Skip to content

Dr Naomi Richman: how religious ideas create experiences of the self, the body and sexuality

Dr Richman is an anthropologist of religion who explores how religious ideas create experiences of the self, the body and sexuality. Currently, she is as postdoctoral researcher for the Wellcome Trust funded project, Hidden Persuaders, based at the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London.

Naomi Richman
Naomi Richman

Why have you focused on the Pentecostal Christian community in your research?

We still tend to underestimate the extent to which religion is woven into the very fabric of human societies. I am interested in how religious beliefs and practices continue to shape people’s experiences of the world and their selves.

Pentecostalism is a great case study for this; it has experienced tremendous growth in its 120-year history, and it’s estimated that one in four Christians around the world belong to the movement. One of its driving principles is the belief that anyone can receive the Spirit and become Born Again.

Women are said to outnumber men two-to-one in the movement. On the one hand, the sheer visibility of women – worshipping in the pews and preaching from the pulpit – points to Pentecostalism’s potential to advance women’s interests.

At the same time, women are excluded from positions of authority in these churches, or are taught that ‘submission’ – to their husbands and to God – is the highest female ideal. This contradiction has generated lively discussions amongst anthropologists as to whether women are truly empowered by the movement.

My approach resists this framing of the problem and offers a more intricate account of how people experience their bodies, their genders and their sexualities.

Drawing on my background in theology (I did my undergraduate, Master’s and Doctorate at Oxford’s Faculty of Theology & Religion), I show how the theological ideas of ordinary religious people can be remarkably sophisticated, and how by taking them seriously, social scientists can enrich their understandings of religious phenomena.

This is especially the case with those beliefs that might seem culturally or politically alien to one’s own. My view is that attending to our subjects’ theological reflections about God and human creation helps us as anthropologists make much better sense of their experiences of the world and their place within it.

Why choose Nigeria for your fieldwork and what did you focus on there?

Nigeria is a hotbed of Pentecostal activity, and the innovations made by Christians there tend to set the agenda for Pentecostal churches across the African continent. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork at one of Nigeria’s largest churches, which specialises in Deliverance (or exorcism), and has highly developed beliefs about witchcraft and the demonic.

A church auditorium outside Lagos which can accommodate up to half a million worshippers.
A church auditorium outside Lagos which can accommodate up to half a million worshippers.

Deliverance practices have experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent decades – not only in the churches of sub-Saharan Africa, but here in the UK too. The revival of this practice, and the witchcraft accusations that sometimes go along with it, have also attracted considerable media and public attention.

So, in the last few years, I have worked closely with law enforcement, healthcare professionals, safeguarding leads, charities and journalists to advise on these practices and to develop practical projects to protect adults and children who may be vulnerable to spiritual abuse.

I believe in the value of facilitating meaningful, informed and compassionate discourse about religious cultures in society – whilst working to ensure that nobody ever becomes a victim of abuse in a faith context.

Naomi at the United Nation’s first meeting on ‘Witchcraft Beliefs and Human Rights’, Geneva 2017
Naomi at the United Nation’s first meeting on ‘Witchcraft Beliefs and Human Rights’, Geneva 2017

Tell us more about the Hidden Persuaders project

The Hidden Persuaders project investigates cultural fears about mind-control and examines the roles, real and imagined, that the ‘psy’ professions have played in this history. My contribution as a postdoctoral researcher on the project emerges from my interest in religious conversions in the African context, and Westerners’ perceptions of religious converts.

Over the past six and a half years, the Hidden Persuaders team have done a tremendous amount of work to facilitate creative dialogue about ‘brainwashing’, not just within academia but well beyond it. As well as our research outputs, we have produced a number of award-winning films, conducted outreach work with local schools, established a thriving blog and plenty more (all freely available on our website, with more to be released later this year).

Looking ahead, we plan to leave behind an excellent set of permanent open-access resources about ‘brainwashing’ for many to use in the years to come.

What are your plans while at Trinity?

I am delighted to be joining Trinity and all that it has to offer. I noticed that Ben Okri and Benjamin Zephaniah recently spoke at the college in celebration of Black History Month too – it makes me excited for what else there is on the cards!

Alongside working towards the publication of my first book, emerging out of my research on Pentecostalism, I will start a new project that investigates secular experiences of the body.

My project will explore how secularism is changing the way we think about our bodies, especially in the wake of the COVID pandemic.

In particular, I want to look at current cultural ideas of ‘perfection’ and popular bodily practices directed at achieving it, from clean-eating trends to wellness rituals. I am interested in the way Western culture tends to place a premium on the body, and sometimes frames it as in need of ‘rescue’ from the clutches of religious puritanism.

At the same time, I am also struck by how some of these ideas and practices appear, at least on the surface, remarkably similar to religious bodily practices. The goal of this project is therefore to understand our contemporary obsession with perfection – and also the pushback against it – and to elucidate the evolving relationship between secular and religious cultures in our society.

This article was published on :

More on…

Back To Top
College Crest

Contact us

        Intranet | Student Hub

Access and Outreach Hub