Decolonising the debate: some thoughts on the Religion meets Science conference, Edinburgh 2019

I recently attended a conference in Edinburgh entitled “Religion meets Science“. It promised much: sessions would explore “key issues in the interaction between science and religion for those engaged in secondary religious education” and the event itself was specifically aimed at “people who engage these questions in secondary schools and at those who study to become RE/RME professionals… anyone interested in emerging areas of debate between religion and science will also benefit from this conference.” A broad intended audience then, but a clear prioritisation towards teachers (the audience did appear to consist mostly of teachers, though not as many as might be expected; there were probably about 15 participants in total). Having recently qualified as a Scottish RME teacher, this seemed like an interesting event to go to, and here I wanted to offer some thoughts on the event overall.

The conference started well, with Mark Harris (Edinburgh University) offering an overview of the wider questions involved in the topic, and highlighting some of the problems that scholars are trying to deal with. This was followed by a fascinating exploration by Kevin Corcoran (Calvin College) of ways in which elements of Christian belief might be reasonably explained in terms of natural science, with a particular focus on the belief in ‘bodily resurrection’. I found this to be a very thought-provoking way of engaging with the topic – it felt like a kind of case study, an attempt to apply widely understood norms of scientific engagement to theological beliefs. Whether one agreed with his conclusions or not, it felt like a courageous intellectual attempt to address an interesting problem.

On the Saturday, the day began with Sarah Lane Ritchie (Edinburgh University) on neuroscience, religion and the soul. This was followed by Finley Lawson (Canterbury Christ Church University). Lawson was the first and only speaker to attempt to engage with teaching in schools, as he sought to outline possible approaches that could be used in lessons and curriculum formation; although the centre he represents is, of course, primarily interested in the English curriculum, this was a useful and stimulating session.

In the afternoon, Joanna Leidenhag (St Andrews University) discussed the role of the imagination (using popular culture examples) in thinking about the post-human and the ethics of control of such trends. Ethics also played a key role in Michael Fuller’s (Edinburgh University) closing paper on ‘big data’ and possible Christian theological responses to the questions that arise; he asked, for example, whether there should be a kind of Hippocratic Oath for big data operators, given their immense influence on individuals and societies.

In general terms, this was a stimulating and thought-provoking event, and it was good to meet and engage with people working in different areas. Having been to (and organised!) countless conferences over the years, it was very good that the key practical details were well-catered for: plenty of coffee breaks, an appropriate level of informality that allowed space for engaging with speakers and other participants (and details such as how to claim expenses for bursary recipients were clarified at the very start – so often, this kind of thing is left as an afterthought [but see postscript below]).

However, it did not really live up to what was billed in the description: apart from Lawson’s paper there was very little direct connection to the kinds of work that secondary teachers do, and this no doubt came from a general ignorance on the part of most of the speakers about what kind of teaching presently actually happened in schools by teachers of RE (at one point, members of the audience even had to explain to one of the Scottish speakers the distinction between Religious and Moral Education, and Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies – a vital and pretty basic point, but one that indicated how little interest in the actual work of the intended audience there was on the part of the speaker). Of course, the skill of a teacher at any level is to take their understanding and knowledge and teach it in the most appropriate way for their students or pupils, so apart from the way in which the conference was advertised, this was not in and of itself an issue.

More problematically than the lack of interest in secondary education by most of the speakers was, however, the very common confusion in western contexts around the terms being used. Harris set out some broad definitions of the key terms religion and science early on in his overview paper – a relatively easy task in part, as he was describing different responses to the questions that inevitably centre on differentiated definitions – but most speakers did not do so.

For some, this was fine: Corcoran clearly identified his approach as that of an American Protestant Christian, but for others this was more problematic: for example, Lane Ritchie kept speaking about ‘religion’ but as I commented to her in the questions afterwards, I think she actually meant ‘European or North American white liberal Protestantism’. Even then, this was not really acknowledged by her – a common problem with Western theology and religion scholars. Leidenhag and Fuller did much the same, the latter saying towards the end of his paper that he could only really offer insights as a theologian from a Protestant background, rather than offer wider understandings from ‘a religious perspective’.

Even if one doesn’t go along with the widely discredited ‘world religions’ model (yes, I’m looking at you, Scottish Qualifications Agency, at every single level!), then we should still be aware of what Guy Axtell has called ‘religious luck’ and how that plays out in different contexts. More broadly, this conference highlighted the absolute urgency for decolonising theology, religion, and the study of religions – for a great short summary of this, see, for example, Malory Nye’s stimulating new article in which he discussed the confusion around some of the terms: “‘religion’ is not only a particular English language term, it is one with a specific history, having emerged within colonial histories of white European Protestant Christian traditions”. He goes on to say that “to study ‘religion’ is not to study a ‘thing’ in itself, which exists across humanity as a universal. It is instead a study of how particular ideas (and discourses) of ‘religion’ are practiced and operationalized in various contexts.” Decolonising, Nye says, is a process “that works in many different ways — not only addressing and changing the ‘colonization of knowledge’ and ideology (and curriculum), but also the more obviously tangible and political forms of colonialism (particularly contemporary settler colonialism)”. This “process of attempting to decolonize the study of religion should require a methodological awareness of the historical and academic legacies of colonialism within the discipline, in terms of the ways in which it is taught and researched, along with key assumptions about the subject matter (such as the concepts of religion and world religions).”

For the most part, the conference singularly failed to engage with anything like this: not only was the colonial nature of ‘theology’ not commented upon, it was often regarded as being the same as ‘religion’ and an entity that itself appeared to contain subsets of ‘religions’. On the most simplistic level, at no point was there even a discussion of how someone identifying as Buddhist or Muslim, for example, might relate to these questions, and apart from Harris offering a comment that this was often a topic that exercised English-language scholars more than others because of linguistic peculiarities (after a German-speaker in the audience highlighted the similarity between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften, for example), no substantial reference to any cultural context beyond that of white Euro-American Protestants was really apparent (and even in the German context, of course, such thinking is pretty nuanced, as my friend Guy Marcel Clicqué’s work has shown over many years; see here, for a shorter article of his (in English) on the challenges of postmodernism and theology and science). For example, might a Muslim in Scotland view this topic differently to a Muslim in Saudi Arabia or India? What about someone from a Christian background growing up in a country where the schools and education system are majority-Muslim?

These are illustrative and therefore simplistic scenarios, but even in these there is, of course, no universality possible given the diversity of positions that might be taken – but that does not mean nothing can be said, as Nye argued. It is a shame that this challenge did not even appear to be one that most speakers were aware of.

Postscript, 9.7.19: having been positive about the alertness of the organisers to the expenses question, I note that although my claim was submitted immediately after the conference, it was only yesterday – a month later – that the expenses were actually received, and only after repeated emails to the university. This really is not good enough – if a bursary system has been created, universities have to be prompt at paying expenses and not cause unnecessary delay, thereby deterring people from participating.

Political theology and the “pivot to Asia”

In the fields of critical historiography, gender studies, world history, postcolonial theory, and so on, there is, it seems to me, a widespread acceptance in many circles that global and postcolonial perspectives are essential for any serious study.

For example, in recent times we might go back to Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory from the 1970s for better understanding global economic systems, Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism to explore the way imperial knowledge contributed to power structures, the alternative historiography of the Subaltern Studies Group initiated in the 1980s by Ranajit Guha and others, the various approaches at writing global history (one of my recent favourites is C. A. Bayly’s 2004 The Birth of the Modern World), global understandings of feminism and gender from Leila Ahmed, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – and so on. If we approach what might be regarded as questions of religion more directly, we find similar global perspectives in the work of William Cavanaugh (The Myth of Religious Violence, 2009), Abdulkhader Tayob, Sabine Dedenbach and many more.

Of course, there are a great number of scholars in Western universities who manage to ignore all this, or resort to colonial constructions to discuss the global context, using terms such as “ethnophilosophy” (that’s basically the study of non-European philosophy not written by white men) or “ethnomusicology” (that’s basically the study of non-European music not written by white men) or “ethnohistory” (that’s… oh, you can work it out!). But serious, useful, and relevant scholarship increasingly looks at much wider perspectives. This is why I found Kwok Pui-Lan’s introduction to a recent issue of Political Theology rather depressing (version with footnotes; note that the links to the articles are broken, try here to read them).

Kwok Pui-Lan, writing for Political Theology (click the image to read the blog posting; the original article has footnotes)

Kwok Pui-Lan, writing for Political Theology (click the image to read the blog posting; the original article has footnotes)

To be clear: I regard Pui-Lan as a great scholar, and have read and learnt from her work over many years (and her occasional blog is very enjoyable). I am not criticising her at all. Rather, I am depressed that after so many years of global scholarship, it is still necessary in a journal such as Political Theology to go right back to the basics as Pui-Lan has clearly felt she had to do here, and highlight all that still needs to be done to make contemporary political theology relevant in a global world.

I studied theology for my undergraduate degree from 1986 to 1990 at Aberdeen in Scotland and at Erlangen in Germany. Both had a reputation as being somewhat conservative – and yet I was reading global theology from the beginning of my degree, if not always as part of my courses. By the end of my second year, I would say I had a solid grounding in the thinking of key Latin American liberation theologians (Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Ernesto Cardenal, Miguez Bonino etc.), South African theologies of resistance (John de Gruchy, Allan Boesak, Desmond Tutu etc.), and increasing interests in the ways these global theological trends related to my own context in the capitalist West (Dorothee Sölle, Christopher Rowland, Alastair Kee etc.). In the midst of all this, I also read and engaged with Asian liberation theology, beginning with Aloysius Pieris (1988). And in amidst all of this, the impact of feminism and global gender theologies wove its way into my thinking in all these areas: Sallie McFague, Carter Heyward, Daphne Hampson, Audre Lorde, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, Luise Schottroff and so on. When Chung Hyun Kyung’s Struggle to be the Sun Again on Asian women’s theology came out in Britain in 1991, I bought and read it immediately. In much of this literature, there was a recognition that systems of oppression emanated not only from Western contexts, but more generally from alliances with systems of power, whether they be European, Asian, or race-, class- or gender-based.

I mention all these authors simply because they played a formative role in my early theological development. I was 18 when I started reading these texts (I’d no doubt benefit from revisiting them all now!), and for me, theology has always been global. In my own understanding as an early undergraduate, the ‘global turn’ for theology took place in the 1970s with Gutierrez and others – of course, I soon realised that that was not correct, but it shows that I was aware of the need for a global understanding, and I could see that it was already happening.

And yet, in 2016, three decades later, we still have an established journal in Western theological circles explaining from first principles why we need to look at what is happening globally to better understand what our political theology might look like. It feels rather patronising, but I actually feel sorry for Pui-Lan that her concluding paragraph includes the lines:

In order to speak to the present situation prophetically, political theologians must decolonize our minds and disengage ourselves from Eurocentrism and the colonial syndrome.

The theologians I mentioned above were doing exactly this in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and before – and they and others have continued to do so since then. But even the articles in this issue of Political Theology do not appear to do what Pui-Lan is asking for, being centred almost exclusively on traditional Western thought. Thank goodnesss Political Theology does not represent the status of political theology!

Theology and architecture: ‘fencing the table’ in Tobha Mor

The Church of Scotland and related Presbyterian churches in Scotland have only two sacraments: Baptism and Communion (in other traditions, called the Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Mass, Divine Service etc.). As with many traditions, the interpretation and practice underpinning these sacraments has changed significantly over time (a very gentle way of hinting at huge controversies that have dominated Western ecclesiastical history for centuries!).

One of the key disputes in Presbyterian tradition has been over who is allowed to receive the elements of bread and wine at the Communion Table (as it tends to be called in Presbyterian contexts). There are several understandings, which can be summarised as follows:

  1. open – it is understood to be the Lord’s Table, and not that of any one church, and therefore nobody may be excluded who regards themselves as Christian. Phrases such as “All who know the Lord” are often used in the invitation. Doctrinally, the contemporary Church of Scotland follows an open pattern, though this is a relatively recent development.
  2. guarded or close – only those who have been baptised and are members of a recognised church may participate in Communion. This can exclude children, for example, who might not be regarded as full members of a church.
  3. closed – only members of that particular church are admitted to Communion. The Catholic Church theoretically operates on a closed basis: doctrinally, only Catholics are supposed to receive the elements, though in practice I have often been invited to join at Mass, even though the priest knew I was not Catholic.

This third category is of interest to me here. In Scottish Presbyterianism, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, adherence to closed Communion led to a practice known as ‘fencing the table’: the minister would invite members of the congregation to the Table and would do so by describing the marks of grace of a Christian, as a form of encouragement. However, this also meant that there were those who did not have the right to sit at the Table, and appropriate descriptions of them were also given; texts such as 1 Cor 5:11, 13 were used in this regard:

11: But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.

13: God will judge those outside [the community of faith]. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (NRSV translation)

This invitation meant that in Communion season (often Communion happened just a few times a year at most) the elders would check up on every member, in a catechetical or teaching context, to verify that their lives showed evidence of appropriate marks of grace – rather than the opposite. Biblical verses such as 1 Cor 11:27-28 were used to argue this, with this kind of catechical approach intended to be an aid to self-examination:

27: Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.
28: Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. (NRSV translation)

Members who were deemed to be suitably devout were given a Communion token, a small minted coin, that at the service was given to one of the elders who would then allow the person to sit at the Table in order to receive Communion. Whilst formally the minister’s invitation/admonition was known as ‘fencing the table’ it also took physical form: the Table would often be set apart from the rest of the church and physically fenced in, meaning elders could ensure only those with appropriate tokens would be allowed to participate. It is worth noting the opportunities for abuse that such a process of assessment gave ministers and elders, especially, perhaps, in the context of a patriarchal society that worried about women’s sexuality.

Gradually, as the Church of Scotland moved away from closed Communion and the practice of fencing the table church interiors changed to reflect this, and fenced Communion Tables were removed. In fact, despite having visited countless Church of Scotland churches over the years, I had never seen a fenced Communion Table, and I simply assumed they no longer existed.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

My surprise, therefore, at hearing that the Church of Scotland church at Tobha Mor (Howmore) on the island of South Uist not only had a fenced Table but a centrally-placed one, meant that a visit was obligatory! It is apparently one of only two churches with fenced tables in the entire Church of Scotland (I don’t know where the second one is), though there may be examples remaining in the Free Church of Scotland or other denominations. We visited Tobha Mor last week, on Saturday 20. August, the day before the new minister, Rev. Lindsey Schlüter, took her first service there (her induction to the parishes of Barra and South Uist had just taken place). The following photographs of the church and the interior are from that visit.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

The front of the church. Note here the empty belfrey: belfries of churches in the Outer Hebrides often lacked bells.

Alastair McIntosh has given this some thought, and is involved in Mhairi Killin and Hugh Watt’s project on Re-Soundings of church bells on the islands of Lewis and Iona, ‘focussed on the bell as a vehicle to move through a timeline of religious ideologies, from its presence in the early Christian period on Iona through its destruction during the reformation, to its absence, as exemplified in the present day belfries of the Presbyterian Church on Lewis.’ Their project is well-worth following.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

The west coast of the island is very flat, and the white church, seen here from the back, stands out as a marker for sailors along the coast.

From the outside, this looks like a typical village church, but the interior is quite different.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

This view is from the balcony, and shows the Communion Table between the pews.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

The partition around the Table is at roughly the same height as the Table itself, with three doors on each side.

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There are doors on either side near the front, and two doors on each side near the back of the church, all of which can be locked shut with bolts.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

The Communion Table and the benches are hinged at the doors, allowing easier movement – here both have been folded open.

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The view of the church when sitting at the Table, and from the lectern.

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From the pulpit, I had a sense of the Table appearing to be very long, even though the church itself is relatively small.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Whilst the theological significance of the partition is to encourage the Christian life and welcome those who live it, the inevitable exclusion of those deemed not to be worthy of receiving Communion becomes very apparent when standing outside the partition.

Tobha Mor Church is a fascinating example of a traditionally fenced Communion Table, and whilst ‘fencing the table’ is no longer a part of the Church of Scotland’s doctrinal position, I am intrigued as to why Tobha Mor has kept the central fenced table. Of course, sitting around an actual table for Communion – rather than in pews as most Church of Scotland churches organise it – undoubtedly increases the sense of a community meal, and there is something rather special about that kind of Communion. There may also be more prosaic reasons, such as a lack of funds to make the changes that most other churches have adopted.

My wife, Rev. Sigrid Marten, the minister of Balfron Church linked with Fintry Kirk, in Stirlingshire, wondered if the existence of central fenced Communion Tables perhaps explains why so many Church of Scotland churches lack a central aisle: there could once have been a Communion Table there that has now been replaced by additional pews. For example, it is easy to imagine that the central pews are a new addition to Fintry Kirk:

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This is clearly something to find out more about when I am home again and have access to additional resources.

If you know of another Church of Scotland church which still retains a fenced table, I’d be grateful if you could use the comments function to provide details.

American elections, imperialism, slavery – and Britain

I have written a blog posting on another website that might be of interest to readers here too, about the American elections, imperialism, slavery and British reactions to these themes:

Some notes on the American election and imperialism (click image to read the article)

Some notes on the American election and imperialism (click image to read the article)

Open Access – an ongoing issue for academics

Glyn Moody has published a fascinating essay on the history of Open Access publishing and the present challenges it faces. It’s really worth reading.

Glyn Moody: Open Access: All human knowledge is there - so why can't everybody access it? (click the image...)

Glyn Moody: Open Access: All human knowledge is there – so why can’t everybody access it? (click the image…)

The article focuses primarily on the natural sciences, rather than on the humanities (acknowledged by him in the comments, which are worth reading too). A key point of the OA movement is academics trying to find ways to circumvent the parasitic private companies that “earn” their huge profits by extorting vast sums from either the academics or the readers – or both.

Most academics, I think, write because we want to be read. I don’t write anything just so that it is published but inaccessible. I want people to read my work, not for self-aggrandisement, but because I am excited by what I research and write, and I would like others to share in that excitement. Also, if people read what I write, they can engage with and comment on it – if they like it, that’s great, but if they want to criticise it and help me improve my arguments, that’s even better. All this can only happen if people can easily access it. This is why, since 2012, I will only work with OA journals.

Moody’s article notes that websites like Sci-Hub are growing in popularity, even amongst people with institutional access. It’s obvious why this is – it’s very simple and straightforward, and it mostly just works, whereas needing special logins and authentications and so on via libraries is a hassle. Of course, not having institutional access to libraries makes things like Sci-Hub even more attractive. I find the Sci-Hub Twitter account a useful thing to have bookmarked to keep up with the changing domains it uses, which at present appear to be:

The other similar site I find fantastically useful is, a repository of e-books (again, I’d recommend using this over Tor). In the humanities monographs are perhaps more important than journal articles, and this site has, it claims, more than 2,230,000 e-books available – more than many university libraries can offer! Of course, it’s not necessarily as systematically organised as a university library, but it is very easy to use. I am pleased to see that at least one of my books is there (go on, read it, and let me know what you think: it’s now 10 years old and my thinking has developed, but I’m still keen on comments!). Personally, I prefer printed books, as many people do, and I continue to spend far more money than I should on books (and I consequently suffer a serious shelf-deficit in my house…), but there are times when an e-book will suffice, and in terms of furthering knowledge, I’d rather my work was read in some form.

Personally, a key aspect to my interest in having other people read my work is that it is mostly about European missionaries in the Middle East. Many people in the Middle East have been affected in some way by European Protestant missionaries: parents or grandparents went to missionary schools, they ‘converted’ and grew up in Protestant churches and communities, they attended missionary-inspired universities (the American Universities in Beirut and Cairo, for example), and so on. I would be particularly delighted if such folk engaged with what I have written and countered my own white, male, Euro-centric views (saying this simply points to a realistic reflection of my positionality), offering their own comments and reflections from the postcolonial context. The furtherance of knowledge, that is what I want! Open Access is about that, and it should be encouraged.

Journals aside, the next step is meaningful publication of OA monographs. I am working on a book on transnational history at the moment, and I would love that to simply be freely available and therefore read widely. I will, in due course, hope to identify some appropriate venue for this – there’ll be more information on that here as and when the book nears completion.

Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmith’s

I have been very moved by Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmith’s College, University of London, over its failure to deal adequately with sexual harassment: “I have resigned in protest against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment. I have resigned because the costs of doing this work have been too high.” She has written about this here and here.

Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

I don’t know Professor Ahmed personally, but I have found her work to be stimulating and tremendously helpful in my own thinking (I’ve been raving about her book Queer Phenomenology to anyone who will listen for quite a while now!). Having recently left a university, I know that it’s not easy to do, and I can’t imagine doing so would have been easy for her, even though the circumstances  of her leaving are very different to mine. She used her agency in the context she was in to chose to leave over the issue of sexual harassment at her institution, understanding this as a feminist act.

Goldsmith’s, like all modern institutions, prides itself on its equality and diversity policies (Goldsmith’s, like so many, devotes a page on their website to this topic), but as Ahmed points out, these policies mean little if the problem of sexual harassment is allowed to continue; I also know this from being a trade union case worker. The “performativity of saying diversity” is something my sister-in-law, Eike Marten, has written about in the German context (her book on this topic is being published by Routledge later this year), and the singular failure of institutions to adequately address these topics despite a string of Athena Swan and other awards is something that Ahmed’s actions have highlighted. Identifying mechanisms to address this problem is the next step, particularly in the light of the increasing number of cases beginning to appear in the mainstream (academic) press, and in my view this is what makes Ahmed’s resignation at this time so important.

Universities tend to protect famous (almost always) older male scholars from the consequences of their sexual harassment of (almost always) younger female scholars. I know this personally: right in the middle of my undergraduate finals, I was a witness in a university procedure against a senior professor who had sexually harassed me and many other undergraduates – men and women – over a protracted period of time (and yes, choosing a date for the hearing in the middle of the exam period was, I think, deliberate on the part of the university). The whole thing was largely covered up, and the professor in question continued his work in academia and the church; unfortunately, a recent FOI request I made to Aberdeen University resulted in no documents being found on this topic, and as he is still alive and active in his field, I probably shouldn’t name him publicly even now, for fear of litigation. That happened in 1990, but Ahmed’s resignation a quarter of a century later clearly indicates nothing much has changed in UK academia.

It’s high time it did.

New research project – Scottish Women On A Mission (SWOAM)

Together with two colleagues – Alison Jasper and Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan – I am embarking upon a new research project, called Scottish Women On A Mission (or SWOAM).  We will be studying the work of Scottish women who went overseas as missionaries in the years 1918-48.

There is a small website now available, and this morning I posted a blog outlining some of our aims and objectives.  Do take a look, and follow our work there (we’re on Twitter and Facebook, and you can also follow us by subscribing to the website).


Over the last months there has been considerable interest in what is happening to the Religion programme at Stirling University.  Earlier today I tweeted a photograph from my third year undergraduate class – and since then I have received a substantial number of queries about the current situation.

The following statement is the extent of the comment I can make on this matter:

Dr Tim Fitzgerald and Dr Michael Marten will be leaving the University at the end of December 2015. Dr Andrew Hass and Dr Alison Jasper will continue to contribute, with colleagues, to the delivery of programmes in Religion.
This statement has been agreed by all parties.

Please note that comments on this blog posting are closed.

Securing research data through encryption and related issues

I am occasionally asked what all the encryption stuff on my Contact/PGP page is about.  For some time I have been meaning to write about the importance of data encryption for researchers, but it is quite a daunting task to write a thorough blog post on such a topic.

Thankfully, someone else has done this!  A colleague gave me a link to a blog posting by Jonatan Kurzwelly that covers questions of email and file encryption and much more, and I would strongly echo all of the points here:

Encrypting Ethnography: Digital Security for Researchers

I first encountered the issue of encryption in the mid-1990s, when working as a lobbyist for the UK churches on issues related to Israel/Palestine, Iraq and Sudan.  Email was just beginning to be used in academic circles, but was not yet something that the UK churches used much.  In fact, although I was based at the Church of Scotland offices, I was given an email address through the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for African Studies to help with the work on Sudan.  Several of the informants for my human rights work in Sudan had access to email because they were attached to the university in Khartoum, and very quickly it became necessary to find secure ways to communicate if my informants were to stay safe.  This soon also became an option used by Iraqi informants.

I was therefore one of the early users of Phil Zimmermann’s Pretty Good Privacy software, also known as PGP – in those days it was all command-line stuff in DOS and pretty complicated for a non-cryptographic specialist like me.  However, none of my informants were endangered, and we were able to do some important work, lobbying in the Westminster parliament for the rights of disadvantaged people in these countries.  I have continued to use PGP over the years as it has become simpler to use, and now it is available in easily accessible form through GPGTools etc.

GPG Keychain Access App

I strongly encourage the use of GPGTools and all the other myriad security methods outlined in Kurzwelly’s blog posting.  As the recent leaks by Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and others have shown, data is not secure unless you make it secure.  You need to begin with the premise that ALL email and communications are being read (because they are, even if just by a machine) – and then the need for secure communications becomes immediately apparent.  Data stored on servers etc. is also insecure, as Kurzwelly’s blog posting makes clear. Researchers are not exempt from this – particularly if their sources may be putting themselves in danger through what they reveal.  No research outcome is worth putting other people at risk.

So that is what the PGP key data on my Contact/PGP page is about.

Secure your data!

Understanding Islamic State? A conversation with David Pratt

Last week I had a Twitter conversation with David Pratt, the foreign editor of Scotland’s premier newspapers, The Herald and Sunday Herald, and I then wrote a short blog posting about this on another blog I use.

Some of the themes and issues I address here will be of interest in reflecting on how we think about groups like Islamic State and others. In particular, students engaging with questions of categories and identity questions might find this interaction and my subsequent reflections helpful.

In The Public Sphere

David Pratt is a journalist I rate very highly.  He is the foreign editor for The Herald and Sunday Herald newspapers, and reports with engagement and passion on conflict and humanitarian issues around the world.  He recently wrote a very good column about Palmyra, and I tweeted a link to it with a comment that he then picked up on, and a conversation developed.  I thought it might be interesting to post it here, with a further comment.  Pratt’s original article is here: Caring about people and art is one and the same thing, and I warmly recommend it.

Here’s my tweet, and the ensuing conversation can be read below it (may need a separate tab/window to see it in full; I’ve also created an image of the conversation below; the IS article I linked to is one I wrote for the Critical Religion Association):

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