CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Inspector Clouseau and the Case of "Religious Kitsch"

A Review of Olav Hammer’s Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age

Massimo Introvigne

Olav Hammer’s 500-page book Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age (Leiden: Brill, 2001) claims to be "a mirror image" (p. 83) of Wouter Hanegraaff’s seminal study New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1996). Whilst Hanegraaff reconstructed the largest New Age worldview, Hammer (who works with Hanegraaff at the University of Amsterdam), although considering "a longer time period", intends to focus on the "discoursive strategies" of that sector of Western esoteric tradition which goes from the Theosophical Society, through post-theosophical movements such as Bailey’s and Steiner’s, to contemporary New Age. Hammer’s is a considerable effort, and certainly includes useful information on a number of little known New Age authors and trends, although providing more biographical data (including dates of birth and death) and bibliographical references would have been of greater help to the reader. Editing Hammer’s non-native English (something Brill normally excels in: but not in this case) and proofreading more accurately would also have been useful exercises.

Methodologically, on the other hand, Hammer’s book is hard to situate. From the very beginning, in the book’s Preface (p. xiv), Hammer seems to be aware that trouble is forthcoming, and this may well be perceived as a main problem with his work. There are, he explains, four ways of approaching religious traditions "that one does not share":

  1. the "skeptical", which is "primarily concerned with evaluating the truth claims of those statements within a tradition that have empirical content" and "generally show [sic] little or no interest in religion as a cultural phenomenon";
  2. the "theological", presenting "value judgements" on the examined tradition on the basis of "one’s own religious point of view";
  3. the "hermeneutical", attempting "to reproduce as faithfully as possible the world-view of the believers themselves";
  4. the "analytic", which assumes the hermeneutical reconstruction as its "point of departure" but considers religious claims as "entirely dependent on social and historical context" and asks "how, by whom and for what purposes these claims are produced, legitimized, disseminated and reproduced" (pp. xiv-xv).

A footnote (p. xv) explains the advantages of Hammer’s "analytical" (previously called "analytic") approach, and criticizes the presupposition "tacitly accepted" by those using the "hermeneutical" method, that "religion deals with a non-empirical, transcendent realm". In fact, according to Hammer, many religious claims such as "the existence of (…) angels" are "empirical propositions". How any submits to an empirical test whether angels exist or not is, however, not explained.

There are two problems in this approach. Firstly, the definitions of the four methodological approaches offered by Hammer are questionable. Many self-respecting skeptics (even of the non-academic variety such as, say, a Martin Gardner) would emphatically deny that they do not care about religion as a "cultural phenomenon". They would insist that it is a negative or harmful cultural phenomenon, but one normally cares quite deeply abouth phenomena he or she regards as socially dangerous. Academic skeptics, of course, be they secular humanists or Marxist critics of religion, almost exclusively care about the cultural roots of religious claims; or, in other words, they regard them as "entirely dependent on social and historical context" (emphasis added), which is how Hammer defines his own "analytic/analytical" approach. Hammer’s definition of the "hermeneutical" approach may perhaps be acceptable as an idealtype, but it is unclear what kind of real-world scholar would normally use it. Certainly not the average sociologist of religion who, having reconstructed the worldview "of the believers themselves", would precisely go on trying to explain how this worldview generates a social community and translates into specific social phenomena. There is little purpose in quarreling about the "analytic/analytical" approach as presented by Hammer, since it is basically an apologetical presentation of his own’s method. What is unclear, however, is the difference between this "analytic" approach and the skeptical, once it is acknowledged that the average skeptic does indeed consider the socio-historical context. One is left with the impression that Hammer’ reductionist definition of the skeptical approach has been crafted with the astute purpose to claim that his methodology is somewhat different, while in fact it is vintage skepticism. Hammer’s typology (with its straw-man construction of a naïve "hermeneutical" approach that only a few philosophical postmodernists would recognize as their own) may perhaps resonate in the field of "religious studies". A majority of social scientists of religion would rather claim that religion can be studied in two different ways: through value judgements, based either on a secular humanist idea of rationality and science (the "skeptical" approach) or on a given religion (the "religionist" or "theological" approach); and the value-free approach typical of social sciences, where value judgements are carefully avoided. The latter approach does not mean, of course, that social sciences use the crude "hermeneutics" described by Hammer and try to produce mere mirror images of how believers see themselves; they put both believers and beliefs in social and historical context, compare, analyze, and try to explain through which social processes believers, precisely, come to believe.

The second problem is the main flaw of the book itself. Whilst he claims to follow the "analytic/analytical" approach, Hammer in fact consistently falls into the "skeptical" and even the "theological" fallacies. The second criticism he would probably not like, claiming as he does to "identify [him]self with the Enlightenment tradition" (p. xiv). However, several observers of the skeptical movement have noted that it often offers a mirror image of the very true believers he criticizes, since the skeptic may dogmatically assume that the non-existence of God (or angels, to borrow Hammer’s example) has been empirically proved, then proceed to compare different opinions with this secular humanist orthodoxy (with secular humanism functioning as the skeptics’s own religion).

Hammer’s book is about the discoursive strategies of the Theosophical-New Age tradition. He examines three strategies: the "invention of a tradition" (in Hosbawn’s well-known terms), be it perennial knowledge, Tibet, or esoteric Christianity; the claim that the movement’s occult-esoteric worldview is in fact the most advanced science (what Hammer calls "scientism", a quite confusing term since in other contexts "scientism" has been used to designate a secular humanist use of science as a weapon against religion); and the claim that experience has a pristine validity prevailing on other forms of argument. As a simple scheme of how the (post-) Theosophical and New Age discourse works, it is not uninteresting, and may indeed be helpful in understanding how this religious tradition managed to gain a significant number of followers. In Inspector Clouseau’s immortal words, however, there is only one point in this argument which doesn’t work: that it’s stupid. No offense is intended, of course: it is not Hammer’s reconstruction that is stupid, it is the Theosophical-New Age argument according to Hammer. But, if it is stupid, how it is that it succeeds? Having promised to us a cool "analytical" approach, Hammer does not resist the temptation of name-calling the tradition (or Tradition) to which the esoteric discourse refers as "spurious", the science as "pseudoscience" and the experience as subject to deconstruction as somewhat unautenthic and even leading to "religious kitsch" and a "profoundly reactionary" worldview (p. 508). If this is not passing "value judgements" on the subject matter of the study, I do not know what it is - although Hammer may be genuinely confused, having claimed that determining whether angels exist is an empirical rather than a theological matter. Hammer is not content to describe how Theosophical and New Age luminaries from Blavatsky to Chopra refers to Tibet, Atlantis, quantum physics or miracles. He wants to persuade the readers not only that these references are bogus (as they often are, of course) but that no miracles and no communications with the divine realm are possible, in general. Only a few "apologist philosophers of religion at times still argue for the existence of true miracles", boldly proclaims one of Hammer’s footnotes (p. 305), quickly referring the reader to Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) should the need to dispose of such bizarre and backward ideas arise. Sociologists of religion reporting that the number of Westerners believing in miracles is actually on the rise, and that they constitute a solid majority in the very "scientific" United States, need not apply. More importantly, again, why if the New Age discourse is so stupid did the movement succeed at all? Surely here is a question that a true "analytical" approach explaining how certain claims are "disseminated and reproduced" should be able to answer: how the hell do these stupid claims find followers? Only sketchy answers are offered, mostly because Hammer is himself a true believer (one of the last, although he does not fail to quote the usual Steve Bruce as company) in an "invented tradition", which claims to be "science" but is in fact at best subjective "experience" fully subject to deconstruction, i.e. the now defunct classic theory of secularization. Of course, Hammer is cautious enough to include a footnote acknowledging that "whether or not such a decline [of religion] is taking place on a global scale remains contested" (p. 31). Later, however, he quickly forgets the footnote and cheerfully offers frequent remarks on an alleged "massive" secularization taking place (where?).

For whatever reason, Hammer has an interest in Mormonism and often uses Mormon comparisons. One of his arguments is that "the most prominent scholars from within" traditions such as Mormonism have left the fold "to retain freedom of investigation" (p. 88): he quotes one "Daniel Quinn" as example. Not even Quinn’s friends would call him the "most prominent scholar" of Mormonism; I am, by the way, one of them and Hammer is not (he would otherwise know that Quinn is normally referred to as Michael or Mike Quinn, although the D. in D. Michael Quinn does stand for Daniel). Mike Quinn was excommunicated, he did not leave the fold voluntarily; and he claimed to still believe in miracles and the supernatural, although not in several other claims of the Mormon Church. Hammer’s treatment of Mormonism, although confined to few comments, is interesting insofar as it confirms its general attitude. While a value-free social scientific study of Mormonism would not bother to discuss whether angels really appeared to Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon is a factual account of ancient America, Hammer seems to believe that "analytic" science should take a stand on both counts (answering them in the negative, of course). Why Mormonism is spectacularly growing in secular settings (as Rodney Stark has documented) is left unexplained.

True believers in both philosophical secularism and old-fashioned theories of secularization like Hammer inhabits the same methodological world as the opponents they try to "debunk". Both, in fact, believe that religious claims may be empirically proved - or disproved. While few social scientists would agree with Hammer’s bizarre comment that a proposition such as "angels exist" is inherently "empirical", some religionists would. Hammer believes he can prove that there are no angels; some Mormons and New Agers thinks they can prove that there are angels. The same applies to miracles, apparitions, Atlantis, reincarnation, and so on. Some Mormons and New Agers would claim that these are matters of empirical proof: but by no means all. If Hammer has conducted a significant amount of field work and interviews as well as reading books about his subject, it doesn’t show. This is a frequent fallacy of continental European (vs. U.S. and British) study of new religious movements: substitute alleged theoretical inspiration for the necessary perspiration, and deduct beliefs from books rather than going around and ask the believers how do they read the books.

These comments are not new, and confirms that some New Agers (as well as most religious fundamentalists) share a crude Enlightenment epistemology claiming that almost everything can be subject to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation, including religious belief. Rodney Stark’s comment that the secularist version of this old-hat epistemology only survives in some European universities is eloquently confirmed by this book. Although it also includes occasional useful information, the fact that it is so expensive that circulation will remain limited is probably not to be regretted. After all, in a world of value judgements, somebody may well regard old-fashioned secularist epistemology as yet another form of passè "religious kitsch".

BUY THIS BOOKS (if you badly want it)

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

cesnur e-mail

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]