Author Archives: David Robertson

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.

Alt-ac and the ethics of academic discourse

By Theo Wildcroft

As an independent scholar who’s a Visiting Fellow for the Open University but self-employed, a lot of my regular academic work is actually engagement work. It means translating my research findings on the teaching of contemporary yoga, into workshops and trainings for the subcultures that I research, rather than syllabi for students. As a result, I’m spending a lot of time at the moment organising and planning my schedule of events for the year – honouring my commitments as guest faculty on various yoga teacher trainings, running continuing professional development workshops, and accepting invitations to conferences, both here and abroad.

I speak at both practitioner and academic conferences, but one academic conference this September that I am most excited to attend is hosted by Chester University, and the topic is ‘Spiritual Abuse: Coercive control in religions’. Its remit is wide and interdisciplinary, and the subject is a brave one to tackle. I was generously invited to, and I have proposed, a panel on sexual abuse in yoga, but I am sure there will be many panels of vital interest to my ongoing research. Although it was slightly tangential to my thesis, sexual abuse is a live issue that has been at the heart of contemporary yoga discourse for the last few years. It involves attempts to gain justice for long term historical issues, debates about regulating an international profession in a post-colonial context, and the development of significantly new pedagogical practices.

The largest yoga teaching accreditation body in the world, Yoga Alliance, has spent two years redrawing their ethical standards for yoga teachers, and I have been a small part of that process. A number of independent researchers have also been involved in the wider public discourse, and I know that their contributions will be welcomed at the conference in Chester. Working to high standards of rigour and ethics, but beyond the academy, independent researchers have built upon established research from multiple disciplines in order to debate the relationship between abusive behaviours and the development of touch in teaching yoga, or theorise the relationship between charismatic teaching, habitus and somatic dominance in teaching spaces. These writers and researchers have been able to be part of holding abusive organisations and individuals to account, on behalf of survivors, and often at considerable personal cost.

For myself, a year since my PhD was awarded, and like almost all of my cohort, I’m realising that there may not be a permanent, full-time academic post in my future. But unlike many, when I started my PhD, I had a decade of self-employment behind me. In the course of completing my doctorate, I’ve managed to grow a significant level of organic engagement among the communities of my research that wouldn’t have been possible while also holding down a full-time academic post. I now earn about half of my annual income by teaching workshops on my research. I promote my work with interviews, blog posts and podcasts. I am working on online content and planning a second book, and as a result of all this work, I might actually break the income tax threshold this year, which is more than some of my peers.

As a result, I find myself among a growing number of those, post-PhD, who want to keep researching, learning, and teaching, and really want to stay in conversation with our colleagues and mentors, but don’t see a traditional academic position as very attainable. Instead, we’re finding ways to collaborate on edited volumes and events, writing and creating content for a multitude of platforms, experimenting with applying for smaller grants for specific pieces of work, and wondering about charitable funds and even crowdfunding options. It is all very alt-ac – very higher ed 2.0 – but it comes with a number of issues.

The most immediate is the umbrella under which such work happens. Some of us are lucky enough to still be sheltered by the institutions that awarded our PhDs, but that accreditation has a time limit. Being a Visiting Fellow at the OU awards me access to the library (and thus academic databases and scholarly content behind the paywall), and an email address (and thus the required legitimacy for conference submissions and other scholarly endeavours). Leaving it behind would render the core work of a scholar – being part of the greater academic conversation – much more difficult.

This is a problem we’re going to need to solve, not just as individuals, but as a sector, as academia attempts to diversify its models of working in ways that are more sustainable, more engaged with the public, more inclusive to different working patterns, and, to be honest, more budget-friendly. Independent researchers can work in ways that academics with full teaching loads cannot. We can do fieldwork and engagement, writing and research that is unavailable to many scholars. Yet funders and institutions alike can find it difficult to collaborate with alternative academic projects that aren’t fully embedded in established institutions and established industries.

The conference on Spiritual Abuse in Chester shows the invaluable addition that independent scholars are making to broad cultural discourses on vital issues of religious ethics. Given that, and the support of colleagues organising the conference, it seems odd that my hardest task in bringing together this ground-breaking group of researchers, for an unprecedented conversation, is going to be proving not the value or quality of their work, but their institutional credentials.

Given the increasingly arbitrary boundary between academia and independent research, as scholars are increasingly encouraged to bridge the gap between engagement, advocacy and social impact, are there not better ways to organise our conferences, our research projects, and our peer reviewed outputs? Can scholarly discourse find a way to both support and learn from the academy, whilst also supporting and including independent, casualised and precariously-employed researchers? Could the role of Independent Scholar find a similar but different status to Visiting Fellow: part of the conversation, even if not a formal part of the institution? After all, increasingly, we’re doing a lot of the same work, and there are so many things we can learn from each other.

Graham Harvey on Davi Kopenawa at Oxford University

By Graham Harvey

Recently, at the invitation of Laura Rival, Professor of Anthropology at Oxford University, I was privileged to join in a roundtable discussion with an Amazonian shaman, anthropologists, physicists, an ethnographic film maker, an international development scholar, a linguist and a vice-president of Oxford University’s student union. We met at the Maison Française d’Oxford to discuss “art, science and diplomacy for a plural world on a challenged planet”. Like most of the audience, the panellists were most eager to hear what the shaman, Indigenous diplomat and scholar, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, had to say.

Davi Kopenawa is a co-author (with Bruce Albert) of The Falling Sky (2013) and an eloquent representative of his people, the Yanomami, and of other Amazonian Indigenous nations. His homeland (crossing the borders of what is now Brazil and Venesuela) has been invaded with appalling violence and destruction. Incursions by white people began in the early twentieth century and intensified in the 1970s. Diseases to which Yanomami had no immunity swept through villages throughout the forest. Deliberate acts of attempted genocide by gold miners and murderous assaults by loggers and others were accompanied by cultural assaults by Christian missionaries and functionaries of the settler states who sought to “pacify” Indigenous peoples.

The current Brazilian regime is encouraging a new wave of extractivism which is destroying forest ecosystems and communities. In a recent move, Brazil has appointed an evangelical Christian missionary to target remote Indigenous communities for greater integration and assimilation. This is the context for Davi Kopenawa’s visit to the UK and for the roundtable in Oxford. He had joined other Amazonian leaders, including his son, Dario, in presenting a petition calling on the prime minister to condemn recent actions by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro.

At our event in Oxford I was privileged to speak first after the introductions. In addition to offering Davi Kopenawa and Dario gifts from my homeland, I acknowledged the great influence Davi has had on scholars in a variety of disciplines internationally. His presentation of Yanomami knowledges has been inspirational for anthropologists, sociologists, scholars of religion and others involved in the “ontological turn”, seeking to understand how people relate to the world. In particular Davi’s scholarship has encouraged a rethinking of the “culture/nature” distinction which structures so much of modern Western thought and life (including the separation of “natural sciences” from “social sciences” and “humanities”). He has reinforced an emphasis on relationality – which was addressed by the theoretical and quantum physicists on the panel as they spoke about the vital importance of attending to interactions rather than to seemingly discrete particles and other objects. In this context it is almost incidental that Davi has provided exciting new perspectives on shamanism and forest ecologies. It seems remarkable that this was the first time Davi Kopenawa had been invited to speak and engage with academics in Europe. I am honoured to have been part of that gathering.


12th International Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Podkarpackie Province, Poland

By sr Katarzyna Kowalska NDS (PhD Candidate, Religious Studies)

Thanks to the efforts of Prof. Waclaw Wierzbieniec and the Jewish History and Culture Department of University of Rzeszów’s Institute of History, with the support of local authorities and institutions, over 30 towns of the Podkarpackie Province honoured the 12th International Holocaust Remembrance Day with commemoration ceremonies that took place between 2nd January and 22 Feburary 2020. These days are unique and unmatched by any other region, as they are often organised by grass-root level organisations and initiatives in various institutions such as schools, town halls, cultural centres, parishes, village administrators etc, which get involved in the annual ceremonies’ organization.

Sr Anna Bodzinska NDS and Sr Katarzyna Kowalska NDS (born in the region) participated in commemorating events in various towns and villages: Rzeszów, Przemyśl, Leżańsk, Gniewczyna Leżańska, Dynów, Tyczyn, Kraczkowa, Jasionka,  Pruchnik, Jarosław, and others. You can read the complete program of the 10th International Holocaust Remembrance Day (#HDR2020) here. This blog looks at a few examples of what such commemorations look like.

The 27th January ceremony commemorating the Holocaust victims in Rzeszów began with prayers at the Jewish Cemetery, including prayers recited by Rabbi Shalom Ben Stambler of Chabad-Lubavitch. There were also lectures, meetings and a concert of cymbals (a Jewish Polish instrument). Students had an opportunity to listen to and meet with Jewish Polish Holocaust Survivors, with the presence of Lucia Retman (now living in Haifa, Israel), who lived in this region before and during WWII. The commemoration in Rzeszów ended with a prayer in Fara Church, where names of those who were killed – Polish Jews and Christians – were read by Polish and Jewish representatives.

A commemoration at the Jewish Cemetery in Rzeszow

On the 29th of January, commemorations took place in in the primary school in Jasionka. Sr Katarzyna spoke to  young students (13-18) about why it is important today to come and be part of Holocaust Memorial Days. A talk concerning the Kahane brothers followed.  

In Jasionka: Students with sr Katarzyna NDS, learning about Sr Marie Francia NDS and other Righteous among the Nations

Tyczyn prepared a full day’s programme (30th of January), which students and locals were invited to take part in. Twelve candles were lit at the Jewish Cemetery by students to remember 1200 Jews from Tyczyn who were deported and killed. Tyczyn had counted 3000 inhabitants before WWII. The cemetary commemoration was followed by a visit to a church and cemetery where several Righteous Among the Nations are buried. Students heard stories of courage and the difficult choices that locals had to face during the Nazi occupation. The cultural centre prepared a programme of meetings with Jewish visitors and guests of HRD, as well as music performance and exhibitions.

Tyczyn – lighting the candles at the Jewish Cemetery

HRD in Przemyśl lasted two days (29-30 January). It began with a commemoration event to remember those who perished in Przemyśl ghetto. Students and locals had meetings with Holocaust survivors and several presentations concerning the Holocaust and Jewish and Polish history and culture.

The 12th Holocaust Remembrance Days in Podkarpacie went unnoticed in wider world media. However, it is an initiative that deserves attention as shows that grass root work is taking place in Poland concerning the Holocaust, history, memory and dialogue, and that there are many places in Podkarpacie where the Jewish past is not forgotten but, rather, is seen as integral to Polish history and Holocaust education.





Critical Religious Literacy: Education and Empowerment

By Paul-François Tremlett

[What follows is an edited version of the paper I presented at the 8th IARS conference at the University of East London this January 29th, which was on the theme of violent youth radicalisation in Europe.]

Religious education in Britain has seen itself as contributing to the wider social aims of education, such as instilling tolerance, respect for difference and building social cohesion. However, in recent years religious education has been in something of a crisis. First has been the general suggestion that religious education is failing to meet its social aims, because it is failing to represent religions accurately. According to Barnes, “…current representations of religion in British religious education are limited in their capacity to challenge racism and religious intolerance, chiefly because they are conceptually ill-equipped to develop respect for difference” (2006, p. 396), while according to Panjwani and Revell, representations of Islam in textbooks, examinations and syllabi are essentialized “leading to stereotypes and unsubstantiated generalizations” (2018, p. 269).

Second is the ongoing decline in the numbers of pupils taking Religious Education at GCSE and A-Level in England and Wales and in the recruitment of students to undergraduate courses and qualifications in Religious Studies. For example, a recent report by the Religious Education Council found that entries for GCSE RS (combined short and full courses) in England and Wales had peaked in 2011 at 461,795: today’s figures show a decline in entries of 42.6% in eight years with almost 200,000 fewer pupils achieving a qualification in RS at the end of KS4. Moreover, according to a report by the British Academy, there were around 6,500 fewer students on Theology and Religious Studies courses in higher education institutions in 2017/18 than there were in 2011/12.

In light of this crisis in teaching and in recruitment, a report by the Commission on Religious Education report titled ‘Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward: A National Plan For RE’, aimed at revitalising the subject area in schools, drew the following response from the association of departments of Theology and Religious Studies in the UK (TRS-UK):

We consider the subject as crucial for all pupils, for their understanding of themselves and others, and of local and global realities. The current decline in religious literacy is already resulting in prejudice, discrimination, fear, hatred, and an impoverished public discourse. Education about religion and worldviews is important for all citizens, whether they are themselves religious or not. The unique combination of skills fostered by the subject is essential in the workplace, in the media, and in politics (local, national and international), and all pupils deserve to be well taught in this subject (link).

TRS-UK draw a causal link between declining “religious literacy” and instances of “prejudice, discrimination, fear, hatred, and an impoverished public discourse”. But what is religious literacy and how can it empower young people against prejudice and discrimination?

Continue reading

Invisible Histories

Over the holidays I read The Way Out: Invisible Insurrections and Radical Imaginaries in the UK Underground, 1961-1991, by Kasper Opstrup. I was drawn to the book because it covered the Scottish writer, Situationist and junky, Alexander Trocci, who I’ve been interested in since reading his manifesto Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds as a few years back. 

Like many of my interests, I discovered the Situationists through music: reading Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, maybe twenty years ago, which traced the connections between the Sex Pistols and the Dadaist movement – and their later outgrowth, the Situationsist International. The Situationists were a sort of the political wing of Dada, and were looking for ways to “live not as an object but as a subject of history” (1997, 6). Dada was already both an artistic and philosophical movement, and Situationism made the Marxist political aspects of the movement more apparent. With Trocci’s work, this went in a more anarcho-syndicalist direction, and his attempts to found alternative communities and universities are described in Ostrup’s book, along with those of William Burroughs and later Genesis P-Orridge. I’d been aware that Trocci had connections to the Beats, but I wasn’t aware of his later connections to the later 1990s occult scene; from Trocci we go to Burroughs, with whom he collaborated in a number of projects that influenced Robert Anton Wilson, and through him influenced the Chaos Magic scene in the 1980s and ‘90s, including musician Genesis P-Orridge’s Temple of Psychick Youth. And thus we’re back to music again.

 The practices described in The Way Out have similarities to some that we tend to think of as being drawn from Eastern religion and esoteric traditions. Techniques like cut-ups, automatic drawing and sigil magic were intended to break through habitual modes of thinking by destabilising language, and ultimately to escape the spectacle of capitalist society. This is similar to Zen koans or the Tao Te Ching, some of G.I. Gurdjieff’s exercises in developing concentration and awareness, and perhaps most obviously the sort of mindfulness books which are so popular today. Rather than making us more resilient in a late capitalist society, however, the aim was to create a new form of everyday life in which art and practical living were aligned, eventually creating new communities and finally a new society overthrowing the capitalist order of the day. For early Situationists like Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, the creation of ‘situations’ – moments deliberately set up to facilitate immediate, conscious, authentic experience – was intended to lead to a “revolution of everyday life”. 

Trocci in 1967. By Source, Fair use,

It’s worth noting that the case studies in this book of the period covered by this book are pre-Internet, or at least prior to the all-encompassing influence on the counterculture that the Internet assumed during the 2000s. All of which makes the history captured in this book the more interesting, because I think more ephemeral groups – like the Temple of Psychick Youth or Trocci’s sigma movement – will leave more easily traced footprints in the future, due to the internet’s endless archive. Nevertheless, these histories and chains of influence are vitally important for us to record; the case studies here are recent – between 6o and 30 years ago – and yet they are already difficult to trace. This subtle transmission of ideas, short-lived and loosely organised groups and often mercurial individuals suggests an epidemiology of ideas and practices through the cultic milieu which is certainly typical of such fringe ideas. Yet they are also at play in more formal and institutionalised groups too, and those further in the past. 

The author seems to have been writing as something of an insider, as the concluding chapter is a call to action and a restatement of the authors’ need for alternative communities and perhaps an invisible insurrection leading to a revolution of everyday life. I don’t disagree with this, but the rich material here could have been used to marshall a more focused argument, or perhaps simply a clearer historical account. Nevertheless I enjoyed reading it, and it has only reawakened my interest in Situationism and its under-researched legacy. There is certainly I need for more work on these kind of subjects which in some ways straddle the boundaries between studies of religion and culture, and so tend to fall between the gaps as a result.

Divine Saving

Reblogged from

Dr Theodora Jim visited the The Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion on the 21st November 2019, to give a paper entitled “Divine Saving and ‘Votive’ Religion in Ancient Greece”. After the seminar, Jessica Hughes and Theodora Jim were joined by John Maiden and Emma-Jayne Graham to record an audio discussion about understandings of divine saving in antiquity and beyond. The discussion also features the voice of Dr Sara Patterson, on Salvation Mountain in California.

Programme structure and timecodes:

0.00 Introduction; 0.43 Theodora Jim on the challenges of translating the word soteria, and the evidence for cults of ‘saviour gods’ in ancient Greece; 6.20 Emma-Jayne Graham on votive offerings from early Roman Italy, and their possible links to understandings of divine saving; 12.25 John Maiden on divine saving in Christianity, including the textual traditions of the Old and New Testaments, and the practice of dedicating ex-votos in Mexico; 19.50 Sara Patterson on Salvation Mountain; 28.17 Studio responses to Sara Patterson; 34.10 Theodora Jim on a votive relief from the Asklepeieon at Athens; 36.38 Emma-Jayne Graham on the votive ‘open torso’ busts from early Roman Italy; 38.51 John Maiden on the Exodus narrative.

Further reading and resources:

Graham, Emma-Jayne (2020) ‘Hand in hand: Rethinking anatomical votives as material things’, in V. Gasparini, M. Patzelt, R. Raja, A-K. Rieger, J. Rüpke, E. Urciuoli (eds). Lived Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Approaching Religious Transformations from Archaeology, History and Classics. Berlin, De Gruyter (Open Access).

Graham, Emma-Jayne (2017) ‘Partible humans and permeable gods: enacting human-divine personhood in the sanctuaries of Hellenistic Italy’, in J. Draycott and E-J. Graham (eds) Bodies of Evidence: Ancient Anatomical Votives Past, Present and Future, Routledge, 45-62.

Graziano, Frank (2016) Miraculous Images and Votive Offerings in Mexico, Oxford University Press.

Hughes, Jessica (2016) ‘Fractured Narratives: Writing the Biography of a Votive Offering‘, in I. Weinryb (ed) Ex Voto: Votive Giving Across Cultures, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 23-48.

Jim, Theodora, S. F. (2017) ‘“Salvation” and Ancient Mystery Cults’, Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 18, 255-281.

Jim, Theodora, S. F.  (2015) ‘Can Soteira be Named? The Problem of the Bare Trans-divine Epithet’Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. 195, 63-74.

Jim, Theodora, S. F. (2014) Sharing with the Gods: Aparchai and Dekatai in Ancient Greece, Oxford University Press.

Maiden, John (2019) ‘The emergence of Catholic Charismatic Renewal ‘in a country’: Australia and transnational Catholic Charismatic Renewal’ Studies in World Christianity (in press).

Maiden, John (2016)  ‘Renewing the body of Christ: Sharing of Ministries Abroad (SOMA) USA and transnational charismatic Anglicanism, 1978-1998’, Journal of American Studies, 51.4: 1243–1266.

Patterson, Sara M. (2016) Middle of Nowhere: Religion, Art and Pop Culture at Salvation Mountain, University of New Mexico Press.

Death of a Founder: Louis Theroux and ‘America’s Most Hated Family’

Louis Theroux, the journalist and documentary filmmaker, has never shied away from controversial topics, communities, and individuals. His 2007 documentary, The Most Hated Family in America, which documented the activities of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), served as an especially notable example. Following its success, Theroux recently returned to the WBC for a follow-up documentary, Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, which aimed to give an insight to the current climate of the church, particularly following the recent death of its founder, Fred Phelps.

The WBC is commonly associated with the Phelps family, who are at the centre of the church’s practices, activities, and public engagement. While there are other members beyond the Phelps family, the WBC consists of fewer than 100 members, and largely stands apart from other forms of Baptist denominations. The Phelps and other WBC members have become known as a hate-group in public discourse, particularly due to their use of highly discriminatory language and actions directed towards groups including the LGBTQ+ community, Jews, Muslims, and the American military. The WBC have become renowned for their public protests, during which they hold inflammatory signs (including ‘GOD HATES FAGS’, ‘YOU’RE GOING TO HELL’, and ‘ABORTION IS BLOODY MURDER’), which have drawn significant attention from the media (ranging from news coverage to comedic parodies).

During his original documentary Theroux spent a significant amount of time meeting Fred Phelps and his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, and concentrated on the homophobic beliefs and actions of the WBC. For his return in Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, Theroux stated that “embarrassing secrets were said to be coming out” about the WBC, specifically concerning the issue of apostasy and the excommunication of Fred Phelps prior to his death.

These issues were the thrust of Theroux’s documentary. On the surface, very little has changed, as demonstrated by a WBC picketer’s “GOD STILL HATES FAGS” sign (“God hasn’t changed, and he’s not going to”, he explained). Religions, however, particularly New Religious Movements, are dynamic categories. They are in a constant state of change depending on its members, social environment, and practices. Theroux was successfully able to probe the issue of apostasy – three of Shirley Phelps-Roper’s children (two daughters and one son), have recently left the WBC, and have been subject to ‘shunning’ from their family and the church. Notably, Megan Phelps-Roper discussed how she decided to leave the church following conversations with outsiders on Twitter, and has since presented a TED talk on her experiences of the WBC and why she left.

Arguably the most interesting aspect of the documentary is the second “embarrassing secret”: the shunning of Fred Phelps. Before his death in 2014, it is alleged that Phelps approached the residents of the ‘Equality House’ (a house near the WBC painted in Pride colours as a form of protest), and told them that they were “good people.” Given Phelps’ reputation for highly homophobic sermons, such an action seems at odds to the discriminatory activities with which the WBC are typically associated. It is believed that, as a response, WBC members voted to excommunicate Phelps from the church. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Theroux was less successful in gaining substantial information on this issue. Beyond the accounts of Shirley Phelps-Roper’s apostate children, WBC members were not forthcoming with details, and mostly avoided his questioning on the topic.

Westboro Baptist Church 1955 [via Wikimedia commons]

The excommunication of a leader is highly significant, particularly one that directly informed the core beliefs and practices of their community.  Scholars of new religions have committed a significant amount of research on the notion of ‘charismatic leaders’, those who attract devotion and dedication from their followers (see Barker 1992). The death of a charismatic leader raises several possibilities for the future (and survival) of a movement. For the WBC, this issue has an even greater impact due to Phelps’ “loss of charisma” (Wessinger 2012). As Theroux correctly observed, any acknowledgement of his excommunication from the WBC would suggest a fallacy, or that Phelps had “fallen” by straying from the core message of the church.

The Weberian (1948) model of routinized charisma suggests that a movement succumbs to routine bureaucratic authority following the death of the charismatic leader. However, due to Phelps’ excommunication, it is currently unclear how his charismatic authority may or may not be preserved. His loss of charisma is already making its mark on how the WBC is organized – Theroux suggests that Shirley Phelps-Roper has been “sidelined” (having previously acted as the WBC’s chief spokesperson). Furthermore, whilst the Phelps family continue to be at the core of the WBC membership, there are a small number of new members joining the church, which seem likely to influence the future direction of the WBC.

As previously noted, the day-to-day activities of the WBC are largely unchanged, with its members continuing to pursue their controversial picketing. Yet the excommunication and death of Phelps is resulting in significant organizational changes ‘behind the scenes.’ Theroux’s latest documentary offers us a glimpse of this transition, but the full impact of the WBC’s rejection of Phelps remains to be seen.



Barker, E. (1992) New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, London, HMSO.

Weber, M. (1948b) ‘The Social Psychology of the World Religions’, in Gerth, H. H. and Mills, C. W. (eds and trans), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, London, Routledge, pp. 267-301 (this edition 1991).

Wessinger, C. (2012) ‘Charismatic Leaders in New Religions’, in Hammer, O. & Rothstein, M. (eds), The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 80-96.

Where are Extinction Rebellion’s cultural roots?

By Maria Nita

I would like to explore here some of the cultural roots and influences on the Extinction Rebellion movement, since this will shed light on the discourses that can be revived when XR is discussed in the public domain, be it by politicians, the general public or the media. For example, when climate activists are described as ‘uncooperative crusties’ in their ‘heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs’ (Rawlinson, 2019), we can recognise a well-established anti-hippie discourse which dominated public concerns over the free festivals in the UK, in the early 1970s. Such remarks are not dissimilar to those I found in my archival data from the free festivals, when the hippies were often vilified as ‘smelly’, ‘long hair types’, ‘a lunatic fringe’, ‘drug pushers’, ‘addicts’ and so on (Nita and Gemie, 2019). Surprisingly, it was the Christian clergy that had an important conciliatory tone and a role in recognizing the Christian values in the hippie movement – which in time helped legitimize the early festivals and indeed the ensuing, gone mainstream, festival culture.

Early festivals, protestivals, non-violent disobedience

We can trace some of XR’s ideological and cultural roots in the early festival movement, as well as the earlier 1960s communes, which had a similar mix of civil disobedience, artivism – or artistic activism, cooperative ethos, communalism, and of course anticipating a world in deep crisis future which the commune could withstand (Miller, 1990). Certainly, as an heir of the early festivals – the ‘protestival’ – has been a common form of expression for the alter-globalization movements we have seen since the 1980s (St John, 2008), as well as many contemporary movements of artistic social reform, such as the global Occupy Movement in recent history (Tremlett, 2016). However, XR is also extending its countercultural roots, reaching out towards the mainstream, in new ways. The unprecedented urgency of the ecological crisis means that XR needs to reach many more people than the original Climate Movement was able to, and its inspiring policy of ‘radical inclusivity’ – welcoming ‘everyone and every part of everyone’ – can be seen an open invitation to those who might not see themselves as green activist material. By tracing its own non-violent disobedience origins to the civil rights movement, and often linking the movement to Martin Luther King and Gandhi, XR aims to widen its scope from an earlier Climate Movement that recognised its limitations as a largely white and middle class movement, to one that is entirely relevant to multicultural communities and current widespread concerns with inclusion: see for instance XR’s swift response to condemn co-founder Roger Hallam’s offensive remarks towards the Holocaust (November, 2019).

A changed Climate Movement

Having researched the Climate Movement as an ethnographer/ anthropologist concerned with Christian and Muslim activists since 2008, I was naturally excited by its revival and re-invention as the Extinction Rebellion movement. A key driver for the renewal and growth of the Climate Movement was the publication of the last International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report – which states that carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall dramatically by 2030 – to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Past this threshold – the changes will be catastrophic, with loss of many ecosystems. Back in the field, I could see that the fabric of this revived movement was tangibly and visually changed. If the ‘early’ Climate Movement had used colours of green, blue and white in many of its marches and global days of action, to represent the raising waters or the vanishing ice caps for example – XR flew back in and blocked big capital arteries and village capillaries with dramatic colours of extinction and grief, blood and funerals – deep reds and black being at the forefront of its performative actions, like the iconic Red Brigade pictured here.

Can XR change our extinction trajectory?

My research suggests that, notwithstanding the global growth and influence of contemporary non-violent resistance movements (Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011) – from Brazil’s indigenous tribes to the Arab Spring – we find in XR a model of protest and social change that is pivotally rooted in the cultural landscape of a post Christian society: a type of protest that is non-violent, sacrificial, communitarian and performative. More so, the small components of this model – the semiotics or internal grammar of performative actions – reveal a deeply familiar underlay. From XR songs to performative actions, such as ‘die ins’ – when protestors lie on the ground as if dead – to making their bodies go limp as they are being arrested and carried away by the police – we recognise in many XR public rituals a heroic vulnerability that has Christian resonance. Given my claim that Christianity represents an original and persistent model for cultural change (Nita, 2018), I have hope that XR can make as many of us as possible – and most importantly our political leaders – committed to a sustainable future, since this is the only one possible.


Chenoweth, Erica and Maria J. Stephan. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.
Miller, Timothy. 1990. The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond. Syracuse University Press.
Nita, Maria. 2018. ‘Christian Discourses and Cultural Change: The Greenbelt Art and Performance Festival as an Alternative Community for Green and Liberal Christians’, Implicit Religion, 21 (1): 44-69.
Nita, Maria and Sharif Gemie. 2019. ‘Counterculture, Local Authorities and British Christianity at the Windsor and Watchfield Free Festivals (1972–75)’ in Twentieth Century British History [online]
Rawlinson, Kevin. 2019. ‘Extinction Rebellion’, The Guardian, 8 Oct 2019 [online] [accessed 24 November 2019].
St John, Graham. 2008. ‘Protestival: Global Days of Action and Carnivalized Politics in the Present’, Social Movement Studies, 7 (2): 167-190.
Tremlett, Paul-François. 2016 ‘Affective Dissent in the Heart of the Capitalist Utopia: Occupy Hong Kong and the Sacred’, Sociology, 50 (6): 1156-1169.