March 24, 2014

French Business Bans Prayer Rooms in Bid to Uphold Secularism

French businessman Jean-Luc Petithuguenin employs more than 4000 staff, comprising 52 different nationalities, in his recycling business located in Seine-Saint Denis, the immigrant and Muslim heart of Paris.

The politically active CEO of Paprec, which counts 50 factories across France, has come up with a novel way of responding to rising political and religious extremism in France: a charter of secularism (laïcité) in his workplace. The charter, which was signed unanimously by staff and management, says it is the “duty of the employee to remain neutral when it comes to religion.” “Secularism at the company guarantees employees a common and shared reference, favoring cohesion of the company, respect for diversity and collective harmony…the wearing of all signs or clothing by which staff ostensibly manifest religious affiliation is not authorized,” the charter says.

In practice, that means banning visible signs of religious belief—such as the Muslim headscarf, known as the hijab—as well as prayer rooms.


January 24, 2014

National Spiritualism—Annie Besant in India

[Editor’s Note: Part of an occasional series about yoga and its origins.]

In 1909, noted Theosophist (and alleged pedophile) Charles Webster Leadbeater discovered the teenager Krishnamurti on the banks of the Adyar River in a wealthy Madras suburb. Convinced that here was the future “world teacher”—a vehicle for the messiah, in Theosophist lore—Leadbeater’s colleague Annie Besant became Krishnamurti’s guardian. Theosophy is a form of esoteric thought that seeks to understand human-divine connections through a mystical synthesis between ideas of Eastern and Western spiritualism. Besant became head of the Theosophical Society in Madras, British India and created the Order of the Star of the East (1911-1927) to prepare the world for Krishnamurti’s future teachings. During the same period, she co-founded the Indian Home Rule League (1916-1920), which advocated for Indian self-rule and status as a British Dominion. Part of her platform included national education programs to uncover a notion of pre-modern Indian, Hindu civilization beloved of the Theosophists, and to prepare Indian peoples for some form of self-government within what was then an informal British Commonwealth arrangement.


November 19, 2013

Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics (1966)

A self-conscious addition to the postwar surge in self-help discourse, Psycho-Cybernetics was published in 1960. Claiming to have sold over one million copies by the mid-1960s, Maxwell Maltz’s therapeutic program promised to “eradicate ‘emotional scars’ just as a plastic surgeon removes outer scars.” As cybernetics made its way into the laboratories, manufacturing centers, and imaginations of the populace, Maltz’s was a necessary update as Americans became more comfortable with their cyborg future.

The vinyl affect of Psycho-Cybernetics is palpable, as the program is peppered with common sense encomiums, references to Napoleon and Dugald Stewart, and the revelation that your nervous system cannot tell the difference between an actual experience and an imaginary one.

So put your headphones on and give a listen to this heady treatise. Move beyond the merely human, past the “hypnotized” state of the masses. Receive instruction to take charge of your interactions with the representations of self that you have already generated. This is who you are, in charge and on top—the executive warding over the vast machinery of you. This is the imagination at work—you are not a machine but rather the engineer who, by way of one’s study course in psycho-cybernetics, has learned to manipulate the self from a distance, to massage one’s interactions with others, to write the code for complete happiness, sanity, and success.

Let your creative-success mechanism take over. Transcend space and time. Transgress the limitations of death.

October 16, 2013

Is Yoga Not Even a Hundred Years Old?

[Editor’s Note: Part of an occasional series about yoga and its origins.]

In 2009, the noted Dutch anthropologist (and New Directions in the Study of Prayer Advisory Committee member) Peter van der Veer published, in the journal Social Research, an article devoted to explaining the origins of modern spirituality. Committed to Talal Asad’s call for an “anthropology of secularism” and riding on the coattails of Charles Taylor’s Secular Age, van der Veer argued that modern spirituality first emerged in the West during the second half of the nineteenth-century, as an alternative to traditional religion fueled by the “secularization of the western mind.”  In search of alternatives to institutionalized Christianity, the nineteenth-century witnessed the rise of various movements—Transcendentalism, Christian Science, Theosophy—hoping to discover a universal spirituality agreeable to the modern intellectual palate.

The desire to look beyond the conventional in pursuit of the spiritual, according to van der Veer, was enabled by western imperialism, which paved the way for Euro-American encounters with Indian and Chinese spiritualities. These were eventually reimagined and transformed to go beyond the dogmatism of Christianity. Engendered by the interaction between metropole and colony, the oppressed and the oppressor both played a part in the creation of a new spirituality—thus van der Veer’s startling conclusion that modern spirituality is incomprehensible apart from the expansion of European power. This, like much of the recent literature devoted to the anthropological turn to the secular, also suggests that contemporary notions of spirituality and religion are rooted in the not-so-distant past.

A recent Der Spiegel piece by Manfred Dworschak, entitled “Salvation Without a Savior” (Erlösung ohne Erlöser), nicely illustrates how van der Veer has recently applied these insights to the history of yoga in North America and Europe. The first half of the article centers on the significance of Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.


September 25, 2013

Wayside Crosses—Objects that Reveal and Conceal

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

*   *   *

“I forget,” said Jean-Marc. He knit his eyebrows and thought, “Actually, now that you ask me…” I waited, expecting a clarification, a long-buried recollection“I never knew. I never thought to ask.”

There are about 3,000 croix de chemin (wayside crosses) along the byways of rural Quebec. People like Jean-Marc tend to them each summer: painting, restoring, cleaning, weeding and watering the gardens at their base. Like many caretakers, Jean-Marc refers to the cross he maintains as “his.” It was erected by his grandfather in 1948 and has been on the family land for three generations. It is the materialization of a prayer, the “tangible architecture,” as Anderson Blanton puts it, of a vow. It was in this context that I posed the question to which Jean-Marc responded above: Why did your grandfather put it up? What was the vow?

In general terms, most of Quebec’s wayside crosses were constructed to mark or commemorate an event, as a gathering place for families in a rang, to fulfill a vow or to secure future protection. (A rang, literally “a row,” is a rural grouping of houses strung out in a line, usually a few kilometers long, based on the seigneurial system.) The details can be hard to come by. In the 1970s, a survey of over 2,500 crosses found that in at least 62% of cases no one knew why a cross had been erected, though it was quite recent, usually within a generation. In many other cases, the reason was vague (“a vow, I think”) with no defining details. Jean-Marc’s response, in other words, is typical. While the object is carefully maintained and recreated, the stories that cling to it, the original prayer-stories that impelled its construction, are often lost.


September 18, 2013

Master Yang’s Lingering Power

This summer I visited Mianning County (Liangshan Yizu Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, S.W. China, only 80 kilometers outside of Xichang, the capital of the Prefecture). On a beautiful mountain, called Lingshan (灵山 or Magic Mountain), one finds a huge temple visited by tens of thousands of devotees during the pilgrimage season. To get to the temple one has to climb the mountain or travel on a mule. As is typical in China, during the climb one passes several temples in a row. The first displays a huge statue of the fat, laughing Budai; there are several other Buddhist temples until one comes to the highest level where there is only a simple shrine with a little statue and the portrait of a Daoist Saint who lived there in the eighteenth century. This is Master Yang (杨祖师爷) who was born in 1748 and died in 1804, and whose body was once kept there in a mummified state until Red Guards removed and destroyed it during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. According to the abbot, Master Yang’s ashes and bones are kept somewhere else, but it is unclear when they will be brought to the temple as relic. There is a huge investment in the temple, running into millions of dollars, which according to the abbot comes entirely from devotees. The remarkable thing, however, is that the investment is going into building a Buddhist temple, while devotees come only for the shrine of Master Yang who will fulfill all wishes. They bring huge incense josh sticks and burn them in rows.


August 5, 2013

Street Prayer, Ramadan, and the Burqa: Secularism à la Française

France may have gone on holidays for the summer but public disquiet about laws banning street prayer by Muslims, and the full-face covering veil known as the niqab or burqa, has not abated.

On the eve of the traditional July vacation departure, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen received a burst of publicity as the European Union parliament voted to strip her legal immunity.

The decision paves the way for a long-awaited prosecution in France of the extremist politician, who is also a Member of the European Parliament, on charges of racial hatred.

In 2010 Le Pen notoriously compared Muslims praying in French streets—outlawed since 2011 under laws brought in by former president Nicolas Sarkozy—to the Nazi occupation.


July 24, 2013

Norman Corwin’s Radio Prayer

When Norman Corwin died two years ago this fall at the age of 101, we lost a man who not only was perhaps the most famous writer ever to be forgotten because of the medium he chose, but also an early practitioner of the oddest of modern artforms: the non-sectarian prayer.

For those of us who in the past twenty years have come to spend our waking lives with eyes fixed on glowing screens, it may be difficult to remember that there was an earlier refocusing of our culture’s collective attention that was no less revolutionary. A radio scribe who once was a household name, Corwin once described the technology he used with a phrase that today could be applied to any of the gadgets that make possible our digitally connected world: “the miracle, worn ordinary now.”

When he wrote those words, it had been just nine years since a majority of Americans began to welcome voices from beyond into their homes, less than twenty since the earliest regional “radio-phonic” transmissions, and already it seemed perfectly natural for families to sit for hours in their living rooms, ears titled toward the hearth of a talking wooden box.


May 30, 2013

Post-Secularism and Prayer

This past April, Tanya Luhrmann—the Stanford anthropologist—was invited by the New York Times to contribute a series of Op-Ed guest columns based on the recent publication of her 2012 book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann’s work has been lauded for its unusually judicious and refreshing approach to understanding the nature of American Evangelicalism; unusual because Luhrmann does not succumb to the typical secular biases and downward-looking smugness that all to often skews academic work on the subject, and refreshing because Luhrmann genuinely hopes to understand Evangelicals not simply by observing them, but also by inscribing herself within the spiritual practices of evangelical communities.                                                    

Yet Luhrmann’s Op-Ed pieces offer something more substantial than simply a prosaic description of her Evangelical encounters. They suggest rather the possibility of mutual understanding and respect between Evangelicals and secularists. In her first column, “How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect” (April 5th), Luhrmann argues that despite the common punditry of an ever-growing political divide between believers and unbelievers, these groups are tied together by similar doubts, anxieties, and yearnings. Both deal with life’s uncertainty through meditation, keeping journals, and going on retreats. The human condition, Luhrmann argues, provides a point of overlap where secularists and believers can carry on a conversation and learn from one another about their common spiritual yearnings.


March 19, 2013

Public Prayer in France, a Vexed Question in the Cradle of Revolution

Why can some believers pray in the street in France, the home of revolution and laïcité or strong state-enforced secularism, while others are forbidden?

As I wrote in my opinion column for Quartz, a new all-digital news platform published by Atlantic Media, publishers of The Atlantic Monthly, the principle of separation of church and state seems to apply differently depending on your religion.

If you are bowing down in the direction of Mecca, and uttering your daily prayers as a devout Muslim in a big assembly in a Paris street, you can risk arrest. 

But a radical group of breakaway Catholics is using prayer, and specifically prayers like the Rosary, to protest in the French street against moves to legalize gay marriage. They had legal permits to assemble in a public demonstration of opposition to attempts to give same-sex couples the right to marry. So far they have done so without any attempts by police or the executive arm of President Francois Hollande’s government to stop them. 

In contrast, Muslims lacking Mosques or perhaps in some cases wanting to challenge deep-seated public suspicion about France’s second religion after Catholicism have since 2011 had to adjust to a Nicolas Sarkozy-imposed edict pushing them off the streets.

Yet as one French law student argued in a Twitter response to my article, ‘‘there is a difference between praying one day for a cause and praying everyday in the street like it’s a mosque, don’t you think?’’

The line between acceptable public displays of religion, secularism, and illegality is not always a clear one in France. Prayer is a flash-point for deep-seated views about who has the right to express their devotion and difference in the public square.