Invented Religions

[Originally posted on US Religion in American History blog.]

A couple of months ago I wrote about the recent creation of Yeezianity, the so-called religion of Kanye West. I was dubious about it, and its status as a religion. Not long after, however, I read a book that has made me reconsider my position. The book is Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith by Carole M. Cusack (Ashgate 2010). Building on the themes of this book, she has recently guest edited an issue of the journal Culture and Religion (14.4 2013). In each instance Cusack argues that not only are these invented religions real religion, but they also reveal something important about how we define religion and how religion is utilized. What is different, she points out, is that these tradition do not attempt to legitimize themselves through claims of lineage, historical continuity, or revelation. Instead these tradition are self-consciously created out of popular contexts and the creators and followers do not care about the religion’s origin.

This conscious acceptance of the invented nature of the religion is what makes this category of religion so fascinating. While acknowledging that in some form or fashion all religions are invented, Cusack claims that since the 1950s, a new forms of religiosity has emerged, ones that are “advertised as fictional from the start.” “The model of ‘invented religion’ that I have advanced emphasises the self-conscious attention to the invented – i.e. not revealed or otherwise validated – status avowed within these religions.” Cusack looks at a variety of traditions including Discorianism, the Church of All Worlds—an eco-pagan group founded on Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land, The Church of the SubGenius, and more recent traditions based on movies, Jediism and Matrixism, and finally the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In each of these traditions, the founders were well aware of the fictitious circumstances in which the traditions were founded, and the followers were too.

Taking Cusack’s explanation into account, we can see that Yeezianity squarely falls into the category of invented religion. Cusack also states that invented religions emphasize narrative and creativity. This certainly describes the approach taken by Brian Liebman, the founder of Yeezianity. Invented religions also open up a lens into how religion is conceptualized by society in general, and scholars of religion, in particular. In January, Candace Chellew-Hodge complained in a blog post on Religion Dispatches that Millennials are inventing religions that are shallow and incomplete, primarily because they ignore human conditions such as suffering . “By ignoring the question of suffering of humanity, and role of religion in addressing that suffering, I am afraid that this new generation is denying itself the opportunity to truly connect not just with the divine, if that’s their thing, but with each other.” This claim, however, judges these invented religion by the standards of older, established faiths. If Cusack is correct, though, this is an invalid comparison. She notes that Christianity is the starting point for most in the west to conceptualize a real religion and invented religions, however, rejects these contentions for the basis of religion and substitutes their own. The problem, she notes, is that invented religions “cannot escape from the shadow of Christianity.”

Cusack concludes by contextualizing invented religions within notions of secularization. Scholars have been long concerned about the diminishing role of religion in western society. But is it diminishing or is it changing to something that is very different from preconceived notions of what is real religion? Cusack notes that invented religions indicate that religious impulse is still there, just manifesting differently. For the religions she focuses, she claims, are “new religious forms, and the science fiction narratives they draw upon are one of the new sites of the sacred in the contemporary West.” Perhaps contemporary pop-culture is also one of those sites leading to the semi-deification of Kanye West. After reading Cusack’s volume I am certainly willing to reconsider the position stated in my previous post. Yeezianity is certainly not like most traditional religious traditions. But perhaps, that’s the point.

Posted in Academics, American Religious History, Popular Culture | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is the Devil in the Details?

Two recent series of murders have set the media awash with claims of Satanism and satanic rituals. In the first, two teenage boys in Houston are accused of allegedly murdering a girl in an occult or satanic ritual that was part of selling a participant’s soul to the devil. According to the limited details released about the two minors, a girl was taken to an abandoned apartment, abused, perhaps sexually, and mutilated, and ultimately killed. It is claimed that an inverted cross was carved into her abdomen and “cult-like objects” were found near the body. What exactly these are is not clear. In an unrelated case, Miranda Barbour, who the media has dubbed the “Craigslist Killer,” claims that she has killed numerous “bad people” and that her first killings took place with a “Satanic cult” located in North Pole, Alaska. In both of these situations, if the parties are guilty as charged, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. What I am concerned about, however, is the loose use of the term, satanic these news reports.

In each of these cases, prejudicial terms such as satanic, cult, and occult are used in vague ways that taint the crimes with a sinister context, adding to the sensationalism of the crime. In the first case, the Houston boys may have thought they were in communication with the devil. Many people think they communicate with a variety of non-corporal beings, whether it is angels, demons, or aliens. So it is not hard to believe a teenage boy could claim communication with Satan. The problem, however, is what that claims means. How did this teenage come to believe that one could sell their soul by committing murder? Similarly, Barbour claims to have been in a satanic cult while in Alaska and that the cult murdered people. This claim, however, is meeting resistance from North Pole authorities who claim that there is no satanic cult in the community and that there are no people missing. This causes one to ask, what exactly does Barbour mean by saying, “a satanic cult”? How is she defining that term? What does she think makes something a cult?

When surveying the history of Satanism, it becomes apparent that there are different kinds. There is the kind attested to within churches and faith ministries, where Satan is in an eternal struggle against God, fully documented in the Bible. Then there is institutional Satanism, or Modern Satanism, which has well established and documents group such as The Church of Satan, and the Temple of Set. Lastly, there is the Satanism of the media, the kind that is promoted in movies, books, and news reports. The first kind of Satanism I mention does not really exist, at least objectively. It is more of a straw man that some Christian religious leaders use to denigrate things they disagree with or imaginatively see Satan involved with. For instance, anything from popular culture, various non-Christian religions, to the United Nations are all part of a worldwide satanic conspiracy. While Satan, in this context, is useful rhetorically, the satanic conspiratorial net is cast to widely that little is not caught up in it at one time or another. As this kind of Satanism exists only in the minds of a minority of Christians, it is certainly not the kind to which our alleged murders make reference.

Modern, institutional Satanism, on the other hand is a very real thing and has a large number of members. Most of these members, however, are quick to disassociate themselves with such behaviors as murder. Peter Gilmore, the current high priest of the Church of Satan, was adamant that Barbour was not a member of the church. He went on to add that as far as he is aware Barbour’s “satanic cult” is “not a legally incorporated above-ground form of Satanism.” This disassociation makes sense as modern satanic groups have adopted conventional organizational structures, membership, and meetings. While some may assert the existence of a powerful being called Satan, Set, or the like, other forms of Satanism are purely atheistic and Satan is used as a symbol or aesthetic. These groups also take time to think about their theology and rituals, and are not vague when they discuss them. Lastly, all these groups require members to be eighteen or older. This would preclude membership of the Houston boys.

There is, however, a form of Satanism that is readily available to anyone of any age. This kind of Satanism is created by and maintained by the media, especially Hollywood. It is found in American movie theaters, video rental stores (the few that still exist), Red Box kiosks, and on streaming video sites. It is also in fiction, websites, and of course in the news outlets. This kind of Satanism, however, is polymorphous, shallow, and prone to sensationalism. It has nebulous associations with candles, daggers, the Ouija board, blood sacrifices, selling one’s soul to the devil, claims of power through the devil, and possession. This is the kind of Satanism that seems to be at the core of these two cases. The Houston murder scene sounds like it comes right out of a horror movie and is certainly not based on Anton LaVey’s Satanic Rituals, nor any kind of established occultism. And for Barbour’s case, there is no indication of ritual activity, just unsubstantiated claims of an unnamed “satanic cult.” One wonders if making such a claim is just her way of enhancing her fifteen minutes in the spotlight.

How is it possible that such claims of satanic association can continually emerge in the media and remain relatively uncontested or examined by religious studies scholars? While there are exceptions, the problem is that there are few scholars within America who can really speak to the history of Satanism and claims of satanic abuse, a topic so fundamentally connected to American religious history, yet so universally overlooked. All the prominent scholars on the history of Satanism, in all its forms, are in Europe, predominantly Scandinavian countries. Moreover, what little scholarship there is about Satanism is often relegated to NRM scholars and not generally read by the majority of religious studies scholars at any time in their career, including graduate school. This has left a serious lacunae in the knowledge base of scholars of American religion. The result is law enforcement turning to those individual who are less qualified and more prone to accepting sensationalist claims. One example is this police training video. While I do not doubt the sincerity of the participants, the claims made within it are overly broad and dubious.

Should American religious scholars take a more active role in discussing these issues? And if so, in what forum? Should religious scholars be consulted by law enforcement or the courts? Of course each scholar has to decide for themselves, but in general, it seems pretty common for scholars of religion to be appear on news media programs or be consulted by law enforcement personal or participate as expert witnesses in cases. There are even prominent scholars like Stephen Prothero who attempt to elevate the discussion of religion in the media and lobby for better religious education. Moreover, I know even in my own depart the local authorities have consulted our faculty on occasion. Scholars involved with court cases is common, although it can become controversial, such as a number of NRM scholars, like J. Gordon Melton, being labeled as a cult apologists or Candy Gunther Brown’s recent participation in the case that involved yoga in public schools. But in general, our years studying religion should put us in the position to engage religious topics at a higher level. But what happens where there few American specialists on Satanism and similar traditions? When there is no one to correct the record? Claims of satanic crime are only an occasion occurrence, but when they arise, scholar of American religion should be prepared to respond. Unfortunately, at this point, I fear most cannot.

Posted in Academics, American Religious History, Popular Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Praise Yeezus?

I am a god. What now?
—Kanye West

In high school I came to love what is now called classic rock. My favorite groups included Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, and the Who. My absolute favorite was Led Zeppelin. I had all the albums, read the bios, collected bootleg concert recordings, and much more. They were rock and roll gods. That said, I never thought of starting a religion based on them. They were just entertainers I liked a lot. Earlier this month, however, a fan of Kanye West debuted his new religion based on Kanye’s newest album, Yeezus. With songs like “I am a God,” and Kanye calling himself Yeezus, talking to Jesus, this anonymous fan took it upon himself to bring to life the song lyrics and founded Yeezianity.

Yeezianity-headerWith a hodge-podge theology, derivative of Christianity, Islam, and the New Age, this anonymous fan calls everyone a God, and advocates for universal creativity. His “5 Pillars” include “Man possesses the power to create everything he wants and needs” and “All human suffering exists to stimulate the creative powers of Man.” It also has socialistic leanings stating “All things created must be for the good of All” and, perhaps in an attempt to lessen the value of money, “Money is unnecessary except as a means of exchange.” In his “Dogma” section, he announces that humanity is oppressed and that it is time to “break free of this slavery” and Yeezus, i.e. Kanye West, is going to “usher us into a New Age Where we all control our own destinies.”

Thick FramesOne could place Yeezianity in a long line of recent, Internet spawned traditions which include a variety of Star Wars-Jedi based religions (examples can be found here and here), or Pastafarianism (The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster), but I wonder if that is giving this so-called new religion too much credit. In the section of the website entitled “Declarations of Faith,” one learns that to join the Church of Yeezus and become a “Ye’ciple,” one must only post an anonymous picture with a sign declaring “I Believe in Yeezus.” With such low demands and a declaration custom made for social media, I wonder if it would be more appropriate to call the First Church of Yeezuz a meme instead of a religion. Moreover, when interviewed, the creator admitted that one of the reasons he made the church was to get Kanye’s attention.

I’ll be honest, if I had to go with what the ultimate desire was, first and foremost, and what stimulated the inspiration, it was that. [Meeting Kanye.] I don’t want to take the whole thing to a personal level, but there’s no one out there doing what Kanye is doing. And how do you get someone like that’s attention? I hope that’s not selfish. (The interview can be found here.)

When asked if he saw Kanye on the Yeezus tour, Yeezianity’s creator admitted he could not afford it, although he states definitively, “If you study the positive laws of attraction, if you really need money, and that’s really the limiting factor, it’s going to come your way.” So perhaps he will meet his newly minted God in the future, if only he concentrated hard enough on that goal.

But for me, as a scholar of religion, I wonder how best to categorize Yeezianity. Is it a religion? Is it a meme? Is this just some ploy to get an entertainer’s attention and get a back stage invitation? With such a low threshold of membership, the posting of a picture, is the whole thing a joke? What is at stake for scholars of religion to call this new creation a religion? What is at stake if we don’t? In many cases we have allowed our subjects of study to determine the answer for us. If they call themselves a member of a religious tradition or call something a religion, we accept that. But is that abdicating our analytical responsibilities, especially in a case such as this? Moreover, with the scrutiny of those outside our discipline ever increasing, do we risk ridicule by accepting this as a religion, or do we defend it as such, explaining that it has beliefs, dogma, a messianic figure, and even a ritual. I know it is a well-worn and even trite conversation regarding the definition of religion. As the new semester started a couple of weeks ago, I once more trotted out the various definitions of Durkheim, Geertz, Frazier, Tillich, and the like. I noted Asad’s dismissal to a universal definition, and also noted J.Z. Smith’s assertion that religion can be defined in over fifty ways. It is a conversation we are all familiar with. But on the other hand, we all have an internal definition of religion, a Justice-Potter-Stewart-like gut feeling that when we look at something claiming to be a religion, we know what it is when we see it.

Prayer-FlagsYeti-AltarFor me, Yeezianity is a not a religion. It seems an attempt to harness the powers of social media to promote the confused pseudo-religious ramblings of a rap star fan. It falls into a similar category for me as the manufactured “religion” of the Yeti created for the Walt Disney ride, Expedition Everest, in the Animal Kingdom. In this case Disney invented a Tibetan Buddhist derivative with alternative colored prayer flags and carvings of a Yeti holding Everest in one hand and a dorje in another. The Disney Imaginers have even gone so far as to create a yeti altar, overflowing with plastic fruit offerings and a Tibetan like stature of the Yeti, available for pictures with the Everest ride as the backdrop.

In both cases, the aesthetics of religion are being harnessed to serve other purposes. In Disney’s case, the goal is entertainment and to sell yeti based souvenirs, although one can also buy Tibetan Buddhist prayer beads, bowls, butter lamps, and other religious paraphernalia. In Yeezianity’s case, we see a web-savvy fan using social media to promote his love for an entertainer and get some notoriety while they doing it. It might be a fun thing to post a meme picture claiming one believes in Yeezus, but I think to call it a religion is to render the object of our study shallow.

Posted in Academics, American Religious History, Popular Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment