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Today I have mostly been learning about… “bullshit”

The name of this post echoes my previous, much longer post entitled Today I have mostly been learning about… “Fuck”. However, it would be somewhat of a lie to say that I had been spending most of my day on this…

As you’ll see from the citation, this was from a book on Qualitative Methods. However, it amused and intrigued me… and thanks to my amazing OCR software and scanner, this took little effort. So without further ado, enjoy learning a bit about ‘bullshit’:

Bullshit in the outback

Of all the definitions of ‘bullshit’ read so far, I’ve yet to find one that discusses the source himself, the bull. I’m speaking from many years experience of working with, and observing, wild cattle in our far north. Like the males of other animal species, wild bulls often fight over harem rights. Typically they go through a display routine something akin to ‘come any closer, and I’ll punch your lights out!’.There’s a lot of bluffing, swaggering, mouthing off, and literally bullshitting. The process might go on for minutes or hours, but all the while the bulls are constantly dribbling shit from the back end and paddling it around with their tail. You can always tell when a bull is in fighting mode because his arse-end is smothered in green slime. They circle around each other with their noses down, pawing up as much dust as they can (think ‘bulldust’), bawling each other out and sniffing at each other’s shit. Does that sound like some academic discussions you’ve witnessed! The point is, the issue of who wins is most often settled in these preliminaries. The process might go on for a while, but one or the other has already conquered, without the potential danger of actually locking horns. One short rush and it’s all over. In conversations among the stockmen, use of the term ‘bullshit’ was almost invariably in this context. If someone was suspected of bluffing/boasting/overstating their ability to ride, root, drink or fight, then he was ‘full of bullshit’ or ‘bullshitting’ or simply dismissed with ‘Ahh bullshit!’. (Eric Whittle personal communication, 2006)

From Silverman, D., 2007. A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Qualitative Research, Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, p. 122.

The Fiction Shelf

From time to time I will point readers to websites that I think might interest them. It just so happens that this one was set up by my good friend Liam.

Do you like reading? Are you a budding writer?  Liam has been working on this project for a while now and it has just officially launched. Check out the website, where authors and readers can share high-quality fiction, poetry and more in all manner of on-screen and printable formats. And if you fancy sharing the link with others, we’d both be eternally grateful.

The Fiction Shelf

We are The Fiction Shelf – an entertainment site for readers and writers, and a free one at that. All of the stories and poems here are of excellent quality and are available to you however you want them.

If you would like to read some of our fiction use the buttons at the top of page. If you’re a writer and want to have your work featured click here to learn how. If you have any ideas on how the site could be improved then please drop us an e‐mail.

Wordsworth: The Tables Turned

Yesterday was not a good day for me. My research has not been going very well… mostly because I have a vast amount of material and don’t quite know how to deal with it (I think I am getting somewhere now though). I had a long meeting with my supervisor who advised me to take some time off, get some perspective and come back to it. Thus, spending a night in the flat with nothing do… I cracked open a bottle of beer and picked up my William Wordsworth – Selected Poems which I very occasionally dip into.

If I believed in fate, I would say that it was fate that had me turn quickly to this one. It most surely spoke to my current situation… one of the few times that this has happened. Sometimes it is too easy to get bogged down in books (and rightly so, sometimes) and not appreciate the world around us. I give you… The Tables Turned:

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;

Or surely you’ll grow double:

Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks,

Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,

A freshening lustre mellow

Through all the long green fields has spread,

His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:

Come, hear the woodland linnet,

How sweet his music! on my life,

There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!

He, too, is no mean preacher:

Come forth into the light of things,

Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,

Our minds and hearts to bless–

Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,

Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–

We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;

Close up those barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives.

The Different Perceptions of Swearing between Dutch and British Christian Students

I came across this in my reading last night, and couldn’t resist sharing it – mostly for the benefit of my friend Mieke. However, it does have a serious point… makes us think twice about what words offend us, especially if judging that offence to be justified by the Bible.

‘Swearing, perhaps unsurprisingly, was an area in which CSL [Leiden University Christian Union] members tended to be slightly differentiated though not to the same extent as OICCU and AUCU [Oxford and Aberdeen University Christian Unions] members. Differentiation was clear but it was complicated by the fact that the orientation of Dutch swearing is very different from that of English. Male members did not have any difficulty using swearwords that they knew to be sexual and even the female members had no problem using English swearwords (which was common [116] in Holland) which they knew to be sexual. One female member was amazed when I informed her of just how rude some English people thought that the word ‘fuck’ was. Members commented that they would use these various sexual and bodily Dutch swearwords if they were angry but tried not to. This included terms such as ‘shit’ and ‘klootzak’ (scrotum) and I would suggest that OICCU members in particular tended to reject equivalent English swearwords which were middle-ranking in terms of their perceived offensiveness such as ‘shit’. However, all CSL members did reject the strongest Dutch swearword – Godverdomme (Old Dutch for ‘God damn it’). They argued that this word was ‘insulting’, ‘disrespectful’ and even ‘forbidden by the Bible’. All but two were not even prepared to use its disguised version ‘Godverdikemme’. A non-religious Dutch student – who tried to explain Dutch swearing to me in a bar – found Godverdomme so offensive that he was not prepared to say it and, to the mirth of his friends, insisted on writing it down on a beer mat for me. However, in a sense it is difficult to compare the issue of swearing. As discussed, both OICCU and AUCU members mainly rejected profanity which is generally perceived as mild swearing in England and Scotland. However CSL members were rejecting only the strongest forms of swearing. This could reflect a low level of differentiation but it is made more complex because the reasons for the rejection may be different. On the surface, at least, the level of differentiation with regard to swearing appears to be low. Certainly religious Netherlanders found ‘God damn it’ very offensive. On one occasion I recall saying ‘damn’ in front of two Dutch evangelical Christians because they had neglected to buy any milk to go with the tea for the British evening, not knowing that the British had milk in tea. For comic effect I said, ‘damn’ – the mildest swear-word I could think of in the context of an English-language conversation, in British English at least. They evidently could not believe what they were hearing and one of them just gasped, ‘Excuse me? Can you not say that?!”

From Edward Dutton, 2008. Meeting Jesus at University: Rites of Passage and Student Evangelicals. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 115-116.

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.

Shills by Day and Pimps by Night

If anyone else has listened to/performed Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” and been confused by the line “The crooks, the whores, the cathouse owners; the shills by day and pimps by night; and yes, those dogs in uniform…”, I have just come across an excellent definition of a “shill”, courtesy of Mr Erving Goffman:

Shillaber, n. An employee of the circus who rushes up to the kid show ticket box at the psychological moment when the barker concludes his spiel. He and his fellow shillabers purchase tickets and pass inside and the crowd of towners in front of the bally stand are not slow in doing likewise.

Goffman, Erving. 1990. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin. p. 146.

You learn something new every day, don’t you?

Facebook Users Take Heed: A Nineteenth-Century Lesson in Online Etiquette

In 1959, one of my new favourite people, Erving Goffman, wrote the following, seemingly common-sensical passage:

“There is hardly a performance, in whatever area of life, which does not rely on the personal touch to exaggerate the uniqueness of the transactions between performer and audience. For example, we feel a slight disappointment when we hear a close friend, whose spontaneous gestures of warmth we felt were our own preserve, talk intimately with another of his friends (especially one whom we do not know).”

Goffman, Erving. 1990. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin. pp. 58-59.

However, it seems that this message is not translating itself in to much of the electronic communication which regular passes below my ever tiring gaze. All over Facebook, I am bombarded with posts on “walls” exclaiming, in various guises:

“You were ALL unbelievably WONDERFUL”

“Love you SO much”

“You are literally the best person in the world EVER”


Or status updates along the lines of:

“<insert name here> LOVES <insert name here> SO MUCH!”

And it isn’t just Facebook… this emotional incontinence [also manifested in the need people feel to electronically burst into tears over various issues, form the most trivial to the most heartwrenching] is creeping in to all forms of communication.

In and of itself, a bit of enthusiastic praise is one thing, and pretty damn nice to be honest. But constantly dishing our ludicrious expressions of joy, love and admiration on a daily basis surely serves to diminish their impact, remove any credibility people might attach to your sentiments, and ultimately lead to a society where people need constant emotional reinforcement whilst never being able to appreciate these sentiments in anything but a trivial, watered-down form, when truly merited.

Maybe I am just being a grumpy old man. Maybe I am behind the times. But seeing this passage in Goffman gave me the push to speak my mind. It seems that the authors of the following nineteenth-century American guide to manners might agree with me.  I hope you will too…

“If you have paid a compliment to one man, or have used toward him any expression of particular civility, you should not show the same conduct to any other person in his presence. For example, if a gentleman comes to your house and you tell him with warmth and interest that you ‘are glad to see him’, he will be pleased with the attention and will probably thank you; but if he hears you say the same thing to twenty other people, he will not only perceive that your courtesy was worth nothing, but he will feel some resentment at having been imposed on.”’

The Canons of Good Breeding: or the Handbook of the Man of Fashion (Philadelphia: Lee & Blanchard, 1839), p. 87.


Religion Playing Peek-A-Boo

Love it… the perfect summary of a difficulty associated with the term “religion”:

“In the history of theorising “religion” the term has tended to fidget nervously in its own opaqueness and […has therefore] not infrequently transvested itself to play peek-a-boo behind substitute terms such as “the holy” […] or “the sacred” […]. However, both of these substitute terms are equally mysterious, making their use conducive to explaining obscurium per obscurious, to account for one mystery by means of other mysteries.”

Braun, Willi. 2000. Religion. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T McCutcheon, 3-18. London: Cassell, p. 5.