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Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)  is widely regarded as the founder of sociology, and has been enormously influential on the entirety of the modern social sciences. The author of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, and The Division of Labor in Society among others, he is perhaps most well-known in Religious Studies for his definition of religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them” (1965 [1912]: 62). Within this well-worn definition we can glimpse the basic foundations of an entire approach to the study of religion, which places emphasis upon the role of social interaction and discourse in ‘setting things apart’ – in constructing the ‘sacred’ and the ‘religious’- rather than assuming or advocating for an inherent, sui generis, religion. In this wide ranging and in-depth interview with Chris, Ivan Strenski discusses Durkheim’s life and work in a broader context, tracing his impact through the ‘Durkheimian school’ – which includes Henri Hubert, Durkheim’s nephew Marcel Mauss, and Claude Levi-Strauss – and presenting an understanding of the academic study of religion as a Durkheimian project. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our, or links to support us at no additional cost when participating in the ‘sacralizing’ of the social and buying your Christmas presents etc. This is the final episode in a series on early 20th century theorists of religion. The first featured Robert Segal on C. G. Jung and the second featured Paul-François Tremlett on Claude Levi-Strauss.
Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research? To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions. Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with SOCREL, the Sociology of Religion study group of the British Sociological Association, to celebrate their 40th anniversary, and entitled ‘New Horizons in British Sociology of Religion.’ Be sure to check out the other podcasts in this series, such as “Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.
As we career forward into the twenty-first century, in a context where more and more students have access to higher education, where technology advances at an exponential rate, and where the logics of neoliberalism and management seemingly creep further into every aspect of everyday life, critical reflection about the role of academics in teaching has never been more necessary. In this our first podcast of 2016, Chris was joined by Dr Dominic Corrywright of Oxford Brookes University in the UK, to discuss current developments in higher education pedagogy, the challenges and opportunities that these present for Religious Studies, and some practical examples from Dominic’s own experience. Dominic Corrywright is Principal Lecturer for Quality Assurance, Enhancement and Validations, and Course Coordinator for Religion and Theology at Oxford Brookes. Alongside other research interests, including alternative spiritualities and new religious movements, Dominic has a strong research focus on teaching and learning in higher education, and pedagogy in the study of religions. He is Teaching & Learning representative on the executive committees of both the British Association for the Study of Religions, and TRS-UK. Particularly relevant publications include a co-edited issue of the BASR’s journal DIskus on Teaching and Learning in 2013, including his own article Landscape of Learning and Teaching in Religion and Theology: Perspectives and Mechanisms for Complex Learning, Programme Health and Pedagogical Well-being, and a chapter entitled Complex Learning and the World Religions Paradigm: Teaching Religion in a Shifting Subject Landscape, in a certain forthcoming volume edited by the RSP’s Christopher Cotter and David Robertson. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ink cartridges, My Little Ponies, and more!
Images of Jesus on a slice of toast; Koran verses in an aubergine; statues which cry blood; Angel Colour cards and Atlantean crystal therapies; popular religious expressions are everywhere. Over the past decades, a number of scholarly terms have been coined for such phenomena – ‘implicit religion’, ‘invisible religion’, ‘everyday religion’ or, the topic of this interview, ‘vernacular religion’. Each does different work, but each fundamentally acknowledges that what real people actually do on the ground, what they believe, what they identify with etc has a fundamentally greater impact upon religion as it exists in the real world than the discourses of theologians, philosophers and academics. In this interview, Marion Bowman showcases her fascinating research into the ways in which religion permeates everyday life, paying particular attention to the manifestations at the famous Glastonbury Festival. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. Dr Marion Bowman is Senior Lecturer in the Religious Studies department at the Open University, former president of the BASR and of the Folklore Society, and currently on the executive board of SIEF’s Ethnology of Religion Working Group. She began her academic career at Glasgow University, but switched to Lancaster University where she came under the influence of Professor Ninian Smart, a revolutionary figure who has acquired almost mythic status in the field of Religious Studies. Her research is concerned with vernacular/ folk/ popular religion – ‘religion as it is lived’ – contemporary religion (especially, New Age/Alternative Spirituality, Paganism, New Religious Movements, Vernacular Christianity) and contemporary Celtic Spirituality in Christianity, Paganism, Druidry, New Age/ Alternative Spirituality and New Religious Movements. Marion’s Publications include Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief (2012) and Beyond the New Age: Exploring Alternative Spiritualities (2000). You can listen to Marion talking about airport chapels with Norman Winter at the Multi-Faith Spaces conference held at the University of Manchester.
In practice, experimentation requires much effort, imagination, and resources. The subject of religion seems too complex and too ‘soft’ for the laboratory. It is filled with much fantasy and feelings, two topics which academic psychology finds hard to approach. Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London: Routledge, 1997, p. 47. Psychology of religion involves the application of psychological methods and interpretive frameworks to religious institutions, as well as to individuals of all religious or noreligious persuasions. Last November, Chris had the pleasure of chatting to Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi about the psychological approach, how one applies it to the study of religion, and the various challenges and advantages contained therein. This interview was recorded in the heart of New York City, and we can only hope that the ambient noise adds to the character of the interview. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi studied clinical psychology in Israel and the U.S. and is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Haifa. He has published extensively in the critical theory of academic psychology with focus on the psychopathology of religion. His books include Despair and Deliverance: Private Salvation in Contemporary Israel (1992), Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion: A Critical Assessment (1996) and The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience (1997) with Michael Argyle. He is also author of The Israeli Connection (Pantheon 1987), concerning the Israeli armaments industry, and Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (Olive Branch 1993), a counter-mystification of the origins, accomplishments, contradictions, and betrayals of Zionism. In answer to the question “what can science say about atheism?”, Professor Beit-Hallahmi published the article “The likely atheists” in the Guardian. In addition, you can check out his article on Scientology: Religion or racket?, or if you have institutional access, you can also read his piece on Atheists: A Psychological Profile. You may also be interested in the Religious Studies Project interview with Armin Geertz on Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion, and Erica Salomon’s response essay.
In this interview, Dr. Jasmin Zine talks about Muslim schools in Canada and their impact on their students’ identity development and integration in the society. Having served for decades as a tool to preserve a particular religious identity, Islamic schooling also plays a crucial role in empowering female students. In some cases, Muslim schools have become a safe haven, especially for women, “a place where their identity is not in question, where they can feel safe and comfortable”. Also, Dr. Jasmin Zine describes to Mariia Alekseevskaia the challenges which Canadian Muslim schools face today, including a difficulty to promote critical thinking and “the spirit of debate” while teaching about religion as well as maintaining patriarchal religious cultures. Lastly, professor Zine discusses academic colonialism and shares her personal story of what it means to be a Muslim woman in academia. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, an Etch-A-Sketch, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album, and more. A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below. Preserving Identity and Empowering Women: How Do Canadian Muslim Schools Affect Their Students? Podcast with Jasmin Zine (29 October 2018). Interviewed by Mariia Alekseevskaia. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Audio and transcript available at: Zine_-_Preserving_Identity_and_Empowering_Women_1.1   Mariia Alekseevskaia (MA): Hello. My name is Mariia Alekseevskaia. I’m here in Ottawa, at the Summer Feminist Festival, and it’s my pleasure to welcome one of its key speakers, Dr Jasmin Zine, Professor of Sociology, Religion and Culture, and Muslim Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her areas of research include Islamic feminism, Muslim education and Islamophobia. She has been involved in the national study on the impact of 9/11, and domestic security policies on Muslim youth in Canada. Also, as an education consultant, she has developed award-winning curriculum materials that address Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism. Today we are going to talk about Muslim schools in Canada, and their impact on their students’ identity development and integration into society. To start this discussion, could you please first explain what Islamic schooling in Canada is? Jasmin Zine (JZ): Yes. Thank you for the question. Looking at Islamic schooling in Canada, there’s actually many forms that it takes. There are a number, and a growing number, of full-time schools – Islamic schools – which teach the Ministry curriculum in whatever province they exist, as well as sort-of Islamic studies. And that’s usually taught in terms of Arabic and Qur’an, but also often tends to try and integrate Islamic knowledge into what would be considered secular subjects, whether it is science, or world issues, or mathematics. And so that’s one form that Islamic schools take is in the full-time school. And those are – at least in Ontario – they’re not funded. Only Catholic schools are funded in Ontario. So they’re, in that sense, private schools. But not private, in the sense of being elite. They’re community-based schools. The teachers there, some have Ontario’s teacher certification and Bachelors of Education. Others don’t because it’s not a requirement for private schools in Ontario to have certified teachers. So many aren’t trained in pedagogy or in education, specifically. They’ve obtained post-secondary degrees, usually outside of Canada. And they, when they come to Canada they often elect to teach in an Islamic school, as opposed to finding other jobs, for which they often . . . find themselves under-employed, even though they’ve got education and qualifications. Because it’s very difficult to find jobs in Canada, even when you’re qualified, if you’re here as a foreign professional. So they end up working within Islamic schools. So that’s a bit about the formal full-time Islamic schools. There are also weekend schools, what they call madrasa, that usually happens on a Sunday or a weekend. And that’s where children who are attending public school will go on the weekend – kind-of like a Christian Sunday school, for religious instruction. So they have that. And they also have the hifz schools, which is where children go, generally full-time, to learn the memorisation of the Qur’an. So that’s another kind of Islamic school that exists. And then there’s also informal sites of Islamic education through things like Summer schools, summer camps, halaqah – Islamic study circles that are held in Mosques and sometimes outside of them as well, through Community Centres and so on. So a lot of that informal education also happens in addition to the formal types of Islamic education that have developed in Canada, over the last couple of decades. MA: And if we talk about full-time Muslim schools in Canada: in your opinion, how have they influenced their students during the last several decades, as they existed? JZ: Well, my research has been primarily in Ontario, and I looked at four full-time Islamic schools with a number of concerns in mind. And if you’re asking me how it has influenced or impacted Muslim youth: I think the idea of these schools was so that they would have a sort-of faith-centred education, and that they would have a strong grounding in their identity as Muslims. And they also became a sort of safe haven for Muslim children and youth who, in the public system, have to deal with racism and Islamophobia – particularly girls who are dressed with Islamic attire. Whether they’re wearing hijab, or more modest clothing, or wearing niqab as well, many of them find Islamic schools to be a place where, you know, their identity is not in question. And where they can feel safe and comfortable. So I think it does provide that to the community. I think that they also have been . . . Islamic schools have also operated in ways where parents see them as a kind of way to sort-of discipline wayward youth. So if some youth have been getting in trouble at school, or with the Law, or getting in difficulties like that, that’s seen as kind-of coming out of being in a public education system that doesn’t have the values and discipline of Islamic teachings and an Islamic environment. They will often send their children or youth to Islamic schools as a kind of place of rehabilitation for these youth. So that’s another way, or role, that Islamic schools play within the Muslim community. I think that in terms of impact, it’s a very big question. There’s lot of positive impact in that. But there’s also some negatives as well. My book went through a lot of those things, and it would take a while to enumerate everything. I myself had my sons go to Islamic school after about Grade Five in public school. Because I did want them to have a sense of their identity and a sense of their belief and faith. And so they did go to Islamic school, you know. But I found that, given that, the education is not necessarily even. Where you have some teachers who are certified, some who are not, the quality of education was very uneven. And I found that to be difficult. Over time, as well, I also found that some teachers, even though they’re teaching subjects like math or science, would take it upon themselves to offer their Islamic teachings to the students – which were often really problematic, and coming from certain cultural backgrounds, in a very unauthorised way. They were offering their own sort-of take on Islam to the kids in the classroom. And I would hear things my sons would come home and tell me, which I knew were not correct. And then have to constantly be correcting what they were picking up. So that wasn’t coming from the Islamic Studies teacher, it was just coming from, you know, teachers who weren’t educated in Islamic Studies, but still felt that because they were in an Islamic school they could offer their views. And those were a lot also of the growing pains of Islamic schools. My kids were in school a number of years ago. More than a decade ago. So at the time I was doing my study on Islamic schools, as well, a lot of them were fairly new, but there were many of them. There were about 36 full-time schools in Ontario at that time. And otherwise students were, academically, in many of the school . . . . They have, in Ontario, the EQAO which is a sort of standardised test that all schools do and Islamic schools were doing very well . . . or the students there were doing very well, on that level, academically. You know, but in other ways I think. . . I go through a lot of these things in my book. There were definitely challenges that schools still have to overcome. And the issue of how well-prepared are the graduates to go into university? I only know anecdotally, because I do know many graduates of Islamic schools who’ve then moved on, but there are definitely challenges for them going from a fairly sheltered system into a large university that is co-ed, and that is not sheltered in that sense. So there are some challenges there, as well. But I don’t think anyone’s done a study, as yet, that actually maps the transition of students from full-time Islamic schools to any form of post-secondary. But that would be interesting. MA: And in the monograph – this book that you have just mentioned which was issued ten years ago –you explain the role of faith-based schools in preventing this split of identity of students which they could have in a public school. Do you think the challenges which Muslim kids face in a public school today are different from those which their counterparts faced ten years ago? JZ: Well right now, we’re talking about a generation of youth that I refer to in my upcoming book as the 9/11 generation of Muslim Youth. And just 2 days ago I was in a forum and there was a 14 year old who was talking about the impact of Islamophobia and how she’s often reticent – she’s in public school – to tell people that she’s Muslim, because she’s actually in fear of her physical safety, because of, you know, possible reprisal. People’s views about Muslims can be very distorted and based on negative and false stereotypes and very sensationalised media representations, so that she prefers not to sometimes identity herself as Muslim to people she doesn’t know. And the way she said it was, “Well, I don’t want to get jumped after school.” So you know there is . . . and this is where my current research has really been looking at, is: what is the impact been of this sort of 9/11, the War on Terror, ongoing security policies, ongoing imperial wars, and an escalation of Islamophobia? What impact does that have on Muslim youth and their sense of identity, citizenship, belonging, and so on? And so my current study is looking at this very issue. So I think for, you know, when I talked ten years ago about the sort of split identity that some Muslim youth experience, because when they’re in public school, because of the fact that they often are shielding their identity or they’re trying to pass in other ways, they may not want to be identified as Muslim. So some would, for example, anglicise their name. Or some would . . . for example, girls might wear more modest clothing when they leave the home or wear hijab, and when they get to school they take it off. You know, so this is where that split personality tends to come in – when there’s a conflicting set of expectations at school and home. There’s no cultural consistency between what your expectation is at home and what’s at school. So you have competing cultural demands. And that’s where that split happens. So when kids are going to an Islamic school and they’re coming from a practising Muslim home, there’s more congruence with the values and expectations, in that sense. But youth are also trying to figure out their own identity in the midst of all this. So I’ve also found in my current study that Muslim youth – this 9/11 generation – when it comes to their sense of identity, are either investing more in that identity because of the fact that their identities are under siege . . . . So they’re investing more in that identity to sort-of be able to stand up and counter and speak to, you know, the way that their community and their own identity is being vilified . And others are going through an estrangement, where there are, again, distancing themselves from their identity as Muslims, in order to avoid backlash. So I’ve identified that kind-of investment or estrangement from the identity, depending on how it’s affecting them as individuals. MA: Do you think this Islamophobia in Canadian society, and racialisation of this society, impacts the decision of Muslim parents to prefer a religious school to a public school? JZ: You know, when I did my study, it started in the late 1990’s into 2000, so it was just ended prior to 9/11. But even at that time, that was one of the issues as to why parents were choosing to send their kids to Islamic schools. So one of the issues was the fact that their kids were experiencing racism and discrimination – Islamophobia – within the public system. So this was pre-9/11, and of course Islamophobia long predates 9/11. It didn’t just begin on September 12th! So these issues were happening even prior. So definitely, since then, there’s been an escalation of that type of scrutiny, and negative attention, and troubling stereotypes that Muslim youth – this 9/11 generation – have to deal with. So it would definitely still be, I think, one of the reasons that parents would look to Islamic schools as an alternative for their kids. But I haven’t done a study to follow up on that in the post-9/11 context. But the research that I’m doing now, which looked at 130 Muslim youth across Canada, right from the East Coast to the West Coast, looking at their experiences – most of them actually were in public schools, some of them had been in Islamic schools as well, sort of in and out. Muslim kids often migrate in and out of Islamic schools. So they might be in there for their early formation, in elementary school, but then their parents may switch them to public high school, and so on. But definitely, a lot of them spoke of the kinds of alienation and discrimination they faced in school, as well as in post-secondaries, as well as in universities. So it’s definitely something that youth are still dealing with and I think it would therefore make Islamic schools seem like a safe haven. MA: And many researchers who study religious schools have a concern about whether the schools are able to promote autonomy and critical thinking. Out of your research, based on your research, what kinds of tools do Muslim schools use to develop critical thinking in their students and build them as responsible citizens? JZ: Right. Well I think the issue of critical thinking, a lot of it depends on the teachers themselves, and whether they’re well-trained in pedagogy to be able to help students become critical thinkers. And again, that tended to vary on whether the teachers had experience or had trained in education, versus those that hadn’t. Because those teachers often who weren’t trained specifically in pedagogy, did more things like rote learning. So, with rote learning, there isn’t that space to question and challenge, or interrogate. You’re just memorising, right? So teachers who were trained specifically with Bachelors of Education and Ontario teaching certificates, had a broader set of strategies and ideas and philosophical understandings of education, and how to integrate critical thinking within that. So they definitely did promote it in different areas. When it comes to religion and religious knowledge – because remember these schools are teaching, you know, also secular subjects and religious subjects. So in terms of secular subjects I think you know there’s definitely a focus on thinking critically and being able to challenge and question and analyse. Within the religious component as well, I think that those bases were far more closed to be able to question and challenge tenets of the faith or ideas around it. I mean, I think asking questions was one thing. But having the freedom to really be able to question seriously – I don’t think that that space was there. I think that in a lot of spaces, even when students, let’s say, graduate from an Islamic school, they tend to go to university and if they join the Muslim Student association, you know, that’s another sort of space where . . . they are spaces of knowledge production, as well, around Islam. And those spaces, you know, get a little more open. But there’s definitely still a certain culture, a way of promoting specific kinds of religious practices and so on, that is sometimes pretty uniform. And you have to adapt to that cultural environment, right? So unfortunately, I think that the spirit of debate and interrogation and questioning around Islamic tenets, and around Islamic knowledge in general, has not been evident in the way Islamic schools are teaching the faith and the tradition. And therefore, I think, with a lot of youth that is something they end up often confused later in life. Because they were really . . . religion was something explained to them that is black and white. And I find that they look for that. They are sometimes uncomfortable when they do find out about the grey areas. So, for example when I’ve taught . . . . I used to do Gender in Islam at the University of Toronto. And I had predominantly Muslim students, some who came through Islamic school, and some who came through public schools. When I would talk about things that challenged their conventional knowledge about gender in Islam, they had a very hard time with it. When they found out that there was actually a broader path of Islam than the narrow one that they had been socialised and educated about in the traditional channels of Islamic education – whether through their madrasa, or through their Islamic schools, or through the mosques and the halaqahs, they often get a very black and white sense. And when they come to university and we are representing it in a much broader way based on, you know, looking at the historical tradition, looking at a vast array of knowledge that they’re not usually getting before they come to university, they have a very hard time with that. And I’ve had students say things to me like, “But why does it have to be so open-ended? Why can’t people just go in a room and then tell us what is right and wrong?” And I said, you know, “Well, why would you want that, first of all? Why would you want people somewhere sitting and defining your faith for you? Who would be at that table?” Right? And, “Don’t you want to be at that table, too? To ask questions and to challenge and so on..?” So they were very much used to being socialised into things that are sort-of black and white. So the grey areas confused them. And I think it is really about religion is something that people hold onto for a sense of certainty. So if you start to say, “Well yes, the faith says this and it says that – but it also says this,” then they’re confused. Because, “Just tell me which one I’m supposed to follow!” Right? So they have a hard time reconciling the multiplicity of ways that we can actually interpret the hermeneutics of faith have become more open, right? It’s been different in the development of other faiths. In Christianity and Judaism there’s been, I think, a longer tradition of looking at religion in a broader way. In Islam, I think that we’re starting to come to that because now we have things like feminist hermeneutics of the Qur’an. So this knowledge of academic knowledge hasn’t filtered down to the Islamic schools, or to the mosques, or to the halaqahs, or weekend schools. So they start to get that when they get to university, and it confuses them in many cases. And sometimes they also have a sense of dissonance within that. And I think it’s a very sort-of critical time where they are trying to, now, outside of the confines of their community – Islamic schools and so on and family and community environment – and are in a very different kind of very plural space, trying to sort out their sense of identity, their relationship to their faith. And once they see that there’s more options within it, and where they fall on this sort of continuum of belief, and their own journey within the faith . . . MA: I think it’s only during the last years that Muslim community is more and more changed by the society. And you know that in Canada there have been long debates about religious symbols in public space, and predominantly female weighting – so always targeting Muslim women in those kind of discussions. And, in your opinion, do Muslim schools empower or disempower female students? What is the influence of the schools on female students? JZ: Well first, just to respond about the sort of gendered Islamophobia in Canadian society, and it is very much there now in policies, as we know, in Quebec. There’s been the Quebec Charter of Values, which is trying to ban the niqab in public spaces. Even prior to that there’s been attempts to ban hijab whether they’re on soccer fields, or banning niqab at citizenship ceremonies, and so on. So Canada has a history of this sort-of gendered Islamophobia that’s been enshrined in various policies that we have. So of course this has an effect on the day-to-day lives of Muslim girls and women. So it’s another reason why often parents are more comfortable having their daughters in Islamic schools. But it isn’t just the parents, it’s actually the girls themselves, who feel more comfortable in an Islamic school environment. Because, you know, if they’re wearing hijab it’s not an issue, if they’re in niqab it’s not an issue. However, those who aren’t necessarily wanting to wear the hijab – you know, it is part of the school uniform in the Islamic school, so when they’re in school they have to wear it – when they leave sometimes they just take it off, because it’s not a consistent practice for them. So it is considered part of that uniform at the time that they’re in school. But outside of veiling, there’s other still, what I found in my study, some patriarchal understandings about Muslim women that are a large part of how the religion has been interpreted, right? Because it generally has been men, historically, who interpret religious texts. As I said, we’re starting to see more feminist hermeneutics, we’re starting to see more women involved in that exegetical practice of looking at Islamic text, and finding other more gender-neutral meanings to the way that it’s been traditionally understood. And there are, in other ways, just patriarchal structures of governance and of understanding Muslim girls, and how to develop them into Muslim women, that come from fairly, I think, patriarchal understandings of notions of piety and notions of . . . . You know, one of the things I talked about was this idea of honour. And that it wasn’t really . . . you know, if girls were sort-of stepping out of what were considered the legitimate boundaries of Islamic behaviour for young women, it was really compromising the honour of the school. So girls were, in some schools, kept very regulated in terms of their movements outside of school. So during school hours they had to be at the school, whereas boys had more freedom to, let’s say, go to Tim Horton’s at lunch, sort of thing. It really was about regulating and controlling the behaviour of the girls because parents are sending them there in order to be in a particular environment – a sheltered environment. So if they’re seen sort-of running around, then that would also be compromising for the school’s reputation. So, you know, there was that happening. But there were a lot of ways that . . . So how it’s empowering for girls is, you know, the freedom to dress in a modest way, to wear the hijab, or niqab and for that not to be source or harassment, daily harassment and micro-aggressions, and now as we see a lot of violence as well. So it’s that safe space, in that sense. And also because the classes are gender-segregated from about grade 5 or 6, and right through the high school, there is a sense of freedom that a lot of them talk about, and that research has also shown, about female-centred educational spaces, where girls actually develop a stronger voice, a stronger sense of being able to speak in class and put their views forward. Because when they’re in a co-ed environment, it’s often boys who gain the floor to answer questions. And there’s also sometimes . . . you know, all these sorts of little tensions: you like this guy, so you don’t want to say anything, because you don’t want him to think you’re stupid, or whatever! Those kinds of interactions that happen. And just a lot of things like mansplaining, right? Men who think that they always have the answer and have the authority. And so that can be stifling for girls. So in a female-centred educational space, there’s a lot of empowerment for them, because they don’t have those impediments of having boys or men in the room. . . . And another sense of empowerment that young women have is that they can actually lead spiritually centred lives in these schools, in ways that you can’t in a secular education system. So I mean that’s something for everyone, but I think also for a lot of the girls. They talked about that – about really being a space where your actions weren’t just something that’s existential, but it’s something that you look at for the afterlife, right? So they have this concept of the achirah, or the life after – the afterlife. And so a lot of the way that they understood their behaviour, their actions, and their motivations had to do not just with the existential issues they’re dealing with, but how they wanted to be in the afterlife. So that ability to be in a spiritually-focussed space was also something that was empowering. MA: Have you ever had to struggle as a scholar, because you are a religiously-oriented Muslim woman? JZ: Do you mean in the Western academy, have I ever had to struggle? MA: Yes. JZ: I think for all women of colour in general, and I am a woman in colour as well as being a Muslim . . . . When I started in the academy I wore . . . . No, before I started a full-time job in the academy, for about 17 years I wore a hijab. When I was looking for work I had sort of de-jabed around that time. [This is a term Muslim women use to describe their decision to stop wearing the hijab.] But not specifically because I was looking for work, but because my understanding about the hijab and whether I wanted to wear it, the way I saw it within the context of my faith had changed, after a lot of study and a lot of consultation. But it didn’t hurt that fact that I was also in the job market. I think it would have been a lot more difficult for me to land a job if I was wearing the hijab, particularly in social sciences. And I was in Sociology, which is traditionally a very left-focussed kind of discipline. And when you wear a hijab, especially like 14 years ago when I was looking for work, there was a tendency for people to presume that you’re very fundamentalist, conservative and maybe right-wing in your beliefs. So I found, when you wear the hijab you have to really perform your politics for people, because they have a lot of judgement about you on a number of levels, but also politically. And so I think some of that has changed now – but definitely at that time it would have always been about reassuring people that I wasn’t a sort-of right-wing fundamentalist, and then I would constantly have to perform my politics. So at that time I wasn’t wearing the hijab. But I did have a friend who actually was looking for a job in Religious Studies and she made the decision at that time to actually de-jab because she didn’t feel she would get a position in Religious Studies if she was wearing a hijab. Because there, in particular, you are expected to be neutral, right, when you talk about religion or talk about the subject of study? And if you have a religious identity, I guess they perceive it as being biased. And so, for that reason, she de-jabed. But my experience, you know, was for a very long time the only person of colour in my department. You know, there’s always challenges to that. There’s not a lot of racially marginalised women in the academy in general, in Canada. There’s more that are coming in but, those of us who have become more senior scholars, there’s fewer of us. And we also end up being mentors to racial minority students on campus, Muslim or not. So there’s a lot more responsibility on us that the universities don’t recognise. There’s a lot more emotional labour that goes with that, that the university don’t value or recognise. And then we also often, as I do, play a role as public intellectuals in the community. So we become scholar activists. We are working both on the academic side – we’re also looking, doing community development, which I have done, in addition to academic work. I’ve started organisations in the community like MENTORS: the Muslim Educational Network, Training and Outreach Service. And we were an advisory board to the Toronto District School Board. And we also started an organisation that actually brought together all Islamic schools under one sort-of banner, as well as doing anti-Islamophobia curriculum teaching and training. So that was one organisation I founded, along with others, along the way. So because of our role – and there’s not as many of us doing it – we tend to get spread very thin in what we do. So, struggles were very much in line with what a lot of other women of colour have to deal with in the academy. MA: Thank you. And one of my last questions is about the research of Muslim communities. You mention in one of your interviews that one of the main challenges to studying Muslims is to recruit the participants, but also to build trust in the community. So could you please provide a few tips to those scholars or students who are working on, or willing to work on, studying Muslims in North America: how to overcome these challenges, how to handle and cope with them? JZ: Right. Definitely, because the Muslim community is a community, as I’ve talked about in my new book, it’s a community under siege. And it’s also a community that a lot of people are trying to research or learn about. So there’s lot of people who just don’t want to be part of certain kinds of research, because they don’t have the discursive authority and control over how their narratives are going to be used. For me, I was someone who was an insider in the community. I was known, at the time I was doing, for example, the Islamic Schools study, I was a parent in an Islamic school, I was on a Parent Association. And I did, as part of my ethnography, participant observations as well as taught in one of the schools. So I was very much embedded. So I had trust, I thought. But there were still a couple of schools that would not give me access. So even, sometimes, when we presume that we have trust, because we’re a member of the community, there are still spaces that will be hesitant to allow you in. Because they don’t necessarily want to air their dirty laundry, they don’t necessarily want someone coming in and . . . . You know, the environment among these schools can be competitive too. So they don’t necessarily want someone coming in and scrutinising what they’re doing, whether you’re a member of the community or not. So, there’s those challenges. There’s always a matter of gaining trust. I work a lot with Muslim youth and so my reputation and standing matters, because of that. So because I have that insider . . . and I have had research assistants, as well, which I found was important in cities that I don’t live in. So that they had the trust and they built the relationships already. They had relationships in the community where they could go and do interviews for me. So that was important. But I also have to say that I feel very strongly that research in Muslim communities is best done by Muslims scholars. And my book that I edited, Islam in the Hinterlands, looking at Muslim cultural politics in Canada, was an edited collection, and all of the contributors were Muslim, except one. And that was a very purposeful decision on my part, to showcase the work of Muslim scholars reflecting on the state of Canadian Muslims in Canada. And while I think there are, you know, people who are doing good research from outside the community, with good intentions, at the same time there can be a sense of academic colonialism. And there can be a sense of then, “Now these people become the experts abut Muslims.” So you know . . . I mean, I’ve been in situations on panels with some people who are non-Muslim who have done research. And we’re on panel, and a question will come about, “What do Muslim women think about X?” And it will be the non-Muslims reaching for the microphone. And I was, like, thinking, “OK. It takes a certain amount of entitlement to think that because of your research, you’ve interviewed a few people or whatever you’ve done, that you have the right to respond to that question when there is a Muslim woman, who is also a scholar, on the panel.” So I think that because of the power relations of knowledge production and the history of orientalism that has shaped and defined how people come to understand Muslims . . . . Not to say that there are people with a good idea of politics who are engaging in research in the community with good intentions and so on. But it’s still matter for us, as a community, to have discursive control and discursive authority, and to begin to privilege those scholars who are up-and-coming in the community, as well as established scholars, to be able to understand the realities that our communities are facing, and be able to speak to that from within. Rather than having research done from outside that is trying to, then, impose meanings on our community, on our identities, on our realities and so on. And so, for that reason, I feel that the research is better taken up by Muslim scholars. I think that, unfortunately, that understanding isn’t as widespread as it is, let’s say, now people are beginning to understand with indigenous communities – that unless you’re indigenous you should not be doing that research. And there’s a lot of indigenous scholars that are there and are positioned well to take that on. So there’s, I think, fewer people who would think it was ok for them to just go into an indigenous community and just start doing research. But you know, recently, even at my own university, I was contacted about supervising a student and they had already started on a study about Muslim women in the local area of my university. And we have a Muslim Studies programme, but none of us were asked about this. This was being done by another department in the university. None of us were consulted, none of us were asked to be part – this was a part of a larger project – to be a part of it. But I was asked to come on and help supervise a student once it was already a fait accompli: the study had begun – they were working on it, you know? And so there is that sense of trying to recruit you to come in to legitimise what they’re doing, but not to consult with you in the beginning to say that, actually, “You have the expertise in this area, this is your community. How can we be of assistance?” So there’s a real lack of humility, sometimes, in how people want to engage in research in communities that are not their own. And it really plays into a kind of academic colonialism that I find really problematic. So I think there are ways that scholars can engage with Muslim communities around certain kinds of questions, but there are other questions that I think are better addressed by scholars from within the community. So if I can give one example, I had a student – a male white Christian student – who came to me, who wanted to look at the Sharia tribunal affair in Ontario, a few years back. And he wanted to interview Muslim women about whether or not if those tribunals were set up, would they go and avail themselves of it? And I said, “Well you know the reason that women would go to one of these tribunals would have to do with divorce or custody, or some kind of marital strife. So what makes you think that as a white, Christian male they want to talk to you about those issues?” Right? So I said, “Think about the boundaries you’re crossing: as a male, trying to do women’s studies; as a Christian, trying to do a study about why Muslim women would specifically want to participate in a faith-based arbitration, on these very personal matters; and really think about is this your project?” And so I had him read a book on decolonising methodology. Because I think what we need to be thinking about is how do we decolonise these practices, right? And then he came up with a study that made sense for the work that he is now doing, and sets him up better in an academic arena, which was to look at it from a policy framework, from the framework of multiculturalism – which was already his area of study. And to expand the study to look at not just Sharia-based or faith based arbitration among Muslims, but also among Jewish communities as well, who actually stood to – when faith-based arbitration was taken out – stood to lose the beth dins that they’d been doing for a decade before. So that became a different kind of way that this particular scholar could engage the topic, without presuming to go in and talk to Muslim women about private things. So had he gone to someone else, they probably would have said, “Yes, sure. Go and do that.” And it wouldn’t have been the best decision for him – even personally, as a scholar – it would not have been the best decision. And certainly, I think, is a very entitled way of approaching research with marginalised communities. And so I think the role of our bodies matters in the knowledge production that we do. And that we need to be aware, specifically among marginalised communities, how these communities have not been in control of the discourses through which their identities and realities are shaped. And that there needs to be a space for them to regain the narrative control. And to be able to, without being considered to be biased, or considered to be . . . . I think all of that idea of positivism is false. This idea that anything is neutral – in terms of research, anyways, right? So we can dispense with that. Then we can, you know, actually do research, and talk about the limitations of that – if there are (any). But we don’t have to presume that there is, in any way, this sort of neutral or unbiased way of doing especially qualitative research. So that’s my opinion on looking at research within the Muslim community: gaining trust, but also looking at whether or not the projects you’re undertaking are . . . you are well-placed to do that. Or whether there are actually people within the community that would be better placed to take that on. MA: Jasmine Zine, thank you very much for his interview. Thank you for your time, and I wish you all the best with all your research projects. I hope to see you again at the Religious Studies Project Podcast to discuss how academia is changing, and we hope all goes well. JA: Thank you very much. Citation Info: Zine, Jasmine and Mariia Alekseevskaia. 2018. “’Preserving Identity and Empowering Women: How Do Canadian Muslim Schools Affect Their Students?”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 October 2018. Available at: If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.
The question about climate change has emerged as one of the defining debates of contemporary social and political discourse. With the explosive exponential growth of the human population since the industrial revolution, our species’ impact on the biosphere has become so intensive that it threatens to destablise an ecological balance that has sustained life on the planet for millions of years. It is for this reason that scientists have begun to call the modern era (not without controversy) the “Anthropocene”, the epoch of human domination. Amidst the voices calling for action – which cut across the full spectrum of society – one of the most recent is philosopher Bruno Latour, whose 2013 Gifford Lectures addressed precisely this theme. In this interview, Jack Tsonis talks to leading scholar of nature and religion Bron Taylor about his response to Latour’s lectures, which formed part of a high-profile panel discussion at the 2013 AAR meeting. After discussing the concept of the anthropocene and praising much of Latour’s project, Taylor voices some of his reservations about Latour’s approach, as well as some of his own perspectives on the notion of “Gaia” and other ways to conceptualize our impact upon the planet. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment torate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make. Bron Taylor is Professor of Religion, Nature, and Environmental Ethics at the University of Florida. He is also a Carson Fellow of the Rachel Carson Center (at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munchen), and an Affiliated Scholar with the Center for Environment and Development at Oslo University. He is one of the world’s leading scholars of religion and nature, and is the author of several important publications on the topic:  Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2009), the two volume Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature (2005), and most recently the edited collection Avatar and Nature Spirituality (2013).  He also founded the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, & Culture, which publishes a quarterly journal and invites anybody interested in these issues to join the conversation. He has also been previously interviewed by the RSP on Religion after Darwin.
The allure of speaking on behalf of a dead personality or scholar is a constant impulse among their respective followers. Every now and then questions like “what would x think about the world we live in?” or “what did x exactly meant with this argument?” are thrown in debate rooms, the political arena, or specialized conferences on the relevance of a certain scholar. And while the answers to these questions continue to fill up edited volumes, social media feeds, or inspirational quotes for the day, the accuracy of these statements remain to be proven by the very persons who uttered them in the first place. Fortunately, we are growing closer to a solution to this conundrum with the increasing development of artificial intelligence (a.i.). In this week’s podcast, Katrine Frøkjaer Baunvig discusses preliminary results from the research project “Waking the Dead”. This project aims to build an a.i. bot of Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872), a Danish “secular saint” considered to be the father of modern Denmark, who contributed immensely into generating a national consciousness through his writings, both in a political and religious way. Professor Baunvig explains how the research team went through by using the digitized works of Grundtvig with machine learning, into developing and algorithm and training it with the whole work corpus. Then they used word embedding to build semantic networks -a sort of conceptual blueprint for outlining Grundtvig’s worldview- and contextualized them using digitized newspapers of the time when he was alive. The expected result is to place the a.i. Grundtvig bot inside a look-alike robot that can interact with people in public settings such as the Danish National Museum by September 2022, the year of his 150th deathday. The anthropological, sociological and philosophical reflections these future interactions with the public will be of much interest once we find out what people have to say about the accuracy of thought of this “resurrected” Danish thinker, but also, what this version of “Grundtvig” has to say about the current state of affairs of Danish society, and the world overall. Regardless of the result, one thing is for sure, both sides will honor Grundtvig’s idea of the “living word”: using the spoken act of communication as the best means to convey each other’s ideas. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more. When Archive Meets A.I.: Computational Humanities Research on a Danish Secular Saint Podcast with Katrine Frøkjær Baunvig (7 October 2019). Interviewed by Sidney Castillo Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Audio and transcript available at Sidney Castillo (SC): So, we are here at the EASR conference in Tartu, Estonia. And we are just moving around between different conferences! Today is the third day. We are tired, but very happy. And I’m also happy to have Katrine Baunvig here at the Religious Studies Project. Welcome, Katrine! Katrine Baunvig (KB): Thank you so much for having me. SC: Thanks, as well, for coming with us. And if you will be so kind as to introduce yourself, so we know a little bit about what you do? KB: Yes, of course. I am an Associate Professor at Aarhus University, where I am the director for the Grundtvig Study Centre. Yeah. And my background is that I’m an historian of religions. I did a PhD thesis on this guy, this Danish guy, Grundtvig, and his thoughts on social cohesion. And I compared these thoughts with the ones found in the collected writings of Emile Durkheim. SC: Excellent. So it’s quite a broad work. Perfect. So let’s just dive right into the questions. First, I think, to give a broader perspective of how digital humanities works, I will ask: how can the digital humanities aid in the study of religion? KB: Well, that’s a really broad question! SC: Sorry about that! KB: No, no! They are usually great to think with. So what can they aid? They can aid with a multitude of methods handling already known data sets, and they can produce new kinds of data. That would be my take. Yeah. Actually I kind of prefer to . . . I don’t use the term “digital humanities” so much, as I prefer to speak of “computational humanities”. Because, in a certain sense, digital humanities already have gone into . . . . Well it’s like that with all fields of scholarship in their formative states, that they struggle to find the correct terms and produce new ones all the time. So for me, at least, digital humanities can signal anything from philosophical reflections, to what the consequences are for us, as a species, that we now have to deal with The Digital – sort-of with capital letters. So, for me, what I do and what we do at the Grundtvig Study Centre, is that we have digitalised the entire writings of Grundtvig – and I hope to get a chance to expand on who he was and why it is relevant to digitise his work – but we have now a digitised corpus of his writings. We scanned . . . OCR scanned and made HTML markup, so it’s in a really good quality. And therefore we can do different kinds of computational investigations into this corpus. And that is what we do. SC: Excellent. So I stand corrected: computational humanities. The more precise, the better! So speaking about Grundtvig, who was Niclolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, and why do you think the preservation of his works is important for Danish society? KF: Yeah. Well, Nicolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig – a really long and hard to pronounce name – he was and is, in the Danish self-understanding, on the one hand a nation builder or a founding father perhaps, and on the other hand a church father of a sort. He was born in 1783 and died in 1872. And that was a really, really important period of time in the Danish national history. This was the period where the nation went from . . . well, if you accept the idea of a long Middle Age period, you could say that he died on the eve of the Middle Ages. He died during, or just before, the feudal structures of Denmark collapsed. Well he was born, sorry, he was born just before these structures collapsed and then he died just when Denmark entered into Modernity. That is the general narrative on Grundtvig and that is the understanding of the nineteenth century in Denmark. And then he was active, within all of the domains, in change in Denmark. So he was active as a pastor: he was a priest and a kind of theologian. And then he was very much influenced by the Romantic Movement, and sort-of rebooted, or went along with, the idea that the Old Norse mythology had to be revived within the Danish population. One of the ideas of his was that you had to make a sort-of social content, preparing people for feeling connected with the overall idea of “the people”. Because we now had this new governmental structure, democracy, and his idea was that you had to install responsibility and feelings of love in the population. So it was a nationalist logic. You have to get the people to really feel responsible for the broad spectrum of Denmark if we are to make this democracy work. So, in that sense, he was politically engaged and mythologically engaged. And he wrote quite a deal, and reflected quite a deal on pedagogical stuff, didactic stuff: how to get people to know of their cultural heritage, and how to make them want to engage with it and feel connected to it. So he was also an architect behind a new kind of educational form, or in a sense that is what we now say. Many other agents and men, mainly, were really influential in that movement. But now, today, his name is also connected with this loose and kind of lax form of education that you call folk high schools. That’s a phenomenon still living and alive in Denmark, and other places around the world. So, in that sense, Grundtvig is seen as a very important person during this period when the modern Denmark was created. And you can see that amongst politicians in Denmark today. So when they want to signal that they know stuff about Danish history, and at the same time sort-of signal that they’re liberal, they can quote Grundtvig. And they tend to do so in the public media, oftentimes. And furthermore Grundtvig is a central name within the manifestos of every political party within Danish parliament, except one. So, in that sense, he is seen as a founding father for almost every politician . . . every part of the political spectrum in Denmark. So, in that sense, a non-controversial figure that everybody seems to agree is “our guy”! One more example of this is perhaps the centre where I’m the director – the Grundtvig Study Centre. We are governmentally funded and the main task is to digitise his entire works. And that is a thing that politicians can agree upon as a worthy task, and using money for this task. And it is actually quite expensive. So, in that sense, money talks here! And says that Grundtvig is important for Denmark. He’s such an important figure that we want to spend money on digitising this work. SC: Definitely, yes. And I can imagine that he’s also present in the mind of the people in everyday life, as a cultural reference? KB: He’s a cultural reference. There are certain spheres where Grundtvig is more relevant than others. So we have cultural strands, we have one movement or . . . I struggle to find the correct term. But we call it Grundtvigianism: a movement driven by the ideas of Grundtvig. And what I forgot to mention was that Grundtvig was also a grand author of hymns, a composer of hymns. So, I kid you not, he wrote sixteen hundred hymns! And two hundred and fifty of them now constitute one third of the Danish hymnbook in the Danish folk church . . . the Danish church. So people know about, or know of him. I’m not quite sure whether, for the broad population, he’s important in everyday life, as such. But when you discuss cultural heritage, and democracy, and liberal stances, and tolerance within the church and stuff like that, Grundtvig is sort-of seen as a gravitational point, or something along those lines, yes. SC: Excellent. Now, delving into your research, I would like to ask you, what was the procedure to developing the Grundtvig AI? Because there is one! KB: Yes! Because there is one, or we’re building one! So the idea . . . this is actually a bit of fun! SC: (Laughs). KB: We are just teasing around with what to do with all this material! And, as a sort of branding strategy, we decided that we would resurrect Grundtvig as an artificial intelligence on the day of his 150th death day, or what have you, in September 2022. So we have quite some time. There is still time. So first of all we are almost done with the construction of a chatbot. It’s based on the idea of recurrent neural network systems. So we built a chatbot and the idea was . . . I can develop that or expand that, but the overall idea was to take this chatbot and then put it into an actual robot. So that it’s a physical robot who looks like Grundtvig – he was really spooky and people will recognise him as this gloomy, old, bearded man in black! And we want to do an actual physical robot that looks like Grundtvig, so that people can interact with him. And perhaps he can, I don’t know, give a sermon, give a speech in parliament? Yeah. So we’re really excited about this project. But in a certain sense we’re just teasing around with the possibilities of this digital data. But I’m really looking forward to seeing the reactions to this resurrection, and how the different cultural reactions would be when it is possible to engage with Grundtvig as an artificial intelligence. And perhaps I should now expand a bit on how we sort-of built it? So what we do is . . . . Let me just sort-of try not to get into all the acronyms! So the basic is that we have used machine learning. We train an algorithm on . . . first of all we take the Grundtvig corpus and train it on that. So the aim is to have users interacting with Grundtvig or the Grundtvig intelligence or what have we. And the corpus consists of what amounts to thirty-seven thousand standard pages. If you had to read through them it is in fact possible, but people turn out weird when they do so. So . . . SC: (Laughs). KB: So I really prefer not to . . . I like to pick specific bits, and then read through them. But no, just kidding. And that is only his published writings that we use. But we take that as a beginning point. But it is in fact, in this context, a really small data set. So we have to train the algorithm on relevant, other relevant stuff. So we are in fact very lucky that the Danish Royal Library has digitised every Danish newspaper published ever, since the late . . . I think it is 1660 or so. Yeah. So we can take the relevant nineteenth century material and the idea is that you sort-of furnish the intelligence with the period that it lived in, so to speak. And then we also have available relevant novels of the age, so we train it on that. And the idea is to find contextually relevant material, sort-of adding to the system. SC: Right. KB: Yeah. And so, of course, there are many, many problems with this! So if you have to sort-of philosophically discuss “would this be a representative of who Grundtvig really was?” – well, no! Of course it wouldn’t! It is based on not what he wrote, but what he published. And in fact Grundtvig himself was very eager to point out that there is a long way from the way you communicate with your mouth and with your hands. So he had this catch phrase, or he was really keen on the idea of the so-called “living word”. That was his term. And that was the oral communication, as the correct way, or the easiest way, to transport ideas and feelings, and stuff like that. So this idea of us taking his writings as sort-of a proxy for who he was, goes against what he would have himself . . .! SC: (Laughs). He wouldn’t agree! KB: He would not have agreed. So the hope is, because we also have outreach obligations at our centre, the hope is that people will find it interesting, and a fun thing to discuss, and then I can tell them a bit more qualified information about Grundtvig during that process. When that is said, I think it will be interesting to see how one can interact with this thing. And what will people do with it? What will they think of it? That is a sort-of anthropological observational study waiting, a few years ahead! SC: Definitely! And going back to how you proceed to develop the Grundtvig AI and your presentation at the EASR 2019: you work pretty much on this work that’s coming up all the time, “word embedding”, and how this works throughout his writings, and how this also represents his own thoughts? KB: Yeah. SC: Could you share some of your findings with us? KB: Yeah. For sure. What I presented here yesterday was an investigation that used some of the basic methods we used to construct . . . or at least the same material we used to construct the chatbot. But here we used it to embed, or deeply contextualise in a semantic network, specific key words that I, as a Grundtvig scholar, was interested in seeing the network between. And this study was, for me, interesting because I’m an historian of religions, and I’m interested in cosmologies. So I would like to see what is, in fact . . . how to tease out the worldview of Grundtvig. Can you do that with these texts? Obviously I have read a lot of them. Almost all . . . Ok, so I haven’t read all of them because you turn out, as I said, really weird when you do so. But I have read quite a lot of them. So I had an idea of what I would find. But as it turned out, it was actually really . . . . Ok, so the interesting thing is that we have this modernist figure on the one hand – that is what we think of him as in Denmark: the father of Danish modernity, as it were. And I know, because I’ve read a lot of his works, that he held a sort-of geocentric medieval worldview. Yeah. He’s really explicit on the fact that he thinks of the world, or the earth, as the centre of the universe. And uses ideas of earthly paradises, and earthly skies, and a heavenly sky with God and angels, and stuff like that. And hell – a literal idea of hell. And that was not typical in the nineteenth century for mainstream Christian thinking . . . or at least not within educated elites. And he, as a theologian, Grundtvig was one of those. And I would like to see if I could sort-of find that, visualise this fact. So what we did was to see how the key words heaven, earth and hell, how they related to each other. And we did so by using a specific approach called ELMo. And the idea is that you take, for each key word, ten associations. The ten nearest associations at sentence level. So you go through the total corpus and see . . . if I’m interested in heaven in which way and – how to say this? Which other words does this significantly cling to, through the corpus? SC: That you will find tied in with this, in the corpus? KB: Yes exactly. What is the semantic context of this word? So we call that a cap. Then we had three caps, or three associations for each association, to sort-of see, how do these words that you find clinging to heaven, how does this integrate into their semantic network? And I did that for three key words and then collapsed the networks and see how they integrate, to then have a semantic network of these different spheres. And the interesting thing from that is that you can take this analysis and then, from that, gather or see there arising semantic clusters within the network. And the very interesting finding here was that there is a clearly demarked cluster for sort-of earthly surroundings. Or you have earth in the centre and then you have a semantic cluster of things going from the earthly sphere and the earthly sky and then you have a sort-of earthly paradise – words signalling earthly paradise. And then you have a nether world, kind of thing, connected to death, but on earth. And then you have an entirely different cluster in the network that is ontologically seen further from earth than the first one. That one has to do with heaven and hell. So you can sort-of see that the clusters surround the earth in a way that it would do if you have geocentric worldviews. The earth is sort-of the centre and then you have the other spheres interacting around it. And in order to situate, or to furnish this investigation I found it necessary to take each key word and see how they perform without, not within, the network. So can I sort-of word-embed them for themselves, and see if there is something dragging it in a specific direction? And what I found was that one of the interesting findings here was that earth, in Grundtvig’s writings, is a thing preserved for, or a place thought of in biblical terms, in archaic style, biblical style or in Old Norse style. So you think of the earth as a tent: this Semitic idea embedded in the Bible, in the Old Testament, of the world as a tent. Or there is this idea of the world as God’s footrest, also an idea from the Bible. And finally, one example more could be the idea of the world as Ymir the Old Norse god, whose corpse was made into the earth. So it is an extremely non-scientific, non-naturalistic kind of way of speaking or writing about life on earth. And from there we could sort-of feel secure or have the idea that Grundtvig, in that sense, could be said to be a representative of a medievalist. . . . Medievalism as such, as a cultural stream or flow within the nineteenth century, was rather prominent. And in this way, Grundtvig’s worldview could be seen within that context. Yes. SC: And it’s quite good way of plotting his thought to implement the AI, as well – it crossed my mind. My last question is one thing that you addressed as a consequence of the previous question: what does the Grundtvig AI imply for the creation of Grundtvig’s legacy in the current day imaginary? I think that’s a very interesting question because, as you said, when people are going to interact with the AI, something is going to happen! KB: Yes. I’m really not sure! (Laughs). I’m really not sure what is going to happen. I think that there will be some, you know, Grundtvig enthusiasts – and these are mainly old people – they will be quite angered or, yes . . . . At least, I hope so! I hope that it will be something that you could have the opportunity to have a debate in the public media about. But I think that, for others, it would be just a fun fact that now you can try to engage with this collection of writings in another way. But I’m interested in just observing the idea of agency – because it’s a robot looking like Grundtvig – what that does to the whole thing. I’m really not sure. I’m really not sure. As it happens we’re really happy that the Danish National Museum has agreed to host him, as it were. So when the robot is to be . . . or when Grundtvig is to be artificially revived, he will have a home at the Danish National Museum and you can visit him in his office. And you can go and ask him questions: “What’s up with the living word?” and the ideas of the folk high school. And then we hope that he will perform, and answer in ways that are sort-of sensible. Because that is, of course, what is almost . . . that will be very interesting for us to see how well we can make him respond. I think we’re in luck that he was from the nineteenth century, and in order to get some authenticity we have to make him a bit weird and archaic. But it is also a fact that almost everyone who knows of Grundtvig will know that he was, himself, really weird, and polemic, and colourful, and – in a certain sense – culturally, a bit off-beat. That was how he was conceived within his time. And so, if the robot doesn’t perform closely to human interaction skills we can tell the story about the weird guy Grundtvig! SC: He was like that! (Laughs). KB: He was like that! He was awkward, and off-beat, and stuff like that, yeah. But so I would like to have a better answer to your good question. But I am just not sure! SC: Sure. I think we’ll have to see in 2022? KB: Yes. I hereby invite you to come and see what happens! SC: Thank you so much Katrine – and not only what people think about the Grundtvig AI, but also what the Grundtvig AI will think about the current state of society! KB: Precisely! SC: I think that will be also interesting anthropological, philosophical . . . KB: Well, yes. Now you’ve mentioned it yourself, that is one thing that many politicians, and scholars, or people engaging in the public debates of Denmark tend to do. Only last week I heard a scholar from the University of Southern Denmark proclaiming that if Grundtvig was alive today, he would have voted for Trump! SC: Oh, Wow! KB: Yeah. (Laughs). So those types of proclamations or suggestions can now be tested! (Laughs). “Would you . . .?” SC: We’ll have to do another podcast in 2022. KB: Yeah. And we will ask Grundtvig. You can interview him! SC: We will interview him next time! (Laughs). That would be bizarre and fun at the same time! KB: (Laughs). SC: Well Katrine it’s very nice to have you here and we hope to see you again in the future. KB: I hope to get the opportunity to introduce you to the Grundtvig robot. Thank you so much for having me. SC: Thank you, as well, for being part of the RSP.     All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.
Within modern American society the meme of a separation of Church and State exists without a doubt; however, there is very little evidence to actually prove that this separation exists, functions as such, or indeed that it ever existed. In the textbooks, popular news outlets and in the political arena religion is supposed to be wholly withheld-expelled in favor of majority rule. However, when we turn our attention to state-managed organizations such as the federal prisons or state forest services or support for military veterans, we find that the lines are blurred. With an eye to this seemingly ironic phenomenon Winnifred F. Sullivan presented a lecture entitled “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular” at Arizona State University as part of the ASU Center for Religion and Conflict’s lecture series. Excerpted from her upcoming book of the same title, Sullivan considers the oversight, regulation and licensure of religious chaplains within the American Veterans’ Administration, as well several other governmental and on-governmental institutions. In this interview with Chris Duncan (Arizona State University), the discussion centers predominantly on the world in which many chaplains come to find themselves due to a “new kind of religious universalism”; from having to be prepared to minister across the borders of their own religious traditions, as in the case of a Catholic chaplain being required to assist Jewish or otherwise non-Catholic practitioners in a federal prison or a chaplain working with the state of Maine Warden Service. Sullivan asks whether we really have a separation of the Church and the State, how do we insure that everyone’s religious needs are being met within secular institutions like the Veterans’ Administration, and how does the State license and approve of applicants to the chaplaincy- how does, should, could an ostensibly secular federal organization approve or disapprove of religious ministers within its ranks. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our or link to support us when buying your important books etc. Sullivan is the Department Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington as well as Affiliate Professor of Law in the Maurer School of Law at the same institution. She holds both a J.D. and a PhD. from the University of Chicago and is the author of  Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States (Harvard 1994), The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton 2005), and Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution (Princeton 2009).
As one of the earliest forms of Personality Assessment, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator or MBTI was first formally published in 1942 by Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers. Inspired by the theoretical richness of Carl Jung, the MBTI explored and celebrated the differences of people regarding their behavior. The structure of the MBTI makes the assumption that behavior is innate in various forms and that people have dominate and – in some theories of personality – recessive behaviors which are automatic and inherent. Psychological Type theory has four sets of binary choices related to personality. Those are two orientation types defined as extraversion and introversion, two perceiving functions described as sensing and intuition, two judging functions defined as thinking and feeling and two attitudinal perspectives described as judging and perceiving. These four binary choices produce sixteen possible personality types. Research has explored a variety of perspectives regarding personality type particularly in exploration of the intersections and division of innate characteristics from socially conditioned characteristics. Even more, some research has shown that some recessive binary opposites emerge within adverse environmental conditions indicating a much more dynamic nature to Personality Type than originally thought in earlier academic literature. Personality Type Theory and Psychometrics has become a popular mainstay in a variety of academic and applied disciplines. Certainly one can find the MBTI in use in a variety of settings from medical to education. Psychology certainly has benefited from the application of Personality Type in a variety of ways. The field of Psychology of Religion is no exception. Certainly one can find continued focus and utility in the extensive works of scholars such as Leslie J. Francis at the University of Warwick in the U.K., Mandy Robbins at Glyndŵr University in Wrexham, UK as well as Christopher F. J. Ross at Wilfrid Laurier University and others who find depth and exploration in the recondite study of psychology of religion. This podcast features Christopher Silver speaking with Mandy Robbins. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our link to support us when buying your important books etc. Certainly the field of Personality Type is not without detractors. As the field of psychometrics becomes increasing complex so too are the arguments against classic and traditional measures. Within some circles of psychology and psychology of religion in particular, personality type has met with recent scrutiny in comparison to other theories of personality such as the Big Five. Concerns over issues of statistical validity and measurable complexity come to mind. Many of those who fall within the Big Five camp regarding trait versus type theory find fault or concern with the binary structure of MBTI. Moreover, many of the detractors certainly have a valid argument as the data of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator functions much differently than more recent parametric measures such as the Big Five Domain. The Big Five domain has at the heart of its psychometric assumption the expectations of parametric normality meaning the data plots within a ubiquitous bell curve structure. For the MBTI especially in traditional forms of the assessment, certainly the data was either dichotomously based or in some forms percentage of agreement based (where analysis requires a nonparametric alternative such as Chi-Square). Based on these observations many psychometric theorist assumed the MBTI was not psychometrically valid as an assessment of personality. Certainly parametric attempts have been made to create alternative measures of personality. One of the fruitful products of Dr Francis’ work has been a measure of personality type which is scored and analyzed within parametric analysis. This research has reconfirmed the utility and usefulness of the Myers Briggs within not only within psychology but the field of psychology of religion as well. While the debate is based in the operationalization of method and analysis in many respects, those who favor the Big Five certainly miss the richness of description related to each of the sixteen personality types. Moreover, the depth of Jungian theory is lost on a newer more statistically focused generation who seeks to quantitatively measure and account for human phenomena numerically as opposed to holistically. The work of Mandy Robbins and her colleagues still hold true to concerns with grand theory and the depth of human experience. This podcast explores the work of Mandy Robbins within the field of Psychology of Religion through the use of MBTI and similar measures. She explores the complexity of individuals and how their personality type can be descriptive of the types of people who call themselves religious and/or spiritual. Mandy Robbins gained her first degree at the University of Wales, Lampeter in 1992 in Theology and Archaeology, her MPhil in Theology at Trinity College, Carmarthen in 1996, and her PhD in Theology at the University of Wales, Bangor in 2002. In 2005 she completed a post-graduate diploma with the Open University in Psychology. Mandy is also qualified as an MBTI practitioner. She worked as a junior research fellow at Trinity College, Carmarthen 1995-1999. From there she moved to the University of Wales, Bangor as teaching and research Fellow 1999-2007. In 2007 she moved to the University of Warwick as senior research fellow before moving in 2011 to Glyndŵr University as senior lecturer. She is managing editor of Rural Theology: International, ecumenical and interdisciplinary perspectives and also serves on the editorial boards of Welsh Journal of Psychology and Journal of Religious Education. Mandy’s research interests are within the field of the psychology of religion and include the beliefs and values of young people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, personality theory and clergywomen in the Church of England. Mandy’s research employs mainly quantitative methods.   Recent publications Robbins, M. (2008). Clergywomen in the Church of England: A Psychological Study. Edwin Mellen: New York, ppi-237, ISBN 978 0 7734 4948 5. Francis, L. J., Robbins,M., & Astley, J. (Eds.) (2009). Empirical Theology in Texts and Tables: Qualitative, Quantitative and Comparative Perspectives (Empirical Studies in Theology). Leiden: Brill. ISSN 1389 1189 ISBN 978 9004 16888 6 Robbins, M., Francis, L.J., Ryland, A. (2011). Do introverts appreciate the same things as extraverts within a ministry team? A study among leaders within the Newfrontiers network of churches in the United Kingdom. Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, 22, 306-314.
There’s a group on Facebook devoted to the History of Religions. Apart from a quite regularly posted Christian bible study blog that’s devoted to scriptural exegesis—and which prompts reader comments such as this recent one: It seems obvious God is a God who feels. I am imagining He grieved, felt sorry not only to see the depravity of man whom He made in His image, but of every single cell which He created, His art, His masterpiece. God as an artist experiencing the destruction and loss of it all. Every flower, creature, piece of nature which He had created GOOD. —almost all that gets posted on its wall are links to articles or announcements about the things we study: decaying scrolls found here or there, rituals practiced by this or that group, etc. Once in a while you see a link to an article on methodology—how we study things—but rarely does someone post an item related to why we study them or why our work should matter to people who don’t happen to share our focus on this piece of pottery or that ancient text. That’s because it seems that, for many if not most of us, there’s an obviousness to the things that we’re interested in, both for us, as scholars, as well as for the wider groups in which we live and shop and work: we all know they’re important because, well…, they’re important, simple as that. What’s therefore intriguing about Steven Ramey’s work is that while he, like all of us, was trained in a specific expertise related to a world religion, to fieldwork, to languages, and to texts and distant lands—he did his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the religions of south Asia, and came to the University of Alabama in 2006, after a couple years working at UNC Pembroke—over the course of his career he has gradually and smoothly made a significant shift. Of course he still studies material relevant to his earlier training, but a shift in research focus from inter-religious cooperation to diaspora religion, eventually studying south Asian communities in the U.S. south, led the way to a far broader interest not only in social theory but in the practical implications of categorization for creating identities. Now, apart from regularly blogging on wide topics in identity formation at Culture on the Edge (a research group in which he participates), he is among the few who paused when some Pew survey data came out not long ago, on the so-called “Nones” (people who responded to a questionnaire saying that they had no religious affiliation), and asked how reasonably it is for scholars to assume that an entire, cohesive social group somehow exists based on a common answer to this or that isolated question when the respondents differed so much on the rest of the survey? The point? Why do we, as scholars, think the Nones are out there and what effect does our presumption of their identity have on making it possible for others to think and act as if the Nones are real and of growing influence? It was this career arc—moving from what or how we study to why we study something, focusing on the wider theoretical interests that motivate our work with specific e.g.s and which ought to be relevant to scholars in fields far outside the academic study of religion—that prompted Russell McCutcheon to sit down with Steven, his colleague at Alabama, on a chilly day last December, to talk about Steven’s training and earlier interests but then to learn more about how a scholar who heads up our interdisciplinary minor in Asian Studies found himself at the Baltimore meeting of the American Academy of Religion inviting Americanists and sociologists to give the Nones a second thought. Thanks to Russell McCutcheon for writing this piece, and for conducting the interview. You can read a Huffington Post article by Ramey on the ‘Nones’ here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our or links to support us at no additional cost when buying your philosophical tomes etc.
Although it is more than 150 years since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species (1859), it is only in recent decades that the evolutionary paradigm has become properly elaborated. But despite the wide range of developments across archaeology and the physical sciences, evolutionary treatments of religion have remained few and far between, with most prominent ones coming from the hyper-partisan scholars of the New Atheist movement. But that situation has begun to change. Although works such as Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999) began to lay the ground for a more nuanced treatment, the publication of Robert Bellah’s groundbreaking new work, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011), signals a new era in the study of long-term religious and cultural history in which scientific, social-scientific and historical approaches can be properly brought into conversation. One of the key figures behind Bellah’s work is evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald, who spoke with Jack Tsonis at the 2013 AAR meeting in Baltimore about his paper “Ritual, Religion, and the Drama of Daily Life: The continued dominance of mimetic representation”.  In addition to an overview of Donald’s work and a discussion about ritual in the basic sense of “culturally patterned sequences of expression”, Jack also asks Professor Donald about the way that Bellah has used his ideas, which reveals a subtle but important difference in emphasis. This interview will fascinate anybody interested in the evolution of human culture, and helps to scramble the common notion that there is a clear distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” behaviour. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.
As of the late 1950’s, radical ‘Behaviorism’ was beginning to decline in lieu of cognitive-behavioral approaches. The mind was no longer a ‘black box’ that prevented us from looking inside, nor was it a ‘blank slate’ shaped solely by ones environment. Largely inspired by Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’, and a foundation laid by Alan Turing that conceived of the brain as analogous to a computer, anthropology slowly shifted from an interpretive hermeneutic endeavor, to one aimed at identifying culturally reoccurring patterns of behavior and thought (i.e. universals), and providing an explanation for these universals. This explanation was rooted not in culture itself, but within the mind. This piece of drift wood is looking at you! It was only a matter of time before a cognitive approach was applied to religion. While cognitive anthropologists such as Dan Sperber (1975) set the tone for such an approach, Dr. Stewart Guthrie was the first to offer up a “comprehensive cognitive theory of religion” (Xygalatas, 2012). In 1980 Guthrie published his seminal paper titled A Cognitive Theory of Religion. In 1993 he greatly expanded upon his earlier work and published the book Faces In The Clouds: A New Theory Of Religion further supporting “religion as anthropomorphism” (p. 177). Standing on the shoulders of giants, Guthrie’s “new theory of religion” peeked above the clouds ushering in a shift from purely descriptive levels of analysis applied to religion, to ones that also provided explanations for religion. In Stewart Guthrie’s interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Guthrie begins by outlining what it means to ‘explain religion’. He defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman events” and gives an example of this as applied to auditory and visual phenomena throughout the interview. After discussing some current support for his theory, he presents the purview of scholarship on anthropomorphism stretching back to 500 BCE. Guthrie argues for anthropomorphism as ‘the core of religious experience’ synthesizing prior thought from Spinoza and Hume and applying an evolutionary perspective situated on the concept of ‘game theory’. He draws important distinctions between anthropomorphism and Justin Barrett’s Hyper Active Agent Detection Device (HADD), a concept built from Guthrie’s theory, and departs discussing the complexities involved in understanding and researching the human tendency to attribute agency to the world around them. See the face on Mars? You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make. References Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds. New York: Oxford University Press. Guthrie, S. (1980). A cognitive theory of religion [and comments and reply]. Current            Anthropology, pp. 181–203. Sperber, D. (1975). Rethinking symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints. Bristol, CT: Equinox.
In this podcast, Ross Downing discusses personal and communal narratives, online mythology and the grey areas between religion and media with Vivian Asimos. Miss Asimos’ work has investigated the potentiality of video games as contemporary mythology in popular culture. In the broader context of BASR 2018, the overall theme of boundaries and categories is explored and the possible insights online movements can yield in the perception and application of theories of religion. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sunglasses, Gumby figurines, and more. A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below. Slenderman and Online Mythology Podcast with Vivian Asimos (4 February 2019). Interviewed by Ross Downing. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Audio and transcript available at:Asimos_-Slenderman_and_Online_Mythology_1.1 Ross Downing (RD): My name is Ross Downing, and I’m interviewing soon-to-be Dr Vivian Asimos Vivian Asimos (VA): Oh my gosh! RD: We’re at the Belfast conference, at Queens. Yes. So Vivian has a BA from South Florida University, an MA from Edinburgh and is currently doing a PhD in Durham, with a project that’s entitled “Slenderman mythos: a neo-structuralist analysis of an online mythology”. And it’s supervised by Jonathan Miles Watson. She has a forthcoming article in Implicit Religion on the term implicit mythology in relevance to the study of video games. She also runs a podcast called “Religion in Popular Culture”. Welcome. VA: Thank you. RD: So, yes. We are going to talk today about what you have just basically talked about today – which is the Slenderman. Can you explain briefly what the Slenderman is? VA: The Slenderman is a monster. So he is typically seen as a tall man in a suit – but there are small kind-of shifts to him. He lingers in the background of photographs, is said to make children disappear. He’s got very inhuman characteristics to him. And is most commonly seen without a face, although there are kind-of shifts in how he appears from image to image, and story to story. Because the nature of the stories is it’s a mass communal story-telling. So you get lots of people all telling the story in their own creative way. So you get lots of different variants. It started in 2009 and – very uncharacteristic of an online anything – it’s still kicking around. Not quite as much as it probably was in other years, but it’s still heavily present. I still hear jokes every so often, when I’m trying to not focus on my work, where they will make a joke about the Slenderman. So it’s still being kicked around. People still recognise it, despite how long it’s been, which is very uncharacteristic. Which is why I find it so interesting, you know: why has it still lingered, essentially? RD: And it’s not just another one of these on line things either, because it’s had real life connections. And is one of those few things from Creepypasta/Nosleep-type world that has actually been made into a movie right now. VA: Yes, it’s coming out soon – unfortunately not properly timed for me to actually write about it in the thesis, funnily enough. But it’s coming out soon. And there is a bit of research on the Slenderman in academia that has happened before, but very few. And most of them centre on the 2014 Wisconsin stabbings. They make those stabbings basically the central focus of their research. But, basically, what that’s doing is taking away everything that that story is doing for the community which first started it. They very much kind-of don’t like that action. They don’t like actual, physical, real-world violence. So I decided to take a completely different approach, where I don’t talk about it. I don’t approach them about it. And I just simply talk about: “What is this doing for you? Let’s talk about your community as it is, and as you understand it.” And that approach really hasn’t been taken with Creepypasta or the Slenderman, more specifically, before. RD: Yes it’s a really rich mine of data. I think you find that quite often when there is a real-world tragedy or something that grabs headlines: academics will focus on that to feed the monster, instead of looking at the richness of what lies behind it. Because often, when there’s a tragedy, it’s a peripheral thing. Is that the case there, or? VA: Yes, I mean I have been known to compare – probably an over-exaggeration, I will admit – but I have been known to compare getting questions about the stabbings as if I was presenting a paper on British Muslims in Durham. And I got the question about, “Well, what about ISIS?” Which suddenly everyone kind-of shrinks back from, and goes “Oh it’s not like it at all.” But it is. Because that’s basically a community group saying, “That action, and those people, do not represent us.” And yet you’re making them represent that community. It’s also a big problem that you see in popular culture in general, that it’s always kind-of blamed for the bad things in society. I mean, we had it with rock and roll and now it’s video games and the online environment. And who knows when it’s going to be replaced by the next element of popular culture, that’s going to be blamed for all of the bad things? So it’s just another element. But I think it’s more important for popular culture to be seen as a positive force as well as, you know, other things, as well. RD: Why do you think it’s such an enduring tale? And, for instance, why would someone want to make that into a film? A horror film? VA: It’s really interesting, because there’s a lot of Creepypastas that came before. A lot very similar, but very structured, as far as, not . . . . I’m a structuralist in the way that I approach my study: kind-of following Lévi-Strauss, but kind of shifting slightly. So, not that kind of structured, but structured in the way of how people approach the narrative is slightly different. In the sense that a lot of the Creepypastas that came before, so things like Candle Cove – which is where I should probably explain for people who haven’t spent the last four years of their life embedded in this – basically Candle Cove is this story of a bunch of people kind-of discovering that they remembered a TV show from when they were kids called Candle Cove, that doesn’t actually exist. But it was a very staged narrative of people kind-of purposely posting, in order to remember this thing, in order to unfold the narrative the way they wanted the narrative to unfold. So it’s not quite as spontaneous as the Slenderman was. That wasn’t staged. That was definitely people kind of grabbing onto something random and really building on it. Then you things like “Ben Drowned”, which is a story of a haunted Nintendo cartridge of the game the Majora’s Mask – the Zelda game. And that is, again, it’s just a person posting a story which was then shared around. And that was a Creepypasta. But again, you only have one person telling a story. You don’t have the communal kind of co-creation. And what’s interesting about the Slenderman is, while there was a Creepypasta community that existed before him, he didn’t really arise or get that community around him. He ended up drawing in a lot of other people. So as the story spread to other areas online, it actually started to spread to other community groups as well. So it started on a forum thread. But then one of the users on the forum thread wanted to make web videos in order to tell his side of the story. So he posted the link to a YouTube channel on the forum thread, and kind of posted those things. But suddenly it’s not just the forum members that are looking at those videos – and this is the Marble Hornet stories. And those became some people’s initial introduction to the Slenderman. To give away my age a little bit, I was an undergrad when I was first introduced to the Slenderman and it was through Marble Hornets, which was still coming out at the time. It was one of my friends saying, “You have to watch this! This is so creepy!” And of course I’d never heard of it before. My friend had clearly not known the background before Marble Hornets. Then there was a video game that came out. And now they’re a new introduction for people. Now you’ve got gamers that are into this story and now they’re discovering it for the first time. And so you kind of have this building of new community members. But it’s based on, basically, individual creativity. So, on the forum thread it started with one person posting and then another person was like, “Oh, that’s a cool idea!” and then took a little bit of that idea, shifted it a little bit to fit their own creativity, and posted. And that continued to go on. That led to a guy for Marble Hornets creating that. Another person looks at that web video and says, “I like that idea.” Makes his own web video that is also similar to the Slenderman. And now suddenly you’ve got multitudes of web videos that are telling the story. Then another guy says, “I like that, but I’m a video game designer, so I’m going to make a video game based on what I see in this. And so suddenly you have a bunch of different individual creativity that is all contributing to the same narrative. And it’s all seen as authentic. And it’s all seen as part of the canon, essentially. So nobody is ousted from being . . . you know, “Oh, that’s not right!” Everyone’s included in it, and it makes this kind of impromptu community, which is really fascinating. RD: It sounds a bit Darwinist as well. You know like, if there’s a really cool riff or variant on the story, the best ideas become naturally more popular and used, or applied to something. And to be able to trace that in live time, I think, is quite an exciting set of data to be able to work with. VA: It definitely draws on kind-of common threads seen in old mythology and folklore, and that kind of stuff. You see these connective threads. He’s always in the forest, for instance. Which is where a lot of the evil fairies lurk. And, in fact, some of the fake connections to old folklore of the Slenderman compared him to fairies that were in German folklore or Scottish folklore. And they actually had names for him – so it Der Grossman in German. I’m sorry for my improper pronunciation on that one! But it was somebody basically posted saying, “Oh, I heard about this, but he has the name Der Grossman and it was from my Grandmother who was German. And this is how she told me about, “Be careful of the Black Forest. And there’s this fairy that steals children.” So you get this kind-of connecting to the common elements that freak you out, essentially. It’s kind-of always there in the back of, you know, all myths and folklore. They definitely grabbed it knowingly, that this was. “Oh I know that that freaks me out so I’ll combine that with this other thing that I see.” And now we’ve got this whole new element. RD: Well, as a case study, and being able to see that and see how – not to get into you know psychology too much – but the cognitive aspect, and the means of how something goes literally viral, as if it is like a virus idea that takes over people and is used, applied, and it takes over their own creativity. Like you say, if someone’s a game designer doing a movie or something like that. I think this has broad social applications. Because if we see in your work . . . if we can see that as an example there, we can apply that to how other online religions are developing. Because these are also, in a way, brainwashing people. Because no-one can get away from the internet. If you are drawn to The Matrix because you love the films, and then you’re a little bit spiritually interested and, you know, people are doing a Matrix religion, it seems almost like certain people are being led down that . . . VA: There’s a bit of an issue with that, in the sense that, first of all I don’t like the term “viral” – which, I know! Sorry for being the person who’s like, “I don’t like that term!” But it tends to be associated, I think, with popular culture and particularly the internet, because of the sense that it makes it feel like it’s something that happens to you. But I think what’s most demonstrated by not only my case study, but a lot of other people’s case studies, that happen online, is that it’s people actually taking control. So it’s not that something’s taking control of them, it’s them taking this and saying, “I’m going to put my own creativity on this.” And it’s an agency that I think the word viral strips away. And I think connected to that is the sense of . . . . Particularly in the academic study of religion, I think that it’s very easy to look at the big kind of . . . I don’t know how to put this. Like, basically, you look at the things that you can clearly point to and say “That’s a religion. And I’m going to talk about that.” And with hyperreal religions, things like Jediism: that’s something that’s happening with people going, “That’s pop culture becoming a religion, I’ll talk about that.” And I think it’s really important to talk about . . . . I don’t want to . . . I do think it has its place. However, what’s missing, then, is the middle ground. So you have the people who aren’t interested in popular culture at all. And then you have these extreme interested members. But you don’t have to write Jediism on a census record to have Star Wars mean something to you. And there’s a really weird middle ground. So for me, what I’ve always found fascinating about the study of religion in general – even when I wasn’t doing pop culture – and what I’ve really grabbed onto in pop cultural studies, is that grey area between religion and non-religion. Where it’s incredibly hyper-meaningful, and might be religion, but might not be all at the same time. Where is that cross-section? What is religion? When you look at it that way. . . . And basically, what it ends up being is: when does something go from hyper-meaningful to banal, or backwards? When is it something that you have on in the background, because you think it’s fun, and when is it something that you think about constantly, you’re reminded of in your everyday life, and you get tattoos of it, and you think about it? My Masters was on the Legend of Zelda, the video game. And there was somebody who had a tattoo of the Triforce on their arm. And they told me . . . . So for people, I guess, who don’t know: the Triforce is three triangles and they’re made up of the ideas of power, wisdom and courage, which is found in the world. But, basically, the myth ends up being that essentially the perfect person who can touch this item from the gods, the Triforce, is someone who has equal parts power, wisdom and courage. So this person, when they had the tattoo they described it as a way as whenever something . . . they were having an issue in life, or maybe they were starting to get angry about something that they felt they shouldn’t get angry about, or you know when you have those times in life? And they would look at it and they would remember about how the ideal person has power wisdom and courage. Now they would never put Hylian on a census record, associate themselves with that kind of religion. But that’s interesting. That’s them changing their identity and their way of living in this world, based on a video game that they played. That’s what I find interesting. RD: And this materially allows Religious Studies scholars to talk about the meaning of religion, sui generis, or the theory of religion: how does it work? What is it? Can we say that it is one thing, or that it is separate from culture? And with the internet you’ve got these online cultures now. It’s almost like the internet is as a weird a concept, as slippery a concept as religion is. To put these things together, online religion, or religiosity online, or non-religion on line, it’s . . . VA: It gets very tricky, very fast! RD: Right. Sure. VA: Which is why I think I’m almost more solid by being in an incredibly grey area! Because I can be like, “Well, I don’t know!” But it’s very fascinating in that sense. And I think it really demonstrates how the public . . . . I talked about this, I guess, in my talk: the way that Slenderman mythology is built of religious literacy. And I think there’s often, there’s this almost implicit thought that the public is very religiously illiterate. And yet in 2009, somewhere on a comedy forum post was talking about the concept of a tulpa – which, I don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t know what a tulpa was in 2009. So the fact that . . . I mean, that’s an incredible knowledge that’s right there. And then they’re using it in this way of, basically, perpetuating an online myth. RD: Yes. I mean it’s like organic plebeians, non-scholars, organically working with Religious Studies, or Religious Studies questions. VA: Exactly. RD: And trying to make sense of these things. I mean that’s one of the nice things, I suppose, about the internet, that it can actually produce. But one of the things in connection to that, I think it was a phrase “apophatic theology” that you mentioned in your talk. And I feel stupid, but I’m not really sure what that means. It sounds Greek! VA: You shouldn’t feel stupid. I learned about it while doing that research. So, I’m not a theologian by any stretch of the imagination. So it was new being in a theological section, trying to read up on this very . . . breadth of theological discourse of apophatic theology. Which is, I think the Greek for . . . there’s a less Greek version . . . but it’s just “negative theology”. Which is, basically, that the human brain or mind – I’m not sure which way they see it – cannot properly know God, or know what God is, or how God thinks, or anything about God. So, essentially, what that’s doing is kind-of saying, “Well, we can’t really know this, because it’s too beyond us, it’s too supernatural, it’s too other-worldly. Which I think in a very Christian context – a least from the bits that I read, I’m sure some theologian might disagree with me, but whatever – at least the small bits that I read, the theological stance on it is almost slightly positive, in the sense of being like: “Oh, God is so beyond us! But we’ll just leave it to him”, kind-of-a-thing. And to see it twisted. . . . So, in the Slenderman stuff they start talking about how the Slenderman is beyond our comprehension. And he doesn’t change from image to image – it’s that we see him differently because our human mind cannot actually comprehend of him. And suddenly you have that kind of negative theology, but on a monster who steals children and causes violence! And so, suddenly, this whole idea is completely twisted to a different way of understanding, which I find really fascinating. So, suddenly, it’s not “Oh, it’s all great.” It’s an “Oh shit!” – Oh sorry! Can I say that? RD: (Laughs) I think so! VA: (Laughs) I’m not on my own podcast anymore! But it is kind of like that moment. And it’s . . . I compare it to Lovecraft’s idea of Cosmic Fear, with his ancient ones and Cthulu and stuff, it’s also very Non-Euclidean geometry. And how we can’t actually see him. We can’t actually comprehend of his full figure, because it’s not of us. RD: It sounds very Judaic to me. You know, like the burning bush and the Holy Spirit, the way that theological texts in Judaism have talked abouthow God is there, but he’s like a disembodied voice, or something. And the other thing with Judaism as well is the theology. I mean it has a really rich, perhaps one of the ultimate theology religions. And this idea that, you know, you wrestle with God to try and understand him. And it’s a constant battle with faith. I think that ties in here with these people inventing something, talking about the supernatural or the numinous. But what struck me is that these people aren’t wrestling with God, they’re wrestling with the Devil. It’s a theology about a devil, right? VA: Yes. RD: And that’s really weird! VA: It is! That’s what I find so interesting about it. Because it’s not something that you see all the time. And yet it makes sense, in a way. There is this kind of sense of “good versus evil”. But in a lot of these stories there’s not the good. There’s just the “versus evil”! And there’s very few of the stories that actually mentioned religion in any way. Or at least the religion that people would conceive of . . .your big “isms” in the world. And one of them was directly talking about Christianity, in a sense that in order to escape the Slenderman they ran into a church. But they still got him. Because the whole idea is that there is no safety, not even in religion, not even in Christianity. This can still get you. Which is a very almost atheistic understanding of religion. And yet, they’re so knowledgeable about these different kind of religious concepts and theologies. And it’s that knowledge that, I think, makes it so good. (Laughs) It makes it such a good myth because it’s not just kind-of a good story, it’s a good story founded on real fears, and ideas, and concepts, and theories that people struggle with on a regular basis. RD: Right. And it’s willing suspension of disbelief. You know, I think you mentioned that on . . . was it Creepypasta or Nosleep, one of these forums. What they call, technically, a sub on Reddit. VA: Yes. I think I know what you’re talking about, No Sleep had it, yes. RD: Ok so what was the quote, now? VA: It was a rule on . . . RD: “Everything is true here, even if it’s not.” VA Yeah it’s a rule on the subreddit. So you have to post in character. Which, basically, means you have to post as if the story’s true. And all the stories are in first person. So it’s all: “This really happened to me”; this is my experience. But they’re all very crazy. And you know the same kind of idea: monsters, and weird deaths, and people disappearing, and. you know, horror that you would find. . . . . But it’s all in first person, and it’s all talked about as if . . . . And all of that also extends to the comments. So you can’t just say, “Oh that was a really good story.” You have to be like, “Oh, are you ok?” And, “Update us with this.” And, “Have you looked into this aspect?” You have to talk about it as if it’s really happening. And in their rules on the site it’s about that. They say “Everything is true here, even if it isn’t.” RD: Wow. VA: Which I think is just the best way to sum up most of Creepypasta communication. Which is this in-character way of talking. RD: It seems almost like when people are participating in this, and they’re writing, it sounds almost like a ritual. You go back to the classic Durkheim or something, where if we’re talking about, maybe this as a myth – you referred to that in your articles, mythology and myth – and if that’s a ritual, you know, by participating in this, “I’m willing to . . . . We know it’s not real, but by this ritual we’re somehow engaging with this myth.” So it reinforces the power of the myth. And everyone can share in that. It’s very much a strong community vibe there. So it feels almost like . . . it does almost what religions do. VA: Yes. It’s a sense of embodiment – I always feel weird talking about that, because anytime I see embodiment in anything else, they keep talk about actual bodies. But it’s like, “Well, but you can also embody something just sitting in front of your computer!” Because this is what’s happening. They’re embodying it in their online speech. But yes, there’s quite a lot of kind-of twisting of these things. And I tend to not like to use the word religion, like: “This is a religious thing.” But I do find that a lot of the communities – and not just the Creepypasta communities, but some of the other pop culture groups that I end up doing side-projects or other research with – tend to use religious language, but not the word religion. So I went to a fan convention which I was supposed to get stuff on horror video games for my thesis and it didn’t work out. But while I was there, they kept talking about the travel there as if it was a pilgrimage. So they’re using that language. And some of them even used the word pilgrimage and yet if I was to say, “This is a religion.” They’d be like, “Oh no it’s not!” Which is where I think that grey area is very important, where they’re able to use some of the language. I don’t know if they would use the word ritual? That might be one step too much. But they use the word myth very openly. And I don’t know if that’s because of the common parlance of the word myth having been quite destroyed, in a way that ritual really hasn’t happened yet. So maybe that’s why they’re more comfortable using it. But then some people are more comfortable using pilgrimage, which hasn’t quite gotten to that point. So it’s interesting to see that they use certain aspects that they’re comfortable with, but certain that they’re not. RD: Well there’s this . . . . If we see that as a kind of almost a religion, or doing what a religious community does, one of the eighteenth or nineteenth century-type ways of seeing or theorising religion is somehow helping a community. It’s quite Freudian, I suppose: helping people cope, relieve stress, heal, that kind of thing. Do you think that this community is . . . Are people helping each other, or are they trolling each other? What’s going on? Are they just playing around and they don’t really care about each other? VA: It’s hard to tell with the kind of older forums, because obviously that’s a lot more of a historical study than an anthropological one. Because if I’m looking back at something that happened in 2009 it’s hard to chase these people back up and say, “Well what were you thinking almost 10 years ago?” They’re not going to remember, even if I could find them. So that’s more of a guessing game. But I think for them, very early on, it was a community exercise of just . . . it was fun, but it was an exercise of “You know”. Especially very early on it was, “I know the Slenderman.” And I see that, and someone else might not see it, and I’m “in the know”, because I’ve seen it and I know it. And it ends up kind-of combining people together in that aspect. Later on, the horror story telling online has shifted. And it’s still in the middle of shifting, which is where my research has gotten this very strange . . . . I wish I could end on a more solid, “And this is it!” note. But it hasn’t quite gotten there yet. It’s shifted to the much less free expression. That sounds like it’s negative. I don’t mean it in that way, but in the sense that there’s not as much of the community involvement. There’s a lot more attachment to author, which there wasn’t earlier on. And that’s not to say that that’s a bad thing. It’s just shifting things. RD: It’s moulding the whole . . . VA: Yes. And as the internet evolves, obviously these groups were going to evolve. It’s just the nature of things. They were the ones that I was able to talk to the most. Because they were the ones currently doing things. So when I talked to them there was a lot more emphasis on what the process of story writing was doing for them. And a lot of it was help. A lot of it was talking about . . . quite a few of them talked about trauma that they experienced much earlier on in their life. And how writing horror actually helped them cope. Because essentially, and this is my theory on it – they didn’t say this directly, so I’m not going to put words into their mouth, this is my theory – is that it’s because they now have the agency over the trauma. They’re not in control of the violent actions. And one person even said that it keeps them from having violent actions against themselves, through writing. RD: Right. VA: And this is where, when I’m coming back to the whole thing with the stabbings, and how everyone kind-of centres this discussion on it, they’re completely missing that out. RD: Yes, that data . . . VA: They’re missing out these people that need this, in a sense, in a very positive way. And the fact that I very much expected – as a woman, going to do research online – to be kind-of hit with a lot of very negative attacks. It never happened. I went into the community. They were hesitant at first, but only because they didn’t want me to be writing anything negative about them. They didn’t want me to be writing this article about, “Look how terrible this community is!” So they were very hesitant at first. And I had to, basically, give them my PhD proposal again. Essentially, really laid it out to them, really explained exactly what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. Suddenly they opened up. And they opened up very openly! The very first one I got after that was someone telling me about childhood trauma and abuse. And so that was an immediate opening up. RD: Fantastic! VA: Yes. And they’re all very supportive. And I think that’s because of the fact that they all recognise it for what it is – which is this sense of help. And “If you need this help, I’m going to help you get better at this thing that helps you.” RD: Right. VA: And so, it’s a very kind community. It’s probably one of the kindest I’ve been to and done research with – despite what they’re talking about, and what I read when I’m not talking to them! Which is fascinating! But yes, it’s definitely a very beneficial practice, I think, for people. RD: It definitely . . . . Even though just to lay it out and say, “There’s this thing called Slenderman.” Most people would say “Well, that’s not really religion” But what you just said there, that’s what the Scientologists do in clearing. So you tell the auditor your trauma, and then you relive it enough times to desensitise yourself. So that you’re free of what you’ve been through. And these people are doing that for each other, themselves, and using Slenderman as that vehicle to release pressure, I suppose. VA: Yes. There’s a lot of similarity, I think. And that’s where again, this grey area. . . . . I like to say that this Slenderman really lives in grey areas. That’s where he thrives is in these grey areas. And that’s it. It’s the grey area between religion and non-religion. None of these people that I talk to would ever say, “Oh yes. This is religious to me.” And I would never say that they said that, by any means. But the way they use it is very similar to the way that other people use religion. The way they talk about it is sometimes very similar – not all the time but sometimes – especially when they’re playing and they’re in character, they’re embodying it. Suddenly it takes on this other . . . now it stretches a little bit further into it. And that’s what’s so . . . . It’s almost like they’re playing with religion, in that sense. And that’s where these kinds of religious concepts that build the myth, like apophatic theology, like the tulpa, building it using these religious concepts. They’re, essentially, not just playing with the Slenderman and making it better. They’re also going: “Well, let’s talk about tulpas! What do you think about tulpas? Let’s play with this idea a bit. Let’s stretch this idea. Is this something that’s cool?” And essentially playing with religion. (Laughs). RD: That statement had a satisfying finality. I think you’ve nailed it, there! So thank you, Vivian Asimos. VA: Thank you for having me. Citation Info: Asimos, Vivian and Ross Dowling. 2019. “’Slenderman and Online Mythology”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 4 February 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 13 January 2019. Available at: If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.
Restrictions on religion rose around the globe in 2016, according to Pew Research Center’s annual study of global restrictions on religion. The share of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose, but the share of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of social hostilities involving religion remained stable. In total in 2016, 83 countries (42%) had high or very high levels of overall restrictions on religion – whether resulting from government actions or from hostile acts by private individuals, organizations and social groups–up from 80 (40%) in 2015 and 58 (29%) in 2007. In this podcast, we speak with Dr. Katayoun Kishi, who oversaw the ninth in a series of reports by Pew Research Center analyzing the extent to which governments and societies around the world impinge on religious beliefs and practices. We discuss the findings of the report as well as methodology for collecting and analyzing data. Dr. Kishi summarizes findings for different regions of the world–including the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East and North Africa–and she explains long-term trends evident from Pew’s reports. To measure global restrictions on religion in 2016–the most recent year for which data are available–the study ranks 198 countries and territories by their levels of government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion. The new study is based on the same 10-point indexes used in the previous studies. Scholars interested in the dataset can download it for free at You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Koosh balls, pogs, and more. A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below. A Global Study on Government Restrictions and Social Hostilities Related to Religion Podcast with Katayoun Kishi (3 December 2018). Interviewed by Benjamin P. Marcus. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Audio and transcript available at: Kishi_-_A_Global_Study_of_Government_Restrictions_and_Social_Hostilities_Related_to_Religion_1.1   Benjamin Marcus (BM): My guest today is Dr Katayoun Kishi, a research associate at Pew Research Centre. She oversees the Centre’s Annual Study on Global Restrictions on Religion. Her previous work has included research on topics such as identity politics and religion, international conflict, survey research and food security. Before joining Pew Research Centre, Kishi held a position at the United States Institute of Peace. She earned a doctorate in Government and Politics with a concentration on Comparative Politics and Quantitative Methodology from the University of Maryland. Today, we’ll be discussing Pew’s 9th Annual Report analysing the extent to which Governments and societies around the world impinge on religious beliefs and practices. The studies are part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation. Hello Dr Kishi, and welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’d like to begin by asking: are government restrictions on religion and social hostilities related to religion increasing or decreasing? And I suppose we should also ask how you define those terms? Katayoun Kishi (KK): Well, thanks so much for having me. I think I will start by answering your question with a “Yes” and “No”! And it might be helpful for me to first answer the second question, about how we define government restrictions and social hostilities. So, government restrictions are a wide variety of measures that we can look at in terms of how national governments and local governments might infringe religious beliefs and practices. These might be through policies and laws, but it might also be through actions like harassment or discrimination against religious groups. On the social side, we want to look at things entirely sort-of separately from government actors. So, social groups, individuals, even religious groups themselves and how they interact with religious groups in the country. So here we look at things like terrorism, conflict in the country, mob violence involving religion, even tensions between religious groups themselves. So, to answer your question about whether government restrictions are increasing, the answer is “Yes”. In 2016 – the latest year that we have data – we found that 28% of countries fell into our top two categories of government restriction. So they had either very high levels or high levels of government restrictions on religion. And that was an increase from 25% of countries the year before. Now when we look at social hostilities there was actually no real change. So 27% of countries fell in those top two categories, but 27% of countries fell into those categories in 2015 as well. So while we saw sort-of stagnant levels of social hostilities around the world, we saw a slight increase in government restrictions. Now something to point out, though, is that we look at 198 countries round the world each year. And 28% of those fell into the very high categories for government restrictions. That means a large subset fell into low or moderate levels of government restrictions. And the same thing happens with social hostility. So that gives you a little bit of context in terms of how many countries fall into the very high levels and the countries people were concerned about. But also, keep in mind that a very large share of the world’s countries actually have low to moderate levels of government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion. BM: And when you read the report, what becomes clear is these aren’t small countries that are in the high to very high levels of . . . . Can you talk about: what are these countries and what percentage of the population, broadly, are falling under countries that have high to very high restrictions on religion? KK: Yes, that’s a good question. A lot of the countries that are in these categories are actually the most populous in the world. So places like India: India had the highest levels of social hostilities of any country in the world in 2016. Places like China had the highest levels of government restrictions on religion in 2016. So when you look at all of the countries that have very high or high levels, it’s something like eight in ten of the world’s population live in countries that have high or very high levels of restrictions. Now take that with a grain of salt, given that restrictions in these countries do not impact everyone in those countries in the same way. Often it’s religious minorities who are targeted, and who bear the brunt of these types of either government restriction or social hostilities. But yes, definitely when you look at the twenty-five most populous countries in the world, many of them do fall into those higher or very high categories. BM: And I just want to note for our Listeners that North Korea is not on the list – is that right? KK: Correct. Yes. We look at 198 countries and territories, so six territories we look at, places like Western Sahara for example. All of the UN-recognised countries are in our data set except for North Korea, just because of methodological issues. We don’t have sourcing that we feel confident in to be able to capture what’s going on in North Korea, the same way that we can for other countries around the world. BM: That’s helpful. And what would you say to Listeners who are concerned: here we are, two people with American accents. Is this a report that holds the US up as a gold standard or . . . ? Where does the US fit in, in the rankings? KK: We try not to treat the US, really, any differently from any other country. The only methodological difference really, when we look at the US, is that we have slightly different sourcing. And that’s only because the state departments’ International Religious Freedom Reports that we rely on for all the other countries, the state department does not produce a report for the US. So we use all of the other eighteen or so different sources that we use for every other country. But then we also supplement that for the US with the FBI’s hate crime statistics and then also the Department of Justice’s Religious Freedom newsletters. So we try to capture similar amounts of information for the US. (5:00) And we also train our coders, since our coders are American, not to introduce their own biases when looking at the US – so stick to what appears in the sources. If they have anecdotal knowledge of things going on in the country, try not to introduce those other than in really specific circumstances and if it’s something that’s been vetted through multiple different news sources. So, in that sense, we try not to treat the US differently. We are cognisant of the fact that a lot of our sources or most of our sources are English language sources. And part of that is just out of necessity. We are all English language speakers. We don’t have in-house language expertise on the wide variety of languages that are spoken across the 198 different countries around the world. So what we did do, a few years back, was analyse looking at Spanish language sources in a few countries. And going through the same methodology, using those Spanish language global sources, and comparing that to the result that we found when using our regular English language sources. And what we found was that there was really no difference: that our scores basically came out the same, whether we used the local Spanish language sources or the English language ones. So we feel pretty confident that we have a wide variety of sources that we look at from a variety of organisations and different bents and different biases and we try to factor all of that in. And we feel confident in the English language sources that we use. BM: And to some extent, I think, the proof is in the pudding. The US is not ranked as the least restrictive in terms of government restrictions and it’s not the least social hostilities. So what did you find there, about the United States? KK: Absolutely. So the US ranks in the moderate category, usually, for government restrictions. So that’s surprising to some people, but some of that depends on the types of indicators that we look at. So when looking at government restrictions, we don’t only look at sort of negative restrictions on religion – so things like harassment or discrimination – although the US does have incidents that fall into that category as well. But we also look at sort of positive restrictions, so to speak. So, incidents where religious groups are benefitted over others, or certain privileges or benefits are given to all religious groups in the country, or only religious groups that register in the country. So in the US, for example, religious groups are able to register and receive tax benefit as non-profit organisations. So that technically counts as a restriction in our data set. Now that’s something that is up for debate. Some people disagree with the use of these types of positive benefits as a so-called restriction. And we invite everyone to calculate our indexes and use their data to their own purposes. In the US, other than the registration and the tax benefits, you also have some incidents of harassment, though typically in federal prison. For example, prisoners will be denied halal foods or kosher foods, they will be forced to shave their beards if they are Muslim, for example. So a lot of the incidents that we see involve federal prisons as well, and sometimes Religious Land Use and Property-type cases – where a group will be denied the ability to build a mosque or build a church where they want to, and are suing for that religion. In terms of social hostilities, the US actually ranks high on our list. So very high being the top category, but then high being the second highest. And a lot of that is due to hate crimes being on the rise in the US. So, particularly looking at Muslims and anti-Semitic hate-crimes, in 2016 that number continued to rise. And, in fact, assaults against Muslims in the FBI hate crime data was at an all-time high since the post-9/11 2001 era. So we’re definitely seeing an increase there in the US. The high social hostilities is something that surprises a lot of people. But again, sort of like you were saying, the proof is in the pudding. That is essentially what our sources are telling us. BM: Right. And can you talk about how the US is fairing in the region? And I also found it fascinating, in the report you really call out what’s happening in Europe. So can you talk about the comparison between the Americas region and the European area, as well? (10:00) KK: Sure. So, the US in comparison with our direct neighbours: Canada, for example, ranks pretty low in terms of both government restrictions as well as social hostilities – the US certainly has more incidents of social hostilities than in Canada. Compared to Mexico: in Mexico you see a little bit more restrictions on things like worship, for example. And so it’s not . . . there are a few differences there, but it’s not perhaps as stark as it is with Canada. Looking at Latin America more broadly – looking at South American countries – again, you see things like restrictions on missionaries, on worship, on proselytising. It’s a little bit more . . . . Catholicism is more ingrained in government privileges and receives more benefits. And you don’t see that equivalent type of singling out of a certain religion, legally, in the United States. So a lot of variation in the Americas. But, in general, the Americas actually rank fairly low compared to other regions around the world. So, pretty consistently, the median score or the average score for countries in the Americas is much lower than the average scores in any other region around the world. You mentioned Europe. We often look at the US and then look at Western Europe in particular, but also just Europe at large. But something that we really noticed in 2016, looking at Europe, was this rise of nationalism. So both from a government perspective with nationalist political parties or candidates, and then also on the social side – nationalist social groups or organisations. In particular, we focused on nationalist groups that targeted religious groups around the world. So not looking at nationalism targeted towards certain races or ethnic groups, but in particular against religions. And what we found was that, generally, nationalism is on the rise around the world, but that was mostly concentrated in Europe. So about a third of European countries had nationalist political parties or candidates that espoused these types of positions, and would call for the removal of certain religious groups from the country, or the severe cutting down on worship practices of certain religions, typically Muslims. Similarly with social groups, thirty-two countries around the world had nationalist social groups or organisations that were actively targeting religious groups. Twenty-five of those were in European countries. So, again, these were both increases from the year before in this type of group’s activities. And while nationalism is not a new concept, it was certainly on the rise around the world and particularly in Europe. BM: And it seemed from the report that Muslims are certainly receiving the lion’s share of the hate directed by these nationalist groups, especially in Europe. But I was surprised to see how disproportionately Jews were represented in the data, as victims of social hostilities and government restrictions. Can you talk a little bit more about that? KK: Yes. Relative to their global population size, Jews are very disproportionately impacted by harassment and discrimination, both by governments and by social groups. Year after year we see that Christians, Muslims, these larger groups are harassed in a large number of countries around the world. But then Jews will rank, typically, third or fourth in terms of the highest number of countries where they are harassed. And especially given how small a population they are, it’s quite remarkable. We saw a lot of the nationalist groups really focussing on Muslims in 2016 as their target. Jews remained a target in Europe for these groups, as well as other social groups as well, just like they do year after year. There hasn’t been a large spike in harassment of Jews, especially in Europe, but it’s been at a consistently high level for the past decade. BM: It did seem that there’s a trend upward, though, for hate crime or social hostilities against Jews? KK: Yes, a slight increase. So, usually one or two countries will be added on each year. So it’s not as stark as when you look at the harassment of Muslims in the past few years. But it certainly is on the rise. BM: And so we’ve talked about the Americas and Europe, but the report very clearly shows that, still, the most government restrictions and social hostilities are in the Middle East and North Africa. And 2016 was an interesting year to be looking at the Middle East and North Africa with the fall-out of the Arab Spring and continuing conflicts in different countries within the Middle East and North Africa. What did you see in the data? And has it changed at all since the beginning of the Arab Spring? KK: (15:00) So the Middle East/ North Africa region, as you said, consistently has the highest average scores. When you look at it compared to other regions . . . . So in terms of giving you some context for what the regions are that you’d look at, it’s the Middle East, North Africa, the Asia Pacific region, Europe, the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa. So compared to all of those regions, the Middle East ranks the highest consistently. And a lot of that is due to government favouritism of certain religions: typically, Sunni Islam and also, at the same time, government harassment and discrimination against minority religions. In 2016, something interesting that we had to make a methodological change for was the conflict in Yemen, and actually characterising the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a government actor – as opposed to a social actor as we had the years before. And that was a methodological decision based on the fact that, in 2016, the Houthis controlled enough territory in Yemen that included over half of Yemen’s population. So we felt it was appropriate to attribute actions by them as government actions, since they had such complete control over that much territory in Yemen. We didn’t see huge increases in the Middle East in 2016. But everything was consistently high, as it has been. But something interesting that we did see in the Middle East in the years before, was – like, you mentioned the Arab Spring – and so if you look at our trend data for the past ten years, you see a sudden spike especially in social hostilities in the Middle East, right after 2011-2012. And then that sort-of has gone down again and levelled off to pre-Arab Spring levels, in recent years – keeping in mind that this is still considerably higher than most other regions, at times doubling the average score of other regions around the world. BM: That reminds me of something that you bring up in the report, which I’d love for you to talk about a bit more, which is the relationship between government restrictions and social hostilities. Do these things seem to be twinned? If there are higher government restrictions are there also higher social hostilities all the time? Or does it not always pair up that way? KK: Oftentimes we will see them correlated. So if Government restrictions are high somewhere, social hostilities will be high. And it’s not clear to us which causes which – or if there even is a causal relationship between them. But, yes, in a lot of countries high government restrictions means high social hostilities. There are really important exceptions to this rule. So, for example, China. China is a great example of how a country can have very high levels – in 2016, the highest levels – of government restrictions on religion and then, typically, have low to moderate levels of social hostilities. And the Chinese Government might tell you that these things are related, right? That having really strict government restrictions on religion encourages social harmony in the country and reduces social hostilities. We can’t really speak to that. I don’t know if that is truly what’s happening. You have the opposite happening in certain other places. So Australia, for example, has high levels of social hostilities but very low levels of government restrictions on religion. So it’s not clear, exactly, if these things are caused. But, yes, typically we do see that they have a positive relation. So, as one increases the other one increases. In the Middle East, in particular, a lot of these countries have high social hostilities, most of these countries have high or very high level of government restrictions. And so there isn’t a clear relationship between high government restrictions leading to lower social hostilities in the way that you see in China. BM: That’s really interesting to me. I wonder if you can talk a bit more about methodology. I wonder if, at this moment, Listeners are wondering, “What do you actually mean by government restrictions and social hostilities?” You mentioned that a little bit earlier, but could you talk about how many metrics do you use for each category, and how many data sets or sources that you used to measure government restrictions and social hostilities? KK: Sure. So let me walk you through the entire process, from start to finish. So each year we look at eighteen different sources. We wait for all of them to come out for the most recent year data. So typically we’re a little bit lagged. So right now, in mid-2018, we are coding data for 2017, for example. So these eighteen sources include things like the state department international religious freedom reports, like I mentioned earlier; NGO reports, so – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House reports; other government organisations – the UK Foreign commonwealth office, the other US departments, like the Department of Justice; and the UN, of course, as well. So we try to cover a lot of different sources that have a lot of different angles and potential biases. And we use them to check each other. (20:00) So if we see something mentioned in one source and we see a competing description of that event in a different source, we will typically look at them and compare them and see what the more conservative estimate is. If it is something like the number of deaths that were reported, we look at which source has more details, etc. So it’s really useful that we have so many different sources that we can play off of each other and compare. So once those sources are available to us we have a team of five interns or five coders that come in each year for a twelve-week coding process. They look at 198 countries. Each coder is given one country and is paired with another coder who is also looking at that same country, at the same time, but completely independently. They don’t discuss their results, they don’t compare as they are going through the process of reading the sources and answering the questions. Once that’s over, they get together and they reconcile. So they go through question by question, and see which answer they got to, and if there is a disagreement they talk it though and they come to an agreement on what the correct answer should be. If they can’t reach an agreement they come to myself, or to the research analyst on the team, and we make a final decision. So once that reconciliation process is over, we then have a score for each country around the world. So let me talk a little bit about what goes into that score – like you mentioned – what the different indicators are. So for government restrictions on religion, we have twenty different indicators that we look at. I mentioned earlier, these can be things like laws and policies, they can be things like government actions, government treatment of minority groups, etc. Each of these twenty different indicators have a possible score of zero to one. Sometimes the options are just zero and one, sometimes it’s more fine-grained: 0.33, 0.67, etc. The coders will select what the correct answer should be. Each of those numerical values are associated with a specific situation. So, “Does the government have a freedom of religion or belief clause in its constitution?”: “Yes”/ “No”/ “Yes – but with restrictions” – something like that. Once we have scores for the twenty different indicators, we can add them up and then divide that score by two. And that gives us an index between zero and ten, with ten indicating the highest levels of government restrictions. Very similarly for social hostilities we have thirteen different indicators. So things like mob violence, terrorism, conflict involving religion. Again, each of those has a maximum score of one. We can add all of them up and divide by 1.3 and we end up with those zero to ten point indexes. So when I say something like, “a country has very high levels of government restrictions”, that might mean that they have a score of nine out of ten, for example, on the government restrictions index or the social hostilities index – which is what we call them. So that’s essentially the coding process. The twelve-week period would start really quickly, usually, and we code all 198 countries and come to a conclusion about them. We might include some additional coding variables each year, about something that we think might be interesting. So a year or two ago we looked at official state religions around the world: which countries have an official religion; which don’t have an official one but sort-of prefer a religion over others; which have strict separation of church and state. And that was all taken from data that we included in this coding period as well, but were not included in the indexes. The indexes we leave the same each year, so that we can compare the trends from year to year. So I hope that answers your question about methodologies? It’s quite long-winded! BM: Yes. That’s very helpful. And I wanted to make clear that, for researchers who are listening, all of your data is available, right? KK: Yes. All of our data. Each year, we upload the full data set to our website, And we’re always really happy to hear from researchers that want to use our data. If anyone needs advice about how to recalculate our indexes, if there are certain indicators that might be more useful to be taken out of the index for your research purposes, we’re always really happy to hear from researchers and to help in any way that we can. BM: That’s very helpful, thank you. I wonder if you can just mention . . . . So you mentioned that Australia, the United States are very high in the social hostilities. Is that because data is more freely available for the United States and Australia compared to, say, Iran or Yemen? Does the availability of data seem to have an effect on which countries are ranked high or low? KK: That’s a great question, and that’s something that we were worried about as well, looking at the sourcing that was available. And, for the most part, each country that we look at does have multiple sources available. There are cases in which the only source that we have available is the state departments’ international religious freedom report. But, typically, those countries are very small – typically very small Island nations, with populations less than half a million. And so not only is it that we only have the one source, but typically there’s not a very high level of government restrictions going on. (25:00) And what we find is that when there are high levels of government restrictions in the smaller countries, typically the other sources that we look at will also cover them. In terms of availability on the ground – in some cases, like in North Korea – yes it’s just not the case that we can get reliable information for that country and so we leave it out of the analysis. But for all the other countries that we look at, despite the varying levels of access given to journalists, we feel confident that we have enough information coming out of the country that we can rely on. We’ve also done analyses in the past looking at the length of the report, how much information is in our sources for each country, and seeing if the length of the report and the amount of information is linked to higher levels of government restrictions or social hostility. So, your question about if more information leads to higher scores: what we’ve found is that’s not really the case; that it doesn’t really have an effect on our index scores whether the reports are longer, whether the sourcing is longer and there’s more information. Usually the countries that have a lot going on in the country will have more sources available and more information about them. BM: Thank you. And we’re running up on time, so I wonder if, to close, you could just speak about where this report leaves us: what do your findings tell us about the state of religious discourse in the contemporary world? Are things getting better or worse? Do you have any guesses about where things are going? I know that’s a really difficult question for social scientists, but, where are we now? And what does that tell us about religion around the globe? KK: So, 2016 marked the second year of increases after a few years of relatively steady decreases in restrictions and hostilities. So it’s too early to say if this is a trend in an increase direction, but certainly this is the second consecutive year that we have seen an increase. Now we tend to look at things globally, and we look at 28% of countries have high, or very high levels of restrictions on religion, etc. But I always encourage people to look more contextually at the data. So, yes, it’s interesting to look at the global picture and get a quick snapshot of what’s going on. But it’s really more useful to look at specific countries over time, or even – in the regional contexts – looking at how a certain region is behaving. Because that can really shed a lot of light onto what the specific religious freedom issues are in that area. So, for example, in the Middle East it might be something like government favouritism of religion, whereas in Central Asia it might be governments that are outwardly hostile towards religion and severely restrict it in other ways. And these countries might have very similar scores. I always use the example of Saudi Arabia and China. Both have very high levels of government restrictions on religion but could not be more different in why that is the case. So it’s always really useful to look at the country’s specific context, and to really use your knowledge from other areas of research, to sort-of illustrate what the data are that we’re showing you, as well. BM: Well, thank you so much. We really appreciated speaking with you today. I hope our Listeners enjoyed listening, as well. I’d encourage all of our Listeners to go onto the Pew Research Centre website. You can go to You can also download the report that we’ve been discussing for free. So thank you again, Dr Kishi, and I hope all of our listeners feel free to check out Pew Research Centre. Thank you. KK: Thank you. Citation Info: Kishi, Katayoun and Benjamin P Marcus. 2018. “A Global Study on Government Restrictions and Social Hostilities Related to Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 3 December 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 24 November 2018. Available at: If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.
This week’s episode is a bit special. We’re sharing the newest episode of Discourse, a spin-off show our Patreon supporters have been enjoying this year. Discourse has a globally rotating cast of RSP editors, friends and guests, who take a critical look at the discourse on ‘religion’ in the news and media! If you enjoy the episode, you can enjoy monthly episodes by subscribing just a dollar a month at This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.
This interview with global studies pioneer Mark Juergensmeyer takes on his keynote address at the 2016 Eastern International Meeting of the American Academy of Religion (EIR-AAR) at the University of Pittsburgh. Starting from a historical and comparative study of religion, Juergensmeyer advocates for a new approach to religion, as it exists today in a globalized framework. As such, in his most recent book, God in the Tumult of the Global Square (2015), he examines the ethical and moral dimensions brought on by environmental changes concerning religious people, spiritual, but not religious people, and the people who identify with none of those categories alike. He interrogates the intersections of different religions traditions, questions the world religion paradigm as taught in universities today, and examines new phenomena caused by decentralized localized antiauthoritarian characteristics of globalization. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, tiny screw drivers, onion seeds, and more.
In this interview between Joe Blankholm and Dusty Hoesly, we first focus on the origins of the term “secularism,” the proliferation of its meanings, and the uses to which it is put in Anglo-American contexts. Then we discuss the uses of the terms secularism and the secular today, particularly using a specific case study from Joe’s research on American nonbeliever organizations. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, muffins, snorkels and more.
During the 20th century, the media has exploded to include radio, television and most recently and perhaps influentially, the Internet. Music has been a big part of this new emerging “mediapolois”, moving from a mostly stand-alone medium, to part of a marketing matrix of  people, places and industries. Today, music’s meaning is more often part of a branded ecosystem, not limited to entertainment, but part of the experience of everyday life, including religion. Evangelical churches and, increasingly, New Religious Movements use music as part of a branding exercise that helps to transform them from local congregations into a transnational enterprise. To discuss music, marketing and contemporary religion, David Robertson sat down with Dr. Tom Wagner, an ethnomusicologist, percussionist and lecturer at the Reid School of Music in Edinburgh. They discuss the long history of the use of music in promoting evangelical congregations, and the transformation that came with the development of recording and broadcast technologies. Tom describes his research and fieldwork with Hillsong, an evangelical church movement with an international reach who use music both in their worship and their branding. Later, they discuss the use of music in Scientology, to create and maintain a particular aesthetic, and how Tom sees this research developing in the future. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, scuba gear, garden gnomes, and more.
In this week’s podcast, Kathryn Lofton and John Modern join Adam Miller for a conversation that hovers around the relationship between description and explanation in the study of religion, and the notion that the way scholars of religion think about their categories of analysis shapes what they say about a given set of data and how they say it. Given the entanglement of description and explanation, Lofton and Modern stress the responsibility scholars of religion have to know their material deeply, to be aware of the history of their field and categories of analysis, and to speak to issues/questions beyond their areas of speciality. Kathryn Lofton is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Yale University. She is the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, the soon-to-be-published Consuming Religion, and is currently working on the religious contexts of Bob Dylan. John Modern is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Franklin & Marshall College. He is the author of Secularism in Antebellum America and is currently pursuing two book projects—one on machines and cognitive science, and another on Devo and rubber. In addition to their solo-enterprises, they have worked together on a couple of things—Frequencies, a collaborative genealogy of spirituality, for example, and most recently a book series to be published by the University of Chicago Press titled Class 200. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, camping gear, masquerade masks, and more.  
In this interview, Professor Eric Mazur discusses a variety of issues relating to religion and law in the USA, such as the evolving state of First Amendment jurisprudence, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, dominant trends in the study of religion and American law, and controversial legislation such as the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Dr. Mazur also discusses his efforts to help cultivate a space at the American Academy of Religion that is explicitly devoted to the study of religion and American law. This interview provides an introduction and summary of this increasingly important field. Listeners may also be interested in our recent podcast with Susan J. Palmer on Minority Religions and the Law, and our general introduction to Religion and the Law with Winnifred F. Sullivan. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, potpourri, vintage cars, and more.
Conservative discourse has had many faces in Latin America. For the most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Catholic Church had a monopoly, but was succeeded by the charismatic evangelical movements after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. As the Catholic Church took a more progressive turn, evangelical movements became the spokespersons for conservative views. Today, these discourses are being infused with scientific perspectives. In this week’s podcast, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera explains how historical Latin American conservatism became neoconservatism. Though Latin America is diverse, conservatism has been a constant throughout the region’s history, intervening not only in the power plays of religious institutions, but also in the shaping of people’s everyday life conceptions of the world. Through a discussion of The Black Book of the New Left: Gender Ideology or Cultural Subversion by Argentinian authors Nicolás Marquez and Agustín Laje, Espinoza Rivera shows how neoconservatism has managed to influence these processes by developing a language of its own that blends “scientific” arguments with philosophical and historical analysis of the contemporary world political landscape. This language is popular among religious groups, including both Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Catholics today. Paradoxically, the diverse users of this language has generated a common tongue for anyone that wants to participate in current Latin American public arenas. This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more. The Secularisation of Discourse in Contemporary Latin American Neoconservatism Podcast with Jerry Espinoza Rivera (21 October 2019). Interviewed by Sidney Castillo Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Audio and transcript available at: -american-neoconservatism/ PDF for download available here. Sidney Castillo (SC): Now we’re still in the fourth day of the EASR Conference 2019, in Tartu Estonia. And it has been a hectic week with a very, very rich learning experiences, sharing with colleagues and hearing about their research. And now I’m sitting here with Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Jerry Espinoza Rivera (JER): Thank you. SC: And would you be so kind as to introduce yourself? JER: I am a professor, assistant professor at the University of Costa Rica. I teach philosophy at the School of General Studies. And now I’m presenting a paper about the Latin American neoconservative discourse, here in Tartu. SC: Perfect. And we welcome you here. It’s nice to know that here at the EASR we have Latin American representative scholars working, and that they take part not only in Latin America or in Spanish speaking countries, but also here in English speaking fields. And it’s very nice to know that our work is being known, in that sense. JER: I agree. SC: So, just to jump right in to the questions. The first question, I think, tries to frame your subject – especially here at the EASR: how can we understand conservatism in Latin America? So you can give us an overview. JER. OK. I differentiate between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism in Latin America is closely related with the Catholic Church. You know that the Catholic Church has had a very strong influence in Latin America, especially in politics. And traditional conservatives have been closely related with Catholic thought. So in my presentation, I make a review of this ideological approach of the Catholic Church, especially during the 19th century. Because there is a big difference between the Catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council and after the Second Vatican Council. So the traditional conservativism is deeply closely related with the catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council. For example, the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council considered that the only salvation was possible inside the church. Nobody outside the church could be saved. And this traditional conservatism was based on the idea that only absolute truth was the Catholic truth. That’s quite a big difference between this traditional and the neoconservatives. SC: And if you could give us somehow a comprehensive understanding of how the transition of conservatism to neo-conservatism happened? It was probably about the Second Vatican Council but in more contextualised forms? It would be interesting for the Listeners . . . . (5:00). JER: Actually, I do research about not only the neoconservatives in Costa Rica but in Latin America. I use quite a famous book, right now in Latin America, written by two Argentinians. One is Agustín Laje and the other one is Nicolás Márquez. They wrote a very popular book at this moment that is called The Black Book of the New Left. It’s a book written to discredit what they call the New Left. And it’s very interesting to read in this book how they use, for example, the science in a different way than was used by the traditional conservatives. Because traditional conservatives were very sceptical about science – not only about science, but about reason in general. If you read, for example, the syllabus written by the Pope Pius IX, he condemned the use of science as it wasn’t the truth. It was considered an error by the Pope Pius IX. And that was traditional conservatism. In traditional conservatism, science was not the way to achieve the truth. The way to achieve the truth was the faith: faith in the Catholic Church. In neoconservatism it changed. If you read the book by Laje and Márquez you can see that they use the science as . . . they consider science as a kind of certainty; as absolute truth. It’s completely different. In this case, science is not a way to cut across below the faith, as it was in the traditional conservatism, but the absolute truth. SC: So, you’ve mentioned the relation of conservatism to the Catholic Church and the neoconservatism that is shown in this book. It seems to me that they are different instances of institutionality. So does analysis of this book tell us something about religion in some way? In which way? JER: That’s another very interesting issue: that this neoconservatism is not considered religious to conservatives. Of course, underground they are religious, but they don’t use the religious discourse to justify their ideas, they use science. They use another kind of justification. For example, in this book, the Black Book of the New Left, they never quote the Bible, because they try to demonstrate that it is science that demonstrates or proves that, for example, homosexuality is against nature. Or, for example, that life begins since conception. And it’s, of course, against the groups that support the legalisation of abortion. And there are many examples where they show how they use science, or a kind of discourse of science, to demonstrate their ideas. SC: So, paradoxically it seems that traditional conservatism was against science and now neoconservatism is pro-science. But underneath they’re both religious (10:00). That’s very interesting to know. You mentioned something about homosexuality. To probe this issue more, I’d like to ask: what are the discursive forms that neoconservatism is playing? JER: It’s see how these neoconservatives, they build a kind of new enemy kind of antagonism for themselves. Their enemy is not now what it was during the cold war, for example, Communism. But now their enemy is more related with sexuality. And that’s why they use this term “gender ideology”. The term is essentially an empty signifier. What does it mean, when I say that is an empty signifier? That it doesn’t have any meaning. But they use it to attack, or to discredit for example ideas by Judith Butler or the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir or all their theories philosophers or thinkers that heave written about gender. So they create this concept. They call it gender ideology to discredit . . . . But not only to discredit these thinkers, but to discredit any policy or any fight related with sexual or reproductive rights. That’s why, for example, you can see in Latin America, how these groups attack for example, any decision related to legalisation of abortion. They call it gender ideology. Because they created a kind of enemy to discredit and they use this term, this signifier, to discredit any policy related with sexual and reproductive rights. SC: Which is a thing I believe also I stayed in (audio unclear) and there was a tendency for the state to . . . or at least not everybody was in favour of reproductive rights or sexual rights. JER: Yes. You can see how it was very important issue in Brazil during the last election. Jair Bolsonaro the President, he uses it, this discourse, to discredit his enemies. What does it mean? It means that it’s an important issue in Latin America, not only a discourse of minorities. What you can see in Brazil, you can see it in Colombia, in Peru, in Chile and many countries. This discourse of the neoconservatives has grown. In my country Costa Rica you can see it for example. Now there is a big conflict about the use of mixed toilets. It is, you can consider it like something very unimportant, but some religious groups, conservative groups, use it as an excuse to attack the government. And it’s a very good example of how the neoconservatives use these kinds of issues to discredit or to attack some policies (15:00). SC: Like a point of entry for doing politics for Latin America? JER: Yes. It’s interesting to see how Laje and Márquez, they are travelling across every region, every country, presenting their book. It’s interesting to see how, for example in Costa Rica, there was a big controversy about the presentation of this book, but you can see that they are looking for these kind of controversies. Because they know that it makes them famous. For example, in the case of Costa Rica, one of their presentations was forbidden at one of the Universities, because it was considered that it was discriminatory. So they made it a case, they made it an issue to become famous, because of the controversy that they generated. SC: Also I believe that it’s not only dependent on this book. It’s got currency worldwide. JER: Yes, of course. I use the book as an example. Because the book is incredibly famous and very popular. It’s interesting to see how a book that, if you read it the book it . . . academically, it’s very week, you know? Their arguments are very week. It’s very easy to refute them. But they know that there are many people who want to read this kind of argument. And that’s why, actually, the book, you can’t buy it; it’s free! So it’s easy for people to obtain the book. It’s interesting how they promote their ideas. SC: And going back to this issue of traditional conservatism and neoconservatism: so it’s not related, neoconservatism, to the Catholic Church? JER: No. that’s another difference with between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism was deeply, closely related with the Catholic Church, but neoconservatism not only includes Catholics, but also neo-Pentecostalist parties. For example in my country, in Costa Rica, there is a quite a big neo-Pentecostal party, who was there actually participated in the last election and was one of the parties that obtained more votes. It was a disputed presidency, with the candidate that finally won. But they obtained forty percent of the votes! It’s really, really big. And what’s interesting is to see that in spite of the fact that it was neo-Pentecostalist party, many Catholics voted for this candidate. Ten years ago it was unimaginable. It’s very interesting to see how this neoconservative discourse is attracting not only people who are traditional Catholics, but people who belong to other kinds of churches. SC: Speaking of that, I think that, in sociological terms, it’s interesting how these concepts of the conservatives’ cause reached civil society(20:00). And that’s why I also want to ask, what effect does it have in the shared imaginary of the general public? JER: Yes, the growth of these parties is not only a political phenomenon, but a social phenomenon. It’s extremely related . . . in the case of Brazil, for example, there was a big influence of WhatsApp in the election of Bolsonaro. That’s exactly the same case in Costa Rica. Social networks were very important in the final election. Because it’s easier to spread fake news through these kind of networks. Ten years ago, or twenty years ago it was more difficult to do these kind of things. Now, with social networks, it’s easier to spread this kind of fake news. You can see it in the United States, in the election of Trump. It is quite a similar process. SC: Do you have any further remarks to kind-of sum up what we have been discussing so far? JER: I just want to remark how dangerous is what’s happening right now, not only in Latin America but in many countries. Even here in Europe – you can see it in Poland, in Hungary and in Slovakia and other countries. It’s a new kind of politics that uses hatred towards some groups, minority groups, for example LGBT collectives, or the feminist groups. And this is new. And they use it because they realise that it’s quite popular. You know? This kind of discourse is quite popular. People easily believe these kind of ideas that you can read: things about “homosexualisation of the world” for example. It’s kind-of crazy ideas they are spreading, and it’s quite dangerous. You can see it happening in the United States in 2016, and you can see it in Brazil in the case of Latin America. And this phenomenon is spreading around the world. SC: So it’s akin to . . . even to conspiracy theories? JER: Yes. In the case of Latin America it’s even worse, I would say. Because it’s also related to the problems that are related with poverty, inequality and other problems that make that easier for these people to be attracted to this kind of discourse. SC: Right. Well, Professor Espinoza, it was very nice to have you here at the Religious Studies Project and we hope to have you again, soon. JER: Thank you. SC: Thank you.   All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.
The practice of pilgrimage is generally held to be a core feature of religious traditions. Pilgrimage developed as a practice available to only a few. The danger of the road, the cost of travel, and restrictions of class and feudal systems made it impossible for the common people to travel to remote sacred places. Similar to the situation in Early Medieval Europe (Sumption 1975: 11-12), political instability in pre-Tokugawa Japan (pre-1603) and an overall hostility to travelling strangers discouraged even some willing pilgrims from visiting many famous sites.  Whether it was wandering Buddhist monks circuiting Medieval Japan and performing healing rituals or Heian-aristocracy visiting Buddhist sites famous for their wish-granting powers, the practice of pilgrimage, and the special benevolence of the deities that went along with it, was reserved for a handful of people who had time and wealth to spare in order to afford the travel and to secure their safety on the dangerous routes. Since then, pilgrimage has undergone a number of transitions that have shaped and redefined the way it is practiced and perceived. Various socio-economic and political changes, as well as technological developments, the establishment of modern tourism, and the expansion of the media have changed the way individuals ‘do’ pilgrimage, and shaped scholars’ understandings of modern religious travel, facilitating the transition of pilgrimage from obscure ascetic practice to widely popular touristic activity. The element of journey, the importance of material culture, the role of media and technology, as well as the commercialisation of the practice of pilgrimage are dictate the conditions of survival and the popularity of pilgrimage today. Pilgrimage is a vivid representation of the way religion interacts with tourism, as we have seen before in our interview with Alex Norman on ‘Spiritual Tourism’. However, the exposure of pilgrimage practice to the influences of tourism and commodification does not necessarily diminish the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ character of the practice. The utilization of the technological advancements of ‘this world’ is an important element in the survival of pilgrimage in Japan and elsewhere, helping it to become a kind of religious ‘pop culture’. Within Religious Studies, discussion has rarely focused on the so-called this-worldliness of pilgrimage. Yet,  in October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions. For ease of listening, we decided to split this interview into two parts. The second part is available below, or at this link, where it was originally published.   Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more. References/Further Reading Reader, Ian (2013) Pilgrimage in the Marketplace. New York and London: Routledge Reader, Ian. and Swanson, Paul (1997) “Editors’ Introduction: Pilgrimage in the Japanese Religious Tradition”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1997 24/3-4 pp.225-270 Sumption, Jonathan. (1975) Pilgrimage: an image of medieval religion. London: Faber & Faber
Human reincarnation: Same person, different body, another life. From established theological doctrines to local folk beliefs, the idea that deceased individuals may be “reborn” into the body of another can be found all over the world (White, In press). Since the writings of philosopher John Locke in the 17th century, establishing personal identity has primarily focused on memory. The interplay between memories and what constitutes a person’s identity plays an interesting role in reincarnation beliefs. For example, when juxtaposed alongside theologies that teach that the individual undergoes mental or physical changes in the process of rebirth, how can this same individual be identified in the new life if they have undergone changes (White, 2015)? In this podcast, Dr. Claire White brings the tools of cognitive science of religion (CSR) to bear on this question and several others surrounding reincarnation beliefs.   Dr. White begins  by discussing the ongoing research at her laboratory at California State University, Northridge. She goes on to introduce the topic of reincarnation, noting that only recently has CSR paid much attention to these types of beliefs. While conceptual scaffolding surrounding the idea of reincarnation can vary widely from culture to culture, Dr. White draws on some of her recent research pointing out that many similarities exist in how individuals reason about and discern the pre-rebirth identities of the reincarnated. In closing, Dr. White shares some preliminary insights gathered from her ethnography of “past-life groups” in the western United States. Interested in why some individuals may be attracted to these groups, she suggests the groups may function as a form of psychotherapy and self-actualization for those attending. Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion and Memory, and Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, small dinosaur figurines, poppy seeds, and more. Many thanks to NAASR for facilitating the recording of this interview. References White, C. (2015). Establishing Personal Identity in Reincarnation: Minds and Bodies Reconsidered. Journal Of Cognition And Culture, 15(3-4), 402-429. White, C. (In press). The Cognitive Foundations of Reincarnation. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.
It’s a big universe, and sometimes things get lost in time and space. For instance, this 2013 interview with Dr. James F. McGrath was recorded but then fell into a metaphorical black hole (i.e. the potential podcast series never debuted). Fortunately, his discussion of topics including the soul, the religious ethics of artificial intelligence, and the function of science fiction on informing audiences’ spiritual sensibilities all remain (relatively) timeless. To start, he addresses the unique challenges of working across disciplines in pursuit of analyzing popular culture currently, then shifts to an exploration of religion’s study in the future. Along the way, McGrath and interviewer A. David Lewis namecheck famous characters such as Captain Kirk and Doctor Who in the effort to illustrate complex notions of the soul embedded in secular entertainments. Enjoy a trip to the past — that looks to the future! You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our,, or links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Chia Pets, hot sauce, and more.
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Jan 13th, 2012
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Feb 24th, 2020
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