CAS fellows talk about their research on the why and how of the decline of religions.
Following a well-deserved winter break, the fellows have returned to CAS to continue their research.
We checked in with the members of the project The Demise of Religions to learn how their work is going, their thoughts on the stay so far, and their plans for the spring.
Here’s a recap: The Demise of Religions is a project that examines how and why certain religions have declined, disappeared, and been destroyed. The project is led by James Lewis, professor of religious studies at the University of Tromsø - The Arctic University of Norway (UiT), and Michael Stausberg, professor of religion at the University of Bergen (UiB).
Stausberg and Lewis have invited experts on various religions to work with them during their year at CAS. The fellows’ fields of expertise range from religions of ancient Egypt and medieval Scandinavia to new religious movements that have emerged during the 20th century, among others.
During the fall, the group wrestled with what Lewis described as a persistent problem: ‘where to draw the line between demise and change.’ There are a handful of cases in which a religious group was unequivocally destroyed -- the mass suicide of members of Heaven’s Gate in 1997, for example -- but there are also cases that could be argued either way, like the conversion of the Sami people of Northern Europe to Christianity, he said.
Stausberg compared the many cases and ideas that the group is exploring during the year at CAS to uninflated balloons. ‘I still need to blow air into them to see how well they fly,’ he said.
Looking ahead to the spring semester, Stausberg said he hopes to leave CAS with a ‘clear roadmap’ for what he would like to work on after returning to UiB. That roadmap will likely include plans for publications. In addition to the individual and joint publications that the fellows are working on, Lewis and Stausberg have begun discussing a joint book project, tentatively titled The Ends of Religions.
‘We are looking at different cases of religions that have ended or where their end was a desired goal,’ Stausberg said. He said they are likely to draw on the work of the other fellows as they continue to discuss which cases would be most rewarding for such a book.
Stausberg said he didn’t arrive at CAS with a book project in mind, but that the idea emerged from his research and time together with the other fellows at the Centre.
‘What’s great about working here is we can actually do this kind of exploring,’ Stausberg said. ‘For some of the fellows, what they appreciate is the time to actually conceptualise and write. For me, it’s more this liberty to just test these balloons, explore different options, and go down blind alleys. Hopefully when I leave I’ll know what street I’m going to go down and then do the actual writing.’
While CAS refers to the researchers in charge of a project as 'project leaders,' Stausberg said he sees his role as more a facilitator or coordinator, whose job it is to ensure that each visiting fellow has an enjoyable, inspiring, and productive stay at the Centre.
‘What would give me maybe the greatest satisfaction is if the fellows who have been here said “Wow, that was a really great learning experience,”’ Stausberg said. ‘I don’t see them working for me. I see them working together with me.’
Several fellows have already concluded their stay at CAS. Here's what some of them them had to say about their time at the Centre:
Albert de Jong, professor at Leiden University:
During my stay at CAS, I have attempted to focus on the bigger structural questions about religious diversity in the Middle East -- how it came into being, and how it currently seems to be dissolving. I have focused especially on the question of endogamy (marrying within the community), lineage, and the powerful and rapidly changing role of myths, holy places, and narratives about the community. It was a rare pleasure to be surrounded by brilliant colleagues who helped me focus and whose questions continue to haunt me, and to be looked after by an incredible team of CAS staff members.
Jörg Rüpke, professor at the University of Erfurt:
'The "end" of a "religion“ is as much a matter of historical change and evidence as a historiographical product. Within the framework of the project I am addressing historical changes in the late antiquity. My focus is on evaluations in contemporary, late ancient historiography and its reception in constructions of a competition between what is conceptualised as clearly limited entities called "religions." During my stay the confrontation with comparative material from ancient Egypt and 20th century new religious movements was very helpful, likewise was the case study of the long durée of Manichaeism by another colleague.'
The project is also welcoming new fellows this spring. Here's what some of them have planned for their stay:
Joel Robbins, professor at the University of Cambridge:
'One difficulty in determining when a religion has really ended has been the fact that various ideas and assumptions of a dying faith often remain present for a long time: memories of old gods tend to be slow to completely fade. As a way around this problem, I am seeking to shift the question from "How do we know when a religion had died" to that of "What has to change in order for it to become impossible to practice an old religion anymore?" I explore answers to this question by looking at the passing of an indigenous religion in Papua New Guinea.'
Olof Sundqvist, professor at Stockholm University:
'My intention is to focus on the indigenous religion during the conversion period in Scandinavia (c. 800-1100), and describe the processes behind its disappearance. In order to find some patterns behind its decline and death, I have to make a heuristic presentation of the ancient Scandinavian religion first, and then suggest what was lost during the conversion process and try to explain why this religion finally ceased.'