EASR 2016 and panel on apostasy research

This year the EASR (European Association for the Study of Religion) held its annual conference in Helsinki. The four-day conference hosted a wide range of panels with different topics, included a panel on “defining apostasy and research on leaving religion” – arranged by myself and Daniel Enstedt from Gothenburg, Sweden. We were joined by Kati Tervo-Niemelä, who presented her longitudinal research on leaving church in Finland, as well as leaving church in few other countries.

The summer is time of conferences, and next one I will attend to is held in Helsinki in August (Nordic Conference for Sociology of Religion) – where we will continue with the same topic of apostasy research. Both conferences highlight one theme, of differences in leaving religion between different religions and religious groups. Hopefully we will succeed in developing our research and ideas into a book, dealing with how minority/majority positions of religious groups in society, and differences between leaving institution/tradition-centered religious cultures will affect on how and why people are alienated from religion and feel the need and motivation to resign or distance themselves from the community.

Nordic Lutheran churches are part of larger societal culture and national identity, whereas Pentecostal movements in Nordic Countries are groups to which people identify, in general, with more subjective emotions. Therefore shared experiences of societal cultural events and developments affect more leaving churches than minority religions, where individual experiences (which might deal the same issues, though) are the major denominator of why people are motivated to resign officially from religious community. However, at the same time there are similarities – both indicate that the religious community does not have a function, be it shared or individual, nor does it define their identity anymore (if it ever has).

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Holy organizations

For the past twenty years or more, Finnish Pentecostals have argued over what is better, a registered religious community or a registered religious association. Few Pentecostal congregations have registered within Helluntaikirkko, Pentecostal Church, but others still refuse to go with the development. To understand this debate one has to know the history of the Pentecostal movement in Finland. At some level it shares the story of other old Pentecostal movements – of rejection from larger and already established religious communities and of rejection of all that sounds like institutionalized church. The supporters from both sides differ in many aspects – with their style preferences, religious background of family, social class, and so on. For many Pentecostals, still, this debate is not of interest for them, some could not care less what the name of the organization is.

For some, though, the issue is of high importance. Even so that the form of organization has become sacred value, given from above. This sacred form of organization is worth fighting for in secular court, like in Pori. One active member of the congregation, who calls himself pastor, has sued the leaders of his congregation, not once but twice, over the same matter of changing the organizational form of their congregation. The procedure by which the change has been made, or tried to make, has flaws and therefore the case has its base in court. However, more interesting than the case is the very thought that somebody would go to the lengths of suing his congregation over the matter of changing organizational form.

The foundation of sacralization of the old association-organization lies in the personal experiences, especially conversion experience. Moreover, the conversion experience has in many cases been related to the formation of a Pentecostal identity as an oppositional identity to institutionalized churches. New beginning and freedom of religion and own choice have been validated by the Pentecostal identity of separation from state and church. Fear of losing this part of identity reinforces the value that has been given to it. The conversion, and salvation, is understood by Pentecostals as given from God. If the organizational form is closely knit to this experience, the sacred salvation can contaminate the social structure. Therefore the organization is not a mere matter of changing forms, but a matter of changing identity that is given from above, and is held as sacred. This short introduction of an idea or thought might help to understand the strong urge to sue one’s own congregation over a matter that sounds so frivolous.

Kuoleman etäisyys ja universaalisuus

Maailmalla matkustaessa lisämakua antavat ne hetket, jolloin pääset kurkistamaan paikallisten elämään sellaisenaan kuin se keskeyttämättömänä virtana kulkee, kaukana turistien silmien edestä. Yhden mieleenpainuvimmista hetkistä koin ollessamme pari vuotta sitten Turkissa heinäkuussa. Vuokrasimme auton ja vierailimme hieman syrjäisemmillä seuduilla, pois turistirantojen vilskeestä. Ajaessamme yhden pienen harvaan asutun kylän läpi, tien yllättäen täytti kulkue mutkan takana. Pikainen silmäys kulkueeseen paikallisti kannetun arkun eturivissä. Peruutimme auton nopeasti tien sivuun kahden auton taakse, jotta kulkue pääsisi ohitsemme esteettä.

Ensikosketus turkkilaisiin hautajaisiin oli pysäyttävä sen kaikessa yksinkertaisuudessaan. Koko kylä ja suku oli kokoontunut saattamaan vainajan ruumista hautaan. Miehet kantoivat arkkua ja kävelivät koko tien leveydellä, hiljaa. Naiset kävelivät edellä hautausmaalle, moskeijassa suoritetut rukoukset oli juuri luettu. Kontrasti hääkulkueisiin oli selkeä, torventöräysten ja kimalluksen sijaan kulkue oli karu, hiljainen, vakava, pysähdyttävä. Ei huutoa, ei itkua, toisin kuin joidenkin ihmisten stereotyyppinen käsitys voisi asian kuvitella. Marttyyrien hautajaiset ovat poikkeus, mutta tavallisissa hautajaisissa ylimääräiset tunteenilmaukset sotisivat myös islamilaista uskoa vastaan – kuolema tulee perinteen mukaan hyväksyä. Kulkueen karuutta ja kuoleman vakavuutta korostivat ramadan-ajan paasto ja paahtava helle. Tavanomaiset ruokatervehdykset ja vierailut vainajan perheen luona siirtyisivät auringonlaskun jälkeen.

Vaikka hautajaisrituaalit ja perinteet eroavat eri kulttuurien välillä, etäinen kuolema tulee satunnaista kohtaajaa lähelle sen universaalin ulottuvuuden kautta. Meidän ruumiitamme ei ehkä saateta hautaan samalla tavalla, mutta kaikki me kuolemme. Siten kuolema on myös asia, johon ihmiset voivat samaistua, hautajaisperinteiden erilaisuudesta huolimatta. Suomalaisesta historiasta tutut itkijäperinteet ovat yksi keino käsitellä edesmenneen jättämää aukkoa, mutta samaten hiljainen kuoleman hyväksyntä on keino käsitellä tätä aukkoa sosiaalisessa piirissä. Epätoivottuna vieraanakin se on luonnollinen osa elämän virtaa ja yhdistää meitä kaikkia. Tämä siirtymä yhteisössä on asia, johon voimme kaikki samaistua, ulkoisista eroista huolimatta.

Istuimme autossa hiljaa ja seurasimme kulkuetta. Molemminpuolinen ymmärrys tilanteen vakavuudesta ja tärkeydestä yhdisti niin osallistujia kuin seuraajia. Nyt ei ollut kiire tutkimaan luonnon ihmeitä ja menneitä raunioita, elämä pysäytti kuoleman kautta.

CfP EASR and Apostasy research

In the 2016 European Association for the Study of Religion Conference ‘Relocating Religion’ will be held in Helsinki in 28.6.-1.7.2016. In the conference I will chair a panel of Apostasy research with my Swedish colleagues. Link to the conference site here. Our panel description below:

Defining Apostasy and Research on Leaving Religion

Chairs: Teemu T. Mantsinen & Daniel Enstedt

People do not only join religions but also leave them. These exits are numerous in nature, and each environment has its own effects on people leaving their religion and tradition. Previous research on apostasy, leaving religion, has concentrated, for example, on students, new religious movements, and psychological processes. However, definitions and concepts on the subject vary, and new approaches could help us to locate, define, and explain apostasy better. In this session we will discuss how to define and study apostasy, deconversion processes, and people leaving religion. We will approach the subject from different directions and multidisciplinary perspectives and include researches on different religions and traditions. The session is part of our ongoing research projects on apostasy in Finland (University of Turku) and Sweden (University of Gothenburg).

We invite submissions to our session ‘Defining Apostasy and Research on Leaving Religion’ to be held at the 2016 EASR conference in Helsinki, to discuss the topic from different methodological perspectives and concerning different religions.

Apostasy and nationalism

I recently found out about Selim Deringli’s book Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire (2012). In the book he lays out the complex history and geograhical and cultural diversity that was Ottoman Empire. This mosaic of ethnicities and identities was emphasized in the retreat of the Empire. Both internal forces (serbians, greeks, turkish, orthodox, muslims etc.) and external forces (like Russia and orthodox church) played parts in this crumbling puzzle.

What is interesting in my professional perspective, is the tie between nationalism and religions. According to Deringli, nationalism enforced religious identities, and leaving religion was very often seen as de-nationalization. By switching religious camps or accentuating one’s religion, individuals did not so much express their interest in religious dogmatics and creeds but shouted out their relation to certain identity. Although we can not dismiss conversion-apostasy as hypocricity and scape-coat, means to some different end – they were still religious in some sense after all -, cases of leaving religion and adopting a new one reveal that choices of religious identification and expression had much more complicated causes and wider consequences than just subjective inner change of mind.

This tie between nationalism and conversion-apostasy brought into my mind the religious-cultural field of Finland in the early 1900’s. Since the late 19th century, nationalism and national identity had risen in Finland. Nationalism was made stronger due actions from Russian government, which was accused of “russianization” of Finland. The government had a nation-wide policy of doing just that, but Finns interpreted that they had given a special status in the empire, and were at least partly correct. When the Russian Empire declined, after war with Japan and during and after the First World War, nationalism got stronger and led to founding of the republic of Finland in 1917. It was during these years of strong societal tensions when a new religion, or mode of christianity, Pentecostalism, started to spread in the country.

Finland, almost entirely Lutheran country (with substantial Orthodox minority), shaped finnish-ness, national identity was strongly shaped around Lutheran religion, culture and history. Although the largest political party, social democrats SDP, encouraged the separation between church and state, Finnish-ness included being at least culturally Lutheran with practices such as baptism of children. Foremost Lutheranism meant continuation of culture, tradition, and historical ethnic identity. In the 19th century a famous Finnish figure and writer, Zacharias Topelius, even created a myth how Finns were civilized with the spread of Lutheranism. This was naturally directed against paganism and Catholic church, but also separated Finns from Russians.

Pentecostals interfered with the Lutheran traditions and habits, foremost by rejecting the baptism of children. When a person converted to Pentecostalism, he was seen as an apostate of Lutheranism and in many cases also from Finnishness. Pentecostal revivalists clashed not only with Lutheran priests, but also with local communities. I have noted this cultural disruption previously in my research and publications. However, I haven’t thought this disruption as de-nationalization, until now. Even though we can argue that Pentecostals themselves did not see their conversion-apostasy as changing national identity, that was how it appeared for many Finns. In a time when national unity was called for to create a nation-state, deviant cultural practices and traditions were seen also in the light of breaking this imagined unity.

The relation between religious identification and creating new national identities is interesting. It seems to accentuate in times of nationalistic uprisings and revivals. The connection can work in many ways, for example to strenghten previous identies with ‘original’ religion and past, or distance oneself from unwanted upheavals with newly constructed religious identity. Assertions of what is ‘true’ and ‘original’ are often heard in these circumstances. With these stories people create belongings and new beginnings. Doctrinal purity is not the main concern for converts-apostates. Instead, they seek for a sense of acceptable identity and stability in his or her life, a place and status they feel comfortable and at home.

Protestant “pilgrimage” during Erfurt IAHR Conference

In late August I participated in the International Association of History of Religions (IAHR) world conference in Erfurt, Germany, along with some 1400 other experts of religion. These large conferences are mostly a place for networking and advertising (your research and work), as well as socializing with old colleagues, which you usually see once a year at best. The vast multitude of panels and keynotes could get exhausting if you try to manage to be everywhere and benefit scientifically from the offered presentations and speeches. Instead, the best way to enjoy it is to see what is interesting and new, and engage in relaxed small-talk with new and discussion with old aqcuaintances – and have some free-time as well to enjoy local culture. Many times you visit only once in the city where the conference is held, so why not educate oneself more on the history and complexities of your surroundings.

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Erfurt Krämerbrucke

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Erfurt Cathedral

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Luther statue

During the conference Wednesday was spared for conference tours and free time – unless you were an executive of the board or something like that. With four of my Finnish colleagues I embarked to a private car tour of Thuringia, visiting the cultural sights and nature of the area. Refreshed from the delight to roam the Autobahn, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting new, historical, places and experiencing their charm first-hand. Thuringia is the home of such historical figures as Martin Luther, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (although born in Frankfurt), and a historical scene for the birth of such things as Schmalkalden League and Weimar Republic.

The area is especially important for the history of Protestantism, since it is Thuringia, where Martin Luther was born, lived in monastery, and translated the New Testament, where Protestants formed their alliance against the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, and first (Lutheran) Protestant doctrines were agreed. So in a sense, we performed a Protestant Pilgrimage – although with little religious zeal and much more scientific curiosity.

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Augustine monastery in Erfurt

We left our accommodation apartment, next to the Augustine Monastery where Luther stayed, in the early morning to reach first the castle of Wartburg. Just outside Eisenach, the birth town of Bach, the castle stood high on the hill, surrounded by forest and other hills. The scene was perfect for a historical hideout. Warm sunny morning greeted us, and our senses took in the full experience. The narrow castle reminded of a small village, when you got inside it. Although we didn’t get any special spiritual kicks from visiting the place where Luther translated the Bible in 1521, it was interesting to put the visual landscape and scenery, face, to the story so familiar from history and many books. I could easily imagine myself visiting there for a retreat, although very much in different terms than what Luther had to. We also managed to escape the crowds, since we met the official conference tour climbing up as we left.

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After eating lunch in Eisenach and visiting Bach statue, we headed to Schmalkalden. It was there that the Schmalkalden League was founded (1531). The league first fought basically to protect and promote Protestant ideas and expand their freedom in the Empire, but later they fought to supersede the Emperor and/or replace the Empire with their own political entity. The league was finally defeated (1548), as part of fights and schisms that lasted over hudred years and ended (sort of) in Westphalia in 1648. The league was an important part of guaranteeing Lutheranism official status in the Empire and the right for princes to choose the religion of their domains, in the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. Furthermore, the small town was the cite of a meeting where the Schmalkald Articles were originally meant to publicize. Although they didn’t become the key articles of Protestant concords or confessions, they were important in forming a united doctrinal base for Lutheran Protestants, and are still used and included in the Lutheran Book of Concord. Luther summarized his doctrine in the Articles. The old town of Schmalkalden is an idyllic place in itself, and worth of visiting with or without these historical facts. Also, the Thuringian forest surrounding it is a wonderful green sight, which we witnessed as we drove through it to Weimar.

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Weimar, the cultural place in the turn of 18th and 19th centuries in Germany, was hot – at least that day when temperature rose high, beautiful in any day. The Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach Karl August ruled as duke from the age of nine months (1758), and later rose to become a kind of cultural patron of his era, inviting Goethe, Schiller, and other figures in his home town Weimar. His era was not all fun and play, for example due to a character named Napoleon, but despite of all other historical events, he managed to construct a cultural cradle of his days. The deaths of Karl August (1828) and Goethe (1832) marked a decline of one era, but the city witnessed later another historical deal, that of the founding of Weimar Republic, state of German Reich in 1919. The constitutional assembly reconstructed Germany after the First World War. Weimar as a city is different in architecture than the other Thuringia places we visited, namely due to its economical peak later. The old center houses are styled late 18th and 19th century architecture, with some earlier (16th c.) and more modern buildings in the midst. All in all, a place worth of visiting as well.

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Depending on if you like religious or philosophical history and late medieval or classical premodern era and architecture, you can choose the western (Eisenach and Schmalkalden) or eastern (Weimar) sights to concentrate on in your journey to Thuringia. Erfurt, in turn, offers both, as well as the GDR, East-Germany, kick and historical ruins (abandoned houses, named streets etc.). In the midst of academic hard work (sure), the cultural experiences of Thuringia left us satisfied. Our intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural desires were met fully during the week in the IAHR conference.

Class and hierarchy, few notes

Finnish newspaper Helsingin sanomat wrote (21.7.2015, 2) “experts describe the terrorist organization ISIS as extremely hierarchical, even  class society.” What caught my attention was not the nature of ISIS, but the vague assertion that “class society” was said to be the extremest form of extreme hierarchy. Even though hierarchy is a common part of class structure, it is not the most definitive attribute, nor has the hierarchy have to be extreme. Categorization and group identification are much more essential parts in how a class society is constructed, than hierarchy. Naturally, there is in most cases one group or class with most power in their hands, but the power can also be distributed between class fractions. One interesting and overlooked experiment of the fascist Italy of Mussolini was that the parliamentary power was shared between different classes. This was meant to include all class groups in the governmental decision-making. The fascist government had other hierarchical aspects, but the class structure wasn’t the most extreme form of hierarchy. Class society is a bad word for many, and many consider it the example of the evil in the society – solely based on intuition and past labeling. The class structure in itself is not bad or good, but a result of natural social processes. If the distance between social groups grow, the possibility of discrimination, exploitation etc. grow. But that is not inevitable. Therefore class society is not a synonym for extreme hierarchy, only a way to describe and analyze society, its formation and social processes.