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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.

Videos from BASR 2020

The videos of the two panels from this year’s BASR conference are now available. The conference page is archived here. Here’s the info for each individual video:

Title: BASR 2020 | Teaching and Learning Panel

Description: The opening panel from BASR 2020 focused on Teaching and Learning. First is a presentation from 2020 Teaching Award recipient Melanie Prideaux, together with her student Natasha Jones (both University of Leeds). This is followed by an open discussion on the COVID-19 pivot to online delivery, with contributions from Dawn Llewellyn (2019 Teaching Award recipient, University of Chester), Stefanie Sinclair (BASR T&L rep, Open University), Paul-Francois Tremlett (Open University), BASR President Bettina Schmidt, Melanie Prideaux and Natasha Jones.


Title: BASR 2020 | Worldviews in RS and RE Panel

Description: This panel, curated by Wendy Dossett (University of Chester), discusses the Commission for Religious Education’s proposal for a shift towards studying “Religion and Worldviews” in Secondary Religious Education. Contributions from Wendy Dossett, Rudi Eliott Lockhart (former CEO of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University), Paul-Francois Tremlett (Open University) and Malory Nye (Independent Academic affiliated to University of Glasgow).

BHM | Africa at the Forefront of Global Scholarship

By Graham Harvey. This is the first in a series celebrating Black History Month 2020.

To point out that Africans have developed many mature and vital religions, philosophies and lifeways would be banal if it were not for the weight of distain which tends to dismiss these as primitive or foolish. Contested terms like “fetishism” and “animism” could illustrate the long history of prejudice in European assessments of African religions. However, looked at differently, and challenging the legacy of colonialism, they can instead draw attention to well-established African ideas and practices which turn out to have been prescient of cutting edge global scholarship.

In recent decades many academic disciplines have re-assessed human relationships with the wider world, not only with animals and plants but also with artefacts. Practices that were once dismissed as fetishism (allegedly a mistaken attribution of life to inanimate objects) now provide significant encouragement for the “ontological turn”, the “new animism” and the “new materialism”.

In these trans-disciplinary debates, Indigenous and other ways of understanding and moving through the world are inspiring challenges to dominant “Western” or “Modern” worldviews. In particular, researchers are re-considering European-originated obsessions with individuality. People, it turns out, are shaped by their relationships – and not just with other humans. We are always becoming some kind of relation: parent, student, chef, painter, philosopher, healer, story-teller or cat-lover perhaps. Other beings and objects – cats and computers, dogs and desks – make us who we are in each encounter. It is similar with desks: they are only desks when used to support computers, papers, pens and so on. Otherwise, perhaps they are just collections of word and screws.

In the colonial era, Europeans mocked Africans for making amulets and statuettes which they expected to provide guidance or protection. Let’s ignore for now the irony that those same Europeans were wearing religious symbols and venerating images of their deity and saints. Neither group was ignorant of the “made-ness” of the disputed objects. Prejudice and polemic stood in the way of understanding.

It has taken a long time to change things. African and African-diaspora songs, oratory, novels and poetry have contributed by familiarising the world with the ideas that have informed African adaptability and creativity over the years. The late Harry Garuba (Nigerian poet and professor of English Literature and African Studies in Cape Town, South Africa) demonstrated that understanding Africa requires understanding of what he called “animist realism”. This involves the active participation of the larger-than-human community (including made things as well as animals, birds and plants but also ancestors and other significant beings) in relationships and events. What might seem like poetic metaphors have the force of personal interactions. Cowrie shells and birds in flight communicate about reality. Calabashes and stomachs express their desires to be filled with palm wine.

Whether or not you agree with the poets and writers who deploy animist realism to propel the action of their work, there is a profound insight here into the multi-species world. Humans are far from alone or unique. Our relationships (including aggressive and unpleasant ones) with the larger community shape our lives. We are aided, and constrained, by our interactions with others. These ideas are foundational in recent scholarly debates in many disciplines (such as Actor-Network Theory). An improved, de-colonial relationship with Africa and its prescient ideas and practices can animate more new thinking about interactions between humans and the larger world.

The Invasion of Waziristan and its Aftermath

By Hugh Beattie

Just over a hundred years ago, at the end of 1919, British troops invaded Waziristan, a mountainous region on the border between Afghanistan and British India and the homeland of a number of semi-independent tribal groups, including the Mehsuds and the Wazirs. Widely reported around the world at the time, the invasion’s centenary has been almost entirely ignored in Britain. There are good reasons for remembering it though: the part played by Islamic loyalties and Muslim leaders in resistance to it, the complications caused by the fact that the region bordered on Afghanistan, British willingness to use the latest weaponry against its people, and the resulting disagreements among the British themselves. [For a sketch map of Waziristan see here. The places mentioned are more or less in the centre of the map]

Since the later nineteenth century British strategists had argued that Waziristan’s location on the border with Afghanistan meant that it would be a mistake to allow it to remain independent. Unable to justify the expense and trouble of conquering it outright, they succeeded in establishing a loose control over it by recruiting two militias and paying allowances to influential men. WWI had a major impact on this. In particular, sensing British weakness, in 1917 some Mehsuds launched a major anti-British rising, and in the late spring of 1919 many of the militiamen deserted and British influence in Waziristan largely evaporated. In order to reassert it, and to punish the Mehsuds for what was seen as their ‘bad behaviour’ during the war, Britain decided to try and take full control of the region.

The Barari Tangi (one of the gorges through which the British troops advanced in January 1920).

On December 19 1919 a force of 29,000 men began to move into Waziristan. The Mehsuds managed to pin it down on the edge of their territory and halted the advance. Resistance was led by an influential Mehsud, Musa Khan Abdullai, and a mullah called Fazal Din. Fazal Din was a son of a famous anti-British religious leader or ‘frontier mullah’, Muhiy-ud-Din, whom the British referred to as the Mullah Powindah. The Mehsuds saw themselves as defending Muslim territory from their Christian and Hindu invaders (many of the British troops were Hindus) as well as their independence, and may have received some help from an anti-British Muslim movement, the Jamaat-i-Mujahidin (based outside Waziristan). Some Wazir men joined the Mehsuds and the Afghan ruler, King Amanullah, sent one of his officers to assist them. The British position was so bad that some officials suggested that poison gas might be used to disperse them. After some weeks, however, the troops broke the Mehsud hold, and forcing two narrow gorges, were able to move into the heart of their territory and establish a base at Ladha. As they advanced the soldiers destroyed houses, terraced fields and irrigation canals, for instance the settlements around Makin, the Mehsuds ‘capital’.

Jirgah (council) of Mahsuds [Mehsuds] near Kaniguram Waziristan 1920 (with soldiers looking on).

According to one historian the expedition was a fiasco.[1] That may be an exaggeration, but it was expensive in terms of human life (and money) – it’s been estimated that as many as 2,500 soldiers died during it; probably more than 2,000 Mehsuds and Wazirs, including many non-combatants, died too. Nor did the British completely subdue the Mehsuds, and some of them took refuge in Afghanistan. In 1921 the British troops used howitzers to shell some of their villages. During the winter of 1922/23 the RAF bombed them and troops were sent to demolish buildings that had escaped destruction in the earlier attacks.

The burning of ‘Makin’ from air and land – Waziristan, Pakistan, dated 1890 but probably early 1920s. Photo by Mela Ram/royal Geographical Society/Getty Images.

The British had conducted punitive expeditions into various different parts of Waziristan before, but the troops had always withdrawn after killing anyone who resisted them, and destroying houses and crops and seizing flocks and herds. Keeping them there permanently attracted bad publicity internationally. It was also expensive, and the cost of the occupation had begun to worry senior officials. At one point a serious disagreement broke out between the British Government of India and the ‘Home Government’ over Waziristan policy. Towards the end of 1923 therefore the troops were withdrawn from Mehsud territory, and relocated to a place called Razmak just of the north of it, where they built a huge base. Some Mehsuds continued to resist them until 1925. In fact the British never succeeded in subduing the region completely. During the 1930s resistance principally came from the Mehsuds’ neighbours the Wazirs, led by another religious leader, Mirza Ali Khan, whom the British referred to as the Faqir of Ipi. When the British withdrew from the Indian sub-continent in 1947, they had still not brought Waziristan fully under their control.

Razmak Camp, Waziristan, 1940(c).

For fuller accounts of the expedition and its aftermath see, for example, Brian Robson, Crisis On The Frontier; The Third Afghan War and the Campaign in Waziristan 1919-20 (Staplehurst, 2004) and my Empire and Tribe in the Afghan Frontier Region: Custom, Conflict and British Strategy in Waziristan until 1947 (London/New York, 2019).

[1] James Spain, The Pathan Borderland (The Hague, 1963), p.183.

Institutional Racism, Religious Studies and #BlackLivesMatter

By Suzanne Newcombe

As a privileged white American, I am compulsively drawn to watch the drama now unfolding in the United States; my emotions split between shame and hope. I am also well aware of the parallels and differences of institutionalised racism and discrimination in my adopted country of Great Britain.

As I mature, I become more aware of the multiple layers of institutionalised discrimination – and how I have directly benefited from many of these structures. I have now accepted that becoming aware of my own prejudice – products of our collective culture and history – will be a lifelong project.

Education is crucial to revealing the implicit and structural racisms which still oppress the majority of the world’s populations. The Open University is well placed to promote growing social justice in the face of global challenges, and our understandings of religion are a central aspect of how cultures perpetuate inequalities as well as promote change.

I want here to lay down some of the ways we, as a Religious Studies department, have been trying to address the continuing legacy of colonialism and institutionalised racism as individuals and as a department. #BlackLivesMatter. We do care. We are trying to educate ourselves and our students away from institutionalised prejudice and discrimination.


Decolonising the Curriculum – What We Teach

We work hard show how much of our thinking about what religion is, is based on cultural, colonial and Christian assumptions. Put simply, much mainstream thinking around and about religion is colonialist and racist.

To challenge these assumptions, we emphasise the exploration of how religion is lived, how ‘ordinary people’ create their own rituals and meaning out of larger traditions as well as the blurry boundaries between religion/non-religion or religion/culture. We explore indigenous and animist forms of relating to the world, questioning the basis of common assumptions about the divisions between humans and non-humans.

We show how historical and cultural context as essential to understanding what religion might be for humans – grounded in particular time and place. This approach is part of a broader critical project to demystify the colonial framework of understanding the world that we have inherited, and ultimately, to challenge it. The critical study of religion is inherently decolonising.

For introductions to what this looks like in practice, see our free OpenLearn course Religious Diversity, drawn from A227: Exploring Religion – which really asks our students to explore the questions of ‘What is religion?’, ‘How can we study religion?’ and ‘Why should we study religion?’


Methods of Teaching – How We Teach

Running throughout our teaching is an approach which asks our students to reflect upon their assumptions and consider the beliefs and practices of ‘others’ with an attitude of enquiry and empathy. These are essential interpersonal skills which must be embodied to tackle racism and prejudice in all contexts.

We also require students to take an attitude of evidence-based critical thinking when approaching controversial subjects.  We try to teach students to confront controversial subjects subject head on, with appropriate skills – to come to their own educated, informed opinions and express these opinions well to others. Articulate, evidence-based analysis is essential to tackling institutionalised racism.

For an introduction to how we work in practice see our free FutureLearn course on Why Religion Matters.


What and How We Research

Author Lululemon athletica.

In the religious studies department, we are all active researchers. Our areas of expertise and research experience are very diverse, but they share a commitment to dialogue and excellence in evidence collection. Many of our research areas directly address areas where inequalities and social justice work are informed by religious and non-religious identities. We see religion as an important cultural resource which can be used to challenge and transform our society.

My own research has largely focused on the complex global and multi-cultural entanglements of yoga in the modern period. Understanding the complexity of the creation of systems of practice, ethics and belief such as yoga is essential if fundamentalist versions are not used to oppress specific populations. For example, neoliberalist ideals of thin, lithe white women who are featured in advertisements, Instagram and grace the covers of magazines, can make the practice seem exclusive to the upper-middle class white women that form the majority of practitioners in the ‘Western’ world.

Simultaneously, yoga is can also be used to promote a narrow Hindutva vision of modern India, where ancient Indian wisdom is verified by modern biomedical methods into a streamlined ideology and export product.,_Shri_Narendra_Modi_visiting_the_Drug_Discovery_%26_Research_Laboratory_after_inaugurating_the_Patanjali_Research_Institute,_at_Haridwar,_in_Uttarakhand.jpg

But the practices associated with yoga and meditation practices are also widely used many individuals and groups to experience greater freedom, empowerment and ability to put in to motion more ethical actions and authentic identities at both individual and social levels. Both of these positions for yoga and meditation practices are real – and both are important to understand and consider.

Making Peace in Prison - Yoga and Meditation are having remarkable effects in turning around Prisoner's lives. Could this be the key to rehabilitating offenders?

Religious practices such as yoga can also be used as powerful as cultural resources which can spaces for reconciliation, social justice, environmental stability and greater respect for non-human life.

I know my efforts as an individual are far from perfect in understanding my own ignorance and prejudices. As an institution and department, our efforts to support #BlackLivesMatter are far from finished. For example, we don’t have enough BAME representation in either our student body or in our departmental staff. We all know that our efforts can and must be further extended, refined and developed. But by being transparent about our intentions is the first step towards change.

#BlackLivesMatter and we look forward to being better able to better serve our obligation to promote equality and social justice in the Religious Studies Department.

What COVID conspiracies tell us about our society

By David G. Robertson

Reblogged from the Religion Media Centre:

In times of stress, people look for answers to their problems. When their usual answers aren’t working, they may reach for unusual answers. The sociologist Martin Stringer identifies this as situational belief — we might not “believe in” acupuncture, but if our back pain is bad enough, we may well be prepared to give it a try.

This goes for religion, too. The war-time expression, “There are no atheists in foxholes”, expresses this idea, and it is far from uncommon for people to “find God” after a serious illness or the death of a loved one.

It is also true for what we have come to term “conspiracy theories” (a phrase that is harder to define than you may think). Consider how conspiracy theories about immigrants have become more popular after the 2008 financial crash and the decade of austerity that followed.

In fact, health issues (whether our own or someone else’s) seem particularly to encourage people to “try out” ideas they wouldn’t in normal circumstances, and given that Covid-19 is the largest threat to public health for at least a generation (if not in terms of overall deaths, then in terms of its sudden onset and the uncertainty over its long-term impact), it’s not surprising that conspiracy theories have quickly sprung up.

In the UK, the leading narrative is that the spread of Covid-19 is being caused (or exacerbated) by the rollout of the 5G network. When theories like this seem to take off quickly, the reality is often that they combine with current ideas, with a ready-made audience.

The idea that the 5G network will cause health issues — or the 4G network, wi-fi, even power lines — has been around for years, and if you already accept that, it makes “sense” to then connect this to a sudden pandemic. I need to be clear, however, that this does NOT mean I think they are correct.

Similar conspiratorial narrative sprung up about the Aids/HIV crisis in the 1980s, and even the Spanish Flu after the Great War.

In the United States, Covid-19 has been drawn into the ever-evolving, millennial QAnon narrative, which believes a series of cryptic emails supposedly from a White House insider are clues to Donald Trump’s secret plan to “drain the swamp” once and for all. The connections to health concerns are still there, though less obvious; Q developed out of the PizzaGate narrative in the run-up to the 2016 election, which was itself a resurfacing of the satanic ritual abuse panic of the early 1990s. The panic was started by evangelical Christians and took off because it fitted well with widespread but largely unspoken concerns about the welfare of children in the post-nuclear family America.

These longer histories should make it clear that the internet isn’t “causing” conspiracy theories (a point made repeatedly by Joseph Uscinski) or that they are “new”. It is, however, making them more visible.

I was at the G8 demonstrations in Edinburgh in 2001 which turned into a riot. But a surprisingly small proportion of people there were actually demonstrators. Apart from the police, most were journalists or simply curious bystanders (like me). And the ones left fighting at the end of it were local bully boys who just used it as an excuse.

Online conspiracy theories work the same way. Conversations that used to be confined to the pub, a chat at the back fence or among close friends, now have a potentially global audience. This makes it easier for journalists to pick up on the story, and amplify it, particularly now when nothing else is happening to report on, but we are all shut in our homes and looking for entertainment. The core of committed “believers” stays small, but the circle of curious bystanders, and trolls who delight in kicking the hornet’s nest, grows larger and larger. For a short while, anyway, until the next novelty comes along.

It concerns me, however, how quickly the demands have come to silence such ideas, and control the narrative by force, for example You Tube’s decision to ban all conspiracy theory videos falsely linking coronavirus to 5G.

Rather than getting angry at what we see as an outbreak of mass irrationality, a more constructive approach would be to see these conspiratorial narratives as evidence of broader concerns.

Covid-19 is one, to be sure — but so is the position of China in the global power structure, the pace of technological change, and the massive inequality in modern society. Indeed, the long-term discussion around Covid-19 may itself begin to revolve around the pace of development, and how for-profit technologies so often seem to outpace those for the common good.

A conspiracy theory doesn’t have to be correct for it to tell us a lot about the problems in our society.

Iran’s shrines during pandemic

By Hugh Beattie

Towards the end of March the Iranian authorities took the unprecedented step of closing the shrine of the 8th Imam, Ali ibn Musa al-Reza, in the western city of Mashhad, to pilgrims, as well as the shrine of the Imam’s sister, Fatima Masuma in Qom, south of Tehran. They also closed the Jamkaran mosque in Qom – linked with the 12th Imam, this shrine has in recent years become major pilgrimage centre. The spread of the virus, coupled with the impact of the US sanctions, has led President Rouhani to request aid from the International Monetary Fund, the first time that such a request had been made since 1979, the year of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Although the religious authorities in Iran supported the closures of the shrines, the decision to do so upset many Iranians, not just the very devout, as the rituals performed at the shrines have cultural as well as religious significance.

Mashhad, Iran. Ninara from Helsinki, Finland / CC BY (

The authorities may have been influenced by the fact that Iran had been badly affected by Spanish Flu in 1918/19, when it experienced the ‘most lethal and widespread pandemic’ it had ever experienced. Although Iran’s government had declared the country’s neutrality at the beginning of WWI, some areas were invaded by foreign forces – Ottoman, British and Russian, and clashes between Ottoman forces on the one hand and Russian and British ones on the other occurred in some areas, particularly the north-west. The occupying armies requisitioned food, and there was also drought, crop failure and hoarding by landowners, leading to the outbreak of famine in some areas in 1917.

Jamkaran Mosque. Mostafameraji / CC BY-SA (

The famine may have contributed to mortality when Spanish Flu entered the country by several routes in the late summer and autumn of 1918. Another factor may have been the widespread use of opium, for example to stave off hunger pains, and to treat the symptoms of malaria, endemic throughout the country. The initial wave of influenza was followed by a second more virulent form of the virus, and the pandemic did not die down until November 1919. Estimates of the number who died range quite widely – from 8.0 to 21.7 per cent of the population (or between 902,400 and 2,432,000). There is no doubt though that Iran was one of the countries most badly affected by the Spanish Flu.

All that glitters doesn’t always shimmer: values during and beyond the pandemic

By Graham Harvey

“The earth shimmers”, Debbie Rose wrote of her learning-through-dancing among Aboriginal Australian hosts. The pulse of seasons informs the shimmering rhythms of dance which capture participants, encouraging them to flourish. It’s a fine vision, especially for those of us anticipating summer sunshine. But Rose contrasts this Aboriginal approach to the world with the cascading mass extinctions that follow from Western-originated efforts to separate humans from the world we exploit.

Tempting as it is to think here about the rhythms of isolation and permitted exercise, I propose to look at another stark contrast. The Coronavirus pandemic has decreased industrial production and consumption (except of loo rolls, it seems) and led to decreased share prices globally. As a result, gold is casting its glittery allure again.

The president of Brazil insists that Amazonia should be exploited, timber and minerals extracted, financial wealth gained. Amazonia’s rivers and soils are being polluted as miners quest for the lucrative glittering metal. Indigenous communities, already ravaged by “ordinary” diseases (measles and flu) now face the danger of Covid-19. In his book The Falling Sky (2018), the Yanomami author Davi Kopenawa writes about the devastation of previous epidemics. This new virus, already killing Indigenous people in many places, not only across South America, is likely to be worse.

Kopenawa also writes about the irrelevance of gold to his Yanomami people. What glows with value and life for them is the forest world which provides everything but requires careful respectful interaction. Kopenawa is a diplomat and also a shaman who gains knowledge from bright dancing spirits he calls Xapiri. The glitter of gold has an allure for miners. The liveliness of the forest and Xapiri captivate the Yanomami. The shimmer of these contrasts is one of many invitations to us to consider our values and our ambitions.



Kopenawa, Davi, and Bruce Albert. 2013. The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Cambridge: the Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Rose, Deborah B. 2017. “Shimmer: When all you love is being trashed” in Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubant (eds). Arts of living on a damaged planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. G51-G63.

High religiosity and ‘resisting’ Covid 19 governmental advice in Romania

By Maria Nita

The Covid 19 social distance posed real challenges for the largely rural, traditional and sensorial Orthodox Church in Romania – where kissing icons and other embodied rituals could not so easily find a virtual counterpart. In a recent Pew survey, Romania scored 1st among 34 European Countries as the country with the highest religiosity – yet we have to look beyond religious commitment if we are to dig deeper into the reasons why Romanian priests seemed to ignore official advice and gave communion in the midst of the pandemic. A recent euronews article suggests that priests had not had an order from the Patriarch – which makes an interesting point about religious authority in Eastern Europe.

High religiosity aside, as a British-Romanian academic I can see the ‘new Romania’ of the last couple of decades embracing European freedoms and progressive values and being increasingly at odds with the highly conservative Romanian Orthodox Church. Yet I can also see Orthodox churches preserving their special status in both town and country, much like the candle-lit golden oases in the grey Communist Romania of my childhood.

When Ninian Smart, the British scholar of religion, asked a Romanian informant in the 1970s whether the Orthodox Church had ‘a dialogue’ with the Communist Party, which might help it thrive at the side of ‘an ideologically hostile regime’ – the retort captured the dry taste of Romanian humour: ‘Why should we have dialogue if we see each other every day?’ The Church maintained its independence from the Communist Party through silent acts of resistance. Clearly, new survival and adaptive mechanisms are now badly needed.

Alt-ac and the ethics of academic discourse

By Theo Wildcroft

As an independent scholar who’s a Visiting Fellow for the Open University but self-employed, a lot of my regular academic work is actually engagement work. It means translating my research findings on the teaching of contemporary yoga, into workshops and trainings for the subcultures that I research, rather than syllabi for students. As a result, I’m spending a lot of time at the moment organising and planning my schedule of events for the year – honouring my commitments as guest faculty on various yoga teacher trainings, running continuing professional development workshops, and accepting invitations to conferences, both here and abroad.

I speak at both practitioner and academic conferences, but one academic conference this September that I am most excited to attend is hosted by Chester University, and the topic is ‘Spiritual Abuse: Coercive control in religions’. Its remit is wide and interdisciplinary, and the subject is a brave one to tackle. I was generously invited to, and I have proposed, a panel on sexual abuse in yoga, but I am sure there will be many panels of vital interest to my ongoing research. Although it was slightly tangential to my thesis, sexual abuse is a live issue that has been at the heart of contemporary yoga discourse for the last few years. It involves attempts to gain justice for long term historical issues, debates about regulating an international profession in a post-colonial context, and the development of significantly new pedagogical practices.

The largest yoga teaching accreditation body in the world, Yoga Alliance, has spent two years redrawing their ethical standards for yoga teachers, and I have been a small part of that process. A number of independent researchers have also been involved in the wider public discourse, and I know that their contributions will be welcomed at the conference in Chester. Working to high standards of rigour and ethics, but beyond the academy, independent researchers have built upon established research from multiple disciplines in order to debate the relationship between abusive behaviours and the development of touch in teaching yoga, or theorise the relationship between charismatic teaching, habitus and somatic dominance in teaching spaces. These writers and researchers have been able to be part of holding abusive organisations and individuals to account, on behalf of survivors, and often at considerable personal cost.

For myself, a year since my PhD was awarded, and like almost all of my cohort, I’m realising that there may not be a permanent, full-time academic post in my future. But unlike many, when I started my PhD, I had a decade of self-employment behind me. In the course of completing my doctorate, I’ve managed to grow a significant level of organic engagement among the communities of my research that wouldn’t have been possible while also holding down a full-time academic post. I now earn about half of my annual income by teaching workshops on my research. I promote my work with interviews, blog posts and podcasts. I am working on online content and planning a second book, and as a result of all this work, I might actually break the income tax threshold this year, which is more than some of my peers.

As a result, I find myself among a growing number of those, post-PhD, who want to keep researching, learning, and teaching, and really want to stay in conversation with our colleagues and mentors, but don’t see a traditional academic position as very attainable. Instead, we’re finding ways to collaborate on edited volumes and events, writing and creating content for a multitude of platforms, experimenting with applying for smaller grants for specific pieces of work, and wondering about charitable funds and even crowdfunding options. It is all very alt-ac – very higher ed 2.0 – but it comes with a number of issues.

The most immediate is the umbrella under which such work happens. Some of us are lucky enough to still be sheltered by the institutions that awarded our PhDs, but that accreditation has a time limit. Being a Visiting Fellow at the OU awards me access to the library (and thus academic databases and scholarly content behind the paywall), and an email address (and thus the required legitimacy for conference submissions and other scholarly endeavours). Leaving it behind would render the core work of a scholar – being part of the greater academic conversation – much more difficult.

This is a problem we’re going to need to solve, not just as individuals, but as a sector, as academia attempts to diversify its models of working in ways that are more sustainable, more engaged with the public, more inclusive to different working patterns, and, to be honest, more budget-friendly. Independent researchers can work in ways that academics with full teaching loads cannot. We can do fieldwork and engagement, writing and research that is unavailable to many scholars. Yet funders and institutions alike can find it difficult to collaborate with alternative academic projects that aren’t fully embedded in established institutions and established industries.

The conference on Spiritual Abuse in Chester shows the invaluable addition that independent scholars are making to broad cultural discourses on vital issues of religious ethics. Given that, and the support of colleagues organising the conference, it seems odd that my hardest task in bringing together this ground-breaking group of researchers, for an unprecedented conversation, is going to be proving not the value or quality of their work, but their institutional credentials.

Given the increasingly arbitrary boundary between academia and independent research, as scholars are increasingly encouraged to bridge the gap between engagement, advocacy and social impact, are there not better ways to organise our conferences, our research projects, and our peer reviewed outputs? Can scholarly discourse find a way to both support and learn from the academy, whilst also supporting and including independent, casualised and precariously-employed researchers? Could the role of Independent Scholar find a similar but different status to Visiting Fellow: part of the conversation, even if not a formal part of the institution? After all, increasingly, we’re doing a lot of the same work, and there are so many things we can learn from each other.