Category Archives: contemporary religion in historical perspective

“Hate marches”: How Politicians weaponise religious identity?

By David Robertson

On March 1st, Rishi Sunak gave his first Prime Ministerial address from the steps of 10 Downing Street. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and apparently organised rather hastily. What necessitated such an urgent, national response?

“A shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality”, Sunak said, which “demands a response not just from government, but from all of us”. As many commentators noted, it was not clear exactly what “extremist disruption and violence” he was referring to. The protest marches against Israel’s campaign in Gaza has been one of the largest and most peaceful in British history, with arrest rates way lower than the Glastonbury Festival or a Premier League football match. The only violence that has been seen was not from the protestors at all, but by counter-protestors, including individuals formerly associated with the far-right English Defence League, after being encouraged by the then-Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

Yet, according to Sunak,

Jewish children fearful to wear their school uniform lest it reveal their identity. Muslim women abused in the street for the actions of a terrorist group they have no connection with… You can be a practising Hindu and a proud Briton as I am. Or a devout Muslim and a patriotic citizen as so many are. Or a committed Jewish person and the heart of your local community… and all underpinned by the tolerance of our established, Christian church.

It seems clear that Sunak was not responding  to any real threat, but rather attempting to deflect from a wave of his ministers being accused of racism and Islamophobia, provide cover for the Commons’ Speaker Lindsay Hoyle breaking Parliamentary procedure to pass Labour’s ceasefire motion rather than the SNP’s more critical one, and to connect all this with the protests which have taken place weekly across the UK since October 2023 and which directly oppose the Government’s position of support for Israel’s military actions. These protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, organised according to the law with the support of the Police, and do not represent an extremist minority, but rather the views of 66% of the population today, up from 59% in November 2023. Nor are the protestors predominantly Muslim, but represent a cross-section of the British public—including many Jewish people.

But from Sunak’s speech, and Michael Gove’s widely criticised redefinition of extremism which followed, you would get the impression of a state of emergency, almost a civil war in which the Christian majority are embattled with a wave of Muslim immigrants.

The reality could hardly be more different. As shown by the 2021 census, we know that the percentage of the English population identifying as Christian has been dropping at a steady rate of 1.3% of the population per year since at least 2001, and was 46.2% in 2021 (in Scotland it is even lower). The UK is no longer a Christian majority country, and if current trends continue, will be a majority “No Religion” by the next census. And for all Sunak and Gove’s scaremongering, there is no wave of Muslim immigrants threatening the UK. They amount for only 6.5% of the population, 3.9 million, an increase of only 800,000 (the number of people on the biggest London march) over the last decade.

Figure 1. UK Religion 2011 Census


(Religious composition, 2011 and 2021, England and Wales. Source: ONS.

The decline of Christian identification was matched by a rise in “no religion”, not Islam. So to frame the protests as two religions clashing, as Sunak does, is at best ignorant, and at worst risks heightening tensions and even encouraging violence, as Braverman did when she called peace protests “hate marches” and accused the police of double standards (implying religious discrimination in favour of Muslims).

So what’s going on? The politics of Israel-Gaza are a factor, to be sure, but there are other influences at work here. While the antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party under Corbyn is well-known, there have been regular accusations of Islamophobia within the Conservative party since at least 2011, notably including by the Tory Peer Baroness Warsi who said it “right up to the top” of the Party. The Muslim Council of Britain accused the Tories of responding with “denial, dismissal and deceit” after Boris Johnson wrote in The Spectator that “To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia—fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke.” In 2019, anti-Muslim incidents almost quadrupled after Johnson described a woman wearing a burqa as “looking like a bank robber” in a newspaper column. Deputy Party Chairman Lee Anderson was fired for stating that London Mayor Sadiq Khan was under the control of “Islamists”. It’s not just MPs—a 2020 report by Hope Not Hate found that 57% of Conservative Party members had a negative attitude towards Islam also.

Michael Gove has been accused of anti-Muslim rhetoric previously, however. In 2006, he published Celsius 7/7, which argues for a “widespread reluctance to acknowledge the real scale and nature of the Islamist terror threat” from “a sizeable minority” of British Muslims holding “rejectionist Islamist views” which he describes as comparable to the threat from Nazism. Citing the “clash of civilisations” thesis argued by Bernard Lewis, “the chief ideologue of post-9/11 politics of hate towards Islam and Muslims”, its many errors of fact are best addressed by William Dalrymple’s review. Gove was heavily criticised for his handling of the so-called “Trojan Horse” affair in Birmingham in 2014, in which fraudulent letters accusing Muslims of attempting to “infiltrate” schools were taken so seriously that Gove appointed the former head of the Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism unit as Education Commissioner. It should not therefore be surprising that several Muslim groups are singled out as targeted by Gove’s new “extremism” definition.

Figure 2. Protests in Edinburgh. Photo: David Robertson

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Religion and Calendars: Sakha Moons and Summer Solstice

By Liudmila Nikanorova 

For centuries, even for millennia, human life and activities have been measured in time. While the majority of people are now used to the standardised units of time, such as seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years, the organisation of these units through calendars can be very diverse. There are over forty calendars in use today. Some of them are sun-based, like the Gregorian solar calendar used in the UK since 1750. There are also lunisolar calendars that follow the movements of the moon, like the Chinese, Jewish, and Islamic calendars.

Religion is closely intertwined with the organisation of calendars. Holidays in different countries can indicate which religion has the strongest presence in the nation-state. In most European countries, for example, Christmas and Easter are the largest public holidays indicating the strong presence of Christianity in Europe.

Another example is when the Soviet Union introduced new holidays to replace the Orthodox Christian ones following the Russian Revolution in 1917. This measure was supposed to mark the transition from the “dark religious” Russian Empire to the “modern secular” Soviet state, where religion was regarded as “the opium of the people.”

The names of the units of time can also inform about the main activities of the people. The calendar of the Sakha (Yakut) people from North-East Asia, for instance, reflects environmental and agricultural cycles central to the life of the Sakha. This is particularly evident in the Sakha names of months:


Kulun Tutar yia [March] – the month of foal catching.

Sakha people have been historically horse herders and have incorporated products made from mare’s milk into their diet. During this month, foals are captured and separated from the mares to facilitate the milking process. Kymys, a drink made from fermented mare’s milk, is not only a local delicacy but an important part of Sakha ceremonies and festivities.

Figure 1. Running foals of the Sakha breed (all photos are taken by the author)


Muus ustar yia [April] – the month of ice drift.

Sakha Sire [Sa. ‘the land of the Sakha’] is located in one of the coldest regions of the planet, where rivers and lakes freeze during the winter months. The thawing of the Lena River, one of the largest rivers in the world, is a time of excitement but also anxiety, as it often leads to floods in the region.


Yem yia [Mai] – the month of spawning.

Lake fishing, especially for sobo, a fish belonging to the same family as carp, has been one of the main subsistence practices among the Sakha. This month marks the spawning season for sobo fish.

Figure 2. Frozen sobo fish inside the ice installation


Bes yia [June] – the month of a pine tree.

This month not only indicates the arrival of summer, when trees turn green, but also the specific period for harvesting resin from the Siberian pine.


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Over twenty-five years of Yoga Studies: the birth of a sub-discipline of Religious Studies

By Suzanne Newcombe

Recently I was asked to reflect upon the growth of the field of ‘Yoga Studies’ – the academic study of yoga in the disciplines of yoga and social sciences to celebrate a decade of successful graduates from the MA in Yoga Studies at SOAS.  The evening celebratory event was enthusiastically well attended by at least one-third of the graduates of the programme.

This occasion made me feel both old and grateful that I could reflect upon the establishment of Yoga Studies as a sub-field through lived experience. I started researching contemporary or ‘modern yoga’ (although it wasn’t yet a term) in 2002 as part of an MSc in the Sociology of Religion. My question then was what are the beliefs of yoga practitioners and how do they relate to religion? (For more how I framed and answered the question at the time, see Hasselle-Newcombe 2005)

But as I was doing this research I realised there were more basic and obvious questions.

  • Why was doing something called ‘yoga’ both incredibly common and normal? Wasn’t yoga something from another culture? How and why did this happen?

I realised that these questions would keep me busy for a PhD, which I began in 2003 and was eventually published as a monograph Yoga in Britain: Stretching Spirituality and Educating Yogis (2019).

But of course, I wasn’t the only one interested in this question. Elizabeth de Michelis’ A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism (2004), marked a pivotal moment, defining ‘modern yoga’ as a practice with distinct characteristics from its premodern roots. During the same year, Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy was also published. In the next two decades these books were followed but an exponentially increasing number of academic publications and insights.

I was lucky enough to be part of many of the initial discussions facilitated by Elizabeth de Michelis as the director of the Dharam Hinduja Institute of Indic Research at the University of Cambridge between 2000 to 2006. She brought together most of the scattered scholars in the social sciences and humanities who were looking at contemporary yoga for a series of conferences and workshops.

My PhD research was very much shaped by these dialogues, particularly through discussions with Elizabeth and Mark Singleton undertaking the PhD research which underpins Yoga Body (2010) at the time. The extant academic research on yoga was possible to keep in my head during my PhD. But now I must do a fresh literature search every time I want to write about the field because something new has always been published by someone I’ve not yet encountered.

The questions from which I started my PhD research were naïve, general and basic. Now the questions that preoccupy the growing number of yoga researchers are more nuanced and much more specific, for example:

  • How are the soteriological goals of yoga expressed in different times and places? What are the commonalities and differences in these goals and experiences?
  • How do the experiences of yoga practice relate to more contemporary psychological descriptors such as flow, absorption – or modern ideas of ‘concentration’ and meditation?
  • What other traditions of physical and spiritual practice have been incorporated into contemporary yoga contexts? When and how do these transformations of practices occur?
  • How have our current understandings of ‘meditation’ and ‘yoga’ been established? Do these words adequately describe either the experiences or motivations of practitioners?
  • How might we use the nuanced discussions found in historical texts to explore the nuances of practitioner experiences and diversity of practices found in contemporary yoga and meditation?
  • Where, how and in what ways does yoga recapitulate power imbalances and systemic oppressions? How does this happen in similar and distinct ways in different times and places?

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Democracy, Information, and Religion

By Paul-François Tremlett

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

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

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

The Green Man and the Blue Man

By David Robertson 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Maiden

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

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

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

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

Wildfires, Shaman-trees, and Gateways to Hell

Liudmila Nikanorova 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1. Shaman tree on the outskirts of Yakutsk

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

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

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

Figure 2. Kharyskhal and Russian Orthodox icons

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

Figure 3. Batagaika Crater NASA from Wikipedia Commons

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


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



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

By David G. Robertson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Age of the Spirit? How charismatic Christianity became ‘mainstream’

John Maiden

Some months ago, Max Lucado, one of a handful of Christian leaders who since the death of Billy Graham might possibly be said to fall into an ‘America’s pastor’ category, and who has sold well north of 100 million products, revealed that he spoke in tongues in his devotional life. What was perhaps most striking about the news was the absence of any substantial backlash. There was almost a collective shrug of the shoulders, as evangelicals seemed to say, ‘And what?’. The lack of criticism is one indicator of a remarkable shift of charismatic practice, from the periphery of non-Pentecostal Christianity to the mainstream.

My new book, Age of the Spirit: Charismatic Renewal, the Anglo-World and Global Christianity, 1945-1980 (Oxford University Press) shows that in the 1960s, in English-speaking contexts such as the United States, the situation was very different. It was only six decades since the wider evangelical holiness movement had been riven by the ‘tongues’ controversy, and pentecostals had soon after begun to form their own denominations. In the early 1960s, in Southern California, Morton Kelsey an Episcopalian, described charismatic prayer groups – ecumenical grassroots gatherings where Christians sought to experience the power and presence of the Holy Spirit – as having ‘some of the characteristics of a secret society’ such was the threat of ‘ridicule or censure’. In New Zealand, the historian Peter Lineham described anti-charismatic behaviour in the Brethren churches as comparable to that of McCarthyite anti-communism. In my research, I have often read of, or spoken to people, who were ‘put out’ of their local congregations because they had been ‘baptised in the Spirit’, spoken in tongues, or practiced some other charismatic gift.

How things have changed. Within Anglicanism, there is a charismatic Archbishop of Canterbury. Holy Trinity Brompton, a west London charismatic flagship congregation and birthplace of the Alpha evangelistic course, has become a driving force of Christian witness. As Andrew Atherstone’s (2022) recent research has detailed, Alpha has been packaged as a global brand. Charismatic worship, and ministries such as Hillsong, Bethel and Passion, has dominated the Christian music industry, and songs are frequently to be heard in non-charismatic churches. There is a growing academic literature on independent congregations (including many mega-churches) and phenomena such as the ‘new paradigm churches’, the ‘New Apostolic Reformation’, and ‘Independent Network Christianity’. And we are not only talking about charismatics as part of the evangelical mainstream. The Roman Catholic Church, which in the mid-1970s became perhaps the first mainline denomination to take engagement with charismatics seriously, has increasingly sought to integrate them into its larger life.

Age of the Spirit follows the movement of charismatic practices and experiences from the periphery to the mainstream. It shows, furthermore, how Anglo-world charismatic networks, and an imaginary of ‘charismatic renewal’ or a ‘New Pentecost’, were situated in, and increasingly connected with, a wider global context, through transnational flows of media, people and money,

For a religious studies scholar, a particular aspect of interest may be the tangled genealogies which produced charismatic renewal. The book discusses the influence, for example, of early century healing movements; not only sacramental and thaumaturgical, but as Pam Klassen’s (2011) work has also shown, metaphysical or experimental approaches to healing, for example in the New Thought tradition. Charismatic renewal often emerged from a seedbed of ‘seekership’, the kind which Steve Sutcliffe (2002) has identified as a context for the development of the New Age movement. For charismatics, authenticity was to be found in ‘going back to the beginning’ – a rediscovery of the power of the Holy Spirit in a nuclear age, and of the supernatural world of New Testament Christianity as everyday experience.

As the book claims, if you want to understand global Christianity, you need to engage with charismatics. I hope this research will go some way towards helping others to do so.

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Understanding #asburyrevival using visual methodologies

By Laura Hall

On the 8th of February 2023 imagery connected to the hashtag #asburyrevival started trending across social media platforms. Revivalism is intrinsic to evangelical varieties of Christianity and ‘outpourings of the Holy Spirit’ as (innumerable) testimonies, in the form of multimedia video clips in the evolving digital archive attest to, are feature of Pentecostal/Charismatic movements. Revivals, specifically at Asbury, a Methodist College in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition have previously occurred in 1905, 1908, 1950 and the 1970’s. At the time of writing, Asbury ‘23 is still ongoing; it has been displaced from its original location when the town of Wilmore was overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of curious visitors taking selfies. Connected (#asburyawakening) revivals have broken out in a number of other locations, comparisons drawn with the ‘Toronto Blessing’ of the 1990’s, and similar events. Where Asbury ’23 differs, is in the prolific use of social media to ‘authorise’ and ‘authenticate’ (or disauthenticate) a Christian practice (a ‘revival’) visually: by means of imagery.

The global circulation of images, connected via digital objects such as hashtags (a textual inclusion) or emojis, is a feature of the shift from the ‘new’ media of the early 2000’s (‘Web 2.0’), to what Lev Manovich refers to as the age of ‘more media’ (2020)—the proliferation of social media platforms where visuality is the key mode of communication, such as Instagram (launched 2010) or TikTok (2016). The networking of imagery, (such as the Iranian protests over compulsory hijab wearing, or clips of the moment climate activists threw soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in some recent examples), are a feature of our ‘more media’ world. Whilst the imagery associated with the revival at Asbury is not quite as provocative, the principal is the same.

Figure 1. Google Image Search. Searching Images sources and web locations. Left: Asbury Revival 1970 juxtaposed with Asbury Revival 2023. Right visual matches located by the algorithm.

An ‘event’, in this case a revival at Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, sparked an image reaction: the networking of images on a scale that was global (I traced reactions from Nigeria and South Korea amongst other locations), and simultaneous with a number of ‘citizen journalists’ and participants providing live streaming for a seemingly affective worldwide virtual audience. Social media users annotated the images by commenting, either positively or negatively, liking, tagging, altering, and recirculating them, (a user-generated classification system called a ‘folksonomy’), and platforms provided time/date stamps; an opportunity, as Niederer & Colombo (2019) describe, for ‘knowledge co-production’.

Figure 2. Example of one of many livestreams of #asburyrevival shared via Twitter

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