October 2, 2015

Studying the practice of prayer worldwide

During “Why Prayer?,” the NDSP capstone conference, grantees Fareen Parvez, Shira Gabriel, and Ebenezer Obadare had a chance to sit down and discuss their research in France, the United States, and Nigeria.

Fareen Parvez, Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, discusses her research on Muslim women in France.

Shira Gabriel, Associate Professor of Psychology at State University of New York at Buffalo, talks about her work on prayer and cognition.

Ebenezer Obadare, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, describes what he means by the phrase “charismatic Islam.”

January 21, 2015

Prayer, Survivors, and the Post-Secular

For the past two years, Robert Orsi, the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, has been talking with adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse in an effort to understand survivors’ religious practices and experiences in the wake of the abuse. Here, Orsi speaks with Jennifer Lois Hahn about why sexual abuse by a priest is more than a matter of individual psychopathology; how survivors’ continued religious and spiritual engagement challenges functionalist theories of religion; and what he means when he describes survivors of clergy sexual abuse as existing at “ground zero of the post-secular.”


Jennifer Lois Hahn: People tend to see sexual abuse as an individual pathology, the problem of the priests and nuns involved. Is it something larger than that?

Robert Orsi: Clearly sexual abuse is the result of individual pathology, in the sense that there are men and women who are driven by their particular obsessions to abuse children or adolescents, and it is possible for psychologists to develop a profile of general characteristics for such individuals. On the other hand, I think it’s very important to look at the social, cultural, and in this case, religious environments within which abuse takes place, how particular environments may contribute in specific ways to the abuse, giving it meanings and lived consequences in excess of the psychological. I asked a survivor once if she thought it made sense to talk about her abuse as being in some way religious. This woman goes to church today, having returned after some time away. She’s a devout and, as it happens, quite learned laywoman. Her answer was, “Everyone who was abused by a priest was abused in a Catholic way.” So it is this Catholic way that I’m interested in. The sexual abuse is not an act in isolation from other acts, other forms of violence against children, or in isolation from the construction of the child as the object of devotional desire in modern Catholicism, and so on. There was collusion, moreover, on the part of parishioners or parish staffs, who were implicated in the abuse if only by saying nothing or looking away from what they knew well was happening, and on the part of bishops, who protected abusers or moved them from parish to parish. All the figures in these networks of collusion had Catholic reasons for what they did, their choices. Furthermore, the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by priests took place in a particular theological, sacramental, even ontological environment. The priest was a certain kind of being in Catholic theology, the other Christ (alter Christi), ranked higher than the angels because only priests are endowed by virtue of their ordination with the power to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of God. Angels cannot be ordained. So to be abused by a priest was not at all the same as being abused by a high school football coach, as awful as this is too. It was to be abused one step removed from God. And that, I think, sets clergy sexual abuse in a context that needs to be examined from multiple perspectives, including, or primarily, the religious.

JLH: In your proposal, you talked about wanting your project to assess the victim’s survival beyond the “implicitly normative terms of the therapeutic.” In what ways is the standard secular therapeutic treatment not sufficient for some of these victims?

RO: Well, there is not a single therapeutic modality in contemporary psychology, as we all know. There are many different schools of therapy, many different kinds of practice, and survivors have tried one or the other or several over time. In this sense, their experience with therapy cannot be generalized. Furthermore, I don’t think the kind of Freudian orthodoxy that dominated therapy for years, with its rigorous, insistent secularism, retains the credentialing power or authority it once did. Because most of those abused by a priest were abused in a Catholic way, as a scholar of religion, I believed I could bring analytical tools and perspectives both from religious theory and the study of history to bear that might illuminate dimensions of the abuse beyond, or in addition to, the psychological. But I have been struck by the extent to which psychological approaches, language, narratives, and so on, crowd out other idioms of understanding and theory, even among church people who are able, or enabled, by reason of this conceptual singularity to say simply, “Well, it’s a psychological issue.” Likewise, psychologists argue that the perpetrator is sick. Norwegians struggled with this question of sickness versus intention in the trial of Anders Breivik. But I have been resisting this one dimensional psychological explanation because I think it lifts the sexual abuse of children and adolescents out of history and culture, in a way that distorts its reality. At the same time, I’ve been very mindful and respectful of the fact that almost all the survivors I’ve spoken to have been in some sort of therapy and that all have benefitted from it, and also that psychological theory is essential in understanding sexual abuse. But the woman I quoted earlier about clergy abuse being always in some sense Catholic eventually had to break with her therapist because her therapist didn’t want to talk about God, and more, felt that her client’s continued attachment to both God and the church were symptoms, rather than religious choice.

JLH: That must have been painful for her I would imagine.

RO: It was. Because she loved this therapist and she was very grateful for how much the therapist had helped her, but with her devotion to God, Mary, and the saints, and her attachment to the church, she hit a blind spot with the therapist.

JLH: Along those lines, I was really struck by what you have said about survivors of clergy sexual abuse being at “ground zero of the post-secular.” Can you explain more what you mean by that?

RO: I probably should begin by explaining what I think “post-secular” means, because I think it has a wide and not always stable semantic range. After Talal Asad, the “secular” was recognized as itself a religious project, so that it began to make sense to speak of a “religious secular.” It’s also evident that the secular generated various forms of religious expression, understanding, and practice, or the secular religious. But I think what gets left out in post-Asadian accounts of religion after secularism is the enduring life of religious traditions, pre/post-secularism. The survivors I know were all involved, in one way or another, with Catholicism. I make no claim that this is true of all survivors of clergy sexual abuse. But it was true of the ones I have spoken to. So when I say that survivors are at ground zero of the post-secular, I am talking about how survivors find themselves in a situation in which their lives are construed in a set of normative languages that serve to mask the complex realities of their biographies. Again, multiple frames are needed to approach survivors’ lives, including a robust Catholic language. These are Catholics and in many senses they remain Catholics, even when they reject the sacraments, hierarchy, and so on. Despite rejecting certain elements of the tradition, the survivors I got to know spend a lot of time talking about God, they think about the Blessed Mother and the saints, they are knowledgeable about Catholic theology, and in this way they’re not pre- or post-secular. What’s the term then? Perhaps we scholars of religion are overly confident in the reach of our theoretical language. We need to be more attentive to what ways of being are excluded, or hidden, by the terms we use. What lies on the other side of our theoretical languages?

JLH: In relation to the secular, you have written about how important the notion of real presence is in Catholicism. As I was reading that I was actually thinking about Tanya Luhrmann’s work, how difficult it is sometimes for the evangelicals she studies to find this sense of real presence in a modern society. Do you think this is different for Catholics?

RO: Almost all of the people I spoke to had grown up or had been “formed”—in the Catholic word for the processes by which children become Catholic—within the Catholic Church before or during the Second Vatican Council, when the devotional density of Catholicism was at it’s most excessive. The world of their childhoods in the mid-twentieth century could not have been more enchanted, and this was the world that Catholics took as real. For a book to be published soon by Harvard University Press, tentatively titled History and Presence, I am working on a chapter on Catholics and the dead. The dead are present in everyday life to Catholics in all sorts of ways; the boundary between living and dead is porous. In an article I cite from the 1950s popular Catholic press, a priest says that he really likes old ghost and horror stories because he thinks they say more about reality than modern accounts of death. Such tales were truer to Catholic ontology. To the Catholics who grew up in this world, whose bodies, imaginations, minds, relationships had all been made and remade to this reality—not that they were passive in this process—enchantment is given, taken for granted. It is both given and special, it is in their bodies as well as their minds.

JLH: Do you think that having grown up with this enchanted ontology eventually helps survivors to move on from the abuse because they already know how to draw comfort from religion and spirituality?

RO: Survivors would not say that they’ve moved on. This is one of the great lessons of this project for me. As one person I spoke to put it, is there ever really an “after” to the abuse? I’ve said that I thought that as a scholar of religion I had something necessary to contribute to understanding the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. That said, I also anticipated that the clergy sexual abuse crisis, as history and personal reality, and what survivors had to say about it, could speak to me as a scholar of religion, and I might learn something about religion itself that would allow me to open up some theoretical possibilities in the study of religion more generally. One of the things I have found consistently among survivors is the resistance to closure. This is why the word “comfort” is not really appropriate either. If comfort implies an end, or if it means any sort of ultimate peace, then it’s the wrong word for survivors. Functionalist views of religion—and most theories of religion are functionalist—break against the experience of the survivors because they did not encounter a God that made them comfortable, that provided order or meaning. Nor do they speak about a world put back together again when they turn to God later in their lives. The survivor I spoke about before refers to herself as a resurrected wound. She remains a wounded person, but she’s resurrected. Sometimes I think the most religions offer is scar tissue. This survivor also says everyday she has to make a choice between light or dark, between what she calls the abyss or life.

JLH: The issue of the interplay of agency and structure in religious life has been a central feature of your work over the years. Can you talk more about how this dynamic plays out in the ongoing process of dealing with abuse?

RO: The short answer to your rich question would be that survivors, like the rest of us, are subject of/subject to our histories. I think it’s tempting to many to tell the life stories of men and women abused by priests as being going from victim to survivor, which is another way of saying from “subject to” to “subject of.” But the from/to language obscures a more complex reality, which is that survivors are always moving back and forth between these positions, and they know it. This is how they talk about their own lives. The longer answer requires a discussion of how survivors come to the recognition that they are both actors and acted upon, which I think of as a realization of the tragic nature of human existence. Maybe I was attracted to this project in the first place because I have a tragic view of history and culture myself, a position for which there are multiple sources, from psychoanalytic theory, post-World War II social theory, and historiography, meaning the very fact of being a historian. Many of the survivors, understandably, share it, not simply for obvious reasons, but because they have lived their lives beneath the cross, in several senses. At some point in their lives they accepted the irrevocability of what happened to them, and it was with this recognition that they became free. Almost all of the survivors I’ve spoken to had a period in their lives as young adults when they were still practicing Catholics, when, in fact, they were the best of all Catholics—dutiful and obedient. They were children or adolescents when they were abused, so practically speaking they couldn’t walk away from the church without community scandal and disapproval. But even afterwards they continued going to church and many of them described themselves as model Catholics in their 20s and early 30s. Then at some point the incongruity just broke them apart and they couldn’t do it anymore. Now they accept the fact that they were abused by priests in a church that some of them now have come to love again; but the reality of the abuse and the reality of the love are not separated into compartments. This is why the resurrected wound is such an apt metaphor. So they have moved in a way beyond absolutes. And maybe they teach us scholars of religion to be wary of imposing any sort of totalizing framework on religious practice, whether it’s the totality of power, or language, or doctrine. The challenge has always seemed to be how to account social historically, politically, and so on, for those times when the polyvalence of religious worlds gets fixed into an absolute. Survivors are the freest people I know, as I’ve written somewhere, because of the clarity of their recognition of the inevitable dual nature of human history.

JLH: You have written about some of the survivors finding an intermediate higher power in Alcoholics Anonymous. At one point you describe the A.A. God as a higher power without attributes. This struck me because I’m writing my dissertation on A.A. and I’m actually investigating what attributes people in A.A. tend to see in their higher powers.

RO: It wasn’t my judgment that this was a God without attributes. This came from one of the survivors I had spoken with, who went through A.A. and then eventually decided to move on to religious idioms more thickly conceptualized. Many of the survivors I know say that A.A. offered them a transitional God, a God they could deal with when they couldn’t deal with God. Nonetheless, they acknowledged the importance of this God who was not the God they knew but another God. People go into A.A. from particular religious traditions, which inflect this signifier, the higher power. The higher power sometimes behaved a little bit like the Catholic God among Catholics. A.A. gets taken up into other ontologies. One of my sources, for example, spoke very movingly about his A.A. sponsor, who had passed away, coming to visit him in the middle of the night, when he was frightened about something. Like many of the survivors I spoke to, this is a man whose life periodically erupts with the pain that has been attended to but does not go away. At the moment he was describing, he felt desperate about his life—then he felt a touch on his hand in the middle of the night, when he was awake, and immediately knew this was the touch of his A.A. sponsor.

JLH: One of the priests you talked to, Father Frank, said his way of dealing with the theodicy issue, why God would allow these people to suffer so horribly, was to say God had nothing to do with what happened. Do many of the survivors buy that?

RO: I think Father Frank was suggesting that it would be helpful if survivors realized this, so that they might move on from debilitating anger. But that’s his view and not all survivors would agree with it. There are long periods of time for many survivors when they wonder what God was doing when they were being abused by one of this God’s representatives on earth. This is particularly a problem because so many predator priests implicated God in the abuse. They told their victims, for instance, that God wanted them to surrender their bodies to the priest, that this was God’s gift to them. What I am about to say is a generalization I am not quite sure about yet, so I offer it as a hypothesis. That is, it seems to me that the generation of priests trained before the Second Vatican Council made greater use of the density of Catholic devotional culture in the abuse itself, whereas afterwards priests exploited some of the new possibilities open to clergy following the Council, being more socially casual and available to laity, for instance, celebrating Mass and devotions in people’s homes (which was often the immediate context of abuse). Before the Second Vatican Council, it would have been very unlikely for a priest to hang out with young teenagers. It would have been really looked at askance, for many reasons, in terms of church culture, but also, the expectations of working class and ethnic Catholics. In the history of American Catholic priests, the priests who came of age in the years just before and then after World War II, into the 1960s, were the most socially remote. But devotionalism was a domain in which the abuse could take place, and it was exploited as such. Later on, priests used the somewhat more relaxed view of the priesthood in their predatory plans.

JLH: As a final question, did you learn anything about prayer from this project that you maybe hadn’t thought about before in your career?

RO: Frank’s perspective on prayer has been very important to me. I had known, of course, about the traditions of prayer being a form of grappling or struggling with God. But the question is: how do people live inside a religious tradition? I think there’s a widespread idea that to live inside a religious tradition is to have oneself dominated by it, that the only possible way of living is obedience or surrender. But this is not always or necessarily the case, as I said earlier. Religious domination is a historical and cultural question. People inhabit a religious tradition in many different kinds of ways. They can improvise, appropriate, alter, ignore. Catholics, as they went through life—not so much as children or adolescents, but even then there were some possibilities—worked within the demands of the tradition. This is not to deny the power of the tradition at specific times and places over people. But the tradition itself is capacious enough that media exist for living both with and against it. How with/against are lived at any point is a historical question. I saw these dynamics at play in the lives of many of the survivors as they got older and contended with the wounding that had taken place in church at the hands of one of God’s agents.

September 29, 2014

Praying with the Body: An Experimental Challenge to Mind/Body Dualism in the Psychology of Religion

Mark Aveyard, an assistant professor of psychology at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, is using his knowledge of embodied cognition to study how the position and movement of the body during prayer relates to higher-level cognitive processes such as decision-making, language processing, and emotion. Aveyard, whose work is supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer Initiative, recently spoke with Jennifer Lois Hahn about the difficulties of experimental design, WEIRD research subjects, and the impact of culture on the way we think, use our bodies, and in some cases, use our bodies to think.


JLH: Could you start by explaining to someone who’s unfamiliar with embodied cognition what it is and how it differs from other models of cognition?

MA: We tend to talk about the mind in a kind of dualistic language. We tend to think of our minds as mental and our bodies as physical, and that these are separate domains. This dualism is reinforced by our religious beliefs, certainly. I think it’s reinforced partly because it’s useful to think of things in that way and by the fact that when we compare ourselves to many animals it does seem that we have these certain mental capacities that are extremely sophisticated. It’s very tempting to think of these as being almost disembodied, as being part of our human spirit in a way. That dualism has often carried over into more academic theories about the mind as well. Not that people are talking about souls and spirits any more, but they are talking about representations in the mind that are disconnected from bodily processes or not closely intertwined with them. The analogy I sometimes use with my students is a scene in the movie “The Matrix.” Somebody essentially gets plugged into a computer and they learn things about the world just by having information downloaded into the brain. This idea that you can fill your brain with data in the absence of physical experience has been very influential in the way that we think about the mind academically. So you have theories in robotics and computational science that try to model the brain with purely abstract symbols, with zeros and ones. If you just think about numbers and mathematics, about concepts like time and infinity, these seem to be very disconnected from the way that we move from one room to the next, or the way that we learn to walk or ride a bike, which seem like very physical activities. So I’m sympathetic to this dualistic mindset because I think it’s useful in some ways. But where it falls short is that it underestimates the contribution that bodily experience is making to those higher-level cognitive processes. Research on embodied cognition is showing that in mental processes like mathematics, the mind is often recruiting bodily processes in order to understand the things that it needs to understand. The same thing is true for language comprehension. Using language seems to be something that is pretty disconnected from the body. A lot of people out there are working on artificial intelligence programs for understanding language, and that may be theoretically possible—embodiment doesn’t say that comprehension of language absolutely needs, in all cases and at all times, a body. But it does argue that human beings use the body to understand language and that when, say, you read a sentence about somebody walking, running, or throwing something, you are understanding that sentence not just in some kind of dictionary sense, but that you are actually recruiting your own bodily understanding of how those actions are done. So whatever neurons you are activating when you, yourself, walk or run or throw, some of that network is being recruited when you read a sentence about somebody doing the same thing. In other words, having experienced something bodily is helping you understand everyday conversation about similar actions. It wasn’t obvious to cognitive scientists many years ago that that might be the case because things like language, mathematics, decision-making, and judgment seem so abstract in their nature and disconnected from the bodily experiences. But we’ve seen a shift over the years as we’ve accumulated more and more evidence that these higher-level processes are actually actively drawing on these so-called lower-level processes of motor, sensory, and perceptual experience. 

JLH: It’s striking that embodied cognition has not been studied more widely in the context of religion.

MA: It has been studied extensively by anthropologists, especially in ethnography, but anthropologists tend to be interested in the social ramifications of those rituals and what each of those bodily movements or adornments are supposed to express in terms of the theology of the religion. There is no focus whatsoever on what the motor movement itself is supposed to contribute when people do those rituals. So if you are a Christian and you pray by putting your hands together and closing your eyes, what is that doing for you besides making you feel as if you are doing what you are supposed to be doing as you pray? If you are Muslim and you are going through the Muslim prayer ritual, which has a predefined series of steps that were outlined by the prophets, what does that contribute? It’s easy to miss the importance of the motor rituals beyond this sort of traditional standpoint because it’s easy to adopt a dualistic framework when thinking about religion. In fact, that is what most religious people tend to do implicitly when they describe the rituals that they go through in their religion. If you ask people what is important in prayer they tend to focus on the most mentalistic or even spiritualistic aspects of prayer. Not surprisingly, they don’t reflect very much on what bodily movements contribute to all of the other stuff they think is important in prayer. What is the connection between moving your body in a certain way and adopting a certain position and these higher-level cognitive processes in regard to what you’re thinking about, what decisions you’re making, what kind of spiritual feeling you’re having? What is the connection between moving your body in a certain way and your concerns for your family, for the state of the world around you, for the state of your soul? 

JLH: How did you go about trying to answer such complex questions experimentally? 

MA: In the basic paradigm, we bring participants into the lab and tell them they’re going to be doing a very simple exercise study. In fact, half of the participants will be going through a series of motions similar to those they go through in their prayers within their religion. The other half will be going through a series of motions that are not related to prayer in their religion. We expect that just going through these motions without being aware of their religious nature will have some effect on the next task that they do in the experiment. What we want to see is that they show stronger religious cognition when they’ve gone through motor movements that are associated with prayer versus movements that are not associated with prayer. It’s important that they make no connection between the movements that they did earlier and the measurement that we’re conducting. When we first started out, the problem was that when they were going through the movements themselves they were becoming aware that this must have something to do with religion. So we really struggled to create procedures that were authentically religious where the motor movements corresponded to prayer movements in Islam but were not so obvious that people would become aware of it. That was actually much more difficult than I imagined. We wanted to show that just doing something physically, even if you’re not even thinking about what that’s associated with, can influence subsequent religious thinking—that the body, just in it’s own capacity, can influence cognition in some surprising ways. So that’s why we wanted to isolate that, the influence of those motor movements.

JLH: You conducted a number of different experiments to try to shed light on how those motor movements affect cognition. Can you tell me more about some them and what you found?

MA: In one experiment participants were asked to look at a series of words on screen and memorize them. Most of these words were non-religious words, but we threw in a small subset of religious words. While they were memorizing these words, they were either holding their hands up in a way that corresponded to the first part of the Islamic prayer ritual or in a way that did not. Then we had them take a break for a moment and we came back and we presented another series of words and asked them to press a button in order to indicate whether that word was present in the original set or not. While they responded to these words they adopted the original position that they had adopted in the first part of the experiment, either congruent or incongruent with prayer. What we found is that when they adopted a congruent position, both in the training and the test phase, they were much faster to respond to religious words that had been present in the original phase—more so than the words that had nothing to do with religion. We also found that those in the incongruent condition, who were adopting a position that is not consistent with the first part of the Islamic prayer ritual, were responding slower to the religious words. This seems to indicate that the position in which they are holding their hands is slowing them down because it’s inconsistent with the associations they have made over the years between the words that we are presenting on screen in Arabic and the position that they should be in. It’s as if their mind thinks, “I’m seeing a religious word on screen, but I feel like I should be in a different bodily position when I’m responding to that word,” and so it takes just a little bit longer for their minds to adjust to that and then to say, “Oh, yes, this is a religious word that I saw earlier in the first part of the experiment.” We followed that up with another study where we had them adopt the same positions, congruent or incongruent with Islamic prayer, and this time, instead of having them respond to words they saw in the training phase, we presented them with incomplete words on screen and asked them to fill in the last letter to complete the word. So they might see the letters G-O on screen, and then a blank, and they could fill it in with a word that wasn’t religious, like GOT, or they could fill in that word with a religious word, which would be GOD. What we find is that when they are holding a position consistent with the Islamic prayer ritual, they complete that task with religious words more often. So what we’re showing is that just by being in a certain type of physical position, it’s as if you are preparing your mind to think religiously. It may be that one of the core functions of using the body in religious rituals is a way of preparing yourself to be in the mindset that you need to be in in order to satisfy the general function of your religion.

JLH: Where does culture fits into all of this? The cognitive science of religion is often criticized for being too universalistic, for not giving enough consideration to the effects of culture on cognition.

MA: I think culture is a big challenge for embodiment researchers. Everybody in every culture has a body. By and large, the vast majority of human beings walk upright and have two legs, two arms, ten digits and so on. Because of this, we tend to assume that a lot of these embodied processes in cognition must be universal and must develop in very similar ways. I was just in the Netherlands presenting the results of some of my work on the SSRC project. Of course you notice when you’re in the Netherlands that lots of people ride bikes. Where I work in Dubai, virtually nobody rides bikes. So there may be these cultural differences in terms of the types of motor movements you do, but the assumption is usually that the rules that the brain follows to connect motor movements to higher-level processes like language comprehension or decision making must be universal. I don’t think we should be making that assumption. I think that’s something that’s going to have to be demonstrated empirically. It could be that embodiment is very flexible culturally and that the cultural differences between the way people use their bodies has a very big impact on higher-level processes. For instance, there are some cultures where people are used to thinking in terms of arithmetic operations and there are some where that’s just not the case. Not only does that make for a large cultural difference and important psychological differences but maybe that’s also connected to the motor behaviors and sensory perceptual experiences that people grow up with in those cultures. I don’t know. I think we need to be careful about it. Given that cross-cultural differences in cognition have been revealed to be fairly significant in many cases, I think that embodiment researchers need to think carefully about the role of culture in embodiment. I don’t have a theory of that yet, but it is something that I have been thinking about.

JLH: How do you think that embodiment researchers might better test for the effects of culture?

MA: When it comes to religion, the big challenge for psychology right now is just to get out there and do research in different religious contexts—to study non-Western and non-monotheistic religious traditions in more depth in order to test out theories on subjects other than the typical American college student. Also, the challenge is to conduct more international collaboration projects and to try to put some more of the psychology of religion into the replication projects that are going on in psychology right now. That’s easier said than done. There’s a little bit of an irony here in that to establish a lab in a culture that isn’t represented very well in psychology is very difficult, because these are often cultures that do not have the sort of Westernized values that help build up research universities in the first place. So if a culture doesn’t value psychology and doesn’t fund it, and if people aren’t going to university and choosing to major in psychology, it’s pretty difficult then to have a presence for psychological research in those contexts. There’s a lot of criticism about WEIRD psychology, the fact that psychological studies tend to rely on subjects that are from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. The idea is that most of our participants are these WEIRD participants who are not like most people in the world. That’s true with psychology of religion as well. I think there’s been a lot of criticism about that, particularly in social psychology, but I think it’s actually much harder to do research in other contexts, and I say that partly from personal experience.

JLH: Can you talk a little bit about your experience working in Dubai and how living in the Middle East has changed your view on prayer?

MA: After I moved to Dubai, the experience of cultural difference really inspired me to think about conducting research there on culture and specific aspects of culture, like religion. For nearly all of my students, religion is an important aspect of their lives, either as something that they follow in a very traditional sense or as something that they are sort of exploring in a more individualistic way. I had so many conversations with students in my first few years there about religion and culture that I started asking myself why I wasn’t doing any research on those topics. I also saw an opportunity to conduct research in a setting that virtually nobody else was conducting research in. When I first started doing research on psychology of religion about three years ago, I didn’t know of anybody else in the Arab world who was doing this type of research experimentally. Since then, I’ve seen a couple papers coming out from other researchers in the Middle East and North Africa, but it’s a large area of the world, in which there are very few psychology labs and a lot of instability, so it’s hard to attract people to this part of the world to set up a lab and commit to cross-cultural research.

Living in Dubai has changed my view of psychology in general. I have a much greater appreciation for the power of culture in a way that I think I would not have appreciated if I had moved to London or Berlin or some place where there was a lot of common cultural currency between my place of immigration and my place of origin in the United States. The power of culture in everyday thinking and decision-making and emotional life has struck me as being a much bigger deal than it’s typically regarded as in psychology, particularly in cognitive psychology, where universalist assumptions are predominant.

September 11, 2014

Pentecostalism in the Global South—New Film Captures Stories of Indian Converts

Savitri Medhatul is a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker whose latest film, “And All God’s People Said…”, follows the small, but rapidly growing population of Pentecostal-Charismatic converts in India. Medhatul, whose work is supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer Initiative, recently spoke with Jennifer Lois Hahn about the complexities these self-described “believers” face in a majority Hindu society, their innovative use of technology to spread the gospel, and the advantages and limitations of the medium of film for capturing their stories. 


Jennifer Lois Hahn: One of the things I really liked about your proposal is how you talk about prayer as a desire for change, both personal and societal. Could tell me about how you came to conceive of it that way?

Savitri Medhatul: I started going to these churches because of my husband. He and his family belong to a believer church. My in-laws wanted me to get exposure to the church. In this church, giving testimony is a very big activity. I would listen to people’s testimonies and what they were sharing in the church meetings. In India, a huge percentage of people are first generation converts. They’re not from Christian families, they’re not from believer families, but at some point in their lives they have made a choice to become a believer. Going from a majority religion to a minority religion is always a very interesting choice. They would say in their testimonies, “Since I have started going to church, this has happened and that has happened and in this way my life has changed.” So those testimonies actually got me interested in knowing a little more behind the story and how people perceive change in their lives. Would it have just happened anyways? Was it really because they started coming to church? It does happen, because you start believing in a certain values system, your perspective changes.

JLH: What are some of the problems that people bring to the church? What is motivating them to want to change?

SM: Church almost works like an alternative to going to a psychiatrist many times. People who are depressed, people who are suicidal, people who have issues with their business, in their marriage, people who are just looking for certain spiritual answers which they are not able to get in other ways of praying or other beliefs. Illness is a big reason, because healing is very important in Pentecostal and believer churches. Many times, people who come to church have been brought by their neighbor, friend, or relative who is already a member. That person will tell them, “You have tried everything. Why don’t you come to my church? I promise you that in Jesus’s name you will be healed.” 

JLH: Why do you think converts feel they cannot find this kind of support and healing in the Hindu tradition?

SM: Most of the people that I spoke to had at some time in their life reached a stage where they were depressed, where they were not getting the outputs they expected from life. They were searching for an answer to “Why is everything going wrong?” And they were not able to find it in a temple and whatever pujas (Hindu prayer rituals) they were doing were not effective. The Pentecostal practices are completely different from Hindu religious practice. There is no idol worship. There are no elaborate rituals. It feels a lot more spiritual. They needed an extremely drastic change. If you go from one temple to another things don’t change as much. Sometimes you need that jolt of extreme contrast in your life.

Also these believer churches are actively involved in helping the poor denomination of the society with infrastructure such as education, work, and food, for which the state is not able to match the need. These churches are able to fill smaller gaps, maybe not at the very wide scale, but in their own small ways. When basic needs are fulfilled people see it as a kind of blessing from a god and that also motivates them into believing in this god. The fact is that the god that gives me answers and the god that provides for me is the god that I choose.

Another difference is that there is a lot of physical contact and direct person-to-person connection in Pentecostal prayers that is not present in Hindu prayers where the connection is with the idol or the middleman who is the priest. Whereas in a believer church I am actually feeling you. I’m either holding your hands or putting my hands on your head or your shoulder. I’m holding you and I’m actually looking at you. There is no middleman. There are no other kinds of representation or symbols. It is directly between two people or you and god the almighty, which is an abstract space. You’re not praying in front of a cross, statue, or photograph of Jesus. So I think that this extremely personalized experience might be attracting people. There’s also definitely a certain kind of break in the whole formality of prayer. In believer church when there is praise and worship people are singing and jumping and dancing. I think it’s a very liberating experience for people to express their bodies like that.

JLH: Can you tell me a little bit more about the relationship between Pentecostal-Charismatics and other religions in Mumbai?

India is a secular country, but some of the states in India have issued anti-conversion acts. Some say no one should be given any incentive for conversion, that there should not be any force, that you can only convert if you feel the need from internally. Many church activities can be interpreted as forceful conversions. So those acts are used in many states to prosecute church members and there are certain incidences of violence against believer churches in these states. But the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is, does not have an anti-conversion act. The church population there is in such minority.

Another interesting thing is that in India many people live in joint families and many times only one or two members of the family have joined the church and other members of the family are still following their old religion, still doing the pujas and everything regularly. You can’t just pick up Hindu idols and throw them out because for all you know your mother and father are still praying. So in that given space what does one do? That I found very interesting, how people find solutions to these kinds of problems. Some say, “Ok fine, if you want to do your puja then you do it in your room and don’t ask me to participate in it. And you will do your thing and I will do my thing. And if you want to do any big ritualistic puja in the house, please excuse me, I will be out of the house that day.” These kinds of territories and borders are negotiated within a family because not everybody is a believer and there are two different kinds of beliefs and rather drastically contrasted ways of praying among the family members.

JLH: I want to switch gears a little bit and have you tell me more about your choice to work in the medium of film. In the U.S., at least, we have a tendency to think of prayer as a private, internal thing that would be difficult to capture on camera.

 SM: It was a little difficult because even in India when people are praying many times it is done in their room alone. But thankfully in believer church the prayers are very vocal. Even if they are praying alone in their rooms, they are speaking out the words of the prayer. So the way these people pray helped me to do my filming. There is a lot of speaking in tongues. There are a lot of gestures. There is a lot of energy. You can feel that energy in the room. So these are the aspects which I think can be captured with an audiovisual medium, because then you actually get to see what is happening rather than just somebody narrating a scene.

At the same time film as a format has its own limitations. It has its own structure. You have to develop characters in a certain pattern. I can’t make a four hour film—it would just be too much to watch. There is only so much information you can give. Also, information given in film is more experiential than analytic, especially the kind of films that I make. There is a lot of sharing of experience rather than some expert discussing how these things are. The way I see it is that my film could be a starting point for a discussion where you watch things, you experience them along with the characters and then maybe go read more analytical and detailed stuff on it. Also, in a film there is a lot of information which is given just in the visual sense. Either you get it or you don’t get it. Right now in this film, I have a lot of footage of Mumbai and there is a lot of visual imagery and icons that just pass by you while you’re watching the film. Now if you’ve not been to Mumbai you might miss these cues. So the experience and the understanding that each member of the audience would get from a film differs depending on their previous exposure. I can’t sit and explain every shot in the film because that’s just the limitation of the format. Ideally I see my film as a collaborative work with those doing academic research, such as my friend Nate Roberts who works with Max Planck Institute right now doing research on a Tamil speaking believer community in Mumbai.

JLH: Can you talk about how your subjects interact with media and technology and other aspects of modern life?

It’s very interesting. The believer churches do not accept people going to pubs or restaurants or watching certain shows on TV or certain films and the whole cultural exchange that takes place through these channels. They’d like to stay in a much more closed community, keeping you away from evil influences. At the same time, believer churches are one of the most modern in terms of use of technology in order to spread the message. At every church, even the smallest, you see a basic sound system or a screen on which something is shown. One of the characters in my film is a pastor in a Banjara church. Banjaras are a nomadic tribe in India. Most of the members of the Banjara church are illiterate and daily wage laborers, so reading the bible is not possible for them. The pastor uses a film made on the life of Jesus that’s available online and has been translated in hundreds of languages including the Banjara dialect to tell them the stories of the bible. I find that an extremely interesting use of modern technology. They use these films to spread the message and at the same time, they are asking them to watch the Jesus film but not watch something else. So they are using the same technology, but kind of censoring the content. Also they have something called MegaVoice, which is a device like the iPod that runs on solar power. They have recorded the entire New Testament translated in the Banjara language and a few Banjara believer songs. These devices are being distributed free of cost to people. In India, because people are converted from other religions there is a lot of cultural baggage that also comes with it. When you become a believer you don’t leave your culture completely outside the door. So there’s a very, very thin line between what is accepted and what is not, and what becomes a part of Hindu religion and what becomes a part of Indian culture. What things you leave outside of church and what things you take in with you becomes a very interesting question.

JLH: Can you tell me more about your personal experience with religion?

Honestly, I grew up in a very non-religious family. My parents are atheists. So whatever Hindu religious practices I followed were at my grandparents’ house because they used to have all these pujas (Hindu prayer rituals). At that time it was more about having fun and eating good food rather than the rituals because we were never really expected to do those things. And in my own house, we didn’t have a single idol because my parents didn’t really believe in any kind of god or any kind of ritualistic practices. I did have exposure to church because I went to a Christian college, so I was quite open towards this idea of going to church. I really enjoy the music, and I like that atmosphere. I would not say that I’m an atheist, but I still don’t follow a particular religious belief either. I like to pray. We all say, “Oh my god, please no traffic today.” [Laughs] That’s the space that I personally operate in.

January 30, 2014

Children, Social Cognition, and the Divine

Rebekah A. Richert is an Associate Professor of Psychology, and director of the Childhood Cognition Lab, at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on the cultural and social-cognitive dimensions of children’s understandings of religion, fantasy, and media. Richert’s latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, examines how prayer practices and instruction shape children’s concepts of God and supernatural causality. On a recent afternoon, I spoke with Richert about her current work and its implications.

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Steven Barrie-Anthony: Your research looks at how children develop their understandings of religion, fantasy, and media. Why religion and fantasy?

Rebekah Richert: There are parts of our psychological experience that are captured by our religious beliefs, by our imagination and creativity, our fantasy lives, that are rarely able to be tapped into when we look at other more basic types of psychological processes. I’m interested in trying to understand some of the bigger and more abstract types of thought processes that we develop. And a way of doing that is studying how we think about abstract meaning-laden systems like religion.


March 6, 2013

Prayer, Imagination, and the Voice of God—in Global Perspective

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her work explores how people come to experience nonmaterial objects such as God as present and real, and how different understandings of the mind affect mental experience. She is the author, most recently, of When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012), which The New York Times Book Review called “the most insightful study of evangelical religion in many years,” and of other books including Of Two Minds (Knopf, 2000), The Good Parsi (Harvard, 1996), and Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard, 1989). Her latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, builds on and extends her research for When God Talks Back, taking her to India and Africa. On a recent rainy afternoon in Palo Alto, I spoke with Luhrmann about her work and its new directions.

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Steven Barrie-Anthony: In the final chapter of When God Talks Back, you argue that God for evangelicals is not a rejection of modernity but rather an expression of what it is to be modern. How is this the case?

Tanya Marie Luhrmann: I think that the two big characteristics of modernity are the availability of science, and pluralism. And these make the uncertainty of your own cognitive position much more available to you. So using the imagination to make God real helps to make God real. Doing this also has characteristics that we associate with postmodernity—the playfulness, the uncertainty, the sense that there is a there there but maybe we don’t really get to it directly. From what I know of early Christianity, the idea of seeing through a glass darkly was extremely salient in the first and second centuries, was less salient to a faith that was very confident, and is highly salient to modern people. It allows you to imagine God walking by your side. Are you just making that up or is it real in the world? C.S. Lewis is sure that God is real, but then, he’s also writing a novel about it. The availability of disbelief is a condition of modernity. You cannot but be aware that other people think differently—that they may disbelieve your belief. And the evangelical walking with God is a sort of suspension of disbelief, which is not really relevant unless disbelief is relevant.