Category Archives: News and media

Sinking House, Bath, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Materialising Climate Concern and Activism

By Marion Bowman

Below the iconic Pulteney Bridge in the centre of Bath there is currently a striking installation, Sinking House by artist Anna Gillespie. As nearby signs explain, ‘Sinking House is a message of warning, and hope, to communities across the world – including leaders gathering at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) – to address the issues, reach for lifelines and act now against the intensifying threat of climate change’. This is just one example of a flurry of contemporary COP26 related creativity I’ve been following in recent weeks.

There will be lots of material culture on display both during and after COP26. I am fascinated by material culture, and what lies behind and goes into the construction of artefacts, for as folklorist Henry Glassie points out, ‘we live in material culture, depend upon it, take it for granted, and realise through it our grandest aspirations’. We make, use, gift, look at and interact with objects to express relationality with other humans (living, dead and future generations), with other-than-human beings, and with the world around us. This is highly relevant as we contemplate what we’ve done to the planet and what needs to be done now.

In relation to environmental crises generally, and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) to be held in Glasgow 31 October–12 November 2021 specifically, numerous artists and other creative practitioners have been ‘materialising’ the global concerns raised by climate change and the need for urgent action. Here I’m drawing attention to just a few of the ways in which increasing numbers of people have become involved in acts of material creative activity of various types, as through material culture they seek to express their concerns, demand change and raise awareness of the pressing issues facing the world. From individual creations to nationwide and international collaborative projects, people are finding ways to provoke thought, and to give expression to their anger, fears and determination.  As one crafter put it, it’s about making something to make a difference.

Stormy Seas

STORM by Vision Mechanics, Saturday 2nd Oct 2021, on Storm Walk to Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine.

STORM by Vision Mechanics, Saturday 2nd Oct 2021, on Storm Walk to Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine. Photograph courtesy of Scottish Maritime Museum.

Environmental concerns and climate awareness are of course triggered and expressed through a variety of media. The broadcast of the BBC programme Blue Planet II in 2017, highlighting the problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, is credited with an extraordinary rise in environmental awareness and practical responses in relation to the plastic problem; the proprietor of an open-air fruit and vegetable stall in Bath, for example, very directly dates the upsurge in popularity of his business and people’s desire not to have pre-packaged produce to that programme. Such triggers have significant outcomes if they can help move people beyond the despair of what is happening to thinking about practical means through which they can address issues.

A deliberately striking, creative response to the problem of pollution and climate change was the creation of STORM, a ten-metre tall ‘goddess of the sea’ made from recycled materials, the creation of Symon Macintyre/ Vision Mechanics. STORM first appeared for the launch of Scotland’s official year of Coasts and Waters 2020/2021, and after Covid restrictions STORM has been out and about again throughout Scotland, being the focal point in October of a ‘Storm Walk’ from Irvine Beach Park to the Scottish Maritime Museum there, after a ‘Community Clean Up’. Works of art such as this raise awareness and create temporary ‘ambient activism’ in a variety of locations, arresting the attention of both participants and bystanders. The Scottish Maritime Museum is also hosting Climate Change Activism: Protest Posters Workshop for both the 12-15 and 16+ age groups at the end of COP26, to encourage ongoing grass roots creativity and involvement.

Mermaids’ Tears, based on Kurt Jackson’s original artwork, rendered by Louise Trotter in textiles (including string and plastic fibres collected from beaches), on display at Dovecote, Edinburgh, October 2021.  Photograph Marion Bowman. 

Mermaids’ Tears, based on Kurt Jackson’s original artwork, rendered by Louise Trotter in textiles (including string and plastic fibres collected from beaches), on display at Dovecote, Edinburgh, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Among many other artistic responses to the plastics problems are artworks by artist Kurt Jackson, who in 2016 produced Mermaids’ Tears, the title referring to an alternative name for nurdles, the tiny plastic pellets which wash up on shores in their billions. Although the original painting was sold as a fundraiser for Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), in 2021 ahead of COP26 Jackson approached the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh to suggest working with the famous tapestry studio to create a textile rendition of Mermaids’ Tears. This artwork was executed in collaboration with Dovecot weaver Louise Trotter, and forms the focal point of an exhibition running from October 2021 to February 2022 at Dovecote, alongside other awareness raising collage works by Jackson which feature painted sea and beachscapes, with washed up debris incorporated.

However, in addition to the responses of professional artists and craftspersons, the environmental crisis and COP26 have inspired many others to make something to make a difference.

‘Mass-craftivism’ and Crafting Quakers

One undoubted side effect of the Covid 19 lockdowns has been the huge increase in people participating in, rediscovering or taking up craft activities like knitting, sewing, crochet and quilting, as for many the lockdowns opened up time for such pursuits. The Stiches for Survival initiative, for example, describes itself as ‘Mass-craftivism to put the Earth centre-stage at COP26’, a mass participation project whereby assorted crafters are knitting, crocheting, stitching, and crafting in assorted ways panels to make up a 1.5 mile-long ‘scarf’ (representing the 1.5°C target in the Paris Agreement) of climate messages addressed to the COP26 negotiators. After being displayed at Glasgow Green during COP26, the plan is for the scarf to be creatively repurposed into blankets for refugees and other communities who need them, though with some sections being kept for an exhibition and further use in campaigning.

Ballot Paper, textile panel on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Ballot Paper, textile panel. The Loving Earth Project, Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

The Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers, have long been involved in campaigns and practical activism in relation to peace and social justice issues.  The Quaker Arts Network’s Loving Earth Project is centred around asking people to address three big questions:

  • How does the climate crisis threaten places, people and other things you love?
  • What action is needed to reduce the risk of harm?
  • How are you helping to make this happen?
Flooded Valleys, textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Flooded Valleys, textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project – Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

 

As the project’s website explains, the idea is to help people engage creatively with these questions, without being overwhelmed, using a range of creative, contemplative and sharing activities. Inviting people to create a 30cm x 30cm textile panel illustrating their responses to these questions, and writing a short account of the panel theme and what actions people are taking personally, has produced enthusiastic, imaginative and visually stimulating responses. Over 400 panels have been sent in already, and many with accompanying texts are displayed on the project website gallery. During COP26 there will be six displays of Loving Earth panels in and around Glasgow, with textile workshops at the larger venues. Over 20 displays of groups of panels have been held already, and more will appear in venues around the UK following COP26 (for information on exhibition venues, see here).

Linda Murgatroyd of the Quaker Arts Network told me:

‘It’s been so exciting and touching to see how the project has been helping people take positive and joyful steps towards greater sustainability. Our online conversations have sometimes been very powerful, especially as we make connections with people in different parts of the world and hear what’s happening there. There are huge issues we all have to face, and so far most of our politicians are reluctant to take the actions recommended by scientists.  But everyone can do something if we choose to, though we may need help to work out what.‘

Textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum Dumbarton, October 2021. Photographs Marion Bowman.

Textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project – Scottish Maritime Museum Dumbarton, October 2021. Photographs Marion Bowman.

I visited the Loving Earth Project Exhibition which will run until January 2022 at The Scottish Maritime Museum, Dumbarton branch. Explaining her enthusiasm for the project, Nicola Scott, Exhibition and Events Officer, Scottish Maritime Museum, said

‘I was really happy to host the exhibition as I liked that it was a community project. The nature of community projects, although the panels are made individually, is the idea of collaboration and coming together for one purpose. I think this sentiment is very important in terms of climate change and improving the conditions of the environment. The exhibition encourages people to get involved and the additional funding we got from Museum Galleries Scotland allowed us run workshops for people to make their own Loving Earth Project Panel. I know these sessions were important to the Loving Earth Project organisers as the purpose is to let people meditate over the issues of climate change without it overwhelming them and also discuss positive change that can be made with others who attend the sessions. It was a great atmosphere that fostered creativity, discussion and a sense of community.’

Like Stitches for Survival, the Loving Earth Project has encouraged and enabled people to ‘materialise’ a range of emotions and experiences, and in doing so to reflect and discuss with others the major issues to be addressed at COP26 and beyond.

Getting the Message

Lin Patterson’s Quaker Banner, Copenhagen, 2009. Photograph courtesy of Lin Patterson.

Lin Patterson’s Quaker Banner, Copenhagen, 2009. Photograph courtesy of Lin Patterson.

A final example of material culture to look out for at COP26 – and one that will be very evident in the next couple of weeks – is the banner. Materially expressing allegiances and protest through banners is a well-established tradition, from religious and trades union processions to Ban the Bomb demonstrations, the Greenham Common Peace Camp and Extinction Rebellion events. My neighbour in Bath, Lin Patterson, is a Quaker and veteran climate activist. She attended the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009, for which she made a banner. Intending to be in Glasgow for COP26, and realising that one side was blank, Lin decided to ‘populate’ it further for COP26. Lin made an appeal for messages through the Quaker publication The Friend:

‘This is an invitation to all UK Friends to send brief messages from the heart to be written onto a large, (8 1/2′), Quaker banner going to COP26. This banner was carried in the streets of Copenhagen during the Climate Summit of 2009, with letters infilled with messages from all over the UK. The reverse of the banner shows the same outline letters, but with empty space, awaiting your message for COP26 addressed to leaders, negotiators, and the world.’

Initially concerned that she might not have enough messages to fill the letters, responses came from all over the UK and messages overspilled from the outlines of the letters.  The banner was sent off ahead of COP26 to the Quakers in Glasgow, who will be able to use and display it ahead of Lin’s arrival in time for the march on 6 November.

The COP26 side of the Copenhagen 2009 banner, ready for despatch to Glasgow. Photograph Marion Bowman.

The COP26 side of the Copenhagen 2009 banner, ready for despatch to Glasgow. Photograph Marion Bowman.

As Lin engaged with contributors, she realised that the opportunity to have their message displayed on the banner in Glasgow was both significant and moving.  Through their messages, by means of the banner, people were going to be vicariously present at the demonstrations around COP26 – just as the many contributors to Stitches for Survival and the Loving Earth Project will be materially contributing to this momentous event. While banners will be used primarily to protest, send direct messages and express identities at COP26, banners like Lin’s and many of the textile pieces are also using material culture to express relationality with other humans (particularly future generations), with other-than-human beings, and with the world around us.

From ‘citizen crafters’ to professional creatives, the material culture of climate protest, activism and consciousness raising will play an important part in COP26 – and their creators hope they will continue to make a difference in the months and years to come.

Marion Bowman will be in conversation with Lin about her banner and experiences at COP26 during our online conference on 19 November, Eco-creativity 2021: Art, Music, Ritual and Global Climate Politics | Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (open.ac.uk)

Returning to Earth | Climate Change, COP26 and Indigenous Voices

 By Graham Harvey 

We are now less than a month away from the UK’s hosting of 26th UN Climate Change “Conference of the Parties” (COP26). The OU’s OpenLearn site is presenting free learning resources about climate change from different disciplinary perspectives and how that knowledge and experience may explain and inform the outcomes of COP26. Those outcomes are impossible to predict. Some people remain hopeful that global transformative action will be agreed on – and actually implemented this time. Others remain doubtful that COP26 will result in their ideal future of ecological and social justice and wellbeing.  

The magnitude of the challenges and threats facing Earth’s life are impossible to exaggerate. The latest scientific report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sets matters out clearly – and is refreshingly forthright in its insistence that urgent action is needed from governments and others. It is also refreshing in not putting the burden of “saving the planet” on individuals alone.  

There are myriad religious voices addressing the issues. Too many to note here. And too varied to summarise. But there is certainly plenty for a student of religion to research, consider and discuss.  

My interest in Indigenous ceremonies, festivals and performance cultures has led me to collaborate with the Border Crossings intercultural theatre company. In particular, I’m intrigued by the ORIGINS Festival of First Nations which they organise and host every two years in London. They usually bring Indigenous artists, performers, speakers, films and even chefs to London to engage audiences in venues across the city. The COVID pandemic has made the 2021 Festival different: it involves more online events and will continue throughout the year and into 2022.  

However, the 2021 ORIGINS Festival is not all online. Right now, an impressive “totem” (a carved and decorated presentation of the kinship between humans and other species) is travelling across the UK. (You can follow the totem’s journey here.) The totem is called “Latamat” (“Life”) and was carved in Mexico by Jun Tiburcio – a Totonac multi-media artist – specifically to take a message to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. A succinct version of the message is that because all life is related we have responsibilities to live respectfully, to the benefit of all our kin, of whatever species. Jun Tiburcio’s eloquence about totem Latamat expands on that theme and emphasises the urgency of the message. After COP26, totem Latamat will be ceremonially returned to earth at the Crichton near Dumfries. Here, Tiburcio describes the totem’s elements:

 

Totem Latamat is one intervention into discussions about climate and environmental concerns. It is distinctive because it comes from an Indigenous artist and his community. It is not only that people like Jun Tiburcio and his Totonac community have interesting ideas about the world and life. They are also among those most immediately and devastatingly being affected by climate change. One example of this is the damage done to Totonac homes and homeland by a hurricane made extreme as a result of climate change.  

My contribution to the OU’s OpenLearn COP26 Hub says more about Totem Latamat. It ends with the thought that the totem is an encouragement to celebrate life. This encouragement is not unique to Indigenous people – although it is a core theme in Indigenous conversations and ceremonies. It is something that many religious and non-religious people can share. What makes it important now is that it stands in stark contrast to the depressing news of disasters and of the magnitude of the threats facing life. These tend to demotivate people. Encouragement to celebrate our relations and our place in the living community might inspire the urgent actions that will be discussed at COP26.   

Traditional Islam in Afghanistan and the Taliban

By Hugh Beattie

Commentators sometimes give the impression that the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until 2001 and have recently taken over the country again, represent traditional Afghan Islam. Of course there are continuities with the past, but the Taliban are a modern phenomenon. Among the main reasons for their emergence are British rule in India followed by its partition and the creation of Pakistan, as well as the cold war, and the support from the West and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states for the anti-Soviet jihad during the 1980s. The idea that their aim is to return the country to a medieval past is an oversimplification for a number of reasons. Here we look at two in particular, their interpretation of Islam and their political role.

Just a little background first. Afghans are almost entirely Muslim, though Hindus and Sikhs still live in the cities. There were once small Jewish and Armenian communities too, and Ahmadiyyas, inspired by the controversial Muslim modernist and reformer Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), also made some converts. The Muslims are mostly Sunni, but there are some significant Shi‘a communities, both Imami (the dominant strand in Iran) and Nizari Ismaili (who follow the Aga Khan). There are other Shi‘a communities in Afghanistan, but the majority of those practising Imami Shi‘ism are Hazaras, belonging to an ethnic group whose homeland is in central Afghanistan (though many now live in Kabul and in Quetta across the border in Pakistan). Afghan Ismailis mostly live in Badakhshan in the north-east. As in other parts of the Muslim-majority world, there have often been tensions between Sunnis and Shi‘as, particularly the Hazaras. Recently the Taliban destroyed a statue in Bamiyan, a valley in central Afghanistan with a largely Hazara population, to commemorate a Hazara Shi‘a political leader Abdul Ali Mazari, killed by the Taliban in 1995. Bamiyan was known for its two huge statues of the Buddha carved into a cliff face, which were largely destroyed by the Taliban in 2000. A Hazara boy is also the ‘kite-runner’ of the novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini.

Traditional Afghan Islam was very different from the Islam of today’s Taliban – let along ISIS-K, which has gained a foothold in eastern Afghanistan since 2014 (K for Khorasan, a province of the ancient Iranian Sassanian empire which comprised eastern Iran and much of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). In particular traditional Afghan Islam combined law and ethics (shari‘a) with Sufi teaching and practice. This Afghan Islam, the scholar Bashir Ahmad Ansari, argues, ‘encouraged peaceful life with justice, compassion, and tolerance among the largely illiterate peoples of the region before the 1970s’ (Ansari 2018, p.37).

Tiles from the shrine of the Khorasani Sufi poet and scholar Abdullah Ansari (d.1089 CE) in Herat in western Afghanistan | https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/context-culture/a-sufi-lodge-a-leaning-minaret-and-a-polymaths-shrine-a-look-at-recent-efforts-to-preserve-and-appreciate-historical-herat/

An important feature of this Afghan Islam, as with popular Islam throughout most of the Muslim-majority world, was the way that Sufi masters were believed to possess miraculous powers and their tombs became places of pilgrimage, shrines (ziyarats) that were visited, particularly by women, in the hope that this would bring healing, good fortune in general, and ultimately salvation. These shrines have played a very important role for hundreds of years; some were located at important pre-Islamic religious locations, and sometimes the practices associated with them incorporated extra-Islamic elements.

A good example of this is the annual ritual of raising a 75 foot high iron pole wrapped in green silk, with colourful scarves attached around the top (known as janda bala kardan), at the supposed tomb of the fourth caliph, Ali, in the Blue Mosque in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. This still takes place on Nowruz, New Year’s Day according to the solar Hijri calendar (March 21), and is always a joyful occasion, a kind of spring festival. Similar rituals on a smaller scale used to take place at a number of other shrines in northern Afghanistan, and in Kabul itself. In the image at the beginning of this article, taken in 2012, we see the standard about to be raised.

The ritual is attended by both Sunni and Shi’a pilgrims. Ansari’s characterisation of traditional Afghan Islam may be a somewhat idealised one, but there is no doubt that it was very different from the Islam of the Taliban and ISIS-K. Both are opposed to the practices associated with shrines (known as ziyarats) because they see them as non-Muslim in origin, and argue that prayers to Sufi ‘saints’ (pirs) for healing and intercession are sinful because they implicitly deny the oneness of God. During the earlier period of Taliban rule it seems that they often banned Sufi meetings (see e.g. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12539409).

A second difference between traditional Islam in Afghanistan and the Islam of the Taliban and ISIS-K is the extent to which the latter groups have taken a political role. In the past, Sufi saints were sometimes able to use the authority that belief in their spiritual power (karamat) gave them to acquire political influence, and their descendants sometimes inherited this. An important example in Afghanistan has been the Mujaddidi family (linked with the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition). Mujaddidis moved to Afghanistan from India during the 18th century and became very influential, even claiming the hereditary right to crown Afghan rulers at their coronations. The Gailanis, linked with the Qadiriyya Sufi order, are another influential family with inherited religious charisma. But figures like these rarely if ever actually ruled the country.

Since the late 1970s, however, the political importance of religion and men with a religious training has grown. The Taliban themselves mostly belong to the revivalist Deobandi tradition, which developed from an influential seminary (madrasah) found in northern India in 1867. Its founders were determined to resist the modernizing and secularizing pressures that accompanied British rule in India. This was to be achieved by working to ensure that Muslims would continue to live as far as possible according to Islamic principles and Islamic law. After the British withdrawal from India in 1947, Deobandis began to set up seminaries in the new state of Pakistan. During the Afghan jihad in the 1980s they set up many more along the frontier with Afghanistan which were attended by young Afghan male refugees fleeing the Soviet occupation that had begun in 1979. It was and remains these men, led by graduates of seminaries (mullahs), mostly lacking Sufi connections, who are the core of the Taliban.

Taliban rule, therefore, was not and is not simply a return to traditional Islam in Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan became predominantly Muslim, rulers have always proclaimed their support for Islam, but government by men claiming that their religious training and mission entitle them to take control of the country is something new. 

Census Stories | Bringing Life to the Big Numbers

By Suzanne Newcombe 

Sunday 21 March 2021 was Census Day – your household will have received a unique access code for you to fill out your census details. While this is the first time the census has been done fully online, the first census of England, Wales and Scotland was in 1801 and it has been conducted decennially (every ten years) since then. The repeating of the same questions every ten years – determining who lives in the country, how many people and some basic facts about them – has become essential for forward planning of social services, determining allocation of resources, and, over time, for researching family history and understanding change over time. While these big numbers are essential for understanding major changes and transformations of society, they do not capture the rich contradictions and experiences of a lived life – what those categories of identity, place, belief and belonging mean for the people who ticked the boxes.  

The Religious Studies Department at the Open University has embarked on a UKRI funded project to elicit stories from diverse residents of Milton Keynes on themes of identity, place and belonging in response to the census questions. Through the facilitation of the professional storyteller Dominic Kelly, local residents will respond to this data and co-create a series of stories. We will use the stories elicited from local residents to create classroom resources and an Open Learn online course which will help teach about the significance of census data for measuring changes in society – and what the ‘big data’ actually looks liked from the perspective of the people who ‘are’ the statistics. You can see the official announcement at https://ahrc.ukri.org/research/readwatchlisten/features/public-engagement-with-the-census-research/ 

Place of birth, age and current employment have long been essential questions on the census, recording the movement of people across Britain and increasingly the world. However, questions around ‘ethnicity’ were not included in the census until 1991 – prior to this point a place of birth in the Commonwealth was used as a proxy for ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ populations. The changes to how these questions have been phrased and their increasing relevance for policy decisions can help us trace the development of a category of identity as well as the movements of political concerns.

“1901 Census UK showing Farquharson and Benningfield Families in Hoddesdon, Herts.x” by Miranda Hine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Questions about religious identification have only been on the census since 2001 – and perhaps the most dramatic change in this period is the rapid increase of people willing to identify as having ‘no religion’ (shifting from 15% in 2001 to 27.9% in 2011 for England and Wales). But the ability to write-in religious affiliation on the census has been successfully used my many smaller minority groups to lobby for better acknowledgement in local and national provisions – including pagans, SikhsValmikis and Humanists, amongst others.  

Better understanding the complex kaleidoscope of affiliations, beliefs and practices people draw upon to face complex global challenges (like the current pandemic) is part of the core mission of our department to promote the understanding of contemporary religion in historical perspective. We’ll update you about the outputs and project in our social media feeds as the project progresses this Spring.  

What does the ruins of Boleskine House have to do with QAnon?

Through 2020, as QAnon promised to destabilise the US democratic process, and anti-vaxxers threatened to perpetuate a global pandemic, theories about an older conspiracy were quietly playing out by the banks of Loch Ness in the Highlands of Scotland. Boleskine House, the former home of Aleister Crowley and later, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, has been approved for restoration which will see it being opened to the public for tours, with ten eco-cabins built on the grounds for guests. Or rather, its shell has. Boleskine House was badly damaged by an accidental fire in December 2015, losing most of the interior. When I visited the site in 2016, it was fenced off and full of rubble. It was put up for sale in April 2019, and was bought by Keith and Kyra Readdy, who founded the Boleskine House Foundation to raise the money needed to restore the site. But a second fire broke out on July 31st, 2019, destroyed the remainder of the interior, and claimed the roof. The fire brigade investigated the second fire as arson.

As someone who grew up in Inverness during the time that Page owned the property, the story has a particular fascination for me. But as a scholar of contemporary religion in historical perspective, the most interesting aspect is how it shows that ideas about “Satanists” still have currency in the modern age. Boleskine House is famous as the former home of Aleister 

Crowley, who owned it between 1899 and 1913. Crowley had impressive careers as a mountaineer and poet, but it is for his writing on the occult that he is most famous today – he was a prodigious innovator and systematiser of different magical systems and incorporating Egyptian deities and yoga techniques into his practices. He received a series of channelled communications in 1904, and years later these would form the basis of his esoteric religion, Thelema. In the popular imagination, however, Crowley is remembered for the “Wickedest Man in the World” epithet that he gained as a result of a court case, in which he was branded a “Black Magician” and a sexual reprobate. This had more to do with the homophobia of the Edwardian period than reality, however, exacerbated by his adoption as a figurehead of the sex and drugs culture of the 1960s, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Crowley was certainly an egotist, and could be cruel, but a more sober assessment of his life would have to also count him as one of the most important figures in the history of twentieth century new religions, directly influencing the development of Wicca, Scientology and Discordianism, as well as founding Thelema and leading the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).

At the beginning of December 2020, Councillors on the South Area Planning Committee approved the proposals, despite resorts of “a number of objections” from locals. In addition, Councillor Margaret Davidson is quoted as saying: “Over the years it has been a place people have visited and become obsessed with the area… That has caused its own difficulties for people in Foyers and Inverfarigaig, the nearest villages, and I would wish that to stop for them.” But the chairman of the committee concluded that “matters associated with previous ownership of the property… are not material in planning matters.” I was pleased that the local Council approved the application, because although Inverness is a pretty liberal and secular place, there are certainly still pockets of Lutheran conservatism in the Highlands. The more traditional Conservative press picked up on the story, even as global pandemics, Brexit and a climate crisis all reached a head, showing there is still a deep-seated fear of the occult.

Take this article which appeared in December in the Herald. It is relatively sober, at first glance – even if it does claim that Crowley “became known as ‘the real-life Wicker Man’”, which makes little sense on any level. But a closer reading shows that it is embedded in a worldview in which Christian forces of light are battling an occult, even Satanic, darkness. It states that Crowley “conducted various black magic rituals at the house including a six-month long experiment to raise his Guardian Angel. It is said the experiment was not properly completed, with the spirits raised never fully banished leading to a number of unexplained events at Boleskine.” Such a story only makes sense if you are in a universe in which there is in fact magic, and also spirits which can be raised by (ab)using it.

More sensational was the story originally in the Inverness Courier, and later picked up by the Daily Mail (as well as others) under the headline “Plans to build holiday lodges close to fire-ravaged Loch Ness house of Aleister Crowley spark fears area will become a shrine for SATANISTS visiting home of ‘world’s wickedest man’ who inspired some of Rock n’ Roll’s darkest music.” It cites “objectors”, but only two are ever named in multiple news stories. One, Naomi King, stated that “the place will become a major Satanic temple and a hub for Satanist abusers from across the world to visit”. This is nonsense, as Crowley was never a Satanist, nor are any of the organisations identified in the reports, such as the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis), which is not a “secret society” either. Interestingly, the article also mentions (conspiratorially) that King “claims her comments on the council’s planning portal had been ‘sanitised’ – with all references to Satanism removed”. 

This might be due to the fact that Satanic Ritual Abuse, which she refers to directly and indirectly, does not and has never existed – at least, outside the imagination of conspiracy theorists and fundamentalist Christians. It might also be due to the fact that the other complainer is the Fresh Start Foundation, who have a connection to Robert Green, an independent investigator who has been jailed twice over the Hollie Greig case, UK Column, a news website known for circulating right-wing conspiracy theories, and the grand dame of UK conspiracism, David Icke.

The Boleskine House Foundation stated that the site was not intended to become a place of “pilgrimage and ritual”, and that  the connection to Crowley did not “directly influence its future use”. But this seems disingenuous; Keith Readdy, trustee of the Foundation, describes himself as an academic “researcher in comparative religion”, but his one publication, One Truth and One Vision: Aleister Crowley’s Spiritual Legacy, states that it is aimed primarily at Thelemites, and much of it is concerned with establishing the legitimacy of different OTO lineages. And there has certainly been a warm relationship between the Foundation and the OTO, though, after accusations of child abuse and an arson attack, you can understand why this isn’t being highlighted by the Readdys.

Even weirder, there have been other Crowley-related hit pieces this year – this one from the Daily Mail describes the Tree of Life (a standard element of Jewish mysticism for centuries) on the floor of an abandoned cottage Crowley once stayed in as “apparatus believed to have been used to try and contact demons”. This report concerns a man trying to sell a wax-splattered box supposedly found in the basement of Boleskine, despite the fact that it is of the kind which costs a few pounds from any head shop in the country and looks almost new. 

So what’s the beef? Why take up valuable newspaper real estate at a time when there are other, more important things to write about. Funnily enough, this brings us back to QAnon. Both of these are inheritors of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s, predicated on the existence of an imaginary secret religion who deliberately invert Christian morality, and use sexual abuse and cannibalism in rituals. It is often conflated with real groups like Wiccans and the OTO, even though neither is Satanic, involved in ritual abuse, large enough to organise such things anyway and aren’t even particularly secretive. The same goes for the Church of Satan, as founded by Anton LaVey in 1966, which is probably best regarded as a particularly theatrical version of Humanism.

Creator: Ted Eytan. Via https://mancunion.com/2021/01/12/opinion-the-republican-party-is-complicit-in-the-attack-on-capitol-hill/. Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nevertheless, large numbers of people believe that such an imagined Satanic Other exists. For most, this is probably just an internalisation of Christian narratives about good and evil, and of the existence of demons and devils. These implicit beliefs are stoked up by more active players, however, mostly (though not exclusively) Christian fundamentalists with an axe to grind, and who, because of the traditional association of Christianity with moral good, are able to speak into the ear of the press, police and politicians. 

But there is certainly an aspect that is to do with defending the body politic against invasion – which is why such ideas tend to flare up at times of societal unrest, and why we see the same motifs popping up in antisemitic tracts from the Middle Ages to the Third Reich. So while the battle between good and evil plays out on the steps of the US Congress, it is also playing out in local newspapers and planning applications.

 

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: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/gove-ditchley-lecture/). 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.

 

References:

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’’. https://dominiccummings.com/2019/06/26/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.

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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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

References

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.

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.