7 Questions for Sacred Matters

I was interviewed last year for Sacred Matters, a really interesting web magazine focussed on “public scholarship that undercuts conventional understandings of religion and reimagines the boundaries between religion and culture”. You can read the full thing here.

Most scholarship on conspiracy theories starts by attacking the rationality of their ideas. But to state that Jesus rose from the grave is obviously to challenge scientific knowledge too. Where are the scholars attacking the rationality of an idea that the majority of US citizens hold dear? In fact, much – if not most – of what we do as supposedly “secular” humans is not driven by the scientific method at all – including nationalism, political views, sport, even falling in love. As social scientists, our job is to describe, not prescribe, human social activity.

Conspiracy theories are a site of contestation as to how we understand the world. A conspiracy theory is not “a theory about a conspiracy” – I give lots of examples in the book – but rather something we are not permitted to think. That so many conspiracy theories relate to people in positions of power should make this even plainer. The important issue in conspiracy theories is not what is said, but whether we are allowed to say it. That scholars so often reinforce this good thinking/bad thinking dichotomy makes it clear that a properly critical and disinterested study of conspiracy theories is sorely needed.



Out of the Cornea of my Eye

Press for UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age has begun!

Firstly, if you are in the US, you can catch me talking about UFO conspiracies and David Icke on Wisconsin’s Public Radio tonight. The show is To The Best of Our Knowledge and is syndicated on two hundred stations across the US – check local press for details. Alternatively, you can listen to it here.

I’m delighted that the first review of the book is from the excellent Magonia blog. Their focus is on UFOs, though they take an interest in Forteana and conspiracies too, and they have a skeptical but not dismissive approach. You can read it here – I’m pleased with it, and agree with Peter Rogerson’s criticisms. This book won’t be my last word on the subject, however.

If there is a notable omission in this book it is the lack of a detailed treatment of the likes of Budd Hopkins and David Jacobs. The latter in particular merges traditional American far right tropes of the alien-other seeking to infiltrate society and a bring about the downfall of rugged American individualism, and to pollute the pure white blood line. In Jacobs’ ideology the ‘others’ are designated as hybrids and could be anybody (your neighbour might be a witch/Satanist/communist etc.) The hybrids are envisaged as sexually voracious and the greys replace the ‘communist conspiracy’ or the United Nations as bringers of the monolithic New World Order.
This book is written by an academic for academics but the core chapters are easily accessible and should be of interest to a wider readership, although readers might want to skip the section on ‘the critical study of religion’ in chapter two.

New Interviews at the Religious Studies Project

A few of my interviews have been released on the Religious Studies Project in the last couple of months. All of these were recorded at the International Association for the History of Religions in Erfurt last August.

My favourite is this interview with Kocku von Stuckrad on discursive approaches to the study of religion:

The linguistic turn took longer to influence Religious Studies than many other areas of the social sciences, but in recent years this approach has produced some hugely influential works which challenge many of the traditional assumptions of the field. In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Kocku von Stuckrad tells David G. Robertson how discursive approaches might help solve the challenges of contemporary Religious Studies: the crisis of representation; the situated observer; and the dilemma of essentialism and relativism.

But I’m also fond of this interview with Susan Palmer on New Religions and the law:

outside of academia, the language of “cults” continues to be used, and particularly through the law, has an affect on the lives of real people. Susan J. Palmer joins David G. Robertson to discuss the intersection between new or minority religions and the law. Professor Palmer describes how she came to study these minority groups, and to realise that they were often being misrepresented, or at least unduly targeted. Discussion ranges from Scientology in France to the Branch Davidians and the Nuwaubians in the US, with issues of secularity, race and “brainwashing” come to the fore.

Then there was this. The RSP “Christmas” Special, 14 to 1:

Fourteen contestants. One tetchy quizmaster. Three microphones. Numerous cases of wine. One glamorous assistant. Many bruised egos. A boisterous studio audience. A splash of irreverence. Dozens of questions. Four years of podcasts! A rapidly diminishing reservoir of academic credibility. And far, far too many in-jokes… It’s time for the Religious Studies Project Special 2015!

Social Constructionism(s) > The Religious Studies Project

I put out another interview over at the Religious Studies Project this week. The interview was with Titus Hjelm on the subject of Social Constructionism, the topic of his recent book:

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? Titus Hjelm explains how approaches which see social realities as built from discourses challenge how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

But there’s more! Check out the excellent response from Craig Martin, But Mountains, Dammit!:

Are we to believe those mountains weren’t here before humans came to name them?! Mountains, dammit! They’re real and they’re mind-independent! (It’s at this point that the radical constructionists ask, “can you say that without discourse?” and then the realists really go apoplectic.)

It’s critical theorist versus critical theorist! The loser disappears in a puff of discourse!