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Egil AspremProfessor

About me

Professor in the history of religions, specialising in e.g. the study of esotericism, the history of magic, alternative spritiualities, and relations between esotericism and science. Theoretical interests include naturalistic (cognitive and evolutionary) as well as social-scientific and critical approaches to religion.

Teaching

I currently teach the courses “New Religious Movements and New Spiritualitis” and “Magic in the European History of Religions: Texts and Traditions”. Additionally I teach and hold seminars in a range of courses on the BA and MA levels, including all courses on theory and method. I am responsible for the doctoral program in the history of religions.

Research

My research interests revolve around the study of esotericism and magic in history and the present. Related research interests include religion and/in the history of science, modernisation processes, religion and conspiracy theories, naturalistic explanatory models in the study of religions, and, more recently, (critical) Romani studies.

Publications

A selection from Stockholm University publication database

  • New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism

    2021. Egil Asprem, Julian Strube.

    Book (ed)

    This volume offers new approaches to some of the biggest persistent challenges in the study of esotericism and beyond. Commonly understood as a particularly “Western” undertaking consisting of religious, philosophical, and ritual traditions that go back to Mediterranean antiquity, this book argues for a global approach that significantly expands the scope of esotericism and highlights its relevance for broader theoretical and methodological debates in the humanities and social sciences.

    The contributors offer critical interventions on aspects related to colonialism, race, gender and sexuality, economy, and marginality. Equipped with a substantial introduction and conclusion, the book offers textbook-style discussions of the state of research and makes concrete proposals for how esotericism can be rethought through broader engagement with neighboring fields. 

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  • Rejected Knowledge Reconsidered

    2021. Egil Asprem. New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism, 127-146

    Chapter

    The notion that esotericism is a form of rejected knowledge has come back in style. The association of esotericism with heterodoxy, opposition, and marginalization has, however, been a standard trope since the nineteenth century. This article assesses the new rejected knowledge narrative that has developed from Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s groundbreaking Esotericism and the Academy (2012). It shows that the narrative exists in two forms: one restricted, the other inflated. While the strict version is an important contribution to the field, the inflated narrative is associated with a number of problems. The article discusses what is at stake, and how the problems could be overcome.

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  • The Magical Theory of Politics

    2020. Egil Asprem. Nova Religio 23 (4), 15-42

    Article

    The election of the 45th president of the United States set in motion a hidden war in the world of the occult. From the meme-filled underworld of alt-right-dominated imageboards to a widely publicized “binding spell” against Trump and his supporters, the social and ideological divides ripping the American social fabric apart are mirrored by witches, magicians, and other esotericists fighting each other with magical means. This article identifies key currents and developments and attempts to make sense of the wider phenomenon of why and how the occult becomes a political resource. The focus is on the alt-right’s emerging online esoteric religion, the increasingly enchanted notion of “meme magic,” and the open confrontation between different magical paradigms that has ensued since Trump’s election in 2016. It brings attention to the competing views of magical efficacy that have emerged as material and political stakes increase, and theorizes the religionizing tendency of segments of the alt-right online as a partly spontaneous and partially deliberate attempt to create “collective effervescence” and galvanize a movement around a charismatic authority. Special focus is given to the ways in which the politicized magic of both the left and the right produce “affect networks” that motivate political behaviors through the mobilization of (mostly aversive) emotions.

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  • The Building Block Approach

    2020. Ann Taves, Egil Asprem. Building Blocks of Religion, 5-25

    Chapter

    The chapter provides a basic overview of the building block approach to “religion” and other complex cultural concepts. It introduces the basic vocabulary of the approach, provides definitions, and a few examples of how the approach has been applied to address specific problems in the field. The chapter also reflects on how the authors came to develop the approach, and discusses the most important philosophical and scientific influences that helped shape it.

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  • Psychology, meaning making, and the study of worldviews

    2018. Ann Taves, Egil Asprem, Elliott Ihm. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 10 (3), 207-217

    Article

    To get beyond the solely negative identities signaled by atheism and agnosticism, we have to conceptualize an object of study that includes religions and nonreligions. We advocate a shift from “religions” to “worldviews” and define worldviews in terms of the human ability to ask and reflect on “big questions” (BQs; e.g., what exists? how should we live?). From a worldviews perspective, atheism, agnosticism, and theism are competing claims about one feature of reality and can be combined with various answers to the BQs to generate a wide range of worldviews. To lay a foundation for the multidisciplinary study of worldviews that includes psychology and other sciences, we ground them in humans’ evolved world-making capacities. Conceptualizing worldviews in this way allows us to identify, refine, and connect concepts that are appropriate to different levels of analysis. We argue that the language of enacted and articulated worldviews (for humans) and worldmaking and ways of life (for humans and other animals) is appropriate at the level of persons or organisms and that the language of sense making, schemas, and meaning frameworks is appropriate at the cognitive level (for humans and other animals). Viewing the meaning making processes that enable humans to generate worldviews from an evolutionary perspective allows us to raise new questions for psychology with particular relevance for the study of nonreligious worldviews.

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  • Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion

    2018. Asbjørn Dyrendal, David G. Robertson, Egil Asprem.

    Book (ed)

    Conspiracy theories are a ubiquitous feature of our times. The Handbook of Conspiracy Theories and Contemporary Religion is the first reference work to offer a comprehensive, transnational overview of this phenomenon along with in-depth discussions of how conspiracy theories relate to religion(s). Bringing together experts from a wide range of disciplines, from psychology and philosophy to political science and the history of religions, the book sets the standard for the interdisciplinary study of religion and conspiracy theories.

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  • Close Companions? Esotericism and Conspiracy Theories

    2018. Egil Asprem, Asbjørn Dyrendal. Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion, 207-233

    Chapter

    Western esotericism is intimately linked with conspiracy theories. On the one hand, conspiracy theories often focus on alleged “secret societies” such as the Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, or the Freemasons, sometimes thought to possess superhuman powers. On the other, contemporary esoteric currents often spin their own conspiratorial narratives involving reductionist science, materialistic medicine, and corrupt repressive politicians, acting in concert to keep the true esoteric knowledge of divine origins and human potential from a population starved of spiritual truth. How might we explain these relationships? This article proposes a model that combines historical, sociological, and psychological factors, arguing that the relationship is intrinsic. Historically, “esotericism” is a product of mnemohistorical processes where “hidden lineages” from ancient times to the present play a crucial role, both for adherents identifying with such secret traditions and opponents attributing unwanted developments to secret cabals; socially, esotericism is organized along the lines of the loosely structured and culturally deviant “cultic milieu”; psychologically and cognitively, the cultic milieu produces selection pressures that favour certain personality traits and cognitive styles associated with increased conspiracism as well as paranormal beliefs and attributions, and produce forms of “motivated reasoning” that make conspiracy theories about “the establishment” – and competing esoteric groups – appealing.

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  • Conspiracy Theories and the Study of Religion(s)

    2018. Asbjørn Dyrendal, Egil Asprem, David G. Robertson. Handbook of Conspiracy Theories and Contemporary Religion, 19-47

    Chapter

    Conspiracy theory and religion are both contested categories. They are ’complex cultural concepts’ the use of which depends on the specific social formations making use of them. These constructions, all involving struggles over power, meaning, and signification, can both help and hinder interdisciplinary dialogue and multidisiplinary approaches. In this chapter we trace some of the building blocks that different academic disciplines bring to and make use of in their study of conspiracy theory to show the potential connections and delineate some of the conflicts. The chapter centres on the building blocks going into studying conspiracy theory as knowledge and as narrative, and goes on to highlight some of the potential ties to the study of religion.

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  • Explaining the Esoteric Imagination

    2017. Egil Asprem. Aries 17 (1), 17-50

    Article

    The imagination is central to esoteric practices, but so far scholars have shown little interest in exploring cognitive theories of how the imagination works. The only exception is Tanya Luhrmann's interpretive drift theory and related research on mental imagery cultivation, which has been used to explain the subjective persuasiveness of modern ritual magic. This article draws on recent work in the neuroscience of perception in order to develop a general theory of kataphatic (that is, imagery based) practice that goes beyond the interpretive drift theory. Mental imagery is intimately linked with perception. Drawing on "predictive coding" theory, the article argues that kataphatic practices exploit the probabilistic, expectation-based way that the brain processes sensory information and creates models (perceptions) of the world. This view throws light on a wide range of features of kataphatic practices, from their contemplative and cognitive aspects, to their social organization and demographic make-up, to their pageantry and material culture. By connecting readily observable features of kataphatic practice to specific neurocognitive mechanisms related to perceptual learning and cognitive processing of mental imagery, the predictive coding paradigm also creates opportunities for combining historical research with experimental approaches in the study of religion. I illustrate how this framework may enrich the study of Western esotericism in particular by applying it to the paradigmatic case of " astral travel" as it has developed from the Golden Dawn tradition of ritual magic, especially in the work of Aleister Crowley.

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  • Ethnographies of the Esoteric

    2018. Susannah Crockford, Egil Asprem. Correspondences 6 (1), 1-23

    Article

    In this article, we introduce the ContERN special issue on ethnographies of the esoteric. While the study of esotericism has been dominated by historical-philological scholarship, recent years have seen an increase in anthropological approaches to contemporary esotericism. We argue that this development provides the field not only with new tools, but also fresh perspectives on long-standing theoretical challenges. What are the implications of situating esotericism in particular ethnographic fieldsites? How does anthropological theory reflect on deep-rooted assumptions in the field? We address these questions using examples from the articles in the present special issue as well as other recent ethnographies of esoteric subject matter.

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  • Esotericism and the Scholastic Imagination

    2016. Egil Asprem. Correspondences: Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism 4, 1-34

    Article

    Scholars agree that the imagination is central to esoteric practice. While the esoteric vis imaginativa is usually attributed to the influx of Neoplatonism in the Italian Renaissance, this article argues that many of its key properties were already in place in medieval scholasticism. Two aspects of the history of the imagination are discussed. First, it is argued that esoteric practice is rooted in a broader kataphatic trend within Christian spirituality that explodes in the popular devotion literature of the later Middle Ages. By looking at the role of Bonaventure’s “cognitive theology” in the popularization of gospel meditations and kataphatic devotional prayer, it is argued that there is a direct link between the scholastic reconsideration of theimaginative faculty and the development of esoteric practices inspired by Christian devotional literature. Secondly, it is argued that the Aristotelian inner sense tradition of the scholastics left a lasting impression on later esoteric conceptualizations of the imaginative faculty. Examples suggesting evidence for both these two claims are discussed. The article proposes to view esoteric practices as an integral part of a broader kataphatic stream in European religious history, separated out by a set of disjunctive strategies rooted in the policing of “orthopraxy” by ecclesiastical authorities.

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Show all publications by Egil Asprem at Stockholm University