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…
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.
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.
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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.
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:
16th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), 17-21 June 2018, Bern.
This is only the third EASR conference I will have attended (previously Budapest  and Liverpool ) 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.
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.
BSA SocRel Annual Conference 2018 on “Religion and Education.” University of Strathclyde, 10–12 July 2018.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Just a brief post to flag up the next couple of choral singing engagements in my calendar. I shall be singing tenor in the Duruflé Requiem with the Reid Consort on 19 May, and Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem with the St Andrew Camerata on 23 June. Please do come along if you are free in Edinburgh. Details below. Cheers!
Duruflé’s Requiem Mass, derived from ancient chant, is at equal moments grand and intimate and a meditative contemplation on the afterlife. Join the Reid Consort, its excellent soloists and the conductor, Cole Bendall, in a thrilling performance of this work, paired with short works by Bairstow, Leighton and Andrew, as well as the world premiere of Hail, gladdening light, by Thomas LaVoy.
LAVOY Hail gladdening light
ANDREW O nata lux
LEIGHTON Drop, drop, slow tears
BAIRSTOW Let all mortal flesh keep silence
DURUFLÉ Requiem, Op. 9
Soloists and organist will be announced in due course. Please note the change to the advertised programme which initially included Leighton Crucifixus.
Tickets available now from Ticketsource or at the door.
An intimate performance of Brahms’ longest composition, brought to you by the St Andrew Camerata, their conductor Vincent Wallace, soloists Gillian Robertson & Sean Webster, and pianists Morley Whitehead & Calum Robertson.
Composed between 1865 and 1868, Ein deutsches Requiem (Op 45) comprises seven movements; Brahms’s longest composition. The idea of a requiem seems to have occurred to the young artist in 1854, after a suicide attempt by his newfound compositional father figure, Robert Schumann, who died in 1856. According to an early biographer, Max Kalbeck, Brahms discovered the title “Ein Deutsches Requiem” among manuscripts left by Schumann. This is sacred but non-liturgical work, and unlike a long tradition of the Latin Requiem, A German Requiem, as its title states, is a Requiem in the German language. Rather than dwelling on the judgment of the deceased, Brahms seems intent on consoling those left behind. It was Brahms who originated the term “human requiem,” in a letter to Clara Schumann, Robert’s widow.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) himself made a piano transcription of the orchestral parts of his magnificent Requiem. The arrangement for two players allows a degree of intimacy, precision and contrapuntal clarity that cannot be achieved in the orchestral version; this is the version we will perform for you with Calum Robertson and Morley Whitehead at the piano. Our soprano soloist will be Gillian Robertson with the baritone soloist Sean Webster.
Saturday, 23 June 2018, 7:30pm, Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh. Tickets available from the Usher Hall Box Office, from members of the choir, or on the door.
This week’s Religious Studies Project podcast features a conversation I recorded a couple of months ago on some of the pervasive cliches surrounding ‘religion’ in popular (and scholarly discourse). You can download the podcast from the RSP site, along with our entire archive of 250+ podcasts. The description, YouTube link, and link to the transcript, have been pasted below.
“Religions are belief systems”, “Religions are intrinsically violent”, “Religion is Bullshit”… these are just some of the pervasive cliches that we might hear from time to time in the English-speaking world about our central topic of discussion on the RSP, ‘religion’. In this podcast, Chris is joined by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, the editors of the recently published Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches (Bloomsbury, 2017) to discuss these cliches, the ideological work that they do, how scholars could and should approach them, the construction of the book, and more.
Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this recording possible. The other cliches addressed in the book and/or covered in the podcast include:
* “Religion Makes People Moral”
* “Religion Concerns the Transcendent”
* “Religion is a Private Matter”
* “Religions are Mutually Exclusive”
* “I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”
* “Learning about Religion Leads to Tolerance”
* “Everyone has a Faith”
You can find a full list of contributors, and more about the book, on the publisher’s website: HERE.
A transcription of this interview is also available here: Stoddard and Martin – Stereotyping Religion 1.1
This blog has been going for eight years. But I haven’t written much of late. I have recently read through every single post here, and in the majority of cases I found myself thinking “who is this guy?” It is amazing to see how one changes over time. I guess blogs are somewhat equivalent to the diary of old? Needless to say, I removed a few posts.
In any case, after attending a few events recently involving my wonderful friend, mentor and colleague James Eglinton, I decided that it was high time I audited my online presence and made a concerted effort to re-establish myself online. So, here is a fresh attempt… a new name for an old blog, an eventual collation of “everything” I am doing… and a renewed clarity in my output: academic, theatre, and politics.
With that in mind, here are my latest updates in each of these areas:
- I recently interviewed Professor Agustin Fuentes of the University of Notre Dame on the topic “Why do we believe? Evolution, Primates, and the Human Niche.” It was an honour to speak with Agustin, and the podcast – which was on the topic of his high-profile “Gifford Lectures” – has received a lot of attention, including an excellent critical response from Tenzan Eaghll. L’esprit de l’escalier, eh?
- We have just begun rehearsals for Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Patience” in which I have been cast as Reginald Bunthorne… one of the poets who is vying for the love of the village milk-maid, Patience. It is just so delicious and wonderful that my wife, Lindsey, has been cast as Patience, and my best pal, Geoff – who was also our “best man” – has been cast as Grosvenor, my rival This is going to be such a fun summer!
- Finally, without any commentary, my recent Tweet on the “Windrush generation” saga sums up where I am just now…
I have only heard the clips on the radio, but it seems to me that @theresa_may‘s apology for causing anxiety to “Windrush generation” isn’t really much of an apology… it’s effectively saying “I’m sorry our actions made you feel bad, but I’m not sorry for the actions”
— Chris Cotter (@the_cotter_man) April 17, 2018
I was recently asked to submit a short, interdisciplinary research brief for an event that I am attending on Urban Super-Diversity next month. In the interests of updating you all on what I am up to – particularly given that this blog has not been updated in a horrendously long time – I have posted this information below as an image. You can also download it as a PDF.
I hope to get back to blogging more regularly at some point in the future…
Taking a leaf out of my pal David’s blogging book, I guess I should update you all on what’s been happening.
Academically, among other things…
- I’ve recently had a book chapter published, in Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts
- I’ve recently been appointed a director at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.
- The Religious Studies Project continues to go from strength to strength. Now into our fourth year, I’ve been doing a bit more interviewing recently, including interviews on Bricolage, the Post-Secular, African Christianity in the West, The Emerging Church, Religion and Memory, and Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland.
In my ‘real life’…
- The wonderful Lindsey and I got married in November!! Here are some photos…
- I continue to sing regularly in Edinburgh with the St Andrew Camerata, who are going from strength-to-strength lately. Check here for details of our next concert (21 March). And please follow us on Twitter!
- And probably much more…
Ciao for now.
A few days ago I was asked to answer three questions by the Bogata Post – my cousin works there – regarding my stance as a “Yes” voter in the upcoming referendum on Scottish Independence. The piece hasn’t appeared yet, but I thought I might as well post what I wrote just to some of my views into the mix. Here it is…
I’ve been trying to put all of this in some form of elegant prose for quite a bit of the evening, but I figure I had better just get on with saying my piece in as concise a manner as possible, and leave the rest for you to judge. Before I answer the three questions, I feel that I should first state that I am not Scottish, but was born in Northern Ireland and have lived in Scotland for 10 years. This background makes me naturally quite jumpy when the issue of nationalism comes up – whether we are talking about Irish Nationalism, UK Nationalism or Scottish Nationalism. I deplore politics that is based upon “helping our own first”, or “defending what my grandparents fought for” and other such tropes. It took A LOT for me to come round to the idea of Scottish Independence. With this in mind, I’ll now quickly turn to the three questions posed.
Why are you pro-independence?
I am voting for Indpendence because I see this as an amazing opportunity to effect change that could be immensely positive for every person living in the British Isles, and to a lesser extent those beyond this small group of islands.
Recently I bought into the #YesBecause hashtag on Twitter and posted two tweets which pretty much sum up my attitude:
“I’m #YesBecause UK politics is broken, and Independence provides the only real opportunity for actual change for everyone on these islands.”
“I’m #YesBecause both Scotland & rUK need to leave Empire behind once and for all and look to a peaceful, sustainable future of co-operation.”
To expand further on these soundbites, the future that I want for Scotland and the rest of the British Isles is one where we no longer try to play at the ‘big boys table’, where we have the courage to leave nuclear weapons behind us, where we prioritise welfare and helping those most in need, where we open our borders to those in need across the world and where we are willing to accept a much less comfortable standard of living in order to make real change for the better for everyone on the planet. The future I want is one where we care for the environment, promote equality across society, and participate fully in wonderful boundary-breaking and peace-building institutions such as the EU, rather than consistently and beligerently sitting on the sidelines refusing to compromise or change.
I am under no illusions that Independence will bring the idealistic future that I want overnight, or at all… but I do know that if Scotland votes for Independence from the United Kingdom it will force the United Kingdom to re-assess its identity, values and priorities, and provide the people of Scotland with an unprecendented opportunity to start the democratic experiment afresh in the twenty-first century, with the benefit of hundreds of years of hindsight. It might fail… but if we don’t take the opportunity we will never know. I know that this idealistic vision invites the response “yes, but how can you effect all this change if the country has no money?” And to that I would simply say a) money isn’t everything b) money hasn’t exactly helped the UK, as far as my priorities are concerned.
What has the atmosphere been like in the run-up to the vote- any tensions between the two sides etc?
This answer will be much shorter, I promise. In terms of the political ‘debate’ – if we can call it that – the atmosphere has been particularly ghastly. Both sides simply shout at each other. Both demand factual answers to questions that cannot be answered in a situation where neither side will admit that a) their position might not win b) they might have to negotiate with the other ‘side’ even if they do win. The Facebook pages of both campaigns are some of the worst cesspools of the internet, attracting the kind of abusive comments that one would expect… on most websites, to be honest.
In terms of the way things have been portrayed in the media, I am utterly frustrated by this. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT THE ECONOMY, FOLKS. In particular, IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT “THE CURRENCY QUESTION”. As far as I am concerned, and as far as most folk that I speak to on both sides of the debate seem to be concerned, the currency issue is far down on our list of concerns… yet the media has decided that this is what the debate hangs upon, and thus reports everything within that light. It also doesn’t help that the UK media is part of the UK status quo, and like any businesses which have UK-wide markets, they understandably want to avoid unpredictability and maintain things the way they are. Understandable, perhaps… but not great for unbiased reporting.
In terms of things on the ground, apart from a few clear exceptions I would say that the ‘debate’ has been pretty good-natured… except that in my opinion no one is really going to change their views. Everyone has differing priorities, and thus we all tend to talk past each other. I have, of course, seen/heard plenty of friends make comments that they are fed up of the debate, or that they feel that the debate is ugly, causing division and forcing them to choose sides etc. To that I can only say that I imagine people would feel the same way if ‘we’ got so worked up about ‘normal’ elections. I think there is a tendency on these islands to not like being confronted with ‘opinions’, or being seen to hold ‘opinions’… and perhaps this is a problem that we will need to address come the UK General Election in 2015.
What do you honestly think the outcome will be?
Honestly, I think that the vote will be a “No”. I think that people are far more likely to “bottle it” than to say “oh, what the hell” when they make it to the polling booth. And I think that most people will vote “No” for potentially very understandable reasons… worries about their job, their family, their mortgage. All I will be able to say in that case is that I voted for what I thought was right, that I tried for once in my life to not be as selfish as I normally am, and that I will try to keep this level of political engagement going forward into the coming decades and try my hardest to effect the sorts of changes I would like to see occurring in Scotland, the British Isles, Europe and beyond. But I also think that the vote will be close… and that whatever happens, there will be a high enough percentage of votes for “Yes” to cause some serious questioning and reflection for politicians going forward. And maybe… maybe… I will be pleasantly surprised.