Abstracts Book

Keynote Speakers

Bettina Schmidt, (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

The contentious field of the study of religious experience: The challenging influence of Rudolf Otto, Andrew Lang and other founding fathers

(Mon 19th, 14:00)

The study of religious experience is a challenging field, not only due to the debate about the term “religious” but also about the methodology. Often scholars shy away from it as the research depends on something we cannot see and for what we do not have supportive evidence. The argument of some scholars that we need to overcome cultural bias by turning our attention towards the collective or ‘lived’ experience of a religious community is suspicious of others who argue that subjective experience cannot be seen as important as empirical or scientific verification. The lecture will look at the beginning of the study of religious experience and discuss the contribution of some of the early scholars. The focus will be on Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), R.R. Marett (1866-1943) and Andrew Lang (1844-1912), three nowadays often overlooked and even disregarded scholars. Otto who has been rightly accused of a lack of academic standard continues to be popular as he argued in favour of a subjective approach to religion. Lang who advocated the importance of experience for the development of religion became side-lined due to his own involvement in spiritualism. And Marett who argued for emotion as the essence of religion is nowadays usually limited to a footnote as Tylor’s successor in Oxford. All three have in common an approach to religion that acknowledges a sensual dimension that was ahead of its time. The lecture will discuss their ongoing influence but also their flaws and shows what we can learn from them for the study of religious experience today.




Stephen Sutcliffe (University of Edinburgh)

Explaining the Economy of New Spiritualities with the Help of Bourdieu

(Tues 20th, 16:30)

Earlier work on how practitioners interact with institutions in the ‘cultic milieu’ emphasised the agentive role of the ‘seeker’ in exploiting resources for their own benefit. While usefully emphasising the pragmatics of practice, the result is an overly individualistic model of action which accords inflated agency to a de-socialised seeker self. Campbell’s seminal analysis (1972) of ‘seekership’ as a social role provides structure and interactivity to this representation. However, the account remains incomplete insofar as it does not engage the symbolic goods available within the wider field of religion in which contemporary spiritualities engage.

In order to highlight the economy of this wider environment and its effects upon practitioners, in this presentation I re-work the data for seekership, considered as a key function of new spiritualities, in light of Bourdieu’s schema of field, capital and habitus. I argue that, far from constituting either an aimless or virtuosic role, seeking expresses a habitus adapted to the pluralisation of authorities which constitutes the economy of the post-Christian religious field. In this way, seeking is modelling a form of symbolic capital which expresses skilful engagement with multiple authorities (Wood 2007). By applying Bourdieu’s model of the constitution of the religious field to new spiritualities, I aim to extend its applicability beyond its relatively rigid generative matrix, to show that ‘new spiritualities’ – far from exotic or marginal – are ‘playing the game’ of the religious field like any other formation.


Philip Williamson (Durham University)

Remembrance day: the British churches and national commemoration of the war dead since 1914

(Wed 21st, 11:30)

Most historical work on commemoration emphasises the civil creations from 1919 onwards: Armistice day, the two-minutes silence, the Cenotaph, the War Graves Commission and war memorials, and the British Legion.  Aside from the burial of the Unknown Warrior, the churches are treated almost as adjuncts. Yet British church leaders had been involved with remembrance since 1914, and from 1919 they created their own religious commemoration of Remembrance day, which in 1946 replaced Armistice day as the official occasion for national commemoration.  Against the supposed trends towards secularisation, the churches acquired and retain a leading part in remembrance of the war dead. Yet some tension always existed between the civil and religious commemorations, and what secured the place of the churches in national rituals also brought compromises. This paper will consider how the protestant churches created a new religious commemoration of the war dead; how remembrance contributed to co-operation between leaders of the various British churches; how the character of Remembrance has changed; and how in national commemoration the churches and the state arrived at an alliance of church religion and civil religion.



Session 1 – Mon 19th, 16:00


Chair: Theo Wildcroft

The charismatic turn of the long 1960s: contexts and characteristics | John Maiden, the Open University

Michel de Certeau: The Practice of Mysticism in the Writing of Everyday Life | Owen Coggins, the Open University

I survey the reception and influence of Michel de Certeau in the Anglophone study of mysticism, arguing that his work offers a valuable, yet only partially adopted and ambivalently influential theoretical and empirical approach to studying mysticism. For Certeau, mysticism can be observed and analysed in the performance of particular modes of communication which test and undermine the foundations of the discourse from which they emerge. In this view, mysticism can be found in utterances or gestures which enact a questioning of their own semantic and authorial status while foregrounding the materiality of their own construction. However, much scholarship on mysticism in the study of religion and beyond (for example in studies of religiosity in popular music cultures) relies instead upon universal conceptions of religious experience which mask essentialist assumptions about subjectivity. Certeau’s deeply intertwined ethics and epistemology offer a counter to the potential elitism and epistemic violence of these prevalent approaches to mysticism. This is a particularly crucial emphasis in a contemporary moment when such themes can be drawn into extreme political ideologies (see, for example, the growing references in current political discourse to the fascist mysticism of Julius Evola). I situate Certeau’s approach to mysticism in the context of his wider work on faith and politics, popular culture and audiences, reading and writing, showing how readers have tended to ambivalently adopt his terminology but not his methods, and to artificially separate supposedly ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ concerns in his writings. The recent publication in English translation of the second volume of Certeau’s Mystic Fable, I suggest, offers a timely opportunity to revisit an overlooked contribution to a properly empirical and rigorously ethical study of how mysticism is performed in the textual operations of a given tradition.

Post-feminist but not Post-sexist: An examination of male Anglican clergy attitudes towards women | Alex D. J. Fry, Durham University

The appropriateness of the Church of England as the established church in England has been questioned, not infrequently, in recent years amidst declining affiliation from members of the public; that there is an increasing divide between its values and those of wider society is often cited as a reason for disestablishment.  One such area where this is apparent is that of gender equality.  Sociologists have noted that British society as a whole may be understood as post-feminist, accumulating feminist ideals as well as critiques of the movement. Research has shown that this is a phenomenon that has been mirrored in non-established churches.

However, this paper will argue that this is not mirrored in the narratives of Church of England priests. Based on semi-structured interviews with evangelical clergy in one diocese in the Church of England, this paper will demonstrate that male priests exhibit elements of post-feminist ideals. However, by employing thematic narrative analysis it will also show that participants reveal attitudes towards women, in certain areas of life, which meet the psychological definition of sexism. In doing so, this paper will evidence that higher education research can provide valuable insight into salient debates in contemporary society.


Chair: Marion Bowman

From Archive to Digital Humanities: Modelling Canterbury and Durham Cathedrals | Dee Dyas, John Jenkins, University of York

Cathedrals as shape shifters in the 21st century | Marion Bowman, The Open University

‘Now I have a word for it!’: making an impact | Dee Dyas, University of York; Marion Bowman, The Open University



Chair: Aled Thomas

Brazilian Neo-Gnostic Churches in the UK | David G. Robertson, The Open University

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Madrid: The avoidance of the media as a ritual of reinforcement | Leonardo Vasconcelos de Castro Moreira, University of Warwick

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) is a Brazilian Neo-Pentecostal church, which spreads itself worldwide in the last decades. One of its newest campaigns is the Daniel Fast; a period when the pastors of the church invites the regular members to make a twenty-one day fast, like the one in the Book of Daniel. However, the church does not focus much in not eating, but in not getting in touch with the mundane media that may deviate the faithful from the path to God. Therefore, with my data from the headquarters of the church in Madrid, I will analyse the Daniel Fast campaign and its separation of the members from secular media, while giving them directions for a further engagement with the church’s practices with its own media. Furthermore, as a revival of a ritual of passage – here proposed as a ritual of reinforcement –, the Daniel Fast also represents a separation from the mundane behave before the conversion and an intensification of the engagement by the members.

Rastafarianisms in Motion | Hilde Capparella, The Open University

This paper focuses on Rastafarianism and ‘glocalisation’, in particular the creation of new local religious identities. Previous studies on Rastafarianism show how the religion has spread through migration and mediation, overcoming national and cultural-religious barriers, creating new religio-cultural eclectic identities. My research will focus, particularly, on the glocalisation of Rastafarianism in two very different contexts, London and Rome. Previous studies on Rastafarianism in these two contexts have been scarce, especially in London which hosts a large Rastafarian community. The aim of this research is to take a vernacular or lived approach to examine the processes through which new Rastafarian identities are made in these different urban milieus, and to develop a new language to describe these new formations using the idea of motion.

Session 2 – Tues 20th, 9:00


Chair: Hugh Mcfaul

Inventing Traditional Religion | Hugh Mcfaul, The Open University

This paper will interrogate the view that traditions can be manufactured and will seek to analyse how conceptions of traditional religion are utilised by the State to regulate and control non-traditional religious groups.

I will try to demonstrate that the accommodation of religion in the public sphere can depend upon law and policy makers choosing to recognise certain beliefs and practices as religious beliefs and practices and, in certain contexts, this recognition is contingent upon religious groups acquiring legal personality. Achieving this recognition has proven to be problematic for some minority religious groups. This is particularly the case in Central and East European jurisdictions where minority religions are sometimes perceived as non-traditional loci of foreign influence.

I will argue that this process can be viewed as a form of invented tradition where certain religious groups are favoured at the expense of others for political purposes. Reference will be made to a number of recent cases before the European Court of Human Rights in addition to recent developments in Russia, including the Russian Supreme Court ruling restricting the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Freedom of Religion in the Human Rights Act 1998: the first twenty years | Simon Lee, The Open University

Current issues in law and religion | Jessica Giles, The Open University


This panel will explore the relationship between unbelief and magic as enacted in contemporary, increasingly rationalised and secularised societies. The secularisation thesis links the rise of non-religion to increasing rationalisation, and indeed, ethnographic studies of non-religious communities in different settings have demonstrated the significance of intellectual argumentation and an investment in rationality to the constitution of non-belief. Nevertheless an emphasis on rationality as a form of disenchantment fails to capture important ways in which everyday life among non-believers is understood to contain elements of wonder, awe, and significance that might be considered enchanted. Combining anthropological literature on magic with studies of non-religion and unbelief, our panel will explore the contexts, occasions and objects through which people which identify as non-religious or unbelievers adopt everyday understandings of causality and reasoning which can be understood as magical.

“A place beyond belief”: unknowing and enchantment in Orkney | Richard Irvine, The Open University

When Max Weber gave his lecture on “Science as a Vocation”, he confronted the students at Munich University with an uncomfortable truth: to live in a modern world of specialisation and rationalisation means knowing only the tiniest fragment about the world around you. In other words, while we live in a disenchanted world where everything, in theory, is knowable, we as individuals have only the most clouded view, understanding very little of our universe on our own. In this paper, I critically examine the implications of Weber’s claim, arguing that the conditions of rationalisation, rather than inevitably leading to disenchantment, create an environment of unknowing in which new possibilities for wonder and magical thinking emerge. I explore these dynamics through an exploration of what it means to be ‘beyond belief’ in the context of Orkney, where church membership and the apparent relevance of Christian practice appear to have declined dramatically over the past century.

Magic and unbelief: a Cyprus case study | Theodoros Kyriakides, The Open University

Social scientists often treat belief and unbelief to the magical as cognitive states of clarity and certainty. As I suggest, this results to two ethnographic and analytic predicaments: it disregards elements of doubt and scepticism which, as I suggest, are essential to belief or unbelief in the magical, and also dissolves what Marcel Mauss deemed to be a “force” essential to the magical, which remains irreducible to any sociological or ethnographic explanations of magic. I argue that remaining ethnographically and analytically sensitive to the ambivalence surrounding belief and unbelief to the magical allows us to in turn remain attuned to the social significance of modern manifestations of the magical and, more broadly, humanity’s relationship to the occult. I explore these suggestions through the work of E.E. Evans-Pritchard on the Azande and Jeanne Favret-Saada’s work in the Bocage, and complement these theoretical reflections with ethnographic material from my research on magic and unbelief in Cyprus.

Practical magic: British paganism from religious affiliation toward popular enchantment | Jonathan Woolley, University of Cambridge

Both academic scholarship and the statements of leading practitioners have stressed the scale of British paganism – with claims of it being the fastest growing religion, the heady influence of “witchy” vibes over 2017 pop culture and the large turnouts for festivals like the summer solstice being deployed against the secularisation hypothesis as evidence of a counter-trend to the rising tide of unbelief and rationality in British society. But census data suggests a much lower figure for the number of avowed pagans and slower rates of growth, while anecdotal evidence suggests the turnout at pagan community events is rapidly decreasing. This paper attempts to critically reasses these developments, in light of wider anthropological studies of the relationship between belief, practice, and identity. The bifurcation of evidence regarding the popular status of pagan spirituality in Britain represents an important case of the complex relationship between enchantment, practice and belief, even in “unbelieving” societies.


Chair: Stefanie Sinclair

Why Universities Must Be Secular Institutions (But Cannot Be): Religion as Everyday Practice and Object of Study in Higher Education |Clive Marsh, University of Leicester

This paper skims lightly through the history of the place of theology and religion as objects of study within universities in the West before settling in the present. It examines how the present make-up of universities (staff and students – statistics of whose religiosity are now becoming public) creates a culture and sets a challenge for the handling of religion as a phenomenon whether or not universities have specific departments devoted to the study of religion. The paper argues that it is politically and ethically dangerous to neglect the role played by religion in the lives of many (most?) members of universities. Universities need to provide space for the acknowledgement of religious commitment or opposition (or indifference) to religion so that all its members are respected in their difference and invited to reflect on religion’s role, and on how values and principles are developed (with or without religion) in wider society. Only in this way, it is argued, can universities fulfil their civic function to prepare people, through inter-disciplinary enquiry in a context of cross-generational, socio-economic and ethnic diversity, to play a full part in cultural life.

The Birmingham Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education: promoting religious literacy in schools? | Céline Benoit, Aston University

Are We Free Yet? The Continuing Non-Realisation of the Weberian Ideal | Jonathan Tuckett, University of Stirling


Panel chair: Marion Bowman

Participants: Hilde Capparella, Alison Robertson, Aled Thomas, Sarah Thomas, Claire Wanless, Theo Wildcroft

Part of the value of Religious Studies is the making of connections between different ways of thinking. In this panel Open University PhD students will explore the connections across apparently disparate areas, to create new insights. Each panel member will introduce a provocative, thought-provoking or otherwise interesting strand in their research and challenge other panel members to bring their own research into a conversation around that issue.

Session 3 – Tues 20th, 11:00


Chair: Marion Bowman

Celtic pilgrimage, past and present: from historical geography to contemporary embodied practices | Avril Maddrell, University of Reading, & Richard Scriven, National University of Ireland, Galway.

This paper explores understandings of the Celtic pilgrimage through two contemporary case studies: St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, Ireland, and Praying the Keeills, Isle of Man. We focus on examining these pilgrimages are ritualised embodied practices which combine history, aesthetics, and landscape. They are approached as processes that are both informed by and renew pilgrimage to sites of the early Celtic church by particular denominations, ecumenical groups, and those interested in broader spiritualities. The performances and meanings of these practices are explored through vignettes of pilgrim experiences which illustrate how themes and sensibilities of the Celtic church are manifest in contemporary activities. The paper illustrates how the recent revival of pilgrimage internationally has found expression a regional context which draws from historical, cultural, and spiritual narratives, while simultaneously generating new religious, spiritual, and secular understandings.

Journey of the Space Butterflies: CoxCon 2017 as Pilgrimage | Vivian Asimos, Durham University

CoxCon 2017, a convention for fans of video game YouTuber Jesse Cox, took place in July in Telford. The con catered to about fifteen hundred people present, and thousands more online watching a live stream of panels. The event is a high point for many in their year, something they save up for and look forward to. For others present, it was their first time attending, and their excitement at being at a fan convention was communicated to me passionately. The emotional charge, the travel to get to the fan convention, and the sense of community present at the convention, all made it clear that CoxCon, for its fans, could be described as a pilgrimage. This paper seeks to discuss the logistics of considering a fan convention as pilgrimage by examining the accounts of attendees, as well as questioning and employing some previous pilgrimage theories. In particular, the question of sacred space is discussed in relation to the convention centre, the community, and the individuals’ identities.

Bringing the historical concept of pilgrimage as a search for spiritual healing into a contemporary space | Marlene Lorraine Martin, University of South Africa

During research conducted for three separate studies as well as several trips to well-known pilgrimage sites, observations were made regarding the mind and heart set of the participants in the rituals conducted at these sites. This paper intersects with two areas of interest for this particular conference; Spirituality and wellbeing and pilgrimage. Christian Spirituality being the focus of my study brought into focus the spiritual wellbeing of women who were terminally ill in two separate hospice situations. Dialogue and case study research with their care givers as well as the patients revealed extreme spiritual pain. Examination of the expectation for healing as a promise of God further highlighted the relevance of pilgrimage as a seeking mechanism for spiritual peace by a perceived physical encounter with God. I 2018 Lourdes will celebrate the 160th anniversary of the Apparitions. Each year Lourdes hosts six million visitors every year with the numbers escalating as humanity seek desperately for physical, psychological and spiritual pain. Pilgrimage brings an historical event into a contemporary sphere.

‘Thin Places’ and Mystical Tours – Sacred Tourism in Ireland | Nadine Eckmann, University College Cork

“If you want to […] touch ancient stones […] climb a holy mountain or tie a rag onto a fairy tree, or feel the earth energy that vibrates from a holy site […] my tours might be a good fit for you.” A new recent phenomenon is developing within the tourism industry and the religious environment in Ireland. Tourism companies take their guests on so called ‘Mystic’, ‘Hidden’, or ‘Celtic’ Tours to show popular places representing Ireland as a country. ‘Religious and Sacred Tourism’ becomes a new buzzword. In this paper, I will focus on the portrayal of some of these specific places like the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney or the Hill of Uisneach as ‘mystic’ and examine how terms like ‘Celtic’ are utilised on tourism websites and are brought into religious discourses in relation to these places. I will investigate how Celtic Spirituality and Irish Folk Religion are put into a new discussion within the Irish tourism industry in modern day Ireland. Which changes in public narrative have these places undergone? What does this mean for the contemporary religious environment of Ireland? This paper presents some preliminary findings related to current fieldwork research conducted in Ireland.


Graham Harvey, Susanne Newcombe, Alison Robertson, and Theo Wildcroft (all The Open University)

The status of researcher as insider or outsider to the communities they study has long been of debate. Within long term ethnographic research into cultural practices, a world of nuance arises in the possible relationships of researcher and researched. We are engaged in complex processes of reconciliation between the under-represented communities whose stories we aim to tell (Shaw 1999: 108; Orsi 2013: 5), and the power an academic position confers to “define reality for others” (Hufford 1999: 298).

Besides the issue of positionality, questions of communication, distinct embodied skillsets and more-than-human relationships are intimately involved in any ethnographic research endeavour. The resulting implications for the researcher are further complicated and enriched when the researcher is also a practitioner. Practitioner identities are in constant dialogue with academic identities.

This panel aims to continue that dialogue, as four diverse practitioner-academics in round-table format discuss the applications and implications of their negotiations with positionality in the study of religion.


The (Un)bearable Whiteness of Informationalist Religion | Syed Mustafa Ali, The Open University

Against the backdrop of earlier work exploring ‘entanglements’ of race and information (Ali 2013), information, race, religion and Orientalism (Ali 2015), and the sedimented anti-Islamic historically-constitutive ‘essence’ of European cum ‘Western’ socio-political formation (Ali 2017a), I have recently argued that late techno-capitalist developments such as Transhumanism and technological Posthumanism are usefully interpreted as ‘iterations’ of the phenomenon of whiteness within a long durée modern/colonial ‘Western’ historical onto-logics that might be characterized as ‘algorithmic racism’ – more specifically, as a response to perceived ‘White Crisis’ or whiteness under increasing non-white contestation (Ali 2017b). Drawing on the insights of Noble (1997), Davis (1998) and others, I have also argued that Transhumanism / technological Posthumanism might – should – also be understood as a techno-apocalyptic (millennial) ‘religious’ phenomenon, iterative within the same algorithmically-racist ontological ‘horizon’ (Ali 2016) (Ali 2017c).

In this paper, I continue the exploration of the entanglement of race, religion and information by situating Transhumanism and technological Posthumanism in the context of broader ‘informationalist’ currents that include ‘New Religious Movements’ (NRMs) emerging within ‘Western’ societies such as Anthony Levandowski’s ‘Way of the Future’ and ‘Syntheism’ as proposed by Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist (2014). My concern is to subject such developments to critical race theoretical and decolonial interrogation along body-political, geo-political and theo-political lines with a view to disclosing the hegemonic yet masked operation of whiteness, Orientalism and post-Christianity against the backdrop of an ‘algorithmically racist’ techno-apocalyptic/utopian ontological horizon.

Information & religion: a three-fold taxonomy | David Chapman, The Open University

Scientific discoveries lead to new cosmologies and new explanations of the human experience which shift or displace the narratives of religion. Technological developments, though, can have an equally dramatic impact.

In recent decades the digital revolution has led to an emergence of new ways of speaking and new explanations cast in the narratives of information, and this has had wide-ranging consequences for an ever-increasing range of disciplines. Hans Christian von Baeyer (2003), for example, argued that information is the new language of science, and for some physicists such as John Wheeler information precedes matter (“It from bit”, Wheeler 1990) leading to Luciano Floridi’s (2011) all-encompassing philosophy of religion which re-ontologises reality in the theories and language of information.

Albert Borgmann (1999) identified three roles for information: information about reality; information for reality and information as reality. This presentation proposes a framework for exploring informational thinking about religion through the similar taxonomy of information about, for and as religion. Information about religion concerns the use of information-thinking to describe and understand religion. Information for religion concerns information as a tool of religion; and information as religion, is information replacing religion or delivering a religion itself.

“There is no God but Kek and Pepe is His Prophet”: The Alt Right, Kekistan and the Utilization of the Islamicate | Hizer Mir, University of Leeds

In the period after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, a new political force emerged onto the scene as a major player. This collection of thinkers, trolls and shitposters were dubbed the Alt Right and were credited with helping get Trump elected. This was seen as the as the latest blow struck by the right against the left in a culture war which had been raging since the shooting of Harambe the gorilla. The latest in this culture war is the invention of Kekistan and the religion Kekism. The Kekistan meme started as a parody of identity politics but has slowly been co-opted by the Alt Right. I seek to show how the Kekistan (and Kekism) meme started and how it deploys the Islamicate as trangressive and then adopts that transgression as a way of critiquing what are seen as current Western norms. I will be focusing in particular the Islamicate influences to be found in both Kekistan and Kekism.

Informing the sacred: an informational analysis of religious rituals | Magnus Ramage, The Open University

Religion is a complex mixture of belief and practice, situated in a particular set of institutions and traditions. In each of these aspects of religion, information can be observed – in the rich symbolic language and behaviour of a Roman Catholic Mass or a Hindu festival, but equally in the simple and plain practices of a Quaker meeting. The focus of this work is on action rather than belief structures, and more specifically, on corporate acts of worship, the role that information plays in these acts, and the conceptualisation of these acts through an information lens.

I will discuss in this paper a framework for understanding information based on an actualised form of Gregory Bateson’s celebrated definition of information as “the difference that makes a difference” and use it to analyse a number of examples of religious ritual from different settings. My questions throughout are around the meanings and symbology involved in these ritual occasions, but also the way in which difference can be explored and exhibited – difference between interpretations, experiences and theologies, as well as more concrete and practical differences; and the way in which all these differences are weaved into an informational framework in the ritual practice.

Session 4 – Tues 20th, 14:00


Chair: Marion Bowman

Participants: Sara Mackian; Steve Pile; Nadia Bartolini; Amy Whitehead; Marion Bowman

Spiritualism and its communities

Exhibiting Spiritualism in Stoke-on-Trent in partnership with the Gladstone Museum

Unplanned Exhibitions: what popped up.

Mobile Methods and Adaptive Exhibits.


Chair:  Graham Harvey

Changing contexts, changing cults – reflections on 30 years of Inform | Suzanne Newcombe, Inform/The Open University

Inform was established in 1988 by Professor Eileen Barker to provide enquirers with information about minority and new religious that is up-to-date, fair, balanced and accurate. Whilst these principles remain unchanged, the ‘cult scene’ in the UK and elsewhere has changed significantly over the last 30 years – a change which is reflected in the types of enquiries to Inform. I will trace the move away from ‘concerned parents’ (and other relatives) enquiries about specific ‘nrms’ to more in-depth and on-going government-body enquiries about minority religious and political groups and their wider social context. I will also outline new concerns that have arisen that are particular to the UK environment, involving issues of public recognition of religious groups, governance, and regulation. I will also reflect on the rise of former-member enquiries about particular religious groups and the methodological challenges this has presented for the work of Inform.

Perceptions of Paganism: 30 years from the Inform Archives | Sarah Harvey, Inform/University of Kent

This talk will provide an overview of perceptions of Paganism in Britain over the past 30 years using data from Inform’s historical archive and media files, as well as analysis of the enquiries received about Paganism by Inform over the 30 year period. When Inform was founded in 1988, misinformation about Paganism in the media and wider society was still prominent, despite the Pagan Federation having fought to counter this. This talk will look at how fear was used to perpetrate such misinformation and to what extent the situation has changed in the last 30 years.

Sex and British Muslims: 30 Years after the Rushdie Affair | Shanon Shah, Inform

In 1988, the Rushdie Affair thrust British Muslims into the media spotlight, painting a picture of an unbridgeable divide between supposedly Islamic and British values. Thirty years on, public debate continues to be dominated by the theme of enduring conflict between Islam and secular-liberal principles such as artistic freedom, gender equality and freedom of sexuality. Ever since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, these issues have also become inextricably tied to panics about radicalisation and violent extremism. By focusing on discussions about Islam and homosexuality, this presentation will explore the subtle yet significant changes in some key sectors of British Muslim activism in recent years. Specifically, it will highlight the less-explored evolution of attitudes towards sexual diversity amongst activists who were present during the Rushdie Affair. The presentation is based on my ethnographic fieldwork conducted between October 2012 and September 2013 and my subsequent engagement with some British Muslim activists. From this vantage point, I also make a case for the value of the ethnographic study of religion, specifically new religious movements (NRMs), to help us understand historical trends and new developments in Islam.

From Ayodhya to the electoral triumph of the BJP: scholarly responses to the rise of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) | Gwilym Beckerlegge, The Open University



Chair: Claire Wanless

Then and Now: Limitations on the Right to Manifest Religion or Belief in the Public Sphere | Caroline K Roberts, University of Bristol

The right to manifest religion or belief in the public sphere, particularly through the display of religious symbols or clothing, has become an increasingly contentious issue across Europe. Whilst the right to manifest religion or belief through worship, teaching, practice and observance is protected explicitly in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), it is a qualified right which means that it can be limited by the State in certain circumstances.  In recent years, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has come under attack for permitting an ever-greater variety of limitations on manifestation by deferring to States and uncritically accepting their arguments for restrictions based on secularism, pluralism and tolerance.

By taking a historical perspective to the right to manifest -specifically by examining the material relating to the drafting of this right in the ECHR and earlier human rights instruments- this paper will demonstrate that the drafters carefully crafted limitation provisions to ensure States could only limit manifestations in very specific circumstances. It will argue that in continually expanding the scope of permissible limitations the ECtHR is drifting away from the original intention of the drafters with the result that manifestation of religion or belief is being pushed out of the public sphere.

Holy Disobedience: Political Resistance in the London Catholic Worker Community | Anna Blackman, Durham University

This paper will focus on the way in which the Catholic worker movement has incorporated ecclesial practice into their resistance work through public displays of religious ritual, drawing on an ethnographic study of the London community. Resistance action has been directed broadly towards what the community views as structures of injustice, namely neoliberalism and the nation-State. Much of the community’s acts of resistance are based upon worship and repentance as forms of political action in an attempt to create spaces of peace and remembrance within spheres of violence, acting as forms of Christian witness. For example, on Ash Wednesday 2013 the London worker community symbolically marked the walls of the Ministry of Defence with blessed charcoal in a protest against Trident, later performing the Stations of the Cross at various sites around London. Historically the movement emerged from the Catholic social teaching tradition, and draws on Catholic religious ritual in its protest. However, it reinterprets the tradition through a Christian anarchist lens leading to a much more radical understanding of the Church’s political role. This paper will explore how the community’s commitment to resistance work stems from deep Catholic theological and spiritual motivations, analysing how it uses these to form a distinct set of religious-political practices.

An Occult Royal Wedding: Public State Ceremonies as Rituals of Civil Irreligion | Nick Toseland, Durham University

This paper explores the contested symbolism of state ceremonials, focussing on the United Kingdom’s 2011 Royal Wedding between William Windsor and Kate Middleton. Although political rituals might be ostensibly secular affairs, utilizing religious symbolism for purely ceremonial reasons, alternative interpretations are made possible within the contemporary world’s deregulated symbolic economy. The televised event was interpreted by a minority of individuals as imbued with hidden, satanic symbolism. Their counter-narratives deploy various interpretive strategies including the numerology of time, symbology of ceremonial objects, and genealogy of participants. Utilising an alternative symbolic framework, the meaning behind a public ceremony is transformed. Building on Bellah’s concept of ‘civil religion’, this paper focusses on the interpretive strategies of David Icke, and other ‘truth-seeker’ bloggers, for whom the Royal Wedding, alongside other state rituals, functions as a nefarious ritual of civil irreligion.

Deathscapes and religious diversity in the UK: Negotiating mortuary rites in a minority context | Avril Maddrell (University of Reading), Katie McClymont (UWE), Yasminah Beebeejaun (UCL), Danny McNally (University of Reading), Brenda Mathijssen (University of Reading)

This paper investigates how the diverse mortuary rites of Migrant and Established Minority groups can be respected, enhanced and planned for. The geopolitics of migration and the rights and requirements of migrants and minorities are especially topical in the contemporary UK context. However, there has been limited consideration of this in relation to death and religion. While sites of bodily disposal and mortuary practices are universal, they are ritualised in diverse ways. Migrants and minorities have brought their customs and have adjusted these to living in the UK (Saunders et. al. 2016). When death occurs, they are often confronted with stretching, interpreting and redefining (prescribed) practices and beliefs (Hüsken & Neubert 2011), at times causing conflict within communities or families. This also impacts on faith group leaders and death care professionals, who are challenged to rethink existing bereavement services. Drawing on case studies of English and Welsh cemeteries and crematoria, we highlight how religious diversity is negotiated and cultural inclusion broadened. Attention is given to ritual criticism (Grimes 2014) as well as to communication within and between religious communities and bereavement services. In doing so, we argue that diversity-ready sites are a social, cultural and political necessity for an inclusive and integrated multicultural society.

Session 5 – Wed 21st, 9:00


Chair: Alison Robertson

Interfaith and Intercultural Spirituality in a Faith-Based Organisation | Fiona Bowie, King’s College London

This talk presents an experience of dialogue and common life from within the Focolare Movement, an international Christian group recognised formally by the Roman Catholic Church as an ‘ecclesial movement’. The founder, Chiara Lubich (1920-2008), was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in London in 1977 and in her reception speech talked about the transformational meetings she had in the 1960s with Lutherans and Anglicans, and with the Bangwa people of Cameroon, most of whom practice traditional African religion, sometimes alongside Christianity. In each case members of these groups recognised elements of the Focolare spirituality of unity and mutual love that they could make their own. Present at this occasion were members of other major religions, who were also drawn to the spirituality Chiara Lubich presented. I will identify key elements of Focolare spirituality and practice that give rise to a form of dialogue based on a common life, using case studies of Interfaith and Intercultural dialogue in Cameroon (Africa) and Birmingham (UK). As divisions and boundaries between people of different faiths and ethnicities are increasingly highlighted, the Focolare experience of common life has a particular urgency and pertinence.

One Nation, Many Faiths: Representations of Banal Nationalism, Religious Pluralism and Public Space in Scottish Interfaith Literature | Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

Interfaith Scotland, formerly the Scottish Inter-Faith Council (SIFC) is the national interfaith association for Scotland and can claim most Scottish religious associations as members. Since the established of the devolved Scottish Parliament from 1998 they have also had a close working relationship with the Scottish Government and have sought to defend a vision of the public space which allows for religious participation. In doing so, they reinforce the specific bounded categories of ‘religion’, ‘nation’ and ‘public’ and particular conceptualisations of them.

Based on an examination of their online and print literature I will argue that they have been able to use their own position within Scottish civil society to influence public debates without being seen to threaten the secular order. That they have pegged themselves to the Scottish national framework, their bringing together of the religious communities and their political goal result from and reinforce a specific view of religion and nationalism. I refer to this as the ‘one nation many faiths’ paradigm because it is a combination of the world religions paradigm and the banal nationalism described by Michael Billig.

They evoke Scottish symbolism and traditional culture in their events and in its literature which reinforce the sense of national belonging in a world of nations, albeit one compatible with internationalism, multiculturalism and religious pluralism.  These constructions of the ‘inclusive’ nation supports their claims to participate in the public square but it also depends on the world religions paradigm. Religions may now be plural but they are limited to a handful of ‘traditions’ while differences within and between them are downplayed in favour of the idea of a common essence. This allows these actors to cast ‘real’ religions as passive, beneficent and as sources of timeless wisdom whose place in the public square is vital to a healthy society and can fit comfortably into secular national space.

Spaces of Secular Faith? Shared assets and intangible values in diverse and changing communities | Katie McClymont, UWE, Bristol

In the current political climate, questions of shared identity, inclusive communities and public spaces are of utmost urgency. Compounded by the context of austerity, with public assets routinely being closed or sold off, the value and purpose of public spaces is under question. This paper positions these questions within debates about the postsecular city, asking what the values are of community spaces and how these can be expressed in a context which lacks a ready vocabulary for their articulation. At present, there is limited discussion on the role of ‘secular spiritualties’: the expression of transcendental beliefs not tied to a world religion, and in particular how this relates to spaces and places.  Urban planning only defines ‘places of worship’ as tangible and discrete entities, required and used predominantly by ‘people of faith.’ The broader, more societal value of spaces such as churches- open or disused- remains unsaid and ill-defined, as does the intangible, spiritual value of public and community spaces.

Blowing the spirit. The tradition of brass band performances at funerals in Poland | Maciej Kierzkowski, The Open University

This paper deals with the tradition and contemporary practice of playing instrumental music during funerals by amateur brass bands in Poland. The sources for this research are field recordings of music performances, interviews with musicians, and iconography collected during ethnomusicological research on the Mazovia region (Central Poland) in 2001-2005.  The paper examines the musical aspects of the funeral ritual, which include the repertoire performed, instrumental configuration of the band, context and convention of performance, as well as relations to space and soundscape. The role of music performed by brass bands during funerals in Poland is also analysed in a historical context and compared with the similar practices in other countries.


Chair: Marion Bowman

This panel concerns the relationship between theory and methods in examining religious practitioners in the field. The session brings together four papers, each of which relates to research in a non-mainstream religious context, and the unexpected results and challenges it can present. These papers highlight various ways of approaching non-mainstream religions in the field, and the ways in which theory can help in understanding fieldwork data.

Twenty years in Avalon: the advantages and downsides of longitudinal ethnology | Marion Bowman, The Open University

The Challenges for Scholarly Engagement with the Church of Scientology and Free Zone in the Field | Aled Thomas, The Open University

An increasing number of scholars are turning their attention to the study of Scientology, in particular the institutionalized Church of Scientology (CoS). This can be credited to the growing relationship between the CoS and the academic community. Of additional importance to the study of Scientology is the rise of the Free Zone, small groups of individuals who identify as Scientologists but practice outside the CoS. My doctoral fieldwork has involved engaging with both the CoS and the Free Zone, however the difficult relationship between the two has presented unexpected challenges to my research. Successfully interacting with both requires a careful approach on behalf of the scholar, particularly when attempting to establish contacts in both groups. Some members of the CoS were concerned about how I would present the CoS in relation to the Free Zone in my final work, while some Freezoners required assurance that I was not an employee of the CoS seeking information. This paper will use my recently completed fieldwork with both the CoS and the Free Zone as a case study of the challenges faced by simultaneously conducting fieldwork with a number of minority groups, and will propose methods of overcoming these difficulties.

Becoming a reliable narrator: ethnography and religion | Paul-François Tremlett, The Open University

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I conducted fieldwork around an extinct volcano south of Manila, in the Philippines. The mountain was a reputed node of religious power and on its lower slopes numerous independent churches notable for their veneration of José Rizal—the Filipino ‘national hero’—had established themselves. Pilgrims regularly visited the numerous shrines on the mountain to make offerings and undergo arduous journeys into caves, scrambling up perilous slopes and navigating waterfalls and cliffs, while healers on the lower slopes sold amulets and treated patients. I found the fieldwork challenging: seers made predictions about my personal life; religious leaders conducted Bible-readings with me that made no sense; healers persuaded me to participate in experiments that seemed designed to unnerve me and told me stories that were obviously in-credible while their followers invited me to join their sceptical discussions concerning the veracity of the healings, possessions and spiritual communications we had witnessed. In this short presentation I discuss these events with reference to the idea of emotional and embodied secularism (Hirschkind 2011; Oustinova-Stjepanovic 2015) as a means of reflecting on these experiences.

Approaches to the study of individualised spirituality – theory and practice | Claire Wanless, The Open University

Individualized forms of religion and spirituality, in which subjectivity is prioritised and authority is explicitly located at the level of the individual, are increasingly of interest. Yet the non-institutionalised nature of this kind of practice, the diversity of ways in which individualised religious practitioners practice and understand and present their religious lives, and the lack of clear boundaries as to what should and should not be considered representative of this kind of activity all provide a challenge to its systematic investigation. This paper discusses a range of theoretical and practical issues, with particular reference to fieldwork conducted on individualised religious practitioners in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire and to the use of theory in developing an understanding of Individualised spirituality as a phenomenon in its own right.