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.
The emergence of anti-homosexuality politics in Africa is often explained with reference to religion. Although religion is a major factor in fuelling homophobia in Africa, the Bible and the Christian faith are not only sites of struggle but have also been appropriated by African LGBT activists in support of their cause. Adriaan van Klinken says we need to move beyond a narrow focus on African religious homophobia as religion plays multiple and complex roles in contemporary dynamics of African sexualities.
In recent years Africa has become widely associated with homophobia. It is even considered ‘the most homophobic continent’ in the world. This image is the result of the anti-gay rhetoric of political leaders such as President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the introduction of new anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda and Nigeria, and the arrest of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists in countries such as Cameroon and Zambia.
In this piece I’m not concerned with “African homophobia” as such – although I’d like to pose the question whether homophobia is the most useful term to understand the politics around homosexuality and LGBT rights in contemporary African societies. Neither am I concerned with the reasons why Western media tend to depict “African homophobia” in rather sensationalist ways – although I do wonder whether it has something to do with the deep-rooted perception of Africa as “backward” that allows the West to see itself as “progressive” and “modern”.
My interest here is in the role of religion in African dynamics around homosexuality and LGBT rights. The emergence of anti-homosexuality politics in Africa is often explained with reference to religion. Given the dominance of Christianity in many of the countries in which homophobia seems on the rise, churches in particular are seen as fuelling the repression of African LGBT people. It is easy to find evidence in support of this idea: African Anglican bishops are at the forefront of the crisis over homosexuality in the Anglican Communion; Ugandan evangelical pastors actively campaigned for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill; Nigerian Catholic and Pentecostal leaders enthusiastically welcomed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill. Moreover, political leaders in many countries often use explicitly religious arguments against homosexuality, denouncing it not only as “un-African” but also “un-biblical” and “un-Christian”. In the media and among the general public religious beliefs often frame debates about homosexuality – such as in Zambia, where United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was even seen as an agent of the devil after he called upon the country to recognise the human rights of sexual minorities.
There’s enough evidence to argue that religion is a major factor in fuelling homophobia in Africa, and is a key obstacle to moving towards a future in which African LGBT people will be accepted in their communities and societies. Indeed, in my research over the past six years I have critically examined the role of religious leaders, organisations and beliefs in mobilisations against homosexuality and LGBT rights. However, more recently I have become interested in another question: is religion only and inherently an obstacle, or can it also be a source for African LGBT identity, community, and activism? Can religion play a role in (re)building Africa as a continent of diversity including in matters of sexuality?
A Kenyan art collective, named The Nest, recently conducted an LGBT life stories project, for which they collected over 250 life stories of LGBT Kenyans in different parts of the country and from different ages and backgrounds. The result was published in an anthology, Stories of Our Lives, which gives a fascinating insight in the lives of LGBT people in an African country today and in their navigation of cultural, social and political complexities. Many of the stories refer to religion, with people telling about their religious upbringing at home, at school and in church. Furthermore, several stories testify of an ongoing religious commitment, an active participation in faith communities, and/or a relentless faith in God. Doing so, they provide insight in the way LGBT Kenyans do negotiate their sexuality and faith, and often find ways of reconciling the two, for instance through narratively claiming the love of God, the idea of being created in the image of God, or the inclusive and welcoming ministry of Jesus Christ.
The Stories of Our Lives project was not inspired by any explicit religious aims. However, the resulting stories demonstrate that for many LGBT Kenyans, Christian faith remains an important source of identity and practice, despite the negative experiences they often have in church. Where these stories reveal how this works on an individual basis, another case study demonstrates how faith becomes the basis for a new Kenyan LGBT Christian community. The case in point is an LGBT church in Nairobi, launched in 2013 by a group of Kenyan activists who wanted to create an affirmative space for LGBT people of faith where they could be nourished spiritually.
These activists received moral, pastoral and financial support from the US-based organisation, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. This is an African-American organisation that seeks to promote “a theology of radical inclusivity” in the “black church” in the US, and more recently also on the African continent by building a United Coalition of Affirming Africans. What is particularly interesting is not only the pan-African ideology underlying this initiative, but also the way in which it is framed explicitly as a progressive black Christian attempt to combat the influence of American white evangelical Christianity. This puts both race and sexuality at the heart of a contest for the future of Christianity in Africa.
Obviously much is at stake here, which is reflected in some sermons I overheard in the Nairobi church about the theme of “rewriting the Book of Acts”. This trope suggests that just like the early Christian church two thousand years ago, this small LGBT affirming church community is currently figuring out its identity and mission which will be decisive for nothing less than the nature and future of Christianity in Kenya and in Africa at large. Whilst this framing might seem pretentious, or at least ambitious, the church in Nairobi does play a crucial role for community members, including a group of Ugandan LGBT refugees who had to leave their home country due to ostracism but who continue to experience marginalisation and harassment in Kenya.
Through prayer and preaching, worship and pastoral support, but also through sport and recreation activities as well as advocacy and community activism, the church provides an important social and spiritual home for its congregants. In the words of their mission statement, the church “proclaims the unconditional love of God, which embraces all humanity”. Similar initiatives have mushroomed in other African countries in recent years, representing a nascent African Christian LGBT movement.
Beyond the confines of explicitly Christian LGBT activism, it is interesting to see that also other LGBT activist expressions engage Christianity. A case in point is the Same Love music video, released by Kenyan musicians and activists in February 2016 (and soon thereafter banned by the Kenyan authorities). Presented as “a Kenyan song about same sex rights”, the video makes several references to religion. On the one hand, it critically denounces the role of religious beliefs and actors in the demonisation of LGBT people and the hate they experience “in the name of piety”. On the other hand, and perhaps more significant, the video appeals to religion in positive ways.
The line “Uganda … Nigeria Africa … we come from the same God, cut from the same cord, share the same pain and share the same skin” reflects a sense of pan-Africanism where African unity-in-diversity is rooted in a shared sense of being created by God. The song also refers to “the spirit of Martin Luther King”, claiming the Christian-inspired legacy of this famous leader of the African-American civil rights movement to support the struggle for LGBT rights in Africa. Most prominently, the song ends with a long quotation from the Bible – the classic text about love in 1 Corinthians 13 – with the closing statement being “Love is God and God is Love”. This clearly demonstrates that the Bible and the Christian faith are not only sites of struggle where the debate on homosexuality is being fought by homophobic African religious and political leaders, but that the same sites are appropriated by African LGBT activists in support of their cause.
The longer term impact of these various ways in which Christianity is reclaimed to support LGBT identity, community and activism in Africa is still to be seen. Yet these examples do illustrate the need to move beyond a narrow focus on African religious homophobia, and to attend to the multiple and complex roles that religion plays in contemporary dynamics of African sexualities.
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 (email@example.com).
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:
Traditionally, the question of engagement in religious studies and theology has been raised with regard to the personal faith commitments of the scholar of religion. In recent decades this question has been broadened under the influence of feminist, postcolonial, and queer scholarship critiquing positions of academic neutrality and objectivity in the production of knowledge. In the empirical study of religion, under the influence of anthropology, the importance of positionality and reflexivity is increasingly acknowledged. These developments have problematized and complicated the classic insider-outsider question in the study of religion, and they invite us as scholars of religion to continuously reflect upon our relationship to the faith communities, religious traditions and social, public and political issues that are central in our work. In the current UK higher education context, the need to reflect upon this is further reinforced by the impact agenda that encourages public engagement and societal impact. This CRPL research day provides a space to collaboratively and critically think about the multifaceted question of engagement in the study of religion, and about the social, public and political roles of the scholar of religion, in relation to our own research at the intersections of religion and public life in local, national and international contexts.
In addition to the external speakers, there will be a roundtable where various CRPL members will discuss the ways in which they deal with the question of engagement in their work.
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/