Benjamin Hassan

Those Who Choose: A New Understanding of Heresy

April 3, 2021   /  

Name: Benjamin Hassan
Major: Religious Studies
Minor: Environmental Studies
Advisor: Dr. Sarah Mirza

I propose that a conceptual framework for the analysis of religious heterodoxy based on sociopolitical lenses offers a more nuanced understanding of human religiosity. After a brief summary of the work Religious Studies scholars have previously done on heterodoxy and lived religion, I then define the four distinct lenses of my framework: lay following, influential individuals, conservative forces, and geopolitics. After explaining the strengths of this approach, I then apply my framework to three case studies: Unitarian Universalism, the medieval Alamut Nizari state, and Yiguandao.

These case studies demonstrate the utility of my conceptual model on religious traditions in different historical, cultural, and political contexts. By focusing on physical and cultural infrastructure, I show that while individual religious experiences matter, they are shaped by institutions. I believe that this approach is more accessible to a majority of people and offers a more engaging learning experience for students and scholars. 

In building upon the ideas expressed by the scholars and historians that I have encountered in the course of this project, the model I will present in this symposium has the potential to reveal connections and links that were not previously obvious. By proposing that the origins of a religious schism can be found in four broad categories, I hope to encourage scholars of religion and its manifestations in human society to think outside of the traditional box of charismatic leadership and individual belief.

View Interactive Maps:

Benjamin will be online to field comments on April 16:
noon-2pm EDT (PST 9-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening) and 4-6 pm EDT (PST 1-3pm, Africa/Europe: late evening)

19 thoughts on “Those Who Choose: A New Understanding of Heresy”

  1. Very interesting entry in the I.S. catalogue, Benjamin! Nice to see some theory being developed as well as tested this year. I’d like to ask a couple of questions about your thesis, though it’s difficult to ask anything too detailed based on just the abstract. I hope I haven’t misunderstood the direction you’re going in or the research you’re coming from.

    You mention at the end of the abstract that charismatic leadership and individual belief are traditionally used to study religious schisms, what does your addition of geopolitics and conservative forces account for that these two factors overlook? I’m particularly interested in what you mean by ‘conservative forces’ as I’ve found these to be widely understimated by U.S. academics.

    Second, I’m wondering what sort of consideration of doctrine your thesis might include. The Western (Christian) preposession with doctrine may have consciously excluded other factors of religion but the result certainly makes the for a clear picture of religious history/’heterodoxy’ as being divided down fault lines that can be traced to debates that are much about doctrine as they are about geopolitics. I’d be interested to know how this factors into your model (or if I’ve missed the point), it seems that you could have used ‘lay following’ and ‘influential individuals’ as a kind of manifestation of doctrine in your model.

    1. Hi Alex,

      Geopolitics and conservative forces cover power struggles that I found to always be present in religious schisms. I define conservative forces as any institutions, leaders, or forces that are interested in keeping the status quo.

      I don’t take doctrine into account in my model because it’s a manifestation of power struggle. I found that’s what everything boils down to in the end.

  2. This is beautifully done Ben, congrats! I think your use of interactive maps also do a great job of highlighting the importance of space/place in the evolution of these three “alternative” religious movements.

    1. Thank you, Professor Moreno. The maps were definitely a good find. The college has a lot of good tools available for students.

  3. I really enjoyed your StoryMaps, Ben! They must have taken a lot of work to put together. The StoryMaps are highly effective at illustrating the sociopolitical framework that you applied to the analysis of your three case studies. What motivated you to develop a new conceptual framework for analyzing religious heterodoxy? I’m not so familiar with how religious heterodoxy is typically analyzed – how does your conceptual framework differ from other models?

    1. Hi Professor Pollock,

      Religious heterodoxy usually focuses on individual belief and official doctrine, but I kept noticing during my time in Religious Studies that power struggles and identity were the defining reasons for schisms. I thought a new model of religious heterodoxy would spark some new thought.

  4. Ben, I was super interested in your project from the first time you told me about it and it’s fantastic to be able to see it now! The StoryMaps are so informative, and the amount of research and hard work you poured into that is very clear. What was one of the most interesting things you learned during the process of your IS, and did anything unexpected come up?

    1. Thank you Cara,

      One of the most interesting things I learned was how intertwined Unitarianism was with early American history. Many of the Founding Fathers (such as Joseph Priestley and Abigail Adams) agreed with Unitarian concepts, and they show up in unexpected places. The architect of the US capitol was a Unitarian, the inventor of the lightbulb was a Unitarian, etc.

      One of the most unexpected things I learned was how you could essentially trace most of European Christian heresy back to the Balkans and their circles of priests.

  5. Congratulations Ben!

    It’s great to see your work here. I really enjoyed the story maps, and I think they make a great addition. Especially as someone who has read your IS, I think the story maps definitely supplement and support the work in very important ways.

    Best of luck going forward!

  6. Thank you for a fascinating presentation, Ben! Your story maps do a wonderful job of encapsulating the religious histories of the three traditions you’ve examined. Congratulations!!

  7. Ben, your research focus, conclusions, and maps are so interesting! I’ve often discussed the importance of institutions in my political science and economic classes and can definitely understand how they play a large part in the religious experience. There are so many social/environmental/political factors at play in the shaping of a religious movement. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Ben, I especially appreciate that you used three such disparate (religiously and geographically) case studies to examine and support your thesis of a four-factor approach. I had some of the same questions as are in the earlier comments and will look forward to coming back to read your replies when/if you have time.
    (I was a religion major ’61, yes 60 years ago and I think and hope that the field is moving more in the direction of your project.)

  9. Ben, I, too, was captivated by your story maps. Because of my personal history, it was fascinating to follow Yiguandao in Taiwan. And then to see it turn up in Columbus! Thanks for the comprehensive and illuminating work that you have put into this IS.

  10. Hello and congratulations again Ben! Having read and seen your work already, including these maps, I am just visiting again today to tell you what an outstanding project this is — and the maps add a great dimension for presentation and learning, so thanks for doing that additional work. I’ve really enjoyed and learned a lot from being associated with your work throughout this entire process. Again, congratulations and thank you for sharing your work today!

  11. Congratulations on this major achievement, Ben! I’m so impressed by the scope of this project and the ways you put the three distinct case studies together. The interactive maps also looks effective in presenting your study. If you can add a timeline to it, it’d be more user-friendly.

    A quick question: is there any reason you start an overview of Universal Unitarianism from the debates surrounding the council of Nicaea?

    1. I started with the Council of Nicaea because I kept finding that it was the event that you could trace Unitarian Universalism back to. A lot of Unitarian Universalists go back to Michael Servetas and John Sigismund, but all of the intellectual networks that made Unitarianism possible were created as a result of the Bulgarians and Lombards embracing Arian Christianity.

      In addition, Arius being expelled is one of the first big moments that Christian orthodoxy was enforced across the entire community with the state’s approval, which I felt was an important moment to document.

  12. Your research is very interesting, Ben. Congratulations on a job well done.

  13. Ben, this presentation is such a pleasure and has so many layers. Thank you for teaching me so much! Well done.

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