Report on the Annual Conference “Faith and Play” at European University at St Petersburg

Andrey Tiukhtiaev

On November 15–16, 2019, European University at St Petersburg hosted the annual conference “Exhibition of Academic Research Achievements”. This event, which has already become a tradition, is intended to demonstrate what kind of research is currently being conducted at European University and to discuss the results. The Center for Anthropology of Religion once again organized its own session devoted to the problems of faith and doubt in religious and ritual practices.

The interest in this issue stems from the fact that modern processes of de-secularization form complex and sometimes contradictory configurations of ideas about cause-and-effect relations underlying different phenomena. Academic discourse competes with the concepts of “alternative history” or conspiracy logic, while atheistic reasoning competes with religious ones. Such competition can be observed not only in public discourse, but also within individual epistemological trajectories. Anthropologists, in turn, are interested not so much in the status of such beliefs in their relationship to “reality” and “authenticity”, but rather in the pragmatics and social consequences of those narrative genres and practices that demonstrate reflection over competing perspectives.

At the same time, these perspectives do not always change and exclude one another. The anthropologists Mathijs Pelkmans, Tanya Luhrmann, Vlad Naumescu, and others study the mechanisms that form beliefs and show the functionality of doubt in the cycles of faith, belief, and doubt. We decided to continue this discussion by addressing various manifestations of reflection in religious communities and cultures, where knowledge of the supernatural/transcendent is relevant, as well as the forms of religious practices that are characterized by playfulness and irony.

In his talk about “The Supernatural and the Social: Entanglements and Uncertainties,” Ülo Valk, professor at the University of Tartu, noted that beliefs related to the supernatural have not disappeared due to secularization, but have become an integral part of the public space. In particular, this is evidenced by the urban folklore presented in magazines, newspapers, and TV shows. In this respect, modern mass culture does not differ much from pre-modern societies, and the rationalization of life has its significant limitations.

There are many works that criticize the concept of the “disenchantment of the world”, referring to similar materials and arguments. However, during the discussion, Alexander Panchenko, director of the Center for Anthropology of Religion, proposed to think about how productive the category of the “supernatural” is and whether we should find an alternative term. The main drawback of this concept is that the only characteristic of the beliefs it denotes is the reference to the existence of inhuman or, at least, not quite human entities and creatures. In this regard, according to Alexander Panchenko, it would be more productive to develop a theoretical apparatus that would explain the attractiveness of such beliefs. One of the ways in this case is to borrow the ideas of cognitive religious studies, the representatives of which are looking for the basis of religious and quasi-religious thinking in human cognitive mechanisms.

In his presentation, Alexander Panchenko applied a historical perspective to explain the popularity of folklore images of fairytales in contemporary New Age movements, which are considered to be closely related to the real world. Using materials collected in the Last Testament Church in the Krasnoyarsk krai, Panchenko drew a genealogical line between the fairytales of the followers of this new religious movement, disciplinary practices of the community, and pedagogy and moral discourse of the late Soviet state.

Svetlana Tambovtseva, a postgraduate student at European University, talked about the images of the past, in particular about the legacy of Alexander Pushkin in modern esoteric movements. Contemporary esotericism in Russia is often characterized by patriotic and conservative ideas. Therefore, the corpus of national literature becomes a source of hidden meanings for people interested in New Age science. Among such activities, amateur literary criticism is especially significant, in the framework of which key authors of Russian literature, such as Alexander Pushkin, are endowed with unique and sometimes mystical abilities. A significant figure of national literature is thus turned into a prophet. Svetlana drew attention to the importance of the discourse of mystery in Western esotericism. She emphasized that the creation of secrets is becoming an important symbolic resource for amateur linguistics and literary criticism.

Ekaterina Khonineva from the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences focused in her presentation on Catholic traditionalism in Russia. Traditionalist communities are usually expected to be consistent and serious about their beliefs. However, in the case of Russian Catholic traditionalists, one can often observe how their passion for the Trident mass and criticism of the new rite (novus ordo) acquire features of playfulness. The irony over one’s own conservatism, doubts about the authenticity of religious experience, and the cultivation of “conservative” habits of dress and behavior – all these things unite the members of such communities and sometimes resemble a role-playing game (for the traditionalists themselves as well as for outsiders). Such a regime of religiosity usually refers to those believers who avoid regular parish life and tend to combine ideas from different religions and traditions, which the anthropologists of religion Simon Coleman and John Elsner call an “ironic” approach, contrasting it with the “canonical” one. In the case of traditionalist Catholics in Russia, it turns out that their behavior, despite their commitment to a stationary form of religiosity and conservative attitudes, is much closer to the “ironic” approach.

The role of irony and doubts in religious traditionalism were also discussed in the presentation of Andrei Tiukhtiaev, a research assistant at the Institute of Russian Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He focused on the organizers of a recreational center in Krasnodar Krai driven by the attempt to revive traditions of the ancient Slavs. However, traditional beliefs easily go with the doubt about the very possibility to reconstruct the past. This retreat center called “Ascension” (Russian: Восхождение) is a popular tourist attraction, which has a seasonal tent camping, as well as sites for mass events. The residents of this center, united by the desire to follow the “traditions of their ancestors,” become part of a common traditionalist performance during this kind of pilgrimage. However, the organizers of the center, expressing primarily their conviction in the traditional beliefs and practices, may also have doubts about the very possibility of discovering the “true” tradition. This evidence suggests that the examination of religiosity should not be based only on beliefs and ways of identification, but also on data about the involvement of people in certain practices. The alternation of faith and doubts is common in different religious cultures, as was being demonstrated through the differing contexts of New Age spirituality and Catholicism at the conference.

The combination of play, faith, and doubt was also a key issue in Angelina Kozlovskaia’s (EUSP) presentation, which was based on children’s play and communication about the supernatural. Children’s folklore related to the belief in the existence of supernatural beings sometimes shifts from a narrative mode to a regime of actualization, thus, as a result, turning into a play in real time. At the same time, confidence in the existence of supernatural agents capable of causing harm to people is combined with doubts about their reality. This tension makes the play a play, but there is also the desire that it would stop being a play, that stories may turn into ontological reality. This desire gives rise to anxiety and fear in children, destroying the play and making those who believe in the existence of, for example, the Queen of Spades, scared for real.


Front picture: At the Conference on Faith and Play © European University at St Petersburg, 2019

This blog post in Russian


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