Westminster Education Policy Briefing: innovative pedagogies for teaching religious diversity

On 18 January 2024, the Open University and the project Religious Toleration and Peace (RETOPEA), was mentioned as an “exciting” teaching innovation during a Lords Grand Committee on Religious Education in schools. The project was described as presenting young people with an opportunity to “think outside the box about their own experiences of religious diversity, tolerance and intolerance”. The following week, the OU team was able to follow up on this with an education policy briefing event in Westminster. Here we presented some of the outcomes and potentialities of the project, and particularly our ‘Docutubes’ methodology. This is an approach through which young people have been encouraged to learn creatively about religious diversity in past, present and their own experiences, by writing, making and editing their own short films.

The Docutubes approach was first developed as part of a Horizon 2020 funded project in collaboration with various universities and partners across Europe. Since this has ended, further support from the Culham St Gabriel Trust and the OU’s Open Societal Challenges programme, has enabled the OU team to test the methodology in a number of new contexts, including the Muslim-majority countries of Albania and Jordan, in a wider range of English schools, and in both a Protestant and Catholic school in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

In the first half of the policy event, members of the project team, John Maiden, Stefanie Sinclair and John Wolffe, along with Karel Van Nieuwenhuyse, a RETOPEA colleague from KU Leuven, explained the Docutubes approach. We spoke about how engaging young people with an accessible online archive of primary sources – ‘thinking like historians’ – and then the creative learning approach of Docutubes, had demonstrated the potential to address common ‘presentist’ understandings of the religious diversity. Specifically, the approach is able to challenge the widely held views about the past which associate religion with conflict. We then heard from two educators, Richard Brown (Head Teacher, Urswick School, London) and Ruairi Geehan (Mercy College, Belfast) about their experiences of RETOPEA, as well as Dr Renee Hattar, Director of the Jordanian Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies, which hosted a Doctubes workshop in 2023. Finally, a young people who had experienced a Docutubes workshop described his own positive experiences of the project, working alongside young people from other religious traditions, in the context of an interfaith youth camp organised by the Rose Castle Foundation.

In the second half (pictured), we heard responses from expert practitioners in the fields of teaching, peace-making and interfaith: Helen Snelson (Teacher Education, University of York, Chair of the Historical Association’s Secondary Committee and a EuroClio Ambassador); Rosie Dawson (Freelance religion journalist, documentary maker and radio producer); David Porter (Strategy Consultant for the Archbishop of Canterbury); Riaz Ravat (Contributor to the Commission on Islam in the UK, Prime Minister’s Extremism Task Force and the Commission on Religion & Belief in Public Life). Here, there was enthusiasm for the approach, and particularly how it might provide spaces for young people to talk with each other about potentially difficult or controversial issues in constructive ways. There were also challenges. How can we help ‘time poor’ teachers, for example of History and RE, to incorporate Docutubes into their curriculum? Given that negative views about religious diversity often begin in the home, are there ways in which Docutubes could equip teachers and young people to challenge stereotypes and generalisations which might learned from parents and family?

The OU team plan to continue to develop and expand the use of the Docutubes methodology, and this event enabled us both to raise awareness and see new potentialities. We are grateful to all the participants for their contributions.

Watch this space! And in the meantime, for more information on the Docutubes approach, see this OU Badged Open Course.

Democracy, Information, and Religion

By Paul-François Tremlett

On the 17-18th January this year, academics, activists, journalists, religious, policy makers and artists assembled at Burlington House in London (see photograph) for a series of trans-disciplinary talks and activities to address the role of religious institutions and religious communities both in the generation and dissemination of disinformation but also in the cultivation of information literacy to resist information manipulation. The event was organised by Dr Paul-François Tremlett (Religious Studies) and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody (POLIS) and was funded by the Open Societal Challenges initiative at the Open University (see Democracy, Information, and the cultural capital of Religion: Sharing Global Best Practice on Press and Election Manipulation (open.ac.uk)). Their respective expertise in the Philippines and Russia – countries where powerful religious institutions have promoted disinformational and anti-disinformational narratives – was the catalyst for the event, which sought to analyse shifting and multi-layered contexts including a neoliberal frame that pervades contemporary economic and political discourses where the financialization of everything means big profits for those creating and dissemating disinformation, huge dissatisfaction with ruling elites across the global South and global North accompanied by a rise in populist and divisive politics, and widespread disengagement from traditional forms of political participation as governments appear increasingly distant from and unresponsive to the populations they are supposed to serve.

In such fractious times disinformation, conspiracy theories and dissension can feel like the means to “stick it to the man”. Indeed, they offer forms of political and discursive participation albeit ones grounded in a constellation of affects from anger to vexatiousness (among others) that signal a breakdown of trust in once hallowed and taken-for-granted institutions, political and cultural traditions and social memories. Bringing religion – often a synecdoche for stability, morality, tradition and trust – into the conversation about democracy and disinformation, means that we can start to explore the involvement of religious institutions and communities in spreading and/or contesting disinformational narratives, but also work to refine our theoretical and methodological tools to study the entanglements of the information and disinformation-scapes of religion and democracy.

When it comes to information, of course, there is no passage to a neutral language or medium that can be detached from politics, history or passion or indeed from situated reception and interpretation. We know that what we’re talking about is power; networks of alliances and forces which the political strategist Antonio Gramsci, in the Prison Notebooks, characterised as “unstable equilibria”. Solving the problems around democracy, information, election manipulation and religion cannot be done by fact-checking or media, political and religious literacy training alone, as much as such initiatives help. Rather, the interventions we design must make the most of those “unstable equilibria” to find new centres of gravity around the commons and the public good. We’re hopeful that through our event and the interactions and collaborations it has set in motion, we will develop new initiatives to tackle what’s rapidly emerging as a key challenge of our time.

The value of ephemera in research

By Jackie Hosein 

When researching a particular topic, place, or time, ephemera – newspapers, magazines, leaflets, posters, and so on – can be a valuable source of information and context. My research is currently focused on the town of Glastonbury and its role in the New Age from the mid-1980s and, as might be expected from a place with an active alternative community, there is a rich history of ephemera from that time.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were several Glastonbury-based publications reflecting local events and interests. Some only ran for a few issues or even just one, but still gave an insight into the debates and preoccupations of the time. One of the earliest of these was The Torc edited by Patrick Benham which ran for fifteen issues, from 1971 to 1975. The first issue featured articles on psychometry on Glastonbury Tor, and the yin and yang of food, as well as local events, news, recipes, poetry, and for sale adverts. A short-lived title The Glastonbury Thorn, produced two issues; 1979 and 1980, and represented a feminist viewpoint (see Figure 1). It was edited by Kathy Jones, who went on to establish the Goddess community and conference in Glastonbury.

Figure 1. The Glastonbury Thorn

At this point, there was a relatively small alternative community, and few New Age businesses of events, in Glastonbury. The mid-1980s saw a shift in the town. Local manufacturers had closed, and in the recession of the early 1980s chain stores disappeared from the High Street and existing local shops struggled to stay open. However, the town’s proximity to the Glastonbury Festival, and growing reputation as a New Age centre, attracted people involved in Green politics and the festival circuit. The government’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme was set up around this time to help small businesses, requiring only a start-up bank balance of £1000. This created opportunities for New Age businesses and initiatives catering for the increasing number of visitors coming to Glastonbury to experience its spiritual side. Local legend tells of the same £1000 being passed round to several potential entrepreneurs before being returned to its original owner.

The Glastonbury Communicator started as a newsletter about events at the Assembly Rooms, which had been restored and run by the local community as an arts and performance space. It expanded to include other news and events in Glastonbury, and ran for eighteen issues, 1984 to 1988. Local, national, and international news was featured, ranging from concerns about local limestone paving slabs to several articles highlighting the famine in Eritrea.

Unique Publications, which holds an archive of many of the publications mentioned in this article, is a small business started in 1985 by Bruce Garrard. Like several others, he had settled in Glastonbury after being evicted from the peace camp at Molesworth, and was subsidised initially by the previously mentioned Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Unique Publications published The Times of Avalonia (see Figure 2), described by Garrard as a satirical response to the excesses of the local press at a time when New Age travellers, camped at nearby Greenlands Farm in the aftermath of the Battle of the Beanfield, were the target of local outrage. It ran for eleven issues from 1985 to 1988. Its successor, The Glastonbury Gazette (see Figure 3), was an attempt to go more mainstream in its coverage, for example publishing a series of more balanced articles about the travellers. It ran for seven monthly issues in 1989. Renamed the Glastonbury Times, it ran for a further five issues from 1990 to 1991.

         

Figure 2. The Times of Avalonia            Figure 3. The Glastonbury Gazette

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Women covering their hair – why does it matter in Iran?

By Hugh Beattie

In the early autumn of 2022 widespread protests broke out in a number of Iranian cities. These followed the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, on September 16, in hospital in Teheran. Members of the Morality Police (Guardian Patrol) had arrested her because, they claimed, she had not covered her hair completely and so had broken the rules regarding women’s dress. They beat her severely and this was almost certainly responsible for her death. After killing some 500 protestors, the security forces succeeded in suppressing the unrest that followed. In July 2023 the Morality Police, who had suspended searches for and arrests of women not covering their hair properly in public spaces, resumed them.

Iran has been in the news again lately because of the government’s continued attempts to force women to follow the dress code. A few weeks ago the imprisoned Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, who is currently serving a 10-year jail term in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, was awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her fight against the oppression of women in Iran. On October 28 2023 the teenager Armita Geravand died in hospital after being in a coma for nearly four weeks, having suffered a traumatic brain injury following a fall on a tube train in Tehran. It has been alleged that she fell when members of the Morality Police tried to arrest her because she was not wearing a headscarf, although the government denies this. A well-known human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoude, attended Armita Geravand’s funeral early in November. At the funeral members of the Morality Police violently arrested Sotoudeh because they said that her hair was not covered properly. She was jailed for three weeks before being released on bail.

The Iranian government is obviously determined not to make any concessions as regards women’s rights. In fact it is currently trying to restrict them further. The President, Ebrahim Raisi, is a hardline conservative who appears to have been involved in the mass execution of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. During the summer the government introduced a new Chastity and Hijab bill which will introduce much severer penalties for women who do not follow the dress code. Parliament has passed the bill, but the Guardian Council, which vets new laws to make sure they conform to Islamic principles, has not yet approved it. Currently women who do not follow the code can be sentenced to up to two months in prison and payment of a small fine. If the new law does come into force, the maximum sentence will be raised to ten years in prison; offenders may be flogged, and pay much larger fines (around £550). The new law contains various other restrictive provisions. For instance shops and restaurants which do not ensure that female customers follow the dress code may be penalised, and there will be increased use of security cameras in public places to identify and track down women not doing so.

Why does women’s dress (and particularly completely covering their hair) matter so much? Why is the Islamic Republic spending political capital on an issue which doesn’t seem to be a very important one, in doing so upsetting many of its own people and attracting criticism from around the world?

The main reason seems to be that particular styles of women’s dress have become increasingly politicised since 1936 when the Iranian ruler, Reza Shah, decreed that women should no longer wear a veil. By banning the veil Reza Shah intended to show how modern and secular his government was. Another example of this politicisation is the way that during the relatively socially liberal 1970s, some women returned to wearing a chador (cloak) or some other form of ‘modest dress’ to express their rejection of the westernizing and authoritarian rule of his son, Muhammad Reza Shah. Following the Iranian Revolution in 1978/9, the government of the new Islamic Republic of Iran demanded that women wear modest dress and cover their hair with a headscarf. Since then challenging this dress code has been a way of expressing dissatisfaction with the government. As one woman commented, after taking part in a protest which was violently repressed by the police, ‘we realized the importance of hijab for the Islamic Republic. It was more than just putting a scarf on, we realized that hijab is the identity of [the] Islamic Republic, so to speak’. By refusing to follow the dress code, many women are not just expressing a wish to dress as they please, they are signalling their opposition to the government and its values. It seems that the regime fears that if it gives way on the hijab issue, there will be pressure for it to make other concessions, which could seriously undermine its authority.

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Hope for peace at the pro-Palestinian march on Armistice Day

By Maria Nita

Saturday, 11th November 2023, Armistice Day. Since the beginning of the war in Gaza in October 2023 weekly pro-Palestinian protest marches have been held in London, on a Saturday. On this occasion the march started at midday, an hour after the solemn annual ceremony at the Cenotaph – albeit this was eventually disrupted by a group of far-right counter-protestors attempting to reach the pro-Palestinian march and clashing with police.  

Children’s Shoes Memorial – Extinction Rebellion protest action, November 2023, London (Photo Copyright: Extinction Rebellion Families)

In Trafalgar Square Extinction Rebellion activists showed their support for the pro-Palestinian march by staging an evocative children’s shoes memorial, for both Israeli and Palestinian young victims. Shoe memorials that mark collective tragedies draw inspiration from those commemorating the genocide against Jewish people, with well-known displays in the Holocaust memorial museums of Auschwitz and Washington DC. Based on some of the public accusations against the pro-Palestinian marches being antisemitic – they were called ‘hate marches’ by ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman – even an inadvertent connection with the Jewish genocide may strike people as inappropriate, but it is important to emphasise what many protestors have stressed in public statements, namely that the marches are pro-Palestinian, not anti-Jewish. 

Protestors are accusing the Israeli state of war crimes, and not the Jewish nation. Moreover, the ‘Jews for Ceasefire’ group have also been attending the pro-Palestinian marches, to oppose both the war crimes being committed by the Israeli state, as well as the criminal actions of Hamas – the terrorist group who, on the 7th of October 2023, attacked Jewish communities, killing civilians and taking hostages, including children.  

The pro-Palestinian march, which started in Hyde Park and ended in front of the US embassy, called for the UK and US governments to ask Israel for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Many of the protestors’ placards pointed a finger to the seeming silent complicity of the UK and US governments for their failure to denounce and sanction the state of Israel, with such slogans as: ‘the UK and US shield Israel from accountability for its political crimes’, ‘their blood on your hands’, ‘bombing babies and killing children is not self-defence’, ‘genocide is not self-defence’, ‘stop war crimes in Gaza’, ‘it’s not complicated, it’s genocide’, ‘I can’t believe I have to protest against Genocide’, ‘one child is being killed every 10 minutes in Gaza’, ‘cease fire now allow aid in Gaza’, ‘stop the massacre’. 

Protest action, November 2023, Edinburgh (Photo: David Robertson)

Globally, since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, there has been a rise in both antisemitic and Islamophobic motivated crimes, especially in the US, UK and Europe. At the peaceful 11 November 2023 pro-Palestinian march, with an attendance of some 300,000 people, the police reported that only a very small number of participants were being investigated for antisemitic statements – yet is important to distinguish between some of the statements of support to Palestine that are understood by some groups (but not others) as antisemitic, and the comparatively small amount of overt antisemitism at the events. The controversial chant ‘Palestine will be free from the river to the sea’ was interpreted by some as a call for the destruction of the state of Israel – in other words where would the state of Israel be, if Palestine were to take up the territory from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea? Protesters defended the chant in media statements, explaining that it refers to freedom, self-determination and equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis, and an end to what has been described in some media and scholarship as the Israeli apartheid of Palestinians in Israel and the Palestinian territories (Pappé, ed. 2021; Rifkin, 2017). Protest banners citing late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish sought to give voice to this collective experience of suffering of alienation, pointing beyond the current crisis: ‘“If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears”’. 

Protest action, November 2023, Edinburgh (Photo: David Robertson)

Criticism and debate emerged from the fact that the pro-Palestinian march was going to be taking place on Armistice Day. The disagreement exposed the deeper ambiguity of Armistice Day: on one hand, recalling the atrocities of war and the need to build and maintain peace, whilst on the other hand, glorifying war through notions of martyrdom and the celebration of veterans – for an in-depth discussion of a century-long history around the complexities and controversies of the day, see Wolffe, 2019. Yet pro-Palestinian protestors on the Armistice Day march addressed the criticism of the march being disrespectful on their protest banners, by pointing to the appropriateness of asking for a ceasefire on such a day. Their slogans read: ‘Remembrance = action we take to prevent all wars’ and ‘Armistice for Palestine’. The controversy around holding the protest on Armistice Day brought up to the intersectionality of religious identity and issues of racial and ethnic equality and conflict, with protestors proclaiming on their banners: ‘“Never Forget” is not reserved for white people’ – thus addressing the far-right declared intention to keep the day as a national event. 

The media and social media had abounded in claims about pro-Palestinian marches being infiltrated by Hamas sympathisers. Hamas, from ‘Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah’ (HMS) meaning ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’ – is a violent, fundamentalist movement founded 1987, with roots in the post-colonial era of the early 20th century, when European powers had colonised much of the Middle East. This means the movement has been active for close to 4 decades, drawing on a deeply rooted anti-colonial ideology. It is thus worth remembering that whilst the present humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unprecedented, the impact of the decades long Israeli – Palestinian conflict is not new, and its ongoing trauma has global reverberations and connections to ethnic and religious identities.  

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The Green Man and the Blue Man

By David Robertson 

I lived in Leith when my kids were small, so I spent a lot of time pushing a pram around. I got to know the streets and paths well, and the many interesting buildings. Although more famous today for the poverty and addiction that plagued the area in the 1980s and 1990s, Leith was a hugely wealthy harbour for most of its long existence, and the evidence is written in the dark sandstone.

Figure 1 - The Green Man, Junction Street, Leith (photo by the author)

Figure 1 – The Green Man, Junction Street, Leith (photo by the author)

Something I quickly noticed was the many example of the “Green Man” around the place. Like many (including the King!), I’ve long been fascinated with the verdant, vigorous, vital trickster grinning down from the eaves. He seems to speak of a pagan past – even though in fact he was a Victorian invention that synthesised a number of different local figures and traditions into a single universal figure, in much the same way that today’s Wheel of the Year — the pagan calendar of equinoxes, solstices and “quarter days” — was created. He fitted the growth of interest in “folk customs” that accompanied urbanisation, and the fashion for ornate neo-gothic architecture, and so we should not be surprised that the wealthy merchants of Leith included him in their new buildings.

Figure 2 – Carved pair of heads, Constitution Street, Leith (photos by the author)

But then I noticed that in Leith, he often has a friend. I found several pairs of heads, matching except for their paraphernalia — where the Green Man seemed to be peering out from the greenery, leaves and vines and fruit in his hair, his friend had waves for a beard and shells in his hair.

Figure 3 – The Green Man, Junction Street, Leith (photo by the author)

I reached out to a local historian I know on Twitter, who told me that, in fact, most of the heads are meant to represent Bacchus (Greek god of wine), because alcohol was their primary import. This is very clear in the spectacular carving on the corner of Maritime Street, the former offices of “distillers, blenders and manufacturers of cordials”, Robertson, Sanderson & Company, which is replete with vines and bunches of grapes (as well as Scottish thistles).

Figure 4 – Bacchus head, Maritime Lane, Leith (photo by the author). Continue reading

Religious diversity in Jordan: “Docutubes” in Amman and As-Salt

John Maiden

From 2018 to 2022, along with Open University colleagues John Wolffe and Stefanie Sinclair, and scholars and stakeholders across Europe, I was part of the Horizon2020 project ‘Religious Toleration and Peace’ (RETOPEA). The purpose of the project was to explore historic examples of historic religious diversity and coexistence, and to engage young people with this research through a process of creative learning, called the ‘docutube’ methodology. These are short films, scripted, filmed and edited by young people (in schools, youth clubs etc.), which make connections between religious toleration and peace in historical contexts, the present day and their own experiences. So often, we found, European young people tended to assume that the ‘religious past’ was one of intolerance, antagonism, and violence. The point of RETOPEA was to raise awareness of historic ‘counternarratives’ of religious coexistence and peacebuilding.

In September 2023, along with Research Associate Dr Katelin Teller we took the ‘docutubes’ methodology outside of Europe, and to a Muslim majority context, for the first time. Our partner on the ground was the Royal Institute of Inter-Faith Studies (RIIFS) in Amman, an institution which promotes research and engagement in the area of religious diversity. The group of young people were aged 18-22 and each from a Muslim background. At the beginning of the workshop, we examined historic sources on religious coexistence in Jordan and the Middle East more widely. We looked at the significance of the figure of Saint George and Al-Khadar amongst Christians and Muslims, including examples of multi-religious space and popular religious practice in relation to this figure, for example as described by the Muslim geographer al-Muqaddasi (946-1000) in Lod. We looked at religious clothing in Jordan, for instance where local Catholic priests had dressed similarly to Bedouin. We examined too the Amman Message, a statement on diversity and unity in the Muslim world, which RIIFS had a major role in putting together.

Once young people had engaged with wider themes of religious coexistence, we visited the city of As-Salt. Here they were able to visit both Catholic and Orthodox churches, a marketplace used by both communities, and interview religious leaders in a city which has a long reputation for ‘everyday’ peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims. Here, the young people filmed their docutubes, drawing on their previous day’s thinking on historic sources and their observations of the material examples of religious diversity in the city.

The point of making docutubes is to enable deep, creative learning. Rather than give the young people historical ‘facts’, we seek to give them the chance to engage with historical sources and material environments. The insightful nature of the young peoples’ films, which will soon be made available (in Arabic, with English subtitles) at www.retopea.eu, indicates the potential of this approach.

Wildfires, Shaman-trees, and Gateways to Hell

Liudmila Nikanorova 

With the arrival of autumn, it has been confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization (WHO) and NASA  that the summer of 2023 was the warmest on record globally. During this period, record-breaking heatwaves, wildfires, extreme rainfall, and flooding swept across much of the world. 2023 wildfires in North America, South Europe, Central Asia, North Africa, and Russia’s Far East destroyed millions of hectares of forest fuelling further climate crisis, threatening water and food security, polluting air for millions of people, and damaging ecosystems, wildlife, and soil.

The Sakha Republic (Yakutia), one of the coldest regions in the world, has been severely affected by devastating wildfires in recent years. Unprecedented forest fires in the region in 2021 became one of the world’s worst ever air pollution events, named by the Guardian an ‘airpocalypse’ (see the article here). This summer, nearly one hundred wildfires spread across 125,000 hectares leading to the declaration of the state of emergency by Aisen Nikolaev, the Head of the Republic of Sakha. One of the larger problems with wildfires in the region is the acceleration of permafrost thaw. Not only does it create a ticking ‘methane bomb’ of greenhouse gases accumulated over thousands of years in permanently frozen soils (see WWF Arctic Programme and Special Report on the Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate), but a series of immediate environmental and infrastructural disruptions.

All these changes pose risks for people living in permafrost areas, which is seen, among other examples, in deformed buildings, damaged gas and oil pipelines, and destruction of roads and electric power supply lines. Traveling within the Sakha Republic, particularly in remote areas, has become increasingly dangerous because of the precarious state of the road conditions. Most roads in the region, especially to the remote destinations, operate only in winter, when they are frozen and navigable; for the rest of the year, these roads turn to mush (Argounova-Low and Prisyazhnyi 2016).

Concerns about the dangers of becoming stranded on muddy roads, encountering forest fires, floods, or other unforeseen challenges have grown into a significant worry for the local population. One notable response to these concerns can be seen in the phenomenon of shaman-derevo [Ru.] [‘shaman-trees’] in the Sakha Republic. In recent years, it has become increasingly common to make stops by such trees with wishes for a safe journey, especially during long-distance travels. Typically, people adorn the trees with colorful ribbons, known as salama in Sakha. It is also common to leave coins, cigarettes, sweets, and even some freshly prepared alaad’ee (fried Sakha pancakes) by the tree.

While shaman trees are described as ancient Sakha practices, it wasn’t until the 2000s that they began to be explicitly referred to as “shaman trees,” particularly in guided tours for tourists interested in Sakha religion. However, even at these tours some guides emphasise that shaman trees have little to do with shamanism:

“Shamans are individuals who do not belong to any religion. Regarding shamanism, it was exterminated during communism. When I was preparing my guided tour, I heard of a shaman tree on the outskirts of the city. I did some research and found the tree, which I included in the tour “Religion in Yakutia”. The tour focused on the two main Sakha religions – Christianity and Tengrism. Although shaman-derevo has nothing to do with either of the religions, I kept it because it is one of the favorite sights of tourists.” – The guide from “Religion in Yakutia” tour.

This particular shaman-derevo, a tall tree struck by lightning, is located near the border between Yakutsk and Khangalasskiy district (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Shaman tree on the outskirts of Yakutsk

Although most refer to these trees as “shaman-trees,” they are also known to be called as Belekh Mas [Sa.] [‘gift trees’] and Aartyk Ichchi Mas. Sakha ethnographer Vladimir Popov (2017) argues that:

“These trees are typically found on the roadside and at the borders between territorial divisions, serving as gathering points for people to leave offerings for a safe journey. While they are commonly known as shaman-derevo, they do not belong to shamanism. There are numerous such trees outside Yakutsk. Leaving gifts at these locations is believed to ensure a safe and successful journey.”

In addition to shaman trees, there are also other efforts to seek protection during the travels. In many cars traveling on long-distance roads, you would often find both Sakha kharyskhal [Sa.] [‘protection’] and Russian Orthodox icons. These elements coexist with each other without much of a conflict (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Kharyskhal and Russian Orthodox icons

Another example of how the locals from the Sakha Republic story the ongoing environmental changes is the Batagaika crater, which was formed in the 1960s due to the thawing permafrost after the deforestation of the area. The crater is known among the locals as “Vorota v Ad,” which translates from Russian into the “Gateway to Hell” due to the eerie sounds that emerge from the crater as the permafrost thaws (see Figure 3 and Reuter’s drone footage from July 2023). In this context, Christian apocalyptic stories are intertwined with stories of melting lands and disturbed landscapes as the result of global warming.

Figure 3. Batagaika Crater NASA from Wikipedia Commons

Large scale seasonal wildfires in the Sakha Republic affected most parts of daily lives of the local population, pushing them to make use of all accessible tools and strategies to cope with the precarious climate conditions. All the above discussed examples show how the lexicon of religion is employed to tell contemporary stories of increasing consequences of the climate crisis. Although some stories are aimed at interpreting changing landscapes and others as an effort of preventing accidents and disasters, they all illustrate how religious articulations surface in moments of precarity, disruption and crisis.

References:

  1. Argounova-Low, T & Prisjazjnyj, M. 2016. «Biography of a Road: Past and Present of the Siberian Doroga Lena». Development and Change 47 (2): 367 – 387. https://doi.org/10.1111/dech.12220.
  2.  Popov, Vladimir. 2017. «Shaman-derevo». Yakutsk Vecherniy, 16. June. 

 

 

Solstice in the Anthropocene

Maria Nita

Let me first take you back some 47 years. It is 19th of June 1976 at Stonehenge. In anticipation of the solstice a new group of people are coming to meet the stones. Many are coming from London, others from across the country, a small number from abroad. The British press struggles to represent them. They go with a sardonic-colonial-anthropological shade, as if they are reporting on a distant, far away tribe, unknown to us modern people. Many of the portraits of these early festival goers are caustic – after all the hippies had been in circulation for a couple of decades by this point, and this derisive tone is almost the middle ground between the desire to either vilify or save them.  Yet, by the mid-seventies, as festivals are becoming bigger events, hippies are no longer the only type of people expected to turn up, and so the media either distinguishes the new tribes from the hippies, or reinforces the well-known laid-back, drug-taking image. Here are a few of these exoticized portraits:

‘He lives for most of the time with his wife Jill, and daughter Alice, aged three, with other Tipi people on a 40 acres farm in South Wales, owned by one of their number. They feed themselves as far as possible from the produce of the farm, make their own clothes, get light from candles and heat from logs built in the middle of the tent, which is so constructed that currents of air carry the smoke out through the top. “I am here for the solstice sun dance” he said. “Stonehenge is a very powerful spiritual centre.’ (‘Warning fails to deter pop enthusiasts at Stonehenge’ in Times, 19 June 1976).

‘The great Stonehenge Strip got under the way yesterday strictly against […] regulations. […] The hippies ignored the ban and rolled up to pitch their tents near the ancient stones above. As you can see (referring to nudity in the adjoining pictures) many didn’t wait for Sunday morning’s druid ceremonies to get in a bit of sun worshiping.’ (‘Rock Bottom!’ Daily Mirror, 19 June 1976).

‘The hippies claim that the ancient stones and the sun are of spiritual significance to them and that the midsummer solstice is a holy date to them’ (‘Festival goes pop – but quietly’, Southern Evening Echo, 19 June 76).

This was the new stage of a revival of the solstice into a new spiritual Contemporary Pagan tradition. But what is the meaning of the highest point in summer in the context of global heating? What is becoming of the festival celebrations of the summer solstice in the Anthropocene? My own research with climate activists, who often draw on Pagan spirituality, suggests that the voices of those who revived the summer solstice as a religious celebration in the 1960s and 1970s are now changing. The stories of the solstice are drying out. We hear instead the otherworldly silent cries of strange future beings – the Red Rebels of Extinction Rebellion marches. This is not a loss – but a transformation – of tradition.

Many scholars have claimed that increased mobility and globalisation in our contemporary world is impacting on the established channels for cultural transmission, leading to increased secularisation and a loss in traditional cultural values. Others have shown that the transmission of religious and other cultural elements may continue despite decline or disruptions in such institutions as the church, communities of place, the traditional family and so on.   We increasingly live in a world dominated by change, uncertainty and risk, and scholars recognised that the implications of living with unprecedented global risk in a detraditionalised society involve the development of new types of subversive movements. (Macnaughton and Urry,1998: 70) Summer festivals developed in this context and against such global trends, during the past five or six decades. And they often had the solstice as a distinct focus.

It is true that over the past five to six decades, festival networks have developed a model drawn from the memorialisation of the free festivals of the 1960. Woodstock’s and Glastonbury’s iconic naked festival bodies were displaying a nostalgic re-enactment of and yearning for a simpler past and community. Especially in the UK, given the links with Stonehenge, the solstice provided a focus for this spiritual revival. But in recent years, transnational festival networks, like the Burning Man festival, have consciously promoted novel and subversive community-oriented spiritual practices.  Modern festivals’ tribal aesthetic may suggest a return to tradition, but in fact many countercultural festivals with roots that go back to the 1960s have acted as acculturative hubs, helping us to make sense of climate change, experiment with surviving in the arid heat of the Nevada desert, and develop an eco-conscious community spirituality (Pike, 2005).

In the context of my own work on festivals and protestivals connected to the British climate movement I have argued that modern festivals, often like the pilgrimage sites of the ancient and pre-modern word, are platforms for innovation, change and acculturation (Nita, 2022). The solstice revival was always culturally subversive, and I would argue it was always making space for cultural change. And never was cultural change more urgently needed than the Anthropocene.

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In Good Faith? How the Bloom Report misrepresents religion in the UK

By David G. Robertson

In October 2019, the then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed an Independent Faith Engagement Adviser to make recommendations to the Secretary of State for Communities. The final report, “Does Government ‘do God’? An Independent review into how Government engages with Faith” (also known as the Bloom Report), was published on 26th April, 2023. It clocks in at 159 pages, including a series of twenty-two recommendations on “properly engaging with people of faith” (summarised on pp. 18-24).

There is much to commend in the report’s conclusions. #7 urges government to properly support RE teaching in secondary schools. It also seeks to redress the way that Muslims were singled out for criticism in the Blair/post 9-11 era, with policies such as the Prevent Strategy seemingly assuming the Muslim was the image of “problematic” religion (#14). It also acknowledges the diversity within religious communities—a theme which our students on A332 Why is Religion Controversial? are very familiar with. Perhaps most significantly, it urges the government not to shy away from addressing problems within religious communities “head on”. Forced marriage is an issue that Bloom particularly focuses on (#20-22), but the report also discusses financial exploitation, radicalisation in prisons (#11) and coercive control (#19), but not clerical abuse, nor the role of religious institutions in challenging anti-LGBTQ+ equality.

The report also recognises the growing religious diversity in the UK, but however fails to acknowledge the most seismic change to the religious landscape in the UK today—the rise of “no religion”, a cohort which has grown 26% since 2001, drawing in the main from those who formerly identified as Christian. The UK is no longer a Christian-majority country, indeed it is likely a country which will soon be a majority non-religious country, but you would not get that impression from this report (see the critical response from Humanists UK).

To be fair, Bloom does see the non-religious as “part of the solution to improving society” (p.5). In fact, he proposes that the government should divide religious people into three groups: “true believers”, “non-believers” and “make believers”:[1]

The first are ‘true believers’ who, regardless of their faith, are sincere, devout and peaceful. Government can and should work with true believers. The second are ‘non-believers’ who, like true believers, are generally sincere, peaceful and decent. True believers and non-believers are part of the solution to improving society. The third are ‘make-believers’. Make-believers are generally the cause of most of the problems that government encounters in the faith space. Make-believers are often motivated by ego, money, prestige or power and abuse their position to promote themselves or their causes, clothing them with religion to give them divine legitimacy. Make-believers are a problem, both for government and for the communities they claim to represent.

It is commendable that here Bloom puts “true believers” and “non-believers” on the same footing as being sincere and peaceful (until you notice the qualifier “generally”, at least). But this categorisation is highly problematic, nevertheless. Bloom is here combining two inaccurate, though widespread, tropes—on the one hand, that religion is necessarily about “sincere belief”, and on the other, that religion is always a force for good.

The first trope is clear in the definitions of “religion”, “belief” and “faith” which the report presents in Recommendation #3. Several commentators have already critiqued this (see for example, this thread by Rudi Elliot Lockhart, former CEO of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales)—but I will summarise briefly here.

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