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 🙂


A Little Experiment

I’ve been experimenting with hosting some of my teaching papers and my essays on, here.

I’m curious to see what sort of numbers I will get and what papers are more interesting to viewers.

I’m not posting anything that I am currently working on or about to turn into a more formal paper, but some of the ideas in these papers will certainly find their way into my thesis.

I’ve been very busy lately, so this is a very short post, but hopefully more soon… 🙂


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.

In Which the Author Does Some MORE Fieldwork

I attended another Mind Body ‘Soul’ Fair this weekend in Peterborough and did the same freelisting exercise as in my last fieldwork post.  Here are some of my thoughts and initial findings from this work:

1. This event was held in a conference hall on a showground and was a good ten to fifteen minutes taxi ride from the station, unlike the Kings Lynn event where the Corn Exchange was in the centre of town. This was bound to mean that less casual footfall could be expected, but that the people who made their way to this event were much more intentional and interested in the topic than casual shoppers or gawkers.  Talking to the stall holders the previous day, the Saturday, had been quieter, but the day I went, Sunday, did not seem as busy as the one day Fayre in Kings Lynn.

Interestingly the marketing called it a Mind Body Soul Event, and I am more used to seeing Mind Body and Spirit. As Spiritual is one of my terms on my freelisting leaflet I was particularly interested to see what words came out of that section.  One person I spoke to said that they were considering taking Spiritual off of their branding for their therapies.  That’s just one anecdote and hardly indicative of a general change in attitude but something of interest.


2.  Again at this fair there was a mix of stalls, both those selling items and those selling treatments or readings.  There was very little privacy for the latter, and I had to make sure I wasnt interupting a client when I approached the stall holder with my freelisting leaflet.  Only one reader, a tarot reader, had an enclosed curtained off space.  I chose stallholders again as they were relatively stationary and I prefered leaving the leaflet with them to fill out rather than standing over them.  There were about 40 stalls and some of those I recognised from Kings Lynn.  In  total I got 19 returned leaflets, slightly less than at Kings Lynn.  But my method of approach was quite chatty and time consuming so I didnt expect to hand out many.  Doing this also meant that I had a chance to make new contacts and I have two possible interviewees lined up.

3.  Like Kings Lynn the stallholders and visitors were primarily white.  There was one black stallholder selling Egyptian items such as Ankhs, bookmarks, statues and oils, two Indian stallholders jointly representing the Brahma Kumaris and another Asian looking gentleman offering massage and reiki treatments.

4. As for my word results… I got more words in response to the words “Indigo Children” this time round, though again some were not specific to the category and might have been guesses, e.g. Blue, Purple, Heart, Soul.  Several people asked me what they were.  Some answers made it clear that the writer HAD heard of them before: autism, disabled, pioneers, or the very specific “More evolved children coming into incarnation to deal with the new age”.  When it came to the words “New Age”, there were some very negative responses again:  losers, slackers, misfits, hippies, needy, sloppy and fluffy.  The worst being “smells”.  The most popular response was again Hippy/Hippies. The 1960s and travellers popped up again.  It is definitely worth bearing in mind this reaction to the term New Age as I will still probably have to use it in my descriptions of the milieu I am looking at.


Under Parenting, the word Love stormed home with by far the most responses.  But interestingly, again, words around hard work and duty appeared frequently as well as teaching and guiding.

Under Spiritual the word ‘Higher’ appeared in conjunction with other words, as in Higher Good, Higher Consciousness, Higher Power, Higher Self, suggesting a location for the spiritual at least in a metaphorical sense.  My favourite response to Spiritual was “Me ;)”

5. Someone suggested I look at the order in which the words were written down, but I cant guarantee that people followed the numbering I put on my leaflets.  But, assuming that people write left to right, I might collate all the words in the first position as they should be people most immediate responses to the terms. 

This was another very useful exercise even if my sampling is quite small.  I hope to run it another couple of times depending on what fairs I can get to.