The Alumna of the month is Erica Baffelli, a senior lecturer in Japanese Studies at Manchester University. In 2018-19, she was a fellow at the CAS project the Demise of Religions, led by Michael Stausberg (UiB) and James Lewis (UiT).

Baffeli says that it would be interesting to see how religions will respond to the questions about life after the Coronavirus pandemic, for example in regards to imagining and conceiving post-apocalyptic scenarios and new worlds.

Erica, how are you coping with the current working situation?

At work, as for many of my colleagues, the last few weeks have been rather surreal and hectic. Suddenly we had to move all our activities online, including teaching, vacate our offices and re-organise our lives. But our students have been incredibly supportive during the emergency and we have the privilege of being able to keep our jobs and to work from home.    

From a more personal point of view, I have been very concerned about the situation in Italy. My family is in lockdown scattered around the most affected areas in Northern Italy, between Bergamo and Brescia provinces, and unfortunately my sister contracted COVID-19 in a severe form (I shared her story on a public post on FB). I must admit it hasn’t been easy to focus and to be productive.

I’m currently co-writing an article with a colleague for a special issue on The Aesthetics and Emotions of Religious Belonging. Our article discusses belonging through the idea of absence, both in terms of spatial inaccessibility and irreversibility of time. Some of our reflections sound rather timely and almost uncomfortably autobiographical in the light of recent events.  

Why was the Demise of Religions an interesting project for you to join?

Michael contacted me a few years ago asking whether I would be interested in the project and he sent me their initial draft of the proposal. At the time I was working on a co-authored book looking at the development of a Japanese religious movement called Agonshū and its charismatic founder. In this book, that was published just before my arrival at CAS, we discussed the “ageing” process of new religions and the dilemma that religions commonly face on the deaths of charismatic founders. Therefore, the Demise of Religions project immediately appealed to me as a way to continue looking into these dynamics and in particular into questions related to what does it mean for “new” religions to end, how they end and, even more importantly, what does end (and what doesn’t). I was also intrigued by the idea of working with a group of researchers I didn’t know before and who were bringing a variety of methodologies and expertise.

What do you remember best from your stay at CAS?

I truly enjoyed the freedom to explore new ideas and possible avenues for my research without constraining deadlines or rigidly scheduled deliverables. This freedom, I believe, resulted in higher productivity and more original ideas. I also miss our workshops and discussions and the atmosphere we created in our group. We were very rigorous in reading and criticising each other works, but in very collegial and constructive ways. We also truly enjoyed spending time together. I also liked our common lunches, they provided great opportunities to meet other fellows and some very interesting conversations emerged around our shared interests.

[It feels rather bizarre to think about freedom and spending time together these days when we are facing an unprecedented global emergency resulting in limitations to our freedom and to our physical interactions in an attempt to contain the pandemic]. 

What did your stay at the Centre mean for your work?

As I mentioned before, when I arrived at the Centre I had just completed a book-length project, so it was the ideal moment to embark on a new project and to look at my material through some of the questions we were discussing as a group. The feedback I have received during my stay at CAS from colleagues working on very different contexts, material and historical periods, significantly helped me refine my theoretical framework and to place my ethnographic material focused on individual members’ narratives, into broader discussions about demise and about what does end when I religious organization is dismantled and what doesn’t. To date the work conducted at CAS has resulted in a journal article (currently under review) and a book chapter for a volume funded by CAS and edited by Michael Stausberg, Carole Cusack,  and Stuart Wright on The Demise of Religion: How Religions End, Die or Dissipate. I have also drafted outlines for two potential book projects, but I would definitely need another CAS stay to complete them! 

Do you think the Corona crisis will strengthen or weaken the role of religions?

Of course, we know that religions have a long history of surviving and handling plagues, epidemics, famines, wars, and other disasters. At the moment I am interested in monitoring how organizations and individual members are responding to the rapidly changing situation, both in organizational terms (restructuring their practices by moving it online, for example) and doctrinal (how they are explaining the pandemic and its consequences). Not surprisingly many of us (whether religious or not) are pondering the question of how the world will look like after the Coronavirus pandemic and how our lives will change. For scholars interested in religion it would surely be interesting to see how religions will respond to these questions, for example in regards to imagining and conceiving post-apocalyptic scenarios and new worlds.

What advice would you give future CAS fellows?

Take advantage of the flexibility of CAS projects to explore less obvious and unexpected side-tracks in your research. And make good use of the daily interactions with a group of great researchers to get feedback on your work and to create new connections and future collaborations. And if you are not normally based in Oslo, make some time to explore and enjoy that beautiful city and its surroundings.