Returning to Earth | Climate Change, COP26 and Indigenous Voices

 By Graham Harvey 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The power of religious life outside of institutions

By Claire Wanless

Sociologists have sometimes taken the view that in the absence of hierarchical institutions, religion lacks the ability to sustain itself over generations or to motivate participants to socially significant activity. That is to say that regardless of the value or otherwise of practices and beliefs, religion needs strong institutions to make it functionally viable. It is tempting to use this kind of argument to suggest that the individualized religious and spiritual practice that is increasingly seen in societies like the UK is best regarded as mere personal superstition – an ultimately trivial and socially unimportant private practice. Arguably, to do so is to accept that we need powerful leaders to direct us in order to prevent our society from fragmenting into one ruled primarily by self-interest. My PhD research (recently published in book form) indicated a different conclusion. The subjects of my research were people who felt themselves to be spiritual or religious but who prioritised their own subjective experience over any external religious authority. Many of them were people who had previously been involved with top-down religious institutions and who had then decided to cast their own religious path. They had not rejected religious or spiritual practice as an activity, but they had rejected top-down religious institutions. I found that, far from being isolated in their practice, many of these people took advantage of various kinds of shared practice groups and networks to create their own opportunities for constructive practice and information exchange. This resulted in a far richer and more dynamic spirituality-related culture than you might expect if practitioners were merely indulging in isolated personal superstition. While individuals in this context can take radical ownership of their personal spiritual journeys, they recognise the parallel efforts of their peers to do the same, and they see value in working together. This can give rise to a shared discourse and ethic of mutuality that both aids transmission of ideas and practices and facilitates socially significant activity.

It is important to note that what is transmitted in this kind of context is not best understood as religious truths or identities, but as ideas, practices and similar spiritual resources that are then accepted only to the degree that they are found to be useful. The information exchange that occurs is therefore not only dynamic but highly creative in its operation. While still prioritising their own subjectivity and personal authority over their religious lives, these individuals benefit from a shared approach to the making of (among other things) meaning, moral frameworks and creative purpose.

It is interesting to speculate about the extent to which this kind of association is apparent elsewhere – perhaps alongside the top-down structures of more traditional religious institutions, or among artistic and creative communities in which people see themselves as independent practitioners within a culture of peers. The parallel may be especially striking in fields of grassroots political activism where there is a moral element and a shared desire to change the world for the better. It would be interesting to find out more about the importance and structure of any shared ethic of mutuality among political activists, and particularly where its boundaries lie. Over the last few years we have seen how social media can be used to manipulate us into likeminded bubbles, in which we only talk to those who think like ourselves and see those who are outside of our own bubble as somehow the enemy. Further research on how and why this ethic of mutuality works might help us understand how to break down the silos and create a more open and inclusive political discourse. In the meantime, perhaps each of us could benefit from thinking about our own personal ethic of mutuality, and whether it extends as far as it should.

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Traditional Islam in Afghanistan and the Taliban

By Hugh Beattie

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

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

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

Tiles from the shrine of the Khorasani Sufi poet and scholar Abdullah Ansari (d.1089 CE) in Herat in western Afghanistan |

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football, lived religion and public piety

By John Maiden

Last weekend, in the wake of Euro 2021, there was an interesting article by Julian Coman in the Observer concerning the England and Premiership football stars Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling. For those of you who don’t follow football (by which I mean ‘soccer’) – and I will resist the temptation to say ‘or have been asleep for the last month’ – these three players helped drive the English football team all the way to the incredible achievement of the final of the tournament, the nation’s first since 1966. The article headline made a further observation: that Rashford, Saka, Sterling and others ‘blaze a trail for black British Christians’.

Coman’s piece sent me off on a couple of thought pathways. First, about the timeliness of the article. Prayers and symbolic gestures (e.g. hands pointing to the sky) seem to me increasingly common in English Premiership football. This is not just about black British footballers who may have a background in ‘black majority churches’ (BMCs) – it is also Catholic and Orthodox footballers (e.g. performing the sign of the cross) of various nationalities and ethnicities, and also Muslims, for example Paul Pogba (of my beloved Manchester United) and Mohamed Salah (great player, shame about his club…).

Such displays of religious piety in the top-flight of English football are not new. I can remember watching Manchester United from the Stretford Paddock as a teenager and noticing a few players, some British but often those of visiting Italian and Polish clubs, signing the cross. However, anecdotally, I would say that in the last 10-15 years the frequency and visibility of these personal, ‘lived’ religious rituals on the pitch has grown markedly.

One might conjecture (as does Coman) that the Premier League’s explosion of wealth, and the number of African and South American players who have signed for English teams. These have included pentecostals, Catholics and Muslims, whose personal rituals have made piety more common place and ‘acceptable’ in football subculture. If so, perhaps a knock-on effect has been that British footballers with religious backgrounds are inspired or emboldened to express individual devotion on the field of play. Whatever the factors involved, my point is that in our celebrity and sports-driven culture, it is probably footballers who offer the most high-profile manifestation of religious practice and belief in British public life. An estimated 31 million people watched the Euro 2021 final in the UK; but millions also watch the Premier League and all the various domestic and European knock-out tournaments every week. As well as watching these players’ goals, tackles and saves, we are observing their everyday religion.

I want to stress again that none of the above is based on hard data, but rather my own subjective observations. However, more concretely the Coman article got me thinking about my research on the construction of wider public perceptions of Black Christianity – and specifically the black majority churches – in Britain. I have recently published on this in an article for Twentieth Century British History. I can’t rehearse the argument fully in a blog post, but the basic point is that in the post-war period, the press and the leaders of historic mainline churches in Britain were very slow to pay serious attention to the BMCs and their impact on the urban religious landscape. At the end of the 1970s, many white liberal Christians and commentators still tended to think of black majority churches as ‘ghetto congregations’.

However, around this time, with the growing assertion of Black consciousness amongst church leaders, and the efforts of a minority of white Christians to adopt a non-paternalistic attitude towards these congregations, an alternative narrative began to emerge – of BMCs raising the possibility of resacralisation in a social context of rapid secularisation. As the radical theologian Trevor Beeson wrote in The Guardian in 1979, “in these African and West Indian churches lies the best hope of re-Christianizing the British nation and in helping the weary churches of these islands to re-discover the true character of Christian faith and worship.”

With the coming of multiculturalism in public policy, increasingly BMCs were thought of as institutions providing community leadership, organisation and social capital (see for example, the BBC documentary ‘Life and death the Pentecostal way’). The Coman article contributes also to this evolving narrative. Media and academic representation of BMCs in the 1960s and 1970s tended to depict embattled, insular congregations. Now Black Christian traditions are described as being about ‘the embodiment of faith, how you live out what you say in a Sunday service.’ As footballers are increasingly thought to offer moral leadership in civil society, due attention needs to be given to the religious influences which have shaped them.

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.  


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. 

Indigenous festivals and the re-making of the world

By Graham Harvey

Among the many impacts of the Covid19 pandemic is the moving of festivals to online venues.  Starting on 13 May 2021, this year’s ORIGINS Festival of First Nations will begin with a series of digital events. Previously, the biennial festival has brought Indigenous artists and thinkers from around the world to perform and present in London. Before the pandemic, an exciting programme of events over a period of about two months provided audiences with opportunities to enjoy and engage with music, theatre, dance, talks, films and other media in venues as diverse as the British Museum, Rich Mix and public parks. The festival not only begins with a ceremony informed and largely led by Indigenous participants but also includes many performances inspired and informed by Indigenous ceremonial repertoires and or sacred knowledges. In addition to be hugely enjoyable and profoundly educational, ORIGINS has been an exciting site for my research about religion. The 2021 ORIGINS Festival promises to be similarly inspiring and provocative.

You can find plenty of information about this year’s year-long ORIGINS Festival of First Nations – and about previous festivals – in the organising company’s website and in social media. The opening event on May 13th includes an online performance of the short play, Katharsis, by Yvette Nolan (Algonquin, Canada) – billed as “a digital love letter to a theatre left empty by the pandemic”. The festival continues with a series of talks by Indigenous writers (poets, environmentalists, and a horror novelist) addressing the three main themes of this year’s festival: Covid, Climate Change and Colonialism. As the festival continues throughout 2021 and into 2022, live, face-to-face performance-based interventions in public spaces are planned. Some will move beyond London, including a journey of a Totonac artist’s totem carving to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow this autumn.

In addition to contributing to dialogue with some of the Indigenous presenters and performers, my involvement with the festival involves research focused on dynamic interplays between ritual and performance, and celebration and decolonisation. The first of these seeming contrasts is a classic issue in the study of religions and related disciplines. Some scholars have insisted that theatrical performances are different from religious rituals in several ways. Rituals, it has been claimed, do not have audiences, only participants. They carry and convey serious meanings rather than offering entertainment. They do not encourage improvisation but should follow established traditions. Each of these (and other) comparisons have been challenged and the inadequacies of their underlying assumptions often rejected. More recent studies of both theatre and ritual have reflected deeply on their commonalities. This is improved understanding of and debate about the ways in which people improvise when they get involved in religious rituals, making them part of contemporary lives in one way or another. We might also play with phrases like “suspension of disbelief” and “make-believe”, sometimes used in relation to theatrical performance to think about what happens when people do ceremonies.

Grupo Sotz’il in OXLAJUJ B’AQTUN – ORIGINS 2015 photo by John Cobb

All of this is useful to students of religion in reconsidering some key terms and debates in our discipline. But what happens at the ORIGINS Festival suggests that another phrase might be more useful: “world making”. Performers, artists, film-makers and speakers raise important issues and proffer powerful suggestions about ways of tackling the contemporary challenges. In various ways, audiences are invited to set aside colonial and romantic perspectives and to reflect on how things might be different. They are challenged, explicitly or implicitly, to consider the legacy of European historical, cultural and religious processes, and especially to re-imagine communities that embrace rather than exclude Indigenous peoples and the larger-than-human world. There are, then, religious and political world-making projects braided in with the enjoyment of rich cultural events. If the world is, as many Indigenous people insist, made up of multi-species communities, then the solutions to pandemics, climate crises and colonialism have to involve the needs of all living beings. My research at ORIGINS and other Indigenous festivals leads me to think that we could expand our notions of religion and democracy to embrace many more participants than just us humans.

Census Stories | Bringing Life to the Big Numbers

By Suzanne Newcombe 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphor and Religion

by Paul-François Tremlett

In the late 19th century, as the sheer diversity of religions dawned on nascent traditions of enquiry in the social sciences and the humanities, a number of scholars sought to define Religion by establishing the key common traits and features they assumed would be shared by all of the different religions. This project generated new research which, while certainly adding to the sum total of human knowledge about religions, nevertheless did not deliver on the promise of a definition of Religion, or at least not a universal one that could boast any consensus outside usage by particular interest groups.

In the early twenty-first century, the standard approach to Religion (still with a capital R) is somewhat different. Instead of trying to delineate a distinct class of religious facts we approach Religion through metaphor. Think of “liquid religion” or “vernacular religion”. These metaphors, both popular in today’s academic circles, tell us not what Religion is, but rather invite us to attend to certain qualities of Religion that chime with our wider contemporary experience. “Liquid”, as Zygmunt Bauman said, means “change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty”, and the new mobilities and flows enabled by globalization and digital media have seen both new forms of Religion (from place-based congregations to digitally-enabled global communities such as El Shaddai) and new kinds of Religion influenced by popular culture and new technologies, such as Terasem. “Vernacular religion”, with its connotations of local variation and performance as well as perhaps dissenting departure from official norms, invites us to imagine Religion not as something abstract or grandiose but rather as something put to work in ordinary life. It is a metaphor with enormous resonance in cultures that celebrate the individual as a source of its own authority and in societies keen to celebrate local authenticities and eccentricities against imaginaries of bloated institutions and zombie bureaucracies. Thinking about Religion through these and other metaphors is, in my view, productive and a welcome alternative to the collection of facts and the formulation of typologies that defined Religious Studies in decades past and, in this short post I want to road-test an alternative metaphor for Religion: “sticky”.

There are at least three iterations of “sticky religion”. The first comes from the functionalist school in twentieth century Sociology which regarded the performance of religious rituals as sticky occasions because of their capacity to cement or glue different societal elements together. Emile Durkheim’s classic The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (first translated into English in 1915) is regarded by many as a foundational expression of this point of view.

The second comes from feminist and post-colonial theory but shares certain affinities with the first. Sara Ahmed’s interest in emotion and affect and her exploration of the ways in which emotions move and come to bind bodies, objects and places together, extends Durkheim’s insight as to the mucilaginous qualities of certain social practices. For example, according to Ahmed, words become sticky through the various resonances and associations that they gather through time and through use. If we apply her insights to Religion, it is clear that it is a word that has accumulated many layers of meaning and significance, both emotional and intellectual, largely without anyone being particularly aware of the when, why or how, and those meanings cannot easily be unstuck or separated.

The third comes from contemporary cognitive anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber, who regard religious beliefs as side-effects of ordinary thinking. In their view, human brains are pre-wired to anticipate reality. That is, humans arrive into the world with a pre-programmed set of expectations about how the world works: a solid object can’t pass through another solid object (everyday physics), animals without wings can’t fly (everyday biology) and I will never know what’s going on inside my reader’s mind (everyday psychology). Religious beliefs break all of these hard-wired assumptions about reality: ghosts walk through walls, mythical horses fly, and gods are privy to every human thought. But if religious beliefs contravene our expectations of reality – expectations which in other circumstances our lives depend on – why do people believe them? Why do these beliefs persist when they deliver false expectations? According to our cognitive anthropologists, people believe them because they are sticky, first activating and then bonding with, other cognitive capacities associated with social life.

“Sticky religion” offers a way of thinking that draws attention to certain qualities or aspects of Religion. It neither offers to explain nor understand Religion. Instead it positions it in a fragile and shifting web of connections.



Ahmed, S. 2014, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2nd Ed), Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

Bauman, Z. 2000, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity.

Boyer, P. 2000, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books.

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

Sperber, D. 1996, Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach, Oxford: Blackwell.

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).

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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.