If you would like to attend, please RSVP to Dr Caroline Starkey (email@example.com), stating any dietary requirements.
Dr Abby Day, Reader of Race, Faith & Culture, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London
Dr Tim Hutchings, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Stockholm
The relatively new field of ‘digital religion’ examines not only how religion is performed online but also how religious communities have adapted, responded to, and engaged with digital culture (Campbell and Altenhofen 2016:1). As new technologies have given rise to online communities and identities, scholars examining these phenomena are required to continuously examine their rationales for using particular research methods and approaches while assessing ethical dilemmas and situations to ensure the protection of participants in the digital world.
A key question for those examining digital religion is to understand what is truly new in terms of experience and engagement, and how best to study the impact of new technologies on these experiences and engagement. This CRPL research day which is being organised in conjunction with SOCREL (the British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion Study Group) looks to provide a space for attendees to collaboratively and critically think about the evolution of digital religion, to examine how religion is changing in the face of new technologies and to explore the research methods, ethical issues and advantages and disadvantages faced when studying religion in the digital environment.
In addition to the external speakers who will be presenting their research case studies in the morning, the afternoon will consist of a workshop examining the use of research methods to study digital religion. This workshop open to all participants will allow attendees to examine how they might use these methods in their own work.
Programme in Brief
9.30-10: Registration and Refreshments
10-10.15: Introduction: Dr Jasjit Singh, University Academic Fellow in Religious and Cultural Transmission, University of Leeds.
10.15 – 11.00 Dr Abby Day: ‘Media Logics in a Digital Age’
11.00-11.45 Dr Jasjit Singh: ‘Media representations of British Sikhs’
11.45 – 12.00 Refreshments
12.00-12.45 Dr Tim Hutchings ‘Existential Media: Religion, Death and the Digital’
12.45 – 1.45 Lunch
13.45 – 15.30 Digital Methods Workshop, led by Dr Tim Hutchings
Power, Violence and Justice: Reflections, Responses and Responsibilities
Toronto, Canada, July 15-21, 2018
RESEARCH COMMITTEE 22: SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION
Religion, Power, and Resistance: New Ideas for a Divided World
Anna Halafoff, Deakin University, Australia
Sam Han, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Caroline Starkey, University of Leeds, UK
Current environmental, economic, social, and political challenges indicate that people are losing faith in existing power structures and mechanisms for coping with crises. This creates increasingly divided societies, riven by ideological battles for the future of the human and the more than human world. Religion has a place in this picture. Not only is it often a source of divisions; it can also be a source for alternative means of addressing them.
These divisions take new and as yet unclear shapes, which sociologists are only now beginning to comprehend. It is not enough to refer to the struggle between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, terms that dominated sociology through the 1970s. Nor do the tropes ‘colonialism vs. anti-colonialism’ and the ‘clash of civilizations’ adequately explain what is going on. Nor, arguably, does ‘populism vs neo-liberalism’ fully capture such things as the recent clashes between cosmopolitan and anticosmopolitan actors in the major Western democracies. Each of these has a piece of the picture; none of them captures it all.
What is religion’s role in this situation: as a creator of divisions, as a locus of power, and as a ground of resistance? How does religion influence our divided societies? How is religion influenced in turn?
We invite paper abstract submissions for the following RC22 sessions:
Dynamics of Gender, Religion and Intersectionality
Gender, Feminism, and Islam and the West
Media and Religious Radicalization: Gatekeeping and the Construction of Extremism
Prejudice, Exclusion and Violence in a Transnational World
Religion and Migration: Contrasting the First and Second Generations
Religion and National Identity
Religion and Secularity
Candlelight Revolution and Religion in South Korea
Religion and Non-Violent Social Movements
Religion, Gender and Family Violence
Religion in the East Asian Public Sphere
Religion in the Public Square
Religious Texts of Diversity Vs Exclusion
Social Theory and Religion
We will also be including the following invited sessions in our RC22 program:
Presidential Address: Whither the Sociology of Religion? (Invited Session)
Session Organizer: James SPICKARD, University of Redlands, USA
Religion and Diversity: An International Study (Invited Session)
Session Organizer: Lori BEAMAN, University of Ottawa, Canada
All are welcome for a lively public discussion in Leeds city centre on ‘Religion and the Civic Good’. This event is being planned by Dr Daniel Nilsson De Hanas, Dr Robin-Griffith Jones and Professor Maleiha Malik (Kings College London), as part of a broader project supported by Kings College London.
The aim of this project is to investigate how religious traditions and other moral sources can motivate participation for the Civic Good in a post-Brexit Britain. Event Details:
5:30-7:30pm, on Tuesday 11 July
Location (in the city centre):
Anglican Diocese of Leeds
17-19 York Place
Leeds LS1 2EX Speakers include:
* Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds
* Qari Asim, Imam of Leeds Makkah Mosque
* Mark Hill QC (moderator), leading UK expert on religion and law
The event is an interactive consultation for our research and is open to all.
All are welcome to a Centre for Religion and Public Life Research Day on Religion, Forced Migration and Movement, being held on the 19th June 2017, 9.30- 5pm, Liberty Building G33, School of Law, University of Leeds, LS29JT .
Free lunch – please RSVP to Dr Caroline Starkey (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Many people who move countries, either voluntarily or via force, are committed to religious traditions that they then transport to a new location. Some forced migrants have had to leave their homes due to their ethnic and religious affiliations, many draw upon their religious traditions to help them cope with such a life changing transition and for others religion can provide a starting point for building links and a new identity in a foreign location. Religions in the host country also play a significant role in both facilitating and obstructing migratory transitions. Practical and ‘spiritual’ support is provided by faith based organisations and places of worship for new migrants. However, the religion of migrants can also mark them out for abuse and prejudicial treatment, based upon nationalist constructions of acceptable ethnic and religious affiliations. In an era of increased forced migration in Europe, as a product of the current refugee crisis as well as increasing levels of trafficking of children, women and men, this research day seeks to explore the multifaceted role that religion plays in this domain.
10-10.15: Introduction: Professor Emma Tomalin, University of Leeds
10.15 – 11.45 Session 1 The role of faith based organisations
10.15-10.45 Dr Gwyneth Lonergan (University of Sheffield) – Faith, neoliberal citizenship, and third sector support for migrants
10.45-11.15 – Dr Hannah Lewis (University of Sheffield), Professor Emma Tomalin and Dr Louise Waite (University of Leeds) – Understanding the Role of Faith Based Organisations in Anti-Trafficking
11.15-11.45 – discussion
12-1 Session 2 Keynote presentation
Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (Reader in Human Geography & Co-Director of UCL’s Migration Research Unit) – tbc
1-1.45 – lunch
1.45-2.45Session 3 Keynote presentation
Dr Erin Wilson (Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen) – Religion, Secularism and the Politics of the Refugee Crisis
3-5 Session 4: Practitioner and community perspectives: A round-table showcase and discussion of issues facing community work in migration and forced migration in Leeds and neighbouring areas, including the work of:
Last Tuesday was the first day of Lent, the forty days in which Christians observe the temptation and testing of Jesus in the desert by the devil, interpreted by some Christians in literal and others in metaphorical, usually psychological, terms. On the same day, newspapers reported the story of Vilma Trujillo, a 25 year old woman from Nicaragua who died after sustaining severe burns. Vilma’s murder is also connected with Christian beliefs about the diabolical or demonic, albeit in a rather different way. While the case has yet to be brought to trial, it seems Vilma was attacked, tied up, and thrown into a fire by a pastor and church members as part of an ‘exorcism’ ritual, since she was believed by the church to be demonically possessed (BBC, 2017). This incident is not unique. For example, in 2005 a young Romanian Orthodox nun, Irena Cornici, died as a result of being gagged and chained to a cross and left in a cold room without food and water for three days at the hands of priests and fellow nuns – part of an attempt to exorcise her for what psychiatrists identified as schizophrenia (BBC, 2005).
In what kinds of context might these bizarre-seeming and horrific modern-day incidents make sense? Though it’s tempting to distance ourselves culturally from them (the short BBC article mentions twice that Vilma was from an ‘isolated’ part of Nicaragua), demonic accounts of what psychiatrists would call ‘mental disorder’ are in fact quite common, especially in Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. Demonic accounts are also extremely geographically widespread. In a 2008 textual analysis of Christian bestselling self-help books about depression, most from the US, Marcia Webb, Kathy Stetz and Kristin Hedden note that demonic influence is the most frequently-cited explanation for depression (Webb, Stetz and Hedden, 2008). A 2007 study finds that 54% of Americans believe in demons and an additional 19.4% think that demons ‘probably’ exist, thus opening the door to demonic accounts of mental disorder (Baylor Religion Survey, Baylor University, 2007). In a 2005 Australian-based study, Kristine Hartog and Kathryn Gow find that 38.2% of 126 Protestant Christians endorsed a demonic aetiology of depression, and 37.4% endorsed a demonic aetiology of schizophrenia. While only anecdotal, since beginning to study this topic, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have told me about demonic accounts in the UK, whether by people who have encountered them in church contexts, or by people who themselves endorse them.
Demonic accounts of mental disorder are sometimes described as forms of ‘lay theology’ (Webb, Stetz and Hedden, 2008), and yet we can find them in literature written by church leaders, mental health professionals and academics – literature that of course is particularly influential because of the status of the authors. One such example is Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness, written by Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, a practising psychologist, and a church leader. An initial glance at Stanford’s book might give the impression that he will criticise, rather than endorse, demonic interpretations of depression.
The blurb on the back cover explains that:
Each day men and women diagnosed with mental disorders are told they need to pray more and turn from their sin. Mental illness is equated with demon possession, weak faith, and generational sin. Why is it that the church has struggled in ministering to those with mental illnesses? As both a church leader and professor of psychology and neuroscience, Dr Stanford had seen far too many mentally ill brothers and sisters damaged by well-meaning believers who respond to them out of fear or misinformation rather than grace. (Stanford, 2008)
The expectation that this will be a book that challenges demonic accounts will be strengthened if one is aware of Stanford’s academic research in this area, which includes a study that surveys ‘negative interactions’ people with mental illness have with their churches. These ‘negative interactions’ include abandonment or shunning and the idea that the mental disorder is the work of demons or the result of sin (Stanford, 2007). Stanford also reflects on the gendered dimensions of church responses to mental illness: according to the findings of his survey, ‘the mental disorders of women, significantly more than men, are being dismissed by the church’, which he puts down to ‘misguided patriarchal views’ influencing leaders’ advice to women (Stanford, 2007, 448). The tone of Stanford’s writing here, and indeed in parts of the book, is one of liberalism, moderateness and humanity.
However, this tone and aspect of his work sit strangely with many other things Stanford says within his book. Stanford uses biblical texts to argue that some, though by no means all or most, physical and mental illnesses are caused by demons (2008, 28 – 29). While demons may afflict Christians in this way, demon possession, defined as a person completely losing control of their thought and behaviour to a demon, happens to some people, but it is not possible for it to happen to a Christian (2008, 30, 33). Under the heading of ‘encountering the demonic’, Stanford describes the experience of Cindy, a then-non-Christian woman who had an episode which involved running up and down the street in the rain in her underwear. When her husband grabbed her and restrained her in a chair, she said ‘This whole God thing is crazy!’ A friend said she was going to pray over her, to which she replied ‘No prayer! Don’t pray for me!’ followed by ‘I hate my mother’ and ‘I’m mad at God. I wanted a baby and I never got a baby!’ Stanford recounts that when Cindy was prayed over the episode stopped, and that she then accepted Christ and became active in ministry and never had a similar experience again (2008, 36 – 7). Implicitly, here Stanford seems to identify correlation with cause: becoming a Christian seems to have been what ended her alleged demonic encounter. Elsewhere he argues that ‘The simplest – and most effective – way to deal with […] demon-possession would be to lead the individual to faith in Christ’ (34 – 35). Interestingly, despite being a psychologist, Stanford does not appeal to psychology in relation to Cindy’s episode, for example by discussing the possibility of repressed feelings of anger at God or the church or her mother, or sorrow over not having a child. Concomitantly, becoming a Christian, rather than exploring or addressing these feelings, is presented as the solution to the problem.
Stanford’s account is more moderate than many, but it is typical of conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian ways of relating mental illness to the demonic in several respects. For example, demonic accounts of mental illness from this religious milieu are part of a family of accounts of mental illness in which the mentally ill person is regarded as not saved, as experiencing judgment for or the natural result of sin, or as demonically possessed or oppressed, almost always as a result of sin. What is common to these ideas when compared with other Christian interpretations of mental illness is that they see mental illness as antithetical to salvation and the spiritual life (see Scrutton, 2015a). According to these accounts, mental illness is reflective of a spiritually unsalutary state. Simply put, mental illness is spiritual illness. This may seem an obvious point, but it is at odds with other strands of Christian thought – for example, the idea that evil spirits are more likely to tempt a person if they are in fact particular holy or close to God, of which the story of Jesus’, and St. Anthony’s (depicted in the picture above), temptations in the desert are examples. The Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian accounts of mental illness are also characterised by an individualistic and voluntaristic view of sin. In other words, sin is something done voluntarily – it is within the person’s control – and it is also something for which an individual person (or number of individual persons) is responsible, rather than something more corporate or shared, for example on account of belonging to and participating in a shared culture. Again, while typical of this kind of Christianity’s view of sin, this is not representative of Christian thought historically, or across the board (see McFadyen, 2000).
The vast body of recent literature on religion and mental health has pointed to a positive relationship between mental health and religious belief (Koenig). Whether or not they involve violent exorcism rituals, the relationship between belief in demonic possession and mental health seems less salutary. We might speculate that the belief that one is continually being targeted by unseen, powerful and malevolent beings as a result of one’s sinfulness might not have a beneficial effect on one’s mental well-being, and this is borne out by the empirical evidence. A just-published paper by Fanhao Nie and Daniel Olson reports a pair of studies involving a longitudinal telephone survey of 3,290 young Americans between 2003 and 2008, which strongly suggests that belief in demons has a significant negative effect on mental health (Nie and Olson, 2017). In addition to the direct impact of a person believing in the demonic, demonic accounts may have other, indirect, negative effects on people experiencing mental illness. For example, whether or not they themselves believe in the demonic, some Christians report being cautious about sharing their experiences of mental illness with others Christians for fear of being told they are sinful or demonically possessed, leading to alienation and a lack of social support from communities they might otherwise turn to (see Scrutton 2015b).
In addition to this, demonic accounts of mental illness are damaging, not least because they deflect attention away from the social causes of mental illness by problematising the person (by regarding them as sinful), and de-problematising their context (the circumstances that led to their mental distress). The pages of demonic accounts of mental illness tend to feature quite regularly the examples of people, but especially women, whose ‘sinful’ behaviour is highlighted, without much reference to the wider social factors in play. As is increasingly recognised, what appears to be a relatively high prevalence of mental health issues among groups frequently disadvantaged, harassed or discriminated against – including women and LGBT people – mean we need to take the social causes of mental illness more rather than less seriously. Conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal demonic accounts reflect Christianity’s continuingly-problematic relationship with gender, sex and sexuality. The dismissal of women’s experiences of mental disorders (Stanford, 2007) and the stories of Irena and Vilma highlight just a few of the harmful and devastating consequences of it.
What is the role of Religious Studies scholarship in all this? Sociological, anthropological, philosophical and theological dimensions of Religious Studies can help us to understand the very different contexts in which ideas about demonic possession emerge, and how they fit into (or depart from) the religions, cultures and ideologies of which they are a part. This is crucial, since we cannot engage intelligently or effectively with beliefs and practices we don’t understand. While some Religious Studies scholarship has historically been hesitant about critically engaging with religious beliefs, preferring to retain a neutral or disinterested observer perspective, the role of Religious Studies in not only describing but also evaluating and appropriately criticising problematic beliefs and practices is important too. Indeed, since beliefs and practices we’ve come to define as ‘religion’ sometimes get a free pass in our culture on account of being ‘part of someone’s religion’ and so the damage they cause tolerated or overlooked, by having a detailed understanding of the belief or practice in question, and rigorous philosophical, sociological and other tools to critically analyse beliefs and practices, Religious Studies has a distinctive role to play in bringing about positive social change.
Baylor University. 2007. The Baylor Religion Survey, wave II. Waco, TX: Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.
Hartog, K. , & Gow, K. (2005). Religious attributions pertaining to the causes and cures of mental illness. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 8(4), 263-276
Koenig, Harold, King, Dana and Carson, Verna (2012), Handbook of Religion and Health. Oxford: Oxford University Press
McFadyen, A. 2000. Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust, and the Christian Doctrine of Sin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Nie, Fanhao and Olson, Daniel. 2017. Demonic Influence: The Negative Mental Health Effects of Beliefs in Demons. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, DOI: 10.1111/jssr.12287
Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa 2015a. Two Christian theologies of depression. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 22.4, 275 – 289 (DOI: 10.1353/ppp.2015.0046)
Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa. 2015b. ‘Is depression a sin or a disease?’ A critique of moralizing and medicalizing models of mental illness. Journal of Religion and Disability 19.4, 285 – 311 (DOI: 10.1080/23312521.2015.1087933
Stanford, Matthew. 2008. Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness. Colorado Springs: Paternoster Press
Stanford, Matthew. 2007. Demon or disorder: A survey of attitudes toward mental illness in the Christian church. In Mental Health, Religion & Culture 10.5, pp. 445–449
Webb, M., Stetz, K., & Hedden, K., 2008. Representation of mental illness in Christian self-help bestsellers. Mental health, Religion and Culture 11 (7), 697 – 717
A little while ago, there was an interesting twitter discussion about whether, as teachers, we should be open with students about our own religious backgrounds and commitments. It’s a subject we are interested in here at the Centre for Religion and Public Life (and a topic that is likely to come up in a couple of research days that we are running later in the year). We asked Jo Henderson-Merrygold from the University of Sheffield to reflect on this issue, from her perspective, in this blog post. Thank you Jo!
What is it we do when we disclose or decline to disclose our (non)religious location(s), and why do we do it? I’m a passionate exponent of teaching in a non-confessional environment: one which articulates clearly that there is no expectation or demand for staff or students to disclose. But I’ve disclosed: I told one of my first year student groups that I am a Methodist Local Preacher! It was relevant: we were talking about effective constructions of arguments and I was arguing for the merits of a three-point model. How very Methodist I am!
Then again, how Methodist am I really, and is a three-point sermon the entire foundation of being, Christian, Methodist or even a local preacher? It is far more complicated than that, which is exactly why the non-confessional foundation is so important. On another occasion, a student clearly perceived me to be non-religious which led to discussions about how we conduct study of religious history. Another struggled to disentangle an overtly religious author – a Rabbi – from their published work. Had these students known not only of my religious beliefs but that I am an office holder, I am aware that they may have considered my teaching differently. Other students wanted to find that their religious identities were valid and accepted in the classroom. But before we discuss religion too much I’d like to reflect on the other key subject I teach: LGBT+ Studies. So let’s return to my initial claim for a moment: I’m a passionate exponent of teaching in a non-confessional environment.
I am committed to the idea that no student or staff member should be expected to disclose… sexuality, gender identity, or (non)religious location(s). Nobody should ever force anyone into or out of a closet! Teaching LGBT+ Studies and queer biblical studies have both been helpful in enabling me to nuance my approach to disclosure and representation, not least in acknowledging to myself that there are no more grounds for me to withhold my religious identity than my sexuality. Both can have a representative function, while equally hold the potential to distract from what it is I am attempting to teach. So how to navigate this treacherous realm?
Let me reflect for a moment on one of my early PhD research methods classes: a fellow student asked “so, what is your religious allegiance?”, or something similar. My reply was rather abrupt: “I’m happy to tell you; but why is my (non-)religious background more relevant than, say, politics, gender identity, sexuality, class, ethnicity or educational and employment background? In my previous university the non-confessional approach was established from day one and something I really value.” It certainly wasn’t something I realised I had valued so highly, but in that moment it really became clear to me that it was so very important and valuable. Depending on the context any one or more facets of identity can become apparent or relevant in a given context, but do we consider the process of disclosure or revelation the same with each?
In considering what to disclose it is also worth considering what I am likely to be perceived to represent. Those facets of identity which are discernible on encounter also factor in how we are perceived as teachers. Is it relevant to my teaching that I’m a PhD student rather than someone with a doctorate? How about my status as a mature student, my southern English accent, white skin colour, physical size, marital status, or gender? Each of these has an impact on my reception by students, some of which may be more tangible than others. Just as the students will form conclusions about my life based on these things, they will form others based on how I teach the subjects too.
When teaching (and, for that matter, preaching) I don’t want to be an unnecessary distraction, and this informs the decisions I make about what to disclose, to whom, and when. As graduate teaching assistant for LGBT+ Studies, I was listed on the module handbook as Mrs Jo Henderson-Merrygold. My marital status was therefore known before I started teaching. But what does that mean? To whom am I married, and what does their name or honorific tell students about me? The answer in many ways is “not a lot,” but equally it can mean everything. In the module we discuss public figures and representation, about sex and relationships education, about the need to address the lived experiences of LGBT+ people inside and outside the academy. Some of them have never knowingly met an LGBT+ person before taking the class, and the annual panel discussion hosted by the LGBT+ staff network is a visible opportunity to change that situation without forcing the students to out themselves. Similar to the non-confessional approach to religion I valued as a student at Leeds, no student in the LGBT+ studies course is forced to disclose anything they are unwilling to share, but there is also an agreement to treat the classroom as a safe, respectful space. I can’t remember exactly when I referred to my spouse as my wife, but it was late in the module and my relationship with the students had stabilised.
The motivation for outing myself as gay is the same as that for outing myself as Christian: is visibility and representation important in the context, and is the timing appropriate for the subject being taught? Some classes I’ve disclosed neither, but others I have disclosed one or both. This matches my approach to writing up my research for publication: is my own location relevant to the work being presented? If yes, and if it has impacted how I’ve undertaken the research or what conclusions I’ve reached it needs to be acknowledged. If not, it can remain outside the text. All these months, and many hours of teaching, later I feel confident the conclusion still holds. If you need to know, I’ll tell you. If you don’t, I’m happy for you to make whatever assumptions and draw whatever conclusions you wish. If you ask me directly I’ll give you an honest answer – whether it’s about politics, ethnicity, class, or educational background or about sexuality, gender identity, or religious belief.
Professor Alison Heppenstall and Dr Myles Gould, School of Geography, University of Leeds
Modelling the influence of place on individual health outcomes
This seminar will present an overview of two contrasting methodological approaches from human geography; multilevel modelling (MLM) and agent-based modelling (ABM). A brief outline of each of the approaches will be given as well as an overview of new and existing datasets that are readily available. Through examples, the utility of these approaches for asking new questions and creating new insights into health and religion will be demonstrated. There will also be consideration of the debate in medical sociology, public health and health geography of the relative importance of individual/compositional and contextual/place ‘effects’ as determinants of health.
This seminar draws on evidence gathered in the US and Africa to demonstrate what can be achieved when faith communities and health communities are aligned. Whilst health asset mapping methodologies offer new possibilities for thinking about wellbeing, health assets in themselves are of limited value until they are intentionally leveraged. The significance of ‘agency’ and its relationship to the ‘leading causes of life’ approach to wellbeing is explored and their relevance to global health development argued.
Saturday 25th March 10am-4pm in the Michael Sadler ground floor foyer (University of Leeds) – signs and guides available from Parkinson Court
As part of the annual ‘Be Curious’ Festival, the Community Religions Project will be holding a one day interactive research exhibition. This will be a great chance to engage with the Community Religions Project archive and our student researchers – and is for anyone interested in our religiously diverse community of Leeds.
Help us identify ‘mystery buildings’ in our 1970s photo archive, and to build our knowledge of contemporary religious activity in Leeds. What exciting and unexpected events are happening in Leeds? What changes have you seen while you have been living in Leeds?
Students will be recording some ‘oral history’ accounts from visitors and everyone will have the chance to contribute their experiences, views and memories as part of our growing archive. Over time you might see your contribution added to our website: https://arts.leeds.ac.uk/crp/
Stefan Skrimshire is a lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, UK. He was a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam for ten weeks over the summer of 2016. During this time he lived in East Berlin. The research undertaken during this fellowship is being written up as a journal article and considered for review.
Walking westwards along Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin-Mitte, the building-high mural How Long Is Now dominates the horizon, eclipsing nearby landmarks. It is, as I learned, a now legendary artwork adorning the derelict art centre Kunsthaus Tacheles (‘straight talking’ in Yiddish). The building embodies what is true for the city as a whole, at least as it is initially experienced by an outsider: wearing on its sleeve a succession of external and internal revolutionary changes. Once an SS centre and Nazi prison, the building sits a stone’s throw away from the impressive Neue Synagogue (one of the few places of Jewish worship in Berlin to have survived the pogrom of 9–10 November 1938), it was a public building in the GDR and—post-unification—a squatted arts centre, then a public sculpture park. Today, it is a ubiquitous memorial and perhaps nostalgic (‘ostalgie’) glance back at Berlin’s recent, creative past.
The Tacheles mural: melancholic sigh of resignation or utopian gesture?
‘Epoch’ is a frequently overplayed concept in historical studies (one suspects that their endings and beginnings happen too neatly) but one can’t avoid sensing that, in Berlin, epochs both overtake and lag behind themselves. The impulse to forget and to remember (the excess of which, Nietzsche once said, leads to a kind of historical indigestion) seem to be held in dialectical tension, rather than regulating one another by their successive replacement. The city’s constant reconfiguring and reinterpreting of social spaces, their functions and meanings, recalls what Reinhardt Koselleck, the German theorist of history, called the “contemporaneity of the noncontemporaneous,” meaning that we live in multiple and overlapping histories rather than one dominant and “homogeneous” time sequence.
Denied a question mark, How Long is Now is half melancholic sigh of resignation, half utopian gesture. On the one hand it laments the quality of lived time as a continual perishing of the instant, the present moment. On the other, it suggests the eternal significance that the present moment might hold for us. Perhaps it also hints at something like Walter Benjamin’s critique of history. Benjamin sought a radical alternative to the perception of history as a one-way street, as an empty succession of ‘nows’. This latter we can associate with a still dominant philosophy of progress, dialectical progression in the service of some ideological future or another. For Benjamin the messianic power of ‘now’ would be the antithesis of this approach to history, in its reaching backwards into the past, redeeming its ghosts, laying bare what was once lost.
Do people expect the future of humankind to be a long one? Why does it matter?
The connection was, for me, serendipitous. Benjamin’s memoire Berlin childhood around 1900 reflects a child’s ability to recover urban images of the past as utopian objects for new use in the present. He is therefore the thinker that came to mind when the mural first arrested my vision. And a reminder of Benjamin’s critique of “homogeneous, empty time” also became a conceptual anchor for my research fellowship at the IASS in Potsdam. The fellowship marked the first stage in the development of a monograph in which I will explore the relationship between Christian eschatological (end-times) belief with contemporary environmentalist narratives of the future.
A contemporary question this project seeks to engage with is: do people expect the future of humankind to be a long one? Why is that an important consideration, and on which philosophical or religious grounds? In this first stage of the research, I wanted to approach the question by understanding the recent trend of ‘deep future’ thinking in environmental discourse. Deep future refers to the imagination of the longer term (hundreds of thousands of years) future impacts of human behaviour upon the planet. My interest in this trend came about largely through my engagement with the currency of the idea of the Anthropocene epoch—the idea that human activity has shifted Earth into a new and distinctive geological state, which would be distinguishable to some far future observer of the planet.
The time horizons that matter
What has always fascinated me about this discussion has been this thought experiment: the science fictional far-future explorer who discovers the human story through our fossilised traces is used in order to engage the ethical and cultural as well as scientific significance of the Anthropocene. For really what is being asked of the environmentalist is that he or she rethinks some far more fundamental questions about what time we live in. Which time horizons (of which length and depth?) matter to us—now? What does the ‘time of humanity’ signify, now that human time is seemingly implicated, through its environmental impacts, in the vast temporal stretches of geological time? Should we care about what legacy humans are leaving to the deep future? How have concepts of human origins and destinies, which are so essential to theological and humanist narratives, become troubled in the light of our far future imagination?
Such questions require new thinking in the fields in which I work: theology and philosophy. But here they provoked me to engage more directly with the concept of time in popular environmental discourse. Why, and how, do environmental reporters, campaigners, and ethicists engage with the much longer timeframes now provided by Earth systems analysis? How does one imaginatively inhabit those timescales? The first clue that emerged from my research in Potsdam was that manifestations of deep future imagination in futurology and popular science (I focussed on two examples in the USA: The Long Now Foundation and the popular science publications of Curt Stager) are based on a confident moral premise of the Anthropocene concept. For such authors, to see further into the planetary future ought to generate greater care for the immediate (human) future; projecting a vision of some far future explorer like us, discovering our legacy to the planet, ought to motivate an ethic of planetary stewardship. Second, they are premised on an unquestioned (or as yet unchallenged) assumption that the survival of the human species is the ethical principle from which all other considerations ought to flow.
Human activity delays next ice age by 50,000 years, well beyond likely extinction
My second observation was that such confident moral starting points belied a kind of ‘uncanniness’ that has crept into environmental discourse and which seems to accompany this sort of temporal shift. For it is not so much the ‘long view’ that troubles moral reflection. Rather, its juxtaposition alongside the more immediate ethical concerns of environmental and social justice. Despite the historian Chakrabarty’s now canonical reflections on what the Anthropocene means for thinking about history, stating that we must “think human agency over multiple and incommensurable scales at once,” what this means in practice for environmental activists and policymakers has never been successfully articulated. At the outset of my research at the IASS I found a fascinating example of this ‘uncanny’ temporality close to home. In a research paper for Nature (January 2016), co-authored by Potsdam’s own professor Joachim Schellnhuber (director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research), it was confirmed that human activity has delayed the next “glacial inception” by 50,000 years. Humans have cancelled the next ice age in other words—due under ‘normal’ circumstances to occur in around 50,000 years— neatly confirming the Anthropocene thesis.
But consider an interviewer’s synopsis of Schellnhuber’s proposal: “On the positive side, we can sigh with relief that we have called off the next two ice ages that would represent a very difficult challenge for civilisation. However, temper that relief with the growing likelihood that if we don’t wake up to climate change, it is unlikely that humanity will exist on Earth in anything like fifty thousand years!” (Envisionation January 2016). This juxtaposition of temporalities illustrates what the literary theorist Timothy Clark calls “Anthropocene disorder”: that “unstable emotional tone” produced by attempting to think of big picture narratives of the far future alongside and within the traditional parameters of environmental ethics.
What impact do different beliefs about time have on environmental activism?
Finally, over the course of my stay in Berlin and Potsdam, I found these observations leading me back to some of the classic critiques of ‘secular, modern time.’ This has meant returning to texts of Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben, and Charles Taylor to examine them in a new light. For those thinkers the legacy of secular modernity’s concept of time was a notion of linear, forward motion, shorn of the Christian belief in an end point, the eschaton. In the modern period the focus on time as unending process took on, in Arendt’s words, a backwards and forward facing infinity, the individual moments of history shorn of any existential significance.
These thinkers were critical of how such modern time would endorse and facilitate the logic of factory labour and the ‘unending growth’ paradigm of global capitalism. But its warning is relevant to my specific context too. The suspicion that Anthropocene imagination represents a deep-seated and paradoxical desire to place the human back on centre-stage in the planet’s history could extend to this reflection on the deep future as the indefinite continuum of ‘nows.’ It might be reflected in the desire to view that far future in terms of human time, as is the case with the ‘Clock of the Long Now’ in the US (a clock driven by solar energy and buried deep within the Earth, designed to endure for the next 10,000 years). Exploring what alternative beliefs about time (including a return to theological notions of messianic and apocalyptic time) are levelled as a critique of this assumption, and what meaning they hold for environmental activism, will be the next stage in my research.