Drs Fernande Pool and Timothy Stacey (see bios at end of this post) have recently launched the Lived Religion Project (http://livedreligionproject.com/), a story project focusing on the ‘religious’ lives of ordinary people.
“Discourse on religion is getting ugly. Quickly. And academia can’t keep up.” This was the simple thought that led us out of the academy and into the world of raising public awareness.
Apparent bastions of liberal thinking, from the Netherlands to the US, from India to Australia, are swiftly descending into polarisation: elites are accused of ignoring the threats to identity, wealth and security faced by ordinary people in the face of mass immigration. Prejudices and stereotypes about particular religions and religious people pervade political, media and common discourse.
In this context, we decided to seek out new ways to make the insights we encountered during our ethnographic fieldwork, in England and India respectively, available to the wider public: the fact that religion and nonreligion alike are lived in so many different ways, inspired by so many different personal stories, in which faith and commitment, contingency and doubt play equal roles, side by side. That there’s beauty in those stories, emotional depth but also humour, that each story is a source of inspiration no less than Aesop’s fables, and that there are always recognizable elements in each story, however alien either the personal history or the name of the institutionalised religion.
We decided that these insights are best encapsulated by the concept of ‘lived religion’. [i] Since the turn of the millennium, the idea of lived religion has emerged to reflect the observation that people across the world experience and practice religion in myriad ways, such that their experiences and practices cannot be adequately captured with reference to dogma or discourse alone.[ii]
Anxious not to reproduce the charge of elitism, and aware that academic work anyway often fails to reach the wider public, we decided to bring our academic training and ethnographic experiences together in a project that would be widely accessible. Our aim was to bring personal stories of religious and nonreligious beliefs and practices into the public realm without the mediation of academic analysis, putting faith in people to do their own analysis, and letting the power of the story do the work.
The result is the LivedReligionProject.com, a database of people’s personal stories of their beliefs and how they got there, about what inspired them and how they stray, and about how their lived religion confounds the expectations of people on the outside. We have at the time of writing interviewed over a dozen people in Vancouver, where this project was born: on the street, in cafes, outside churches and mosques and inside spiritual healing shops.
Crucially, the project includes both religious and nonreligious people. And given that Vancouver has one of the highest proportions of religious “nones” in the Western world (41% according to a question that ‘asks respondents to indicate a specific denomination or religion even if the person is not currently a practising member of that group’[iii]), it comes as no surprise that a majority of our interviewees do not identify with any particular institutionalised religion.
Then why the name Lived Religion Project? Although in our academic work we problematize the category religion, trying to dissolve it into wider categories that pre-empt that nagging religious – secular binary,[iv] religion is still the category that makes sense to people outside the academy. We use this common sense category and stretch it, so that it includes the lived beliefs and experiences of people not normally considered religious. This way, we hope, readers might recognise that there is not such a stark difference in actual life stories between ‘them’, the religious, and ‘us’, the secular, or ‘them’, the atheists, and ‘us’, the religious.
In what follows, we reflect on some of the things we’ve found most striking in setting up this project.
Talking about beliefs
Whereas we often began our interviews by apologising for taking up people’s time with our questions, we found that most interviewees appreciated the opportunity to talk about their beliefs and (non)religious life stories. They felt refreshed by the reflection it stimulated, and also appreciated the opportunity to talk openly about a fundamentally important aspect of their lives that was rarely aired in public life. Indeed, one man, who identifies as Christian, told us that he often felt the need to explicitly not talk about his Christianity for fear of prejudice, and especially the prejudice that he would be judging others. Similarly, one young Iranian woman, who identifies as Muslim, told us:
I believe that there is no one in the world who doesn’t know what is good and what is bad…. And one of the challenges with talking about good and bad is that people would see you as somebody who knows better than them, and who is trying to judge them, or tell them what to do. But at the same time you’re trying to develop your own capacity to be a good person, and one of the ways to build capacity is by talking about it. But having a strong opinion of what is good and bad usually is challenging.
If those identified with religious traditions often feel nervous about sharing their beliefs for fear of appearing prejudiced, atheists had trouble sharing their beliefs because of a relative rarity of institutional opportunities to reflect on them. For example, one participant not only thanked us for helping her to clarify her beliefs, but later got in touch to tell us that having the opportunity to articulate her beliefs had led to a significant change in her lifestyle.
There is a tendency in society to eschew these kind of ‘deep’ conversations, especially where it (might) concern people of different background or beliefs. This point is significant in our polarised society: the marginalised fear to speak lest they are further castigated; the apparent representatives of hegemony themselves feel silenced by a ‘liberal elite’ who uphold a culture of ‘political correctness’; and this so-called liberal elite censor themselves for fear of reproducing domination. We hope that the Lived Religion Project can offer some much-needed nuance and levity in this regard.
There’s no atheist who doesn’t believe in anything
In academic debate, it has very often been pointed out that talking about ‘beliefs’ is problematic.[v] It would reflect too Christian an understanding of what religion is or how it is experienced, namely, privately, mentally, rather than as embodied practices, a visceral sense of self, a collective and public culture. It has been pointed out that a presence or absence of propositional belief as a measurement of one’s religious identity or practice is often inaccurate, as among, for instance, Jews, some of whom may not have a strong belief in God but may be strongly attached to Judaism as a cultural identity; it is not uncommon to identify as a secular Jew, or a Jew-Bu (Jewish Buddhist). Similarly, in a place like India, religion has become a mode of cultural, political, and sometimes even racial identification (for better or worse), often ingrained in name, aesthetic, and geography – something that may be meaningful quite apart from any propositional belief.
Nevertheless, we found that asking people the simple question, “what do you believe?”, tended to bring out a whole range of answers, from propositional beliefs in a greater God to what might be called ‘aspirational beliefs’ in the possibility of a better world. Perhaps most significantly, and contrary to academic worries regarding Protestant hegemony implicit in questions of belief, amongst both religious and nonreligious interviewees, the question “what do you believe?” very rarely elicited a binary stance on the propositional question of the existence of a creator God. Instead, aspirational, political and anthropocentric responses were most common. And even where the first answer appeared propositional, this was often accompanied by a political, anthropocentric statement that led us to question whether propositional belief was playing a role at all: I believe in God and in people, as a Christian put it. Another example is our conversation with a young Jewish woman, for whom her Jewish identity inspired her belief in the power of overarching social structures rather than a propositional belief in God. Often the answer would simply be, ‘I believe in nature’ – a well-documented and not surprising point given Vancouver is surrounded by extraordinary natural beauty.[vi] Indeed, the only participant so far who had dabbled with New Atheism had felt it lacked a spiritual component, which he later found in nature.
Of course, the term belief sometimes rubs people the wrong way, and it is important to continue deconstructing dominant cultures and creatively developing new discourses. One woman began by telling us she did not believe in anything, only to go on to catalogue a list of notions we might typically describe as beliefs: in raising children in a moral culture, or in being nice to people.
Karma, or, whatever you do comes back to you
One of the striking recurrences is a belief in a kind of this-worldly karma, which is generally explained as: whatever you do comes back to you. A belief in karma is shared by a wide variety of people: from a man with a Muslim background who believes in God and that all religions are the same; from an agnostic woman who left the Catholic church because as a lesbian she didn’t feel accepted; to a Muslim woman inspired by Indigenous Feminism.
Karma, and Buddhism more broadly, appears to be a source of inspiration for people who feel a desire for ethical guidance or spiritual fulfilment without the dogmas, the institutions, or the obligations and constraints that they associate with institutionalised religion – often the Abrahamic religion they grew up in. Perhaps for them, not unlike for Ambedkar nearly a century earlier, Buddhism or the idea of this-worldly karma constitutes a ‘social revolt’ or protest against the beliefs, practices, but particularly the institutions of the (Abrahamic) religion that they experienced as oppressive or exclusionary.[vii] Given this similarity, one may speculate whether the idea that whatever you do (and we could add – whoever you are) comes back to you represents a ‘quest for equality, human dignity and social justice.’[viii] One could equally speculate, however, whether interest in karma is part of a broader ‘spiritual revolution,’ which is characterized by individualistic self-actualisation rather than social responsibility.[ix]
This adoption of karma, moreover, speaks to a bricolage tendency that is not the preserve of secular people. We have found that asking about people’s beliefs can bring out the interesting convergence of beliefs of one kind and cultural identification of another kind. For instance, in the story of a young Indian woman, who, after telling about her belief in non-institutionalised spirituality found in nature and the Buddhist idea of karma, told me that ‘of course’ she is also a Muslim, because she has a Muslim name, Muslims parents, celebrates Eid and fasts during Ramadan. In such instances, it becomes clear that one can identify with a religion while fostering a sense of spirituality not usually associated with this religion.
The lived beliefs of secular lives
So what are we to take away from this? Our aim is by no means to dissolve polarisation by diluting any distinction between the religious and the secular. Many of our interviewees are quite vehemently anti-(institutionalised)religion. Rather, our humble aim is twofold: first, to encourage ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ citizens alike to recognise that clean, systematic positions are usually the preserve of those who have an interest in prioritising one agenda at the expense of another. The rest of us get by navigating between beliefs we’re not fully sure of, and circumstances that force us to evolve. Second, just as with religion, secular reason on its own might be insufficient to encapsulate the complexity and mystery of what, for want of a better term, we might call lived secularism. It is not just that secular people too have multiple beliefs, but that these beliefs are formed through a complex combination of both powerful cultural narratives and chance circumstances, extraordinary events and the people who hurt and heal them.
[i] See e.g. D.Hall. 1997 Lived religion in America. Toward a history of practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press; M.B.McGuire. 2008. Lived religion. Faith and practice in everyday life. New York: Oxford University Press; R.Orsi. 2003. Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live in? Special Presidential Plenary Address, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Salt Lake City, November 2, 2002. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42 (2): 169-174
[ii] One has to be careful to not delegitimize some religious practices in favour of others (others that are closer to secular sensibilities), e.g. piously following religious principles may still be ‘lived’ religion, and is not less natural than approaching religious principles with a sense of ambiguity. See Fadil, N. & M. Fernando. 2015. Rediscovering the “everyday” Muslim. Notes on an anthropological divide. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (2): 59–88
[iii] Statistics Canada. 2012. Religion Reference Guide, National Household Survey, 2011. Statcan.gc.ca. http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/ref/guides/99-010-x/99-010-x2011010-eng.cfm (accessed November 30, 2017).
[iv] See: F. Pool. 2016. The ethical life of Muslims in secular India: Islamic reformism in West Bengal. (PhD Thesis), London School of Economics and Political Science, http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/3308/1/Pool_ethical_life_of_muslims.pdf; F.Pool. Forthcoming. Religious Conversion as Ethical Transformation: A Study of Islamic Reformism in Rural West Bengal. In P. Berger & S. Sahoo (eds.) Godroads: Modalities of Conversion in India. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press; T. Stacey. 2017. Imagining solidarity in the twenty-first century: towards a performative postsecularism. Religion, State and Society 45(2): 141-158; T.Stacey. 2018. Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division. London and New York: Routledge.
[v] T.Asad. 1993. Genealogies of religion. Discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press; T. Fitzgerald. 2011. Religion and Politics in International Relations. The Modern Myth. London: Continuum.
[vi] D. Todd (ed.) 2008. Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press.
[vii] W.S. Barlingay. 1974. Dr Ambedkar and Conversion to Buddhism. Indian Philosophical Quarterly 1 (2): 144-153
[viii] P. Berger & S. Sahoo. Forthcoming. Introduction. In P. Berger & S. Sahoo (eds.) Godroads: Modalities of Conversion in India. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press: 6
[ix] P. Heelas & L. Woohead. 2004. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell; M. Shibley 2008. The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia. In D. Todd (ed.). Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press.
Timothy Stacey is a Postdoctoral Fellow at both the Religion and Diversity Project, University of Ottawa, Canada and the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. Tim explores the role ‘myth’, or stories of great events and characters, in developing solidarity and combatting populism and extremism. Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division, has just been released by Routledge.
Fernande Pool is a Visiting Scholar at the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Her PhD thesis, titled The ethical life of Muslims in secular India: Islamic Reformism in West Bengal, (March 2016, London School of Economics, UK) critically explores the nature of ethics and alternative experiences and meanings of secularism and religion. Fernande has been named a Marie Skłodowska-Curie LEaDing Fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, starting April 2018.