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Millennialism and Violence?

Descriptions of the End Times are full of violent imagery, of mass destruction through earthquakes, tidal waves, fire and ice. These images are written deeply into our culture through the book of Revelation, but are by no means limited to the Christian imagination. Often, our idea of modern millennial groups is informed by images of violent confrontations between them and the state, for example at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, or of mass suicide, such as with Heaven’s Gate or the People’s Temple at Jonestown.

Are we right to connect millennialism and violence? Are these groups typical, or rare exceptions, magnified out of proportion by the lens of the media – and scholarship? How do we account for the popularity of millennialism outside of religious traditions, new, extreme or otherwise?

This audio/visual episode was produced in collaboration with CenSAMM, the Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements.

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


Podcast with Eileen Barker, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster and Tristan Sturm (22 May 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available CenSAMM conference – Millennialism and Violence 1.1.

David Robertson (DR): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m here today, in the grounds of the Panacea Museum in sunny Bedford, for the inaugural CenSAMM conference on the subject of Millenarian Groups and Violence. I’m joined today by Moojan Momen, by Joseph Webster, by Eileen Barker and by Tristan Sturm. And we’re going to discuss the issues around millenarianism, millennialism and violence. And all of the talks from this conference have been streamed and there’ll be a link to that below. But just to get the ball rolling, I’m going to ask: what is it we’re talking about? I mean “millenarianism”, “millennialism”, “apocalypticism”: are these different terms? What do they mean? Joe, maybe you could get the ball rolling on that?

Joseph Webster (JW): OK, yes. It’s an interesting question. I’m not so sure that I have a clear answer, possibly because a clear answer doesn’t exist. I think these terms have been used for a very long time, interchangeably. Sometimes, that’s because of potentially sloppy scholarship on behalf of those who are using the terms. On the other hand, part of the answer might be that these terms – particularly millenarianism and millennialism – have been, to some extent, interchangeable. The OED – which isn’t the final word on these conversations but still, nevertheless – the OED does define these terms as synonyms. The way that millenarianism is used in anthropology – the discipline that I come from – tends to see millennialism as more distinctly Christian than millenarianism; millenarianism being treated as a broader term that has resonances with the Cargo Cult literature and the Ghost Dance literature. However, again, that’s not universally true. Some scholars within anthropology do use millennialism as a way to refer to Cargo Cults and the Ghost Dance. So, whilst I don’t think there’s any clear definitional answer, my assumption would be that the best way to proceed is how the groups themselves use these terms. And they don’t, actually, tend to use of either of those terms for themselves. So let’s take it from there.

Tristan Sturm (TS): I would add to that “apocalypticism”. And I think we can think about apocalypticism versus millennialism – which is the distinction I would use – as two sides of the same coin. The Apocalypse or apocalypticism, meaning unveiling, happens before the Millennium: 1000 years, or a period of time after which the world ends. So, I would understand it that way; I would teach that to my students. I would say apocalypticism is the events before the sort-of  Revelation – or the end of the world – and the Renewal is the Millennium. That’s how I would understand it. And I think, using apocalypticism versus millennialism is important in certain cases. Apocalypticism is useful, of course, for various secular movements who don’t believe in a Renewal, a new world, right? Whether that would come from climate change; Trumpism – potentially – for some individuals; and for others, equally, Barrack Obama, right? That doesn’t have, necessarily, a Christian or any religious overlay over it. We can still use the term apocalypticism – and I think many social theorists do – to talk about things like climate change and the severity of the series of events that would happen from that.

DR: We’re often, when we hear about apocalypticism, millennialism, we’re often hearing about these cults, these controversial new religious movements. Eileen, maybe you’d speak to this? Is there some necessary connection between new religious movements and apocalyptic millennial thinking?

Eileen Barker (EB): No.

DR: Then why is it so often connected in the public mind?

EB: Well, it’s quite frequent that millennial groups, or millenarian groups or apocalyptic groups will be termed cults. And cults, sort-of technically, usually means some kind of religious or non-religious movement that’s in tension with society in some ways. There’s a sort-of classic division between the cult and the sect, which are in tension with society and a denomination of the church, which aren’t. But, technically, that’s one thing. But just generally, in popular parlance, to say something is a cult means: “it’s a religion I don’t like”. And it’s not really very much more than that. (5:00) I mean, I often get asked: “Is it a real religion, a genuine religion, or is it a cult?” And you’ve just got to say, “Well, what do you mean by a cult?” and one man’s, or one woman’s cult is a another person’s religion. Nobody says, “I belong to a cult.” Not seriously. They might say it as a joke, or in self-defence. Now, some of these movements on which people put the label of cult are millenarian, but most of them are not. Well, I wouldn’t like to say how many are and how many aren’t, but the two don’t necessarily go together – except that it’s more likely that the millenarian groups are a sub-group of cult. But you get millenarianism in denominations and in church – if you’re just looking at the tension with society – so it goes either way. You’ve got to be terribly clear what you’re talking about. And sometimes such categories are useful, but quite often they just obscure.

DR: Indeed.

EB: So, say what you’re talking about!

Moojan Momen (MM): And I think we need to bear in mind that, even Christianity itself , when it first arose – if you read the Gospels – you’ll see there that they are talking about how Christianity is fulfilling prophecy. So Christianity is, therefore, a millenarian movement in Judaism and was probably regarded as a cult by other Jews. So, we’re talking about a history of religion developing gradually from being a cult, to being a sect, to being a religion.

DR: And how important is prophecy? Is this an essential aspect here?

EB: I think so, almost by definition. Because you’re expecting something to happen. So you have some kind of knowledge that’s come from somewhere. Now it might just be in your own little brain, but usually there’s somebody who says . . . or a book or something that can be read as saying . . . . So, there’s some sort of “saying” what’s going to happen in the future. It’s future-oriented.

DR: Yes. But it’s not entirely about the future?

EB: Oh no. No, I’m not saying that. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

DR: It’s a good in.

JW: Yes, I think that’s right. I think one of the key aspects to whether we’re talking about millenarian movements, or apocalyptic movements, or millennialism, is the way in which temporality and time are really central to what’s going on. And crucially, I think, the way in which parts of time, which we customarily think of as very distinct, actually end up collapsing into each other and becoming conflated. So: the present being seen as a very unique moment when prophecy is being fulfilled; when things that were said of the future are coming to pass right now; but also that the present is seen as deeply resonant with an ancient past. Look at the way in which the Christian groups, for instance, that are most dispensational – groups like the Brethren, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Baptist groups – certainly look at today’s age as morally bankrupt and immediately reach back into the Old Testament past for examples of the same: Sodom and Gomorrah, the days of Noah, the days of the Tower of Babel. And, immediately, what that does is it transforms the present into something that is not only future-oriented, but is deeply indebted to, and is seen as a replaying of ancient past Biblical events.

EB: Of course the Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, have a linear view of history: that there’s a past, we’re in present and there is a future. And they’re promising something about the future. But we should remember that a lot of new religions, cults, sects, traditional religions, are cyclical. And they see time in this sort-of birth, death, rebirth etc. Now, sometimes it’s an upwards spiral. Sometimes you go through various ages. But they’re not just sort-of straight lineal like they are in the Abrahamic [faiths], which lend themselves more to apocalyptic visions because there’s something happening. But within Hinduism you can get different ages, which can be very different. And the New Age, indeed. There’s something very fundamental that’s changing in society, which is what’s expected in these kind of movements.

TS: I would agree, but I also think, prior to say the Enlightenment, prior to Hobbes or someone like that, you would see, I think, a cyclical idea within Christianity, still. (10:00) I’m taking this from Reinhart Koselleck and he says, you know, the ideas of the Apocalypse didn’t really emerge in the everyday life of Christians until, really, the period of the Enlightenment, with the idea of progress, and the Kantian idea that because the past is different, the future must also be different. And so we get this idea that the Apocalypse isn’t part of a cycle, a scaled-up everyday cycle of seasons, that we would see with a lot of individuals. So, I think there is a change actually happening around the end of the 16th century, where we’re moving even out of a Christian cyclicalism to a more linear idea of the future. And I would add to that that I think now the future is becoming more important. And it’s been studied I think, even across disciplines, it’s becoming this tag term, that we’re trying to theorise now. And I think here of Susan Harding, for example, who talks about “memories of the future”. And she talks about, you know, that the future is a kind of memory. We have an idea of the past and those are kind-of memories as well, outside of history. We’re selective about the memories that we want to bring to the present and give continuity to the way things are. In the same way, we do that with the future. We kind-of know how the future’s going to play out. We have a sort of selectivity of ideas. There are certain paths that we’re pretty sure are more likely to happen that others. And we go down those paths. And prophecy functions in a similar way. It tries to close off the way the future could go. It sort-of says, “Well, this is the likely space that the future will go.” And so it’s closing off of the future. And we have a kind of memory of the future. We re-member ideas from the future. And we all do this. We do this with our jobs, how we foresee our lives are going to go. And they more-or-less do take place the way we probably thought that they would, given a certain level of difference there. And so, I would say that about time. And I also . . . and there’s a book that I really like. It’s called “The Past is a Foreign Country” and he says that we’re selective about our pasts. But I would say that the future is also a foreign country where we’re selective about the future that we want to bring, to give meaning to our present. And, you know, St Augustine said this as well. He said that there’s no such thing as the past or the future. There’s only the present past, the present present, and the present future. And he’s referring to that kind of presentism, I think, that exists across religions and everyday life. And that’s really where we only exist.

DR: Well, I think an interesting and very important part of millennial thinking and prophetic thinking is that it places the individual right at this axis point of history. As you say, you know, it’s the memories of history: a narrative construction, leading to this point and you have various futures branching out. And something about apocalyptic and millennialism, when it becomes involved in violence particularly, is that sometimes it’s seen that in order for the future to go one way there has to be some sort of violent or cataclysmic change; which brings us to the issue of violence, then. Is there a necessary connection between millenarianism and violence? Or is that only in the popular imagination?

EB: Absolutely not.

JW: I couldn’t agree more. I see nothing within millenarianism that makes it essentially violent. And I think the other important point to make is that not only do we “other” millenarian groups, by often assuming that they are violent, but we normalise ourselves – the secular, the non-religious, the mainstream – as something that is somehow essentially non-violent. So we make cults and sects and millenarianism essentially violent and we make the mainstream somehow essentially non-violent. And I think both are completely false. The evidence just does not stack up.

MM: And, of course, we’re sitting here at the Panacea Society, which was a millenarian movement that was not at all violent, so . . . . And, in fact, probably the vast majority of millenarian movements are not violent. It requires a certain set of circumstances to lead a millenarian movement to violence. And the vast majority of them don’t have that set of circumstances.

TS: Can I add to that?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TS: I guess I’m interested in the way we’re using the word “violence”, here. I think we’re talking about overt, coercive types of violence. But I think discourse or language can be violent as well. (15:00) I think certain other, “small v” forms of violence take place as well. And they take place outside of . . . they’re not exclusive or endemic to millennial movements, they happen in everyday life. I’m speaking here of a kind of power that we exact on all sorts of things. And millennial movements, apocalyptic movements are a different kind of normative discourse and they challenge the dominant normative discourses that Joe was just talking about, right? In a sense they’re kind-of doing a violence: they’re trying to change the way we think about the world. Our normative way that we think about the world is not the right way, it’s not the absolute truth. It’s truth because more people believe it than often the millennial and apocalyptic movements. That doesn’t mean there’s not a kind of violence that’s going on there: there is.

DR: Absolutely.

EB: I’d like to add that a lot of the movements are actually pacifist and they work hard for pacifism. And it’s very interesting that today, while this is being recorded – April 6th – the Jehovah’s Witnesses are – perhaps it’s already happened – being threatened with entire extinction from Russia, because they are absolutely non-violent. They’re in prison in places like South Korea because they’re conscientious objectors. They won’t kill. They’re prepared to be killed. They were killed in Auschwitz, for example. Unlike the Jews and the homosexuals and the Gypsies, who were going to suffer anyway, the Jehovah’s Witnesses could have said, “No, we’ll obey the state”, and they didn’t. They preferred to be killed rather than this.

DR: Mmm.

EB: Because they just refused to do certain things. And the group that you were talking about today, also tried to be pacifist. And so it’s not just that they’re not violent. They will work against sometimes. But of course, some are violent with a capital V.

MM: Yes, the group that I was talking about today was historically the Bábis of Iran. They were a precurser of what is today the Bahai faith. But in mid-19th century Iran they were a group that became very popular, spread very rapidly. And the leader of this group worked very hard to diffuse the violent possibilities, because he claimed to be the Mahdi – and people were expecting the Mahdi to come and lead an army to victory. So they were expecting a violent result from Mahdi coming, and the Báb worked very hard to diffuse that potential for violence. And, really, one of the main factors that eventually did lead to violence, as a result of this movement, was the fact that the Báb was removed from his ability to lead his followers. Because he was imprisoned in a fortress, right up in the northwest corner of the country, and therefore cut off from his followers and prevented from leading his followers in the way that he wanted to.

DR: Did you want to add something there, Joe?

JW: Well, this is an issue that we’ve been discussing throughout the day. I think, when we speak about violence, when we speak about the way in which pacifism within new religious movements is often ignored . . .

EB: Or, seen as dangerous and violent!

JW: Indeed. . . where the refusal to fight becomes a type of extremism. I think, connected to this, is the way in which, in some cases scholars, and in other cases political entities – governmental agents – try and explain away millenarian movements rather than explain them. And, I guess, by that I mean that they have a tendency to look for external causes of behaviour: explanations which, wholesale, refuse to countenance the possibility that the local native account – emerging from within the religious movement in question – might have something to contribute to an understanding of why that movement is doing what it’s doing; or in some cases, not doing what it’s not doing, for instance, fighting. So if we try, as scholars, to begin to break down the idea that religious movements are saying and doing one thing and on the other hand our job is to analyse them in ways that are alien to that movement and external to that movement; if we begin to break down that process of explanation, I think we might begin to have a more fertile understanding of what new religious movements are, or what millennial movements are. Because we can learn things from them in ways that very often we simply refuse to acknowledge.

DR: Absolutely. (20:00) And that’s something I talk about a lot, especially. . . . It’s part of the heritage of Religious Studies to be talking about beliefs, and particularly about deviant beliefs, and sometimes going as far as pathologising these kind of ways of viewing the world. But your work, I know, is talking about things that are very relevant to today: you mentioned Trump earlier on. And when these political movements, for instance, suddenly start to engage with other millenarian kind-of ideas, I think it shocks people when they actually realise, “ well, maybe this is more normal” than they perhaps realised.

TS: I think there’s a couple of things going on here, right? Let’s start with Trump. One of Trump’s main security advisers, Steve Bannon, has his own millennial perspective: something he calls the Fourth Turning. He gets this from a series of books on generations, which is a kind of secular apocalypse: that the world is getting bad, capitalism is being destroyed, traditional culture is being broken down, and he needs to take action to do something about that. In other ways, some millennial groups align themselves with political groups, right? And maybe their action is something as simple and normative as voting. It’s not really taking action. In fact, many of the groups that I study – Christian Zionists [for example] – are fatalistic. They’re pacifists, in the sense that they don’t actually take any kind of physical action, but they might vote. But we might even argue that doing nothing sometimes is still taking a side, right? So the groups that I study, the Pilgrims – the Christian Zionist programmes from the United States, going to Israel and Palestine – they’re not doing anything to contribute to the conflicts that I write about, directly. But indirectly they are, insofar as they support a tourism industry; they support a particular political ideology, both in Israel and America that might actually take physical violence, or take the form of physical violence. So, in a sense, they’re pacifists but they’re still involved, or part of the assemblage of violence, I would argue.

DR: So when violence does arise, then, what is difference? What happens there? What is the process by which a group minority or majority becomes violent? I mean, there are well-known cases, obviously: Waco seems to be the sort of paradigmatic account today, at the conference; but Heavens Gate as well; Jonestown. What is it that causes violence in these unusual cases?

EB: Well, they’re all different. Part of our job, as scholars, is to look at the particulars in order to try and compare them, in order to see the similarities and differences, and pull out some of the threads and similarities. But there aren’t a certain number of similarities, and the other things are different: there are groups; there are categories; there are clusters; bundles of things that seem to go together; and the sort of tension that Joe was talking about earlier between the internal reasons and the external reasons – and Stuart Wright had a paper, today, which talked about this – and the importance of seeing the interaction between the two. And you can’t predict by doing one or the other: it’s seeing how the two react on each other. And these can lead to spirals of what criminologists call “deviance amplification”: each side does something that’s slightly bad in the other side’s view and gives the other side permission to be slightly worse. And so it grows. . . and then – wham! And Waco is an example of that. But Waco is very, very unusual, thank goodness! There are cases where you can see this writ large – and they’re easy to see – and therefore we focus on them, because they give us a kind of template, or an idea, against which we can measure the other movements which are not like that. And I think it’s very important that we keep remembering that they’re not like that, and that we look at the other ones and take those into our calculation, as well. I think that’s important. I think the reason why Waco – or perhaps another example would be Aum Shinrikyo – becomes paradigmatic is because, there is some sense in which we’ve already come to the study of Millenarian movements having decided that they are somehow profoundly different to religions at large. And therefore, by a process of scholarly selection by us, we simply focus on those cases which fit the paradigm. (25:00) This is the classic case of “normal science”: that we simply look for evidence which fits pre-existing paradigms and conveniently – or, in some cases, very inconveniently – ignore all the other counter examples; and the theories – or, in some cases, prejudices – that we have of these groups are wrongly reinforced. And another consequence of this is, as Eileen says: many of the groups that are committed to non-violence – or don’t even feel the need to commit themselves to non-violence because they are so inherently non-violent that that commitment doesn’t need to made – that those groups are simply ignored. Many people don’t focus on those groups because they simply don’t fit the prejudices that we seem to have within the scholarship.

EB: I think we have to make the distinction between the violence that is done to a group and violence that the group does. And nearly all the violence is done – again with a capital V – is done to their own members. Some are done to people that they know, personally, who they don’t like. And very, very few are done to strangers: Aum Shinrikyo is an example, but one of the very few; the Manson family is another one. But, mostly, the harm is internal rather than externally directed. Most of them expect that God, or something, will happen: the Apocalypse or Armageddon will happen. Now, they might have to be the midwife – and that’s another quite interesting question that we haven’t touched on yet, is: what happens when prophecy fails, when they expect this great big change? But I think it’s important to remember that very, very few go around killing people. That tends to be the traditional major religions – the churches and the denominations – who’ve got the money and the armies. Now, of course, it might be different if they get hold of sarin gas or something, but this happened very much . . . .

DR: This ties into what you were saying before, about the importance . . . . We have to generalise, to some degree, to make cross-comparisons, but we have to remain aware of the important differences all the time. And, a lot of the time, these groups that we’re comparing – the actual violence that we’re talking about is very, very different. And you also have cases like Heaven’s Gate, where there’s very little evidence of coercion there. I mean, if you watch the exit videos that the members shot, for instance, they’re going quite happily into that situation with their eyes fully open. It’s only from our external point of view that it can be described as violence at all – largely because of going into it, or looking at it, with this kind of brainwashing mentality that earlier discourses on new religions bought into, which is very much discredited now.

EB: And they were only harming themselves.

DR: Exactly

EB: And Joe ought to jump down on me immediately, because they didn’t see themselves as harming . . . .

JW: Of course!

EB: They saw themselves as being ‘transitionised”, or whatever the word was?

JW: Going to the level above the human, TELAH. Yes, I think that’s a really interesting point: that what he have here is – to bring it back to your question about failed prophecy, and this does link to violence . . . . Whether or not we can genuinely point to groups like Heaven’s Gate; or classic historical case studies like the Millerites; or Festinger’s famous book about cognitive dissonance, using the Seekers – even if we leave violence in the equation, or if we take it out – there is still the enduring question about: does prophecy for these groups ever fail at all?

EB: Oh, it does!

JW: Well see, I’m not so sure about that. When I think about Heaven’s Gate I think about the fact that they ended their lives and – as far as we’re aware, as far as they’re aware – made a successful journey to where they were going. The same, I think, can be said with the Seekers and Mrs Keech: the idea that the prophecy did not fail, the flood didn’t fail to arrive, it wasn’t a failure, it was them successfully spreading enough light to call the floods off. The Seventh Day Adventists did not explain away a failure of Millerite prophecy. It seems to me that Ellen White simply realised that Miller’s prophecy was correct but that the revolution began in heaven, not on earth. So, I’m intrigued to hear your pushback on that. In what cases does prophecy really fail?

EB: Well there are some groups that have said, “Oops, we got it wrong!” (30:00) I can’t remember his name. The man who – it was May sometime about 4 or 5 years ago – Radio something . . .

All: Harold Camping

JW: Family Radio

EB: Now, he said . . .

DR: After a couple of events, yes!

EB: And, at that time, he said “God got it wrong”, according a newspaper headline!

DR: Which is one of the techniques mentioned in Festinger’s books, actually: that the transmission was garbled and – reception issues.

EB: You can get the reception wrong; you can have it happening in the spirit world – like with Joanna Southcott and lots of others; you can have people saying, “Well, because we did this, we stopped the terrible thing happening”; or you can say, “Because they didn’t do this, God didn’t come yet. We weren’t ready. We didn’t listen to the Messiah, telling us what to do.” There are a whole lot of different ways out. But there are those that . . . . There was a chap – again, I can’t remember, I want to say Garland – he was a Chinese chap in America. And he said, “I’ll come out and apologise if nothing’s happened.” And he came out and apologised. This was about ten years ago. He was Chinese, or he was Oriental of some kind.

DR: Well, hopefully, one of the listeners can tell us who it is in the comments.

EB: I’m sure they will. And provide other examples.

DR: I hope they do.

TS: I want to add to this conversation about “small v” versus “big V” violence. I think, one way in which small v violence takes place is . . . Harold Camping is a good example. A lot of people – thousands of people – sold their houses, they went into debt; they expected this to happen. That had a tremendous amount of violence on their families and their lives. They moved into forests, they bought bunkers. This is a form of violence, right? I think another form of violence, that wasn’t really talked about in the conference, is spatial violence: the way that these groups imagine spaces in particular ways; homogenised spaces; map spaces; understand whole groups of people in homogenised ways and treat them in certain ways. And some of these groups are aligned with state power. Sometimes the state see them as a threat, and disciplines them with large V Violence. And sometimes they align themselves with the state: with large V Violence; by their voting for them; by their interests. We’re seeing this at the moment with Donald Trump – he’s doing all sorts of violence to homosexuals, to women’s rights over their body, these sorts of things – aligning themselves with larger Christian movements like Christian Zionists, like pre-millennial dispensationalist, right. . . that are doing violence to all sorts of other people within the electorate. And also, in terms of foreign policy, the way that Americans understand Muslims, the war in Iraq, right? These are all contributing factors. I think maybe the mistake, then, is to look at just the millennial movement. You have to see the effects that they have outside of their movement, right? Their social effects. Look at Marxism, for example. This is a good example . . . . Or another point, maybe, I want to make is the difference between belief and practice. So, we have textual beliefs – we have written documents, for a lot of these groups – and then we have the way people actually act, which are two different things. You know, would someone say that Stalin was a true Communist – a true Marxist – who murdered millions of people? Is that an example? Marxism is a form of millennialism: it’s clearly interpreted and was influenced by Jewish and Christian thought, in the way that there is a kind of . . . . Capitalism kind-of reaches a point where it can’t abide, it fails, and then we have a kind of proletariat millennialism afterwards. So the practice and belief is also a discussion that we need to have, within these discussions.

DR: Unfortunately, I’m going to have to do small v violence to the conversation and to return to the subject of time! We have been talking about this all day. We could continue to talk about it all evening, and we will be talking about it again, tomorrow. For the viewer and listener I urge you to check out the millennialism, on new religious movements, on violence and these kind of issues. Other than that, I would like to thank all of our participants for taking part. And thanks for watching.


Citation Info:, Barker, Eileen, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster, Tristam Strum. 2017. “Millennialism and Violence?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 18 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/millennialism-and-violence/

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February 4, 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

London, UK

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Events

Conference: EASR 2018: Multiple Religious Identities

June 17–21

Bern, Switzerland

More information to follow in February 2017

Conference: Mythology and “Nation Building”: N.F.S. Grundtvig and His Contemporaries

January 26–27, 2017

Paris, France

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Exhibition: Aftermath Dislocation Principle

December 13–23, 2016

Bedford, UK

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Open access

Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: “Religion and Race”

Table of contents

Jobs

Assistant Professor: Religious Studies

St. Thomas University, Canada
Deadline: January 13, 2017

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Lecturer: Archaeology and Ancient History

University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Deadline: December 16, 2016

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M.A. Scholarships: Jameel

Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK

Deadline: March 20, 2017

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Ph.D. Studentships: Theology and Religious Studies

University of Leeds, UK

Deadline: February 1, 2017

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Tenure-track Assistant Professor: History of Comparative Religion

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Deadline: January 15, 2017

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Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

From the Ku Klux Klan to Zombies

Many of us only know about the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan through film and television, and much of what we see blurs fact and fiction. Distinguishing each side of that messy divide is the prolific Kelly J. Baker, exploring how media portrayals of the hate group have influenced audiences and, in turn, fed back on its own members. This previously unaired interview conducted by A. David Lewis from 2013 sketches out the rise of the KKK on the large and small screen, its relevance to discussions of religious terrorism today, and perhaps even a link to Baker’s other work on zombies in popular culture.

Gospel According to the Klan
The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930
Kelly J. Baker

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

Of Demon Kings and Protestant Yakṣas

Let me begin by saying that this is not a critique, but an effort to contribute to a conversation about issues that have affected me personally as a scholar. In particular, I want to suggest a few approaches that might be straws for the fire in the evolving discourse regarding “Protestant Buddhism” and the general influence of colonialism on Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

My most personal experience in regard to the issues raised by the Religious Studies Project interview with Stephen Berkwitz came while doing research on warfare with Pāli scholars. Again and again, as I directed their attention to jātakas in which the Buddha was a warrior, they would tell me that no such jātaka could exist. Their impression of Buddhist pacifism was so strong that, even though their knowledge of Pāli literature was vastly superior to my own, it had created a blind spot for aspects of their own tradition. It is my impression, [one that might be fruitfully disputed], that that blind spot is a result of the war-weary West’s idealization of Buddhists as the perfect pacifist other. This idealization offered colonized peoples a new and highly attractive moral superiority, which they brilliantly wielded as an act of cultural self-defense. But the power of this naïve Euro-American projection also deprived Sri Lankan’s of the valuable cultural resources that it eclipsed. That blind spot does not obscure the “dark side of Buddhism,” as one recent scholar called the ethics of violence that seem to emerge when we look at Buddhist narrative literature, but rather obscures a richly nuanced and flexible ethic that might have provided rich resources for Sri Lanka’s civil war and postwar reconciliation. There could not be more at stake for the nation that gave the world the suicide-bomber. A similar kind of effect can be seen among young Tibetan refugees, many of whom reject Buddhism, generally blaming its pacifism, a pacifism that never existed, for the loss of their country. The disappointment of Western pacifists here is not unlike the reaction of early Orientalists who, disappointed by the ritualism and deity-worship they found in living Buddhist cultures, described a degenerate Buddhism.[1]

One of the uncomfortable aspects of these kinds of critiques, including my own, is that once again Western scholars seem to claim the high ground and reveal Sri Lankans as passive victims of false consciousness. However, we should remember that cultural heroes like Dharmapala and Walpola Rahula [whose What the Buddha Taught is still found in undergraduate syllabi and dharma-center curricula] knew our languages, culture, values, scriptures and scholarship, including everything ever written about Buddhism in the West, far better than we knew theirs. They exerted great influence on the presentation of their tradition and, along with Neo-Vedānta, powerfully influenced American and European thought. This was not a passive or even merely reactive endeavor. In my experience, Sri Lanka is extraordinary among post-colonial nations for the cosmopolitanism, power and sophistication of its intellectuals. Dharmapala was perfectly poised to open up a can of whoop-ass on naïve Americans at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Buddha taught evolution! Any image of colonials passively subjected to Western influence should be balanced by the embarrassing naiveté and false consciousness this whole discourse reveals among the colonizers and the powerful role seized by Sri Lankans in the representation of their own world.[2]

The whole issue of “Protestant Buddhism” needs to be considered from multiple dimensions that can get mixed up. Any reformulation of Buddhism tuned to Western sensibilities would by implication be tuned to Protestant and scientific biases. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught is a brilliant adaptation to these biases. The reformulation of Buddhism that was tuned to Western needs, biases, and weaknesses, was also tuned to the needs of Westernized Sri Lankan intellectuals and helped draw them back to Buddhism. So, one dimension of the construction of “Protestant Buddhism” is the Protestantized, pacifist, and scientific image of Buddhism integral to dialogue with the West, including the indigenous Westernized intellectuals who were situated in between worlds. This construction was enhanced by the fact that Sri Lankan intellectuals, who were attracted to this image for many of the same reasons, presented themselves as representative of the tradition as such. These figures may have had more influence on the Western perception of Buddhism than they did on their own country’s.

Buddhists at a stūpa in Kandy worshipping the Hindu deity Kartikeya (photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Sometimes it seems that we mix up our own romantic Protestantized image of Buddhism with what we are pointing toward in Sri Lankan culture. There are useful and intelligent reasons to use the descriptor “Protestant” in describing modern changes in Theravāda Buddhism, but any observer expecting to find Rahula’s Buddhism in Sri Lanka is much more likely to be shocked by how un-Protestant, even un-Theravādin, Buddhism in Sri Lanka really is. It is hard to fit Avalokiteśvara, an obsession with yakṣas, the integral worship of “Hindu” deities, and so on into an image of the bare white New England church. On the other hand, the Theravāda Buddhism that became the stock in trade of every Introduction to Buddhism class strikes me as very Protestant indeed. I look forward to reading Stephen Berkwitz’s new book about the poet Alagiyavanna, who eventually converted to Catholicism and sounds like an early example of a Sri Lankan scholar caught between worlds.

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

One of the most salient things about Sri Lanka is that the dominant majority feels like a threatened minority. Perhaps this is a more recent phenomenon, but it reminds me of how important India has been in shaping Sinhala identity. Traveling in Sri Lanka, I was struck by the presence of Vibhīṣana, the brother of the demon King Rāvana, at Buddhist sacred sites. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Vibhīṣana is portrayed as the good Rākṣasa that advises his brother to surrender Sri Lanka to the ideal Hindu King, Rāma. Although the Rāmāyaṇa did not have great currency among Sinhalese Buddhists, Vibhīṣana was deliberately utilized by Buddhist Kings as a model for their submission to the imperial power of South India whose Kings modeled themselves on Rāma.[3] This response demonstrates a self-conscious and sophisticated approach to manipulating and utilizing the ideals of the outsider as a practical technique for moderating their negative impact. The story of Sri Lanka’s contention with destructive invasive violence and outside imperialist ambitions long precedes Western colonialism. So, I close by wondering whether it might be useful to consider whether the earlier relationship with the once expansive power of South India has anything to tell us, even by way of contrast, about the evolution of Sri Lanka’s adaptation to colonialist forces.

[1] For a more extended rant on these issues see Stephen Jenkins. “A Review Essay on The Range of the Bodhisattva, A Mahāyāna Sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2014.

[2] For a longer discussion see Stephen Jenkins, “Black Ships, Blavatsky, and the Pizza Effect: Critical Self Consciousness as a Thematic Foundation,” in Teaching Buddhism in the West: From the Wheel to the Web, Curzon Press, ed., Victor Hori, 2002.

[3] I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Walters on Vibhīṣana and he was kind enough to forward a copy of this fascinating article. Walters, Jonathan S. 1990-1994. “Vibhisana and Vijayanagar: An Essay on Religion and Geopolitics in Medieval Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 17 and 18, nos. 1 and 2 (Special Jubilee Issue): 129-142.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

Picture 118While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

By Travis Warren Cooper, Indiana University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Paul WIlliamson on Serpent Handling (3 June 2013)

In one melancholic and chilling scene in director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), leading man Brad Pitt’s rendition of the famous American outlaw sits outside his Missouri home. He holds snakes in his hand, both as an allusion to Jesse James’s revivalist family background and intertextual echo of earlier filmic portrayals of the outlaw’s capricious and violent personality.

The Jesse James of the historical record was not an Appalachian serpent-handling Pentecostal, of course. But Hollywood likes to blend its symbols, especially its religious ones, and tends to prefer homogenized provocation over denominational specification. In an earlier Revisionist Western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Robert Duvall―an actor now known for his critical portrayals of charismatic religions in films such as The Apostle (1997)―stages a prophetic utterance to determine Northfield,

Minnesota as the next site of exploit. This revival-type soliloquy, along with the snake-handling allusion of the 2007 film, construes Jesse James in terms of both violent outlawry and religious extremism. If film is to any degree a barometer of cultural perceptions on a subject, both Pitt and Duvall’s scenes are commentaries on the close relationship between religion and violence. Serpent-handling is one visible face of these tensions.

A lightning-rod of controversy, serpent-handling is a contentious practice on multiple levels. As popular media attest, the ritual is a filmic symbol of North American religion. More specifically, it is an iconic metonym of U. S. Pentecostalism. Protestants live deeply material lives, as scholars have argued (McDannell, 1995), and some of them interact with prayer cloths, guitars, bottled anointing oils, thick hymnbooks, and worn family Bibles in densely intertwined networks of objects and quasi-objects of the Latourian sort (1993). In obedience to what they see as clear biblical mandate, snake-handling Pentecostals take up canebrake rattlers and copperheads—and on rare occasions, cottonmouths or diamondbacks—living objects that have the potential to strike and kill their bearers. Snakes are living agents and dangerous ritual objects.

That religion manifests in violence often finds itself made light of in pop cultural depictions, such as in Duvall’s expert mimicry of a Southern preacher’s drawl as he gives his pseudo-prophecy. Is this an uneasy laughter, a nervous chuckle, of sorts, that holds cultural anxieties at bay, and perhaps allows viewers to laugh off these ambivalences? Cultural depictions of serpent-handlers are often cynically comical in their accounts. Moe Szyslak, a character in The Simpsons, brandishes bandaged hands and refuses to join Homer’s new religion, saying, “I was born a snake handler, and I’ll die a snake handler.” More recently, comedian Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina in The Campaign (2012). In this irreverent parody of the American political system, Brady attempts to assuage the public’s concern that he is not really a Christian by joining a serpent-handling congregation. All this occurs after his political opponents shame him for not being able to publicly recite the Lord’s Prayer. “I have the power in me!” he exclaims, dancing in a group of other handlers at the front of a small church that brims with visibly ecstatic worshipers. “I could do this forever. These snakes love me.” Brady’s glee is short lived, though, as one of the snakes predictably strikes, sinking its fangs deep into his forearm. He rips it out, uttering a string of expletives. But even as his sight blurs and he breaks out in feverish sweats, Brady manages to turn the situation for political gain.

In terms of scholarly representation, however, comedies such as The Candidate and long-running favorites like The Simpsons simply get it wrong. While they evidence a cultural uneasiness with the practice, they do not accurately portray the marginalized group in focus. Comical films stereotype and homogenize fringe religious practices; scholarly study elucidates complex social and cultural minutiae. While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions. But this is just harmless slapstick comedy, one might claim. It would be all fun and games if it were not for the fact that cultural understandings—public opinion informed by (and informing) common stereotypes—often exhibit themselves at the legislative level.

According to one of the most recent and most thorough studies of Appalachian serpent-handlers, “legislatures and courts have had little real knowledge of serpent-handling churches and therefore have little basis on which to judge whether serpent handling is dangerous to others” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 214). In 1940, Kentucky passed the first law banning “intentional exposure to venomous reptiles” in religious gatherings. Tennessee and Virginia delivered bans of their own in 1947. North Carolina and Alabama followed suit in 1949 and 1950. Notably, North Carolina and Georgia have legislated even further by prohibiting the preaching of beliefs about snake handling, rather than simply banning the practice itself. “Thus in North Carolina and Georgia even preaching from Mark 16:17-18 could be interpreted as a violation of state law,” the authors lament. These sorts of state actions “not only infringe on religious practice but on the right to religious belief as well.” West Virginia, in 1963, passed a bill that made the handling of poisonous serpents a misdemeanor. Both Georgia and Alabama ratcheted up the legal consequences of serpent handling by bringing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony (Ibid., 208-217).

Two of Hood and Williamson’s arguments are that stereotypes influence legislation and legislation has tended to unconstitutionally limit the practices of snake handlers. Overall, Americans tend to resist approving of religions that might bring physical harm to its devotees. “It is implicit in a commonsense view that religion must be ‘good’ and should not condone rituals that can maim or kill. While this is a reasonable position, it also can be viewed as a prejudice. Why cannot religion legitimately endorse a practice that can maim or kill?” Ultimately, they argue that “despite the fact that serpent handlers are injured and killed, their faith may be both sincere and valid” (Ibid., 209). Stereotypes and prejudices against fringe religious groups like serpent-handlers do not realize the cultural specificity of the rituals, the meaning derived by participants from performance in it. To be certain, the authors do not shy from describing the violent nature of the practice. They go to disquietingly specific lengths, in fact, to describe the physical effects of snake bites and admit that increased handling of snakes actually increases rather than decreases the potentiality of attacks (Ibid., 87, 85).

Besides attempting to accurately document the rituals of their subjects, the authors contextualize and humanize the snake-handlers, putting faces on the people who engage in the rituals and find theological meaning from the practice—regardless if it is dangerous. Since the origins of U.S. Pentecostalism, they point out, there have been under a total of 100 documented fatalities due to serpent-handling rituals. In the interview, Williamson points out the irony that state governments feel the need to prohibit the religious practice while turning a blind eye to excessively dangerous sporting activities. Consider, for instance, that between 1931 and 2008 some 1,013 fatalities occurred due to athletic participation in the sport of (American) football (Mueller and Colgate, 2009), a (quasi-religious) ritual in its own right. Further, the authors examine stereotypes themselves, finding that when exposed to ethnographic data, critical outsiders actually softened their opinions and became more empathetic in their understandings of the handlers (Hood and Williamson 2008, 222). Practitioners do die from snake bites, but these deaths are uncommon exceptions. The snake-handling rituals, in terms of safety, are actually quite contained: “Experienced researchers know that church members and observers are not endangered by others who are handling serpents.” There is also “no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer” (Ibid., 214). Those who handle are consenting adults, to apply a term with heavy cultural baggage, and as little as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds. In short, Hood and Williamson find that serpent-handlers have largely been misrepresented in both cultural stereotypes as well as legal precedent. They intend their study to address some of these issues.

My response to Hood and Williamson’s theses is mixed. With Russell McCutcheon’s critic/caretaker binary echoing in my mind (2001), passages arguing that the faith of the handlers “may be both sincere and valid” through an application of Soren Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 209) seem to me at first to step well beyond the qualifications of the scholar of religion. What place do scholars have in evaluation of the quality and sincerity of a group’s theological systems of belief and action? Further, are academics scholars or activists? Are we to study particular people groups or argue on behalf of and in support of them? At points the authors come across as explicit advocates or spokespersons for these marginalized Pentecostal churches. We would do wrong, however, to dismiss the work as it is the most sustained and nuanced study on the subject to-date. Have not subaltern studies scholars taught us that all academic writings are political acts, produced within privileged positions of power and prestige? Scholars, especially those studying living peoples, cannot ignore the fact that we have ethical obligations towards our subjects of study. For those of us who work with human subjects, pre-research training and approval through Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements are constant reminders of these obligations. As primarily an ethnographic work, Hood and Williamson’s study rightly falls under the category of critical ethnography as it assumes “an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain,” in anthropologist D. Soyini Madison’s words (2005, 5; emphasis original).

There are no easy solutions for these issues. Hood has gone as far as calling for those who have died from snake-bite related complication to be lauded for their willingness to follow biblical mandate (find the Washington Post article here). In response, other scholars have allowed for an empathetic respect, of sorts, but reject that lauding need occur. Still others argue that endorsement via lauding, respect, and empathy is a less relevant construct that should have little bearing on whether or not a scholar effectively understands a phenomenon. Toward the end of Brad Pitt’s scene, he turns the tables on viewers’ expectations. He discusses with the young Robert Ford how good the snakes taste fried, how he gives snakes the names of his enemies before he eats them. Then in one fell action he flattens the heads of the serpents across a table and decapitates them. If one doubts the allusion to the Pentecostal ritual, a woman vocalizes “Amazing Grace” in the background. The decapitated snakes writhe around the outlaw’s arm. This is only one possible interpretation of a symbolically polysemous scene, of course, but one cannot help but read into it one’s own theorizations. Is this not serpent-handling with a shocking twist, a bloodied reversal of viewer expectation? Pitt adds violence to violence as he underscores the controversial American ritual. Films of this sort obscure the ritual¾making it even more foreign and violent, so to say¾but as scholars of religion we must work to elucidate and understand it.

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

About the Author

Picture 118Travis is an associate instructor and doctoral student at Indiana University (Bloomington) in religious studies and anthropology (doctoral major and minor emphases, respectively). His primary research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, materiality, cognition, gender, media, anthropology of film, and visual culture. Travis is an ethnographer by methodological trade. His published works include “Marjoe Gortner, Imposter Revivalist: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Misbehavior” (PentecoStudies 12.1 (2013): 83-105, and “‘Cooking with Gordon’: Food, Health, and the Elasticity of Evangelical Gender Roles (and Belt Sizes) on The 700 Club” (Religion & Gender 3.1 (2013): 107-123. He also writes informally about his academic work on his personal blog, “Mythology & Footnotes.”

References

  • Hood, Ralph W. and W. Paul Williamson. Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.
  • McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Religion: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Mueller, Frederick O. and Bob Colgate. “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 1931-2012.” Unpublished paper, prepared for the American Football Coaches Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and The National Federation of State High School Association, 2013.

Sociotheology and Cosmic War

Over the course of the last few decades religious violence has become an increasingly salient topic of public discourse and particularly in its global manifestations. In the social sciences these discourses focus primarily on explanations of violent acts that are driven by the socio-political contexts enveloping them. Mark Juergensmeyer argues that such explanations only tell part of the story, however, since some actions are motivated by a religious vision, like the vision of “cosmic war.” Talking to Per in this podcast Juergensmeyer explains how a “sociotheological approach” is particularly well suited to the task of understanding religious violence by engaging the worldviews of violent actors directly and taking their theological concerns as seriously as their political ideologies.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

Mark Juergensmeyer is a former president of the American Academy of Religion and the current director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbera where he also teaches sociology and religious studies. He is a prolific writer and speaker whose work deals with South Asian religion and politics, religious violence and global religion among other topics. Recent books include Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, and the just released The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence, which contains a chapter outlining, “A Sociotheological Approach to the Study of Religious Violence.”

Religion, Violence, and Cognition

…it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition: Why We May Have to Think More Broadly About Violence-Enabling Mechanisms

By Kevin Whitesides, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 21 November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism (19 November, 2012).

In his RSP podcast interview, Dr. Brian Victoria provides a great deal of food for thought on both the relationships between religion and violence and why it is important for scholars of religion to understand these realms in a subtle and nuanced way, especially in light of the remarkably un-nuanced manner in which these topics are typically treated in mainstream and popular media sources.  However, rather than provide a detailed response to the interview, I prefer to simply riff off of some of the issues that came up during the podcast bringing an emphasis of my own on the relationship between violence-enabling mechanisms within religion and human cognition more generally.

One interesting thread that Dr. Victoria developed during the interview is the contextuality of doctrinal hermeneutics, that the very same doctrines which can be interpreted in ways which promote or enable what he referred to as the ‘bright side’ of religion (social welfare, psychological well-being, in-group cohesion, etc.), when interpreted from within a different socio-cultural context, can be utilized as a means to motivate religiously-inspired violence.  A religious admonition toward ‘non-harm’ (ahimsa) in Buddhism or ‘Hinduism’ can be used to promote pacifist renunciants in one context and righteous warriors in another.  In that sense, those who aspire to the goal of eliminating or significantly decreasing religious violence have a monumental task on their hands.  It is not a matter of simply locating the particular types of religious doctrine which enable violence and attempting to remove them (were that possible or desirable), leaving a nice, pure altruistic essence in their absence.  It is the human interpretive capacity (as well as the capacity to act in correspondence with those interpretative beliefs) which is the underlying factor.  The concept or doctrine which is being interpreted is a secondary or incidental component to that more basic cognitive capacity for interpretive justification.  The concept of jihad in Islam can be used as a potent symbol for the inner struggle of personal, social, and spiritual development or it can be a potent symbol for catalyzing violent action in a physical struggle with an outside force.  The particular interpretation which is utilized at any given time will largely be a result of the unique contextual factors which guide and constrain the interpretation and, thus, do not result from any inherent feature of Islam.

Further, as scholars of religion, with an occasionally myopic eye toward our subject matter, it is important that we remember that it is not solely or even primarily the realm of ‘religion’ in which these kinds of interpretive gymnastics occur.  The same cognitive-interpretive mechanisms which allow different religious individuals or groups to interpret the same doctrines or beliefs in different ways, depending on the larger socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded, are indeed active cognitive components in our daily lives.  Humans, generally, tend to have a variety of self-serving cognitive biases which allow us to interpret situations in ways that support our own conscious and unconscious goals, where, were we faced with the same situation given a different context, we might interpret the situation very differently to serve different contextual goals.  One example of such an interpretive twist that many people may be able to identify with upon reflection (there will be exceptions) can be found in the difference in experience between driving a car and being a pedestrian.  Many people may have had the experience, as a pedestrian, of getting frustrated with drivers for failing to give them the right of way to walk.  Similarly, the very same people, while driving a car, may get frustrated with pedestrians for not giving them right of way to drive.  The relevant issue here is very much aside from the legal consideration of which party is legitimated by the culture as actually having a ‘right of way’.  What is important here is that as a pedestrian we get annoyed with drivers and as a driver we get annoyed with pedestrians.  In other words, given the same exact circumstance, the interaction between a pedestrian and a car, which role you happen to be in at any given time may very well influence how you interpret the situation.  There will, of course, be exceptions to any such generalization (as is the nature of statistical significance), but my hope here is to provide an example that can begin to help us wrap our head around the context-driven aspect of interpretation, and to begin to realize that this is not a feature that is unique to religion or to instantiations of religious violence.  It is something that we all typically engage in on a daily basis.  Our contexts influence how we interpret nearly everything.  The stakes just aren’t always as high as they are when it comes to violence.  Personally, I don’t find it shocking to consider that religious beliefs can (but need not) enable violence and can be used to justify violence as a positive action.  On the contrary, I would actually find it incredibly shocking if the same interpretive lenses that we use to make nearly all of our decisions in life were not also utilized in the face of issues of such large stake as choosing when and for what reasons to participate in war and violent behavior.  In making those choices, both consciously and unconsciously, the values that we hold highest (religious or otherwise) will always be utilized among our primary means for justifying our positions and behaviors.

Making a point to similar effect, Prof. Jay Demerath has also suggested, in an earlier RSP podcast, that we cannot, as some are wont to do, simply assume that we can eliminate religion and thus eliminate the problem of violence.  Demerath calls our attention to a continuum of attributions of ‘sacredness’ among which we find both the religious sacred and the secular sacred.  Now, given how highly loaded and contested the term ‘sacred’ is in our discipline, we may choose not to use that particular word.  However, there is a more important point which Prof. Demerath is making which we should be careful not to lose in debating the merits of various terminologies (perhaps Ann Taves’ continuum model of ‘things deemed special’ [Taves 2009] could provide a less contested and more social-scientifically acceptable alternative framework).  The point is that the very same cognitive, hermeneutic enabling mechanisms that exist within ‘the religious’ can also be found in the so-called secular.  Whereas my own example of pedestrians vs. drivers is fairly mundane and would typically not qualify as involving something ‘sacred’ under any typical secular or religious banner, Dr. Victoria mentions nationalism (he also refers to ‘tribalism’) as an example of a potential secular enabling mechanism for violence, in which a group or nation is ‘sacralized’ or deemed special.

What is important to notice here is that, in such an approach, we do not posit a sui generis essence to ‘religion’ in which it is viewed as some reified thing which in itself is the enabling mechanism.  Instead, we can recognize that, as far as cognitive enabling mechanisms for violence are concerned, religious enablers only represent a particular range on a much wider spectrum of potential sources of hermeneutic support for violent action.  In our disciplinary emphasis on ‘religion’, as a specialized object of study within culture, we must be careful to refrain from suggesting that there is a unique type of ‘religious cognition’ which is distinct from other human cognitive processes (a reversion to a sui generis approach), when what we are actually dealing with are the same basic cognitive processes but applied to an issue involving religion instead of an issue involving traffic.  We might even suggest that it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

One further linked reflection is a position which, in the interview, Dr. Victoria associates with Christopher Hitchens: that the will to violence is inherent in religious belief.  I don’t know Hitchens’ work intimately enough to corroborate that this is not a straw-man recapitulation of his views, but even if it is not, it is still a sentiment that is to be encountered in some (‘New’?) atheistic rhetoric and is worth briefly considering.  The claim that the will to violence is an inherent aspect of religion seems to parallel the cognitive fallacy which social psychologists refer to as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ (FAE).  The FAE is a well-established cognitive bias of which all of us are guilty at various times (likely on a daily basis).  This cognitive ‘error’ has to do with how we characterize other people, and it occurs when we observe another person’s behavior and attribute that behavior to them as if it were an inherent feature of their personality, part of their fundamental disposition, rather than a response to a particular contextual situation.  Alternatively, in addition to the FAE, we also typically enact a ‘self-serving bias’ in which we much more easily recognize our own behaviors to be contextually influenced.  So, there is a general human tendency to attribute the behavior of others to an inherent aspect of their personality, while at the same time we have a similar-but-opposite tendency to recognize how our own behavior is affected by circumstance.

By analogy (at minimum), we can see a tendency among some atheists, in the face of religious violence, to assume that it is “religion” which is to blame, when what we are really dealing with is not a behavior that is an inherent feature of religion, but a behavior which becomes enabled and justified by a concept which happens, in some circumstances, to be a religious belief.  A football match may, given suitable enabling circumstances, result in fan riots, but most of us do not consider that rioting is an inherent aspect of football.  We know that it is something that erupts in certain contexts given certain social and cultural animosities and disputes.  There may be a minority of football fans for whom rioting is a fundamental feature of their relationship to the game and that minority may have a major influence on the ways that the public perceives football, but we know that they do not represent the essence of the fan-base, even when media attention becomes predominantly focused on them.  Demonstrating both the FAE and the self-serving bias, many atheists find violence involving religion to reflect a fundamentally violent nature to religion and, yet, when faced with examples of secular or non-religious violence, the same individuals will be much more likely to note the contextual factors which resulted in that violence and will be clear that the contextual factors mitigate us from considering violence an inherent part of atheism.

Again, as above, we find that such an attribution of inherent violence-enabling qualities to ‘religion’ ignores the problematisation of ‘essentialist’ definitions of religion which scholars have made such efforts to attempt to overcome.  There is even a sense in which Dr. Victoria, himself appears to fall into a very similar trap: early in the interview he says that “we make a great error if we think that this problem is unique to any single faith… it is, in a sense, built into all major religious traditions.”  He, then, later states that he differs from “someone like Christopher Hitchens” who “believes that the inclination to violence is built into religion itself; and my position is that, no…it has been used that way by the tribe and nation.”  This appears to be an inconsistency on Victoria’s part.  He himself initially refers to the inclination to violence as “built into” “all major religious traditions” but, also, later suggests that it is wrong to believe that “the inclination to violence is built into religion itself.”  I get the impression, however, that he is, rather, playing the role of a cynical optimist, suggesting that religion up to the present has tended to have recourse to doctrinal hermeneutics as a way of  justifying violence but that it need not necessarily do so in the future.  If Victoria is indeed imagining a possible but as-yet-unrealized religion without recourse to doctrinal violence enabling mechanisms, I applaud his optimism, but find it unlikely that our basic human cognitive capacities to justify our goals will be superseded anytime soon.  Even in the absence of religious enablers, humans will still find interpretive means to justify violent actions.

About the Author:

roundtable discussions.

References:

Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.


Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism and Holy War

“One must note the feature of religion that keeps it on the front page and on prime time: it kills.” Martin Marty

An uncritical reading of this statement from the eminent scholar in the mainstream media, and should not discourage scholars from taking seriously the issues that it raises.  Is there something particular about religion which makes it a more potent ‘violence enabling mechanism’ than other factors? Are some religions more likely to inspire violence than others? And why should scholars even care? In this interview, Chris discusses these issues and more with Professor Brian Victoria, who, in addition to his scholarly credentials,  is a fully ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

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The interview proceeds in two sections. First of all, Professor Victoria delineates his understanding of Holy War, which are expanded upon more fully in his freely available article Holy War: Toward a Holistic Understanding. Discussion flows from Karl Jaspers’ idea of the Axial Age and a movement from ‘tribal’ to ‘universalistic’ religions,  through to the potential connections between religion, nationalism, and threat perception, with potentially controversial examples from contemporary conflicts in Iraq, Israel and Palestine being cited along the way. The interview shifts its focus to the specific example of violence associated with (Japanese) Zen Buddhism, providing a stark contrast to its (admittedly positive) stereotypical reputation. How could the precept ‘there is no self’ be connected to violent acts? And what about the widely known idea of karma? You’ll have to listen to find out…

We have also published a response essay to this interview entitled Religion, Violence, and Cognition, by our very own Kevin Whitesides. Listener’s might also be interested in our previous interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Violence and the Media, and Zoe Alderton’s response to this – Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia.

Dr. Brian Victoria is Professor of Japanese Studies at Antioch University where he has been Program Director of Japan and Its Buddhist Traditions since 2005. He trained at the Sôtô Zen monastery of Eiheiji and is a fully ordained priest in that sect. He is also the author and co-author of numerous books and articles on Zen, including “Zen Master Dôgen“, Zen at War”  and Zen War Stories. The Japanese language edition of “Zen at War” served as a catalyst for Myôshinji, the largest branch of the Rinzai Zen sect, to publicly apologize for its role in support of Japanese militarism during WWII. During the program in Japan, Brian teaches Development and Doctrine of Buddhism. Together with other program instructors, he also supervises a select number of student field research projects.

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

By Zoe Alderton, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 9 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Media and Violence (7 May 2012).

Jolyon Mitchell is Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion and Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh. In this latest podcast he discusses the relationship between religions and media, focusing on issues of violence and peace. This material touches on his upcoming book, Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence: The Role of Religion and Media (Routledge: 2012). In this text, Mitchell problematises overly-simplistic readings of the media’s role in discussions of religion, conflicts, and resolutions.

In this response to his podcast, I wish to summarise some of the fascinating points raised by Mitchell. In doing so, I aim to foreground those that may illuminate Australia and its approach to sacralised violence. Living in a country where the national culture is largely secular, it is interesting to consider what the implications for Mitchell’s research are on Australian media and its presentation/proliferation of violence. Mitchell mentions a variety of nations who have undergone relatively recent conflicts and conflict resolutions, which have somehow engaged with religious groups or belief systems. At first it may seem that Australia is totally outside of this paradigm. Since the genocide of our Indigenous population, we have not seen the same kind of civil war as Mozambique. Nor have we defended our borders in a manner comparable to the Iran-Iraq conflict. Religiously motivated terrorism is more of a fear than a reality. In terms of faith, Australia is nominally Christian but has no official state religion. While the importance of this religion in Australian culture should not be underplayed, it is not a tradition that is generally considered to be an agent of national bonding.

Nevertheless, Mitchell’s framing of the media and his comments on violence as a kind of public spectacle provide an effective lens through which to consider Australia’s complicated public engagement with Anzac Day and the Anzac legend. This national holiday, intrinsically connected to violence via its origin in a First World War conflict, has an arguably religious relationship with Australian nationhood. Through various media (including television broadcasts, paintings, movies, and sculptures) the very complex and ambivalent meaning of Anzac Day is negotiated and perpetuated. Mitchell’s arguments in regards to the sensationalism and spectacle of violence will be used to account for the extreme emphasis on sacred martyrdom that permeates our national legend via a pragmatic reading of its dissemination through popular media.

For those of you who wish to read a bit more about Anzac Day, the Anzac legend, and the relationship between Anzac Day and the Media, Zoe has written a longer version of this post which is accessible here.

The spectacle of violence

In Mitchell’s podcast, he describes occasions in which media become the site, source, and inspiration for different forms of violence. The broadcast of religious motifs is a clear part of this process. Mitchell uses the example of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In this conflict, posters and mural celebrating martyrdom were produced. These images did not just concern themselves with contemporary sacrifice in the immediate conflict. Rather they wove in foundational martyrdoms such as that of Imam Hussain Ibn Ali, often conveying both narratives at once. This relationship between the media and symbolic culture is a vitally important one. In modern Australia, the troops involved in current or more recent battles are constantly conflated with the original Anzacs, making their modern-day sacrifice part of an ongoing narrative of martyrdom that feels real and compelling in its immediacy.

On a related note, Mitchell claims that news media is drawn to spectacle, and that violence is spectacular. His suggestion that media attention is often unproductive in the peace-making process tends to imply that its utility is often in the realm of proliferating conflict. Thus, it is reasonable to view the news media as a channel that prioritises that which is exciting, colourful, or engaging. Spectacle connects an audience with their television or other news medium. Spectacle helps to proliferate the aforementioned immediacy of the Anzac martyrdom that is useful and desirable if Australia wishes to draw upon its citizens’ essentially positive attitude towards sacrifice in war. The televised aspects of Anzac Day and its associated rituals tend to focus on that which is engagingly monumental and celebratory. The solemn Dawn Service at Gallipoli, including the stirring ‘last post’ by a lone bugler, is necessary viewing for a substantial portion of the nation. It is part of their ritual, and is conveniently televised.

So too is the annual commemorative parade in which veterans of all Australian wars march (or are represented posthumously by their heirs). The televisation of the Anzac Day Parade helps the nation to participate in the imaginative renewal of its mythology. Slade (2003 p.792) calls the Gallipoli story part of the sustenance of Australia. Through television, all can participate in this ceremony of cultural renewal and recitation. Of course, violence need not be advocated by any of these moving, engaging, and spectacular ceremonies or their media portrayal. Indeed, there is little about them that is openly pugnacious. Instead, the media tends to valorise holy martyrdom, implying on occasion that such a sacrifice is still necessary in order to maintain the social order of Australia as we know it today.

Is Anzac Day an example of the ambivalent sacred?

A major part of Mitchell’s podcast is the complex interrelationship of war, peace, and religion. As connected as religions may be to violence, he maintains that they also have a role to play in pacificism. His podcast speaks comprehensively of “the ambivalence of the sacred,” a term coined by R. Scott Appleby. Mitchell employs this phrase to imply “the scared can both incite violence and promote peace.” He feels that religious agents are, and can be, part of the conflict resolution process. Interestingly, Mitchell argues that this role is less publicised as it tends to happen away from cameras. The arduous process of negotiating peace does not lend itself to short broadcasts. Perhaps the potentially peaceful or anti-violent aspects of the Anzac mythology have been ignored in the popular press due to a lack of interest or broadcastability. This does not mean that they are absent, or that the reverence inspired by the Gallipoli campaign and its commemorative sites could not inspire an entirely pacifistic agenda.

Indeed, it is not clear if the Anzac legend is a discourse of war or peace. It appears to be both simultaneously, but also has potential to represent only one side of the dichotomy depending on the cause that employs it. In his discussion of Anzac as sacred and secular simultaneously, Seal (2007 p.143) calls this myth the most powerful “manifestation of an ambivalence that lies at the heart of our sense of national identity.” He compares this tonal equivocality with the confusion over Ned Kelly as hero or villain, or the simultaneous perception of British citizens as our kin and rivals. So too can Australia be seen to negotiate the sombre spaces and ceremonies of Anzac veneration with the iconic larrikin soldier and his playful disrespect for pomposity. The Anzac mythology, in negotiating equivocal and contradictory meanings, opens itself up to possibilities for violence or peacemaking. It can be used as a call to arms for present-day conflicts or a means of expressing the horrors and suffering of war.

In the case of Anzac Day 2012, the news media has shown examples of ambivalence in terms celebrating or denying violence in the name of this mythology. This is exemplified in Charles Waterstreet’s Sydney Morning Herald article Civil War Defies the Anzac Spirit. Here Waterstreet rallies for suburban peace in the wake of violence in the Sydney region. He denounces the current climate in which criminals are fighting petty wars of bluff and false bravado, betraying those who died and tried to keep such conduct from our shores. Turf wars over drug-trafficking rights and injured pride are an embarrassment to this city, to the soldiers who fought in countless wars … Taking up arms in peacetime is to spit in the face of every soldier, sailor and airman who fought.

Ambivalence is certainly present in this division of ‘good violence’ and ‘bad violence’, framed within a discourse of respect for the Anzac tradition and the sacred sacrifice.

Celebrity and violence

Another applicable component of Mitchell’s podcast is the blurring of celebrity and religious leadership. This too may be read in to the impact of spectacle in regards to what is and is not broadcast. Mitchell argues that the popular media (for example, news broadcasters) thrive on the celebrity factor. Celebrities build audiences through a process of viewer identification. Media consumers feel as though they ‘know’ a celebrity or can identify with them. As this relationship is pre-existent, a news snippet need not feel obliged establish empathy or interest in such a figure. Considering the time poverty of televised news broadcasts, the employment of a familiar religious figure with a pre-established narrative and context makes pragmatic sense. Mitchell uses religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama as an example of a familiar face with a familiar agenda. In the case of Anzac ritual and mythology, political figures are the celebrities consulted by the media in this manner.

Of course, the political celebrities themselves are transient. Demerath and Williams (1985 p.160) specify that civil religions do not connect too closely with any specific government lest they become an “idolatrous cloak of transcendental rhetoric tossed over the pursuit of momentary ends.” The proposed ultimacy of the Anzac legend has remained supra-partisan despite its intimacy with the leadership of the day. Unsurprisingly, the figure of the Prime Minister seems to be the main focal point of this engagement. In 2012, Julia Gillard has upheld this mantle, not only in terms of her actual addresses to the nation, but also in regards to the sound bites of her speeches that were disseminated through the television and printed news. For example, in a particularly popular news article, Gillard referred to Anzac Day as all that Australia embodies, more significant in terms of emotions and values than Australia Day, and a meaningful event for migrants (like herself) “who freely embrace the whole of the Australian story as their own.” Putting aside disturbing political undertones, these convenient sound bites are easily broadcast around the nation, presented by a political celebrity who needs no introduction.

Although people with anti-Anzac or anti-war sentiments may have commented on the celebrations in an equally eloquent manner, they cannot compete with one of the most easily recognised faces of Australia in a media landscape that requires abbreviation. The political celebrity Barack Obama also made news (in a story that seems entirely overblown) after sending “best wishes” to Australia and New Zealand on Anzac Day. Although the sensationalist headline would suggest otherwise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the message on Obama’s behalf. She also thanked Australia for their ongoing commitment to the war in Afghanistan, a meaningful conflation of past and present sacrifice of lives. Obama is another example of a celebrity who is suitable for a short news story on account of his national renown. His (albeit proxy) endorsement of the Anzac commemoration coupled with an endorsement of current conflicts requires little in the way of contextualisation.

Media and violence in its broadest sense

Mitchell’s broad take on the definition of ‘media’ is a useful one when considering the depth of a culture’s communicative devices. Although media is commonly shorthand for television and newspapers, Mitchell reminds us of the vast array of communicative devices that can fall under this umbrella term. Media need not be seen as the exclusive domain of the literary elect or wealthy broadcasters. Rather, Mitchell employs the term to describe a variety of devices from YouTube videos, to murals, to architecture. It is in the medium of architecture and effigy that Australia expresses some of its most reverential emotions towards the war dead.

The Pool of Reflection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The work of Ken Inglis, especially Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (1998), is vital reading on this complex topic. To briefly summarise, Inglis illuminates war memorials as sacred shrines of Australian civil religion, allowing for the preservation of memory. This sacred architecture helps to reconcile the distance between Australia and Turkey. It is difficult to negotiate sacred turf when your creation narrative takes place in a foreign nation. Slade (2003 p.787) speaks of various features of the Gallipoli battleground that make it a sacred or elevated region. This includes the lack of modern development on the peninsula (keeping it ‘authentic’ to the era of the battle), the burial of the dead where they fell, and the subsequent framing of the entire area as a cemetery. Obviously, Australia itself cannot provide this kind of sacred Anzac space. Instead, war memorials are a way of making a geographically unconnected site equally meaningful.

In Canberra, Australia’s capital city, the Australian War Memorial contains the Hall of Memory, a cathedral-like structure that performs the typical duties of a religious shrine. Seal (2007 p.140) calls the Hall of Memory “spiritual but without religious symbolism.” Although it may not contain traditional religious indicators, it still evokes religious emotion. The Hall is designated as a place of eerie silence and hushed contemplation. It is clearly demarcated as a holy site that demands respect. It is also the tomb of the Unknown Solider, with his body housed like the relics of a saint. Above his remains, viewers may look upwards to a dome reminiscent of Byzantine cathedral architecture. The dome, created in brilliant gold hues, depicts souls migrating from distant battlefields. The Hall of Memory clearly connotes the existence of the extramundane.

The dome ceiling

The museum component of the Australian War Memorial should also be seen as a communicative device in terms of Australia’s relationship to sacred violence. As Chris Healy (1997 pp.73-74) argues, the museum is a medium that trains citizens in their acquisition of social memory. A visitor to the Australian War Memorial is encouraged to have a spiritual, or at least reflective, experience in the Hall of Memory. They may then use the educational, historical museum in order to arrange their feelings of awe, or reverence, or respect into a cultural narrative. This narrative, conveyed through the museum medium, contextualises the violence and horrific loss of the nation into a rhetoric of sacrifice, sacred ‘mateship’, and a patriotism that transcends personal concerns.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Conclusions

Much more could be said on the Anzac legend, its various components, and the reverential lack of critique it receives in the present era. I believe it is valuable to consider what our state mythology and most revered holiday dictates in terms of the national character. Mitchell’s exploration of the sensationalism and spectacle of violence explains much in terms of the news media’s preferences as to which aspects of the legend they choose to show and propagate. So too does Mitchell help to illuminate the value of celebrity in moral debates. Pragmatically speaking, the Anzac narrative is a story that most Australians know and care about. It is a discourse that is easily associated with well-known political and public figures. It is also an exciting and visually stimulating event that transfers well to the broadcasting of its rituals, or the artistic enactment of its sacred narratives and archetypal heroes. At its core, the Anzac mythology may indeed contain the ambivalence that Mitchell sees in the relationship between religion, violence, and peace. Nevertheless, its present incarnation seems to be concerned with the public condoning of martyrdom and the celebration of militaristic duty in deeply spiritualised terms.

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

About the Author:

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.

References:

Bellah, R.N., 1967. ‘Civil Religion in America’, Daedalus, vol. 96, no. 1, pp. 1-21.

Crouter, R., 1990. ‘Beyond Bellah: American Civil Religion and the Australian Experience’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 154-165.

Demerath, N.J., and Williams, R.H., 1985. ‘Civil Religion in an Uncivil Society’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 480, pp. 154-166.

Geertz, C., 1966. ‘Religion as a Cultural System’, in M. Banton (ed.), Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, Tavistock, London.

Healy, C., 1997. From the Ruins of Colonialism: History As Social Memory, Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Inglis, K., 1998. Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Sacket, L. 1985. ‘Marching Into the Past: Anzac Day Celebrations in Adelaide’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 9, iss. 17, pp. 18-30.

Seal, G., 2007. ‘ANZAC: The Sacred in the Secular’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 31, iss. 91, pp. 135-144.

Slade, P., 2003. ‘Gallipoli Thanatourism: The Meaning of ANZAC’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 30, no. 4, pp.779-794.

 

Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Violence and the Media

Discussions of religion in the media nowadays frequently revolve around issues of violence and social unrest. Religions and media can become collaborators in promoting peace and opening negotiations; at the same time the media can become host to extremist narratives which may incite violence. Does the media have a responsibility to promote peace? Are religions becoming more skilled at manipulating the media?

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

Before being appointed to the University of Edinburgh, Jolyon Mitchell worked as a producer and journalist for BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4. As Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues he directs a number of research projects and helps to host a wide range of public lectures and events.

His latest book, which this interview was structured around, is Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence (Routledge, to be published in Sept. 2011). Earlier publications include The Religion and Film Reader (co-editor with S. Brent Plate Routledge, 2007), and Mediating Religion: Conversations in Media, Religion and Culture (co-editor with Sophia Marriage, Continuum, 2003). Prof Mitchell is also co-editor of three research monograph series with Routledge, including on Media, Religion and Culture; and on Film and Religion. He was director of the Third International Conference on Media, Religion and Culture, Edinburgh, July 1999 and director of the Fourth International Conference on Peacemaking in the World of Film: from Conflict to Reconciliation, Edinburgh, July 2007.

Podcasts

Millennialism and Violence?

Descriptions of the End Times are full of violent imagery, of mass destruction through earthquakes, tidal waves, fire and ice. These images are written deeply into our culture through the book of Revelation, but are by no means limited to the Christian imagination. Often, our idea of modern millennial groups is informed by images of violent confrontations between them and the state, for example at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, or of mass suicide, such as with Heaven’s Gate or the People’s Temple at Jonestown.

Are we right to connect millennialism and violence? Are these groups typical, or rare exceptions, magnified out of proportion by the lens of the media – and scholarship? How do we account for the popularity of millennialism outside of religious traditions, new, extreme or otherwise?

This audio/visual episode was produced in collaboration with CenSAMM, the Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements.

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


Podcast with Eileen Barker, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster and Tristan Sturm (22 May 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available CenSAMM conference – Millennialism and Violence 1.1.

David Robertson (DR): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m here today, in the grounds of the Panacea Museum in sunny Bedford, for the inaugural CenSAMM conference on the subject of Millenarian Groups and Violence. I’m joined today by Moojan Momen, by Joseph Webster, by Eileen Barker and by Tristan Sturm. And we’re going to discuss the issues around millenarianism, millennialism and violence. And all of the talks from this conference have been streamed and there’ll be a link to that below. But just to get the ball rolling, I’m going to ask: what is it we’re talking about? I mean “millenarianism”, “millennialism”, “apocalypticism”: are these different terms? What do they mean? Joe, maybe you could get the ball rolling on that?

Joseph Webster (JW): OK, yes. It’s an interesting question. I’m not so sure that I have a clear answer, possibly because a clear answer doesn’t exist. I think these terms have been used for a very long time, interchangeably. Sometimes, that’s because of potentially sloppy scholarship on behalf of those who are using the terms. On the other hand, part of the answer might be that these terms – particularly millenarianism and millennialism – have been, to some extent, interchangeable. The OED – which isn’t the final word on these conversations but still, nevertheless – the OED does define these terms as synonyms. The way that millenarianism is used in anthropology – the discipline that I come from – tends to see millennialism as more distinctly Christian than millenarianism; millenarianism being treated as a broader term that has resonances with the Cargo Cult literature and the Ghost Dance literature. However, again, that’s not universally true. Some scholars within anthropology do use millennialism as a way to refer to Cargo Cults and the Ghost Dance. So, whilst I don’t think there’s any clear definitional answer, my assumption would be that the best way to proceed is how the groups themselves use these terms. And they don’t, actually, tend to use of either of those terms for themselves. So let’s take it from there.

Tristan Sturm (TS): I would add to that “apocalypticism”. And I think we can think about apocalypticism versus millennialism – which is the distinction I would use – as two sides of the same coin. The Apocalypse or apocalypticism, meaning unveiling, happens before the Millennium: 1000 years, or a period of time after which the world ends. So, I would understand it that way; I would teach that to my students. I would say apocalypticism is the events before the sort-of  Revelation – or the end of the world – and the Renewal is the Millennium. That’s how I would understand it. And I think, using apocalypticism versus millennialism is important in certain cases. Apocalypticism is useful, of course, for various secular movements who don’t believe in a Renewal, a new world, right? Whether that would come from climate change; Trumpism – potentially – for some individuals; and for others, equally, Barrack Obama, right? That doesn’t have, necessarily, a Christian or any religious overlay over it. We can still use the term apocalypticism – and I think many social theorists do – to talk about things like climate change and the severity of the series of events that would happen from that.

DR: We’re often, when we hear about apocalypticism, millennialism, we’re often hearing about these cults, these controversial new religious movements. Eileen, maybe you’d speak to this? Is there some necessary connection between new religious movements and apocalyptic millennial thinking?

Eileen Barker (EB): No.

DR: Then why is it so often connected in the public mind?

EB: Well, it’s quite frequent that millennial groups, or millenarian groups or apocalyptic groups will be termed cults. And cults, sort-of technically, usually means some kind of religious or non-religious movement that’s in tension with society in some ways. There’s a sort-of classic division between the cult and the sect, which are in tension with society and a denomination of the church, which aren’t. But, technically, that’s one thing. But just generally, in popular parlance, to say something is a cult means: “it’s a religion I don’t like”. And it’s not really very much more than that. (5:00) I mean, I often get asked: “Is it a real religion, a genuine religion, or is it a cult?” And you’ve just got to say, “Well, what do you mean by a cult?” and one man’s, or one woman’s cult is a another person’s religion. Nobody says, “I belong to a cult.” Not seriously. They might say it as a joke, or in self-defence. Now, some of these movements on which people put the label of cult are millenarian, but most of them are not. Well, I wouldn’t like to say how many are and how many aren’t, but the two don’t necessarily go together – except that it’s more likely that the millenarian groups are a sub-group of cult. But you get millenarianism in denominations and in church – if you’re just looking at the tension with society – so it goes either way. You’ve got to be terribly clear what you’re talking about. And sometimes such categories are useful, but quite often they just obscure.

DR: Indeed.

EB: So, say what you’re talking about!

Moojan Momen (MM): And I think we need to bear in mind that, even Christianity itself , when it first arose – if you read the Gospels – you’ll see there that they are talking about how Christianity is fulfilling prophecy. So Christianity is, therefore, a millenarian movement in Judaism and was probably regarded as a cult by other Jews. So, we’re talking about a history of religion developing gradually from being a cult, to being a sect, to being a religion.

DR: And how important is prophecy? Is this an essential aspect here?

EB: I think so, almost by definition. Because you’re expecting something to happen. So you have some kind of knowledge that’s come from somewhere. Now it might just be in your own little brain, but usually there’s somebody who says . . . or a book or something that can be read as saying . . . . So, there’s some sort of “saying” what’s going to happen in the future. It’s future-oriented.

DR: Yes. But it’s not entirely about the future?

EB: Oh no. No, I’m not saying that. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

DR: It’s a good in.

JW: Yes, I think that’s right. I think one of the key aspects to whether we’re talking about millenarian movements, or apocalyptic movements, or millennialism, is the way in which temporality and time are really central to what’s going on. And crucially, I think, the way in which parts of time, which we customarily think of as very distinct, actually end up collapsing into each other and becoming conflated. So: the present being seen as a very unique moment when prophecy is being fulfilled; when things that were said of the future are coming to pass right now; but also that the present is seen as deeply resonant with an ancient past. Look at the way in which the Christian groups, for instance, that are most dispensational – groups like the Brethren, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Baptist groups – certainly look at today’s age as morally bankrupt and immediately reach back into the Old Testament past for examples of the same: Sodom and Gomorrah, the days of Noah, the days of the Tower of Babel. And, immediately, what that does is it transforms the present into something that is not only future-oriented, but is deeply indebted to, and is seen as a replaying of ancient past Biblical events.

EB: Of course the Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, have a linear view of history: that there’s a past, we’re in present and there is a future. And they’re promising something about the future. But we should remember that a lot of new religions, cults, sects, traditional religions, are cyclical. And they see time in this sort-of birth, death, rebirth etc. Now, sometimes it’s an upwards spiral. Sometimes you go through various ages. But they’re not just sort-of straight lineal like they are in the Abrahamic [faiths], which lend themselves more to apocalyptic visions because there’s something happening. But within Hinduism you can get different ages, which can be very different. And the New Age, indeed. There’s something very fundamental that’s changing in society, which is what’s expected in these kind of movements.

TS: I would agree, but I also think, prior to say the Enlightenment, prior to Hobbes or someone like that, you would see, I think, a cyclical idea within Christianity, still. (10:00) I’m taking this from Reinhart Koselleck and he says, you know, the ideas of the Apocalypse didn’t really emerge in the everyday life of Christians until, really, the period of the Enlightenment, with the idea of progress, and the Kantian idea that because the past is different, the future must also be different. And so we get this idea that the Apocalypse isn’t part of a cycle, a scaled-up everyday cycle of seasons, that we would see with a lot of individuals. So, I think there is a change actually happening around the end of the 16th century, where we’re moving even out of a Christian cyclicalism to a more linear idea of the future. And I would add to that that I think now the future is becoming more important. And it’s been studied I think, even across disciplines, it’s becoming this tag term, that we’re trying to theorise now. And I think here of Susan Harding, for example, who talks about “memories of the future”. And she talks about, you know, that the future is a kind of memory. We have an idea of the past and those are kind-of memories as well, outside of history. We’re selective about the memories that we want to bring to the present and give continuity to the way things are. In the same way, we do that with the future. We kind-of know how the future’s going to play out. We have a sort of selectivity of ideas. There are certain paths that we’re pretty sure are more likely to happen that others. And we go down those paths. And prophecy functions in a similar way. It tries to close off the way the future could go. It sort-of says, “Well, this is the likely space that the future will go.” And so it’s closing off of the future. And we have a kind of memory of the future. We re-member ideas from the future. And we all do this. We do this with our jobs, how we foresee our lives are going to go. And they more-or-less do take place the way we probably thought that they would, given a certain level of difference there. And so, I would say that about time. And I also . . . and there’s a book that I really like. It’s called “The Past is a Foreign Country” and he says that we’re selective about our pasts. But I would say that the future is also a foreign country where we’re selective about the future that we want to bring, to give meaning to our present. And, you know, St Augustine said this as well. He said that there’s no such thing as the past or the future. There’s only the present past, the present present, and the present future. And he’s referring to that kind of presentism, I think, that exists across religions and everyday life. And that’s really where we only exist.

DR: Well, I think an interesting and very important part of millennial thinking and prophetic thinking is that it places the individual right at this axis point of history. As you say, you know, it’s the memories of history: a narrative construction, leading to this point and you have various futures branching out. And something about apocalyptic and millennialism, when it becomes involved in violence particularly, is that sometimes it’s seen that in order for the future to go one way there has to be some sort of violent or cataclysmic change; which brings us to the issue of violence, then. Is there a necessary connection between millenarianism and violence? Or is that only in the popular imagination?

EB: Absolutely not.

JW: I couldn’t agree more. I see nothing within millenarianism that makes it essentially violent. And I think the other important point to make is that not only do we “other” millenarian groups, by often assuming that they are violent, but we normalise ourselves – the secular, the non-religious, the mainstream – as something that is somehow essentially non-violent. So we make cults and sects and millenarianism essentially violent and we make the mainstream somehow essentially non-violent. And I think both are completely false. The evidence just does not stack up.

MM: And, of course, we’re sitting here at the Panacea Society, which was a millenarian movement that was not at all violent, so . . . . And, in fact, probably the vast majority of millenarian movements are not violent. It requires a certain set of circumstances to lead a millenarian movement to violence. And the vast majority of them don’t have that set of circumstances.

TS: Can I add to that?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TS: I guess I’m interested in the way we’re using the word “violence”, here. I think we’re talking about overt, coercive types of violence. But I think discourse or language can be violent as well. (15:00) I think certain other, “small v” forms of violence take place as well. And they take place outside of . . . they’re not exclusive or endemic to millennial movements, they happen in everyday life. I’m speaking here of a kind of power that we exact on all sorts of things. And millennial movements, apocalyptic movements are a different kind of normative discourse and they challenge the dominant normative discourses that Joe was just talking about, right? In a sense they’re kind-of doing a violence: they’re trying to change the way we think about the world. Our normative way that we think about the world is not the right way, it’s not the absolute truth. It’s truth because more people believe it than often the millennial and apocalyptic movements. That doesn’t mean there’s not a kind of violence that’s going on there: there is.

DR: Absolutely.

EB: I’d like to add that a lot of the movements are actually pacifist and they work hard for pacifism. And it’s very interesting that today, while this is being recorded – April 6th – the Jehovah’s Witnesses are – perhaps it’s already happened – being threatened with entire extinction from Russia, because they are absolutely non-violent. They’re in prison in places like South Korea because they’re conscientious objectors. They won’t kill. They’re prepared to be killed. They were killed in Auschwitz, for example. Unlike the Jews and the homosexuals and the Gypsies, who were going to suffer anyway, the Jehovah’s Witnesses could have said, “No, we’ll obey the state”, and they didn’t. They preferred to be killed rather than this.

DR: Mmm.

EB: Because they just refused to do certain things. And the group that you were talking about today, also tried to be pacifist. And so it’s not just that they’re not violent. They will work against sometimes. But of course, some are violent with a capital V.

MM: Yes, the group that I was talking about today was historically the Bábis of Iran. They were a precurser of what is today the Bahai faith. But in mid-19th century Iran they were a group that became very popular, spread very rapidly. And the leader of this group worked very hard to diffuse the violent possibilities, because he claimed to be the Mahdi – and people were expecting the Mahdi to come and lead an army to victory. So they were expecting a violent result from Mahdi coming, and the Báb worked very hard to diffuse that potential for violence. And, really, one of the main factors that eventually did lead to violence, as a result of this movement, was the fact that the Báb was removed from his ability to lead his followers. Because he was imprisoned in a fortress, right up in the northwest corner of the country, and therefore cut off from his followers and prevented from leading his followers in the way that he wanted to.

DR: Did you want to add something there, Joe?

JW: Well, this is an issue that we’ve been discussing throughout the day. I think, when we speak about violence, when we speak about the way in which pacifism within new religious movements is often ignored . . .

EB: Or, seen as dangerous and violent!

JW: Indeed. . . where the refusal to fight becomes a type of extremism. I think, connected to this, is the way in which, in some cases scholars, and in other cases political entities – governmental agents – try and explain away millenarian movements rather than explain them. And, I guess, by that I mean that they have a tendency to look for external causes of behaviour: explanations which, wholesale, refuse to countenance the possibility that the local native account – emerging from within the religious movement in question – might have something to contribute to an understanding of why that movement is doing what it’s doing; or in some cases, not doing what it’s not doing, for instance, fighting. So if we try, as scholars, to begin to break down the idea that religious movements are saying and doing one thing and on the other hand our job is to analyse them in ways that are alien to that movement and external to that movement; if we begin to break down that process of explanation, I think we might begin to have a more fertile understanding of what new religious movements are, or what millennial movements are. Because we can learn things from them in ways that very often we simply refuse to acknowledge.

DR: Absolutely. (20:00) And that’s something I talk about a lot, especially. . . . It’s part of the heritage of Religious Studies to be talking about beliefs, and particularly about deviant beliefs, and sometimes going as far as pathologising these kind of ways of viewing the world. But your work, I know, is talking about things that are very relevant to today: you mentioned Trump earlier on. And when these political movements, for instance, suddenly start to engage with other millenarian kind-of ideas, I think it shocks people when they actually realise, “ well, maybe this is more normal” than they perhaps realised.

TS: I think there’s a couple of things going on here, right? Let’s start with Trump. One of Trump’s main security advisers, Steve Bannon, has his own millennial perspective: something he calls the Fourth Turning. He gets this from a series of books on generations, which is a kind of secular apocalypse: that the world is getting bad, capitalism is being destroyed, traditional culture is being broken down, and he needs to take action to do something about that. In other ways, some millennial groups align themselves with political groups, right? And maybe their action is something as simple and normative as voting. It’s not really taking action. In fact, many of the groups that I study – Christian Zionists [for example] – are fatalistic. They’re pacifists, in the sense that they don’t actually take any kind of physical action, but they might vote. But we might even argue that doing nothing sometimes is still taking a side, right? So the groups that I study, the Pilgrims – the Christian Zionist programmes from the United States, going to Israel and Palestine – they’re not doing anything to contribute to the conflicts that I write about, directly. But indirectly they are, insofar as they support a tourism industry; they support a particular political ideology, both in Israel and America that might actually take physical violence, or take the form of physical violence. So, in a sense, they’re pacifists but they’re still involved, or part of the assemblage of violence, I would argue.

DR: So when violence does arise, then, what is difference? What happens there? What is the process by which a group minority or majority becomes violent? I mean, there are well-known cases, obviously: Waco seems to be the sort of paradigmatic account today, at the conference; but Heavens Gate as well; Jonestown. What is it that causes violence in these unusual cases?

EB: Well, they’re all different. Part of our job, as scholars, is to look at the particulars in order to try and compare them, in order to see the similarities and differences, and pull out some of the threads and similarities. But there aren’t a certain number of similarities, and the other things are different: there are groups; there are categories; there are clusters; bundles of things that seem to go together; and the sort of tension that Joe was talking about earlier between the internal reasons and the external reasons – and Stuart Wright had a paper, today, which talked about this – and the importance of seeing the interaction between the two. And you can’t predict by doing one or the other: it’s seeing how the two react on each other. And these can lead to spirals of what criminologists call “deviance amplification”: each side does something that’s slightly bad in the other side’s view and gives the other side permission to be slightly worse. And so it grows. . . and then – wham! And Waco is an example of that. But Waco is very, very unusual, thank goodness! There are cases where you can see this writ large – and they’re easy to see – and therefore we focus on them, because they give us a kind of template, or an idea, against which we can measure the other movements which are not like that. And I think it’s very important that we keep remembering that they’re not like that, and that we look at the other ones and take those into our calculation, as well. I think that’s important. I think the reason why Waco – or perhaps another example would be Aum Shinrikyo – becomes paradigmatic is because, there is some sense in which we’ve already come to the study of Millenarian movements having decided that they are somehow profoundly different to religions at large. And therefore, by a process of scholarly selection by us, we simply focus on those cases which fit the paradigm. (25:00) This is the classic case of “normal science”: that we simply look for evidence which fits pre-existing paradigms and conveniently – or, in some cases, very inconveniently – ignore all the other counter examples; and the theories – or, in some cases, prejudices – that we have of these groups are wrongly reinforced. And another consequence of this is, as Eileen says: many of the groups that are committed to non-violence – or don’t even feel the need to commit themselves to non-violence because they are so inherently non-violent that that commitment doesn’t need to made – that those groups are simply ignored. Many people don’t focus on those groups because they simply don’t fit the prejudices that we seem to have within the scholarship.

EB: I think we have to make the distinction between the violence that is done to a group and violence that the group does. And nearly all the violence is done – again with a capital V – is done to their own members. Some are done to people that they know, personally, who they don’t like. And very, very few are done to strangers: Aum Shinrikyo is an example, but one of the very few; the Manson family is another one. But, mostly, the harm is internal rather than externally directed. Most of them expect that God, or something, will happen: the Apocalypse or Armageddon will happen. Now, they might have to be the midwife – and that’s another quite interesting question that we haven’t touched on yet, is: what happens when prophecy fails, when they expect this great big change? But I think it’s important to remember that very, very few go around killing people. That tends to be the traditional major religions – the churches and the denominations – who’ve got the money and the armies. Now, of course, it might be different if they get hold of sarin gas or something, but this happened very much . . . .

DR: This ties into what you were saying before, about the importance . . . . We have to generalise, to some degree, to make cross-comparisons, but we have to remain aware of the important differences all the time. And, a lot of the time, these groups that we’re comparing – the actual violence that we’re talking about is very, very different. And you also have cases like Heaven’s Gate, where there’s very little evidence of coercion there. I mean, if you watch the exit videos that the members shot, for instance, they’re going quite happily into that situation with their eyes fully open. It’s only from our external point of view that it can be described as violence at all – largely because of going into it, or looking at it, with this kind of brainwashing mentality that earlier discourses on new religions bought into, which is very much discredited now.

EB: And they were only harming themselves.

DR: Exactly

EB: And Joe ought to jump down on me immediately, because they didn’t see themselves as harming . . . .

JW: Of course!

EB: They saw themselves as being ‘transitionised”, or whatever the word was?

JW: Going to the level above the human, TELAH. Yes, I think that’s a really interesting point: that what he have here is – to bring it back to your question about failed prophecy, and this does link to violence . . . . Whether or not we can genuinely point to groups like Heaven’s Gate; or classic historical case studies like the Millerites; or Festinger’s famous book about cognitive dissonance, using the Seekers – even if we leave violence in the equation, or if we take it out – there is still the enduring question about: does prophecy for these groups ever fail at all?

EB: Oh, it does!

JW: Well see, I’m not so sure about that. When I think about Heaven’s Gate I think about the fact that they ended their lives and – as far as we’re aware, as far as they’re aware – made a successful journey to where they were going. The same, I think, can be said with the Seekers and Mrs Keech: the idea that the prophecy did not fail, the flood didn’t fail to arrive, it wasn’t a failure, it was them successfully spreading enough light to call the floods off. The Seventh Day Adventists did not explain away a failure of Millerite prophecy. It seems to me that Ellen White simply realised that Miller’s prophecy was correct but that the revolution began in heaven, not on earth. So, I’m intrigued to hear your pushback on that. In what cases does prophecy really fail?

EB: Well there are some groups that have said, “Oops, we got it wrong!” (30:00) I can’t remember his name. The man who – it was May sometime about 4 or 5 years ago – Radio something . . .

All: Harold Camping

JW: Family Radio

EB: Now, he said . . .

DR: After a couple of events, yes!

EB: And, at that time, he said “God got it wrong”, according a newspaper headline!

DR: Which is one of the techniques mentioned in Festinger’s books, actually: that the transmission was garbled and – reception issues.

EB: You can get the reception wrong; you can have it happening in the spirit world – like with Joanna Southcott and lots of others; you can have people saying, “Well, because we did this, we stopped the terrible thing happening”; or you can say, “Because they didn’t do this, God didn’t come yet. We weren’t ready. We didn’t listen to the Messiah, telling us what to do.” There are a whole lot of different ways out. But there are those that . . . . There was a chap – again, I can’t remember, I want to say Garland – he was a Chinese chap in America. And he said, “I’ll come out and apologise if nothing’s happened.” And he came out and apologised. This was about ten years ago. He was Chinese, or he was Oriental of some kind.

DR: Well, hopefully, one of the listeners can tell us who it is in the comments.

EB: I’m sure they will. And provide other examples.

DR: I hope they do.

TS: I want to add to this conversation about “small v” versus “big V” violence. I think, one way in which small v violence takes place is . . . Harold Camping is a good example. A lot of people – thousands of people – sold their houses, they went into debt; they expected this to happen. That had a tremendous amount of violence on their families and their lives. They moved into forests, they bought bunkers. This is a form of violence, right? I think another form of violence, that wasn’t really talked about in the conference, is spatial violence: the way that these groups imagine spaces in particular ways; homogenised spaces; map spaces; understand whole groups of people in homogenised ways and treat them in certain ways. And some of these groups are aligned with state power. Sometimes the state see them as a threat, and disciplines them with large V Violence. And sometimes they align themselves with the state: with large V Violence; by their voting for them; by their interests. We’re seeing this at the moment with Donald Trump – he’s doing all sorts of violence to homosexuals, to women’s rights over their body, these sorts of things – aligning themselves with larger Christian movements like Christian Zionists, like pre-millennial dispensationalist, right. . . that are doing violence to all sorts of other people within the electorate. And also, in terms of foreign policy, the way that Americans understand Muslims, the war in Iraq, right? These are all contributing factors. I think maybe the mistake, then, is to look at just the millennial movement. You have to see the effects that they have outside of their movement, right? Their social effects. Look at Marxism, for example. This is a good example . . . . Or another point, maybe, I want to make is the difference between belief and practice. So, we have textual beliefs – we have written documents, for a lot of these groups – and then we have the way people actually act, which are two different things. You know, would someone say that Stalin was a true Communist – a true Marxist – who murdered millions of people? Is that an example? Marxism is a form of millennialism: it’s clearly interpreted and was influenced by Jewish and Christian thought, in the way that there is a kind of . . . . Capitalism kind-of reaches a point where it can’t abide, it fails, and then we have a kind of proletariat millennialism afterwards. So the practice and belief is also a discussion that we need to have, within these discussions.

DR: Unfortunately, I’m going to have to do small v violence to the conversation and to return to the subject of time! We have been talking about this all day. We could continue to talk about it all evening, and we will be talking about it again, tomorrow. For the viewer and listener I urge you to check out the millennialism, on new religious movements, on violence and these kind of issues. Other than that, I would like to thank all of our participants for taking part. And thanks for watching.


Citation Info:, Barker, Eileen, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster, Tristam Strum. 2017. “Millennialism and Violence?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 18 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/millennialism-and-violence/

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Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

From the Ku Klux Klan to Zombies

Many of us only know about the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan through film and television, and much of what we see blurs fact and fiction. Distinguishing each side of that messy divide is the prolific Kelly J. Baker, exploring how media portrayals of the hate group have influenced audiences and, in turn, fed back on its own members. This previously unaired interview conducted by A. David Lewis from 2013 sketches out the rise of the KKK on the large and small screen, its relevance to discussions of religious terrorism today, and perhaps even a link to Baker’s other work on zombies in popular culture.

Gospel According to the Klan
The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930
Kelly J. Baker

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

Of Demon Kings and Protestant Yakṣas

Let me begin by saying that this is not a critique, but an effort to contribute to a conversation about issues that have affected me personally as a scholar. In particular, I want to suggest a few approaches that might be straws for the fire in the evolving discourse regarding “Protestant Buddhism” and the general influence of colonialism on Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

My most personal experience in regard to the issues raised by the Religious Studies Project interview with Stephen Berkwitz came while doing research on warfare with Pāli scholars. Again and again, as I directed their attention to jātakas in which the Buddha was a warrior, they would tell me that no such jātaka could exist. Their impression of Buddhist pacifism was so strong that, even though their knowledge of Pāli literature was vastly superior to my own, it had created a blind spot for aspects of their own tradition. It is my impression, [one that might be fruitfully disputed], that that blind spot is a result of the war-weary West’s idealization of Buddhists as the perfect pacifist other. This idealization offered colonized peoples a new and highly attractive moral superiority, which they brilliantly wielded as an act of cultural self-defense. But the power of this naïve Euro-American projection also deprived Sri Lankan’s of the valuable cultural resources that it eclipsed. That blind spot does not obscure the “dark side of Buddhism,” as one recent scholar called the ethics of violence that seem to emerge when we look at Buddhist narrative literature, but rather obscures a richly nuanced and flexible ethic that might have provided rich resources for Sri Lanka’s civil war and postwar reconciliation. There could not be more at stake for the nation that gave the world the suicide-bomber. A similar kind of effect can be seen among young Tibetan refugees, many of whom reject Buddhism, generally blaming its pacifism, a pacifism that never existed, for the loss of their country. The disappointment of Western pacifists here is not unlike the reaction of early Orientalists who, disappointed by the ritualism and deity-worship they found in living Buddhist cultures, described a degenerate Buddhism.[1]

One of the uncomfortable aspects of these kinds of critiques, including my own, is that once again Western scholars seem to claim the high ground and reveal Sri Lankans as passive victims of false consciousness. However, we should remember that cultural heroes like Dharmapala and Walpola Rahula [whose What the Buddha Taught is still found in undergraduate syllabi and dharma-center curricula] knew our languages, culture, values, scriptures and scholarship, including everything ever written about Buddhism in the West, far better than we knew theirs. They exerted great influence on the presentation of their tradition and, along with Neo-Vedānta, powerfully influenced American and European thought. This was not a passive or even merely reactive endeavor. In my experience, Sri Lanka is extraordinary among post-colonial nations for the cosmopolitanism, power and sophistication of its intellectuals. Dharmapala was perfectly poised to open up a can of whoop-ass on naïve Americans at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Buddha taught evolution! Any image of colonials passively subjected to Western influence should be balanced by the embarrassing naiveté and false consciousness this whole discourse reveals among the colonizers and the powerful role seized by Sri Lankans in the representation of their own world.[2]

The whole issue of “Protestant Buddhism” needs to be considered from multiple dimensions that can get mixed up. Any reformulation of Buddhism tuned to Western sensibilities would by implication be tuned to Protestant and scientific biases. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught is a brilliant adaptation to these biases. The reformulation of Buddhism that was tuned to Western needs, biases, and weaknesses, was also tuned to the needs of Westernized Sri Lankan intellectuals and helped draw them back to Buddhism. So, one dimension of the construction of “Protestant Buddhism” is the Protestantized, pacifist, and scientific image of Buddhism integral to dialogue with the West, including the indigenous Westernized intellectuals who were situated in between worlds. This construction was enhanced by the fact that Sri Lankan intellectuals, who were attracted to this image for many of the same reasons, presented themselves as representative of the tradition as such. These figures may have had more influence on the Western perception of Buddhism than they did on their own country’s.

Buddhists at a stūpa in Kandy worshipping the Hindu deity Kartikeya (photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Sometimes it seems that we mix up our own romantic Protestantized image of Buddhism with what we are pointing toward in Sri Lankan culture. There are useful and intelligent reasons to use the descriptor “Protestant” in describing modern changes in Theravāda Buddhism, but any observer expecting to find Rahula’s Buddhism in Sri Lanka is much more likely to be shocked by how un-Protestant, even un-Theravādin, Buddhism in Sri Lanka really is. It is hard to fit Avalokiteśvara, an obsession with yakṣas, the integral worship of “Hindu” deities, and so on into an image of the bare white New England church. On the other hand, the Theravāda Buddhism that became the stock in trade of every Introduction to Buddhism class strikes me as very Protestant indeed. I look forward to reading Stephen Berkwitz’s new book about the poet Alagiyavanna, who eventually converted to Catholicism and sounds like an early example of a Sri Lankan scholar caught between worlds.

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

One of the most salient things about Sri Lanka is that the dominant majority feels like a threatened minority. Perhaps this is a more recent phenomenon, but it reminds me of how important India has been in shaping Sinhala identity. Traveling in Sri Lanka, I was struck by the presence of Vibhīṣana, the brother of the demon King Rāvana, at Buddhist sacred sites. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Vibhīṣana is portrayed as the good Rākṣasa that advises his brother to surrender Sri Lanka to the ideal Hindu King, Rāma. Although the Rāmāyaṇa did not have great currency among Sinhalese Buddhists, Vibhīṣana was deliberately utilized by Buddhist Kings as a model for their submission to the imperial power of South India whose Kings modeled themselves on Rāma.[3] This response demonstrates a self-conscious and sophisticated approach to manipulating and utilizing the ideals of the outsider as a practical technique for moderating their negative impact. The story of Sri Lanka’s contention with destructive invasive violence and outside imperialist ambitions long precedes Western colonialism. So, I close by wondering whether it might be useful to consider whether the earlier relationship with the once expansive power of South India has anything to tell us, even by way of contrast, about the evolution of Sri Lanka’s adaptation to colonialist forces.

[1] For a more extended rant on these issues see Stephen Jenkins. “A Review Essay on The Range of the Bodhisattva, A Mahāyāna Sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2014.

[2] For a longer discussion see Stephen Jenkins, “Black Ships, Blavatsky, and the Pizza Effect: Critical Self Consciousness as a Thematic Foundation,” in Teaching Buddhism in the West: From the Wheel to the Web, Curzon Press, ed., Victor Hori, 2002.

[3] I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Walters on Vibhīṣana and he was kind enough to forward a copy of this fascinating article. Walters, Jonathan S. 1990-1994. “Vibhisana and Vijayanagar: An Essay on Religion and Geopolitics in Medieval Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 17 and 18, nos. 1 and 2 (Special Jubilee Issue): 129-142.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

Picture 118While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

By Travis Warren Cooper, Indiana University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Paul WIlliamson on Serpent Handling (3 June 2013)

In one melancholic and chilling scene in director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), leading man Brad Pitt’s rendition of the famous American outlaw sits outside his Missouri home. He holds snakes in his hand, both as an allusion to Jesse James’s revivalist family background and intertextual echo of earlier filmic portrayals of the outlaw’s capricious and violent personality.

The Jesse James of the historical record was not an Appalachian serpent-handling Pentecostal, of course. But Hollywood likes to blend its symbols, especially its religious ones, and tends to prefer homogenized provocation over denominational specification. In an earlier Revisionist Western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Robert Duvall―an actor now known for his critical portrayals of charismatic religions in films such as The Apostle (1997)―stages a prophetic utterance to determine Northfield,

Minnesota as the next site of exploit. This revival-type soliloquy, along with the snake-handling allusion of the 2007 film, construes Jesse James in terms of both violent outlawry and religious extremism. If film is to any degree a barometer of cultural perceptions on a subject, both Pitt and Duvall’s scenes are commentaries on the close relationship between religion and violence. Serpent-handling is one visible face of these tensions.

A lightning-rod of controversy, serpent-handling is a contentious practice on multiple levels. As popular media attest, the ritual is a filmic symbol of North American religion. More specifically, it is an iconic metonym of U. S. Pentecostalism. Protestants live deeply material lives, as scholars have argued (McDannell, 1995), and some of them interact with prayer cloths, guitars, bottled anointing oils, thick hymnbooks, and worn family Bibles in densely intertwined networks of objects and quasi-objects of the Latourian sort (1993). In obedience to what they see as clear biblical mandate, snake-handling Pentecostals take up canebrake rattlers and copperheads—and on rare occasions, cottonmouths or diamondbacks—living objects that have the potential to strike and kill their bearers. Snakes are living agents and dangerous ritual objects.

That religion manifests in violence often finds itself made light of in pop cultural depictions, such as in Duvall’s expert mimicry of a Southern preacher’s drawl as he gives his pseudo-prophecy. Is this an uneasy laughter, a nervous chuckle, of sorts, that holds cultural anxieties at bay, and perhaps allows viewers to laugh off these ambivalences? Cultural depictions of serpent-handlers are often cynically comical in their accounts. Moe Szyslak, a character in The Simpsons, brandishes bandaged hands and refuses to join Homer’s new religion, saying, “I was born a snake handler, and I’ll die a snake handler.” More recently, comedian Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina in The Campaign (2012). In this irreverent parody of the American political system, Brady attempts to assuage the public’s concern that he is not really a Christian by joining a serpent-handling congregation. All this occurs after his political opponents shame him for not being able to publicly recite the Lord’s Prayer. “I have the power in me!” he exclaims, dancing in a group of other handlers at the front of a small church that brims with visibly ecstatic worshipers. “I could do this forever. These snakes love me.” Brady’s glee is short lived, though, as one of the snakes predictably strikes, sinking its fangs deep into his forearm. He rips it out, uttering a string of expletives. But even as his sight blurs and he breaks out in feverish sweats, Brady manages to turn the situation for political gain.

In terms of scholarly representation, however, comedies such as The Candidate and long-running favorites like The Simpsons simply get it wrong. While they evidence a cultural uneasiness with the practice, they do not accurately portray the marginalized group in focus. Comical films stereotype and homogenize fringe religious practices; scholarly study elucidates complex social and cultural minutiae. While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions. But this is just harmless slapstick comedy, one might claim. It would be all fun and games if it were not for the fact that cultural understandings—public opinion informed by (and informing) common stereotypes—often exhibit themselves at the legislative level.

According to one of the most recent and most thorough studies of Appalachian serpent-handlers, “legislatures and courts have had little real knowledge of serpent-handling churches and therefore have little basis on which to judge whether serpent handling is dangerous to others” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 214). In 1940, Kentucky passed the first law banning “intentional exposure to venomous reptiles” in religious gatherings. Tennessee and Virginia delivered bans of their own in 1947. North Carolina and Alabama followed suit in 1949 and 1950. Notably, North Carolina and Georgia have legislated even further by prohibiting the preaching of beliefs about snake handling, rather than simply banning the practice itself. “Thus in North Carolina and Georgia even preaching from Mark 16:17-18 could be interpreted as a violation of state law,” the authors lament. These sorts of state actions “not only infringe on religious practice but on the right to religious belief as well.” West Virginia, in 1963, passed a bill that made the handling of poisonous serpents a misdemeanor. Both Georgia and Alabama ratcheted up the legal consequences of serpent handling by bringing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony (Ibid., 208-217).

Two of Hood and Williamson’s arguments are that stereotypes influence legislation and legislation has tended to unconstitutionally limit the practices of snake handlers. Overall, Americans tend to resist approving of religions that might bring physical harm to its devotees. “It is implicit in a commonsense view that religion must be ‘good’ and should not condone rituals that can maim or kill. While this is a reasonable position, it also can be viewed as a prejudice. Why cannot religion legitimately endorse a practice that can maim or kill?” Ultimately, they argue that “despite the fact that serpent handlers are injured and killed, their faith may be both sincere and valid” (Ibid., 209). Stereotypes and prejudices against fringe religious groups like serpent-handlers do not realize the cultural specificity of the rituals, the meaning derived by participants from performance in it. To be certain, the authors do not shy from describing the violent nature of the practice. They go to disquietingly specific lengths, in fact, to describe the physical effects of snake bites and admit that increased handling of snakes actually increases rather than decreases the potentiality of attacks (Ibid., 87, 85).

Besides attempting to accurately document the rituals of their subjects, the authors contextualize and humanize the snake-handlers, putting faces on the people who engage in the rituals and find theological meaning from the practice—regardless if it is dangerous. Since the origins of U.S. Pentecostalism, they point out, there have been under a total of 100 documented fatalities due to serpent-handling rituals. In the interview, Williamson points out the irony that state governments feel the need to prohibit the religious practice while turning a blind eye to excessively dangerous sporting activities. Consider, for instance, that between 1931 and 2008 some 1,013 fatalities occurred due to athletic participation in the sport of (American) football (Mueller and Colgate, 2009), a (quasi-religious) ritual in its own right. Further, the authors examine stereotypes themselves, finding that when exposed to ethnographic data, critical outsiders actually softened their opinions and became more empathetic in their understandings of the handlers (Hood and Williamson 2008, 222). Practitioners do die from snake bites, but these deaths are uncommon exceptions. The snake-handling rituals, in terms of safety, are actually quite contained: “Experienced researchers know that church members and observers are not endangered by others who are handling serpents.” There is also “no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer” (Ibid., 214). Those who handle are consenting adults, to apply a term with heavy cultural baggage, and as little as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds. In short, Hood and Williamson find that serpent-handlers have largely been misrepresented in both cultural stereotypes as well as legal precedent. They intend their study to address some of these issues.

My response to Hood and Williamson’s theses is mixed. With Russell McCutcheon’s critic/caretaker binary echoing in my mind (2001), passages arguing that the faith of the handlers “may be both sincere and valid” through an application of Soren Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 209) seem to me at first to step well beyond the qualifications of the scholar of religion. What place do scholars have in evaluation of the quality and sincerity of a group’s theological systems of belief and action? Further, are academics scholars or activists? Are we to study particular people groups or argue on behalf of and in support of them? At points the authors come across as explicit advocates or spokespersons for these marginalized Pentecostal churches. We would do wrong, however, to dismiss the work as it is the most sustained and nuanced study on the subject to-date. Have not subaltern studies scholars taught us that all academic writings are political acts, produced within privileged positions of power and prestige? Scholars, especially those studying living peoples, cannot ignore the fact that we have ethical obligations towards our subjects of study. For those of us who work with human subjects, pre-research training and approval through Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements are constant reminders of these obligations. As primarily an ethnographic work, Hood and Williamson’s study rightly falls under the category of critical ethnography as it assumes “an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain,” in anthropologist D. Soyini Madison’s words (2005, 5; emphasis original).

There are no easy solutions for these issues. Hood has gone as far as calling for those who have died from snake-bite related complication to be lauded for their willingness to follow biblical mandate (find the Washington Post article here). In response, other scholars have allowed for an empathetic respect, of sorts, but reject that lauding need occur. Still others argue that endorsement via lauding, respect, and empathy is a less relevant construct that should have little bearing on whether or not a scholar effectively understands a phenomenon. Toward the end of Brad Pitt’s scene, he turns the tables on viewers’ expectations. He discusses with the young Robert Ford how good the snakes taste fried, how he gives snakes the names of his enemies before he eats them. Then in one fell action he flattens the heads of the serpents across a table and decapitates them. If one doubts the allusion to the Pentecostal ritual, a woman vocalizes “Amazing Grace” in the background. The decapitated snakes writhe around the outlaw’s arm. This is only one possible interpretation of a symbolically polysemous scene, of course, but one cannot help but read into it one’s own theorizations. Is this not serpent-handling with a shocking twist, a bloodied reversal of viewer expectation? Pitt adds violence to violence as he underscores the controversial American ritual. Films of this sort obscure the ritual¾making it even more foreign and violent, so to say¾but as scholars of religion we must work to elucidate and understand it.

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

About the Author

Picture 118Travis is an associate instructor and doctoral student at Indiana University (Bloomington) in religious studies and anthropology (doctoral major and minor emphases, respectively). His primary research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, materiality, cognition, gender, media, anthropology of film, and visual culture. Travis is an ethnographer by methodological trade. His published works include “Marjoe Gortner, Imposter Revivalist: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Misbehavior” (PentecoStudies 12.1 (2013): 83-105, and “‘Cooking with Gordon’: Food, Health, and the Elasticity of Evangelical Gender Roles (and Belt Sizes) on The 700 Club” (Religion & Gender 3.1 (2013): 107-123. He also writes informally about his academic work on his personal blog, “Mythology & Footnotes.”

References

  • Hood, Ralph W. and W. Paul Williamson. Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.
  • McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Religion: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Mueller, Frederick O. and Bob Colgate. “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 1931-2012.” Unpublished paper, prepared for the American Football Coaches Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and The National Federation of State High School Association, 2013.

Sociotheology and Cosmic War

Over the course of the last few decades religious violence has become an increasingly salient topic of public discourse and particularly in its global manifestations. In the social sciences these discourses focus primarily on explanations of violent acts that are driven by the socio-political contexts enveloping them. Mark Juergensmeyer argues that such explanations only tell part of the story, however, since some actions are motivated by a religious vision, like the vision of “cosmic war.” Talking to Per in this podcast Juergensmeyer explains how a “sociotheological approach” is particularly well suited to the task of understanding religious violence by engaging the worldviews of violent actors directly and taking their theological concerns as seriously as their political ideologies.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

Mark Juergensmeyer is a former president of the American Academy of Religion and the current director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbera where he also teaches sociology and religious studies. He is a prolific writer and speaker whose work deals with South Asian religion and politics, religious violence and global religion among other topics. Recent books include Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, and the just released The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence, which contains a chapter outlining, “A Sociotheological Approach to the Study of Religious Violence.”

Religion, Violence, and Cognition

…it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition: Why We May Have to Think More Broadly About Violence-Enabling Mechanisms

By Kevin Whitesides, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 21 November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism (19 November, 2012).

In his RSP podcast interview, Dr. Brian Victoria provides a great deal of food for thought on both the relationships between religion and violence and why it is important for scholars of religion to understand these realms in a subtle and nuanced way, especially in light of the remarkably un-nuanced manner in which these topics are typically treated in mainstream and popular media sources.  However, rather than provide a detailed response to the interview, I prefer to simply riff off of some of the issues that came up during the podcast bringing an emphasis of my own on the relationship between violence-enabling mechanisms within religion and human cognition more generally.

One interesting thread that Dr. Victoria developed during the interview is the contextuality of doctrinal hermeneutics, that the very same doctrines which can be interpreted in ways which promote or enable what he referred to as the ‘bright side’ of religion (social welfare, psychological well-being, in-group cohesion, etc.), when interpreted from within a different socio-cultural context, can be utilized as a means to motivate religiously-inspired violence.  A religious admonition toward ‘non-harm’ (ahimsa) in Buddhism or ‘Hinduism’ can be used to promote pacifist renunciants in one context and righteous warriors in another.  In that sense, those who aspire to the goal of eliminating or significantly decreasing religious violence have a monumental task on their hands.  It is not a matter of simply locating the particular types of religious doctrine which enable violence and attempting to remove them (were that possible or desirable), leaving a nice, pure altruistic essence in their absence.  It is the human interpretive capacity (as well as the capacity to act in correspondence with those interpretative beliefs) which is the underlying factor.  The concept or doctrine which is being interpreted is a secondary or incidental component to that more basic cognitive capacity for interpretive justification.  The concept of jihad in Islam can be used as a potent symbol for the inner struggle of personal, social, and spiritual development or it can be a potent symbol for catalyzing violent action in a physical struggle with an outside force.  The particular interpretation which is utilized at any given time will largely be a result of the unique contextual factors which guide and constrain the interpretation and, thus, do not result from any inherent feature of Islam.

Further, as scholars of religion, with an occasionally myopic eye toward our subject matter, it is important that we remember that it is not solely or even primarily the realm of ‘religion’ in which these kinds of interpretive gymnastics occur.  The same cognitive-interpretive mechanisms which allow different religious individuals or groups to interpret the same doctrines or beliefs in different ways, depending on the larger socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded, are indeed active cognitive components in our daily lives.  Humans, generally, tend to have a variety of self-serving cognitive biases which allow us to interpret situations in ways that support our own conscious and unconscious goals, where, were we faced with the same situation given a different context, we might interpret the situation very differently to serve different contextual goals.  One example of such an interpretive twist that many people may be able to identify with upon reflection (there will be exceptions) can be found in the difference in experience between driving a car and being a pedestrian.  Many people may have had the experience, as a pedestrian, of getting frustrated with drivers for failing to give them the right of way to walk.  Similarly, the very same people, while driving a car, may get frustrated with pedestrians for not giving them right of way to drive.  The relevant issue here is very much aside from the legal consideration of which party is legitimated by the culture as actually having a ‘right of way’.  What is important here is that as a pedestrian we get annoyed with drivers and as a driver we get annoyed with pedestrians.  In other words, given the same exact circumstance, the interaction between a pedestrian and a car, which role you happen to be in at any given time may very well influence how you interpret the situation.  There will, of course, be exceptions to any such generalization (as is the nature of statistical significance), but my hope here is to provide an example that can begin to help us wrap our head around the context-driven aspect of interpretation, and to begin to realize that this is not a feature that is unique to religion or to instantiations of religious violence.  It is something that we all typically engage in on a daily basis.  Our contexts influence how we interpret nearly everything.  The stakes just aren’t always as high as they are when it comes to violence.  Personally, I don’t find it shocking to consider that religious beliefs can (but need not) enable violence and can be used to justify violence as a positive action.  On the contrary, I would actually find it incredibly shocking if the same interpretive lenses that we use to make nearly all of our decisions in life were not also utilized in the face of issues of such large stake as choosing when and for what reasons to participate in war and violent behavior.  In making those choices, both consciously and unconsciously, the values that we hold highest (religious or otherwise) will always be utilized among our primary means for justifying our positions and behaviors.

Making a point to similar effect, Prof. Jay Demerath has also suggested, in an earlier RSP podcast, that we cannot, as some are wont to do, simply assume that we can eliminate religion and thus eliminate the problem of violence.  Demerath calls our attention to a continuum of attributions of ‘sacredness’ among which we find both the religious sacred and the secular sacred.  Now, given how highly loaded and contested the term ‘sacred’ is in our discipline, we may choose not to use that particular word.  However, there is a more important point which Prof. Demerath is making which we should be careful not to lose in debating the merits of various terminologies (perhaps Ann Taves’ continuum model of ‘things deemed special’ [Taves 2009] could provide a less contested and more social-scientifically acceptable alternative framework).  The point is that the very same cognitive, hermeneutic enabling mechanisms that exist within ‘the religious’ can also be found in the so-called secular.  Whereas my own example of pedestrians vs. drivers is fairly mundane and would typically not qualify as involving something ‘sacred’ under any typical secular or religious banner, Dr. Victoria mentions nationalism (he also refers to ‘tribalism’) as an example of a potential secular enabling mechanism for violence, in which a group or nation is ‘sacralized’ or deemed special.

What is important to notice here is that, in such an approach, we do not posit a sui generis essence to ‘religion’ in which it is viewed as some reified thing which in itself is the enabling mechanism.  Instead, we can recognize that, as far as cognitive enabling mechanisms for violence are concerned, religious enablers only represent a particular range on a much wider spectrum of potential sources of hermeneutic support for violent action.  In our disciplinary emphasis on ‘religion’, as a specialized object of study within culture, we must be careful to refrain from suggesting that there is a unique type of ‘religious cognition’ which is distinct from other human cognitive processes (a reversion to a sui generis approach), when what we are actually dealing with are the same basic cognitive processes but applied to an issue involving religion instead of an issue involving traffic.  We might even suggest that it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

One further linked reflection is a position which, in the interview, Dr. Victoria associates with Christopher Hitchens: that the will to violence is inherent in religious belief.  I don’t know Hitchens’ work intimately enough to corroborate that this is not a straw-man recapitulation of his views, but even if it is not, it is still a sentiment that is to be encountered in some (‘New’?) atheistic rhetoric and is worth briefly considering.  The claim that the will to violence is an inherent aspect of religion seems to parallel the cognitive fallacy which social psychologists refer to as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ (FAE).  The FAE is a well-established cognitive bias of which all of us are guilty at various times (likely on a daily basis).  This cognitive ‘error’ has to do with how we characterize other people, and it occurs when we observe another person’s behavior and attribute that behavior to them as if it were an inherent feature of their personality, part of their fundamental disposition, rather than a response to a particular contextual situation.  Alternatively, in addition to the FAE, we also typically enact a ‘self-serving bias’ in which we much more easily recognize our own behaviors to be contextually influenced.  So, there is a general human tendency to attribute the behavior of others to an inherent aspect of their personality, while at the same time we have a similar-but-opposite tendency to recognize how our own behavior is affected by circumstance.

By analogy (at minimum), we can see a tendency among some atheists, in the face of religious violence, to assume that it is “religion” which is to blame, when what we are really dealing with is not a behavior that is an inherent feature of religion, but a behavior which becomes enabled and justified by a concept which happens, in some circumstances, to be a religious belief.  A football match may, given suitable enabling circumstances, result in fan riots, but most of us do not consider that rioting is an inherent aspect of football.  We know that it is something that erupts in certain contexts given certain social and cultural animosities and disputes.  There may be a minority of football fans for whom rioting is a fundamental feature of their relationship to the game and that minority may have a major influence on the ways that the public perceives football, but we know that they do not represent the essence of the fan-base, even when media attention becomes predominantly focused on them.  Demonstrating both the FAE and the self-serving bias, many atheists find violence involving religion to reflect a fundamentally violent nature to religion and, yet, when faced with examples of secular or non-religious violence, the same individuals will be much more likely to note the contextual factors which resulted in that violence and will be clear that the contextual factors mitigate us from considering violence an inherent part of atheism.

Again, as above, we find that such an attribution of inherent violence-enabling qualities to ‘religion’ ignores the problematisation of ‘essentialist’ definitions of religion which scholars have made such efforts to attempt to overcome.  There is even a sense in which Dr. Victoria, himself appears to fall into a very similar trap: early in the interview he says that “we make a great error if we think that this problem is unique to any single faith… it is, in a sense, built into all major religious traditions.”  He, then, later states that he differs from “someone like Christopher Hitchens” who “believes that the inclination to violence is built into religion itself; and my position is that, no…it has been used that way by the tribe and nation.”  This appears to be an inconsistency on Victoria’s part.  He himself initially refers to the inclination to violence as “built into” “all major religious traditions” but, also, later suggests that it is wrong to believe that “the inclination to violence is built into religion itself.”  I get the impression, however, that he is, rather, playing the role of a cynical optimist, suggesting that religion up to the present has tended to have recourse to doctrinal hermeneutics as a way of  justifying violence but that it need not necessarily do so in the future.  If Victoria is indeed imagining a possible but as-yet-unrealized religion without recourse to doctrinal violence enabling mechanisms, I applaud his optimism, but find it unlikely that our basic human cognitive capacities to justify our goals will be superseded anytime soon.  Even in the absence of religious enablers, humans will still find interpretive means to justify violent actions.

About the Author:

roundtable discussions.

References:

Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.


Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism and Holy War

“One must note the feature of religion that keeps it on the front page and on prime time: it kills.” Martin Marty

An uncritical reading of this statement from the eminent scholar in the mainstream media, and should not discourage scholars from taking seriously the issues that it raises.  Is there something particular about religion which makes it a more potent ‘violence enabling mechanism’ than other factors? Are some religions more likely to inspire violence than others? And why should scholars even care? In this interview, Chris discusses these issues and more with Professor Brian Victoria, who, in addition to his scholarly credentials,  is a fully ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

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

The interview proceeds in two sections. First of all, Professor Victoria delineates his understanding of Holy War, which are expanded upon more fully in his freely available article Holy War: Toward a Holistic Understanding. Discussion flows from Karl Jaspers’ idea of the Axial Age and a movement from ‘tribal’ to ‘universalistic’ religions,  through to the potential connections between religion, nationalism, and threat perception, with potentially controversial examples from contemporary conflicts in Iraq, Israel and Palestine being cited along the way. The interview shifts its focus to the specific example of violence associated with (Japanese) Zen Buddhism, providing a stark contrast to its (admittedly positive) stereotypical reputation. How could the precept ‘there is no self’ be connected to violent acts? And what about the widely known idea of karma? You’ll have to listen to find out…

We have also published a response essay to this interview entitled Religion, Violence, and Cognition, by our very own Kevin Whitesides. Listener’s might also be interested in our previous interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Violence and the Media, and Zoe Alderton’s response to this – Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia.

Dr. Brian Victoria is Professor of Japanese Studies at Antioch University where he has been Program Director of Japan and Its Buddhist Traditions since 2005. He trained at the Sôtô Zen monastery of Eiheiji and is a fully ordained priest in that sect. He is also the author and co-author of numerous books and articles on Zen, including “Zen Master Dôgen“, Zen at War”  and Zen War Stories. The Japanese language edition of “Zen at War” served as a catalyst for Myôshinji, the largest branch of the Rinzai Zen sect, to publicly apologize for its role in support of Japanese militarism during WWII. During the program in Japan, Brian teaches Development and Doctrine of Buddhism. Together with other program instructors, he also supervises a select number of student field research projects.

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

By Zoe Alderton, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 9 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Media and Violence (7 May 2012).

Jolyon Mitchell is Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion and Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh. In this latest podcast he discusses the relationship between religions and media, focusing on issues of violence and peace. This material touches on his upcoming book, Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence: The Role of Religion and Media (Routledge: 2012). In this text, Mitchell problematises overly-simplistic readings of the media’s role in discussions of religion, conflicts, and resolutions.

In this response to his podcast, I wish to summarise some of the fascinating points raised by Mitchell. In doing so, I aim to foreground those that may illuminate Australia and its approach to sacralised violence. Living in a country where the national culture is largely secular, it is interesting to consider what the implications for Mitchell’s research are on Australian media and its presentation/proliferation of violence. Mitchell mentions a variety of nations who have undergone relatively recent conflicts and conflict resolutions, which have somehow engaged with religious groups or belief systems. At first it may seem that Australia is totally outside of this paradigm. Since the genocide of our Indigenous population, we have not seen the same kind of civil war as Mozambique. Nor have we defended our borders in a manner comparable to the Iran-Iraq conflict. Religiously motivated terrorism is more of a fear than a reality. In terms of faith, Australia is nominally Christian but has no official state religion. While the importance of this religion in Australian culture should not be underplayed, it is not a tradition that is generally considered to be an agent of national bonding.

Nevertheless, Mitchell’s framing of the media and his comments on violence as a kind of public spectacle provide an effective lens through which to consider Australia’s complicated public engagement with Anzac Day and the Anzac legend. This national holiday, intrinsically connected to violence via its origin in a First World War conflict, has an arguably religious relationship with Australian nationhood. Through various media (including television broadcasts, paintings, movies, and sculptures) the very complex and ambivalent meaning of Anzac Day is negotiated and perpetuated. Mitchell’s arguments in regards to the sensationalism and spectacle of violence will be used to account for the extreme emphasis on sacred martyrdom that permeates our national legend via a pragmatic reading of its dissemination through popular media.

For those of you who wish to read a bit more about Anzac Day, the Anzac legend, and the relationship between Anzac Day and the Media, Zoe has written a longer version of this post which is accessible here.

The spectacle of violence

In Mitchell’s podcast, he describes occasions in which media become the site, source, and inspiration for different forms of violence. The broadcast of religious motifs is a clear part of this process. Mitchell uses the example of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In this conflict, posters and mural celebrating martyrdom were produced. These images did not just concern themselves with contemporary sacrifice in the immediate conflict. Rather they wove in foundational martyrdoms such as that of Imam Hussain Ibn Ali, often conveying both narratives at once. This relationship between the media and symbolic culture is a vitally important one. In modern Australia, the troops involved in current or more recent battles are constantly conflated with the original Anzacs, making their modern-day sacrifice part of an ongoing narrative of martyrdom that feels real and compelling in its immediacy.

On a related note, Mitchell claims that news media is drawn to spectacle, and that violence is spectacular. His suggestion that media attention is often unproductive in the peace-making process tends to imply that its utility is often in the realm of proliferating conflict. Thus, it is reasonable to view the news media as a channel that prioritises that which is exciting, colourful, or engaging. Spectacle connects an audience with their television or other news medium. Spectacle helps to proliferate the aforementioned immediacy of the Anzac martyrdom that is useful and desirable if Australia wishes to draw upon its citizens’ essentially positive attitude towards sacrifice in war. The televised aspects of Anzac Day and its associated rituals tend to focus on that which is engagingly monumental and celebratory. The solemn Dawn Service at Gallipoli, including the stirring ‘last post’ by a lone bugler, is necessary viewing for a substantial portion of the nation. It is part of their ritual, and is conveniently televised.

So too is the annual commemorative parade in which veterans of all Australian wars march (or are represented posthumously by their heirs). The televisation of the Anzac Day Parade helps the nation to participate in the imaginative renewal of its mythology. Slade (2003 p.792) calls the Gallipoli story part of the sustenance of Australia. Through television, all can participate in this ceremony of cultural renewal and recitation. Of course, violence need not be advocated by any of these moving, engaging, and spectacular ceremonies or their media portrayal. Indeed, there is little about them that is openly pugnacious. Instead, the media tends to valorise holy martyrdom, implying on occasion that such a sacrifice is still necessary in order to maintain the social order of Australia as we know it today.

Is Anzac Day an example of the ambivalent sacred?

A major part of Mitchell’s podcast is the complex interrelationship of war, peace, and religion. As connected as religions may be to violence, he maintains that they also have a role to play in pacificism. His podcast speaks comprehensively of “the ambivalence of the sacred,” a term coined by R. Scott Appleby. Mitchell employs this phrase to imply “the scared can both incite violence and promote peace.” He feels that religious agents are, and can be, part of the conflict resolution process. Interestingly, Mitchell argues that this role is less publicised as it tends to happen away from cameras. The arduous process of negotiating peace does not lend itself to short broadcasts. Perhaps the potentially peaceful or anti-violent aspects of the Anzac mythology have been ignored in the popular press due to a lack of interest or broadcastability. This does not mean that they are absent, or that the reverence inspired by the Gallipoli campaign and its commemorative sites could not inspire an entirely pacifistic agenda.

Indeed, it is not clear if the Anzac legend is a discourse of war or peace. It appears to be both simultaneously, but also has potential to represent only one side of the dichotomy depending on the cause that employs it. In his discussion of Anzac as sacred and secular simultaneously, Seal (2007 p.143) calls this myth the most powerful “manifestation of an ambivalence that lies at the heart of our sense of national identity.” He compares this tonal equivocality with the confusion over Ned Kelly as hero or villain, or the simultaneous perception of British citizens as our kin and rivals. So too can Australia be seen to negotiate the sombre spaces and ceremonies of Anzac veneration with the iconic larrikin soldier and his playful disrespect for pomposity. The Anzac mythology, in negotiating equivocal and contradictory meanings, opens itself up to possibilities for violence or peacemaking. It can be used as a call to arms for present-day conflicts or a means of expressing the horrors and suffering of war.

In the case of Anzac Day 2012, the news media has shown examples of ambivalence in terms celebrating or denying violence in the name of this mythology. This is exemplified in Charles Waterstreet’s Sydney Morning Herald article Civil War Defies the Anzac Spirit. Here Waterstreet rallies for suburban peace in the wake of violence in the Sydney region. He denounces the current climate in which criminals are fighting petty wars of bluff and false bravado, betraying those who died and tried to keep such conduct from our shores. Turf wars over drug-trafficking rights and injured pride are an embarrassment to this city, to the soldiers who fought in countless wars … Taking up arms in peacetime is to spit in the face of every soldier, sailor and airman who fought.

Ambivalence is certainly present in this division of ‘good violence’ and ‘bad violence’, framed within a discourse of respect for the Anzac tradition and the sacred sacrifice.

Celebrity and violence

Another applicable component of Mitchell’s podcast is the blurring of celebrity and religious leadership. This too may be read in to the impact of spectacle in regards to what is and is not broadcast. Mitchell argues that the popular media (for example, news broadcasters) thrive on the celebrity factor. Celebrities build audiences through a process of viewer identification. Media consumers feel as though they ‘know’ a celebrity or can identify with them. As this relationship is pre-existent, a news snippet need not feel obliged establish empathy or interest in such a figure. Considering the time poverty of televised news broadcasts, the employment of a familiar religious figure with a pre-established narrative and context makes pragmatic sense. Mitchell uses religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama as an example of a familiar face with a familiar agenda. In the case of Anzac ritual and mythology, political figures are the celebrities consulted by the media in this manner.

Of course, the political celebrities themselves are transient. Demerath and Williams (1985 p.160) specify that civil religions do not connect too closely with any specific government lest they become an “idolatrous cloak of transcendental rhetoric tossed over the pursuit of momentary ends.” The proposed ultimacy of the Anzac legend has remained supra-partisan despite its intimacy with the leadership of the day. Unsurprisingly, the figure of the Prime Minister seems to be the main focal point of this engagement. In 2012, Julia Gillard has upheld this mantle, not only in terms of her actual addresses to the nation, but also in regards to the sound bites of her speeches that were disseminated through the television and printed news. For example, in a particularly popular news article, Gillard referred to Anzac Day as all that Australia embodies, more significant in terms of emotions and values than Australia Day, and a meaningful event for migrants (like herself) “who freely embrace the whole of the Australian story as their own.” Putting aside disturbing political undertones, these convenient sound bites are easily broadcast around the nation, presented by a political celebrity who needs no introduction.

Although people with anti-Anzac or anti-war sentiments may have commented on the celebrations in an equally eloquent manner, they cannot compete with one of the most easily recognised faces of Australia in a media landscape that requires abbreviation. The political celebrity Barack Obama also made news (in a story that seems entirely overblown) after sending “best wishes” to Australia and New Zealand on Anzac Day. Although the sensationalist headline would suggest otherwise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the message on Obama’s behalf. She also thanked Australia for their ongoing commitment to the war in Afghanistan, a meaningful conflation of past and present sacrifice of lives. Obama is another example of a celebrity who is suitable for a short news story on account of his national renown. His (albeit proxy) endorsement of the Anzac commemoration coupled with an endorsement of current conflicts requires little in the way of contextualisation.

Media and violence in its broadest sense

Mitchell’s broad take on the definition of ‘media’ is a useful one when considering the depth of a culture’s communicative devices. Although media is commonly shorthand for television and newspapers, Mitchell reminds us of the vast array of communicative devices that can fall under this umbrella term. Media need not be seen as the exclusive domain of the literary elect or wealthy broadcasters. Rather, Mitchell employs the term to describe a variety of devices from YouTube videos, to murals, to architecture. It is in the medium of architecture and effigy that Australia expresses some of its most reverential emotions towards the war dead.

The Pool of Reflection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The work of Ken Inglis, especially Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (1998), is vital reading on this complex topic. To briefly summarise, Inglis illuminates war memorials as sacred shrines of Australian civil religion, allowing for the preservation of memory. This sacred architecture helps to reconcile the distance between Australia and Turkey. It is difficult to negotiate sacred turf when your creation narrative takes place in a foreign nation. Slade (2003 p.787) speaks of various features of the Gallipoli battleground that make it a sacred or elevated region. This includes the lack of modern development on the peninsula (keeping it ‘authentic’ to the era of the battle), the burial of the dead where they fell, and the subsequent framing of the entire area as a cemetery. Obviously, Australia itself cannot provide this kind of sacred Anzac space. Instead, war memorials are a way of making a geographically unconnected site equally meaningful.

In Canberra, Australia’s capital city, the Australian War Memorial contains the Hall of Memory, a cathedral-like structure that performs the typical duties of a religious shrine. Seal (2007 p.140) calls the Hall of Memory “spiritual but without religious symbolism.” Although it may not contain traditional religious indicators, it still evokes religious emotion. The Hall is designated as a place of eerie silence and hushed contemplation. It is clearly demarcated as a holy site that demands respect. It is also the tomb of the Unknown Solider, with his body housed like the relics of a saint. Above his remains, viewers may look upwards to a dome reminiscent of Byzantine cathedral architecture. The dome, created in brilliant gold hues, depicts souls migrating from distant battlefields. The Hall of Memory clearly connotes the existence of the extramundane.

The dome ceiling

The museum component of the Australian War Memorial should also be seen as a communicative device in terms of Australia’s relationship to sacred violence. As Chris Healy (1997 pp.73-74) argues, the museum is a medium that trains citizens in their acquisition of social memory. A visitor to the Australian War Memorial is encouraged to have a spiritual, or at least reflective, experience in the Hall of Memory. They may then use the educational, historical museum in order to arrange their feelings of awe, or reverence, or respect into a cultural narrative. This narrative, conveyed through the museum medium, contextualises the violence and horrific loss of the nation into a rhetoric of sacrifice, sacred ‘mateship’, and a patriotism that transcends personal concerns.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Conclusions

Much more could be said on the Anzac legend, its various components, and the reverential lack of critique it receives in the present era. I believe it is valuable to consider what our state mythology and most revered holiday dictates in terms of the national character. Mitchell’s exploration of the sensationalism and spectacle of violence explains much in terms of the news media’s preferences as to which aspects of the legend they choose to show and propagate. So too does Mitchell help to illuminate the value of celebrity in moral debates. Pragmatically speaking, the Anzac narrative is a story that most Australians know and care about. It is a discourse that is easily associated with well-known political and public figures. It is also an exciting and visually stimulating event that transfers well to the broadcasting of its rituals, or the artistic enactment of its sacred narratives and archetypal heroes. At its core, the Anzac mythology may indeed contain the ambivalence that Mitchell sees in the relationship between religion, violence, and peace. Nevertheless, its present incarnation seems to be concerned with the public condoning of martyrdom and the celebration of militaristic duty in deeply spiritualised terms.

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

About the Author:

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.

References:

Bellah, R.N., 1967. ‘Civil Religion in America’, Daedalus, vol. 96, no. 1, pp. 1-21.

Crouter, R., 1990. ‘Beyond Bellah: American Civil Religion and the Australian Experience’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 154-165.

Demerath, N.J., and Williams, R.H., 1985. ‘Civil Religion in an Uncivil Society’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 480, pp. 154-166.

Geertz, C., 1966. ‘Religion as a Cultural System’, in M. Banton (ed.), Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, Tavistock, London.

Healy, C., 1997. From the Ruins of Colonialism: History As Social Memory, Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Inglis, K., 1998. Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Sacket, L. 1985. ‘Marching Into the Past: Anzac Day Celebrations in Adelaide’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 9, iss. 17, pp. 18-30.

Seal, G., 2007. ‘ANZAC: The Sacred in the Secular’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 31, iss. 91, pp. 135-144.

Slade, P., 2003. ‘Gallipoli Thanatourism: The Meaning of ANZAC’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 30, no. 4, pp.779-794.

 

Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Violence and the Media

Discussions of religion in the media nowadays frequently revolve around issues of violence and social unrest. Religions and media can become collaborators in promoting peace and opening negotiations; at the same time the media can become host to extremist narratives which may incite violence. Does the media have a responsibility to promote peace? Are religions becoming more skilled at manipulating the media?

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

Before being appointed to the University of Edinburgh, Jolyon Mitchell worked as a producer and journalist for BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4. As Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues he directs a number of research projects and helps to host a wide range of public lectures and events.

His latest book, which this interview was structured around, is Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence (Routledge, to be published in Sept. 2011). Earlier publications include The Religion and Film Reader (co-editor with S. Brent Plate Routledge, 2007), and Mediating Religion: Conversations in Media, Religion and Culture (co-editor with Sophia Marriage, Continuum, 2003). Prof Mitchell is also co-editor of three research monograph series with Routledge, including on Media, Religion and Culture; and on Film and Religion. He was director of the Third International Conference on Media, Religion and Culture, Edinburgh, July 1999 and director of the Fourth International Conference on Peacemaking in the World of Film: from Conflict to Reconciliation, Edinburgh, July 2007.