The (ex-) sabbatical diary

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From “The Long Search” to “Believer”. Religion on Television


Television has been one of the major developments in the extension of the human senses over the last hundred years. When we watch television, our eyes and ears stretch, metaphorically speaking to other times and places. Television can make us see, hear, and experience things that are not actually near us at all.

But television programmes do not present the world to us as it is. A TV programme is a creation that reflects the prevailing thought of the time it was made, the financial and political restrictions, and the personal beliefs and views of the creators. Television does not simply transmit the actions of people in front of the camera, it also shapes the people watching it at home. Television determines what we experience, and thereby determines what we can experience.

And that includes experiencing religion. Television can bring us to a mass held by the Pope far away in Rome when we are sitting at home in, say, South Africa. It can show us Muslims during the hajj, Hindus at the Kumbh Mela festival, and so on. How these are presented to us will not simply inform us, it will change us. How television presents religion also reflects contemporary ways of thinking about, researching and presenting religion.

There are many feature films and television drama series that reference religion, but let us consider another genre: the television documentary about religion. Let us further narrow this down to documentary series that do not concentrate on one religion, but present a large variety of religious beliefs and practices.

Starting point: The Long Search

There were earlier examples, but let us begin our story in 1977. That year saw the introduction of the BBC programme The Long Search. Although it is presented, in sonorous tones, by actor Ronald Eyre, it lists Ninian Smart as its consultant, and viewing it today immediately shows it to be a prime example of the era of High Phenomenology.

When we look at the topics of the thirteen episodes of The Long Search, it is clear that it operates within a “World religions” paradigm. It is about the “isms” the large blocks of religious traditions that, however much the paradigm has been questioned since, continue to dominate discussion today. Its primary investigative tool is the interview with a high-ranking spokesperson or practitioner of a given religion, some of whom have since become household names, and some of whom are already sinking back into obscurity. Observations of rituals occur frequently in The Long Search, but they are secondary, used to illustrate a point rather than uncover new phenomena.

Eyre, as the presenter, is a sympathetic, but ultimately uninvolved outsider, investigating the “isms” one at a time, starting with American Protestantism and working his way through to Taoism. The penultimate episode deals with “Alternative Lifestyles in California”, but the bundling of religious alternatives in a single episode shows it to be an effort to create yet another “ism” – a legacy we still work under: I teach a semester module on New Religious Movements.

One final observation on The Long Search: it has a cumulative character. There are frequent references to earlier episodes, and there is an assumption that viewers would see the episodes in the correct order. An entirely reasonable assumption in an age where television still meant a limited number of public broadcast channels, and the VCR had yet to make deep inroads in people’s TV watching habits. There is also a final episode in which Eyre reflects on what he has learned during his long search. A more detailed analysis comparing this to Smart’s ideas on religion would be fascinating. For now, though, let us just observe that the task of synthesizing and theorizing empirical observations is left to the end. It is a separate task, not something integrated into the act of observation itself. In academic terms it reflects a separation between “history of religions” and “philosophy of religions”. As we shall see, it is an attempt that ultimately fails, but in terms of the underlying structure, it is an attempt that must be made.

Endpoint: Believer

We fast-forward to 2017. Here we find Reza Aslan’s CNN series Believer. We would not expect to see the same approach that Eyre and Smart took forty years earlier. But how large this change is! Aslan does not even pretend to be the disembodied phenomenological observer. He attempts to immerse himself into each new religious tradition. A voiceover during the opening credits says “I’ve been studying the world’s religions for twenty years. Now … I’m going to live them”. In each episode, Aslan joins in the ceremonies of the people he presents to us. He is not merely the man in a neatly pressed suit observing and asking a few pointed, but polite, questions, as Eyre was. He is an actor in this story, not just a presenter.

The cumulative character of The Long Search has disappeared completely. This series reflects the age of the syndicated rerun and the Youtube copy of questionable legality. Cross-references between episodes are rare, and there is no final episode to wrap it all up. Every episode serves as a standalone experience and any theorizing is done within each episode.

And what are the religions that Aslan presents? The “isms” are not exactly gone, but they are regarded as background knowledge. It is assumed that you already know the basics of Hinduism. Aslan proceeds from there to investigate the Aghori minority group, an emphasis that led to widespread protest by mainstream Hindus. We see the same thing in other episodes: When we investigate Voudou in Haiti or Santa Muerte in Mexico, the focus is on the liminal, the traditions in-between or to the side of the “isms”.

Sometimes this process becomes even more fine-grained: the episode on Scientology, itself a controversial minority religion, focuses on dissidents within that faith. The final episode, on the conflict between secular and ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel, starts off in a more conventional way, but ends with Aslan dancing in the streets with a decidedly unconventional group of ultra-orthodox Jews, the Na Nachs. Always, the focus returns to the minority, even the minority among the minority. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that true religion is not to be found among the majority. Or at least not easily found.

Does this signify a change in taste among television audiences, where documentaries about religion now have to compete with shows about zombies and serial killers? Or does it indicate a change in the study of religion itself? I do not believe that it is possible to disentangle these factors. TV viewers’ expectations and religious scholars ‘view of their discipline are both part of larger societal changes. But let us accept that the change in how religion is studied and presented is happening. It is not complete. High Phenomenology still casts an enormous shadow. But it is happening. The future of the study and presentation of religion will involve a more active role for the researcher/presenter, and it will focus on the outcast, the liminal, the believer caught in the cracks between the great “isms”.

Intermediate positions: Extreme Pilgrim, and Around the World in 80 Faiths

The immediate objection to this conclusion is that I am arguing from a mere two data points. Which is true. But there is another moment in recent history that presents a perfect transition from the religious studies of The Long Search to that of Believer.

In 2008, the BBC presented a three-part series called Extreme Pilgrim. The presenter, a British vicar named Peter Owen-Jones, took on the personas of a Chinese Buddhist bhikshu, a Hindu Sanyasin and a Christian hermit in the Egyptian desert, and attempted to live these lifestyles in a manner reminiscent of contemporary “reality TV” series. Here we already see an attempt by the presenter to become an active participant in the religions presented, to an even greater extent than Aslan would do a decade later.

Although it came out a year later Around the World in 80 Faiths, Owen-Jones’ whirlwind tour through the religious world, is more moderate in this respect. In some of the many traditions presented here, Owen-Jones participates: He is exorcised by a Brazilian Pentecostal pastor, sits in a Navajo sweat lodge and gets smeared with cow dung in a Hindu village festival. But in the majority of cases, he is simply an observer. Owen-Jones is an intermediary between Eyre and Aslan here, sometimes a participant observer, more often an observing participant.

The cumulative aspect of The Long Search is already gone at this stage. In the Owen-Jones series, each episode stands alone. There is no final episode to theorize the series. When the eightieth faith has been presented, the series simply ends. Any tying up of loose ends takes place within the episode itself.

The most interesting aspect of Around the World in 80 Faiths, however, is the way episodes are organised. Where The Long Search regards the “world religions” paradigm as the guiding principle to organise a series, Around the World in 80 Faiths comes from the heyday of Regional Studies, and here we are treated to episodes on a regional basis. Protestantism in Korea, for example is dealt with in an episode on East Asia, not in an episode on Christianity.

There was something along those lines in The Long Search: Mahayana Buddhism, for example, was investigated only in Japan. But it was still an episode on Mahayana Buddhism, not one on Japanese religions. The location of the episode was a matter of convenience and the logistics of film-making, not a conceptual priority as it is in Around the World in 80 Faiths.

Within these region-bound episodes, does Around the World in 80 Faiths deal with the major religious traditions or with the small, liminal ones? As we would expect by now, it does both. In the episode on the USA, for example, Owen-Jones attends an Evangelical church service. But he also visits a rural snake-handling church in Tennessee, deep in the Appalachian mountains, and the New Age Summum pyramid in California.

None of these would be remarkable when looked at in isolation, but when we see Around the World in 80 Faiths as part of a continuum between Religious Studies on TV in 1977, and the same again forty years later, its intermediate stance on all these aspects show how the depiction of religious diversity on television has undergone a dramatic evolution.


What are these television series for? They are commercial productions, of course, which may be of greater importance for CNN’s Believer than for the others we have discussed, which were produced by the state-supported BBC. As commercial productions they need to attract an audience and earn back their production costs, and hopefully turn a profit.

But is there another goal to these series, perhaps to inform the public about the variety of religious belief and to engender a wide appreciation for religious diversity? If so, the direction that religion on television is taking does not bode well. Believer was cancelled after a single season. Officially this happened because CNN was offended by Reza Aslan’s political commentary, but one can speculate whether the future of the show was already on a knife edge with all the negative publicity it received. Hindus protested against the episode on Hinduism, Scientologists could not accept the attention paid to dissidents, and so on. Aslan is no stranger to controversy, and perhaps another presenter might have taken a more cautious approach.

No such controversy was recorded back in 1977. Why would anyone object to The Long Search? Future producers of television series on the diversity of religions might want to take a step back, not all the way back to The Long Search, perhaps, but back as far as the mixed approach of Around the World in 80 Faiths.


If we take Around the World in 80 Faiths as the midpoint in the development of religion documentaries on television, we see two clear lines of development from The Long Search to Believer, and one more that is more confusing. The first is the change in the role of the researcher/presenter. From Eyre’s gentlemanly travels, interviewing leading figures of various faiths and using regular believers only to illustrate a point, we increasingly move to a position where the researcher becomes part of the research, and the presenter is an integral aspect of the presentation. Extreme Pilgrim is an outlier in this respect. It foreshadows what we will later see in Believer.

The second line of development is a decreasing emphasis on the “isms”, the large religious blocs that continue to dominate undergraduate curricula, and an increase in emphasis on in-depth investigations of the unconventional offshoots of those blocs. It is when we investigate the extreme, the rejected and anathematised that we get to the core of religious experience.

The third development, however, is problematic. We can easily see the influence of classical Religious Studies approaches in The Long Search. The somewhat colonial investigation of official doctrine and practice, followed by a separate consideration of how it all hangs together: this is Religious Studies as I, for example, learned it as an undergraduate student. We can also see how Around the World in 80 Faiths, with its emphasis on geographical coherence, reflects the intellectual milieu of its time. But when we get to Believer, there is no organising principle to be found. Every episode stands alone. The investigation and representation of religion has become completely atomised, with no overall guiding principle. There is simply no indication in the episode structure why Aslan chose the faiths that he did. It would be easy to attribute this to post-modernism, but that is too simplistic. Aslan does not deconstruct the religions he examines with playful irony. He becomes the Aghori sadhu, the Jezus cultist, the Santa Muerte devotee, if only for the length of the episode. Perhaps we are simply too close to Believer to appreciate any underlying structure it may have. An analysis ten years from now might reveal it. Also, perhaps if more seasons of Believer had been made we would have a clearer picture.

There are many other television documentary series we could have looked at. There are two, quite different, series called The Story of God, for example. Every series will reflect the time and place it was made, the intentions of those who made it, and the expectations of those who watch it. But it will also reveal something of the trends in the underlying scholarship on which it was based, and examining this very public face of religion education will uncover trends in that scholarship.

A series like The Long Search could never be made again (although it certainly can be watched again) – that kind of scholarship is now thoroughly passé. Works in the style of the two Owen-Jones series could still be made, though, and Believer raises the question: where do we go from here? I will not attempt to answer that question. Instead, I will follow Ronald Eyre’s advice in the final words of The Long Search:

It’s pretty easy to put a title like “loose ends” at the start of the last film of a long series. It’s not so easy an hour later to come to those ends and leave them loose, when your fingers, and everybody else’s fingers, are itching to see them tied up in a neat bow. But I’m really going to work against that, apply myself, be where I am, wish you well of course, but say nothing conclusive. Deliberately nothing. Not even “goodbye”.

Why scholars of Buddhism ought to drop the terms Theravada and Mahayana

For the last several years, I have been using the terms “Southern Buddhism” and “Northern Buddhism” with my students.

Instead of “Southern” and “Northern” the terms you will see in most other books on Buddhism are “Theravada” and “Mahayana”. To make any sense of these books, or even to talk to most Buddhists, you will need to be aware of these terms. Still, they are badly-chosen, maddeningly imprecise terms and I have chosen not to use them. To explain why, we need to go back into history.

After the death of the Buddha, his monks were determined not to let his legacy fade away. Almost immediately, they convened a council of the wisest and most enlightened among them to fix once and for all what the Buddha had and had not said while he was still alive. This is known as the First Council.

The Buddha had quite explicitly refused to designate a successor. Instead of appointing a senior monk to lead the others, he had said that the teachings themselves would be their leader. Having decided what was and what was not the teaching of the Buddha (not without some internal disagreement), the monks separated and went about their monkish business of building monasteries, ordaining more monks and trying to get in a little quality meditating time.

It was too good to last. A century later, differences of opinion had arisen about what the Buddha had actually meant by what he had said, and monks in different parts of India were behaving in different ways. A Second Council was convened.

There were a number of these Councils, and scholars are divided about how many of them there were in total. If you call representatives of all Buddhist schools to a council and three quarters of them don’t show up, does it still count? The last of these Councils (the Sixth, by some measures) was in 1954.

What is clear is that somewhere around the third century BCE there was a major split within Buddhism between a liberal wing and a conservative wing. The liberal wing would go on to evolve into Northern Buddhism, while the conservatives would become Southern Buddhism. But keep in mind that at this stage they were all still living in India and this was not a question of North India versus South India. There were proto-Northerners and proto-Southerners spread all over India, perhaps even living within the same monastery!

In Early Northern scriptures like the Lotus Sutra we start to see the terms Mahayana (“big ferryboat”) and Hinayana (“little ferryboat”). These scriptures were written by people identifying with the Mahayana label so you can imagine that the poor Hinayanists came off second-best. It was said that they were only interested in their own enlightenment, caring nothing for the well-being of anybody else.

When early European scholars started reading these texts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries they immediately saw a parallel to their own history. You must remember that the European wars of religion were still fresh in their memory. Clearly, here in Buddhism there was a split as fundamental as the one between Catholicism and Protestantism in Christianity!

But in recent years people have been reading these texts again with fresh eyes and it seems much more likely that the texts are talking about the level of aspiration of individual monks, not of religious organisations! Some monks were determined to get enlightened and ignored everything else. Others took a broader view and encouraged others to take up the Buddhist lifestyle, a more we’re-all-in-this-together point of view.

So the first objection is that we are taking descriptions of individuals and pretending that they describe vast organisations. Let me explain it by analogy. We know that some people are introverts while others are extroverts. But we do not pretend that there are two great commercial establishments called IntroVersion, Inc. and the Extroversion Corporation, do we?

By now, the damage has been done and even Buddhists themselves think of Southern and Northern Buddhism as different kinds of Buddhism, with different goals. But it is not hard to find Southern Buddhists who devote their lives to helping others. And it is equally easy to find Northern Buddhists who retreat from society, lock themselves away in a cave and spend the rest of their lives in solitary meditation. Every Buddhist needs to figure out his or her own road to Enlightenment. It’s not supposed to be an easy choice to make.

Meanwhile, a Buddhist monk who finds himself in a strange city will always find a place to sleep in any Buddhist monastery, whether it belongs to a Southern or a Northern tradition. Just as it has been throughout Buddhist history.

In the end, all Buddhists are expected to model themselves on the Buddha. And the Buddha did two notable things. He achieved Enlightenment, and he decided to teach others how to do the same. Wisdom and Compassion are of equal value in Buddhism. All kinds of Buddhism.

But this is where things really get murky. By the early twentieth century, Buddhologists realised that Hinayana was a swearword used by early Northern monks to put down their opponents. They asked the Southern Buddhists what they actually liked to be called and the answer was “Theravada”, which means, “the way of the elders”.

But once religions start to break up, they don’t stop. Both the Northern and the Southern tendencies saw the establishment of various schools of thought. And by the first few centuries CE the Southern school consisted of Sautrantikas, Sarvastivadins, Shtaviravadins, Puggalavadins and many others. At the time, the Sarvastivadins were the most prominent, but the Shtaviravadins are the ones that survived and, as near as we can tell, became the ancestors of today’s Theravada.

So the Theravada are only one specific form of Southern Buddhism: it just happens to be the one that has survived to the present day. This means that even if we accept that the categories “Mahayana” and “Theravada” are meaningful in themselves, they still describe things on different levels. It is like comparing the entire educational system of California with a specific school district in New York State.

Certainly, there are enough differences between Southern and Northern Buddhism that those terms can be useful. By specifying them purely in geographical terms I am trying to level the playing field, comparing like with like.

Religion and Civilisation: The Bleak Vision of Trevor Ling

by Michel Clasquin-Johnson


While there are religious individuals and organisations that enthusiastically and  consistently promote Human Rights, the main story arc of the last two hundred years has been one of religions fighting one hopeless rearguard action after another against the spread of rights across global society. There have been temporary setbacks for Human rights, and temporary gains for religion, but on the whole, whenever religion and human rights clash over a sufficiently long period, religion loses. This paper uses a historical model suggested by Trevor Ling (1920-1995) to contextualise the conflict and extrapolate it.


I need to be careful here. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression that I am opposed to human rights. I have lived in a country without human rights and I have lived in a country that has them. I know which is better, or at least which I prefer. As it happens, they were the same country in different phases of its history: South Africa. The question I wish to address is the relationship between human rights and religion, or shall we say, the religions.

Let us start with a headline from a website: “Christians busy consulting Bible for next basic human right to oppose” (Albhertine 2014). The source is a satirical website, true enough, But why does that headline not look ridiculous? Why does it look as if it could almost be true? Why is it even funny?

Perhaps because it is at least partly true?

As I write this, women Anglican priests in the UK are waiting to see if they will be allowed to become bishops as their Episcopal sisters in the USA have been able to for some time. Around the world, we see efforts to afford gay and lesbian people the same rights as heterosexuals to marry being strenuously opposed. By whom? The religions. Individual religious people, even individual religious leaders, may be far in advance of the religions in general, but broadly speaking, the pattern remains: whenever human rights are broadened and extended, the religions will oppose it. Here is a recent non-satirical selection of headlines:

  • “Southern Baptists Oppose Gender Reassignment” (Banks 2014)
  • “Italy’s Catholic bishops denounce court ruling that OK’d sperm donors” (McKenna 2014)
  • “Mormon feminist excommunicated for apostasy” (Ravitz 2014)

One wishes this was a historical anomaly, but it is not. There are religious individuals and institutions that deeply identify with human rights discourse, of course. Just recently, bishop emeritus Tutu was quoted as saying that “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place” (Hafiz 2013). And in the 1960s and 1970s liberal churches were in the forefront of advancing the rights of sexual minorities, a history that is only now being recovered (Kaleem 2014).

But such voices are drowned out by the other side, by an innate conservatism from the side of religions In the last few years, we have seen a concerted opposition by most religions and denominations against the issue of marriage equality. Not all, but most, and this situation shows a clear parallel to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century debate on slavery or the twentieth century entanglement of religious institutions with apartheid structures. Today it is embarrassing to admit that one’s religious predecessors once supported slavery or apartheid. Nobody likes to be on the wrong side of history. Yet this is the choice we see religions making again and again.

My choice of examples makes it sound like this is a peculiarly Christian problem. It is not. The human rights violations in Buddhist-majority Burma (Myanmar) make New York Times commentator Nicholas Kristof declare that this is an even more appalling apartheid than what we had in South Africa (Kristof 2014). He is correct: the South African government at its worst never denied medical care to an entire population group.  Are you a secular humanist, or a Reform Jew, and you want to get married in Israel? Can’t be done. The right to marry is locked up by a small range of Orthodox religious professionals (Gradstein 2013). One Conservative Jewish spokesman goes so far as to ask “How is it possible that the Jewish state is the only state in the Western world that does not grant Jews religious freedom?”(Yiva 2014). I will not even attempt to trace the long list of contradictions between human rights theory and Islam in the contemporary world.

Religious strategies

What is to be done? One way to deal with the problem is to dig deep into a particular religions texts, carefully selecting passages, creatively reinterpreting their historical contexts and the authors’ original intents, then straining the interpretation of the text until we reach the conclusion that that religion did support that particular human right after all!

It is not hard to find examples of this strategy. It occurs both before the victory of a human rights issue over religious conservatism, as religious liberals try to marshal the resources of their faith, and afterwards, as the losers do damage control. Unfortunately, it is based on the logical fallacy of cherry-picking, while rebuttals tend to rely on another fallacy, the one Anthony Flew called No True Scotsman.

A contemporary example of the tension between religion and human rights can be seen in a recent debate on the openDemocracy website. Larry Cox (2014) opens the debate by declaring that “human rights must get religion” and that an deeper engagement with religion will lend legitimacy and impact to human rights campaign. Demurring, Kirmani (2014) argues that “explicitly linking religion to human rights can lead to the exclusion and persecution of minority groups” and that religion and human rights are best kept far apart. Ghanea (2014) attempts to operationalise Cox’s thought by applying it to the situation of Bahai’s in Iran. Finally, Carrette declares that the relation between the two is paradoxical and that it is, in the end, a semantic problem:

The problem of religion is finding the right language for “rights.” We do not yet fully understand how such language helps and hinders the attempt to overcome persecution and suffering, but we do know that such language definitely matters (Carette 2014).

If we look at the history of the interaction between human rights and religion, then, we see a very clear pattern. Yes, there are times and places where human rights have experienced reverses. But the main thrust of the relationship is one in which human rights advocates, some of which may incidentally be religious liberals, have in the long run triumphed over the forces of conservatism, forces that have incidentally included the bulk of  religious people. It is almost enough to make one believe in Fukuyama’s (1992) “End of History” thesis.

Historically speaking, there is an irony involved here. Human rights ideology did not spring forth fully formed from the brow of the Goddess of Reason. It had its antecedents in the theory of Natural Rights, a Christian doctrine with a theological history stretching deep into the Middle Ages and beyond that to Roman Stoic philosophy (Pagden 2003, Lee 2005). One could say that human rights has turned upon its parents.

That this is theoretically problematic for us, I suggest, is because we see society  as a neutral space in which various strains of thought compete for  our attention. But is this vision of reality (essentially the neo-liberal view of market forces applied to the social-historical realm), the only or even the best way to approach the issue? Allow me to present an alternative.

The bleak vision of Trevor Ling

The world is seeing a new interest in the construction of mega-narratives about history and our place in it. One might have thought that such concerns had disappeared with the death of Oswald Spengler, but the world of thought is often cyclical, and the appearance of Francis Fukuyama’s (1992) book The End of History and the Last Man signalled that the world was once again ready to think in big patterns. When this was followed by Huntington’s  article (1993) and then book (2011) on the “Clash of civilisations”, it really did look as if historians and philosophers were again prepared to look up from the small-scale studies and speak expansively across the centuries.

However, twenty years before Fukuyama and Huntington framed their very different, and very differently influential, visions of future history, the Buddhologist Trevor Ling [1920-1995] presented a view of religion and civilisation that can explain why religion is engaged in this interminable rearguard action. In this, he anticipated contemporary positions on “religion” as an essentially modern concept (e.g. Nongbri 2013). Sadly, Ling never pursued this train of thought further. We find no trace of it, for example, in his book “Buddhism, Imperialism and War” (Ling 1979). While both Fukuyama and Huntington found themselves in a post-Cold War intellectual climate in which they could expand their ideas from an article to a book, Ling was unable or unwilling to do so. The early 1970s did not present the right environment for expansive thinking on the past and future of civilisation. Ling’s thought on this issue therefore never became the cause célèbre that Fukuyama and Huntingtons’ respective theories became two decades later. Yet it is an intriguing perspective on the course of history, and one that deserves more attention than it has received thus far. Certain contemporary events make perfect sense when viewed from a Lingian perspective. Others, predictably, do not, but perusing this neglected perspective may, on the whole, prove fruitful.

This article will not try to compare Ling’s thoughts directly with those of Fukuyama and Huntington. That would require a book, and indeed, it is a book I hope to write one day. It is notable that a very similar position to Ling’s was arrived at independently by Goldenberg (2012, 2013, 2014).

According to Ling (1973: 24-34), what we call a “religion” is the much atrophied and fossilised remnant of what was once a living, thriving civilisation. Once there was a Christian Civilisation. The people who lived in it were barely aware of “belonging” to a “religion” called “Christianity”. A few intellectuals may have used such terms, which fool us today into thinking that there was a universal  understanding of their meaning to parallel our own. But such was not the case. Similarly, there was a Muslim civilisation in which being a Muslim was simply part of normal, everyday life. And so on for the Hindu, Buddhist and Confucianist civilisations.  This survives, to some extent, in a few places:

It might sound strange, but growing up in Israel makes one’s Judaism pretty obvious. You don’t need to practice Judaism to know that you are Jewish. You know that you are Jewish because you are not something else” (Gutman 2014)

But even here, the possibility of being something else shows the encroachment of modernity. It is hard for us to imagine even the possibility of there being nothing else to be. Except that we don’t need to. As we shall see, we also live in an all-encompassing socio-psychological environment.

Civilisations eventually decline and fall. Bits and pieces of their heritage do survive the catastrophe and live on in subsequent civilisations, though. A text here, a cosmogony there … and these survivals form what we call “religions”. They are no longer the main branch of society. They are incomplete fossils from a past age. And the key to that fossil status is awareness. There was no need for a Medieval European to stand up and say “I am a Christian”, or for a Tenth Century North African to declare “I am a Muslim”. Those were default conditions in their civilisations, simmering under the threshold of consciousness for all but the intelligentsia. But once there is sufficient separation that a statement like “I am a Buddhist”, or “I am a Hindu” makes sense, that civilisation is irreparably broken:

… what are seen today as the ‘great religions’ – Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam – are vestigial remains of civilisations. Mere hummocks of what were once, so to speak, great mountain ranges, they now have a mild charm, standing out a little, as they do, from the flat alluvial expanse of secularism in which they are slowly being silted up.” (Ling 1973: 33)

But as Ling himself goes on to suggest, perhaps that metaphor exaggerates the flatness of the terrain. We too live in a specific social and intellectual milieu. We too live in a civilisation.  In what civilisation do we live? What is the dominant condition that we take for granted to such a degree that any deviation from it comes across as a conservative backlash? In terms of Ling’s analysis, I submit that we live in the Human Rights Civilisation. This is the dominant discourse that shapes our lives. We don’t think of ourselves as “belonging” to Human Rights, but neither did a tenth-century European think of himself as “belonging” to Christianity. it is what he was. It is what we are.


It is more complex than that, of course. When I speak of Human Rights Civilisation, I use it as a shorthand for a civilisation that prizes democracy, scientific and technical progress, economic growth, and so on. Human rights is one aspect of this civilisation, and I use it to give it its name as a verbal shorthand that derives from the original conference topic for which I wrote the original draft of this paper. It is, to us, counter-intuitive and countercultural even to think that these all things might not be unalloyed blessings. Yet that is exactly what earlier civilisations would have thought, and exactly what the remnants of those earlier civilisations think today.

The playing field is therefore not level. Human rights is not an equal dialogue partner with the religions. it is not a tool that religions may apply or not apply as they please. It is the all-pervasive zeitgeist, so universal as to be unspoken.

The spokespersons for the fossilised remnants are like Julian the Apostate, trying in vain to restore a lost civilisation. For a civilisation, once it descends to the status of a mere religion, does not rise again. At least we have no known examples. This is a key difference between Ling and Goldenberg: the latter allows for the possibility (Goldenberg 2012) that a “vestigial state” may one day become a fully fledged state once more. In Ling’s analysis, this is not possible.

A new civilisation may build upon the ruins of the old, but that exact civilisation is lost to us. There may one day be a neo-Christendom, or a neo-Caliphate, but it can never duplicate exactly the conditions of the original. These new civilisations, should the ever come into being, will always be “neo-something”. Fossil remnants of previous civilisations going up against the current zeitgeist, against Human Rights Civilisation, are therefore always going to lose in the end.

Or will they? One thing the study of religion teaches us is the unlimited capacity of the human spirit for innovation and renewal. One day  Human Rights Civilisation too will decline and fall. What will replace it is inconceivable to us today. Some parts of what we now hold dear will persist. In fact, according to this analysis, Human Rights will one day join Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and all the other civilisational fossils. It will be the next “religion”.

Most likely none of us will live to see this happen. But it does show how Ling’s analysis of macro-historical patterns gives us some interesting explanatory and even predictive tools. Perhaps it is time this methodological approach was looked at and expanded.

References Cited

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Appendix 1: A select bibliography of works by Trevor Ling


Shadow and Substance: The Religions of Men and the Body of Christ. Department of Missionary Studies, International Missionary Council, 1959.

The Significance of Satan, New Testament Demonology and Its Contemporary Relevance. SPCK 1961.

Prophetic religion. MacMillan, 1966.

A History of Religion East and West. London: MacMillan, 1969

Buddhist Factors in Population Growth and Control: a Survey Based on Thailand and Ceylon. London School of Economics Population Investigation Committee, 1969

Buddhism. Ward Lock Educational, 1970

The Buddha. Buddhist Civilization in India and Ceylon. London: Temple Smith, 1973. Republished in 2013 as The Buddha: The Social-Revolutionary Potential of Buddhism.

Karl Marx and Asian religion. Bangalore University, 1978

Religious Change and the Secular State. Research India Publications : exclusive distributors, K. P. Bagchi, 1978

Buddha, Marx, and God: Some Aspects of Religion in the Modern World. Macmillan, 1979.

Buddhism, Imperialism and War. Burma and Thailand in Modern History. London: George Allen & Unwin., 1979

Buddhist Revival in India: Aspects of the Sociology of Buddhism. Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980

Karl Marx and religion in Europe and India. Barnes & Noble Books, 1980

Buddha’s Philosophy of Man. Dent, 1981

Islam’s Alternative of Fundamentalism. John Rylands University Library of Manchester. 1981

Max Weber and Buddhism: The Rustication of an Urban Doctrine. Graham Brash (Pte.) Ltd ,Singapore, 1985.

Buddhism, Confucianism and the Secular State in Singapore. Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, 1987

Buddhist Trends in Southeast Asia (Editor). Inst of Southeast Asian Studies , 1993.

Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil: A Study in Theravada Buddhism. Oneworld, 1997.

Mythology: an Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Principal Myths and Religions of the World. Barnes & Noble, 2004. (with Richard Cavendish). Translated into Serbian as Mitologija: Ilustrirana enciklopedija.


Buddhist Values and the Burmese Economy. in L. Cousins, A. Kunst & K.R. Norman (eds). Buddhist Studies in Honour of I.B. Horner. Springer 1974, pp 105-118.

Introduction to S Suksamran, Political Buddhism in Southeast Asia: The Role of the Sangha in the Modernization of Thailand. Palgrave MacMillan, 1977

Max Weber and Buddhism. In J Lipner, D Killingley & D Friedman (eds.), A Net Cast Wide: Investigations Into Indian Thought in Memory of David Friedman. Grevatt & Grevatt ,1986.

Journal Articles

Personality and the Devil. The Modern Churchman  5:2 1962. (accessed 15 July 2014).

Buddhist Mysticism. Religious Studies. 1:2. April 1966, pp 163-175. (accessed 15 July 2014).

Religion, Society, and the Teacher. The Modern Churchman.10:2, 1967. (accessed 15 July 2014).

Buddhist factors in population growth and control. A survey based on Thailand and Ceylon. Population Studies: A Journal of Demography. 32:1. 1969.  (accessed 15 July 2014).

Sinhalese buddhism in recent anthropological writing: Some implications. Religion 1:1, 1971. (accessed 15 July 2014).

Religion in England: Majorities and minorities. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 2:2, 1973. 15 July 2014)

The study of religion in universities of southern Asia. Religion 5:1, 1975. (accessed 15 July 2014).

Counterculture: Towards a new perspective. Religion 5:2, 1975. (accessed 15 July 2014).

Buddhist values and development problems: A case study of Sri Lanka. World Development. 8:7-8. July-August 1980. (accessed 15 July 2014).

Buddhism and education in Burma and Thailand. Religion 14:1, 1984. (accessed 15 July 2014).

Appendix 2: Eulogies to Trevor Ling

In Memoriam: Trevor Oswald Ling (1920 – 1995)

Trevor Ling, outstanding scholar of Buddhism and pioneer in the development of religious studies in British universities from the 1960s, passed away peacefully aged 75 after a courageous battle against Alzheimer’s disease.

By Cynthia Chou

The information in this section was taken from the obituary by Cynthia Chou at (accessed 15 July 2014)

He was raised in West Ham, London under the profound religious influence of his Baptist mother. During the 1940s, he was already preparing for the Baptist ministry when he assumed war service in India. In Calcutta, he came under the tutelage of the Baptist clergyman, Horace Collins who inspired him towards a Hindu-sensitive approach to religion. This led him to realise the need for scholars to be able to read the Vendata and translate and interpret the Sanskrit text. Subsequently, he learnt the Sanskrit and Pali languages, and made progress in his spiritual development by reading the Vedas, the Upanishad, the Gita and the Vedanta.
On his return to England in 1946, he went up to St. Catherine’s, Oxford to read Theology and Modern History. Following this, in the initial years of the 1950s, he taught theology at Nottingham University. Later, he moved to the Field Lane Mission in North London and then to Earlsfield Baptist Church in South London.

In 1960, he was awarded his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies on the concept of evil in Buddhism and the New Testament. This work resulted in his first major book titled, Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil (1968).

Subsequently, he took up a post as Pastor at Judson Church, University of Rangoon with the American Baptist Missionary Society. Whilst there, he met the Bishop of Rangoon, the Rt. Revd Victor Shearburn whose influence led him to decide to become an Anglican. In Rangoon he also developed a deep personal interest in Buddhism, taking his children on Sundays to lay offerings before the Buddha image in the Shwedagon Pagoda.

In 1962, he returned to England to the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, Yorkshire. He spent the following year as curate at St. Stephen’s Church, Thornton Heath, Surrey. On 9th June, 1963, he was ordained as an Anglican priest in Canterbury Cathedral by Michael Ramsey.

The years 1963 to 1972 saw his appointment in the Department of Theology at the University of Leeds. He was later awarded a Personal Chair in Comparative Religion. By the early 1970s, his growing interest in Chinese influences on the historical tradition of Buddhism was enhanced by the appointment of Owen Lattimore to the Centre of Chinese Studies in that University. This consolidated his work on South-east Asia, and his main research continued in Theravade Buddhism (of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos). He also became increasingly interested in the sociology of religion, and published a volume called Buddha, Marx and God (1966).

In 1972, he was persuaded to assume responsibility as the Chair of Comparative Religion at Manchester University by his former Phd supervisors, H.D. Lewis and Geoffrey Parrinder. In the same year, he published A Dictionary of Buddhism and thereafter a number of works on South-East Asia. His well-known text, A History of Religion East and West (1968), brought him wide recognition. This book adopted the unique approach of following each religion through similar eras, rather than examining different religions in separate chapters. His historical and sociological work flourished during his Manchester period. Among his works were Religious Change in the Secular State (1978), Karl Marx and Religion (1980), Buddhist Revival in India (1980), Buddhism, Imperialism and War (1979) and a translation The Buddhist Philosophy of Man (1981).

Thereafter, he was a Visiting Professor at the University of Santiniketan, West Bengal. In 1984, he was invited to the National University of Singapore. In 1987, he became Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of East Asian Philosophies, Singapore where he continued working on Buddhism, Confucianism and the Secular State in Singapore. It was also during his spell in Singapore that he embarked on learning the Mandarin language. From 1988 to 1992, he was a Fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore. His years in Singapore once again resulted in numerous publications.

In the latter years of his life, his quest for the spiritual side of religion continued in his personal life. In Singapore, his search led him first to attend the Anglican Cathedral, then the Methodist Church and finally the Orchard Road Presbyterian Church. He found much happiness in the Presbyterian Church and was soon involved as Chairman of the Church Choir.

Thereafter, he returned to his home in Brighton where he often mentioned that he would look over the sea and think of Singapore. His last days were spent in Long Eaton, Derbyshire. He was a highly disciplined and professional scholar who devoted his life to the pursuit of religious studies. He was also an extremely kind gentleman with a sense of humour that endeared him to his colleagues, students and to all those who cared for him and about him. We remember him most by his advice, “You should always leave the world a better place than you found it.”
His first wife, Mary Evelyn Inkster, died in 1973. He is survived by his three daughters, Elspeth (Ellie), Ruth and Catherine (Kate) of that marriage, and by his second wife, Jeanne Openshaw.

OBITUARY: Professor Trevor Ling


Friday 16 June 1995

The information in this section was taken from the obituary by Haddon Wilmer at (accessed 15 July 2014).

In the 1960s when the new discipline of Religious Studies broke out from the matrix of (Christian) Theology, with its traditional orientation to the training of clergy, Trevor Ling was one of its most creative and influential pioneers.

As with others of his generation, the Second World War did as much, if not more, to shape the scholar to come. The Army took him to India, where he was profoundly influenced by an unconventional Baptist missionary, Horace Collins, who encouraged him to learn spirituality from Hindus. He was gripped and educated by India with an unsentimental fascination.

After Oxford, he became a Baptist minister, a part-time academic, and an occasional Labour candidate, until he took his family to Rangoon in 1960, to be University Chaplain, employed by American Baptists. Working with them destroyed his patience with Baptist Christianity. Thereafter he increasingly distinguished between religions which divided because they insisted on being “right” over others, and those which were comprehensive because they could allow themselves to be complemented by others. But in the 1960s he was still ready to work with Anglicanism. He was ordained by Michael Ramsey, but being a priest eventually became irksome and he resigned his orders. Later, he worshipped in the Anglican Cathedral in Singapore, but was close enough to being a Buddhist to have to resist that label, also.

Ling’s early scholarly work was on Buddhist mythology of evil, which he compared with Satan in Christianity. In Buddhism, he saw evil being overcome essentially by the inner disciplines of meditation, while in Christianity Satan was overcome by the Community of the Holy Spirit. When the community failed him or became unbearable (as in mass-evangelistic and charismatic forms), he made more of the Buddhist possibility. Its inwardness perhaps suited the strongly independent and private aspects of his personality.

His period at Leeds University (1963-72), as Lecturer and then Professor of Comparative Religion, was a time of great achievement. With Professor John Tinsley, he made the decisive break- through in establishing Religious Studies as a distinct discipline there. His widely used History of Religion East and West came from courses he inaugurated. The histories of “living religions” are told alongside each other, from the early city civilisations of Asia to the 1960s. Constantly comparing East with West, the book is an education in world history and an experiment in “the comparative philosophy and sociology of world religions”.

Sometimes, religious studies are thought to be “objective”, as theology is not. But Ling never gave up seeking good religion and advocating what he found. Some scholars thought the occasional preaching in his books a weakness, but it could be seen as an act of responsibility. He emphasised the rational and secular practicality of most Indian religion, arguing that the study of religion should not be misshaped by an obsession with the minority quests for otherworldly personal salvation.

The secular was not, for him, an alternative to religion, but a set of clues to the nature of religion.

After Leeds, Ling hardly settled. He interrupted his time as Professor of Comparative Religion at Manchester University to teach in India for two years, then took early retirement in 1982 to spend a decade in Singapore. Perhaps there was more here than the mobility of a world-class academic. He was concerned to be in touch with the sacred, and his abrupt and decisive exodus from the British academic scene could indicate that he eventually found the modern university as constricting as dogmatic churches.

Towards a Metamodern Academic Study of Religion

By Michel Clasquin-Johnson, University of South Africa

“…so I never worry when I’m ‘sad’ as the meta modernist in me knows that I will soon oscillate to ecstasy.” Tweet by Aisha Lëna Shapiro (@ciaolena), 20 July 2015.

This is a condensed version of an article that first appeared in HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 73/3. 2017


In Religious Studies we never entirely discard a methodology. We can still write exegeses that would have been recognizable to F Max Müller. We can use survey methods borrowed from the social sciences, analyze religious performances using the playful postmodern irony, and so on.

To this methodological smorgasbord we may now be able to add metamodernism. This article will introduce metamodernism and ask whether it has something to add to our discipline. And vice versa. I will primarily approach this from a Religious Studies perspective, but there are implications for Theology too.

The term “metamodernism” has a prehistory: we can see the term being used as far back as 1975. However, metamodernism as we understand it today originates in 2010 when Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker published their article “Notes on metamodernism”.

Metamodernism is a twenty-first century development with young proponents. If it catches on, it will be the philosophy of the Millennial Generation. It is therefore unsurprising to see that it has not (yet) used the conventional academic distribution channels of monograph and journal article to disseminate itself. To investigate metamodernism, we have to delve into the world of online articles, tweets, blog posts and podcasts.

What am I, a not-so-young academic, seeing in this new philosophy? Just this: while we cannot apply metamodernism simplistically to Religious Studies without adapting it to our needs, its underlying principles can be shown to apply to religion itself (or at least to some religions) and to the study of religion.

It expresses the zeitgeist of the early twenty-first century when large numbers of people use apparently contradictory self-ascriptions like “spiritual but not religious” with perfect sincerity. Even if we choose not to use metamodernism explicitly as a research methodology, it clarifies events that remain baffling and contradictory in terms of earlier methodologues.

Metamodernism is a negotiation between modernism and postmodernism.

This was the prime motivation behind the development of metamodernism. In Religious Studies, the clash between modernist and postmodernist paradigms has not been experienced as deeply as in other disciplines. Not that we have been left completely untouched by it, of course.

In Religious Studies, are there two contradictory views that both seem to be entirely valid? Secularization comes to mind. It is true that people are leaving religion behind and taking on a non-religious identity. It is equally the case that religion is thriving and that it is more vital than ever to take account of the role of religion as a factor in society.

From a modern or postmodern perspective, this is an intolerable contradiction. The modernist demands a solution to the contradiction, while the postmodernist demands that the situation be ironically deconstructed. From the metamodernist point of view, however, the new category of “spiritual but not religious” was only to be expected. A metamodern Peter Berger would not have needed to recant his earlier work – it would simply become one pole of a view of reality that needed to be balanced by a new one. The new does not invalidate the old – it completes the picture, for now. In metamodernist language, there is an “oscillation” between the two viewpoints.

Another example is the drawn-out tension between Religious Studies and Theology. In a metamodern approach to religion, these two would not cease to exist. Individuals would still feel drawn to one or the other. But moving within the spectrum of approaches would become less of a life-and-death academic struggle. One could, within the constraints of a given project, accept certain religious teachings as true without setting this as the yardstick of all future projects.

This already happens. Scholars are human and they have their own beliefs, prejudices and preferences. The advantage of the metamodern approach is that it allows an openness, an accountability that is now closed off by attempting to maintain an unattainable epoche.

Equally, the theologian can move into Religious Studies territory. You have not ceased to be a theologian because you are oscillating in the direction of Religious Studies. You have become a different kind of theologian. Tomorrow’s project will call for a different blend of the two.

Metamodernism favours dialogue over dialectics.

Metamodernism does not seek to destroy modernism or postmodernism by bringing them into an all-encompassing synthesis. Indeed, for the metamodernist project to succeed, the contrasting forces it attempts to bring into dialogue must continue to exist and even to thrive. Modernism and postmodernism must exist as viable alternatives to act as boundary conditions between which the metamodern thinker can oscillate.

In a small way, this has been the case in Religious Studies. Our methodological eclecticism has ensured that there have been vigorous dialogues between scholars working from different perspectives.

This should not make us shrug our shoulders and declare that metamodernism is something “we have always done”. To recognise oneself in a small aspect of something as all-encompassing as metamodernism is heartening, but that is different from embracing this philosophy and trying to put it into action.

Metamodernism embraces the paradoxical..

We could hardly have asked for more. The person who sincerely believes in the creation story presented in the book of Genesis also knows that the dinosaurs were killed off by a giant comet 76 million years ago. The person who knows perfectly well that the wafer of bread was created in a bakery down the road out of flour, yeast and water also knows that it is the body of Christ. To the metamodernist, the fact that there is a paradox does not mean that one is wrong and the other right, or that one has to be relegated to a mere “subjective truth”.

Metamodernism discredits the concept of cognitive dissonance by placing different levels of objective truth in different sectors (I hesitate to call them “levels”) of existential and universal truth. In this, metamodernism comes surprisingly close to traditional exegetical rules. Ashanti story-tellers preface their performance with “I am going to tell you a story. It is a lie. But not everything in it is false”.

An metamodern academic study of religion would ultimately not employ the word “paradox”, so completely integrated would be the paradoxical view of life. We are a long way from that. Even metamodernism itself has yet to reach that point. And that is a familiar position to students of Zen Buddhism. If the paradoxical view of reality completely transcends the reality that produced the paradox in the first place, it ceases to be paradoxical and just becomes another reality, ready to produce its own paradoxes. Kōan study prepares the student to see “transcendence” as an illusion and “enter the market place with helping hands”, not trying to make the paradox go away but living it fully. Incommensurate values are not negated by reducing or negating one of them: They are juxtaposed. When I teach a religion that I do not belong to, indeed a religion that in my most private thoughts I regard as ridiculous, I am both ironic and completely earnest.

Some years ago, a colleague reported on a conference in which the topic had been whether one could study Islam without being a Muslim. I replied, “That is very interesting. I just came from a conference in which the topic was whether you could study Buddhism if you actually were a Buddhist!” The role of the scholar-practitioner remains an open issue. Metamodernism could lend us insights here. There need not be a separate category of scholar-practitioner. One oscillates between the role of scholar and the role of practitioner. With time and practice, both are present simultaneously. The dichotomy is shown not to be false, but negotiable.

Creative tensions within metamodernism

Metamodernism has moved from a philosophy of oscillation to one of simultaneity. For a six-year old philosophical system to have undergone such a profound change shows that it is capable of change and growth.

Reading metamodernist writings shows that the older “oscillation” metaphor is far from dead. It would be contrary to the entire spirit of metamodernism to launch an inquisition against a recalcitrant oscillationist faction, or to split into distinct schools. If metamodern thought consists of being able to contain two contradictory ideas simultaneously, then it must be able to contain both the oscillationist model and (recursively) itself. Besides, a sufficiently fast oscillation gives us a de facto simultaneity.

If metamodernism is indeed moving towards a position of simultaneity, then a rich field of discussion between metamodernism and Religious Studies opens up. Hindu Advaita, the Buddhist Catukoi system used (and demolished) by Nāgārjuna, the non-dual position in Zen and Taoism, even the complex Jain epistemology all become possible interlocutory partners. For such a conversation to take place, a number of questions would need to be cleared up. For example, if metamodernist simultaneity remains built on an oscillation between two poles, is there not a dualism built into it, if at a somewhat deeper level? Is it possible to oscillate between three, or four, poles? Infinite poles?

The relation between oscillation and simultaneity is the metamodern kōan, the burning question that can be “solved” only temporarily and provisionally before the student moves on to the next kōan.


Engagement with metamodernism opens up the possibilities of new discourses within Religious Studies and new opportunities for engagement with our colleagues in Theology, and vice versa. It allows us to understand the new kind of secularization we are viewing right now, that simply refuses to comply with traditional secularization theories.

The picture gets murkier when we look at religion itself. Religion as we know it today reflects a premodernist, Axial Age mindset (or arguably an even earlier one), and much of today’s contemporary events regarding religion reflects those traditions that have yet to make their peace with modernism. We can hardly say that self-consciously postmodern religion is a large-scale phenomenon. What are the chances of metamodernism, a “structure of feeling” that claims to supersede both modernism and postmodernism, by incorporating both, making an impact on religion?

Paradoxically (of course) this is quite possible. The creative use of paradox, the provisional reconciliation of false dualisms and many of the other issues that discussed above are part of the religious impulse. This does not mean that metamodernism takes us back to the premodern, even less that religion was a sort of primordial metamodernism. It does show that there is a potential affinity between metamodernism and religion, one that could be explored and embraced by participants of both, oscillating from one to the other.

The metamodern religious world will be neither unipolar nor bipolar. It will be multipolar, and some religions will find themselves better able to engage with this than others. Metamodernism will enable certain religions to return to their roots within the context of this new, connected world. A new form of religiosity will evolve that oscillates between/simultaneously adheres to deep reserves of traditional spirituality and radical personal freedom. Dare we call it “spiritual but not religious”?

If the proponents of metamodernism are correct and it, or something very much like it by another name, turns out to be the dominant “structure of feeling” of the twenty-first century and beyond, then we will all end up living in it, and with it. If we are moving into a metamodern world, then religion, and the academic study of religion will be both part of that move and be affected by it. With luck, religion will not need to be dragged in there against its will, and Religious Studies and Theology will be there to document and analyse the development, hopefully with an increased awareness of themselves as part of an overarching academic study of religion.

Minister for a Day – Online Ordination and Religion in the 21st Century

By Michel Clasquin-Johnson

Department of Religious Studies & Arabic

University of South Africa


This is a condensed version of an article that first appeared in the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 15/45 (2016).

Marriage has been in the news with the rapid acceptance of equal rights for homosexuals to get married. The debate has not been on marriage as a (hopefully) lifelong partnership, though. It has centred on the specific act of getting married. There has been another change. It is not about “who gets married to whom?”, but about “who declares them married?”. There is an increasing trend of people choosing to be married by a friend, a mentor, or a colleague who became a minister for a day. Websites have appeared that give legal cover to the occasion by ordaining them. Welcome to the world of online ordination.

The wedding as ritual entrance-point into marriage is a rite of passage in almost all cultures. In contemporary western society the legal requirement is that a duly appointed official oversees the transition. Unless you have physically appeared in front of a state-sanctioned official, filled in the paperwork and declared your transition in front of witnesses, you are not married.

In most European countries that trace their legal system to the Code Napoléon, the state itself supplies the official. Those who are religious are free to hold a religious ceremony that, for all its spiritual meaning, does not carry any legal weight. In other countries, the state has completely abdicated to religious interests. Israel is the most prominent example.

In countries with an Anglophone heritage, secular marriage officials exist, and it is possible to enter into an entirely secular marriage by engaging the services of a justice of the peace or another government official. In some California counties, it is even possible to be deputized as a Deputy Marriage Commissioner just for the day of the wedding.

But the Anglophone state has also outsourced the wedding ceremony to religious professionals, giving the “church wedding” an equal legal status with the “city hall wedding”. There are countries where Humanist organisations have obtained the authority to conduct weddings: In Scotland, the number of such weddings now rivals those of traditional church weddings.

If the state is to outsource the wedding ceremony to religion, the question arises “which officials from which religion(s)?” Historically the state has restricted the organizations it was willing to empower in this regard. To use another example from South Africa, the Marriage Act states that only duly recognized office-bearers from “Christian, Jewish or Mohammedan [sic] … or any Indian religion” qualify.

However, the state has allowed the religious organizations themselves to select the candidates. If a Catholic priest wishes to register as a wedding officer, the state does not ask if he is a good, pious priest. As long as the Catholic Church certifies that he is indeed a priest by their standards, the state will acquiesce.

This is a key factor in the rise of online ordination. The contemporary Anglophone state is not inclined to dabble in theology Nowhere is this more clear than in the USA, where a court once refused to consider the religious bona fides, or otherwise, of the Church of Body Modification. Other societies, even other western societies, have no problem with declaring a specific organisation to be fraudulent, as can be seen in the German government’s long-running battle with Scientology.

Thus it becomes possible for any group of people to declare itself a church, to ordain whomever they see fit, and to have those new ordainees request the state to acknowledge their status. Add to this the immense reach of the Internet and we have the new phenomenon of online ordination.

No comprehensive history of online ordination has ever been written, but the phenomenon itself predates the Internet. The incorporation of the Universal Life Church in 1962 marks the beginning. For decades, the ULC operated by posting advertisements in popular magazines, alongside the “sea-monkeys” and “x-ray specs”. With the rise of the Internet, however, it went online, which was reported to have happened around the year 1999, and soon spawned a variety of imitators.

Just how widespread is online ordination? My research initially found thirty-six websites where one could apply. There is some duplication: The Universal Life Church, for one, has a number of branches.

In terms of the number of people affected by online ordination, the Universal Life Church claims that the organization has ordained 18 million people since 1962. To put that number in perspective, if 15 million of those ministers had actually officiated at just one wedding, then 30 million people have been married under the auspices of this organisation. If all 45 million of them were to gather one Sunday, they would be the second-largest religious group in the USA, beaten only by the Catholic Church.

The ULC may be the oldest and best-known online ordination organisation, but it is not the only one. On its website, American Marriage Ministries claims to have ordained 25000 ministers since 2009 and numbers claimed by other organisations are in the same category of thousands rather than millions.

The vast majority of organisations offering online ordination employ Christian language and imagery in their presentation. The Protestant term “minister” seems almost universally used, even if the imagery and terminology otherwise veers towards the Catholic.

Other religions are also getting into the act, however. The Satanic Chapel, for example, offers online ordination via the ULC. The Esoteric Theological Seminary ordains ministers according to broadly New Age/Esoteric teachings.

If we are to parse the various statements on the websites and construct a composite statement, we arrive at something like this: Marriage itself is a sacred action, and the state has wrongly restricted the act of marrying two people to those who have spent years being indoctrinated in seminaries and licensed by their churches, without taking account of the spiritual state of the individual or his/her relationship to God and the wedding couple.

No organisation would phrase it in those exact words, but this is the common thread one sees on their websites. Online ordination is a political act, a small rebellion against the status quo. But not too political, not too rebellious. The wedding conducted by a minister ordained online stays within the traditional church wedding paradigm even as it rejects where that paradigm originated.

Regionalism does not appear to be a useful way to categorise online ordination. It is a peculiarly Anglophone development. My research showed no evidence of online ordination in Continental Europe or Scandinavia, nor, for that matter, in Asia. More specifically, while there are organisations active in Canada and the United Kingdom, the vast majority are based in the USA, to such an extent that we can regard online ordination as an American innovation that has been exported to other Anglophone countries.

I suggest that the main reason for this lies in the constitutional shelter given to any religious claim by the First Amendment to the American Constitution, which makes American courts unusually reticent to label any organized belief system a fraud, and the byzantine complexity of the American legal system. Indeed, a number of organisations explicitly state on their websites in which US states their credentials are recognised.

Online ordination organisations do not all require the same level of commitment from their ordainees. In fact, every one requires a certain level of commitment. These may be minimal (clicking “I agree” in an application form), or they may require the applicant to subscribe to doctrinal statements and undertake not to use their status, for example, to officiate at gay weddings. Some offer ministerial training, although this is typically offered after ordination, not before.

All online ordination organisations, without exception, charge a fee for their services. Just how much they charge, and where in the process it occurs, varies. The one extreme is provided by the Church of the Latter-Day Dude (an organisation that bases its philosophy on the film “The Big Lebowski”) which supplies a personalised digital certificate in TIFF format for free. During the course of my research, I obtained such a certificate. At no stage was I asked whether I even liked the film.

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A modest fee of USD10 is asked for a printed certificate with an embossed seal, while more comprehensive packs are available for 22 and 35 dollars, respectively.

A more common approach is that the newly ordained minister receives an email confirming his or her new status, while any further proof one’s new status, such as certificates, ID cards and Letters of Good Standing, must then be purchased. Some online ordination organisations also sell ministerial robes, marriage certificate templates and other accoutrements.

The financial demands of online ordination have caused many to describe the whole phenomenon as a “scam”. Indeed, online ordination organisations can be seen to use the term to describe their competitors. However, it matters little whether such organisations are scams or not. Even if they are, that still leaves us with the question why there is a demand for their services.

While there are other duties and benefits of the ordained minister it is the wedding that stands central. Yet in all the countries where online ordination can be found, alternatives exist. Or, if there is some residual respect for a religious tradition on the part of either of both partners, it is not that hard to find a suitably liberal-minded minister who will agree to conduct a wedding for homosexual, interfaith or essentially secular couples

To be married by someone who was ordained online is not a last resort but a deliberate, positive choice. While it may be an insignificant historical happenstance in its own right, it points to the larger socio-historical development.

For two and a half thousand years, western thought has been characterised by Aristotelian logic. Of course, it predated Aristotle but it remains a handy label. In this mode of thought, something is either A or it is not-A.

This kind of thinking has ramifications beyond formal epistemology. Western legal systems rely on whether a person can distinguish between “right” and “wrong”. Our educational systems rigorously distinguish between “graduates” and “dropouts”, never considering whether the dropout may also have learnt something worthwhile, or whether a graduate gained anything from four years of study. In politics, you are either “conservative” or “liberal”. And in terms of weddings, one either is a minister or one is not. If you are not a minister, you cannot conduct a valid marriage ceremony. We live in the civilization that Aristotle built.

But there are increasing signs that this philosophy is losing its grip on the western mind. An increasing number of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. Philosophies from Asia (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc.), which never subscribed to Aristotle’s Law of the Excluded Middle to begin with, increasingly make their presence felt in the west.

In a world in transition to a looser, multivalued one in which identities are fluid and redefinable, online ordination makes perfect sense. The online ordination minister both is and is not a minister in the traditional sense – at the moment of the wedding.

Taking a leaf from the “spiritual but not religious” terminology, we might describe those married by an online ordination minister as “married but not wed”. They have honoured history by having an authority figure declare them married in front of a congregation of sorts. But not too much of an authority figure. The online ordination minister slips in and out of the ministerial role in a way the traditional minister never can.

Demand for online ordination remains high and is even set to grow because of residual religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Perhaps the time has come for scholars of religion to investigate this fascinating phenomenon on the fringe of the religious world.

Name change …

I started this blog to document my experiences during my <sigh> sabbatical year of 2016. True, it didn’t quite work out the way I wanted, but hey, spilt milk and all that.

But it’s 2017 now, and there’s no more sabbatical. Hence the name change for the blog.

A quick recap: My article on Online ordination can be found here. My article on metamodernism has been accepted by Higher Theological Studies and will appear, in Issue 3 later this year. My chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism is also out there on the shelves. An article on the cost of autism (co-written with my wife) is being reviewed. And I have a chapter on Religion and Autism ready to go for a book I am putting together (Yes, for my sins I was made one of the editors).

What next? Well, my colleague Denzil Chetty introduced us to the new field of Superhero Studies recently. The question that comes up is: what kind of religious cosmos do superheroes live in. Daredevil may be Catholic, and surprisingly many superheroes are Jewish, but does the universe that was created for them reflect that heritage? Naturally, if the answer was “yes”, that would be the end of the story, but I am going with the idea that these fictional characters live in a polytheistic universe that contradicts their own belief. If so, what does that say about our world, the world of comic-book readers and film watchers?

We’ll see if anything crystallizes out of that.

C3 celebration

C3? Is that some kind of high explosive? No, no, no you can relax.

In South Africa, we have this parastatal called the National Research Foundation. One of its functions is to rate researchers.

I’ve held out against this as long as I could. Really, I have deep problems with the idea of putting researchers on different levels.But Unisa is pressurising us to get ourselves rated. At other South African universities, it is worse: you don’t make full professor there without a rating.

So in November last year I bowed to the inevitable and spent that month fighting with the NRF website (a design nightmare). It’s sort of nice to know that I didn’t waste my time completely: I am now a C3 rated researcher. Also, it means a little more money. Nothing wrong with that: I have a son with a toy car habit to support.

C3 is not great: It is in fact right at the bottom of the range, sort of like getting your school report and reading “Michel passes, but he must try harder next term”. The system goes up to A1, which amounts to being a worldwide household name. If Stephen Hawking was a South African researcher, he’d be rated A1.

But even a starter pack rating gets the university off my back. Now back to some real research work.

Still here …

OK, this blog hasn’t worked out the way I intended. Sorry about that, I always had more interest in doing things than reporting on them. In the meantime, the Bitstrips app that I used to make little comics has disappeared ;-( But Toondoo still works!


Here’s where we stand: My chapter on Buddhism in Africa is published in the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism. Available by the 1st of December, reserve your copy now.

My article on Online Ordination that was rejected in April will appear in the December edition of the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies. One of my favourite journals, and I’m not saying that because they accepted my article (I’ve published there before), but because it is an Open Access journal that does not charge you an arm and a leg in page fees (I suspect they are subsidized by the Romanian Government). Mind you, they insist on a weird version of Chicago style that my reference manager can’t quite pull off.

The article on metamodernism is in a first draft which I have sent off to a few people for comments. So far, the comments are pretty positive, so I should be able to put that in for publication next year.

I’ve also moved in a new direction: Religion and Disability: My chapter on religion and Autism is scheduled to appear in the first-ever academic book on autism produced in South Africa, sometime in 2018. I may end up co-editor of that book. If you are in Pretoria the day after tomorrow, come see me present my findings.

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I am also co-authoring an article on the cost of raising an autistic child in South Africa today. And finally, my wife and I are jointly writing a book review on a book about Disability and World Religions.

I have one month left of this sabbatical and finally I can start on my grandfather’s wartime diary. The first job is to scan and OCR it, and then translate it from 1940’s Dutch into contemporary English. The I’ll decide what i want to do with the material.

So, what about this blog. Well, I’ll probably keep it, probably with a name change. I know I haven’t been maintaining it recently, but perhaps one I’m back at the office writing blog posts will be a welcome break from faculty meetings.

Setbacks? Nah, just business as usual

So the first journal I sent my article on online ordination to rejected it. I read the journal’s mission statement and interpreted it broadly. They chose to read it narrowly.

Oh well, this is part of the game. If you go through your entire academic career without rejections, you are probably doing safe, boring research. I got some excellent comments out of the deal, and I will rewrite the article and submit it elsewhere.

In the meantime, I have started reading up for an article on religion and autism for a book project spearheaded by the other Dr Clasquin-Johnson (Reader, I married her). Progress on the metamodernism article is slow but getting there.

Finally, I am going to take a look at my grandfather’s wartime diary. He wrote it on tiny scraps of paper while interned in a German labour camp. My cousin Lydia brought it all together some years ago and printed off a few copies for the family, but there must be a way to bring it to a larger audience.