European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) Conference in Leuven, 2017

by Teemu Taira and Suzanne Owen

The annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) took place in Leuven, Belgium, in September 2017. It was organized by BABEL, the Belgian Association for the Study of Religions. With more than 500 participants, it was the largest EASR conference ever. The meetings have become bigger year after year, with Liverpool (2013), Groningen (2014) and Helsinki (2016) each larger than the last (in 2015 it was the quinquennial conference of the IAHR in Erfurt, Germany).

One of the entrances to the Groot Begijnhof in Leuven (S. Owen)

The location of the conference at a teaching hospital on the edge of Leuven was a little disappointing, but the conference pack did include a bus pass to enable us to go into town and visit some of the sites, if we wished, such as the Groot Begijnhof, once a Beguinage community, with the majority of houses dating from the 16-17th centuries, now used as university accommodation.

This year’s conference theme was “Communicating Religion”. Usually EASR meetings have quite a general theme to enable most scholars of religion to participate. As was the case in Leuven, the theme was more visible in keynote presentations than in the sessions.

Communicating, Educating

There were different ways to understand the theme: communication as a necessary concept for studying religion, communication as an exchange of messages between humans and gods, communication as transmission of tradition by oral and literary means and so on. However, there was a strong emphasis on thinking about how to communicate about religion in educational contexts, whether in schools or universities. There were four keynote presentations in the conference, delivered by distinguished scholars: Jenny Berglund, Jan N. Bremmer, Guy Stroumsa and Ann Taves. Three of the keynotes focused on education more or less directly. Although education is a crucial topic to discuss and study extensively, it was slightly surprising that none of the keynotes addressed the media as a site for communicating religion.

Session Highlights by Teemu Taira

From the sessions I shall highlight two themes that I found particularly interesting. The first of them related directly to the conference theme and dealt with communicating, educating and teaching about religion.

In a couple of sessions, including the one in which I presented, the focus was on the World Religions Paradigm (WRP) and how to avoid the most problematic parts of it in religious education (RE) and university teaching. It became obvious that the WRP was still present in the educational structures of different countries. However, scholars could have their say as committee members, textbook authors and public voices when it came to re-organizing school curricula and the content of RE in various countries. While my own paper explored the Finnish educational system from the point of view of a scholar who had recently been involved in writing an RE textbook for high school/upper secondary school, it was particularly refreshing to listen to papers that gave examples of their University undergraduate courses on how to convey the complexity of traditions and practices, rather than presenting selected religions as autonomous and homogeneous systems.

A good number of ideas were discussed; for instance, an option to use (religious) biographies as data instead of teaching the core beliefs and practices of religious traditions, having students compare textbooks about a particular religion, or exploring religious traditions in a particular locality or area. Some of these suggestions aimed to convey the complexity of beliefs and practices and fluidity of boundaries between religious traditions in particular contexts, while others focused more on the representational nature of textbooks (i.e., that textbooks are the results of selection processes and their comparison makes their selective nature visible while still providing information about selected religious traditions). What I would like to add to the list is the importance of thinking about religion and world religions as categories that include some and exclude others. One practice I have used in my teaching is in the first meeting students have to compile a list of religions that they think should be covered in the course. Then we compare the lists that usually include the ‘big five’ and a few others that vary and discuss why certain groups or traditions should or should not be part of the course. This is how we begin to contest the categories and make the selection process more reflective.

The second theme I found interesting related to the category of religion and its constructions. In a session “Religion as and beyond construction” short opening statements were followed by a panel discussion that included questions and comments from the audience. While “religion as construction” was, at least for me, not a controversial theme in itself, I was curious to hear how some participants might have argued in favour of “beyond”. Hubert Seiwert did so in his opening statement, saying that because Daoism and Buddhism had often been classified within the same category in Chinese Encyclopaedias, prior to the introduction of the term ‘religion’ to China, it provided a good case to suggest that there was religion beyond construction, without the concept. There was no time to explore the case in detail, but this example was not enough to convince me. One should demonstrate that the reason to classify Daoism and Buddhism in the same category – whatever the term used for it – is the same as to why the modern world has begun to classify them and a few other traditions or systems as religions. The example was interesting as such, but it was questionable whether it told us more than a local habit of seeing certain similarities between Daoism and Buddhism and classifying them in the same category (perhaps for some specific purposes that were not sufficiently discussed). In any case, this was a good example of what a more thorough defence of “religion beyond construction” could look like.

In her talk Paula Schrode argued that Islam was best conceptualized as a religion, rather than something else. In this short panel I missed why she thought this was the case, but one of the examples she discussed was related to the Arabic term dīn, currently translated as faith or religion. Although it was impossible to provide a full justification in a panel discussion, I felt that this was too hasty a conclusion, given that seventeenth century English translations of the Quran did not use ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ for dīn but ‘law’, and in many ways the earlier translation makes more sense. I would like to propose that scholars should not take the current translation as the best in all contexts. Instead, it might be worth taking it as an ideological claim approached with some scepticism.

“Soft constructionism” was how Robert Yelle identified his position. He was well aware that religion as a term was a historical construct strongly related to the Protestant reformation, but in addition to these historical limitations religion was limited, according to Yelle, by human nature. He argued for the importance of historical genealogies but insisted also on the need to do cross-cultural comparisons, which, he suggested, do not annul each other. While I have no reason to oppose what Yelle called the “project of anthropology” that searches for universal or quasi-universal regularities, I am not convinced that it had to include the concept of “religion” in its toolbox.

Session Highlights by Suzanne Owen

Like Teemu, I gravitated toward sessions that grappled with the study of religion itself in some way. One of these was “Revisiting European History of Religion”, with Kocku von Stuckrad regarding “Europe” as a discursive space. One of the terms bandied about the conference was “entanglement”, not least the promotion of the journal Entangled Religions at the conference, as if religions somehow became entangled, or that a religion was entangled with something else, implying “religion” was a separately-existing entity that needed to be untangled from its surroundings. A couple of the speakers also employed this term in this session. However, I found Jorg Rüpke’s contribution interesting because he shifted the view of Europe to a Mediterranean perspective, with the African continent on one side and Europe on the other. We are usually imagining Europe as centred around Germany, perhaps, but viewing it from the sea reminded us of where ideas about Europe emerged. Most of my notes on the session concerned the discussion afterward. Rüpke said “pluralism” implied pre-defined units (much as I would argue that “entanglement” does, and in the audience Taira whispered to me that Jim Beckford regarded pluralism as normative against diversity). Referring to publishing constraints, Rüpke also said a book with the title “religions” in it will sell many more copies than one with “religion”. During this session, I began to wonder why the US had “religions in America” as a popular specialism, while there was no such specialism in Europe for “religions in Europe” (at least not that I was aware of).

One other session I will mention is the one organised by Claire Wanless on “Seekership”, a term stemming from Steven Sutcliffe’s studies of the “new age”. In his paper he connected Colin Campbell’s idea of seekership to Bourdieu’s “habitus”. Another speaker, Marcus Moberg, offered “scene” as an alternative model, taken from Kahn-Harris to refer to a geographic-discursive space. In the discussion Moberg agreed that “scene” could include virtual spaces.

Ann Taves, keynote address: “Communicating about Religion/s and Other Worldviews in the Classroom: Updating the Legacy of Ninian Smart” (S. Owen)

Lastly, I would challenge Ann Taves’ suggestion in her keynote, which resurrected Ninian Smart’s idea of “worldview” as a way of going beyond the WRP in the classroom. This appears to be another “big tent” approach to the study of religion, which does not challenge the basic problem of the WRP, but only expands it to include, well, everything – if it fits some pre-defined criteria in order to be worthy of inclusion as a religion or worldview.

EASR and the European Academy of Religion

One of the hot topics at the conference was the EASR’s relation to the recently founded European Academy of Religion. The EASR’s leadership had sent out a statement earlier criticising the new initiative and was fully supported by national associations. Now that the European Academy of Religion is established, individual scholars of religion are of course free to decide whether to attend its meetings. The EASR proposed no new decisions in relation to this situation, but the discussion was lively in the meeting of the EASR’s executive committee meeting and elsewhere during the conference. The overall view was that there was no real reason to see the European Academy of Religion as a threat to the EASR, although its rather pretentious rhetoric claimed it as the leading European association for the study of religion.

Three things were emphasised in Leuven. First, there is not that much overlap between the EASR and the European Academy of Religion. In the first conference of European Academy of Religion, there were not many scholars of religion present and even fewer of those who would generally attend the EASR. However, there were plenty of scholars studying religion in other disciplines and fields of study. Second, some of the standard approaches and areas of study were not strongly represented at their conference, such as sociology of religion, psychology of religion and anthropology of religion. In that sense, the EASR has a different emphasis, although the difference is not best conceptualized as being between confessional and non-confessional study. Third, although this situation is a good reminder for the EASR to sharpen its public visibility beyond national associations for the study of religion, it is also the task of the EASR to make sure politicians, scholars in other disciplines and fields of study and the general public knows what the EASR is about and what it does.

The next annual EASR conference in June 2018 will be held in Bern, Switzerland, with the theme “Multiple Religious Identities”. The following EASR in 2019 will take place in Tartu, Estonia. In 2020 there will be the quinquennial IAHR World Congress in New Zealand.

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