Postgraduate Profile – Lori Lee Oates

Oates photoLori Lee Oates
PhD Candidate, History Department, University of Exeter

My research was born when I posed a single question: Why are people so interested in the texts of New Age religion at a time when church attendance and the power of traditional religion are declining in many parts of the world?

It was obvious to me that the way the world engages with religion had changed in recent decades as books like The Power of Now, Eat Pray Love, and Return to Love topped the New York Times bestseller list. I soon discovered that scholars have argued for some time that New Age religion is rooted in nineteenth-century occultism, the meeting of Eastern and Western religions, and the rise of secular society. Religious Studies scholars have used these factors to explain why Western society is now racing to meditation and yoga classes, or reifying New Age texts as contemporary religious symbols. Through my research, I discovered that scholars had already effectively established that New Age religion is rooted in the Hellenistic religious philosophies of the ancient world, combined with a synthesis of Eastern religion in the nineteenth century.

My project, however, seeks to set the emergence of commercialized religion within the context of nineteenth-century globalization, imperialism in India, growth in the printing activity, growth in liberalism, and the development of the market economy. Largely, I am doing this by examining the globalization and movement of literature between 1833 and 1900, in a way that has not been done previously.

A historian does not need to examine esoteric religious philosophies for very long in order to conclude that they are not as heterodox as we have often been led to believe. Conspiracies theories in the media aside, the reality is that because of the need for literacy to engage with the texts of the esoteric religious philosophies, it has long been the elite movers and shakers within any given society who were practicing these traditions. Rooted in the Platonic, Hermetic, and Gnostic philosophies of the ancient world, the Western esoteric traditions have persisted in different forms throughout recorded history. Esoteric religion is the Renaissance magic and alchemy of the early modern period, the Rosicrucianism of the post-Reformation period, and the Freemasonry of the Enlightenment stream of thought. However, just as the Internet and social media are democratizing access to information in the twenty-first century, the printing press and growth in education democratized access to the philosophies of esoteric religion (among other things) in the nineteenth century. This could be seen in the growth of spiritualism, the Theosophical Society, l’Ordre Martiniste, and the establishment of Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Its practitioners in the nineteenth century included Benjamin Disraeli, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Napoleon III, Victor Hugo, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Butler-Yeats, Winston Churchill, and Annie Besant.

The traditional narrative of the development of nineteenth-century occultism is that a few key practitioners of the occult travelled between France and Britain and exchanged ideas about the tarot and kabala. This evolved into late-modern magic when the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn synthesized Eliphas Lévi’s tarot into their special brand of modern magic. The Theosophical Society moved to India and brought back the concept of karma and then broke apart in the twentieth century to become all the various aspects of what we now call New Age religion. My project, however, seeks to look more broadly at the networks that were operating between France, Britain, America, and India at the time. I am examining how occult texts were moving around in the period and I am looking at the political contexts in which these networks emerged. While it has been known for some time that the Theosophical Society was headquartered in India, I would argue that the extent to which this was driven by British imperialism has been underestimated.

Before coming to Exeter, I did an M.Phil. (Humanities) degree, an M.A. in Political Science, and a B.A. in Political Science and Sociology, all obtained at Memorial University. I also spent 14 years working in public policy communications, including seven years with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. During that time, I learned the practical side of working in a globalized environment through my involvement with files that required lobbying the European Union, addressing policy issues in international media, and participating in trade shows across the globe. When I decided to return to the academic world, I found that my background in speech writing, media relations, social media, public administration, and lobbying would serve me extremely well. I quickly learned the importance of not only being able to do good research but also of being able to promote it within the broader academy.

I was initially drawn to study at the University of Exeter because of its strength in the areas of the History of Magic and Western Esotericism. Specialists such as Richard Noakes, Catherine Rider, Jonathan Barry, and the late Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke are known internationally in the field. I was always interested in exploring the influence of the commercial economy on contemporary religion. When Dr. Noakes took over my supervision in 2012, he immediately encouraged me to think even more broadly about my project and examine aspects of British and French imperialism, and the globalization of the printing press. This was around the same time that the Department of History was forming a Centre for Global and Imperial History, which has enabled me to expand my research in whole new directions. I now have the opportunity to discuss my research with historians who specialize in orientalism, the history of India, and nineteenth-century capitalism. I am also fortunate that in 2012 we were able to add Professor Regenia Gagnier from the Department of English to my supervision team. She is a specialist in the globalization of literature and the Victorian commercial economy. The opportunity to work with the Centre for Victorian Studies in the Department of English also supports my research. There is a strong postgraduate research community both within the Department of History and across the College of Humanities. Programs like career development seminars, the Ex Historia journal and seminar series, and teaching opportunities, provide a well-rounded Ph.D. experience. I have also been fortunate to receive a generous international doctoral studentship from the university to pursue my work here. Overall, I would highly recommend the University of Exeter as an excellent location to do a Ph.D. in history more generally, and to study global and imperial history in particular.

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