Researcher of the Month – December 2019, Dr Mikel Burley

Dr Mikel Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life and Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy of Religion. His areas of teaching and research include cross-cultural philosophy of religion and South Asian religions.

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?

Having developed a broad-ranging interest in philosophical and religious issues during my teenage years, and completed a BA degree in Philosophy and Sociology (Essex, 1993), I travelled for eighteen months across India, Nepal, Southeast Asia and Australia. That whetted my appetite for further academic study, especially on South Asian themes. I gained a Master’s degree in Indian philosophy (Nottingham, 1997), then worked for the Devon School of Yoga while writing a book on yoga theory and practice, which was published in 2000. The book was somewhat lacking in scholarly rigour, but it reconfirmed my enthusiasm for research. I undertook a further seven-month trip to India and Nepal (1999–2000) and then wrote a PhD thesis at the University of Bristol (2005), which became my second book in 2007. Since then, the scope of my research has expanded to encompass multiple religious and philosophical traditions, drawing upon the lived practices and ethical commitments of religious believers to inform our understanding of the variegated nature of religious forms of life.

Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?

My research area is broad, and the influences have been many. Here I shall mention a couple of key methodological inspirations. Since 2006, my research methods have been strongly influenced by the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) and by certain other philosophers who developed his approach, most notably D. Z. Phillips (1934–2006). Although Wittgenstein wrote relatively little on religion, his methods have been conducive to the study of multiple human phenomena, and religion is among them.

Central to Phillips’s way of deploying Wittgensteinian ideas is an emphasis on understanding ‘possibilities of sense’ embedded in human practices and modes of discourse rather than rushing to evaluate religious ‘truth claims’ from some supposedly neutral standpoint. My own work has involved developing Wittgenstein-inspired methods in interdisciplinary directions – combining philosophy with cultural anthropology and the study of narrative sources – and applying those methods to forms of religiosity that are standardly neglected in mainstream Western philosophy of religion.

What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

I recently completed a book entitled A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion: Cross-Cultural, Multireligious, Interdisciplinary(Bloomsbury, 2020). It presents what I hope is a methodologically innovative and wide-ranging investigation of various religious phenomena, including Buddhist ethics, divine possession, animal sacrifice in Hindu goddess worship, mortuary rituals involving cannibalism in a small-scale Amazonian society and animism among Native American peoples.

My current research draws especially upon narrative and poetic sources as a means of continuing this expansion of philosophy of religion. For example, I am carrying out a comparative study of how the prevalence of evil, suffering and injustice have prompted religious poets in diverse cultural contexts to express their faith in ways that include anger and rebellion against the divine and, relatedly, of how these attitudes of protest have shaped morally ambivalent conceptualions of gods and goddesses. My larger project is a book provisionally entitled Narrative Philosophy of Religion: Investigating Stories, Myths and Religious Complexities.

In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?

Borrowing the term ‘radical pluralism’ from D. Z. Phillips, I describe my approach as a radical pluralist one, in the sense it aims to do conceptual justice to the plurality of contemporary and historical forms of religious and nonreligious life that have characterized humankind. Concrete examples of how my research bears upon the role of religion in public life include the following two.

First is an extensive inquiry into the notion of rebirth or reincarnation that culminated in my book Rebirth and the Stream of Life: A Philosophical Study of Reincarnation, Karma and Ethics (Bloomsbury, 2016). Among the things I aimed to bring out in that book is the extent to which beliefs in rebirth or karma are commonly interwoven with ethical attitudes and forms of action that have practical impacts in the public sphere. For example, traditional conceptions of the law of karma are often internally related to assumptions about the hierarchical stratification of society, where social position is held to be correlated with morally relevant actions performed in previous lifetimes. At the same time, however, the doctrine is constantly being revised and reinterpreted, sometimes in ways that deliberately downplay karma’s traditionally retributive associations.

A second example would be my work on animal sacrifice in Hindu contexts. In a forthcoming book chapter, I highlight the striking contrast between the public beheadings of animals in a Goddess festival in Assam and the overtly nonviolent and vegetarian styles of worship carried out at another festival less than a mile down the road. It is this plurality of religious and ethical perspectives – the diverse ways of being human – that I seek to foreground in my work.

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