Author Archives: David Robertson

BHM | Africa at the Forefront of Global Scholarship

By Graham Harvey. This is the first in a series celebrating Black History Month 2020.

To point out that Africans have developed many mature and vital religions, philosophies and lifeways would be banal if it were not for the weight of distain which tends to dismiss these as primitive or foolish. Contested terms like “fetishism” and “animism” could illustrate the long history of prejudice in European assessments of African religions. However, looked at differently, and challenging the legacy of colonialism, they can instead draw attention to well-established African ideas and practices which turn out to have been prescient of cutting edge global scholarship.

In recent decades many academic disciplines have re-assessed human relationships with the wider world, not only with animals and plants but also with artefacts. Practices that were once dismissed as fetishism (allegedly a mistaken attribution of life to inanimate objects) now provide significant encouragement for the “ontological turn”, the “new animism” and the “new materialism”.

In these trans-disciplinary debates, Indigenous and other ways of understanding and moving through the world are inspiring challenges to dominant “Western” or “Modern” worldviews. In particular, researchers are re-considering European-originated obsessions with individuality. People, it turns out, are shaped by their relationships – and not just with other humans. We are always becoming some kind of relation: parent, student, chef, painter, philosopher, healer, story-teller or cat-lover perhaps. Other beings and objects – cats and computers, dogs and desks – make us who we are in each encounter. It is similar with desks: they are only desks when used to support computers, papers, pens and so on. Otherwise, perhaps they are just collections of word and screws.

In the colonial era, Europeans mocked Africans for making amulets and statuettes which they expected to provide guidance or protection. Let’s ignore for now the irony that those same Europeans were wearing religious symbols and venerating images of their deity and saints. Neither group was ignorant of the “made-ness” of the disputed objects. Prejudice and polemic stood in the way of understanding.

It has taken a long time to change things. African and African-diaspora songs, oratory, novels and poetry have contributed by familiarising the world with the ideas that have informed African adaptability and creativity over the years. The late Harry Garuba (Nigerian poet and professor of English Literature and African Studies in Cape Town, South Africa) demonstrated that understanding Africa requires understanding of what he called “animist realism”. This involves the active participation of the larger-than-human community (including made things as well as animals, birds and plants but also ancestors and other significant beings) in relationships and events. What might seem like poetic metaphors have the force of personal interactions. Cowrie shells and birds in flight communicate about reality. Calabashes and stomachs express their desires to be filled with palm wine.

Whether or not you agree with the poets and writers who deploy animist realism to propel the action of their work, there is a profound insight here into the multi-species world. Humans are far from alone or unique. Our relationships (including aggressive and unpleasant ones) with the larger community shape our lives. We are aided, and constrained, by our interactions with others. These ideas are foundational in recent scholarly debates in many disciplines (such as Actor-Network Theory). An improved, de-colonial relationship with Africa and its prescient ideas and practices can animate more new thinking about interactions between humans and the larger world.

The Invasion of Waziristan and its Aftermath

By Hugh Beattie

Just over a hundred years ago, at the end of 1919, British troops invaded Waziristan, a mountainous region on the border between Afghanistan and British India and the homeland of a number of semi-independent tribal groups, including the Mehsuds and the Wazirs. Widely reported around the world at the time, the invasion’s centenary has been almost entirely ignored in Britain. There are good reasons for remembering it though: the part played by Islamic loyalties and Muslim leaders in resistance to it, the complications caused by the fact that the region bordered on Afghanistan, British willingness to use the latest weaponry against its people, and the resulting disagreements among the British themselves. [For a sketch map of Waziristan see here. The places mentioned are more or less in the centre of the map]

Since the later nineteenth century British strategists had argued that Waziristan’s location on the border with Afghanistan meant that it would be a mistake to allow it to remain independent. Unable to justify the expense and trouble of conquering it outright, they succeeded in establishing a loose control over it by recruiting two militias and paying allowances to influential men. WWI had a major impact on this. In particular, sensing British weakness, in 1917 some Mehsuds launched a major anti-British rising, and in the late spring of 1919 many of the militiamen deserted and British influence in Waziristan largely evaporated. In order to reassert it, and to punish the Mehsuds for what was seen as their ‘bad behaviour’ during the war, Britain decided to try and take full control of the region.

The Barari Tangi (one of the gorges through which the British troops advanced in January 1920).

On December 19 1919 a force of 29,000 men began to move into Waziristan. The Mehsuds managed to pin it down on the edge of their territory and halted the advance. Resistance was led by an influential Mehsud, Musa Khan Abdullai, and a mullah called Fazal Din. Fazal Din was a son of a famous anti-British religious leader or ‘frontier mullah’, Muhiy-ud-Din, whom the British referred to as the Mullah Powindah. The Mehsuds saw themselves as defending Muslim territory from their Christian and Hindu invaders (many of the British troops were Hindus) as well as their independence, and may have received some help from an anti-British Muslim movement, the Jamaat-i-Mujahidin (based outside Waziristan). Some Wazir men joined the Mehsuds and the Afghan ruler, King Amanullah, sent one of his officers to assist them. The British position was so bad that some officials suggested that poison gas might be used to disperse them. After some weeks, however, the troops broke the Mehsud hold, and forcing two narrow gorges, were able to move into the heart of their territory and establish a base at Ladha. As they advanced the soldiers destroyed houses, terraced fields and irrigation canals, for instance the settlements around Makin, the Mehsuds ‘capital’.

Jirgah (council) of Mahsuds [Mehsuds] near Kaniguram Waziristan 1920 (with soldiers looking on).

According to one historian the expedition was a fiasco.[1] That may be an exaggeration, but it was expensive in terms of human life (and money) – it’s been estimated that as many as 2,500 soldiers died during it; probably more than 2,000 Mehsuds and Wazirs, including many non-combatants, died too. Nor did the British completely subdue the Mehsuds, and some of them took refuge in Afghanistan. In 1921 the British troops used howitzers to shell some of their villages. During the winter of 1922/23 the RAF bombed them and troops were sent to demolish buildings that had escaped destruction in the earlier attacks.

The burning of ‘Makin’ from air and land – Waziristan, Pakistan, dated 1890 but probably early 1920s. Photo by Mela Ram/royal Geographical Society/Getty Images.

The British had conducted punitive expeditions into various different parts of Waziristan before, but the troops had always withdrawn after killing anyone who resisted them, and destroying houses and crops and seizing flocks and herds. Keeping them there permanently attracted bad publicity internationally. It was also expensive, and the cost of the occupation had begun to worry senior officials. At one point a serious disagreement broke out between the British Government of India and the ‘Home Government’ over Waziristan policy. Towards the end of 1923 therefore the troops were withdrawn from Mehsud territory, and relocated to a place called Razmak just of the north of it, where they built a huge base. Some Mehsuds continued to resist them until 1925. In fact the British never succeeded in subduing the region completely. During the 1930s resistance principally came from the Mehsuds’ neighbours the Wazirs, led by another religious leader, Mirza Ali Khan, whom the British referred to as the Faqir of Ipi. When the British withdrew from the Indian sub-continent in 1947, they had still not brought Waziristan fully under their control.

Razmak Camp, Waziristan, 1940(c).

For fuller accounts of the expedition and its aftermath see, for example, Brian Robson, Crisis On The Frontier; The Third Afghan War and the Campaign in Waziristan 1919-20 (Staplehurst, 2004) and my Empire and Tribe in the Afghan Frontier Region: Custom, Conflict and British Strategy in Waziristan until 1947 (London/New York, 2019).

[1] James Spain, The Pathan Borderland (The Hague, 1963), p.183.

Science and Political Uncertainty from Auguste Comte to Dominic Cummings

By Dr Paul-François Tremlett

Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte (1798-1857) was writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution. To him it seemed that a new, rational, and modern, industrial-scientific order was emergent. The old, feudal formation of aristocracy, Church, and monarchy, with its arbitrary privileges, had been eclipsed in the violent energies of the revolution of 1789. Comte saw an opportunity to bring an end to the uncertainties of the times by establishing a new society on rational-secular principles that would be led by scientists, artists and industrialists. Comte described post-revolutionary France as a “social system which is dying” but it was simultaneously one that contained the seeds of a “new system whose time has come and which is in the process of taking definitive shape” (Comte 1998, p. 49).

Comte believed that a new science was needed to reorganize society by raising “politics to the rank of the sciences of observation” (1998, p. 81). Initially he called the new science “social physics” (Comte 1998, p. 158), and he drew methodological inspiration for it from physiology. Comte was so convinced of the new direction post-revolutionary French society needed to take he invented a new religion – a Church of Positivism – to embed the new values into the culture. For Comte, the uncertainties of the post-revolutionary period could only decisively be resolved by the elevation of a new elite to the reins of power armed with the new scientific methods and values he had pioneered, for the solution of political problems.

It is no secret that the agenda of the current government includes a radical overhaul of Whitehall (for example, see Abby Innes’ blog post analysing Michael Gove’s recent Ditchley Annual Lecture on civil service reform: At the heart of this agenda stands the figure of Dominic Cummings and his blog. Cummings’ blog juxtaposes breathless discussion of some domains of contemporary scientific research with political questions. The post ‘On the referendum #33’ interests me because of the distinction it establishes between on the one hand “stories” and “authority”, and on the other, “evidence/experiment” and “quantitative models”. Cummings links “stories” to myth (“Icarus”) and authority to irrationality (“witch doctor”) while “evidence/experiment” and “quantitative models” are linked to “physics, wind tunnels” and the “design of modern aircraft”. Later, as part of a discussion of Bret Victor’s work, this becomes a contrast between “words and stories” and “interactive models”. Words, according to Cummings, are unreliable: “even the most modern writing tools” he claims, “are designed around typing in words, not facts. These tools are suitable for promoting preconceived ideas, but provide no help in ensuring that words reflect reality, or any plausible model of reality”. Models are better than stories because their “assumptions are clearly visible”. Cummings asks the reader to imagine a new kind of writing tool “designed for arguing from evidence”:

I don’t mean merely juxtaposing a document and reference material, but literally ‘autocompleting’ sourced facts directly into the document. Perhaps the tool would have built-in connections to fact databases and model repositories, not unlike the built-in spelling dictionary. What if it were as easy to insert facts, data, and models as it is to insert emoji and cat photos?

In common with Comte, Cummings assumes that a new kind of government is required which, once armed with the requisite new writing tools and skills in data analysis and modelling, can completely re-frame the political as a field of decision-making practices. This new kind of government will be data-savvy and will make extensive use of new technologies. But facts change: at the heart of science is not the establishment of facts which are then fixed and true for all time, but a tentative and reflexive process of research and debate. Science may promise the certainty of facts, data and models but it is a certainty that never arrives and which is forever deferred, such that all we are always left with is interpretation (Derrida 1997).

Comte and Cummings are of course not the only utopian revolutionaries to have asked, “what is to be done?” but what other such figures may more clearly have recognised – or just been more up-front about – is the connection between brute power and political change. Comte invented a religion, a social science and coined the terms altruism, sociology and positivism, but his work is rarely read or acknowledged today. It remains to be seen what Dominic Cummings leaves us with.



Comte, A. 1998. Early Political Writings, edited and translated by H. S. Jones. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cummings, D. 2019. ‘On the referendum #33: High performance government, ‘cognitive technologies’, Michael Nielsen, Bret Victor, & ‘Seeing Rooms’’. . Accessed 12/08/2020.

Derrida, J. 1997. Of Grammatology, translated by G. C. Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Finding My Way

What I love about the method of study in RS is that it comes from a place of acceptance of what societies, cultures, and individuals do. Instead of picking at how a person, society, or culture ‘should’ behave, it seeks to build empathy and understanding. Within the discipline of RS, there is an acceptance that relationship with religion, spirituality, cultural practices, rituals, and actions is messy and complex. Yet scholars of religion are not scared of delving into a subject deeply private and often taboo to talk about, instead, they delicately seek to gain and spread cultural understanding and to celebrate diversity… After my first year of studying RS, I feel more connected to global affairs, to other traditions and cultures. And I feel that ultimately, I have made peace with some aspects of myself.

Mahalia Scott – a student in the 2019-20 A227 Exploring Religions cohort, has written a great piece about her journey into Religious Studies, and how it has enriched her understanding of the world, and her own place in it. Read the whole thing here. And thanks for the positive feedback, Mahalia – the Open University approach to teaching Religous Studies is innovative, so it is rewarding to see it resonating with the students!

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 ( 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.

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

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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.,_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?

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.