Category Archives: Ideas

“Big, if true”: Belief in the subjunctive

In 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the Ministry of Defence recruited a team of psychics to track down bin Laden’s alleged “Weapons of Mass Destruction” with remote viewing. According to recently declassified documents, the MoD literally borrowed the playbook on using remote viewing in military intelligence that the CIA had developed during the Cold War, as made famous by Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats.

They didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction – but then, there weren’t any to find.

Two decades later, in the wake of shock populist election victories in the US and UK, and as COVID brought vaccination fears to the surface again, it is widely claimed that mis- and disinformation on social media is the root cause. People are being exposed unwittingly to “fake news” on the Internet, and this, it is claimed, is at the root of todays’ hyperpartisan and conspiratorial politics. Nevertheless, the empirical data is clear that the influence of online misinformation on political events is minimal.

What do these two examples have in common? A too-simple understanding of belief.

Our first reaction to the MoD employing psychics might be incredulity that such senior military figures could “believe in” remote viewing. But it is clear that the military’s position was agnosticif it could be done, it would confer a great military advantage. Given the comparatively low cost of a few experiments, then a few trials could be entirely justified – whether or not one entirely “believes”.

The connection between behaviour and belief becomes easier to understand when we see belief in the subjunctive. For example, my dad has severe rheumatoid arthritis that causes him chronic pain. He tried acupuncture when it was offered to him, and it didn’t matter if he believed it. It either worked, or it didn’t, and if it did, he’d keep using it.

At the same time, if we assume that someone sharing a conspiracy theory on Facebook means that that person fully believe it, then we will see our feeds as awash with irrationality. But the data is clear: engagement is not the same as accepting. In fact, most people will only accept things which fit their already-existing preconceptions. And while the Internet may be “methodologically convenient”, it is clear that offline networks and legacy media (especially that owned by Rupert Murdoch) drive behaviour more successfully.

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)

It’s a difficult shift to make, because the idea of belief is deeply engrained in the post-Protestant worldview. Belief – or its more specifically religious variant, faith – is central to how we think about religion. Indeed, in legal cases involving religious exemptions, such as this one, the question of whether a belief is “sincerely-held” can be pivotal (as I wrote about in a previous post). Yet, as our recent project on the census has shown, religious identities are complex, and beliefs are changeable, multiple and sometimes contradictory, and tied up with other aspects of our identity. And belief might not even be the reason you identify with a religion anyway.

In short, if we want to understand the connection between knowledge and social action, religious or otherwise, we need a more sophisticated model of belief. It’s harder to see things as black and white if we don’t see belief as an either/or binary.

Big, if true.

(Images © Crown Copyright/MOD 2022)

Forget Worldviews: Manifesto for a Postmodern Religious Studies

The point of departure for this post is that the much-touted Worldviews paradigm (REC 2018) — in much the same fashion as the World Religion Paradigm — conceives of religions as substances and as containers to which can then be ascribed traits and qualities, into which can be poured particular collections of beliefs, practices, founders, texts and institutions. Such conceptions lead to stereotypes, clichés and essentialism, and hinder the cultivation of critical religious literacy.

An alternative is required and, as such, I propose conceiving religions broadly in terms of relations rather than as substances or containers, and specifically as assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari 2014). An assemblage is a multiplicity of interconnected things. What would this approach mean for the study of Christianity?

In 1999–2000 I conducted fieldwork around Mount Banahaw in the Philippines. I was interested in religious groups and churches that had emerged amidst (i) complex historical encounters between Catholic and Protestant missionary activity in the context of Empire and revolution; (ii) gendered Southeast Asian conceptions of power and healing; and (iii), more recent post-colonial, nationalist, urban and diasporic imaginaries and networks.

Asymmetric interactions in Banahaw generated a religion called Rizalism, which was characterised by vernacular Biblical interpretation fused with local ontology, improvised monumental architecture, the configuration of José Rizal — a 19th century Filipino doctor and novelist executed by the Spanish colonial regime in 1896 and later elevated to the status of national hero — into a messianic personage and, with regard to the largest of the Rizalist churches in Banahaw the Ciudad Mistica de Dios — the building of a “city” that challenged the urban imaginaries of the Spanish and American colonial projects and the Philippines’ own urban modernity. The Rizalism assemblage, then, drew and related together a number of previously distinct elements to constitute a new religious formation.

A further example from the Philippines concerns El Shaddai, which is neither Catholic nor Protestant and is both local and global. El Shaddai is a Catholic charismatic-Pentecostal group that, through mass rallies, radio and television programmes, digital media and a mega-church complex, links various locales across the archipelago with Manila and numerous Pinoy diasporas in Asia, Europe and the Americas. If traditional Catholic religiosity in the Philippines is centred on the defined space of the parish church and mediated through the priest, El Shaddai generates a mediatised transmission chain that links together domestic spaces, virtual spaces and numerous locales with rallies and worship in Manila, by broadcasting the latter live on various media platforms. The El Shaddai assemblage, then, also combines, relates and connects a host of previously distinct elements and gives them a new form.

An ethnographic perspective on El Shaddai and the Rizalists of Mount Banahaw opens out the lived and improvised, do-it-yourself dimensions of these assemblages. Both have been generated through everyday combinations of previously distinct elements. An astronomer’s perspective makes visible how each of these assemblages has coalesced as a result of a series of asymmetrical, historical “generative interactions” (Tremlett 2021) between missionaries, technologies, landscapes and more. Combining these perspectives reveals complex processes of combination-relation-articulation by which different things arrive in each other’s orbit to become an assemblage and processes of disintegration-separation wherein those orbits are disturbed and the elements pulled apart, perhaps to decompose altogether, or to fall into the orbit of something else.

A postmodern Religious Studies interested in Christianity would begin with such groups because they demonstrate the existence not of a distinct, single worldview called Christianity but rather a diversity of christianities assembled across multiple scales of the social (local, national and global). Critical religious literacy does not reside in being able to reproduce the ideologically policed borders of Christianity as a single tradition, but in being able to analyse its interactions and relations with the different scales and dimensions of the social, using multiple lenses (see Moore 2010).

This post was originally published on Socrel’s blog at Medium: https://socrel.medium.com/forget-worldviews-manifesto-for-a-postmodern-religious-studies-85fbcf061b74. Reposted with permission and gratitude.

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Notes on Dreaming 

By Paul-François Tremlett

I have written about dreams in relation to anthropology and religion before (Tremlett 2008 and 2017), and I return to dreams here spurred on in part by the spate of stories in popular media about dreams and the pandemic (e.g. Renner 2020). Pandemic-dream stories, if I can call them that, sometimes rehearse a basic opposition between the idea that dreams are airy nothings and meaningless arbitrary associations on the one hand, and the idea that dreams are producers, performers and generators on the other.

Perhaps surprisingly, we can find that opposition at work in late nineteenth and early twentieth century writings about the origins of religion. For example, according to the British anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832-1917), it was precisely the desire to explain the appearance, in dreams, of “human shapes” (Tylor 1903 I, 428), that led to the development of animism which was, or so Tylor claimed, the original form of religion. This view was vehemently opposed by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) who argued that dreams leave only “vague impressions … in the memory” (Durkheim 1915, 58; 1960, 82) meaning that it was unlikely that anyone would spend much time dwelling or reflecting on them and, if they did, it was to no purpose anyway. As you may have guessed, Durkheim had his own theory about the origins of religion! 

Perhaps what is most interesting is that Tylor’s general theory of religion is typically represented as a rationalist theory, yet he locates the origins of religion in an irrational force (the dream), while Durkheim’s general theory of religion is routed through ideas about emotion and affect, yet he says thinking about dreams is a waste of time that could otherwise be spent on more productive pursuits (a rather utilitarian or rationalist perspective). In other words, when it comes to dreams, Tylor and Durkheim swap places: the utilitarian becomes the irrationalist and vice versa. What does any of this have to do with Covid? If, like me, you’ve been experiencing some pretty weird dreams these past months, try to enjoy the ride. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that dreams are cryptic machines. They make stuff, it’s just not clear why or to what end.  

  

References
Durkheim, E. (1915) 
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (trans), J. W. Swain, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Durkheim, E. (1960) Les Formes Elémentaires de la Vie Religieuse, Paris: PUF. 

Renner, R. (2020)  The pandemic is giving people vivid, unusual dreams. Here’s why. | National Geographic 

Tremlett, P-F. (2008) ‘Anthropology, Dreams, Epistemology’ in Anthropology Today 24 (6): 27-29. 

Tremlett, P-F. (2017) ‘Deconstructing the Survival in E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture: From Memes to Dreams and Bricolage’ in Edward Burnett Tylor: Religion and Culture, London: Bloomsbury, 179-194.  

Tylor, E. B. (1903) Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom Vols. I, 4th  Ed, London: John Murray. 

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.

Exploring Immortality [Audio]

To mark the new BA (Hons) qualification in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics (R45), Suzanne Newcombe and Carolyn Price discuss how researchers in Religious Studies and Philosophy investigate immortality.

Research into physical immortality is big business. Just try searching Google for the CEO of Apple Computers and biotech firm Genentech founded Calico (est. 2013). It’s a company backed by a billion dollars of investment which aims to ‘devise interventions that slow aging and counteract age‑related diseases.’ However, the potential of immortality raises significant ethical concerns.

Find out more – listen to their discussion (which includes a full transcription). And find out more about the Religion, Philosophy and Ethics degree here.

Ancient Material Religion

By Jessica Hughes, Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies

This Spring sees the launch of a new research centre at The Open University, which involves some exciting collaborations between the Departments of Classical Studies and Religious Studies. The Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion builds on a long tradition of OU research in the areas of material religion and lived religion, as well as sensory approaches to sacred spaces and rituals. The Centre is based in the Department of Classical Studies, so its main focus will be ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan material religion: nevertheless, one of our primary aims is to bring this ancient Mediterranean evidence into a productive dialogue with work on religious material culture in other periods and places, so we’ll be working closely with colleagues in Religious Studies and Art History, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which religion happens though material things – including objects, bodies and places.

Left to right: Professor James Robson (Head of School of Arts & Cultures, and member of the new Centre steering committee); Dr Jessica Hughes (Centre director); Professor Maureen Carroll (our guest speaker for the inaugural seminar of the Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion).

The Centre’s inaugural seminar last month was a fantastic start to our activities, and already showed how valuable such cross-disciplinary dialogue can be. Professor Maureen Carroll from the University of Sheffield joined us in Milton Keynes to give a talk on ‘Mater Matuta and her Sisters: Exploring Fertility Cults and Associated Votives in Early Roman Religion’. This seminar presented some of the results of Professor Carroll’s recent fellowship at the British School at Rome, including a new interpretation of the famous tufa statues from the sanctuary at Capua in Southern Italy. Afterwards, we recorded a panel discussion about votive offerings related to fertility and early infancy, featuring Dr Emma-Jayne Graham from Classical Studies (who talked about anatomical votives from sites in ancient Italy), Dr Marion Bowman from Religious Studies (who shared her research on the cult of St Gerard Majella in Newfoundland), and the artist Tabitha Moses, whose work has drawn powerfully on the imagery and concept of votive offerings. As well as sharing material from our own research or artistic practice, we explored how votives related to the broader themes of relationality and materiality, and how these objects help(ed) people to forge relationships – both with divine beings, and with each other – during the often anxious times of pregnancy and childbirth.

The recording of this discussion is available on the Centre website and embedded below, and we will be sharing more resources like this over the coming months. The Centre website also lists our upcoming events, including our official launch celebration, which will take place in Senate House in London on the evening of Monday 25th March. The programme for the evening features a keynote talk by Professor Esther Eidinow entitled “Magic: mind, material, metaphor”, and a joint presentation about the Centre’s work by members of the steering committee. Like all our events, this one is free to attend, and open to everyone, and we really hope that some readers of this blog will be able to join us! Also this month we will host a seminar in Milton Keynes by Dr Jody Cundy of Oxford University, who will be talking about votive offerings in Greek literary texts and inscriptions (21st March), and a ‘networking day’ in Camden Town, London (3rd April), which has a packed programme of talks and round table discussions, including a session led by Professor Graham Harvey and Dr Ailsa Hunt entitled ‘Ancient Trees, Contemporary Rivers: what does animism have to do with our environmental crisis?’.

We are very grateful to Baron Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza for his generous support of the Centre, and we look forward to sharing more news of our research activities with you all in the future. Please do come and join any of our seminars or workshops, or tune into the website and Twitter account (@OpenMatRel) to follow our progress and discover our latest multimedia resources.

"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 et.al. 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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Why looking through the lens of religion can help us to understand the popularity of conspiracy theories like Pizzagate

David G. Robertson has a new piece out over at the LSE’s blog on United States Policy and Politics blog, discussing his work on the intersections of religion and conspiracy theories. Read the whole thing here.

Conspiracy theories rarely lead to violence; with the main exception being 2016’s Pizzagate which culminated in a gunman threatening a pizza restaurant which he believed was a front for a satanic paedophile ring. David G. Robertson and Asbjorn Dyrendal unpack some of the reasons why conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate can gain ground so rapidly, citing links to the “satanic panic” of the 1990s. They also point to links with wider apocalyptic narratives of right-wing conspiracist groups, narratives which are often also reflected in religion. 

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!

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