“Atheism is rather in the lip, than in the heart of man, than by this; that atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it, within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened, by the consent of others….” (Francis Bacon, 1561-1626)
That is not a trick question. Atheism to have any intellectual standing in the world must be studied, like any other subject.
The stumbling block for doing this, most atheists will allege, are those pesky Christians whose pet cause is getting religion (or approved religion-substitutes, like “moments of quiet reflection” or post-school-day Bible study), back into the schools.
But that’s half the picture. The biggest obstacle to atheism being taught is that atheists have not claimed their subject matter, defined it adequately, or put it forward as anything other than being “not religion.”
It is difficult to teach “not”-subjects. Not-physics could be English, rollerblading or chiropractic services. It could be anything, as long as it’s not Physics. Defining a thing by its not-ness is not very helpful.
That is why the tired taunt against the unbeliever has been and still is, “So, what do you believe in then?” Stammer, cough.
Part of the issue is that atheists are too much foxhound and too little fox. They know when religious folk are trying to sneak religion into a conversation or a curriculum, under the guise of creation science or moral and spiritual development. But their lawsuits, protests, and cries of foul play and Unconstitutionality (whatever that hackneyed phrase may yet mean in this wretched age) seem as hollow as St. Peter’s dome. I mean the basilica.
But at least the Righteous majority, in America anyway, know exactly what they would like to see: stories about prophets and patriarchs, miracles and manna in the desert, Jesus speaking parables to the multitudes, and just a tiny, condescending nod to the millions of people who aren’t Christian yet but who have some interesting if basically wrong ideas–and (perhaps too much to hope) a nice nonsectarian prayer that ends, “In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.”
There is content there, even if the Constitution forbids its propagation as “learning.” And there is history. The religious rightists can also point to an imaginary golden age when Protestant America had no notions or plans to change its essentially doctrinal view of abortion, homosexuality, gender roles and the virtue of private wealth. So what if Johnny couldn’t read? At least he could pray and knew how to wash behind his unpierced heterosexual ears.
Nothing is more clear to the straight-thinking religious majority than that the obstruction of religion by people who don’t read the Bible leads to confusion, and confusion leads to–well, Barack Obama and terrorism.
It is true, of course, that the infinite jest of the religious right is enough to keep any self-respecting unbeliever busy with taunts, jabs, and protests.
In my view, that’s about all atheists have managed to do in the last hundred years.
That is because atheists have grown intellectually fat and lazy, enamored of the quaintness and minority rectitude of their opinion, careless about their targets and goals, gibberishical about their “values” and ideas, many of which are indistinguishable from anybody else’s liberal ideas. Except, perhaps the God part–the not-part.
In fact, the whole faith-versus-unbelief debate is askew.
The righteous and the right-minded have chosen to draw their battle-line on the map of myth. Yet both sides know that the trigger-question is not whether Genesis is “true” but whether the possibility of a being like God is true. The believer, if he is a profound Christian, says simply yes, because the story is true, it being validated by the power and authority whose story it is. This is not the time to drag out a logic primer or a copy of The God Delusion. Quantum physics? Forget about it.
It is time to be foxier than that. If the answer is yes, because the story says so, then the job of education (something atheists claim to care about) is to examine stories about gods. Not just the one in Genesis–all the stories.
And the job of education, and the goal of knowledge, is to find a real method–historical, scientific, critical, the same kind we use in other subjects–for sorting out true stories and false stories. In other words, Genesis can only be “true” to the extent it is certifiably different from, say, this:
Upon that desire arose in the beginning. This was the first discharge of thought. Sages discovered this link of the existent to the nonexistent, having searched in the heart with wisdom.
Their line [of vision] was extended across; what was below, what was above? There were impregnators, there were powers: inherent power below, impulses above.
Who knows truly? Who here will declare whence it arose, whence this creation? The gods are subsequent to the creation of this. Who, then, knows whence it has come into being? (R’g Veda, ca. 2100BCE)
And since difference, on its own, is no hallmark of truth (think of a Rembrandt oil and a copy of a Rembrandt oil), there must be other methods for finding out what the real story is, and which story, if either, has a foundation in reality–reality as non-delusional people understand the term.
The story of God in Genesis is no more a proof of the existence of God than the existence of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter saga is proof of the existence of a master-wizard headmaster.
That is what people who study religion learn to do in classes in anthropology, history, linguistics, archaeology. They look at stories, and rocks, and language trees and other stuff; they sort things out. They know that the Rig Veda is older than the oldest bits of the Hebrew Bible.
They know that written Hebrew wasn’t around in second millennium BCE, though its ancestor-languages, like Canaanite dialects, and ancestor gods to YHWH (the one who set himself apart from his brother gods by making the cosmos in six days) were.
So if we ignore the method-issue by continuing to debate questions of no real importance as though there were no real answers, or none the Constitution will permit us to pursue, we are enduring the ignorance not just of the kids in the classroom but of the teachers, the parents, and school-boards like Dover.
We are enshrining mystery when there is no mystery. We are saying “Who could possibly know something like that?” when there are plenty of people who know precisely what’s what.
We are endorsing the opinion that a lot of learning is a dangerous thing. Americans, among the tribes of the earth, excel in that view, and atheists should be doing what they can to combat it.
Atheists should not be patting themselves on the back for discovering that creation science isn’t real science. That’s a bit like discovering the two men inside the horse-costume. They should be ashamed for not insisting that there are better ways of approaching questions they consider critical.
If it is part of atheist wisdom that God does not exist, then this wisdom has to be included–reflected–in the school curriculum in specific ways, not subordinated to a subset of mainly trivial issues–and by the way, in a way that also trivializes imagination and its offspring, mythology and art.
If atheists are going to help to fight this battle, they need to acquire what Mathew Arnold described as “culture” themselves. I travel in tiny circles, but many of the atheists I encounter got no chat when it comes to many of the things that count for culture–art, music, history–alas, even ideas other than new techniques for life-prolongation. They are simply boring. They are one string harps.
If the pious know what they want–school prayer for instance–what should an atheist want that can be taught?
For one thing, atheists should insist on courses in moral development. In the UK, where the idea of church-state separation isn’t quite as sharp-edged as in the Great Republic, classes in “spiritual and physical development” are usual, though the phrase really just means “moral” and physical education–important add-ons to intellectual formation through the standard lens of liberal learning.
Atheists should insist on ethics- or values-education. They should be fighting battles for good textbooks on the subject, texts that do more than offer an unsuspecting sixth- grader the most uninspiring precis of lives lived and thoughts thought– “Plato was an Athenian philosopher of the fifth century bce who is famous for his idea of the ‘forms’. He was also the teacher of fourth-century thinker, Aristotle who was famous for something else….”
Atheists (I stress) need to be interested in the history and development of culture, not just the assumed predominance of science. Culture and science are not the same thing, but they share a story.
But we live in an era and, in the United States especially, a society that encourages disjunction and dumbness. We have one standard of knowledge for the schools, another for our universities. And unlike Plato, we do not expect the higher pattern to be reflected in the lower.
How odd. We don’t learn to play violin or piano by teaching one set of scales and fingering techniques to seven year olds and a different set to students at seventeen. We insist on parallelism–the analogy–between one experience and the other because we know that real progress is only possible because the course (“Curriculum” in Latin) is also a path from the relatively simple to the relatively complex.
Only in American education can the schools get by with the enormous disconnect between the way in which knowledge is encountered and distributed in the schools and the way it is disseminated in even a mediocre university. And unfortunately, it is because of America’s generally low esteem for the humanities that this ignorance of method can thrive.
And where are the atheists? Fighting yesterday’s wars. Ranged against the Lord God of Hosts on the fields of Canaan. Doing everything possible to make their contribution unacceptable and suspect.
Atheists need to get behind an effort to get Wrong out of the schools–not just God and the Bible. If they claim knowledge is on their side, they need to be more actively involved in the way the knowledge business is run.
Unbelief as unbelief has no more business being taught than Unphysics.
But the body of accumulated wisdom–in ethics, the arts, the sciences and literature–is enormous, and much of it is by skeptics, humanists (in the post-renaissance sense) and atheists. Another lot is by “questioners” like Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus, without whose inquiring intellects the Enlightenment could not have happened.
But where are the bibliographies, the suggestions, the lists, the lobbyists who are willing to challenge the Christocentric and still dominant view that culture’s greatest achievements were carved out in stone and marble and glass?
The distinctive thing about atheism is that it is intellectual architecture, the life of the mind in crisis and question. Not some self-satisfied conclusion growing warts over time. Cathedrals are no proof that their builders were right, and atheists have never built cathedrals.
Its themes can be traced as well, and they are there from the time of the Rig Veda, through the time of “Job,” through the time of William Langland, Bacon (“a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism,”) and the first stirrings against church doctrine, superstition and clerical abuse in the Reformation. Please: spare me the totally ignorant point that Luther and Spinoza were not “atheists.”
The atheist role is to insist that knowledge is not a grand and beautiful tapestry but the story of doubt and the role of doubt in the wider story of human achievement. Can we not teach that? Should we not teach that?
The question isn’t whether atheism “can” be studied, but when atheists are going to come down from the rooftops and begin making telescopes for the rest of us. That is hard work. That is the real challenge.
Exactly – defining a thing by it’s not-ness is never very helpful, and it IS a hindrance to the advancement of knowledge … I love the reflection of agnosticism and expression of doubt in the Rig Veda: ‘…Whence this creation has come into being; whether it was made or not; he in the highest heaven is its surveyor. Surely he knows, or perhaps he knows not’ ‘Who knows truly?’ Fantastically funny, incisive, astute, eloquent article by you. Absolutely, the story and the role of doubt in the story of human achievement should be taught. And I love the horsey creation science illustration. And Bacon’s supersilious sneer.
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Interesting. I was just taking a stab on this subject earlier this week and so your post has excellent timing.
However, there is wordplay as a potential problem in this post. I agree that people who identify as atheists need to fill the voids with a principle of ethics, culture and so on. But having that culture isn’t what atheism is. Atheism really is simply the reaction to the presence of a religion.
I identify as atheist. But my point diverges from yours that to ask me about my values I must answer with something else. And when I tell you what I think about my values, they have nothing to do with my lack of belief because it isn’t one unifying thing and it isn’t supposed to be.
I think it is very important that atheists promote the values that they have. I just think that when they do, you aren’t seeing it because those values are labeled humanist, or philanthropic or so on just like it would be if any other human of any other religious persuasion were doing the work. And so atheists become a little invisible in those departments.
Good point Seth: ethics does seem to be more visible in the religious context,largely because what’s done from conscience alone is a private matter,not subject to verification by a community.
Atheism is the lack of belief in god or gods. End of story. There is no common or shared set of values of the atheist community. There are atheists who are anti-theist, and others who don’t care. There are atheists that support abortion, and others oppose. Atheists can be sexist, racist and many other -ists. Atheists do not gather at the altar to confirm their biases and dogmas. What can you study? What is there to study? You may as well study why people do not believe in Santa! Do those who lack a belief in faeries need to “claim their subject matter”?
Atheists do not need to specifically claim a position on values or morals. That begs the question – how can you be moral without God?
I am an atheist and I claim no subject matter. I simply lack any belief in any supernatural intent of creation. That’s it. Study that if you want.
With all respect, it is precisely this point I was attacking. Do you have any reasons, ideas, arguments, ethical issues or compasses that point you to atheism? Are those worth consulting? I find this view the flip side of the Christian who says Christianity is not a religion.
Actually, it seems as though you are missing the point. The reasons, ideas, arguments, etc. that point to atheism all revolve around the fact that claims for the existence of a god or gods have no evidence to support them. Disbelief is the default position, so without evidence that can withstand scrutiny withholding belief is the only intellectually defensible position. Your article is a straw man argument, if a more subtle and nuanced one than most concerning atheists. I agree that atheists should stand up and support better education and secular morality, and many of them do, but atheism itself says nothing other than atheists disbelieve in god claims. Atheists should and do participate in movements to improve education, defend freedom and espouse secular morality, but it cannot derive from atheism. Rather, atheism in the context we are discussing it usually is the byproduct of skepticism and critical thinking, two things that are surely missing from our education system. Atheists are making telescopes, how would you suggest we convince others to look through them beyond current efforts?
Thanks John. Of course I disagree. If atheists are happy to be squeezed into Webster’s two line definition of who they are and what they disbelieve, that is fine and that is what you seem to endorse here. But you seem also to be endorsing the same kind of disconnect between unbelief and (e.g) its history, flow, context, and implications that causes religious folk to think atheism is shallow. And I cannot for the life of me see a straw man here: this is not “against” athiests.
Almost all atheists I know are also humanists; and if the ones you travel with are boring then perhaps you should expand your circle.
Granted, I know some “grunts” among atheists, but for the most part the atheists I know have a solid interest and grounding in arts, ethics, culture and fun.
You are painting with too broad of a brush.
Atheism isn’t much of a premise for something, but the point of view that leads to it is another matter. Most atheists get there through an inclination towards naturalism, so that is the view that they want to see taught. Others get there through philosophy or by religion; not just by rejecting religion, but by following it to its inevitable conclusions. Some of the most interesting discussions on theology I’ve ever had were with fellow atheists. In my experience the vast majority of believers are completely ignorant of the subject. Apparently you aren’t meeting the right atheists. You are not the first to suggest a more general approach to teaching atheism.
Dan Dennett made a similar suggestion: teach philosophy and history of religion in school. If you think Christians don’t like Darwin, you should see their reaction to that one. It not just that they do not want their children exposed to the mention of any other religion. The same people who support creationism also think we’re a bunch of commie homo satanist freaks who want to teach their children beastiality. And as they are already convinced that public education is itself a liberal plot to kidnap their children, it’s pretty much all we can do right now just to get our own kids taught real science–and that only because the other stuff is illegal.
Real science? Is there any other kind? But like a gteat many people, you sequester science from any other sort of knoweledge. Would you deny them the breadth of the humanities for fear of it containing elements of religion? I understand why we Americans are skittish about religion. I am too, but I advocate a different solution: science is not the “solution” to religion, and atheists need to move beyond that naive assumption.
> science is not the “solution” to religion
Perhaps not science per se, but certainly the scientific approach: never accept anything based only on faith tradition or authority, and always ask for objective arguments supporting the assertion. No religion stand this test, and therefore the rational behaviour is not to believe. Believing in (any) god or is exactly just as unjustified as believing in Santa Claus…
I always think the Father Christmas analogy is poor. We know all about the origins of Father Christmas, and it’s a fairly harmless story, whereas we don’t know all about the origins of the universe and do not fully understand all the reasons which make people believe in gods or the nature of the social sub groups which perpetuate these beliefs.
The reason you think the Santa analogy is poor seems to be because you misunderstand what is and isn’t similar.. You completely miss what’s being compared. Santa is to god as being magical toy giver is to magical everything giver. known or unknown cosmology does not make the analogy any weaker. Knowing a lot about the history of the santa myth does not mean he is capable of magical time travel and gift giving. Similarly, what we know or don’t know about the making of the universe does not make pulling it all out of a magical hat any more likely.
But it’s even simpler than all that. They are both stories you absorb when young, trusting and gullible. But then when you really think about them, they both seem like elaborate fictions. At the very least, the first one should make you examine evidence a little closer in the future.
The analogy is poor because all analogies are basically false. When I was very young, before I caught ‘him’ in the act, I believed in Father Christmas. He was indeed the filler of my stocking right down to the orange, he patiently listened to my wish which I whispered up the chimney every Christmas Eve and then generously granted it the next morning. And he spent the rest of the year helping poor people and making presents for the following Christmas. How could I not believe? But I never believed in God. He was horrid.
(My mother still believed in God in those days … before I converted her later … but I never believed because he was horrid and didn’t do any nice, among other things.)
Actually I forgot to include my 5 years old rational argument for my believing in Father Christmas. If I behaved, which I did, he rewarded me. But when I asked where the world came from and why were we here, there didn’t seem any satisfactory reason for this ‘God’ to create a world, in which so many people didn’t believe in him, in which he made it rain and the earth quake and people died, he let people kill each other, and possibly even tortured people in hell. And what did he do before… and all those stars at night, what was out there? No questions were answered in the same sensible way that Father Christmas questions were. There really didn’t seem a helluvalot of point to a ‘God’ and I remember the Jesus story as just being plain silly as God’s son – sent to be sacrificed in the end. No way. And fundamentally, there was no proof. Resurrection? Really? No presents, just a nasty old world – with some nice things in it of course.
So there is absolutely no similarity in believing in Father Christmas and believing in a ‘God’. God demands trusting despite no evidence, Father Christmas provides the evidence every Christmas until he blows it when I caugt my mum and my older siblings drinking his port and gobbling up all the gingernuts left out for him with my filled stocking spilled all over the table.
Actually, I don’t even think they’re addressing the “solution” to religion, just trying to get their kids a proper science education, and filling in the gaps in humanities at home. It’s an imperfect approach, well short of a solution, but according to the demographics of belief, I suspect that this is the best that most hope for–and even then, it’s an uphill struggle.
It isn’t that we dislike or don’t value the humanities, or are even skittish about religious education, but that any attempt to weigh in concerning the humanities will be seen as ideological warfare. Witness the historical revisionism that has just been introduced in Texas. It was strongly opposed, but we just don’t have the numbers. We fight where we must, we win where we can, but only in science do we have the force of the law, and even that is expensive. We do push for what you suggest. We just can’t win there at the moment.
Sorry to post again so soon, but something I’ve been chewing on for a while suddenly raises itself as appropriate to the topic. I have become convinced that the majority of the populace–anywhere from 50 to 70%–simply does not care about religion at all, and avoids engagement by conforming to the majority view, or what they deem to be the majority view. Hence, the Christian majority in America, the atheist majority in Europe. Conformity simply follows the loudest voice. The 25% of enthusiastic believers in America are enough to swing the conformist populace, who pay lip service to religion out of a vague fear that God will get them if they don’t. The conformists resent atheists not because they challenge deeply held beliefs, but because atheists raise questions they have no desire to think about. This is actually good news, because atheists are not up against 90%, but about 25%. In light of this, the atheist bus ads, “There is probably no God, now stop worrying and get on with your life,” were not shallow and stupid at all, but brilliantly addressed the concerns of the conformists, who really just want to get on with their lives and don’t give a damn about theology. It also means that well meaning defenders of faith who think they are defending moderate believers are actually defending the extremist fringe that they are conforming to.
The relevance to this topic is that pushing for the teaching of humanities faces not one group of opponents, but two. The first is the extremist fringe who wants a monopoly on all such topics, but the second is the conformist majority who does not consider such topics worth their time. They just want their kids to get a job, and they don’t think the humanities will help them do that. How do you convince them?
Atheism is not an equivalent belief system to theism. It’s the natural state of realization after the failure of Christianity (or other failed God hypotheses); therefore is the rejection of such a “belief system.”
I don’t think you can claim to study the rejection of a system which arises from the failure of the system to begin with.
You may better phrase it to encompass the study of what else atheists may believe.
Atheists hold various beliefs systems and philosophical views, so it’s sort of weird to bunch these various perspectives into an orthodox categorization of “belief.”
We may be able to study what atheists commonly believe, but we can’t study atheism in any sense which would not be bordering on the confused. But ‘what atheists commonly believe’ could also be summed up nicely with the word ‘philosophy’.
So why not just stick with that?
Thanks, Tristan. Of course I agree that atheism is not a “system,” but a perspective, or a variety of perspectives. But does its entire content stand or fall in relation to theism (or theisms, since I think theism is also a variety of perspectives). I don’t think it can be summed up in the word “philosophy,” since philosophy encompasses a great deal more than atheism and though many atheists would disagree the arguments for God’s existence, metaphysics, and “religious” philosophies would have to be included. I agree that Christianity is finished, but I suggest many people do not feel that atheism is a natural consequence of acknowledging that.
“..Christianity is finished, but I suggest many people do not feel that atheism is a natural consequence of acknowledging that.” Exactly – atheism is a very broad variety of perspectives including those who have never consciously rejected any theistic beliefs as they have never been believers of anything in the first place. As these beliefs have been revealed to them they have just never chosen to adopt them. Additionally there are some atheists who have never actually necessarily pursued the nature of their nonbelief. For many self identifying atheists, there is no single philosophy or necessarily any rejection of belief.
A little late, but I was moved to comment having attended the RSA event ‘After New Atheism: Where now for the God debate?’ here in London last night.
The audience had its fair share of those outraged by the very idea that it might be possible that the New Atheism project might not be A Good Thing, but the bit which depressed me most of all was the discovery that, in New Atheist circles, the mere statement ‘I am an atheist’ is in itself considered sufficient grounds to win a round of applause.
Admittedly, since they appear to believe that professing atheism is such certain proof of their intellectual stature, hence the round of applause, that they do not actually have to provide anything in the way of reasoned discourse, much less evidence to base their reasoned discourse on.
So they didn’t.
I suspect, unkindly, that they couldn’t even if they had spent decades attempting to acquire those skills; the people who drink the Koolade were not terribly bright in the first place. But it was still pretty scary to see such extraordinary ignorance being touted as knowledge; forcing myself to sit through the ‘questions’ section most definitely ranked as taking one for the team…
Coming back to my last post on this; on rereading it I realised that I had been so traumatised by the experience of taking one for the team that I actually omitted an entire clause from in an otherwise sensible statement.
I would be really grateful if you just recognised this as the normal workings of PTS
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Lots of people don’t believe in the Hindu gods. Do you think we should study non-Hinduism in school? Do you think that you and I and our Buddhist friends will agree on the subject matter? (I am an atheist.)
Lots of people don’t believe in Jesus. Should we teach about non-Christianity? What is the culture of non-Christianity? What are its ethics and values? Do all non-Christians worship capitalism and read the Kama Sutra?
Do you see how silly this is?
Lots of people don’t believe in any of the gods. Why on Earth would you believe that all of us share the same ethics and values? Why would we share the same culture? Some of us live in Canada (me) and others live in South Vietnam or Nigeria.
You are confused about the difference between the lack of belief in gods (atheism) and other things like skepticism, humanism, scientism, materialism, etc. etc.
You arguments would make much more sense if you could focus on one of those positions rather than trying to cram all atheists into a single ethical, cultural, scientific, melting pot.
If I agreed with your definition of atheism as an end in itself I would agree with the rest of what you write, Larry. But you reduce atheism to a matter of “not believing in the gods,” and then ask whether the study of “not x, y z,” are fit matters for study. The answer is that religions are never studied in terms of an acceptance of their propositional value (i.e., whether their gods exist) but as a matter of cultural forms. It doesn’t matter whether the Hindu gods exist, or anyone else’s gods from Zeus to Yahweh, all of whom I am happy to say do not exist. The point is, Hinduism exists, Greek and Roman religion exists, Christianity exists (even if Jesus didn’t) and these are the phenomena that serious scholars and students of religions study. I understand your argument: it derives from a Dawkinsism about most people being atheists about 99% of the gods who have existed and some going one god farther. That is a good attention grabber, but has nothing to do with my plea for greater attention to subject matter, unless as a kind of scientific apriorism you want to deny the validity of such study because you think its objects are expressly false. It also points to the fatal flaw in the Dawkins’ witticism: what is the value of atheism if its objects are expressly false? I have actually taken such a position in debates, but never thought it was a strong position. https://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/hoffmann-v-swinburne-is-there-a-god/
As much as I haven’t spent much time outside the religions I left, I think major religions and certainly families of beliefs are valuable things to study.
The Old and New Testaments are worth knowing word for word if you can when you’re living in America. Knowing the Quran and modern context might clarify some of my confusion about why Muslim nations are the way they are. As of now, I’m guessing that a fundy is a fundy is a fundy and that is just a guess.
If the historical perspective doesn’t do it for you, the literary perspective might. It’s history with window dressing but myths become public narratives become scripts Dr. Eric Bern style. People live out figurative narratives in their choices. People act on what we call heroic and noble and good and so forth. Also, it helps us identify characters we won’t recognize but are ubiquitous to the Hindu or Muslims so we can more appreciate their Shakespeares.
Lastly, I think religious education is the silver bullet for making atheists or at least more reasonable believers. Dr. Author is right that atheists need an education. Who doesn’t?
So ought we teach people every little thing? Yes we should. I can’t say we have time or resources though.
I haven’t got the time to read around on your site just now, but it appears very interesting. You may some posts on my blog of interests, and indeed my forthcoming article – “Consciousness Raising: The critique, agenda and inherent precariousness of contemporary Anglophone Atheism” – in the May 2011 edition of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions.
Looking forward to ploughing my way through this soon. Cheers, Chris