Wednesday 26 February 2014

New ESSWE Regional Network: Central and Eastern European Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism

Just a quick note to announce the formation of a new regional network affiliated with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE): the Central and Eastern European Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism (CEENASWE). As well-known scholar of esotericism Dr. Egil Asprem informed me in his Albion Calling interview late last year, the formation of this new group follows the establishment of other regional networks, such as the Scandinavian Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism (SNASWE), the Israeli Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism (INASWE) and the Centro de Estudios sombre el Esoterismo Occidental de la Unasur (CEEO-UNASUR). Given that three of the main institutions devoted to studying the subject of Western esotericism are located in England, France, and the Netherlands, I wonder if we shall see an ESSWE regional network emerge to cover Western Europe too over the coming years.

To mark the group’s formation, they have put out a public statement announcing a scholarly colloquium to be held in Budapest later this year:

The East-Central European members of ESSWE (The European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism) have decided to establish a branch organization, CEENASWE – Central and Eastern European Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism

To mark this development, the official launching of CEENASWE will include a scholarly colloquium, hosted by the CENTER FOR RELIGIOUS STUDIES OF THE CENTRAL EUROPEAN UNIVERSITY in Budapest, on 4-5 July (Friday-Saturday), 2014, highlighting the theme WESTERN ESOTERICISM IN CENTRAL- and EASTERN-EUROPE – OVER THE CENTURIES.

20 minutes’ paper proposals should be sent to Karolina M. Kotkowska and (with author’s affiliation and a short abstract) by April 15, 2014. There will be no registration fee and budget accommodation in the dormitory of CEU will be offered.

Sunday 23 February 2014

An Interview with Professor Carole M. Cusack

This week here at Albion Calling I am very fortunate to have an internationally renowned figure in the field of religious studies here with me; Carole M. Cusack, who currently holds a Professorship at the University of Sydney, Australia. Like myself, much of her background is in the pre-Christian belief systems of North-Western Europe; in this area, she has published on both the motif of the sacred tree as well as processes of Christianisation. However, she also takes a keen research interest in new religious movements, having published on such subjects as contemporary Paganism(s) and “invented religions” like Jediism, Discordianism, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. We discuss her career, research, and the state of religious studies in today’s world.

Cusack in Sanur, Bali in 2013

[EDW] You are currently Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney, having first attained your BA Hons in Religious Studies and English Literature from that same institution back in 1986. You began teaching Religious Studies in 1989, at first as a casual lecturer and tutor, while at the same time working on your PhD, completed in 1996. That year you became a full-time staff member, and from there, you went on to attain a Master of Education in Educational Psychology in 2001. Can you tell us a bit more about this academic trajectory, and what sparked your decision to become a professional academic?

[CMC] My family were working-class Irish Catholics and I was educated at Catholic schools in the Sydney suburbs. It certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I’d become an academic; in fact my late father was not keen on my continuing school to matriculation (I’m the eldest of four). He was persuaded to change his mind, and the rest is history. As a teenager I was passionately interested in music and reading (these are enduring passions, as it happens), and certain books and captured my imagination. A few that were really important are: C. P. Snow’s The Masters (1951), about the election of a new Master in a Cambridge college in 1937; Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), which is tremendously Catholic and romantic, with being a student at Oxford the formative experience for Charles Ryder (and the television series in 1981, my first year at university, was also important); and also John Cowper Powys’ massive A Glastonbury Romance (1932), soaked as it is in the Grail myth, the re-enactment of the passion of Christ, and so much else as well (the entire oeuvre of John Cowper Powys should be of crucial interest to contemporary Pagans, but I suspect that he is almost unread these days, to everyone’s detriment, not just the Pagans).

It would not do if you thought my group of friends were just toadies to upper-class English culture, colonial wannabes, or would-be sophisticates who were terribly pretentious. We were young and romantic and intoxicated by beauty and art (the Pre-Raphaelites, manuscripts from the medieval era, Classical statuary, and really the gamut of the visual and performing arts, theatre, ballet, opera, and so on). The Middle Ages was one of the preferred eras, possibly – though not entirely – fuelled by the excess of gorgeous neo-Gothic architecture that Sydney (and Australia generally) boasts. The two cathedrals, St Mary’s Catholic and St Andrew’s Anglican, are both beautiful, and the Main Quadrangle of the University of Sydney is exceptionally fine. It was easy to imagine our experience was like that of students at Oxford and Cambridge (I later discovered it wasn’t, of course). Among my close undergraduate friends were about half a dozen who did PhDs on medieval topics (beguines in the Low Countries, early medieval Ireland, Old Norse sagas, the Franks, and so on), and several of us became professional scholars. (It may not come as a surprise that there were some interested in Goth subculture and fashion, and that Goth rock bands like The Mission, The Sisters of Mercy, and The Cult are still great favourites of mine).

My undergraduate work was in English and Religious Studies (with medieval history and Biblical Studies thrown into the mix) and I did two Honours years, as in Australia a Bachelor of Arts is three years, and Honours is an extra year (in Religious Studies, with a thesis on ‘An Examination into the Ideologies Underlying Nineteenth Century Researches into the Viking Age’, and in English, with a thesis titled ‘The Political Implications of Medievalism in William Morris’ The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems [1858]’). I’m also attracted by William Morris, and the Arts and Crafts movement in general (I loved A. S. Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book [2009] and Virginia Nicholson’s Among The Bohemians: Experiments In Living, 1900-1939 [2005]), and through friends, partners, and one sister who is an urban planner with a Masters in architectural design, I’ve gained some familiarity with architecture and planning, typography and book production, and other art and craft sub-fields.

Where does this lead? Well, I suppose that despite the fact I wrote a PhD on early medieval missions I always had a foot in the nineteenth century, and in the 1980s and early 1990s when I was studying, both medievalism and the academic study of Paganism were coming into being as real scholarly fields. Supervision and academic mentorship are tremendously important, too, and I was fortunate to study with Eric J. Sharpe (1933-2000), one of the ‘grand old men’ of Religious Studies, Margaret Clunies Ross, still going strong and a formidable presence in Old Norse Studies (though the late Harold Leslie Rogers taught me Old Icelandic and Margaret taught me Anglo-Saxon), and various other staff in English and History were important influences.

After getting an academic position in 1996, the year of my doctoral graduation, the Master of Education degree was really completed to secure me a continuing job (as I held a five-year contract, and had been told there was no chance of permanent employment unless I was ‘credentialled’ in Education). Still, it opened up a whole new world that has become more important since the cognitive sciences approach to Religious Studies (and literature, art, aesthetics, and a multitude of traditional Humanities disciplines) emerged and has gained momentum. I’ve never wanted to be anything other than a scholar working in a university and every day feel grateful that it was possible to realise that ambition. As I was employed in Religious Studies and not Medieval Studies I’ve a very broad range of interests and have taught undergraduates Buddhism, Japanese religions, Hinduism, Islam, even Old and New Testament topics.

Cusack in Neasden, London in 2010

[EDW] What is it that generated your passion for religion as a subject of enquiry, and in particular what was the origin of your interest in early medieval religion and new religious movements? Did you grow up in a religious household, or did you develop such interests independently?

[CMC] I touched upon my family background a little in the response to your first question. My parents were both quite devout, but as is so often the case these days their four children have all drifted away from the Catholic Church and I think would all identify as agnostics or atheists now. Yet defining religion as a supernaturalist attitude or belief in God is limiting for me. I’m an atheist, but a religious atheist. Ritual of all kinds fascinates me, and I’ve done walking meditation (kinhin) at Nan Tien Temple in Wollongong, and my partner Don Barrett and I have taken part in a Hindu funeral procession in Sanur, Bali (where we holiday often), and in Pagan rituals with friends (not to mention Greek Orthodox ceremonies at St Sophia’s Orthodox Cathedral in Bayswater, and the occasional synagogue etc).

As a child my interest in both religions and the Middle Ages was fuelled by reading; the complete Oxford Myths and Legends series was held in our local library, as were the two large-format, beautifully-illustrated books by Edgar and Ingri Parin d’Aulaire, The Greek Myths (1962) and Norse Gods and Giants (1967). I read retellings of the Arthurian legends and the Homeric epics, and loved the novels of children’s authors like Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and Alan Garner. As I grew older I read historical novels, often on Biblical and ancient world topics (by people like Frank G. Slaughter, Lew Wallace, Henryk Sienkiewicz). One of my teenage boyfriends was deeply interested in film and I was exposed to the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, still probably my favourite director, as well as historical silent films (Abel Gance, D. W. Griffith etc.) and everything conspired to make me fascinated by historical eras and geographical regions that were other than that in which I lived. That includes religion, myth, magic and everything that goes with it (art, literature, costume, architecture, furniture …).

[EDW] Your first monograph, Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998), came out of your PhD thesis, and examined the processes of conversion that the linguistically Germanic pre-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe went through between the third and eleventh centuries. In my opinion, a large part of its significance was that it offered a study of European paganism and Christianisation from the perspective of a trained scholar of religious studies; this contrasts with the overwhelming majority of studies on the subject, which come from a background in either history or archaeology. Could you tell us more about this particular project and what you see as its repercussions for both medieval religion and our understanding of conversion?

[CMC] The tale of my PhD and the attitude that I took to the conversion of Germanic Pagans to Christianity is a sort of an accident that turned out well. Initially I wanted to do a PhD on Anglo-Saxon Paganism and Professor Sharpe told me I’d struggle (this was January 1986, he was right, actually, in fact it’s still a pretty under-studied area despite the recent great contribution of Richard North, among others). He passed on a project he was working on about conversion, and I took it from there. Being raised Catholic was one huge advantage at that time; Religious Studies as a discipline was under attack for being some kind of disguised version of liberal Protestantism (and Eric Sharpe was criticised for being part of that, and was in fact an ordained minister, though it should be noted that he was deeply suspect among Sydney Protestants who tend to be hard-line, and never had a parish). I was from a working-class Catholic background, so; a) I didn’t really understand what liberal Protestantism was, and b) I wasn’t (and still am not) convinced it’s that important.

Beyond that, I always felt anxious about Christian triumphalist narratives (so much of the PhD research I did was of that kind). What sort of answer is it to say that the late Roman Empire became Christian because a) Christianity was true and was the God-ordained religion, and b) the Pagans were wrong? As an undergraduate (and chiefly in my Religious Studies Honours year, when I was taught by a visiting scholar, the late Dr Vrijhof from University of Utrecht, who was a sociologist) I got excited by the possibilities of social-scientific analysis of religion, the application of sociological models to ancient and medieval societies, and that’s what I did. Later I was praised for giving the Pagans a fair go (thank you, Michael Strmiska), but I wasn’t convinced I’d done enough, and that inspired me to try to right the historical wrong. The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (2011) is a sort of parallel volume to my PhD, in which I tried to do more for the Pagans, to present their position as being akin to the colonial indigenous cultures that had been destroyed by Christian imperialists in the modern era.

[EDW] One of your (fairly) recent projects has seen a return to the realms of Europe in the Middle Ages, this time offering an examination of the role played by the sacred tree in European cosmology. As part of this you looked at the concept of the tree as both axis mundi and imago mundi, examining instances from various different parts of Europe to explore this theme, which is found in many contexts across the continent. This research resulted in The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011). Could you tell us a bit about this project?

[CMC] Much of my early academic development was assisted by great teachers; after I got a job and was allowed to teach and supervise, my Honours and postgraduate students have been some of my dearest and best instructors and collaborators. Dan Bray, who is now teaching English as a second language, was one of my earliest postgraduates and a Pagan, and he really made it clear to me that European Pagans were indigenous people whose culture was destroyed by Christian imperialism. In my PhD I analysed the medieval texts that discussed the destruction of sacred trees by missionaries (St Martin of Tours, Boniface of Devon), and as I’d become interested in ecological Paganism I wanted to find a way to investigate the early medieval Pagan experience, and the sacred tree became a symbol that I could use.

It ultimately extended to pillar monuments and even Christian standing crosses, and had such wonderful side effects as Don and I walking the Hermannsweg in Germany, from Detmold, in order to see the Externsteine, a remarkable natural site that was a particular context for the Pagan-Christian transition in that region. We love long-distance walking and have completed the Hadrian’s Wall walk in 2005, the St Cuthbert’s Way walk in 2006, the Cotswold Way walk in 2007, and various other walks in Britain. The Hermannsweg was our first walk on the Continent, and the Externsteine is hypothesised by some to be a credible site for location of the Irminsul, the ‘universal column upholding the world’ (according to Rudolf of Fulda), that Charlemagne’s army cut down in the early years of his long and bloody war against the Saxons.

[EDW] Alongside your interest in pre-Christian worldviews and the conversion process to Christianity, you have also devoted much research to new religious movements (NRMs). Recently, this has resulted in Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), in which you looked at five NRMs – Discordianism, the Church of All Worlds, the Church of the SubGenius, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and Jediism – which you term “invented religions” due to the unique way in which they were created on the basis of self-professed fiction. Could you tell us more about this research and studies into this fascinating phenomenon?

[CMC] This project emerged from two quite different interests. I first heard about Discordianism, for example, through students. Guy McCulloch did a presentation in an undergraduate unit on religious experience on the Principia Discordia, which I immediately purchased a copy of. After my marriage ended in 1992 I was involved for some time with Michael Usher, who had studied Crowleyan occultism for a time and presented me with a House of the Apostles of Eris ‘Pope’ card (that was the first direct contact I had with Australian Discordians).

The interest I felt would have gone nowhere except for the help and support I received from Alex Norman (then a research assistant and PhD student). He and I have worked together for so long it’s hard to imagine that our two brains weren’t forever conjoined, and he convinced me to keep at it, to make it happen, to find methodological models that would enable sense to be made of such anarchic and irreverent materials, and I did. His impressive collective of Flying Spaghetti Monster t-shirts may have assisted, though that’s not certain! I’m proud and happy that Invented Religions has received eighteen published reviews, all of which are positive. I understand that some people, both ‘insiders’ of certain of the traditions examined (mostly Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius) but also some esoterically-inclined scholars, have objected to my etic, outsider approach to these groups, but I can only riposte that a scholarly conversation can only occur when the preliminary documentation of the phenomena has been accomplished, and that’s what I was doing. I still love the book; it’s been the easiest thing I’ve ever written. And the funnest (and yes, I know that’s not a word).

Last year I had the pleasure of co-editing a special issue of Culture and Religion in ‘invented’ or ‘fiction-based’ religions (to use Markus Davidsen’s term) with a friend and colleague, Steven Sutcliffe (University of Edinburgh). The issue has eight pretty good articles that play with the concept and come up – I think – with something new and durable to say about the notion. I’ve written a few shorter pieces on the topic, and later this year I’m co-editing a volume for the INFORM series (published by Ashgate) with Pavol Kosnac. We’ve got a great group of contributors, and I’m quite excited by the possibilities that are emerging for the book.

[EDW] Like yourself, I have spent time researching both pre-Christian European religion and modern Western NRMs; I’d be really interested in learning how you personally understand the connection between the two? If you see a connection there at all, that is.

[CMC] Unlike some of these answers, which have taken some time to get together, this answer is easy. I can just lift it from my 2012 application for promotion to Professor, in which I had to identify my specialist area in fifty words or less. It was: ‘ “Alternative” religion(s) in the West from the Middle Ages to the present, focusing on: 1) Christian marginalization of alternative religion(s); 2) inverse processes of medieval Christianization and de-Paganization, and contemporary de-Christianization and re-Paganization; and 3) the challenge alternative religion(s) pose to definitions of ‘religion’ and the discipline of “religious studies”.’ I hope that helps.

[EDW] Your research has touched on a huge array of different topics – so many in fact that it would be completely impractical to discuss all of them here – but one of your recent research projects that I find particular interesting is that which you have undertaken with Dr Jason Prior of Sydney’s University of Technology, examining spirituality among Sydney’s gay community, in particular with regards to clubs and bathhouses. How did this project come about, and what do you see as the state of research into Queer Spiritualities in Australia?

[CMC] I’ve been fortunate that my friends have created opportunities to work on all sorts of topics. That’s been aided by my ability to be interested in just about anything, and having a low boredom threshold. I freely admit I’d probably never have become involved in GLBTQI studies (despite my ongoing interest in Genesis P-Orridge) save for having known Jason Prior for a LONG time. We initially bonded over breakfasts and dinners with our partners and that morphed into coffees together, and then we started working to put together Jason’s extraordinary sensitivity to and knowledge of, both planning and architecture (which feeds directly into the ‘sexuality and spatiality’ sub-field) and his willingness to step into uncharted territory, and see what we could achieve. We’re currently working on our fifth article together, on love (especially non-normative love) in the Australian urban context, riffing off everything from Augustine of Hippo to raids on gay clubs, and Christian fundamentalist objections to the building of non-Christian places of worship.

I urge everyone to choose their friends because they are intelligent, gorgeous, awesome, and generally just the best to spend time with, but also because (on the failsafe ‘two brains are better than one’ policy) you can immerse yourselves in each other’s specialities and get a whole lot more research going. Writing together isn’t an easy thing to get right, but I’ve done it with Jason, my former PhD student Justine Digance, Alex Norman, Katherine Buljan (with whom I’ve written a monograph on religion and anime) and Dani Kirby, and it’s a great experience. I recommend it! With regard to the future of research into Queer Spiritualities in Australia and in many other cultures – I think it’s a growing area that promises to yield much terrific research… Jason and I are also working on a Routledge reprint series, ‘Religion, Sexuality, and Spirituality’ which is proving to be intriguing and educative, as we have to get across a large body of literature, and make a selection of articles and chapters that include classics, new and ground-breaking, obscure and deserving of a larger audience, etc.

[EDW] Over the course of your career, you have edited such volumes as: Progress, What Progress? (1992, with Jonathan Wooding); They Came, They Spoke, They Progressed (1993, with Avril Vorsay and Jonathan Wooding); This Immense Panorama (1999, with Peter Oldmeadow); The End of Religions? (2001, with Peter Oldmeadow); The Buddha of Suburbia (2005, with Frances di Lauro and Christopher Hartney); Religion and Retributive Logic (2010, with Christopher Hartney); and Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012, with Alex Norman). You currently also co-edit Brill’s “Handbooks of Contemporary Religions” series with James R. Lewis, and the recent Routledge reprint series, “Sects, Cults and New Religions,” with Danielle Kirby. How do you get involved in so many projects on such a wide variety of topics? I can imagine that, accompanied with your teaching and your own research, it must make for a very demanding schedule.

[CMC] I don’t mind admitting I’m a workaholic who usually does 65-70 hours per week. Those edited volumes I did earlier on were concerned to build a career. I was involved in student politics as an undergraduate, and I was President of the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) for three years. All the publications on postgraduate research and policy issues emerged from that period, 1990-1992. The next phase was when I was a very junior scholar and had the chance to organise some conferences, and a range of volumes came from conferences that the department (which in 1991 changed its name to Studies in Religion) had hosted. Later on, I became more selective and did edited volumes for international publishers like Brill (with Australian colleagues like Alex Norman and Chris Hartney) and Ashgate (with Jim Lewis, we have our first such collaboration coming out this year).

Jim has been a great colleague to me (he is a known powerhouse of research projects and publishing), and I’ve contributed chapters to a large number of his books. When we met in Amsterdam in late 2010 he invited me to become co-editor of the Brill Handbooks of Contemporary Religion series, and it’s been a steep learning curve, but really valuable. Since then I’ve joined the boards of a few book series (Sophia series with Springer, the Sacred and Secular Histories series with Palgrave Macmillan) due to the kind invitations of senior colleagues. (I’ve only been a Professor since January 2013, it’s still hard to think of myself as a ‘senior’ academic …)

[EDW] You have also been involved in running a number of peer-reviewed journals; you were a founding editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (IJSNR) from 2010 to 2013, and currently serve as co-editor of the Journal of Religious History. You also sit on the editorial boards of two other journals, the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ASRR) and Aesthetics. How did the IJSNR come about, and what do you see as the significance of this recent blossoming of various peer-reviewed journals specifically devoted to new religious movements (i.e. the IJSNR, ASRR, and Nova Religio)?

[CMC] Publication in academic journals is the bread and butter, meat and potatoes (whatever your favourite metaphor is) of being a scholar. It’s vital that journals are run by dedicated editors and editorial boards, and that the peer-review (or refereeing) process is respected. That’s the hardest part, as the work of giving feedback to authors is unpaid, and even editorship roles are generally not part of any academic workloads discussion with colleagues in your department. Yet it’s terrific to have the opportunity to see new writing as it comes in, to see articles improve as the referees’ criticisms are taken on board by authors, to sometimes even to get an idea of how a whole new field emerges. Pioneering journals in new research areas (like Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions and Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism) are hugely influential. Whenever I feel glum about having to proof an issue or write a peer-review, I cheer myself up with these thoughts.

In the field of new religions I’d like to give huge credit and gratitude to Jim Lewis, who solicited chapters and articles from me years before we met and has since been a tremendously supportive colleague. Two of the journals you mentioned, Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ASRR) and International Journal for the Study of New Religions (IJSNR), came into existence through Jim’s sheer force of will and skill in introducing colleagues to each other, people who were just MADE to work together (Liselotte Frisk and I had a tremendous four years with IJSNR, and she’s a friend now, he just knows people who will get on). Another body that merits praise is CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions) led by the Italian lawyer Massimo Introvigne. I first met Liselotte (having previously only e-mailed) at the CESNUR 2011 conference at Aletheia University, Taiwan. CESNUR’s annual conference is one of the key places where scholars of new religions can network, and it’s interesting because (like the INFORM series I mentioned above and Eileen Barker, INFORM’s founder and director) Massimo thinks it’s important that scholars of new religions meet and get to know members of those religions, so the voices of believers and practitioners are part of the conversation.

[EDW] In studying new religious movements, you have often looked at particular traditions that fit within the broader categories of contemporary Paganism and/or Western esotericism. The last ten years of so have seen Pagan studies and the academic study of Western esotericism emerge as fields in their own right, with their own journals, book series, and conferences. As someone who is more closely identified with the study of NRMs, how do you feel about the emergence of these two fields; do you for instance fear that they are leading to an increasing ghettoization of scholars who should otherwise be working together more closely?

[CMC] It feels odd to remember that during my undergraduate studies the fields of Pagan Studies and Western Esotericism did not exist. First Year was Biblical Studies, the next three year were Confucianism, Hinduism, Japanese Buddhism, Methodology, Norse Mythology, Roman and Greek Religion, and so on. New religions were in the mix, though only in a very limited way (Professor Sharpe was interested in neo-Hindu movements like TM and ISKCON, and Garry Trompf worked on cargo cults in Papua New Guinea), and the sociological methodology I studied in Honours was most often applied to new religions. The emergence of Pagan Studies and Western Esotericism as defined fields of study presents both opportunities and threats.

First, it means that the field of ‘Religion’ is getting bigger, though it raises questions about whether Western Esotericism is religion (the jury are out on that, though Pagan Studies definitely is). Second, the strongly defined boundaries around some of the sub-divisions within Religion make it harder to hold conferences that have broad appeal and unite all constituents. Third, the newer fields often seem to operate outside the constraints of the wider discipline. I get anxious, sometimes, about the whole idea of ‘religion’ falling apart (to quote Yeats, ‘the centre cannot hold’). That’s why I move from one to another, a bit of the Middle Ages, then a bit of new religions, a bit of Japanese and Ancient World religions, a methodological article, a bit of archaeology, a chapter on a Pagan topic, then some Western Esotericism … I, for one, want to be across the whole lot, and to be able to work on any topic that might conceivably fall within the remit of ‘religion’.

[EDW] What research projects have you got going on at the moment, and are there any big publications coming out that we should keep our eyes peeled for?

[CMC] This is a big year for research projects that I’m involved with, and it’s a bit of a risk to say that any of it is actually going to happen. But I can nail some colours to the mast. Following on from the reprint series I did with Dani Kirby on ‘Sects, Cults and New Religions’ for Routledge, in January Alex Norman and I completed one on ‘Religion, Pilgrimage, and Tourism’, and Helen Farley and I are in the middle of a series on ‘Religion, the Occult, and the Paranormal.’ The series Jason Prior and I are planning has already been mentioned. I’m also editing the INFORM series volume with Pavol Kosnac on Invented Religions (to which I’ll contribute a chapter and a co-written introduction).

There is also a special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on G. I. Gurdjieff that I’m editing (six articles, due early April). My friends David Robertson and Christopher Cotter are editing a book on the World Religions paradigm and I’m writing a chapter on Neolithic archaeology and religion (another passion of mine), and I’ve an entry on ‘Sport and Religion’ for an edited volume due in September. The big-ticket items are two monograph contracts (on the Church of All Worlds and G. I. Gurdjieff, the second co-written with Steven Sutcliffe). I’ve got six months’ research leave in Edinburgh from 1 July 2014, so I should be able to get a fair bit done. I like work, especially writing, especially when there’s time to really concentrate.

[EDW] Where do you think that the field of religious studies stands at the moment, and where do you think that it is heading, particularly when faced with the current reforms affecting the humanities and social sciences? In particular, I wondered what you thought of the present state – and the future prospects – of scholarship on the subjects of early medieval religion and new religious movements?

[CMC] The situation of the Humanities in universities the world over is not that great at the moment. It was noted several years ago that the appeal of a traditional Arts degree was declining, and the growth of professional-sounding degrees is because they are attractive to young people who are anxious about getting a job at the end of their studies. I have talented postgraduates and I always tell them NOT to expect that there will be an academic job at the end of the PhD. Many of them would make excellent teachers and researchers, but the opportunities aren’t there. I believe that critical thinking and academic writing skills are transferable and worthwhile just about any job that you might end up in, but that can sound like cold comfort. If you have a great desire to do research in the fields of Medieval Studies, Religious Studies, Western Esotericism, New Religious Movements, or any other obscure area, I would say that it’s worth it if you enjoy the research, get the PhD and have what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a ‘flow’ experience through the writing and producing of a masterwork (to think about it in the context of medieval guilds, or even Bob Dylan’s ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’). Then you publish the masterpiece and accept ‘post-academia’: A few will make it through the hellish process and get jobs (three friends in their early thirties all got jobs in the last three years, a GOOD THING). Others will find another career in which they can shine, and which will be pleasurable and rewarding.

Thanks for the opportunity to discuss my research and career on ‘Albion Calling’. There are a few things people might like to know: I have three lovely cats (Gracie, Ka, and Sam); live in a somewhat rundown Victorian house in Sydney’s inner west (red walls, Persian rugs, lots of art, books everywhere, and a battered Chesterfield scratched to bits by aforementioned cats feature); I have a large collection of teddy bears; I like ironing (it’s meditational), and am very interested in fashion and own hundreds of clothes (though I mostly wear about ten per cent of my wardrobe, a fair number of which pieces are jeans). Don and I wander the world attending performances of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Cycle (we’ll attend our ninth in November 2014), and we are strict recyclers and greenies (no car, rainwater tanks, etc) to overcome the guilt of all those ‘plane flights.

[EDW] Professor Cusack, thank you so much for talking with me here at Albion Calling today; I've really enjoyed reading your answers, and think that many other people out there will too. I wish you all the best!

Tuesday 11 February 2014

An Interview with Dr. Graham Harvey

This week here at Albion Calling I am fortunate to have with me Dr Graham Harvey, Reader in Religious Studies at the Open University and current President of the British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR). As many of my readers will probably be aware, Harvey’s research interests have covered a broad variety of subjects over the years, from the semantic problems of ancient Judaism to contemporary Satanism in Britain, and from modern Paganism to the world’s indigenous religions. However, he is perhaps best known as a central figure in the “new animism,” exploring exciting new ways in which scholars can understand animist approaches to the world. We discuss his fascinating career, research, and thoughts about the future of religious studies.

Dr Harvey at the Oson town shrine in
Osogbo, Southwest Nigeria

[EDW] Having attained a BA in Theology from the London Bible College in 1982, you received your PhD at the University of Newcastle on Tyne in 1991 for a thesis examining the rhetoric of group identity in ancient Jewish literature from the era of the Second Temple. Examining the semantic differentiation between terms like “Jews,” “Hebrews,” and “Israel” in this period, you were supervised by John F.A. Sawyer, and subsequently published your research as The True Israel: Uses of the Names Jew, Hebrew, and Israel in Ancient Jewish and Early Christian Literature (Brill, 1996). Where did this interest in ancient Judaism stem from, and why did you move away from it as an active research interest? Were the highly contentious and emotive issues surrounding ancient Jewish history a factor?

[GH] I was going to say that my interest in ancient Judaism simply arose out of a dissatisfaction with something which one of my undergraduate degree lecturers had said. But nothing is ever simple. I can trace interests in ancient history to early childhood visits to Wiltshire’s ancestral places. And I was a kibbutz and archaeology volunteer in the other “holy land” (Israel/Palestine) for a year before I did my first degree. And since I’ve continued to be interested in the ways in which people chose to identify themselves – e.g. by names, by actions and by joining or leaving groups – it’s obvious that I have some deep obsession with issues of belonging and with the effects of language, of word choices, in our ability to communicate. Certainly, however, there is an element of serendipity in my taking that particular topic for PhD research. Indeed, I hadn’t really planned to do a PhD at all until Leslie Allen (then professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at LBC) recommended that I might talk with John Sawyer in Newcastle about such a thing. I’m grateful to both of them for their inspiring teaching and intellectual guidance. And the reason that I moved away from the kind of research involved in my doctoral thesis is that I am not a good linguist. Leslie Allen and John Sawyer are brilliant linguists. I am hardly competent to use a dictionary. I might also note that John told a fellow student that I could help her with her Hebrew – I suspect this was a plot to make me work harder in order to be able to help. But that fellow student is now my wife, Molly, and her Hebrew is still much better than mine even though I spent a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, putatively learning modern Hebrew…

But let’s move on. You ask why I moved on in research terms and offer me the chance to make grand claims about the contentious issue of Jewish peoplehood. In some respects my PhD was about a phase of group and identity formation, conflict and differentiation among Jews. I continue to be interested in such issues and in later and more recent episodes of evolving peoplehood, not only among Jews. The truth, however, is that I moved on because of another serendipitous opportunity. The Religious Studies department at Newcastle was developing a new course on “contemporary religions” and I offered a session on Pagans, Druids in particular, because I’d met some at Stonehenge during the annual Free Festival there (which I first encountered in the summer of 1976) and in the efforts to regain access after the appalling Mrs Thatcher had the festival banned in the mid-1980s. My not entirely serious offer of a session on Druidry was taken up and I had to actually go and find out what Paganism was about. So the shift in my research was never about problems with the invention of Jewish identities (except my linguistic problems) and far more about the reinvention of myself as a ethnographer rather than as an historian of religions.

[EDW]: Having taught at the University of Newcastle on Tyne throughout your doctoral program, in 1996 you were employed as a Lecturer and later Reader in Religious Studies at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, now the University of Winchester, where you remained until 2003. You then joined the Religious Studies Department at the Open University, first as a Lecturer and then as a Reader, before being appointed department head in 2013. What is it about the Open University and its unique teaching structure that you think makes it so important in the context of the British higher education system? In particular, what role do you see it as playing in British religious studies?

[GH] The Open University is a remarkable and wonderful experiment in making higher education possible for people who might otherwise be excluded, without neglecting people who have the kind of qualifications deemed necessary elsewhere. That’s a large part of our “openness”. While some universities pride themselves on only taking students with “the best” high school grades, we are proud to make it possible for everyone to get good degrees, including at masters and doctoral levels. We are also “open” in the sense that we produce materials for distance learning and on-line learning (increasingly as part of “mixed methods” approaches). We provide students with all the materials, guidance and support that they need to work towards degrees that are at least as good as those offered anywhere else. Of course that means that students have to work hard – and many do this while working, including the hard work of bringing up families. It’s wonderful to go to one of our graduation ceremonies (there are quite a few of these because the OU is the largest university in Britain, with over 240,000 students) and see such a wide range of people celebrating their impressive achievements. Many other universities now offer some kind of distance or on-line learning opportunities, but none do it with the dedication and effort that we do.

What role does it play in British religious studies? Well, in addition to the fact that we teach a significant proportion of all undergraduate students in religious studies in the UK (and many elsewhere too since we have a global reach), we also supervise wonderful PhD students who make excellent contributions to the discipline. We are strongly committed to maintaining and advancing the study of religion as a vibrant critical field. This is evidenced not only in our boundary-maintaining differentiation from theological departments elsewhere, but also, more positively, in the contributions my colleagues and I play in various subject associations that focus on the ethnology, sociology and history of religions as well as wider umbrella organisations such as the British Association for the Study of Religions. We are interested not only in a wide range of religious phenomena but also in an important spread of critical approaches or methodologies and in a significant diversity of critical issues (for example, debates about material, performative, gendered, activist and vernacular religioning). Our research leads both to publications that advance research and teaching elsewhere and to forms of dissemination and conversation with a far wider population.

[EDW] You are well known for your research into contemporary Paganism, culminating in the publication of your academic primer on the subject, Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism (Hurst & Co., 1997; second ed. 2007), as well as the more popular-oriented What do Pagans Believe? (Granta, 2007). You are also the co-editor of both The Paganism Reader (Routledge, 2004, with Chas S. Clifton) and Researching Paganisms (Altamira, 2004, with Jenny Blain and Doug Ezzy), as well as the popular-oriented Pagan Pathways: An Introduction to the Ancient Earth Traditions (Thorsons, 1996, with Charlotte Hardman). Accompanying this, you have published a range of peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on the subject, and you sit on the editorial panel of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. Switching focus from the texts of ancient Judaism to the lived experience of contemporary Paganism seems to be a big leap, so I’d be very interested in learning more about how this interest developed? In your work you clearly take a very positive attitude towards modern Paganism, and in your excellent chapter in Researching Paganisms you talk about your own emic perspectives on the subject, so I hoped that you could tell us a little bit more about that?

[GH] As I mentioned before my research among Pagans began serendipitously because I half-jokingly offered a session about Druids to a course on “contemporary religions” that was being developed. I think it’s true to say that my interest in Paganism began then. While I’d been at Stonehenge Free Festival from 1976 onwards, and while I joined in many efforts (by many means) to regain open access to Stonehenge in the 1980s, I didn’t have much to do with its religious or ritual activities. Even my first close encounters with Druids took place in their efforts to help people (like myself) being threatened by police hostility rather than in actual celebrations of midsummer sunrise, for instance. However, like many people, when I did become involved with Pagans (initially purely for research purposes) I found that much of what was going on had parallels with my previous interests. Perhaps this is obvious from the fact that I’d been hanging out as a young hippy (albeit one who thought he was a Christian) at Stonehenge Festival.

To be clear, the festival was attractive as a place where all sorts of ideas and obsessions were shared, debated, experimented with. I found this to be part of what the first Pagans I spent significant time with were committed to. In addition to interests in more communal and anarchist ways of life than Thatcherism encouraged, I had also developed commitments to environmentalist and feminist perspectives and practices. So, again, finding that these themes played vital roles in the evolution of Paganism increased my interest both as a researcher and then as a newly self-identified Pagan.

It is true that I often present a positive view of Pagans and Paganism. But this is not an uncritical or romantic view. I’m not going to rehearse my criticisms of specific Pagans or Pagan groups here. The point of most of my publications and lectures has been to introduce something of the lived reality and imaginative yearnings of Paganism to colleagues, students, the media and others. Since I wrote my first publications about Pagans and Paganism a lot more has been researched and written by other academics (some of them my esteemed PhD students and colleagues). Many of them have tackled some more challenging issues. Nonetheless, I continue to think that Paganism is an interesting religion to study because it is braided into important issues of today. It is, in part, about experiments with ritual, ecology, social diversity and performance cultures. These experiments take place in the wider context of a late-modern, late-capitalist but still thoroughly consumerist anthropocene era. How could Paganism not be an arena of conflict and diversity, rife with imperfections? Perfection, anyway, is an unlikely achievement in any human context – unless we accept that “what is” is already perfect, even as it all evolves. OK, that’s enough of that sermon. I don’t really talk too much about my personal Pagan practice – at least partly because I’m not a leader but it is no secret that I participate more enthusiastically in more animistic events than in other forms of Paganism.

[EDW] Another new religious movement that has attracted your attention is Satanism, which you have studied ever since the decline of the Satanic ritual abuse hysteria of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Given that Satanism studies are just beginning to emerge as an independent and legitimate field with two academic anthologies on the subject now published (one including your chapter on British Satanism), I’d be interested to hear how you came to investigate this pioneering yet controversial area.

[GH] I researched among Satanists purely because Pagans kept defending themselves from accusations that they were Satanists. They had to do this because some kinds of Christian and some sensationalist journalists kept making the accusation. So I wanted to find out if there were any self-identified Satanists around and, if there were, what they did and thought. What did it mean to them to name themselves “Satanists”? So, again you can see that although I moved away from researching about ancient Jewish identity conflicts I have never lost an interest in names and boundary disputes. My one research project among Satanists (once I’d found a few) is all that I’ve done in that field. I have an impression that not much has changed but I’m happy that other researchers are involved now. The internet makes this easier now because self-identified Satanists chat in social media and have published material online.

Just to be clear, I have concluded that (a) there are distinct differences between Pagans and Satanists, (b) there aren’t many Satanists, (c) self-identified Satanists are usually much nicer people than they or the media would have us believe, (d) if any Satanists are involved in unpleasant activities this is not because there is an organised “Satanism” that encourages them, (e) most accusations about Satanism are usually rooted in the fantasies of those who make the accusations. But I also want to say that accusations of “witchery” (a term I use to distinguish such accusations of maleficence from the “witchcraft” of Wiccans and other Pagan Witches) are the cause of increasing violence in many parts of the world. Those who perpetrate such violence (whether it is against supposed witches or as a way of gaining power against witches) include well educated people and committed members of Christian Churches as well as other people. And, to be clear again, when I refer to people seeking to gain power against witches I am thinking, for example, of some appalling abuse of children with mental or physical illnesses. I have met some of these children whose lives are endangered or destroyed by people who think that parts of their bodies (and eventually their lives) can be cut off for use as “medicine” against witches. If there is an evil in the world, this is it.

[EDW] Another prominent research interest of yours is in indigenous religions, and in what you have described as “indigenous diasporas.” You are the editor of Indigenous Religions: A Companion (Cassell, 2000) and Readings in Indigenous Religions (Cassell, 2002), as well as the co-editor of Indigenous Religious Musics (Aldershot, 2001, with Karen Ralls) and Indigenous Diasporas and Dislocations (Ashgate, 2005, with Charles Thompson). In this capacity you are also a member of both the Society for the Study of Native American Religious Traditions (SSNART) and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). How did you first develop your interest in this field, and what is it that so fascinates you about the subject? Do you see the academic interest in indigenous communities and their native belief systems as being connected to the ongoing struggle for indigenous rights, and how to you see the relationship between indigenous religions and contemporary Paganisms?

[GH] I have been interested in indigenous peoples for most of my life, one way or another. However, as with Satanism, my specifically academic research interest in indigenous religions was initially inspired by a desire to test the claim some Pagans were making (and some continue to make) that Paganism (or Druidry, or Heathenry, or Wicca, or Shamanism) was or is the indigenous religion of Britain. Ronald Hutton makes the more straightforward claim that Wicca is the only religion England has given to the world. It is indigenous in that sense. It’s not just that I wanted to know whether there are similarities between some kind of Paganism and contemporary indigenous religions. That doesn’t take a lot of research and it’s not all that interesting to me. Of more interest are the questions, “what are contemporary indigenous religions like?” or “what is it like to do indigenous religions in this late-modern, not-yet-postcolonial world?”. That kind of thing.

In many respects this has involved me leaving Pagan Studies to other researchers and finding ways to engage with indigenous peoples and researchers. Happily for me, my interest coincided with a tremendous growth in interdisciplinary research, much of it by excellent indigenous scholars. So there were lots of colleagues to learn from – happily again they were and are generous people generally, so there are wonderful collaborations and conversations rather than conflicts and colonisations going on. Therefore, the short answer to your first question is that what interests me about the subject is efforts to understand how indigenous religions are lived today. I’m not interested in “pre-contact” religions or in “pure traditions” – these are inaccessible or fantasies anyway. Vibrant messy everyday contemporary life is the exciting thing.

To expand on that and to answer your second question about indigenous rights, I have been greatly privileged to be able to spend time with indigenous peoples in many places. Their hospitality and humour have been wonderful. A key fact about contemporary indigenous religions is that they are as much about living in the contemporary world as any other lived religion. That is, they are not fantasies of past times before Columbus or Cook or Cortes… Nor are they eulogies for a lost or dying world. They might be, in part, ways in which communities or cultures that have survived genocide now face the challenges of the contemporary world. They might, for instance, utilise ceremonial practices and apply ancestral knowledge to current issues like global climate change and pollution. They are also significant because they are part of dealing with disenfranchisement, dislocation and disease. Indigenous communities are impacted by consumerist modernity in specific ways that might not be unique to them but are certainly stark. A researcher who ignores the negative continuing legacy of colonial genocide is a fantasist.

Nonetheless, the reasons for respecting rights is not only negative. Interest in indigenous religious should not only be negative. Victimhood and survival and not the only or key things that deserve attention. People have rights over their knowledge and their lives. In various senses they own (and are owned by) what they have inherited from ancestors, adapt for current lives, and wish to hand on to others. Researchers who want to know something should approach people with the honest recognition of their own ignorance. People who turn up somewhere claiming to be experts are not going to be good learners. That’s all wrapped up in respecting rights.

For all these reasons and more, rights are important. It is never enough for a researcher to collect and organise facts. But anyway, to put a long argument into a few inadequate words, the real world (indeed, the real cosmos) is thoroughly participative and pervasively relational. It is not possible to be absolutely “objective” and we should reject the voyeuristic pose of our academic ancestors who expected us to worry about “going native”. I’ve argued this more fully – with considerable gratitude to various Maori hosts – in what I’ve written about “guesthood.” A researcher cannot be purely insider or outsider, emic or etic. For one thing, presence is a form of participation; for another, questioning creates both presence and distance. But we can hope to be guests. So, yes, research has to be connected with rights because researchers seek to understand and do something with indigenous intellectual and cultural property. If we do not honour indigenous rights we will misunderstand and misrepresent people.

As for the relationship between indigenous religions and Paganism, I see a wide range of relations. At the people level: there are Pagans and indigenous people who speak with each other, listen to each other, do ceremony together, march together against fracking and for justice. True, there are Pagans who disrespectfully appropriate from indigenous people and there are indigenous people who disrespectfully accuse innocent Pagans of appropriation. These are examples only. Even a respectful person can learn to be more respectful.

As to whether Paganism is an indigenous religion, I think that Paul C. Johnson says something wise about indigenous religions in identifying a tension between “globalising” (or “universalising”) and “indigenising” trajectories. A similar tension is observable in Paganism. There are Pagans who would do and say the same thing in any context or ecosystem or community. For example, some celebrate seasonal festivals at times that are appropriate in northwest Europe even when they live in places in the southern hemisphere that do not have the same seasons. But there are also “indigenising” Paganisms in which people are responsive to their locality, their participation in larger-than-human community in the here and now. Indigeneity isn’t about putting on feathers (though it might be expressed that way sometimes) but it is about experimenting with human living with other-than-human neighbours and fellow citizens.

[EDW] Closely connected to your interest in indigenous religion and contemporary Paganism has been your research into animism and shamanism, two elements that are often present in both of these groups. You are the author of Animism: Respecting the Living World (Hurst & Co., 2005), the editor of Shamanism: A Reader (Routledge, 2003), and –– with archaeologist Robert J. Wallis –– co-editor of the Historical Dictionary of Shamanism (Scarecrow, 2007).  You are seen as a key figure in the “new animism,” an innovative approach to animist belief that attempts to get away from the old Victorian ideas of Edward Tylor; could you tell us a little about this “new animism” and what it means to you personally?

[GH] The “old animism” centred on the idea that some people (clearly not rational academics!) postulated the existence of spirits, souls or other “non-empirical realities” in order to explain odd things like dreaming of dead people. It continues to be expressed in dictionaries that define animism as the attribution of life to inanimate objects or human-likeness to non-human beings. The inherent contradiction in a definition that says “animists think inanimate objects are animate” ought to have given dictionary writers pause for thought, at the very least. The “new animism” begins elsewhere. It is about ways of living that treat the world as a community of persons, all of whom are related to others and all of whom deserve respect (even / especially from those who plan to eat them). The question for “old animism” was “how do we know if x is alive?”. The question in “new animism” is “how do we show respect?”. These aren’t old or new because one is ancient and the other has just started. They are old or new as theories or academic approaches – “old” beginning (sort of) with Tylor and “new”, well, gaining prominence in the 1990s in various anthropological debates many of which cited what Irving Hallowell learnt among the Ojibwa in central Canada earlier in the last century.

What it means to me personally? Well, first it’s a great and expansive topic of discussion with a wide range of colleagues in many disciplines (from anthropology and botany through philosophy and psychology to zoology perhaps). It’s been a refreshing opening up of new (to me) conversations with many indigenous people, some Pagans, and many other people (e.g. those who name their cars or swear at their computers). It requires (I think that’s the right word) a boundary crossing effort to see the world differently. Or, more positively, it explains why natural and social sciences and humanities need to cross-fertilise. If Darwin was right (and he was) that we humans are related to all other living species and that we’re as much involved in ongoing processes of evolution, then we aren’t at the top of any hierarchy. We’re participants. We need to work harder to live as members of larger-than-human communities. To put this another way, but with provocative brevity (I hope), there is no “nature” only a complex society of multiple species. As ever, I’m keen to make words word harder and then seek to pay them extra (to quote Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty!).

So, things might change, as they obviously have before, but right now I’m happy to identify myself as an animist, as someone who tries to listen to what others (human or other-than-human) in the world are saying, and to place boundaries around my consumption so that others can live well too. I’m trying to find ways to say things about the world which have been written out of European languages for a long time but continue to be evident in many indigenous languages. I have to say “other-than-human persons” because we tend to hear “person” as a reference to humans. I have to insist that “other-than-human persons” is not a code for “spirits” because people find it hard to think that hedgehogs might have desires that we should honour. I play, then, with the now fairly well known phrase “turtles all the way down” (the turtles standing in for consciousness, and “all the way down” referring to all levels of matter) by adding “and hedgehogs all the way around.” You chose your own emblematic species for other-than-humans with whom you have interesting encounters, whose interests should interest you. It pleases me to mention hedgehogs because they are spiky flea ridden creatures who eat slugs. But I admit they are cute too.

In short, animism is a way to reposition ourselves in the world in which we really live: a world of myriad relations, some conflicting and some harmonious. (Some of those conflicts are the reason why animists sometimes need shamans as mediators with other-than-human persons or communities.) Animism is implicated in ways of pushing our efforts to live justly, wisely and compassionately. But it is also a topic for much more research – which is also a significant part of who I am / what I do.

[EDW] From 2003 to 2009 you served as Secretary of the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR), and have since been appointed to the Presidency. What do you see as the importance of this organisation for propagating research in the field of religious studies?

[GH] BASR is at the centre of supporting and furthering the academic study of religions, not only in Britain. It brings together scholars interested in many religions and scholars who apply many different approaches and methods to research and teaching. BASR organises a major conference every year and it provides unrivalled opportunities for scholars to meet and debate all sorts of issues. We’re really glad to have a tradition of supporting postgraduate research students and including them in the centre of our conference programmes and discussions. There are associations devoted to the study of specific religions (Judaism, Buddhism, Paganism, etc) and associations devoted to studying whatever we might see as “that which is not religion.” We want to get scholars in all these networks to talk together to improve scholarship in every way. Recent developments include our support for the “Religious Studies Project” – an online forum, led by postgraduate and early career researchers, for discussion of cutting-edge research and teaching in the discipline – and our social media presence. While some colleagues seem gloomy about the state and future of the discipline, I think we live in exciting times and have as good a future as any academic field at the moment.

[EDW] You’ve made use of the internet as a vehicle for propagating your academic research, both through your own websites ( and and through an account on academically-oriented social media site What are your views on the value of the internet as a tool for scholarly outreach?

[GH] I’m enthusiastic about the interweb as a place for exchanging and debating ideas, for disseminating information and networking with other people. The Open University makes great use of online tools for teaching, learning and research. It also burdens some of us with a lot of online bureaucracy but that’s a familiar part of the struggle of modernity. There are things that are better done face-to-face. Communication is not all in the words and writing (on paper or on screen) does not convey the full range of expressions that we (communicative species) employ. In fact, I think that eating together is not only a vitally important part of being hospitable to others but can be integral to learning together. In short, the web has its uses and its limits. There are some wonderful exponents of online communication and others who are vomiting out dreadful and deadly nonsense. But the same people (good or bad) probably do the same onscreen as on paper or face-to-face if you let them.

[EDW] 2013 saw you publish two new books, both for Acumen; an edited volume titled the Handbook of Contemporary Animism, and another book titled Food, Sex and Strangers: Understanding Religion as Everyday Life, in which you explore how religion pervades all aspects of life. Could you tell us a little bit about these publications, and have you got any new projects on the horizon that we should be keeping our eyes out for?

[GH] I’ve probably gone on for longer than I ought so these will be relatively brief answers. The Handbook is a collection of 40 chapters by international contributors from Anthropology, Botany, Ecology, Environmental and Sustainability Studies, Ethology, History, Performance Studies, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology as well as Religious Studies. Most chapters were written especially for the book, a few are reprinted from other sources. It is an attempt to represent the current state of interesting debate about stuff that could be called “animism.” It’s not a book I could have written alone but one that requires many voices… and I’m truly honoured that people responded positively to my invitation to join in the project. We’re going to do more but I think that right now I want people to read this book and discuss whatever interests them. Then we can have conversations about how to develop conversations. These could be about all sorts of things since the book (like animism itself) touches on the nature of the world, the nature of humanity, the nature of personhood, the processes of communication (within and beyond a species), the acts of things, the possibility of spirits, and the hope of recovering a “gift economy” that crosses species boundaries… I hope that’s enough of a teaser to get people interested!

Food, Sex and Strangers is kind of a culmination of my research and obsessions to date. It argues that religion is not about “belief” or “believing”, is not focused on deities, and is not the opposite of the putatively secular public world. It identifies where such misconceptions come from. But most of it is about “going elsewhere” to see people living religion. It is about trying to understand what religion is once we reject the “belief in god” definition. “Elsewhere” involves seeing things differently among Jews, Pagans, Maori, Native Hawaiians, Yoruba, Christians, new atheists, Spaghetti Monster devotees and others. For example, I build on the wonderful and mind-bending statement of the late Te Pakaka Tawhai that “the purpose of religious activity … is doing violence with impunity.” I propose that religion is an everyday, vernacular, material activity in an evolving, multispecies world. It is one bit of our relating. But everything is relational so I offer some thoughts about which bit of relational life is the “religion” bit.

New projects? Well, several things have been fermenting for a while. One is a collaborative project attempting to see what various academic disciplines would be like if, instead of apologetically explaining animism, we began with the assumption that the world is an animate community (albeit one threatened by the normative systems of this anthropocene era). Meanwhile, I am honoured to be involved in a wonderful international project (generously funded by the Norwegian Research Council) called “Reassembling Democracy: Ritual as Cultural Resource.” A fine and diverse team of researchers are engaging with a range of ritual complexes in different cultural contexts to see what they contribute to enriching the performance of democracy. For more info, see this: My bit of the project is about the Riddu Riddu festival organised by Sami people in arctic Norway. It’s a great festival in a beautiful location and involves a vital experiment in celebrating and increasing indigenous peoplehood and sovereignty.

[EDW] I always end my interviews here at Albion Calling by asking my interviewees where they see their subject and discipline heading in the coming decades, particularly in the context of significant budget cut-backs to higher education. That being the case, I’d like to ask you what you see as the future for Pagan studies, and the study of indigenous religion, animism and shamanism? Furthermore, where do you think that the wider discipline of religious studies is headed?

[GH] Ah, I thought you’d asked the big questions already and here are more! I think that each of these is a quite diverse field of study and that diversity is likely to increase. I’m hopeful that each will be recognised as making larger contributions to our knowledge and understanding. That is, I hope that they collapse whatever walls seem to exist around them so that, for example, studies of Paganism or animism can contribute to richer engagement with other ways of being human. But this is something I hope about all the sub-fields of academic study. E.g. I want scholars of Judaism to talk more with scholars of Shinto, and scholars of performance to talk more with scholars of materiality, and so on. The cutting edge of our disciplines and of our particular interests can get blunt when we don’t cross boundaries to listen and talk with colleagues who have been doing other things. That’s one of the great things in the Handbook of Contemporary Animism: it brings cognitive approaches close to ethnographic ones, and literary interests together with performative and activist ones. It crosses the globe for data that might challenge what others have taken for granted or haven’t quite grasped the significance of. In that, it’s a microcosm of what I think academia is at its best. Perhaps that’s rather over the top. All I really mean is that academia at its best is a wonderfully evolving conversation with many participants.

As you suggest, the context of budget cuts and under-funding of academia (especially in arts, humanities and social sciences) is a major threat to the whole project. Academia should not be the equivalent of training for employment in any narrow sense. It should be an enriching pursuit of the skills of researching and debating – finding things out and talking with others about them. We don’t need to suspect a secret conspiracy to see that governments are not always totally enthusiastic about people getting into the habit of asking question after question, not seeking the finality of “the answer” but wanting to keep on increasing the diversity of the world. 

[EDW] Thank you, Dr. Harvey, for talking to Albion Calling today. It has been a pleasure, and I wish you all the best with your future research.

Monday 3 February 2014

An Interview with Dr. Francis Young

This month here at Albion Calling I am interviewing Dr. Francis Young, a teacher by profession who is also a historian of early modern England, having just published his important monograph, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553–1829 (Ashgate, 2013), for which he was awarded his PhD from the University of Cambridge. A specialist in Roman Catholicism, popular religion, and beliefs surrounding the preternatural during the period, Dr. Young talks to me about his career and research, as well as the state of scholarship on this fascinating subject.

[EDW] In January of this year you received your PhD in History from Cambridge University, having previously received a BA in Philosophy at Cambridge and an MA in Classics from the University of Wales, Lampeter. Can you tell us a bit about your varied academic trajectory and the path that you took to get to where you are today?

[FY] I have certainly not come to the PhD by the traditional route; after I graduated from Cambridge in 2002, I went to teach Religious Studies at a school in Warwickshire, and after a year I returned to Cambridge to train as a teacher. Since 2004 I have been teaching in Ely, just north of Cambridge, where I am involved in running a Sixth Form of around 200 students and helping them apply to university. Most teachers are much too busy to pursue further degrees, but I had always harboured a desire to take my academic interests further. I published my first peer-reviewed article on eighteenth-century English Catholicism in 2004, but the first years of teaching are very intense and it was only after a few years that I could contemplate part-time study. I chose to pursue the Classics degree first, because I wanted to improve the fluency of my reading of Latin, which is absolutely essential to the study of early modern history, especially my specialism (Catholicism). However, I ended up writing a dissertation on early Roman religion (the cult of Hercules).

As for the PhD, the initial stimulus came from reading the work of Owen Davies, especially his magnificent Popular Magic (2003). I realised that a very fruitful direction in which Davies’ work could be extended was through a detailed examination of the role of popular religion in the English Catholic community, and I felt that I was ideally placed to do this. Over the years I had built up a familiarity with the nature and sources of Catholic history, and that, combined with my ability to read Latin and my interest in popular religion, gave me the tools I needed to start work on English Catholics and the Supernatural. I had already begun the book when I discovered that Cambridge University offers a PhD by publication for its own graduates (as several other universities do), so I constructed the book with this in mind and submitted it for examination. The examination process is the same as for any other PhD, and in November 2013 I was called to defend my thesis in person. One of my examiners was Prof. Peter Marshall, author of Mother Leakey and the Bishop and Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England, who like me started with the study of Catholicism and then branched out into popular religion. The second examiner was none other than Prof. Davies himself. Fortunately, my work met with their approval (unlike a conventional thesis, a book cannot be revised, and is either passed or failed!).

[EDW] What is it about academia that interests you, and what made you decide to follow an academic vocation? In particular, what is it that sparked your interest in early modern Catholicism, popular religion, and magical beliefs; something in childhood, perhaps?

[FY] I think that anyone who didn’t have an interest in magic in childhood must have had a very sad one, but the dominant theme of my childhood was an obsession with the past. The past to me was magical, and from an early age I had an active interest in folklore and collected books of folktales. At the age of sixteen I was inspired with a passion for early modern English history by my then History teacher. He introduced me to the work of Eamon Duffy and revisionist Catholic historiography (a movement that argues for the vitality of pre-Reformation Catholicism, and rejects the idea that the Reformation was somehow ‘needed’). One of the key themes of the revisionist historiography of the Reformation, and where it crosses over with the history of magic and popular religion, is that revisionists often reject the ‘Protestant’ distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘superstition’. A good example of this crossover would be Ronald Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merry England (1994).

In spite of my love of History I decided to read Philosophy at university, and I became caught up in the materialistic analytic philosophy taught at Cambridge. What changed all this was a remarkable individual, Jonael Schickler (1976-2002), who taught me Kantian and Hegelian philosophy and was also a close friend. Jonael was an independent thinker of extraordinary brilliance who was working on Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. Jonael challenged my preconceptions, and showed me that an intelligent person can be interested in esoteric traditions. His tragic early death, before he could complete his PhD, had a profound effect on me. Although I was conscious that he and I thought in very different ways, I felt the need to continue the spirit of his programme of research. One of the major themes of our discussions over the years had been the theology of angels; my research in this area led me to early modern demonology and explains why the theme of exorcism is central to English Catholics and the Supernatural.

[EDW] Last year, Ashgate brought out your first major monograph, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553–1829, in which you examined the largely neglected area of popular religion and the preternatural among Catholics in early modern England. In that book you look at a variety of different aspects, among them beliefs in the Devil, witchcraft, demonic possession, and ghosts, and the way in which English Catholics dealt with those issues through exorcism. Given that it is this work which led to you being awarded your PhD, I’d be interested to learn how you got started on this project, and to hear a little more about it?

[FY] I wrote an article on Catholic exorcisms in 2009 and was astonished to find that, with the exception of Prof. Alexandra Walsham at Cambridge, no-one had done any recent work on early modern Catholic exorcisms – in spite of the fact that Catholic priests were in demand as exorcists even amongst non-Catholics. Furthermore, it seemed that no-one was taking forward Owen Davies’ insight that there was a connection between demand for exorcism and belief in witchcraft. The aim of the book was always to explain this connection, but in order to do so it became necessary for me to set Catholic attitudes to exorcism and witchcraft within the wider context of Catholic responses to the supernatural (or preternatural, to use the correct but more obscure term). Matters are complicated by the fact that the English Protestant stereotype of Catholics portrayed them as credulous and gullible, so I decided to rely as far as possible on sources produced by Catholics themselves. The major challenge of the project was finding these sources; Catholics were a tiny minority and the literature they produced was tiny in comparison with the torrent of anti-Catholic material. Fortunately, I found a treatise on witchcraft by an eighteenth-century monk (I edited it in entirety for the book’s appendix) which filled an important gap; our knowledge of whether Catholics (usually associated with conservatism) carried on believing in witchcraft later than others. It seems that some did, but my overall conclusion is that Catholics in England were no more ‘superstitious’ than anyone else, contrary to the old stereotypes.

[EDW] Much of your research has been rooted in your home region, East Anglia. Eastern England is of course an area with very old, rich associations with folk magic and witchcraft, from Matthew Hopkins to Andrew Chumbley, but I’d certainly be interested to hear what you personally find so fascinating about the region, and what makes you devote so much work to it?

[FY] I am an East Anglian by birth and, with the exception of one year working in Warwickshire, I have lived and studied in the region for my whole life. The counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire (Essex is not technically East Anglia) are understated in landscape and history, and they are not popularly associated with mythology and magic like other parts of the country (Wales, Cornwall, Wiltshire and Cheshire, for example). However, as you point out, England’s only major witch-hunt took place in East Anglia, and there is a rich folklore of witchcraft and magic. I recently published a short book which focuses on witchcraft in and around my current home town of Ely, from the middle ages to the present day. Certain well-established elements of the lore of witchcraft, such as witches’ imps and ‘toadmen’, are peculiarly East Anglian. For me, as an early modernist, the fascination of East Anglia lies in its religious diversity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; it was quite normal for a village to have a Catholic squire, a Protestant conformist vicar and a predominantly Puritan population who despised the church. The dynamics that these religious divisions gave rise to make for fascinating history.

[EDW] Do you make much use of archaeological evidence in your work, and what do you see as the importance for the interplay of archaeological and historical approaches in the study of the early modern period?

[FY] Revisionist historiography of the Reformation rejects the automatic primacy of written sources traditional to Reformation history, and the classic use of material evidence in the field is Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, which puts rood screens in Norfolk churches on a par with official documents. In many cases, material evidence is all we have for the changes that were happening on a local, popular level in rural areas. However, if I am honest, the use of archaeological evidence by early modern historians is still slim. However, it is clear that there is a great deal of work to be done on material evidence for witchcraft belief post-1736, and Owen Davies is leading the field. I have recently been making use of archaeological evidence for the first time in my own work, since I was involved in the discovery of possible traces of a scheme of decoration commissioned by Sir Thomas Tresham in a building where he was held prisoner here in Ely.

[EDW] You employ social media, including your account and blog (, as a means of getting your scholarship across to a wider audience. What are your views on the utility of such mediums for scholarly outreach?

[FY] My blog is as much a way of keeping track of my scholarly activities for my own memory as it is for anyone else, since I would not presume that it is read by more than a tiny number of people! However, it comes in useful at talks and conferences to have a link that people can go to if they want to download a copy of the talk or supporting materials. I feel that it is important for academics to share information, and I am always happy to do so with other scholars, although I understand that there are legitimate concerns about the protection of intellectual property. I have always considered that the best protection against theft of intellectual property is to be an early modern historian; after all, I don’t make any money out of my research, so I am not sure how anyone else would! I think it is immensely important for historians to engage with local communities and act as educators in the broadest sense, although that is probably most relevant to scholars who, like me, have a local bias. I have found communicating the history of buildings in Ely or the history of local witchcraft very fulfilling, and I believe that historians have a duty to improve the quality of historical knowledge available to non-specialists whilst not disparaging or patronising ‘popular history’. Misconceptions and prejudice need to be challenged, and historians are often best placed to do that, but local history done by local amateurs remains very special and can sometimes elicit what the ‘professional’ historian cannot.

[EDW] You are presenting a paper titled “Esoteric Recusancy in the Elizabethan Age: The Occult Architecture of Sir Thomas Tresham” at the forthcoming Cambridge University conference, Visions of Enchantment: Occultism, Spirituality and Visual Culture (17-18 March 2014). Could you tell us a little bit about this piece of research?

[FY] In the paper you mention I will argue that English Catholics were more engaged with esoteric traditions than has previously been accepted. Thomas Tresham is the classic example; his symbolic architecture at Rushton and Lyveden has long been recognised as containing encoded symbolism, but up to now it has been accorded a purely religious interpretation. Scholars have not really noticed the Cabalistic and Hermetic influences on his work. In fact, Catholics were just as interested in the esoteric as anyone else in Elizabethan England, even though the ‘language of the esoteric’ they used was sometimes different. This paper is part of my much broader project (my academic life’s work, perhaps) to shift the focus away from the religious beliefs of early modern Catholics and onto their cultural and intellectual life as a minority group in English society.

[EDW] Do you have any future projects on the horizon that we should keep our eyes peeled for? Any more publications coming out in the next year or so?

[FY] I expect the Catholic Record Society to bring out a monograph of mine on Catholicism in Suffolk before the end of 2014. I am currently engaged in more work on the history of exorcism and a study of the role of magic in cases of treason from the middle ages to the late seventeenth century, so I hope that these might see the light of day at some point in the future.

[EDW] Although it’s a fascinating subject, I am far from being an expert on witchcraft and folk magic in early modern Britain; what is the current state of scholarship in this field, and where do you think it is headed? Where, for instance, do you see the state of scholarship being in ten, or twenty years’ time?

[FY] The history of early modern witchcraft and magic has been an exciting place to be for a long time. It is a cliché (yet largely true) to say that every book that has been published in this area is an expanded footnote to Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). Some of those footnotes, however, have challenged the tendency of the history of early modern popular religion to turn into ‘witchcraft studies.’ I do not think it is healthy for ‘witchcraft studies’ to exist as a separate discipline, because a presumption of the priority of witchcraft has a tendency to distort the interpretation of other evidence. That is why Davies’ work on cunning-folk and grimoires is such an important corrective. I have the feeling that the historical community is moving towards a more ‘integrated’ approach to the study of all those things that, at one time or another, the powers-that-be condemned as ‘superstition,’ whether it be fairies, cunning-folk, witches, ghosts or unauthorised exorcisms. These phenomena need to be studied in their religious, cultural and historical context and I should like to see an end to the ghettoization of early modern historians, anthropologists, folklorists, experts in ‘witchcraft studies’ and historians of esotericism. As the study of esotericism becomes more mainstream I can see that happening eventually, maybe in ten or twenty years’ time.

To conclude, and because this is a blog where you interview many scholars whose primary interest is contemporary Paganism, I want to draw some parallels between studying contemporary Paganism and early modern English Catholicism. The similarities may not be immediately obvious, but as someone with an interest in both fields I notice them all the time. Early modern English Catholics heavily deployed a rhetoric of ‘the old religion,’ even though, more often than not, there was a strong element of revivalism and reconstructionism in their practices; some post-Reformation Catholic practices, such as priestly exorcism, never really existed in late mediaeval England. In the same way, Pagans make a claim in favour of ‘elder tradition,’ and disputes about the legitimacy of revival, reconstruction and lineage have bedevilled Paganism since the 1950s. Catholics made a claim for the positive cultural benefits of their faith and hankered after a time ‘when England was merry,’ just as contemporary Pagans associate their spirituality with festivity and the celebration of life. Just like contemporary Pagans, post-Reformation Catholics created an ‘alternative history’ of the landscape and made new sacred sites to replace those that had been lost. And just like contemporary Pagans, Catholics were much misunderstood by those around them and suffered as the victims of negative stereotyping, based on ignorance.

[EDW] Thank you for talking to us today, Dr Young, and I wish you well with your future projects.