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Conflict and Religion MPhil Pathway

Religion and Conflict

 

The aim of the pathway in Religion and Conflict is to offer students the opportunity to pursue advanced study and introductory research into a vibrant and rapid developing field of considerable contemporary importance. Claims and counterclaims about the causal relationship between religion and conflict appear regularly in scholarly literature, as well as the discourse of religious leaders, the media, and policy-makers, across the globe. Religious motivations are, for example, widely cited as a principal cause of terrorism in the world today, and sacred texts are regularly said to contain the potential to incite hatred, as well as, paradoxically, to be indispensable tools in conflict resolution. The pathway is intended to equip students to critically evaluate such claims and provide them with the knowledge and intellectual skills necessary to become informed, innovative and nuanced contributors to current debates about the place of religion in conflict.

 

Students taking the pathway will have the opportunity to engage with major theoretical approaches and research methods employed in the field as well as the chance to scrutinise a number case studies, textual, historical and contemporary, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. In addition to allowing students a deeper engagement with the specific subjects analysed, and introducing them to the complexity necessarily inherent in the field, the case studies will provide a means of exploring the wider implications of questions raised by the study of religion and conflict more generally. Students will also undertake a sustained piece of research in the form of the dissertation, that will allow them to engage with a topic within the field in depth. The pathway will provide a firm foundation for those who wish to pursue further postgraduate studies within the field but it is also intended to give those that do not, a critical understanding of religion and conflict that will prove extremely valuable in other contexts.

 

Description of Course

 

Modules

Each module of the Religion and Conflict course is taught through four fortnightly two hour seminars and is assessed by a 5,000 word essay due at the end of term. The subject of each essay must be agreed with the supervisor and approved by the Course Co-ordinator and Degree Committee. The essay titles must relate closely to the subject of at least one seminar in each module undertaken in the pathway.

 

The Modules for 2020-2021 are:

 

Michaelmas Term

a. Theories and Issues in the Study of Religion and Conflict (Justin Meggitt)

 

Lent Term

b. Contemporary Religious Conflict: Ethnographic Approaches (Joseph Webster)

 

Students who wish to write a dissertation in the area of Religion and Conflict are required to attend the seminars during Michaelmas Term and complete one Religion and Conflict assessed essay. It is recommended that students continue on to the Lent Term module but it may be possible in certain cases for students to audit these modules to allow them to undertake a module in another subject in the Lent Term. Students wishing to do this must consult with the Course Co-ordinator as early as possible.

 

 

Michaelmas Term

 

Module 1: Theories and Issues in the Study of Religion and Conflict

 

Course Coordinator: Justin J. Meggitt

 

This module will seek to introduce students to the critical study of religion and conflict by scrutinising current theoretical debates about the place of religion in a variety of forms of conflict, from genocide to domestic violence, and by closely analysing indicative and emblematic scriptural, historical, and contemporary case studies.       

 

Module aims

1. To provide a critical overview of the dominant theories of the relationship between religion and conflict.

2. To examine in depth questions raised by the study of the scriptural, historical, and contemporary dimensions of religion and conflict by means of specific case studies.

3. To introduce, analyse and problematise a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of religion and conflict.

 

Module objectives

By the end of the module, students should be able to:

1. Critically evaluate the prevalent theories of the relationship between religion and conflict.

2. Analyse claims about the relationship between religious texts and acts of violence in current scholarship.

3. Understand and critique historiographical and popular-cultural debates about the role religion has played within past conflicts and their contemporary legacies.

4. Gain an informed overview of the ‘religious turn’ in terrorism studies, and be able to evaluate the the constructions of religion evident in literature produced by scholars working in that field.

 

Seminar topics

 

Seminar 1. Theories of Religion and Conflict

This seminar will provide a critical introduction to the prevalent theories in the study of the relationship between religion and conflict. Explanations of the role that religious practices, beliefs, and ideologies play in  inciting, legitimating or ameliorating violence and conflict, from genocide to domestic violence, will be scrutinized. Special attention will be paid to definitional issues and their implications, and claims of different kinds about causality.

 

Seminar 2. Scriptural Case Study: Book of Revelation

This lecture/seminar will focus on the contextual and interpretative history of the Book of Revelation, and hermeneutical approaches associated with its implication in violence. It will explore contested readings of the themes of persecution, suffering, martyrdom, judgement and vengeance found in current critical literature on Revelation, and debates about their real, metaphorical and mythic qualities, as well as the gendered representations of violence and victimhood. The reception history of Revelation, as it relates to acts of violence - and anti-violence - will also be examined.

 

Seminar 3. Historical Case Study: 'Barbary' Slaving in the Early Modern World

This seminar will consider the contested role of religion in so-called 'Barbary' slavery and the dominant historiographical and popular cultural debates about its interpretation. This phenomenon, part of a much broader and longer lasting experience of slaving in the Mediterranean, drew large numbers of Christians, Muslims and Jews into sustained, violent conflict, as well as acts of cooperation.

            Though the scrutiny of popular captivity narratives, and other primary sources, from chapbooks to plays, we shall the examine the religious framing of this conflict, and its cultural uses in the early modern period, paying particular attention to the themes of conversion, holy war and sexual violence. The session will also examine current debates within historical writing about this conflict, notably the roles of colonialism and orientalism, and the racialisation of the conflict, as well as contemporary disputes about its legacy and memorialisation.

 

Seminar 4. Contemporary Case Study: Terrorism

In this seminar the religious turn in terrorism studies will be examined, and especially the so-called 'New Terrorism' thesis and the 'fourth wave' theory, that emerged subsequent to the sarin attacks by Aum Shinrikyo  in Tokyo in 1995, and also the events of 9/11. The claim that a new, global form of terrorism has emerged, that is unparalleled in its indiscriminate use of violence, and unconstrained by this-wordly strategic goals of previous forms, and that it is characteristically religious, will be critically analysed. We shall look carefully at the constructions of religion evident in terrorism studies literature, and the recurring tropes of apocalyptic and irrationality that typify leading contributions in the field.

 

Assessment

The module is assessed by a 5,000 word essay due at the end of term. The subject of each essay must be agreed with the supervisor and approved by the Course Co-ordinator and Degree Committee. The essay titles must relate closely to the subject of at least one seminar in the module.

 

Sample essay questions

Students can choose to focus on specific religious texts, traditions, or historical events in formulating their question but the following suggestions may prove helpful.

Seminar 1: Theories of Religion and Conflict

What are the failings of current theories of the relationship between religion and conflict?

Can religious violence be considered a secularist ‘myth’?

 

Seminar 2. Scriptural Case Study: Book of Revelation

Can sacred texts incite violence?

Does the eschatological hope of the Book of Revelation ameliorate or accentuate conflict?

 

Seminar 3. Historical Case Study: 'Barbary' Slaving in the Early Modern World

How can the memorialisation of religious conflicts of the past inform those in the present?

Were slaves in the early modern Mediterranean victims of a religious conflict?

 

Seminar 4. Contemporary Case Study: Terrorism

Does religion cause terrorism?

What are the critical problems raised by the ‘religious turn’ in terrorism studies?

 

Lent Term

 

Module 2. Contemporary Religious Conflict: Ethnographic Approaches

           

Course Coordinator: Joseph Webster

This module will introduce students to anthropological approaches to the study of religious conflict, and will do so primarily through critical examination of ethnographic case studies, while also considering the role of anthropological theory in explaining ethnographic data. The empirical focus will be on contemporary Protestant fundamentalism in Britain and America, but we will also examine the relationship between these versions of Protestantism, and the religiosity of the ‘far right’.  

 

Module Aims

  1. To provide a critical overview of anthropological methods and theories relevant to the study of religious conflict.
  2. To critically examine several key ethnographic case studies to better understand the contemporary dynamics of religious conflict, considered within a specific and grounded context, namely Protestant fundamentalism in the UK and US.
  3. To consider how anthropological approaches to the study of religious conflict might differ from other approaches, especially emic theological approaches embraced by the Protestant fundamentalist groups covered in the module.

 

Module Objectives

By the end of the module, students should be able to:

  1. Understand what anthropological theory and ethnographic case studies bring to the study of religious conflict.
  2. Critically evaluate a range of ethnographies of religious conflict to assess their theoretical insights, as well as their methodological strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Understand and evaluate the intellectual worth of the broader anthropological approach to religious conflict, as related to moral and cultural relativism, an empirical focus on particularism and cultural difference, and a commitment to reflexivity and self-critique.

 

Seminar topics

 

Seminar 1. Exclusive Brethren Antichrists: Accusations of Evil and Political Conflict on the Aberdeenshire Coast

In this lecture/seminar we will discuss the case of the Exclusive Brethren, a socially separatist religious group who eagerly anticipate the imminent apocalypse. By examining the premillennial dispensationalism of Brethren ‘founding father’ John Nelson Darby, we will attempt to understand the relationship between contemporary politics and the imagination of future religious conflict. Among other topics, we will track various Brethren identifications of the Antichrist as a way to consider how accusations of this-worldly evil may be fertile ground for the development of social processes of ‘othering’ – processes which are crucial for sustaining and reproducing religious conflict.

 

* Key ethnography: Webster, J. (2013) The Anthropology of Protestantism: Faith and Crisis among Scottish Fishermen

 

Seminar 2. The Religion of Orange Politics: Fraternity and Hate in Scotland and Northern Ireland

In this lecture/seminar we will discuss the Protestant commitments of the Orange Order and other loyalist groups active in Scotland, as well as their connection to ‘post-Troubles’ Northern Ireland. By questioning what we might mean by ‘sectarianism’, and by interrogating why, according to some in the Orange Order, religious bigotry and hate are morally good, we will attempt to rethink the social role of conflict in the production of social cohesion. From fraternal drinking and football violence, to contentious parading and political campaigning, this session will examine the role of religion in imagining and enacting ethno-nationalist conflict between Catholics and Protestants since signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

 

* Key ethnography: Webster, J. (2020) The Religion of Orange Politics: Protestantism and Fraternity in Contemporary Scotland

 

Seminar 3. Racism and Islamophobia: The Religion of the Far-Right in Contemporary Britain

In this lecture/seminar we will examine how racism and Islamophobia come to take on religious expressions within certain white-majority communities in Britain. At issue is how far-right politics – as both a narrative and a form of activism – deploys the notion of Britain as a ‘Christian nation’ to the exclusion of those they regard as somehow culturally or ethnically incommensurable with Britain’s (imagined) ‘Christian heritage’. Seen as an ‘invented tradition’, Britishness may be actively redefined as a kind of religion, with civic nationalism giving way to ethno-religious nationalism as a result. By examining ethnographic accounts of the National Front and the English Defence League, this session will consider what happens when religious identity becomes inseparable from claims about ‘race’, as well as from experiences of racism.  

 

* Key ethnography: Pilkington, H. (2016) Loud and Proud: Passion and Politics in the English Defence League

 

Seminar 4. American Protestant Fundamentalism: From ‘Cultural Wars’ to Political Violence

In this lecture/seminar we move from Britain to the United States to consider how Protestant exceptionalism produces cultural conflicts that sometimes spill over into actual religious violence. By re-examining Susan Harding’s ethnographic account of Jerry Falwell’s ‘Moral Majority’ and comparing it to imaginations of religious and political conflict at the heart of ‘Survivalist’ and ‘Prepper’ culture, this session will consider what, if anything, has changed in over 40 years of American Protestant ‘Culture Wars’. With the rise of nationalist populism under the Presidency of Donald Trump, to what extent is American Protestant Fundamentalism an ally of such conflicts, or might the relationship between Trump and radical Christianity be other than we often assume?

 

* Key Ethnography: Harding, S. (2000) The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics

 

Sample essay questions

In order to facilitate ethnographic comparison, students must choose to focus on two or more ethnographic case studies covered in the module when formulating their question, with at least one being taken from the ‘key ethnographies’ listed at the bottom of each seminar description. Other ethnographies can be selected by the student, in consultation with the Course Coordinator. When selecting ethnographies, the following sample essay questions may prove helpful:

 

Seminar 1: Exclusive Brethren Antichrists: Accusations of Evil and Political Conflict on the Aberdeenshire Coast

 

  • How does anticipating a future apocalyptic conflict change life in the present?
  • Beyond the moral condemnation of specific individuals, what might the social and cultural impact be of identifying various Antichrists?

 

 

Seminar 2. The Religion of Orange Politics: Fraternity and Hate in Scotland and Northern Ireland

 

  • Is religious hate good?
  • In what way is football hooliganism akin to religious conflict?

 

 

Seminar 3. Racism and Islamophobia: The Religion of the Far-Right in Contemporary Britain

 

  • Can ‘race’ be a religion? / Can religion be a ‘race’?
  • How important is the process of ‘othering’ in creating and perpetuating religious conflict?

 

 

Seminar 4. American Protestant Fundamentalism: From ‘Cultural Wars’ to Political Violence

 

  • What is the role of language in stimulating religious conflict?
  • Are religious conflicts really cultural conflicts in disguise?

 

Moodle

Current students and supervisors can access the Faculty’s Moodle page by clicking on the image below.