Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture

François Gauthier is currently working as Professor of Sociology of Religion at University of Fribourg, Switzerland. His earlier post was in Département de sciences des religions at Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada. He is also researcher at the Groupe Société, Religions, Laïcités (GSRL-EPHE-CNRS, Paris) and the Chaire de recerche du Canada en Mondialisation, citoyenneté et démocratie (UQAM). Gauthier’s research interests include topics related to e.g. religion and politics and religion and public space. Apart from consumerism and neoliberalism, he has studied topics such as religiosity in rave culture and the Burning Man festival.

Together with Tuomas Martikainen, he has edited two books, Religion in Consumer Society and Religion in the Neoliberal Age: Political Economy and Modes of Governance both of which were published earlier this year in the Ashgate AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society series. In her first interview for the RSP, Hanna Lehtinen met Gauthier during the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (ISSR/SISR) conference in Turku, Finland, where he kindly explained to us some of the key ideas of the recently published work on religion, consumer society and the ethos of neoliberalism.

According to Gauthier, it is important to note is that religious activity of the day is not haphazard or random pick-and-choose at all. Instead, it is following a new kind of logic, that of consumerism. Marketization and commodification among other phenomena are affecting the field of religion – and vice versa. Listen and find out more!

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A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with François Gauthier on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture (7 October 2013). PDF.

Interviewed by Hanna LehtinenTranscribed by Martin Lepage.


Hanna Lehtinen: We are here in Turku ISSR conference, and I am here with Francois Gauthier, who is Professor of Sociology of Religion in Fribourg. My French is awful, but this is in Switzerland. Previously he has been based in Quebec in Montreal, and he’s been doing empirical research on subculture, countercultural phenomenon, and today we are talking especially about religion and consumer culture, consumer society and neoliberalism. Welcome.

François Gauthier: Thank you very much for having me. Yes, so basically the economic question came up because I was doing studies on those phenomena, and also on new political phenomena. Protests happening in the mid 90’s that led to the anti-globalization movement, and up to today’s Occupy movement. What I saw is that subcultures self-defined against consumerism, and political movements, new political movements had changed radically since the 70s. In the 70s, it was all about taking power… Maoist guerrilla types of terrorist action, whether it be in Quebec or in Germany or elsewhere, and it was linked with the Arab struggle and stuff like that, the anti-imperialist movement. Starting with the 90s, well, we have these subcultures that are very festive. All the sudden, political protest becomes festive. What’s that? Instead of having a confrontation with power, it was “Let’s open areas of autonomy,” with respect with the State. In a way, it was not about confronting the State, but it was more calling the State back to its public, what Grace Davie would call “public utility”. It was saying, well the State, you have to regulate markets. Basically, what I already intuitively knew, what that the world was governed by a new force that was not political, but was economic. So I started, first of all, challenging political theory, and challenging religious theory, from the margins, saying that theory available today did not allow us to understand these phenomena. Ravers say this is spiritual. This can’t be dealt with [available] theory. What’s wrong with the theory? While most people were doing the contrary, they were saying “This is not religion”. They say it is, but it’s not. But it’s massive, and it still happens today. If ravers say they’re religious, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t fit our definition. I took the contrary way in saying that the problem is the definition. The problem is not the ravers. And if the ravers feel that Catholicism and raves are on the same level, then they are. (5:00) It’s the sociologist that has the problem, not the ravers. That was a starting point, and the same thing with the political theory side. So basically, it was the realisation that a major factor in understanding these phenomena was understanding that we were no longer under a sort of political model, a Nation-State regulating political model, but that there was a new regulation, a new world that was emerging, that was essentially governed by economics. And that therefore there were, and there are, religious dimensions to economics, and political dimensions to economics. So how do we understand that? As of the last… these last fifteen years have been the development of that initial intuition…

HL: So, basically a new power’s come into play or has kind of strengthened, and what happened is that the scholars of religion still look at it kind of from the Westphalian Nation-State point of view. And these new arenas that these religions are taking up do not fit the categories that the State has kind of institutionalised for religion. And this is what we have a problem with, scholars of religion.

FG: Exactly. Exactly. Yes. Just a kind of liminal methodological word. I’m French, and I’m from French theory where Durkheim and Marcel Mauss are still quite important. Actually, Marcel Mauss has become to be important anew. And Marcel Mauss refused to separate sociology and anthropology. He was one of the founders of French sociology, and the French sociologists were the first to, and the only ones to, use sociology as a word, because Weber self-identified as an economist, so when you are talking about sociology, this is what you’re talking about. An this founder of French sociology basically his discourse meant, what he meant by we need not separate, we must not separate sociology and anthropology, is because sociology is concerned with societies, which itself defines as being something like modern societies, bureaucratic societies, with differentiated social spheres. And so it implicitly says that, with respect to every other culture in the world that’s ever been and today the West, there is sort of a great shift. So it postulates a uniqueness. This is the basis for many secularisation theories and many evolutionist theories. Mauss was very aware that this was dangerous. There is a specificity to modern societies, Western societies, and now web societies worldwide, but there are certainly not in complete discontinuity with other so-called archaic societies or societies that existed before. On the other side, anthropologists who study the Other, the archaic so-called primitive societies, the simple societies. You have two normative trends in anthropologists. Either you discredit the primitive societies as being infants that will eventually grow into adults. Or on the contrary you idealize the Natives by saying “This is great, everything is meaningful and peaceful, and now we’ve gone into these modern societies’. And so you have a disenchantment narrative. If you keep both modern societies together with so-called primitive or archaic societies, and you’re always thinking “How do I differentiate what I’m looking at, with respect to the first societies?’, and “Where do I find continuity?” As a point of method, I think this brings a lot of fresh water. It avoids of seeing too much continuity, and the same time it avoids seeing too much difference. So I always read contemporary phenomena while thinking ‘How does this relate to Siberian shamanism in the early 1900s?”, “How does this relate to (10:00) Brazilian Amazonian forest Yanomamis?”, and, even if I’m looking at contemporary Judaism or whatever, I do this. And I tell my students to do this. And I tell them “Put the book, put Malinowski on your table, and once in a while, after you go to the toilet or have a coffee, just open any page and read it. And then close it”. Just to keep that in mind. So that sort of also sketches my approach to contemporary societies.

With the issue of consumerism or economics within culturally regulated system, the two books that we just published with Thomas Martikained, Religion in the Neoliberal Age and Religion in Consumer Society. These are two books, but actually they’re one book. On the one hand, this has not been done before, not at all, even in economics or in sociology, is to think neoliberalism, not only as a dominant political ideology, or an economic theory, but also as a cultural ideology, and asking why did this theory that looked completely crazy in the 1940s, and was almost totally dismissed, has no… promises no utopia, has no [positive] value to it at all, has become so self-evident today and dominant. At the same time, consumption… the age that you have, and the age that I have… we grew up in this. This is obviously one of the major traits of societies today. But you will not find this to be opening statements in books on work, family, religion, law. So this is what we started the book saying, for book one, saying “We live in a neoliberal era”, and the other book, by saying “We live in consumerist societies”. These are not the only traits, but these are very, very important defining traits of our societies today. How did this grow up? How did this occur? In the post-Second World War period, which was a rapid growth period after the Second World War, for about three decades, this is when Nation-State really developed into a welfare state. And what happened also in the economic level at the same time is that production, since the crash of 1929, could no longer pull the economy. That was one of the reasons behind the crisis. Marketing was invented, meaning “We need to create needs, and we need to create consumption, and then production will follow.” So when Max Weber is writing in the early 1900s about economy, he’s writing about a productive industrial economy. But that only applies in part today, because since at least the 1950s and 1960s, we’re living in post-industrial society in which it is no longer production that is pulling the economy, but consumption. And this type of society emerged slowly during the 1960s and 1970s, and really started to be dominant within people’s lives in the 1980s. The 1968 riots in California, May ‘68 in France… if you look at what is claimed, it was not as much of a political revolution as a cultural revolution, and the values of liberty and autonomy, those are also those of consumer capitalism. This was instilling itself. One of the theories, one of the hypotheses we have, is by the time Deng Xiaoping in China, deregulates the inner market, by the time that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan come in and start applying free market policies, it’s not just a question of “Okay, there were four crises in 1973, and 78”. It’s not just because of the inflation and all that. It became widely popular as  a way of governing societies, because people had become accustomed over thirty years of having an economic rapport to life. (15:00) That you can buy services, you can buy vacations, you can buy all these things. Even from the 1950s in the United States, what marketers have found out is that the economy does not function according to laws of… the laws of offer and demand. It has nothing to do with it, or very little in the end. What is driving is that it is no longer what the washing machine can functionally do, because there are seventeen or eighteen other brands that are doing exactly the same thing. It’s in the name of the things marketers, which… can’t remember his name right now… it’s what the washing machine will do for your soul. It’s not what car you will drive, it’s what this projects, how does this project or express who you are? Cigarette brands… Malboro was a woman’s cigarette until I think the 1940s. Then all the sudden they rebranded it, with the Malboro man and that become of the most successful brand name operation in the world. It has nothing to do with the product. It’s the fact that when you’re smoking Malboro’s, and today they rebranded it with more of a hipster content, you’re buying an identity. You’re not buying identity in a commodification way, you’re really, you’re buying signs, that you’re putting out towards the world saying who you are. If consumerism worked, it’s because of that. And because we’re modern individualistic societies, and what individualism is about is that you are unique. You are different than anybody else in the world. This is a radically new way to see, to conceive humanity, and to conceive subjectivity. It’s radically new. But how are you going to do that? In the 1900s, there was a romantic movement, in the elite aristocratic and literary elite could function within that ethos, but with consumer society, starting with the 1950s and 1960s, it got massified, then it meant that anybody could create his own self, in a way. Or at least, participate in certain identities and certain lifestyles, because people are good enough with their own liberty that they can really create their own look. You can only buy the clothes that are in the shops. Consumerism is all about choice, but, right now, if you want baggy jeans, you going to be looking for a long time for baggy jeans, better go to second hand stores, cause everything that is available is tight jeans. You see that it’s a choice, that’s always at the same time determined by what’s out there, and somebody determined this stuff.

So what we were basically saying is that you cannot separate neoliberalism and consumerism, because they work together, and you can’t understand the rise of neoliberalism if you don’t understand that it’s rooted also in the conditioning that being consumers, as the condition that’s happened within the social… and then we talked of other phenomena. The fact that we used to talk about governmentality in politics which meant authority, hierarchical structures, and taking political decisions and values into actions. Today, we talk of governance. Try not to use the word governance, which is more of a market model, horizontal, procedural, consensual way of functioning politically. That has come into the fore. And nobody today in political science writes govermentality, everybody writes governance. There is an ideology behind that, there is a shift, a huge shift in [imagining…]. And then take management, which today, universities, the economics and marketing schools in our university are by far the most populated, the most popular. They didn’t exist at the end of late 1970s. There was not marketer before 1995, I think, that was actually trained as a marketer. And today, it’s the very heart of our universities. We have to realize this, and this goes into, if you’re taught management, and massive parts of that, massive amounts of our contemporaries (20:00) are being trained in management, it makes you think in a management way. And this is why all the sudden you’re managing your stress, you’re managing your love life, you’re managing absolutely everything within your life and this in an economic way of viewing things. So what we’re trying to do with these books is say “You cannot understand what’s going on if you don’t link all this up. You can’t look at just public policies, and neoliberalism as a doctrine. You cannot look at it only philosophically.” It doesn’t help. It’s much more profound and anthropological, and it relates on every level going from high level policies at the UN, how this is implemented in how the world bank functions and all that. And in the very and most privatized aspect of everyday life, and how people choose how to dress every day, and how they decide on their consumption choices, because even the type of coffee you drink is a way of showing who you are.

HL: So, because obviously what we were saying earlier about the mix and match approach, which I’ve come across a lot, a lot of people talk about how religion, as you say, your choices are not, and they mean something, always, and they construct you as you are, and that’s why you have to put off weight on it, basically. Then religion is no exception. This has been noted by many scholars, that it is a big identity thing, as well as this kind of spiritual… you can choose, say you can do yoga, you can go to some nice Christian retreat, you can do all these things and that kind of also constructs your identity. But so, you’re saying that there is no mix and match. Could you elaborate on that?

FG: Absolutely, your question is excellent and it comes perfectly in mind with what I was saying before. Religion is not a thing, it is related to different contexts, different societies and different cultures. Shamans… shamanistic cultures in Siberia, I mean there are no spirits, there is no belief, there is no scripture, no god. There is just “how do we manage to kill elk?” It’s much more complicated than that, but it’s just to kind of open our mind to what religion is. With that consumerist shift, what’s happened is that religion has changed, but we’re so used to thinking of religion as being the church, or something that is separated within social sphere. The church is a certain place, there [are] certain people who take care of that, and there are certain times where you go. And it also relates to either a local level belonging and identity, and then national level of identity. We are so used to that that we think this is normal. But if you go back to a country like Quebec in the early 1800s, it was not like that. Catholicism wasn’t even important, that became important in the mid-1900s. So if it changed before, why can’t it change radically now?

HL: Exactly

FG: And so, if you get that perspective, you stop having to think about religion disappearing or coming back or whatever. Now, societies have changed and religious change is an important factor in that change. Today, religion has morphed into tribal belongings, lifestyle-type of belongings, mediated namely through the virtual sphere, but also the local level on a person-to-person basis in collectivity. These are overlapping levels. So religion has become less involved about correct belief and belonging to a set community, it’s more about ethics. ‘How do you live your life?’ If I’m a Muslim, I will eat halal, and avoid haram, and I will wear a veil if I’m a woman, and do this, and the five prayers. This wasn’t important in Islam, twenty, thirty, forty years ago. This was not important. This has become important since that economic shift that changes religion towards ethics and identity. (25:00)

So, your question was about the pick and choose. How do you analyze that? Many scholars have talked about this as being à la carte, people choose their religion, they mix and match this and that, it’s sort of light, it doesn’t have many incidences, and therefore sort of degraded form of religion. This is sort of what is involved in this kind of thinking. The subtext of this is saying that this type of religiosity is sort of not real religiosity. And the second thing that it is saying is that this is not structured, it’s fragmented, it’s incoherent, it’s amorphous. In the end, it doesn’t really make sense. Another line of argument, that sort of touches on to this, has been thinking of religion in economic terms. There is a religious market, and people pick and choose, and there are laws of offer and demand, and all this. The first narrative, the one that says that things are fragmented, and all this, basically, it’s trying to think within the same categories of what religion was before, and so what it is seeing it that it looks fragmented, because it’s looking with the eyeglasses of what it used to be. We’ve heard that loads in this conference. It’s been a huge debate and it’s starting to change. I think that there are new ways emerging, and I think that this conference is probably, in Turku, is probably one of the moments where the discipline is shifting. The other way, the second part that sees rational choice theory and that kind of salvation goods, or looking at the branding of religion, these are interesting insights, but when you look at what they really do, is that they completely lose specificity of religion and they treat religion as any other product, being a Mars bar or buying a vacation on Club Med, and nobody has ever asked the question “Is religion really that much of a product?” The basic flaw, and this has perhaps not been said enough, cause there’s been loads of debates on rational choice and even important people, intelligent people, have given rational choice way too much credit in my view. Rational choice must be absolutely avoided at all cost. Why? Because it’s not understanding this new way of religiosity, it’s not understating the relationship between a consumer neoliberal type of society, with respect to religious change. It’s interpreting religious change in economic terms. And it’s doing so saying that, basically, it’s always been the case. Well, I’m sorry. Yanomami religion, Siberian shamanism, 1930s Catholicism in Quebec, or Lutheran Christianity in Finland, did not… was not an economic decision of maximizing utility with the laws of offer and demand. It was not that. So the question is “Why did these theories emerge?” Actually, the theories emerged because we are in a economic driven society. This is the only thing that rational choice theories hint us. They tell us where we should be looking, we should be understanding that we don’t have to think religion in economic terms, we have to see how the society has changed, where economy is being structuring… has become structuring, and religion changes in rapport with this. What we’re proposing is a radical sidestep outside of rational choice.

And if I may pursue the line of argument that was crossing my mind… is that secularisation theory, meaning the decline of religion, the decline of social functions of religion, the privatization of religion within the private life, the separation from the public sphere, religion becoming a differentiated social sphere that basically has relationships with the rest of the social spheres, but that keeps to itself, this kind of thing. And then the debates on “Is religion returning?”. It went away and now it’s returning. Basically these debates have come to criticise secularisation theory in a way that I think, the great majority of sociologists of religion today (30:00) would sort of agree that secularisation doesn’t work anymore to think today. But nothing has emerged yet that can present itself as being the new paradigm. One of the problems is that we’ve been so scared of general theory, because the general theories we had until Parsons and Luhmann, and that kind of stuff, was basically trying to explain everything from theory. And so, it didn’t work with the facts and people rebelled against that. Today, we’re on a very contrary, we’re on the contrary of the 1960s, where, today, and that’s the question we get all the time, is that, “Yes, but what about specific local context?”. Well, of course there is a specific local context, but the problem is nobody’s thinking the link between the fact that yoga has become a major site of spirituality/religiosity today, in Western countries, and that Islam is totally reshaped by Islamic televangelists all over the world, including the Arab world and Indonesia, and that these televangelists are not religiously trained, they’re businessmen types. And Julia Howell was talking about that in the plenary this morning. And this is totally redefining Islam. Nobody connects these dots, and tries to show how this frames. Everybody’s looking at all the variegated aspects within national contexts, but nobody’s trying to grab that globally and transnationally and showing that, well, if you sidestep and look at things a certain way, all of the sudden, these things seem structured, all of a sudden you start seeing the links Burning Man festival, festivals of the Senegalese Sufis in New York. So, this is what we are attempting to do. We’re not saying it applies absolutely everywhere, because it’s tied to the logics of globalization, where has  the market, and where has the Internet and all that reached. Where Internet, the marketing and consumerism have reached, this is where you will find this type of change in religiosity. And this is not fragmented, this makes a lot of sense, this is very much structured. But then, it expresses itself in different parts of the world in amazing manners that are sometimes quite different, but at the same time sometimes quite similar. For example, these Islamic televangelists in Indonesia hired Texan Pentecostals to help them build their thing. So there’s more and more of these transnational movements that are all collaborating to structure religion in this new way.

HL: This is hugely interesting. I’m just listening in awe, I’m not even coming up with anything to say, really. I’m afraid we don’t have much time left and we have to close this interview. Pack it up. I have one more question, a question I tend to ask always. And that is what next?

FG: What next? Today, in Turku 2013 ISSR conference, I would say that what next is to not do once again the same normative and ideological mistake we did with the secularization theory. Secularization theory was bound to a certain type of religion, and to a certain way of seeing religion that was Christian-oriented. This way of looking at things devalued women, it didn’t look at what women we’re doing, but women were doing stuff, and devalued non-institutional phenomena as being irrelevant. What we’re saying today is that women are foremost in religious change, and that the non-institutional stuff is probably the most important today, and the institutions are changing in relationship to the non-institutional. So the secularization paradigm was stuck in modern ideologies, stipulating that religion was going to stay what it was, and therefore decline because there was modernisation equal non-religion. (35:00) There is a whole lot of debate around this. It’s an ideological frame that left a lot of stuff out, and what can we do with the “What now?” is “How do we avoid doing that again?” Obviously, any type of paradigm, any type of general theory of understanding the world will leave stuff behind. But you can try not to be too stupid about it, and in my view, one of the major challenges today comes from the idea of post-secularity. Post-secularity is the greatest threat to sociology of religion today. Why? Because it stipulates secularization, says it’s an after, first of all. Second, it’s it was coined by Habermas, who was a philosopher, and is mostly concerned with a rationalist and public-space bias. This is a philosophical discussion, it’s not a sociological description of societies. So it looks sexy, but actually it shouldn’t be a sociological concept. And another main thing is that in all of this discussion on post-secularity, at least most of it, the essential core if it… stays within the secularisation in the Nation-State frame, what things used to be, politics and religion being the two self-structuring… the two structuring spheres, and it does forget about economy. It says nothing about the fact that we live in consumer societies. Habermas has absolutely nothing to say about neoliberalism except the Frankfurt critiques of the 1960s. This has never thought of how consumption is different from production, it has not entered their mind, they haven’t thought the Internet out, and they’ve especially forgotten women and culture. So even if you are paying attention to economics and culture within this frame of post-secularity, you’re still continuing to miss what’s happening. I think what the challenges in “what now?”, is “Let’s try not to be as stupid. Let’s try not to be as ideological,” and let’s go into this very exciting period which is the redefinition if the paradigm through which we’re going to study religion. And of course, we think we’re right, saying that you must pay attention to the ideologies of neoliberalism, consumerism as an ethos, and the relationship of all this with hypermediatization and real time technologies, which in places like Africa, remote places of Africa, where they don’t even have normal telephone lines and electricity, they have cellular phones now. They have one set of pants, one set of shirts, and a cell phone. And so even the places that don’t seem like they are relevant to this type of analysis… you can ask the scholars on the field ,as I do, as much as I can, and this is relevant. This is very very relevant.

HL: Thank you very much. This has been great.

Citation Info: Gauthier, François and Hanna Lehtinen. 2013. “Religion, Neoliberalism, and Consumer Culture.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 7 October 2013. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/francois-gauthier-on-religion-neoliberalism-and-consumer-culture/

The Secularisation Thesis

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis (16 April 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson. Transcribed by Martin Lepage.


David Robertson: The secularisation thesis is probably the biggest central theme and certainly the most hotly debated in the sociology of religion, certainly since the 1960’s. Why is it so important and how has it changed? To talk to us today about this, we’ve got Professor Linda Woodhead, from the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Perhaps, you could just begin at the beginning with where does the secularisation thesis come from? Where does it begin?

Linda Woodhead: Actually, the origins of secularisation theory are coterminous with the origins of sociology itself. It’s absolutely fundamental to the whole discipline and all the great fathers of sociology – Weber, Durkheim and Marx – believed and expounded some version of secularisation theory. At the very heart of the social sciences, this belief that, as societies modernized, religion will decline. And each had a different way of explaining that. For Weber, it was primarily about the rise of scientific knowledge and it was about the application of rational standards, bureaucratic standards, in life more generally. He thought that that way of thinking and reasoning disenchanted the world, it cast out the magical, the religious. Durkheim had a rather different explanation of why religion declines. He thought that religion binds societies together, and he particularly thought that religion binds small groups together, and they meet face to face and celebrate the sacred. He thought that as societies modernized and urbanized, those fundamental bonds are broken, and religion is broken in that process as people move to cities and are individualized more. And Marx thought, of course, that religion would die out once you get the perfect socialist communist State. He thought it was a symptom of all that was wrong with society, a way of coping with the oppressions and difficulties of society. Once we realised the perfect society, you won’t need religion. In different ways, all of those classical theories are evolutionary or they’re progressive.

DR: I was going to ask that. Are they strongly tied to this notion of the gradual perfection of society and the move out of the darkness and into the light?

LW: They are really, and that’s a kind of, in a way, a blind spot of classical secularisation theory, in modern forms, that they didn’t really, perhaps… they weren’t sociological enough about their own background and presuppositions. This early crop of the classical theories, are all bound up with Nation-States developing, growing, extending their power and with their new elites, including academic elites, like the sociologists establishing their status. There was a kind of implicit optimism that the way that European society is developing is at the cutting edge of social evolution. So all societies are going to follow, so eventually everyone will become secular like we are. That’s never quite said, but that really does lie behind this theory. That we are not just talking about the tie of religion and particularities of here and now, we’re talking about an inevitable, inextricable process that everyone is destined to go through.

DR: That’s a critique of the narrative of modernization and westernisation anyway, that this is inevitable and even desirable motif. Maybe we can move on to the… I don’t want to call them the classical theorists, but the most famous describers of the secularisation thesis in the simple form that we know it.

LW: You could say that those classical sociologists, Weber, Durkheim, Marx, are sort of phase one of secularisation. And then there’s been a phase two. Phase two came in the wake of the Second World War, really. It was really flourishing in the 1970’s, and around about then. Again, it was very much European. In the UK, one of the chief figures was Brian Wilson, of Oxford University. (5:00) He fully endorsed secularisation theory, he gave it thoughts of new twists and explanations and interpretations. He particularly emphasised that secularisation is about the decline in the social significance of religion. He didn’t deny that some people were still religious, but he said “what’s changed, is that religion doesn’t have the same status in society. For example, politicians don’t have to refer to it anymore. They go on and do their business according to their own logic, they don’t take any notice of religion, whereas before the political ruler and religious elites would have to be in compensation with each other. He talked about that in every sphere, how religion ceases to be a point of reference in the public life.

DR: Perhaps you could clarify that, that sounds like the first development of the secularisation thesis, isn’t it? It’s one of the explanations for it, that it’s not that religion is going to completely disappear from society, rather it moves out of public sphere and into the private sphere.

LW: Yes. He thought that was that. You could still be devoutly religious, but it will affect you in your private life rather than when you go to work, or when you’re being a politician or wherever that might be.

DR: It’s not a disappearance of religion, it’s just a radical change in its function?

LW: Yes, the sociological term is social differentiation. The different spheres of society become autonomous. In law, you don’t refer to religion anymore, and in politics, likewise, and in education likewise. All these things become autonomous and they run according to rational secular standards, not by reference to religion. Wilson thinks he sees that happening very clearly in the UK and gives lots of examples of that process in various spheres.

DR: Were there any other interpretations of the secularisation thesis?

LW: There were lots of clarifications at that time. There was another very important contribution by a European, a Belgian sociologist, called Karel Dobbelaere, and he made what’s become really well used in his account, is a distinction between three levels of secularisation. He talks about secularisation at the societal level, the meta level of society; secularisation at the organisational level, and he’s thinking in part of religious organisation themselves declining, like the churches having fewer members or attenders; and then thirdly, secularisation at the personal level, where fewer people believe or their lives are less guided by religion. He says : “Don’t just talk about secularisation. What sort are you meaning, or what level of society? The macro level, the meso level or the micro level?” And he thought that it could happen at different rates in different parts. That’s quite compatible with Wilson’s theory, really. It’s another clarification of secularisation theory. But the most important current exponent, still in post, is, of course, in Scotland, and that’s Steve Bruce at Aberdeen University, who’s probably the most important defender of secularisation theory now, even though it’s waned very very much, it’s very much fallen out of favour in the last ten or fifteen years. Steve is a true believer still in secularisation theory and defends it very very strongly. He combines really particularly Durkheim and Marx. He thinks that it is about individualisation, the Durkheimian theory that societies break down and we don’t need that bond anymore, and he thinks it’s about rationalisation, the more Weberian account and he restates it, but in those quite classical terms, and he accumulates a lot of data, and the data mainly has to do with Churches in Europe. So it’s about the demonstrable decline in the number of people who are members, attenders, who had their child baptised, who have a Christian wedding. There are lots of statistics that support his case, that he regularly cites.

DR: That’s a weakness of secularisation thesis, isn’t it? That it’s based on a very strict model of what religion is, on an institutionalised Church model of religion. And it wouldn’t really translate to less institutionalised forms of religion, say New Age.

LW: That’s a very good point, and Steve Bruce would reply to you, because he is criticised for that point, by saying New Age isn’t really a religion. He would say it’s just what he calls it, cults. It’s the kind of… like an entropy, (10:00) when religion get less and less and less important to people and New Age is just the very end of that process. It doesn’t really matter to them, it doesn’t have a big effect on their lives, they don’t give a lot of money to it, they’re not really committed, it’s just a sort of privatised leisure pursuit. That’s how he tries to explain new forms of spirituality’s growth. Is that convincing from your point of view?

DR: Not convincing to me, but I can follow his argument. We could get into a big debate about whether or not… you could argue that something like New Age is a different form, a more individualised rather than an institutionalised model of religion, for instance, in which case secularisation would be a change in the form of religion, which would go along with an individualised privatisation model.

LW: But you could say, in criticism of someone like Steve Bruce, you wouldn’t, say you’re looking up modern communications, you wouldn’t get the statistics for how many people send telegrams from 1950 to 2012, and say, “Well, it’s completely declined, so people don’t use instant messaging anymore”. You’d look at what new forms have taken its place, so why just look at the churches? Of course some forms of religions grown declined over time, because religion is constantly transforming. So why say that’s the only true religion and nothing else counts? And I personally think that’s a major weakness of the secularisation theory, which is only… if we’re looking at something very specific, the decline of particular sorts of European Church that had close connections with the State, and they have declined their question. They generalized from that very particular story to religion as a whole.

DR: Which is a perfect link to the second major weaknesses, I think, of the secularisation thesis, which is, it’s very culturally and geographically specific.

LW: That’s a great point and that brings us to the USA, because you’ll notice that all the theorists I’ve been talking about are European. And Europe is in many ways the most secular part of the globe. America never produced secularisation theory in a significant way partly because, even though America was as modernised as Europe, it didn’t suffer the same decline of religion, even of church going or congregation, they have different kinds of churches in the States of course. So Americans didn’t really believe in it, in the way Europeans did.

DR: It was never really accepted?

LW: It didn’t have the same theoretical importance. It was accepted by many social scientists, but in the study of religion, there aren’t great theorist of it who contributed new developments. And since the 1980’s, the most important critics of secularisation theory have been Americans in the sociology of religion. First, Peter Berger and then Jose Casanova. Berger’s particularly interesting because he was a secularisation theorist. So his career has spanned right from the 1960s through to today, for much of that carrier, he went along with the European secularisation theorists. But his interpretation was different. He thought religion declines because it becomes less plausible when there’s not just one worldview. So if you’re a Christian and you just live in a Christian village near a Christian town, you’re going to believe it. But it becomes less plausible when you meet an Hindu and a Buddhist. That was his theory of why it declined in modern societies. But then he had a complete conversion, he changed his mind in the 1990’s, and he said… I brought a quote, it’s a good one. He said :

“My point is that the assumption that we live in a secularised world is false. The world today, with some exceptions, is as furiously religious as ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists, loosely labeled secularisation theory, is essentially mistaken. In my early work, I contributed to this literature. I was in good company. Most sociologists of religion had similar views and we had good reasons for upholding them. Some of the writing we produced still stand up. Although the term ‘secularisation theory’ refers to works from the 50’s and 60’s, the key idea can be traced right back to the Enlightenment. The idea is simple. Modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. And it’s precisely this key idea that turned out to be wrong.”

So a very strong change of mind, in his part.

DR: It’s rare to see a scholar doing that.

LW: It’s very rare and it’s particularly interesting. Then Jose Casanova had developed a very sophisticated theory of public religion which accepts that there’s differentiation, but it thinks religion continues to a public and not just a private role and he shows that (15:00) in relation to Poland and Spain and several other countries.

DR: Poland is a very good example. It’s obviously… the figures in Britain alone since the arrival of the Poles here shown a huge growth in church attendances. I think it was Casanova, I might be wrong, who argued that it was because the Church wasn’t identified with the controlling power but the Church was rather a revolutionary… that’s a bit strong, but… of the people, and that the Church hasn’t gone into decline in Poland as it has here. And where the Church is still seen as, perhaps, I think, cultural hegemony. I think those statistics have a very interesting thing to say about secularization.

LW: Yes, so the difficulty is to explain why the differential rates of secularization. Actually, I was going to come to the other kind of key figure who’s really the stand out figure in this whole story. He’s the one person who saw all this a long time before anyone else, long before Casanova or Berger, and that was David Martin, who’s an English sociologist of religion, still alive, retired now. In 1965, he wrote an essay criticizing secularization theory, and then in the late 1970’s, he wrote the famous book called A General Theory of Secularization. He didn’t completely throw it overboard, but he tried to refine it, and his point was just what you said. That it depends what role religion has in a particular society and what relationship it has to reactionary and revolutionary political power. So in a country like France, where all forces of liberalization and democracy who have opposed by the Catholic Church, you get a very very strong secularism. Because all progressive people want to overthrow this reactionary force. But, going across the Atlantic to America, where the churches were a force of democracy and liberation from colonial British rule, then religion becomes identified with those positive forces and it’s a very religious place. And he thinks he can do similar analyses across the world. So he rejected the general theory, an undifferentiated theory, long before anyone else. I think he gets sometimes slightly irritated today when everyone says “Oh, it’s a really great new theory!” He thinks “I was saying that forty years ago.”

DR: But it’s interesting that that’s, in that case, what we’re talking about really is a radical de-traditionalisation, particularly in Northern Europe. It’s a challenging of power bases and the decentralisation of power, and epistemological power as well, and in institutions rather than the other interpretation about the logic of religion not making sense.

LW: Yes, no, you’ve put it really raw, because the kind of general progressivist theories make it seem like it’s just a neutral historical process that inevitably happens, whereas people like David Martin say “No, look at the power relations here, there are power struggles going on. And what role is religion playing in relations to those struggles.” And I think that’s a much more interesting and convincing way of looking at it. And my own little contribution to this story in relation to the UK would be that a really important part of why secularisation theory was so powerfully developed here in the post-war period, was because of the welfare state settlement. The welfare state became a secular utopian kind of quasi-religious project. People really believed in the realization of a fairer and more just and equal society, symbolised by the National Health Service, which is a kind of sacred icon and the envy of the world. The doctor and the GP became like the parish priest, a trust-worthy father figure in the community. So you had a kind of secular faith.

DR: The NHS as sacred canopy then.

LW: In many ways, it was sacred. If you look at Harold Shipman, the murderer, the reason he killed so many people was that no one would believe that a doctor could behave like that, a bit like child abuse in churches. So there was such an alternative secular faith, such hope for that model, that religion became less important. Actually the churches played a big role, they threw in a lot with the welfare state (20:00) and tried to contribute to it. And that’s part of why there was the sense you didn’t need religion anymore. We found the right way to organise society. And as we lost a bit faith in that vision, people turned to religion again to find meaning and models of more just social order and so on. We’ve seen some pockets of interesting revival like the ones that you look at in Europe.

DR: So where does this allude to secularisation thesis? Is it still relevant to the study of religion?

LW: We can’t ever get rid of it, because it’s so engraved, for over a century, that everything we do is shaken by it. The questions we ask on questionnaires, the data we gather, the whole way we look at the world, it’s very hard to get rid of that framework, even if it’s not the most interesting framework anymore. But I think where it leaves us is, that we no longer think that it’s a purely descriptive neutral theory. We can see now that it belonged in a particular place and a particular time and it was ideological. It was a kind of faith in its own right, it supported a vision of Europe at the cutting edge of history of the secular Nation-State starting to take over a new role in society and so on. It was bound up with those very particular conditions, and in those conditions, it made a lot of sense of what was happening. But it’s not universally applicable timeless ahistorical theory.

DR: What I’m going to take away from this today is it’s a very good example of how we as scholars allow our ideologies or the ideologies of the culture that maybe we are not aware of to affect whole theories. When I started studying religions, the secularisation thesis was still essential part of what you learned and, yet, once you look at it, it kind of dissolves away, there was nothing really ever there.

LW: And people believed in it, that’s the right word.

DR: And argued furiously about it.

LW: And wrote passionately about it, because it stood for a certain vision of how society should be. It wasn’t just about interpreting the facts. It was always a bit more than that.

DR: That’s a perfect place to end, it’s absolutely fascinating. Thank you very much, Professor.

LW: My Pleasure.

DR: Thanks.

Citation Info: Woodhead, Linda, and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Secularisation Thesis.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.2, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-linda-woodhead-on-the-secularisation-thesis/

Invented Religions

What is an “Invented Religion”? Why should scholars take these religions seriously? What makes these “inventions” different from the revelations in other religions? What happens when an author does not want their story to become a religious text?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

In this interview with David, Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) answers these questions and more, exploring her notion of “Invented Religions” and introducing the listener to a wide variety of contemporary and unusual forms of religion. Discussion flows through a range of topics – from Discordianism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to Scientology, Jediism and the New Atheism – and demonstrates how the works of authors such as Thomas Pynchon and Robert A. Heinlein can be transformed by others and take on a life of their own. In her own words, “This is a fiction so good it should be true…”

[N.B., Carole asked us to let you know that when she said that George Adamski founded the Aetherius Society, she meant George King. Both Georges encountered Venusians in 1954, but Adamski was in the US and King in the UK. A forgivable error, we’re sure.]

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Of particular relevance to the topic of this interview is Carole’s article

Science Fiction as Scripture: Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and the Church of All Worlds in Christopher Hartney, Alex Norman, and Carole M. Cusack (eds), Creative Fantasy and the Religious Imagination, special issue of Literature & Aesthetics, Vol. 19, No. 2, SSLA, 2009, pp. 72-91. The full text is available here. If you have  access to the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, you may also find the following article of interest: Discordian Magic: Paganism, the Chaos Paradigm and the Power of Parody, International Journal for the Study of New Religions, Vol. 2, No. 1, May 2011.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Carole M. Cusack on Invented Religions (30 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson (with Chris Cotter). Transcribed by Martin Lepage.


David Robertson (DR): What if you choose to believe in a faith that you knew had been made up? And what if it worked all the same? That’s what Carole Cusack, Associate Professor of Studies in Religions at the University of Sydney, asks in her recent book Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith, and she’s with us today. Hi Carole!

Carole Cusack (CC): Hi David!

DR: So? Why should scholars take invented religions seriously?

CC: I think the best way into that query is to understand that human beings create, to some extent, their reality in the sense that they, as individuals and then in communities, tell narratives that make meaning, and they externalise those narratives, those narratives gain an objective status, and then, they’re re-internalised by individualized and communities as something that has facticity outside of simply being a human cultural production. That is a kind of summary of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s social-constructionist model of reality-building, and religion is a kind of worldview and people do precisely the same thing with religions when they join a religion, when they take on a religion: they learn new vocabulary, they tell new stories to each other, new converts or people who are drifting close to joining are told those stories and rehearsed in actions, and language, so that they come to be part of the community. Where I’m going with this is that even though the phenomenon of religion sort of based explicitly on narratives that are known to be fictional seem to date only from the 1950s, there is a sense in which every religion has been invented in some sense, even those religions that claim revelation from an external deity. What happens is a person, a prophetic or charismatic leader, has an experience and communicates that experience as narrative to a group of people who haven’t had that experience, and they story-build, and talk about it, and externalize it, and objectivise it and then re-internalise it, and it becomes true… for them. And this is one of the issues with invented religions, as I term them in my book that came out in 2010. They are cases where the narrative actually predates the religion. The person who founds the religion already has in their possession a narrative that has been written by somebody else, and they think that this fictional narrative more accurately represents spiritual realities, values, meaning-conveying issues in life, than existent scriptures, and determine that they will make from a fiction a document that becomes a scripture, or a myth, or a program for human spiritual development.

DR: It begins with Discordianism, really, doesn’t it, that’s the first of these invented religions?

CC: Well, Discordianism is an interesting case because it’s not actually based on a pre-existent fiction, but it does, I think, kick off the phenomenon. It’s technically founded in 1957, and consequently, it’s the earliest of the religions that I study. There are other examples that fit almost exactly into that same milieu. For example, the quite highbrow American novelist, Thomas Pynchon, in 1958, founded what he calls a ‘micro-cult’, with Richard Fariña, the late folksinger, that was based on a novel, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, and this was a very specific campus-based thing. One thing fascinating about invented religion is the extent to which students, university and college students, are the people who create these stories, create these faiths from pre-existent stories. Discordianism is Greg Hill, later known as Malaclypse the Younger, and Kerry Thornley, later known as Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst, sitting in a bowling alley with some of their friends, over a few nights, and coming up with the idea that the world as they understood it, which was very much a Cold War view, is just completely chaotic, and that if there is a deity, the deity is the deity of chaos, Eris, the great goddess of discord, called Discordia in Latin, and deliberately inventing a kind of farcical burlesque of religion based on this goddess. What’s most interesting about them is that even though they didn’t work from a pre-existing fictional narrative, they both went and some of the other very important contributors to the religion, like Robert Anton Wilson or Camden Benares, went through the same sort of processes. They both went through a process where they began knowing that they had made it up. But by the time they were speaking with Margot Adler in the middle 70’s, when she was writing Drawing Down the Moon, her pioneering study of alternative religionists in America, they both had come to the position that they realized that something that they thought was a fiction, that they had spun, was in fact a reality that was true. And this seems to me to be related, though not identical, to the process of picking up a pre-existent fictional text and attempting to instantiate it. To an extent, they are the authors of the fictional text. You could argue Principia Discordia was a piece of fiction they produced, and rather than waiting for someone else to pick it up and decide that it should be made into a religion, they gradually became auto-converted.

DR : And the other major invented religion that you are concerned with,the Church of All Worlds, they didn’t create the texts themselves, rather they appropriated some else’s text, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. How are they different?

CC: Well, firstly, Discordianism begins as spirit of parody, as spirit of really kicking out against the culture of the 1950’s. It begins in rebellion. It begins in the desire to mock and to even vilify religion as hypocrisy, as ridiculous. And it becomes, to some extent, serious though there is still a strong element of parody, and Discordians tend to be chameleonic, irreverent, very difficult to pin down. The Church of all Worlds, which began at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, in 1962, on the 7th of April, precisely, if you want. That was founded by two college students, Tim Zell and Richard Lance Christie, and in a lot of ways, they’re a brilliant contrast, to Hill and Thornley, because Hill and Thornley’s friendship broke apart over the years. They came to understand Discordianism very differently and to, in many ways, become bitter, and to become essentially broken through their experience of it. It’s significant, I think, that Zell and Christie were both psychology majors, and in fact, Zell went on to graduate work in psychology, which he didn’t finish. They formed a friendship that Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, as Tim Zell in now known, he says: ‘He was Spock to my Kirk.’ They speak when… Christie was still alive, he died in 2010… they spoke of each other in terms that were familial, almost lover-like, the idea that when they met each other as friends, as undergraduates, it was the true recognition of the other person in the universe that they’d been missing up to that point. And consequently, they had a very strong shared program for what this religion was going to look like. They both read Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which was released in 1961. They both fell in love with the book as they had with each other, and with psychology, and with certain ideas about world transformation. In 1962, what was formed was two branches. The Church of All Worlds, which was the religious arm, with Zell in charge. He was the early developer of liturgy and of praxis, mostly derived from Heinlein. And the waterbrotherhood called Atl, which Christie was in charge of, which became essentially an environmentalist project, an ecological project. And they kept those roles throughout the whole of the next forty-odd years, where Zell is the flamboyant religious leader, the Pagan, the magician, the trickster, the person who garnered public opinion and worked tirelessly as a promoter of the worship of Gaia as a religion, whereas Christie worked as almost entirely as a secular environmental activist, having done graduate work in environment science. So their religion doesn’t have a parodic element. It’s serious. It’s devotional. There’s playfulness there, but that comes largely, I think, from the sense that Heinlein’s own novel is full of playfulness, and the wholehearted rejection, especially of mainstream sexual morays, and wage slavery, and other kinds of ideas that were considered to be the successful life in the 1960’s, places CAW in that hippie drop-out rebellious camp, but it’s a rebellion that is not characterised by parody or by savage satire of religion. It’s rather a religion characterized by rejection of mainstream standards, and a religious vision, which actually is entirely serious.

DR: The element of satire comes back strongly with what you described as the Third Millennium and invented religions with… and they’re going further into things like Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster being outright attacks on religion, not just playful satires. Is there anything behind that change?

CC: That’s an interesting one and actually I think it’s important at this point to just refer for one minute to what Robert A. Heinlein said himself. He actually, even though he shares some values with CAW, i.e. he was into nudism, and polyamory, and he was politically very radical, sometimes very right wing, sometimes very left wing. He is absolutely non-religious, and he did not want his novel to be read as a religious tract. That’s quite interesting because it’s a novel that largely about religion, in various forms. But there is a notion that wants that once an author releases a story into the world… I started with storytelling in the way that humans use stories to world-build and to create identities. Heinlein released this story into the world and it was enthusiastically taken up by enormous numbers of mostly young people in the 60s. And in the early 1970s, Tim Zell began corresponding with Heinlein, and Heinlein subscribed to Green Egg, the newsletter that CAW published, and he always maintained, in fact, there’s passages in his published letters, that he doesn’t believe any of it, and he doesn’t really think that it was a great idea to turn his novel into a religion. But nevertheless, he came to like Zell and to find value in the way that he was appropriating this story and making the story live in a different way.

The Third Millennium new religion you just mentioned, the Church of Flying Spaghetti Monster, of course, it doesn’t start as a religion at all. It starts as a narrative that is a mockery, a very funny, and very clever mockery of intelligent design, the latest largely Christian repackaging of Creationism, which is very important in America, where issues about religion are so much more debated than they are in Europe or Australia, where I’m from. And of course, Bobby Henderson released that story into the world. He wrote The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an enormously funny book, and he created a mythology, he gave the FSM a noodle-y mess with meatballs for eyes as the creator of the universe. If you’re going to have to specify an intelligent designer, why shouldn’t it be the FSM? He created also a religion that would appeal to college students. Heaven has strippers and a beer volcano. So what happened of course was that people who read this and first thought what a hilarious piss-take it was, started saying exactly what Zell and Christie said about Stranger in a Strange Land: ‘This a is fiction so good, it should be true.’ So you have people starting sectarian branches of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the spirit of parodic religion, and Henderson has declined ever to be considered a prophet. But he’s also said he doesn’t really care what people do with it. He released it onto the market, people can pick it up and they can do with it what they want. And so you have the guy who publishes ‘Spaghetti-grams’, which are anagrams done on the computer, using the words ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ and say, for example, whatever issue that you want advice on… so ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster sexual morality’, and you get Spaghetti-grams, which are four line quatrains, arranged of anagrams from the letters that are available. This is a kind of divinatory advice. People who wear colanders, pasta strainers, on their heads as religious headgear, as a recent case in Austria where a young man requested that he’d be allowed to wear such headgear in the photograph featured on his driver’s license, was tried in the courts and found to be a valid religious headgear. And so the story is what’s important, and how people build that story into an identity formation, whether as an individual, or whether as a group who want to create a cell, a church, for the FSM in real life. And that’s very amusing and very good fun. And it does critique religion, but it critiques religion in an interesting way because, I think that scholars who, for a long time, have been comfortable with the idea that there could be religions that don’t have any gods, that in fact aren’t supra-empirical or supernaturally oriented, there are just really about what people do in their lives… this is not generally a view that the person in the street finds easy to accept. Usually, if you vox-pop, one of the first things you get, if you say ‘what do you think there has to be as a vital element to make something a religion?’, most people will say God or gods. But scholarship is very comfortable with the idea that religions are really about people, this is because scholarship is a secular activity. It’s not theology. It’s not confessional. We understand that human beings are makers of their own worlds. And so, those people who are making their religious world out of the Star Wars trilogy or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, they’re doing something that scholars are very comfortable with.

Chris Cotter: You’re raising very valid points which gel with my own work into the atheists, etc., and one of the big critiques that contemporary atheism or non-religion has of religion is that it is invented, and they spend an awful lot of time demonstrating that the Bible was written by people or this religion was just founded by some guys who wrote a novel or whatever, and they seem to think that this will make a difference. Does it?

CC: No… look, I think this is one of the great problems with atheism in the 21th century. I’m very sympathetic to atheist discourses and I think it is correct that they’re included among other religious discourses. But for me, the main problem is that atheists seem to think that if you can mount and knock down arguments that are based on either rationality or empiricism, the twin poles of the Enlightenment, that you won’t be able to make people realized that their beliefs or their practices are erroneous and should be abandoned, and it seems to me that this is entirely counter-intuitive. Human beings are capable of rationality, but very very few, even educated Westerners, operate consistently on principles of rationality, and you only have to look at statistics from the US, which often talk about the fact that people who have science degrees are very likely to be Creationists. Human beings have compartmentalised knowledges, issues of identity formation, and things that they considered precious and important, and these don’t often bleed into each other. So I’m afraid I think the atheist argument that you can demonstrate that religious texts were written by humans, or that you can demonstrate that the founder of a particular religion, like Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard, was in some sense a huckster or a fraud, I don’t see that these are important because they don’t take into account that the lived experience of people is more powerful to them than any kind of argument drawn from rational principles. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it seems to me that it is how it is.

DR: Scientology is a white elephant in your book, isn’t? Is that a deliberate decision so as to not get sued or… I can’t imagine that’s the case, knowing you… or was it rather that you considered them or don’t consider them to be in the same class as the other invented religions?

CC: Scientology is really difficult. It comes out of exactly the same milieu. The Church of Scientology is founded in the 1950s, 1954 to be precise, on the back on Dianetics, and yes, it contained science fiction tropes, and in the 21th century, what we know about it looks a lot like an invented religion. I am ambivalent about Scientology, because I don’t think it begins as an invented religion. It begins as a critique of psychiatry. It begins as a therapy. It begins as a… an answer to the problems of modern life, and it’s not surprising that when Dianetics was released, major psychologists like Erich Fromm actually reviewed it, and it was treated as a work of amateur psychology. What’s interesting about it is that it goes along exactly the same track as the theosophical legacy, because L. Ron Hubbard begins with clearing engrams that are experiences that ones has had in the past in one’s life. They the engrams go back to in utero, then they go back to past lives, and before you know what happened, these past lives may be on other planets involving extraterrestrials. This is in fact exactly what happens with theosophical ascended masters. Madame Blavatsky’s masters where real Tibetans living in Tibet, who were alive in her life. After she died, mediumship contacted people who were dead, people who lived in Ancient Egypt, mythical figures like the Comte de Saint Germain for people like Guy Ballard and before you know it, it’s people from other planets, Venusians like Orthon who speak to George King. These sorts of things are a logical extension. So in some senses, I would place Scientology in a post-theosophical therapeutic milieu. And I think, as we came to know as scholars, a lot more about the Operating Thetan levels, the Xenu mythology in particular made it look a lot more like an invented religion, but at the moment, I’m just not 100% sure that I would put it in the same category.

DR: Well, this is absolutely cutting-edge research. Has anybody taken up your research and challenged it or taken it further?

CC: The interesting thing is that it’s evolving so fast, I’m not quite sure. I came up with the term ‘invented religions’, but I really wanted emphasis to be placed on the subtitle, which was Imagination, Fiction and Faith, ‘cause I think the human imagination creates the stories, the stories are fictions, people come to have faith in them, I think that’s really important. But very, very shortly before I completed the book, I met Markus Davidsen, who’s doing his PhD at the University of Leiden and the University of Aarhus, and he is working on what he calls ‘fiction-based religions’, because he’s working on Jediism and spirituality and religious groups that have grown out of the Tolkien mythos. I thought in some sense that was a better title. We discussed this privately and he went for ‘fiction-based religions’ because he thought that all religions are invented, which was where I started today. And I could see the sense of that, but then we linked up with Danielle Kirby, who’s at Monash University and who did her PhD on the Otherkin, and she argues that ‘fiction-based religions’ is no good because it’s too passive a term, and what we’re really looking at is a kind of actively constructed type of new spirituality, that… you need the dynamism of invention and you need the content of fiction, but what we’re still looking for now is a better term to characterize these groups. That being said, I’ve had very favourable email contacts from mostly Discordians and members of the Church of All Worlds, including Oberon Zell-Ravenheart who actually helped me a lot with the research that I did in that book, and they are very comfortable with my term ‘invented religions’. But these, of course, are not people within the academy and I think it’s within the academy, that the category, that area, whatever you want to call it, is going to be developed and refined, and that’s happening, it’s just not quite clear where it’s going to go yet.

DR: Professor Cusack, thank you.

CC: It’s been a pleasure.

Citation Info: Cusack, Carole M. and David G. Robertson, with Christopher R. Cotter. 2012. “Invented Religions.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-carole-cusack-on-invented-religions/

Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion

The cognitive study of religion has quickly established itself as the paradigmatic methodology in the field today. It’s grounded in the concept that religiosity is natural because it is well adapted to the cognitive propensities developed during the evolution of our species. In this episode, Professor Armin Geertz tells Chris why it deserves its prominent profile, and how it is developing.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

What we’re learning from the cognitive study of religion.

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference in Budapest in September 2011. Out of necessity it was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Armin W. Geertz on Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion (23 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by Christopher R. CotterTranscribed by Travis W. Cooper.



Chris Cotter (CC): Today we are joined by Professor Armin Geertz of Aarhus University. He’s the head of the Religion and Cognition and Culture Research unit (or RCC) in the section for the study of religion. There’s a new book series coming out of this unit with Equinox, called Religion, Cognition, and Culture and Armin is the editor of the series. And volume one is called Religious Narrative: Cognition and Culture and due for publication next month. We’re going to be talking about cognitive approaches to the study of religion. Welcome, Armin.

Armin Geertz (AG): Thank you, Chris. I’m very happy to be here.

CC: Good. A lot of our listeners really won’t have any idea about what “cognitive approaches to the study of religion” are; I suppose the first thing we should start with is, what does this “cognitive” word mean—what is cognitive science at all?

AG: Yes, yes. Actually, it’s not a very clear area because there are many approaches to the cognitive—in the cognitive sciences. But basically the idea is that we have a… we have universal capacities of the mind, with universal constraints. We’re not born as blank slates. We’re born with certain attitudes and certain ways of understanding and dealing with the world, even as small babies. Babies are geared to get into—to plug into—a social group and to become attached to important figures and it’s the study of those processes, mechanisms, and constraints in our brains and in our minds that are perhaps the core of the cognitive sciences. One can say that the cognitive sciences became important for the cognitive study of religion around 1990 with the publication of a book by E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley, called Stewart Guthrie who already introduced the cognitive theory of religion a long time ago, in the eighties. And he’s had also a decided influence on the cognitive study of religion, the cognitive science of religion, as it’s called. One of the things that is a problem in the cognitive approach to the study of religion is that we’re not completely in agreement about what cognition is.  

CC: Okay.

AG: And it’s not only us. It’s also cognitive scientists that are in disagreement. Some consider the mind to be a kind of advanced computer based on formal, logical procedures, getting information, getting data, and analyzing the data and turning it into useful information for us to get on in the world. Others, however, have been pointing out—and especially recently, and especially because of an interest in the mind by neurologists, by brain scientists—that the brain is not simply a computer and is not simply a machine that deals with information. The mind is in a body and it’s in a brain, which means that the functions of the brain in the body have a decided influence on our cognition and our minds. It’s our very foundation, and much of the way we look at the world is based on the way our bodies move in the world. It’s also considered to be situated in a sense that we are in a group—we are in a social group—and certain situations and our way of understanding the world is based on our relationship to the group. It’s also… there are also others who consider cognition to be extended. In other words, the way our minds work is put out into the world—exuded into the world. And we surround ourselves in the world with cognitive structures that help us think and help us survive in the world. Archaeologists are also very interested in improving the—our—understanding of cognition, where they are claiming, quite rightly that objects, material objects, are extremely important for our cognition. Not only to help us in the world but to influence our very way of thinking. You’ll notice small children, babies, already grabbing at things and trying to understand and manipulate with objects. And just that fact in itself is helping to develop the neural networks in the baby’s brain, and making the baby a socially competent and cognitively competent creature.

            So there are many understandings of what cognition is. And one can say that… because the focus is on the mind, scholars have the tendency to downplay cultural systems, cultural ideas, [and] cultural assumptions and values, as being secondary to our cognitive abilities. And this is where there are many who are doing—and we are as well, in our research unit, Religion, Cognition and Culture—that we need to reintroduce culture as an important causal factor in human cognition. In other words, that culture is not secondary. You can’t take culture away and just study what is left over; it’s impossible. Mainly because we are cultural creatures. And we are cultural creatures who have become cultural creatures long before homo sapiens even showed up on the scene. So earlier hominids were also deeply cultural. So it’s very difficult for us to design experiments where you can kind of ignore the cultural factor. What people claim are cognitive constraints, in other words, frameworks for understanding the world around us and also setting limits for how we think about the world—they could just as well be cultural constraints that have been so deeply embedded in our minds and in our bodies, of course, that they seem just as intuitive as cognitive procedures. This is something we’re still arguing about, but it’s a friendly argument. We agree that there are bottom-up procedures and there are top-down procedures and we need to take both into serious consideration if we want to understand the human mind and our human cognitive abilities.

            So what you can conclude is that the cognitive science of religion is based on the cognitive sciences, and on experimental psychology, with a specific interest in religious thought.

CC: Okay. Very stimulating introduction there…

AG: Thank you.

CC: You mentioned we and you mentioned anthropologists and archaeologists and then scholars of religion and then presumably we have neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, in there there as well. How does one juggle these different disciplines? I mean, presumably, you have scholars working with you who are mainly from the study of religion and how do they learn all this cognitive science and do you have to work with other people, and if you do, how does that dynamic work?

AG: Right, yes. We have a coalition at my university that’s called Mind Lab. And Mind Lab consists of scientists from the natural sciences, primarily the neurosciences and health sciences, people working with pain at the pain research center at Aarhus [University]. We have scholars from the psychiatric hospital, psychologists, physicists, statisticians, people studying music, and a whole array of people in the humanities. And of course, my particular group is focusing on religion. However, we have an extremely stimulating cooperation with our colleagues in the other sciences. The bearing idea—the founding idea—of Mind Lab is that we try to apply the natural sciences on age-old human problems, age-old philosophical and religious problems. By doing this it requires that we work in teams because if you’re going to, for example, perform an experiment with a brain scanner, you definitely have to work with people who understand a brain scanner and who also can handle all of the enormous data that comes out of the scanning. You need a statistician for that. And you need to talk with experimentalists who can help you interpret the data that’s come out of this brain scan. So you’ll find that a lot of the articles that we’ve been publishing in the major journals in the neurosciences, and psychology, and other journals… we have a whole list of authors, sometimes five or six authors. And the first person might be a scholar of religion—usually is—and then the one’s that follow will be the specialists who are part of the team in helping perform this experiment. Now, the trick is to get people in the natural sciences and the health sciences to become interested in what we’re doing. And fortunately, religion has been brought back on the agenda on world affairs so that many scientists are puzzled and neuroscientists are puzzled and they’re wondering, “What is it that moves people to do what they do in the name of religion?” The problem for them is that they don’t know very much about religion. If they do, it’s their own particular religion if they happen to have one. So therefore, it’s an ideal situation that we have specialists who know about religion, who know about the history of religions and are experts in particular religions, working together with neuroscientists who want to help us think experimentally. So it requires a lot of patience and graciousness on behalf of both the humanists and the natural scientists. And fortunately we have that situation at my university and the government has funded our coalition and important results are coming out of it.

CC: Thanks, very much. Anything which gets academics talking to each other is going to be a good thing.

AG: Yes, indeed. Yes.

CC: So you’ve spoken a bit there about why neuroscientists, etc., are interested in helping the study of religion. So I’m wondering—this is quite a big question—but what are the benefits to the study of religion, of using this, we’ll say more scientific—maybe I shouldn’t “more scientific”—but this more traditionally science-based approach?

AG: Alright, yeah. Well there are at least two advantages. The first advantage is that through this cooperation with the natural sciences we may be able to test theories and hypotheses that we’ve developed in the human approaches—the humanistic approaches to the study of religion—empirically. Of course, you can go out and do fieldwork, you can ask people, you can observe people, you can use questionnaires and so forth and get statistical data and all that. But sometimes there are assumptions, especially assumptions about the psychological capacities of religious human beings, where you need to test—you need to experiment—to gain empirical access indirectly, you might say. Of course, experiments are not—it’s not a natural situation. But they can open the possibility that you could find support for, or maybe not support for a particular hypothesis. So it’s hypothesis driven. And in that sense, it’s important for us in the humanities to try to think, to rethink, or to attempt to approach our subject in ways that we had not thought of before. So there’s the empirical aspect. That’s the one aspect, the one advantage, the experimentally empirical approach. The other one is the whole methodology involved, that it’s a new—it’s a supplement to our toolbox of methods, where we have the more traditional methods, which are still highly relevant: studies of texts, studies of archaeological sites, using various approaches such as iconography or semiotics or structural analyses or philological analyses of the expressive side of religion. And on the other hand we have a whole array of methods for studying human behavior: the social sciences, and ethnography, anthropology. And now the new ones that have shown up: the neurosciences, psychology (has of course always been interested in religion, at least for the past 150 years). And then the third toolbox, you might say, is theoretical reflection: philosophy, theory of—philosophy of—science, and theories of religion and religious behavior. So it’s a supplement to our toolboxes. However, it’s a very technical supplement, where you need to understand statistics and you need to understand how to use this new hardware that’s been showing up. I mean, a brain scanner is a big thing and it’s very expensive and you have to go to the hospital and perform your experiments there. So it requires some kind of insight. And there we need, of course, the help of our specialist colleagues. But there are those two advantages. The empirical advantage: Can we test some of our most cherished ideas and philosophies about religion? And the other is: Can we think in another way in relationship to our topic?

CC: Okay. Talking about empirically testing religious ideas, experience, etc., I’m sure our listeners would be interested if you had an example of just how you construct a scientific test of something religious.

AG: Right. One of the things that—the basic procedure is that you have a theory. You have a theory about, maybe, let’s take an example from one of the experiments that we’ve been working on: the topic of prayer. Prayer is a very simple procedure. It is not necessarily connected to a specific situation; you can pray anytime, anywhere, and this is an advantage if you want to put people into a brain scanner because they have to lay very still; they can’t move their heads. The machine is noisy so you have earplugs. You cannot talk; you have to think. You can be shown pictures, for example, and the machine will be recording where the blood is flowing in your brain as you look at these images, but in order to get something meaningful out of it you have to have some kind of a contrast. Because basically, what these kind of approaches involve is that you have a control and then you have the experimental aspect and you subtract from the two. And what’s left over gives an indication of what brain areas are active.

            So our hypothesis was that prayer, as simple as it is, is also very complicated. It’s not only the words that are being spoken, it’s not only the message that’s being sent or received; it’s also behavior, and it involves both the brain and the body. Emotions can be very much connected to prayerful behavior. So our hypothesis was that prayer, simple as it is, is very complicated, and we hypothesized that types of prayer will stimulate different areas of the brain. And the reason we’re doing this—the theory that’s behind it—is that we seriously doubt this claim that’s being spread around, assumed by several neuroscientists and others, that there are specific areas of the brain that are dedicated to religious experience. We’re not convinced by their experimental results, we’re not convinced by their experimental designs, and we do think that there are religious agendas that are behind it all. At least there are religious organizations that are financing these particular experiments. So what we’re claiming is that the brain is a multipurpose organ, where there are no specific—well, let’s say besides the senses and the body—there are no dedicated areas of the brain. So for sight, there is a dedicated area; for hearing, there is a dedicated area, and so forth. But for religious behavior and thought, there is no dedicated area. This is our claim. So, taking this simple, human action of praying to a divinity or to an ancestor or to a spirit, we claim that this is, as a matter of fact, quite complicated, and draws on areas of the brain that are used in other ways.

            And we designed the experiment so that as the participants lay in the scanner, they were asked to “think” a prayer. And we have four things, well actually, five things that they were asked to do. They have to think The Lord’s Prayer. We’re talking about Protestants—young Protestants—from conservative Protestant groups who believe in prayer, believe in the power of prayer, and believe that they indeed have contact with God when they pray. We ask them to think the Lord’s Prayer in a thirty-second slot. Or “slice,” as we call it, which fits the physics of a brain scan. And then the next slot, which, of course, depend on—it wouldn’t be a particular sequence, but at least four. The next one might be, “We would like you to think a personal prayer”. And then we would ask, “We would like you to think a nursery rhyme.” And the fourth would be that “We would like you to think up wishes to Santa Claus.” And the idea behind those four types is that we have different styles, okay. The Lord’s Prayer is more automatic, and more abstract; the personal prayer is more personal and there are two different kinds of activities. And we were then comparing them with similar activities that are not religious. So the nursery rhyme should stimulate the same areas of the brain as the Lord’s Prayer. And wishes to Santa Claus should, in principle, stimulate the same areas as personal prayer. (It turns out that these religious individuals don’t believe in Santa Claus so it was a little bit difficult for them to take it all seriously.)

            But anyway, the results came out, anyway—very interesting results and statistically significant results—that when our participants were asked to think the Lord’s Prayer, it was their more abstract areas of the brain, up in the prefrontal areas of the brain, that were being active. And the same with nursery rhymes. When they were asked to think personal prayer, the areas that were stimulated in the brain were those areas that are well known in brain sciences as the social cognition areas, in other words, when you are communicating with other human beings. So the conclusion would be that the Lord’s Prayer is abstract, not quite as personal. It might be due to the rhythm because we find the same areas stimulated by nursery rhymes. We also found that it might have to do with expectations of reward because it turns out that the particular area that’s being stimulated is an area that’s known for reward expectation. It’s known for the production of a particular brain chemical that’s called dopamine. It’s also an area that has been experimentally shown to be stimulated when you trust someone. So we’re thinking and concluding that perhaps it’s an expectation of a reward from God or from whatever being that they’re praying to, that’s being stimulated, or it might be simply because of the rhythm. We can’t decide. We can only go so far. The other one—the other result about social cognition—is very interesting because it shows that people are more moved in personal matters by a personal deity, probably conceived of as like a human-like creature, rather than this abstract, all-knowing, omnipresent creature that theology is reflecting on. And it also indicates that what defines us as being humans, as being social creatures, is at play when we are praying to a deity or to a greater creature.

CC: I’m just going to ask another couple of questions.

AG: Yes.

CC: Time is getting on.

AG: Okay.

CC: But what you were just saying there, that basically, what I understand is that as far as the brain’s concerned, when we’re talking to a deity—whether or not that deity exists, we’ll not comment on that—it’s like we’re talking to another person.

AG: Exactly.

CC: So in that sense, how do you find your research—this particular bit of research or cognitive sciences in general—are taken by religious individuals. You need them—you need people who are religious to participate in your experiments. So how do they react to your research?

AG: Yes, a very good question. It’s a very complicated situation to perform experiments with religious people because we of course must—we have respect for their religious beliefs. We’re not trying to disprove the existence of God or to disprove the effects that they claim that a religious behavior has. On the contrary, we want to try to find out what human, bodily, brain, and psychological mechanisms are involved in these… in their religious behavior. The press, however, has a completely different take on it, and they think that we’re proving or disproving. As a matter of fact, when we first published the experiment that I’ve just described to you, we got reactions from atheists who said, “Now you’ve proven that it’s just humans that are just thinking the way they usually do.” And we got supportive mails from religious people who were saying, “Now you’ve proven that God has given us the ability to communicate with him and it’s so much like being human that it’s quite natural.” And the fact is, we haven’t proven anything. What we’ve done is we’ve supported a particular hypothesis. Which can always—the part of doing science is that you present your results among your peers and they, then, if they think this is interesting, they might either move on, using some of the results that we have presented, or they might want to try to replicate what we’ve done. And if it’s conceivable that a team who would want to replicate our experiments would say, “Well, we couldn’t replicate your experiments so it doesn’t support your hypothesis.” So we always have to be open to the fact that our results are open to debate, and criticism, and negotiation.

            The people who participate, who are so kind and willing to help us in the experiments, of course have their own agendas. They’re not interested in our hypotheses and so forth. Although in some way, I think, it’s important for everyone, whether they’re religious or not, to understand what science is doing and understand what it can contribute to human life. But besides that, our religious participants, of course, are interested in showing that religious behavior helps. It helps in personal situations; it helps in social situations, and so forth. And they, of course, are also interested in finding out, how does that work, actually, physiologically. How does it work? So we share our results with them. We are very careful not to over-interpret our data, rather under-interpret rather than over-interpret, and making sure to deal with the press in a reticent manner so that there isn’t rampant claims about religious areas of the brain or religious activity or anything like that.

            Our young people, our team, consists of young scholars: Ph.D. students, post-docs, young established scholars who have done excellent fieldwork. Who understand reciprocity; who understand you have to give in order to receive. And they attend the religious services of the people that they ask to participate in their experiments and attend in other activities, social activities, and so forth. This is the way human beings deal with each other; you try and make a connection and you give and take. And they’ve done this; they’ve done it quite well. So we have people coming back to help us with our other experiments. So that’s the positive aspect. Of course there are people who are afraid and who maybe are afraid that we’re out to disprove something. But we’re always clear on that fact; we’re not trying to disprove anything.

CC: I’m afraid that we are out of time, so we we’ll have to call it a day, there. But thank you very much, Armin Geertz.

AG: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

Citation Info: Geertz, Armin W. and Christopher R. Cotter. 2012. “Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 January 2012. Transcribed by Travis W. Cooper. Version 1.1, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-armin-geertz-on-cognitive-approaches-to-the-study-of-religion/

The Phenomenology of Religion

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on What is Phenomenology?

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Cox’s latest and most complete work on the subject is An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (2010), published by Continuum. A review which questions his relating phenomenological and cognitive approaches by Paul Tremlett in Culture and Religion 11/4 (2010) is available here. Also recommended is his earlier A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion (2006), also published by Continuum. His 2008 article from DISKUS, the BASR journal, “Community Mastery of the Spirits as an African Form of Shamanism” applies the phenomenological method to certain African practices in order to argue for Shamanism as a universal  categoryIf you are interested in what Professor Cox had to say about the development of Religious Studies more broadly, we heartily recommend From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions (Ashgate, 2007). It is simultaneously an account of colonial contact with indigenous religions, a history of how scholars have conceptualised religion, and an attempt to create a new definition of “religion”.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with James L. Cox  on The Phenomenology of Religion (14 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. RobertsonTranscribed by Martin Lepage.


David Robertson: The phenomenology of religion has been one of the most influential approaches to studying religion in recent decades. To discuss it, we are joined today by professor emeritus James Cox of the University of Edinburgh, who is the author of An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, a guide aimed at students and the general reader. So Professor Cox, what is the phenomenology of religion?

James Cox: Well, the phenomenology of religion caries a rather philosophical title because it’s rooted in philosophical phenomenology in effect, probably developed out of thinking of the late 19th century and early 20th century, where the study of religions was just beginning to develop in the comparative sense. So, in the late 19th century, for example, when missionaries had gone around to various parts of the world, bringing back tales and stories of other religions than Christianity, it became apparent that scholars and theologians particularly needed to develop some kind of theory about the relationship of Christianity to the other religions. So in the late 19th century, they developed essentially the comparative study of religions and comparison was done fundamentally from a Christian theological perspective; a liberal perspective in the sense that the scholar would begin to compare different aspects of say Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam with Christianity in order to show how Christianity is really the pinnacle of these religions. This developed into a kind of reaction, I should say, by certain scholars as they got into the 20th century, that the study of religion, although very much still rooted in Christian ideas and Christian thoughts, was regarded as something a bit more not just comparative in the sense to show Christianity is superior, but in fact to show how the different religions could be compared according to typologies. So, for example, the typology of sacrifice was a very common idea. Sacrifice seemed to be appearing in all religions of the world : in India, in Africa, in Asia and certainly in Christianity with the Eucharist being essential sacrificial meal. Sacrifice became a typology that was compared and then ideas like certain kinds of rituals, life cycle rituals, for example, seem to be universal in all these religious groups. So as comparative study of religion developed, it developed a sort of typological approach. That’s one aspect that led into what I should call the comparative study of religions from a less theological perspective than was originally developed in the late 19th century. Then, you have the philosophical development, which is really associated with the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl was, well, the founder, you might say, of philosophical phenomenology. And his problem, that he saw in the intellectual sphere, at the time, was the problem of what he called the natural attitude. That is to say, with the development of science, and what’s called positivism, that is, the naïve idea that what we see is exactly what is. And therefore the study of the world is a sort of compartmentalization, a kind of breaking down of the component parts of the world, putting them into certain kinds of categories so that we can study them in a way that is based on observation, being the fundamental tool for what you might call the… justification or… the validation of knowledge. Husserl said the natural attitude displaces consciousness. That is the role of the consciousness, the intentional active role of the consciousness in apprehending reality. What he wanted to do was to set aside or bracket out, he used the term epoché, which is to bracket out [what are] naïve or unexamined assumptions (5:00) about the world. The fact that we’re sitting in this room, and I assume it is an objective room, you’re an objective person, there are objective photographs or pictures on the wall or window and so on, as if it is just given. But Husserl said no, the consciousness needs to say “okay, let’s put this into brackets” and began to think “What kinds of influences affect my consciousness?” So, of course, I have lived in this room for the past thirteen years, I’ve lived in it, it’s been my office for the last thirteen years. I have lots of memories associated with this. Also I’ve collected loads of books and boxes, which means that the view that I’m having of the room now is different from when I first came here. Or if I look out the window I see entirely different perspective from what you see looking at me, or I looking towards my filing cabinet, for example. Anyway, the whole point was that one should bracket out these assumptions about the world and begin to understand the relationship between the consciousness and the apprehension of the objective world. Anyway, that’s quite a lot of background in terms of how the comparative study of religions came in to play, and then the notion of the philosophical epoché. Now where does this put us then in terms of, say, the early to mid-20th century of the study of religions? Certain scholars, particularly Dutch scholars, for example Gerardus van der Leeuw was one, W. Brede Kristensen who was his teacher, and followed also C. J.  Bleeker who was at Amsterdam. These Dutch scholars began to say “Wait a minute! What are the assumptions that are informing the study of religions?” One, we have the theological assumptions, the superiority of Christianity, which I’ve already talked about. This needs to be bracketed out, we need to set this aside, use Husserl’s notion of the epoché. But we also have the scientific interpretation, and the scientific interpretation was largely that we can assign status or priority or value to religions according to an evolutionary scale. So you have lesser-developed religions, such as the primitive, the primal, the animistic religions. And then you have, developing up, more polytheistic religions, and from polytheistic religions, you then move towards the more monotheistic, ethical monotheistic and Christianity being the pinnacle. And some scientists thought, beyond Christianity, then, is science, the end of the evolutionary scale of humanity. So you move out of religion towards science. Well, the phenomenologists, particularly Kristensen and van der Leeuw, but also Bleeker, argued that what should happen in the study of religions is that these attitudes, these assumptions, should also be bracketed out, they should be put in abeyance, they should be suspended, or employ the epoché. So now you have theological priorities, theological gradations of religions being bracketed. You have scientific gradations or levels of religion being bracketed in order to do what? That the phenomena can speak for themselves, which is Husserl’s word. “Let the phenomena speak for themselves” and the phenomenologists of religion said “Let the phenomena of religion speak for themselves”. And this meant studying, describing, understanding and incorporating the perspectives of believers. So that at the end of the day, the phenomenologists of religion can say “We have entered into the religious phenomena, including believers. We have attempted to suspend our judgments about their truth or value, their relationship, their gradations, their… sort of priorities of ranking of religion and we have allowed the phenomena of religion to speak for themselves.” Then, you could begin to do the classifications; then, you could begin to say “Alright, now we can begin to identify these typologies, now we can say not gradating them or ranking them but say “How does myth, for example, a cosmogonic myth, operate in Hindu tradition, or Buddhist traditions, or African tradition, or Christian or Jewish or whatever tradition. And this was intended to lead ultimately to understanding religions.

DR: So the phenomenology of religion, if I’m understanding, is essentially a method by which… an inherently comparative method that prioritizes the experience of religion… perhaps you could outline for us how (10:00) you would go about applying this method practically?

JC: Well, yes, okay, I can tell you how I did it when I was doing fieldwork in Zimbabwe. I’ll take one example of a ritual that I observed, which was a rain ritual in a chief’s region. I went to the ritual, I didn’t have a lot of background preparation, because when I went out to the area, I was with the chief’s son. He said “We’re going to go to attend various rituals which were in the area. But there is an important ritual taking place which was for rain ritual.  Now the gist of the ritual was this, that the ancestors, according to the Shona traditions of Zimbabwe, are responsible for providing rain for the community and the larger community in a sense, because it covered quite a wide area. In that year, which was 1992, there was a drought, a terrible drought. This ritual took place at the end of the rainy season, which was unusual. Now, in the ritual, they took some time, about ten or twelve hours, this ritual taking place. But the center of the ritual was the possession of a spirit medium by the chief’s ancestor spirit. During this event, the medium became possessed, she became the man, the doumda (11:23) spirit, she dressed in traditional attire, with a eagle feather hat and an animal skin skirt, a walking stick, she was a man, she was the ancestor, the man spirit of the chief. At one point in the ritual, I, who was an observer, of course I know I wasn’t unaffected or not affecting the ritual, she called the chief’s family down, underneath the tree and she began talking with them. And she called me down as well at one point, and she said something to me in Shona. I didn’t understand precisely what she said, but I clapped my hands in the traditional way, shook her hand, and, in a sense, I was involved in the ritual, not equally with the community that I was there… so what I had to do then, in my own view is that, I think, personally, that rain does not, could not be caused by ancestors. Rain could not be caused by God either. Rain is an atmospheric condition, and in that area, when the what they call the inter-tropical convergence on works that is the warm air from the north and the south meet then rains occur. When they don’t converge, rains don’t happen. What I had to say, if I was to really understand the ritual in the phenomenological method is to say “Okay, these scientific assumptions I have about how rain is produced need to be bracketed, suspended, put into abeyance, not given up, because I believe that rain occurs according to scientific explanations. But in order to understand what was going on, I needed to put that in brackets and enter into. And in my descriptions, when I wrote about this, I tried to be as descriptive, as impartial as possible, explaining what happened. And then, after describing it, I then tried to interpret it, to try to find certain kinds of connections and meanings to it. And in the end I interpreted it, not so much, you might say, religiously, if you might used that term, but I interpreted it politically and sociologically, to do with the status of the chief and his relationship to the Zanu-PF, Mugabwe’s government, and so on. But in other words, I gave an interpretation of it, but only after I had suspended my judgments, described and tried to understand what was going on.

DR: One of the most interesting aspects for me of the phenomenological method as you describe it in your book is the final stage of eidetic intuition. Perhaps you could describe…

JC: Yeah that’s the most controversial part of the whole method, I think, and this is largely where phenomenology has gone, I think, out of date, and isn’t really accepted so much in the sense that the eidetic intuition was intended to be that the scholar of comparative religions… I mean, I’ve given an example of one Zimbabwean ritual. So now I get this ritual, compare this ritual, I look at other Zimbabwean rituals, then I begin to say “Okay certain patterns develop in these rituals, we can see certain things occurring… beer poured as libations to ancestors, and so on; the centrality of ancestors, the idea that ancestors carry messages to higher ancestors, and so on. And you build up this sort of idea of what the sort of Shona religious experience is about. (15:00) Then, you say “Okay, now, how does this compare to rituals, which are rituals, in this case, a crisis ritual, that might occur in an other society?” A crisis ritual, for example, of illness, when somebody is ill, in a Christian sense, and a priest is called, prayers are made to try to effect a cure or a healing within this person. And you say “Okay, now we have two different types of crisis ritual.” Then you build up all the rituals, the myths, the categories, the typologies, the classifications and you begin to say “Well, we can talk about the meaning of cosmogonic myth, in various societies, or crisis rituals or calendrical rituals, or the role of religious practitioners and various, and you begin to say “Well, we can find some general meaning for myth, ritual, practitioner… morality, art, and so on, all these classifications. Then you ask the question “Is it possible, that out of all this comparative study, we can see into the fundamental meaning of religion itself? What is religion about? What do all these comparative studies of religion tell us about the human religious understanding? And here you have different theorists that have developed ideas about that, in the tradition. So, you have Mircea Eliade who’s a famous so-called historian of religions, but is indeed a phenomenologist of religion who develops the whole theory about the sacred making itself known or manifesting itself though what he calls hierophanies. These are mundane, worldly kinds of objects or ideas, it could be a stone, it could be a pool, it could be a person, it could be a book, like Muhammad receives the messages from Allah and produces the Quran, this is a hierophany, the Quran. In other words, Eliade says you can develop a whole theory of religion based on the idea of the dialectic of the sacred. And that’s what I’ve called his eidetic intuition, his essence, his meaning of religion in general, based on his comparative studies. And that’s what the eidetic intuition tries to do. The problem with it is that the further one gets away from contextualized studies, from social, cultural, specific kinds of activities, the generalisations become almost impossible to test. And this becomes a problem… and it becomes the kind of idea that there is an essential characteristic of religion which sits some place in the heavens and makes itself known and manifested in all sorts of ways.

DR: That leads perfectly into what was going to be my next question, then. Phenomenology of religion is an essentialist methodology with a lot of connections to people like Eliade and many other really quite unfashionable scholars and approaches and… so phenomenology of religion is a somewhat unfashionable approach. Do you think that that reputation is deserved and what do you think the present and future of phenomenology of religion within religious studies is?

JC: In the sense that Eliade follows, and other people even like Bleeker who said that the central idea of religion or the key-word of religion is the divine… you know, so… you have all these people… for van der Leeuw, it was power. So you find these sort of essential categories that apply everywhere and one gives it kind of a generalized interpretation of what religion is. I think that this has been largely dismissed today, and phenomenologists… there are still persistent phenomenologists… they don’t do it in that sense. They don’t try to find some universal category into which all religions can then be placed or fitted. That has to be given up. The other problem with phenomenology of religion is privileging the insider’s point of view, which has been heavily criticised, for example, Robert Segal from the University of Aberdeen has criticized it heavily saying that if you privilege the insider’s point of view, if you say that you are not going to be critical of it, but simply present it as fairly as possible, then you cut off the scientific ability to actually test or explain events in ways that might contradict the believer’s point of view. In other words, for Segal, if you refuse to criticize (20:00)  the believer’s perspective, you’re endorsing it. In that sense there’s no difference between that and being a theologian, you might as well be a theologian. Those are the two main criticisms: philosophical essentialism, which cannot be tested and is rooted in some sort of almost platonic ideal; and the other idea that by privileging the insider’s, W. Brede Kristensen is famous for saying “The believers were always right. They have to be right.” Or Cantwell Smith, who was another phenomenologist of religion, a Canadian scholar, argued that the faith is the core of religion, that faith is the… personal faith, which we can never penetrate, and in order to understand religion, one, the scholar, must acknowledge that this personal faith is the core element of religion. And this idea, then, that the believers have the final authority over the interpretation of religion is another problem with the phenomenology of religion. Now, I think that these can be resolved, that there are certain aspects of phenomenology of religion that are still helpful and still quite contemporary. For example, if you say “What is the epoché?”. The epoché can be understood as the scholar, in this case me, becoming aware of my most, well, obvious or… apparent kinds of presuppositions about any religion I’m trying to study. There are lots of assumptions that I make that may not be transparent to my consciousness, like my western… ideas about the way knowledge is constructed and so on. I mean, I could bring these to consciousness as well, in so far as I can. But the point is, it has to do very much with the contemporary idea of self-reflexivity. Where is my starting point? Where am I coming from? What are those presuppositions which inform my perspective? As I just gave the example, I don’t think rain comes from ancestors or from God, [but] comes from atmospheric conditions, that is a presupposition. That is a potentially distorting presupposition from a believer’s point of view. In that sense, by bringing these into consciousness, then knowing that you don’t sit back as some superior, some kind of objective observer who isn’t at all influenced or involved in the whole enterprise of knowledge, then, I think the epoché helps to fit into this. Suspending judgements does not mean that I wipe my mind blank, it doesn’t mean that I’m a blank slate. What it means is that I try to become aware of those presuppositions and potentially distorting assumptions that would influence [my] ability to enter into and to understand what I’m trying to study. So, I think in one sense, self-reflexivity is that. And, secondly, the idea that we’re not producing objective knowledge, that we’re not producing a study of a human community as if that community were capable of being fitted into a scientific laboratory. So, in that sense, I think phenomenology has certain things still to offer. And the other thing is that if you look at the new wave of cognitive scientists of religion. The cognitive scientists of religion, like Harvey Whitehouse, who’s at Oxford, has created categories, universal categories of religious behaviour and action, which he says is rooted in the way humans think. Of course, he recognizes cultural specificity, but nevertheless, his sort of distinction between doctrinal and experiential kinds of religious behaviours is very typological, very similar to phenomenological typologies and categories. And I’ve argued in my book An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, that the cognitive science of religion has many parallel ways of approaching the study of religion as phenomenology, particularly by trying to understand the way humans think, the way humans behave and putting these into sorts of categories and classifications. One assumption of phenomenology of religion has always been that there’s nothing alien to one human to another. In other words, there’s nothing human that we cannot understand, because we’re all human beings. Even though we may express it in different ways, we may have cultural symbols, which are different. Nonetheless, we can understand something which is human. This is based on the old idea, that… again derived from Husserl, that we can employ an empathy. We’re capable of empathizing because we’re all human beings. (25:00) And the cognitive science of religion, perhaps in some different ways, but nonetheless is based on the idea that humans all basically think the same, counter-intuitively, when they come to the notion of certain kinds of expressions or certain kinds of experiences of the world.

DR: As always, I could listen to you talk all day, but I think that’s a perfect place to end the interview. So I’m going to say thank you very much Professor Cox.

JC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Cox, James L. and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Phenomenology of Religion.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 14 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 13 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-james-cox-on-the-phenomenology-of-religion/