Scientific Models of Religiosity

A recent mathematical study reported at the American Physical Society, and covered by BBC news, claims the provocative title, “Religion may become extinct in nine nations.” Those nations are mostly in modern western secular societies.

The scholars of religion, however, have seen these claims before: not a one has ever held up to scrutiny or time. Early twentieth-century sociologists also predicted the decline and inevitable extinction of religion, and well, look around you.

But the question is far more than simply “Is religion going extinct?” but actually a more nuanced discussion on religion itself. How are they defining religion? The study examines censuses from different nations, which usually asks about religious affiliation, i.e. are you part of an officially recognized, institutionalized religion, which is, without question, on the decline. But census questionnaires do not ask deeper questions. When most people check the “non-religious” box they are usually rejecting the concept of a dogmatic religion, which modern popular sentiment views as violent, divisive, and even silly. But these questionnaires do not account for the multitude of ways people then reinterpret their religiosity: atheistic religions, magical religions, UFO religions, satirical religion, or even vague notions of “spiritual” religions that can incorporate everything from astrology to yoga to homeopathy to psychology, etc.

I posit that when people check the non-religious box they are, in fact, objecting to the word “religion” itself, and its popular negative conceptual implications. It is a political statement. A statement that conveys a critique of perceived imposed religion. In modern western secular societies, this narrow view of religion is what is on the decline, but not religiosity itself.

(Better) Scholars of religion refrain from advancing a particular definition of religion, because when they try, they usually end up with a religion that looks akin to an Abrahamic, monotheistic tradition (i.e. a god or gods, a prime text, ritual, community, etc.). They are cherry-picking familiar traits from non-Abrahamic traditions in order to ease categorization (See Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth). This has a consequence of explicitly or implicitly legitimizing religions that resemble the western conceptual framework, which also, intentionally or not, has political and legal ramifications. If your religion falls outside of the rigid concept, then you (as an individual or as a group) face particular challenges. If your religion deliberately rejects the rigid concept of religion (ex.: Neo-Pagans/Wiccans have no prime text or center of authority precisely because they view these things as rigid and unadaptive*; Satanists have no concept of the divine, no main building or communal rituals, yet fully adopt the term “religion;” Raeliens self-identify as atheistic, yet ascribe to the notion of aliens as the creators of human life via cloning) then courts have difficulty making judgements on what protections you are afforded, because they first have to define religion in order to protect it, which becomes an issue if your religion is “atypical” (suggesting there are “normal” and “abnormal” religions).

So when we, the scholars of religion, read yet another study from scientists about how religion is on the decline, a psychological delusion, or has  a “god” gene we react with a collective eyeroll. Studies like these assume particular premises of religion that scholars of religion not only reject, but deliberately avoid, because they are all predicated on stiff definitions of religion, instead of on the far more useful (so far) approach to defining religion based on an ever-shifting (yet admittedly more complicated) notion of political, social, religious, and even economic tensions and negotiations.

The scientific studies themselves are political statements: it denotes that scientists, funding agencies, and institutions are invested in disavowing religion, likely because religion is viewed as an impediment to scientific advancements. And religions absolutely have been, at certain times, in some places (they have also been patrons of science). The current climate in western nations is reflective of a decrease in institutionalized religion, and the reaction to this is for “fundamentalism” to embed more deeply, and vehemently reject science (such as the creationist worldview). Communities under duress amplify their confrontational and schismatic rhetoric. The scientific studies, then, are responding to this rhetoric. There is no apolitical religion or science.

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* Scholars of texts argue that “scripture” has always been reinterpreted and adapted to negotiate changing societies. I agree with this view, but here I am addressing the perceived notion of text being inflexible.

 

John L. Crow, Concordia University, and Satanism Scholars

This is a long-overdue response to John L. Crow’s post about Satanism and scholars of religion. And by overdue I mean by almost two years. John L. Crow (whom I met briefly at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Conference in Atlanta last November) had written asking for my thoughts way back in December 2014. At the time I was preparing for my research trip in Norway, and then life and work got in the way, and this year I’ve been ill, and well, academics have no good excuses for these kinds things, but here we are, and I can haz ideas.

So, with apologies to John for the delay, here are my thoughts on the experience as a scholar of religion actively focusing on religious Satanism in relation to the broader context in which Satanism is discussed in popular, religious, and academic forums alike.

Allow me to begin with a relevant passage from John’s post. He writes:

Satanism is treated differently by both academics and the public at large. This point was made apparent to me a few semesters ago when a couple of my colleagues asked me to give a one day lesson on religious Satanism as part of their world religions courses. I kept the history brief, focusing mostly on institutional Satanism, looking at the atheistic Church of Satan and the theistic Temple of Set. At the end, I also talked about the ways Satanism is constructed by Christian churches and the way this construction is projected upon Satanists. To illustrate the point, I showed a portion of an interview between Bob Larson, Zeena Schreck, daughter of the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, and her husband, Nicholas Schreck, founder of a satanic school of magic called The Werewolf Order. The interview can be seen here on YouTube. What becomes apparent in the interview is that Larson’s conception of Satanism is quite divergent from the kind of Satanism that the Schrecks articulate. Numerous times Larson says what Satanists can and cannot do based on what he imagines are the rules by which Satanists live and practice. He says in satanic weddings, brides cannot wear white to which the Schrecks reply, why not? Larson claims that all Satanist believe something because it is in The Satanic Bible to which the Schrecks reply, it does not matter what it says in the book, and Satanists can do and believe what they want. Larson uses his understanding of Christianity as the basis of his approach to Satanism and he is repeatedly shown to be in error. Larson is not unlike many who approach Satanism, whether they are in the media, law enforcement, or scholars of religion. The way Satanism has been portrayed by Christianity colors the narrative, regardless of what the facts demonstrate. There are significant differences between the various kinds of Satanism but there is a scarcity of American religious studies scholars who can or will engage in any public discussion about these differences, a task that they frequently perform for other religions.

To answer this query about reception to Satanism studies in academia (specifically religious studies), allow me to begin with anecdotes.

In my department, I have received strong support from the faculty at large, the chairs, my doctoral committee and supervisor. From the early stages, way back in my undergraduate degree, I wrote an honours thesis on Church of Satan rituals. It was well-received, and I was encouraged by my supervisor, Dr. Donald L. Boisvert, to pursue the topic in graduate school. For financial and personal reasons, I stayed at the same university for all my academic degrees [barring a semester abroad at NTNU in Norway, to work with Dr. Jesper Aagaard Petersen].

As such, I can state that Concordia University has never even hinted at having an issue with my topic. The department of religion demonstrates their support by suggesting me for scholarships, writing letters of recommendations, offering teaching gigs, expressing a genuine interest in my atypical research, and a regard for my personal well-being (an undervalued asset to doctoral success). I am the recipient of three major awards: the departmental graduate fellowship, the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC) [in name only], and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The Concordia news department wrote a piece on my first academic publication in 2010 (Death and Dying the Satanic Worldview), which was picked up internationally. I have been a media contact for various stories on Satanism and Witchcraft, and even received a letter of commendation from the President and Vice-Chancellor, Alan Shepard [it’s framed and hanging in my office, because in moments of frustration and fatigue, it makes me feel like I’m PhDing LIKE A BOSS].

I have been fortunate. But in all of the above, the support I received was from people who know and interact with me personally—they have witnessed my work ethic, delight in teaching and helping students, involvement with graduate committees and events, and genuine intellectual curiosity. My point is that it’s not accidental support. There was already a certain amount of trust established between me and my department before I entered the PhD programme. This relationship is not circumstantial, but pivotal. It allows me to work independently (with the welcome kicks-in-the-ass) en tandem with the rigorous standards of departmental doctoral research. To be clear, my supervisor has challenged theory and methods, impressed the need to substantiate claims, and demonstrated a tough but fair approach as I proceed towards completion. But there has never been a voiced concern for the topic. If there have been objections or reservations to my research among faculty, they were not explicitly or subtly expressed to me personally.

In this sea of love, however, there have been a view sore spots.

At the dozen-or-so conferences at which I have presented a paper on Satanism, wherein I am a stranger to most, I’ve had the odd scholar behave in a combative and hostile manner during the question period, aggressively challenging me because how I describe Satanism directly contradicts their (mis)understanding. In the post-panel conversations, the objections are some version of these three things: LaVey really did believe in the devil; even if he didn’t, Satanism is by default evil and cannot be redefined; or my personal favourite, Satanism is an offensive religion and shouldn’t be studied. This type of scholar appears so repulsed by my topic, they cease all conversation. And once, even, someone refused to sit at the same breakfast table as me, declaring that Satanism was the “enemy of the church” and exposed the cross around their neck as a measure of what I can only assume was protection (against what is unclear, as Satanism does not view other religions as enemies, and instead views them as largely irrelevant—which is, perhaps, the more offensive claim).

My reaction to most of these incidents are a patient, bemused eye-roll. The rare scholar simply does not want to be convinced. The irony is, there is plenty to be offended by within satanic thought (separation of church and state; critique of theistic dogma; social-Darwinist worldviews; liberal sexual attitudes; no mandate for charity or good will towards fellow humans; libertarian(ish) political leanings; rejection of the idea of a “basic goodness” of humanity, instead viewing most humans as neutral reactionary fools, easily subject to mob mentality; etc.) if one bothered to understand it on its own terms. They object to Satanism for what it is not, instead of what it actually is. This is their failing. And more than a little lazy.

Now, lest my readers imagine that I am constantly confronted with rude academics, I must emphasize that these are small and occasional (if still consistent) occurrences, easily drowned out in the sea of overwhelmingly positive reactions to my research, wherein scholars are curious, delighted to learn something new, and be challenged on their assumptions. My personal anecdotal evidence suggests, then, that Satanism has a titillating draw, where scholars are largely supportive of the unconventional topic, taking an interest in a new avenue of intellectual pursuit, with only minor objections.

I was hesitant to even bring up these negative incidents publicly given that they are so trivial, but ultimately they are important, because they reflect the popular (which is heavily influenced by the theological) understanding of Satanism. If scholars, as John L. Crow suggests, simply make little effort to understand the nuances of popular, theological, and religious discourses on Satanism, the people that are ostensibly obligated by their very profession to be critical of assumptions and stereotypes, then perhaps is it out of an implied devaluation of Satanism as a legitimate topic of inquiry. Religious studies departments are woefully lacking in research on fringe and marginal groups and topics. One of the reasons for this is lack of support; ideally graduates interested in new religions seek out faculty that can supervise them, which drastically limits their options. When your topic is more mainstream (even if you’re doing new approaches such as feminist, queer, or race theory) you have more options. If departments of religion fail to encourage—by funding and otherwise—topics that fall outside of more standard areas of research, then it becomes a paradox: are there lack of resources because there is no interest, or lack of interest because there are not enough resources? The answer is likely not an either/or, but instead a nuanced negotiation between multiple parties: university administrations (what they’re willing to fund), graduate caution (putting the “passion project” on the back burner until they receive their degree), faculty expertise (rejecting students if they cannot offer full support, even if they have no objection to an unconventional research area), and job prospects (I often ask myself how to market my transferrable skills to other areas, as being a “Satanism Scholar” does little besides get me curious glances).

Finally, and specifically as it relates to me, let’s be honest about one thing: Satanism is weird (said with the utmost affection for weirdos of all kinds). But it’s weird deliberately. Religious Satanism is constantly negotiating tensions with its popular reputation, law enforcement, media representations, and academia. One of the manifestations of this weirdness, then, is its reception in the academy to scholars who study it.

To be clear: this is not a lament. My fantasy business card proudly reads, “Scholar of Religion—Fringe Division.” Examining such an unusual topic and its reception is a study in and of itself, and I wouldn’t change it, as being in this ambiguous space of researching a topic that makes people uneasy from inside the reputable institution of academia has offered unique insights into my meta-specialty of Things That Make Us Uncomfortable.

So if you’re considering a strange topic, I say go for it, just recognize beforehand that you will have to do some careful convincing. But it’s worth it to be among the freaks. You won’t regret it.

The Yoga Questionnaire

A friend and colleague of mine, Inga Bårdsen Tøllefsen, from the University of Tromsø, Norway, is collecting data for her dissertation via an online survey. Inga is the co-editor of the recent volume, Oxford Handbook on New Religious Movements, and specializes in alternative and emerging religions.

 I have copied and pasted her introductory text below. Do take a moment to help out with her survey

CH

_____________________

Dear Sir/Madam:

I am a PhD Candidate of comparative religions (religionsvitenskap) at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway.

I am conducting research on modern yoga (primarily postural (asana) yoga) and how yoga practice may or may not connect to (alternative) spiritualities. If you in some capacity practice yoga, I would appreciate your taking the time to complete the following questionnaire.

You might find a few of the questions odd. This is in part because the survey builds on studies of other spiritual milieus. Some items from prior questionnaires are included in this survey for the purpose of comparison. Yet other items are drawn from the General Social Survey and from the Baylor University Survey, which permit certain comparisons. This has resulted in the survey being somewhat long — I deeply appreciate your taking the time to complete it.

If you are wondering about me, I have been studying the alternative scene (and particularly Hindu-derived spirituality) for a while. I wrote my MA thesis on the Art of Living Foundation, and I have since written several articles and chapters on Art of Living, Indian new religious movements in the West, gender, and the New Age. I am also a co-editor of several anthologies. I also have a page on academia.edu that you are welcome to look into.

Categories found in questionnaires like this one frequently do not do justice to the complexities of real life. For this reason, a number of open-ended items have been included that allow for more nuanced responses. Though I prefer ENGLISH, you can, alternately, answer OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS IN ANOTHER EUROPEAN LANGUAGE. You are also welcome to contact me directly at inga.bardsen.tollefsen@uit.no

Also, if there are items you are uncomfortable answering, it is possible to skip questions.

The questionnaire will NOT gather and store directly identifiable personal data, and will NOT store your IP-address.

Informants may, in some cases, be indirectly identifiable in the ‘raw’ data material. However, informants will NOT be identifiable in publications/ the PhD thesis.

PLEASE NOTE: If you know that you are inclined to be really thorough (a trait I deeply appreciate), this questionnaire will likely to take some time to complete. Unfortunately, it is not possible to ‘park’ the questionnaire and return to it later. What you might want to do instead is to look through the questionnaire, note the questions you think will require lengthy responses, and then compose your responses in a word-processing program. After you have finished, reopen the questionnaire, and cut-and-paste responses to relevant questions.

Thanks for your help.

Inga Bårdsen Tøllefsen
University of Tromsø
Tromsø, Norway

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/yogaUiT 

Upcoming Publications

Two articles are making their way down the publishing pipeline.

Oxford Handbook Cover

 

First, a chapter co-authored with Jesper Aagaard Peterson titled, “Modern Religious Satanism: A Negotiation of Tensions,” in Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, 2nd edition, edited by James R. Lewis and Inga Bårdsen Tøllefsen, by Oxford University Press.

Order here.

 

9781474237789

 

Second, a reprint of my article, “Blood, Sweat, and Urine: The Scent of Feminine Fluids in Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Witch,” in The Bloomsbury Reader in Religion, Sexuality and Gender, edited by Donald L. Boisvert and Carly Daniel-Hughes, by Bloomsbury Academic.

Pre-order here.

The Myth of the Myth of the 80-Hour Work Week

Oof, was my first reaction. I’m so tired, was my second.

It begins with the common adage, “The great thing about academia is the flexibility. You can work whatever 80 hours a week you want!” which I first read on the hilarious Twitter feed of Shit Academics Say. Then, a comprehensive and well-presented debunking of the myth of the eighty-hour academic work week by Meaghan Duffy on Sas Confidential. Duffy claims that it is an inflated and damaging standard that discourages pursuits of higher education, especially among women.

But not so fast. Let’s examine some of the evidence Duffy provides, based on her experience in grad school in Ecology. She states:

It was something like 6 hours of actual work a day. I never would have guessed it was that low. I hadn’t realized how much time I was spending on those seemingly little breaks between projects. I used to count a sample, then go read an article on Slate, then go count another sample, then go read another article, etc. At the end of the day, if you’d asked what I’d done, I would have said I’d spent all day counting samples.

I don’t doubt that this is true. But allow me to provide a different experience, based on how graduate students in my department divide their time, and the responsibilities and duties expected of us. As important as it is to debunk damaging myths, it is also important to highlight that we are all not on an equal playing field when it comes to “working” in academia.

First, there is the issue of funding. In Canada, not all graduate students receive fellowships. This means, that in addition to their academic pursuits, they often work outside of academia in part-time jobs. Or they work to supplement the low stipend they do receive. Students with funding packages providing a steady and livable income without external financing are the minority. For example, I worked full-time as an office manager during my master’s degree. Without exaggeration, the pace nearly broke me. This is not uncommon.

Second, even those of us who receive funding are also teaching, and working as teaching and researching assistants. Preparing lectures, grading assignments, meeting with students, reading through archives, evaluating studies and writing reports, and all the administrative duties that come along with those jobs count as work. In my case, I receive departmental as well as federal funding to pursue my doctoral degree. Dispersed over the course of five years, it may pay all my necessary bills [I’m not homeless! I rejoice daily.], but in Canada, the amount is still below the poverty line. That’s why most grad students willingly accept extra jobs, even though it delays their own academic work.

Third, and this one is not applicable to everyone, I also sat on committees, organized conferences, presented at conferences, edited journals, and volunteered my time for various university and departmental activities. None of it was remunerated. What I invested in time and effort I received back twofold in peer and faculty support, as well as networking opportunities. This is also work.

Fourth, when writing articles or book chapters for publication (minimally remunerated so as to be inconsequential), the time we spend reading amounts to hundreds of hours per twenty-five page essay. Graduates spend chunks of ten/twelve hours per day writing under deadlines. We also, occasionally, spend time as peer-reviewers. Diligently reading and evaluation someone else’s work, providing extensive and hopefully helpful feedback.

I absolutely love teaching. I would not willingly give it up. I also enjoyed most of my extracurricular networking and volunteer work. I realize, however, that it delays progress on my thesis.

So no, I do not work eighty hours a week on my thesis. I do, however, prepare and give lectures, research and write articles, meet students, write grant proposals, respond to dozens of emails per day, and write and present papers at conferences (traveling on my own dime with only partial reimbursement). After several years of volunteer work, I learned to say “no” so as not to overextend myself. But that kind of work is also important for graduates. You gain administrative and organizational skills. Skills, by the way, that hiring committees appreciate when examining potential candidates.

And after all that, I conduct fieldwork, evaluate data, negotiate ethics boards, write drafts of my thesis proposal, and try to complete my four comprehensive exams (three written and one oral) in a timely fashion so as not to have my funding time-out before I even begin writing my thesis. I may not have to work eighty hours a week, but not keeping up a steady pace creates more issues down the line. Will I, like so many of my classmates, have to be writing a thesis and working a full-time (usually non-academic) job at the same time, in order to keep a roof over my head when the funding runs out?

So, my question is, does the myth of the 80-hour academic work week apply only to students who have enough external funding to be entirely unhampered by the surplus of expected duties, responsibilities, and extracurricular work? Because it sure feels like it. We are exhausted.

The Cycle of Scapegoating: Media and the Blame Game

The concept of scapegoating comes from the ancient Israelite ritual of the Day of Atonement, which designated one goat for blood sacrifice for Yahweh, and another to be sent out into the wilderness, its literal disposal meant to symbolically remove sin. Though this ritual has historical precursors (see link), the modern day etymology of the word “scapegoat” is derived from the goat sacrifices: to deflect blame by projecting fears unto others. Jews themselves were often victims of this concept, blamed for Jesus’ crucifixion, infant mortality in medieval times, and the most glaring examples of Nazi Germany, among other.

Within my focus on all things involving Satanists and Witches, there are multiple circles of scapegoating directed at and emerging from these contemporary groups and individuals, as accusations of child abuse, tension with popular and theological perception, and struggles for legitimacy all converge in a confusing mess of circulatory deflected blame.

To unpack this a bit, it is first important to state that there are multiple individuals and groups self-identifying as Witches and Satanists, all with different understandings on the nature of evil. However, three large groupings can be joined together for the purposes of this blog entry: Neo-Pagans/Wiccans, the firmly atheistic Church of Satan, and the loosely affiliated individuals and groups of Theistic Satanists, called spiritual, esoteric, or traditional Satanists [though I do note some inaccuracies with wikipedia, the pages are meant for the reader to get a basic idea]. All have wild rumours associated with their ideas, and most popular depictions and understandings of them are grossly misconstrued.

A typical scenario for scapegoating begins with an incident picked up by the media, usually a criminal act in which there were elements deemed “satanic.” These “satanic” elements can be anything from a pentagram drawn on the wall or floor to simply having a heavy metal band’s poster on the wall. The word is used in media copy to generate interest and titillate/horrify their audience; rarely is there actually anything satanic about the particular crime.

However, when media report on a imprecise “satanic” incident, they will often quote an equally hyperbolic reaction from someone echoing popular misconceptions. The formula goes like this: “There was an X satanic crime. Clearly we have moved away from God, and witches are to blame.”

The fallout from this type of claim then begins a cycle of scapegoating, which usually follows a pattern described by Diane Vera, a self-described polytheistic azazalian spiritual Satanists. The pattern goes like this:

Christians blame Witches—>Witches blame Satanists—>The Church of Satan blames theistic/spiritual Satanists—>Theistic/Spiritual Satanists deny.

That is, in the process of denouncing the crimes, the immediate reaction is to then pass blame along to another group. For example, if a lone teenager kills an animal and the media reports it as “satanic,” there will invariably be a quote from a Christian group claiming that witchcraft is rampant. Neo-Pagans/Wiccans then respond, “Witches are not to blame. Only Satanists sacrifice animals.” To which the Church of Satan claims, “We don’t believe in Satan or the Devil because we’re atheists. Animal sacrifice is anathema because there’s no real devil to sacrifice to. Theistic Satanists are to blame because they believe in a literal devil.” Theistic Satanists in turn, decry this type of scapegoating, claiming that, though they believe a satanic entity, it is not considered “evil,” because that is a Christian concept.

Vera ends her cycle here. And though I agree with her assessment, I would actually add one more, and close the scapegoating loop by suggesting that theistic/spiritual Satanists, in turn, blame Christians, i.e. if you think Satan is evil and wants you to kill animals, that makes you a Christian heretic, not a Theistic Satanist.

Christians blame Witches—>Witches blame Satanists—>The Atheistic Church of Satan blames Theistic Satanists—>Theistic Satanists blame Christians.

And on and on it goes.

Here’s the Cycle of Scapegoating represented in a nifty graph:

The larger point I am trying to make is that scapegoating reflects the struggles for legitimacy within a larger society that makes little distinctions between these groups and individuals, which are in reality rather different religions. They may use similar nomenclature (witchcraft, magic, etc.), but their foundational ideas are quite different, and sometimes diametrically opposed. Though they are all functioning within a Western context and responding to its concerns and ideas (and can certainly find points of contact), the scapegoating tactic is actually a legitimizing tatic. It is method of establishing an authoritative voice for their religion, attempting to define themselves by rejecting popular misunderstandings and deflecting accusations to the very groups that muddy the waters of these definitions. The larger population has little insight into the differences and regularly conflate and skew their foundational ideas; scapegoating is then a reaction to these conflations.

All of these religions denounce and decry animal sacrifice (even the ancient Jews, as they stopped practicing animal sacrifice after 70 c.e.) and criminal activity, though unstable individuals cannot be accounted for. Scholars (and journalists) are best to avoid the hyperbolic claim that if one individual from a fringe religion behaves criminally that that act is indicative of the entire religious body. The logical fallacy becomes obvious when we apply it to larger, conventional religions. By those faulty extrapolations, Christianity is responsible for most crimes (i.e. if most people incarcerated are Christians, therefore most crimes are caused by Christianity): a false conclusion and misleading claim, despite being statistically accurate.

Why did I write this blog post, you may ask? I’m researching articles for my upcoming Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion course, and still come across unchallenged scapegoating claims, wherein the author-scholar repeats the claim without critique. Chances are that if the group you’re studying says, “That’s not us. That’s ___,” that that group ___ presents an opposition to the first group’s reputation in the public imagination. The claim deserves an outright debunking at most, or a cautious footnote in the least.