consideration of the best information available?

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

About the author:

In his professional capacity, Matthew Durham has worked in over 150 studies in the field of cancer research as a Regulatory Coordinator for a large physician owned oncology practice.  He spends most days striving to learn and improve upon a variety of industry best practices, as well as devise useful metrics through which the efficacy of those practices can be evaluated.  In his academic life, he is an Undergraduate Philosophy and Religion major at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga whose main areas of focus are religious exegesis, religious epistemology, and philosophy of science.  His current interest is in studying the cognitive processes through which religious experiences are both interpreted and later recalled.  Most importantly, he is the lucky husband of an exceptional woman and the proud father of a precocious toddler.

References

Kahan, D. (2010). Fixing the communications failure. Nature, 296-297.

Religion and the Media

The study of religion in the media is an interdisciplinary field which has been of interest for scholars in media studies, religious studies and sociology among others. In this interview, Christopher Cotter and Teemu Taira discuss the relevance of study of religion in the media from the religious studies point of view as well as the media discourse on religion – the ways in which media covers religion, functions as defining what counts as religion and negotiates its social location. Dr Taira points out the possible contribution of religious studies, addresses some methodological questions in studying religion in the media, examines media’s approaches to religion, and finishes with a look at the potential futures of the area of study.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

The interview refers to the project ‘Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular Sacred: A Longitudinal Study of British Newspaper and Television Representations and Their Reception’ in which Taira worked at the University of Leeds between 2008 and 2010. It was part of the AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ Programme, conducted by Kim Knott, Elizabeth Poole and Teemu Taira. The main output of the project is the forthcoming book Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular (Ashgate), co-authored by Knott, Poole & Taira.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a selection of his English language publications relevant to this interview, see ‘further reading’ (below). For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies.

Teemu has also prepared the following very helpful further reading list:

 

  • Hjarvard, Stig & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2012. Mediatization and Religion: Nordic perspectives. Gothenburg: Nordicom.
  • Lynch, Gordon & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2011. Special issue on the mediatization of religion. Culture and Religion 12(2).
  • Mutanen, Annikka 2009. To Do, or Not Do God: Faith in British and Finnish journalism. Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper. http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/Publications/fellows__papers/2008-2009/Mutanen_-_To_do__or_not_do_God.pdf
  • Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Researching religion in British newspapers and television. Linda Woodhead (ed.), How to Research Religion: Handbook of methods in practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stout, Daniel 2012. Media and Religion: Foundations of an emerging field. London: Routledge.
  • Taira, Teemu 2010. Religion as a discursive technique: The politics of classifying Wicca. Journal of Contemporary Religion 25(3): 379–394.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013. Making space for discursive study in Religious Studies. Religion 43(1): 1–20.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Does the old media’s religion coverage matter in time of digital religion? Tore Ahlbäck (ed.), Digital Religion. Åbo: Donner Institute for Religious and Cultural History.
  • Taira, Teemu; Poole, Elizabeth & Knott, Kim 2012. Religion in the British media today. Jolyon Mitchell & Owen Gower (eds), Religion and the News. Farnham: Ashgate, 31–43.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Christianity, secularism and religious diversity in the British media. David Herbert, Marie Gillespie & Anita Greenhill (eds), Social Media, Religion and Spirituality. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu, forthcoming. Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular. Farnham: Ashgate.

 

Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies

How we can position the study of non-religion within the discipline of Religious Studies? Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Those of you who have been listening to the Religious Studies Project for some time will be somewhat familiar with the emerging sub-field of ‘non-religion’ studies. Perhaps you have listened to our podcast with Lois Lee, the founder of the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network, and wanted to know more? Or maybe you have heard Chris’s incessant ‘yes, but what about the ‘ non-religious?’ question in interviews and roundtables and wondered what this all has to do with Religious Studies? Whether or not either of these happened, we hope that you will enjoy this roundtable discussion with Dr Louise Connelly, Christopher Cotter, Dr Frans Jespers, Ethan Quillen, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, and Dr Teemu Taira.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

At the suggestion of Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Chris convened a group of scholars to discuss the study of non-religion within a Religious Studies framework. How do we define non-religion? What does such a demarcation have to offer our discipline? What is the scholar’s role in assigning labels such as ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious to individuals or groups who may eschew such labels? Are the ‘spiritual but not religious’ to be considered ‘non-religious’? And why would we even want to use the term ‘non-religion’ anyway? These questions and more form the basis of what became quite a lively discussion.

L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.

 

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, oracademia.edu page for a full CV.

Frans Jespers is associate professor of Science of Religion at the Faculty of Theology of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands (Frans, please do send a bio when you get a chance – sorry about our lack of information in English!)

 

 

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Religion in the 2011 UK Census

An ’emergency broadcast’ from the Religious Studies Project… featuring George Chryssides, Bettina Schmidt, Teemu Taira, Beth Singler, Christopher Cotter, and David Robertson.

The results of the 2011 census were published this Tuesday (11/12/2012), and immediately the media -old and new – were occupied with statistics about “religion” in England and Wales in 2011 as compared to 2001. We couldn’t avoid the opportunity to comment, and to apply the sort of analysis RS scholars are singularly qualified to apply. What did the census actually say, and how did the press report it? Why does it matter, and how can we use the data more constructively?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some data:

Thanks to all for taking part at short notice:

 

George D. Chryssides is Honorary Research Fellow in Contemporary Religion at the University of Birmingham. He studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and has taught in several British universities, becoming Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in 2001. He has a particular interest in new religious movements, on which he has published extensively. Recent publications include Christians in the Twenty-First Century (with Margaret Z Wilkins), published by Equinox (2010). His second edition of Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements is also out, dated 2012. His website, www.religion21.com, includes several resources which may be useful, including “From Jesus Christ to Father Christmas — an attempt to define the scope and subject-matter of Christianity”. You may also wish to see Russell T. McCutcheon’s edited volume The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion.

Dr Bettina Schmidt is Senior lecturer in the study of religions in the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Her PhD concerned ethnicity and religion, focusing on Santeria and Spiritism in Puerto Rico (University of Marburg, 1996), and she went on to post-doctoral work in cultural theories and Caribbean religions (University of Marburg, 2001). Dr Schmidt has worked as a lecturer in anthropology for various German universities, as well as Visiting Professor at the City University of New York and of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru. At the moment she is member of the board of editors of the journal Indiana, an annual journal of the Ibero American Institute in Berlin, and of the journalCurare, a journal of medical anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, published by the AG Ethnomedicine, and Secretary of the BASR.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Beth Singler is a PhD candidate at Cambridge University, UK. Her research focuses on New Religious Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries, particularly those with an online community or an experimental relationship with popular culture. Beth’s MPhil research on the development online of a religion of Anorexia has been presented in papers at Interface 2011 (“Theology in the 3rd Millennium: Studying New Religious Movements on the Internet, the Case of the Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadim”) and at BASR 2011 (“When Ritual Cannot End – The Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadic Asceticism”). Jediism was the focus of a paper for BASR 2012, (“Jedi Ltd. or Limited Jedi? Jediism and the Changing Domains of Religious Conflict in New Religious Movements”) and she is currently working on a chapter examining how online New Religious Movements such as Jediism and Freezone Scientology deal with disputes and legal issues for a forthcoming book on religion and legal pluralism. Her PhD thesis examines the evolution of a New Age category of Self, Indigo Children, and has the provisional title: “The Indigo Children: New Age Experiments with Self and Science”. See her Academia.edu page for more details, or follow her @bvlsingler on Twitter.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.