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'Empty Secrets', 'True Mysteries’ and Causes for Concealment: Approaches to Religious Secrecy and the Public

Panel Chairs: Egil Asprem, Christiane Königstedt | Thursday, August 27, 9-11 a.m.

Georg Simmel is often invoked as a pioneer of the notion of the “empty secret”: the sociological form and function of secrecy are independent of its content, and can operate even in the absence of actual secrets. But how arbitrary is the relation between content and form really? Focusing on “religious secrecy” and the public, this panel addresses different aspects of the relation between the form, function, and content of secrecy: the reasons and aims of religious groups, who adopt secretive communication and organisational strategies; how these reasons relate to specific contents, to other organizational purposes, and to public perceptions and biases. And further, how these secretive strategies are represented and perceived in the public sphere, creating novel speculations about the secret's content as well as the intentions behind secretive behavior. Reconceptualizing the relation between form and content may help us better understand the dynamic cultural productivity of secrecy and attempts to unveil it.

Henrik Bogdan

Cutting of the Throat: On Secrecy, Oaths and Penalties in Masonic Initiatory Societies

Freemasonry, and other western initiatory societies, are to all intents and purposes characterised by the ritualistic practice of secrecy, and by the time of The Chetwode Crawley Ms. (c. 1700), it is stated that the first point of a person who has received the “Mason Word”, is to “conceal”, under “no less pain than the Cutting of the throat“. While much has been written and said about the use of secrecy in Freemasonry and other similar organisations from the theoretical perspective of knowledge and power, little attention has been devoted to the actual wording of the oaths of secrecy encountered in this type of organisations. This paper will thus analyse oaths of secrecy, and in particular the stated penalties for breaking the oaths, as a specific genre or trope in masonic rituals of initiation. The examples used will cover a wide range of organisations, from Craft and High degrees of Freemasonry, to occultist organisations such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Christiane Königstedt

The Paradox of “Exoteric Secrecy” and Contemporary Spirituality

Having developed from counterculture to a broader public phenomenon since the 1970's, the former “New Age” cannot only be regarded as a special form of contemporary religion, but also as a paradoxical case of “exoteric” secrecy. The wide availability of its religio-spiritual contents are accompanied by somewhat shared, but rather unspecified, myths about a profound change of the universe and of human life. Within the milieu, spiritual experiences remain very personal and are not revealed to everyone. Further, constellations of asymmetric knowledge distribution, as in teacher-pupil or “magician”-client relationships, constitute a staple characteristic within the empirical field. This raises several questions concerning “religious secrecy” to be investigated here, above all: what is public in different contexts, what is hidden, and why? Or, in a broader framework: what kind of dynamic relations with other forms of knowledge in society do “secretive areas” indicate, and how important is (within the case under discussion here) the notion of “empty secrets” and accusations thereof as a reaction from critics?

Egil Asprem

Travelling Secrets: Reflections on the Epidemiology of Secretive Representations

The essential lack of transparency regarding both the content of concealed knowledge and the causes for adopting strategies of dissimulation enables intriguing dynamics of cultural creativity and meaning-making. There is ample historical evidence (e.g. in conspiracy theories, discourses on “mystery cults,” “spiritual alchemy,” etc.), that the use of secretive techniques for quite specific, practical ends can trigger innovative speculations on profound esoteric secrets that were never there, along with novel ideas concerning the rationale for secrecy. We can better understand this dynamic by drawing on the epidemiology of representations pioneered by Dan Sperber. The key theoretical problem of an epidemiology of secrecy is to explain why, how, and in what sense secrets, which on the face of it are about restricting public communication, can become powerful cultural entities that are transmitted through larger populations. This paper explores secrecy as a form of meta-representation that produces “relevant mysteries,” affording salient but divergent inferences in different social and cultural contexts, which account for the cultural and religious productivity of secretive representations.

Chrystal Vanel

Secrecy in Mormonism: From Separation to Speculation

Mormonism is a strongly proselytizing religion, with more than 80,000 young full-time missionaries worldwide, and a sophisticated communications network in both old and new media. But Mormonism is also a secretive religion. While its chapels are wide open to the public and all its members, its temples are only open to the most faithful Mormons. Through secret (“sacred”) rituals, they can hope for deification in the afterlife and be married for “time and eternity.” It is possible that the top Mormon leadership may undergo even more secretive rites. Mormon secrecy solidifies a particular Mormon community, distancing Mormons from others, as they are united by common secrets. But those secrets also generate speculation from journalists, critics, and certain Christian groups. The same can be said of Mormon finances, which typically are not communicated to the faithful, nor the public.


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