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Researcher of the Month December: Dr Aled Thomas

Researcher of the Month

Dr Aled Thomas is a teaching fellow in Religious Studies at the University of Leeds and a member of the Leeds Centre for Religion and Public Life. In this interview, he tells about his research into new religious movements, specifically Scientology.

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?

My research journey can be traced back to summer 2007, when I first started my BA in Religious Studies at Trinity University College Carmarthen (now the University of Wales: Trinity Saint David). I immediately fell in love with the subject, particularly the study of ‘new’ and minority religions – a subject area that remains central to my research to this day. Soon after, I completed a Master’s degree in the Study of Religions (with a particular focus on the study of religious experiences) and went on to do a PhD at the Open University of the topic of ‘auditing’ in Free Zone Scientology (completed in 2019). Since finishing my doctorate, I spent some time teaching at the Open University and University of Wolverhampton, and joined the University of Leeds as a Teaching Fellow in the summer of 2022.

Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?

I became immediately interested in the study of new religions during my time as an undergraduate – learning about (and encountering!) religions beyond the ‘World Religions Paradigm’ was transformative, and I became fascinated by the ways in which religions emerge and develop in the 20th/21st centuries. More specifically, a field visit to the Church of Scientology in 2010 not only began my fascination with Scientology, but also demonstrated the invaluable role of fieldwork in the study of religions – getting to meet everyday practitioners and learning about their lived experiences. I soon learned of Free Zone Scientology (Scientology outside the institutional Church of Scientology), and became fascinated by the discourses of authenticity and innovation at play – particularly how people attempt to sidestep or subvert it! My monograph on this topic, Free Zone Scientology: Contesting the Boundaries of a New Religion, was published in 2021 on Bloomsbury Academic Press.

What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

I am currently working on a project concerning contemporary ‘cult’ rhetoric – more specifically the ways in which normative cultic language is deployed in hybrids of religious/political discourses in the 21st century. I am co-editing an edited volume on the topic (with Edward Graham-Hyde from the University of Central Lancashire) which brings together a collection of essays with two primary aims – (i) how ‘cults’ are understood and navigated in everyday discourse and (ii) a deconstruction of the study of New Religious Movements and proposals for new directions. In addition to my interest in cultic discourses, I am also interested in the Church of the Sub-Genius and how the invention/designing of new/hyper-real religion is about more than parody – it can be an active form of protest against political/religious/economic structures.

In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?

The relationship between religion and public life is at the core of my thinking. Religion is does not exist in a ‘religious bubble’, floating around society whilst occasionally making contact with it, it is deeply rooted in the cultures we live in and the social ideas we engage with. Moreover, good scholarship can not only address this relationship, but enrich it. A dominant theme throughout my research is digital religion, particularly how the Internet has not only enabled online practices, but transformed them/led to new forms. In the age of COVID, it may be easy to think of online religion as taking ‘in-person’ activities and attempting to replicate them on Zoom. While this can be the case – the reality is far more complex. The internet is a largely unrestricted environment (religiously speaking), and people are creative and dynamic. People are often ‘religioning’ in online spaces, perhaps even if they do not actively think so!

More recently, my work on contemporary cultic rhetoric is directly tied to public discourse/life. It is not understatement to say that political discourses (particularly online) have been rather heated in recent years, with polarising events (Brexit/COVID/etc.) creating significant divisions. Religion is often at the heart of these discourses, and ‘cult’ rhetoric has highlighted the ways in which typologies and normative cultic language has become a powerful political tool in criticising opponents, whilst also leading to the emergence of minority groups positioning themselves in relation to current religious and political issues.