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Non-religion, the critical study of religion, sociology of religion, and more…

I recently had the pleasure of editing a review article for the journal Religion and Society: Advances in Research, on Abby Day’s Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. The article features commentary from Grace Davie, James A. Beckford, Saliha Chattoo, Mia Lövheim, Manuel A. Vásquez, and Abby Day herself, and begins with my editorial introduction, which focuses on the interactions between Abby’s work and research on ‘non-religion’, and critical research on ‘religion’ in general, as well as some reflections on the perceived divide between ‘sociology of religion’ and ‘religious studies’. The pre-copy-edited version of this introduction is pasted below. For the final version, and the full article, you’ll have to visit here (and possibly pay).


Editorial Introduction

I first had the pleasure of meeting the force of nature that is Abby Day back in 2010 at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network’s “Qualitative Methods Workshop” at the University of Cambridge (Cotter 2011). Back then I was working towards my Masters degree in Religious Studies and had little idea that in the coming years we would end up co-editing a book with Giselle Vincett (Day et al. 2013) or that I would find myself reviewing Believing in Belonging (see Cotter 2013) and collaborating on projects such as the one appearing in this journal. Given that the responses which follow this editorial—from Grace Davie, James A. Beckford, Saliha Chattoo, Mia Lövheim, Manuel A. Vásquez, and Abby Day herself—engage extensively and thought-provokingly with Abby’s work, I am going to restrict my comments to two brief points. First of all, the connections I can see between Believing in Belonging (Day 2011; paperback 2013) and the growing body of research into “non-religion”; and secondly, some reflections on the place of Abby’s work in the critical academic study of “religion” more broadly.

My own research has, in recent years, been heavily focused upon the problematic constructs of non-religion and secularity (cf. Quack 2014; Cotter 2015; Lee 2015) as limiting cases for their “semantically parasitic” (Fitzgerald 2007: 54) other, religion. Following Johannes Quack, I approach non-religion as “a descriptive term for a certain group of understudied phenomena and relationships and not as a term that seeks to draw clear boundaries between religion and nonreligion [sic]” (2014: 3). As such, I share many of the concerns addressed in Abby’s research—particularly concerning how, as Beckford puts it below, “census and survey questions about religion produce unreliable guides to belief and/or identities.” This point is exemplified best in the case of the “nones”—a residual category constructed by censuses and surveys which, once in place, has seen scholars, journalists, politicians and others rushing to “imbue this group with a material face, social interests and political persuasions, as if this group, always there but now with a name, is available for their commentary and speculation” (Ramey and Miller 2013).

Abby’s work with “census Christians” cuts to the core of this issue, examining individuals’ identity claims as precisely that—as “operational acts of identification”(Bayart 2005: 92)—and problematizing existing approaches to beliefs that privilege those commonly understood as being “religious.” Building upon Abby’s insight that “beliefs” are “performed through social actions of both belonging and excluding” (Day 2011: 194) my ongoing doctoral research takes a critical discursive approach to non-religion. With Steven Ramey, I argue that religion and, by extension, non-religion do “not have agency to teach or do anything” but are constructed by social actors who interpret situations “in ways that relate to their particular context and the range of interests that enliven that context” (2014: 109). Abby’s work contributes to a growing body of rigorous research into related categories (see for example Blankholm 2014; Lee 2015; Quack 2014; Quillen 2015), and serves as a useful and important manifesto for approaching those social actors who are positioned—by themselves or by others—as being other than religious.

As should be clear from the above, I position myself firmly within the critical strand of Religious Studies, and agree with my research supervisor that “there are no disinterested, external positions” (Knott 2005: 125) from which to examine religion. We do not occupy a neutral space but perpetuate and mold the “discipline of religion” (McCutcheon 2003); we are complicit in reifying this problematic social construct. From this perspective, surveys and questionnaires are no less problematic for the nuanced academic study of religion than are contemporary academic emphases on “lived religion,” i.e. on “religion as expressed and experienced in the lives of individuals” (McGuire 2008: 3). This relatively recent move away from the systematized theologies of male élites was certainly a welcome and necessary move for the field. All-too-often, however, such a focus merely privileges “lived religion” as somehow more authentic or more real than other aspects such as history, tradition, theology, and institution (see Cotter and Robertson 2016), and thus we return to the sui generis model so thoroughly critiqued by McCutcheon, Asad, Fitzgerald, and others.

In Vásquez’s contribution to this section, he highlights the important work that Believing in Belonging does in critiquing existing models of belief for ignoring issues of power, in demonstrating that belief is produced socially, and in locating belief in the activity of doing belief (if it is to have any meaningful sense at all). In this way, Day’s work facilitates a critical approach to that which is commonly understood as religious: it avoids unduly emphasizing both the individual and society, and simultaneously undercuts and challenges the constructed boundary between religion and non-religion by focusing on “alternative organizing principles independent of religious categories” (Quack 2012: 26). Although we could debate the extent to which “belief” is “independent of religious categories,” and although Day’s account arguably overemphasizes “relationships,” critical scholars have much to learn from her theoretically engaged ethnographic mutiny against established classificatory systems.

In lieu of a conclusion, and before I pass the baton to my esteemed colleagues, I wish to use my final paragraph to speak to a worrying divide that I perceive to be growing, at least in the UK, between Religious Studies (RS) and the Sociology of Religion (SOR). My evidence is little more than anecdotal, yet increasingly frequently I encounter colleagues who, while positioning themselves in one of these disciplines, dismiss the other as “too theological.” To translate these stances as I see them, some in RS have a tendency to dismiss SOR out of hand as being naïve in its reification of certain folk categories, its valorization of “society,” and its interest in large-scale surveys and social trends, whereas some in SOR castigate RS for being obsessed with category formation, and for being both uncritically wedded to phenomenological approaches and obstinately uninterested in “religion” in the “real world.” Although I would unhesitatingly admit that these criticisms ring true for much of what passes as RS and SOR in contemporary academia, it is my hope that my brief discussion above, and the extensive contributions below will demonstrate that each of these approaches has a great deal to offer. Working together is a much more effective route towards advancing critical thought, and increasing knowledge and understanding, and it is therefore with gratitude that I hand over to Grace, Jim, Saliha, Mia, Manuel, and Abby to demonstrate such productive collaboration in action.


Bayart, Jean-François. 2005. The Illusion of Cultural Identity. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53 (4): 775–90. doi:10.1111/jssr.12152.

Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. “Qualitative Methods Workshop.” NSRN Online. (Accessed 27 November 2015).

Cotter, Christopher R. 2013. “Review: Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World.” Fieldwork in Religion 8 (1): 116–17.

Cotter, Christopher R. 2015. “Without God yet Not Without Nuance: A Qualitative Study of Atheism and Non-Religion among Scottish University Students.” Pp. 171–94 in Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts, ed. Lori G. Beaman and Steven Tomlins. Dordrecht: Springer.

Cotter, Christopher R., and David G. Robertson, eds. 2016. After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. London: Routledge.

Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Day, Abby, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter, eds. 2013. Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular. Farnham: Ashgate.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Knott, Kim. 2005. The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London and Oakville, CT: Equinox.

Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the Nonreligious: Reimagining the Secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCutcheon, Russell T. 2003. The Discipline of Religion: Structure, Meaning, Rhetoric. New York: Routledge.

McGuire, Meredith B. 2008. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Quack, Johannes. 2012. Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Quack, Johannes. 2014. “Outline of a Relational Approach to ‘Nonreligion.’” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 26 (4-5): 439–69.

Quillen, Ethan Gjerset. 2015. “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism.” Science, Religion and Culture 2 (3): 25–25.

Ramey, Steven. 2014. “Textbooks, Assumptions, and Us: Commentary on Jimmy Emanuelsson’s ‘Islam and the Sui-Generis Discourse: Representations of Islam in Textbooks Used in Introductory Courses of Religious Studies in Sweden.’” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 26 (1): 108–10. doi:10.1163/15700682-12341285.

Ramey, Steven, and Monica R. Miller. 2013. “Meaningless Surveys: The Faulty ‘Mathematics’ of the ’Nones.” The Huffington Post. November 7. (accessed 27 November 2015).

Catholic and Evangelical Reponses to the New Age

According to Daren Kemp, Christians were “among the first to recognise the existence of a New Age movement.” In the 1970s, Christian critiques of the New Age “did much to disseminate knowledge among the general public” (2004:133) and to some extent this is still the case today, where many Christians “have only second-hand knowledge of [New Age]” (Kemp, 2007:462). In this post, I aim to critically compare two contemporary Christian responses to New Age – the official Roman Catholic report Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the “New Age[JCBWL] (2003), and John Newport’s evangelical study, The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview (1998). These texts were chosen because they are notably absent from Saliba’s (1999) excellent study of Christian responses to New Age and because of their extensive attention to the writing of prominent scholars of New Age.

It is worth acknowledging that, due to the interdenominational nature of the evangelical movement, it is not possible to find a document comparable to JCBWL, which delineates the official position of the church. Newport’s text cannot be assumed to speak for all evangelical Christians (just as that there will be Catholics who do not subscribe to JCBWL). Discussion of each text focuses on four main themes: the motivation/perspective of the authors; perceived positive aspects of New Age; negative assessments of New Age; and proposed methods for Christian engagement with New Age.

Before commencing this discussion it is necessary to define what I mean when I refer to New Age. The Catholic document defines the New Age Movement as “a multifaceted cultural tendency” which is “spread across cultures, in [many varied] phenomena”. Expressing concerns to not refer to a New Age “religion” the report states that New Age is not so much an organised “movement” as “a loose network of practitioners(ibid). The authors recognise that they are dealing with “very complex and elusive phenomenon” and acknowledge that many New Agers abjure the New Age label (ibid). Whilst Newport’s title refers to a New Age Movement, most of his discussion is based around a clash of worldviews which he defines as “vision[s] of life and the world that help us to make sense of life [… and are] rooted in beliefs that are ultimate in character” (1998:41). For Newport, New Age expresses “diversity and fluidity in membership” and is characterised by an emphasis on personal transformation and universalisation of religion (ibid:35-39). These understandings of the New Age are generally in agreement with current scholarship. George Chryssides, for example, declares that “the [New Age] is certainly not a religion”, as individual interests tend to exceed any single religion and reject a “single religion[‘s claim to a] monopoly of answers to spiritual questions” (2007:19-20). And Christopher Partridge confirms both reports’ attempts to present a unified New Age by acknowledging that despite a “lack of homogeneity […New Age] worldviews do connect at certain points” (2007:232). Many subtle criticisms could be levelled at this broad delineation of New Age, however for my purposes it should suffice to acknowledge the broad agreement between both documents and current scholarship.

Kemp describes the Catholic report as “unprecedented […] in its objective and well researched approach to [New Age]” (2003:196.n.1). Even a cursory glance at the text reveals that it is not simply repeating the “second-hand paranoia” of a similar statement issued by the Irish Theological Commission in 1994 (see Kemp, 2007:462). The writers are aiming at reliability and objectivity, claiming that their intent is to provide “reliable information on the differences between Christianity and [New Age]” and that ““it would be unwise and untrue to say that everything connected with the [New Age Movement] is good, or […] bad”. Similarly, although approaching his book “from an evangelical perspective,” Newport admirably desires to “give both Christians and [New Age] advocates alike a better understanding of both sides” (1998: xv) and states that “there is value in dialogue” (ibid:51).

However, it is unlikely that the ideals of both texts will be attainable. JCBWL clearly defines its audience as “those engaged in pastoral work” with the intent “that they might be able to explain how the [New Age Movement] differs from [Christianity]”, whilst Newport’s motivation is to “provide a basis of study for churches, colleges, seminaries and lay people” (1998: xv). These religious biases inherent in the texts will understandably limit their objectivity.

Except for a section entitled A Positive Challenge, JCBWL has little to say on the positive aspects of New Age. This states that: “The search which often leads people to the [New Age] is a genuine yearning […]”, and identifies positive New Age “criticisms of ‘the materialism of daily life, of philosophy and even of medicine and psychiatry; [… and] the industrial culture of unrestrained individualism” (citing Massimo Introvigne, New Age & Next Age (2000), p. 267). However, it has previously been stated that the attraction exerted on some Christians by these criticisms/themes “may be due […] to the lack of serious attention in their own communities for themes which are actually part of [Catholicism]”. Therefore any positive affirmations made about New Age seem to be implicit affirmations of Catholicism.

Newport also highlights numerous positive aspects of the New Age Movement in his attempted dialogue: Various alternative medical practises promoted by New Age are praised (1998:52) and the New Age theme of spiritual transformation is seen as a sign of God (ibid:604). The New Age is even used as a criticism of Christianity, with Newport highlighting three key accusations posed by the New Age Movement (ibid:51-52), and acknowledging that Christianity “has not been, as a whole, ecologically sensitive” (ibid:309). However, as was the case with JCBWL, Newport contends that these positive aspects are only “half right” and that they “can be found in biblical spirituality – [… their] proper context” (ibid:142). The apparent reluctance of both texts to ascribe anything positive to New Age in its own right seems to be due to a fundamental conceptual issue on the part of the authors.

Considering JCBWL, this issue is encapsulated in two key factors. New Age is understood to be a result of “the growth and spread of relativism, along with an antipathy or indifference towards the Christian faith”, and “represents something of a compendium of positions that the Church has identified as heterodox”. This view is compounded with a statement from Pope John Paul II, defining New Age as “only a new way of practising gnosticism” (Kemp, 2003:162). Thus New Age is seen as fundamentally incompatible with Christianity, making it “[im]possible to isolate some elements of [New Age] religiosity as acceptable to Christians, while rejecting others”. Throughout the report, various attributes of New Age belief are systematically debunked. New Age health practises are defined as “an Eastern formula in Western terms”; the “real” distinction between Creator and creation has apparently been “wrongly” conceived by New Age; and New Age views on the perfectibility of humanity are identified with Nietzsche. This systematic condemnation based around dogmatic issues (Saliba, 1999:141) is unsurprising, given the supposed incompatibility of New Age and Christianity.

The issue in Newport’s text is different, but results in a similar treatment. Newport writes:  “the [New Age] worldview predict[s] that it will replace modernism, or secular humanism, and what New Agers call the outdated, propositional, non-fulfilling, compromising biblical worldview” (1998:597). The New Age is therefore identified with the biblical worldview’s opponents who have been “undercut[ting] its dominance” since the seventeenth century (ibid:597). Newport is arguing on one side of this dichotomy and thus readers should be unsurprised at his unwillingness to ascribe positive affirmations to New Age in general. Newport systematically considers various aspects of the New Age worldview and either defines these elements as already present (more authentically) in Christianity, or as incompatible with it. However an additional undertone, identified by Saliba in other evangelical writings, is a “fear” that New Age poses a “serious threat to Christianity” (1999:45): New Age is described as catching unsuspecting Christians (Newport, 1998:xv); “cross[ing] taken-for-granted boundaries and infiltrat[ing]” Christian groups (47); and “hijack[ing] various images, practises and insights” (51). Such language is notably absent from the Catholic report, and suggests that Saliba’s conclusion that Catholic responses “are less hysterical in tone than many of the responses that have stemmed from […] evangelical sources” (1999:176) carries some weight.

Whilst the negative emphases of both documents cannot be denied, they do offer some positive advice for Christians encountering New Age. Catholics are cautioned to “look for the marks of genuine Christian spirituality” but, as in Newport’s book, are encouraged to promote “care for the earth as God’s creation” and to “make the most of the riches of the Christian spiritual heritage”. JCBWL emphasizes that the best thing individual Christians can do is “offer a good, sound presentation of the Christian message” (ibid) rather than point out the faults of New Age beliefs, which Newport describes as not “unlike a commitment to witness (1998:598-9). Thus it seems that the encounter with New Age can serve to strengthen the faith of some Christians, but can prove a stumbling block for those who may not realise “that the [New Age] worldview is contrary in most of its teachings to a basic biblical perspective” (ibid:xv).

Whilst neither of the documents briefly discussed here can be considered definitive in their representations of Roman Catholic and Evangelical responses to New Age, they do provide an interesting comparison. Both responses are well researched, and admirably aim at constructive dialogue. However, it appears that due to their distinct conceptions of New Age as irreconcilable with Christianity, both reports are only willing to see positive aspects in New Age if these are already representative of Christianity. At times, Newport’s text unfortunately confirms Saliba’s conclusion that evangelical responses are generally “a process of self-affirmation” which tend to degenerate “into a senseless diatribe or an emotional harangue” (1999:77), and JCBWL, “while eager to promote the approach of dialogue adopted by Vatican Council II, frequently end[s] up taking an apologetical and condemnatory stance which does not contribute to dialogue” (ibid:176). These documents are, however, an encouraging development from earlier writings which were generally “marred by misunderstandings and apprehension” (ibid:28).


  •  Chryssides, George D., 2007. “Defining the New Age” in Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis (eds), Handbook of New Age, Leiden/Boston: Brill, pp. 5-24
  •  Kemp, Daren, 2003. The Christaquarians? A Sociology of Christians in the New Age, London: Kempress Ltd.
  •  Kemp, Daren, 2004. New Age: A Guide, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  •  Kemp, Daren, 2007. “Christians and New Age” in Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis (eds), Handbook of New Age, Leiden/Boston: Brill, pp. 453-472.
  •  Newport, John P., 1998. The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview: Conflict and Dialogue, Cambridge/Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
  •  Partridge, Christopher, 2007. “Truth, Authority and Epistemological Individualism in New Age Thought” in D. Kemp and J. Lewis (eds), Handbook of the New Age, Leiden: Brill, pp. 231-254.
  •  Pontifical Council for Culture/Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 2003. (JCBWL) Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the “New Age.”.
  •  Saliba, John A., 1999. Christian Responses to the New Age movement: a critical assessment, London: G. Chapman.

Toward a Typology of Nonreligion (Parts 1 and 2)

I’ve decided to enter the world of YouTube. Not because I had any burning desire to do so, but because I had some material and thought it couldn’t hurt to share it. The following two videos are audio recordings with the accompanying PowerPoint presentation of a paper I presented at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ Annual Conference in Budapest on 19 September 2011. I’m not in the habit of recording my presentations, but as I am writing a conference report on our panel session for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, it made sense for me to record the full panel. Unfortunately I cannot share the full six-paper panel, or the ensuing discussion, as that would be a breach of privacy/copyright etc etc.

If you have 15 minutes… have a listen. Tell me what you think… and if you would like to read something more substantial, I can send through the full 25,000-word thesis. Feel free to cite this as you will – if you do can you use the following format:

Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. “Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students”, European Association for the Study of Religions Annual Conference, 19 September. Budapest. Available here: <URL>




Having your Cake, and then Raping the Baker: Biblical Criticism by a Respectful Nonbeliever

I’m pretty busy with my thesis right now… hence the sudden fall off in proper posts. However, one of the good things about getting back into the office and working on the University computers is that I had a dig through my old documents and came across some essays and assignments that I submitted as a first year undergraduate. During that time I took some Theology courses… and some biblical studies courses. I thought it might be interesting to share some of the things that I submitted… in an attempt to show that you don’t have to believe in what you are studying to engage with it. Especially with biblical studies… some of the stories are just absolutely fascinating. Here is a piece that I wrote on II Samuel 13: 1-22 – a quite shocking (and thus, unfortunately, often overlooked) story about David’s son and daughter, Amnon and Tamar.

You can find the NIV translation of this passage here. Or a more light-hearted look at it on The Brick Testament (and I shall intersperse my essay with images from this amazing resource).

Power and Powerlessness in II Samuel 13: 1-22

The story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar is one of the many passages in the Hebrew Bible that can prove shocking to the modern reader. This is illustrated well by the fact that, in the opening paragraphs of many commentaries, the authors feel compelled to highlight the nature of the account as “exceptionally tense” (Hertzberg, 1964:322), “frighteningly realistic” (Evans, 2004:220)  or even “revolting” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341). However, when looking at the passage in the form in which we have it today, it is important to not become distracted by subject matter, but to see the story as it is in its context. In this passage, the doom pronounced on David’s house in the previous chapter [2 Sam 12:10] begins to receive its fulfilment (ibid), and the passage also  “stands as a prologue to the account of (Absalom’s) rebellion in chapters 15-20” (McCarter Jr., 1984:327).

Much modern scholarship (particularly Christian scholarship) tends to focus on the character of Tamar and her tragic fate, but, as Hertzberg points out, whilst Tamar is indeed the “tragic figure of the drama, (…) in the general context she is merely a subsidiary figure whose fate is only important for the light it sheds on the struggle between the two oldest princes and its further consequences for the history of the kingdom of David” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  Marie Evans believes the focus of the text to be “the use and abuse of power” (2004:222)  and it is the intention of this essay to build upon this belief by identifying and discussing the various manifestations of power and powerlessness in the text, rather than focussing on one individual character.

At the very beginning of the chapter we are made aware that the recorded events related to the previous chapters. Whilst “in the course of time” [2 Sam 13:1] does not denote a precise duration of time, the phrase “was intended to provide the link between chapters 12 and 13” (Mauchline, 1971:259)  – these chapters, along with David’s indiscretion in chapter 11, are connected as cause and effect (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341).

The main characters of the story – Amnon, his father David, Amnon’s half-sister Tamar, and her brother Absalom – are introduced in verse 1, and we learn that not only has Amnon fallen in love with Tamar [v. 1] but that Amnon became “frustrated to the point of illness” because “it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her” [v. 2].

Because of the clarification that Amnon was so frustrated because he wish to do something to Tamar, it is clear that Amnon’s is confusing lust with love (Conroy, 1978:23), and that he is “dominated by the same sensuality as his father” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  Not only is he presented as being powerless against his desires, he is also powerless to do carry them out because she was a virgin [v. 2] – “unmarried girls, and particularly those of the royal house, would be carefully guarded” (McCarter Jr., 1984:321).

In verse 3 we are introduced to the only other character in the story, David’s nephew Jonadab, indicating that whilst this whole affair will have far-reaching consequences, it is essentially a family affair. (Conroy, 1978:28)  Jonadab notices how Amnon’s frustration is affecting him physically [v. 4] and addresses him as “the king’s son” – emphasising the dichotomy between the powerlessness he was feeling, and the power he should be experiencing “as a prince with all the privileges of royalty” (Mowley, 1998:182).

Before the plot is developed in verse 5, the reader is subtly reminded of the ominous presence of Absalom – Amnon identifies Tamar as his “brother Absalom’s sister” [v. 4], emphasizing to Jonadab just how bad the situation is, and alerting the reader that Absalom is very much involved in the story, even though he is currently ‘backstage.’

From verse 5 onwards, Amnon is presented as exerting power and authority, albeit for his own selfish ends and, as throughout this entire passage, always subject to the power of his own lust. Here, Jonadab provides Amnon with a crafty plan to see Tamar in private, but one that will require the (innocent) collusion of King David. In actuality this presents no problems, and verses 6 and 7 describe how David believes Amnon’s feigned illness and sends for Tamar. Apart from illustrating the power of Amnon and Jonadab, who successfully manage to trick and manipulate the king, these verses also say something about the power of King David: this is the first instance in this passage where David is seen as a power that must be appealed to – whilst the exercising of this power is overshadowed by Amnon’s manipulation, the important notion here is the necessity of appealing to David, and the potential that had David exercised his power in a different way, the following events would not have occurred (Evans, 2004:221).

Tamar arrives at the house of her brother Amnon [v. 8], silently obedient and submissive to the wishes of her father, the king, and her brother, the crown prince. Amnon, however, refuses to eat the food that she has prepared for him [v. 9], and orders everyone to leave the room – an action which Hertzberg regards as “a whim of the crown prince, who is so used to giving orders” (Hertzberg, 1964:323).

After dispensing with the servants, Amnon continues exerting his power, effectively ordering his sister to bring the food to him in his bedroom [v. 10] and again, physically grabbing her saying, “Come to bed with me, my sister” [v. 11].

What follows in verses 12 and 13 is an impassioned speech from Tamar. She recognises that she is powerless to stop her much stronger [v. 14] brother carrying out his wishes, so she appeals to two more powerful authorities – custom [v. 12 & 13] and the king [v. 13]. The reason Tamar gives for condemning Amnon’s wishes as a “wicked thing” is that “such a thing should not be done in Israel.” Regardless of whether she is referring to incest, or premarital sexual relations, it is worth noting that in this case “morality (…) finds its sanction in custom, not in a written code,” (Kennedy, 1905:252) – here she is referring to “serious violations of custom [Gen 20:9; 29:26] that threaten the fabric of society” (McCarter Jr., 1984:322)  She makes no reference to the Law, or to the authority of God, and it is at this point that the reader first realises that God is mysteriously missing from this ‘revolting’ story. When looking into the subtext of Tamar’s statement that Amnon would be “like one of the wicked fools in Israel” [v. 13], Kirkpatrick tells us that the term “fool denotes not merely one who is stupid and ignorant, but one who has abandoned the fear of God, and cast off the restraints of decency and morality” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:343)  Whilst this description certainly fits with the character of Amnon presented in the text, and whilst the narrator may indeed have intended the reader to pick up on this meaning, if we accept the apparent absence of God in this passage, this places more responsibility on the individuals capable of changing the situation, and their use and misuse of power.

Tamar’s appeal for Amnon to speak to the king [v. 13] has provoked much academic discussion. This discussion is generally directed towards the nature of Amnon’s sin (incest or rape), but it can also prove useful in discerning how much power David would have had in this matter. Numerous questions arise: Was the law stated in Leviticus 18:9, prohibiting sexual relations between siblings and half-siblings, in place? If so, does Tamar assume David would use his power as king to overrule this law?  If not, is David to be appealed to as a father or as a king?

There is a lot of disagreement amongst scholars about whether the law of Leviticus 18:9 is in place. McCarter Jr. (with Mowley, 1998:182) believes that the most defensible position is that the laws were in full effect, and that unless Tamar is merely temporising, her “assumption that David would be willing to overlook such a prohibition in order to accede to Amnon’s request is consistent with what we know of David’s attitude elsewhere [v. 21]” (1984:324).  Whilst this is based slightly more recent scholarship, by the simple fact that Tamar makes no reference to God or any legal code, it seems more reasonable for us to accept the opposing position of Mauchline (with Kirkpatrick, 1930:343) that Amnon “could have married her in the ordinary way” for “the marriage of a brother and half-sister was possible at this stage of Israel’s history” (1971:260).  If we accept that this is the case, it is reasonable to conclude that Tamar is appealing to David as a father who has the power to grant or refuse a marriage proposal.

After clearly demonstrating his physical power by raping Tamar [v. 14], Amnon continues to treat her like a servant, ordering her to “Get up and get out” [v. 15]. We are told that, not only did Amnon suddenly hate her, but that “he hated her more than he had loved her.” This sexual, psychological factor is a natural progression of Amnon’s (now fulfilled) lust from verse 2, for “it is human nature to hate those whom you have injured” (McCarter Jr., 1984:324,citing Tacitus).  This demonstrates how powerless Amnon really is against his base, human nature.

Amnon refuses to listen to any further protest from his sister Tamar, and has his servant unceremoniously throw her outside outside, and bolt the door behind her [vv. 16-18]. Tamar, who has acted blamelessly throughout because she did everything in her power to stop Amnon disgracing them both, then tears her robe, puts ashes on her head and goes away weeping aloud, performing “all the signs of mourning, not for the loss of a loved one, but for the loss of her virginity” (Mowley, 1998:184).

In verse 20, Absalom takes an active part in the story for the first time. It is interesting to note that Tamar turns to her brother Absalom after the incident, and not to her father, David. Conroy suggests two possible reasons why this might be the case – there may be have been more solidarity between siblings than between a father of many offspring and his children, or Tamar may have held David partly responsible for what happened (1978:18). Both of these alternatives diminish David’s power and influence over his children, the only difference being that in the first case this was always so, and in the second it is the result of these recent events.

Some translations, such as the New International Version, do not include the full version of verse 21 (included in the Septuagint and the ordinary text of the Vulgate  (Kirkpatrick, 1930:345)), which reads, “When King David heard of all these things, he was very angry; but he did nothing to harm his son, for he loved him, because he was his firstborn” (Hertzberg, 1964:322).  However, the inclusion of the italicised text makes little or no difference to how we interpret the text. Whether David did not act because of his love for his son, or because “he was reminded of his own misconduct and could hardly punish his son for a similar offence” (Mowley, 1998:185),  it is clear that David, who had the power to intervene as both king and father, did not do so.

In the final verse of this passage, we see Absalom, Tamar’s actual brother, silently hating his half-brother Amnon. According to Kirkpatrick, by oriental custom, Absalom had both the power and the duty to avenge his sister’s wrongs (1930:345).  However, Absalom chooses not to exercise this power – this could be seen as a sign of weakness (maybe he feared that the house of David would be discredited if he made a sharp protest ) but it is far more likely, given his eventual murder of Amnon, that he is exercising his power wisely, by biding his time (McCarter Jr., 1984:326)

Power has clearly been a major theme running right through this text. What we have been presented with is a situation where four human characters all use, or misuse power in various ways, in a situation in which God plays no active, recorded role: Amnon is the powerful crown prince, who is powerless to resist his sexual urges, and uses his royal powers and physical strength to satisfy this lust; Tamar is the powerless victim who tries everything within her power to prevent the events taking place; David is the powerful king who fails to appropriately use his power to prevent the situation; and Absalom wilfully withholds his power, preferring to bide his time and take revenge at a more suitable moment. There is a clear “pattern of reversal, upset and contrast”  (Conroy, 1978:36-37) at work here – those who have power (Absalom, Amnon and David) misuse it, and Tamar, who is powerless, is the only character to emerge blameless, albeit as “a desolate woman” [v. 20].


•    Conroy, Charles, Absalom Absalom! (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978)

•    Driver, S. R., Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913)

•    Evans, Mary J., The Message of Samuel (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004)

•    Hertzberg, Hanz Wilhelm, I & II Samuel (London: SCM Press, 1964)

•    Kennedy, A. R. S., Samuel (Edinburgh: TC & EC Jack, 1905)

•    Kirkpatrick, A. F., The First and Second Books of Samuel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930)

•    Mauchline, John, 1 & 2 Samuel (London: Oliphants, 1971)

•    McCarter Jr., P. Kyle, II Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984)

•    Mowley, Harry, 1 & 2 Samuel (Oxford: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998)

Qualitative Methods for Nonreligion Studies

For anyone vaguely interested, I have another publication. It’s freely available to download. If you are interested in the wide variety of research being currently conducted into Nonreligion from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives, then I suggest you give it a look.

Report: Qualitative Methods (NSRN Methods for Nonreligion and Secularity Series)  PPSIS, University of Cambridge, 14 December 2011

I have also added this paper, and another, to my recently created page.

Musings on the Happy Leaf: An Englishman in Edinburgh on all things TEA

Given the strong opinions on this matter, this post may be a little risky. However, following on from my previous post, about tea… I thought it would be great to ask Samuel – the most knowledgeable person that I know, in all matters tea-related – to pen his thoughts on the matter. Being the lovely chap that he is, he happily obliged… and here are his thoughts:

Musings on the Happy Leaf: An Englishman in Edinburgh on all things TEA

Samuel J: Tea Guru

It may be a touch of the “stiff upper lip” or my simple philosophy of being pleased with my lot, but I believe it is difficult to make a bad cup of tea, when one has the correct ingredients. In fact, I enjoy drinking tea from those great urns, mainly because there is a copious amount! True it is not good tea per se, but I can always know there will be an equally average cup to follow soon after!

I thought I would always remember my bad cup of tea. By being very wary of various shops propounding to sell tea I’ve managed to keep it to one in the past few years. Though darn it if I can remember where it was. Perhaps at the airport? They gave me the American thing of tea bag, pot of lukewarm water etc… just as many have described in various articles (see the links in the recent “Christopher Hitchens, Douglas Adams and George Orwell on Cups of Tea“). Usually if you are provided with a pot, bag and UHT milk you can go up and “accidentally” spill all the water, pop the bag in and watch as the assistant puts some really boiling water in. I was surprised a few days ago when I went out for a meal and ordered Tea afterwards. We were each given very hot pots and bags, but all of my colleagues proceeded to pop the bag in to the cup and pour on the water. “Daft”, I said to them, as I deposited my bag in the hot pot and enjoyed a glorious cup! In these places where you are given the tea and expected to take your milk in its UHT pot form, then you must always protest and ask for a jug of milk. My father usually resigns to drinking it black on these occasions, but if you ask specifically for a jug then they often manage to find one.

Pots and bags

I think you should always drink tea from the pot. Well, you know, using a pot… Don’t lift your china high and dribble the spout down your top! I also like using large mugs. Make sure they are emblazoned with interesting pictures or vaguely riveting text, more for the enjoyment of your fellow tea drinkers… Or even your colleagues who choose to sin against the tea club and drink coffee in your presence. I disagree with George Orwell who said that:

“The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse”

Samuel disapproves!

Black teas, the only ones you should drink according to Orwell, are very suitable for brewing in a silver pot. In fact I believe that Indian or Ceylon teas should be brewed in a silver teapot, it gives a stronger flavour. Green teas (see ‘namby pamby tea’…) are better brewed in china pots as they were originally intended – the metal will impair the delicate flavours in these examples. It’s true that you get better cups by using loose leaf tea rather than bags, but it is very easy to be very lazy. Personally I hate using baskets or muslin bags for this loose tea, – you’ve bought it to be different to the paper bags, then you re-enclose it in a different receptacle! Pointless! Much better to use a tea strainer as you pour from the pot. I do admit, though, that loose leaf tea is of a higher quality so naturally it will make tastier tea than the usual bags even when constrained by a mesh cage.

Starting off, you should always use freshly boiled water. People often re-boil the kettle or top it up. This isn’t the best as the repeated boiling drives off the dissolved oxygen in the water which is an essential component of delicious tea. Pop three teaspoonfuls, (or three bags, if you must!) in a warmed teapot first and then pour in the boiling water second for a normal pot, if you feel you need it a bit stronger, then one or two more should suffice! I agree with Douglas Adams et al. when he states you should warm the pot on the stove; my grandmother always leaves her teapot on top of the water heater in the kitchen, but regrettably I don’t have a suitable warm surface in my kitchen. Ergo I still have to swish my teapot with water…

Pouring the tea.

Always pour into the milk. Anyone who complains that “I want to see exactly how much milk is needed after I’ve put the tea in my cup” or sim. either hasn’t drunk enough tea or is just a bit loopy. If you drink the same cup of tea every day, then all you have to do is realise how much you put in after the tea and just switch the order. I tend to find that most people like about 8-10mm of milk in the bottom of the cup. This is varied slightly on the diameter and depth of the cup, but generally remains about the same. If someone, like Lawrence, especially enjoys milky tea, then simply putting 12-15mm of milk in is usually suitable! I know this rule of ‘milk in cup then follow it with the tea’ is a slightly outdated (and in fact lower class) rule, but I prefer to follow it. I am led to believe that it stems from the days when people with not much money bought poor quality china which would crack with the high temperature of the scalding hot boiling tea, and so putting the milk in first would stop the cheap china cup cracking under the sudden temperature change.

She look a little loopy...

Those upper classes who could afford it would buy more expensive china which was less susceptible to sudden temperature changes – thus they would happily, and unthinkingly, drink it black. Another element that can mar the flavour on occasion is when stirring the cup. When imbibing with those who choose only to partake of the evil bean, some might unconsciously take a used teaspoon from a coffee mug and stir their tea with it. This is a definite no no. I also find that when others use my teacups for coffee this leaves a horrible hint of the bitter coffee flavour in the cup even after washing. If you don’t have such delicate taste buds then these are less important points.

To get good tea for yourself, the easiest thing is to go to a good tea shoppe… there are two excellent examples in Edinburgh. My favourite is the quaint AnTEAques shop on Clerk street. It sells tea and antiques, as you might expect from the name. They have a choice of a perfect plethora of loose leaf teas from Assam pekoe fannings to chocolate mint tea! And have delicious fruit scones for accompaniment. On the other hand, if you want more space (AnTEAques seats about 10 people and has no facilities) then try Tea Tree Tea on Bread street. They have a much larger operation which includes coffee, sandwiches, cakes and a similar selection of fine leaf teas. For china pots and elbow room, go to Tea Tree Tea and for the choice to purchase the delightful bone china tea service you use, go to AnTEAques!

Or indeed make a date to sample tea a la Samuel!

And after tea? A good, refreshing pint!

Atheism or Agnosticism: A Brief Appraisal

I am currently sitting in my guest accommodation at the University of Cambridge, before finally deciding that I should start the day. I am here for what promises to be a fascinating day of interaction and discussion – the first of the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s series of workshops… this one specifically on research methods. It could be quite intimidating… as I am actually presenting my research thus far, and all the problems I have encountered, to twenty-one other (proper) academics. However, I am really looking forward to it… after the discussion yesterday evening over dinner it seems like we have such an exciting bunch of people in attendance… people working on atheist and humanist organisations in Britain, India and Egypt (for example), representatives from both sides of the Atlantic, people working with the representation and manifestation of “nonreligion” through social networks, folk attempting, like myself, to probe into the underexplored phenomenon of religious “nones”… absolutely fascinating. And I am writing the official conference report, so I had damn well better find it interesting!

Anyway… on the train down to Cambridge from Edinburgh yesterday, I had the opportunity to work my way through some of the articles that have been building up in my “to read” pile over the last few weeks, and one of them just got right under my skin. This was P. J. McGrath’s “Atheism or Agnosticism”, which although written in 1987 still sounds remarkably similar to other articles that I have read lately, and to many conversations that I have had over the years.

Unfortunately, McGrath is arguing against another article that I have not read, however he summaries this article in such a way that I believe I can continue to engage with McGrath’s position without having actually read the offending article. He states:

“THOMAS V. MORRIS has argued (‘Agnosticism’, ANALYSIS 45.4, October 1985, pp. 219-24) that if someone has no good grounds for believing in God, then he should be an agnostic rather than an atheist. The absence of good grounds for accepting an existence claim would warrant its denial, he believes, only if one were in a good epistemic position for assessing it. But since the assertion that God exists is a metaphysical existence claim, it is unlikely that one could be in a good position with regard to it unless one could prove or disprove it. Atheism is neither justified nor required therefore by the fact that one has no good reason for thinking that God exists. Morris’s position seems plausible at first glance…” (McGrath 1987, 54).

Well… yes, indeed it does! McGrath begins his critique by proceeding along the following, well trod, lines:

“a theory which requires us to suspend judgment about the existence of [hobgoblins, Devils, Zeus etc] must be open to serious question. Surely the reasonable attitude is that they are nothing more than the products of the human imagination.”

Can agnosticism not involve a probability judgement? You can still be an agnostic and say “I think that’s ridiculous/ludicrously unrealistic”. It’s just humble… I am aware that I may be bleating a little like Mark Vernon (see, for example, 2008) here (something I do NOT want to do), but it is entirely possible to judge something very unlikely, to live like an “atheist”, but at the same time accept that we simply cannot answer these questions. Hell, even Richard Dawkins admits that he would change his mind if sufficient evidence were to present itself. He just judges that this is so unlikely that it basically will never happen…

Jack David Eller succinctly sums up the agnostic endeavour as follows:

Agnosticism is “a means of arriving at a position. We might be better served to use the term in an adverbial sense, in the sense of thinking or judging “agnosticially”. But when we make this shift, we see that “agnostic” means nothing more than “rational”, for to use reason is to the follow the facts and only the facts, to base conclusions only on what can be demonstrated or detected in some way, and to refrain from “jumping to conclusions” on the basis of personal preference, emotion, or “faith”.” (2010, 9)

This is precisely what agnosticism is generally understood to be. However, Eller let’s his true colours show when he precedes this paragraph with the harsh statement that “agnosticism is not a “middle position” between theism and atheism because it is not a position at all” (ibid). Fair enough it might not be a middle position, but “not a position at all”??

This view is explained by the fact that Eller believes that:

“despite the insincere attempt at humility inherent in conventional agnosticism, the god-question only has two possible answers: yes there is such a thing as god(s) or no there is no such thing as god(s). […] “There is no third position between being in jail and not being in jail, or between prescribing a medicine and not prescribing it. Hesitating – often a wise course – is tentatively not doing. The conventional agnostic may think that she is hesitating to decide between god(s) and not god(s), but in the meantime she is not believing in god(s)” (ibid).

Rarely have I seen such a ludicrous example of a false dichotomy. A question may have only two answers… but the position that you believe one of these answers to be true but know that you cannot, no matter what evidence is presented, definitely land on one option rather than the other is most certainly a position! And this takes no account of the different connotations the word “god(s)” can have… many agnostics may well be de facto atheists regarding many particular religious of god, for whatever reason, but concerning a general overarching idea which appears to have convinced billions of people across the globe of its truth, they might be slightly more hesitant. Find a few billion people who are convinced of Zeus’ or leprechauns’ existence, and maybe there will be a few more agnostics regarding these entities.

Eller’s text is a perfect example of proselytising atheists attempting to co-opt agnostics, ipso facto and against their will, into their atheistic cause.

Whilst I don’t have the book here with me to properly cite, Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (2007), refers to what he calls the ideas of Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP) and Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP). PAP is fairly obviously an untenable and intellectually exhausting position to maintain… constantly maintaining that one cannot know anything truly about anything… it doesn’t really bode well for life in the modern world. TAP, according to Dawkins, is what all proper logical thinkers should adopt when approaching something about which they do not have sufficient evidence to make a decision. However, this is an agnosticism which they would willingly abandon should any suitable evidence present itself. However, where we disagree here seems to be on the assessment of the evidence. McGrath continues his article, stating that in his interpretation of Morris’s agnostic position:

“one should be an agnostic about all existence claims which one did not have good reason for believing to be true, so that it would be irrational to deny the existence of hobgoblins, Lilliputians, Descartes’s evil demon etc.

Since it does not seem possible to emend Morris’s account in any other way that is remotely plausible, I conclude that there are no good grounds for placing limits on the application of Ockham’s razor to pure existence claims. In the absence of positive evidence for God’s existence, therefore, one should be an atheist rather than an agnostic.” (McGrath 1987, 57)

A more nuanced articulation of the supposed dichotomy between belief and non-belief in “god(s)” is articulated by Michael Martin, who designates ‘lack’ of belief as “negative atheism” – exemplifying the etymologically rooted “someone without a belief in God” (Martin 2007, 1). He contrasts this with ‘positive atheism’, which applies to the standard dictionary definition – “the belief that there is no God” (ibid)

To this extent, then, are all agnostics who live their lives effectively like there is no god(s) really atheists, albeit of a “negative” variety? Jack David Eller is not convinced by this position:

“On the surface this may seem like a valid distinction, but upon closer inspection [we see the] false dichotomy between “not believing” and “believing not”, that is, not believing in god(s) and believing that there is no such thing as god(s). Indisputably, someone who maintains that there is no such thing as god(s) does not believe in them; to maintain otherwise is to be incoherent. Indisputably, someone who believes in god(s) maintains that there is such a thing; to maintain otherwise is equally incoherent. But what other possibilities are there? Can one maintain that there is no such thing as god(s) yet believe in them? Not without contradicting oneself. Can one maintain that there is such a thing as god(s) yet not believe in them? Not in any sensible way. So, it emerges that there are only two consistent positions: either one claims that there is such a thing as god(s) and believes in them, or one claims that there is no such thing as god(s) and does not believe in them. The dichotomy, then, is not between positive and negative atheism, but between theism and atheism.” (Eller 2010, 7)

There is some merit in this critique… technically if one does not believe in something, then one does not believe in it. In this sense then all agnostics are atheists. But contained within the agnostic position, as far as I understand it, is a willingness to engage with questions of the existence of the supernatural, and a much less active, and perhaps much more “measured”, disbelief than the type of atheism being advocated by McGrath, Dawkins, Eller and others.

To take an example: Up until a month or two ago, I would have described myself as a Liberal Democrat. However, thanks to my opinion that they have abandoned everything that they stood for, I am no longer. In the world of false dichotomies, I am therefore an a-Liberal Democrat. But this tells no one anything about my current position. There are many other political parties to whom I could now give me allegiance. The fact is that I have not given my allegiance to any other party as yet… I am assessing the evidence. And even when I “finish” assessing the evidence, and potentially assign myself to a political party… I may not be 100% convinced that this is the right decision. If we transfer this discussion to the existence of god(s), we can see that there is a lot more to it than the simple yes-no distinction.

So, coming back round to McGrath’s question of “atheism or agnosticism”, it seems that maybe, in the very black and white sense of believing or not believing in god(s), agnosticism is actually a form of atheism. I would maintain that the distinction between negative and positive atheism does apply, although even this is perhaps too dichotomous – as Susan Budd would say, there are “Varieties of Unbelief”. There are bound to be many more nuanced positions between these two poles of atheism. However, those ‘negative’ atheists who are further away from the ‘positive’ end of the spectrum, commonly identify as agnostics, and, I believe, hold this position because they do not want to be co-opted into the proselytising atheistic endeavour. Agnostics may fit some sort of basic criteria for being atheists (negative atheists), but as long as proselytising atheists keep trying to “out” them to the atheistic cause, and gain statistics for their anti-religious campaign, I think agnostics have every right to stick to their guns on this one.

I am not in any way claiming to speak for all agnostics or atheists on this one… no individual should ever attempt to do that. I get so annoyed when I read books where people try to dictate to me what I believe (or ‘should’) believe by virtue of the fact that we seem to identify with the same label. However, this article is my opinion, and my reaction to the setting up of false and/or misleading dichotomies which apply identity labels arbitrarily to people who vehemently disagree with the application of those labels.

I imagine this will be the first of many posts that I will make on this topic. Please do comment…. I, however, must be heading to this methods workshop. Adieu.


Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.

Eller, Jack David. 2010. What Is Atheism? In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 1-18. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Martin, Michael. 2007. General Introduction. In The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin, 1-7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McGrath, P. J. 1987. Atheism or Agnosticism. Analysis 47, no. 1 (January): 54-57.

Vernon, Mark. 2008. After Atheism: Science, Religion, and the Meaning of Life. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.


The Importance of Language: How a couple of marks on a page can make the difference between virgins and grapes

“The Qur’an”, a one-off television programme produced by Channel 4 in 2008 (UK) opened with:

“In 2001 a German study caused such outrage that all mention of it was banned in some Islamic counties, the author published under pseudonym and will only speak if his identity can remain concealed.” This is referring to the work by Christoph Luxenberg “The Syro-Aramaic reading of the Koran” (English, 2007).

His basic premise is that over a fifth of the Koran contains unintelligible words or words which don’t make real sense. This, he believes, can be reduced, with a knowledge of Syriac (Syro-Aramaic), to around 5%. Syriac was the dominant language of Christian liturgy by 3rd century, and by time of Muhammad, Syriac was the major written and cultural language of the whole region, whereas written Arabic was in its infancy. There are pre Islamic inscriptions in Arabic but the first real book in the language is Koran.

The issue is not the tracing of other languages in the Koran, as Muslim scholars have always done this e.g. in the 10th Century al-Tabari identified Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Persian, Abyssinian and Syriac. The difference is that Luxenberg is claiming new meanings never before suggested.

His method involves loosely:

Starting from those passages that are unclear to the Western commentators, first check if there is a plausible explanation in Tabarī that the Western commentators overlooked. If not, then check if there are any records of a meaning unknown to Tabarī and his earlier sources. If this turns up nothing, check if the Arabic expression has a homonymous root in Syriac with a different meaning which fits the context. If these steps do not avail, then see if changing one or more diacritical marks results in an Arabic expression that makes more sense. If not, then change the diacritical point(s) and then check if there is a homonymous Syriac root with a plausible meaning.

An example of how he uses this process is the Koranic verse from Gabriel to Mary after giving birth to Jesus: “Be not sad, your Lord has placed a little river beneath you.” Which Luxenberg renders:  “Be not sad, your lord has made your delivery legitimate.” This illustrates a big criticism of Luxenberg, which is that he seems to be coming from a very Christian-Centric viewpoint.

In his book he describes how by an interesting process the Koranic Verse “and We have paired them with dark-, wide-eyed (maidens) [wa-zawwağnāhum bi-ḥūr ‘īn]…” becomes “We will make you comfortable under white, crystal(-clear) (grapes) [wa-rawwahnāhum bi-ḥūr ‘īn].”


My pathetic attempt to illustrate the point in question. On the left is the traditionally accepted version, and on the right is Luxenberg's

In the first section, he “proves” that Arabic scholars have misread zawwağnāhum by placing two erroneous unnecessary dialectical markings… with these removed it now reads rawwahnāhum – “we will let them rest” as opposed to “to marry.” He believes this mistake was made because the second (“correct”) reading does not fit with their erroneous reading of the next preposition “bi.”

Looking at “bi” in Syriac, Luxenberg notes 22 different functions of this preposition and chooses number 20 “between, under” as being the correct one (although he does not tell us why) rendering the sentence “We will let them rest under ḥūr ‘īn” or roughly “We will make them comfortable under ḥūr ‘īn.”

“ḥūr” according to Luxenberg has been correctly understood as meaning white, and comes before a feminine word. The problem is with ‘īn, which has always been seen by Arabic scholars as meaning “eye.” There is never any mention of virgins, this has just been inferred. Luxenberg argues against this firstly because white eyed was never a term used to describe beauty (this was always dark-eyed) but to actually describe someone who was blind. Through some complicated reasoning, and looking at various Syriac Christian sources, and other uses of fruit and particularly grapes in paradise imagery and earthly gardens in the Koran he reaches his conclusion that the verse should be: “We will make you comfortable under white, crystal(-clear) (grapes).”

Luxenberg believes this gives a more reasonable rendition of the verse because Christian-Oriental notions of paradise finding their expression in the Koran – “helps the Koran to achieve its original inner coherence.” It also fits with all the other imagery of the gardens of paradise, especially as the grapevine “is an essential component of the earthly garden.” (p. 257)

For example, this picture comes from a 5th century Egyptian monastery, where we see archangels receiving souls in paradise, grape in one hand, cradling departed souls who are refreshed with grapes. Grapes are also a very prominent motif in the vestments of the priests of the Syrian Orthodox Church.

In Luxenberg’s words:

“It was not, say, that the prophet had misunderstood Christian illustrations of Paradise, but rather that the later Islamic exegesis had misinterpreted the Koranic paraphrase of Christian Syriac hymns containing analogous descriptions of Paradise under the influence of Persian conceptions of the mythological virgins of Paradise.” (249)

He also (p. 250) cites Koran 4:82 “Were it (the Koran) namely not from God, you would find (in comparison to the Scripture [the OT & NT]) many differences (inconsistencies).”  Therefore, according to Luxenberg, it makes little sense for there to be these wide eyed virgins… but “The Koran is right. For the Koran is not to blame if, out of ignorance, people have read it so falsely and projected onto it their subjective, and all too earthly daydreams.” The grape motif fits much better with the Christian notion of paradise and Luxenberg believes that this makes it much more likely.

Whilst there are the obvious extreme reactions to writing of this nature, and a very obvious Christian bias in his writing, it has received a more positive reaction from some Muslims. Dr Taj Hargey (Muslim Educational Centre, Oxford) says that Luxenberg’s work doesn’t undermine anyy of the tenets, teachings or principles of Islam. It provides interesting questions for thinking, 21st century Muslims who should look at what he is providing and not just condemn. Tariq Ramadan (Oxford University) acknowledges that it really doesn’t matter if Luxenberg is right or not as the Koranic descriptions should be taken as symbolic – we have to go beyond the images – they are just a description of what is going to be beautiful beyond our imagination.

Whilst many academics have been critical of Luxenberg, a number of academics have stated that Luxenberg’s work is valid, if only because it has focused attention on various deficiencies in contemporary Koranic studies.

I trust that it is fairly obvious that whilst I support the spirit of Luxenberg’s enterprise, I have insufficient knowledge to evaluate his conclusions (especially regarding the virgins versus the grapes). I would be somewhat sceptical regarding his methodology, and believe that traditional interpretations have to be taken in to account. There must be a reason that things have become traditional in the first place.

P.S. I began this post using “Qur’an” to designate this particular book, and then proceeded to utilise “Koran”. This is because Luxenberg himself uses “Koran” throughout his book, although I would personally prefer to use “Qur’an”. Either are acceptable academically, yet Qur’an is generally deemed to be somewhat closer to the Arabic.


Invisible Religion? Or just a load of hot air?

The question of what religion is, how we define it, where we find it, and how pervasive it is in people’s everyday lives is a question which plagues the discipline of Religious Studies. One interesting attempt to deal with this is set forth by Kelly Besecke in her 2005 Article “Seeing Invisible Religion: Religion as a Societal Conversation about Transcendent Meaning”. (Sociological Theory 23[2], June 2005, pp. 179-196). This post attempts to set forth her argument, contextualise it, and engage with some of the questions it raises.

The core of Besecke’s argument is that that “contemporary sociology conceptualises religion along two dimensions: the institutional and the individual” (Abstract), and this is a problem for her because the cultural dimension of religion is lost in this dichotomy.

She begins by illustrating the contemporary “religious conversation [occurring] in the United States”, and highlighting bestselling book titles, book clubs with names such as “Spiritual Pathways” and “Wisdom Tea”, talks & workshops, magazine articles and song lyrics which exemplify a “growing societal conversation about… “spiritual matters”” (179-80).

The point that she wishes to make from this initial depiction of the “milieu” is that we can

“look at such phenomena through a… lens… that highlights, instead of individuals and institutions, the important social role of interaction and communication. Seen through this “communicative” lens, the “spiritual matters” [sections of book stores look…] less like individualism in a narrow sense, and more like American society talking to itself about meaning” (181).

That, in a nutshell, is her theory.

She then proceeds to dissect and expand upon a work by Thomas Luckmann – The Invisible Religion – with which she generally agrees, but only up to a significant point. Luckmann importantly defines religion as primarily a meaning system or symbolic universe, and not as a social institution. (182-3):

“Symbolic universes are socially objectivated systems of meaning that refer, on the one hand, to the world of everyday life and point, on the other hand, to a world that is experienced as transcending everyday life.” (Luckmann, 1967:43)

In this sense it is easy to see how religion can be viewed as part of culture… which does indeed meet people in their daily life, but transcend it also.

  • Think of African Independent/Indigenous Churches, which are distinct entities in their own right, incorporating much of local culture, custom, rite and practice, and would potentially be denounced by many “orthodox” “Western” Christians, as un-Christian
  • But then think of Christianity as an overarching whole…

Besecke stakes her claim strongly:

“Religious meanings and other meanings are in the same general category – “meaning” – they are all symbolic representations, they are all culture. Religious meanings are a type of meaning; if culture is shared meanings and practices, then religion is shared meanings and practices that point people to a transcendent reality. In this sense, religion is to culture as Meaning is to meaning.” (184)

Here she is claiming, in line with Luckmann, that religious meanings, consisting of symbols such as God, Tao, Christ, Brahman etc are “the topmost layer of th[e] hierarchy of meanings that constitutes a society’s culture” (184).

At this point I couldn’t help but wonder: In what way are religious meanings the pinnacle of culture? I assume from the context in which she writes this that she means that conversations about ultimate concerns are the highest point of our cultural development, and in some way the most important questions for the vast majority of people… What about the scientific “worldview”, which many would see as a higher level of the hierarchy of meanings:

“I prefer to say that I believe in people [not God], and people, when given the right encouragement to think for themselves about all the information now available, very often turn out not to believe in God and to lead fulfilled and satisfied – indeed, liberated – lives.” Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion 2007 [2006])

A second important consequence of “religion’s cultural nature is what Luckmann calls its “objectivated” status” (184):

“By describing religious meanings [as] “objectivated”, Luckmann opens the way to understanding meaning as a public phenomenon; as something that is not just for individuals, but for societies. […] So religious meaning is not just an individual phenomenon; neither is it just an institutional phenomenon. […] Religion exists in the social world as culture exists in the social world – via shared meanings and practices.”

To me this rings very true, especially in contemporary Britain where most people won’t participate in any formal worship, or may not even give much thought to their own personal faith… but will still participate in the culturally normative religious practices… Christmas, funerals and weddings, memorial services, “praying” for success/people…

This idea can also be seen in contemporary critiques of religion as well… Here we see Stephen Fry divorcing religion from religious institution:

“I have no quarrel, and no argument, and I wish to express no contempt for individual devout and pious members of [The Catholic] Church. It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it. That to me is sacrosanct as much as any article of faith is sacrosanct to anyone of any church or of any faith in the world.”

Stephen Fry (Intelligence Square Debate on the motion “Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?”). Around 2mins in to

This is the point where Besecke leaves Luckmann’s argument behind. Luckmann argues that in late modernity, religion became increasingly privatised. However, whilst this is arguably the case, her problem is with his statement that “Religion today [is] essentially a phenomenon of the private sphere” (1967:103). She believes this characterisation has been picked up by almost all sociologists, but rarely challenged, with the notable exception of Jose Casanova’s Public Religions in the Modern World.

There are three tendencies of this characterisation:

  • The limitation of the public sphere to religious, political and economic institutions
  • The assumption that authority has moved from the institutions to the individual
  • “For many scholars, “private seems to be shorthand for “socially inconsequential” (186).

The problems are fairly easy to see here: what is it that people talk about, blog about, listen to, read, think… are these private or public? And who has authority? And in what way are they inconsequential?

Besecke and I agree here: “Much of the religion that has been interpreted as privatised religion or religious individualism is remarkably “public” in the more common-sense definition of the word” (187).

  • This brings to my mind the idea of New Ages seekers: the role of a seeker is embedded in social relationships – pairs, groups, audiences and networks…
  • To what extent could any religion be designated private? Even a hermit who had never had any contact with anyone… regardless of the fact that through our observation and/or questioning their religion would cease to be private… even if it could be observed without interfering, their religious ideas would have been based upon influences from the physical world… from outside…
  • However, there always is a private dimension… all Christians will have a different conception of Christianity… this may even be impossible to get at empirically as they may give identical answers to questions… so does this mean religion is inherently private?

Besecke then proceeds on a largely “common-sensical” description of how important communication is to culture, which I think you’ll appreciate during discussion. It is largely summed up by Bella et al (Habits, 1985:27): “Cultures are dramatic conversations about things that matter to their participants”. However, she importantly points out that “empirical studies of communication have focused almost exclusively on communication that takes place in church, in seminary, or in interviews with individuals who identify as members of a particular church”… sermons, statements by religious leaders, conversion tactics etc [see as Wood (1999) Lukenbill (1998) Wittberg (1997) Bouma and Clyne (1995) Caroll and Marler (1995), Wuthnow (1994)] … But these are completely missing the point!

She proposes a definition of religious culture as “a societal conversation about transcendent meanings” (190)

“Communication is what makes God socially real” (190)

A question I would throw out there at this point is that conversation implies something two way… if there is a seeker who is engaging with reading material, DVDs, CDs and attending lectures etc., but not talking to others, what is this? And on p. 192 there is another problem. Besecke’s fieldwork included a living room discussion event, The Mystic Heart, where a small group (50 or so) got together to talk generally about “mysticism”. In assessing this through her “communicative lens”, Besecke writes: It is religion, it is people talking with each other about transcendent meaning.” What about atheistic discourse? Pub chats? Philosophy? In all of these cases people can be talking about religion… about transcendent meaning… but in no sense of the word “religion” can they said to be in any way being “religious”.

It is true that Besecke has taken the burden off institutional religion: “they now can be understood as important interlocutors, perhaps important nodes or centres for a society-wide conversation about transcendent meanings, rather than bearing the burden of having to be religion in an otherwise secular society” (192). But it may possibly be too wide…

Importantly, for the secularisation/re-enchantment debate:

This allows religion to be found in a whole host of places where it would not normally be looked for, which definitely rescues religion from the Secularisation Thesis.

“if we… recognise the social power of communication, then the secularity of a society would be measured by the extent to which members of that society are communicating with each other about transcendent meaning. Put differently, […] religion can influence a society by permeating its social institutions, by shaping its individual members, and by influencing the character of its culture through communication.” (193)

This brings to mind Colin Campbell’s Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (1971). He proposes the idea that thorough irreligiosity leads to seeing religion as totally irrelevant… not even a conscious rejection (39). If society were totally secular, “the irreligious message would be ignored as much as the religious” (124)… this is clearly not the case…

Hopefully I have demonstrated that Besecke is clearly on to something here… but that whilst finding religion in conversations about “transcendent meaning” is sometimes possible, and certainly a worthwhile enterprise, these conversations are by no means sufficient to “be” religion, in any sense of the word, and that they sometime can be as far away from religion as Nick Clegg is from his pre-election promise to keep his promises.

Shari’a Law: Where does it come from?

“Islamic” Law… “Shari’a Law”… where does it come from? Not in a geographical sense… but in the simple sense of “where do the majority of Muslims turn to for clarification of the law”? Is it to the Qur’an? Is it to Allah himself? Is it to trained legal specialists? This question is unlikely to produce a definitive answer given that “Islamic law has been alternatively described as a divine law and as a jurists’ law” (Coulson, 1969:3). Its ambivalent nature is further demonstrated by Joseph Schacht who unflinchingly refers to Islamic law as both an “extreme case of a jurists’ law” (1964:209) and as “typical of a ‘sacred law’” (ibid:211). It is evident, whatever the answer, that this question depends upon the definition of some key terms… “Islamic”, “divine” and “jurists.’” If you want a quick 101 on “Shari’a”, please see the relevant section in my earlier post “A very, very short introduction to Islam“.

Before beginning discussion, it is necessary to understand what is meant by Islamic law. Does this law apply to Muslims living in non-Muslim countries, or to non-Muslims living in Muslim countries?  Schacht attempts to answer these questions by indicating that “Islamic law does not claim universal validity.” Rather, “it is binding for the Muslim to its full extent in the territory of the Islamic state, to a slightly lesser extent in enemy territory, and for the non-Muslim only to a limited extent in Islamic territory” (ibid:199). However, one need only look at the media to see that non-Muslim citizens of some Islamic states live very much under “Islamic” law, and that many Muslims living in non-Muslim countries wish to have autonomy to implement their own law. This is largely to do with the recent politicisation of Islamic law “[in conjunction with] modernist legislation on the part of contemporary Islamic governments” (ibid:3). Thus, a compromise is necessary, and for my purposes, “Islamic law” shall refer to law directly related to Muslim religious beliefs and not to the laws implemented by political ‘Islamic’ states, regardless of the incorporation of ‘religious’ law into their codes.

There are two key points that should be made about “Islamic law”. Firstly, Islamic and “Western” law are two quite different things. In fact, “classical Arabic [has] no precise equivalent for the English word “law” in the ordinary, everyday sense” (Weiss, 1998:17). Whilst admitting that his “superficial” summary expresses the difference “in a wholly inadequate way”, Anderson plainly defines “Western law, as we know it, [as] essentially secular, whereas Islamic law is essentially religious” (1959:2). Western law is strongly influenced by Christianity, which “existed for three centuries within a polity that was very much not of its own making” meaning that “Roman law would become the foundational law of the Christian world” (Weiss, 1998:4). In contrast, “Muslims did not appropriate an empire but rather created one,” intending “to bring to the world a new polity and law, replacing all outmoded polities and laws” (ibid:5). However, the distinction is not simply one of sacred versus secular, as “the two other representatives of a ‘sacred law’ which are historically and geographically nearest to [Islamic Law], Jewish law and Canon law, are [also] sensibly different” (Schacht, 1964:1-2).

It is common nowadays to equate “Shari’a law” with “Islamic law,” however, “since the Shari’a includes norms beyond those which constitute law in the strict sense, it is incorrect to equate Shari’a and law simpliciter” (Weiss, 1998:5). Shari’a “is an all-embracing body of religious duties [which] comprises on an equal footing ordinances regarding cult and ritual, as well as political and (in the narrow sense) legal rules” (Schacht, 1950:v). Therefore, “Islamic law” may be characterised as “those rules of the Shari’a that the temporal authority and its judicial representatives are likely to apply and enforce” (Weiss, 1998:21). These important distinctions from the Western conception of law must be recognised in the context of this post.

A second point is, simply, that “there is no such thing as a, that is one, Islamic law” (Vikor, 2005:1). Not only are there geographical variations, accounting “for much of the divergences between the ancient schools of law” (Schacht, 1964:3), but there is another form of Islamic law, siyasa justice, which was/is administered by “the political authorities on the basis of custom, of equity and fairness” (ibid:55) in parallel with the religious courts. This post only focuses on the Shari’a inspired Islamic law which “both does and does not exist, through the many, different, and often conflicting views and individual rules that Muslim scholars have developed.” (Vikor, 2005:1).

Nazreen Kazi’s typical affirmation of Islamic law as a “preordained system of Allah’s commands” (1960:6) is unfortunately not as simple as it first appears. Weiss believes that “it is a presupposition of Muslim juristic thought that the law of God has not been given to human beings in the form of a ready-made code” (1998:22). God’s commands can only be accessed through His revelation which is commonly located in four sources – the Qur’an, the Sunna [traditions], “analogical extensions of rules already established” and the acceptance of an umma [community] wide consensus (Vikor, 2005:31). If the Qur’an is accepted as genuine revelation then a Qur’an based law is clearly a ‘divine law.’ However, “the Qur’an [only] contains some [350 to] 500 verses with legal content” (Hallaq, 1997:3 cf. Vikor, 2005:33) and thus does not provide Muslims “with an all-encompassing or developed system of law” (Hallaq, 1997:5), meaning that other sources are necessary to provide a legal framework. The Sunna of the Prophet are more problematic because of their human transmission. Hadith specialists were required to “evaluate the presumed hadith stories according to [external] criteria” (Vikor, 2005:39), and even among the “canonical” accounts there is the problem of context, which requires recorded laws/decisions to be analogised to fit with contemporary circumstances. This concept of analogical extension played a major part in the early development of Islamic law (Coulson, 1969:4) however, over time “the field of individual decision was continuously narrowed down” (Schacht, 1964:70), resulting in a “retrospective singling out of certain masters of the past as uniquely authoritative” (Weiss, 1998:10). This gradual compilation of legal opinion, resulted in the emergence of “an entire educational institution […] whose primary function was to train scholars in all the disciplines entailed in legal study” (ibid:15). And the concept of consensus is dependent upon the accepted definition of the umma meaning that “’society in some form – all Muslims, or the scholars, or most of them – through their agreement establish that specific legal rules are part of God’s law” (Vikor, 2005:76).

This all-to-brief summary of the four main sources of law raises some interesting points. It is important to realise that a fundamental of Muslim faith is that “law is the divinely ordained system of God’s commands” (Coulson, 1969:1), and that there is universal “refusal to accord to human reason any role in the creation of the law” (Weiss, 1998:38 cf. ibid:37; Schacht, 1964:70). However, there has been a recent resurgence of the belief that “the human reason provides a link between the divine mind and the human mind” meaning that jurists can evaluate, using reason, any legal judgements extrapolated from the texts and reject, on the basis of interpretive error, those judgements that cause conflict (Weiss, 1998:37). And, the concept of consensus means that all schools of law are “deemed to translate into individual legal rules the will of Allah […]; their alternative interpretations are all equally valid, their methods of reasoning equally legitimate; in short, they are equally orthodox” (Schacht, 1964:67). These observations clearly indicate that, at least in the eyes of Muslims, it is correct to consider Islamic law as a divine law. However, “divine authority [has] little value if it [is] not channelled through human instruments” (Weiss, 1998:10 cf. Coulson, 1969:1-2).

Quite apart from accusations that jurists have “invented” Islamic law, there are three main arguments to support referring to it as a jurists’ law. Firstly, the texts of revelation contain “few precisely worded rules of law,” and even if they did “it is the business of the jurists […,] not of prophets, to provide such statements” (ibid:22). Secondly, in opposition to the concept of a “politicians’ law,” Islamic law is very much a jurists’ law. Because the root of Islamic law is enshrined in texts enjoying “canonical status”, the jurists, “far from being beholden to [political regimes, are] in a position to make the regime answerable to them” (Schacht, 1964:16). Islamic Law “was expressed in textbooks as the doctrine of the jurists, not in law reports containing the decisions of the judiciary” (Coulson, 1969:9). And finally, Schacht importantly notes the incorporation of various pre-Islamic elements into Islamic law, such as “the ancient Arab concept of sunna”, the Roman “concept of the opinio prudentzum” and various Stoic influences (1964:17,20). This acknowledgement doesn’t directly support conceiving Islamic law as a jurists’ law, however it does pose a common objection to the ‘divine law’ appellation (which can admittedly be refuted by emphasising God’s omnipotence/omniscience).

This has been a brief discussion of a very complex subject, and unfortunately many aspects of the history of Islamic law, including a discussion of the main schools could not be included. However, it should be sufficient to demonstrate that it isn’t possible to provide a definitive answer to the question of Islamic law’s divine/juristic character. On the one hand, it is evident that its formation occurred “neither under the impetus of the needs of practice, nor under that of juridical technique, but under that of religious and ethical ideas” (ibid: 209). Yet the law is not implemented directly by Allah, but by jurists who have been left the task of interpreting and adapting His revelation to specific circumstances. Schacht importantly notes that “Islamic law is conscious of its character as a religious ideal” (ibid:199), and in this light, with jurists striving after this ideal, “Islamic law is both a divine law and a jurists’ law” (Coulson, 1969:19). Coulson provides a suitable conclusion to this discussion which, although brief and full of generalisations, “is perhaps sufficient to show that in the fully fashioned fabric of the law the threads of divine revelation and human reason are so closely interwoven as to be almost inseparable” (ibid).


  • Anderson, J.N.D., 1959. Islamic Law in the Modern World, London: Stevens & Sons.
  • Coulson, Noel J., 1969. Conflicts and Tensions in Islamic Jurisprudence, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press
  • Hallaq, Wael B., 1997. A History of Islamic Legal Theories: An Introduction to Sunni Usul-al-Fiqh, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kazi, Nazreen, 1960(?). “Sources of Islamic Law of ‘Fiqh’” in Some salient features of the Islamic law and constitution: this constitution safeguards the interest of Muslims and non-Muslims, Karachi: Pakistan Institute of Arts and Design.
  • Schacht, Joseph, 1950. The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Schacht, Joseph, 1964. An Introduction to Islamic Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Vikor, Knut S., 2005. Between God and the Sultan: A History of Islamic Law, London: Hurst & Company.
  • Weiss, Bernard G., 1998. The Spirit of Islamic Law, Athens/London: The University of Georgia Press.