Atheist Pilgrims

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The Pilgrimage Project has been going on for seven years now (or maybe eight. Wow, is it eight already? It actually is), and in that time we’ve made a number of unexpected discoveries. One of those was the sheer number of people on pilgrimages who declared no religious interest at all.

The paper that I’m currently rewriting, per the ‘revise & resubmit’ guidelines given to us by the journal we submitted it to, looks at some of those atheists. Travelling a traditionally Catholic pilgrimage route which has seen a huge uplift over the past twenty years, many of them profess no belief in a higher being, but report similar experiences to the Catholics’ own.

Unfortunately our survey wasn’t set up to record people with no spiritual beliefs – although ‘Atheist/Agnostic’ is an option on the questionnaire, it’s not something we expected to have to explore in-depth, so we didn’t include much in the way of questions regarding the nature of non-belief.

My job at the moment is to try to make something of the data anyway. Part of the survey we did was qualitative, giving people the chance to explain their thoughts and experiences to a certain extent, and this was helpful. Ideally I’d like a larger pool, and some more broken-down data, but you can’t have everything in this world, and especially not in academia.

I’m intrigued by these atheist/agnostic pilgrims and want to know more about them. One of my favourite quotes from an atheist on one of the pilgrimages was:

“Over the last few years I’ve become a committed atheist, so I’m investigating this belief in nothing. That’s what I’m investigating. How much there is to this nothingness.”

I liked this explanation, and I’d be interested to see how this pilgrim felt at the end of the journey, but unfortunately he was one of those whom we didn’t manage to interview again.

Reading through the literature – specifically, looking at Bainbridge, Baker & Smith’s papers on atheism, I’m seeing a trend in people who identify as unreligious and/or unspiritual, but who still sometimes engage in activities that most would put under these headings. One of our atheists said they pray “several times a week”. I can only assume that, since they said they were atheist rather than agnostic, they took ‘prayer’ to mean the same as ‘meditation’, but I’d like to have explored it more as a concept.

I’m thinking about proposing a new study of atheists taking part in activities that would traditionally be viewed as religious, and talking about how they would define these activities in the light of their own beliefs. Whether there is a latent religiosity there, or whether they would class themselves as more spiritual than other atheists, or whether they are hardcore atheists engaging in such activities for reasons arguably completely unrelated to religion. As an atheist myself, for example, I can still enjoy the silence and stillness of sitting in an empty church. But what I experience in such a building is an appreciation of its atmosphere without attributing it to a spiritual being. I assume that the atheists we met on pilgrimages have similar thoughts, but it would be good to gather some empirical data to back it up.

I would also be grateful for any recommendations you might have regarding the current literature on atheism, and particularly on atheists practising spiritual rituals. And, of course, any suggestions to feed in to future research would be very welcome.

Out of interest, how do you identify religiously? Do you practise rituals or engage in activities that would traditionally be viewed as part of a different religious group? Why?

photo credit: Brain of the Sistine Chapel via photopin (license)

Reasons Why I Love Kierkegaard – Part One

My first ever introduction to philosophy was reading Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder when I was twelve. I was quickly hooked, and devoured as many philosophy books I could throughout my teenage years. I’d still say, though, that my first true introduction to philosophy was through Kierkegaard.

I’m not sure quite how to define the difference. I’d loved chewing over the big philosophical questions for years; I read Plato on the train, imagining myself at the Academy, taking part in the conversations. But Kierkegaard was how philosophy became personal to me.

I was seventeen years old and trying to decide what to do with my life. A lecturer at one of the universities I’d applied to sent me some quotes from The Sickness Unto Death, which he thought would be helpful. They were.

I went to my local library and asked if they had The Sickness Unto Death. I wanted to read the whole thing. They didn’t, but they did have a copy of Fear and Trembling. I checked it out, took it home and read it. And philosophy became real to me. All of a sudden I understood how I could create my own philosophical arguments; how I could look around at the world and think more deeply about it, without having to lean on texts that had already been written. It also helped me to make my decision about what to do with my life. It is a very special book to me. And I’ve had the same experience ever since: whenever I pick up a book by Kierkegaard, it seems to have entered my life at precisely the right time.

A couple of weeks ago I was wandering around London when I found myself in a bookshop. You know how it goes. Suddenly you have eighty-three books and no money. It wasn’t quite that bad, but I did find a biography of Kierkegaard for £7. It had to be mine.

Usually, I read obscenely quickly, but this is one of those books which I enjoy so much that I’m savouring it – reading slowly, reading other things in between – because I never want it to end. One of my favourite extracts so far:

“When I look upon the many and varied examples of the Christian life, it seems to me that instead of strength, Christianity… has deprived such people of their manhood, and that in comparison to the pagans they are like a gelding compared to a stallion.”

This amused me. In context, it also spoke of a similar phenomenon to one which we have studied as part of the Pilgrimage Project: that Pagan rituals are often less structured and ‘freer’ than Christian ones. By this I don’t mean that they’re superior. There’s a lot to be said for ritual that includes a level of gravity. The Catholic rituals we encountered on the Pilgrimage Project were often serious, perhaps even sombre: each part of the ritual including a sort of solemnity that underlined just how sacred the Catholics’ god is to them.

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The Pagan rituals, by contrast, often felt like more joyful affairs. Perhaps to some this might seem inappropriate for a religious or spiritual setting, but it is representative of Pagan spirituality in general, or at least the parts of it I’ve studied. The goddesses, gods and spirits of the Pagans are more earthy, more real. They don’t bring to mind a faraway, unreachable being who may or may not be listening to entreaties from its followers, so much as a cacophony of voices who are accessible and somehow quite human – or perhaps not human, so much as ‘having personhood’.

A Pagan Beltane ritual
A Pagan Beltane ritual

Well, there you go. I have a few other quotes in my notebook and I was going to write about all of them, but this has taken up more words than I’d thought it would, so I shall leave it there for now and continue my raving about Kierkegaard in some future posts.

photo credit: Beltane 33 via photopin (license)

photo credit: White Wafer, Body of Christ, Film ‘Angels and Demons’, “Cardinal Strauss”, fictional depiction of the Catholic faith via photopin (license)

Paper Planning for 2015

I can’t believe I haven’t posted since September. The final part of 2014 went by really quickly and most of it was spent travelling around doing all my other jobs, so despite having a couple of other papers to write I didn’t get around to looking at them at the end of the year. This means I now have to plan my papers for 2015 and probably have a bit more work to do than I’d anticipated. But that’s not exactly something I’m unused to.

There are three main papers planned this year:

1. A study of atheists travelling the Santiago pilgrimage. We met quite a lot of them along the way and conducted some interesting interviews. We have a paper already written, but it needs to be expanded with a bit more of a literature review, and maybe made into something a bit more involved than just a research note.

2. A study of the psychological impact of investigating crimes against children online, and the different methods people use to deal with this. I still need to start reading the literature on this; I’ve read a lot about the investigative methods themselves, but not so much about the psychology behind the investigators’ motives for doing these jobs and their coping methods, so that’s step one for this project. And funding, I need to find funding. That’s always the exciting part…

3. And if those two get under way properly and aren’t too time-taxing, I’m also thinking about doing a study into the psychology of terrorism and its similarities with fringe religious cults. Specifically, looking at the ways in which counter-terror deprogramming methods parallel the steps taken to deal with people who have been brainwashed by religious indoctrination.

Studies #2 and #3 are quite ambitious projects, I think, which will take a lot of time and involvement, but I’m hoping I can get at least one of them started this year. Plus, the bulk of the actual work for #1 has already been done, I just need to write the literature review and add in a few more statistical bits, so I’m sure it will be fine. Or that’s what I’m telling myself.

What about you? What are your research plans for the year?

The Pilgrimage Project Photo Diary

Around the fire at the Stonehenge winter solstice.
Around the fire at the Stonehenge winter solstice.
The morning ceremony at Stonehenge in December was not warm.
The morning ceremony at Stonehenge in December was not warm.
Being mature academic researchers, we made faces in our salads.
Being mature academic researchers, we made faces in our salads.
The restaurant where we ate dinner had pet cats.
The restaurant where we ate dinner had pet cats.
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Wandering around Glastonbury was a necessary part of the project, of course.
What's a research project without a selfie?
What’s a research project without a selfie?
The view from the Tor.
The view from the Tor.
The Goddess weekend opening ceremony.
The Goddess weekend opening ceremony.
A procession of Pagan pilgrims through Glastonbury.
A procession of Pagan pilgrims through Glastonbury.
Ritual at the Chalice Well.
Ritual at the Chalice Well.
A Pagan procession.
A Pagan procession.

Quotes from the Pilgrimage Project Interviews

The Pilgrimage Project began as an interdisciplinary research project at Oxford University in 2007. Covering Anthropology, Psychology, History, Sociology and Religious Studies, it aims to discuss the motivations and experiences of people from different Western religious groups as they journey to sacred spaces. The excerpts below are from interviews with Pagans who had travelled to Glastonbury for a summer Goddess ceremony.

On Paganism
“A lot of what I think makes me me is them.”

On War
“I can understand that [soldiers] are the people of peace… but I don’t believe that we’re gonna find peace staring down the end of a barrel and… like… “I’M GONNA SHOOT YOUR FUCKING HEAD OFF!”, and… what are you gonna do? Make your mind up. Are we gonna just say, OK, fine, yeah, I’m gonna be nice, I’m gonna do whatever he tells me to, so that I’ll find peace? No.”

On Reawakening the Abbey at Glastonbury
“So, it’s not a monk, it’s women, and we’re not Benedictines, but we are the new monks.”

On Dark Magic
“I think where people are being manipulated for the benefit of the manipulator, I would call that a dark path.”

On Women
“But I learnt some wonderful things about working with women there. I was used to working with men; we just make a decision and get on with it. And we’d have an important meeting about something here, and we’d all be together, it’d be me and the four other… whoever the trustees were. And they would start by saying “Isn’t it appalling what that girl Gladys is doing?” “Yes, I think she’s run away with somebody else…” All this stuff would go on. And I would sit there boggling, like I thought we’d come to talk about… we must just clear this first. And I learnt a really important thing: that these women, they needed to clear the emotional stuff that was hovering in the room. Once that was clear, we could get on with the discussion. It’s not at all how men work, but it’s really important, and I’ve learned – here I’m working all the time with women – that you must allow the emotional charge to be diffused, it’s perfectly valid. It’s hovering, you see. They’re worried about something. It’s got nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but it’s really important.”

On Intuition
“But my brain can’t solve it, it’s… my intuition accesses [spirits’] wisdom and back comes the answer.”

On Dying
“I’m delighted to die whenever it’s time. And in a way, I have to make a huge effort to be here now. I’m really actually somewhere else. Not physically. No, physically I’m very fit. But I’m actually – my consciousness is somewhere else, and I have to make a tremendous effort to be here. If you understand it.”

On Glastonbury
“I think Glastonbury’s just a little microcosm of where we’re all going. I do believe… self-employment, self-empowerment, but sharing, is the way that society’s moving. And it’s very threatening to a lot of people, it’s very frightening, the old structures are collapsing. You can see they’re not working. And I think we’ve got here a microcosm of what’s happening worldwide. And I think we have a responsibility to make it work here, and it doesn’t work completely. But if we can make it work, and there’s a model, then other people can begin to say “Right, that mad lot in Glastonbury have got something going there.” That’s what I think we are. I think we’re a sort of petri dish for the new consciousness.”

On God
“I have a problem with the term ‘god’, and I don’t know whether it’s because of the association with the Christian god, or certain dogma. Also it makes it very monistic, is it? Meaning it’s only one. Yeah. It tries to make concrete something that is very massive.”

On Pilgrimage

“It’s like a concentration of normalcy.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt more… it sounds so sappy, but more human, really. More human but not human as a special creature on the earth, just like another one.”

“This has the capacity to be profoundly not abstract.”

“It was not really a feeling of belonging, but it was a feeling of not belonging. Somewhere I’m not looking to belong, something like that.”

On the Motivation Behind Pilgrimage

“To find out something true. Not the truth, necessarily, but to find something that’s true.”

“I think I’ll be able to maybe… more fluidly be consistently abstract.”

“Over the last few years I’ve become a committed atheist, so I’m investigating this belief in nothing. That’s what I’m investigating. How much there is to this nothingness.”

On Consciousness
“I’m becoming more… maybe more conscious of my unconscious actions.”

On Prayer
“There came a point where prayer… where life became prayer.”