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Cosmpolitan and Cool–and Modest

A response to “Modest Dress Beyond the Headscarf”

by Saskia Warren, PhD

I listened with great interest to Elizabeth Bucar’s podcast interview with Candace Mixon. In particular, I was animated by her discussion of how fashion offers an alternative to textual analysis of religion by privileging the visual, material cultures, and everyday practices. In this I was firmly in agreement as a cultural geographer who also writes on Muslim women and fashion cultures, albeit the term I tend to mobilise is modest fashion, rather than Bucar’s pious fashion. Yet we are both interested in head-to-toe looks of wearers and how these might respond to local aesthetics and morals, rather than tracing clothing choices to religious texts. In responding to local contexts, or refashioning placeif you like, Muslim women can be engaged in changes to fashion and judgments around dressing appropriately over time.

My research does differ given an area focus trained on Britain, and specific attention towards those who work in fashion. In what might be termed a feminist geopolitical approach, I am keen to explore how fashion offers a means for activism. For a number of my participants, fashion and beauty are a way of reaching wide audiences of Muslims and non-Muslims alike in order to propagate an accessible and moderate image of Muslim women living in Britain, women who are cosmopolitan and cool. Fashion and beauty therefore work as a conduit, but I would argue that the implicit aim is overtly political – although perhaps engaged in more everyday forms of political action: to participate in public forum debates around women’s visibility and rights in Islam and society more broadly. Blurring fashion and media expertise, Muslim women have often led as highly active agents within the fast-growing Islamic Cultural Industrieswhere they are in the business of creating content that shapes new narratives about Muslim and feminine norms, visually and textually. Moreover, as Elizabeth discusses in this fascinating podcast, pious or modest fashion has impacted how wealldress. High street brands such as H&M and Uniqlo have launched modest fashion lines. But even more evident are the ways in which layered and covered looks – with higher necklines and lower hemlines – have become de rigueur.

As a case study we might think about the work of Dina Torkio whom I have written about elsewhereas crossing-over from fashionista to activist. In Britain, Dina was at the very forefront of the emergence of modest fashion as an influencer, featuring in a number of high profile mainstream magazines and newspapers, and has since diversified into film-making #YourAverageMuslim. More recently, she and her family have also been subjected to vicious and highly targeted abuse due to her decision to uncover her hair more regularly in online content, such as published videos and photos. This case study draws attention to the desire amongst young Muslim females for positive role modelswho share identity markers (and transcend national boundaries), while simultaneously spotlighting how digital space operates as both an oppressiveandprogressive forum, especially where it intersects with religion and moral discourse. I argue that paying closer attention to the work and agencies of Muslim women in the fashion world as cultural producers and activists can offer challenge to religious conservative and Western-liberal thinking on the contours of everyday Islam, gender and equality. It also gives emphasis to the day-to-day embodied and spiritual precarity experienced by Muslim womenas highly visible cultural producers. As Elizabeth discusses in relation to her own work, fashion can offer ‘a good way of thinking about different Muslim communities that doesn’t start with religious texts or inter-religious politics’, and instead ‘focuses on everyday practices’.

A related line of enquiry that resonated with me was how through an accessible topic such as fashion Elizabeth sought to combat Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism in ways that enable everyone to enter the conversation. I welcomed her approach of investigating three different site studies – Tehran (Iran), Yogyakarta (Indonesia), and Istanbul (Turkey) – to open up the representation and diversity of Muslim women. Of course, I also think one can diversify the representation of Muslim women at home, or within a single site case study, as well as through a comparative multi-national and multi-city approach. Again taking Britain as an example, where the Muslim population is 4.8% of the national population, with over 50% of the population of Muslims in Britain born in the country, there is a growing diversity of Muslim identities and experiences. Due to the British Empire and later migration of subjects from former colonies attracted by labour opportunities in British industry, Pakistani Muslims comprise the largest segment of the British Muslim population at 38%, followed by Bangladeshi at 15%. However in recent years, there has been an increase in minority Muslim groups, such as White ethnic, Black African, and, with changes to the British Census categories from 2011, those identifying as Arab. In my own research on Muslima lifestyle media and fashion, the majority of participants identified as from the South Asian diaspora, especially of Pakistani heritage, with the sample also comprising minority Muslims identifying variously as Scottish, Caribbean, Palestinian, Iranian, Egyptian, Burundian, and mixed heritage. A number rejected identification with one Islamic sect or school of thinking or identified as culturally Muslim. But those profiled had practiced variously as Sunni, Wahabi, Deobandi, Shia, or Sufi, showing a wide range of intra-Muslim beliefs and affiliations.  

The aim to diversify representations of Muslim women, and to emphasise their positive contribution to British culture, arts and the economy, are some of the guiding principles behind a monograph I am currently writing (under contract with Edinburgh University Press) and a major exhibition at The Whitworth, Manchester. Beyond Faith: Muslim Women Artists Todayfeatures the original artwork of five contemporary artists from a range of backgrounds and at various stages of their artistic careers: Robina Akhter Ullah, Shabana Baig, Fatimah Fagihassan, Aida Foroutan and Usarae Gul. In the podcast, Elizabeth discusses the highly successful Contemporary Muslim Fashionsexhibition at the De Young Gallery in San Francisco. Exploring visual art practices, Beyond Faithhighlights the creative agencies of Muslim women in the production and circulation of new material forms and narratives. The exhibition aims to increase understanding of the different artworks, artistic practices, and lives of these diverse artists. Together they offer challenge to social and economic inequalities and religious intolerance, while actively expanding and diversifying spaces of the artworld.

Beyond Faithis shown in the Collection Centre and as part of an artist intervention in Four Corners of One Cloth: Textiles from the Islamic World. It marks the culmination of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Project on the roles and experiences of Muslim women in the UK Cultural and Creative Industries that I was privileged to lead and is generously funded by AHRC and The Whitworth. The exhibition runs from 14 June 2019 – October 2019.

References

ThomasReuters State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2016/17 Accessed 4 August 2017. Available at: <https://ceif.iba.edu.pk/pdf/ThomsonReutersstateoftheGlobalIslamicEconomyReport201617.pdf>.

Warren, S. (2019). # YourAverageMuslim: Ruptural geopolitics of British Muslim women’s media and fashion. Political Geography, 69, 118-127.

Warren, S. (2018). Placing faith in creative labour: Muslim women and digital media work in Britain. Geoforum, 97, 1-9.

Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the eye of the creator

By comparing the Miss Christian America pageant to other more well known pageants Miss USA and Miss America, Chelsea Belanger’s study provides a look at the intersections between religion, gender, and collective identity. Using Christian Smith’s ideas of subcultural identity, Belanger examines how the structure of the Miss Christian pageant helps develop a unique form of embodied religion.

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


Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator

Podcast with Chelsea Belanger (4 March 2019).

Interviewed by Kristeen Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Belanger_-_Christian_Beauty_Pageants_1.1

Kristeen Black (KB): We’re all aware of the Miss Universe Pageant, Miss USA Pageant, Miss America pageant. There’s various systems of beauty pageant but each are uniquely identifiable, different in some way. And my guest today is going to talk to us about Miss Christian America. Please welcome Chelsea Belanger.

Chelsea Belanger (CB): Hello.

KB: Would you like to introduce yourself? Tell me a little bit about your research background and what brought you to this topic.

CB: Sure. So my name is Chelsea Belinger. I’m a second year doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. I got my Bachelors and my Masters at the University of Texas at San Antonio. And my master’s thesis encompassed race, religion, gender and behavioural health. It was a qualitative study examining the relationship between religiosity and sexual health among devout African American college women. And so . . .

KB: Fascinating.

CB: It was fascinating research, which I take a lot of pride in. It was a lot of fun but what was really interesting is the creative way in which these women used their religious beliefs to navigate through their sexual decision making. One of the main kind-of key points that emerged from this research, with respect to autonomy over our bodies, is that while these women that I interviewed were devout Christians, they expressed that they have supportive views of women deciding what is best for their body – especially with respect to abortion. So while they supported abortion they expressed or articulated that they themselves would never have an abortion, because of their religious beliefs.

KB: I see. So that’s the way that they negotiated that space.

CB: Absolutely. That space in terms of their religion, their views, their practices, but also being a woman. Being an African American woman and having those rights. It was fascinating. It was just a fascinating study.

KB: And do you see that same kind of synchronicity coming about with the beauty pageants? That there’s this national sense of beauty or gender as well as individual . . . but then again, collective, on a religious basis?

CB: Right. So what we’ve seen with respect to beauty pageants is that there’s a lot of religion being done. Unfortunately there’s scant research on Christian beauty pageants. But beauty pageants overall, now I will say there’s lot of research on the Miss America pageant. But what’s interesting here is that there’s a multitude of different pageant systems, such as Miss USA and Miss Christian America, where this research has encompassed . . .

KB: And to be honest, I didn’t realise there was a Miss Christian America pageant.

CB: Me neither, before this research!

KB: Who knew?!

CB: Indeed. But that’s what makes it so fascinating. It’s that there are different pageant systems that can really accommodate to anybody’s needs, so to speak. So I think that’s what . . . there’s a major misconception in American Society that there is just Miss America pageant. And that’s not the case.

KB: OK. So which came first for you in your research question: the theory that you were looking at of, for instance, Christian Smith and maybe even Judith Butler; or this kind-of noticing the different types of pageants going on, and the religiosity associated with that?

CB: Well certainly this research is going to encompass a lot of what I’m doing for my dissertation. So, being a frequent viewer of beauty pageants, American beauty pageants, I was really inspired to focus on this area. Because there’s such limited research on beauty pageants and not just Miss America. So I really wanted to focus on . . . . Ok – what is it about beauty pageants and gender that I want to focus on? And religion is something that I love studying. So I really wanted to look at how religion was being used in these beauty pageants. So that was the foundation of the study. And then looking at what theoretical frameworks are most appropriate for the study. And that’s where I came across the cultural identity theory. Now I will say I had a lot of help with Dr John Borkowksi who helped me along this, who was also my thesis advisor.

KB: A great shout out! So tell me little bit more about that theory and how that helps.

CB: So I’m working on Christian Smith’s cultural identity theory, where religious subcultures balance the demand of cultural distinction and social engagements. So, in other words, looking at this negotiating mainstream values and religious values (5:00). So, with respect to this work, looking at Miss Christian America, it’s a beauty pageant. Women are competing in this pageant, very similar to mainstream secular pageants. But what makes it uniquely different are the structure but also the requirements for this pageant, as well. In terms of the structure, there is no swimsuit portion in the Miss Christian America, but rather a sportswear competition. So that’s kind of deviating from the mainstream. Whereas the mainstream pageant like Miss USA has a swimsuit portion of the competition. And with respect to the pageant requirements, for Miss Christian America we see that contestants in this pageant must be active in ministry. They also have to have reference letters from one pastor and a media ministry leader as well. Which makes them stand out significantly from the mainstream pageant. So we see with respect to the subcultural identity theory how religion is being practised in these pageants that may exhibit mainstream characteristics.

KB: So, for my ear, it sounds like it’s evangelically focussed because women in ministry is not available in every denomination.

CB: Yeah. Right. Right. And that’s what’s interesting about this particular pageant, it’s that . . . the way in which I was studying this beauty pageant, it seemed as though as long as the contestants identified as being a Christian – that was also kind of this requirement to represent this particular pageant – whereas the mainstream pageant, Miss USA, there is no religious component whatsoever, where you’re actively driven by your faith or not.

KB: So, one of the things that I found interesting is that I seem to hear this core relationship between fitness – so, having to wear sports attire and then being judged physically fit in that sense, but no pictures – but then also being judged as spiritually fit, being inner beauty. You mentioned something about this inner type of driven-ness, and religiosity. So is that something that you’ve found, this idea of fitness in some way . . .?

CB: Right. So I saw in terms of physical fitness, this particular Miss Christian America really reinforces the characteristics of a “godly woman”. And so with this idea of a sportswear, it’s just really maintaining modesty and you know foregoing any kind of cleavage that you might see in the swimsuit competition. So really reinforcing this inner beauty. What’s really interesting about the Miss Christian America is their mission statement. And it says “no” to swimsuits and vain beauty; “yes” to the word of God, prayer, praise worship and inner . . . it really reinforces that evangelical component.

KB: Ok, Great. Also, you mentioned seeing this type of religiousness, or godly woman being reflected in some way throughout the pageant. Tell me more about that.

CB: Yes. So again, what makes this pageant so unique is kind of the requirement, if you will. So for these contestants application form, contestants for this pageant have to name their church, the numbers of years in which they’ve attended this church, and attend weekly Bible study – so that was like a yes or no response. Also the competition categories that vary vastly with the mainstream pageants are outreach ministry presentations, Biblical question and answer . . .

KB: Oh, interesting!

CB: Which is like the onstage questions that you see in the mainstream. But this, particularly, is a Biblically-based question . . . and, again, the sportswear competition. Also what’s interesting is the title holder responsibilities that are encompassed. And again we see this comparative component where both pageants have responsibilities for their title holders. But what’s interesting about Miss Christian America is the Evangelicalism that she must partake in as a title holder, representing Miss Christian America. And in addition to that, that encompasses missionary work, upholding the morals and standards of Miss Christian America pageant. So again, maintaining or exuding those characteristics of a godly woman (10:00).

KB: So, do you see the part of that being a godly woman encompasses idealised gender roles and things like . . . with the Miss America pageant, you have to be never married, never given birth. Is that the same type of thing reinforced here?

CB: Yes, so we certainly see, in this research, we see a lot of comparisons with mainstream and secular pageants and this particular pageant, Miss Christian America. We see that both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America really promote women’s confidence and self-esteem and the importance of community involvement. In addition to that we see a lot of overlap between the two competitions, such as the pageant interview with the panel of judges, the opening number which is commonly done in the beginning of the pageant: this is when you’re first introduced to the contestants on stage. There’s no talent competition in either one of these pageants. Whereas, in Miss America you see that there’s a talent competition. Now, going back to what you were saying in terms of never married, single, never given birth, those are two requirements of both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America. The contestant has to be single, never married and the contestant also has to be natural born female. In addition to that, she cannot have given birth at any point. So those are really, those are just similar characteristics between the two. In addition to that, community involvement is very much reinforced in both these pageants. Title holders or the winners of these pageants win a crown and sash. And oftentimes you’ll see on their sash the title which they’re representing. So Miss USA, Miss Christian America. And again the title holder responsibilities which, as we talked about before, varies but still maintains those responsibilities.

KB: And you just mentioned a sash, and I had kind of this question . . . . In the Miss America pageant we’re used to seeing like Miss Texas and Miss South Carolina, do they identify in that type of way? Is it like Miss Lutheran? [Laughs].

CB: That is a great question. From what I saw, no. Again, and I can only go on what I’ve seen of the Miss Christian America pageant. I did not see if there were women that identified. . .if they identified as Lutheran, that’s what the sash would say as they competed. I didn’t see that, so I’m going to assume no. I could be corrected. But again, as long as you identify as being Christian and being involved in the Christian faith.

KB: So it’s really more of an umbrella type of identification.

CB: Exactly. That’s how I interpreted it.

KB: OK. And how is race represented in there?

CB: That’s an excellent question. So we’ve seen . . . historically, in an American beauty pageant, we’ve seen this pattern of white women typically competing, but also winning these pageants. What’s unique about this particular pageant is a large presence of African American women competing in Miss Christian America, from what I’ve seen on their website. And so there’s also kind of this difference between the two. Now certainly we’ve seen, over time, recently, the crowning of diverse women and really reinforcing diversity in mainstream beauty pageants. But this particular pageant, I’d say that there’s a larger population of African American women competing and representing in this pageant.

KB: Great. OK. And then, do you think that there is some kind of reflection going on in the pageant of what’s going on in mainstream society, about the rising Evangelicalism? Is that contributing? Do you have any sense of how big the pageant is? Has it been growing lately?

CB: Right. Over all, that’s a really good question that I don’t think I’m prepared to answer just yet.

KB: OK, that’s good!

CB: But my assumption is, is that you know . . . unfortunately, American society may view beauty pageants negatively. And I hope my research reinforces some sort of shift in perception of how we view beauty pageants. So I don’t know in terms of the enrolment or participation of these beauty pageants over time. But certainly, hopefully there’s a shift that shows that beauty queens are not just a pretty face. They’re so much more than that regardless of the beauty pageant that you’re competing in. There’s that community involvement. But also within the pageant it’s this sisterhood that’s being created. These bonds of relationship. But also with respect to religion, how’s religion essentially being done in these pageants (15:00)? And from my own experience, backstage is where you see a lot of these . . . of religion being practised. Whether you’re competing in a secular pageant or a Christian-driven pageant, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see competitors, just before getting on stage, praying with each other – regardless of your faith – but just praying that everything goes well, and praying with each other. Whereas, once you step out on stage, they’re then your competition! But once you step off there’s this sisterhood again. And I think that’s the importance of just participating in a beauty pageant. And yes, there’s the sash and the crown, but also the bond, the friendship, the confidence that can come your way. And competing in these pageants. I hope my work can really explore that.

KB: And that’s great, because I was kind of wondering about this idea of collective versus the individual. And religion is such a collective idea. And how could that be reconciled, or is that, like, just taken into account? Is there a way that that’s negotiated, somehow?

CB: Certainly, so we’ve seen, at least in the Miss America, it’s not uncommon to see title-holders talk about their faith, even though Miss America’s not a religious pageant. We’ve certainly seen over time how contestant representing their states may kind-of talk about their faith and how they practice their faith, so to speak. So certainly, I wouldn’t say it’s completely erased from secular pageants just because they don’t have a religiously-driven component in these pageants. Who is to say these women aren’t driven by their faith?

KB: Right. But it’s just not as apparent?

CB: It’s not as apparent. But certainly, I guess, it’s up to the contestant if they want to talk about their faith. And it certainly had been played in previous years.

KB: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered?

CB: With respect to this research?

KB: Right.

CB: So much. I think I’ve gained an even greater respect for pageants, just exploring a pageant. And I’m so intrigued by how religion is being displayed in the Miss Christian America pageant. Prior to this research I had never heard of the Miss Christian America pageant. But looking into it and seeing what they stand for, and just with the way in which they’re promoting their faith, you know, it’s intriguing. Especially for somebody that studies the sociology of religion. I’m intrigued by that. So and just seeing how they navigate through that negotiation of secular pageants. And what they’re going to take from those secular pageants and how they’re going to incorporate their unique component to facilitate their religion. It’s fascinating.

KB: Yeah. And I can imagine that some denominations might resonate differently. Like if you have a very idealised gender role type of model to follow, that might be a little different experience than one that’s a little more fluid?

CB: Right. Right. Certainly, you know, in beauty pageants, mainstream, what have you, you’re going to have to exhibit these particular gender roles in terms of the makeup and, you know, heels, and hair spray, and what have you. So I certainly see that being practised here. But I think it’s so much more than that. You know, in terms of this sisterhood that’s being created. But also, what’s being done for these contestants? Win or lose – which I don’t think there’s any losers in pageantry. You gain something. Whether it’s self-confidence, or whether its friendships, what have you, or just trying something new. Certainly there’s definitely these generals that are in place. But there’s so much more. So much more that can be taken out of this from this experience as well.

KB: Would you say that this could be a faith experience for some of them?

CB: I think so. I could be wrong. But in terms of the Miss Christian America, I think it could really reinforce, or it does reinforce that commitment to their faith and really strengthening their religious beliefs and practices with the outreach of ministry and, you know, one of the competition categories – like I said before – was this Biblical question and answer. So really preparing . . . because this is a competition. There’s a panel of judges. You’re going to be judged. So really just the preparations that are encompassed in this particular pageant. And how, you know . . . preparing for those categories, (20:00) but also strengthening one’s faith.

KB: And that’s kind-of how I . . . . Just listening to you talk about it, it seems like it could be a faith-enhancing or religious experience.

CB: Indeed.

KB: So maybe just going back to Christian Smith just for a minute: tell me a little bit about how you’re applying that theory.

CB: Right. So in looking at subcultural identity theory we’re looking at religious subcultures balancing the demands of cultural distinction and social engagement. So, how is the Miss Christian America negotiating this cultural distinction and cultural engagement, compared to a more secular pageant, Miss USA?

KB: So that’s why you’ve compared both of those pageants. I see.

CB: Yes. So this was really a comparative textual analysis between the two pageants. But in addition to that, we’re kind of looking at the unique religious identity compared to the broader secular pageants. So looking at that religious identity and what’s coming about that. But also looking at the Evangelicalism that’s been brought forth in this research. So looking at the truthfulness of the Bible, so looking at values of scriptures, how is that being displayed in the pageant? The influence of human nature, so looking at the mainstream culture, so going back to the swimsuit competition, and so forth, and then finally, the “born again” experience that’s really the salvation of such faith.

KB: Oh, interesting.

CB: So it’s really interesting how the pageant is negotiating these religious values and borrowing from mainstream beauty pageants. Something that I talked about in this presentation was this idea of this perception, or borrowing, of mainstream, and really using it and navigating through the religious values and the mainstream values. So again, that on stage question, right? But in the sense of the Biblical question and answer.

KB: So these two are really being interspersed rather than juxtaposed, is that . . . ?

CB: I think so. Absolutely. So again, just going back to how they’re very uniquely similar, but also vastly different. But in the end somebody’s going to be crowned the title holder. So they’re still similar in many ways but vastly different in other ways with respect to religion.

KB: Fascinating. So if anyone had a question, is there a way that they could contact you? Do you have . . . is your work published somewhere?

CB: Not as of yet. So this is actually going to be . . . this research is part of a larger research study that I’m doing to for my dissertation. So I’m really . . . not brainstorming. But I know I want to conduct this research into pageantry because when I began such scant literature was out there on pageantry. So I really want to change that. I’m inspired to change that. And I really want to maintain . . . . I’m a qualitative researcher – so I want to look at kind of the motivations, why women choose to compete in beauty pageants.

KB: Yes. Great question!

CB: I want to explore that. Is it to make friends? Is it to gain self-confidence? Is it to get scholarship money? Or is it just to win a crown? And there are so many ways that that can be reinforced. So I want to explore reasons why women choose to . . . but as a researcher that’s fascinated by religion I want to also look at, maybe, how religion is displayed. So I’m not really focussing on a particular pageant. But I really want to interview former title holders but also former beauty pageant contestants, as well. And just explore and investigate why they chose to compete. And then, were there any ways in which they used their religion through that experience? Whether it was praying right before going on stage, or carrying a cross, or wearing a cross while they competed? I really want to explore that.

KB: And see what that means, yes. So this is a whole new way to think of lived religion and experiencing religion.

CB: Indeed. And going back to your question before. Certainly, if anybody has a question they can reach out to me through email. My email is chelsea.belanger@knight.ucf.edu

KB: Ok. And we’ll post that on the website as well.

CB: Thank you.

KB: Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure.

CB: Likewise. Thank you for having me.

KB: We look forward to reading your book, once you turn your dissertation into a book (25:00).

CB: (Laughs) Yes I look forward to that one day, too.

KB: And I’ll re-interview you then!

CB: Yes. Sounds good. Thank you so much.

KB: Thank you, Chelsea.


Citation Info: Belanger, Chelsea and Kristeen Black. 2019. “Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 4 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 February 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/christian-beauty-pageants-beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-creator/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

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, Ko-Lee hot & Spicy Go Noodles, and more.

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

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 18 October 2016

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Bedford, UK

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Bedford, UK

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May 19–21, 2017

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Åbo Akademi University, Finland

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October 27–29, 2016

Merano, Italy

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November 9–11, 2016

University of Turin, Italy

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Research assistant: Religious Life Vitality

Margaret Beaufort Institute in Cambridge, UK

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Professor of Religion, Law and Human Rights

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: January 4, 2017

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Religion, gender and corporeality

gender and religion, what are the major factors which can help understand how people embody the relationship between identity and religiosity? What is gender, exactly, and how does it manifest in religious traditions? How do we access it without assuming people’s identities on the basis of their “sex”?

In this interview, Dr. Anna Fedele talks about her research about religion, gender and corporeality. When it comes to intersecting the study of religion and the study of gender, it is crucial to be aware of the categories used by the informants in order to leave the power they have gained in their experience of womanhood, motherhood and procreation in their own hands. If religion has often been perceived as something that regulates gender and sexuality, it is also a great locus of power for those who interact with it through bodily experiences and embodied practices. Fedele goes on to say that, in order to fully grasp the complexity of her informants, certain changes need to happen in the study of religion, with the use of methodologies surrounding life stories, and also in the opposing categories of insider and outsider.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 ISSR Conference, Université catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon and George Ioannides. 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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sudoku puzzles, very small rocks, and more!

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

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Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

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Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

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April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

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June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

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Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

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Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

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November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

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Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

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Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

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Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

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November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

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Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

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Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

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Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

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Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

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Why are Women more Social than Men?

 

This week’s interview with Marta Trzebiatowska is an amazing overview of the many arguments used to explain why women are more religious than men (her upcoming book). Trzebiatowska focuses on explanations relating to gender roles and socialization: women are responsible for many of the social components of human life—birth, death, charity, and so on. But this only pushes the question one stage. We must ask, “Why are women more involved in these social activities than men?” Trzebiatowska seems to side with the explanation that women are socialized into these roles. But, because I am a psychologist, I would like to propose some answers on a different level of analysis. Specifically, there may be underlying individual differences in cognitive and personality traits between men and women that promote different patterns of both social behavior and religiosity.

Cognitive Differences

In my previous piece for the Religious Studies Project, I noted that cognitive scientists of religion tend to operationalize religion as belief in supernatural agency (gods, ghosts, spirits, etc.). Many cognitive scientists of religion have argued that the tendency to see agency in the world underlies these kinds of religious beliefs. For example, Dominic Johnson and Jesse Bering (2006) argue that religion requires second-order theory of mind – the ability to imagine that God knows what you are thinking. This ability to see intentions, beliefs, and attitudes in the world around us is supposed to be the basis of both religious belief (where it is applied to supernatural agents) and human social interaction (where it is applied to the natural social world). And, indeed, research by Uffe Schjoedt and his colleagues (2009) on prayer and Justin Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) on thinking about the properties of God suggests that people think about supernatural agents in much the same way they think about humans. That is, they use the same brain regions in interacting with supernatural and human others, and they attribute the same kinds of psychological, physical, and biological properties to supernatural beings as they do to humans.

This has given rise to the hypothesis that the non-religious may (on average) see less agency, both human and supernatural, in the world. Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues (2012) tested this idea recently and found support for it. They discovered that mentalizing, the ability to see intentions in others, was a key predictor of belief in God. More importantly, differences in mentalizing were found to explain known differences in religiosity between two different groupings of people. Those with Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are much less religious than those without, but this difference shrinks when the ability to mentalize (a proposed deficit in ASDs, see Baron-Cohen et al., 1985) is controlled. Similarly, the gap in religiosity between men and women was reduced when differences in mentalizing between men and women were accounted for.

This work is in line with Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2003) somewhat controversial theory of autism as a kind of extreme maleness, characterized, in part, by a deficiency in the capacity to infer the mental states of others. Men vastly outnumber women among those with ASDs (e.g., Baron-Cohen et al., 2001), ASDs are associated with mentalizing deficiencies, and ASDs are associated with non-religion. Men, compared to women, demonstrate a smaller version of the gaps between those with ASDs and those without in mentalizing and religiosity. Although work on the relationship between sex, religion, theory of mind, and ASDs is at an early stage, what is known has caused Norenzayan and others (for a description of research from another lab, see here to conclude that there may be a relationship between mentalizing, social behavior, and religion that could explain why men are less religious than women.

Personality Differences

Men and women differ in more ways than just mentalizing, though. Researchers have found that, across many countries, men and women have different personality profiles. Although the size of these differences varies from place to place, their direction is fairly consistent. In a study in 55 different countries, David Schmitt (2008) and his colleagues found that women across the globe tend to score higher than men on four of the five major personality traits known as the Big Five: neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Results for the fifth personality dimension, openness to experience, were mixed. Two of the Big Five personality traits are known to be associated with religion: agreeableness and conscientious (Saroglou, 2002).

Sociality and Agreeableness

People who are high in agreeableness are pleasant, empathetic, friendly, etc. In other words, they are congenial social actors. Some evidence suggests that agreeableness may be a pre-requisite for religiosity. Longitudinal research suggests that those who are highly agreeable as adolescents go on to become more religious as adults (McCullough et al., 2005). Another group found this same relationship—but only among women (Wink et al., 2007). This relationship isn’t surprising when you consider that agreeableness is associated with many of the same social traits that are often credited to the religious. Agreeable people are more prosocial and altruistic; they get along better with others; and they prefer to cooperate. Would it be surprising to find agreeable people more attracted to social domains of human life and to religion? It seems plausible that agreeableness is a candidate to explain the higher rates of both among women.

An Alternative Risk Aversion Account: Conscientiousness and Self-Control

The risk aversion account that Trzebiatowska briefly discusses goes something like this (courtesy of Stark, 2002): Men take more risks than women, as seen in their greater likelihood to commit crime, especially violent crime. The possibility of going to jail for committing a crime is akin to the possibility of going to Hell for not believing in (or practicing) a religion. Therefore, men are less likely than women to take Pascal’s Wager—the bet that one ought to believe because the potential cost not believing (eternity in Hell) is infinitely great, whereas the potential cost of believing (church attendance and the like) is comparably much smaller. Like Trzebiatowska, I find this account unconvincing. However, there may be more to the idea of risk-aversion and religiosity than merely Pascal’s wager.

Risk taking, men, and non-religion have something in common: an association with lower conscientiousness and self-control. Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby (2009) have written an excellent review and synthesis of the research on personality, self-control, and religion. They conclude that religion attracts and promotes self-control and self-regulation—the abilities to regulate one’s thoughts and behaviors to achieve a desired outcome. Religions involve things like worship attendance and ritual practice that may not necessarily be enjoyable or provide immediate benefits but have longer-term social and spiritual rewards. The ability to suffer hard work to achieve distant goals is a key characteristic of conscientiousness. It’s not surprising, then, that conscientious people engage in less risky sexual and health behaviors and that they are more religious. If women are more conscientious than men, this might promote their ability to perform the self-regulation needed to engage in religion.

These psychological explanations for the greater religiosity among women, mentalizing, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, do not contradict the sociological ones offered by Trzebiatowska. Rather, they are complementary explanations at different levels of analysis. As a psychologist, my emphasis and interest is in the properties of individuals (or the situations of individuals) that underlie behaviors. Given that women are more agreeable and conscientious than men and that they mentalize more than men, it is not surprising that women are more involved in the social and ritual aspects of human behavior and, therefore, with religion.

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

References

  • Baron Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(6), 248–254.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind?” Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.
  • Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219–247.
  • Johnson, D. D. P., & Bering, J. M. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 219–233.
  • McCullough, M. E., Enders, C. K., Brion, S. L., & Jain, A. R. (2005). The Varieties of Religious Development in Adulthood: A Longitudinal Investigation of Religion and Rational Choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(1), 78–89.
  • McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. B. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 69–93. doi:10.1037/a0014213
  • Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2012). Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God. PLoS ONE, 1–8.
  • Saroglou, V. (2002). Religion and the five factors of personality: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 32(1), 15–25.
  • Schjoedt, U., Stodkilde-Jorgensen, H., Geertz, A. W., & Roepstorff, A. (2009). Highly religious participants recruit areas of social cognition in personal prayer. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4(2), 199–207.
  • Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 168–182.
  • Stark, R. (2002). Physiology and faith: Addressing the “universal” gender difference in religious commitment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(3), 495–507.
  • Wink, P., Ciciolla, L., Dillon, M., & Tracy, A. (2007). Religiousness, Spiritual Seeking, and Personality: Findings from a Longitudinal Study. Journal of personality, 75(5), 1051–1070.

Why are Women more Religious than Men?

The relationship of religion to gender is a highly complex and disputed area. However, it is well-documented that (to take some UK-based examples), ‘men are proportionately under-represented’ in (mainstream ‘Christian’) ‘religious’ services (Brown 2000, 193), and ‘women outnumber men on all indices of religiosity and spirituality’ (Day 2008, 267). In fact, Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce, the authors of the forthcoming Why are Women more Religious than Men? (OUP, 20 September 2012) unambiguously state in their abstract that, simply, ‘women are more religious than men’.

In this interview with Chris, recorded at the BSA’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in March 2012, Dr Marta Trzebiatowska us a fascinating whirlwind tour through the masses of sociological research which have been done into this area in recent years.

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

Explanations for this disparity in levels of religiosity include suggestions that ‘religion’ emphasises ‘‘feminine’ qualities of relationality and emotional expression’ (Aune and Vincett 2010, 222), and that ‘men tend to exhibit a greater degree of skepticism than do women’ (Bryant 2007, 844). It has been proposed that women explain their ‘religious’ experiences ‘in terms of protection [and] belonging’ (Day 2008, 274) and ‘value being caring and expressive, being a person through reciprocal relationships, and appreciate the value of improving the quality of subjective-life [in contrast to men, who concentrate] on improving the quality of life by way of autonomous, individuated and competitive agency in the world’ (Heelas et al. 2005, 110). Trzebiatowska extensively examines and critiques such explanations and concludes, with Bruce, that

the gender gap is not the result of biology but is rather the consequence of important social differences —responsibility for managing birth, child-rearing and death, for example, and attitudes to the body, illness and health — over-lapping and reinforcing each other. In the West, the gender gap is exaggerated because the social changes that undermined the plausibility of religion bore most heavily on men first. Where the lives of men and women become more similar, and where religious indifference grows, the gender gap gradually disappears.

For discussions on these issues and more, we recommend that you check out Marta’s other work, the references cited in this post, and the recently launched (2011) online journal previous interview with Lisbeth Mikaelsson on Religion and Gender.

Dr Marta Trzebiatowska is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on ‘taking religion seriously’ and on the relationship between religious discourses and gender politics. More specifically, she focuses on sociologically examining the ways in which religious women construct their femininity under circumstances commonly perceived as restrictive, or even oppressive, by secular feminists. She is the author of a number of articles and chapters in these areas, including Habit does not a nun make?: Religious dress in the lives of Polish Catholic nuns (Journal of Contemporary Religion) and When Reflexivity is Not Enough: Researching Polish Catholics (Fieldwork in Religion), and is co-author, with Steve Bruce, of the OUP Book Why are Women more Religious than Men? (2012).

This interview is the second in our series on Material/Embodied Religion, which started last week with David Morgan on Material Religion, and concludes next week with Professor Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Location.

References:

  • Aune, Kristin, and Giselle Vincett. “Gender Matters: Doing Feminist Research on Religion and Youth.” In Religion and Youth, edited by Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, 217–224. Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.
  • Bryant, Alyssa N. “Gender Differences in Spiritual Development During the College Years.” Sex Roles 56 (2007): 835–846.
  • Day, Abby. “Wilfully Disempowered.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 15, no. 3 (2008): 261 –276.
  • Heelas, Paul, Linda Woodhead, Benjamin Seel, Bronislaw Szerszynski, and Karen Tusting. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Double Trouble: Some Reflections on (En)gendering the Study of Religion

 

Engaging gender as an important category of analysis in the study of religion is to interrogate, destabilise, and interrupt the ‘business-as-usual’ of the conceptual and organisational assumptions often employed in our highly dynamic yet historically and oft-times structurally androcentric discipline. In the words of Judith Butler (1990: vii), one could arguably say that (en)gendering the study of religion frequently leads “time and again to a certain sense of trouble.” Indeed, in the first editorial of the new online journal Religion and Gender, Anne-Marie Korte states that the journal’s editors see “religion and gender, our two key terms, as an eye-opener, capable of opening up new debates exactly because of their destabilizing, even ‘troubling’ references” (2011: 7). As the academic disciplines of religious and gender studies are conceptually tangled and sprawling skeins of contested discourse and praxis, the drawing together of these two lively areas can, according to Jay Johnston, only create “trouble; trouble for conceptual categories, for binary logics, and for dominant discursive practices” in the interplay of both fields of study (2013: 576).

This interrogative, querying, and troubling sense of the mutual imbrication of religion and gender, however, was surprisingly sidestepped in Lisbeth Mikaelsson’s recent introductory podcast for the Religious Studies Project. Although presenting fascinating insights into the role of feminism in the development of gender studies, the relationship between secularism and socio-cultural gender constructs, and the issues of advocacy, personal commitment, and ethical engagement that inevitably arise in the study of religion and gender, the interview was regrettably (and ironically) permeated by such problematic and often outmoded binaries as man/woman, masculine/feminine, sex/gender, and nature/culture. These erroneous dualisms still exist in certain publications in the field of religious studies, which seem to give little or no recognition to the profound epistemological, methodological, and substantive changes that contemporary gender studies has produced over the last few decades. This response thus seeks to trouble and reflect on these issues and, in a concluding examination of the potentialities of the study of religion and gender, aims to serve as an addendum to the interview.

‘Essentialism’ and ‘Social Constructionism’

When asked for a definition of gender, Mikaelsson characterised gender as “the ideas and interpretations of males and females in society” and as “an emphasis on social and cultural dynamics and interpretations.” In two short statements such as this, we see the convenient erasure of the long and turbulent history of the academic debate between ‘essentialist’ and/or ‘social constructionist’ perspectives on gender. It must be said from the start, however, that there is no clear consensus amongst scholars on what is meant by the concept of ‘gender,’ as gender has different meanings and different valences in different cultural contexts. It is not the intention of this piece to step into these essentialist and/or constructionist gender debates or their mutual imbrication, and so a delineation of these terms is all that follows.

Essentialism, according to Diana Fuss, is most commonly understood as a “belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the ‘whatness’ of a given identity” (1989: xi). An essentialist theory of gender therefore distinguishes humans as (almost exclusively) ‘male’ and ‘female’ according to what are categorised as eternal, transhistorical, and immutable characteristics. By contrast, constructionists argue that social categories are, to varying degrees, culturally specific: they are the product of social dialogues and assumptions which vary between societies and eras. Constructionism even maintains that ‘essence’ itself is a historical construction, particular to a specific time and place (Weeks 1991: 95). Essentialist conceptions of gender have usually been tempered in contemporary gender theory with a constructionist perspective that gendered bodies are mutable; that they reflect lives and roles situated in particular historical and socio-cultural surroundings. This is the conceptualisation of gender that Joan Wallach Scott, the gender studies theorist and historian cited by Mikaelsson, employs in her work Gender and the Politics of History (1999). Scott depicts the category of gender as a critical agent of destabilisation, and believes that the following questions should always be asked of a historical text from a critical analytic perspective. These questions nicely parallel Mikaelsson’s presentation of the “different levels of gendered structures” worthy of analysis (the “mythical and symbolic level, the conceptual level, the organisational level, and the identity level”):

How and under what conditions [have] different roles and functions been defined for each sex; how [have] the very meanings of the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varied according to time and place; how [were] regulatory norms of sexual deportment created and enforced; how [have] issues of power and rights played into questions of masculinity and femininity; how [do] symbolic structures affect the lives and practices of ordinary people; how [were] sexual identities forged within and against social prescriptions (1999: xi).

Indeed, such a programme endeavours to promote an investigation of the particular circumstances of all such historical instantiations. In so doing, Scott’s hope is to demonstrate that there can be no ahistorical or essential definitions on matters of gender, insofar as they prescribe ideal behaviour for women (and men). As Mikaelsson takes up Scott’s work and gives a simplified social constructionist definition of gender, she further implicitly discards the importance of notions of ‘strategic essentialism’ in contemporary gender theory. Although the essentialist-constructionist debate saw the majority of historians and sociologists fall in favour of the latter position by the start of the last decade, essentialism is still a vexed issue for the field of gender studies, particularly those in the ambit of feminism, due to the difficultly involved in rallying a political movement around unstable and shifting signifiers alongside the risk of biological determinism surrounding these universalist categories. There are theorists who believe that “there are properties essential to women, in that any woman must necessarily have those properties to be a woman at all” (Stone 2004: 86), and theorists who consider the notion of any material essence as nothing but a “regulatory” fiction: “the gendered body…has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (Butler 1990: 32, 136). Fissures are inevitable between universalist and identitarian feminisms on the one hand, whose political objectives and feminist epistemologies revolve around the experiential sense of a shared ontology, and, on the other hand, the intersectional relativism of ‘queer’ approaches which dispute the idea of a unified self and instead focus on fragmented, fluid, hybrid, and contradictory subjects in process (Brooks 1997: 21; Gunnarsson 2011: 25-8).

Recent feminist theory in gender studies, moreover, has seen the burgeoning of such fields as ‘materialist’ and ‘posthumanist’ feminisms, which aim to theorise bodily and transcorporeal materialities in ways that neither push feminist thought back into the traps of biological determinism or essentialism, nor “make feminist theorizing leave bodily matter and biologies ‘behind’ in a critically under-theorised limbo” (Lykke 2010: 131); these works argue that there is a pressing need for theories of sex and gender that can relate to pre-discursive “facticities” of bodies and transcorporeal relations (Haraway 1991: 200; Braidotti 1994: 186). Here we see that, in contradistinction to the simplified and homogenising ‘cultural’ interpretation of gender presented by Mikaelsson in this interview, ‘biological essentialism and social constructivism as the only two options available for the ontological conception of gender have…been critiqued: their mutual imbrication [is] now a feature of many contemporary approaches’ (Johnston 2013: 577).

‘Sex’ and (Dimorphic) ‘Gender’

Extending from the previous discussion, we see another pernicious logic at work throughout the duration of the podcast: ‘gender’ as a synonym for ‘women,’ and, following on from that, sex as biology distinct from gender as culture. Today, the distinction between these two categories of analysis has been thoroughly destabilised, and this process of destabilisation has a remarkable history to which we shall now turn.

In contrast to early feminist work, where gender was understood as a socially constructed product of patriarchal hierarchies and the cultural interpretation of a biologically given ‘sex’ (Oakley 1972; Wittig 1981, 1992), the current deconstructionist (queer and intersectional) approach to gender has a different aim: to disrupt and denaturalise sexual and gender categories in ways that recognise the fluidity, instability, and fragmentation of identities and a plurality of gendered subject positions. Within Marxist feminist accounts, for instance, gender and sex were dealt with as separate formative elements of human identity, so that sex was seen to establish kinds of bodies, while gender was thought to subsequently shape those bodies. In this understanding, sex marked bodies as differentiated and fixed, while gender invested such markings with meaning and mutability (this can particularly be seen in the work of early feminist forays into the study of religion and theology; see Daley 1973, Ruether 1975, and Fiorenza 1984). Gender was seen to follow naturally from sex, or gender and sex were seen as superficially connected in a consecutive fashion, e.g., male is to man as female is to woman. Sex itself however, alongside gender, has been demonstrated as socially constructed and historicised (see Michel Foucault’s (1987) work detailing how sex and sexuality are historically specific concepts as well as regimes of disciplinary knowledge structuring society and social relations).

Although it is helpful to move away from the assumption that one’s sex is ‘biologically given,’ this does not really go far enough. According to Butler in her foundational text Gender Trouble, gender is a powerful discourse that creates the sense by which we define and understand the bodies we live in (1990: 24-5, 140-42). Due to the Foucauldian notion that discourse defines reality, we cannot say that gender ends at a particular point at which the ‘basic’ anatomically and sex-based difference is eschewed. Biological determinism is not sui generis, but is itself a product of culture, constructed by practice and discourse (Butler 1990: 35-6). Being a woman or a man is inscribed and written onto certain bodies in a process that begins at birth (or before birth at pre-natal screening), when genital anatomy is scrutinised to determine whether the new baby is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl.’ Gender then becomes, according to Butler, the performative effect of reiterative acts. These acts, which are repeated in and through a highly rigid regulatory frame, “congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler 1990: 33). In other words, rather than being expressions of an innate (gendered, sexed) identity, acts and gestures that are learned and are repeated over time create the illusions of an innate and stable (gendered, sexed) core. Bodies become intelligible through a citational process that compulsively reinvokes and reinstates norms, the (material) effect of discursive regulations and normalisations that include the hegemonic effects of certain religious institutions, beliefs, and practices that perpetuate discourses of dimorphically gendered normativity.

What this argument leads to, however, is an idea of gender voluntarism. If bodies are made by discourse, it is possible to challenge accepted and expected gendered behaviour. Thus transvestism, transsexuality, or transgenderism offers examples of ways in which a person’s gender can be challenged by individuals beyond what is ‘given’ to them by their culture. As Henrietta Moore shows, Butler herself does not wish to argue too strong a case for such voluntarism, but her ideas do leave this open as one way of analysing (and challenging) cultural constructions of sex and gender (1999: 158). These are the central tenets of such developments in women’s and gender studies as queer theory and the study of intersectionality (the interrelations of various identitarian axes that comprise the assemblage of subjectivities such as race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, dis/ability, and ir/religion), which aim to denaturalise understandings of both gender and sex, and to critique the dimorphic polarisation of sex and gender as either (and only) male or female. Particular normative constructions of gender that presume a certain set of interrelationships between sex, sexuality, and gender are problematised within such fields, which locate and exploit the incoherencies that normalise heterosexuality and call into question the apparently unproblematic terms of ‘woman’ and ‘man.’ Mikaelsson, however, portrays gender to be the distinction between women and men and female and male. Gender is not dimorphic. There are not only those who identify as men and women, but individuals who identify, amongst other non-normative subjectivities, as transsexual, transgendered, intersex, gender-dysphoric, and gender-queer. Whilst discussing the gendered subjectivities of various intersexed individuals, moreover, Heather Looy and Hessel Bouma identified claims to a “third” gender and the inhabitation of a “genderless state” amongst certain subjects (2005: 169; see also Yip and Keenan 2009). As Johnston so eloquently states, the ‘normative categorization of dimorphic gender…has [thus] been the focus of sustained critical scrutiny leading to conceptualizations of gender as a spectrum of possibilities/possible subject positions’ (2013: 577).

(En)gendering Religion

Although this response has refrained, due to constraints of space, from the discussion of the vexing and equally troubling definitional and methodological issues attending the study of religion, it aimed to reveal the labyrinthine and destabilising definitions, boundaries, and constituents that are signified by the term ‘gender.’ Gender studies, when conceptualised with its troubling and dynamic genealogies, projects, and discursive matrices in mind, offers innovative epistemological tools for the scholarly reflection and understanding of the fluid, heterogeneous, and polymorphic dimensions of a variety of manifestations of religious sentiment. The consideration of religion and gender highlights the roles of marginalised subjects through a rereading and rewriting of dominant historical narratives, which include the uncovering of scholarly androcentric bias, and the redressing of the deployment of ‘gender’ to uncritically mean ‘women,’ dimorphically conceived in relation to men (Johnston 2013: 583). Employing the category of gender in the study of religion is necessary to better understand systems of belief and praxis, for certain religious discourses are powerful forces in the creation and perpetuation of hegemonic gender systems, and serve as an important locus of power for gender dimorphism and heteronormativity. More often than not, in congruence with Mikalesson’s presentation of the field of religion and gender, gender studies in religion have often centred on the experiences and subjectivities of women, frequently due to the need to overcome the deeply entrenched, traditional invisibility and marginalisation of women in certain parts of history and in certain societal configurations (see King 1995, Gross 1996, and Juschka 2001). Gender studies in religion, however, have also concerned the study of men (usually by men) as well as women, including their respective identities, representations, and individual subjectivities in addition to their mutually interrelated social worlds and the unequal power relations between them and women (see Boyd et. al. 1996, Krondorfer 1996, and Boyarin 1997). It is thus imperative for works that seek to operate within the ambit of ‘religion and gender’ to now engage in the sustained and critical examination of the contested role of religion and religiosity in the lives of individuals who occupy a plurality of gendered subject positions and who do not identify as cisgendered men or women (a couple of book-length studies on such matters are in circulation, albeit from a more ‘insider’ perspective, such as Mollenkott 2007 and Kugle 2010). They would also do well to consider the capacity of individuals to construct lived experiences by resisting, contesting, and adapting particular (if any) religious orthodoxies and cultural hegemonic systems, including the empowering and constraining potentials and outcomes of such an engagement. Such work, therefore, would evince the relationship of religion and gender as one in constant need of critical appraisal.

In further contradistinction to the content of this interview, moreover, religion and gender are not simply two parallel categories that function independently of each other; they are mutually embedded within each other. It is therefore appropriate to speak of ‘(en)gendering religion’ or ‘doing gender in religion’ than to speak about gender and religion in an additive manner (see Warne 2000, who effectively illustrates how gender thinking is neither natural nor neutral, and argues that a radical shift in thinking is required to make a ‘gender-critical turn’ in all disciplinary areas, including the study of religion). The (en)gendering of religion thus highlights the male-dominated, heteronormative, and dualistically-gendered structure of a number of religious systems, and how destabilising and deconstructing the bodily subject relates to wider issues of ordering gender relations, society, and configurations of power linked to contested religious histories and teachings. ‘(En)gendering religion’ is thus to destabilise and trouble the presuppositions, explanations, key principles, and accepted canons and methods that shape the disciplinary study of religion, incorporating into its framework a critical awareness of the role gender plays in shaping religion, and the role religion plays in shaping conceptualisations of gender.

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.

References

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Moore, H. L. (1999) ‘Whatever Happened to Women and Men? Gender and Other Crises in Anthropology’, in H. L. Moore (ed.) Anthropology Theory Today. Malden: Polity Press, 151-171.

 

Oakley, A. (1972) Sex, Gender and Society. London: Maurice Temple Smith.

Ruether, R. R. (1975) New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation. New York: Seabury Press.

Scott, J. W. (1999) Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stone, A. (2004) ‘On the Genealogy of Women: A Defence of Anti-Essentialism’, in S. Gillis, G. Howie, and R. Munford (eds) Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 85-96.

Warne, R. R. (2000) ‘Making the Gender-Critical Turn’, in T. Jensen and M. Rothstein (eds) Secular Theories on Religion: Current Perspectives. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 249-260.

Weeks, J. (1991) Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity. London: Rivers Oram.

Wittig, M. (1981) ‘One is Not Born a Woman’, Feminist Issues 1, no. 2, 47-54.

Wittig, M. (1992) The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

Yip, A. K.-T. and Keenan, M. (2009) ‘Transgendering Christianity: Gender-Variant Christians as Visionaries’, in S. Hunt (ed.) Contemporary Christianities and LGBT Sexualities. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 87-101.

Podcasts

Cosmpolitan and Cool–and Modest

A response to “Modest Dress Beyond the Headscarf”

by Saskia Warren, PhD

I listened with great interest to Elizabeth Bucar’s podcast interview with Candace Mixon. In particular, I was animated by her discussion of how fashion offers an alternative to textual analysis of religion by privileging the visual, material cultures, and everyday practices. In this I was firmly in agreement as a cultural geographer who also writes on Muslim women and fashion cultures, albeit the term I tend to mobilise is modest fashion, rather than Bucar’s pious fashion. Yet we are both interested in head-to-toe looks of wearers and how these might respond to local aesthetics and morals, rather than tracing clothing choices to religious texts. In responding to local contexts, or refashioning placeif you like, Muslim women can be engaged in changes to fashion and judgments around dressing appropriately over time.

My research does differ given an area focus trained on Britain, and specific attention towards those who work in fashion. In what might be termed a feminist geopolitical approach, I am keen to explore how fashion offers a means for activism. For a number of my participants, fashion and beauty are a way of reaching wide audiences of Muslims and non-Muslims alike in order to propagate an accessible and moderate image of Muslim women living in Britain, women who are cosmopolitan and cool. Fashion and beauty therefore work as a conduit, but I would argue that the implicit aim is overtly political – although perhaps engaged in more everyday forms of political action: to participate in public forum debates around women’s visibility and rights in Islam and society more broadly. Blurring fashion and media expertise, Muslim women have often led as highly active agents within the fast-growing Islamic Cultural Industrieswhere they are in the business of creating content that shapes new narratives about Muslim and feminine norms, visually and textually. Moreover, as Elizabeth discusses in this fascinating podcast, pious or modest fashion has impacted how wealldress. High street brands such as H&M and Uniqlo have launched modest fashion lines. But even more evident are the ways in which layered and covered looks – with higher necklines and lower hemlines – have become de rigueur.

As a case study we might think about the work of Dina Torkio whom I have written about elsewhereas crossing-over from fashionista to activist. In Britain, Dina was at the very forefront of the emergence of modest fashion as an influencer, featuring in a number of high profile mainstream magazines and newspapers, and has since diversified into film-making #YourAverageMuslim. More recently, she and her family have also been subjected to vicious and highly targeted abuse due to her decision to uncover her hair more regularly in online content, such as published videos and photos. This case study draws attention to the desire amongst young Muslim females for positive role modelswho share identity markers (and transcend national boundaries), while simultaneously spotlighting how digital space operates as both an oppressiveandprogressive forum, especially where it intersects with religion and moral discourse. I argue that paying closer attention to the work and agencies of Muslim women in the fashion world as cultural producers and activists can offer challenge to religious conservative and Western-liberal thinking on the contours of everyday Islam, gender and equality. It also gives emphasis to the day-to-day embodied and spiritual precarity experienced by Muslim womenas highly visible cultural producers. As Elizabeth discusses in relation to her own work, fashion can offer ‘a good way of thinking about different Muslim communities that doesn’t start with religious texts or inter-religious politics’, and instead ‘focuses on everyday practices’.

A related line of enquiry that resonated with me was how through an accessible topic such as fashion Elizabeth sought to combat Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism in ways that enable everyone to enter the conversation. I welcomed her approach of investigating three different site studies – Tehran (Iran), Yogyakarta (Indonesia), and Istanbul (Turkey) – to open up the representation and diversity of Muslim women. Of course, I also think one can diversify the representation of Muslim women at home, or within a single site case study, as well as through a comparative multi-national and multi-city approach. Again taking Britain as an example, where the Muslim population is 4.8% of the national population, with over 50% of the population of Muslims in Britain born in the country, there is a growing diversity of Muslim identities and experiences. Due to the British Empire and later migration of subjects from former colonies attracted by labour opportunities in British industry, Pakistani Muslims comprise the largest segment of the British Muslim population at 38%, followed by Bangladeshi at 15%. However in recent years, there has been an increase in minority Muslim groups, such as White ethnic, Black African, and, with changes to the British Census categories from 2011, those identifying as Arab. In my own research on Muslima lifestyle media and fashion, the majority of participants identified as from the South Asian diaspora, especially of Pakistani heritage, with the sample also comprising minority Muslims identifying variously as Scottish, Caribbean, Palestinian, Iranian, Egyptian, Burundian, and mixed heritage. A number rejected identification with one Islamic sect or school of thinking or identified as culturally Muslim. But those profiled had practiced variously as Sunni, Wahabi, Deobandi, Shia, or Sufi, showing a wide range of intra-Muslim beliefs and affiliations.  

The aim to diversify representations of Muslim women, and to emphasise their positive contribution to British culture, arts and the economy, are some of the guiding principles behind a monograph I am currently writing (under contract with Edinburgh University Press) and a major exhibition at The Whitworth, Manchester. Beyond Faith: Muslim Women Artists Todayfeatures the original artwork of five contemporary artists from a range of backgrounds and at various stages of their artistic careers: Robina Akhter Ullah, Shabana Baig, Fatimah Fagihassan, Aida Foroutan and Usarae Gul. In the podcast, Elizabeth discusses the highly successful Contemporary Muslim Fashionsexhibition at the De Young Gallery in San Francisco. Exploring visual art practices, Beyond Faithhighlights the creative agencies of Muslim women in the production and circulation of new material forms and narratives. The exhibition aims to increase understanding of the different artworks, artistic practices, and lives of these diverse artists. Together they offer challenge to social and economic inequalities and religious intolerance, while actively expanding and diversifying spaces of the artworld.

Beyond Faithis shown in the Collection Centre and as part of an artist intervention in Four Corners of One Cloth: Textiles from the Islamic World. It marks the culmination of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Project on the roles and experiences of Muslim women in the UK Cultural and Creative Industries that I was privileged to lead and is generously funded by AHRC and The Whitworth. The exhibition runs from 14 June 2019 – October 2019.

References

ThomasReuters State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2016/17 Accessed 4 August 2017. Available at: <https://ceif.iba.edu.pk/pdf/ThomsonReutersstateoftheGlobalIslamicEconomyReport201617.pdf>.

Warren, S. (2019). # YourAverageMuslim: Ruptural geopolitics of British Muslim women’s media and fashion. Political Geography, 69, 118-127.

Warren, S. (2018). Placing faith in creative labour: Muslim women and digital media work in Britain. Geoforum, 97, 1-9.

Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the eye of the creator

By comparing the Miss Christian America pageant to other more well known pageants Miss USA and Miss America, Chelsea Belanger’s study provides a look at the intersections between religion, gender, and collective identity. Using Christian Smith’s ideas of subcultural identity, Belanger examines how the structure of the Miss Christian pageant helps develop a unique form of embodied religion.

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, fake flowers, pretty dresses, and more.


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


Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator

Podcast with Chelsea Belanger (4 March 2019).

Interviewed by Kristeen Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Belanger_-_Christian_Beauty_Pageants_1.1

Kristeen Black (KB): We’re all aware of the Miss Universe Pageant, Miss USA Pageant, Miss America pageant. There’s various systems of beauty pageant but each are uniquely identifiable, different in some way. And my guest today is going to talk to us about Miss Christian America. Please welcome Chelsea Belanger.

Chelsea Belanger (CB): Hello.

KB: Would you like to introduce yourself? Tell me a little bit about your research background and what brought you to this topic.

CB: Sure. So my name is Chelsea Belinger. I’m a second year doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. I got my Bachelors and my Masters at the University of Texas at San Antonio. And my master’s thesis encompassed race, religion, gender and behavioural health. It was a qualitative study examining the relationship between religiosity and sexual health among devout African American college women. And so . . .

KB: Fascinating.

CB: It was fascinating research, which I take a lot of pride in. It was a lot of fun but what was really interesting is the creative way in which these women used their religious beliefs to navigate through their sexual decision making. One of the main kind-of key points that emerged from this research, with respect to autonomy over our bodies, is that while these women that I interviewed were devout Christians, they expressed that they have supportive views of women deciding what is best for their body – especially with respect to abortion. So while they supported abortion they expressed or articulated that they themselves would never have an abortion, because of their religious beliefs.

KB: I see. So that’s the way that they negotiated that space.

CB: Absolutely. That space in terms of their religion, their views, their practices, but also being a woman. Being an African American woman and having those rights. It was fascinating. It was just a fascinating study.

KB: And do you see that same kind of synchronicity coming about with the beauty pageants? That there’s this national sense of beauty or gender as well as individual . . . but then again, collective, on a religious basis?

CB: Right. So what we’ve seen with respect to beauty pageants is that there’s a lot of religion being done. Unfortunately there’s scant research on Christian beauty pageants. But beauty pageants overall, now I will say there’s lot of research on the Miss America pageant. But what’s interesting here is that there’s a multitude of different pageant systems, such as Miss USA and Miss Christian America, where this research has encompassed . . .

KB: And to be honest, I didn’t realise there was a Miss Christian America pageant.

CB: Me neither, before this research!

KB: Who knew?!

CB: Indeed. But that’s what makes it so fascinating. It’s that there are different pageant systems that can really accommodate to anybody’s needs, so to speak. So I think that’s what . . . there’s a major misconception in American Society that there is just Miss America pageant. And that’s not the case.

KB: OK. So which came first for you in your research question: the theory that you were looking at of, for instance, Christian Smith and maybe even Judith Butler; or this kind-of noticing the different types of pageants going on, and the religiosity associated with that?

CB: Well certainly this research is going to encompass a lot of what I’m doing for my dissertation. So, being a frequent viewer of beauty pageants, American beauty pageants, I was really inspired to focus on this area. Because there’s such limited research on beauty pageants and not just Miss America. So I really wanted to focus on . . . . Ok – what is it about beauty pageants and gender that I want to focus on? And religion is something that I love studying. So I really wanted to look at how religion was being used in these beauty pageants. So that was the foundation of the study. And then looking at what theoretical frameworks are most appropriate for the study. And that’s where I came across the cultural identity theory. Now I will say I had a lot of help with Dr John Borkowksi who helped me along this, who was also my thesis advisor.

KB: A great shout out! So tell me little bit more about that theory and how that helps.

CB: So I’m working on Christian Smith’s cultural identity theory, where religious subcultures balance the demand of cultural distinction and social engagements. So, in other words, looking at this negotiating mainstream values and religious values (5:00). So, with respect to this work, looking at Miss Christian America, it’s a beauty pageant. Women are competing in this pageant, very similar to mainstream secular pageants. But what makes it uniquely different are the structure but also the requirements for this pageant, as well. In terms of the structure, there is no swimsuit portion in the Miss Christian America, but rather a sportswear competition. So that’s kind of deviating from the mainstream. Whereas the mainstream pageant like Miss USA has a swimsuit portion of the competition. And with respect to the pageant requirements, for Miss Christian America we see that contestants in this pageant must be active in ministry. They also have to have reference letters from one pastor and a media ministry leader as well. Which makes them stand out significantly from the mainstream pageant. So we see with respect to the subcultural identity theory how religion is being practised in these pageants that may exhibit mainstream characteristics.

KB: So, for my ear, it sounds like it’s evangelically focussed because women in ministry is not available in every denomination.

CB: Yeah. Right. Right. And that’s what’s interesting about this particular pageant, it’s that . . . the way in which I was studying this beauty pageant, it seemed as though as long as the contestants identified as being a Christian – that was also kind of this requirement to represent this particular pageant – whereas the mainstream pageant, Miss USA, there is no religious component whatsoever, where you’re actively driven by your faith or not.

KB: So, one of the things that I found interesting is that I seem to hear this core relationship between fitness – so, having to wear sports attire and then being judged physically fit in that sense, but no pictures – but then also being judged as spiritually fit, being inner beauty. You mentioned something about this inner type of driven-ness, and religiosity. So is that something that you’ve found, this idea of fitness in some way . . .?

CB: Right. So I saw in terms of physical fitness, this particular Miss Christian America really reinforces the characteristics of a “godly woman”. And so with this idea of a sportswear, it’s just really maintaining modesty and you know foregoing any kind of cleavage that you might see in the swimsuit competition. So really reinforcing this inner beauty. What’s really interesting about the Miss Christian America is their mission statement. And it says “no” to swimsuits and vain beauty; “yes” to the word of God, prayer, praise worship and inner . . . it really reinforces that evangelical component.

KB: Ok, Great. Also, you mentioned seeing this type of religiousness, or godly woman being reflected in some way throughout the pageant. Tell me more about that.

CB: Yes. So again, what makes this pageant so unique is kind of the requirement, if you will. So for these contestants application form, contestants for this pageant have to name their church, the numbers of years in which they’ve attended this church, and attend weekly Bible study – so that was like a yes or no response. Also the competition categories that vary vastly with the mainstream pageants are outreach ministry presentations, Biblical question and answer . . .

KB: Oh, interesting!

CB: Which is like the onstage questions that you see in the mainstream. But this, particularly, is a Biblically-based question . . . and, again, the sportswear competition. Also what’s interesting is the title holder responsibilities that are encompassed. And again we see this comparative component where both pageants have responsibilities for their title holders. But what’s interesting about Miss Christian America is the Evangelicalism that she must partake in as a title holder, representing Miss Christian America. And in addition to that, that encompasses missionary work, upholding the morals and standards of Miss Christian America pageant. So again, maintaining or exuding those characteristics of a godly woman (10:00).

KB: So, do you see the part of that being a godly woman encompasses idealised gender roles and things like . . . with the Miss America pageant, you have to be never married, never given birth. Is that the same type of thing reinforced here?

CB: Yes, so we certainly see, in this research, we see a lot of comparisons with mainstream and secular pageants and this particular pageant, Miss Christian America. We see that both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America really promote women’s confidence and self-esteem and the importance of community involvement. In addition to that we see a lot of overlap between the two competitions, such as the pageant interview with the panel of judges, the opening number which is commonly done in the beginning of the pageant: this is when you’re first introduced to the contestants on stage. There’s no talent competition in either one of these pageants. Whereas, in Miss America you see that there’s a talent competition. Now, going back to what you were saying in terms of never married, single, never given birth, those are two requirements of both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America. The contestant has to be single, never married and the contestant also has to be natural born female. In addition to that, she cannot have given birth at any point. So those are really, those are just similar characteristics between the two. In addition to that, community involvement is very much reinforced in both these pageants. Title holders or the winners of these pageants win a crown and sash. And oftentimes you’ll see on their sash the title which they’re representing. So Miss USA, Miss Christian America. And again the title holder responsibilities which, as we talked about before, varies but still maintains those responsibilities.

KB: And you just mentioned a sash, and I had kind of this question . . . . In the Miss America pageant we’re used to seeing like Miss Texas and Miss South Carolina, do they identify in that type of way? Is it like Miss Lutheran? [Laughs].

CB: That is a great question. From what I saw, no. Again, and I can only go on what I’ve seen of the Miss Christian America pageant. I did not see if there were women that identified. . .if they identified as Lutheran, that’s what the sash would say as they competed. I didn’t see that, so I’m going to assume no. I could be corrected. But again, as long as you identify as being Christian and being involved in the Christian faith.

KB: So it’s really more of an umbrella type of identification.

CB: Exactly. That’s how I interpreted it.

KB: OK. And how is race represented in there?

CB: That’s an excellent question. So we’ve seen . . . historically, in an American beauty pageant, we’ve seen this pattern of white women typically competing, but also winning these pageants. What’s unique about this particular pageant is a large presence of African American women competing in Miss Christian America, from what I’ve seen on their website. And so there’s also kind of this difference between the two. Now certainly we’ve seen, over time, recently, the crowning of diverse women and really reinforcing diversity in mainstream beauty pageants. But this particular pageant, I’d say that there’s a larger population of African American women competing and representing in this pageant.

KB: Great. OK. And then, do you think that there is some kind of reflection going on in the pageant of what’s going on in mainstream society, about the rising Evangelicalism? Is that contributing? Do you have any sense of how big the pageant is? Has it been growing lately?

CB: Right. Over all, that’s a really good question that I don’t think I’m prepared to answer just yet.

KB: OK, that’s good!

CB: But my assumption is, is that you know . . . unfortunately, American society may view beauty pageants negatively. And I hope my research reinforces some sort of shift in perception of how we view beauty pageants. So I don’t know in terms of the enrolment or participation of these beauty pageants over time. But certainly, hopefully there’s a shift that shows that beauty queens are not just a pretty face. They’re so much more than that regardless of the beauty pageant that you’re competing in. There’s that community involvement. But also within the pageant it’s this sisterhood that’s being created. These bonds of relationship. But also with respect to religion, how’s religion essentially being done in these pageants (15:00)? And from my own experience, backstage is where you see a lot of these . . . of religion being practised. Whether you’re competing in a secular pageant or a Christian-driven pageant, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see competitors, just before getting on stage, praying with each other – regardless of your faith – but just praying that everything goes well, and praying with each other. Whereas, once you step out on stage, they’re then your competition! But once you step off there’s this sisterhood again. And I think that’s the importance of just participating in a beauty pageant. And yes, there’s the sash and the crown, but also the bond, the friendship, the confidence that can come your way. And competing in these pageants. I hope my work can really explore that.

KB: And that’s great, because I was kind of wondering about this idea of collective versus the individual. And religion is such a collective idea. And how could that be reconciled, or is that, like, just taken into account? Is there a way that that’s negotiated, somehow?

CB: Certainly, so we’ve seen, at least in the Miss America, it’s not uncommon to see title-holders talk about their faith, even though Miss America’s not a religious pageant. We’ve certainly seen over time how contestant representing their states may kind-of talk about their faith and how they practice their faith, so to speak. So certainly, I wouldn’t say it’s completely erased from secular pageants just because they don’t have a religiously-driven component in these pageants. Who is to say these women aren’t driven by their faith?

KB: Right. But it’s just not as apparent?

CB: It’s not as apparent. But certainly, I guess, it’s up to the contestant if they want to talk about their faith. And it certainly had been played in previous years.

KB: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered?

CB: With respect to this research?

KB: Right.

CB: So much. I think I’ve gained an even greater respect for pageants, just exploring a pageant. And I’m so intrigued by how religion is being displayed in the Miss Christian America pageant. Prior to this research I had never heard of the Miss Christian America pageant. But looking into it and seeing what they stand for, and just with the way in which they’re promoting their faith, you know, it’s intriguing. Especially for somebody that studies the sociology of religion. I’m intrigued by that. So and just seeing how they navigate through that negotiation of secular pageants. And what they’re going to take from those secular pageants and how they’re going to incorporate their unique component to facilitate their religion. It’s fascinating.

KB: Yeah. And I can imagine that some denominations might resonate differently. Like if you have a very idealised gender role type of model to follow, that might be a little different experience than one that’s a little more fluid?

CB: Right. Right. Certainly, you know, in beauty pageants, mainstream, what have you, you’re going to have to exhibit these particular gender roles in terms of the makeup and, you know, heels, and hair spray, and what have you. So I certainly see that being practised here. But I think it’s so much more than that. You know, in terms of this sisterhood that’s being created. But also, what’s being done for these contestants? Win or lose – which I don’t think there’s any losers in pageantry. You gain something. Whether it’s self-confidence, or whether its friendships, what have you, or just trying something new. Certainly there’s definitely these generals that are in place. But there’s so much more. So much more that can be taken out of this from this experience as well.

KB: Would you say that this could be a faith experience for some of them?

CB: I think so. I could be wrong. But in terms of the Miss Christian America, I think it could really reinforce, or it does reinforce that commitment to their faith and really strengthening their religious beliefs and practices with the outreach of ministry and, you know, one of the competition categories – like I said before – was this Biblical question and answer. So really preparing . . . because this is a competition. There’s a panel of judges. You’re going to be judged. So really just the preparations that are encompassed in this particular pageant. And how, you know . . . preparing for those categories, (20:00) but also strengthening one’s faith.

KB: And that’s kind-of how I . . . . Just listening to you talk about it, it seems like it could be a faith-enhancing or religious experience.

CB: Indeed.

KB: So maybe just going back to Christian Smith just for a minute: tell me a little bit about how you’re applying that theory.

CB: Right. So in looking at subcultural identity theory we’re looking at religious subcultures balancing the demands of cultural distinction and social engagement. So, how is the Miss Christian America negotiating this cultural distinction and cultural engagement, compared to a more secular pageant, Miss USA?

KB: So that’s why you’ve compared both of those pageants. I see.

CB: Yes. So this was really a comparative textual analysis between the two pageants. But in addition to that, we’re kind of looking at the unique religious identity compared to the broader secular pageants. So looking at that religious identity and what’s coming about that. But also looking at the Evangelicalism that’s been brought forth in this research. So looking at the truthfulness of the Bible, so looking at values of scriptures, how is that being displayed in the pageant? The influence of human nature, so looking at the mainstream culture, so going back to the swimsuit competition, and so forth, and then finally, the “born again” experience that’s really the salvation of such faith.

KB: Oh, interesting.

CB: So it’s really interesting how the pageant is negotiating these religious values and borrowing from mainstream beauty pageants. Something that I talked about in this presentation was this idea of this perception, or borrowing, of mainstream, and really using it and navigating through the religious values and the mainstream values. So again, that on stage question, right? But in the sense of the Biblical question and answer.

KB: So these two are really being interspersed rather than juxtaposed, is that . . . ?

CB: I think so. Absolutely. So again, just going back to how they’re very uniquely similar, but also vastly different. But in the end somebody’s going to be crowned the title holder. So they’re still similar in many ways but vastly different in other ways with respect to religion.

KB: Fascinating. So if anyone had a question, is there a way that they could contact you? Do you have . . . is your work published somewhere?

CB: Not as of yet. So this is actually going to be . . . this research is part of a larger research study that I’m doing to for my dissertation. So I’m really . . . not brainstorming. But I know I want to conduct this research into pageantry because when I began such scant literature was out there on pageantry. So I really want to change that. I’m inspired to change that. And I really want to maintain . . . . I’m a qualitative researcher – so I want to look at kind of the motivations, why women choose to compete in beauty pageants.

KB: Yes. Great question!

CB: I want to explore that. Is it to make friends? Is it to gain self-confidence? Is it to get scholarship money? Or is it just to win a crown? And there are so many ways that that can be reinforced. So I want to explore reasons why women choose to . . . but as a researcher that’s fascinated by religion I want to also look at, maybe, how religion is displayed. So I’m not really focussing on a particular pageant. But I really want to interview former title holders but also former beauty pageant contestants, as well. And just explore and investigate why they chose to compete. And then, were there any ways in which they used their religion through that experience? Whether it was praying right before going on stage, or carrying a cross, or wearing a cross while they competed? I really want to explore that.

KB: And see what that means, yes. So this is a whole new way to think of lived religion and experiencing religion.

CB: Indeed. And going back to your question before. Certainly, if anybody has a question they can reach out to me through email. My email is chelsea.belanger@knight.ucf.edu

KB: Ok. And we’ll post that on the website as well.

CB: Thank you.

KB: Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure.

CB: Likewise. Thank you for having me.

KB: We look forward to reading your book, once you turn your dissertation into a book (25:00).

CB: (Laughs) Yes I look forward to that one day, too.

KB: And I’ll re-interview you then!

CB: Yes. Sounds good. Thank you so much.

KB: Thank you, Chelsea.


Citation Info: Belanger, Chelsea and Kristeen Black. 2019. “Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 4 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 February 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/christian-beauty-pageants-beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-creator/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

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, Ko-Lee hot & Spicy Go Noodles, and more.

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

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 18 October 2016

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Religion, gender and corporeality

gender and religion, what are the major factors which can help understand how people embody the relationship between identity and religiosity? What is gender, exactly, and how does it manifest in religious traditions? How do we access it without assuming people’s identities on the basis of their “sex”?

In this interview, Dr. Anna Fedele talks about her research about religion, gender and corporeality. When it comes to intersecting the study of religion and the study of gender, it is crucial to be aware of the categories used by the informants in order to leave the power they have gained in their experience of womanhood, motherhood and procreation in their own hands. If religion has often been perceived as something that regulates gender and sexuality, it is also a great locus of power for those who interact with it through bodily experiences and embodied practices. Fedele goes on to say that, in order to fully grasp the complexity of her informants, certain changes need to happen in the study of religion, with the use of methodologies surrounding life stories, and also in the opposing categories of insider and outsider.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 ISSR Conference, Université catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon and George Ioannides. 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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sudoku puzzles, very small rocks, and more!

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

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Why are Women more Social than Men?

 

This week’s interview with Marta Trzebiatowska is an amazing overview of the many arguments used to explain why women are more religious than men (her upcoming book). Trzebiatowska focuses on explanations relating to gender roles and socialization: women are responsible for many of the social components of human life—birth, death, charity, and so on. But this only pushes the question one stage. We must ask, “Why are women more involved in these social activities than men?” Trzebiatowska seems to side with the explanation that women are socialized into these roles. But, because I am a psychologist, I would like to propose some answers on a different level of analysis. Specifically, there may be underlying individual differences in cognitive and personality traits between men and women that promote different patterns of both social behavior and religiosity.

Cognitive Differences

In my previous piece for the Religious Studies Project, I noted that cognitive scientists of religion tend to operationalize religion as belief in supernatural agency (gods, ghosts, spirits, etc.). Many cognitive scientists of religion have argued that the tendency to see agency in the world underlies these kinds of religious beliefs. For example, Dominic Johnson and Jesse Bering (2006) argue that religion requires second-order theory of mind – the ability to imagine that God knows what you are thinking. This ability to see intentions, beliefs, and attitudes in the world around us is supposed to be the basis of both religious belief (where it is applied to supernatural agents) and human social interaction (where it is applied to the natural social world). And, indeed, research by Uffe Schjoedt and his colleagues (2009) on prayer and Justin Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) on thinking about the properties of God suggests that people think about supernatural agents in much the same way they think about humans. That is, they use the same brain regions in interacting with supernatural and human others, and they attribute the same kinds of psychological, physical, and biological properties to supernatural beings as they do to humans.

This has given rise to the hypothesis that the non-religious may (on average) see less agency, both human and supernatural, in the world. Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues (2012) tested this idea recently and found support for it. They discovered that mentalizing, the ability to see intentions in others, was a key predictor of belief in God. More importantly, differences in mentalizing were found to explain known differences in religiosity between two different groupings of people. Those with Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are much less religious than those without, but this difference shrinks when the ability to mentalize (a proposed deficit in ASDs, see Baron-Cohen et al., 1985) is controlled. Similarly, the gap in religiosity between men and women was reduced when differences in mentalizing between men and women were accounted for.

This work is in line with Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2003) somewhat controversial theory of autism as a kind of extreme maleness, characterized, in part, by a deficiency in the capacity to infer the mental states of others. Men vastly outnumber women among those with ASDs (e.g., Baron-Cohen et al., 2001), ASDs are associated with mentalizing deficiencies, and ASDs are associated with non-religion. Men, compared to women, demonstrate a smaller version of the gaps between those with ASDs and those without in mentalizing and religiosity. Although work on the relationship between sex, religion, theory of mind, and ASDs is at an early stage, what is known has caused Norenzayan and others (for a description of research from another lab, see here to conclude that there may be a relationship between mentalizing, social behavior, and religion that could explain why men are less religious than women.

Personality Differences

Men and women differ in more ways than just mentalizing, though. Researchers have found that, across many countries, men and women have different personality profiles. Although the size of these differences varies from place to place, their direction is fairly consistent. In a study in 55 different countries, David Schmitt (2008) and his colleagues found that women across the globe tend to score higher than men on four of the five major personality traits known as the Big Five: neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Results for the fifth personality dimension, openness to experience, were mixed. Two of the Big Five personality traits are known to be associated with religion: agreeableness and conscientious (Saroglou, 2002).

Sociality and Agreeableness

People who are high in agreeableness are pleasant, empathetic, friendly, etc. In other words, they are congenial social actors. Some evidence suggests that agreeableness may be a pre-requisite for religiosity. Longitudinal research suggests that those who are highly agreeable as adolescents go on to become more religious as adults (McCullough et al., 2005). Another group found this same relationship—but only among women (Wink et al., 2007). This relationship isn’t surprising when you consider that agreeableness is associated with many of the same social traits that are often credited to the religious. Agreeable people are more prosocial and altruistic; they get along better with others; and they prefer to cooperate. Would it be surprising to find agreeable people more attracted to social domains of human life and to religion? It seems plausible that agreeableness is a candidate to explain the higher rates of both among women.

An Alternative Risk Aversion Account: Conscientiousness and Self-Control

The risk aversion account that Trzebiatowska briefly discusses goes something like this (courtesy of Stark, 2002): Men take more risks than women, as seen in their greater likelihood to commit crime, especially violent crime. The possibility of going to jail for committing a crime is akin to the possibility of going to Hell for not believing in (or practicing) a religion. Therefore, men are less likely than women to take Pascal’s Wager—the bet that one ought to believe because the potential cost not believing (eternity in Hell) is infinitely great, whereas the potential cost of believing (church attendance and the like) is comparably much smaller. Like Trzebiatowska, I find this account unconvincing. However, there may be more to the idea of risk-aversion and religiosity than merely Pascal’s wager.

Risk taking, men, and non-religion have something in common: an association with lower conscientiousness and self-control. Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby (2009) have written an excellent review and synthesis of the research on personality, self-control, and religion. They conclude that religion attracts and promotes self-control and self-regulation—the abilities to regulate one’s thoughts and behaviors to achieve a desired outcome. Religions involve things like worship attendance and ritual practice that may not necessarily be enjoyable or provide immediate benefits but have longer-term social and spiritual rewards. The ability to suffer hard work to achieve distant goals is a key characteristic of conscientiousness. It’s not surprising, then, that conscientious people engage in less risky sexual and health behaviors and that they are more religious. If women are more conscientious than men, this might promote their ability to perform the self-regulation needed to engage in religion.

These psychological explanations for the greater religiosity among women, mentalizing, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, do not contradict the sociological ones offered by Trzebiatowska. Rather, they are complementary explanations at different levels of analysis. As a psychologist, my emphasis and interest is in the properties of individuals (or the situations of individuals) that underlie behaviors. Given that women are more agreeable and conscientious than men and that they mentalize more than men, it is not surprising that women are more involved in the social and ritual aspects of human behavior and, therefore, with religion.

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

References

  • Baron Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(6), 248–254.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind?” Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.
  • Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219–247.
  • Johnson, D. D. P., & Bering, J. M. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 219–233.
  • McCullough, M. E., Enders, C. K., Brion, S. L., & Jain, A. R. (2005). The Varieties of Religious Development in Adulthood: A Longitudinal Investigation of Religion and Rational Choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(1), 78–89.
  • McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. B. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 69–93. doi:10.1037/a0014213
  • Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2012). Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God. PLoS ONE, 1–8.
  • Saroglou, V. (2002). Religion and the five factors of personality: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 32(1), 15–25.
  • Schjoedt, U., Stodkilde-Jorgensen, H., Geertz, A. W., & Roepstorff, A. (2009). Highly religious participants recruit areas of social cognition in personal prayer. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4(2), 199–207.
  • Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 168–182.
  • Stark, R. (2002). Physiology and faith: Addressing the “universal” gender difference in religious commitment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(3), 495–507.
  • Wink, P., Ciciolla, L., Dillon, M., & Tracy, A. (2007). Religiousness, Spiritual Seeking, and Personality: Findings from a Longitudinal Study. Journal of personality, 75(5), 1051–1070.

Why are Women more Religious than Men?

The relationship of religion to gender is a highly complex and disputed area. However, it is well-documented that (to take some UK-based examples), ‘men are proportionately under-represented’ in (mainstream ‘Christian’) ‘religious’ services (Brown 2000, 193), and ‘women outnumber men on all indices of religiosity and spirituality’ (Day 2008, 267). In fact, Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce, the authors of the forthcoming Why are Women more Religious than Men? (OUP, 20 September 2012) unambiguously state in their abstract that, simply, ‘women are more religious than men’.

In this interview with Chris, recorded at the BSA’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in March 2012, Dr Marta Trzebiatowska us a fascinating whirlwind tour through the masses of sociological research which have been done into this area in recent years.

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

Explanations for this disparity in levels of religiosity include suggestions that ‘religion’ emphasises ‘‘feminine’ qualities of relationality and emotional expression’ (Aune and Vincett 2010, 222), and that ‘men tend to exhibit a greater degree of skepticism than do women’ (Bryant 2007, 844). It has been proposed that women explain their ‘religious’ experiences ‘in terms of protection [and] belonging’ (Day 2008, 274) and ‘value being caring and expressive, being a person through reciprocal relationships, and appreciate the value of improving the quality of subjective-life [in contrast to men, who concentrate] on improving the quality of life by way of autonomous, individuated and competitive agency in the world’ (Heelas et al. 2005, 110). Trzebiatowska extensively examines and critiques such explanations and concludes, with Bruce, that

the gender gap is not the result of biology but is rather the consequence of important social differences —responsibility for managing birth, child-rearing and death, for example, and attitudes to the body, illness and health — over-lapping and reinforcing each other. In the West, the gender gap is exaggerated because the social changes that undermined the plausibility of religion bore most heavily on men first. Where the lives of men and women become more similar, and where religious indifference grows, the gender gap gradually disappears.

For discussions on these issues and more, we recommend that you check out Marta’s other work, the references cited in this post, and the recently launched (2011) online journal previous interview with Lisbeth Mikaelsson on Religion and Gender.

Dr Marta Trzebiatowska is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on ‘taking religion seriously’ and on the relationship between religious discourses and gender politics. More specifically, she focuses on sociologically examining the ways in which religious women construct their femininity under circumstances commonly perceived as restrictive, or even oppressive, by secular feminists. She is the author of a number of articles and chapters in these areas, including Habit does not a nun make?: Religious dress in the lives of Polish Catholic nuns (Journal of Contemporary Religion) and When Reflexivity is Not Enough: Researching Polish Catholics (Fieldwork in Religion), and is co-author, with Steve Bruce, of the OUP Book Why are Women more Religious than Men? (2012).

This interview is the second in our series on Material/Embodied Religion, which started last week with David Morgan on Material Religion, and concludes next week with Professor Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Location.

References:

  • Aune, Kristin, and Giselle Vincett. “Gender Matters: Doing Feminist Research on Religion and Youth.” In Religion and Youth, edited by Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, 217–224. Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.
  • Bryant, Alyssa N. “Gender Differences in Spiritual Development During the College Years.” Sex Roles 56 (2007): 835–846.
  • Day, Abby. “Wilfully Disempowered.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 15, no. 3 (2008): 261 –276.
  • Heelas, Paul, Linda Woodhead, Benjamin Seel, Bronislaw Szerszynski, and Karen Tusting. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Double Trouble: Some Reflections on (En)gendering the Study of Religion

 

Engaging gender as an important category of analysis in the study of religion is to interrogate, destabilise, and interrupt the ‘business-as-usual’ of the conceptual and organisational assumptions often employed in our highly dynamic yet historically and oft-times structurally androcentric discipline. In the words of Judith Butler (1990: vii), one could arguably say that (en)gendering the study of religion frequently leads “time and again to a certain sense of trouble.” Indeed, in the first editorial of the new online journal Religion and Gender, Anne-Marie Korte states that the journal’s editors see “religion and gender, our two key terms, as an eye-opener, capable of opening up new debates exactly because of their destabilizing, even ‘troubling’ references” (2011: 7). As the academic disciplines of religious and gender studies are conceptually tangled and sprawling skeins of contested discourse and praxis, the drawing together of these two lively areas can, according to Jay Johnston, only create “trouble; trouble for conceptual categories, for binary logics, and for dominant discursive practices” in the interplay of both fields of study (2013: 576).

This interrogative, querying, and troubling sense of the mutual imbrication of religion and gender, however, was surprisingly sidestepped in Lisbeth Mikaelsson’s recent introductory podcast for the Religious Studies Project. Although presenting fascinating insights into the role of feminism in the development of gender studies, the relationship between secularism and socio-cultural gender constructs, and the issues of advocacy, personal commitment, and ethical engagement that inevitably arise in the study of religion and gender, the interview was regrettably (and ironically) permeated by such problematic and often outmoded binaries as man/woman, masculine/feminine, sex/gender, and nature/culture. These erroneous dualisms still exist in certain publications in the field of religious studies, which seem to give little or no recognition to the profound epistemological, methodological, and substantive changes that contemporary gender studies has produced over the last few decades. This response thus seeks to trouble and reflect on these issues and, in a concluding examination of the potentialities of the study of religion and gender, aims to serve as an addendum to the interview.

‘Essentialism’ and ‘Social Constructionism’

When asked for a definition of gender, Mikaelsson characterised gender as “the ideas and interpretations of males and females in society” and as “an emphasis on social and cultural dynamics and interpretations.” In two short statements such as this, we see the convenient erasure of the long and turbulent history of the academic debate between ‘essentialist’ and/or ‘social constructionist’ perspectives on gender. It must be said from the start, however, that there is no clear consensus amongst scholars on what is meant by the concept of ‘gender,’ as gender has different meanings and different valences in different cultural contexts. It is not the intention of this piece to step into these essentialist and/or constructionist gender debates or their mutual imbrication, and so a delineation of these terms is all that follows.

Essentialism, according to Diana Fuss, is most commonly understood as a “belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the ‘whatness’ of a given identity” (1989: xi). An essentialist theory of gender therefore distinguishes humans as (almost exclusively) ‘male’ and ‘female’ according to what are categorised as eternal, transhistorical, and immutable characteristics. By contrast, constructionists argue that social categories are, to varying degrees, culturally specific: they are the product of social dialogues and assumptions which vary between societies and eras. Constructionism even maintains that ‘essence’ itself is a historical construction, particular to a specific time and place (Weeks 1991: 95). Essentialist conceptions of gender have usually been tempered in contemporary gender theory with a constructionist perspective that gendered bodies are mutable; that they reflect lives and roles situated in particular historical and socio-cultural surroundings. This is the conceptualisation of gender that Joan Wallach Scott, the gender studies theorist and historian cited by Mikaelsson, employs in her work Gender and the Politics of History (1999). Scott depicts the category of gender as a critical agent of destabilisation, and believes that the following questions should always be asked of a historical text from a critical analytic perspective. These questions nicely parallel Mikaelsson’s presentation of the “different levels of gendered structures” worthy of analysis (the “mythical and symbolic level, the conceptual level, the organisational level, and the identity level”):

How and under what conditions [have] different roles and functions been defined for each sex; how [have] the very meanings of the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varied according to time and place; how [were] regulatory norms of sexual deportment created and enforced; how [have] issues of power and rights played into questions of masculinity and femininity; how [do] symbolic structures affect the lives and practices of ordinary people; how [were] sexual identities forged within and against social prescriptions (1999: xi).

Indeed, such a programme endeavours to promote an investigation of the particular circumstances of all such historical instantiations. In so doing, Scott’s hope is to demonstrate that there can be no ahistorical or essential definitions on matters of gender, insofar as they prescribe ideal behaviour for women (and men). As Mikaelsson takes up Scott’s work and gives a simplified social constructionist definition of gender, she further implicitly discards the importance of notions of ‘strategic essentialism’ in contemporary gender theory. Although the essentialist-constructionist debate saw the majority of historians and sociologists fall in favour of the latter position by the start of the last decade, essentialism is still a vexed issue for the field of gender studies, particularly those in the ambit of feminism, due to the difficultly involved in rallying a political movement around unstable and shifting signifiers alongside the risk of biological determinism surrounding these universalist categories. There are theorists who believe that “there are properties essential to women, in that any woman must necessarily have those properties to be a woman at all” (Stone 2004: 86), and theorists who consider the notion of any material essence as nothing but a “regulatory” fiction: “the gendered body…has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (Butler 1990: 32, 136). Fissures are inevitable between universalist and identitarian feminisms on the one hand, whose political objectives and feminist epistemologies revolve around the experiential sense of a shared ontology, and, on the other hand, the intersectional relativism of ‘queer’ approaches which dispute the idea of a unified self and instead focus on fragmented, fluid, hybrid, and contradictory subjects in process (Brooks 1997: 21; Gunnarsson 2011: 25-8).

Recent feminist theory in gender studies, moreover, has seen the burgeoning of such fields as ‘materialist’ and ‘posthumanist’ feminisms, which aim to theorise bodily and transcorporeal materialities in ways that neither push feminist thought back into the traps of biological determinism or essentialism, nor “make feminist theorizing leave bodily matter and biologies ‘behind’ in a critically under-theorised limbo” (Lykke 2010: 131); these works argue that there is a pressing need for theories of sex and gender that can relate to pre-discursive “facticities” of bodies and transcorporeal relations (Haraway 1991: 200; Braidotti 1994: 186). Here we see that, in contradistinction to the simplified and homogenising ‘cultural’ interpretation of gender presented by Mikaelsson in this interview, ‘biological essentialism and social constructivism as the only two options available for the ontological conception of gender have…been critiqued: their mutual imbrication [is] now a feature of many contemporary approaches’ (Johnston 2013: 577).

‘Sex’ and (Dimorphic) ‘Gender’

Extending from the previous discussion, we see another pernicious logic at work throughout the duration of the podcast: ‘gender’ as a synonym for ‘women,’ and, following on from that, sex as biology distinct from gender as culture. Today, the distinction between these two categories of analysis has been thoroughly destabilised, and this process of destabilisation has a remarkable history to which we shall now turn.

In contrast to early feminist work, where gender was understood as a socially constructed product of patriarchal hierarchies and the cultural interpretation of a biologically given ‘sex’ (Oakley 1972; Wittig 1981, 1992), the current deconstructionist (queer and intersectional) approach to gender has a different aim: to disrupt and denaturalise sexual and gender categories in ways that recognise the fluidity, instability, and fragmentation of identities and a plurality of gendered subject positions. Within Marxist feminist accounts, for instance, gender and sex were dealt with as separate formative elements of human identity, so that sex was seen to establish kinds of bodies, while gender was thought to subsequently shape those bodies. In this understanding, sex marked bodies as differentiated and fixed, while gender invested such markings with meaning and mutability (this can particularly be seen in the work of early feminist forays into the study of religion and theology; see Daley 1973, Ruether 1975, and Fiorenza 1984). Gender was seen to follow naturally from sex, or gender and sex were seen as superficially connected in a consecutive fashion, e.g., male is to man as female is to woman. Sex itself however, alongside gender, has been demonstrated as socially constructed and historicised (see Michel Foucault’s (1987) work detailing how sex and sexuality are historically specific concepts as well as regimes of disciplinary knowledge structuring society and social relations).

Although it is helpful to move away from the assumption that one’s sex is ‘biologically given,’ this does not really go far enough. According to Butler in her foundational text Gender Trouble, gender is a powerful discourse that creates the sense by which we define and understand the bodies we live in (1990: 24-5, 140-42). Due to the Foucauldian notion that discourse defines reality, we cannot say that gender ends at a particular point at which the ‘basic’ anatomically and sex-based difference is eschewed. Biological determinism is not sui generis, but is itself a product of culture, constructed by practice and discourse (Butler 1990: 35-6). Being a woman or a man is inscribed and written onto certain bodies in a process that begins at birth (or before birth at pre-natal screening), when genital anatomy is scrutinised to determine whether the new baby is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl.’ Gender then becomes, according to Butler, the performative effect of reiterative acts. These acts, which are repeated in and through a highly rigid regulatory frame, “congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler 1990: 33). In other words, rather than being expressions of an innate (gendered, sexed) identity, acts and gestures that are learned and are repeated over time create the illusions of an innate and stable (gendered, sexed) core. Bodies become intelligible through a citational process that compulsively reinvokes and reinstates norms, the (material) effect of discursive regulations and normalisations that include the hegemonic effects of certain religious institutions, beliefs, and practices that perpetuate discourses of dimorphically gendered normativity.

What this argument leads to, however, is an idea of gender voluntarism. If bodies are made by discourse, it is possible to challenge accepted and expected gendered behaviour. Thus transvestism, transsexuality, or transgenderism offers examples of ways in which a person’s gender can be challenged by individuals beyond what is ‘given’ to them by their culture. As Henrietta Moore shows, Butler herself does not wish to argue too strong a case for such voluntarism, but her ideas do leave this open as one way of analysing (and challenging) cultural constructions of sex and gender (1999: 158). These are the central tenets of such developments in women’s and gender studies as queer theory and the study of intersectionality (the interrelations of various identitarian axes that comprise the assemblage of subjectivities such as race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, dis/ability, and ir/religion), which aim to denaturalise understandings of both gender and sex, and to critique the dimorphic polarisation of sex and gender as either (and only) male or female. Particular normative constructions of gender that presume a certain set of interrelationships between sex, sexuality, and gender are problematised within such fields, which locate and exploit the incoherencies that normalise heterosexuality and call into question the apparently unproblematic terms of ‘woman’ and ‘man.’ Mikaelsson, however, portrays gender to be the distinction between women and men and female and male. Gender is not dimorphic. There are not only those who identify as men and women, but individuals who identify, amongst other non-normative subjectivities, as transsexual, transgendered, intersex, gender-dysphoric, and gender-queer. Whilst discussing the gendered subjectivities of various intersexed individuals, moreover, Heather Looy and Hessel Bouma identified claims to a “third” gender and the inhabitation of a “genderless state” amongst certain subjects (2005: 169; see also Yip and Keenan 2009). As Johnston so eloquently states, the ‘normative categorization of dimorphic gender…has [thus] been the focus of sustained critical scrutiny leading to conceptualizations of gender as a spectrum of possibilities/possible subject positions’ (2013: 577).

(En)gendering Religion

Although this response has refrained, due to constraints of space, from the discussion of the vexing and equally troubling definitional and methodological issues attending the study of religion, it aimed to reveal the labyrinthine and destabilising definitions, boundaries, and constituents that are signified by the term ‘gender.’ Gender studies, when conceptualised with its troubling and dynamic genealogies, projects, and discursive matrices in mind, offers innovative epistemological tools for the scholarly reflection and understanding of the fluid, heterogeneous, and polymorphic dimensions of a variety of manifestations of religious sentiment. The consideration of religion and gender highlights the roles of marginalised subjects through a rereading and rewriting of dominant historical narratives, which include the uncovering of scholarly androcentric bias, and the redressing of the deployment of ‘gender’ to uncritically mean ‘women,’ dimorphically conceived in relation to men (Johnston 2013: 583). Employing the category of gender in the study of religion is necessary to better understand systems of belief and praxis, for certain religious discourses are powerful forces in the creation and perpetuation of hegemonic gender systems, and serve as an important locus of power for gender dimorphism and heteronormativity. More often than not, in congruence with Mikalesson’s presentation of the field of religion and gender, gender studies in religion have often centred on the experiences and subjectivities of women, frequently due to the need to overcome the deeply entrenched, traditional invisibility and marginalisation of women in certain parts of history and in certain societal configurations (see King 1995, Gross 1996, and Juschka 2001). Gender studies in religion, however, have also concerned the study of men (usually by men) as well as women, including their respective identities, representations, and individual subjectivities in addition to their mutually interrelated social worlds and the unequal power relations between them and women (see Boyd et. al. 1996, Krondorfer 1996, and Boyarin 1997). It is thus imperative for works that seek to operate within the ambit of ‘religion and gender’ to now engage in the sustained and critical examination of the contested role of religion and religiosity in the lives of individuals who occupy a plurality of gendered subject positions and who do not identify as cisgendered men or women (a couple of book-length studies on such matters are in circulation, albeit from a more ‘insider’ perspective, such as Mollenkott 2007 and Kugle 2010). They would also do well to consider the capacity of individuals to construct lived experiences by resisting, contesting, and adapting particular (if any) religious orthodoxies and cultural hegemonic systems, including the empowering and constraining potentials and outcomes of such an engagement. Such work, therefore, would evince the relationship of religion and gender as one in constant need of critical appraisal.

In further contradistinction to the content of this interview, moreover, religion and gender are not simply two parallel categories that function independently of each other; they are mutually embedded within each other. It is therefore appropriate to speak of ‘(en)gendering religion’ or ‘doing gender in religion’ than to speak about gender and religion in an additive manner (see Warne 2000, who effectively illustrates how gender thinking is neither natural nor neutral, and argues that a radical shift in thinking is required to make a ‘gender-critical turn’ in all disciplinary areas, including the study of religion). The (en)gendering of religion thus highlights the male-dominated, heteronormative, and dualistically-gendered structure of a number of religious systems, and how destabilising and deconstructing the bodily subject relates to wider issues of ordering gender relations, society, and configurations of power linked to contested religious histories and teachings. ‘(En)gendering religion’ is thus to destabilise and trouble the presuppositions, explanations, key principles, and accepted canons and methods that shape the disciplinary study of religion, incorporating into its framework a critical awareness of the role gender plays in shaping religion, and the role religion plays in shaping conceptualisations of gender.

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.

References

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