Category Archives: Research projects

Understanding Unbelief – understanding what?

By Richard Irvine and Theodoros Kyriakides

[fig. 1: A place beyond belief by Nathan Coley. Photo Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney.]

In 2013, Nathan Coley’s art installation “A place beyond belief” was brought to Orkney’s shore. The words provoke: what does it mean to be a place beyond belief? One interpretation, enhanced by the juxtaposition of the sign with spire of the redundant church behind it (now Stromness’ Town Hall), is that here is place where church membership, and apparently the relevance of religious belief itself, has declined dramatically. As Steve Bruce has outlined in his book Scottish Gods, the story of the Scottish islands, in keeping with the rest of the UK, has been one of increasing disengagement from organised religion; non-belief emerging as the norm. In this sense, it is becoming a place beyond belief. Yet for those who described the sculpture in its Orkney setting, another interpretation presented itself: here was a place of wonder, a place beyond our limited capacity for belief. A magical place, even.

Crucially, the two readings don’t rule one another out. Even as religious belief declines, wonder does not disappear.

This question of what it means to be ‘beyond belief’ is at the heart of the new project we’re starting in OU Religious Studies entitled “Magical thinking in contexts and situations of unbelief”. Our research is part of a bigger, inter-disciplinary project hosted by the University of Kent entitled Understanding Unbelief, and will draw on experiences from our fieldwork in Nicosia, Cyprus (Theodoros Kyriakides) and Orkney (Richard Irvine).

So, what do we mean by unbelief? Our colleagues at Kent have put together a neat glossary of the core concepts for the project of “Understanding Unbelief”, which also provides a definition of the given word. Our objective as anthropologists and ethnographers is, of course, to go beyond definitions. One would be right to exclaim that “unbelief” is a quite vague term and, in such sense, our research does not seek to pinpoint or validate what unbelief is, or where it takes place. Rather, our aim is to use the given term as a springboard, in order to reach a more ethnographically grounded, nuanced understanding of the spectrum of social phenomena which take place in the in-between of large, yet analytically rudimentary, terms such as “unbelief”, “religion”, “belief”, “atheism”, and so on. To try and glimpse what unbelief actually looks like in the messiness of everyday life.

More specifically, our research – *plugplug* – seeks to combine ethnographic literature on magic with emerging studies of atheism and non-religion to explore in what ways magical thinking emerges in the everyday lives of people who, in one way or another, are considered to be unbelievers. Magic is of course a foundational anthropological topic, and the relationship between humanity and magic as whole cannot be understated. For example, anthropologist Lévy-Bruhl used the (problematic) term “primitive mentality” to denote modes of reasoning of ‘tribal’ societies which do not make the distinction between natural and supernatural causality.

[fig. 2: Collection of evil eyes and lucky charms on coffee shop wall in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Photo taken by Allyson McAbee.]

Later commentators – such as Stanley Tambiah – point out that the term “primitive mentality” was not intended to describe aspects of thinking specific to non-Western societies but rather a mode of thinking which, under the right social circumstances, can manifest in human consciousness and human action irrespectively of spatiotemporal and historical parameters. Similarly, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre used the term “magicality” to denote the ability of the human mind to adopt modes of thinking and reasoning which evade the normative social order.

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Hinduism in Europe | Conference Report

By Suzanne Newcombe

Academics often talk about the importance of scholarly dialogue. More often than not we talk with our colleagues through writing, with large gaps of time and space. Therefore, it was a breath of fresh air to be able to participate in Knut Jacobson and Ferdinando Sardella’s initiative on Hinduism in Europe ( This ambitious project will eventually result in a comprehensive edited volume published by Brill, with thematic chapters as well as country profiles covering ‘Hinduism’ in Europe.

‘Hinduism’ is widely acknowledged to be a problematic term. The conference included self-conscious discussions of the creation of Indology and the academic study of Hinduism. This is something that was grappled with differently in each national context, though patterns and international exchanges are also central to understanding how Hinduism has been defined and understood.

In many northern European post-soviet states, there are still no substantial groups of Indian migrants. Until recently in this context, Hinduism was only represented by academic study and in esoteric religiosity.  After 1989, a number new transnational groups have established a presence most of these areas, the most common being ISKCON, Sahaja Yoga, Transcendental Mediation and the Art of Living Foundation.

Yet even amongst the Eastern European states, experiences of Hinduism have varied considerably. ISKCON has found particular success in the Ukraine. In Bulgaria, there is a long history of yoga as sport in Adult Education. Various Romanian individuals have consistently turning towards India for inspiration despite considerable practical and political pressures.  The contributions on Hinduism in Russia and Turkey were especially valuable for bridging the mixed experiences in the geographically continuous – but culturally and religiously diverse – territory bridging Europe and Asia.

In some countries, specific colonial histories have created immigrant groups whose voices dominate national discussions on Hinduism. In Britain, the well-organized voices of BAPS Swaminarayan and ISKCON dominate national debates on Hinduism. This often partially silences the more inward-facing communities of Tamil refugees who fled Sri Lanka’s Civil War.  It is this Tamil-refugee population that forms the majority of Indian groups in France and Germany.

In contrast, Hinduism in The Netherlands is more defined by its particular colonial legacy of Indian immigrants from Suriname, originally indentured labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In all national contexts, we heard about the negotiations between specific groups and the legal and cultural restrictions on building public temples, or holding large public events.

I was asked to contribute on the subject of ‘Yoga in Europe’, which I know mostly from a British context and English-language based research.  Therefore, it was refreshing to have input from such a variety of political, cultural and linguistic contexts. Other thematic contributions also enriched my understanding, notably papers elucidating the esoteric and Ayurvedic narratives across Europe.

I left enriched, beginning a process of re-evaluating my understandings. I now have a greater appreciation of distinct transnational flows and specific migration patterns; I have more knowledge of local histories, the diversity of related linguistic and conceptual categories and country-specific political pressures.

This conference was a model in the importance of considering contemporary religion in historical – and comparative – perspective.

Paul-Francois Tremlett on Politics and Religion

Paul-Francois Tremlett recently appeared in the Student Hub Live’s (re)Freshers Event, talking about his work on religion and politics. He introduces Reassembling Democracy, an international project which the Open University is involved with, and talks about his work on protest and ritual, and non-human agents. You can watch the interview below, and you can read the transcript here.

A Harvest of Fieldwork

As I recover from another academic conference, and contemplate the news that I’ve been awarded university funding to go full-time on my PhD here with the Open University, I’m looking back over an epic summer. This was my first sustained fieldwork experience after a number of exploratory visits to sites in previous years.Theo article

My research project investigates diverse, post-lineage forms of modern yoga practice, in some unusual environments. My focus is in part the practice itself – what it looks like and how it is experienced – but also the culture that sustains it. Mostly, that means immersing myself in a series of camps and small festivals held over the rather short British summer. It’s a culture I knew already a little, but this summer took my understanding of my subject, and the process of fieldwork itself, to a whole new level.

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Expertise and engagement

The following article is by a Ph.D student in the department:

My name is Theo Wildcroft, and I’m currently undertaking a doctoral research project looking at unusual forms of modern yoga practice.

One funny thing about doing a PhD is that you enter into the status of An Expert. By the end of the process, you should know more than anyone about this one tiny area you’ve studied in a very specific way. And PhDs can be very tiny and deep in scope. So one of the first tasks of the research project is to draw a line around what it’s possible and interesting for you to study, and in what way.

theo 1





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Art, Pilgrimage and London Stations

Among the many interests of the researchers on the AHRC funded project Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals, Past and Present [] is the role of art and material culture in English cathedrals: what sort of art is displayed in, and commissioned by, cathedrals, and how do people react to and interact with such art? I was fascinated, therefore, to learn of ‘Stations of the cross’, described on its own website as a

‘unique exhibition—held in 14 locations across London—[that] uses works of art to tell the story of the Passion in a new way, for people of different faiths. In this pilgrimage for art lovers, viewers will travel across London, mapping the geography of the Holy Land onto the streets of a “new Jerusalem”.’ []

In some denominations of Christianity, the Stations of the Cross depict and reconstruct the last journey of Jesus through Jerusalem, from being condemned to death to being laid in his tomb. Around Easter especially, this relocation and replication of sacred time and place can take on a particular resonance. The rationale of the London Stations of the Cross art trail is to break up the traditional grouping which miniaturises the last journey within one space.  Instead, it spreads the 14 stations across London.  Artworks in a variety of locations (cathedrals, art galleries, churches, outdoor sites) are designated as particular stations, inviting contemplation of the works of art, their locations, and their contemporary resonances with each station’s traditional story.

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‘Pilgrimage and England’s cathedrals, past and present’

As you know from this blog, the research focus of this Religious Studies department is ‘contemporary religion in historical perspective.’

Pilgrimage and England's cathedrals past and present

Pilgrimage and England’s cathedrals past and present

Fortunately for me, this is at the heart of ‘Pilgrimage and England’s cathedrals, past and present’, the AHRC-funded, three-year research project which commenced in November 2014. Working as a Co-I with Dee Dyas, University of York (PI), Simon Coleman, University of Toronto (Co-I) and post-doctoral researchers Dr John Jenkins and Dr Tiina Sepp (both based at University of York), we have had a busy, fascinating and stimulating year, as you can see from the project website


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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.

Times Higher awards!


Times Higher Education AwardsTHE4

The OU’s Religious Studies department has long been known for its formal dress code. Here are John Wolffe, John Maiden and Gavin Moorhead attending the Times Higher Education awards in London, where the project ‘Building on History: Religion in London’ was shortlisted in the Widening Participation or Outreach Initiative of the Year category.

This public engagement initative enabled the project team work alongside various community stakeholders in order to enhance understanding of the history of religious diversity in London and promote local engagement with religious history. You can learn more about the project at .

The project team are joined here (top picture) by Graham Harvey (RS Head of Department) and Annika Mombauer (Associate Dean, Research). The University of Sheffield – many congratulations to them – were eventually presented with the trophy by the comedian Jack Dee, but even so it was a great evening!