Exploring the Afterlife

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Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King's College, London

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Psychic Self

I gave a presentation called The Psychic Self at the Exploring the Extraordinary 7 Conference in York.  I wanted to examine what tools there might be in the anthropological toolkit when we look at notions of the self as an unbounded, connected energy field rather than a discrete, isolated individual body. I use contemporary witchcraft and spirit possession and spirit release in Western societies as ethnographic examples of this extended psychic self. It is all very well, as proponents of the 'ontological turn' in anthropology propose, to treat our research subjects with respect, be open to their world view and allow their realities to unsettle our own (in unspecified ways) when the research subjects are on the other side of the world. When they are in fact fellow Western educated, post-Enlightenment, friends and neighbours, maintaining that opens and respect seems to be more challenging. Using Jeanne Favre-Saada's work on witchcraft in Normandy and my own research on spirit release practitioners, I suggest some ways of approaching the material. These include incorporating elements of critical realism (Grabber), the experiential core hypothesis (Hufford) and cognitive empathetic engagement (Bowie). The text of the talk, in case it does not reproduce with the slides, is also included. The slides, text and conference report are also available on  Scribd via my Academia.edu sight.

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Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Mechanics of Spirit Communication

Video of a presentation I gave on the Mechanics of Spirit Communication at the Exploring the Extraordinary Conference at Gettysburg University, USA in March 2014.

One of the criticisms levelled at purported communications with spirits is that we don't know how the process works. The mechanics of spirit communication are outside currently understood scientific paradigms and the content of the messages is often suspect or inaccurate. In this talk I examine the process of spirit communication as seen both from the perspective of the person, or in the case of electronic transcommunication, the machine, that receives the message and fromthe perspective of the spirit communicator. The reported difficulties from the spirit side of working through a physical or clairvoyant medium, or of trying to impress their message through dreams and seeming coincidences, for instance, can help us appreciate why spirit communication might not always be accurate or complete. This fact in itself should not be seen as casting sufficient doubt to dismiss the entire process. What emerges is a picture of experimentation on 'both sides', a dynamic process which has and will continue to grow and develop over time.
PAPER PRESENTED AT EXPLORING THE EXTRAORDINARY'S 6TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE IN GETTYSBURG, 2014. For more information about Exploring the Extraordinary's annual conferences, please go to etenetwork.weebly.com
For more information about the Afterlife Research Centre, please go to afterliferesearch.co.uk/
Read Fiona's 'Exploring the Afterlife' blog at exploringtheafterlife.blogspot.co.uk/
For more information about Dr Fiona Bowie and her work, please go to kcl.academia.edu/FionaBowie

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Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Explorations in Life, Death and the Afterlife

In May and June 2015 I was invited to give a series of three talks on the afterlife in my Anglican parish. The invitation that was printed in the church magazine is reproduced below. At the bottom of the page is a link to a folder with the Powerpoint slides and handouts for the talks, and my reflections on the process.

Explorations in life, death and the afterlife
A series of three talks on the theme of life, death and the afterlife, with Dr Fiona Bowie
The topics covered will be:
(1)   Journeying Through Death:  Looking at how different religions and cultures have approached death and its role in life and a look at so-called ‘near-death’ experiences.
(2)   The Life Beyond This Life:  Looking at accounts of life beyond physical death and beyond this physical world.
(3)   Finding our life’s purpose and plan: Exploring the ideas of whether life is random and meaningless.  Does life have purpose and a plan and continuity beyond our physical existence?
The approach is experience-based and exploratory, and does not promote any particular religious or secular viewpoint.  The aim is to provide information and material for personal reflection and growth rather than to look for definitive proof. There will be time for discussion.
·       When: Tuesday 28 April, 5 May & 19 May 2015, 7.30pm-9pm
·       Where: Church Hall
·       Refreshments will be available

All are welcome.  In order to have some idea of numbers it would be useful if you could let either the vicar or Fiona (Bowie) know if you are hoping to attend. For further information or to register your interest, please contact Fiona Bowie:  fiona.bowie@kcl.ac.uk

Fiona Bowie is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College, London. She is trained in social anthropology and has taught at the Universities of Wales and Bristol in the UK, at the University of Linköping in Sweden, and at the University of Virginia in the USA. She is founder of the Afterlife Research Centre: http://www.afterliferesearch.co.uk. Fiona currently supervises PhD students, gives talks and conference presentations, writes books and articles, and runs workshops on afterlife themes.

From the Vicar
The sessions provide people of Christian faith, non-Christian faith and no faith opportunity to come together as fellow sojourners in this life to speak honestly and listen attentively to each other on matters of life and death and what may lie beyond.  It is a chance to share experiences and ask questions people may have, some of which may not easily fit into my/our own belief system.
These sessions could potentially be found in any University or College in the UK.  As such the material is usually addressed in an academic context.  However, by offering these sessions in a church building my hope is that we recognise the wide variety of experiences people may have encountered and pastoral concerns that may arise from them.
Finally, a disclaimer to say that the content of these sessions is not designed to propagate the Christian faith or any other faith but an open point of meeting, reflection and discussion.

To view the slides, handouts and reflection on the talks click here.

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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Role of Experience in the Origin and Development of Religion - Dr Fi...

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Life after Death? Experiential Themes in Afterlife Narratives

A talk, with slides by Fiona Bowie, given at the Emmanuel Centre, University of Leeds, on 20th March 2015. The event was a public symposium organised by Dr Mikel Burley as part of the Immortality and Human Finitude project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The title of the day was Life after Death? Perspectives from Philosophy, Theology, Anthropology and Literature. The other speakers were Revd Dr Michael Armstrong, Dr Mikel Burley, Jack Hunter and Dr Matthew Treherne. The sessions were chaired by Dr Mikel Burley, Dr Tasia Scrutton, Professor Robin Le Poidevin, and Dr Fiona Bowie. 

Abstract: In this talk I discuss a methodology for studying the afterlife that bridges both scepticism based on a positive materialism and methodological agnosticism on the one hand, and complete relativism and uncritical acceptance on the other. It is based on cognitive, empathetic engagement, and can be seen as a kind of thought experiment in which the ethnographer acts 'as if' what she or she learns is true. I then sketch out some of the areas in which universal experiences of the supernatural or non-ordinary reality (from the perspective of Western science)  seem to underly religious and popular belief systems. This includes near-death experiences, shamanism and mediumship, reincarnation and after-death contacts.

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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Studying "Non-Ordinary Realities": A Roundtable Discussion

Round-table discussion chaired by David Robertson, with Fiona Bowie, Bettina Schmidt, David Gordon Wilson and Jonathan Tuckett. Posted on the Religious Studies Project website 20.10.2014.
Bettina Schmidt and David Wilson organised a series of panels at the 2014 BASR Conference in Milton Keynes on the topic of “Studying Non-Ordinary Realities”, as part of the conference’s “Cutting Edge” sub-theme. We managed to make time to get Bettina and David, along with panel participants Fiona Bowie and RSP editor Jonathan Tuckett, to sit down to record a session with David Robertson (who also also recently published on the paranormal) as a follow-on from last year’s episodes from Esalen on the paranormal in Religious Studies (produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter – part 1 here, and part 2 here).
Bettina begins by outlining the aims and scope of the sessions, in which they hoped to bring together anthropologists, ethnographers and Religious Studies scholars with many different methodologies for looking at encounters with the non-ordinary. Fiona Bowie outlines her methodology for these kinds of studies, empathetic engagement, in which issues of ontological truth are set aside, but not ‘explained away’. She argues that such experiences may be at the root of “religious experience”, and are thus vital to the field. Davids Wilson and Robertson discuss whether the transformative nature of these experiences is epistemological at core. Remembering our critical approach, however, Jonathan challenges the emerging consensus that different methodologies require different epistemological postulates to be made sense of. It gets fairly heated.

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Monday, 27 October 2014

The Role of Experience in the Origin and Development of Religion

On 1st November 2014 the Scientific and Medical Network are holding a conference in London on the theme, Frontiers of Science and Spirituality: The SCM Approach to Holistic Education. Around 24 speakers have been invited to give short (10 minute) presentations which will be filmed and distributed for educational purposes. I was invited to speak on the theme of 'The Role of Experience in the Origin and Development of Religion'. I chose to focus on Near-death Experiences and Afterlife narratives as examples of human experience that have almost certainly impacted on the origin and development of religion. One could have added dreams, out-of-body experience, mediumship and shamanic activity, possession, reincarnation narratives, forms of ESP, after-death contact, and ghost sightings, among other areas in which universal themes seem to emerge irrespective of time or culture. The slides and text of my presentation are available on Scribd as a PDF file here.

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