ISASR Conference 2012 – Report

This is a collaborative report by post-graduate students from UCC who attended the conference.

The first ISASR conference was held at UCC on the 25th-26th May 2012. Proceedings opened with welcomes from Dr Patrick Claffey, president of the society, and Professor Brian Bocking, head of the Study of Religions department at the host University, University College Cork. A total of 30 papers, divided between 10 panel sessions, were delivered by participants. The conference was a very international affair with researchers from Ireland (including academics and students from the universities of Belfast, Limerick, Dublin, Maynooth and Galway), UK, France and Canada. Papers were exceptionally diverse in scope with contributions on topics such as Islamophobia in Ireland, secularisation in France and Canada, same-sex marriage in Ireland and Buddhism in Thailand.

– Brian Bocking, ISASR Secretary, opening the proceedings –

The keynote lecture entitled “MaxArthur Macauliffe (1838-1913): Irishman, Sikh Scholar, Reformer and Evangelist” was given by Professor Tadhg Foley and explored the life and legacy of this important Irish figure for the Sikh reform movement (to view the lecture click here).

What follows is a brief overview of some of the most interesting papers that caught our attention over the two days.

Will Allen’s (University College Cork) exploration of The Sacred Heart Enthronement: the Irish Experience gave a fascinating and at times intimate look into a tradition visible in the back drop of many Irish people’s lives. In his paper he examines the position that the image of the Sacred Heart, and the Enthronement text that accompanies it, continues to hold in Irish society. He succeeded in incorporating a contemporary focus with an historical overview of how the image has changed throughout the years since it first came into Ireland in 1883. The Sacred Heart was criticized as blasphemous and discredited as an attempt to create a “new tradition” but eventually received Vatican approval, cementing its place in Irish society. Even today, in an increasingly secular state, it is still present. Allen, through interviews, archival sources and secondary sources brings us to an understanding of the sociological, psychological and historic role of the sacred heart which has become a trademark of Irish Catholicism.

Brad Anderson (Mater Dei Institute) stayed with the theme of material religion in his engaging and charismatic presentation on the 1641 Depositions in Ireland. The paper, entitled The Bible and the 1641 Depositions: Reflections on Scriptural Material and Iconicity, moved beyond the textual basis of biblical scholarship to focus on the significance of the material dimension of the bible as reflected in these historic texts. Anderson demonstrates that the Bible, although not often quoted, performed an iconic, political and social role in the Depositions. This was sometimes in a positive manner, for example, for swearing oaths, but also in a negative manner, such as desecration or destruction of the physical text in order to undermine another’s tradition. Through in-depth analysis of these acts Anderson teased out a complex relationship, highlighting the diverse and complicated functionality of scriptures between and within religious traditions.

In his paper Key events as mediators of religious experiences, Jurek Kirakowski (University College Cork) discussed the emotional religious reaction of believers at the site of the “moving statue” of the Madonna at Ballinspittle, Co Cork in 1985, examining the possible internal and external explanations for such events.  In an entertaining presentation, views and analysis were offered to explain these so far inexplicable experiences by religious believers. Some commentators explained the Ballinspittle occurrence as a visual anomaly and others explained it as simply as the result of the physical layout of the ground and the position of the viewer. Kirakowski convincingly argues that publically recorded “perfectly natural” phenomenon such as this and other phenomena, are cued by internal stimuli and senses such as perception and that possibly these methods of explanation, rather than fact, could be employed to explain the resulting extremes of human experience, of which very little is still known.

Duncan MacLellan’s (Ryerson University, Canada) paper, The Intersection of Politics and Religion and the roles of social movements in Canada, was an in-depth and potentially instructive (from an Irish perspective) analysis of how the historical and political decisions made since the late 1980s in Ontario, Canada have determined the preferential funding given to Roman Catholic and Protestant schools over faith schools of more recent immigrant communities.  In a province which purports to support multiculturalism in all aspects of society, it is only the educational rights of Roman Catholics and Protestants that are guaranteed by its constitution.  This disregard for the right of other groups to government funded education has been challenged by what has become a politically effective MFO lobby group. The subject of religion in Ontario has now become public and politicized as elections have been won or lost on the issue of funding for religious schools.  To this day the direction of funding for education in Ontario is completely dependent on which political party is in power.  Could this study be viewed as a looking glass into the future for the Irish education system? MacLellan is of the opinion that it could and that it has the potential to bring to light the complexities of religion in Ireland’s increasingly multi-cultural environment.

Returning to the field of material religion, Yafa Shanneik’s (University College Cork) paper, A space of their Own’: Material Religion among Sudanese Women Migrants in Ireland, focused on the retention of the religious and cultural identities of middle class Sudanese women now living in Ireland through the material objects, such as statues, pictures and artefacts, which are transferred from their homeland. With excellent fieldwork examples, detailed pictorial evidence, and entertaining delivery, Shanneik explained the issues of “imagined homeland,” ethnic memory and identity construction.  The references to an “imagined homeland” were revealing and were linked with the fact that some objects viewed as “religious” by Sudanese women in the country of migration may not be considered “religious” at home and that some objects aren’t even Sudanese but are accepted because of their broader African associations.

– Rachel O’Meara, Yafa Shanneik and Olivia Cosgrove –

The fears of discrimination or negative reaction and the coping strategies of members of small religious groups in Ireland were the focus of Olivia Cosgrove’s (University of Limerick) innovative paper Identitiy management strategies used by member of minority religions in Ireland. Bymerging her ongoing qualitative, quantitative and ethnographic data, Cosgrave illustrates compellingly how her participants hide and conceal their religious identities from those in their wider social circle and how they even pass themselves off as Irish Catholics for fear of negative social sanctions. Exploring the management of covert identity strategies by utilising the concept of Oppression Theory as a framework, Cosgrove explains how her participants constantly live life on a double-edged sword.  On the one hand they distance themselves from their religious identity by pretending to not be overtly religious and trying to fit in with the casual nature of Irish Catholicism whilst on the other hand, they engage in risk-taking behaviours in order to practice their faith. Whilst the study is still in progress some correlations have been found in several of the participants behaviours. Cosgrove’s entertaining manner and her thorough tertiary method of study will no doubt produce an interesting final report, which will be awaited with interest by those involved in the study of minority religions in Ireland.

One of those who will no doubt be keen to read the results of Cosgrove’s research will be James Carr (University of Limerick) whose paper, Islamophobia in Ireland: Preliminary findings from a survey of Irish Muslims, was an ideal panel companion to Cosgrove’s study. Carr has identified a paucity of data available from the Irish State with regard to identifying Islamophobia as a distinct form of racism in Ireland. This ongoing study attempts to fill this gap.  Issues such as how “visual identifiers” such as skin colour and clothing are significant to this particular type of racism, how the racism manifests itself and how it is reported (or not as is often the case), and the perceived state responses to the abuse reports by Irish Muslims raise questions as to how the Irish Sate can address the issue of Islamaphobia. Carr hopes that the insights produced by this study will provide valuable data for the Irish State and for Irish scholars of the religions alike.

A fascinating account of conducting ethnographical research on New Religious Movements in Ireland was delivered by Jenny Butler (University College Cork) in her paper, Researching Irish Neo-Paganism: exploring issues of ethnographic practice, spiritual experience narrative and religious worldview.  Butler highlighted the important issues and considerations relating to the practice of fieldwork; in particular fieldwork in the “home” environment. Butler began by discussing the problem of definition; “paganism” alone producing a litany of problems in relation to the self-identification of the Irish pagan community, alternative labels “paganisms” and “neo-paganism” being wholly rejected by them. Her decision to continue to use “neo-pagan” regardless of the community’s rejection of such an identity revealed the delicate nature of balancing the perspectives of the researched with that of the academic perspective; whilst the community insists on its continuity of ancient practice, Butler argues that the community should be identified as a New Religious Movement. The paper also brought to light the challenges faced in establishing, keeping and even re-establishing relationships with informants.  Butler went to great lengths during her ethnographical research to establish working relationships with members of this incredibly private religious community. In this paper she discusses ethnographic concerns such as how far the scholar should go in an attempt to gain access to information and what factors limit a scholar’s access to information, such as gender, their position as an “outsider” or their own ethical threshold (how far they are willing to go). Butler presented a fascinating representation of the ethnographical issues faced by scholars, and of fieldwork in Ireland in particular. Butler’s unique experience of dealing with this Irish NRM provides an invaluable insight into the contemporary Irish religious landscape and the future of the academic study of religions in Ireland.

Drawing on his extensive research into the history of Buddhism in Ireland, Laurence Cox (University of Maynooth) in his paper, Periodising Irish Buddhism, proposes a periodisation Buddhism in Ireland into five distinct periods. The periods are distinguished in regard to their relationship with power, the social meaning of religious affiliation or conversion and the institutional networks mediating reception of religious possibilities. Cox outlines the ways in which Buddhism in Ireland has developed, highlighting in particular the ways in which Buddhism as a religious identity in Ireland has gone from being a “virtuous pagan,” later being the anti-establishment option and eventually evolving into a respectable religious and social identity. Not only does this paper offer a valuable new approach to the study of Buddhism in Ireland but also proposes a new approach to the study of religions in Ireland in general. This proposed approach, which focuses particularly on religious affiliation and the relationships between religions and power in Ireland, advocates a more holistic approach through which the framework of social and political relationships surrounding religions are addressed. Most importantly, Cox outlines a useful framework for future study of religions in Ireland, applicable to both the major religious institutions and also the variety of New Religious Movements and diaspora communities appearing on the Irish religious landscape.

The relationship – direct or indirect – that exists between Brazilian society and Afro-Brazilian religions made for a particularly fascinating paper delivered by Marcello Archanjo Vidaurre (independent scholar), Eshu – The Brazilian Non-Saint.  The associations drawn by Brazilian news and media between Eshu and instances of crime in Brazil play a particularly central role in the ways in which Afro-Brazilian religions are perceived.  This paper highlights the issue of public interaction with religion as a cultural phenomenon but also misrepresentation of religion by the media. This misrepresentation or misassociation of Afro-Brazilian religions with violence has had far reaching consequences for the religion and the negative way in which it is perceived. This paper highlights important issues for the study of religions relating to media ignorance regarding religions and the impact this may have on the public perception of that community and the knock on effect of this on the religious community itself. Through Archanjo’s research on the diverse religious expressions found in Brazil, he has demonstrated the importance of situating the study of religions within the broader social context; in particular the role the media can play in colouring public knowledge of religion and how important it is to take this into account when studying a particular religious tradition.

– Lively panel discussion –

Overall, the first conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions was a lively and stimulating experience that showcased the broad range of interests of scholars of religions in Ireland. The papers gave rise to many interesting debates and facilitated the exchange of ideas between academics and students from the broad range of disciplines, including sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians and folklorists, represented at the conference. We apologise for not mentioning all of the diverse and stimulating presentations we had the pleasure of attending over the two days of the conference.

Marian Caulfield, Danielle Callaghan and Aisling O’Riordan

%d bloggers like this: