Category Archives: Books and conferences

Durkheim, Energy and Contagion

Just published on the blog of Oxford University Press is a piece by Paul-Francois Tremlett taking a fresh look at the work of foundational sociologist, Emilé Durkheim. He argues that we have tended to overlook some of his ideas, and looks at two examples – energy and contagion – from 1912’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life:

According to Durkheim, the performance of ritual supplied so-called aboriginal society with the resources it needed to ensure the right balance between the generation of energy on the one hand, and the consumption of energy on the other. Durkheim, of course, could not have known how apposite this line of thought would be to we humans of the Anthropocene, a term coined to mark that moment in Earth’s history when human impact on eco-systems (notably the extraction of resources for generating energy) now threatens the sustainability of all human societies.

You can read the full article here.

Don’t forget that Paul-Francois was also one of the editors (along with our own Graham Harvey and Liam T. Sutherland of the University of Edinburgh) of a recent book which also re-assesses the work of a seminal early figure in the study of religion, Edward Burnett Tylor. Watch out for a video discussion on Tylor in the New Year, recorded at the BASR conference in Chester this September.

The launch and reception of Roots of Yoga

Theo Wildcroft, PhD Candidate

Roots of yoga coverRoots of Yoga, authored by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, is the first major text from one of the most significant research projects into the history of hatha yoga, the familiar form based on postures. As such, the book has been eagerly awaited by scholars and practitioners alike. Whilst contemporary yoga has become globally popular through the last century or more, the source material for that globalisation is surprisingly narrow.

Roots of Yoga aims to bring to light more of the vast diversity of pre-modern hatha yoga practice. It collates curated extracts from original pre-modern texts, together with an analysis of common themes and differences. It also acknowledges non-Indian and non-Hindu influences that are mostly omitted from non-academic accounts of hatha yoga. This bold choice will have political as well as scholarly implications.

The reception of historical yoga scholarship beyond the academy can be fraught. The narrow source material of most contemporary yoga was reformed in the pre-independence period, invigorated with transnational influences, combined with medical terminology and neo-Vedantic philosophy, and promoted as an enduring, ancient, authentically Indian practice for holistic health. That practice eventually proliferated into global significance, still trading on associations with authentic Indian roots, but increasingly subject to commercial appropriation. One overt aim in recent years for both American activists for social justice and the right-wing Hindu nationalist Indian government is to ‘return’ yoga to control by its perceived culture of origin. This has become entangled with politics of caste and sect, and denies the long history of multi-faith syncretism shown by Roots of Yoga, as well as a century of transnational innovation within the evolution of yoga. As such, the reception of new historical commentaries on yoga has become highly politicised.

Few would wish to repeat the experience of Wendy Doniger, whose The Hindus was removed from sale in India following governmental pressure. But as a researcher of contemporary, rather than historical practice, I find that it is in social media spaces that the impact of new scholarship is first felt beyond the academy. Mark Singleton’s previous book, Yoga Body, had a powerful impact on the transnational yoga scene. Followers of the Mysore lineages have understandably been the most resistant, whilst secular reformers and post-lineage innovators alike find in the book a strong justification for their own evolution of the practice.

The most common dismissal of Mark’s work, and that of other academics, is that mere scholars as non-practitioners can only have the most superficial of understandings of the practice. Although Mark is a yoga practitioner, his co-author James Mallinson is much more demonstrably so, having appeared in a BBC documentary on the Kumbh Mela being ordained as a mahant. With copies of Roots of Yoga in just a few practitioner hands so far, it has already become common to respond to critics dismissing the book with a link to the BBC documentary.

Already, Roots of Yoga has both fervent supporters and critics who refuse to read it, organising along lines of sect and politics. So far, the most interesting review is that by the yoga writer and thinker Matthew Remski, for Yoga Journal. It perfectly encapsulates many of the contradictory forces currently acting upon transnational yoga culture.

The review’s title is “10 Things We Didn’t Know About Yoga Until This New Must-Read Dropped”, a click-bait title that makes its writer uncomfortable. Within the very short word limit, Matthew does his best to drop a number of key facts, focusing on core concerns of contemporary practice: the historical place of women in yoga, cultural diversity and appropriation, physical and emotional safety, body image and the clash between scientific and pre-modern epistemologies. Yoga Journal chose to accompany the article with links to less serious links such as ‘A Beginner’s Guide to the Chakras’, as well as exactly the kind of images of normative bodies that yoga cultural commentators like Matthew criticise in their writing. It leads to the delightful incongruity of number 8: “’Yogic suicide’ is a thing” illustrated by a woman sunbathing in a bikini. It’s an image that could be screenshot and used in any lecture on contemporary transnational yoga culture.

 

Thoughts on Children in New Religions


By David G. Robertson

As Susan Palmer argued in her opening keynote at the CenSAMM conference on Millenarianism and Violence in Bedford last week, children are often the focus of particular attention within millenarian groups. As Mary Douglas argued, this is because the child is conceived of as the embodiment of the group’s ideals. The child is conceived of as both (simultaneously) perfect, and a blank slate, onto which the group may write their values.

Millennial ideas – and prophecy more generally – do not entirely concern the future, but rather the potentialities contained in the present. Concerns over the present order are critiqued using an idealised past, and projected into the future. Thus the prophetic present represents the potential of a better world, through the work of the group in question. The child therefore literally embodies that potentiality.

But we could invert the argument: if children represent the possibility of the community, is this the reason that children are so often at the centre of public and governmental concerns about New Religious Movements? Indeed , can we see the child as at the site of competition between the state and the NRM – who will inscribe their values more successfully?

As Palmer herself argued in her 2010 book The Nuwaubian Nation, charges of child abuse are a recurrent feature of accusations against minority religions. This can be seen in the histories of the The Children of God, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, Branch Davidians, Lord Our Righteousness Church, MOVE among many, many others. We can also see it perhaps in the contemporary resurgence of media interest in Scientology, following the release of Going Clear, with contemporary concerns including the welfare of children (and Hubbard’s own children) increasingly at the centre of criticisms. Indeed, as I argued in my own paper at the conference, there is a millennial (and/or apocalyptic) subtext to paedophilia scares from the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare of the early 1990s to the very recent PizzaGate conspiracy narrative.

For each side, allowing the other side to instil their values into the child is tantamount to doing violence to them. Therefore, it can in some cases become permissible, even necessary, to commit violence to prevent this. This might well illustrate the claim by Stuart Wright later in the conference that violence is by no means an inevitable outcome of millenarianism, nor the result of some essential quality or attribute. Rather it is one possible result of the relationship between the groups and other groups, particularly legal or military, which represent the official state. Until the 1980s, the anti-cult movement relied predominantly on charges of brainwashing to encourage state intervention in NRMs. A brainwashed individual was essentially one stripped of agency and free will. The concept derived from the USA’s Asian wars of the 1950s to ‘70s, to explain why some GIs would defect to the other side. Few psychologists accept the existence of brainwashing today, however, so perhaps this is why the charges against NRMs increasing concern children.

We might also note how often children are used by the state to legitimise violence against others. Only last week, Donald Trump justified missile strikes on Syria by stating that “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” As ever, contemporary religions offer a microcosm of broader concerns and trajectories in culture – one more reason why Religious Studies is so vital today.

A full report on the conference will be published in the BASR Bulletin in May.

Towards a global history of American evangelicalism

One of my highlights of the summer was taking part in the  ‘Towards a global history of American evangelicalism’ workshop at the Roosevelt Study Center, Middelburg, Netherlands. This workshop, funded by the Luce Foundation, followed up from a conference, of the same name, at the University of Southampton in 2014. The workshop was to discuss the planned production of a special issue of Journal of American Studies on the same theme. You can see what a happy and intellectually stimulated group of folks we were in the picture (courtesy of Hans Krabbendam: from left to right, David Swartz , John Maiden, Uta Balbier, Hans Krabbendam, Melani McAlister, John Corrigan, Heather Curtis,  Timothy Stoneman, Brandi Hughes, Axel Schäfer  and Kendrick OliverMiddelburg conference).

 

The American foreign missionary enterprise expanded from the 1820s, alongside the nation’s economic and imperial growth. During the Cold War period, evangelical missionary work expressed a universalist vision of American power, with Christianity often understood and utilized  as a  spiritual bulwark against the perceived global threat of Communism. In the later part of the 20th century, the numerical balance of Christianity in the world – and evangelicalism and Pentecostalism – has increasingly shifted to the global south. Scholars have highlighted the emergence of ‘world Christianity’ and the ‘diffusion’ of evangelicalism; and with it indigenous evangelical leaderships and practices, resistance to western paternalism, the reflexivity of missions, and increasingly transnational exchanges and flows of resources. What have been the changes and continuities in  American evangelicalism’s engagement with the wider world during this long period?

There were papers here on conferences (1966 Congress on World Evangelism and Lausanne 1974) and organisations (e.g. Prison Fellowship International; Sharing of Ministries Abroad USA); print and radio media; gender and mission; race and civil rights; foreign policy and international aid. The paper I presented concerned ongoing research on an US Episcopalian charismatic mission network, and its activities in Latin America and Africa since the 1980s. I argued that this network displayed a strong emphasis on the mutual sharing of resources and responsiveness to local priorities and leaderships in its work with dioceses abroad; and this reflected both and a growing emphasis in evangelical theology and practice of mission on interdependence and a blurring of lines between ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’. I’ll keep you posted on developments with the special issue as they emerge.