Category Archives: contemporary religion in historical perspective

An Economy of Gnosticism in Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California, is the only place in the world today that all four gnostic religions are active. I recently had the chance to do some fieldwork there. Contemporary gnostic religions have had little attention from scholars. By “gnostic religions”, I mean, quite simply, groups who describe themselves as both “gnostic” and a “religion”. I’m sure many scholars will disagree with both of these designations, but it’s a complicated question and so I’ll address this in a future post. For now, the four groups I am talking about are the Ecclesia Gnostica, the Apostolic Johannite Church, the Ordo Templi Orientis and the Gnostic Movement of Samael Aun Weor.

If I were a certain kind of scholar, I might speculate that there is so much gnosticism in LA because Hollywood is the symbolic centre of the archonic media matrix where the illusory world of the demiurge is created. More prosaically, LA has long been a centre for religious innovation due to being multicultural, liberal and relatively cheap. People were going West in search of new ways of life long before the Hippies emerged from Haight-Ashbury to catalyse the spiritual revolution of the New Age movement. Moreover, contemporary gnostics mix esoteric ideas with Christianity, and so appeal much more to American Baby Boomers than to their relatively secularised European counterparts.

For example, the Ecclesia Gnostica performs a Gnostic Mass weekly in the Besant Lodge of the Theosophical Society, a converted silent movie theatre underneath the Hollywood sign. If you didn’t look closely at the portraits of Theosophical founders on the wall, or recognise the Jungian additions to the liturgy, you might not realise this wasn’t a regular Anglican ceremony. Services have been performed weekly by Bishop Stephan Hoeller, now aged 87, since 1977. Hoeller’s gnosticism is a formalisation of the ideas of depth psychologist Carl Jung, a process of reuniting with the divine aspect of the self.

While they have some associated groups, the Ecclesia Gnostica is largely confined to Los Angeles. This isn’t the case with the other groups. The Apostolic Johannite Church, for example, have a number of branches around North America, though they are currently strongest in Canada. They also focus on a liturgical mixture of Christian and esoteric traditions, though here the focus is more on a Rosicrucian rather than Jungian tradition. Interestingly, their presence in LA is not as strong as in other major US cities, probably because the Ecclesia Gnostica has been so successful there. The Apostolic Johannites are keen to stress their appreciation for and connection with the Ecclesia Gnostica, but this is not reciprocated.

The high degree of competition in the gnostic marketplace also affects the Gnostic Movement, a loosely connected constellation of groups stemming from the teachings of Columbian teacher Samael Aun Weor in the 1960s and early 1970s. Although relatively recent in comparison, and originating in Spanish-speaking areas, the Aun Weor groups have been the most successful in spreading internationally, with small but constant presence in many European countries. Last year, I undertook their First Chamber (a series of 33 introductory lectures) with a group in Edinburgh, which also deserves its own post. But in LA, these groups cater in the main to a Hispanic clientele, which is a large proportion of the population of this bilingual city. In Europe, most Gnostic Movement groups present the material in a form more appealing to a New Age or individualised spirituality discourse, though there is always a clear Christian aspect, and indeed there are some groups which perform the Gnostic Mass and dress in vestments just like the Ecclesia Gnostica (notably the Igreja Gnostica do Brazil). So perhaps the adaptive framing of the Gnostic Movement is the reason it has spread in the Americas and Europe, unlike the other contemporary gnostic religions.

The fourth and final example is least likely to be accepted as a gnostic religion, by scholars and the other groups, in large part as a result of its infamous founder, Aleister Crowley. Yet the Ordo Templi Orientis, or rather its ecclesiastical wing, the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, has many features in common with them: performance of the Gnostic Mass, roots in late Victorian occultism and claims of apostolic succession – that is, a direct lineage of bishops back to St Peter. The Pasadena branch, the Star Sapphire Lodge, put on public performances of Crowley’s version of the Gnostic Mass weekly. Yet, as with the Gnostic Movement, the modern OTO is more concerned with legitimising themselves among competing Thelemic groups through connections to their founder, rather than apostolic succession, as with the Ecclesia Gnostics and the Apostolic Johannites. However, it is clear that their use of sexual magic is as much of a problem, however, and there is open hostility towards the OTO and the Gnostic Movement from the apostolic gnostic religions.

Los Angeles, then, is a microcosm of contemporary gnostic religion. More, it is a microcosm of the complex genealogy of the term gnosticism with its Christian and esoteric usages, the influence of Jung and other perennialist scholars, and its selective but enduring charm.

Disciplines and Dialogues: the present and future of Yoga Studies

By Theo Wildcroft

It’s a busy time for yoga scholars and writers at the moment. Next week sees the UK launch of independent scholar Matthew Remski’s new book: Practice and all is coming: abuse, cult dynamics, and healing in yoga and beyond, and last week saw the combination of two significant academic events: the SOAS Yoga Studies Week , and a two-day reading workshop for a future Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies, co-sponsored by SOAS and the Open University.

Sadly, it was a busy working week for me, so I missed much of the Yoga Studies Week, but it kicked off strongly with the Open University’s own Suzanne Newcombe and Karen O’Brien-Kop (SOAS), giving a lecture on new and interesting trends in yoga research. Apparently, my own research was highlighted, so I’m even sadder to have missed it! Other lectures I’d liked to have seen included Finnian Gerety (Brown University, USA), talking about sound and silence in yoga and meditation, Andrea Jain (Indiana University, USA) talking about yoga and neoliberalism, and Gudrun Bühnemann (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA), whose work on yoga-related visual media is always fascinating.

Yoga Studies is a small but growing field, and highly interdisciplinary in nature, including Sanskritists and other philologists, Indologists, health scientists and the full range of arts, humanities, and social sciences found at your average Religious Studies conference! This means that Yoga Studies events are intellectually stimulating, but also a rare chance to hang out with friends one doesn’t see very often. The workshop was entitled Disciplines and Dialogue: The Future of Yoga and  Meditation Studies. The aim of the Handbook’s editors, Suzanne Newcombe and Karen O-Brien-Kop again, was to take each draft chapter and discuss it in turn in live peer review. I haven’t worked on a proposed text like this before, and it was a thoughtful and thought-provoking experience. Each chapter had a reader, separate from any blind peer reviewer already assigned. The reader summarised the chapter so far, with suggestions and comments, the writer responded, and then the group as a whole discussed how the chapter might evolve, and how it might sit within the greater volume. As the workshop title suggested, it was also a chance to have wider discussions about the field and future possibilities.

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Fertility Cults and Material Religion podcast

Our own Marion Bowman took part in a podcast discussion with Professor Maureen Carroll, Jessica Hughes and Emma-Jayne Graham, “‘Mater Matuta and her ‘Sisters’: Exploring Fertility Cults and Associated Votives in Early Roman Religion”. This was recorded during last week’s London event of the Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion at The Open University 

Rastafari in Motion | Jewish Rastas?

By Hilde Capparella, PhD student in Religious Studies

My doctoral research focuses on diasporic and transnational contexts of Rastafari. I am interested in de-essentialising Rastafari, and over the next year or so I will be conducting fieldwork in Rome and London with different Rasta communities and groups. I see my approach as one that focuses on religion in motion, and it is an approach I began to develop when I decided to investigate Rastafari in Israel for my Master’s Thesis. In March 2014, I conducted two weeks of fieldwork in Israel, where I was hosted by a Rastafari family living in Ashdod.

Upon my arrival, I was surprised to see that their house was completely covered with Rastafari symbols and colours (see picture below). My senses were also submerged in the sounds of Reggae and Dub music playing in the background 24 hours a day. It is important to note that Rastafarianism appeared in Israel through books, radio, and  television, promoting reggae music and culture. During my short stay, what amazed me was to hear how the Rastafari language (the Dread talk) was used and mixed with Hebrew in everyday life, creating a new form of language.

Through my fieldwork, the main question I wanted to answer was why they embraced Rastafari so passionately. Despite identifying as Jews, they felt Rastafari to be more flexible than Judaism. In addition, because Rastafari relies on the Levitical code of conduct, for them it is easier to embrace Rastafari practices and symbolism, as it is already, in a certain way, part of their culture.

The most significant and emotional event during my stay was my participation in the Sabbath.  During this ritual, the whole family wore items with Rastafari symbols and colours. Whilst the parents were wearing the Tam (Rasta hat), their son was wearing a Kippa (Jewish hat) with Rastafari colours. During the prayer, they explained that because they embrace Rastafari they replace the Sabbath wine with grape juice, as Rastafarians cannot drink alcohol. They emphasised that, for them, Sabbath is a time to pray and stay with family and friends more than a time to go to the temple. In fact, after the Sabbath celebration, their friends came to visit them.

The picture at the top of the post was taken during that day. Just before to take the picture they all naturally united their fingers together doing the Rastafari gesture. This sign was first adopted by King Selassie, and symbolises Solomon’s Seal (or Star of David) to emphasise the King’s geneological link to King Solomon. King Selassie was the king of the Falasha, the Jewish of Ethiopia, despite growing up as an Orthodox Christian. Therefore, the symbol was adopted by Rastafari worldwide is used to signify their bond with Selassie. However, for Christian (generally Orthodox) or Jewish Rastafari, it symbolises also the link with the Selassie dynasty from David, to Jesus, to Selassie.

Through this short piece of fieldwork, I discovered a new blend of Rastafarianism and Judaism. As my doctoral research proceeds, I expect to expand on these findings.

Photos by the author.

"Quarantine". Copyright BBC 2018

Morris Dance as Ritual Dance, or, English Folk Dance and The Doctrine of Survivals

By Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe, University of Roehampton

The BBC’s featured online animation for December 2018, Quarantine, is described as: ‘A post-Brexit pagan dance fantasy about a troupe of Morris-dancing badgers’ (BBC online). Quarantine builds upon a culturally pervasive idea that has been widely discredited by researchers – that folk dance has its origins in pre-Christian ritual. However documentary research has failed to provided an easily digestible alternative, tentatively suggesting some connection with the end of the Muslim-Christian wars in the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century (Forrest 1999). With a raft of publications dating back to 1912 espousing the ritual theory, it is easy for interested individuals to be led down the pre-Christian garden path. Indeed, the ancient origins explanation probably does provide a more palatable alternative for many liberally inclined folk dance supporters than much of the historical documentation. For example, the practice of applying black face paint for ‘border’ morris was linked to anonymity and ritual, but research points to stronger links with stage minstrelsy (Metcalfe 2013). But where did the idea of ancient ritual come from in the first place?

In 1871 anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) published Primitive Culture, in which he laid out his theory of cultural survivals. Tylor posited that folklore or superstitions were ‘survivals’ of an earlier culture which had evolved leaving traces of itself behind in customs which could be seen as being cultural fossils (Hodgen 1931, Tremlett 2017). Tylor’s ideas were influenced by cultural evolutionism and drew parallels between the folklore of western civilised Europe and the culture of contemporary so-called ‘primitive’ societies, which were both inaccurate and racist (Kuper 1991, Bennett 1994). Tylor’s work was very influential as his ideas shaped James Frazer’s (1851-1941) publication The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890). Frazer pieced together diverse accounts of cultural practices from around the world to argue for a universal primeval religion, of which contemporary folklore practices were the surviving fragments (Hutton 2001: 112-131). The Doctrine of Survivals became the standard explanation for most folklore, including dance (Cawte 1993).

Frazer’s theories were picked up and promoted by Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), founder of the English Folk Dance Society. As dance historian Buckland has noted (1982), between the first and second editions of the The Morris Book Sharp changed his theoretical positioning on the origins of the dance form from one which postulated the arrival of the dance in England during the reign of Edward III (1312-1377), to a theory which considered morris dancing to be ‘one of the seasonal pagan observances prevalent amongst primitive communities’ (1912: 11). Sharp had gone Frazarian. Even country dancing was linked back to ancient ritual practice with maypoles providing an imaginative link between the older form of the dance and its modern manifestations (Sharp and Oppé 1924: 6, Judge 1979 [2000]: 85).

Theories on the origins of dance more generally were also influenced by the Doctrine of Survivals. In 1895 Lilly Grove published Dancing an early history on the subject in which even the most secular forms of dance are characterised as having their roots in ‘a form of worship, or at least a form of magic’ (Grove 1895:7). Grove was perhaps unduly influenced by the Golden Bough as she later married James Frazer, but even without the family connection, many early twentieth century theories of dance were linked to the Doctrine of Survivals and an associated evolutionary-based approach to the study of culture (Buckland 2014). Influential dance historian Curt Sachs, whose ideas like Tylor’s and Frazer’s were to receive heavy criticism (Youngermann 1974), postulated that: ‘The dances of man are never mere pastimes, or artistic performances without significance; they are magic actions and in consequence constructed in such a manner as to achieve a magic purpose.’ (Sachs 1931: 30). Theories and definitions of dance emphasised the non-verbal and so dance was particularly vulnerable to discussion of animalistic instinct and primitive ritual. Indeed, popular dance histories often supplied a problematic evolutionary-based framework for the reader, who would pass through chapters of tribal and western folk dance to reach the acme of developed western theatrical dance culture – ballet (Grau 1993/4).

Whilst the contemporary dance world has successfully distanced itself from such ritualistic narratives by emphasising the role of the individual creative genius, the same cannot be said for English folk dancers. The Doctrine of Survivals and The Golden Bough continue to circulate under a number of guises (Buckland 2001/2). The 1973 cult film The Wicker Man, which drew upon The Golden Bough for inspiration did much to indirectly bring Frazer’s work to new audiences (Koven 2007, Trubshaw 2002, Scovell 2017). Arguably the most fruitful investigation of the link between morris and ritual dance would be in its current usages and understandings. Indeed, the link between folklore and non-Christian faith is a reality for some contemporary Pagans, for whom appreciation of, or engagement in, folk music and dance is a part of their religiosity (Chase 2006, Letcher 2014).

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FASS Chats | Christmas

FASS Chats are a light-hearted look at the world through the eyes of OU Arts and Social Science academics. With no script, experts from wide-ranging fields of study and research chat about a topic, bringing their different perspectives to the discussion.

Paul Francois Tremlett took part in the latest FASS Chat, to talk about Christmas with Lynda Prescott and Jonquil Lowe. Our seasonal traditions might be more recent, complex and darker than you realised!

Little Makeshift Shrines to Dead People

By David G. Robertson

Were there always little makeshift shrines to dead people around the city?

I ask in all seriousness. I grew up in Inverness but ended up in Leith about fifteen years ago, and since then I have been fascinated by the makeshift memorials that I began to see popping up every few months. Like roadside shrines.

Usually they are for young who have died in unfortunate circumstances: a young man who was attacked late at night around New Year; where a child was hit by a car; where a heroin addict died after a fight outside Boots as they waited for their methadone prescription. There’s an unusual one on a cycle path rather than a pavement, but I’m not sure about the details there. It is interesting to note the similarities among the features, however: football colours are typical, as well as other hobbies, like music; flowers are always present, and candles. So while there is (usually) no explicitly religious content, there are recognizable funerary symbols.

Leith’s an interesting part of Edinburgh. For a long time it was very rundown, and when I moved to Edinburgh in the 1990s (around the time Trainspotting was released) it was still known as “The Heroin Capital of Europe”; now it has three different Michelin Starred restaurants and one of Britain’s top tourist attractions. So unlike, say, Morningside or Stockbridge, it’s not very middle-class – more a few rich people and then a BIG gap before you get down to folk like me. But Leith also has a Catholic heritage, even if most people don’t realise why Hibs fans are referred to as “Huns”. So maybe these kinds of spontaneous shrines were always something that happened in Leith, and I didn’t see them before because I was in Calvinist Inverness. I wonder, then, if they are common in Glasgow? [Update: Marion Bowman just shared a photo of one for a Big Issue seller in Bath).

Or maybe they’re a recent phenomenon. Our Instagram feed has included several photos of padlocks appearing on fences in popular tourist spots, and in the last few years the practice of rubbing the toe of the statue of John Knox on the Royal Mile has gone from something specific to philosophy graduates to all tourists, and has now spread to Greyfriar’s Bobby’s nose, 100 yards along George IV Bridge. These rituals are certainly changing over a relatively short period of time, although a serious dive into the broader sociological reasons why would require more space than a blog post would allow. But it is certainly interesting to speculate on these shrines being members of the public reclaiming what had traditionally been a function of religious institutions in a post-Christian Scotland.

Instead, I want to end on a point about how we read data for change. To assume that such change was a new phenomenon would be an error, if I didn’t have data from the period before. Just as it would be wrong to assume that sexual fetishes only began with the Kinsey Report, to assume that popular religious practices only started when scholars started to record them may be making the tail wag the dog. As I argued in a previous post, to assume that social behaviours are static and unchanging until the scholar casts their gaze upon it is rather colonial in itself, as though everything “primitive” (be that the colonies or the proles) never changed until it was forced on them. We see this much change and innovation in a few square miles over ten years – what would a history of any of the supposedly monolithic “World Religions” look like with this level of detail? How well would any of the claims to continuity, consistency and tradition hold up?

The  Black Majority Churches and ecumenism


On 30 October as part of Black History Month the department is contributing to ‘The Black Majority Churches and Ecumenism’ [pdf flier here] – a public event at the New Testament Church of God Learning and Training Centre in Northampton. The event is hosted and chaired by the Revd. Phyllis Thompson of the NTCG. In the Q and A with Dr John Maiden below, Revd. Thompson discusses the history of relations between the historic mainline churches and the BMCs in Britain, and says more about this event.

How would you describe the interactions between local black majority churches and mainline congregations in Britain in the 1970s and before?

The interactions were tentative and fraught in the main due to ignorance, scepticism, disappointment, frustration, racism and rejection to mention a few of the reported experiences.  Some of the men and women who came to the UK during this time, came as migrants and missionaries. Oliver Lyseight, for example, founding admin Bishop of the New Testament Church of God and listed 3rd of 100 Black British Achievers, belongs to a denomination which is part of a global Pentecostal movement currently with over 8 million members in over 34,000 local congregations in more than 184 countries around the world ( Determined to sustain his faith in the midst of the dissatisfaction and discontent, Oliver Lyseight – like many others – established branch congregations of their Pentecostal denominations in the UK. Given the sociopolitical issues mentioned earlier, the so called ‘black majority churches’ emerged and with this history the critical need for meaningful and sincere dialogue to address the fears, prejudice, and injustice of racial discrimination and identify ways in which the ‘historic churches and the so called ‘black majority churches’ could dialogue and find a voice to bring healing amongst its constituency, and together present the Christian message to the wider community.

You were involved in a project called Zebra in North East London from the late 1970s. What was Zebra and what was its approach to developing local relationships between BMCs and mainlines?

The Zebra project, as Deryck Collingwood, Chairman of the London N. E. District of the Methodist Church, said at the time, ‘was born out of disappointment.’ Ira Brooks, a leading New Testament Church of God Minister speaking on behalf of the Zebra Project, said ‘I have watched the painful success of Zebra from inside – having worked as a member of its steering committee for some years… people from various walks of life and professions are becoming more and more aware of it as a resource of information and expertise, especially within the delicate and difficult matters of racial harmony that are available for the use of blending and strengthening Britain’s multi-faith/cultural society for the 21st century.’ Insightful dialogue with the aim to encourage and support people of different backgrounds to work together to bring about racial justice was central to the  Zebra Project.

The public event on 30 October will explore some of this ecumenical history, and you will be chairing a discussion. How is this history, and the issues it raises, relevant to the churches in Britain today?

Clearly there is much to celebrate about the relationship between the ‘black majority churches’ and the ‘historic churches’ – this is evidenced, for example, by the  make-up of the leadership and work of Churches Together in England.

However, there is still a great deal to be done. An understanding of and engagement with the historical context  of the UK Churches should be a must for all church leaders who are keen to build on the wisdom of hindsight.

What do you think has been the impact of black majority churches on Christianity in Britain since Windrush?

The black majority Churches have made and continue to make significant contribution to the British religious landscape and the Christian witness in particular. Karen Gibson and her Kingdom Choir’s performance at the Royal wedding on the world’s stage is a good example, as are the many other Pentecostal Christians of African/Caribbean background who are making tremendous contribution via the so called seven spheres of influence as itemised by Loren Cunningham: Family, religion/church, Education, Government, Media, Celebration (Arts, Entertainment and Sports) and Economics(Business, Science, and technology).

The event costs £5, including lunch and refreshments. To book, email

Friedrich A. Hayek, Max Weber and the Anthropocene

By Paul-François Tremlett

In a 2007 essay titled ‘Prophecy and the Near Future’, Jane Guyer developed a series of observations about how evangelical Christians and neoliberals conceive of time. She concluded that for both, the near future has disappeared. Action for the future is postponed indefinitely, premised upon an overwhelming sense of individual fallibility in the face of an inscrutable even unknowable world. In this short post, I bring Hayek and Weber together again to think about time but with regard to climate change, capitalism, individualism and Protestantism.

Friedrich A. Hayek’s concerns are not merely those of an economist: he is a social theorist and a philosopher, seeking to establish “true” individualism as a theory of society (1949: 6). He contrasts a fallible individual against the state. For Hayek, it is better for individuals to pursue their albeit narrow, private interests – the things that they can know – than surrender those interests and that knowledge to the plans of some seemingly beneficent, all-knowing state. Order and freedom are secured, according to Hayek, when individuals are free to pursue their interests and not when some arrogant collective body decides what it cannot know namely, the best interests of all. The scope of individual action described by Hayek is ultimately circumscribed by the occult forces of the market that allegedly translates every small decision-action into a larger and more perfect social formation, towards which “humility” (1949: 32) is, for Hayek, the most appropriate attitude.

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism concerns the psychological effects of ‘salvation anxiety’ on action. The Protestant belief in predestination generates a sense of human fallibility and powerlessness as to what can be known about God’s will but also about the wider world, precipitating psychological stress and a narrowing of attention to proximate material interests as proxies for private, spiritual ones. Weber concludes with a pessimistic warning as to the sustainability of the Protestant-capitalist formation his book describes: it will last “until the last ton of fossilised fuel is burnt” (2002: 123) he suggests, starkly.

The trouble with climate change – putting aside its potential for our extinction – is that it precisely requires individuals to cease only being concerned with their own private interests and to recognize that, at least when it comes to climate, there really is something beyond the fallible human individual – something that might be called science or the scientific community – that, galvanised by national and international institutions, really does have the necessary knowledge to compel us to act not selfishly but sociologically. I wager that, if humans do survive the impending climate crisis, Protestantism, individualism and capitalism won’t survive with them.

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Scottish Nationalism “similar to religion”, says Judge

By David G. Robertson

An interesting story appeared in the Herald last week that illuminates some interesting features of the contemporary conversation about religion.

Chris McEleny was an electrician at the Ministry of Defense site in Beith, Inverclyde, and the SNP group leader on Inverclyde Council. In 2016, he announced he would be running as a candidate to become deputy leader of the SNP. He was then suspended by the MoD, and had his security clearance revoked. National security officials came to his home and asked him about his mental health, social media activity and pro-independence stance. McEleny resigned and pursued a discrimination case against the MoD, arguing that he had been fired because of his belief in independence.

But to do so, he had to argue that independence was a “philosophical belief”, and therefore a “protected characteristic” under the 2010 Equality Act. Legal precedent said that to fall under this category, his belief had to be “genuinely held”, involve “moral and ethical conviction” and relate to “weighty and substantial aspects of human life and behaviour”.

The judge ruled in his favour – impressive given that McEleny defended himself against the UK Government. In summing up, the judge said “The claimant has persuaded me that his belief in Scottish independence has a sufficiently similar cogency to a religious belief… to qualify as a philosophical belief.”

This preliminary ruling will now go forward to a full hearing, so expect to hear more about it in future. For now, I want to point out a few interesting points about how “religion” and “belief” are mobilised here.

Religion is about “genuinely held” beliefs. This could be problematic. Given that half the Jews in Israel are atheist, Scottish law would have to deny them any religious protection under this logic. Many forms of Buddhism would deny that belief was involved at all. What about sincerely held beliefs about female circumcision or witchcraft? What would we make about the many who identify as a religion but do not follow all of the rules and tenets of that religion? And if I have been raised in a religion and taken on its norms, how “genuinely held” are those beliefs? How do we test the “genuineness” of a belief? If it is not judged ‘genuine’, am I therefore lying?

Religion is about morality, and the “weighty” questions of life. Is it? Wouldn’t that make environmentalism or animal rights or the Geneva Convention religious? What counts as “weighty”? Who decides?

Religions are “cogent”. While the representatives of various traditions have a vested interest in presenting religions as internally consistent and sharing fundamental ideas, this is not true and never has been. [Try our Exploring Religions module for lots of examples].

“Belief” is never defined. Seems pedantic, perhaps, but it matters a great deal – and the fact that we all assume we know what “belief” means should start alarm bells ringing. The idea that we have a series of belief ‘statements’ in our minds that we refer to when we act is clearly untrue; we act before thought, we hold contradictory beliefs, we hold multiple beliefs at the same time, we don’t do what we think, and so on. Is my love for my wife a belief? What about that the sun will rise in the morning, or that the switch will make a light go on?

No; what is going on here is an appeal to Protestant ideas about “faith”. Religious beliefs are understood as a special kind of belief that, because it comes from God, must be protected from criticism from merely “rational” beliefs.

Religions deserve protection, but political or other beliefs do not. Because it is comparable to a religion, this nationalism needs protected by the law. But why should religion be uniquely protected? Judging from the panel on Religion in the Law at our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference in February [soon to be a special issue of Implicit Religion], the issue at present seems to be mostly concerned with protecting minority groups, particularly immigrants, but problems arise as the model used is based on European Protestant Christianity. The law moves slowly, but in my experience, the legal system is willing, even keen, to listen.

Most comment on this case will revolve around the question of whether nationalism is or is not a religion, but this is really missing the point. Cases like these reveal the fault lines in how the category religion is understood in public discourse. Legal proceedings are an underused resource for analysing the public discourse on religion, and an especially important one, as it has real effects on people. My interest in religion has always been based in a fascination with the relationship between ideas and communities of people, and the law is the point where these ideas become inscribed in societies. If we as scholars are serious about wanting to be heard by the broader public, this might be a good place to focus our attention.

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