In her book A Sociology of Religious Emotion professor Linda Woodhead states there is no such thing as a ‘religious emotion’. All emotions are constructs, according to her.

Isn’t there such a thing as awe, as the emotion toward that which is held sacred, maybe that which we used to call the fear of God?

“Yes, but non-religious people have awe as well. There is no emotion which you can pinpoint and say: only religion has that emotion. Looking at art or a landscape you can also feel awe, just as when you feel awe towards a statue of Christ.”

But if I look at a sunset or a starry nightsky and feel overwhelmed, I would call that a religious emotion?

“Yes, well if you think religion is something like losing yourself into that which is bigger and greater than you… fair enough.
We should take emotion seriously. Most people think of religion in terms of beliefs, and that can’t explain any of the things we are talking about. Beliefs alone don’t motivate people to produce the sort of things religion produces, which is new visions of the world, good and bad. So let’s start thinking more about the emotional aspects of religion that have been so neglected.”

Can emotions be prescribed, manipulated or forbidden?

“Yes, they are cultivated. Everyone tries to do that – parents do it with their children from the start. We try to shape their emotions. When a child gets furious and hits its friend, we try to show them how to behave properly. We constantly educate our sensibilities. That’s what schools and universities do: teach us to feel appropriately.”

Isn’t feeling spontaneous?

“No, it’s cultivated. For instance Christmas: we deliberately use music, candles, all sorts of props to cultivate the kinds of emotions we want to cultivate. Christmas is all about feeling good about your family, love, generosity, and so on. All the time we are cultivating emotions.
Every culture has a different set of emotions. If you go to India you will be surprised how often people express different emotions from a Dutch person. We think it is spontaneous but we have been educated into them.
Men and women feel differently because we are taught and allowed to. So women cry more easily. For women to be angry is less accepted – and then you stop feeling anger.
In our book we give people tools to study emotions so you can look at the emotional repertoire of a particular type of person in a particular situation. What is the repertoire of emotions he is allowed to feel? We need to get more sophisticated in approaching religions in these terms. The beliefs are important too, but they are bound up in the structure of feelings.”

Why are atheists like Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, so angry at religion?

“I would say people get really angry when they feel threatened; when they feel something sacred is being violated by other people. Dawkins believes that his kind of science is something sacred and that religious people undermine it. So he gets very angry.”

Then science is a form of religion?

“You can have a religious attitude towards it and I think he does. That is his highest value.”

So he is a fundamentalist?

“A fundamentalist tries to reduce religion to a set of simple beliefs and I don’t think Dawkins does that with science. But I think he has some of the similar attitudes. He is an exclusivist, he thinks he has the only route to truth. And he doesn’t allow for any other way to get to truth, beauty and goodness other than through his approach.
Fundamantalists believe they have a direct line to what is true and good and nobody else does. That is quite a violent position to hold, for then you have to destroy what other people believe in, because it’s false. And you have to bring them to the truth which only you know.”

It looks like fundamentalists like the IS systematically choose negative emotions, fear and loathing?

“They don’t. They are idealistic; they choose for something they love and believe to be a great good. They think that a califate, a society run by God’s principles, would be a perfect and wonderful society. They are devoted to that cause and want the whole world to see that truth. No, they use young people’s sense of outrage at injustice that is done to islam. And they use their hope that they can fight injustice and create a perfect state.
Idealism is much more dangerous than cynicism. Because people want to make you part of their utopia.”

How do you see the rise of nationalistic movements against islam such as Pegida?

“I would ask: which positive values are they defending? What symbols do they use, what sort of meetings do they have and how do they cultivate people’s emotions. Are they afraid? Maybe their social position is precarious. Men who feel that manhood is not respected. Or middle classes who feel that they are losing their position in society. And then they are blaming a group which becomes a symbol for their anxiety and fear. They think if they get rid of the group, it would banish their emotions.
That shows how emotions would be a useful way of thinking about such movements.”

So we need to teach people to look inside, at their own emotions?

“Not just inside. You can also look at the symbols they use: do they mobilize around a swastika? Or around a flag? When they gather, do they have music? Emotions are cultivated outside. Meeting with a group that makes you feel strong is one way to lose fear.”

But if the group as a whole is hostile and aggressive towards a particular religion, they become a problem.

“You have to look into what creates the fear: is it rational or irrational? Maybe the fear is real because their position is threatened and that might need a social and political answer. You need to understand what is going on.”

And what could we tell young people who want to join IS?

“You have to educate people right from the start. You have to engage with what you think the truth is and show them where they are wrong. That their interpretation of history is not correct, that this way of thinking about the state is not correct, that their narrative of the persecution of muslims by the entire non-muslim world is flawed, and so on.
There is something wrong, I think, in our educational systems, in that young people can actually believe these things which are false. And that they don’t understand the values of liberal democracy and how they they’ve been fought for for so many centuries. And how important they are and what they mean.”

Is that not because liberal democracy seems to give us a lot of freedom and wealth, but it does not give us anything sacred?

“Yes, I think that is a good point. We have no symbolic way of representing liberal democracy, or rituals that support it. Although you could say voting is a ritual.
In the US democracy is almost a religion, they have lots of rituals and ceremonies and a deep love of freedom and democracy in a way we lack in Europe. Maybe because we fought our battles a long time ago. Maybe they need to be fought again…”

But even in America it doesn’t really work; there is too much injustice and inequality. Democracy has not brought on the perfect society.

“That’s why some young people look elsewhere, not just IS; they try to create a perfect society. Many young people are trying to create a different society.
You could say liberal democracy is not the kingdom of God. It is just a sociopolitical framework and it will never satisfy the whole of your life; people need more. But it is a system in which people can realise their own visions. I am a liberal and I would say: do not undermine this basic structure, because it gives us the freedom to do that.”

Your book The Spiritual Revolution dismantles the prejudice that new age spirituality is an egotistic movement. On the contrary: it is all about connecting to the world and to other people.

“We drew a lot of criticism with that book. People said: spirituality is not real religion, it is all selfish. But that is completely false. There have been many more studies and they have shown beyond doubt that people involved in spirituality are more likely to vote, they are more socially minded, they have more connection with other people, with the environment, with nature… on all these fields they score less selfish than other groups of people.
The criticism was partly, I think, because women are so prominent in the spiritual movement. Men feel threatened.
I think it is a very interesting movement: creative, emotionally intelligent, creating new hope. It helps people with their physical and emotional problems and it is about forging better connections between people and the natural world. I can see why it is more attractive to people than the traditional religions. In many ways these are not living up to the needs that our society and the planet have these days. And indeed, churches are losing members very quickly.”

And what is left of them, is radicalizing.

“Yes, they become opposed to liberalism, to women’s rights, gay rights, children’s rights. They become more patriarchal. They have lost their liberal wings. More and more young people say they have no religion, because they are put off by traditional religion. They see religion as a bad thing rather than as a positive force in the world.”

Is there any future for religion, or will we all be spiritual beings in fifty years time?

“There is always a future. This is an interesting time. Where religion used to be guarded by a few clerics, now we are all doing it for ourselves, in new ways. In the Netherlands for example, on All Souls Night people go into the graveyards and light candles; they revive the very traditional catholic belief that the souls of people are close on that night. Without priests.
It is kind of tragic. We have this whole heritage of christianity which is a beautiful thing in many ways. People won’t lose it, they will try to recover it, but in their own ways. Outside of the institutional guardians. It is a shame that the churches can’t connect with their own riches.
Also islam in Europe is doing all sorts of interesting things. It is a powerful source of strength for women to develop their own identity in European society.”

So is liberal religion the way ahead?

“Yes of course, we need religions to be compatible with freedom. A religion is not liberal if people think that some have the right to tell other people how to behave, how to dress, what to believe.
We need to make much clearer distinctions, I think, between liberal and illiberal forms of religion. We need to be much more sophisticated in the way in which we deal with them. Secularism is not enough, because it condems all religion; it does not differentiate between some forms which are positive and some forms which are negative.
We are ignorant about religion; we say it is all good or all bad. On the one hand you have religious freedom people who defend all religion; on the other hand human rights often says all religion is bad. This is very primitive. We need to become far more intelligent in the ways in which we monitor religion and differentiate between liberal and illiberal forms. And support some forms which are respectful of our freedom to choose, and be cautious about others, and expose what they really stand for.
That is my message: we need to monitor religion, we need to understand it better and we need to teach it better. And not say it’s going to disappear, because it’s not. And we need to show what’s sacred about many of our own beliefs.”

The sacred would be in the combination of freedom and love? Then you get: ‘I am free and you are free too.’

“The failure of liberal religion – like liberal christianity, which is becoming less and less in the churches – is that a lot of young people who are trapped in illiberal religion are sold a lie. The lie is that only fundamentalist believers have real religion. Liberal religion, which says that God is love and compassion and mercy and that you should live with love, is the hardest thing in life. That is hardline religion! To love and live decently is much harder than to hate and kill and despise other people.
We have forgotten that message. Not completely, because people are trying to discover new forms of the sacred. But we need to stand firm in that belief, that freedom and love are hard values that we need to protect. We can’t just rely on them being ‘natural’ or that everyone will suddenly see that they are the truth.”

About Linda Woodhead 

Linda Woodhead is professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University (UK). Her work primarily revolves around religious changes in modern societies and their social and political implications. She wrote on Christianity as well as on spirituality, on neo-Hinduism and Islam in Europe. Wellknown books she authored are Everyday Lived Islam in Europe (2013); A Sociology of Religious Emotion (2011), The Spiritual Revolution (2005) and A Very Short Introduction to Christianity (2004).

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Lisette Thooft


Lisette Thooft (1953) studeerde Engels met antropologie als bijvak maar rolde de journalistiek in en schreef jarenlang voor spirituele …
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