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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.
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Brexit, Trump, and Assemblage Theory

My colleagues and I at Culture on the Edge were recently discussing Manuel DeLanda’s A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity and a quotation came up in that reading that really spoke to a lot of points that I’ve found myself making in recent years relating to Brexit, Trump, millennials, sense of entitlement, and all that sort of thing. So I thought, rather than write a blog post about it I could record a blog post about it and maybe also go into things in a little bit more detail. I also get quite political and socialist. How unlike me!

Here’s the video… and the quotation is below… Enjoy!

“The reality or threat of armed conflict is itself a powerful territorializing force, making people rally behind their governments and close ranks with each other. Much as the solidarity binding a community may be [93] transformed into social exclusion when conflict with other communities sharpens their sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, external war can transform a simple emotional attachment to a country’s traditions and institutions into a sense of superiority relative to enemy countries and their allies. Loyalty, which need not involve comparisons with others, is transformed into hostility and xenophobia. Internal war, on the other hand, can act as a deterritorializing force, either by destabilizing a government through constant riots and turmoil or by drastically changing its very identity, from one regime to another, as in successful political revolutions. Unlike coups d’état, revolutions go beyond interactions between government organizations. The minimum assemblage, a recurrent one in past revolutions, includes: a population that has undergone a period of relative prosperity and rising expectations, followed by a period of deprivation when those expectations are frustrated; a struggle between dominant coalitions and those who challenge them; and displays of vulnerability by government organizations, such as a decrease in their enforcement capacities due to a fiscal crisis, a bad economy or a military defeat abroad.” (DeLanda 2006, 92–93)

Happy #EuropeDay – this is why I love Europe [video]

I woke up this morning to a (not personal…) message from Ross Greer MSP, wishing me a Happy #EuropeDay and asking Scottish Green Party members to take to social media to tell others why they love Europe. In his words,

Today is Europe Day. Each year, on May 9th, we celebrate peace and unity in Europe. Now, more than ever, it is important that we celebrate Scotland’s European history and why we’re fighting for a European future – maybe its freedom of movement, maybe its workers’ rights & action on climate change, or maybe it’s Eurovision!

Share what you love about Europe on Twitter and Facebook using #EuropeDay and #ScotlandLovesEurope

So… I recorded a video. Enjoy.

 

Why I am voting to REMAIN in the EU

On September 10 2014, I wrote a post titled “Why I am voting YES to Scottish Independence.” You can read it for yourself if you like, but I am always encouraged when I look back on it to see that I completely agree with everything I wrote back then. That vote didn’t go the way  I wanted it to go and now, 21 months or so later, I find myself much busier (my Ph.D. thesis is due in on 30 September), a paid up member of the Scottish Green Party (I joined the day after the Scottish Independence referendum, on 19 September 2014), with another referendum coming up – this time on whether the UK should remain in the European Union.In the post below, I use some of my tweets over recent months to articulate my views on the matter.

Some people might think it is an oxymoron for someone to want Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, but yet want the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. However, I think that this view comes from the stereotypical assumption that anyone who wanted Scotland to leave the UK must be in some way a nasty flag-waving bigot who loves destroying cherished institutions that have existed from centuries – if this was the case, why wouldn’t the same uncritically (and this word is important) nationalistic people want to break away from another larger body?

First off, let’s get it out there – I do not like what the UK as an institution stands for. I don’t know that I ever really have since I have been ‘politically conscious’. This is not to say  I don’t like the people who make up the UK. Or ‘other’ nations in the UK. But, as an institution, the UK is not something I am proud of. The chance to reform the UK as a whole, starting from the ground up, was a large part of my wanting to leave the UK. Similarly, the prevalent attitude in the UK towards the EU as I perceive it is not something I like.

Personally, I am of the opinion that many of the ‘problems’ that UK citizens perceive with the EU are in no small part due to the regnant exceptionalist attitude, epitomized by the EU rebate negotiated by Thatcher, and David Cameron’s recent attempts at gaining ‘concessions’. The relationship that the UK currently has with the EU is not the one I want… but it’s better than the prospect of leaving. As Maggie Chapman, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party has recently much more eloquently put it:

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, we must consider our current political context. In Scotland, and in the UK, a vote to leave will be a victory for the right. The momentum in this campaign comes from and sits with a right wing leave case that says we must shut our borders, that we must reinvigorate the Empire, that we must make Britain great again. That sends shivers down my spine.

It means going back to the days of the Raj, and a colonial project in Africa that was profoundly racist. And in the 100th anniversary year of the Easter Rising, which had everything to do with challenging imperial and anti-democratic monarchical power, we need to reclaim some of the collective solidarity of that century-old republican movement.

The right wing case to leave is the dominant narrative, presented by people who think that imperialism is the highest form of capitalism, and that that is a good thing. However much we might wish it not to be the case, siding with these people means siding with those who do not not believe that the world has changed since the 19th century. As an immigrant from post-colonial Southern Africa, that horrifies me.

On another note…

And

For me, the EU is about so much more than money. Money comes and goes, and in our post-Empire, G7, G8, G20, G-etc. privileged position, we really don’t need to worry about it. Whatever happens, the financial wizards will magic up some other money, or find someone else to exploit for it. But the EU holds us to account. We put in money – much less than we should, of course – and it comes back with progressive conditions. Protecting the environment. Protecting workers’ rights. Regenerating areas that badly need it. And so on. But even more than that, the EU is an international exercise in co-operation, flying in the face of current ideologies of ‘protecting one’s own’.

This altruism, as I see it, should extend to migrants – whether from the EU or not. And rather than picking on those who have left their homes to come to the UK to work, perhaps we should be blaming those in power – politicians, employers etc. – for the lack of jobs, the poor state of the economy, growing inequality, stresses on our welfare system etc. I’ve written before about the need to defend the ‘wrong-type of immigrant‘, so I shan’t retread things here. But, another point to make is that

Finally, I think the EU is great for Green causes…

Maggie makes the Green argument much better than I could in her post.

I’m not naive. Much as I know things might not have worked out for the better if Scotland left the UK, so too I know that remaining in the EU doesn’t automatically make things better. But the EU holds the UK to account. It holds the Tories to account. It holds London to account. It allows progressive legislation to be pushed through and then rhetorically blamed on an outside force – “Oh, we’d totally lift fishing quotas, but it’s that EU making us do it” etc.

Don’t leave the UK at the mercy of the Tories, UKIP and their ilk. Don’t turn immigrants into the bad guys. Please… if you have a vote in this referendum… vote for the UK to remain in the EU.

Scotland Census 2011 – 36.7% tick ‘no religion’

An initial breakdown of data from the 2011 census in Scotland is now available:

http://www.scotlandscensus.gov.uk/en/censusresults/bulletinr2.html

It shows, among other things, a decrease in numbers of  those selecting the ‘Church of Scotland’, ‘Other Christian’, and ‘Jewish’ categories. ‘Church of Scotland’, for example, is down 10% since 2001 to 32.4% of the population. All other categories show an increase. Most notable, perhaps, are the figures for those selecting ‘no religion’ –  up from 27.8% in 2001 to 36.7% (the current figure is around 25% for England and Wales).

Expect these figures to be discussed and debated ad nauseam in the coming weeks/months/years.

Thanks to Michael Rosie for the heads up! 

Westminster Faith Debates

A series of debates on religion in public life, running from February to May 2012 at RUSI, 61 Whitehall, SW1A 2ET, Wednesdays fortnightly, 5.30-7pm.

Between 2007-2012 £12m was invested by two research councils, the AHRC and ESRC, in the largest-ever funded research programme on ‘Religion and Society’. In this series leading academics will present findings arising from that research, for response by public figures. Together they will open up debate about the place of religion in public life today.

The series is organised by the Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Professor Linda Woodhead and Dr Rebecca Catto, in co-operation with Theos.

1. Religious Identity in ‘Superdiverse’ Societies – 8th Feb

  • Trevor Phillips, Dominic Grieve, Kim Knott, Therese O’Toole

2. What’s the Place of Faith in Schools? – 22nd Feb

  • Richard Dawkins, John Pritchard, Jim Conroy, Robert Jackson

3. What have we Learned about Radicalisation? – 7th March

  • Mehdi Hasan, Ed Husain, Mark Sedgwick, Marat Shterin, Mat Francis

4. What role for Religious Organisations in an era of Shrinking Welfare? – 21st March

  •  David Blunkett, Peter Smith, Adam Dinham, Sarah Johnsen

5. What Limits to Religious Freedom? – 18th April

  • Lisa Appignanesi, Maleiha Malik, Peter Jones

6. What are the main Trends in Religion and Values in Britain? – 2nd May

  • Aaqil Ahmed, Cole Moreton, Linda Woodhead, Grace Davie

Please email p.ainsworth@lancaster.ac.uk to register for the debates you would like to attend, and visit http://www.religionandsociety.org.uk/faith_debates for further details.

Is Britain a Christian country? And who cares?

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I have not had time to write about my thoughts concerning David Cameron’s recent comments that Britain is a Christian nation. If you know me, you know I disagree. My colleague David re-blogged a very interesting post by Tom Rees (first published on Epiphenom)… and I shall now do him the same privilege.

It is called Who thinks Britain should be a Christian country? and contains the brilliant conclusion that:

by emphasising the importance of Christianity for British identity, Cameron is appealing to the racists, rather than the religious, in his constituency

I have also read another (American) article today on the growing constituency of those who just don’t care about religion, God, “spirituality” or whatever.  Originally published in USA Today, you can access it here on the Huffington Post website. Although I am clearly interested in the social dimensions of religion/nonreligion, and plan to devote my life to studying these, I also couldn’t give a damn about the truth of anyone’s claims… I just don’t see how it is relevant to my life. The arguments of New Atheists or the advocates of various faith positions or spiritualities ultimately have a very hard time penetrating this wall of indifference… and generally the harder people try, the less likely the wall is going to disappear.

Musings on Bishops in the House of Lords

This post is pretty behind the times, but I am going to write it anyway. I have just read an article on the Church of England website about Bishops in the House of Lords, and it provoked a couple of points to spew from my fingertips. You can read the full article here: http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2011/11/archbishops-question-case-for-elected-house-of-lords.aspx

The first of my comments concerns the following extract:

In their submission the Archbishops express concern that the Government’s proposals do not address the question of what the powers and functions of a reformed Lords should be, focusing instead on questions of composition and election. A wholly or mainly elected House of Lords would, they argue, be more inclined to challenge the decisions of MPs and weaken the conventions that currently guarantee the primacy of the House of Commons. Conflict and gridlock between Houses would, they argue, lead to a decline in the reputation and public trust in Parliament as a whole: “We are concerned that the proposals in the Draft Bill may, by leading inevitably to a more assertive approach to conflict and disagreement with the Commons, make it harder for the institution as a whole to sustain the trust and confidence of the electorate.”

It’s lovely to see the bishops caring so much for the power of the House of Commons. One can’t help but wonder why they don’t advocate disbanding the House of Lords all together?

I think they miss a crucial point here. An elected House of Lords would not have to be made up with party-political candidates… the electorate would not even necessarily have to be the public. I think the key argument for an elected House of Lords is that being a peer does not guarantee lifetime membership. The specifics are something else entirely.

An idea I have just had, so feel free to knock it, would be that members of the Lords could be ‘banned’ from having an affiliation with any political party – much in the way that civil servants (as far as I understand it) are. If people elected to the Lords were individuals who had not affiliation to a political party (and perhaps hadn’t ever had such an affiliation) this would in some way avoid political squabbles etc. It might even be possible to introduce a three-year peerage as part of the New Year’s honours or something… Just a un-thought-through plan… let me know what you think!

Onto my second extract:

Whilst welcoming the Draft Bill’s proposals to provide continued places for bishops of the established Church in a partly appointed House, the Archbishops ask that the appointments process also have regard to increasing the presence of leaders of other denominations and faiths.

The Draft Bill and White Paper proposes a House of Lords of 300 members, with either 80% or 100% elected by proportional representation. If the reformed House were to retain an appointed element, there would be places for Church of England bishops, though reduced to 12 from their current 26. Bishops would not be allowed to remain in a 100% elected House under the Government’s plans.

[…]

The Archbishops welcome the proposals in the Draft Bill to continue with places for the Lords Spiritual, and that they should continue to be diocesan bishops of the Church of England: “If, as successive governments have accepted, there is a continuing benefit to this country in having an established Church, the presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords is one of the most important manifestations of that special relationship between Church and State.”

They also say: “We believe that there is a strong case for placing the Appointments Commission under a duty to ensure, among other things, the presence of those from across the United Kingdom who have or have had senior responsibility in churches and faiths other than the established Church.”

This is rather a long quotation for the short comment that I am going to make, but here we go:

  • Ultimately, who would make the decision about which groups constituted other faiths, and which were just random groups. And would this decision be based upon number of supposed adherents, length of time in the UK, or what? And would the number of adherents be based upon the people who actually turn up to meetings, the official figures, provided by the groups themselves, or by the vast inflation that comes from asking people the question “What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?” (Scottish 2011 Census)?
  • And the very fact that many people feel that there should be religious representation in politics raises many questions about why it is so common to invest religion with this special significance? If the idea is that thousands of people trust these leaders to do a good job and make moral decisions, then why is the argument not made that this should be extended to people who hold positions of trust in companies, charities, sports etc? And if the idea is that religious leaders are in some way fundamentally better at making moral decisions then… I don’t even need to start on all the objections to that!

My apologies for the uncharacteristic political rant.

Two Excellent Resources

Just a quick post to alert you to two excellent resources I have discovered today.

One is the new documentary series from the BBC, entitled The Life of Muhammad. The first episode was just aired this week and it seems to balance informed but accessible scholarship with a respectful but not deferential tone. Thoroughly recommended to anyone who is interested… and indeed those who are not. I just wish everyone could see this sort of programme. Viewers in the UK can click the link and watch it on BBC iPlayer, where it is available until August 1 2011 (duration 60 mins).

The other resource is a website that I have stumbled across and will have to check out in much greater detail over the coming weeks. It is patheos.com, which describes itself as:

the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality and to explore and experience the world’s beliefs. Patheos is the website of choice for the millions of people looking for credible and balanced information or resources about religion. Patheos brings together the public, academia, and the faith leaders in a single environment, and is the place where people turn on a regular basis for insight into questions, issues, and discussions. Patheos is unlike any other online religious and spiritual site and is designed to serve as a resource for those looking to learn more about different belief systems, as well as participate in productive, moderated discussions on some of today’s most talked about and debated topics.

Whilst I haven’t had much of a chance to look around it, and whilst always being slightly irked at seeing religion being treated as distinct entities and institutions to which a specified number of adherents belong etc (the good old ‘world religions’ paradigm raises its head once more), there seem to be a huge number of resources here, with vast amounts information on certainly all the major religions in the world… and resources for teachers, students, academics, religious leaders, interested laypeople and more…

I hope both of these ‘tips’ prove useful :)

Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students

It is six weeks until  submit my 25,000 word MSc by Research thesis. Thank goodness I now have a title and an abstract…

Here it is, for your enjoyment:

Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students

This thesis details the outcomes of a small-scale research project into a relatively new and under-researched field. The aim was qualitatively to map out the different types of nonreligiosity articulated by some nonreligious students at the University of Edinburgh. Beginning by demarcating the concept of ‘nonreligion’ around which the study revolves, the author outlines: first, why such a study is necessary and worthwhile; second, the specific theoretical questions to which the study is directed; and third, the specific relevance of studying nonreligion within Religious Studies. In approaching the subject in this way, this study calls into question the reified dichotomy between religion and nonreligion, expands what the author calls the ‘nonreligious monolith’ and questions ideas of religious universality. The specifics of this study are detailed at length. Particular focus is given to the suitability of a Scottish university student population as a subject-group, and to the methodology employed, which uses electronic questionnaires and in-depth interviews to elicit unscripted narratives from selected participants. The author demonstrates that current typologies based on internally and/or externally selected and defined nonreligious identity labels, tend to be inadequate and inaccurate. Nonreligious students are shown to be highly aware of the subjectivity of their interpretations of key identity terms, and in many cases they maintain multiple identities simultaneously, in a situational and pragmatic fashion. These identities also vary in terms of concreteness and salience, and are informed by a wide variety of relationship- and education-based subjective experiences. A more nuanced approach is then proposed, based on the questionnaire and interview evidence, categorising individuals according to the overarching narrative through which they claim to interact with (non)religion. The thesis concludes by returning to the initial motivating questions – particularly concerning the reified status given to (non)religion  in traditional representations – and calling for future research investment in order to continue fleshing-out the nonreligious field, and for a continued movement away from attempts to explain nonreligion from a perspective of normative religiosity.