Tuesday 16 August 2022

An Interview with Associate Professor Joseph P. Laycock

Today in my ongoing series of interviews for the World Religions and Spirituality Project (WSP – check out the site here) I am pleased to provide an interview with Dr Joseph P. Laycock, an associate professor at Texas State University. As well as being co-editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, he has published a string of fascinating books on various culturally alternative and new religions, from The Satanic Temple to the Baysider Catholics. We discuss his varied research and the role that scholars of new religious movements can play in today’s world.

[EDW] Your first book was Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism (Praeger, 2009), and both there and elsewhere you’ve written about people identifying as vampires and the broader Otherkin movement. Could you tell us more about these movements and what led you to investigate them?

[JPL] This was a “crime of opportunity.” I was teaching high school in Atlanta when I learned of the existence of the Atlanta Vampire Alliance. I was really fascinated by this group because they were collecting data on their community, trying to understand why they weren’t like other people. There would be no need for a group to do that if they were just playing at being vampires or delusional. I had planned to give a paper on this group to the American Academy of Religion (AAR), but Praeger approached me about a book contract. (Unlike me, they knew Twilight-mania was on the horizon). So this became my first book and I had 15 minutes of fame as a “vampire expert.”

Basically, vampires feel they aren’t like other people and they use the word “vampire” as a kind of shorthand to describe that difference. Some of them drink human blood (consensually) and report health issues if they go without blood for too long. A related group are the “Otherkin,” who identify (on a metaphysical level) as non-human entities like angels, elves, or dragons. Previous scholarship on the vampire community was abysmal: It was basically part of the Satanic Panic literature, warning that vampires are a “cult” who hate Christians, commit murders, etc. Many of the vampires I met were Christians! That research was also getting published without ever having met a self-identified vampire, which seems pretty unacceptable. One reason the Atlanta Vampire Alliance was doing this research project was to raise the standard of evidence for making claims about the community.

I found that the vampire community members are neither mentally ill nor practicing a “religion” in the way that word is traditionally used. Our culture doesn’t have a box yet for this kind of identity. By studying vampires, I came to realize that the history of Western society is one of more and more options becoming available for thinking about and talking about ourselves. Foucault argued that the concept of “sexual orientation” was invented in the nineteenth century. And in only the last ten years or so I have seen an unprecedented number of students who identify as “non-binary.” Of course, I am not equating vampires with the LGBTQ community. But I argue that vampires are what Foucault called a “technology of self.” In this sense, they aren’t abnormal at all, but are part of much larger trend as our culture evolves.

[EDW] Your next monograph, The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle to Define Catholicism (Oxford University Press, 2015), explored the Baysiders, a Roman Catholic group established in 1960s New York. Can you tell us a bit more about this group and why you decided to study them?

[JPL] The Seer of Bayside began as my dissertation. Beginning in the 1960s a woman from Bayside, Queens, New York named Veronica Lueken began to experience visions of the Virgin Mary. A group called simply Baysiders, followed her and collected her messages from Mary until her death in 1995. Most Baysiders were traditionalist Catholics reeling from the changes of Vatican II (1962–1965). Through Lueken, Mary condemned Vatican II and even said Pope Paul VI (papacy, 1963-1978) had been replaced by a KGB agent altered with plastic surgery. The Baysiders had a contentious relationship with the Diocese of Brooklyn, which eventually condemned Lueken’s visions as fraudulent. They still meet regularly in Flushing Meadows Park where they believe Mary is still present on Catholic holy days.

On one level, this was simply an ideal dissertation topic. There was enough data in archival sources to do the dissertation, but not so much that it would take years to complete. More importantly, no one had done a book on Bayside before. There’s a saying, “If you want to stand out in your field, pick an empty one.”

[EDW] One thing that I found interesting in The Seer of Bayside was your point that one of the Baysider groups said that they would not respond to your phone calls and emails, something you felt was possibly because they disapproved of your previous research topics. I wonder if you had any additional thoughts about the ways in which the topics that we as scholars cover results in other religious groups not wanting to communicate with us? Are there ways of overcoming this?

[JPL] Negotiating entry with the Baysiders was extremely difficult. There are two rival groups active in Flushing Meadows Park. (They literally hold services a few meters apart and aggressively ignore each other). They notice which group you approach first. They also have a “fortress mentality” in which most institutions and media are corrupted and corrupting, so they can be mistrusting of outsiders. But the biggest issue is that the media has not been kind to them. Even academic researchers who interviewed them have been dismissive in their writing. This sort of “poisons the well” for future researchers seeking to engage with these groups. Of course, the answer can’t be to never say anything critical about the groups you study. But there are costs when academics or the media interview groups like the Baysiders just to get a quote for a derisive story about a kooky group.

I should also say here that I don’t believe in “covert research.” I could have feigned religious interest in the Baysiders, but this would be unethical. It could also contaminate the data and, when the book came out, they would feel that their paranoia was justified!

[EDW] In The Seer of Bayside, you describe a personal background in Roman Catholicism and also relate that as a scholar you are “drawn to groups that are understudied, misunderstood and maligned,” something that is very evident in the choice of movements you have studied. What is it that draws you to “alternative” religions as a topic? Was this an interest that led you towards religious studies at university?

[JPL] I think all academics should be studying things that are understudied. I think religious studies is profoundly perverse in that it discourages research on understudied groups. We love to moan about the “world religion” paradigm,* but the job market is king and if you don’t study a so-called “major world religion,” you won’t get a job. Good advisors know that, so they discourage their PhD students from studying anything that hasn’t already been written about for generations. Can you imagine if another discipline did this? Can you imagine a PhD in biology discovering a new kingdom of animals at the bottom of the ocean and being told not to study it? That you can only get a job if you focus on one of the six or seven accepted animal kingdoms?

When I wrote my first book, I was a high school teacher and I figured I would never get a job as a professor anyway. When I started my PhD I tried to market myself as an “Americanist,” but the Americanists never seemed interested in the topics I was studying. I kept being told that I studied “new religious movements” (NRMs). That annoyed me because I never made a conscious decision to be a scholar of new religious movements––others just labeled me as such. And, of course, there are no jobs for NRM scholars. So I fell on the Baysiders as a topic almost out of defiance. It was sort of like, “Go ahead, I dare you to tell me the Roman Catholic Church is an NRM.”

I have since given in and accepted the label of NRM scholar. And I now believe research on NRMs is one of the most important things religion scholars do. The groups we study are the ones most in need of “worldview translators,”* the ones whose rights are the most vulnerable, and the ones where––as with the Branch Davidians––there are preventable episodes of violence.

* = [EDW] The World Religions Paradigm is a framework for studying religion that only focuses on five or six religions, chosen for their numerical size and/or influence upon Western history (i.e. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and sometimes Sikhism).

* = [EDW] The term “worldview translator” was used in by Phillip Charles Lucas, “How Future Wacos Might Be Avoided,” in From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco, ed. James R. Lewis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), 209-12, to refer to the role that religious studies scholars could have played in the negotiations between the FBI and the Branch Davidians in the conflict outside Waco in 1993.

[EDW] You have also looked at moral panics over role-playing games, primarily in your book Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015). Could you tell us more about this project?

[JPL] I grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in Texas in the 1980s. I basically lived through Stranger Things, minus the monsters and psychic powers. As a child, I kept encountering authority figures who were certain my favourite pastime was evil and involved Satanic worship. I knew empirically that these claims were absurd. Looking back, this was my first inkling that adults acted like they had all the answers but actually had no idea what they were talking about. They were ignorant and frightened—traits they attributed to children.

I knew for awhile I wanted to write something about religion and D&D, but I wasn’t ready to write this book until I got my PhD. This book tries to explain why conservative Christians focused on this game (as opposed to thousands of other social issues). D&D was created by two devout Christians and I also found it odd that when Christian critics found Christian elements in the game (cleric spells with names like “atonement,” for example) they interpreted this as evidence of Satanism. I conclude that on some level this was what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” In convincing themselves they were fighting demons and Satanic cults, these conservative Christians were playing a game very much like D&D. They were the ones lost in their game of heroic fantasy! But I also think D&D resembles a religion in that it involves human beings joined together in a state of play creating an alternate reality. I think that’s as good a definition of religion as any: An alternate reality brought about through the collective effort of human beings engaged in a unique mode of communication and activity. I also think on some level, the conservative Christians were right to fear D&D. Antonio Gramsci argued that the ability to imagine things as being different than they are creates a radical form of autonomy that makes people harder to control. So D&D is a problem if you’re trying to raise a generation of children that will remake society in your image.

[EDW] Your most recent monograph, Speak of the Devil: How The Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion (Oxford University Press, 2020), is devoted to The Satanic Temple, a U.S.-based organisation that has attracted quite a bit of attention over the past few years. Could you give us a brief introduction to what The Satanic Temple is? What led to your decision to study it?

[JPL] The Satanic Temple (TST) is a political and religious group of Satanists. They are essentially atheistic but regard the Satan of Milton and the Romantics as a powerful symbol for their values of resistance to arbitrary authority, reason, autonomy, etc. They are known for “stunts” (they might say “experiments” or “provocations”) designed to change the conversation about topics like abortion or the separation of church and state. I think a lot of people first noticed them when they offered to donate a statue of Baphomet (a goat-headed deity) to be displayed at the Oklahoma state Capitol in 2014. Their argument was that The Ten Commandments monument placed at the state Capitol was illegal (the Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed with them on this), but that if they had a Satanic monument as well, the monuments would no longer constitute an illegal government endorsement of religion.

I first interviewed TST leader Lucien Greaves about the proposed monument for Religion Dispatches and basically asked him, “Are you serious about this?” It turned out, TST was pretty serious! The media loves TST and I kept covering their various campaigns and projects. As I did so, I watched the group evolve from basically a handful of political gadflies into a community with sincerely held beliefs, rituals, etc. I started to get annoyed when people who didn’t know anything about this group told me they were “obviously trolls.” I was also very interested in whether the things they were doing were having any effect. Were they changing laws? Were they getting people to think about the First Amendment differently? In many cases, they succeeded in getting their opponents to publicly admit that they did not believe in religious freedom and separation of church and state––they believed in Christian hegemony, but not rights for groups like The Satanic Temple. So my book was intended as a definitive history of this group and how it formed, but also an analysis of the way TST has shaped public discourse about ideas like “religion” and “religious freedom.” That’s why the title is “Speak of the Devil” and not “The Satanic Temple.”

[EDW] Since Speak of the Devil was published, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, with significant ramifications for abortion access in many states. Given that abortion access was already an issue that The Satanic Temple was very involved with, have you observed the group changing or being significantly impacted by the court decision? Do you think this decision (and others that may follow on topics like same-sex marriage) will have a long-term impact on The Satanic Temple?

[JPL] This is a big can of worms! This really begins with the 2014 decision Burwell v. Hobby Lobby where the Supreme Court ruled that the retail company Hobby Lobby was exempt from certain requirements of the Affordable Care Act because of their religious beliefs. The Satanic Temple said, “If Hobby Lobby can be exempt from some laws ensuring access to contraception, we should be exempt from laws restricting abortion access.” They filed a series of lawsuits in Missouri (and then Texas) arguing that state restrictions on abortion violated their sincerely held belief that one’s body is inviolable. Missouri and Texas both had 1) laws that made obtaining an abortion extremely difficult, and 2) Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) laws that essentially require the state to accommodate religions if they possibly can.

So far, no court has actually answered the basic question raised by TST: Does religious freedom mean Satanists can get abortion on demand, just as Hobby Lobby can be exempt from parts of the Affordable Care Act? Instead, their cases have been thrown out on procedural grounds. In one case, a judge sat on the case for nine months and then told the plaintiff (a pregnant Satanist) she no longer had standing to sue because she was no longer pregnant. TST created an “abortion ritual” that has to be completed in a certain amount of time, in an effort to prevent this sort of loophole.

TST has no plans to back down now that Roe was fallen, but it will change the situation in several ways. First, TST is nervous to approach this Supreme Court, which seems amenable to a Christian nationalist agenda. Taking a case to this Supreme Court could result in a really radical ruling, setting a disastrous precedent.

Second, RFRA laws require the government to provide a “compelling interest” to restrict religious freedom. When abortion was recognized as a right, Missouri had to claim its restrictions on abortion were necessary so that women could make an “informed decision about a medical procedure.” Now they no longer need to make such a pretence: They can simply state that abortion is murder and the state has a compelling interest in preventing it. This could mean TST members have no more right to get an abortion then to perform a human sacrifice. (In theory, TST could argue that claiming abortion is murder is itself a religious belief and therefore a violation of the establishment clause.)

Third, people are reasonably scared of what a post-Roe America will look like and some have turned to TST. This has resulted in both more interest in TST and more criticism. On social media, some people have wrongly claimed that by becoming a Satanist, you can legally get abortion on demand. Some of TST’s long-time critics are furious about this and claim TST is putting pregnant women in danger.

[EDW] Another of the topics that has attracted your interest has been spirit possession and exorcism, resulting in two volumes that you have edited, Spirit Possession around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion across Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2015) and The Penguin Book of Exorcisms (Penguin Classics, 2020). What do you find particularly interesting about this and are you pursuing the topic further?

[JPL] As a PhD student I wrote a paper on The Exorcist that became one of my first publications. Then ABC-CLIO tapped me to edit an encyclopaedia on possession and exorcism across cultures. That’s a pretty good introduction to the topic! I created a course on exorcism to attract students to our new Major in religious studies. This led to some media interest and eventually an invitation from Penguin to do another book.

I find it fascinating that spirit possession occurs in nearly all cultures. Of course, cultures disagree profoundly on what exactly happens when people enter a state of possession and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. In the end I am interested in possession because it shows that we as human beings really don’t understand ourselves. As inheritors of the Enlightenment, Westerners are led to believe we are autonomous individuals with distinct personalities that are solid and consistent. But this isn’t really true. We can effectively be different people depending on our mood, and especially the social situation we find ourselves in. We adopt social roles and conform with others without even realizing we’re doing it. Spirit possession can be one way of talking about these changes, as can various diagnoses of so-called “dissociative disorders.” But both these explanations assume there is some stable personality that is “really you” to begin with. In the end, I think we don’t understand the spirits because we don’t understand ourselves!

[EDW] What has the feedback been like following publication of your various books? Have you had much of a response, for instance, from The Satanic Temple, the Baysiders, or the modern Vampires? Moreover, what has the response been like from other academics? Do you feel that those scholars of religion who focus on “mainstream” movements have been receptive?

[JPL] Overall, I would say the feedback has been very positive. I wrote these books with other scholars in mind, and they have generally spoken well of them. Several PhD students had Speak of the Devil on their exam lists, which is about the biggest honor I can imagine. I also still have a lot of friends among these communities. The Baysiders are a contentious group and the first two comments on Amazon both trashed the book––one for implying Veronica Lueken might not be a mentally ill con artist, and the other for implying she might not be a genuine Marian seer sent to save the world from divine chastisement. So I guess I did my job right!

Some right-wing troll heard my interview about Speak of the Devil on the New Books Network and wrote to tell me I’m “a progressive liberal satanist chucklehead douchebag.” More recently I have received some attacks from former members of The Satanic Temple. They claim the group they joined is actually a greedy cult and that despite being publicly progressive it secretly supports anti-Semitism and the alt-right. Even though I discussed many of these accusations in my book, these critics feel that if I’m not with them, I’m against them. Therefore, I must be a shill for the group I study. I actually find these accusations perversely flattering. Nobody is anybody in NRM studies until they have been accused of being a “cult apologist” by ex-members of the group they study. So I guess I’ve made it!

[EDW] You’ve been writing for Religion Dispatches since 2009. What do you see as its role in disseminating information about religious topics to a wider readership? Do you think scholars of religion as a whole are doing enough to engage wider audiences outside the academy?

[JPL] Two of my mentors were Diane Moore at Harvard and Stephen Prothero at Boston University, both of which have called attention to the dire need for religious literacy. The media is largely part of the problem here. For example, when Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire in 2019, a priest told the media he had rescued “the body of Christ” from the burning building. The New York Times reported that the priest had rescued a statue of Jesus, because what else could “the body of Christ” refer to? So I think it’s really important that scholars have an outlet to discuss contemporary issues involving religion. I’ve also written for a lot of outlets and I find the editors at Religion Dispatches the easiest to work with.

I think religion scholars are more open to the public than ever before with podcasts, YouTube channels, etc. But I also think there is still an attitude that these efforts are working against your career instead of with it. A media article that informs the public about an important issue doesn’t carry the same weight as a dense academic monograph that costs $200 and will only sell a dozen copies.

[EDW] Since 2016 you have been co-editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, and in 2019 you also became co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s New Religious Movements Unit. What do you see as the importance of having the study of new religions as a distinct sub-field and where do you think it currently stands in relation to the study of religion as a whole?

[JPL] As I’ve already said, I feel like NRM studies chose me more than I chose it. NRM studies emerged out of “the cult wars” when there was a moral panic that “cults” possessed secret techniques of brainwashing and were taking over America in the form of an “information disease.” Expert witnesses were making a fortune testifying about the dangers of brainwashing and religious freedom as we know it seemed to hang in the balance. NRM studies began as a group of religion scholars and sociologists who sought to combat this nonsense.

Since the cult wars, NRM studies has tried to find a new purpose. One of the important functions of the AAR group and Nova Religio is to platform research on emerging religious movements in the Global South: Africa, Asia, and South America are teeming with movements that no one else is paying attention to. We also provide a space for research on all manner of magical traditions, parody religions, entheogenic practices, and other sundry religious phenomenon that have fallen through the cracks of the world religion paradigm.

But I also think history is repeating itself and that the cult wars are beginning anew. QAnon and the January 6 attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. were so bizarre and so scary that the public was once again turned to the facile narrative of “brainwashing” to explain this behaviour. Figures like Steve Hassan, who was a deprogrammer in the 1970s, have resurfaced as “cult experts” who can explain “the cult of Trump.” (To be clear, I think Trump-ism is both toxic and dangerous, but this is all the more reason to take a nuanced, rational approach to its causes.) Adding to this problem is a glut of sensationalist media about “cults.” It feels like everyone with access to Wikipedia and a microphone is starting a podcast about cults these days. It’s a stark example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in which incompetence leads to a feeling of confidence. These podcasts often amount to little more than pornography describing the abuses of cult leaders, but there is never thought given to what makes a group a “cult” or even whether this is a valid category. Furthermore, the deprogrammers and anti-cultists are much more adept than NRM scholars at getting their message out in the popular media. So I think we will need the wisdom of old school NRM scholars once again.

[EDW] Are there topics to do with new and “alternative” religions more broadly, or with the groups that you have studied specifically, that you feel are in crying need of more research?

[JPL] One thing NRM studies has inherited from the world religions paradigm is a focus on organizations. We still ask questions like “Who is the founder of this religion? How many members does it have?,” etc. But with the internet, we are dealing less with organizations and more with networks, ideas, and (dare I say it) memes. These are cultural flows that are methodologically much harder to study. How do you do an ethnography of Tik-Tok where everyone has a unique algorithm feeding them videos catered to their viewing history? How do you study subversive groups that meet primarily on the dark web? But I think such work is important so that scholars can study things like QAnon that have serious consequences for democracy.

More broadly, I think what is being called “Conspirituality” needs to be taken more seriously. Kooky conspiracy theories are fun to talk about, but these ideas have now entered the mainstream. I think a lot of the ideas associated with QAnon begin as “play,” then somehow metastasize into belief, and finally conviction. How exactly does one go from talking to their friends on Facebook to attacking a pizza parlor with an assault rifle looking for Hillary Clinton’s satanic torture dungeon? In some ways I think religious studies is uniquely suited to answer this question and in other ways I think it is unprepared. Religious studies scholars understand the power of belief, but not enough about where new beliefs come from––especially in an age where “prophets” flourish on sites like 8chan.

[EDW] Do you have any projects on the horizon that we should be looking out for?

[JPL] I have been kicking around an idea for a book on hoaxes. Charles Fort once said it is possible that all religions began as hoaxes. I am not interested in making claims that certain religions were founded by con artists or false prophets or anything of that sort. Rather I am interested in the collective nature of a hoax in which multiple people construct an alternate version of reality. Many of the exorcism cases I studied clearly began with adolescents engaged in play––but once religious leaders labeled that play as demonic possession, that interpretation became a social fact. It was thereafter impossible for the adolescent to be anything other than demonically possessed. So the people labeling the play are in a way more the authors of the hoax than the players themselves. I think there is something important going on in these cases that can help us understand how human beings go about performing the social construction of reality.

Monday 15 August 2022

An Interview with Dr Aled Thomas

Today, my interview series conducted for the World Religions and Spirituality Project (WRSP – see their website here) continued with a conversation with Dr Aled Thomas, a specialist in the previously unexplored world of Free Zone Scientology. Having devoting his doctoral thesis to the subject, Dr Thomas has since published his research as the monograph Free Zone Scientology: Contesting the Boundaries of a New Religion (Bloomsbury, 2021), a fascinating insight into the forms of Scientology practised by people not belonging to the Church of Scientology itself. Dr Thomas was recently appointed Teaching Fellow at the University of Leeds and is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University.

[EDW] You’ve stayed within the academic track of Religious Studies from the undergraduate to the PhD level—and have also picked up a PGCE teaching qualification in Religious Education along the way—so religion has clearly been a topic of great interest to you. Where does your interest in religion, and especially in what we might call ‘alternative religion’, come from?

[AT] I think, like several academics in the UK, I was initially drawn to the topic of religion by my two fantastic Religious Education (RE) teachers in secondary school. They were engaging and exciting—and very open to debate (always a good thing!). I knew quite early on that I wanted to pursue Religious Studies as my undergraduate degree and that’s where my interest in ‘alternative religions’ started. My RE teachers had to work within the limitations of a precise curriculum, which left little room for exploring the ‘alternatives’. I remember that one of my earliest undergraduate modules was called ‘Cults and Sects’ (what a name!), and discovering religions outside the World Religions Paradigm* was a revelation.

* = [EDW] The World Religions Paradigm is a framework for studying religion that only focuses on five or six religions, chosen for their numerical size and/or influence upon Western history (i.e. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and sometimes Sikhism).

[EDW] It is probably fair to say that Scientology has proven more controversial than almost any other new religion active in Western countries over the last fifty years or so, inspiring really emotive responses from both members and detractors. This being the case, what brought about your decision to devote your PhD research to this particular topic? Did you have hesitations about doing so?

[AT] Admittedly I had no hesitations. The controversies associated with Scientology did play a part in my interest, particularly the heated discourses surrounding it. But I always envisaged the research as a purely scholarly endeavour rather than an exposé or polemic piece—avoiding value judgements to the best of my abilities and so forth. My fieldwork participants certainly seemed to appreciate that.

[EDW] Can you tell us a bit more about Free Zone Scientology? How is it different from the Church of Scientology, an organisation that thus far has dominated both media and academic discussions of the Scientology movement? Is it probable, as some have suggested, that the number of Free Zoners will soon be larger than the number of Church members?

[AT] Simply put, the term ‘Free Zone Scientology’ is most often used to identify any type of Scientology (I use the term ‘Scientologies’) or Scientologist which exists outside the Church of Scientology. The divisions between the two largely come down to two factors: (1) the application of L. Ron Hubbard’s* spiritual technology and (2) the organisational management of the Church of Scientology. The Free Zone, broadly conceived, is mostly concerned with the application of Hubbard’s ‘tech’, while the Church has expanded its practices into a variety of areas, such as life management courses (designed by Hubbard) and religious ceremonies, such as weddings. In terms of numbers, it is difficult to contrast the two. Many ‘Freezoners’ do not advertise their services publicly in fear of litigation from the Church of Scientology (due to the use of copyrighted L. Ron Hubbard texts and ideas). While others, following their departure from the Church, have continued to make use of Hubbard’s work as part of a broader practice. For example, I’ve interviewed ‘spiritual counsellors’ who no longer identify as Scientologists, but have maintained aspects of Scientology in their practices. These little nuances and boundaries are fascinating from a critical perspective, but can cause a headache for those seeking membership numbers!

* = [EDW] L. Ron Hubbard (1911–1986) was the American writer responsible for founding Scientology.

[EDW] The main topic of your PhD thesis, and a key theme in your book on Free Zone Scientology, is auditing—sometimes seen as the central ritual within Scientology, and one that is often presented as having both scientific and religious components. Can you tell us more about auditing and its role in Scientology?

[AT] For many Scientologists, especially those in the Free Zone, auditing is Scientology. It is the practice upon which Scientology was founded and is the core process of the movement to this day. Auditing is a practice consisting of question-and-answer exercises, in which the Preclear (the person being audited) answers questions directed by a trained auditor. The auditor seeks to discover ‘engrams’ (traces of anxieties and neuroses) within the Preclear’s mind in an attempt to remove them, thus enabling the Preclear to move forward in life, unhindered by their engrams. This began as a secular process, as published in Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1950. However, he soon claimed to discover that people were affected by engrams from past lives, which lead to the ‘religion angle’ of auditing. It is here that auditing transitioned from ‘Dianetic auditing’ to ‘Scientology auditing’—with a simultaneous emphasis on improving mental health and spiritual development. Today Scientologists engage with auditing as they progress through Hubbard’s ‘Bridge to Total Freedom’, a series of levels to be traversed in attaining spiritual liberation.

[EDW] How did you approach Scientologists, whether they be in the Church or Free Zone, and explain that you wanted to research them? Did you feel that you were welcomed, or was there considerable distrust that you had to overcome?

[AT] Scientology has a history of being difficult to navigate for academics—most notably due to the experiences of sociologist Roy Wallis, who experienced some pushback from the Church of Scientology during the publication of The Road to Total Freedom in 1976. Some academics have since expressed hesitation in researching Scientology for this reason, but there has been a considerable improvement in relationships between scholars and the Church of Scientology in recent decades. Religious studies scholar Donald A. Westbrook’s doctoral research and monograph (Among the Scientologists: History, Theology, and Praxis, 2019) involved a significant amount of fieldwork with the Church of Scientology, during which he was able to undertake Scientology courses, auditing, and meet/interview dozens of everyday Scientologists.

In my own research, I was welcomed by Scientologists within both the Church of Scientology and Free Zone. Interestingly, Freezoners were especially keen to use my work as a platform to promote their vision of Scientology (as something that can exist outside the Church), and were very open about the more esoteric elements of Scientology—sharing aspects of its practice that would usually be kept confidential by the Church. The Church were also very welcoming in allowing me to tour their Orgs in London and Saint Hill, near East Grinstead in West Sussex. This included a tour of the Saint Hill Manor (Hubbard’s former home), which contains many of his possessions and writings on Scientology—exciting stuff for a scholar researching Scientology! Some participants in the Church were a little hesitant regarding my interest in the Free Zone and how the relationship between both groups would be presented in my work. Their concern is understandable—the Church of Scientology has experienced a considerable amount of negative coverage in reports and journalistic accounts over the years. However, my focus is purely scholarly—my work does not ‘take sides’ in the discourses between both groups.

[EDW] Although there are few if any scholars of new religious movements who reject the idea that Scientology is a religion, there have been considerable attempts by the movement’s critics to insist that Scientology is not-a-religion (and specifically to ensure that governments do not recognise the Church of Scientology as a religious organisation). In countries such as France and Germany, these efforts have so far had greater success than in the United States and Britain. How does this public contestation over the very suitability of the label ‘religion’ for Scientology impact the work of scholars like yourself who focus on this movement?

[AT] Interesting question! I am one of those frustrating scholars who sees religion everywhere—the conversations surrounding whether Scientology ‘is a religion’ ties in with theoretical questions in the wider study of religions, not only the study of new religious movements. I am interested in religion as something people ‘do’, and Scientology is an interesting case of people ‘religioning’ in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But as you correctly mention, its status as a religion is hotly contested by anti-Scientologists and some former members. It is not uncommon for scholars researching Scientology to experience some pushback (especially online) from those who oppose the notion of Scientology as a religion. I think it is important to remember that the term ‘religion’ is not used as an endorsement in the study of religions—perhaps this is a failing on our part (as a wider scholarly community) in communicating some of the core aspects of our discipline. From a critical and academic perspective, however, I have not experienced any pushback in considering Scientology to be a religion.

[EDW] In your book, you draw on the concepts of ‘lived religion’ and ‘vernacular religion’ when trying to understand Free Zone Scientology. These concepts have not been heavily employed by scholars of new religions (who have tended to adopt sociological perspectives), so what do you feel that these approaches bring to the table when examining younger religious movements like Scientology?

[AT] I was very excited to approach Scientology with these methods. The lived/vernacular approaches are an excellent way to understand how religion is practised ‘on the ground’, rather than relying on institutional projections of what a particular religion entails. For a group like Scientology, particularly the Free Zone, this approach is invaluable. As a fluid network of a variety of Scientologists with different understandings of ‘what Scientology is’, examining their beliefs and practices as lived religion is a useful way of researching how different Free Zone Scientologies emerge, the relationships they hold with one another, and the role Scientology plays in the day-to-day life of a Scientologist. As younger movements like Scientology are generally under-researched, this is an ideal way to unpack the nuances found within their communities.

[EDW] Have you had much feedback to your PhD thesis and subsequent book, Free Zone Scientology: Contesting the Boundaries of a New Religion (2021), either from Scientologists themselves (whether Church members or Free Zone) or from anti-Scientologists? What has been the response from other scholars of Scientology and/or religion more broadly? Do you feel that scholars whose focus is on ‘mainstream religions’ like Christianity and Islam take research on ‘alternative religions’ seriously enough?

[AT] I’ve had a few responses from former Scientologists which have been very interesting. One email I received from an ex-Scientologist thanked me for exploring an under-researched area of Scientology. They framed Scientology as a cult, not a religion, but were nonetheless interested to learn more of my findings. Like other scholars researching Scientology, I have also experienced some pushback from anti-Scientologists, most notably due to my positioning of Scientology as a religion.

In terms of the academic community, I’m very happy to say that my work has been warmly received by scholars of NRMs [new religious movements] and Scientology. The academic study of Scientology is experiencing a resurgence of interest of late, so it’s been a thrill to contribute to that discourse and discuss my work with scholars whose work has been invaluable to me. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, after all.

Your question regarding scholars of ‘mainstream’ religions is an interesting one as it reminds me of an experience I had during my PhD studies. I once presented a paper on Scientology practices at a conference, during which a significant number of (senior) scholars openly laughed at the beliefs of Scientologists throughout my talk. I was somewhat taken aback—since I had not seen any laughter directed towards the range of other beliefs I heard discussed during the rest of the conference. A reminder of how some religions/beliefs are often more respected than others, particularly those within the World Religions Paradigm, even amongst the scholarly community.

[EDW] The past fifteen years or so have seen a considerable growth in the number of studies of Scientology, resulting in several edited volumes and monographs on the subject. Although scholarly understandings of the movement have improved accordingly, what parts of Scientology do you feel are crying out for greater scholarly investigation?

[AT] I think an aspect of Scientology that could do with further research are ex-Scientologists. While the anti-cult movements of the 1970s and 1980s were largely organized networks, many anti-Scientologists now interact with one another online, and have essentially formed their own digital communities in which they discuss Scientology (mostly the Church of Scientology) and air their objections. These online groups include a significant member of former Scientologists, and their journey out of the Church and into anti-Scientologist networks blurs the insider/outsider binary that is often applied to Scientology and its critics.

[EDW] You have also published on religion and comics, namely Hergé’s series The Adventures of Tintin. Could you tell us more about this and what you see as the significance for analysing how religion has been portrayed in the comic book medium?

[AT] I am heavily interested in the study of religion and popular culture—particularly the ways in which it tells us about how people engage with religion on a day-to-day basis. Comic books are a useful way of doing this—telling us about the stories people enjoy reading, the ideas that resonate with them, and how religion is understood in these narratives. The Adventures of Tintin is notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a very European series. Hergé, a Belgian artist, drew from contemporary European events and figures while constructing his Tintin stories. Secondly, Hergé was a devout Catholic for the majority of his life, which fed its way into his stories. Notably, however, Hergé did experience disillusion with the Catholic Church, and became interested in Eastern religious practices, notably Tibetan Buddhism. He presented the ways he navigated between both Catholicism and Buddhism within his comics—offering a critique of European Catholicism, whilst also allowing us to gain an insight to his own life.

[EDW] You are one of the founders of the alt-ac.uk website, through which you have sought to promote “alternative academia”. Could you tell us more about this project and what it seeks to achieve?

[AT] We’re very proud of Alt-Ac. It is an organization that aims to promote academia outside the ivory towers it often finds itself restricted to. We believe that good scholarship should not only be celebrated, but communicated with wider publics. We organise workshops and conferences, whilst also providing an open access journal. We are always keen to find new ways of approaching academia and encourage anyone with any ideas to get involved.

[EDW] Do you have any other projects on the horizon that we should be looking out for?

[AT] I’m currently editing a volume on twenty-first century cultic discourses, ‘Cult’ Rhetoric in the 21st Century: Deconstructing the Study of New Religious Movements, with Edward Graham-Hyde from the University of Central Lancashire. It should be published by Bloomsbury next year. The volume collates contributions from a variety of figures in the study of new religions to not only consider paths forward for the discipline, but to consider how normative cultic language is deployed and understood in the twenty-first century.

I’m also the co-host of the Religion and Popular Culture Podcast, which unpacks the ways in which religion and popular culture are deeply tied to one another. It can be found here: https://www.incidentalmythology.com/religion-and-popular-culture-podcast

Thursday 27 January 2022

An Interview with Professor Sarah M. Pike

Today I have the pleasure of presenting an interview with the religious studies scholar Sarah M. Pike, currently Professor of Comparative Religion at California State University – Chico. Professor Pike’s first monograph, Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community (2001), remains one of the most important studies on modern Paganism in the United States, a topic Pike followed up on in her textbook, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America (2004). Since then, she has also pursued important ethnographic research among radical environmentalist and animal rights activists in the U.S., research that culminated in her book For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism (2017). Other publications have explored spirituality and ritual at the Burning Man festival and the ancestral skills movement. Professor Pike’s most recent book is an edited volume put together with Jone Salomonsen and Paul-François Tremlett, Ritual and Democracy: Protests, Publics and Performances (2020).

[EDW] You’ve built a career around studying religion in the United States; where did this interest come from? Much of your research has focused on culturally alternative and non-mainstream communities, namely modern Paganism and radical environmentalism – were these things that you were interested in prior to moving towards academia?

[SMP] My childhood religious background was in a liberal Episcopal church my parents attended, though I became an atheist as an adolescent. Still, I remained curious, both intellectually and personally, about other people’s religious worlds. Perhaps at first this was because they possessed something I did not and I wanted to find out why. Over time, this curiosity tended to be piqued by religious or spiritual individuals and communities who chose unorthodox beliefs and practices. Growing up, my parents encouraged a pluralistic view of the world and the need to understand others unlike myself (my father founded an alternative urban high school and my mother was a psychiatrist). They nurtured my suspicion of and critical approach to dualistic views of the world. In part for this reason, I gravitated towards communities that were demonized by the media or popular opinion, but that held values I found attractive, such as environmental commitments. Because these communities were often misunderstood, I was driven by a desire to make their beliefs and practices understandable to a larger public.

[EDW] As part of your PhD project, conducted at Indiana University, Bloomington during the 1990s, you focused on the modern Pagan festival circuit in the United States. Could you explain a bit about what modern Pagan festivals are like and how you set about exploring a topic that, at that time, was essentially unexplored territory for scholarly investigation?

[SMP] For a graduate class with the anthropologist Michael Jackson (now teaching at Harvard), I needed to find a research paper topic. Around the same time, I happened to walk by a small occult bookstore, The Eye of Osiris, in downtown Bloomington. The “Eye” was owned by two of the Pagans who started a nature sanctuary called Lothlorien in a wooded rural area outside of Bloomington. The community that ran the sanctuary, the Elf Lore Family, held several festivals at Lothlorien during the year and I started attending them. What a find for a young religious studies scholar! Diverse religious traditions converged at these festivals in rural southern Indiana—Wicca, ceremonial magic, Druidism, Radical Faeries, Voudon, and others—and the material culture of costumes, altars, jewelry, and ritual objects of all kinds was fascinating, as were the many rituals that took place at these events. I soon discovered that Lothlorien’s festivals belonged to a busy calendar of Pagan gatherings across the United States, each with its own character, but all offering a space for people who felt isolated from like-minded practitioners. Many of these festivals I visited in the 1990s continue today (at least they did before Covid-19). A number of them are planned around Solstices and Equinoxes and welcome anyone who wants to attend, regardless of their beliefs (or unbelief for that matter). They feature rituals, music, workshops on various traditions and magical techniques, body work, storytelling, dancing around bonfires, and vendors selling books, clothing, and ritual tools.

[EDW] The monograph derived from your PhD research, Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community, was brought out by the University of California Press in 2001. It was part of a selection of pioneering studies of modern Paganism that emerged between 1999 and 2005, alongside works by the likes of Ronald Hutton, Helen Berger, Susan Greenwood, Sabina Magliocco, and Kathryn Rountree. Was there much communication and interaction between these scholars during the late 1990s and early 2000s, or did you feel that you were all conducting your research very much independently of one another?

[SMP] When my research began in the early 1990s, it was early years for the Internet, so easily accessed social media connections that we take for granted today were not available. The first scholar I met studying Paganism was Sabina Magliocco, whom I met at a Pagan festival when I was just starting my field work. For a few years, she was the only other person I knew who was studying Paganism, but not long after that I met Pagan theologian Michael York at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) through the New Religious Movements (NRM) Group. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the NRM Group played an important role in supporting scholars of Paganism, before Contemporary Pagan Studies became its own program unit at the AAR. The NRM group’s annual AAR sessions and evening reception were important spaces for networking, and probably where I also met Helen Berger and Graham Harvey for the first time. So, I knew about these scholars’ work when it was published, but there wasn’t much networking, for me anyway, outside of that AAR context.

[EDW] In 2004, Columbia University Press brought out your book, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America, a useful introduction which was probably the first textbook-style monograph to cover both phenomena. Was this book your own idea or something that the publishers requested you put together?

[SMP] Columbia wanted a book on New Age religion in America as part of a series on religion in the US and I was the one who pushed to include contemporary Paganism. I tried to use the opportunity to explore common roots of New Age and Paganism, as well as their significant differences, in a slim volume designed for general readers. That was a challenge. Deep ethnographic work is where I feel most comfortable and when that book was finished, I swore I’d never write another textbook again!

[EDW] You’ve published several articles and book chapters on the Burning Man festival that takes place in the Nevada desert, with a focus on topics like ritual and sacred space. There are obvious commonalities here with your work on modern Pagan festivals; was it a straightforward transition from researching one to the other? What do you feel a perspective rooted in the study of religion brings to the study of an event like Burning Man, which is not officially framed as ‘religious’?

[SMP] The credit for my discovery of Burning Man belongs to a student in a seminar I taught at the beginning of my career at Chico in 1997. This student came up to me after the first class when I had introduced my research interests and asked if I’d ever heard of “the biggest Pagan festival ever,” which he said was Burning Man. It’s not a Pagan festival of the type I wrote about in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves, but it does raise many similar issues. At the time, Burning Man was often trivialized by the media and demonized by conservative Christians. It probably still is, to some extent. But I saw it an important cultural phenomenon, especially in its role as a site for expressions of being spiritual but not religious. It went on to grow and spread into multiple events around the world as well as influencing a large network of other similar events, usually referred to as “transformational festivals.” Burning Man showcased so many fascinating religious themes and was a venue for cultural experimentation and ritual improvisation that deserved to be taken seriously. People made pilgrimages to Burning Man’s site in the desert and described their experiences as “spiritual” and “transformative” in this space apart from and in opposition to ordinary life, all themes that came up in my research at Pagan festivals. The event included specific religious rituals held by religious communities, such as Zen meditation, as well as ironic takes on religion in many of the art works on display. Burning Man also offered large-scale collective ritual events and sacred spaces, such as a temple for memorializing dead loved ones constructed every year in the center of the festival.

The Temple has been the main focus of my research since 2001. Throughout the week of the festival, tens of thousands of “Burners” make offerings at the Temple. They write letters to the dead, create altars out of photos and mementos, read strangers’ messages, look at strangers’ photos of their beloved dead, meditate, weep, and pray. It’s a beautiful space that is burned to ashes in a sombre ritual involving thousands of Burners on the last night of Burning Man before everyone returns home. The Temple is certainly not a “religious” site in the traditional sense, as it is not connected to an institution or ancient tradition. However, it serves many of the functions of sacred spaces and collective rituals in other religious contexts.

[EDW] Your most recent book, For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism, was published by the University of California Press in 2017. As you describe it in the book’s introduction, For the Wild is “a study of radical environmental and animal rights activism in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America.” At various points in the book you also highlight the presence of new religions like contemporary Paganism and ISKCON in that milieu. What set you on the path to conduct this project and how did you overcome any initial suspicion among activists?

[SMP] In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I began reading about activists who were being charged as “eco-terrorists” and were receiving severe prison sentences for actions that harmed no living beings. I wanted to find out what was behind the terrorism label and what motivated these young people to risk their freedom for trees and nonhuman animals. I wrote letters to prisoners since they had already been charged and sentenced and had less to lose by telling their stories. And fortunately for me, they wrote back. They were articulate, thoughtful, and their stories were compelling, belying their characterization in news headlines as crazy and dangerous. Some of them had political agendas (anti-capitalism), but most of them had spiritual motivations that included a deep love for the nonhuman world, a profound sense of compassion for the suffering of other beings, and a deep anger for the destructiveness of our culture.

To find out more about what was happening in activist communities, I attended their gatherings, which were open to anyone. At that time, between 2009–2016, there was a lot of paranoia, based on actual cases of FBI informants and undercover agents in their midst. My approach, which I also took in my earlier research with Pagans, who had their own fears around anonymity, was to hang out informally, participate in protests, and let these activists get to know me. Some activist event organizers asked me not to write about anything but my own experience, and I honored that. Others were grateful, once they had some trust in me, to have more accurate accounts of their intentions and commitments circulating in public.

[EDW] The past decade or so has seen a blossoming of research on the intersections between religion and environmentalism, a development that probably owes much to the efforts of Bron Taylor. What do you see as the prospects for this broader field of research, as well as its value in a period of escalating environmental devastation?

[SMP] Bron Taylor deserves a huge amount of credit for founding the International Society of Religion, Nature, and Culture (ISSRNC) and getting religion into larger environmental studies conversations. But he is one of many other important figures in an early generation of scholars training graduate students, organizing conferences, and writing books and articles that shaped this field. Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, Rebecca Gould, Laurel Kearns, David Haberman, Adrian Ivakhiv, these are just a few names of religious studies scholars, along with Bron, who deserve a lot of credit for bring ecological issues into religious studies venues and for promoting the importance of studying religion to understand and address environmental issues. The field of religion and ecology could not be more important at our current historical moment and the growth of this field, especially among younger scholars, is exciting. The ISSRNC that Bron founded, with its conferences and journal, continues to be an essential organization promoting scholarship on religion and ecology and supporting younger scholars. It is currently under the leadership of religious studies scholars Evan Berry and Lisa Sideris, whose research is especially relevant to compelling contemporary issues such as oil extraction and climate change. Scholars of religion and ecology have stepped up to focus on a number of urgent topics, such as racism and white privilege in the environmental movement, environmental justice, and religion and climate change, including climate denial among religious people.

[EDW] How has your work been received, both within the communities that you have studied and among scholars of religion and related topics?

[SMP] My work on contemporary Paganism has been well-received, especially by readers who knew little about Pagan religious worlds. Other scholars have told me they appreciated gaining a better understanding of Pagan religious practices, since my publications tend to focus more on ritual than belief, which is well-covered by other writers. Colleagues tell me they gain a sense of the lived religion of Pagans through my work. To my great relief, Pagans have also had positive reactions to my books, for the most part, even though I discuss issues of tension and conflict that do not idealize their communities. Most of these issues are ones Pagans themselves debate, so nothing I have written was surprising to them. I was especially happy to be told by one Pagan festival organizer some years back that she made her staff read my book!

As for activists, their reception has been generally positive, although a few have expressed discomfort at being examined under an academic lens. Some asked me to not include quotes from interviews I did years before I was ready to publish For the Wild because their thinking had changed, and I had to delete some quotes that I really wanted to include. Most important is that in the case of both Pagans and radical activists, they recognized themselves in my writing, even if they might not agree with every aspect of my interpretations.

[EDW] Are there particular areas in the study of modern Paganism, or the study of animal rights and environmentalist activist communities, that you think are crying out for more in-depth research?


•           Research on Paganism beyond North America, Europe, and Australia is still scarce.

•           No one has yet written an extensive study of Radical Faeries or the Church of All Worlds, both fascinating communities that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.

•           Another pressing topic, though quite challenging on the ground, is Paganism in US prison populations. The AAR has held a number of workshops for directors of prison chaplains that I and other scholars, usually those of us specializing in non-Christian religions, have participated in. These chaplains’ questions and the issues they deal with are interesting and problematic given the constraints of our penal system.

•           Pagans in the military is another topic that deserves sustained scholarly attention.

•           As for activism, climate activism is getting some scholarly attention, but deserves more. Many religious communities are active in climate protests, especially on the boundary of protest-ritual, such as creating funerals for extinct species, and many non-religious protesters have spiritual/religious motivations.

•           On the animal rights front, For the Wild could have been twice as long if I’d expanded my coverage of animal rights activists. How did the ethical commitments of this movement kickstart the trend towards veganism and how are ethics and morals involved in contemporary vegan practices and beliefs? How do animal rights activists live their beliefs in contexts such as animal sanctuaries?

[EDW] What projects are you presently working on? Do you have any forthcoming publications that we should be keeping an eye out for?

[SMP] In terms of forthcoming work, I have an article on virtual Burning Man during Covid-19 coming out soon in a special issue of Religion on “Religion and the Covid-19 Pandemic.” I’m also in the process of working on a special issue on transformational festivals for the Journal of Festive Studies, co-edited with anthropologist Graham St John, which is scheduled to be published in January 2023. The other topic I have published on recently is the ancestral skills movement, which has received no attention from scholars. A growing number of gatherings across North America focus on reviving and teaching about pre-industrial skills such as fire-making, basket-weaving, foraging for food, and other survival type skills that are identified as ancient. The focus of my research is on ritualized activities in ancestral skills communities and how they express and constitute particular kinds of relationships between humans and plants or nonhuman animals. My recent articles on this topic are “Prayerful Living with Animals in the Ancestral Skills Movement” (in Bloomsbury Religion in North America, 2021) and “Rewilding Hearts and Habits in the Ancestral Skills Movement” (in a special issue on “Ethnographies of Worldviews/ Ways of Life” in Religions, 2018).

I’m currently working on two research projects that are in the areas of ritual studies and religion/spirituality and ecology. One is on Pagan nature sanctuaries, revisiting some of the themes I wrote about in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves, but focusing more on interactions with specific landscapes and their nonhuman inhabitants. The other project that is currently taking most of my time and attention is about ritualized responses to recent catastrophic wildfires in California, including everything from Indigenous-led restoration work to memorial events. When I’m not teaching, you might find me planting seeds in the 2018 Camp Fire burn scar, coppicing willow, or doing biomimicry, such as creating “beaver” dams.

[EDW] Professor Pike, thank you for taking the time to provide us with this additional interest in your work. I wish you well with your future projects.