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The Critical Study of Religion

In this interview, Professor Bruce Lincoln from the University of Chicago Divinity School discusses a variety of topics including werewolves, critical theory, pedagogy, and his self-imposed estrangement from the academic study of religion. Dr. Lincoln is a well-known and influential scholar of religion who completed his doctorate from the University of Chicago where he studied with Mircea Eliade. He then taught for many years at the University of Minnesota before he returned to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where he is the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. According to his biography on the University of Chicago’s website, “His research tends to focus on the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran, but he has a notoriously short attention span and has also written on a bewildering variety of topics, including Guatemalan curanderismo, Lakota sun dances, Melanesian funerary rituals, Swazi kingship, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Marco Polo, professional wrestling, Persian imperialism, the theology of George W. Bush, and comparative demonology.” What underlying theme or methodology holds together this diverse body of work?

As Dr. Lincoln discusses in this interview, he is interested in the constructed nature of society. “I think society is a project,” he said, “rather than an entity that exists by nature.” From this foundation, Lincoln isolates a variety of specific instances in multiple places and times where people appeal to religious discourse to legitimate their local interests. Religion, for Lincoln, is a thoroughly human phenomenon. To demonstrate this, it requires the type of critically-informed analysis that Lincoln seldom finds in the academic study of religion.

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

But Mountains, Dammit!

Titus Hjelm’s book Social Constructionisms: Approaches to the Study of the Human World is a fantastic introduction to the topic of “social constructionism.” Titus successfully demonstrates that this term brings together a plurality of approaches that, although they share a great deal in common, have crucial differences. Perhaps the most admirable feature of Titus’ book is it’s clarity—Titus writes about complicated issues with clear and concise prose, making it perhaps a perfect fit for undergraduate “theory and method” courses in which students must be exposed to these critical approaches.

Since commenting on where we agree is unlikely to be productive or advance the conversation, here in my response I’ll focus on Titus’ criticisms of what he considers more “radical” forms of social constructionism, which he associates with the “excesses” of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Hinting in both the RSP interview and the book that he identifies as a type of critical realist, Titus calls into question those forms of social constructionism that are unabashedly anti-realist. Consider the following statements:

According to some social constructionist views, “we can only reach the world through discourse.” (from the interview)

“If everything is discourse and nothing is real, where is the position we can take to critique those constructions?” (from the interview)

“In their most radical form, these [constructionists] claim that we can know about the human world—and the natural world, for that matter—only through discourse. Any ‘reality’ outside of discourse is either bracketed or denied.” (from the book; 88)

For relativist constructionists, “there is nothing [to the world] beyond our description of it.” (from the book; 92)

For relativists, “there is no ‘reality’ to fall back on.” (from the book; 92)

From the relativist perspective, “the ‘world out there’ and perceptions of the world are radically separated, with no access to the former, except through discourse. It is one thing to say that the meaning of, say, gravity is dependent on our ways of talking about it—a position that constructionists would happily embrace. It is another thing for me to jump out of a sixth story window and assume a safe landing because I’m shouting ‘I’m not falling!’” (from the book; 93)

I find such claims frustrating for two reasons. First, I think that Titus is criticizing the forms of constructionism with which I identify—i.e. he’s targeting me—but I think he unfairly represents my view. Second, I’m also frustrated because some of the constructionists I identify with say exactly the sorts of claims Titus is criticizing. All of that is to say: I think that Titus is aiming at a straw man (are there straw women, I wonder?), but unfortunately a straw man that some of my peers stand behind and prop up. Thus, rather than tear down Titus’s excellent work, let me clarify the difference between my view and the view Titus criticizes.

The main problem, for me, is that although I might be a radical constructionist, I absolutely reject the dualist view of the world Titus is partly working with and partly criticizing. This dualism assumes an opposition between the world-as-it-is-in-and-of-itself and the world within discourse. Discourse apparently is “in here” (but where is “here,” one wonders?), and reality is “out there.” (We’re not far here from the contradictions inherent in Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena.) Of course, there is some ambiguity for the social constructionists, insofar as they vacillate between the view that there is a world out there—but we have access to it only through discourse—and the view that there isn’t a world out there—that is, everything, even reality, is discourse. This latter view drops the ontological dualism and turns into a type of discursive monism.

Titus’ view seems to be closer to the dualist view, except without the caveat about being locked within discourse: there is a mind-independent or discourse-independent world “out there,” and we can make objective or authoritative rather than merely subjective or relativist claims about it. Despite the insistence of the radical constructionists, there is a real world out there—we can thump the table or point to the mountains on the horizon dammit! Are we to believe those mountains weren’t here before humans came to name them?! Mountains, dammit! They’re real and they’re mind-independent! (It’s at this point that the radical constructionists ask, “can you say that without discourse?” and then the realists really go apoplectic.)

By the time we get here, we’re far afield from where I’d like the conversation to have headed. What’s crucially been lost at this point—from my perspective at least—is the role of discourse in individuation or definition—i.e., the extension of a concept—and the pragmatic ends of the latter.

The best example I can point to for how discourse has a constitutive role in the individuation of something we tend to take for granted as “natural” in the so-called “real world” is in Edward Schiappa’s discussion of the politics of “wetlands” (see Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning; 2003). In the early 1990s, wetlands were a hot topic. Environmentalists wanted to protect wetlands from developers who wanted to clear the land and build on it, while developers wanted the opposite. President George H. W. Bush signed into legislation a bill protecting wetlands from development, but the legislation redefined wetlands in ways that suited the interests of the developers rather than the environmentalists. Wetlands were protected, but there was a bait-and-switch of sorts: the land to which the concept “wetland” extended shrunk dramatically with the novel definition in the new legislation. Both parties used the concept “wetland,” but they individuated something rather different, and—in addition—that to which their concept extended was directly tied to their social or political interests. Schiappa concludes, “definitions are interest-driven and saturated with questions of power and persuasion.”

I think that Titus’ framing of “radical constructionism” fails in helping us to understand Schiappa’s view. First, by no means is Schiappa saying that there’s a world within discourse and then a world out there. For Schiappa, the existence of wetlands is contingent upon the definition we give to the term; if we change the definition of wetland we have a different reality out there to deal with—just as gerrymandered districts are quite literally different districts than before they were gerrymandered. There’s no “reality” of wetlands without first having individuated some types of land as wetland and other types of land as not-wetland. Second, neither is Schiappa saying that all we have access to is the world of discourse. “Wetlands” are constituted by discourse, but that’s not the same thing as saying that wetlands are discourse. Third, it wouldn’t make sense to say that “wetlands” exist independent of discourse; it is we, as humans, who separate this from that, wetlands from not-wetlands, and so on, depending on our interests.

But what about mountains, dammit? Weren’t they there before humans evolved to identify them as mountains? To press the realist position, let me ask: did the state of New York exist before humans came along to identify it as such? Even the realist would have to admit: New York is a human invention—the distinctions between “New York” and “Massachusetts” and “Pennsylvania” aren’t natural, but are lines we as humans draw in the sand. That is, even the realist has to admit that the individuation or extension of “New York” is discursive. But then to press the realist further: what about the Adirondack Mountains? Do the mountains individuate themselves from the land we consider not-mountainous? Or do we, as humans, individuate them for our purposes?

We could of course individuate the stuff of the world in ways that intersect with but don’t exactly match the extension of the term “Adirondack Mountains.” No doubt there are “streams” in the mountains, “hiking paths” over them, “bear hunting grounds” across them, “good fishing areas” in them, and so forth. In addition, whichever discursive concepts we use to slice up the stuff of the Adirondacks will depend on our particular pragmatic interests—do we want fish for dinner? to avoid running across bears? a challenging hike?

In addition, were our interests different—or were we different kinds of animals—no doubt we would individuate our world differently. Does an ant in the Adirondacks see a “mountain”? Is a “mountain” a useful concept for something as small as an insect? If there were alien creatures whose walking stride was the same as the distance from our sun to Pluto, would they have a use for individuating the “Adirondack Mountains”? On the contrary, what we might individuate as the Adirondacks would likely be nothing other than dust on the shoes of their feet, not worth individuation or attention. As some cognitive linguists have noted–for instance, in Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) or Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)–what is useful for us to individuate is relative to the type of bodies we are in: “How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and manipulate objects. Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 17-18).

All of this is to say: crucial for understanding so-called radical social constructionism is the pragmatic function of concepts in individuating the stuff of the world. At bottom, drawing lines between mountains and streams is little different than drawing lines between New York and Massachusetts. And, on this view, the practice of discursive or conceptual individuation neither gets between us and the real world, nor do the things of the world exist as “things” independently of our individuation of them as particular things.

Social Constructionism

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

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

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

The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

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

Bricolage

BRICOLAGE: construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also : something constructed in this way

“Bricolage.” Merriam-Webster.com.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1960s and has undergone a complex genealogy of modifications within the sociologies of culture and religion. As Véronique Altglas writes in a forthcoming article, ‘originally a metaphor, “bricolage'” became an anthropological concept to understand cultural and religious creativity, with an emphasis on what organizes it, despite its contingent nature. Transposed in the study of contemporary European societies, bricolage became about what individuals do in relation to cultural practices and lifestyles’ (Altglas Forthcoming).

In this interview with Chris, Altglas – the author of the recent OUP monograph From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage – discusses this complex genealogy, tracing a movement from forms of cultural warfare to ‘playful, postmodern bricoleurs’ – what many might be tempted to dub ‘pick and mix spirituality’. However, as Altglas goes on to demonstrate, with a particular empirical focus upon Hindu-based Yoga centres and the Kabbalah centre, far from a carefree process of shopping at the ‘spiritual supermarket’, ‘the original meanings and otherness of elements used in this religious bricolage matter, and in fact limits, the popularization of “exotic” religions’ (Forthcoming).

IMG_20141112_114757This broad-ranging interview provides a fascinating overview of an important concept that is not only relevant for the study of contemporary ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, but also speaks to cultural appropriation and construction in general, utilizing a number of stimulating contextual examples along the way. Chris enjoyed the interview so much, he immediately went out and bout Véronique’s book… and he suggests you do too!

This interview was recorded at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in Belfast in September 2014. You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

Picture-41

Thanks to Culture on the Edge for posting this passage. http://edge.ua.edu/monica-miller/the-myth-of-origins/

References

  • Forthcoming 2015. ‘Bricolage’: Reclaiming a Conceptual Tool. Culture & Religion. 2015. 4.

The Postsecular

In his 2011 Presidential Address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee, James Beckford focused upon a contested term that has grown in prominence in recent years in the social scientific study of religion – the notion of the ‘postsecular’. In this address – published in the JSSR in 2012, Beckford noted a number of problems associated with the concept.

First, there is enormous variety in the meanings attributed to the ‘postsecular’, and there are many tensions between these meanings. Second, ‘the variety of meanings attributed to “postsecularity” is partly a function of the unusually wide range of intellectual disciplines and fields with an interest in it’. However, Beckford is keen to emphasise that this breadth of disciplinary interest does not imply that there actually is such a phenomenon as ‘postsecularity’. Third, ‘the orientation of many writings about the postsecular is normative and speculative’. (2012, 12-13)

With these issues in mind, Chris took some time to speak solely on this contested topic with Kevin W. Gray while in Belfast for the ESA Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in September. Discussion focuses upon the history of the term, potential definitions, disciplinary and geographical differences, and ultimately suggests that ‘postsecularity’ is effectively dressing up ‘secularity’ in obfuscating clothing.

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

 

References

  • Beckford, James A. 2012. “SSSR Presidential Address Public Religions and the Postsecular: Critical Reflections.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01625.x.

Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion: A Roundtable Discussion (Video and Audio!)

This week we are bringing you the fruits of a recent RSP venture to the University of Chester, UK. In the early afternoon, Chris and David ran a workshop on “Digital Humanities” for the postgraduate community in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Later on, David interviewed Dr Alana Vincent in from of a ‘live studio audience’ on the topic of ‘Religion and Literature‘. Following directly on from this, Chris chaired a roundtable discussion on ‘Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion’ featuring Dr Wendy Dossett, Prof. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn and Dr Alana Vincent – all staff in TRS at Chester – and the RSP’s own Ethan Quillen, of the University of Edinburgh.

Chester

The idea for this roundtable was that it would follow on directly from the interview on religion and literature, but expand the discussion to cover a variety of points relating to narrative, autobiography and (auto)ethnography in the study of religion. This was also recorded in front of a live audience, and towards the end of the recording we take questions from the floor.

Thanks to the resources available at the University of Chester – specifically, a wonderful chap named Lee – we are able to bring you this roundtable discussion in video form – something a lot of our listeners have been keen on for quite some time. Let us know what you think! We can’t promise to do this very regularly, but if it is useful we will definitely investigate our options for the future.

Of course, for those who prefer to have the podcast in its usual form, it can be listened to and downloaded as usual.

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

  • What do we mean when we speak of incorporating narratives into Religious Studies? Why would we want to?
  • What makes a narrative different from a discourse? Is there any difference?
  • Does studying narrative minimize other aspects of ‘religion’ such as ritual, embodiment, symbols etc? Is there anything particularly Western or gendered about privileging narratives?
  • Given that we focused upon ‘religion and literature’, what is the place of fictional narratives? What can they tell us? Are all narratives fictions? Can one infer anything external to a narrative?
  • What is the place of the scholar in all of this? Are we interpreters? Are we co-creators of narratives? Do we remain outside the data we study or must we write ourselves in? What would this do to ‘objectivity’? Is the whole academic enterprise an exercise in creating narratives? Can academic reflexivity go to too far?

This podcast is presented to you as a co-production with the University of Chester, and we are very grateful for their help in making this happen – particularly to Dawn Llewellyn for organizing, and to Lee Bennett for the technical wizardry.

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

Religion and Memory

In the year 2000, English-speaking scholars interested in ‘religion’ were introduced (in translation) to one of the most important texts in the sociology of religion in recent years, Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s “Religion as a Chain of Memory”. This book placed the study of ‘religion and memory’ firmly on the academic agenda, and the past decade has seen an explosion of exciting research into this area, not least in the cognitive sciences.

As testament to this growth of research, the Alexandra Grieser (Trinity College Dublin) on this intriguing topic.

How does it help the study of’ religion’ to think about it through the lens of memory? Links with cognitive approaches? Is ‘memory’ different from ‘tradition’? ‘Memorialisation’? ‘Myth’? ‘Legend’? ‘Story’? What makes religion distinctive in this sense? Are we not just studying memories? In what sense is basically every element of research an act of research into memory? An act of memorialisation? Must all ‘memory’ and ‘experience’ be articulated in order to be studied? These questions and more form the framework for this interview, which demonstrates the utility of thinking about ‘religion’ theoretically and methodologically through the interpretive lens of memory.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make. We hope that you have missed us during our ‘summer break’, and we look forward to bringing you weekly podcasts up until our next break in the winter.

What “in the world” is theory?

Birgit Meyer’s interview with George Ioannides in the recently released Religious Studies Project podcast (6/30/2014) is a pedagogical tour de force. In this conversation, Meyer revisits and introduces anew some of the most urgent problems and questions that have animated the converging fields of visual culture, media, and the study of religion.

Meyer’s work has long been at the forefront of these ever-entangled interests, and in this interview, we hear her “digest” a wide range of theoretical ideas into an eminently clear précis on the study of material, visual, and sensory cultures of religion. Referencing numerous intellectual influences—from late nineteenth-century disciplinary “fathers” like Weber, Durkheim, Tylor, and Fraser to her twenty-first century colleagues in the broader study of religion and social theory, including the likes of Talal Asad, Bruno Latour, Jacques Rancière, David Morgan, Hent de Vries, Jeremy Stolow, Angela Zito, and Charles Taylor—Meyer explains that her robust theoretical digestion is part of a larger attempt to develop new, more wide-ranging methods and approaches for studying the surrounding world. But listeners will also quickly ascertain that Meyer does more than “digest” an otherwise pre-existing set of theories. That is, even as Meyer explicitly professes in this interview not to see herself as a theorist, I want to suggest in this brief response that she does indeed teach us how her own expert processing can—and should—also be understood as a form of propagation. Despite her own resistance to being named a theorist, I argue that her sensational mediation is a form of theory making, one which more students of religion should embrace.

Meyer’s interview showcases many of the admirable aspects we’ve come to expect of her work. She advocates an ever more historically mindful cultural anthropology in the study of religion, one that is aware of the Christonormative and colonialist heft that many of our concepts and modes of study carry. She argues for an approach that “understands religion as a multimedia phenomenon,” one that enables “a fuller research program” than emphases on texts and words have typically allowed for, and one that works to challenge, rather than reinscribe, colonial processes, seeking alternatives to, rather than repetitious critiques of, ”the proverbial Protestant bias.”[1] Likewise, Meyer’s ongoing commitment to the study of “lived religion” is evident in turning our attention to new scenes and sources that cannot be entirely divorced from their tense relations with Protestantism—from boundary encounters between missionaries and missionized populations on the west African coast to Jesus pictures circulating in this “frontier zone.”

If Meyer’s early work focused on language and translation as formative to the process of “bringing into being religious worlds,” she explains that her more recent concerns show that such a focus remains limited in understanding larger colonial power dynamics, particularly given late twentieth-century structural transformations frequently referred to as globalization and neoliberalism. Drawing on her fieldwork among Pentecostal communities in Ghana to work through such dense theoretical terms, Meyer points students and scholars of religion to interrogations of material objects, media forms, and the sensing body as they are invested and turned into vessels, receptors, and indexes of religious experience. Meyer explains that her concern is “not just about images and pictures; it is about regimes that structure vision in particular ways that are embedded in…dynamics of concealment and revelation…primarily through the eyes but, of course, also by regulating the senses, by focusing vision in a certain way, by relating vision, hearing, touch.” In so doing, she solicits scholars and students of religious studies to probe media forms and mediating processes that are authorized by other sensory regimes and structural reproductions. What repercussions do they have on particular sensations and on religious subjectivities, she asks. What preferences are suggested? What modes of sense-making or community formation are enabled and foreclosed?[2]

However, when asked about her advice for up-and-comers in religious studies and anthropology, Meyer pulls back from her own theorizing. Though she first points to the importance of “generating larger theoretical and self-reflexive questions,” and confirms that “theory is incredibly important,” she also counsels students to “find…the themes that you want to think about, find them in the world,” because, she worries, too often scholars “just take one or the other approach or philosopher and then rethink…our world from there.” Hers is a familiar point, one easily taken with an uncritical nod. Yet, I want to pause here to note how Meyer elides what she has already done so well. “I don’t see myself as a theorist,” she says, “but I see myself as someone who tries to digest theory in order to develop methodologies and approaches to throw new light and develop new perspectives on the world of which we are a part, and which is around us.” My response is not to suggest that I do not admire or want to affirm Meyer’s proposal for new approaches in studying the “stuff” of religion. On the contrary, I do. For, Meyer has ably initiated important study of new data sets and geographic locales, but what is perhaps most valuable in her scholarly selections and analytical studies is not so much their ability to fill in otherwise existing descriptive gaps, but how they can (and have) shifted our thinking and practices—for, as Meyer herself explains, such empirical and theoretical alternatives are crucial to “a reconsideration of our concept of religion.”

In this interview, Meyer most provocatively advances such theoretical reconsiderations in her treatment of the fetish as a “hybrid term” associated ambivalently with the distinction between animate and inanimate, subject and object, humans and things. This “sensational form” was also to become, for missionary forces and for scholars of religion, both a marker of western rationality and its ostensible opposite—the heathen, antimodern, neurotic, primitive, or mystified. The fetish materializes, for Meyer, a notion of religion as a practice of mediation—of producing, traversing, and authorizing distinctions amid the “scandalous mixing” of good and bad religion, of person and thing, of a mundane world and an other world, and thereby also both maintaining and crossing the gap of sensible and seemingly insensible “presence.” Countering claims that religion itself is somehow immediate or un-mediated, Meyer explains through her re-visioning of the fetish how religion is the mediating work of fabricating, traversing, authorizing, and remaking those differentiations, those “gaps.”

It is for all this that I think Meyer’s own theorizing, her own mediating work, her own making-sense of things and thoughts, is far too quickly de-authorized in her dissociation from the mantle (or the altar) of “theorist” at the end of this recorded conversation. Meyer’s move away from her own theorizing, from her own philosophizing, leaves me with questions about her theory of “theory.” Given her explicit recommendation for finding themes and topics of study based on one’s curiosity “in the world,” I wonder if Meyer presumes theory to be largely removed from the world, somehow too external, even transcendental, as opposed to, well, what? To immanent critique? To (inter)mediated analysis? Likewise, in contrast to her professed interest in a rigorously interrogative approach, does Meyer find theory to be somehow centrally declarative? Maybe she presumes it to be largely stationary versus the apparent boundary crossing of interdisciplinary innovation she invokes in methodological terms? Or is theory, for her, somehow singular in comparison with the multiplicity of methods and media she advocates? Does Meyer presume theory somehow too much like the missionary conception of the fetish and not enough like her own reconceiving of that sensational form?

Perhaps. Yet, I still think Meyer’s own emphasis on mediation challenges any easy affirmation of such theoretical presumptions of “theory” as removed, disembodied, inanimate, singular, or mystifying. Like her study and—yes, I want to insist—theorizing of religion and/as mediation through her handling of the fetish, I want to propose that Meyer’s seemingly didactic assemblage in this interview is also a more audacious theoretical working and reworking than she otherwise appears to acknowledge or wants to entertain herself. And, if it is (and I think it is), might then religious studies students and scholars endeavor to re-view what “in the world” theory is? Might we begin to theorize again and anew as sensationally as Meyer has begun to teach us here?

 

[1] Describing the links between textual/linguistic analysis and colonialism and advocating for a rethinking of how scholars continue to relate to such processes in disciplinary formations and specializations in the so-called book religions of, namely, the Abrahamic traditions, Meyer also suspects that scholars “explicitly working on book religion also tend…to affirm certain processes of colonization as they also occur within disciplines.” She thus implies that a focus on religion as multiply mediated can help reduce such tendencies by putting such emphases on texts/language into perspective. Gaining new perspectives seems almost always to the good, and Meyer’s suggestion about seeing texts themselves as objects and as one medium among others is warranted and welcome. Nevertheless, I think it remains somewhat less clear why we should suspect that those studying “book religions” would necessarily have more of a tendency to reinscribe colonial practices. It seems to me that finding a place “outside” such suspect disciplining (if there even is such a place, and I’m not sure Meyer thinks there is either) needn’t be the only way to challenge a history of colonialism—particularly if one recognizes immanent critique as valuable, if not entirely transformative nor apocalyptically revolutionary.

[2] Meyer is joined by a growing array of scholars with similar concerns, asking related questions. See, for example, a series of articles and a forum on “The Senses in History,” edited by Martin Jay in The American Historical Review, vol. 116, no. 2 (April 2011), and the recently published anthology, Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, edited by Sally M. Promey (Yale University Press, 2014).

The Subtle Body

Jay Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Department of Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney. A distinguished interdisciplinary researcher, Johnston is known for her scholarly explorations and elucidations in areas of research concerning subtle bodies; embodiment and intersubjectivity; feminist studies; religion and material culture. In her fascinating books Angels of Desire: Esoteric Bodies, Aesthetics and Ethics (Equinox Publishing, 2008) and Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body (Routledge, 2013) co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, she establishes innovative theoretical and methodological examinations of notions of subtle embodiment as a shared narrative negotiating the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and how subtle intersubjectivity is a unique experience of the lived human body within both Western and Eastern religious discourses. Other current projects include the ARC Discovery Project: The production and function of art and design elements in ancient texts and artefacts of ritual power from Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean region with Iain Gardner, Julia Kindt (Sydney); Erica Hunter (SOAS) and Helen Whitehouse (Oxford), and Wellbeing Spirituality and Alternative Therapies with Dr Ruth Barcan.

During the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Damon Lycourinos had the pleasure of interviewing Jay regarding her work on the subtle body and alternative notions of intersubjectivity, addressing both the theoretical and methodological implications for the academic study of subtle embodiment, and what the future might hold for this in the academy and beyond.

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

Before “Religion”: a History of a Modern Concept

For much of the past two centuries, “religion” has been understood as a universal phenomenon, a part of the “natural” human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history. Individual religions may vary through time and geographically, but there is an element, religion, that is to be found in all cultures during all time periods. Taking apart this assumption, Brent Nongbri has built upon a generation of critical scholarship to provide the first comprehensive history of “religion” as a category in western discourse.

In his recently published work, Before Religion: a History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013), Nongbri shows that the idea of “religion” as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history—a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world.

Discussing this book with Jack Tsonis, Nongbri begins by explaining various uses of the term “religio” in Roman and Christian antiquity, which were somewhat different from the modern term “religion”. The conversation then moves into the early modern period and the changes wrought by the Reformation, the rise of the political state, and the subsequent period of religious conflict.   At this point we begin to see something that looks like the modern English category “religion”, although that shift was not fully consolidated until the formalization of philology and ancient world studies in the nineteenth century.

This podcast will interest all students of religion, regardless of their area of speciality. At the core of Nongbri’s project is a call for constant vigilance with the categories we use to describe  human behaviour.  While he does not advocate abandoning “religion”, understanding the history of the term does encourage us to use it with greater methodological reflexivity.

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

Authors meet Critics: “New Age Spirituality”

Following from our interview on Monday with Ingvild Gilhus, today’s podcast presents an “authors meet critics” session on the new edited volume by Ingvild Gilhus and Steven Sutcliffe, New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion. This was recorded at the University of Edinburgh at the launch of the book, and features the editors, Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Gilhus, and critics Bettina Schmidt, Marion Bowman and David Robertson, and was ably hosted by Afe Adogame.

Steven Sutcliffe introduces the book, describing the plan to curate a volume which approaches empirical research into “New Age” religiosity through broader “theories of religion”. As Gilhus then suggests, our theoretical positions are impoverished if they don’t address “religion” in both classical and modern contexts.

Marion Bowman takes this up in her response, which addresses the similarity between this project and her own “vernacular religion” project. Bettina Schmidt addresses this disconnect between theories of popular and institutionalised religion from a anthropological point of view, pointing out that many phenomena have been removed from sociological view due to their perceived marginality, and because they don’t offer a clear box to be ticked in censuses. Finally, David Robertson critiques how the critique of “New Age” is positioned within academic, practitioner and popular discourses, and how it may reinforce, despite itself, the very categories it seeks to dissolve.

For anyone interested in New Age, the intersection between category formation – and the practicalities and politics of challenging them – this episode will be essential listening.

Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life – An interview with Tatjana Schnell

Psychiatrist and Auschwitz concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning (2006), placed an emphasis on the search for and construction of meaning, as a prima facie component of the human condition. Moreover, Frankl proposed that meaning could be found in even the most malignant and desolate of places – even in “the midst of Nazi death camp hell” (p.51). According to this view humans are not only creatures of meaning, but willed to find meaning.

Recently, scholars have placed the concept of ‘meaning making’ as an important area of focus within psychology of religion (Paloutzian & Park, 2005; 2013). Some people find meaning in religious or spiritual experience and beliefs while others find meaning on more secular mediums in life. One way comparisons among religious or secular individuals and worldviews can be made is at the level of ultimate meanings. However, if humans are truly on a “search for meaning”, as Frankl has argued, what might be some of the sources of such meaning?

In her interview with Thomas Coleman recorded at the 2013 International Association for the Psychology of Religion World Conference, Dr. Tatjana Schnell discusses on-going research conceptualizing and measuring sources of meaning and meaning in life. Her work has been examined internationally with promise of cross-cultural application (Silver, Bernaud, Pedersen, Birkeland, la Cour & Schnell, 2013). What makes her work particularly interesting is that meaning making is not dependent on any particular modal identity or value system but rather the profound experience one has in their life.

Schnell begins the interview by explaining the methodology behind the construction of her Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe). She goes on to emphasize the role that meaning plays in not only religious individuals but also the growing secular population around the world. Dr. Schnell discusses ultimate sources of meaning, making space for both secular and religious experiences of transcendence termed horizontal and vertical transcendence. Throughout the podcast Dr. Tatjana Schnell’s message is clear, ultimate sources of meaning in life come from many areas and are meaningful to different people and for different reasons. Some find meaning in religion, others find meaning in more secular ways. Regardless of the label used, meaning is central to the human condition. Towards the end of the interview Schnell builds on an old quote by John Stuart Mill. Schnell asks is it better “to be a satisfied cow, or an unsatisfied Socrates”?

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

References:

  • Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Paloutzian, R. F. & Park, C. L. (2005). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Paloutzian, R. F. & Park, C. L. (2013). Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Second Edition. Guilford Publications, Incorporated.
  • Silver, C. F., Bernaud, J. L., Pedersen, H. F, Birkeland, M. H., la Cour, P. & Schnell, T. (2013) Three cultural comparisons and inferences using the Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire. Presented at the biannual meeting of the International Society for Psychology of Religion in Lausanne Switzerland.

 

“Would You Still Call Yourself an Asianist?”

There’s a group on Facebook devoted to the History of Religions. Apart from a quite regularly posted Christian bible study blog that’s devoted to scriptural exegesis—and which prompts reader comments such as this recent one:

It seems obvious God is a God who feels. I am imagining He grieved, felt sorry not only to see the depravity of man whom He made in His image, but of every single cell which He created, His art, His masterpiece. God as an artist experiencing the destruction and loss of it all. Every flower, creature, piece of nature which He had created GOOD.

—almost all that gets posted on its wall are links to articles or announcements about the things we study: decaying scrolls found here or there, rituals practiced by this or that group, etc. Once in a while you see a link to an article on methodology—how we study things—but rarely does someone post an item related to why we study them or why our work should matter to people who don’t happen to share our focus on this piece of pottery or that ancient text. That’s because it seems that, for many if not most of us, there’s an obviousness to the things that we’re interested in, both for us, as scholars, as well as for the wider groups in which we live and shop and work: we all know they’re important because, well…, they’re important, simple as that.

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What’s therefore intriguing about Steven Ramey’s work is that while he, like all of us, was trained in a specific expertise related to a world religion, to fieldwork, to languages, and to texts and distant lands—he did his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the religions of south Asia, and came to the University of Alabama in 2006, after a couple years working at UNC Pembroke—over the course of his career he has gradually and smoothly made a significant shift. Of course he still studies material relevant to his earlier training, but a shift in research focus from inter-religious cooperation to diaspora religion, eventually studying south Asian communities in the U.S. south, led the way to a far broader interest not only in social theory but in the practical implications of categorization for creating identities. Now, apart from regularly blogging on wide topics in identity formation at Culture on the Edge (a research group in which he participates), he is among the few who paused when some Pew survey data came out not long ago, on the so-called “Nones” (people who responded to a questionnaire saying that they had no religious affiliation), and asked how reasonably it is for scholars to assume that an entire, cohesive social group somehow exists based on a common answer to this or that isolated question when the respondents differed so much on the rest of the survey? The point? Why do we, as scholars, think the Nones are out there and what effect does our presumption of their identity have on making it possible for others to think and act as if the Nones are real and of growing influence?

It was this career arc—moving from what or how we study to why we study something, focusing on the wider theoretical interests that motivate our work with specific e.g.s and which ought to be relevant to scholars in fields far outside the academic study of religion—that prompted Russell McCutcheon to sit down with Steven, his colleague at Alabama, on a chilly day last December, to talk about Steven’s training and earlier interests but then to learn more about how a scholar who heads up our interdisciplinary minor in Asian Studies found himself at the Baltimore meeting of the American Academy of Religion inviting Americanists and sociologists to give the Nones a second thought.

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Thanks to Russell McCutcheon for writing this piece, and for conducting the interview. You can read a Huffington Post article by Ramey on the ‘Nones’ here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your philosophical tomes etc.

Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular

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

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

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

 

Podcasts

The Critical Study of Religion

In this interview, Professor Bruce Lincoln from the University of Chicago Divinity School discusses a variety of topics including werewolves, critical theory, pedagogy, and his self-imposed estrangement from the academic study of religion. Dr. Lincoln is a well-known and influential scholar of religion who completed his doctorate from the University of Chicago where he studied with Mircea Eliade. He then taught for many years at the University of Minnesota before he returned to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where he is the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. According to his biography on the University of Chicago’s website, “His research tends to focus on the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran, but he has a notoriously short attention span and has also written on a bewildering variety of topics, including Guatemalan curanderismo, Lakota sun dances, Melanesian funerary rituals, Swazi kingship, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Marco Polo, professional wrestling, Persian imperialism, the theology of George W. Bush, and comparative demonology.” What underlying theme or methodology holds together this diverse body of work?

As Dr. Lincoln discusses in this interview, he is interested in the constructed nature of society. “I think society is a project,” he said, “rather than an entity that exists by nature.” From this foundation, Lincoln isolates a variety of specific instances in multiple places and times where people appeal to religious discourse to legitimate their local interests. Religion, for Lincoln, is a thoroughly human phenomenon. To demonstrate this, it requires the type of critically-informed analysis that Lincoln seldom finds in the academic study of religion.

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

But Mountains, Dammit!

Titus Hjelm’s book Social Constructionisms: Approaches to the Study of the Human World is a fantastic introduction to the topic of “social constructionism.” Titus successfully demonstrates that this term brings together a plurality of approaches that, although they share a great deal in common, have crucial differences. Perhaps the most admirable feature of Titus’ book is it’s clarity—Titus writes about complicated issues with clear and concise prose, making it perhaps a perfect fit for undergraduate “theory and method” courses in which students must be exposed to these critical approaches.

Since commenting on where we agree is unlikely to be productive or advance the conversation, here in my response I’ll focus on Titus’ criticisms of what he considers more “radical” forms of social constructionism, which he associates with the “excesses” of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Hinting in both the RSP interview and the book that he identifies as a type of critical realist, Titus calls into question those forms of social constructionism that are unabashedly anti-realist. Consider the following statements:

According to some social constructionist views, “we can only reach the world through discourse.” (from the interview)

“If everything is discourse and nothing is real, where is the position we can take to critique those constructions?” (from the interview)

“In their most radical form, these [constructionists] claim that we can know about the human world—and the natural world, for that matter—only through discourse. Any ‘reality’ outside of discourse is either bracketed or denied.” (from the book; 88)

For relativist constructionists, “there is nothing [to the world] beyond our description of it.” (from the book; 92)

For relativists, “there is no ‘reality’ to fall back on.” (from the book; 92)

From the relativist perspective, “the ‘world out there’ and perceptions of the world are radically separated, with no access to the former, except through discourse. It is one thing to say that the meaning of, say, gravity is dependent on our ways of talking about it—a position that constructionists would happily embrace. It is another thing for me to jump out of a sixth story window and assume a safe landing because I’m shouting ‘I’m not falling!’” (from the book; 93)

I find such claims frustrating for two reasons. First, I think that Titus is criticizing the forms of constructionism with which I identify—i.e. he’s targeting me—but I think he unfairly represents my view. Second, I’m also frustrated because some of the constructionists I identify with say exactly the sorts of claims Titus is criticizing. All of that is to say: I think that Titus is aiming at a straw man (are there straw women, I wonder?), but unfortunately a straw man that some of my peers stand behind and prop up. Thus, rather than tear down Titus’s excellent work, let me clarify the difference between my view and the view Titus criticizes.

The main problem, for me, is that although I might be a radical constructionist, I absolutely reject the dualist view of the world Titus is partly working with and partly criticizing. This dualism assumes an opposition between the world-as-it-is-in-and-of-itself and the world within discourse. Discourse apparently is “in here” (but where is “here,” one wonders?), and reality is “out there.” (We’re not far here from the contradictions inherent in Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena.) Of course, there is some ambiguity for the social constructionists, insofar as they vacillate between the view that there is a world out there—but we have access to it only through discourse—and the view that there isn’t a world out there—that is, everything, even reality, is discourse. This latter view drops the ontological dualism and turns into a type of discursive monism.

Titus’ view seems to be closer to the dualist view, except without the caveat about being locked within discourse: there is a mind-independent or discourse-independent world “out there,” and we can make objective or authoritative rather than merely subjective or relativist claims about it. Despite the insistence of the radical constructionists, there is a real world out there—we can thump the table or point to the mountains on the horizon dammit! Are we to believe those mountains weren’t here before humans came to name them?! Mountains, dammit! They’re real and they’re mind-independent! (It’s at this point that the radical constructionists ask, “can you say that without discourse?” and then the realists really go apoplectic.)

By the time we get here, we’re far afield from where I’d like the conversation to have headed. What’s crucially been lost at this point—from my perspective at least—is the role of discourse in individuation or definition—i.e., the extension of a concept—and the pragmatic ends of the latter.

The best example I can point to for how discourse has a constitutive role in the individuation of something we tend to take for granted as “natural” in the so-called “real world” is in Edward Schiappa’s discussion of the politics of “wetlands” (see Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning; 2003). In the early 1990s, wetlands were a hot topic. Environmentalists wanted to protect wetlands from developers who wanted to clear the land and build on it, while developers wanted the opposite. President George H. W. Bush signed into legislation a bill protecting wetlands from development, but the legislation redefined wetlands in ways that suited the interests of the developers rather than the environmentalists. Wetlands were protected, but there was a bait-and-switch of sorts: the land to which the concept “wetland” extended shrunk dramatically with the novel definition in the new legislation. Both parties used the concept “wetland,” but they individuated something rather different, and—in addition—that to which their concept extended was directly tied to their social or political interests. Schiappa concludes, “definitions are interest-driven and saturated with questions of power and persuasion.”

I think that Titus’ framing of “radical constructionism” fails in helping us to understand Schiappa’s view. First, by no means is Schiappa saying that there’s a world within discourse and then a world out there. For Schiappa, the existence of wetlands is contingent upon the definition we give to the term; if we change the definition of wetland we have a different reality out there to deal with—just as gerrymandered districts are quite literally different districts than before they were gerrymandered. There’s no “reality” of wetlands without first having individuated some types of land as wetland and other types of land as not-wetland. Second, neither is Schiappa saying that all we have access to is the world of discourse. “Wetlands” are constituted by discourse, but that’s not the same thing as saying that wetlands are discourse. Third, it wouldn’t make sense to say that “wetlands” exist independent of discourse; it is we, as humans, who separate this from that, wetlands from not-wetlands, and so on, depending on our interests.

But what about mountains, dammit? Weren’t they there before humans evolved to identify them as mountains? To press the realist position, let me ask: did the state of New York exist before humans came along to identify it as such? Even the realist would have to admit: New York is a human invention—the distinctions between “New York” and “Massachusetts” and “Pennsylvania” aren’t natural, but are lines we as humans draw in the sand. That is, even the realist has to admit that the individuation or extension of “New York” is discursive. But then to press the realist further: what about the Adirondack Mountains? Do the mountains individuate themselves from the land we consider not-mountainous? Or do we, as humans, individuate them for our purposes?

We could of course individuate the stuff of the world in ways that intersect with but don’t exactly match the extension of the term “Adirondack Mountains.” No doubt there are “streams” in the mountains, “hiking paths” over them, “bear hunting grounds” across them, “good fishing areas” in them, and so forth. In addition, whichever discursive concepts we use to slice up the stuff of the Adirondacks will depend on our particular pragmatic interests—do we want fish for dinner? to avoid running across bears? a challenging hike?

In addition, were our interests different—or were we different kinds of animals—no doubt we would individuate our world differently. Does an ant in the Adirondacks see a “mountain”? Is a “mountain” a useful concept for something as small as an insect? If there were alien creatures whose walking stride was the same as the distance from our sun to Pluto, would they have a use for individuating the “Adirondack Mountains”? On the contrary, what we might individuate as the Adirondacks would likely be nothing other than dust on the shoes of their feet, not worth individuation or attention. As some cognitive linguists have noted–for instance, in Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) or Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)–what is useful for us to individuate is relative to the type of bodies we are in: “How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and manipulate objects. Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 17-18).

All of this is to say: crucial for understanding so-called radical social constructionism is the pragmatic function of concepts in individuating the stuff of the world. At bottom, drawing lines between mountains and streams is little different than drawing lines between New York and Massachusetts. And, on this view, the practice of discursive or conceptual individuation neither gets between us and the real world, nor do the things of the world exist as “things” independently of our individuation of them as particular things.

Social Constructionism

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

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

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

The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

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

Bricolage

BRICOLAGE: construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also : something constructed in this way

“Bricolage.” Merriam-Webster.com.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1960s and has undergone a complex genealogy of modifications within the sociologies of culture and religion. As Véronique Altglas writes in a forthcoming article, ‘originally a metaphor, “bricolage'” became an anthropological concept to understand cultural and religious creativity, with an emphasis on what organizes it, despite its contingent nature. Transposed in the study of contemporary European societies, bricolage became about what individuals do in relation to cultural practices and lifestyles’ (Altglas Forthcoming).

In this interview with Chris, Altglas – the author of the recent OUP monograph From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage – discusses this complex genealogy, tracing a movement from forms of cultural warfare to ‘playful, postmodern bricoleurs’ – what many might be tempted to dub ‘pick and mix spirituality’. However, as Altglas goes on to demonstrate, with a particular empirical focus upon Hindu-based Yoga centres and the Kabbalah centre, far from a carefree process of shopping at the ‘spiritual supermarket’, ‘the original meanings and otherness of elements used in this religious bricolage matter, and in fact limits, the popularization of “exotic” religions’ (Forthcoming).

IMG_20141112_114757This broad-ranging interview provides a fascinating overview of an important concept that is not only relevant for the study of contemporary ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, but also speaks to cultural appropriation and construction in general, utilizing a number of stimulating contextual examples along the way. Chris enjoyed the interview so much, he immediately went out and bout Véronique’s book… and he suggests you do too!

This interview was recorded at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in Belfast in September 2014. You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

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Thanks to Culture on the Edge for posting this passage. http://edge.ua.edu/monica-miller/the-myth-of-origins/

References

  • Forthcoming 2015. ‘Bricolage’: Reclaiming a Conceptual Tool. Culture & Religion. 2015. 4.

The Postsecular

In his 2011 Presidential Address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee, James Beckford focused upon a contested term that has grown in prominence in recent years in the social scientific study of religion – the notion of the ‘postsecular’. In this address – published in the JSSR in 2012, Beckford noted a number of problems associated with the concept.

First, there is enormous variety in the meanings attributed to the ‘postsecular’, and there are many tensions between these meanings. Second, ‘the variety of meanings attributed to “postsecularity” is partly a function of the unusually wide range of intellectual disciplines and fields with an interest in it’. However, Beckford is keen to emphasise that this breadth of disciplinary interest does not imply that there actually is such a phenomenon as ‘postsecularity’. Third, ‘the orientation of many writings about the postsecular is normative and speculative’. (2012, 12-13)

With these issues in mind, Chris took some time to speak solely on this contested topic with Kevin W. Gray while in Belfast for the ESA Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in September. Discussion focuses upon the history of the term, potential definitions, disciplinary and geographical differences, and ultimately suggests that ‘postsecularity’ is effectively dressing up ‘secularity’ in obfuscating clothing.

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

 

References

  • Beckford, James A. 2012. “SSSR Presidential Address Public Religions and the Postsecular: Critical Reflections.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01625.x.

Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion: A Roundtable Discussion (Video and Audio!)

This week we are bringing you the fruits of a recent RSP venture to the University of Chester, UK. In the early afternoon, Chris and David ran a workshop on “Digital Humanities” for the postgraduate community in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Later on, David interviewed Dr Alana Vincent in from of a ‘live studio audience’ on the topic of ‘Religion and Literature‘. Following directly on from this, Chris chaired a roundtable discussion on ‘Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion’ featuring Dr Wendy Dossett, Prof. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn and Dr Alana Vincent – all staff in TRS at Chester – and the RSP’s own Ethan Quillen, of the University of Edinburgh.

Chester

The idea for this roundtable was that it would follow on directly from the interview on religion and literature, but expand the discussion to cover a variety of points relating to narrative, autobiography and (auto)ethnography in the study of religion. This was also recorded in front of a live audience, and towards the end of the recording we take questions from the floor.

Thanks to the resources available at the University of Chester – specifically, a wonderful chap named Lee – we are able to bring you this roundtable discussion in video form – something a lot of our listeners have been keen on for quite some time. Let us know what you think! We can’t promise to do this very regularly, but if it is useful we will definitely investigate our options for the future.

Of course, for those who prefer to have the podcast in its usual form, it can be listened to and downloaded as usual.

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

  • What do we mean when we speak of incorporating narratives into Religious Studies? Why would we want to?
  • What makes a narrative different from a discourse? Is there any difference?
  • Does studying narrative minimize other aspects of ‘religion’ such as ritual, embodiment, symbols etc? Is there anything particularly Western or gendered about privileging narratives?
  • Given that we focused upon ‘religion and literature’, what is the place of fictional narratives? What can they tell us? Are all narratives fictions? Can one infer anything external to a narrative?
  • What is the place of the scholar in all of this? Are we interpreters? Are we co-creators of narratives? Do we remain outside the data we study or must we write ourselves in? What would this do to ‘objectivity’? Is the whole academic enterprise an exercise in creating narratives? Can academic reflexivity go to too far?

This podcast is presented to you as a co-production with the University of Chester, and we are very grateful for their help in making this happen – particularly to Dawn Llewellyn for organizing, and to Lee Bennett for the technical wizardry.

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

Religion and Memory

In the year 2000, English-speaking scholars interested in ‘religion’ were introduced (in translation) to one of the most important texts in the sociology of religion in recent years, Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s “Religion as a Chain of Memory”. This book placed the study of ‘religion and memory’ firmly on the academic agenda, and the past decade has seen an explosion of exciting research into this area, not least in the cognitive sciences.

As testament to this growth of research, the Alexandra Grieser (Trinity College Dublin) on this intriguing topic.

How does it help the study of’ religion’ to think about it through the lens of memory? Links with cognitive approaches? Is ‘memory’ different from ‘tradition’? ‘Memorialisation’? ‘Myth’? ‘Legend’? ‘Story’? What makes religion distinctive in this sense? Are we not just studying memories? In what sense is basically every element of research an act of research into memory? An act of memorialisation? Must all ‘memory’ and ‘experience’ be articulated in order to be studied? These questions and more form the framework for this interview, which demonstrates the utility of thinking about ‘religion’ theoretically and methodologically through the interpretive lens of memory.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make. We hope that you have missed us during our ‘summer break’, and we look forward to bringing you weekly podcasts up until our next break in the winter.

What “in the world” is theory?

Birgit Meyer’s interview with George Ioannides in the recently released Religious Studies Project podcast (6/30/2014) is a pedagogical tour de force. In this conversation, Meyer revisits and introduces anew some of the most urgent problems and questions that have animated the converging fields of visual culture, media, and the study of religion.

Meyer’s work has long been at the forefront of these ever-entangled interests, and in this interview, we hear her “digest” a wide range of theoretical ideas into an eminently clear précis on the study of material, visual, and sensory cultures of religion. Referencing numerous intellectual influences—from late nineteenth-century disciplinary “fathers” like Weber, Durkheim, Tylor, and Fraser to her twenty-first century colleagues in the broader study of religion and social theory, including the likes of Talal Asad, Bruno Latour, Jacques Rancière, David Morgan, Hent de Vries, Jeremy Stolow, Angela Zito, and Charles Taylor—Meyer explains that her robust theoretical digestion is part of a larger attempt to develop new, more wide-ranging methods and approaches for studying the surrounding world. But listeners will also quickly ascertain that Meyer does more than “digest” an otherwise pre-existing set of theories. That is, even as Meyer explicitly professes in this interview not to see herself as a theorist, I want to suggest in this brief response that she does indeed teach us how her own expert processing can—and should—also be understood as a form of propagation. Despite her own resistance to being named a theorist, I argue that her sensational mediation is a form of theory making, one which more students of religion should embrace.

Meyer’s interview showcases many of the admirable aspects we’ve come to expect of her work. She advocates an ever more historically mindful cultural anthropology in the study of religion, one that is aware of the Christonormative and colonialist heft that many of our concepts and modes of study carry. She argues for an approach that “understands religion as a multimedia phenomenon,” one that enables “a fuller research program” than emphases on texts and words have typically allowed for, and one that works to challenge, rather than reinscribe, colonial processes, seeking alternatives to, rather than repetitious critiques of, ”the proverbial Protestant bias.”[1] Likewise, Meyer’s ongoing commitment to the study of “lived religion” is evident in turning our attention to new scenes and sources that cannot be entirely divorced from their tense relations with Protestantism—from boundary encounters between missionaries and missionized populations on the west African coast to Jesus pictures circulating in this “frontier zone.”

If Meyer’s early work focused on language and translation as formative to the process of “bringing into being religious worlds,” she explains that her more recent concerns show that such a focus remains limited in understanding larger colonial power dynamics, particularly given late twentieth-century structural transformations frequently referred to as globalization and neoliberalism. Drawing on her fieldwork among Pentecostal communities in Ghana to work through such dense theoretical terms, Meyer points students and scholars of religion to interrogations of material objects, media forms, and the sensing body as they are invested and turned into vessels, receptors, and indexes of religious experience. Meyer explains that her concern is “not just about images and pictures; it is about regimes that structure vision in particular ways that are embedded in…dynamics of concealment and revelation…primarily through the eyes but, of course, also by regulating the senses, by focusing vision in a certain way, by relating vision, hearing, touch.” In so doing, she solicits scholars and students of religious studies to probe media forms and mediating processes that are authorized by other sensory regimes and structural reproductions. What repercussions do they have on particular sensations and on religious subjectivities, she asks. What preferences are suggested? What modes of sense-making or community formation are enabled and foreclosed?[2]

However, when asked about her advice for up-and-comers in religious studies and anthropology, Meyer pulls back from her own theorizing. Though she first points to the importance of “generating larger theoretical and self-reflexive questions,” and confirms that “theory is incredibly important,” she also counsels students to “find…the themes that you want to think about, find them in the world,” because, she worries, too often scholars “just take one or the other approach or philosopher and then rethink…our world from there.” Hers is a familiar point, one easily taken with an uncritical nod. Yet, I want to pause here to note how Meyer elides what she has already done so well. “I don’t see myself as a theorist,” she says, “but I see myself as someone who tries to digest theory in order to develop methodologies and approaches to throw new light and develop new perspectives on the world of which we are a part, and which is around us.” My response is not to suggest that I do not admire or want to affirm Meyer’s proposal for new approaches in studying the “stuff” of religion. On the contrary, I do. For, Meyer has ably initiated important study of new data sets and geographic locales, but what is perhaps most valuable in her scholarly selections and analytical studies is not so much their ability to fill in otherwise existing descriptive gaps, but how they can (and have) shifted our thinking and practices—for, as Meyer herself explains, such empirical and theoretical alternatives are crucial to “a reconsideration of our concept of religion.”

In this interview, Meyer most provocatively advances such theoretical reconsiderations in her treatment of the fetish as a “hybrid term” associated ambivalently with the distinction between animate and inanimate, subject and object, humans and things. This “sensational form” was also to become, for missionary forces and for scholars of religion, both a marker of western rationality and its ostensible opposite—the heathen, antimodern, neurotic, primitive, or mystified. The fetish materializes, for Meyer, a notion of religion as a practice of mediation—of producing, traversing, and authorizing distinctions amid the “scandalous mixing” of good and bad religion, of person and thing, of a mundane world and an other world, and thereby also both maintaining and crossing the gap of sensible and seemingly insensible “presence.” Countering claims that religion itself is somehow immediate or un-mediated, Meyer explains through her re-visioning of the fetish how religion is the mediating work of fabricating, traversing, authorizing, and remaking those differentiations, those “gaps.”

It is for all this that I think Meyer’s own theorizing, her own mediating work, her own making-sense of things and thoughts, is far too quickly de-authorized in her dissociation from the mantle (or the altar) of “theorist” at the end of this recorded conversation. Meyer’s move away from her own theorizing, from her own philosophizing, leaves me with questions about her theory of “theory.” Given her explicit recommendation for finding themes and topics of study based on one’s curiosity “in the world,” I wonder if Meyer presumes theory to be largely removed from the world, somehow too external, even transcendental, as opposed to, well, what? To immanent critique? To (inter)mediated analysis? Likewise, in contrast to her professed interest in a rigorously interrogative approach, does Meyer find theory to be somehow centrally declarative? Maybe she presumes it to be largely stationary versus the apparent boundary crossing of interdisciplinary innovation she invokes in methodological terms? Or is theory, for her, somehow singular in comparison with the multiplicity of methods and media she advocates? Does Meyer presume theory somehow too much like the missionary conception of the fetish and not enough like her own reconceiving of that sensational form?

Perhaps. Yet, I still think Meyer’s own emphasis on mediation challenges any easy affirmation of such theoretical presumptions of “theory” as removed, disembodied, inanimate, singular, or mystifying. Like her study and—yes, I want to insist—theorizing of religion and/as mediation through her handling of the fetish, I want to propose that Meyer’s seemingly didactic assemblage in this interview is also a more audacious theoretical working and reworking than she otherwise appears to acknowledge or wants to entertain herself. And, if it is (and I think it is), might then religious studies students and scholars endeavor to re-view what “in the world” theory is? Might we begin to theorize again and anew as sensationally as Meyer has begun to teach us here?

 

[1] Describing the links between textual/linguistic analysis and colonialism and advocating for a rethinking of how scholars continue to relate to such processes in disciplinary formations and specializations in the so-called book religions of, namely, the Abrahamic traditions, Meyer also suspects that scholars “explicitly working on book religion also tend…to affirm certain processes of colonization as they also occur within disciplines.” She thus implies that a focus on religion as multiply mediated can help reduce such tendencies by putting such emphases on texts/language into perspective. Gaining new perspectives seems almost always to the good, and Meyer’s suggestion about seeing texts themselves as objects and as one medium among others is warranted and welcome. Nevertheless, I think it remains somewhat less clear why we should suspect that those studying “book religions” would necessarily have more of a tendency to reinscribe colonial practices. It seems to me that finding a place “outside” such suspect disciplining (if there even is such a place, and I’m not sure Meyer thinks there is either) needn’t be the only way to challenge a history of colonialism—particularly if one recognizes immanent critique as valuable, if not entirely transformative nor apocalyptically revolutionary.

[2] Meyer is joined by a growing array of scholars with similar concerns, asking related questions. See, for example, a series of articles and a forum on “The Senses in History,” edited by Martin Jay in The American Historical Review, vol. 116, no. 2 (April 2011), and the recently published anthology, Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, edited by Sally M. Promey (Yale University Press, 2014).

The Subtle Body

Jay Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Department of Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney. A distinguished interdisciplinary researcher, Johnston is known for her scholarly explorations and elucidations in areas of research concerning subtle bodies; embodiment and intersubjectivity; feminist studies; religion and material culture. In her fascinating books Angels of Desire: Esoteric Bodies, Aesthetics and Ethics (Equinox Publishing, 2008) and Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body (Routledge, 2013) co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, she establishes innovative theoretical and methodological examinations of notions of subtle embodiment as a shared narrative negotiating the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and how subtle intersubjectivity is a unique experience of the lived human body within both Western and Eastern religious discourses. Other current projects include the ARC Discovery Project: The production and function of art and design elements in ancient texts and artefacts of ritual power from Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean region with Iain Gardner, Julia Kindt (Sydney); Erica Hunter (SOAS) and Helen Whitehouse (Oxford), and Wellbeing Spirituality and Alternative Therapies with Dr Ruth Barcan.

During the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Damon Lycourinos had the pleasure of interviewing Jay regarding her work on the subtle body and alternative notions of intersubjectivity, addressing both the theoretical and methodological implications for the academic study of subtle embodiment, and what the future might hold for this in the academy and beyond.

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

Before “Religion”: a History of a Modern Concept

For much of the past two centuries, “religion” has been understood as a universal phenomenon, a part of the “natural” human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history. Individual religions may vary through time and geographically, but there is an element, religion, that is to be found in all cultures during all time periods. Taking apart this assumption, Brent Nongbri has built upon a generation of critical scholarship to provide the first comprehensive history of “religion” as a category in western discourse.

In his recently published work, Before Religion: a History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013), Nongbri shows that the idea of “religion” as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history—a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world.

Discussing this book with Jack Tsonis, Nongbri begins by explaining various uses of the term “religio” in Roman and Christian antiquity, which were somewhat different from the modern term “religion”. The conversation then moves into the early modern period and the changes wrought by the Reformation, the rise of the political state, and the subsequent period of religious conflict.   At this point we begin to see something that looks like the modern English category “religion”, although that shift was not fully consolidated until the formalization of philology and ancient world studies in the nineteenth century.

This podcast will interest all students of religion, regardless of their area of speciality. At the core of Nongbri’s project is a call for constant vigilance with the categories we use to describe  human behaviour.  While he does not advocate abandoning “religion”, understanding the history of the term does encourage us to use it with greater methodological reflexivity.

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

Authors meet Critics: “New Age Spirituality”

Following from our interview on Monday with Ingvild Gilhus, today’s podcast presents an “authors meet critics” session on the new edited volume by Ingvild Gilhus and Steven Sutcliffe, New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion. This was recorded at the University of Edinburgh at the launch of the book, and features the editors, Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Gilhus, and critics Bettina Schmidt, Marion Bowman and David Robertson, and was ably hosted by Afe Adogame.

Steven Sutcliffe introduces the book, describing the plan to curate a volume which approaches empirical research into “New Age” religiosity through broader “theories of religion”. As Gilhus then suggests, our theoretical positions are impoverished if they don’t address “religion” in both classical and modern contexts.

Marion Bowman takes this up in her response, which addresses the similarity between this project and her own “vernacular religion” project. Bettina Schmidt addresses this disconnect between theories of popular and institutionalised religion from a anthropological point of view, pointing out that many phenomena have been removed from sociological view due to their perceived marginality, and because they don’t offer a clear box to be ticked in censuses. Finally, David Robertson critiques how the critique of “New Age” is positioned within academic, practitioner and popular discourses, and how it may reinforce, despite itself, the very categories it seeks to dissolve.

For anyone interested in New Age, the intersection between category formation – and the practicalities and politics of challenging them – this episode will be essential listening.

Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life – An interview with Tatjana Schnell

Psychiatrist and Auschwitz concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning (2006), placed an emphasis on the search for and construction of meaning, as a prima facie component of the human condition. Moreover, Frankl proposed that meaning could be found in even the most malignant and desolate of places – even in “the midst of Nazi death camp hell” (p.51). According to this view humans are not only creatures of meaning, but willed to find meaning.

Recently, scholars have placed the concept of ‘meaning making’ as an important area of focus within psychology of religion (Paloutzian & Park, 2005; 2013). Some people find meaning in religious or spiritual experience and beliefs while others find meaning on more secular mediums in life. One way comparisons among religious or secular individuals and worldviews can be made is at the level of ultimate meanings. However, if humans are truly on a “search for meaning”, as Frankl has argued, what might be some of the sources of such meaning?

In her interview with Thomas Coleman recorded at the 2013 International Association for the Psychology of Religion World Conference, Dr. Tatjana Schnell discusses on-going research conceptualizing and measuring sources of meaning and meaning in life. Her work has been examined internationally with promise of cross-cultural application (Silver, Bernaud, Pedersen, Birkeland, la Cour & Schnell, 2013). What makes her work particularly interesting is that meaning making is not dependent on any particular modal identity or value system but rather the profound experience one has in their life.

Schnell begins the interview by explaining the methodology behind the construction of her Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe). She goes on to emphasize the role that meaning plays in not only religious individuals but also the growing secular population around the world. Dr. Schnell discusses ultimate sources of meaning, making space for both secular and religious experiences of transcendence termed horizontal and vertical transcendence. Throughout the podcast Dr. Tatjana Schnell’s message is clear, ultimate sources of meaning in life come from many areas and are meaningful to different people and for different reasons. Some find meaning in religion, others find meaning in more secular ways. Regardless of the label used, meaning is central to the human condition. Towards the end of the interview Schnell builds on an old quote by John Stuart Mill. Schnell asks is it better “to be a satisfied cow, or an unsatisfied Socrates”?

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

References:

  • Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Paloutzian, R. F. & Park, C. L. (2005). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Paloutzian, R. F. & Park, C. L. (2013). Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Second Edition. Guilford Publications, Incorporated.
  • Silver, C. F., Bernaud, J. L., Pedersen, H. F, Birkeland, M. H., la Cour, P. & Schnell, T. (2013) Three cultural comparisons and inferences using the Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire. Presented at the biannual meeting of the International Society for Psychology of Religion in Lausanne Switzerland.

 

“Would You Still Call Yourself an Asianist?”

There’s a group on Facebook devoted to the History of Religions. Apart from a quite regularly posted Christian bible study blog that’s devoted to scriptural exegesis—and which prompts reader comments such as this recent one:

It seems obvious God is a God who feels. I am imagining He grieved, felt sorry not only to see the depravity of man whom He made in His image, but of every single cell which He created, His art, His masterpiece. God as an artist experiencing the destruction and loss of it all. Every flower, creature, piece of nature which He had created GOOD.

—almost all that gets posted on its wall are links to articles or announcements about the things we study: decaying scrolls found here or there, rituals practiced by this or that group, etc. Once in a while you see a link to an article on methodology—how we study things—but rarely does someone post an item related to why we study them or why our work should matter to people who don’t happen to share our focus on this piece of pottery or that ancient text. That’s because it seems that, for many if not most of us, there’s an obviousness to the things that we’re interested in, both for us, as scholars, as well as for the wider groups in which we live and shop and work: we all know they’re important because, well…, they’re important, simple as that.

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What’s therefore intriguing about Steven Ramey’s work is that while he, like all of us, was trained in a specific expertise related to a world religion, to fieldwork, to languages, and to texts and distant lands—he did his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the religions of south Asia, and came to the University of Alabama in 2006, after a couple years working at UNC Pembroke—over the course of his career he has gradually and smoothly made a significant shift. Of course he still studies material relevant to his earlier training, but a shift in research focus from inter-religious cooperation to diaspora religion, eventually studying south Asian communities in the U.S. south, led the way to a far broader interest not only in social theory but in the practical implications of categorization for creating identities. Now, apart from regularly blogging on wide topics in identity formation at Culture on the Edge (a research group in which he participates), he is among the few who paused when some Pew survey data came out not long ago, on the so-called “Nones” (people who responded to a questionnaire saying that they had no religious affiliation), and asked how reasonably it is for scholars to assume that an entire, cohesive social group somehow exists based on a common answer to this or that isolated question when the respondents differed so much on the rest of the survey? The point? Why do we, as scholars, think the Nones are out there and what effect does our presumption of their identity have on making it possible for others to think and act as if the Nones are real and of growing influence?

It was this career arc—moving from what or how we study to why we study something, focusing on the wider theoretical interests that motivate our work with specific e.g.s and which ought to be relevant to scholars in fields far outside the academic study of religion—that prompted Russell McCutcheon to sit down with Steven, his colleague at Alabama, on a chilly day last December, to talk about Steven’s training and earlier interests but then to learn more about how a scholar who heads up our interdisciplinary minor in Asian Studies found himself at the Baltimore meeting of the American Academy of Religion inviting Americanists and sociologists to give the Nones a second thought.

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Thanks to Russell McCutcheon for writing this piece, and for conducting the interview. You can read a Huffington Post article by Ramey on the ‘Nones’ here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your philosophical tomes etc.

Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular

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

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

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