Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Conference Rapport: Western Esotericism at the 2008 CESNUR Conference

Kennet Granholm, University of Amsterdam

On April 16-19, 2008, a conference entitled “Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and the New Spirituality” was held at the London School of Economics.

The conference was arranged by CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions) in cooperation with INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements) and ISORECEA (International Study of Religion in Eastern and Central Europe Association), and signalled the twentieth anniversary of both CESNUR and INFORM. The conference was large, involving over 150 speakers (with some delivering more than one paper) and an even larger audience. The Centre for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, University of Amsterdam, was well represented, as werethe Nordic countries. This increased interest in Esotericism in the Nordic countries is also reflected in the 2007 founding of the Scandinavian Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism.

The prominence of esoteric subjects in the programme was a drastic change from the CESNUR/INFORM conference arranged in London in 2001.
  • Of the 46 sessions at the conference (including three plenary sessions, a film screening and a discussion with a survivor of the 1993 Branch Davidian-tragedy) twelve dealt with matters related to Western Esotericism. This included sessions on neopaganism, “New Age”, Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism in general.
  • The focus of the vast majority of the papers presented was on contemporary expressions of esoteric spirituality, interesting since the study of Western Esotericism has largely focused on historical manifestations of the phenomenon.
  • Many papers introduced social scientific theory and methodology to the existing historical perspectives.
  • The concept of Western Esotericism, as well as related theory and methodology, elicited substantial discussion.

The sessions with Esoteric subject matters were:

  • From Witchcraft to Wicca
  • 20 Years of Pagan Movements and Studies – 1
  • Western Esotericism and New Religiosity – 1
  • 20 Years of Pagan Movements and Studies – 2
  • Western Esotericism and New Religiosity – 2
  • 20 Years of Studies on Pagan and Entheogenic Movements
  • 20 Years of Studies on Western Esotericism
  • From Ancient Wisdom and Freemasonry to New Age
  • 20 Years of Studies on Aleister Crowley
  • 20 Years of Theosophical Studies
  • 20 Years of Studies on the New Age and Spiritual Communities
  • If Not New Age, Then What?

Although esoteric subject matter was the theme in over a fourth of the sessions, this was perhaps not fully acknowledged by the conference organizers. During the last plenary session, which had as its aim to conclude draw together central themes discussed, Esotericism was barely mentioned. None of the speakers chosen for the plenary panel were researchers with a specific interest in Western Esotericism. Although Western Esotericism has become an acknowledged discipline in its own right, and is increasingly popular amongst young scholars, it seems that there is still a long way to go before the discipline attains the official scholarly status of issues such as religion and law or religion and conflict.

Those interested in knowing more can visit the homepage of CESNUR, where a large number of the papers presented are published in the cyberproceedings of the conference.

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