Archive | January 2012

What’s the Point of Atheist Temples?

Pretty much my thoughts exactly…

Recovering Agnostic

Alain de Botton wants to build an “atheist temple” in London. This has a connection with some of the issues I dealt with recently around whether you could have ritual without religion, and whether similar or even identical forms and structures could be used without the religious element. I think it’s possible and reasonable, but despite that, and although I have a lot of sympathy with his preference for a positive, uplifting message, I can’t see any sense in de Botton’s proposal.

I’m not quite sure what the purpose of the building would be – de Botton explicitly calls it an atheist temple, and wants to show the positive side of atheism, but all the detail of the plans – the specifically designed height, the fossils, the human genome sequence – makes it sound more like a freeform science museum, containing nothing, as far as I can see, that…

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Invented Religions: From Jedism to the Church of All Worlds

We’re into week three of The Religious Studies Project, and this week we have a real treat for you.

What is an “Invented Religion”? Why should scholars take these religions seriously? What makes these “inventions” different from the revelations in other religions? What happens when an author does not want their story to become a religious text?

In this interview with David, Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) answers these questions and more, exploring her notion of “Invented Religions” and introducing the listener to a wide variety of contemporary and unusual forms of religion. Discussion flows through a range of topics – from Discordianism and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to Scientology, Jediism and the New Atheism – and demonstrates how the works of authors such as Thomas Pynchon and Robert A. Heinlein can be transformed by others and take on a life of their own. In her own words, “This is a fiction so good it should be true…”

You can download this interview and find out more here, or subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes.

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion



What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

By Erika Salomon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 27 January 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Armin Geertz on ‘Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion’ (23 January 2012).

In Armin Geertz’s recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, he provides an excellent overview of the methods and challenges in the cognitive study of religion and provides examples of some interesting theories and findings from the field. I would like to delve a little further into this latter part by providing a brief review of some of the interesting and important work that has resulted from the cognitive approach.

As Geertz’s interview suggests, researchers in this field have largely focused on the idea that supernatural agents (beings with minds that can think and plan), are a central feature of religious cognition. Such beliefs take many forms and are found throughout the world—from the God of Christianity to the ancestor spirits of the Fang. Two of the most active areas within the cognitive approach to religion are explaining why such beliefs are so widespread and studying how they are like or unlike other kinds of thoughts.

The general consensus among researchers in this area is that humans are “cognitively prepared” for belief, even before they are capable of understanding the complex ideas of any given religious or supernatural belief system. Evidence from developmental psychology suggests that adult religious cognition may develop from a series of underlying cognitive biases displayed by children. Deborah Kelemen’s (1999) research, for example, suggests that children have a tendency (termed promiscuous teleology) to see natural objects as serving some kind of purpose—for example, that trees are for climbing.

Continued reading here.

The Academic Résumé: Some Recommendations

The Academic Résumé: Some Recommendations

By L. W. Hurtado, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh

The following remarks are intended to give some assistance to the candidate who is perhaps applying for the first academic appointment. They are based on the writer’s experiences as applicant and (as a result of successful applications!) as a participant in the selection and hiring process at academic institutions (on both sides of the Atlantic). I do not claim that these remarks are comprehensive, but I do hope that they may be of help. I should also mention that these observations have to do particularly with the application and hiring processes in a North American setting.1 The procedures are somewhat different in the UK. E.g., British universities tend not to ask for references at application stage, but only for those applicants whom they short-list. Also, whereas you will likely apply directly to the academic department or to the search committee in North America, in the UK you may be asked to send the application through the university’s personnel office.

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Religion and National Identity

From Halikiopoulou, 2003:35 – “Ethnic nationalism draws from religion not only in terms of an eschatological vision, or the attainment of statehood through sacrifice; religious tradition may also provide a basis for the maintenance and reproduction of national identity. According to Mavrogordatos,

Religion provides a primordial line of demarcation, which may be far superior to any other. It is certainly more readily identifiable, clear-cut, exclusive and impermeable than language, ancestry or any other relevant criterion. Occasional syncretism notwithstanding, it does not even make sense to say one is of mixed religion whereas many are bilingual or of mixed blood. (Mavrogordatos, 2003:117).”

  • Halikiopolou, Daphne. 2011. Patterns of Secularization: Church, State and Nation in Greece and the Republic of Ireland. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Mavrogordatos, G. 2003. “Orthodoxy and Nationalism in the Greek Case” in J. Madeley and Z. Enyedi (eds.) Church and State in Contemporary Europe. Portland: Frank Cass.

What is Phenomenology?

What is Phenomenology? By Jonathan Tuckett, University of Stirling

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 20 January 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with James Cox on ”The Phenomenology of Religion” (14 January 2012).

In a recent podcast (2012), Professor James Cox has briefly sketched an outline of the phenomenology of religion. His overview has taken broadly the concept of Husserl’s notions of epoche and the eidetic intuition and carried them through to typologies for the purpose of comparisons. Now, Cox provides us with a rather comprehensive phenomenology which, though briefly explained in the podcast, is expounded upon in greater detail in his book An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (2010). However, Cox is possibly the great syncretist of phenomenology and draws upon a rich and ultimately varied history in the field. In truth, despite Cox’s presentation, what the phenomenology of religion entails is perhaps not as monolithic as he would suggest.

Quite rightly Cox indicates that the beginnings of the phenomenology of religion can be found in what he calls (2010) the Dutch school of phenomenology. However, in a detailed survey of the history of religious studies in the Dutch context, Arie Molendijk (2000) highlights a problem: it is not entirely clear with whom the phenomenology of religion began. He points to authors such as Sharpe, Waardenburgh and Hirschmann as not only differing in deciding when phenomenology first began, but also when considering who does and does not count as phenomenologists. Thus, to give just a brief deluge of figures we might think of as phenomenologists, Molendijk lists at various points: Chantepie de la Saussaye, Nathan Soderblom, Edward Lehmann, William Kristensen, Gerardus van der Leeuw, C.J. Bleeker, Joachim Wach, Joseph Kitagawa, Mircea Eliade, C.P. Tiele, Friedrich Pfister, Max Scheler, Georg Wobbermin, Robert Winkler, Rudolf Otto, Heinrich Frick, Gustav Mensching (2000:28-29). Nor is there much consensus on the matter, Hischmann who was a student of van der Leeuw does not include Kristensen, van der Leeuw’s teacher, on her list of phenomenologists. This is also a predominantly Dutch and Scandinavian dominated list, to which we might wish to add the further British figures of Edwin W. Smith, Geoffrey Parrinder, Ninian Smart and Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

Nevertheless, it is still a fairly safe comment to say that the phenomenology of religion began with the Dutch. Which scholar was the first phenomenologist, however, is debatable. Molendijk tells us that at the very latest the phenomenology of religion began with Gerardus van der Leeuw. Some might say that Kristensen is the first phenomenologist, and Cox is probably among this group, for his watchword ‘the believers were completely right’ (in 1969:49) has pervaded all phenomenology. Yet Kristensen had a very specific idea of what the phenomenology of religion was, and one which was far stricter than van der Leeuw’s. This general lack of clarity over what is contained in the phrase ‘phenomenology of religion’ and who are phenomenologists has generated considerable misgivings about the field. Indeed, Willard Oxtoby rightly acknowledges that there are ‘as many phenomenologies as there are phenomenolgoists’ (Oxtoby, 1968:598). Even so, we can identify three dominant forms of phenomenology. Though we can see the beginnings of such a distinction in the Kristensen’s work (he was speaking of a science of religion more generally though), it is Bettis and Smart that provide us with the most substantial classifications.

Methodological Phenomenology. In his interview, Cox spoke of how phenomenologists of religion employ Husserl’s notion of bracketing in order to let the ‘phenomena of religion speak for themselves’. The phenomenological method is characterised by the bracketing of scientific and theological theories so as not to bring any presuppositions into the study of religion. We may call this, as Bettis does, ‘psychological descriptions’, for the phenomenological method concerns itself with the activity itself rather than the object of the activity. Our focus is the believers themselves in what they do and think. It would be wrong, though, to think this idea of neutrality that underpins the phenomenological method is solely bound to Husserl’s philosophy (despite Cox’s comments to the contrary). Smart, for instance formulated his idea of methodological agnosticism almost independently of Husserl’s philosophy.

Typological Phenomenology. This type of phenomenology began with Kristensen – indeed he saw the phenomenology of religion as nothing but this – and is as Cox said in the interview, the development of typologies such as sacrifice. For Kristensen this meant a ‘systematic survey of the data’ (in Bettis 1969:36). It is the work of comparison, the consideration of data against one another for the purpose of gaining further insight into them. Kristensen maintained that this data is gathered by the History of Religion, work which later phenomenologists would bring under methodological phenomenology. Bettis refers to this as dialectical descriptions and sees this as the application of the phenomenological method to a spectrum of religious ideas, activities, institutions, customs and symbols. Smart, too, uses the phrase ‘dialectical phenomenology’ which he uses synonymously with typological phenomenology until later favouring the latter.

Speculative Phenomenology. Smart, from whom I coin the term, says of this kind of phenomenology that the data of typological phenomenology are ‘arranged according to a preconceived pattern, itself incapable of being thoroughly insulated from theological (or anti-theological) assumptions’ (2009:194-5). We can see here the work of what Cox referred to as ‘Comparative Religion’ in the interview, where much of the data is organised in gradations of superiority. And even if no gradations are made we still find much of the work of defining religion from non-religion in this area. Here we start to talk of the essence of religion, usually discovered by the eidetic intuition, which allows us to see the core of all phenomena. Bettis calls these ontological descriptions as they focused on the object of religious activity as opposed to psychological descriptions that looked at the activity itself. Good examples of this kind of phenomenology would be Eliade and Otto.

In An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, Cox has made an impressive attempt to reconcile these three types of phenomenology. But we are left with the question of who are phenomenologists? Historically, not every scholar has employed all three kinds of phenomenology: are those who utilise only one or two kinds of phenomenology phenomenologists? Take Eliade for instance, he proclaimed himself to be a historian of religion and yet we regard him as one of the field’s seminal phenomenologists. And how do we define the phenomenology of religion when it incorporates all three kinds? The general disagreements within each kind of phenomenology mean that Cox’s attempt, impressive though it is, is by no means complete. Therefore, by extension, there is no complete understanding of the phenomenology of religion.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Jonathan  is currently a PhD student at the University of Stirling. He has an MA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MSc in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh. His research is on the phenomenological method in the study of religion. Areas of interest include the phenomenology of religion, theory and method in the study of religion, and philosophy of religion.


Bettis, J. (1969). Phenomenology of Religion; SCM Press, London
Cox, J. (2006)
. A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion; T&T Clarck International, London
Cox, J. (2010). An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion; Continuum, London
Cox, J. (2012). “The Phenomenology of Religion”, interview with The Religious Studies Project published 16 January 2012 online at
Molendijk, A. (2000). ‘At the Cross-roads: Early Dutch Science of Religion in International Perspective’ in Man, Meaning, and Mystery: 100 yeas of History of Religions in Norway; ed. by S. Hjelde; Brill, Leiden, (pg.19-51)
Oxtoby, W. (1968). ‘Religionswissenchaft Revisited’ in Religion in Antiquity; ed. by J. Neusner; Brill, Leiden (pg.591-608)
Smart, N. (2009). Ninian Smart on World Religions Vol.1: Religious Experience and Philosophical Analysis; ed. by J. Shepherd; Farnham, Ashgate

In the absence of religion…

I read this and was rather taken aback… needless to say, I do NOT agree:

“In the absence of religion, people tend to believe anything rather than nothing, and the task of the church must be to engage empathetically with culture and society, offering shape, colour and articulation to the voices of innate and implicit religion.”

Percy, M. 2004. Losing our space, finding our place. In Religion, identity and change, ed. S. Coleman and P. Collins, 26-41. Aldershot: Ashgate, p. 39.

Philip Kitcher’s New Atheism

via Disinformation by majestic on 9/15/11

Gary Gutting profiles the emerging brand of atheism espoused by Columbia University professor Philip Kitcher, in the New York Times:

Led by the biologist Richard Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion,” atheism has taken on a new life in popular religious debate. Dawkins’s brand of atheism is scientific in that it views the “God hypothesis” as obviously inadequate to the known facts. In particular, he employs the facts of evolution to challenge the need to postulate God as the designer of the universe. For atheists like Dawkins, belief in God is an intellectual mistake, and honest thinkers need simply to recognize this and move on from the silliness and abuses associated with religion.

Most believers, however, do not come to religion through philosophical arguments. Rather, their belief arises from their personal experiences of a spiritual world of meaning and values, with God as its center.

In the last few years there has emerged another style of atheism that takes such experiences seriously. One of its best exponents is Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia. (For a good introduction to his views, see Kitcher’s essay in “The Joy of Secularism,” perceptively discussed last month by James Wood in The New Yorker.)

Instead of focusing on the scientific inadequacy of theistic arguments, Kitcher critically examines the spiritual experiences underlying religious belief, particularly noting that they depend on specific and contingent social and cultural conditions. Your religious beliefs typically depend on the community in which you were raised or live. The spiritual experiences of people in ancient Greece, medieval Japan or 21st-century Saudi Arabia do not lead to belief in Christianity. It seems, therefore, that religious belief very likely tracks not truth but social conditioning. This “cultural relativism” argument is an old one, but Kitcher shows that it is still a serious challenge. (He is also refreshingly aware that he needs to show why a similar argument does not apply to his own position, since atheistic beliefs are themselves often a result of the community in which one lives.)…

[continues in the New York Times]

Scientology Publicity…

This came through my door the other day. The first time I have ever received a Scientology leaflet. I’m touched…

Mecca for the rich?

From the Independent:

Mecca for the rich: Islam’s holiest site ‘turning into Vegas’

Historic and culturally important landmarks are being destroyed to make way for luxury hotels and malls, reports Jerome Taylor.

Click here for the full feature.