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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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How Indigenous Women are Driving the Decolonisation of Theory

By Liudmila Nikanorova 

Who is given the authority to theorise?

The voices of Indigenous people, especially women, have been excluded and nearly absent until early- to mid-twentieth-century sources. Although Indigenous women often contributed to the research of visiting ethnographers and anthropologists, especially with translation, their work has almost never been acknowledged or credited. Women were routinely depicted in relation to their men and were mostly mentioned in sections about family, marriage practices, and traditional clothing. In the study of religion, scholars predominantly focused on Indigenous men’s practices since the observers were typically white men. Thus, Indigenous women’s knowledge production was not taken seriously until they themselves entered academic corridors of power.

A recent methodological turn in humanities caused by the emergence of Indigenous and decolonial studies had a major impact on the disciplines of ethnography, anthropology, and religious studies. Suddenly, ‘the objects of study’ could not only speak back but theorise back. As a result, the normative was de-normalised, universals particularised, and the methodological apparatus of academia destabilised. Theory-making is the most powerful academic endeavour, which has been historically dominated by Eurocentric male scholars. Within the last few decades, Indigenous women pushed themselves away from the position of the objectified and silenced others to leading intellectual resistance against colonial systems of knowledge.

While colonial ethnographers and anthropologists were preoccupied with describing exotic others and imposing Western notions of religion, race, culture, and gender, Indigenous women discussed the limits and impact of such approaches. Theorising from the ongoing experiences of coloniality, racism, and gender-based violence, Indigenous women continue to create and claim a place for themselves and for other marginalised voices within academia.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s groundbreaking volume Decolonising Methodologies (1999) was fundamental in the development of Indigenous research, Indigenous standpoint theory, whiteness studies, trauma theory, as well as decolonising work, and Indigenous knowledges approach. By theorising her experiences of encountering colonising knowledges from Māori perspectives, Tuhiwai Smith (1999: 10) pushes her readers to ask:

Whose research is this?

Who owns it?

Whose interests does it serve?

Who will benefit from it?

Who has designed its questions and framed its scope?

Who will carry it out?

Who will write it up?

How will the results be disseminated?[1]


We could further add:

Who is assumed to be a scholar?

Whose knowledges hold positional superiority?

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Cloisters, Durham Cathedral

‘Nones’ in the Cathedral

By Marion Bowman

In the 2021 census, ‘No religion’ was the second most common response (37.2% or 22.2 million people), while ‘for the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”’.

These statistics relating to people who self-identify as being of No Religion—also known as Nones—have been receiving media attention, and Hannah Waite has produced a fascinating report The Nones: Who are they and what do they believe? (Theos, 2022). Waite concludes that there are broadly ‘three distinctive types or clusters of Nones’:

“Campaigning Nones” are self-consciously atheistic and hostile to religion; “Tolerant Nones” are broadly atheistic but accepting of (sometimes warm towards) religion; and “Spiritual Nones”, who are characterised by a range of spiritual beliefs and practices, as much as many people who tick the “Religion” box (Waite 2022, 6).

In the course of the ‘Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals Past and Present’ research project, we discovered that people who self-identify as being of No Religion, the Nones, appear to be regularly visiting cathedrals in England today. What are they doing there? And what does this tell us about the internal diversity of this growing demographic?

 The 3-year interdisciplinary AHRC-funded project, ‘Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals, past and present’ ( involved partnership with Canterbury Cathedral, Durham Cathedral and York Minster (all now Anglican, Church of England), and Westminster Cathedral (Roman Catholic). The genesis of the project was the fact that both pilgrimage and engaging with cathedrals now appear to be more popular in England than at any point since the Reformation. This popular mapping of meaning onto special places and interest in pilgrimage gives rise to questions such as: ‘Why is this happening now?’, ‘What is going on?’ and, significantly for our purposes here, ‘Who is involved?’.

For the contemporary data collection, we employed both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Altogether, we conducted 110 face-to-face interviews and 25 email interviews, and received 500 completed paper questionnaires and 58 online questionnaire responses. We also employed participant observation, and ‘hanging out’ which included sitting in different parts of a cathedral at different times of day and simply people-watching. This allowed different forms of data to be linked together. For example, an activity that shows up in statistics like candle lighting could be followed up by talking to the volunteer who cleans the candle stand, the visitor who lights the candle, but also by simply observing a candle stand over time, without intervening, just to see how often candles are lit, what might be done in relation to candle lighting, where the most popular spaces to light a candle might be, and so on. I’m going to concentrate here on findings from our three Anglican cathedrals— Canterbury Cathedral (one of England’s preeminent medieval pilgrimage destinations), York Minster (one of the largest medieval Gothic cathedrals in Northern Europe) and Durham Cathedral.

Site of Shrine of Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral (Photograph Marion Bowman)

 York Minster (Photograph Marion Bowman)

St Cuthbert’s Shrine, Durham Cathedral (Photograph Marion Bowman)

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How can we teach religion in schools better?  

By Suzanne Newcombe  

The Religious Studies Department here at the Open University has just reached the conclusion of an 18-month collaborative project exploring the thoughts of stakeholders ‘outside the classroom’ on Religious Education in schools and the proposals for shifting the school paradigm to an approach called ‘Religion and Worldviews.’  

Proposed Religion and Worldviews national entitlement summary:

Pupils are entitled to be taught, by well qualified and resourced teachers, knowledge and understanding about:
· what religion is and worldviews are, and how they are studied;
· the impact of religion and worldviews on individuals, communities and societies;
· the diversity of religious and non-religious worldviews in society;
· the concepts, language and ways of knowing that help us organise and make sense of our knowledge and understanding of religion and worldviews; the human quest for meaning, so that they are prepared for life in a diverse world and have space to recognise, reflect on and take responsibility for the development of their own personal worldview.
(NATRE, CoRE, RE: Today, n.d.).

Over the last year, this research group has explored three key research questions with a series of focus groups and surveys. We asked for opinions and impressions on 1) the current State of Religious Education in schools, 2) the ‘Religion and Worldviews’ proposal and 3) What is needed to improve the quality and public perception of RE teaching. We explored these issues with:   

  • Religious and Non-Religious Community Interest Groups (31 focus group participants in 4 geographically distinct locations) 
  • Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACRE) Members (9 focus group participants and 144 survey responses)  
  • Parents (3 focus group participants and 45 survey responses) 
  • School Leadership, i.e. Multi-Academy Trust leadership, School Heads and other senior leaders (6 focus group participants) 
  • Academics and Policy Professionals (14 focus group participants) 

The general conclusions from this process were that there is a need and appetite for greater engagement between the different stakeholders (Harvey et al. 2022). Schools, SACREs, community groups and parents all expressed enthusiasm for working together. It was also suggested that support and best practice guidance on this would be appreciated. Academics were keen to host and/or facilitate networking meetings and provide content to inspire school-level pupils (e.g. see the OpenLearn courses Why not ‘World Religions’? and Census Stories).  

Greater community engagement could also contribute to greater positive perceptions of RE/RW education and hence to greater critical religious literacy in the long term. More interaction with academics could ensure that school and university-level teaching on religion can lead to better alignment between educational levels. The importance of better integrating school and university-level approaches to the study of religion was also a focus of a recent report by the Independent Schools Religious Studies Association. 

Another important conclusion from the project research is a need for more clarity and better messaging around ‘What is being taught and why?’ in Religious Education. While the British public has generally negative attitudes towards religion in general (Harvey et al. 2021b, p. 6), once the aims of religious education in schools are explained, i.e. the national entitlement summary above, opinions about the importance of RE in promoting social cohesion and ethical development are generally widely appreciated 

To start the process of improving the understanding and messaging around the contemporary religious education agenda to stakeholders outside the classroom, we have developed a new OpenLearn course entitled An Education in Religion and Worldviews 

The Religion and Worldviews proposal is a potentially effective container for bringing forward discussions which can aid community cohesion, teaching productive dialogue across different beliefs and backgrounds. This does not require complete agreement on definitions of ‘religion’ or ‘worldviews’ – or even the specific content of a local school’s curriculum.  

In fact, learning to work with contested concepts and dialogue with people’s deeply held sense of identity, is one of the most important aspects of high-quality Religious Education. It also teaches skills that are in high demand in our twenty-first century economy in which 80% of the workforce is in the service sector.  


Project Partners 






Funded by:  




Further resources:  

Cooling, T., Bowie, B. and Panjwani, F. (2020) ‘Worldviews in Religious Education’, Theos and Canterbury Christchurch University. Available at: research/ 2020/ 10/ 21/ worldviews-in-religious-education (Accessed: 14 April 2022). 

Culham St Gabriel’s (2021) ‘Public Perception’ report of commissioned research:  

Harvey, Sarah (2021a) ‘Baseline Report 1: Setting the Context’ 15 July. Inform website. Available at:   

Harvey, Sarah with assistance from Ruby Forrester, Suzanne Newcombe, Farzeen Shahzad and Silke Steidinger (2021b) ‘Baseline Report 2: Public Perception: Student and Teacher Views’ 25 November. Inform website. Available at: 

Harvey, Sarah with Carrie Alderton, Amy Ark, Phil Champain, Suzanne Newcombe and Anna Lockley-Scott. (2022) Promoting the Exploration of Religion and Worldviews in Schools: Insights Report. 4 April. Faith and Belief Forum Website. Available at:  

NATRE, CoRE, RE: Today (n.d.) ‘A National Plan for RE in England Summary’. Available at: uploads/ Free%20Resources/ A%20National%20Plan%20for%20RE%20-%20CoRE%20summary%20final%20with%20headers.pdf (Accessed: 14 April 2022). 

Ofsted (2021) ‘Research review series: religious education’, 21 May, HMSO. Available at: government/ publications/ research-review-series-religious-education/ research-review-series-religious-education#contents (Accessed: 14 April 2022). 

Research Excellence in Religious Studies at The Open University 

By Graham Harvey 

We are pleased to share news about the results of the UK’s national audit of research: the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The results are out this week and more information will follow. However, we are keen to celebrate our research as well as our teaching and learning contributions.  We’ll also take this opportunity to briefly update you on highlights of what we’ve been doing and what we plan to do.  

The REF results provide scores for the quality of publications, based on a submission of a specified number (23) of ‘outputs’ that we considered to be among our best. We selected among our publications to reflect research by our 11 colleagues. The REF panel rated 83% to be world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour (4*) or internationally excellent (3*) in the same terms. In other words, they considered that anyone researching a topic relevant to 4*-rated publications must engage with those works, and would certainly be wise to engage with the 3* works too. We are pleased that an increasing number of our publications are ‘open access’, i.e., freely available to read through the websites of relevant publishers or journals. The Open University’s Open Research Online repository makes even more of our work available in pre-publication versions (which are usually very close to the final published versions).  

In addition to the selection of published work, we also provided a statement about our ‘research environment’ for evaluation. This sets out how we facilitate, encourage, support and reward research by department colleagues and our postgraduate researchers. It also evidences our contributions to the wider national and international community of Religious Studies researchers (e.g., as peer reviewers of research and publication proposals, book and journal editors, learned society committee members, conference organisers and more). The expert panel rated 75% of our research environment statement to be at an internationally excellent level.  

We were also required to submit Impact Case Studies (ICS) to evidence how our research has changed and/or benefited the world beyond academia. We selected two to illustrate the coherence of a vibrant research community and culture focused on ‘contemporary religion in historical perspective’. Our first ICS demonstrated the ways in which the research of Prof John Wolffe, Dr John Maiden and Dr Gavin Moorhead has increased the present-day impact of religious history and archives. Our second ICS set out how Prof Graham Harvey’s ‘New Animism’ research has had an impact on creativity, culture and society. The REF panel categorised 50% of these case studies to be 4* and 3*. We celebrate these results and will say more about the research and impact involved in future blogs.  

Existing blogs already show how all members of the department conduct research and contribute to effecting positive change in the world. We have not rested since completing our REF submission but have sought to enhance our research and engagement with wider communities. We are also devoted to producing and delivering similarly world-leading and research-based learning opportunities for both our students and all learners. We have been joined by a twelfth colleague whose work extends the range of issues about which we research and teach – in particular engaging with ‘non-religion’. We remain strongly committed to using the OU’s technological expertise and online reach to engage publics with research which enhances religious ‘literacy’. A recent example of this is the AHRC-funded ‘Census Stories’ project, which used innovative storytelling techniques to engage people from Milton Keynes with data on demographic changes in religion and ethnicity in the UK. This is now a free public online course, which enables others to use the same approaches to understanding the complexities of religious and non-religious identities in their own localities. We are also set to continue our engagement with young people on religious diversity through the European Commission funded RETOPEA (Religious Toleration and Peace) project. An online ‘Badged Open Course’ will soon be released, designed for high-school teachers, youth workers and museum staff, which equips them to help young people make ‘docutubes’ – short ‘Vlog’ style documentaries – about religious diversity past and present. These are just some of the ways in which RS at the OU is providing world-leading and internationally excellent research-based resources for everyone interested in understanding and debating religion in many arenas.  

Eco-reflexivity in Extinction Rebellion’s Regenerative Culture

By Dr Maria Nita  

Although we are often told that late modernity is self-reflexive, and grounded in self-examination this reflexivity has been critiqued from many quarters for its “ouroboric” tendencies, or for not being grounded in social practiceIt is as though, with the advent of what Peter Berger called the ‘shrinkage’ of the sacred, or Max Weber called ‘disenchantment’, there were fewer and fewer vistas for sustained collective reflection—‘Sorry folks, all we have left is this small bottle of individual self-exploration leading to an intoxicating search for self-identity. It may look small, but it is bottomless…’ No wonder that only something as collectively sobering as the climate crisis could bring about the new ‘elusive virtue’ of ecological reflexivity, with its components of  ‘recognition, rethinking and response’ (Pickering 2019), or as Extinction Rebellion encapsulates it: ‘Act Now’. 

The 2018 reboot of the climate movement, Extinction Rebellion (XR), seems to have already accomplished the impossible by carrying through elements from the long 1960s transatlantic counterculture, to green millennials. When XR activists talk about REGEN—the regenerative culture project at the heart of XR—you can hear reverberated echoes of the alternative communes and free festivals, which seemed to have either become distant history or, may have been gestating inside new global transformative festivals (St John 2022; van den Ende 2022). Art and performance festivals had indeed preserved elements of the counterculture, but the protest spirit of the 1960s hippie culture had entered a dormant, performative, and memorialized phase (Nita and Gemie 2020). Sure, the so-called ‘long 1960s’ culture might be remembered and celebrated for two short weeks at Glastonbury or Burning Man, but could a new generation be living it out? 

REGEN (short for ‘regenerative culture’) recaptures the ethos of civil disobedience, artistic activism, and communalism of the early hippie communes which were anticipating and preparing themselves for a future world in deep crisis (Miller 1999). Take for example the four-minute clip below where an XR activist explains this new culture in the making. She describes REGEN as ‘the mycelium upon which XR relies for its nurturing a new society that is resilient and robust and can support us all through the changes we must inevitably face together’. REGEN helps us ‘reweave ourselves as part of a living eco-system’ through climate mindfulness, expressing grief, learning resilience, and experimenting with new types of self-care and communication practices—like ‘listening circles’, gatherings where people listen without directly responding to each other. Surely, these are practices of eco-reflexivity—but where are they coming from?  

XR Regen Culture Explained | April Griefsong | March 2019 | Extinction Rebellion UK – YouTube 

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Pride in our past, Faith in our future: Fulneck and Fairfield

By James Rollo, PhD Candidate

The origins of the Moravians date back to the foundation of the Unity of Brethren in 1457 by Gregory, the Patriarch of the Moravian city of Kunwald. After years of persecution, the church re-emerged in 1722 with the establishment of the settlement (a planned community) at Herrnhut in Saxony on the estate of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. Moravians from the Herrnhut community visited England in 1734, seeking permission to settle in the American colonies. There was, however, great interest in the Moravian Church in England, and the first English congregation was established at Fetter Lane London in 1742. The settlement at Fulneck was the first in England – the land was acquired in 1743 and the foundation stone for the church was laid in 1746 – while Fairfield was the last with the foundation stone laid in 1784.

These two sites are integral to my fieldwork for my PhD thesis on Contemporary Moravian identity in historical perspective. Combining archival research and contemporary fieldwork at these two Moravian settlements in England, my thesis examines contemporary notions of Moravian identity and tradition from a historical perspective. I investigate how members of these settlements view the history of their church and its relevance to them now. Open Days were cancelled during the pandemic in 2020, but they are now back on track, and I have finally been able to visit the settlements again. They are of a similar size: Fulneck has ninety-eight residents and Fairfield one hundred and six. Fulneck is built on a hill, its orientation is linear. It consists of a single one-way road running parallel to the buildings and a lower-level cobbled walkway. Rather than a single road, the settlement at Fairfield contains three in the form of a capital F, rotated ninety degrees.

Fulneck – The Terrace South Side (Jim Rollo 18/09/2021)

Fulneck Church and The Terrace North Side (Jim Rollo 31/07/2021)

Heritage Days were held in Fairfield on 12th September (though more toned-down than pre-Covid) and in Fulneck on the 18th of September 2021. These Open Days gave the residents of the two settlements the chance to present to the public the importance of their history and heritage, the things that matter to them, their public facing identity. Both settlements offered similar programs with guided tours of the settlements, and opened their doors to both their museums and churches. Fulneck church had an exhibition on the theme of food and the self-sufficiency of the settlement, while at Fairfield, there were presentations about the history of the Moravian Church and the development of the settlement.

Plan of Fairfield (Historic England, 1966)

Fairfield Square East Side (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

What then do these Open Days tell the visitor about the way contemporary Moravians present themselves to the public? Common themes of the settlement tours and of the exhibits included the importance placed on a sense of community and heritage, and residents’ pride in and identification with the settlements and their history. However, the onsite museums also reflect differences between the two settlements in their approach to history. The museum at Fulneck is the older of the two. Opened in July 1969, it is titled a ‘museum of local history’ and is very much focused on the history of life in the settlement. Fairfield, on the other hand, juxtaposes 18th century Moravian practices of worship with 21st Century worship, showing continuity and development, rather than dwelling on past traditions.  The comparison between ‘then and now’ is a theme that runs throughout all of the Fairfield museums’ exhibits. The ‘now’ stands out most with the display of how Fairfield is used in television and film the most recent being the TV series Peaky Blinders and the film Mrs Lowry and Her Son.

Stills from Mrs Lowry and her son (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

Of course, the desire to use Fairfield in period film is also due to the settlement being unspoilt and grade two listed, without satellite dishes and other modern-day clutter. However, it also says something about the community’s pride in the picturesque location of their settlement that they want to share. Furthermore, this represents an interesting contrast: on the one hand, the fact that the Fairfield community allows TV / film crews to use their settlement as a backdrop reflects a willingness to embrace modern technology, while on the other, it maintains the old-world image of the settlement itself.

While their history and heritage form a part of their identity, it is important to remember that these are active living religious communities today. As both the guides to the tours pointed out, there is so much happening in the settlements, both secular and religious, it is very difficult for the residents to not become actively involved in community life.

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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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.

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.