2019 has been quite the busy year! First things first, however, my blog post for this month can be found over on the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Blog, in which I reflect on Louis Theroux’s latest documentary with the Westboro Baptist Church the impact of Fred Phelps’ death. So do go and check it out!
As for 2019, the big news for me is completing my PhD! It was the end of an incredible journey, and I’m excited to be moving on to new areas of research. Once again, it’s worth noting that I am indebted to my supervisors, Marion Bowman and Paul-François Tremlett, who are both outstanding scholars and people. And, of course, the journey wouldn’t have been possible without my family and friends – especially Victoria, who supported me every step of the way. I also published a few pieces this year, including a chapter for The Insider/Outsider Debate: New Perspectives in the Study of Religions, which examines relational identities across Scientologies, and challenges institutional notions of ‘who Scientologists are’, and presented a paper at this year’s British Association for the Study of Religions annual conference.
2020 promises to be even busier. Beyond my new plans for this blog (stay tuned!), I’m in the process of turning my thesis into a monograph (the proposal is with the series editors!) and have plans to present at several conferences. I’m already confirmed to be presenting at February’s INFORM Seminar, and April’s British Sociological Association conference – maybe I’ll see you there?
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to unwinding over the winter break and hope that my friends and colleagues are too. Self-care is important, and it can be easy to forget that under the pressures of academia. Those papers will still be there in January!
In late September the Freemasons’ Hall took part in ‘Open House London’, an annual event celebrating architecture and design throughout London. The Hall, which acts as the United Grand Lodge of England’s (UGLE) headquarters, is typically open to public visitors, but marked the Open House event with additional displays, tours, and exhibits. As chance would have it, I happened to stumble upon the Freemasons’ Hall during this event and couldn’t resist going along. It was certainly worth the visit – and I left pondering (as I often do) objects and symbols.
If you’ve spent only a few minutes listening to me talk about my research, you’ll know that I’m fascinated by esotericism – more specifically, ‘secret’ knowledge and rituals for the ‘initiated’. Freemasonry serves as an example of this, featuring a series of specific rituals and ceremonies which are intended for Freemasons only. While ‘secrecy’ has often been controversial in the history of Freemasonry, Freemasons themselves are demonstrating increasing engagement with the wider public. As David Staples, the Chief Executive and Grand Secretary of the UGLE, tweeted, “[the Open House event] is only the start of our drive to show the public what modern Freemasonry really stands for”.
Accordingly, this approach was immediately apparent in the Hall itself. Displays such as ‘Inclusivity and Tolerance’ point to the ways in which Freemasonry has attempted to broaden its approach to members, featuring information on women’s lodges formed in the late 1800s, the welcoming of members with disabilities since the 1700s, and how members are encouraged to pursue their own faith.
My eye was also caught by a great display of ‘everyday’ Freemasonry, featuring objects and memorabilia through which members can display and express their status as Freemasons.
Alternatively, the exhibit also acknowledged the hostility towards Freemasonry during its history (such as the anti-Masonic literature in the Turbulent Century display), and the ways in which its use of esoteric objects and symbols have contributed to suspicion from critics. I was particularly struck by a small display towards the end of the exhibit. It interestingly didn’t contain any Masonic objects or regalia. Rather it contained a series of badges from a variety of sources, ranging from the political (“Don’t Blame Me, I Voted Remain”, “I’m a Monster Raving Loony”, and CND), to Up’s running “SQUIRREL!” gag.
The display was accompanied by the following statement:
WE ALL WEAR BADGES
A jewel, a medal, a badge, a lapel pin, a patch. Why do we wear them? What do they mean?
All through history we have worn symbols – imposed upon us to denote status, awarded for achievements, or simply by choice.
A badge is a simple piece of metal, gemstone, cloth, enamel or plastic, but it carries a message – a message that can be intended for everybody, or something only for those already in the know.
Do they help define our identity, or do they merely proclaim it?
Why would you wear a badge?”
This extract is striking for a number of reasons. It is a provocative series of statements and questions – challenging visitors to question their previous perceptions of Freemasonry’s esoteric imagery and rituals. It also urges them to consider their own use of symbols – whether they demonstrate beliefs, their professions, or express their fandom – and how this may not be entirely dissimilar from the symbols of Freemasonry. Beyond this, it points to the way in which Masonic symbols can carry a message “only for those already in the know”. As one Freemason told me, Freemasonry “is not a secret society, it’s a society with secrets”, a subtle yet significant distinction for Freemasons. Of course, the rituals of Masonic ceremonies are hardly secret in the public domain due to the exposés from undercover writers, or information leaked online from former Masons (Mahmud, 2013). For contemporary Freemasonry, however, this seems to be of little concern. Rather the focus is on public engagement – increasing understanding of what Freemasonry is and what it contributes to wider society. The Open House event at the Freemasons’ Hall serves as an interesting example of an esoteric movement engaging with wider society by displaying its material culture, symbols, and history, whilst simultaneously attempting to continue protecting details intended for the initiated Freemason. To answer the question posed by the badge display, “do [symbols] help define our identity, or do they merely proclaim it?”, the answer is both. Freemasonry continues to be defined by its regalia, distinctive symbols, and hidden ceremonies, which in themselves proclaim Masonic identity, purpose, and worldviews.
References Mahmund, L. (2013) ‘The Profane Ethnographer: Fieldwork with a Secretive Organisation’, in Garsten C. and Nyqvist, A. (eds), Organisational Anthropology: Doing Ethnography in and among Complex Organisations, London, Pluto Press,pp. 189-207.
This week saw the annual conference for the British Association for the Study of Religions, hosted at Leeds Trinity University.
I have been a regular attendee/presenter at the BASR since 2014. It is always an enjoyable conference for a number of reasons: it is an invigorating start to the academic year, provides an encouraging atmosphere for both PhD students and Early Career Researchers, and is an opportunity to hear about the work of researchers across the indisciplinary field of the Study of Religions. This year’s conference was no different. The theme was ‘Visualising Cultures: Media, Technology and Religion’, which allowed for a wide range of papers relating to topics pertatining to technology, various forms of media, and online religion.
Papers I really enjoyed include, but are by no means limited to:
S. Jonathon O’Donnell on Nehphilim and Demonology. Stefanie Sinclair and John Maiden on exploring european teenagers’ understanding of religion. Jenny Butler on the relationship between Pagans, Witches, and media. Liam Sutherland on Interfaith Scotland. George Chryssides discussing Jehovah’s Witnesses and media. Vivian Asimos on horror storytelling online/Reddit. Stephen Gregg on the relationship between Stage Magicians, Mediums, and Spiritualists. Angela Puca on Italian Shamanism and social media. Jonathan Tuckett on video games defining religion Also an excellent roundtable on research ethics – specifically the BASR’s newly developed code of research ethics.
I also got the opportunity to present some of my own research on an aspect of Scientology that has recently interested me alongside my PhD research on Free Zone Scientologies – how the Church of Scientology’s STAND (Scientologists Taking Action Against Discrimination) campaign and the notion of religious ‘legitimacy’ has seen a shift in their relationship with various forms of media.
A common theme in this conference was religion and the Internet, but more specifically conversations surrounding the issue of conducting fieldwork on the Internet. Online ethnography is something I have engaged with in my own research and have found to be very beneficial – not simply in terms of conducting interviews through online communication, but studying groups and communities that exist and interact exclusively on the Internet. For online groups of Free Zone Scientologists whom I have studied, for example, their online presence is not simply a ‘side-project’, but is at the core of how they interact and practise Scientology with other Freezoners. With the continuously growing popularity of the Internet and social media communication, online ethnography (particularly the research ethics involved) is becoming a greater focus for scholars of religion (and the wider Humanities and Social Sciences). In the terms of my own research, I approach online interviews with the same ethical standards and methodology as I do ‘face-to-face’ interviews. Yet judging by several of the conversations at this year’s conference, it seems that there is still some trepidation and surprise amongst some scholars towards engaging with online ethnography as a viable research method. As my colleague and fellow-delegate Vivian Asimos has since remarked, this is “essentially the same as expressing surprise that we can study people”. As scholars we often speak of mediatization, and I believe that the growing presence of online communities (be it through social media, forums, etc) is arguably the most significant example of 21st century mediatization. Exploring what people do on the Internet is becoming an increasingly important (and in several cases, essential) aspect of contemporary fieldwork. This year’s BASR conference demonstrated a number of ways in which scholars have used such methods in exciting and cutting-edge ways, and has hopefully encouraged others to help pave the way in this approach towards the Study of Religions.
It has been 12 years since the New Atheism explosion – a renewed conversation regarding atheism, secularism, and the ‘godless’ – commonly associated with the ‘Four Horsemen’: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. Publications from these writers, such as Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’ God is notGreat, became hugely popular and energised the atheist debate and questions surrounding faith and rationality. The Four Horsemen’s critique of religion wasn’t limited to faith however: religion itself was treated almost as a disease, an evil that needed to be forcefully pulled from society. The common conclusion was that understanding the scientific method would simply eradicate the role of religion in society – a simplistic understanding of the category of ‘religion’, to say the least.
This afternoon, Richard Dawkins took to Twitter to share a blurb he has written for a recent publication on Islamophobia:
I found this worrying to say the least, and my frustration has compelled me to write this post (which I will try to keep brief for everyone’s sake). Dawkins simplisticly draws a line in the sand between ‘Muslims’ and ‘Islam’, where Muslims are people and Islam is an “obnoxious ideology.” This is a confusing and harmful statement.
In the academic study of religion, there has been a shift towards the notion of ‘lived’ or ‘vernacular’ religion – where religion isn’t viewed as simply something peoplebelieve, but something people do (works from Leonard Primiano and Graham Harvey on this subject are extremely useful and insightful). This not only encompasses ‘traditional’ rituals but everyday activities: the way in which religion in ingrained in everyday life, and even extends to activities that could be considered secular. For Muslims worshipping at a Mosque, or fasting during Ramadan, Islam is something they do, it is life, and above all it is significant. Yes there is faith, but there is also culture, activities, communities, politics, and much more. Religion and people, and Islam and Muslims as a result, are intertwined in a complex way that cannot be simply deconstructed as brazenly as Dawkins’ attempt. His argument that ‘Muslims themselves are the main victims of Islam’ is absurd and frankly patronising. Such tweets aren’t new to Dawkins… here’s one from 2018:
It’s most definitely your cultural upbringing, Richard.
This leads me to my concern with New Atheism and the overall contemporary atheist landscape: superiority and smugness. The implication that other cultures simply “don’t know any better”, that if they could see their faith or rituals from the perspective of these (typically Western, white, and male) writers, they would be cured. It results in an extremely concerning case of superiority, and in my experience has bred hostility in the ‘Faith Vs Atheism’ debate, where reasonable conversation is replaced by ferocious arguments on online forums (for example).
In the interest of full disclosure, I consider myself to be a humanist (as a sociologist of religion I approach my studies of religious communities with a methodologically agnostic approach to questions of metaphysics). I have distanced myself from the term ‘atheist’, and rarely (if ever) describe myself as such. This is in no small part due to the theological nature of the term ‘atheism’, and the fact that I think it is much more affirming to define oneself by something they believe, not something that they don’t (AC Grayling’s Against All Gods makes this case well). But I have concerns about contemporary atheism. The way in which a sense of superiority, while emphasizing ownership of ‘rational thought’, can lead to racism and xenophobia – and could even lead to radicalization (ironically something New Atheism is deeply critical of religion for facilitating).
As a ‘godless’ person, I find it dismaying. I suppose writing this post is supposed to be more cathartic for me than communicating ideas with others, but atheism could be so much better. It is often presented as progressive, forward-thinking, rational, and advanced. But much of the evidence suggests otherwise. If atheist communities want to enrich the world, it has to involve being part of the world. It can’t simply attempt stand to the side with snide remarks, and suggest that religious groups and communities that enrich our culture should simply conform. Our shared world is a diverse and rich environment. With an alarming rise in Islamophobic abuse towards Muslims in contemporary society, Dawkins’ recent statements are not simply worrying – they’re dangerous.
Art-pop band Sparks, consisting of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, have been renowned throughout their career to not shy away from the more obscure topics and subject matters in their music. Their approach to acerbic lyrics has recently resulted in a plethora of songs that use religious imagery in a number of striking ways.
This is not to say that lyrics pertaining to religious themes is a new occurrence in Sparks’ discography. One of their most renowned singles, The Number One Song in Heaven (1979), revolves around a song “written, of course, by the mightiest hand.” While belief in a deity was mocked in 1976’s Everybody’s Stupid (“Now I got some music and the Lord / And I’m feeling dumber than before”).
More recently, the latest Sparks album, Hippopotamus (2017), was promoted by the single, What the Hell is it This Time?. An ode to an angry and overworked god’s frustration with the mundane, the song continuously flips from the requests of adherents:
“My god is great, my god is good, He loves every man, But show consideration when you pray in demands, His plate is filled with famine and with clean wholesome air, If Arsenal wins, he really don’t care”
Sparks – What the Hell is it This Time?
To the frustration of god:
“What the hell is it this time? It’s you again, it’s you again, you get on my nerves, What the hell is it this time? I’ve billions to serve, You get on my nerves”
Sparks – What the Hell is it This Time?
The song acts as a wry take on mundane concerns, poking subtle fun at the self-absorbed through a creative take on prayers. Similarly, the use of religious ideas to tell ‘human’ stories is also adopted in their 2006 song, As I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral. Concerning a high-achieving organist, Notre Dame illustrates his/her feeling of unfulfillment – they have achieved the prestigious role of Notre Dame organist, yet the congregation is more concerned with worshipping god than appreciating their musical skill:
“As I sit down to play the organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral, You know you’re gonna be upstaged, again and again, You know you’re gonna be upstaged, upstaged by him”
Sparks – As I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral
The song ends with a (presumably agnostic/atheist) visitor to the cathedral attempting to “escape the rain”, who appreciates the musician’s abilities and kindles a relationship with the organist:
“The congregation sways, the congregation says amen, The congregation sways, and says amen, amen again, But my message is lost on them, lost on all of them, It only reaches one of them, It only reaches one of them”
Sparks – As I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral
Beyond these examples, Sparks’ 2009 radio musical, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (which tells a Kafkaesque tale of the acclaimed director’s temptation by the Hollywood elite), features a segment in which Bergman questions god’s existence (“Oh my God”). The piece, which is based a year before the release of Bergman’s seminal The Seventh Seal, anticipates many of the themes that would later feature in his work – notably death and existentialism.
These songs serve as interesting examples of religion in pop music due to their thematic nature: they never truly address religion ‘head on’, rather religious themes are used to drive the lyrical narrative. When one thinks of examples of religion in popular music, they may think of songs directly critiquing religion (e.g. Genesis’ condemnation of televangelists in Jesus He Knows Me, or Green Day’s overview of American Christianity in East Jesus Nowhere), or alternatively songs exploring questions surrounding faith and reason (Bad Religion’s Shattered Faith). These examples from Sparks, however, use religious ideas and themes to tell a story. Pop music is often deemed to be for the individual’s interpretation – that the ‘meaning’ of a song is what the listener makes of it. Ultimately, or at least to myself, Sparks’ music concerns people, in particular their relationships, emotions, and activities, which is achieved through unconventional subject matters and ‘off-kilter’ lyrics. What the Hell is it This Time? is about the lives of ordinary people and their concerns/egos, Notre Dame is about love, relationships, and one-night stands, and even Ingmar Bergman’s existential crisis tells more about his desire to escape Hollywood than his faith in god. All of these pieces are drawn together by the use of religion as a way of conveying the narrative. They are not necessarily about religion, but make use of religion.
Welcome to what will hopefully become a thriving blog in the weeks and months to come. Having recently completed my PhD, I have created this blog with two goals in mind. Firstly, it could prove to be a useful way to discuss my research in ‘blurbish’ and bitesize formats alongside my published work. Secondly, and most importantly, I hope that this blog could facilitate valuable conversations revolving around the topic of religion in contempoary society, and help bring these conversations outside of the academy and towards the wider public.
If you are a scholar, student, or interested in understanding the role of religion in the modern world, and the ways in which it offers an avenue through which contemporary issues can be explored (including climate change, popular media, politics, neo-liberalism – to name but a few!), then do stick around. Good things are coming.