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…
Although “cult” and “sect” are used as technical terms in religious studies, in their popular usage, “cult” tends to refer to a New Religious Movement [NRM] or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered reprehensible. Since such pejorative attitudes are generally considered inappropriate for the academic study of religion, scholars have tended to adopt the nomenclature of NRMs to refer to “a wide range of groups and movements of alternative spirituality, the emergence of which is generally associated with the aftermath of the 1960s counter-culture” (Arweck 2002:269). In this interview with me, Emeritus Professor Eileen Barker (LSE) takes us through the academic study of NRMs from the 1960s onwards, engaging with the particular challenges and successes which have been encountered by academics in the field, and reflecting on some of the more colourful aspects of this area of research.
You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.
An interview with Markus Davidsen, who specialises in religions based on Star Wars, Tolkien, The Matrix, and other works of fiction… You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive weekly podcasts, on iTunes.
The majority of those who identified as a Jedi on the 2001 UK census were mounting a more-or-less satirical or playful act of non-compliance; nevertheless, a certain proportion of those were telling the truth. How does a religion constructed from the fictional Star Wars universe problematise how we conceptualise religion, and the stories they involve? And what makes certain stories able to transcend their fictional origins and become myths?
Markus Altena Davidsen is a PhD candidate at the universities of Aarhus, Denmark and Leiden, Netherlands, and assistant lecturer in the sociology of religion in Leiden. Since 2009, he has been working on a PhD project entitled “Fiction-based Religions: The Use of Fiction in Contemporary Religious Bricolage”. In this project, Davidsen attempts to do three things. Firstly, he maps the various ways on which religious groups since the 1960s have been integrating elements from Tolkien’s literary mythology with beliefs and practices from more established religious traditions. This material is used to develop a typology of forms of religious bricolage (harmonising, domesticating, archetypal etc.) which are also at work in alternative spirituality in general. Secondly, he looks at how Tolkien religionists legitimise their religious practice (to themselves and others) given that it is based on a work of fiction. These accounts are compared with what cognitive theory has to say about narratives and plausibility construction. Thirdly, Davidsen treats how the internet has facilitated the emergence of a self-conscious spiritual Tolkien milieu. Some preliminary conclusions from the project are presented in the forthcoming article “The Spiritual Milieu Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”, in Adam Possamai (ed.), Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, in the series Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion 5, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 185-204.
You can keep up with Markus’s work on his Academia page, which includes papers on Jediism and other fiction-based religions. If you found this interview stimulating, you’ll probably get a kick out of Carole Cusack’s interview with us on Invented Religions. And you may enjoy Markus and Carole’s contributions to our edited episode on “The Future of Religious Studies“.
Could the difficulties associated with the academic conceptualisation of “religion” be overcome by changing our focus instead to “the sacred”? In this interview, Jay Demerath tells me why we should define religion substantively – that is, in terms of specific attributes like rituals, deities or dogmas – but the sacred in terms of the function it serves in the lives of individuals and cultures. From this perspective, religion can be considered one of a number of potential sources of the sacred.
Jay Demerath is currently the Emile Durkheim Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has been a faculty member since 1972, including ten years as Chair. Prior to UMass, he received a 1958 A.B. from Harvard and a 1964 Ph.D from the U. Of California, Berkeley before rising from Instructor to Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and serving as Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association. Among his many publications, he is author or editor of fourteen books, including the award-winning Crossing the Gods: World Religions and Worldly Politics (2001) and the recent Sage Handbook for the Sociology of Religion (2008). The current Chair-elect of the Religion Section of the American Sociological Association, he is also past-President of the Eastern Sociological Society, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion.
It seems that this blog has been pretty neglected for a while now. Given my upcoming lecturing and conferencing commitments, this is unlikely to change for the next month or so. However, I thought I should give everyone an update on what has been going on with The Religious Studies Project, and highlight some of the recent material we have made available.
Firstly, we recorded a video last week to tell folk a bit more about the project. Here it is:
Secondly, we have now released seven podcasts on the following topics (follow the links for more):
- The Phenomenology of Religion
- The Cognitive Study of Religion
- Invented Religions
- The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies
- The Insider/Outsider Problem
- Youth, Sexuality and Religion
I’ll try and get back to the blog soon, I promise. Things have just been taking rather a lot more time than expected…
We’re into week three of The Religious Studies Project, and this week we have a real treat for you.
What is an “Invented Religion”? Why should scholars take these religions seriously? What makes these “inventions” different from the revelations in other religions? What happens when an author does not want their story to become a religious text?
In this interview with David, Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) answers these questions and more, exploring her notion of “Invented Religions” and introducing the listener to a wide variety of contemporary and unusual forms of religion. Discussion flows through a range of topics – from Discordianism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to Scientology, Jediism and the New Atheism – and demonstrates how the works of authors such as Thomas Pynchon and Robert A. Heinlein can be transformed by others and take on a life of their own. In her own words, “This is a fiction so good it should be true…”
For the past few months I have been alluding to a secretive project that I have been working on… now it is finally here, and I could use all the support I can get in terms of spreading the word, facebook liking etc etc.
Every Monday, we’ll be putting out a new podcast featuring an interview with a leading international scholar, presenting a key idea in the contemporary socio-scientific study of religion in a concise and accessible way. Our first podcast features Professor Emeritus James Cox (University of Edinburgh) speaking to David about the phenomenology of religion. You can find the podcast and accompanying notes here, or alternatively subscribe on iTunes.
Every Wednesday, we’ll feature a resource to help postgraduate students and aspiring academics. And every Friday, we’ll be publishing a response to the podcast, reflecting on, expanding upon or disagreeing with the Monday podcast. Plus conference reports, opinion, publishing opportunities, book reviews and more when we have them.
Many, many thanks!