When I first started researching contemporary Christianity, back when I was an undergraduate anthropology doing research in northern Thailand, I woke one morning to find I had missed an early phone call from my father. In those more technologically simple days, international calls were a rarity, and so I called straight back. “Have they got to you yet?” he asked, with a tone of real concern in his voice. It seemed that one of the greatest fears of my atheist father was that I might be converted by one of the evangelical Christians I was spending time with!
Quite a few years later and I have yet to have that road-to-Damascus moment, or even a slow conversion to becoming a believer (most probably still to the relief of my dad). But does my continuing lack of Christian beliefs – or indeed any spiritual beliefs – make it impossible to be able to understand those that I study? In a similar way to the experience of the atheist anthropologist Ruy Llera Blanes (2007) when he was researching Pentecostal churches in Lisbon, an interviewee once suggested to me that without having a relationship with God and without being filled by the Holy Spirit, I would never be able to effectively understand his belief system. But surely this is actually at the heart of doing anthropology: trying to understand cultures that are different to our own.
As anthropologists, our training encourages us to attempt to understand others’ beliefs on their own terms, rather than engaging in an exercise of assessing the validity of truth claims. Put simply, my role is not to ascertain whether a church-goer is correct in believing in God, whether a prophecy will really come to pass, or whether an intercessor speaking in tongues is really filled with something called the Holy Spirit. Instead, it is to understand what these beliefs mean to those that hold them, and how these beliefs influence their lives and the actions they take in the societies in which they live.
As our project continues it will be interesting to compare notes and analyses with my Christian colleagues. But hopefully an anthropological approach from this outsider will still have value in increasing our understanding of Christian megachurches in contemporary London, even if I only go to church for work!
Blanes, R. L. (2006), The atheist anthropologist: Believers and non-believers in anthropological fieldwork. Social Anthropology, 14:223–234