Hello. I’m a writer and teacher from Edinburgh, interested in the history of religions, critical theory and conspiracy theories. I hold a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh, and I’m particularly interested in using critical theory in teaching. I’m Co-founding Editor of the Religious Studies Project and a committee member of the British Association for the Study of Religion.

Sometimes I write fiction too, when my children let me. And I was a musician, in another life. This site is where I promote my books, talk about my research and trying to live as a writer, and collect all the little bits of writing I do in other places. On the right you’ll find my most popular posts, and at the top my major publications. If you like my work, you can get regular updates and special offers if you sign up for my mailing list.

You can email me at d.g.robertson [at] ed.ac.uk.

Channelled Texts in the Classroom?

During my co-teaching assignment in 2014-15, New Age Beliefs and Practises, when stuck for a seminar topic for the first week’s class, given the lack of a set reading, my senior colleague simply went to his office and produced a stack of primary texts on the New Age from the 1940s to 1990s. These he distributed among the students, asking them to try and find examples of the typical New Age elements as presented during the lecture – millennialism, Eastern religions, UFOs, “energy” and so on.

With a bit of coaxing, this worked surprisingly well. What interested me about this activity was that the students were given the data cold, and asked to interpret using what we had learned in the class. Also, it gave them the original material in their hands – unlike most classes on religion, I could actually give them a copy of the original document and ask them to leaf through it. This neatly makes the point that religion – whatever it might be – is both something mundane, and something which is continuing to happen in the modern world.

Inspired by this, I tried a different version of the same technique in my adult education course, Alternative Religions, in 2015. Rather than a book, in the session where we focussed on prophecy, I gave each student an anonymised channelled text and asked them to speculate on where and when it came from. Roughly half of the texts were “UFO” texts from the post-War period, ranging from George Adamski’s messages in the 1950s to Bashar’s in the 2000s, and the remainder were made up of more conventionally religious channelled texts ranging from the Old Testament prophets, to Aleister Crowley’s 1904 Book of the Law, to modern revivalist Christian preachers.

This exercise had two benefits. Firstly, it was quite simply fun. I deliberately “gamified” it: they were a small group, but chatty and enthusiastic, so when some – pleasingly – got it right, there was as much fun as when someone did not. In essence, they forgot they were learning. Moreover, tests have demonstrated that competition improves student’s retention of information (Worm & Buch 2014).

Secondly, without foreknowledge of which was modern and which was not, which was Christian and which was not, the students found it hard to tell the difference. Therefore they realised that the assumed self-evident difference between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” religious formations was proven to be fallacious – at least in terms of their texts and the teachings they contain. UFO Contactees in the 1980s, ceremonial magicians in the 1900s and revivalist preachers all used a common language drawn from the Bible, even though they are typically considered to antithetical to Christianity. In other words, when preconceptions were removed, the data proved to have a lot more similarity than difference, and again the point is made that without preconceptions, the difference between mainstream and alternative religions mostly comes down to expectation. And crucially, the group – apparently – discovered these facts for themselves.

From a disciplinary perspective, this is of crucial importance to me. For Religious Studies as a discipline to earn its place at the academic table, it has to do more than legitimising certain discourses at the expense of others (McCutcheon 1997). A fine ideal, but one which is often made more complicated by the concerns which drive people into the field in the first place. You cannot make a student – almost certainly raised in an implicitly or explicitly religiously normative culture – comprehend these issues simply by telling them, but you can lead them to realise it for themselves.

This exercise makes that point succinctly, and in a non-confrontational way. I can give a student a piece of religion happening right now (or at least, within memory), where they have as much context as I do. At the same time, I can challenge the perceived need to separate real religion from popular narratives, and at the same time expose the power plays of those who deem it necessary. It is a simple and enjoyable exercise, but when successful it leads students to see profound issues at the heart of the discipline. This makes it a very powerful strategy for the classroom.

Refs:

McCutcheon, Russell T. 1997. Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford University Press

Worm, Bjarne S. and Buch, Steen V. 2014. “Does competition work as a motivating factor in e-learning? A randomized controlled trial”. PLoS One, 9(1).

The Week in Conspiracy, 30 August 2016

A review of Holy Hell, a documentary by Will Allen about his years in the Buddhafield, a Californian group led by hypnotherapist Michel. It seems like the tone is relatively even-handed, which means that this will be of interest to scholars like me, as well as the use of archival footage. I say “relatively even-handed” however as I have yet to see it, and there is certainly a slightly sensationalist tone to the trailer. Ideas of sexual misconduct are, of course, the standard accusation in the construction of malevolent Otherness, and has been since the Classical world, and financial misconduct is another. Nevertheless, they do happen, and there have been a number of recent documentaries (“Going Clear”, “The Family”) which trade on the “corrupt leader and his brainwashed stooges” model, which is worrying. As religious identities become more polarised, are we seeing a return to the media universally constructing new religions as dangerous cults?

Richard Bartholomew has an interesting piece of the growing presence of the more outlandish conspiracy theories in American evangelism, entitled “Jim Bakker and the David Ickeization of Christianity”:

Pentecostalism has a strong sense of the other-worldly, and its emphasis on spiritual forces sometimes means a readiness to accept claims about “occult” and Satanic conspiracies. Sometimes, pop-culture science-fiction elements may be incorporated, such as the idea that UFOs are visions of demons. However, the extravagance of the conspiracy theories now being promoted by Bakker are closer to the realms of David Icke’s imaginings than the exhortations of old-time religion or even the old conspiracy theories that were dusted off and made less overtly anti-semitic by Bakker’s old employer Pat Robertson in 1991.

James Carrion has new evidence suggesting a larger role in the UFO story for the Joint Security Control, a strategic deception unit formed during WW2 and answerable directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A revised charter allowing them to operate in peacetime, as well as wartime, come into operation in May 1947, immediately preceding the original wave of “flying saucer” sightings. A long, very detailed, but fascinating read for anyone interested in the historical development of the UFO narrative, and its origins. At http://historydeceived.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/human-deception-at-playduring-ufo-wave.html

What makes an engaging teacher?

What makes an engaging teacher? By thinking about some of the teachers and lecturers I have had, and what I consider to be their strengths and weaknesses, I might be able to clarify for myself what I could do from a practical point of view to improve my own teaching.

One thing that my favourite teachers have done is to create a sense of community – that the class and teacher were discovering together. Carole Cusack used to add details from her life in the lectures – I remember her telling a story about her best friend’s husband having an affair and thinking that she was exactly the same lecturing as she was in person in the pub. But of course, that makes her more relatable and dissolves some of the distance between student and teacher. I have used this technique myself, I think to good results. For example, I will often make self-deprecating jokes and refer to myself as “David”, rather than “Dr Robertson”. Something else I’ll do is to make occasional slightly sarcastic side-comments about the scholars we are looking at. These probably go over most students’ heads, but add another layer of commentary and critique for the more advanced students.

A different example of a teacher creating a sense of purposeful community was in the course From Primitive to Indigenous which James Cox ran in 2007. The course was based around his then-unpublished book of the same title, and we were encouraged to be as critical in our tutorial work as we could be. I took him at his word, and he responded with genuine enthusiasm to the challenges, and I believe some of the criticisms were addressed in the eventual book. So the tutorial work, in this case, actually meant something beyond my own marks, and our involvement in the class and the discussion actually involved us in the larger scholarly community.

Another variation of this is the seminar-style classes that some Biblical Studies classes use, where there is no formal lecture material at all, but rather the group work through a text together, with the discussion taking shape as it will. In Helen Bond’s classes at New College, University of Edinburgh, one or more students would have prepared some type of presentation on a significant section of the text, chosen by the lecturer, which provides the seminar assessment. For the rest of the session, however, the group is free to move at whatever pace it wants, going into more depth on whatever piques interest, or even to go off into interesting tangents. This obviously requires the lecturer to have a great deal of knowledge at their fingertips, so might not be realistic for a junior lecturer. Less obviously, however, it requires a firm but subtle hand on the tiller to make sure that the session gets to where it needs to to work through the course. On a more mundane level, such an arrangement only works for a small group of perhaps fourteen at most.

These latter two models of teaching are examples of what Dominic Corrywright refers to as “complex learning”: rather than a model in which “the tutor informs the class of certain facts”, the teachers become “co-users of open access information” (2013, 4). Indeed, Cusack’s style of lecturing brings some of this complexity to the traditional lecture format, by levelling the presumed differences of status and authority between student and teacher. As Corrywright acknowledges, although complex learning emphasises the use of multiple platforms of learning (including group discussion and tasks, audio and video, apps, etc.), the traditional lecture can still be an important component of pedagogy.

An important way of “complexifying” our lectures, then – and something which all of these teachers have in common – is that they give you a lot of interesting data first, rather than top-loading with theory. That model is still followed by more traditional lecturers: my supervisor once told me “If I don’t give them the theory before the data, how will they know how to interpret it?” The issue of authority is clear here – in a complex model, the teacher would be “discovering” the data with the students, rather than presenting their interpretation fait accompli.

Moreover, this approach can alienate a lot of students: essentially, by the time you get to the data, you’ve already lost them. This is a particular problem, perhaps, as an increasing proportion of students are at university as a necessity, rather than on a quest for personal intellectual development. For example, around 40% of Edinburgh Religious Studies students in 1st and 2nd years are student primary school teachers, why typically have no interest in theoretical issues. Similarly, there are always a number of “seekers”, who see studying religion as a way to enhance their “spiritual lives”. If we lead with data, however, the student is led into discovering the theoretical material for themselves – although naturally the course was structured in that way all along. The different groups of students are therefore interested from the start, and are almost tricked into theorising.

REFS:

Corrywright, Dominic (2013) “Landscape of Learning and Teaching in Religion and Theology: Perspectives and Mechanisms for Complex Learning, Programme Health and Pedagogical Well-being”, in DISKUS 14 (2013), pp 1-20. At http://www.basr.ac.uk/diskus/diskus14/corrywright.pdf

The Week in Conspiracy, 19-8-2016

Via xkcd.com

Hey there! The kids are back at school, so I have time again to curate your weekly dose of conspiracism from around the web.

(Via Daniel Jolley:) The International Journal of Communication reports that people convinced by a conspiracy theory may not immediately change their mind again. Well, duh.

Recent research published in the International Journal of Communication … found that after exposure to a video promoting government conspiracy theories about the moon landing (segment taken from Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon), belief in conspiracy theories increased immediately after the exposure and two weeks later (when compared to people who had not watched the video). This provides, to my knowledge, the first empirical evidence that being exposed to conspiracy theories can change your attitudes for a prolonged (two-week) period of time.  If you are interested in reading the paper, you can access a PDF copy here.

There’s a movie about holocaust denial starring Rachel Weisz coming. I’m in.

The case of alleged abductee Stan Romanek is such a hot tangled mess I can’t even begin to describe it. As he appears in court on child pornography charges this week, go grab a beer, head over to Jack Brewer’s UFO Trail and enjoy.

 

Boleskine House, July 2016

Presumably, many of my readers will be aware that Boleskine House on the Northern shore of Loch Ness caught fire just before Christmas last year. Boleskine House was formerly owned by Aleister Crowley, and was later owned by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin who has had a long involvement with Crowley. In fact, I have been told that Page is (or was) the owner of one of the two biggest collections of Crowley material in the UK. (The other is, I think, Alan Moore). Page has since been given an OBE by the Queen for his charity work.

As an aside, I once worked with an older gentleman who had worked for Page when he owned the building in the 1970s, who told me Page was looking for a secret room under the main house which Crowley had installed for a temple. They never found it.

Having heard differing reports about the state of the place, when I found myself camping by Loch Ness around a mile along the shore, I had to go and take a look. The takeaway: it’s bad, but not as bad as it could be. The roof is gone on the shore end of the building, but the walls are intact. At the west end, the top of the arches on the windows are gone. I didn’t hang around because, frankly, it wasn’t really safe and while there’s no trespassing law in Scotland, people can sure act like there is.

The Week in Conspiracism, 30/05/2016

Bit of a backlog this week… And, yes I know that David Icke appeared on the Today Show with Andrew Neil – I’ll do a separate post about that soon…

For those interested in the American Right – http://www.vice.com/en_ca/video/inside-the-michigan-militia

So Conspiracist Dating is now a thing. I wish I’d known about this when I wrote my paper on conspiracist economics – http://www.avclub.com/article/hot-paranoid-singles-your-area-are-looking-you-awa-236587

There’s a positive review of Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds over at the Magonia blog. It examines the psychology of conspiracy theories, and looks like being both evenhanded and readable:

He argue that what separates them from real, established conspiracies is the lack of resolution; they are ongoing mysteries. More to the point perhaps is that what they have in common is the perception that the apparent world is an illusion, a false face. Behind the quotidian events of the world there is a “hidden hand”, a secret meaning and purpose. This is clearly a secularisation of the religious beliefs that either God or the Devil is behind the randomness of the world.

And finally, Alternet catches up with classic sociology from the early 1960s – http://www.alternet.org/belief/awkward-read-christian-doomsday-cults-excuse-why-world-didnt-end-they-predicted