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 🙂


Its a Nice Day for a Scientology Wedding

Scientology is in the mainstream news again with the announcement that a woman who wants to marry in a Scientology chapel has won a Supreme Court battle to have it recognized as a ‘place of meeting for religious worship’.  Five judges have over-ruled a 1970 ruling that prioritized veneration of a God in deciding what was genuine religious worship or not.  


Good news for Miss Louisa Hodkin who gets to go through her choice of ritual in her choice of location.  

But what does this really mean for Scientology? Is it really a religion now?

This is a subject I’ve been considering in a paper that I am hoping to submit in the new year to a journal – it considers Jediism and the question of what is ‘really real’ religion and where we get our ideas about ‘realness’ from.  

In the case of Scientology this Supreme Court ruling means that lots of people are discussing the case online and declaring that the “UK recognizes Scientology as religion” (tweet at 10.33am, 12.12.2013) or that they are “Pleased UK has recognized scientology as a religion. Believing aliens infest us more rational than believing God impregnated a woman …” (tweet at 10.30am, 12.12.2013).  

Well… this is not exactly what has happened.  There is no legislative process in the UK for recognizing a religion as ‘really real’.  Attempts at forming laws around definitions of ‘real religion’ have always floundered. Take, for example, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act which came partially into force in  2007 after several years of drafting and redrafting.  In one round of amendments Scientology, Satanists and Jedi Knights were suggested as groups that should be excluded from the rights and protections of the Bill.  The proposer of this amendment suggested he had written it in just for effect, a tongue in cheek way of drawing attention to the issue of the increasing popularity of NRMs and the issues that they raise. But some of the readers of the Bill took this amendment very seriously:

My hon. Friend is being rather modest when he says that he tabled the amendments in a tongue-in-cheek way. Does he not agree that they go to the heart of the matter? The fact that the Government have not stated what a religion is will cause huge problems with the Bill. Disreputable groups will undoubtedly hide under the protection that comes with being classed as a religion and will potentially not be able to be criticised for their abhorrent views. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the definition of what is and is not a religion goes to the heart of the Bill? (Standing Committee E, 2005)

But even if the definition of what is and what is not a religion does in fact go to the heart of the Bill, this committee and others that followed could not work out a definition that worked. Concensus was not possible. The Supreme Court’s ruling that religion does not necessarily need a Supreme Authority or god to be considered a ‘really real’ religion has likewise received criticism from more monotheistic, or theistically inclined religious groups and scholars, and those who see the more open definition of religion as an open-door to humanist or political groups to claim the same benefits as religious organisations.

Which brings me to the real crux of the matter. When there’s conflict, ask yourself, where is the money? Or, perhaps, who wants the money?


Scientologist Tom Cruise wants to know where it is!

In the BBC’s reporting of the story there is a quote from Local Government Minister, Brandon Lewis, who ‘said he was “very concerned” about the ruling and its implications for business rates.’  Religions, both here in the UK, and notably in the USA, qualify for certain exemptions, but only if they are formally recognized as religions by the Inland Revenue Services.  Scientology was involved in a twenty six year court battle with the USA’s IRS over their legal status and settled in 1993, paying them only $12.5 million, when their actually debt would have been many times higher.  If Scientology is accepted by the legislature as a ‘really real’ religion in the UK  then monies that would normally go to the State would remain with the Church.

Will this happen? Well, I propose that although a functional, but certainly ugly, definition could be drawn up for ultimately determining ‘really real’ religion, one that twists itself into a spaghetti hoop trying to cover all the variations and diversity of NRMs, it is actually already irrelevant.  Instead, what makes a religion ‘really real’ is a snowballing of legitimacy.  Admittedly a proportion of legitimacy IS gained through legal, tax and State procedures such as this recent ruling, but also, and more importantly, the ongoing conversation about the NRM that takes place between people provides legitimacy for Scientology’s place at the discussion table.  This is a conversation that occurs more and more online.  

Even if this ruling had gone against Miss Hodkin, and she did not have the wedding she hoped for, Scientology would be no less ‘real’ for her.  Or for any of the other members of the Church.  It is all too easy to point out L. Ron. Hubbard as the stereotypical charismatic leader and quote him saying things like: “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion”.  But the fact of the matter is, once you get past the issue of origins, NRMs have a life of their own, one that inter-plays with contemporary discussions about religion, but a life that also exists outside of that discussion, while also being legitimated by being a part of the discussion. Fears about “Disreputable Groups” using the law to their advantage miss the point that the law is already being influenced by the policy makers who are in turn influenced by this conversation.  The fact that Jedi Knights made it into the amendment (and Scientology etc) means that there is a thing called Jediism that needs to be taken seriously… and they know it exists because of this discussion about what religion is.

Sex (Got Your Attention) with ‘Mystery Relatives’

A story has just broken about research into our ancestors and where our DNA comes from.  This explains the science and the methodology far better than I can.  But what particularly interests me is that this idea of a mystery ancestor providing us with a portion of our DNA may be seen as overlapping with longstanding New Age or metaphysical explanations for human evolution, known as the Paleocontact hypothesis, or the Ancient Astronauts theory.  I explain this idea a little more in this presentation (the Powerpoint is also available on my page here).


Amongst Indigos, as I explain in the above presentation, DNA is a key concept for explaining their abilities, and they often support their theories with scientific discoveries, arguing that Science is only starting to catch up with the reality that they have access to.

With this story about our ‘mystery ancestors’ I curious about how and when it will be picked up by Indigos (if at all) as further evidence of some of the DNA accounts they have already been giving.  I have performed a few online searches, as well as looked at the main Indigo forum board, but currently the only people posting about the story are conspiracy or free though web-forums.  On Twitter there are many people posting the story, but few are adding comments beyond ‘Interesting’, and its not immediately obvious from user names or profiles that these individuals consider themselves to be Indigos.

I’ve posted a tweet myself asking the question, “is this (the story) picked up by the Indigos?” as a test.  I want to see if the tweet (and the story) are subsequently picked up and where it spreads to.  Its also a reminder tweet for me about the story, as is this blog post!

So this is a little bit of an experiment, or a perhaps it is best described as a direct observation of social media interactions around a hot topic in the Indigo community.  Lets see what happens… if anything!

The Return of the “Curious Cult”

One of my (many) interests when it comes to the study of contemporary religion is how these new groups are perceived by wider society.  I’ve just recently taught my first class on changes in attitudes to what are now generally called ‘New Religious Movements’ (NRMs) in Academia, or Cults in the wider popular vernacular. The transition from the sociological term cult to the  academic neutrality expressed by NRM is quite an interesting case of a community (religious studies scholars) being reflexive about their assumptions and presumptions. My teaching paper is here if you are interested.

charles-barsotti-we-re-a-pack-not-a-cult-new-yorker-cartoon                                                                                  “We’re a pack, not a cult”

However in the conference paper I presented at BASR in September I also argued that there is still an underlying rhetoric of narcissism when it comes to discussions about NRMs, both within and outside of academia. The case I drew on primarily is that of the Jedi and the UK Census, and in particular I noted how responses in the media where often of the “and finally” kind – humorous final comments about the decline of the Jedi between the two censuses (2001 and 2011) and jokes about Yoda giving the Thought for the Day on Radio 4 (these examples are also in my teaching paper above). The transition from moral panics to moral parodies is fascinating… and gives me the chance to riff off on The Simpsons, South Park and Memes.

So I was very interested to hear an interview on Radio 4 on Tuesday morning in which the ‘curious cults’ were mentioned again, resurrecting the moral panic view of NRMs.  This was with reference to the horrifying story of the three women kept as slaves in a house in Lambeth, London by a older couple. Now, in discussing the terminology used in this interview and other newspapers reports I don’t want to lessen or detract from their terrible experiences, and I hope that justice will be swift for them and that they can form new lives away from their captors.

But what interested me was the interview that John Humphries did with Professor Steve Rayner and how it expresses some current views of NRMs and that the line between moral panics and moral parodies is not a one way street.

Professor Rayner is better known now for his work on climate change as the James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization at Oxford. But when he did his PhD thesis in the late 1970s he focused on political anthropology and wrote on extreme left wing or Marxist groups, including one in Brixton that the couple belonged to. I can link to the interview, but it is only available for the next 5 days, so I will summarise the points that interested me.

John Humphries starts his introduction to the interview by referring to the left wing groups as a “curious cult” based at the Mao Zedong Memorial Centre in Brixton in the 1970s.  This group, the ‘Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’, is then described by Professor Rayner as a sect in which the members were under the spell of their leader, insulated from outside influences, hostile to the state, and mostly made up of foreign students who had had a difficult time adjusting to their new roles in the UK.  He also notes that they were one of 90 far left organizations at the time. And that he identified the groups as a millennarian sect in his thesis, millenarianism being a “traditional religous phenomena”, in his words in the interview.  Their brand of millennarianism involved the belief that very soon (in the late 1970s) the Chinese People’s Liberation Army would invade, effecting a revolution leading to a new world order. When this did not ‘apparently’ occur, they revised their beliefs, saying that the Chinese HAD achieved their goals and that society was now being controlled by eight Chinese computer satellites. Professor Rayner then states that this gives some sense of the far-outness of the kind of belief system they were maintaining.

In terms of the risk that this group presented in the 1970s (and rightly John Humphries points out that Prof. Rayner cant say anything about the couple now and the crime currently under investigation) Prof. Rayner characterises them as mostly harmless producers of bellicose propoganda or,”all talk and no trousers”. When John Humphries asks if this (the enslavement of the women) might be something he would expect to happen in this group, Professor Rayner talks again about Sects and Cults (lumping them together), defining them as having a flat internal organisation with a single powerful leader, who has an extreme grip on the membership.  He also explains that people join to gain social acceptance and then live under the threat of expulsion.  This then, he argues, creates a situation where the membership is beholden to the leader who they cannot criticise.

Finally, John Humphries asks whether such groups will always exist, and whether people will always be driven to join them. Prof. Rayner doesnt directly answer the question but re-iterates that such groups are often mostly harmless and that there is a minority of cases in which these kinds of things occur.

There’s quite a bit to unpick in this interview, and from the press coverage generally.

I’ve put in bold some of the terms being used in the interview, and we can see how easily the two men are moving between them. Starting with cult, a term with a strongly negative connotation now, the parallel is drawn between this far left group and a religion. Certainly, many have commented on the cult of personality surrounding some Communist leaders and political thinkers. But this was a Far Left group, not a religious group. Prof. Rayner also uses the term Sect, which in the sociological typologies more often describes a schism from a more mainstream religion.  Though, in France, the term Sect is more often used than Cult and refers to abusive religious groups, such as in the Guyard Commission’s Les sectes en France. Rapport fait au nom de la commission d’enquête sur les sectes, a blacklist of NRMs written in the late 1990s.

Prof Rayner’s account in the interview of the group he encountered in the 1970s reads like a stereotypical account of what a cult was thought to be then: a charismatic leader with enthralled followers who cannot criticize the leadership for fear of expulsion. The press has also described the Mao Zedong Memorial Ccentre in Brixton as a ‘library-come commune’ (The Guardian, 26.11.2013).  In his PhD thesis Prof. Rayner explains that: “the challenge I seek to take up is to devise a single typology for the study of sectarian behaviour in both secular and religious contexts.”

My problem with typologies is that they tend to have an essentialist approach, they attempt to fit the variety of human organization and experience into neat boxes –  a point that Prof. Rayner made in his PhD thesis with regards to sociological categories for religious groups.  And this is of course one argument against the use of the term NRM as we have different meanings for ‘New’ ‘ Religious’ and ‘Movement’.  But in this case I wonder whether the comparison with a religious group is that helpful for the consideration of the current crime. Until we have testimony from the women we wont know whether the methods used were couched in religious terms, or whether the political narratives were treated religiously or not.

Prof. Rayner’s reference to his characterization of the group as a millenarian sect is also interesting.  He calls millenarianism a traditional religious phenomena, and to a certain extent he is correct.  Eschatological claims based on a particular understanding of the shape of time and its finitude is indeed a recurring trope within religious traditions.  But it is more commonly attributed to fringe groups whose ecstatic behaviour and hurried completion of their mundane tasks and lives prior to the ‘End of Days’ is more readily apparent. In  the case of the Workers Institute, it sounds as if they made a much more ordinary prediction, not actually that disimiliar to those made by many political parties – the good times they are coming… rather than the end times.  Admitedly their good times were reliant on an outside force invading, and their belief in a more hidden revolution in the form of Chinese Super Computer Satellites parallels the shift in Harold Camping’s more religious pronouncements about Jesus’ return from a physical event, to a spiritual Rapture.  Prof Rayner in his thesis says: “I prefer to reserve the term millenarian to describe movements which organise their activity around the belief that the world will be turned upside down by the imminent intervention of an external agency which will exalt the weak and humble the powerful”. I would be very interested to read accounts of the Workers’ Institute prepping for their good times.

This almost deification of the Chinese is particularly interesting for my own research into the Indigo Children, as accounts of supporting scientific discoveries often come from the other side of a long gone but still effective ‘Iron Curtain’: Russia and China are described as delving into psychical research with children.  They are made the exotic forerunners of the blinkered West.

Returning to this story and its reporting.  Some of the Press accounts have described what they see as the  group’s ‘cult-like’ attributes, including the charismatic leadership  mentioned by Prof. Rayner, but also ‘brainwashing’. In particular the Daily Mail had a large front page headline with the word brainwashing in it:


As I mention in my teaching paper above, amongst religious studies scholars the technique of brainwashing as a means of ensuring conversion has been widely debunked.  Eileen Barker’s influential book, The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? (1984), started with the question, ‘Why does someone become a Moonie’ (member of the Unification Church led by Rev. Sun Myung Moon) which as she investigated the claims of brainwashing became ‘How could someone NOT become a Moonie’.  If brainwashing was occurring, or even existed, then surely anyone who came into contact with the group would join, but recruitment was not actually all that successful: fewer than 25% of people who had visited Moonie groups joined. Brainwashing is a part of anri-Communist rhetoric emerging out the Korean War: After the Korean War ended in 1953 a few American servicemen recounted the techniques of Chinese ‘thought reform’ that they had been subjected to.  “Brainwashing”, a mis-translation of the Chinese term meaning “to cleanse thoughts” (ie to correct incorrect political philosophy) appeared in Edward Hunter’s 1953 book, “Brainwashing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds” and Joost Meerloo’s “The Rape of the Mind” (1956).  In fact, back in 1978 Scheflin and Opton had examined the origins of brainwashing in The Mind Manipulators, and found that out of 3,500 servicemen captured during the Korean War only about 50 made pro-Communist or anti-American statements and only 25 prisoners of war refused repatriation.

It is particularly interesting that the Daily Mail uses the term, as in 1978 The Daily Mail published a story about the Unification Church’s use of “brainwashing” methods titled “They took away my son and raped his mind”. When the church sued for libel, the paper relied upon testimony from clinical psychologist Dr Margaret Singer, author of “Cults In Our Midst”, who explained that brainwashing was an established term and technique.  The Church lost, but I wonder if the term brainwashing would be used so freely if they were again describing a large movement and not the evil machinations of two individuals whose motivations and current allegiances are unknown.

I’m going to continue to follow this story and see whether the language used about the crime changes at all if/when the facts really emerge and the broad summaries of a far left group drawn from research done in the 1970s are replaced by details of the motivations of the couple.

Digital Methods Workshop, 25/10/2013 (Dullest Title Ever….)

Today I attended a workshop on Digital Methods Development: Researching Social Movements in Online Environments at CRASSH.

I’m going to reproduce my very limited notes here and try and expand on them before it all goes out of my head (in about ten minutes):

  • IC as a movement? Is in discourse.
    • The session was on social movements, with the first speaker discussing her research on uprisings and activist networks – in particular how they use social media to diseminate information about events (Dr Marianne Maeckelbergh)
    • This led me to thinking about whether the Indigo Children can be called a movement.  I do tend to introduce myself as someone doing the social anthroplogy of new religious movements, but I dont often go into how the Indigo Children might be considered an NRM, certainly something I will be picked up on.  But when it comes to the movement part of the descripter the I.C. are certainly describing themselves as a movement but they are no where as organised as the uprisigns Dr Maeckelbergh was describing, although they do align themselves with them ideologically.
  • Mobile tech changes activism. Emphasis on change from activists
    • One thing I have been keen on is not falling into technological determinism when it comes to the Internet and Social Media: I see the online space as yet another space where people can be human, doing human things.  It was interesting therefore to hear Dr M recount the importance her informants placed on social media for changing how they interact and that there is a definite difference.  I still hesitate to get into transhumanism and cyborgism, but this is something to bear in mind.
  • Being there twice, physically and then online to catch up with twitter etc
    • Dr M talked about the practicalities of working with social media and doing ethnography and how she needs to spend time with the groups she is researching but also spend time on Twitter etc finding out what they said about those events. This leads to a note I made further down about worrying about not capturing EVERYTHING.
  • Contextualization
    • Social Media needs contextualising with other textual forms and offline in order to understand what is really going on, not just relying on one textual source.
  • The environment of tweeter, reader, and the limitations and structure of form used are all at work
    • To bear in mind with contextualization
  • What kinds of connections people make or dont make (I.C. only tweets)
    • I have been looking at Tweets that only say “Indigo Children” as I curious about the motivation behind them, and I’ve been messaging the author’s to see if they can explain what they intended (a shout out, a signifier of belonging…?). In a sense, these are one way connections, pure information pushing, which might incite a reciprocal connection, or it might not…
  • Love tech as horizontal and diffuse as they are. Values overlap
    • Dr M was saying that the activists she researches love social media as their core principles overlaps with the design of the media: connecting horizontally (or democratically), open and diffuse networks. Though of course this ignores the fact that the platform is often proprietary technology…
  • Diminishing returns on twitter – too much tweeting
    • She notes how impact can be watered down, so they sometimes run a shared twitter account and votes in the morning about what will be tweeted in order to reduce ‘noise’.  Compare withe vast, unorganised melee of voices in I.C.
  • Questions force them to consciously describe what they are doing.
    • Important to note how ideas and behaviour might not be analysed prior to researcher’s questions… and answer might not be fully formed.
  • The terror of missing something important
    • I have this, all the time!
  • Slippage between contextualization and narrativation (buying into the story we are being told)
    • Hard to divine true story, but best not to assume everything we are reading is the ‘truth’
    • Contextualize one tweet to another to deal with narrativation
  • Heraclites same river twice
    • Using the following Heraclites quote, Dr Ann Alexander explained that the viewer changes and the viewed changes.  Social media formats will change and develop and even static websites change over time.


  • “Everything on the Internet is traceable,  except when you want to find it” Dr Ann Alexander
    • A version of Sod’s Law!
  • Q of ownership and control
    • Something to bear in mind (see proprietary technology) when copying material.
  • Principal of “do no harm”
    • Should underpin research. Even when not seeking consent, or dealing with implied consent, we should seek first to do no harm. Or as my supervisor says, we should try to be good humans in our dealings with research subjects.
  • Issue of magnification in social media – IC not so prevalent offline nb free listing work
    • A small piece of information, gossip or data can go viral on Social Media and be more impactful than a small piece would be in the ‘real world’.   In the case of the I.C. my free listing work at MBS fairs has so far shown a lack of knowledge about the subject.  Its easy to conflate the large number of hits from a google search with a large offline knowledge.  I’m going to do some work with Google Trends to track the relative interest in the I.C. against more established terms like New Age.

I think I’ll leave my notes there and pick up on some of the other themes we discussed in my next post.

Popular or Scholar?

I’ve been thinking a little about writing style lately, as a paper I presented at the BASR conference has been getting some attention and I’m working it into a publishable piece.  My supervisor hasnt read the expanded version yet, but he read the conference paper (as rough as it was) and his position is that it isnt scholarly enough – that its more like an after dinner discussion point (ouch!).

This of course challenges me to rework it into something suitably scholarly, but it may well be that the argument itself is just not scholarly enough.  And my supervisor, knowing that I will be applying for fellowshios and postdocs, is warning me against publishing for publishing’s sake and not getting quality work out there that committees can judge me on. I understand his concern, but there is also something very nice about being ‘popular’.

What I do, the areas I research, almost always make people say ‘Oooh, how interesting’. Last night we had a welcome back returning grads dinner in my college and I spent a fair bit of time explaining to other grads what an Indigo Child is, how many Jedi there actually ARE, and debating the merits and demerits of the Church of Scientology (I did also find out more about nano-bots, the current trends of thought in the study of Classics, and admired rather some lovely artwork, so it wasnt just me rabbiting on!

I also think however, that working on a popular subject is a little like having your religious beliefs inspired by pop-culture.  However serious you are, and how ever seriously you take the subject, the nature of the origins of what you do can trivilise what you are doing to other more serious academics (not including my supervisor in that comment, and he may well be right!).  So maybe I need to x amount more serious and scholarly than the average academic Joe to counter balance that.  But my natural inclination is towards public accessibility and communicating what is going on in these fields in an appealing way.  My presentations often have visual jokes in them, the titles to my papers are often attention grabbing or pun-ish (e.g. my new paper is called, “See Mom it is Real”: The UK Census, Jediism and the Problem of Really ‘Real’ Religion”…). 

I may have a problem…




In a moment of serendipitous coincidence I had just decided to write something about hashtags and Twitter when my cousin posted this video on Facebook of Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake showing us how dumb we sound when we use hashtags.

To some extent I agree with my good friends J and J, using too many hashtags is perhaps a sign of including one’s self in a peer led trend of hashtagging rather than actually using a hashtag to join in with a conversation.  By which I mean a hashtag that is so unique that you are the only one using it means that you are in a community of one. But the reverse does apply, using a hashtag can be a  means of community affiliation.

Take this example from my own social media use.  And I use social media… a lot.  My favourite hashtag is #PhDchat where other PhDs in numerous fields post their queries, thoughts, links to blogs and statements about how their day has been.  When I talk to non-Twitter users about Twitter the most common reason they give for not using it is that they dont care what Joe Public had for his lunch.  Fine, I say, dont follow Joe Public, follow Joe *insert your interest here* and find out what he’s being doing lately that is relevant to YOUR interests. So when a PhD posts on #PhDchat about having a crappy writing day I know that there are others in the same boat. Or even better when  a PhD posts about how they managed to work their way out of a crappy writing day I have some tips and tricks to try for myself.


And of course, I use social media for research on New Religious Movements online. And its important to note that hashtagging a post with a religion’s name can be a way of affiliating to that community and the conversation around it.

I obviously keep track of anything #indigochildren.  But I also follow #jediism, #scientology, and search for others as and when.  By doing this I have come across several interesting trends I would not have noticed otherwise, one of which is informing a paper and the other will most likely have to take up most of a chapter in my thesis.  By following the worldwide conversation I am getting to hear what people think about these topics.  I am also noticing HOW they use the social media form.  For example, Twitter allows space for 140 characters, but I have noticed a large number of people JUST posting “Indigo Children” (only 14 characters).  Why is this?  Is it a form of shout out, a way of getting attention for the idea that they are exploring?  Is it a way of identifying themselves publically as Indigos? Is it a way of starting a conversation? I am contacting people who have done this to see what they say, and this will be an interesting area of social media use to explore further.


So J and J, yes I enjoyed your video, but there is more to hastagging than just following a trend.  But it was #lol. #sofunny. #andIlikedhowyoumadethehashtagswithyourhands.

I’d Like to Thank the Academy….

I’m cheating a little bit today and posting the report on the BASR/EASR I wrote for my college funding but I’ve added a few bits here and there, especially in the gratuitous thank you section… but I did genuinely have a lovely time and there are a lot of people who made that possible…

WARNING: You are entering a link heavy zone!

ImageAny excuse for a picture of Link!


I arrived in Liverpool on Tuesday 3rd September after a four hour journey involving two taxis, two trains and a tube, knowing full well that 1) the journey back would involve yet another train and 2) that the British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR) conference is well worth the effort.

This year the conference was hosting their European sister organisation, the EASR, and the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). That alone promised a wide variety of papers and scholars, but having attended the two previous BASR conferences I knew that the conference attracted the very best in British scholars already.


On the Tuesday my main priority was registering and meeting up with a local interviewee for my PhD research on the Indigo Children and the New Age. The first of the papers would be the next day, apart from Maya Berger’s (President – EASR) keynote on the Ramayana’s migrations and mutations, as per the theme of the conference. Linda Woodhead also presented in the evening on the findings from the UK’s Religion and Society Programme.

On the Wednesday I started the day with a panel on Scientology and the Freezone, featuring James R.Lewis of Tromso University. As I am working on a book chapter investigating online conflict using Scientology and its schisms as a case study this was particularly useful. After a tea break, I chose a panel on contemporary Paganism, another research interest, but nine other panels were also available on such disparate subjects as Orthodox Nationalism, Homosexuality, Global Islam, and the Census. In fact, after lunch, I gave the first of my two papers during another panel on the UK Census:   “Blame Sheila: The 2011 UK Census, ‘Other Religion’ and the Rhetoric of Narcissism” which used Jediism as a case study for responses to ‘Other’ religions. As there was also a third panel on the Census, this seems to have been of great interest to religious studies scholars and it will be a shame if the religion question is removed, or the Census abandoned as has been suggested.

That evening we had Graham Harvey’s (President – BASR) key note speech on the mutations that need to take place in our understanding of ‘religion’.    This illuminating speech was followed by the Religious Studies Project’s annual gameshow involving some of the elder statesmen of the BASR, this year based on the TV show, ‘Pointless’. Special mention must be given to the hosts, David Robertson and Chris Cotter for showing up the gaps in knowledge amongst BASR members who answered the questionnaire the game was based on.  I for one completely failed to recognise Dorothy Martin from the small UFO-cult in Festinger’s study, When Prophecy Fails, something I have done quite a bit of work and teaching on… and my supervisor has just published a book on.  Oops!


On the Thursday I decided to start my morning with some Heavy Metal , as you do, and went to a panel called “God Listens (to Slayer)”.  Interestingly enough, Drone Metal (discussed by Owen Coggins, OU) was actually quite soporific… After this I went to a panel based around the new book on Non-Religion and Secularity.  This was a very popular panel, with people willing to sit on the floor to attend, which goes to show the level of interest in the developing field of Non-religion and Secularity studies, represented at Cambridge and Kent by Lois Lee.  Amusingly, I asked a question about respondents to a survey who had put Jedi as a satirical answer, and I was pleased to have my own research on the subjects cited back to me!  Kim Knott’s keynote that evening on ‘Religion, Migration and Integration’ introduced a more spatial approach to the study of religion I had not considered as my research is more a-spatial and internet based. And then of course there was the Gala Dinner and some academics dancing to a Beatles tribute band… perhaps the less said about that the better!


On the last day I attended a panel on New Religious Movements and was very interested to hear about the ‘Jesus of Siberia’ who is leading a religious community in the wilderness. And then after more tea came the final panels of the conference.  These included one on Religion and Conspiracy Theories were I presented my second paper, this time on my thesis research: “Big Bad Pharma: New Age Biomedical Conspiracy Narratives and their Expression in the Concept of the Indigo Child”.  Ethan Quillen’s (conjurer of atheist conceptions) use of Donald’s Rumsfeld’s categories of knowledge to define atheism was amusing and illuminating.  Thanks to David Robertson of Edinburgh (Professor of archaeology, expert in the occult and acquirer of rare antiquities…) for organising this panel and asking me to be on it, and to Stef Aupers of Erasmus for chairing.

Thanks also to ‘Tylor Guy’ and ‘Phenomenology Guy’ (Liam Sutherland and J.D.F.Tuckett) for being so entertaining… to Knut Malvaer and Margrethe Loov for inspiring new research methodologies for my own PhD… to David Wilson for responding to my research requests via Twitter…  to Stephen Gregg and his floral shirt for organising the whole shindig… to Eileen Barker of INFORM, Jim Cox, Dawn Llewellyn, Wee Beth, Jaspreet Kaur, Suzanne Owen (The Doctor), Teemu Taira, George Chryssides, Abby Day and many many others for some really interesting conversations over the course of the conference…

Looking forward to next year!

Enough is Enough

My lovely childminder is taking the next couple of weeks off and heading to the crazily hot climes of Turkey.  I really dont resent her having this time off.  I’ve looked after my son. I cant imagine looking after him and four toddler clones at the same time, with the same demands, nappy changes and tantrums x 5.


But this does mean my days are about be all about the mum part of being a PhD mum.  And the PhD? Well, I’m going to try and work in the evenings.  No seriously, dont laugh.

Anyone who knows me knows that my evenings since Henry was born have mostly involved sitting down with an exhausted sigh and falling asleep in front of the Mentalist or Game of Thrones.  I’ve tried working in the evenings, I really have.  For one week before a conference when Henry was 7 months old I was writing in half hour blocks between cries as he REALLY slowly learnt how to stay asleep.  (By the way, why are human babies the only creatures who need to learn how to go, and stay, to sleep!?!).

I will have to start drinking red bull again, just like I did during exam term as an undergraduate. 

But the biggest problem I have (apart from trying to stay awake) is all the paragons of work ethic I have as examples to beat myself up with.  First there’s my mother. Three kids, on her own, part time job, then a full time one, and a clean and tidy house.  My mother in law, two kids and a husband, factory job working 18 hours a day, exceptionally clean and tidy house (not sure if I entirely believe this one, or the denials from my husband that she had family help. 18 hours! Really?!?!). My aunt and uncle, two masters/one PhD, two children WHILE renovating a house. When my single/no kids cousin complains about working for an MBA he gets reminded of this.  When I cant work out when I can possibly do a PhD, look after Henry around his childcare, AND be the kind of mother who makes fresh organic meals in an immaculate kitchen while wearing full make up and lovely hair.  I have examples to measure myself up against and find myself wanting.


I read this article recently, which resonated for me:

‘We live in a culture with a strong sense of scarcity. “We wake up in the morning and we say, ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ And we hit the pillow saying, ‘I didn’t get enough done.'” We’re never thin enough, extraordinary enough or good enough – until we decide that we are. “For me,” says Brown, “the opposite of scarcity is not abundance. It’s enough. I’m enough. My kids are enough.”

The Imposter Syndrome that seems endemic amongst PhDs is really a part of a wider feeling of Not Good Enough that society has been sucked into.  People have argued that social media compounds this problem.  We’re never doing as much as our online friends, we are never having as good experiences, our hobbies arent as alternative or quirky, our social life as active.  Maybe, but I’ve also found a lot of honesty online as mothers (mostly its the mothers) admit that its not EASY, they do struggle to be everything to everyone.  I particularly like this blog by a friend of mine taking on motherhood and its issues from a religious angle.

I just want to keep on top of everything.  Which might mean a few less naps on the couch in the evening and a bit more of the old tappity-tap on the laptop! Though this seems more likely:



Yesterday Was a Good Day…

I spent a good few years working in the film industry as a screenwriter and script editor with only a mere modicum of success. Occasionally I would get a good commission only to be disappointed by the unprofessionalism of the person hiring me (a moan for another day…).  But it would be all too easy to blame them for me never reaching the stellar heights of the industry.  Instead I try to bear in mind the phrase I often heard at networking events: “You’re only as good as your last script”, and maybe mine werent as amazing as I hoped.


In academic writing I think that phrase holds true to a certain degree, in terms of publications at least.  But in terms of day to day writing I find that having a good day yesterday and producing something workable if not refined can actually be a hinderence to getting started the following day.  There’s an element of laurels resting, but also academic writing can be so draining that getting going again, for me at least, can be hard.

Yesterday was a good day.  I finished off a rough draft of one of my conference papers.  It still needs a lot of work, as I was mostly freewriting it and forcing myself not to edit as I went.  But its there, on ‘paper’, so to speak.  And today I need to tackle the second conference paper almost from scratch.  I have some rather random slides, but the structure’s not working, my argument’s not clear, and I have to start walking up that mountain AGAIN after just ‘finishing’ one paper.

So, I dont actually feel like I am AS good as my last piece of work.  My ‘goodness’ comes from determinadly taking those Sisyphean steps back up the writing mountain.  Here we go then…