Category Archives: Opinion

John Ogden (1941-2021) 

I went to the funeral of some friends’ father a few months ago. John Ogden was a good person. He was a giant of a man in humaneness, intelligence, and capacity; loved by his family and friends; and a lover of Manchester City (everyone has their blind spots…). He had a unique sense of humour which would easily have held its own with stand-up comics. If you spent time with John, you laughed, almost cathartically. His absence is going to be felt deeply, and by many, amongst his family and in the Christian congregation he helped lead over decades.  

John had been a leader in a church in Salford, northern England. The congregation was a Brethren assembly when John and his wife Gwyn joined in 1973. However, the church, like various other Brethren assemblies in places such as the UK, New Zealand (see Peter Lineham’s scholarly work) and Australia, became increasingly “charismatic” – as in emphasising the reality and power of the Holy Spirit – from the 1980s. There appears to be something about Brethren spirituality which seems to predispose a desire to seek the presence and embodied experience of God. John, with others, steered the congregation in a charismatic direction. In the 1990s, he and other leaders from Salford, and tens of thousands of others worldwide, visited a new global node for charismatic Christianity: the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church. It was said that here was a new ‘move’ or ‘blessing’ of the Spirit, a distinctive experience of God’s love.   

The funeral included something I had never seen before. In 1960, John started to keep a reading diary. Every book he read, of whatever genre, was recorded. The long list of all these texts was placed on the wall of the chapel, for our interest.  

His reading tastes – over 1,700 books – were eclectic. Indeed, even the first two books on the list offer quite the juxtaposition: Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) and A. J. P. Taylor’s The Hapsburg Monarchy: 1980-1918 (1941).  The list revealed interests as wide-ranging as Christian theology and testimony, country music, military history, local Manchester and Salford history, the National Football League (NFL), Russian travel, and cricket. He covered impressive ground in modern novels. After retirement, in particular, he was a voracious reader. To see the list on display at the funeral was an insight into the interior life of a man – his intellectual and emotional formation – over many decades.  

For a historian of Christianity, the list is a unique, rare source. For nearly a decade, I have been researching charismatic, or ‘Spirit-filled’, media and networks. What does the list tell us? 

Certainly, it underlines it is all too easy to make straightforward assumptions about charismatic spirituality. John read, of course, classic charismatic and pentecostal texts. Indeed, from around 1987, like many other British Christians, he was devouring them: Dennis Bennett, Arthur Wallis, Derek Prince, Jamie Buckingham etc., all the luminaries of the charismatic renewal. But the list indicates also how textual influences on John’s spirituality varied and changed over time. From the 1990s, one of the most consistent spiritual influences in John’s reading life became the Puritan divines: Richard Sibbes, Thomas Goodwin, John Flavell, John Owen, and others. Indeed, outside of an academic theology department, you would struggle to find a Christian as well read in Puritan spirituality. (In the final months of John’s Life, he read the Puritans deeply, including, and movingly, Richard Sibbes Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled, Joseph Alleine’s A Sure Guide to Heaven and William Perkins’ A Salve for a Sick Man). In the 1990s, also, John was turning to the medieval mystics, Teresa of Avilla, Julian of Norwich, and others. At the end of the decade, numerous works by contemporary Catholic twentieth century contemplative and devotional writers, such as the American Trappist Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, appear. Spiritual influences were broadening and deepening.  

As a young undergraduate student in the late 1990s, I remember hearing John preach on the Old Testament book of Song of Songs. He read the text allegorically. The sermon was an articulate and heartfelt case for ‘spiritual union with Christ’. The congregation was at this stage impacted by the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church phenomenon, and I observed around me a collective eagerness to ‘soak’ in the love of God. John had visited Toronto: but who was John reading at this stage? The list reveals he was drawing on historic works on Song of Songs: the works of Madame Guyon and Bernard of Clairvoux and others. The jet-age meets medieval mysticism. 

What might John’s reading list tell a historian of Christianity? First, it hints at the diverse and complex lineages – for example, contemplative, mystic, Reformed and pentecostal – which have contributed to charismatic spirituality. These influences, of course, have varied markedly across church traditions and between individuals. The story of these individual Christians – the ‘thick detail’ of ordinary leaders and laity, rather than the ‘big names’ of the charismatic world – are a rich mine of information for understanding ‘Spirit-filled’ movements in their everyday context.  Second, to merely suggest that charismatics such as John were ‘revival-chasers’ (e.g. to Toronto), would be to overlook the significant, text-constructed, intellectual and experiential thought-world which could provide a spiritual framework, and which in John’s case was both consistent and extendable. Third, John’s patterns of devotion in reading point towards a much larger charismatic theme: of resourcement. While charismatic Christians will often emphasise the ‘new wine’ that God is offering – they are ‘presentist’ in this sense – they have, as John did in the 1990s, often referred to historic writings, the resources of the Christian tradition, the words of the Christian dead, to situate their experiences.  

A meta-theme of John Ogden’s spirituality was the idea of the Christian as ‘beloved’ (indeed, he would, tongue-in-cheek, refer to himself as ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’). I suspect that through his reading, he became convinced that the ‘new thing’ of Toronto was an ‘old thing’ – a mystical experience of divine love within Christian spirituality. 

Dr John Maiden is the author of Age of the Spirit: Charismatic Renewal, the Anglo-world and Global Christianity, 1945-1980 (forthcoming from Oxford University Press). 

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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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.

 

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?

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Afghanistan – War without End?

By Hugh Beattie

Is war the new normal in the Middle East, asks a recent Daily Telegraph review of Elliot Ackerman’s Places and Names, about American involvement there since the turn of the century.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the answer must be yes. For much of the 20th century the country was relatively peaceful. Forty-one years ago (in April 1978) a left-wing government took power in the country in a military coup, and attempted to introduce a series of major social and economic reforms, provoking a major insurgency. At the end of 1979 Soviet troops entered Afghanistan to defend the new government. The country has suffered ever since from an ongoing civil war which has varied in intensity, but has never really ended.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion, it may be a good moment to reflect on why conflict has continued for so long. A few brief thoughts.

Firstly, there are some agriculturally very productive areas in different parts of Afghanistan, but there is a desert area in the south, and mountains (rising to 7,492 metres in the east) run across the country from east to west. These help to make communications difficult and have contributed to a strong sense of regional and even local rather than national identity.

Part of a propaganda poster produced by the new government in 1978. It depicts the last two stages in the evolution of human society according to Marxist theory; it reads from right to left – the image on the right represents capitalist society and the one on the left the final stage – the socialist utopia.

Secondly, the Afghan state, largely a product of later 19th century British imperialism, has shallow roots. Even in the later 20th century, its reach was often quite limited in rural areas and local communities maintained a considerable degree of independence.

Thirdly, there is the country’s ethnic diversity. About half the population identify as Pashtuns and Pashtu is often their first language; there are substantial minorities, who have different mother-tongues, including Persian, Uzbeki and Baluchi.

Fourthly, there is the presence of a number of powerful neighbours and near neighbours, including China, Pakistan, India and Iran, each interested in maintaining as much influence over the country as possible, and keeping others out. This is partly for strategic reasons, and partly in the hope of gaining control of the country’s mineral wealth. So, for example, since the early 1990s Pakistan has usually supported the Taliban, while its neighbour and rival, India, has tended to support more secular movements. Other, more distant, actors have also interfered during the last half-century, ranging from the USA and the UK to Saudi Arabia and the UAE (as well as Al-Qaida), NATO and the UN.

A shrine in the Kabul suburbs, the Ziarat-i-Sakhi, which has Imami Shi’a connections, taken on New Year’s Day (according to the local calendar March 21) 1979.

The religious factor is an important one too, with the almost all Afghans being Muslims, and influential religious leaders having a history of mobilising resistance to foreign intrusion, for example the Mullah Din Muhammad, known as Mushk-i-Alam (meaning ‘the perfume of the world’), who helped to lead resistance to the British during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80).

As a result, during the 20th century Afghan governments usually had to tread carefully and not interfere too much with society and the economy if they wanted to stay in power. Some rulers tried to compensate for their weakness by looking for help from outside, but accepting aid from one foreign country in particular, especially a non-Muslim one, was usually very unpopular. It also encouraged other states to intervene, in order to prevent a rival getting the upper hand there.

After the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001 following 9/11, it seemed possible that a new page in Afghanistan’s history might be turned and a new socio-political order based on freedom and democracy might emerge. But the problems were enormous, and all too soon the ‘golden moment’ passed. Soviet troops had left the country in 1989 leaving behind a weak government in Kabul and a number of powerful leaders (often referred to as warlords) in the provinces. Now it seems that in its turn the USA will soon withdraw almost all its troops, leaving a weak government in Kabul and a renascent Taliban in control of at least half the country. Sad to say, peace seems as remote a prospect as at any point since 1979.

Photo of the tomb shrine of a Sufi ‘saint’, Padshah Sahib, a few miles outside Kabul. Reportedly he died defending the local people from invaders during the 18th century CE.

Institutional Secrecy, Vatican Disclosure and Roman Catholic Priests’ Children

By Sarah Thomas

Are new and mass media nudging institutional secrecy into the open for a younger generation of Catholics? This is an interesting question to consider following the recent New York Times disclosure on 18th February this year; that the Roman Catholic Church has for years held a document containing a secret set of rules for priests who father children. Vatican spokesperson Alessandro Gisotti admitted to a New York Times journalist that “The Vatican has a secret set of rules for priests who break their vow of celibacy and father children…I can confirm that these guidelines exist…It is an internal document.” Gisotti went on to state that the document “requests” that the father leave priesthood to “assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child.” This disclosure is the first public acknowledgement by the Vatican that the Roman Catholic Church has an internal process for dealing with this most obvious transgression of the vow of priestly celibacy. Many biological children of priests (who have been trying to raise awareness about their existence by working with media outlets such as The Boston Globe since 2017), understandably feel it to be a ground-breaking moment.

It is also a particularly timely disclosure for my PhD research, that focuses on the phenomenon of Roman Catholic priests’ children and their use of new and mass media. I first became interested in this phenomenon as a research topic because, as a child of an RC priest myself, I began to notice patterns and themes emerging when listening to and reading about other priests’ children’s stories. These included priest’s children having experienced diverse forms of silencing behaviour from the Roman Catholic Church which caused isolation from their fathers – as well as from family, friends and communities – the same intention was behind: to keep the children hidden and unacknowledged.

My first contact with other priest’s children was through Coping International, an online support group for the children of Roman Catholic priests, run by Vincent Doyle, who is the son of a priest himself. Doyle has been an active campaigner for the rights of priests’ children since 2014. He was shown the Vatican’s internal document containing secret rules for priests with children two years ago during a meeting in Rome, called by Doyle to discuss the relevant issues and their impact. It was Doyle who worked with The New York Times to bring this recent disclosure to public attention, and other media outlets across the globe picked up the story immediately, causing this article to become one of the most widely reported stories initiated by a priest’s child so far.

What impact does this discovery have? The Roman Catholic Church’s much studied response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis highlights their predisposition to close ranks and maintain a wall of silence during times of scandal. There are of course very real differences with criminal behaviour and arguably the simple breaking of a promise, but are patterns of response likely to be the same? This secrecy has been the church’s attitude to priests’ children’s publicity so far, which is what makes the Vatican’s admission of this secret document so different and interesting.

Preliminary results from my twenty two interviews with Roman Catholic priests’ children point to the majority of them wanting change, and a de-stigmatising of the perception of them as objects of shameful transgressions. Comments on the Coping International closed Facebook page show how the majority of children active on the site welcomed The New York Times disclosure as an important milestone in their fight for recognition and acceptance.

While it would be naïve to think that one isolated media disclosure about Vatican guidelines will have any long lasting discernible effect on priests’ children’s lives (arguably the aspiration of Doyle and many members of Coping International), it nevertheless draws attention to a wider social movement that many more minority groups than priests’ children are involved with, one that involves resistance, small power shifts and just maybe the possibility of eventual change. There is an observable pattern of individuals coming together as critical mass, as seen with the #MeToo Campaign and other contemporary challenging of institutional authority from groups, where these groups use social and mass media to challenge power ‘horizontally’, rather than trying to engage with traditional ‘vertical’ power structures (as in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church). People are no longer remaining quiet because they are being told to from ‘above’. Being kept as isolated individuals can lead people to feel powerless, but being part of a critical mass leads people to believe they can affect change.

A phenomenon within and outside this, that sparked my initial question, is the increased use of social media generally – particularly by younger generations – to live life more publicly by regularly posting on new media outlets, as well as embracing the immediacy of email and other forms of digital communication. If this tendency towards openness and immediate communication is coupled with continued resistance to institutional authority, and the power of institutional secrecy is slowly diluted by a generational predilection for living life more openly – where individuals have the power to publicly post their own experiences without having to go through traditional institutional gatekeepers – then perhaps future generations of priests’ children will find current issues of shame and stigma melting away as institutional secrecy within the Catholic Church becomes unacceptable to younger generations of Catholics. After all, if a Vatican spokesperson unwittingly pinging an email across the pond can result in a worldwide disclosure for priests’ children, then surely anything is possible?

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Durkheim, Energy and Contagion

Just published on the blog of Oxford University Press is a piece by Paul-Francois Tremlett taking a fresh look at the work of foundational sociologist, Emilé Durkheim. He argues that we have tended to overlook some of his ideas, and looks at two examples – energy and contagion – from 1912’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life:

According to Durkheim, the performance of ritual supplied so-called aboriginal society with the resources it needed to ensure the right balance between the generation of energy on the one hand, and the consumption of energy on the other. Durkheim, of course, could not have known how apposite this line of thought would be to we humans of the Anthropocene, a term coined to mark that moment in Earth’s history when human impact on eco-systems (notably the extraction of resources for generating energy) now threatens the sustainability of all human societies.

You can read the full article here.

Don’t forget that Paul-Francois was also one of the editors (along with our own Graham Harvey and Liam T. Sutherland of the University of Edinburgh) of a recent book which also re-assesses the work of a seminal early figure in the study of religion, Edward Burnett Tylor. Watch out for a video discussion on Tylor in the New Year, recorded at the BASR conference in Chester this September.

Culture Wars: Alt+R vs. Ctrl_L, and what the Social Sciences can do about it

By Suzanne Newcombe. Part 2 of a Series (read Part 1 here)

The concept of the Alt+R has become familiar with the ascendency of Donald Trump to the office of the President of the United States. The need for an alternative to the political and economic status quo is felt on all sides of political persuasions. What to do about this situation though, often appears harder to propose and even harder to agree upon. I will first describe the current ‘culture wars’ as a conflict between an Alt+R and a Ctrl+L – before arguing for the importance of teaching and using the methods of the Social Sciences and Humanities to navigate this environment.

The Alt+R is associated with abrasive ‘plain-talking’ populist ‘truths’ and cries of ‘fake news’ when facts are interpreted with what is seen to be the wrong conclusion. The Alt+R uses a variety of strategies to delegitimize and silence opposing political views, from promoting its own ‘trusted’ and ‘unbiased’ sources such as Breitbart, Fox News and Citizen’s United political ‘exposes’ to decrying critical news sources as ‘FAKE NEWS’, to blatant ad hominem attacks, in the USA, against  figures like Senator Rand Paul, Hilary Clinton or Arianna Huffington.

While this vitriolic discourse is more intense on the other side of the pond, there are echoes of it in European politics with the various populist movements from the English Defence League, UKIP, to France’s National Front to Greece’s Golden Dawn.

Although the Alt+R has embraced this term as one of positive self-identity, one can also identify what I will term a “Ctr+L” – those self-identifying on the left of the political spectrum who also attempt to silence opposition.  At times, traditional media sources have described the Alt+R’s message as unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, discrediting the message without examination of the evidence.

University engagement in no-platforming and silencing of opposition through noisy protests and chants, removing the books of Holocaust deniers from open-access shelves, and an enforcement of ‘politically correct’ language, provides ammunition for the Alt+R’s impressions of the existence of a ‘liberal thought police’.

The Ctr+L is not above riots and violence, as events surrounding schedule talks of (then) Breitbart News spokesperson Milo Yiannopoulos at California Universities UCLA, Davis and Berkeley during early 2017 and some G20 protests have shown.

Photograph of a burning police cruiser at the G20 protests in 2010 which turned violent in Toronto.  Image by Mark Mozaz Wallis (Creative Commons).

So what can we, as educators, do in a time when (apparently) the ‘authority of experts’ is derided? Continue reading

Culture Wars 2.0 and the End of Faith

By Paul-Francois Tremlett. Part 1 of a series.

The recent election of Donald Trump to Presidential office in the USA and the referendum to leave the EU in Britain have been described as evidence for an outbreak of new culture wars. The term ‘culture wars’ has been used to describe conflicts in late 19th century England and late 20th century America between secular and religious populations over issues such as gender and sexuality and the status of religious and scientific truth-claims. The rise of the self-styled new atheism was arguably part of the same phenomenon.

Interestingly, the linkage of Trump and Brexit to a new bout of culture wars has no obvious link to any religion-secular flashpoints. The 2016 report by Kirby Swales on the Brexit vote by the National Centre for Social Research concluded that “the EU Referendum was highly divisive, highlighting a wide range of social, geographical and other differences in Great Britain. This was less a traditional left-right battle, and more about identity and values (liberalism vs authoritarianism). It is a strong sign that the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the US have arrived in Great Britain in earnest” (2016: 27). Rich Lowry in The Guardian argued in similar fashion that Trump’s election in the USA exposed new fissures around populism, immigration and nationalism. But, if the new culture wars do not reproduce the religious-secular flash-points of the past, what do they do?

A key feature of the Trump and Brexit election campaigns were claims about fake news and alternative facts. If the arch-postmodernists Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard are to be believed, this is because the modern narrative of incremental progress and knowledge is breaking down—if not, indeed, going into reverse. Where classical sociology predicted secularization—a terminal loss of faith in religious institutions—postmodern sociology predicts a loss of faith in all the other institutions as well, from the banks, universities, newspapers and courts to the politicians. The election of Trump and the Brexit vote point to this wider breakdown. The Occupy movement—about which I’ve conducted research in London and Hong and Kong (Tremlett 2012 and 2016)—registered global distrust in economic institutions. The camps that sprang up in cities around the world were attempts to find new sources of authenticity in speech and the face-to-face intimacies of camp life, and to imagine economies not in terms of competition, but rather cooperation. Ultimately, of course, the protests failed both in terms of their primary aim of bringing about political change to rein in the banks and in terms of their secondary aim of restoring peoples trust that they were part of a common society. But the movement did provide an imaginary which formed around the preference for close, horizontal relationships over distant, vertical or hierarchical ones.

The new culture wars, then, may not be about religion, but they are about faith and loss of faith: the loss of faith in existing institutions to speak sincerely and the process of trying to discover something or someone new to place trust in.

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