Author Archives: David Robertson

What We Do and How We Write About It: researching a South Indian martial art

By Lucy May Constantini

In 2002, back in the days when it was the hand-to-mouth existence of an independent dance artist and not global pandemics that curtailed my ability to travel, I fulfilled a childhood ambition and got myself to India. I went to take part in Facets, an international choreography laboratory, organised by Attakkalari Dance Company in Bangalore, where for three intense weeks, sixty or so dancers hothoused traditional Indian movement practices, Western contemporary dance, and digital arts. The first class every morning of my second week was taught by G. Sathyanarayanan Nair of CVN Kalari Sangham in Trivandrum, where he introduced us to the principles of the South Indian martial art kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘. I was bewitched.

In those three weeks we only had two days off and our dancing days generally ran from around 9:00 am to a similar time at night, so it’s no surprise I got ill. Thanks to an unhappy history with allopathic medicine, I determined to find an āyurvedic alternative, āyurveda being one of India’s traditional medicines. One of my new-found colleagues popped me on the back of his motorbike and took me to the local clinic, where my pulse was read and I was given a potion to brew for the immediate illness, and huge quantities of medicated ghee to prevent it recurring. Unwittingly, here began my exploration of physical practice melded to a healing modality. It’s perhaps no coincidence that my colleague guiding me to the clinic had himself grown up in Kerala, the southwestern state of India which is home to kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘, as a teenager winning various state competitions before transitioning to dance. I brewed my strange-tasting tea and got better (I had less success with the ghee).

In 2010, I was able to rekindle my flame for kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ by going to Trivandrum to train at CVN Kalari, by which time G. Sathyanarayanan Nair had inherited the role of gurukkaḷ. Gurukkaḷ is the Malayalam plural for the Sanskrit word for teacher, guru. This plural is a general honorific in Kerala culture, while also conjuring up the image of a gurukkaḷ standing with all the tradition’s teachers behind him, both supporting him and reminding him of his obligations as the lineage-holder. In kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ these involve caretaking the martial art and ensuring its medical practice endures in a manner that serves its community, as well as fulfilling various ritual functions.

In the years that followed, I spent several extended periods at the kaḷari (the temple-building in which we practise, and which also houses the kaḷari clinic). I was puzzled that the little I could find to read about kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ seemed to be describing something quite other than what I was experiencing. The gurukkaḷ had similar concerns, albeit from a different perspective, and in 2012 he suggested we start a documentation project together to fill this lacuna between written discourse and lived practice. Our initial discussions evolved into an exchange which is at the heart of my PhD in the Open University’s Religious Studies department, where I’m looking at how the embodied practice at CVN Kalari relates to its manuscript tradition. In particular, I’m hoping to see if I can find a way of writing about kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ that is useful to people reading it who know nothing of the tradition, while also remaining recognisable to the experience of practitioners.

In May, I was supposed to present on kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘’s medical tradition at the closing conference of the AyurYog Project (http://ayuryog.org/) a five-year European Research Council funded project based at the University of Vienna that my supervisor, Suzanne Newcombe, was part of. Here’s my contribution to the online series the AyurYog project released in its COVID-cancelled stead.

In the hope that travel restrictions ease, I’m looking forward to spending time at the EFEO (Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient) in Pondicherry getting to grips with some kaḷarippayaṟṟ˘ manuscripts at some point in the second year of my doctoral research, before continuing my fieldwork at the kaḷari in Kerala.

Lucy May Constantini is in the first year of her PhD in the Religious Studies department of the Open University. Her doctoral research is funded by the AHRC Open-Oxford-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership. Two of her previous visits to the kaḷari were funded by the Arts Council of Wales and Wales Arts International.

Photo: Sathyanarayanan Nair, Lucy May Constantini and the CVN Kalari community at the vidyārambham ceremony, 2016

Looking Back at 50 Years as an RS Tutor

By Jeff Horner

Image: Jeff (central, sideways) at his socially-distanced farewell gathering.

As I retire after 50 years as an AL in Religious Studies at the Open University, I have been asked to write something about what it was like in the early days. I can talk only of modules I have taught, of course; I never taught at Level 3.

I was appointed as tutor in November 1970, and the first courses started in February 1971. My first course (they were called courses, not modules, then) was A100. It had a small piece of RS—two weeks looking at Mark’s Gospel. I remember the word “pericope” figured prominently! So, this was a bit like the sort of thing I had studied in my first degree in Theology. I think there was an assignment on Mark’s gospel, but I am not certain about that. And certainly, RS did not figure in the exam at the end of the module, nor (at least in any major way) in the programme for the Summer School. (All students—nearly—then went for a week’s residential study at Bath, Keele, Stirling…) However, in a later Level 1 module (A102, I think,) religion played a big part in the study of Mid-Victorian Britain, and students generally loved that, particularly at Summer School.

In 1972, I started teaching A201 Renaissance and Reformation as well. There was a four-week block on the Reformation—Luther, Calvin, etc. My theology degree came in useful again! A201 was one of the best courses the Arts faculty ever produced, and the students loved it. In the exam, students did an inter-disciplinary question, and then (I think) two out of six options, one being the Reformation. The course team obviously thought ‘No-one is religious’; so they appointed teams of three or four markers for the other questions, but for the Reformation question they only appointed me. Out of 600 students taking the exam, 396 did the Reformation question. So much for making assumptions about students!

The first ‘proper’ RS course started in 1978—AD208 Man’s Religious Quest (no thought of gender bias then). It included an introduction to different approaches to studying religion, sociology of religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, African religion, Greek and Roman religion, Zoroastrianism, secular alternatives to religion, and “inter-religious encounter”. It was hard (I thought it was more like a Level 3 course than Level 2), but it included the opportunity to visit places of worship and that really brought it to life for many students. The students nearly all loved it and as I remember drop-out was very low. Many students talked about how it changed their perceptions, and in either the first or second year one student decamped to India to live in an ashram. I have no idea whether she ever came back!

After AD208 came three modules: A228 The Religious Quest (not so sexist)—a 30-point module, basically half of AD208, covering six world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam)—followed by A213 and A217. These last two continued the same approach, studying the beliefs and practices of six religions, but with some extra themes. Incidentally, A217 had 7 TMAs, five of which were on five of the religions, but not Sikhism, which was a large part of the exam.

I taught two other modules, both 30 points. A231 (30 points) looked at religious diversity in Britain in the second half of the 20th century. Most students liked it, but it did not have large numbers and was not replaced at the end of its life. The other was AD252, Islam in the West. It was quite hard, but it appealed to quite a number of Muslim students and was generally liked. However, it ran only for four years and was also not replaced.

Numbers started high on the 60 point modules. I think on AD208 there were three groups in Region 08 (the North West), but by the end of A217 there was just one. And when A227 started I was the tutor for the North West and Yorkshire. It has become much more common for people to drop out than in the early days. I am not sure why this is, but I am pretty certain it is not the content of the modules that puts people off, though I will come back to that in a minute. I think the nature of our student body has changed a lot. For the first twenty years or so the OU was very much a ‘second chance’ university. Our students were largely people who had missed out on university in their teens, and were doing it partly out of interest and partly to prove to themselves that they were capable. For more of our students now the motivation is much more to do with career development, and that means that minority subjects find it more difficult to attract students. As to the higher drop-out, I am not really sure, I think the reasons must be complex and varied, but one factor is surely that there are so many more demands now on students’ time that OU study quite often has to be put on the back burner for a while.

I said I would come back to the content of the modules. Up until three years ago, all the Level 2 60 point modules were ‘world religions’ courses. The presentation differed but the content was largely similar. Many people (I was not one of them) came to see that as rather limited. So with A227 we have moved to a ‘lived religion’ approach. In my experience most students enjoy the module, but many say to me that it was not what they expected. They use different words for these expectations (‘theology’ or whatever) but a lot of them were expecting something like A217. In the past we had ‘Conditional Registration’ events. It was one of my favourite evenings each year. As tutor counsellor (don’t ask!) I would invite all my students (roughly 50, at all levels) to an evening at a study centre to look at course materials and discuss choices. So I could say to one student considering a module, ’Go and talk to Gladys – she did it last year’. There is far less chance to do that now, so I think it is more likely students will arrive expecting something other than they are going to get.

As regards A227, I have just discovered the OU’s ‘Why Religion Matters’ course on FutureLearn. It is short, so obviously has limitations, but it is a good way of starting to understand the approach on A227. I think all potential students should be encouraged to take it (it is free). Indeed, there are arguments for making it compulsory, though no doubt that would create lots of administrative problems.

Thanks for putting up with me while I have wandered down memory lane. I have loved almost every minute of the last fifty years.

This stale boredom: acedia in a time of lockdown

By Richard D.G. Irvine

The listlessness that comes from staring at the same set of walls, as the days seep into one another. Difficulty summoning any interest or energy to do anything – in fact, the sense that there’s very little point getting out of bed in the first place. Inertia. From a monastic perspective such struggles echo in history.

Back in April, Fr David Foster, a Benedictine monk I met years ago during my PhD fieldwork at Downside Abbey, and now teaching at the Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, described the sharp shifts in emotion as Italy struggled with the wave of COVID-19 infection. The sudden decision to close places of learning feeling almost like an unexpected holiday; excitement quickly engulfed by the fear and uncertainty about the situation, anxiety of risk from the infection and grief amidst the rising deathtoll. And then lockdown. “Now, inevitably, it has begun to shift to a kind of stale boredom. Cassian of course had just the word for it – acedia. Yesterday I just went to the end of the drive, simply to look outside and enjoy (really enjoy) the sight of the wisteria in the road. That is the real pity – to miss the spring colours and smells.”
His words capture the feeling of constraint even within the monastery grounds; while monks might be thought of as experts in self-isolation, life for Benedictines is not typically one of total confinement to the enclosure. Yet in recognising and naming the struggle – this “stale boredom” which so many of us have been confronted with – what was striking was the way in which he reached back into the history of the monastic experience. John Cassian, born around 360AD, compiled and digested the teachings of those ‘desert monks’ who had withdrawn from society to live lives of prayer on the Nile Delta. In his Institutes he describes the dejection and weariness that was a frequent foe of the monks, and was denoted by the Greek word ‘acedia’ – the word itself might be translated as ‘lack of care’, though the struggle itself is a complex state that’s hard to pin down. He also explains that some monks associated it with the ‘midday demon’ described in the psalms they chanted (Psalm 91(90)) refers to “the scourge that lays waste at noon”).

The despondency of midday, when time feels motionless and directionless, is most vividly described by the monk Evagrius Ponticus, a key influence on Cassian: “First it makes the sun appear to slow down or stop, so the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then it forces the monk to keep looking out the window and rush from his cell to observe the sun in order to see how much longer it is to the ninth hour, and to look about in every direction in case any of the brothers are there. Then it assails him with hatred of his place, his way of life and the work of his hands.” This description resonates with the sluggishness of time in lockdown, the frustration and torpor of days with no end in sight.

Though I am currently on lockdown myself in Scotland, I have been taking the opportunity to connect online and on the phone with my friends from Downside Abbey, a community of Catholic Benedictine monks in South West England. Since the suspension of public church services as part of the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the community have massively expanded their social media outreach as an effort to build connections with those who can no longer physically visit the monastery. (I have written about this outreach here.) A key part of this has been an attempt to offer support and spiritual resources to people who find themselves in the unprecedented situation of lockdown. As one monk explained, the audience that they had in mind was precisely “people asking themselves, what on earth am I going to do? … there’s a very real danger with that sense of confinement and isolation”.

A healing service broadcast live from the monastery on youtube and Instagram focussed directly on the ‘inner wounds’ of those struggling in lockdown. “We pray for those suffering from despondency and a sense of aimlessness, constrained as they are sometimes in very tight conditions”, dejected by circumstances that “seem, as it were, to be indefinite as well as unlimited”. Here again we are in the presence of the ‘midday demon’: a crushing sense of the monotony of directionless time and unvarying space, making it hard to keep purpose and meaning in sight.

Downside Abbey 2019 by Oscar Mather, Lynch Architects

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Institutional Racism, Religious Studies and #BlackLivesMatter

By Suzanne Newcombe

As a privileged white American, I am compulsively drawn to watch the drama now unfolding in the United States; my emotions split between shame and hope. I am also well aware of the parallels and differences of institutionalised racism and discrimination in my adopted country of Great Britain.

As I mature, I become more aware of the multiple layers of institutionalised discrimination – and how I have directly benefited from many of these structures. I have now accepted that becoming aware of my own prejudice – products of our collective culture and history – will be a lifelong project.

Education is crucial to revealing the implicit and structural racisms which still oppress the majority of the world’s populations. The Open University is well placed to promote growing social justice in the face of global challenges, and our understandings of religion are a central aspect of how cultures perpetuate inequalities as well as promote change.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trump_Bible_photo-op_2020%C2%B706%C2%B701.png

I want here to lay down some of the ways we, as a Religious Studies department, have been trying to address the continuing legacy of colonialism and institutionalised racism as individuals and as a department. #BlackLivesMatter. We do care. We are trying to educate ourselves and our students away from institutionalised prejudice and discrimination.

 

Decolonising the Curriculum – What We Teach

We work hard show how much of our thinking about what religion is, is based on cultural, colonial and Christian assumptions. Put simply, much mainstream thinking around and about religion is colonialist and racist.

To challenge these assumptions, we emphasise the exploration of how religion is lived, how ‘ordinary people’ create their own rituals and meaning out of larger traditions as well as the blurry boundaries between religion/non-religion or religion/culture. We explore indigenous and animist forms of relating to the world, questioning the basis of common assumptions about the divisions between humans and non-humans.

We show how historical and cultural context as essential to understanding what religion might be for humans – grounded in particular time and place. This approach is part of a broader critical project to demystify the colonial framework of understanding the world that we have inherited, and ultimately, to challenge it. The critical study of religion is inherently decolonising.

For introductions to what this looks like in practice, see our free OpenLearn course Religious Diversity, drawn from A227: Exploring Religion – which really asks our students to explore the questions of ‘What is religion?’, ‘How can we study religion?’ and ‘Why should we study religion?’

 

Methods of Teaching – How We Teach

Running throughout our teaching is an approach which asks our students to reflect upon their assumptions and consider the beliefs and practices of ‘others’ with an attitude of enquiry and empathy. These are essential interpersonal skills which must be embodied to tackle racism and prejudice in all contexts.

We also require students to take an attitude of evidence-based critical thinking when approaching controversial subjects.  We try to teach students to confront controversial subjects subject head on, with appropriate skills – to come to their own educated, informed opinions and express these opinions well to others. Articulate, evidence-based analysis is essential to tackling institutionalised racism.

For an introduction to how we work in practice see our free FutureLearn course on Why Religion Matters.

 

What and How We Research

Author Lululemon athletica. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ustrasana_-_Camel_Pose_Purple_Top.jpg

In the religious studies department, we are all active researchers. Our areas of expertise and research experience are very diverse, but they share a commitment to dialogue and excellence in evidence collection. Many of our research areas directly address areas where inequalities and social justice work are informed by religious and non-religious identities. We see religion as an important cultural resource which can be used to challenge and transform our society.

My own research has largely focused on the complex global and multi-cultural entanglements of yoga in the modern period. Understanding the complexity of the creation of systems of practice, ethics and belief such as yoga is essential if fundamentalist versions are not used to oppress specific populations. For example, neoliberalist ideals of thin, lithe white women who are featured in advertisements, Instagram and grace the covers of magazines, can make the practice seem exclusive to the upper-middle class white women that form the majority of practitioners in the ‘Western’ world.

Simultaneously, yoga is can also be used to promote a narrow Hindutva vision of modern India, where ancient Indian wisdom is verified by modern biomedical methods into a streamlined ideology and export product.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Prime_Minister,_Shri_Narendra_Modi_visiting_the_Drug_Discovery_%26_Research_Laboratory_after_inaugurating_the_Patanjali_Research_Institute,_at_Haridwar,_in_Uttarakhand.jpg

But the practices associated with yoga and meditation practices are also widely used many individuals and groups to experience greater freedom, empowerment and ability to put in to motion more ethical actions and authentic identities at both individual and social levels. Both of these positions for yoga and meditation practices are real – and both are important to understand and consider.

Making Peace in Prison - Yoga and Meditation are having remarkable effects in turning around Prisoner's lives. Could this be the key to rehabilitating offenders?

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/258605203580509822/

Religious practices such as yoga can also be used as powerful as cultural resources which can spaces for reconciliation, social justice, environmental stability and greater respect for non-human life.


I know my efforts as an individual are far from perfect in understanding my own ignorance and prejudices. As an institution and department, our efforts to support #BlackLivesMatter are far from finished. For example, we don’t have enough BAME representation in either our student body or in our departmental staff. We all know that our efforts can and must be further extended, refined and developed. But by being transparent about our intentions is the first step towards change.

#BlackLivesMatter and we look forward to being better able to better serve our obligation to promote equality and social justice in the Religious Studies Department.

My 40 days of COVID-19

By Heidi Maiberg

As an overseas PhD student, who recently started studying in the UK, I often feel that I am living in two countries at the same time. But now I am no longer comparing education systems and cultures – I am comparing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic we are going through is historical. I am following the recommendation of psychologists and other social scientists, who have suggested that people keep a diary to preserve for the historical record as much information about the world and the changes we are going through, as possible. Here are some of my thoughts, emotions and experiences relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, that I first  started to write down as a coping mechanism to find some balance in this hectic world, but which others like me might find helpful.

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Epidemiology and Religion: Aetiologies of Contagion

By Paul-François Tremlett

We are all becoming acquainted, at some level, with epidemiological theories of viral transmission, as we try to understand the gravity, and see a way out, of our current crisis. Perhaps uniquely in the humanities and social sciences, the field of religious studies has been working with these theories for some time. This is because religious beliefs have, at least since the 1990s, been represented repeatedly in epidemiological terms as viruses and contagions. Indeed, these metaphors for religious beliefs and their transmission have been constitutive of new atheist and evolutionary psychological theories of religion which owe much to the work of the anthropologist Dan Sperber. Sperber argued that

… individual brains are each inhabited by a large number of ideas that determine … behaviour … An idea, born in the brain of one individual, may have, in the brains of other individuals, descendants that resemble it. Ideas can be transmitted, and by being transmitted from one person to another, they may even propagate … Culture is made up, first and foremost, of such contagious ideas … To explain culture, then, is to explain why and how some ideas happen to be contagious. This calls for the development of a true epidemiology of representations (Sperber 1996: 1; italics in original).

Sperber’s controversial rendering of learning and transmission in terms of a disease model was taken up by Jesse Bering, Pascal Boyer, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett among others. They proposed that religious beliefs had special properties that made them cognitively attractive and ensured their continuing propagation in human populations, even in “modern” ecologies assumed to be hostile to religious transmission (Bering 2003; Boyer 2003; Dawkins 2007; Dennett 2006). But what are the effects of talking about religious beliefs in this way?

Forgive me if my answer to this question includes a detour to Manila (one must travel these days any way one can).

On the 14th March 1902, a ship from Hong Kong arrived in Manila and, despite observing quarantine restrictions, shortly after, cholera was discovered in Farola, a barrio near the mouth of the Pasig river. It was the beginning of a cholera epidemic that spread through Luzon and lasted until February 1904, claiming over 109,000 lives. The Filipino historian Reynaldo Ileto (1988) has focused on the entanglement of the medical campaign launched to arrest the spread of the cholera bacillus with the US military campaign simultaneously waged against Filipino nationalist forces. Many of the Filipinos fighting the Americans were participants in religio-nationalist movements. Their conceptions of health and freedom were as much the targets of the quarantine measures as the cholera itself. Medical knowledge and discourse de-legitimated local forms of knowledge and experience which were rendered as “backwardness”, “ignorance” and “superstition”, and indeed provided ideological cover for some of the larger claims of Empire. And, if the cholera epidemic provided cover for the American Empire in the early twentieth century Philippines, the ideological effects of anthropologists, new atheists and cognitive psychologists talking about religious beliefs using terms imported from medicine surely include disguise for an attempt to establish new protocols and procedures to determine who is and is not qualified to speak about religions – in short to advance, under cover of objective science, a particular constellation of power-knowledge.

It is important not to misunderstand the point I am trying to make. I am not a relativist arguing for the equal validity of different forms of knowledge and experience. Rather I am arguing for vigilance, for every claim to knowledge is a move in a war of position. And every move has consequences.

Bering, J. (2003), ‘Towards a Cognitive Theory of Existential Meaning’ in New Ideas in             Psychology, 21: 101-120.

Boyer, P. (2003), ‘Religious Thought and Behaviour as By-Products of Brain Function’ in Trends in Cognitive Science, 7 (3): 119-124.

Dawkins, R. (2007), The God Delusion, London: Black Swan.

Dennett, D. C. (2006), Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, London: Penguin.

Ileto, R. C. (1988), ‘Cholera and the Origins of the American Sanitary Order in the Philippines’ in Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Societies, (ed), D. Arnold, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Sperber, D. (1996), Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach, Oxford: Blackwell.

What COVID conspiracies tell us about our society

By David G. Robertson

Reblogged from the Religion Media Centre: https://www.religionmediacentre.org.uk/factsheets/conspiracy-theories-are-rubbish-but-tell-us-one-truth/

In times of stress, people look for answers to their problems. When their usual answers aren’t working, they may reach for unusual answers. The sociologist Martin Stringer identifies this as situational belief — we might not “believe in” acupuncture, but if our back pain is bad enough, we may well be prepared to give it a try.

This goes for religion, too. The war-time expression, “There are no atheists in foxholes”, expresses this idea, and it is far from uncommon for people to “find God” after a serious illness or the death of a loved one.

It is also true for what we have come to term “conspiracy theories” (a phrase that is harder to define than you may think). Consider how conspiracy theories about immigrants have become more popular after the 2008 financial crash and the decade of austerity that followed.

In fact, health issues (whether our own or someone else’s) seem particularly to encourage people to “try out” ideas they wouldn’t in normal circumstances, and given that Covid-19 is the largest threat to public health for at least a generation (if not in terms of overall deaths, then in terms of its sudden onset and the uncertainty over its long-term impact), it’s not surprising that conspiracy theories have quickly sprung up.

In the UK, the leading narrative is that the spread of Covid-19 is being caused (or exacerbated) by the rollout of the 5G network. When theories like this seem to take off quickly, the reality is often that they combine with current ideas, with a ready-made audience.

The idea that the 5G network will cause health issues — or the 4G network, wi-fi, even power lines — has been around for years, and if you already accept that, it makes “sense” to then connect this to a sudden pandemic. I need to be clear, however, that this does NOT mean I think they are correct.

Similar conspiratorial narrative sprung up about the Aids/HIV crisis in the 1980s, and even the Spanish Flu after the Great War.

In the United States, Covid-19 has been drawn into the ever-evolving, millennial QAnon narrative, which believes a series of cryptic emails supposedly from a White House insider are clues to Donald Trump’s secret plan to “drain the swamp” once and for all. The connections to health concerns are still there, though less obvious; Q developed out of the PizzaGate narrative in the run-up to the 2016 election, which was itself a resurfacing of the satanic ritual abuse panic of the early 1990s. The panic was started by evangelical Christians and took off because it fitted well with widespread but largely unspoken concerns about the welfare of children in the post-nuclear family America.

These longer histories should make it clear that the internet isn’t “causing” conspiracy theories (a point made repeatedly by Joseph Uscinski) or that they are “new”. It is, however, making them more visible.

I was at the G8 demonstrations in Edinburgh in 2001 which turned into a riot. But a surprisingly small proportion of people there were actually demonstrators. Apart from the police, most were journalists or simply curious bystanders (like me). And the ones left fighting at the end of it were local bully boys who just used it as an excuse.

Online conspiracy theories work the same way. Conversations that used to be confined to the pub, a chat at the back fence or among close friends, now have a potentially global audience. This makes it easier for journalists to pick up on the story, and amplify it, particularly now when nothing else is happening to report on, but we are all shut in our homes and looking for entertainment. The core of committed “believers” stays small, but the circle of curious bystanders, and trolls who delight in kicking the hornet’s nest, grows larger and larger. For a short while, anyway, until the next novelty comes along.

It concerns me, however, how quickly the demands have come to silence such ideas, and control the narrative by force, for example You Tube’s decision to ban all conspiracy theory videos falsely linking coronavirus to 5G.

Rather than getting angry at what we see as an outbreak of mass irrationality, a more constructive approach would be to see these conspiratorial narratives as evidence of broader concerns.

Covid-19 is one, to be sure — but so is the position of China in the global power structure, the pace of technological change, and the massive inequality in modern society. Indeed, the long-term discussion around Covid-19 may itself begin to revolve around the pace of development, and how for-profit technologies so often seem to outpace those for the common good.

A conspiracy theory doesn’t have to be correct for it to tell us a lot about the problems in our society.

Iran’s shrines during pandemic

By Hugh Beattie

Towards the end of March the Iranian authorities took the unprecedented step of closing the shrine of the 8th Imam, Ali ibn Musa al-Reza, in the western city of Mashhad, to pilgrims, as well as the shrine of the Imam’s sister, Fatima Masuma in Qom, south of Tehran. They also closed the Jamkaran mosque in Qom – linked with the 12th Imam, this shrine has in recent years become major pilgrimage centre. The spread of the virus, coupled with the impact of the US sanctions, has led President Rouhani to request aid from the International Monetary Fund, the first time that such a request had been made since 1979, the year of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Although the religious authorities in Iran supported the closures of the shrines, the decision to do so upset many Iranians, not just the very devout, as the rituals performed at the shrines have cultural as well as religious significance.

Mashhad, Iran. Ninara from Helsinki, Finland / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

The authorities may have been influenced by the fact that Iran had been badly affected by Spanish Flu in 1918/19, when it experienced the ‘most lethal and widespread pandemic’ it had ever experienced. Although Iran’s government had declared the country’s neutrality at the beginning of WWI, some areas were invaded by foreign forces – Ottoman, British and Russian, and clashes between Ottoman forces on the one hand and Russian and British ones on the other occurred in some areas, particularly the north-west. The occupying armies requisitioned food, and there was also drought, crop failure and hoarding by landowners, leading to the outbreak of famine in some areas in 1917.

Jamkaran Mosque. Mostafameraji / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The famine may have contributed to mortality when Spanish Flu entered the country by several routes in the late summer and autumn of 1918. Another factor may have been the widespread use of opium, for example to stave off hunger pains, and to treat the symptoms of malaria, endemic throughout the country. The initial wave of influenza was followed by a second more virulent form of the virus, and the pandemic did not die down until November 1919. Estimates of the number who died range quite widely – from 8.0 to 21.7 per cent of the population (or between 902,400 and 2,432,000). There is no doubt though that Iran was one of the countries most badly affected by the Spanish Flu.

All that glitters doesn’t always shimmer: values during and beyond the pandemic

By Graham Harvey

“The earth shimmers”, Debbie Rose wrote of her learning-through-dancing among Aboriginal Australian hosts. The pulse of seasons informs the shimmering rhythms of dance which capture participants, encouraging them to flourish. It’s a fine vision, especially for those of us anticipating summer sunshine. But Rose contrasts this Aboriginal approach to the world with the cascading mass extinctions that follow from Western-originated efforts to separate humans from the world we exploit.

Tempting as it is to think here about the rhythms of isolation and permitted exercise, I propose to look at another stark contrast. The Coronavirus pandemic has decreased industrial production and consumption (except of loo rolls, it seems) and led to decreased share prices globally. As a result, gold is casting its glittery allure again.

The president of Brazil insists that Amazonia should be exploited, timber and minerals extracted, financial wealth gained. Amazonia’s rivers and soils are being polluted as miners quest for the lucrative glittering metal. Indigenous communities, already ravaged by “ordinary” diseases (measles and flu) now face the danger of Covid-19. In his book The Falling Sky (2018), the Yanomami author Davi Kopenawa writes about the devastation of previous epidemics. This new virus, already killing Indigenous people in many places, not only across South America, is likely to be worse.

Kopenawa also writes about the irrelevance of gold to his Yanomami people. What glows with value and life for them is the forest world which provides everything but requires careful respectful interaction. Kopenawa is a diplomat and also a shaman who gains knowledge from bright dancing spirits he calls Xapiri. The glitter of gold has an allure for miners. The liveliness of the forest and Xapiri captivate the Yanomami. The shimmer of these contrasts is one of many invitations to us to consider our values and our ambitions.

 

References

Kopenawa, Davi, and Bruce Albert. 2013. The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Cambridge: the Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Rose, Deborah B. 2017. “Shimmer: When all you love is being trashed” in Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubant (eds). Arts of living on a damaged planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. G51-G63.

High religiosity and ‘resisting’ Covid 19 governmental advice in Romania

By Maria Nita

The Covid 19 social distance posed real challenges for the largely rural, traditional and sensorial Orthodox Church in Romania – where kissing icons and other embodied rituals could not so easily find a virtual counterpart. In a recent Pew survey, Romania scored 1st among 34 European Countries as the country with the highest religiosity – yet we have to look beyond religious commitment if we are to dig deeper into the reasons why Romanian priests seemed to ignore official advice and gave communion in the midst of the pandemic. A recent euronews article suggests that priests had not had an order from the Patriarch – which makes an interesting point about religious authority in Eastern Europe.

High religiosity aside, as a British-Romanian academic I can see the ‘new Romania’ of the last couple of decades embracing European freedoms and progressive values and being increasingly at odds with the highly conservative Romanian Orthodox Church. Yet I can also see Orthodox churches preserving their special status in both town and country, much like the candle-lit golden oases in the grey Communist Romania of my childhood.

When Ninian Smart, the British scholar of religion, asked a Romanian informant in the 1970s whether the Orthodox Church had ‘a dialogue’ with the Communist Party, which might help it thrive at the side of ‘an ideologically hostile regime’ – the retort captured the dry taste of Romanian humour: ‘Why should we have dialogue if we see each other every day?’ The Church maintained its independence from the Communist Party through silent acts of resistance. Clearly, new survival and adaptive mechanisms are now badly needed.