Category Archives: contemporary religion in historical perspective

Divination as Storytelling: Dealing (with) Death and Extinction

By Dr Maria Nita

Stories and storytelling in time of pandemics

Set at the time of the Black Death, in 14th century Florence, Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous early medieval collection of novellas, the Decameron, tells the story of ten young men and women who take refuge in the country, as they try to escape the plague. They spend their time of isolation telling 100 stories, as if stories themselves could keep them safe, a bit like Scheherazade’s folk tales can extend her life in the One Thousand and One Nights. Like some special fabric of human culture, stories come in all possible contours, colours and patterns, and some are now worn out, torn, fraying or discarded.

Oracles and the divinatory arts can be understood as stories and storytelling practices that have an ambivalent status in our post-secular society. On one hand Tarot cards, Runes and Astrology are everywhere, just like our daily horoscope. On the other hand, these are often connected to fringe religious practices and thus fair game in the public sphere. For example, one recent tabloid article titled ‘Did psychics predict the [Covid-19] pandemic?’ (Delaney 2021) observed that ‘in these uncertain times, Tarot and Astrology readings are experiencing a renaissance’, yet when this columnist reached out for answers from online psychics and Tarot readers ‘they didn’t have a clue, just like the rest of us’.

Modern attitudes towards divination can be discussed from different perspectives, such as post-Enlightenment rationality, increased secularisation or even continuing public distrust towards some of the countercultural New Religious Movements responsible for the revival of Tarot cards and Rune stones, like the New Age Movement and Contemporary Paganism. Yet I would like to consider here divination as a form of storytelling, as well as oracles as stories, and explore what might they have to offer us at a time of increased uncertainty, when the environmental challenges of our world have been heightened and highlighted by the pandemic.

The past of divination and oracles

Divination was in many ancient cultures an important religious practice, used to ask about all matters – from the proper time and mode of religious conduct, to the coming harvest. Most scholarly definitions make reference to divine agency, as divination is ‘an attempt to elicit from some higher power or supernatural being the answers to questions beyond the range of ordinary human understanding’ (Loewe and Blacker 1981, 2). The Latin root divus means God like. However, oracles and divination had their early critics. As early as the 1st century BCE, the Roman stateman and orator Cicero was asking in his philosophical treatise, The Nature of the Gods and on Divination: ‘…how much weight we are to attribute to auspices, and to divine ceremonies, and to religion?’ as to not make ourselves guilty of ‘old women’s superstition’ (Cicero 1997 [circa 45 BCE], 145). In many cultural contexts during antiquity, religion and divination were intertwined, and supportive of each other, often in the face of philosophic and scientific adversity.

Oracles experienced a decline at the beginning of the first millennium, synchronous in very different cultures and noted by Plutarch, the Greek philosopher, in the 1st century AD. This decline of the oracles is akin to what, many centuries later, the German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) called ‘entzauberung’, ‘disenchantment’, when referring to a loss of enchantment with nature – yet in this case marked by a growing distrust in the divinity of oracles. In this disenchanted form, divination become less of a tool for predicting the future and more of a way of resolving controversies, according to some scholars (Thomas 1971). Hence, when there was a choice of two or more courses of action, the diviner was called upon to elucidate the better choice – perfectly arbitrarily. In his Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas contends that  in 17th century England, divination had become nothing more than a game of chance, used to shift ‘responsibility away from the actor, to provide him with a justification for taking a leap in the dark…’ (Thomas 1971, 288). This inexorable decline led according to Thomas to their complete demise, whereby ‘modern man’ does not confer any special meaning or value to divination other than the faith one places ‘in the playful flip of a coin’ (Thomas 1971, 298).

Continue reading

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 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.


Behind the (Nativity) Scenes

By Marion Bowman

Kimber’s Farm, Charlton Musgrove, Somerset, 2020

It’s the time of year when Nativity scenes appear in a variety of public spaces, homes and churches. Commemorating the Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus, they can vary from the miniature to life-size. The scene is so culturally familiar in Britain, as elsewhere, that it can be both highly stylised and/or be ambiguously or amusingly portrayed (such as Moomins in this shop window display, below) and still be recognisable.

Moomin Nativity Scene, shop window, Cirencester, 2018

Nativity scenes are examples of religion in the public domain that have become so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable; they are indicative of the sometimes creative, sometimes uneasy negotiation of a Christian tradition that in some respects has become secularised, as well as being  observed by people of a variety of religious and cultural heritages. As with many calendar customs, it is not until you look at different national, regional, family and even individual variations and understandings of notionally the same thing that the complexity of such events becomes clearer.

Miniature Peruvian nativity scene

I find contemporary Nativity scenes fascinating on a number of levels, because there is just so much going on in them—and behind them! For me, Nativity scenes combine three of my major academic interests: material religion; vernacular religion, defined by Primiano as ‘religion as it is lived: as humans encounter, understand, interpret and practice it’ (Primiano 1995: 44); and the Bible of the Folk, characterised by Utley as ‘the tales which derive from the Bible and its silences’ (Utley 1945: 1).

St Francis of Assisi is generally credited with the first ‘living’ Nativity Scene, on Christmas Eve 1223 in the Italian city of Greccio, to help people recapture and meditate upon the wonder of the original nativity. The scene was staged in a cave outside and, then as now, was a device to ‘position’ the nativity in a familiar context, making it locally as well as (in Christian terms) universally relevant.  Thereafter the Franciscans spread the tradition of creating nativity scenes with live actors and animals. With the development of static nativity scenes came further opportunities for the addition of all sorts of local and contemporary material culture and traditions, and the vernacular expansion of the details of the nativity story.

Nativity scenes have become the visual shorthand for an amalgam of the Christmas story from the Gospels in the Christian New Testament. If you envisage a typical Nativity scene in the UK, what do you see? The usual scene consists of a hut-like building, the stable, with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in a manger, and probably also shepherds, three Kings, assorted animals in the background, and perhaps angels and a star above the stable. They reflect a timeline in which, according to Christian tradition, Joseph and Mary, having to travel away from home and encountering difficulties in finding accommodation at their destination, end up in a stable, where the baby Jesus is born. Angels alert shepherds in nearby fields to a miraculous occurrence, so they come along to the stable to see what’s happening. Eventually some days later three Magi (wise men or, as they later became thought of more popularly, kings) appear bearing gifts, led to the location with the aid of a guiding star. So the typical UK nativity compresses events which occur over a period of time into one simultaneous image (as with the Kimber Farm example above).

Tyrolean Nativity Scene, Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage, Innsbruck, 2019

Detail, Tyrolean Nativity Scene, Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage, Innsbruck, 2019

In other parts of the world, nativity scenes might be far more elaborate. I remember being amazed by the detail and complexity of Spanish nativity scenes when first encountering a specialist market in Barcelona, selling all sorts of nativity scene requisites beyond simple statues of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Spanish nativity scenes tend to incorporate a far broader range of side-scenarios in a Bethlehem that looks distinctly local. There are miniature mills with water courses and moving wheels, groups of people gathered round a flickering fire—and somewhere in the scene the Caganer, a bare-bottomed, defecating figure (usually discreetly positioned away from the holy family).

A distinctive Tyrolean style of nativity scenes has developed with scenic backdrops unlike the Holy Land, again self-consciously relating the local to the universal in a manner highly typical of vernacular religiosity. As examples of what is regarded as traditional local craft, scenes in this genre are displayed in the Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage in Innsbruck.

In the Krippenausstellun at the Hotel Mondschein in Sexten, a small town in the Dolomites that suffered badly in the first world war ( ), there are various examples of Tirolean scenes. However, one of the most moving examples in this collection is the ‘Christmas 1918’ nativity scene, showing the holy family group alongside the destroyed Hotel Mondschein in the then devastated Sexten.  This underlines one of the important pedagogical points being made in Christian terms of the ‘localised’ nativity scene—it places the Christian story wherever its audience is, and though notionally capturing a moment in history, it is also presented as timeless.



Weihnachten 1918, Krippenausstellun at the Hotel Mondschein, Sexten, 2019

Time for Nativity Scenes


Liturgically, Advent is the period ahead of the birth of Jesus, which in the Western Christian calendar can start between 27 November and 3 December; Advent is a time of solemn reflection, and in some traditions is still marked as a period of fasting, similar to Lent before Easter. The celebration of Christmas technically starts with the birth of Jesus and lasts until Epiphany (6 January) when traditionally the three Magi visit Jesus: these are the 12 days of Christmas. Liturgically, however, the Christmas season lasts until 1 February.

An interesting aspect of nativity scenes that I have become increasingly aware of in recent years relates to the logic and logistics of timing. As mentioned, if you think back to the ‘typical’ UK nativity scene and who and what it depicts—Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, three wise men—it tends to simultaneously compress a narrative that stretches out over a period of time. In the public domain this may not pose a problem, but as we discovered during the fieldwork of the AHRC funded Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals: Part and Present (, it can be a point of tension in some cathedral and church contexts (see Coleman, Bowman and Sepp, 2019).

For the project we worked with four partner Cathedrals: Canterbury and Durham Cathedrals, York Minster (Anglican) and Westminster Cathedral (Roman Catholic). At Christmas far more people come to cathedrals and churches generally than at other times of the year, and clearly it expresses for many a sense of belonging. While Cathedrals are happy to receive such visitors, there can be some mismatches in terms of liturgical praxis and more ‘secular’ expectations. Our fieldwork with cathedral clergy, volunteers and other staff around the Christmas period revealed a sense of ambiguity, even ambivalence, over public perceptions of Christmas and how they relate to the wider framework of Advent.

At Canterbury Cathedral we were told ‘The season of Advent is a real hotchpotch because we could do a jolly Carol Service in the afternoon and then at Evensong we’re back into Advent mode, and then there’s another Carol Service for another group’. Similarly, as one informant at York Minster put it, ‘Christmas for the minster begins… with Advent, and is not a full-blown celebration at that time, but a preparation; then when the rest of the world goes back to work, the Minster is in liturgical mode. [We] must recognize that for others, Christmas is over. For the Minster it goes on till Candlemas [2 February]. We are asked why we don’t put lights up earlier and why the nativity is still there “after”.‘

Popular expectations and experiences of Christmas tend to foreground the run up to Christmas as a period of partying and pleasant expectations, as opposed to seeing it as a reflective or indeed penitential period. Although the twelve days of Christmas are referred to in song and on Christmas cards, for many people the Christmas season largely ends with Boxing Day (26 December), actually before the Christmas story has liturgically ended. This can cause some issues in relation to nativity scenes, which our partner Cathedrals handled in different ways. A verger at York Minster explained: ‘The week preceding Christmas we will have put the crib up in the North Transept, but the crib will be empty. And people… come in, see the crib, are puzzled as to why there’s nothing in it, and then we have to explain that actually we’re not at that point yet in the year where we actually have the figures in the crib… the Christ Child doesn’t go into the crib until Christmas Eve.’ Similarly, at Westminster Cathedral, although the nativity scene is likely to be placed on show around mid-December, the baby Jesus figure will not be placed into the crib until 24 December. (We were told that, following an attempted theft, the Jesus figure is now screwed into his crib!)

Meanwhile at Canterbury Cathedral, it has been common to put the baby Jesus figure into the crib as soon as the Nativity scene is set up—a pragmatic response, as explained by one of  the canons of the cathedral: ‘In reality we have Jesus in the crib because so many visitors see their visit as an early celebration of Christmas and the baby in the manger illustrates the truth that Jesus was born and died and rose again and is always with us.’

The nativity scene used in Durham Cathedral is indicative of the localising/ vernacular tradition of such scenes already mentioned, containing interesting allusions to the historically locally significant mining industry (see Carved by Michael Doyle, a retired pitman, the donkey is a pit pony, the crib is a “choppie box” (in which the ponies were given their feed underground), the innkeeper is dressed as a miner and there’s a whippet in the scene. In the Durham nativity scene, the baby Jesus figure is customarily placed in the crib early on, but is covered by hay until Christmas Eve, when he is removed and then placed back during the Midnight Mass. Volunteers are informed that he must be hidden until the appropriate point of the service. However, in December 2016 our researcher Tiina Sepp spotted the baby Jesus uncovered well before Christmas Eve and mentioned this fact to a steward, leading to a swift restoration of the layer of hay above the statue. The steward’s interpretation was that some parents had wanted to show their children the Baby Jesus and therefore removed the hay from him, again highlighting the differing expectations of visitors and cathedral staff.

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, 2018

Elsewhere, however, the timeline of the twelve days of Christmas is more closely observed. This was strikingly demonstrated by a visit to Cologne in January 2018, timed to coincide with Epiphany on January 6th, when according to tradition the Magi finally arrived to see Jesus. Cologne Cathedral houses the magnificent Shrine of the Three Kings, said to contain the treasured relics of the Magi. A fine example of Bible of the Folk, from minimal gospel references to ‘Magi’ (Matthew, verses 2: 1-9), usually translated as wise men, the three foreign visitors to the stable gained ‘back stories’, and became popularly designated Kings with the names Melchior (from Persia), Caspar/Gaspar (from India or Tarsus) and Balthazar (designated King of Arabia, sometimes more specifically Ethiopia, and since the 13th century depicted as black).

The Three Kings, St Andreas Church, Cologne, January 6 2018

Through a grille in the beautifully crafted 13th century shrine, three crowned skulls can be seen, above each their name picked out in precious stones. While normally access to the shrine is limited, on 6 January people are allowed to go through the gates and get close to it, which still proves an enormous attraction. Thus, in Cologne there is a very definite sense of the temporal progress of the nativity story, the three kings’ role in it and by extension nativity scenes.

Queuing to get close to the Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, 6 January 2018

Visiting nativity scenes in various Cologne churches after Christmas but ahead of January 6, we became aware that the Kings were absent.  After a while we realised that in some churches there was simply no sign of them, while in others the Kings were to be spotted perched up on the gallery, or out in the church entrance, or gradually moving up within the church as Epiphany approached. It was only on January 6 that the scene was complete, in line with the liturgical calendar. Among other things, this prompts repeated visits to churches to see the nativity scenes as they develop over time!

Nativity Scene, Minoritenkirche, Cologne, 3 January 2018




Three Kings in nave, heading towards nativity scene, Minoritenkirche, Cologne, 3 January 2018



There is a lot going on behind nativity scenes—from Bible of the Folk embellishments on the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, to craft traditions and local pride, from a sense of belonging to evangelising and sometimes uneasy negotiations of secularised assumptions and religion in the public domain. So, as you encounter nativity scenes in this strange year, think about the implications of what you are actually seeing, who is there,  what the setting is, what part of the story is being represented—and notice how long they last!

And of course, if you see any interesting examples, please do send them to us at and we’ll share them on our Instagram account.

Three Kings arrived at nativity scene, Minoritenkirche, Cologne, 6 January 2018



Colman, Simon, Marion Bowman and Tiina Sepp. 2019. ‘A Cathedral Is Not Just for Christmas: Civic Christianity in the Multicultural City’ In Pamela E. Klassen and Monique Scheer, eds. The Public Work of Christmas: Difference and Belonging in Multicultural Societies. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, pp. 240–261.

Primiano, Leonard. 1995. ‘Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife’ Western Folklore 54, 37-56

Utley, Francis Lee. 1945. ‘The Bible of the Folk,’ California Folklore Quarterly 4(1), 1-17

Pilgrimage and tourism at India’s ‘Land’s End’

By Gwilym Beckerlegge

I first visited the small town of Kanniyakumari in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu in 2006. The town is named after Kanya Kumari, the ‘virgin goddess’ who is a representation of the Great Goddess, to whom the town’s most well-known temple is dedicated. Evidence of Kanniyakumari as a centre of Hindu pilgrimage, especially for devotees of the Devi (Goddess), stretches back well over a millennium.

The meeting of three seas off its shore is believed to add further to Kanniyakumari’s sanctity. Fringed by steep conical hills and bounded on the southernmost tip of India’s mainland by the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea, it is a place of great natural beauty.

Approaching Kanniyakumari






Its striking seascape is renowned for its spectacular sunrises. One can readily understand why Kanniyakumari is sometimes referred to in guidebooks as India’s ‘Land’s End’.

Continue reading

Decolonising Religious Studies

By Paul-François Tremlett – part of our series on Black History Month.

As part of the Open University’s events marking Black History Month I gave a short lecture examining textual and visual representations of Melanesian Cargo Cults, to highlight how the production of knowledge about Cargo Cults by anthropologists and others was sealed off from overlapping contexts of colonialism, capitalism and racism. The lecture focused on Francis Edgar Williams’ ethnographic account of the so-called Valaila Madness (1923) and David Attenborough’s representation of the followers of John Frum in the film, The People of Paradise: A Journey through the South Seas (1960). I suggested that these representations of Cargo cults were structured by a Western conception of rationality that, while abstractly premised upon the psychic unity of humankind in practice furthered the active denigration of black voices and experiences.

Such critiques in anthropology are not new: for example in 1973 Talal Asad in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter – and 13 years later Renato Rosaldo in Writing Culture – insisted that attention be directed to the techniques through which anthropological and scientific knowledge has been separated and insulated from the colonial contexts in which it was produced. Importantly, they also advocated experimentation with new kinds of ethnographic writing that could accommodate “multicentric, dialogical perspective[s]” (Borofsky 2020, p. 2).

In tandem with the welcome advance of global south and decolonial epistemologies in anthropology, the field of Religious Studies has seen a shift in recent years away from essentialist and a-historical accounts of this or that World Religion (with a capital R) represented more or less as discrete and unitary systems of ideas and beliefs, to a focus on lived religions. The field has a complex, inter- and trans-disciplinary ancestry including anthropology, history, philology, philosophy, sociology and theology, yet epistemological debates about methods and theories have remained largely trapped within a series of over-lapping binary oppositions including reason : experience, insider : outsider, qualitative : quantitative and reductionist : phenomenological, that have helped sustain a range of problematic, Western assumptions such as the privileging of mind and Man over matter. The lived religions focus is decidedly about what people do rather than what they believe and it has brought to the fore voices, groups and communities that were silenced by the World Religion approach, but nevertheless it does little to challenge the hegemony of the meaning-endowing and rational-choice-making individual as the unit of analysis in the study of religions,

and is largely silent about post-humanist epistemologies and the contribution they can make to decolonising the field. Malory Nye has constructively exposed some of the blind spots in the teaching of Religious Studies, for example its habit of “celebrating diversity” while “not talking about race” (2020). Furthermore, informed by the work of Bruno Latour, Graham Harvey has stressed the importance of thinking religions in terms of “embodiment, materiality, and relationality” in order to “radically contest the privatization and interiorization of religion” (Harvey 2020: 144) that emerged under the hegemony of white, Protestant modernity. In a similar spirit and riffing from writings by Jane Bennett, Manuel DeLanda and Gilles Deleuze, I have suggested that the focus in Religious Studies should be the transformations of historically and culturally situated and stratified assemblages of religions, secularisms, technologies, states, spaces and economies (Tremlett 2020).

There is no quick fix to decolonising Religious Studies, no single, simple step to a decolonised curricula or pedagogy or research methods. But we do have skills of listening and learning through which the field can better reflect on itself as a mode of production for generating knowledge about religions and the wider world. Those skills need to be brought to bear both to experiment theoretically and methodologically in our research, in the design of curricula and in the development of teaching and assessment strategies.


Asad, Talal. 1973, ‘Introduction’ in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, (ed), Talal Asad, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Barofsky, Rob. 2020, ‘Rethinking Ethnography: A Study in Public Anthropology’ in Anthropology Today 36 (5): 1-2.

Harvey, Graham. 2020, ‘Trans-Indigenous Festivals: Democracy and Emplacement’ in Ritual and Democracy: Protests, Publics and Performances, (eds), Sarah M. Pike, Jone Salomonsen and Paul-François Tremlett, Sheffield: Equinox.

Nye, Malory. 2020, ‘A Discussion of the ‘Religion and Worldviews in Religious Education’ Report: Critical Race Theory’ 142c0007ce37

Rosaldo, Renato. 1986, ‘From the Door of his Tent: The Fieldwork and the Inquisitor’ in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. (eds). James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tremlett, Paul-François. 2020, Towards a New Theory of Religion and Social Change: Sovereignties and Disruptions, Bloomsbury: London.

Williams, Francis, Edgar. 1977. ‘The Vailala Madness’ and Other Essays. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii.

Black Majority Churches and the transformation of British Christianity

By John Maiden – our second post marking Black History Month (see first post here).

What has been the impact of the ‘Black Majority Churches’ (BMCs) on post-1945 British Christianity? Why is it imperative we address a lacuna in the literature on British religious history? I had the privilege today of trying to address these questions in an (online…of course!) lecture for Black History Month in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University. It was an opportunity to talk about research which I’ve recently published on in two places: Evangelicalism and Dissent in Modern England and Wales (edited by David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones) and in an article for Twentieth Century British History journal.

Evangelicalism and Dissent in Modern England and Wales  book coverIt is particularly problematic, I argued, that the ‘early’ Black Majority Churches, those which appeared in the United Kingdom in the decades immediately after Windrush (though thanks to David Killingray and others, we now know something of antecedent congregations in the first half of the century), are largely, if with some notable exceptions, absent in the otherwise booming historiography of secularisation or ‘religious change’ in the 1960s and 1970s. The observations of some contemporary Christian leaders and commentators during the early 1970s were that (as the sociologist Congregationalist pastor Dr Clifford Hill put it in 1971) an ‘urban evangelical explosion’ was underway. These have in some respects been proved right. Without proper discussion of this ‘new nonconformity’ we are left with an incomplete picture of a reconfiguration of the British religious landscape.

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

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

Continue reading

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.