Interviews at the Religious Studies Project

I haven’t been posting much recently because during term-time, I have a lot of teaching. But I have been busy, and a couple of my recent interviews have been published over at the Religious Studies Project. (Please note that the wesite is being upgraded, so is prone to downtime and broken links atm, so I have posted the YouTube versions here.)

First up is a conversation between Richard Irvine, Theodoros Kyriakides and myself, concerning magical thinking in the modern world. We tend perhaps to think that such ideas are confined to the fringes in the secular, post-Enlightenment world, but this is not necessarily the case. We talk about Weber’s rationalisation and James Frazer’s evolutionary model of modernity, and how they relate to ideas of belief, and magic. We then look at examples from Orkney and Cyprus to show these ideas in play. I recorded this at the Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference back in February.

Also published recently was this panel I took part in, presented as part of the University of Edinburgh’s Religious Studies seminar series. The Committee of the BASR discuss the public impact of Religious Studies – is RS a “muted voice” in public discourse? Who are the new audiences for RS? My section on “Who are we speaking to?” comes last.

 

 

Millennial Conspiracism at the Cosmic Awakening

Cosmic Awakening, an annual gather of spiritual seekers, takes place in Sedona, Arizona, next month – 20-22nd April, 2018. Sedona is of course famous as a New Age hub, kind of like Glastonbury or Findhorn in the UK, but with more cactuses. Jose Arguilles held the Harmonic Convergence there in 1987, a highly significant event that demonstrated that the millennial ideas of the New Age sensu stricto were still popular, but had largely abandoned “New Age” as an identifier, instead adopting “Ascension”.

Striking here is the mixture of speakers from the New Age milieu and Indigenous religious groups, particularly Native American. While there are many examples of New Age taking up elements of various traditions (often described by “appropriation”, although I have problems with that), and even of representatives of those traditions endorsing them, what is striking here is that UFOs are once again the common ground (or discursive unit), as I argued in my book. This example from an email sent by the organisers:

This year We have invited Native American, Lakota Elder -Golden Light Eagle And Zuni Elder Clifford Mahooty from Gaia TV, The History Channel – Ancient Aliens Series. They will be speaking about the star people / our star family.  PLUS our 12 TEAM LIGHT speakers, Our Contactee’s/Experiencer will be giving you Updated information from many Benevolent Star Beings.

Many of the speakers use “Ascension” in their descriptions: Sandra Walker, for example, aims to “connect us with the Cosmic Stargates assisting our Ascension”. Interestingly, four of the speakers also identify as Starseeds – that is, although their bodies are humans, their souls are extraterrestrials who have incarnated on the Earth in order to assist with the planet’s development.

This millennial undercurrent does not prevent the presence of more traditional UFOlogy, however. One of the speakers is Travis Walton, whose 1975 abduction was made into the film Fire in the Sky. The email from the organisers called for “DISCLOSURE NOW!”, although this admonition seems to have been dropped from the website. This term, largely promoted by Steven Greer and in the more New Age milieu by David Wilcock, is based upon the idea that government do not only know about UFOs and ETs, but are about to make this knowledge known to the world. This is the contemporary version of the UFO conspiracism that emerged in the 1980s with Bill Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse and burst into the mainstream with Men in Black and The X-Files.

Here’s what I did this week

Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been up to over the last week or so.

First, and as always, check out my news roundup of The Week in Conspiracy – published every Friday.

I published a post over at CenSAMM, the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements, on the function of conspiracy narratives in Heaven’s Gate. Check it out here.

One function of conspiracy theories is to deal with uncertainty, which includes theological uncertainty, particularly failed prophecy. These challenges to the truth-claims of such groups can be sidestepped by positing a conspiracy against them, which shifts the blame from the group itself to an external force. In effect, it would explain that Nettle’s death did not lead immediately to TELAH not because it was wrong, but because it was prevented from happening by these “negative forces”. Such a move can even make a potentially divisive ideological issue into a source of group cohesion, by heightening the impression of an existential threat against them.

I also have a chapter in Fabricating Identities, edited by Russell McCutcheon. The book’s a spin-off from the Culture on the Edge blog, and explores identity not as a thing we possess, but as a thing we enact. My chapter is about academic identities, and how in becoming specialists (in my case, a religious studies scholar), we actually help maintain and reify those categories. The book is an entertaining collection of short, accessible essays, and because it’s Equinox, it’s cheap too. Have a look here.

I wrote a piece for the Open University Religious Studies blog on the 70th anniversary of the first Flying Saucer sighting, and the relevance for thinking about religions. You can read it here.

The historian rarely gets to see a narrative of this type as it develops. Compared to the origin stories of Christianity or Islam or almost any other religion, the UFO narrative is well documented and its development can be charted quite clearly. Yet there may be illuminating parallels: 70 years after Jesus’ death, Matthew and Luke were just written, new elaborations on claims of inexplicable sightings, now a generation removed from eyewitnesses.

“The Hidden Hand” | Religion Compass

My article, The hidden hand: Why religious studies need to take conspiracy theories seriously, was published in Religion Compass this week, and you can read it here (if you have access). It’s an introduction to the field, and a summary of my work in this area to date.

Here’s the abstract:

What seemed like fringe concerns to most then have, with Trump’s election and Brexit and the growth of the alt-right across Europe, become of concerns of mainstream commentators. Moreover, the rise of ISIS and the increasingly overt religious language being employed in the political sphere have made the powerful combination of religion and conspiracy plain. This emerging subdiscipline cuts to the very core of some of the most pressing issues in the academic study of religion––and indeed, the social sciences more generally in this postcolonial environment. This article is intended to set out its scope and some of its future directions.