An Academic Week in Helsinki, thanks to the EU

Last night, I touched down in Helsinki where I shall be spending a week on an Erasmus+ teaching exchange between the Study of Religions department at the University of Helsinki, and the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, facilitated by my friend and colleague Teemu Taira.

The work plan is as follows:

  • Monday: Deliver a presentation on the Religious Studies Project (RSP) to students taking ‘Contemporary Conversations in the Study of Religions’. Then provide a practical working example of recording a podcast, incorporating student input, to produce a roundtable episode discussing recent news stories of relevance to the critical academic study of religion.
  • Tuesday: Present a working paper to the PhD research seminar on the empirical study of ‘non-religion’ in Edinburgh.
  • Wednesday: Visit MA seminar to discuss why, where and if society needs the academic study of religion. Record to podcasts for the RSP – on a) mindfulness, and b) early Islamic social formations.
  • Friday: Deliver a presentation on the public rhetoric of good/bad non-/religion, with a focus on media, to students taking ‘Religion in Public Life’. Supervision meetings with PhD students. Participate in group discussion on building an academic career.

All of that, plus some proof-reading assistance, departmental meetings, and knowledge exchange relating to my current projects and projects in the departments. And definitely checking out a few Finnish saunas!

I’ll try and post a report once things are done. And I will try and keep Twitter posted on my activities – so do feel free to follow.

Thanks to Teemu, both departments, and – most importantly – the European Union, for making this happen. Such collaboration would not be possible without the financial support from the Erasmus initiative, and I do hope that scholars based in the UK (and those institutions that they visit) continue to benefit from such opportunities after the farce that is Brexit. It is, perhaps, significant that I traveled here on my newly claimed Irish passport. But that’s another story for another time…

 

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A Plea and a Song…

From 16-20 January 2018, I am performing as Mark Cohen in the musical “RENT” in Edinburgh. Please consider coming along (and booking in advance). I’ve recorded a video in which I speak a little bit about my feelings on the show, and sing one of my numbers.  I’ve posted it below.

https://www.edinburghlittletheatre.com/rent

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49181207_10102749786493231_5402398285124075520_nI can remember a decade or so ago, when a few of my friends and associates were involved in a production of RENT, I didn’t really ‘get it’. Now I do. The music is great, the characters are well-developed, and it is a true ensemble piece. It is based on Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” and speaks to so many themes that are of great importance to me, and should be to the world. It has been a real pleasure getting to know a largely new group of people and to now call them my friends. Please come along if you can, reward us for our hard work, experience this emotional roller-coaster, and support me in one of my biggest stage roles to-date. Thanks!

 

The Good, the Bad, and the Non-Religion

Another one of my videos, built off a couple of conference papers, in which I present and analyze the problematic rhetoric of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion in the academic study of ‘non-/religion’… and why this matters. I also couldn’t resist getting some Bad Religion in there…

The conference in October was ‘Research in Religion’ in Edinburgh, 20 October 2018, https://researchinreligion2018.wordpress.com/

The original conference in Bonn was “Hijacked! A Critical Treatment of the Public Rhetoric of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Religion” from 7-11 June 2017, https://www.fiw.uni-bonn.de/religionsforschung/forschungsprojekte/konferenz-hijacked 

The abstract from October reads as follows:

The Good, The Bad, and the Non-Religion: The Public Rhetoric of Good/Bad ‘Religion’ in Academic ‘Non-/Religious’ Studies

The first decades of the twenty-first century have seen a rise in what Aaron Hughes has dubbed the ‘rhetoric of authenticity’ in public discourse about religion, whereby ‘good religion’ which is ‘egalitarian, progressive, pluralistic, democratic, and so on’ is constructed as ‘the real or authentic version’ and set against its dichotomous opposite, ‘bad religion’ (2015, xiv–xv). This dubious rhetoric – particularly popularized in the political sphere by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair – constructs ‘good religion’ as something that ‘conforms to, and does not challenge, liberal secular principles. Good religion stays out of “politics.” Bad religion takes a critical stand against liberal categories and is, therefore, fanatical.’ (Fitzgerald 2015, 206) Deciding what counts as ‘good’/bad’ (or ‘moderate’/’radical’) is a question of power and, in current UK discourse, involves a reification of tolerance as a ‘British value’ in official and media discourse (cf. UK Government’s Prevent strategy), a fantasized Islamic world of pure intolerance’ (Brown 2015, 161).

The same decades have seen a marked rise in the number of individuals choosing to not identify as religious across the globe, a related rise in academic studies of what it might mean to be other than religious, and a burgeoning body of substantive studies mapping and theorizing the beliefs, practices, identifications, values and social contexts of ‘non-religious’ populations. In this paper, I place this area of research into conversation with a body of work which critiques much of the academic study of ‘religion’ for perpetuating the ‘rhetoric of authenticity’, and I demonstrate that in many cases, the rhetoric is the same in studies of ‘non-religion’, despite the added ‘non-‘. Thus, the academic study of non-religion also ‘inadvertently maintains a host of Christian assumptions that reflect the all too Christian heritage of the term “religion”’ (Hughes 2015, 120).

The Critical Study of Nonreligion: An Invitation

I forgot to repost this here… please see this post from back in September for my manifesto for critical study of non-religion, which I am currently developing into a monograph.

NSRN Online

In this post, NSRN Co-Director Chris Cotter places contemporary non-religion studies into conversation with the critical study of religion, assessing two dominant approaches in the field before extolling the virtues of a discursive approach as one way in which rigorous empirical work can be conducted ostensibly under the religion/non-religion binary and contribute to the critical project.Cotter

View original post 1,447 more words

A Critical Religious Studies Approach to the Science-Religion ‘Debate’?

Over the summer, I was approached by Isaac Alderman of Sinai & Synapses and asked if I would participate in an interview on the interaction between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ from my perspective within critical Religious Studies, as co-founder of the Religious Studies Project, and from a UK perspective. Although I pointed out that this is not my area, I was happy to have the conversation and I am quite pleased with the results. The conversation flows through my impression of the UK context, to what I see as my approach to this ‘debate’, i.e. to view it as a social phenomenon, and to ask critical questions of context, power, definition, ideology, and so on…

You can have a watch of the video below or on the S&S website, where you can also read a full transcription. I hadn’t quite realised that there would be video recording as well as audio, so please excuse my attire, summer beard (blame the Edinburgh Festival Fringe), location, and inattention to the camera. Furthermore, as Yvonne Aburrow pointed out on Twitter, throughout this conversation I have a tendency to lazily conflate ‘religion’ with ‘Christianity’ in the main. This is an important point, as it demonstrates that being consistently ‘critical’ is not easy, and serves as a further example of the points I make in the interview about context. My discourse is often affected by the hegemonic norm of my context, despite best intentions. This is why scholarship is best as a collaborative enterprise. Enjoy!

http://sinaiandsynapses.org/multimedia-archive/what-if-we-stopped-fanning-the-flames/

 

The Meaning of Belief? A Critical Religious Studies take on yet another Atheist Manifesto

I was recently asked to review Tim Crane’s The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View… 

I wrote the review… but then thought, why not do a video review as well. Here it is, in all it’s glory. In short, as a contribution to the a-/theism debate this book is certainly much more generous in spirit than many others and might provide a constructive entry-point for those who are tired of the shouting match. This book will undoubtedly help those invested in this debate in ‘understanding the views of the other’ (193) – but it is, unsurprisingly, highly problematic from the perspective of the critical study of ‘religion’.

Enjoy…

 

The discourses we live by…

A few months back, I wrote a post for Culture on the Edge, this time prompted by a Diet Coke advert. I’m not sure I got the title ‘right’ at the time, but the point of the post was to challenge notions of individual autonomy, free will and agency, and to point to the important function that certain discourses serve in helping us maintain a sense of self as we make our way in the world. Along the way, I discuss Mad Men, invoke Handel’s Messiah, and even get in a cheeky reference to Love Island…

Below you’ll find the first paragraph of the post, and if it stimulates your interest I hope you will read more.

I recently walked past a bus shelter displaying an advert for new flavours of Diet Coke — Feisty Cherry and Exotic Mango — bearing the exhortation “because you’re an early adopter.”

This tickled my inner Marxist.  Maybe I’ve been watching too much Mad Men of late, but I couldn’t help thinking what brilliant advertising this was. Setting aside the fact that Cherry Coke was introduced in 1985 – and what exactly it is that makes this variant “feisty” –  who cares what the product is? YOU should purchase it, because YOU are a trend-setter! YOUR patterns of consumption are so much more on point than others, who admire YOU so much they’ll want to emulate YOU. We, YOUR friends at Coca Cola, want YOU to be a key element in the dissemination of this product. Because YOU are special. Because YOU have a valuable ability to recognize what will be popular before it’s popular. Because YOU are an early adopter.

Read more…

Conference Season Approaches

One often hears the summer and autumn months as “conference season” but in recent years this hasn’t really been the case for me. You can put that down to a relative dearth of funding, concentrating on finishing the doctorate, and my brief sojourn out of academia to work for the Scottish Greens. That being said, I have always found the time and funds to attend the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) conference, which I have attended every year since 2011 (except 2014, when I was invited to represent the Religious Studies Project (RSP) at another conference which clashed with the BASR).

However, this year things are different. I am back in the academic game, with a generous research budget (thanks to the Leverhulme Trust) and have quite a busy schedule coming up. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I attended an excellent one-day conference on Ireland, Scotland and the Problem of English Nationalism: from Home Rule to Brexit at the University of St Andrews which was extremely relevant to my current project.

Here’s what I have coming up over the next few months:


Multiple Religious Identities – Individuals, Communities, Traditions

16th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), 17-21 June 2018, Bern.

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This is only the third EASR conference I will have attended (previously Budapest [2011] and Liverpool [2013]) and I am looking forward to not worrying about a presentation, to representing the BASR at various committee meetings, and to flying the flag for the RSP, along with Sammy Bishop and Tom White.

With the help of the inestimable Moritz Klenk, I shall (hopefully) be recording four podcasts for the RSP: with Susannah Crockford, Carmen Becker, Atko Remmel, and Marchus Moberg & Sofia Sjö. Hopefully we will also get a roundtable discussion recorded, and with the others’ help the RSP should be sitting around 10 podcasts up for the beginning of our 2018-2019 academic year.


Worldviews in World View: Particularizing Secularism, Secularity and Nonreligion 

5-6 July 2018, King’s College London. This is the first NSRN conference I will have been able to attend since 2012. I am not presenting, but am attending in a research capacity, as well as in my role as Co-Director of the NSRN. This conference is highly relevant to my current research, and I may even get a podcast or two recorded for the RSP.

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BSA SocRel Annual Conference 2018 on “Religion and Education.” University of Strathclyde, 10–12 July 2018.

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I am still swithering about whether to attend or not, but as this is just a short journey away (Glasgow) and as I haven’t been to a SOCREL conference since 2016, this would be a good opportunity to catch up with some colleagues, do a bit of networking, and record a podcast or two. Watch this space.


Borders and Boundaries: ‘Religion’ on the Periphery

Joint Conference between the British Association for the Study of Religions and the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions, 3–5 September 2018, Queen’s University, Belfast

Main Venue 2

I am one of the co-organizers of this conference, so my attention shall be spread fairly thin. No podcasting for me! However, in addition to delivering the Treasurer’s report to the BASR AGM, and welcoming my real-life dad to a conference for the first time, I have also co-organized a double panel session on ‘Unbelief Across Borders‘ featuring Josh Bullock, David Herbert, Lois Lee, James Murphy, Rachael Shillitoe, Anna Strhan and Hugh Turpin. The panel abstract is pasted below, and the full session/s details are here are a PDF.

In recent years, scholars have highlighted the need to understand religious ‘unbelief’, nonreligion and secularity in settings beyond the boundaries of the region that generated these concepts and discourses, namely, the West. Yet there is also a wider need to understand how ‘unbeliefs’ and experiences of ‘unbelieving’ are regionally contingent, within the West as well as beyond. Atheism, and other forms of so-called unbelief in the West itself vary intra-nationally by region, as well as by country. As noted in the call for papers for this conference, the negotiation between different religious lifeworlds, worldviews, constructs and dogmas takes place across perceived borders, whether real or imagined. Thus, the content, style and social experience of ‘unbelieving’ is likely to vary according to context. It might vary, for example, according to the prevalence and prominence of inherited systems of supernatural belief in the local context, which might impact the integrity of the ‘sacred canopy’; or according to the nature of the local religious tradition(s) (whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox Christian; Sunni or Shi’a Muslim, or combination of traditions, etc.). The social experience of being an atheist or agnostic in rural Poland (with a relatively homogeneous and politicised Catholic culture) is likely to be different to that in Poland’s urban centres, as well as from an unbeliever in, say, the Netherlands (with its mixed, Catholic-Protestant heritage, advanced secularisation, history of pillarization etc.). This double panel explores the regional contingencies of being and articulating ‘unbelief’ of various kinds. It also investigates the potential of comparative approaches to generate new knowledge and (much needed) new theory in the study of unbelief, nonreligion and secularity, and provides an opportunity to explore the limits and margins, centres and peripheries of ‘unbelief’ in comparative local and international perspective.


Finally – for now – I will be attending and presenting at the EUREL, Formatting Nonreligion in Late Modern Societies – Institutional and Legal Perspectives conference, University of Oslo, 26-27 September 2018.

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Paper title: Non-Religion as Religion-Related Discourse: An Empirical Invitation

I will begin by outlining and arguing for my preferred understanding of ‘non-religion’ as a form of religion-related discourse. Drawing upon extensive fieldwork in Edinburgh, and developing comparative work between Northern Ireland and Scotland, I will make three key points. First, the local and national particularity of a religion-related discursive field serves as more than a mere context or backdrop but actively participates in its construction, and thus in the positioning of phenomena and social actors as ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious’. Second, in many cases the ‘non-religious’ is implicit in the subject position of those actors utilizing religion-related discourse, and thus we should avoid taking naïve discourses on the insubstantial nature of ‘secularity’, ‘non-religion’ etc. at face value. Third, religion-related categories frequently serve as ‘power categories’, meaning that being positioned as ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious’ means more in certain circumstances than it does in others.

Using empirical examples, I will emphasize that ‘religion’ exerts enormous power in certain contexts in contemporary society, and that therefore certain positions are placed into conversation with religion, and might contextually considered to be ‘non-religious’. This approach avoids reifying ‘religion’ as in some way unique, whilst also fully incorporating religion-related subject positions—including the ‘non-religious’—into the academic study of religion. It is my hope that such work can act as a bridge between two increasingly entrenched positions in the contemporary study of religion-related phenomena—one that is interested in understanding ‘religion in the real world’, and the other in understanding the discursive processes by which that statement makes sense.

A History of the British Association for the Study of Religions

Originally published as Cotter, Christopher R. 2018. “A History of the BASR: Some Preliminary Findings.” BASR Bulletin 132 (May): 12-16.

A History of the BASR: Some preliminary findings

https://basr.ac.uk/2018/05/22/basr-bulletin-132-may-2018/

Since May 2017 I’ve been conducting research to develop a pilot history of the BASR in the context of RS in the UK. This has involved a literature review of relevant publications, consulting the AGM minutes, Executive Committee minutes, correspondence, BASR and IAHR Bulletins held at the Bodleian in Oxford, and conducting seventeen oral history interviews. This preliminary report focuses on the institutional (rather than intellectual or social) history of the BASR. Work on the project continues, with plans for an internally facing publication, as well as a journal article or two.

Historical Sketch

As Sutcliffe has noted “the BASR is the sole autonomous professional academic association in  the UK predicated upon the categories ‘religion’ and ‘religions’” (2004, xvii). Although founded in 1954, its history goes back further than that. Around the turn of the century there was some teaching of what might be described as ‘comparative religion’ at London, Oxford and Cambridge, and in 1904 we find the first chair of ‘comparative religion’ founded at Manchester with TW Rhys Davids (Gundry and Parrinder 1980). Internationally, although what we now know as the International Association for the History of Religions was not officially founded until a congress in Amsterdam 1950, its origins go back to six earlier European congresses from 1900, “of which the third was held in Oxford in 1908” (King 1994, 14).

So, our timeline begins with the official formation of the IASHR in 1950 (one wonders how much hand wringing could have been avoided if it was the H, rather than the S, which was quickly dropped in 1955!) The IASHR journal NVMEN was founded in 1953, and one year later a meeting occurred on 24 September at Exeter College, Oxford attended by “Dr Brandon, Miss Emmet, Mrs Ettlinger, Mr Gundry, Dr James, Mrs James, Mr Lewis, Dr Parrinder and Canon Ramsey”, with EO James being elected chairman, and
Mr (Canon) Gundry acting as secretary. The minutes read as follows:

The chairman outlined the history of the History of Religions Congresses and of the formation of the IASHR. He emphasised that it was important that a British section should exist, just as other national groups had been formed elsewhere. Attention was drawn to the new journal NVMEN, the first two numbers of which had already appeared, and to the Bibliography of the History of Religions scheduled to be published in 1954. Members were also urged to attend the History of Religions Congress to be held at Rome in April 1955. The secretary also read a list of members, and reported on the steps which had been taken to enrol scholars specially interested in this field.

Thus was born the British branch of the IASHR. Writing in 1975, Gundry tells us:

It may be of interest to members to know that before 1954 the late Professor E.0. James was invited by the IAHR itself to represent British scholars, but there was no official British branch. The late Professor R. Pettazzoni was very keen that there should be: Professor Bleeker felt so too. He discussed this with me early in 1954, and I went to see Professor Pettazzoni while I was in Rome in April of that year. Professor James was a scholar rather than an administrator! He asked me to take on the secretaryship of the incipient British section and get it into shape. (1975, 3)

The regular meetings became ensconced in Passfield Hall, London, and remained in London until 1977, moving to Oxford in 1978. Due to IAHR Congresses, smaller meetings were held in London in 1980, 1985, and 1990, and it wasn’t until 1992 that the current practice of moving around the UK began, with Winchester (1992), Newcastle (1993) and Bristol (1994). 2018 will mark the first ever BASR conference in Northern Ireland. Until the late 1980s these were single stream conferences or “meetings”, with initially only two papers being offered (increasing to three in 1974) to a relatively select group of (elderly, white) men.

Within one year the IASHR changed its name to the IAHR and the British group followed suit, becoming the British “Branch” or “Section” of the IAHR, or simply IAHR (Britain). For the next 15 years or so annual meetings for a couple of papers in London continued, with Andrew Walls telling me that many of the regular attendees at early meetings were based at universities in Africa and would meet in conjunction with the conference to strategize before heading off to their (post-)colonial posts. Membership increased steadily, from 22 in 1954, to 48 in 1958, 80 in 1968, and 100 in 1972.

EO James served as president/chair from the inception of the association and the 1971 AGM minutes note that “Prof James indicated his wish to retire owing to his age, but consented to accept re-election as President for the next year.” However, during the following year he tragically died in a car accident. At the 1972 AGM,

Dr Sharpe and Prof Lewis gave appreciations of the life and work of Prof SGF Brandon [another founding member] and Prof EO James whose deaths during the year had been great blows to the Association. (AGM minutes)

This double loss had two major impacts upon the association. First, Geoffrey Parrinder was elected to the role of President – vacating the role of Secretary, which was filled by Michael Pye, and kicking off a process of consideration about the democratic processes of the association. Secondly, the 1975 IAHR congress – to date still the only IAHR congress to take place in the UK since its inception – had been due to take place with Prof. Brandon in Manchester but in 1972 this shifted to Lancaster, with preliminary
arrangements to be made “by members of the Association from Lancaster: Professor Smart, Dr Sharpe, and Mr Pye.” Note the important international connections: Smart later moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara after establishing the first department of RS in the UK at Lancaster; Sharpe served as IAHR General Secretary before becoming the founding Professor of RS at the University of Sydney where he hosted another IAHR congress (1985); and Michael Pye became Professor of RS at Marburg University in 1982 and served the IAHR as General Secretary (1985–1995) and President (1995–2000).

Following a proposal at the 1972 September conference, Michael Pye instigated the first BASR Bulletin (initially four per year), and at the 1974 AGM, the subject of a constitution was raised by Prof HD Lewis, with the rejoinder that the association was “much more haphazard than other learned associations.” Although it was felt that affiliation to the IAHR meant that the association abided by the IAHR constitution, and that the cumulative minutes somewhat added up to that, Lewis and Sharpe were tasked to make an initial draft of constitution. At the 1975 IAHR congress, the AGM of the British Section formally adopted a constitution and became the BAHR.

In 1981, 1984 and 1987 we find various mentions and position papers – largely from Dr Karel Werner – about changing the name to the BASR (sometimes singular R, sometimes plural), and at a “Special General Meeting” on 4 February 1989 the name was changed, with unanimous approval, to what we know today. In 1990 the association became a charity, the annual lecture began, and with the annual lecture came the first notion of having a themed conference. Also, we have a very intriguing mention of “sherry” at lunchtime – perhaps something that future organizers might think about reintroducing?

In 1996, a few years after becoming a “mobile” conference, discussion began about the setting up of a website, and thus we start to see a BASR that more closely resembles what we have today, with a vibrant website and email list, the Bulletin moving online, the development of DISKUS (now JBASR), the sponsorship of the Religious Studies Project, and so on.

Membership, International Connections, and Area Studies

Now I wish to turn to three key points that have emerged from the project thus far. The first concerns the “rules” surrounding membership.

Many of the luminaries interviewed recall how the BASR used to resemble a kind of gentlemen’s club, with potential new members having to be proposed by existing members and so on. Looking at the minutes of AGMs throughout the years we see gradual changes in this area. In 1955, “It was resolved that, in future, applications for membership of the British Section should be approved by the Annual Meeting, and that candidates for membership should not attend until such approval had been given.” In 1974 the procedure was streamlined, whereby “new members should be sponsored by two existing members and approved by the President and Secretary.” By 1982, the “meeting also agreed that people with an interest in the academic study of religion may apply directly for membership,” and in 1990 – because now a charity – “the former method of approval of new membership could not be applied. The Association still had the right of excluding people from membership for good cause.” What these minutes don’t tell is the reason for the initial highly restricted nature of the membership rule in 1955.

Writing in 1980, Geoffrey Parrinder claims:

At Rome [1955] a so-called witch, Gerald Gardner from the Isle of Man, had presented himself along with the British delegation to the IAHR, to the scorn of continental representatives. Although the BAHR, like Great Britain herself, had no written constitution at that time, it was agreed that members, and those invited to join in future, should hold university posts or be recognised as academic authorities. While this restriction may have kept numbers small, it was felt that it ensured the role of the BAHR in British universities and enabled it to co-operate with similar branches of the IAHR. (Gundry and Parrinder 1980, 9)

A second point concerns the BASR’s international connections. It’s already been mentioned that the BASR began as a “branch” of the IAHR, demonstrating that international connections have always been a part of what the association has done. However, the 1973 AGM minutes note that communications between national associations in Europe were considered inadequate, with four action points being
agreed:

  • To invite other associations to the conference;
  • To add another paper to the BAHR conference to make it more appealing to travellers;
  • To make a point of inviting Europeans from time to time to deliver a paper
  • To invite Jacques Waardenburg of Utrecht for 1974.

Further, at the 1990 IAHR congress there was a “motion by the British Association requesting the Executive Committee to consider changing the name of the [IAHR] to the [IASR].” And the BASR was an important player in the setting up of the EASR. In 1995, a letter was sent to the BASR from Hans Kippenberg about a proposed EASR to which the BASR’s then secretary Terry Thomas appended the note “At last – I may yet live to see one of my hopes realised.” The BASR responded enthusiastically, and delegates attended an initial gathering in Hildesheim in 1998, with Peggy Morgan, Brian Bocking and others putting in significant work on the development of a draft constitution. Following an  unfortunate situation where a splinter group attempted to form an alternative European Association, Kim Knott (then BASR President) wrote to Michael Pye (then IAHR President) stating that “BASR would like to propose that members of the EASR join members of BASR at their annual conference in 2001 to be held in Cambridge”, and thus the inaugural EASR conference took place.

Finally, on the topic of other subject associations, it is interesting to note that the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) was founded in 1975, and in 1976 their annual meeting took place in the same venue as the BAHR, immediately preceding it, indicating an encouraging level of early collaboration. Then in 1990, Kim Knott and Grace Davie began discussions about a joint conference, which took place in April 1992. Unfortunately, only 22 BASR members attended this conference, and BASR also held a one-day conference at usual BASR time. In the June 1992 Bulletin it was noted that “Some members had been surprised by the strong confessional nature of many of the papers presented” and that “Sociology of Religion members seemed to be more socialised into offering conference papers.” However, despite some perceived problems the experience was judged to have been worth attempting, but in future collaborations there should be “much closer liaison with the Sociology of Religion organizers and a more balanced range of papers presented.” In 1994, SOCREL wrote to propose a similar venture in April, and the BASR responded that they were keen, but that April wouldn’t work: such is the way of tradition. That such collaboration took place in the past – and that former BASR President Douglas Davies has also served as the SOCREL chair – should be encouraging for future collaborations, but the fact that it has not been more frequent is perhaps indicative of a less encouraging fracturing of the study of religions into narrower area studies.

In October/November 1976, Michael Pye (then BASR Secretary) wrote somewhat prophetically in Bulletin #17 concerning streams on African and Indian Religions which had been added to the BASR annual meeting, and on Dr Karel Werner’s involvement in setting up the (now) Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions:

In the meantime it is not surprising that special interest groups have formed within the overall field where insufficient activity was taking place hitherto. […] I feel that members ought to be grateful to Dr Werner for indirectly prodding the association into more sustained activity, and perhaps the coexistence this year of an Indian and an African section followed by more general papers is a workable pattern for future years. […] One thing which could be harmful, however, to our common if widely-ranging interests is the danger of institutional fragmentation. The BAHR is a relatively low-key organisation, and for many of us that is one of the nice things about it. At the same time, if it is to exist at all, its activities ought to offer a reasonable reflection of the interests of its members in the history of religions and related disciplines. […] Frankly speaking, it would seem to be to be undesirable to set up a permanent separate institution to cater for the study of Indian religions, and for the sake of the coherence of our discipline I hope that this will not happen. […] I hope therefore that this personal plea for the integration and coherence of our subject will be seen not as a rejection of other initiatives but as a welcome to share in a common endeavour. Not everybody is interested in organisations, and yet how things are organised can have a practical effect on the overall development of our subject, as can be seen from its chequered history in various countries. I believe this also to be important in an intellectual sense, for institutions tend to shape the understanding of subjects.

Prophetic words indeed, which emphasise not only the importance of academic institutions, but of the institutional history of said organisations.

Conclusion

There is so much more that I could mention, including: the repeated interventions of the BASR regarding the place of RS scholars on, and the broader composition of, RAE/REF panels; the closure and threat to departments; the setting up of RS at the Open University; government cuts to higher education; cuts in teacher training; and policing the boundary between theology and RS in a variety of spheres. However, I want to finish with a very brief comment on the BASR as a collegial network.

This consistent refrain throughout my oral history interviews was expressed succinctly by former President Peggy Morgan in 2004, where she writes:

I found as a young woman its senior scholars welcoming and affirming and that the atmosphere at meetings involved critique but not destructive confrontation or academic arrogance. This seems to have continued, with young scholars being funded and encouraged at BASR conferences… It has retained its atmosphere of a professional community of friendship when education has lost much of its warmth in these pressured and insecure times. (Morgan 2004, xv)

This welcoming, collegial atmosphere is something that seems to have remained consistent throughout the years, despite great changes in the higher education environment in the UK and in our area of study. Long may it continue in these still pressured and insecure times.

References

  • Gundry, D.W. 1975. “Reminiscence.” BASR Bulletin 13 (October), 3–4.
  • Gundry, D.W. and E.G. Parrinder. 1980. “The Beginnings of the British Association for the History of Religions.” BASR Bulletin 31 (June/July), 7–9.
  • King, U. 1994. “Celebrating Forty Years of the BASR.” BASR Bulletin 73 (November), 13–16.
  • Morgan P. 2004. “Foreword” in S. Sutcliffe, ed. Religion: Empirical Studies. Farnham: Ashgate, xiii–xvi.
  • Sutcliffe, S. 2004. “Introduction – Qualitative Empirical Methodologies: An Inductive Argument” in S. Sutcliffe, ed. Religion: Empirical Studies. Farnham: Ashgate, xvii–xliii.

On pedestrian crossings, censuses, and a sense of agency

IMG_20171030_125043A few months back, I wrote a post for Culture on the Edge, prompted by my frequent encounters with this sticker at a particular pedestrian crossing. In the post, I discuss the work performed by the buttons at pedestrian crossings and how it links with the work performed by multiple choice surveys, before concluding (perhaps pessimistically) that perhaps all ‘we’ can really hope for is, indeed, that sense of agency… rather than ‘agency itself’.

Below you’ll find the first paragraph of the post, and if it stimulates your interest I hope you will read more.

For the past few months, as I make the fifteen-minute walk between my residence and my office in Edinburgh, I have interacted with a particular pedestrian crossing. You know the kind with a button which we are supposed to dutifully press and then wait until the signal (here in the form of a somewhat generic, slim, green, male stick figure) gives us permission to cross the road? Some enterprising individual has taken this ubiquitous element of the Edinburgh cityscape and added their social commentary, in the form of a sticker reading ‘press the button to experience sense of agency.’ And this got me thinking…

Read more…