Ch-Ch-Changes!

If you have a quick squiz at the title of this blog you might notice something has changed.  This is no longer my “PhD Diary + Blog”, but is now my “Post Doc Diary + Blog”.  That’s because in the seven months since the last post I wrote on here several good things happened (in fact they all happened around October/November 2015!)*:

  1. I signed a book deal for my thesis (Thank you Ashgate!!)
  2. I was offered a post doc job as a research associate
  3. I submitted my PhD thesis**

In finishing up my thesis my blogging got a little left behind, but now that I am settling into my new position as a research associate at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (more on that below) I am returning to occasional posts… this time with a focus more on the AI and Robots project I am involved with (but with some NRMs things slipping in, as I am still working on an edited volume on NRMs, and my research into Transhumanism and Singularity theories drifts into NRM studies).

But I am getting ahead of myself.  What is my post doc and what am I doing?

I am now based at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, which sits in Benet House at St Edmunds College, Cambridge. So although I am coming to the end of my third degree at Pembroke College (thanks!), I am staying in Cambridge for at least the next 3 years***. My specific project, under the overall project on “Human Flourishing” is:

Human identity in an age of nearly-human machines – the impact of advances in robotics and AI technology on human identity and self-understanding

What does that mean? Well, we are considering:

“the theological, social and philosophical implications of recent developments in robotics and AI technology for secular and religious understandings of human nature and identity. Of particular interest and concern is the development of humanoid robots whose appearance, motor behaviour and responsiveness are becoming virtually indistinguishable from human beings. In addition, new technical developments provide increasingly realistic simulation by AIs of human compassion, empathy and emotional intelligence. These developments raise urgent and profound questions and challenges for human self-understanding.

To date there has been very little genuinely multidisciplinary and informed debate about these issues. The current sub-project aims to address the implications of these developments using an academically rigorous and structured approach. In particular we will investigate whether there is a genuine convergence and blurring of human/machine abilities and behaviour and if so whether this is likely to lead to fundamental changes in common social and religious understandings of what it means to be human.”

TLDR version: AI! Robots! The Future!

robot learning

As a social anthropologist of NRMs my particular interests lie in how people respond to new technological advances and weave them into their religious narratives.  But there are wider questions about how these developments will affect our understanding of what it means to be human, and a core element of the project is getting experts and academics together to start the conversation on this.  You may be aware of the boost in funding that projects considering AI and robots have received (the Centre for Studies in Existential Risk is a prime example, where the focus is mitigating the possibility of ‘unfriendly’ AI), and this generally agreed to be a key time for considering these issues, when we are on the cusp of some dramatic discoveries around intelligence (or not, depending on who you ask).

Posts in this blog will now reflect this new research focus, with occasional dips into NRM studies. I hope this is of interest!

Beth

 

* Some bad things happened in those seven months too, and the title of this post is in honour of David Bowie (1947-2016).

** No, I still dont have a viva date. I’ll let you know when I know…

*** Precluding a zombie apocalypse.

Vote Beth: A Nice Change from Richard Dawkins

There was a really good piece on Inform that appeared in the Daily Telegraph the other day, written by Damien Thompson (@holysmoke).  It mentions their 25th Anniversary conference at which I will be giving a paper: “No Leader, No Followers: The Internet and the End of Charisma?” (plug, plug, plug)

So far it has received around 270 comments…. some of which are along the dismissive lines of ‘new religious movements are silly/dangerous/irrational… but no more silly/dangerous/irrational than established religions’:

“All religions are equally valid” (Fred Scuttle)

“All religions are equally invalid” (Tohellwithit)

“Religion or cults, sorry I do not want to know. Boring!” (applepicker)

“All religions are cults – some are just bigger than others. There are no gods. It there were, they’d be evidence… proof of some sort. Maybe even a sighting. After all, if god loves us he come down and tell us all to stop messing around. But he hasn’t – so much for your loving god!” (King Womble)

“It seems to me that there are very few of these wretched things that won’t bring out the worst from one or more of the others.
Show me one cult/religion that does not attract violence to itself or give violence to at least one other, somewhere on the planet.

Scoundrels the lot of them.” (sosraboc)

I often get asked why I am based in the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge when I study NRMs. The first time I was asked this I had a moment of surprise, because I had never actually considered NOT being based in the Faculty of Divinity – that’s where religions are studied isnt it? Well… yes and no.  The undergraduate course we offer is in Theology and Religious Studies but for a very long time it was just in Theology (argh, Wikipedia link!), and before that it was just Theology for those (men) who were going into the ministry/Church. The move to calling our degree TRS is as much about shifts in pedagogical trends and the evolving desires of incoming students as (or perhaps more so) than changes in the facultys’ attitudes towards developing subject areas like mine (Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism etc took a while to bed down but are well established now…). An interesting paper here hosted by the Religious Studies Project goes into these naming trends a little further than I can.  

To return me (its all about me, me, me, me…), I am a social anthropologist studying New Religious Movements.  I write about New Agers, Jedi, Scientologists, Wiccans, pagans, and online subcultures online that look like religions and that call themselves religious (whatever anyone else might think about them…). I am asked why I am based in the Faculty of Divinity because I take these groups seriously but very often the people asking the question just…. don’t.  By keeping myself in the Faculty of Divinity I am, in my very small way, maintaining the presence of NRMs amidst the ‘serious’ academic conversation.  If I was in the Social Anthropology department I’m really not sure my work would have the same impact.

So when people ask me why I am based in the Faculty of Divinity I generally say something like the posters on the Damien Thompson piece, but with a twist. All religions, including NRMs, ARE equally valid (n.b. Fred Scuttle’s other posts are a lot more cynical e.g.: “Hilarious, if a little tragic. Dr Who is as real as Jesus.”, so I’ve included his comment in the dismissive list).  In my view the rational mind we are so pleased with in the ‘West’ that we think was born during the Enlightenment is just as active in the human narratives formation that we might call ‘beliefs’ and has been way back into the beginnings of the established religions and all the way through time till now… and tomorrow.  Some people, especially those with more mainstream beliefs, don’t like that answer. Please don’t be upset, I’m calling you rational…

Which must make a nice change from hearing Richard Dawkins at least 🙂

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Look at me! Look at me!

Oh I do love me a conference.  Interesting people, papers and the chance to catch up with/meet for the first time my favourite academics.

Next week I am at the BASR/EASR 2013 conference where I’ll be presenting on the 2011 Census and the ‘Other’ category in the religion question, and on bio-medical conspiracy theories and the Indigo Children, (the latter is my PhD topic). 

I’m also going to be horribly forward and talk to some publishers about my work.  I’m still a very far way off from finishing but I really think that my thesis could be the basis of an interesting and accessible book.  To be fair, there probably arent that many PhDs out there who dont think that they should turn their thesis into a book, and hopefully a best selling one at that…

But this plan to ‘network’ intentionally at the conference raises a couple of problems for me.  One, I’ve only networked for work intentionally in the film industry, and the methods there are a little more pushy and aggressive.  So I really dont want to come off like that.  I thought I might make up some one page CVs to hand out… or is that too keen/prepared?

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Academia is an interesting world to me, and I’ve tried before to talk to my supervisor who has far more experience of it  about the etiquette and norms I should be observing. I do have some other good mentors who have offered to introduce me to people and give me some tips on talking to publishers – and I’m always happy to receive more tips from any readers here (*hint, hint*).

I suppose the best documents for networking might actually be the papers I am presenting. One is completely finished (bar last minute rereading and panicking) and the other needs some finessing on two sections.  So off I trot…

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Yes, this is an actual picture from one of my presentations – in this case a 3rd year Undergraduate paper on understanding contemporary religion… the drawing is all my own work!

My first time

This post on Nadine Muller’s blog by Imogen Clarke about her first international conference reminded me about mine, and some of our experiences were fairly similar.  I did in fact also watch Jersey Shore in my guest room!

My first international conference was for early-career Theologians, mostly grads. I submitted a paper on my MPhil research which uses digital ethnographic methods to explore the development of a theology among the Pro-Ana movement.  I wasnt at this point too clear on the difference between theology and the socio-anthropological study of religion… I had always described myself as a theologian, or ‘one who studies religion’. My undergrad college chums used to call me ‘Beth the Theologian’ to differentiate me from… well, no one else, I was the only Beth.

Anyway, my paper was accepted and I packed my bag to fly to Dublin.

The keynote speaker was a Professor from my own faculty.  Very well known, very well published.  But her definition of a theologian was “one who prays”.  There followed two days of people talking about Christianity from a confessional perspective.  And it was held in a seminary (I really should have guessed!).

My paper was last of all and on a panel with someone who thought that social media was morally bankrupt and isolating, a loneliness that ONLY the Church could provide comfort for… not a good warm up act to the exploration of an online community that adapts religious forms and rituals for their own ends.

My paper was actually well received.  But the first question was from my Professor:

“Why are you here?”

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Terror.  Blind terror.

But, I had had two days of listening to proper theologians since the keynote speech so I had prepared a little for this question.  I made some bold statement about having a different definition of theology (to one of THE theologians) and blabbed on about the importance of studying new forms of religiosity.  Doubtless she disagreed and probably thought no time should be spent on ‘weird people doing weird things’.  But I think I came across well, even if I was in a cold sweat!

Since then I’ve presented at a few more ‘appropriate’ conferences and had great feedback.  I dont regret my baptism of fire.  If that’s the worst that happens to me at a conference I’ll be fine…

I suppose the moral of the story is to make sure you fit the conference even if the organisers think that you do from your abstract.  And make sure you are on last! But not after the person who hates your fieldsite and methodology…

Learning How to Write (I Probably Should Have Done That a While Ago!)

I have been a little quiet on here for the last couple of days as I’ve been attending a Summer School on writing skills for grads.

I’ve always assumed that I am a pretty okay or even a good writer as I’ve been paid to do it for various mediums over the last ten-ish years.  But I do find academic writing tricky.  I think in part its because I presume that there is an authoritative, neutral academic ‘voice’ to emulate.  Doing this course has shown me some of the fallacies of that voice.  Its unclear, its unnecessarily mystifying, it might even be a bit elitist (“What, you dont know what I mean by ‘detraditionalization’! You ignoramus! Please do get out…”).  I am now aiming to bring some clarity, and some elegance (!) to my academic writing… wish me luck!

Which brings me to the other aspect that this course has helped me with (so far, two days still to go).  We’ve been discussing some of our problems with just sitting down and writing the bloody thesis.  There seems to be a common thread of anxiety running through the participants, whether they are first years or fourth.  A PhD is a BIG thing to do.  But writing it doesnt have to be if we tackle a little at a time, or warm ourselves up by writing small chunks of texts regularly.  That’s what I am hoping to do with this blog: practising writing regularly as well as drawing out ideas and themes from my research.

Oh, and the course is being held in this awesome location I’ve never been to before.  They do maths here:

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