Vernacular Religion: Because you’ll Find More than the Devil in the Details

There is an important message embedded in Marion Bowman’s notion of “vernacular religion”–that when we plant our feet firmly on the ground, amidst the fray of religious life, we are confronted with the unmistakable heterogeneity of both belief and practice. As living people “do religion” on the ground it may not always resemble the religion of the Qur’an, the Vatican or your Buddhism 101 textbook.

By Per D. Smith

During his tenure as an Assistant Editor at the RSP (2012-2013), Per Smith was working on a PhD in the Religion and Society track of Boston University’s Division of Religious and Theological Studies. Unfortunately for us he is now no longer working on his dissertation, having left the world of academia, and is currently working in the private sector. We wish him all the best in his new career.

Per D. Smith

During his tenure as an Assistant Editor at the RSP (2012-2013), Per Smith was working on a PhD in the Religion and Society track of Boston University’s Division of Religious and Theological Studies. Unfortunately for us he is now no longer working on his dissertation, having left the world of academia, and is currently working in the private sector. We wish him all the best in his new career.

In response to:

Vernacular Religion

Images of Jesus on a slice of toast; Koran verses in an aubergine; statues which cry blood; Angel Colour cards and Atlantean crystal therapies; popular religious expressions are everywhere. In this interview, Marion Bowman showcases her fascinating research into the ways in which religion permeates everyday life, paying particular attention to the manifestations at the famous Glastonbury Festival.

There is an important message embedded in Marion Bowman’s notion of “vernacular religion”–that when we plant our feet firmly on the ground, amidst the fray of religious life, we are confronted with the unmistakable heterogeneity of both belief and practice. As living people “do religion” on the ground it may not always resemble the religion of the Qur’an, the Vatican or your Buddhism 101 textbook. It should come as no surprise then that this type of grounded religion was understood for years as “folk religion,” or as folklorist Don Yoder put it “the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside with strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion” (Yoder 1974:14). The near synonym “popular religion” has also been used with frequency (e.g. Jolly 1996).

Yet, as we heard, Bowman objects to both “popular” and “folk” religion as scholarly categories because of what they imply in contradistinction. For instance, in regards to “popular religion” she says “so this is opposed to…unpopular religion?” But the problems run deeper.  “Folk religion” is hampered by a legacy of distinguishing the religion of the folk from, as Yoder put it “official religion” and thereby demeaning its value. Indeed this is true of “popular religion” as well (e.g. Vrijhof and Waardenburg 1979). So while Bowman credits Yoder for trying to rescue “folk religion” from this two-tiered structure and the negative valuation it gets within it, she chooses instead to follow one of Yoder’s former students, Leonard Primiano, in rejecting the term altogether (Primiano 1995; Bowman and Valk 2012).

Enter “vernacular religion.” Primiano succinctly defines the concept as “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand and interpret it,” and in her podcast Bowman also refers to it as “that everyday religion” (Primiano 1995:44). Here religious studies scholars and sociologists might respectively recognize a pair of conceptual cousins with similar parameters. As religious historian David Hall describes it, to focus on “lived religion” means looking at “religion as practiced and…the everyday thinking and doing of lay men and women” (Hall 1997:vii). In a similar vein sociologist Nancy Ammerman tells us that the study of “everyday religion” privileges “the experience of the nonexperts, the people who do not make a living being religious or thinking and writing about religious ideas” (Ammerman 2007:5). Yet these conceptual cousins might perhaps still evoke distinctions (like those between the church hierarchy and the laity or the expert and the nonexpert) that Bowman hopes vernacular religion more consciously elides. To Bowman there is a sense in which like “vernacular speech” or “vernacular architecture,” all religious forms are vernacular because all are context specific. In other words the beliefs and practices of religious experts and elites are just as vernacular as those of the laity. The same goes for the variety of religious forms within larger traditions. There is nothing more or less authentic about Hungarian Calvinism than Scottish Calvinism, for instance.

In this vein one might consider Frank Korom’s work on the Indo-Trinidadian celebration of Hosay an excellent example of vernacular religion scholarship, though Korom’s own interpretive frame centers around another linguistic analogy; creolization (Korom 2002). In his monograph, Hosay Trinidad, Korom traces how the somber Shiite commemoration of the death of the Imam Hussain, known as Muharram, was transformed into the carnivalesque Trinidadian celebration of Hosay. As it traveled across space and time Muharram/Hosay adapted to and incorporated various local customs, first on the Indian subcontinent then in the Caribbean. Hosay thus illustrates Bowman’s point that not only are religious vernaculars marked by context dependent differences, but they are formed out of them. As she puts it in the podcast, vernacular religious traditions are like vernacular architecture in that both are built out of local materials.

The idea of “building” a tradition also suggests a certain amount of agency or at least semi-conscious activity by vernacular religionists. Though Bowman never refers to Anne Swidler, one gets the sense that Swidler’s notion of culture as a “‘tool kit’ of symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems,” fits nicely with Bowman’s approach (Swidler 1986:273). While vernacular traditions are products of cultural tinkering they are simultaneously resources through which future tinkering is made possible. Contemporary Druids therefore use the vernacular Christian myth describing Joseph of Arimathea’s visit to Glastonbury to support the idea that there was an ancient druidic center of learning there. Why else would Joseph have traveled so far? Likewise the prevalence of Marian devotion (particularly involving St. Brigid) is reinterpreted by the Goddess community as evidence of the presence of the goddess Birdie in Glastonbury (Bowman 2004). Here we see how vernacular religion also provides an alternative to concepts of religious mixing like “syncretism,” which have undergone a sustained critique over the years for, among other things, devaluing agency and reinforcing a two-tiered dominant/subordinate relationship between traditions that are in creative contact with each other (Baird 1971; Korom 2002; Schmidt 2006).

But the championing of human agency also raises questions. How much agency and how much consciousness do individual practitioners actually have? In the podcast Bowman describes “folklore,” and hence the stuff of vernacular traditions, broadly as “mental furniture.” Like a chair in a room we utilize the artifacts of folklore without consciously thinking about the fact that they exist or how they are arranged. This unconscious dimension of folklore qua mental furniture begins to sound a bit more like Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus” than a cultural tool kit (Bourdieu 1977). While Swidler favorably compares her cultural tool kit to Bourdieu’s habitus one gets the sense that there is more conscious mastery involved in the utilization of cultural tools than there is in the activities of the “structuring structures” of the habitus. In fact Sherry Ortner has critiqued Bourdieu on these very grounds, claiming that Bourdieu insisted on “the inaccessibility to actors of the underlying logic of their practices.” Ortner suggests instead that people are “at least partially ‘knowing subjects’” who “have some ‘penetration’ into the ways in which they are formed by their circumstances” (Ortner 2005:34). I tend to agree with her.

Now what I find somewhat problematic with Bowman’s presentation of vernacular religion and folklore vis-à-vis agency and consciousness is not that Bowman is a Bourdieuian, since she’s clearly not. It’s that in the end I’m not sure that she’s carved out a firm position. As Primiano develops the notion of vernacular religion in his treatise he individuates it down to the concept of “uniculture” or “the personal discourse which we all carry on with ourselves as self-aware beings” (Primiano 1995:49). In other words, according to Primiano, individuals are capable of being cultures unto themselves in which beliefs and practices are formed out of self-contained relationships between one’s own thoughts. In the end I’m not sure what is gained by the reframing of cognitive processes as folklore other than the celebration of some sort of self-religion but one thing is evident—Primiano’s world is chock full of human agency. So where does Bowman stand?

In the podcast Bowman says that the study of folklore brings value to the study of religion by being about what people “actually” think and do as opposed to what they are supposed to think and do. Here Bowman is echoing Primiano who also writes about folklore dealing with the “actual beliefs of the people” (Primiano 1995:51). In one sense one could say, fair enough. Folklorists collect examples of beliefs and practices from actual practitioners, which may or may not align with what religious authorities proscribe for those practitioners. But how do we know that an informant is presenting a past mental state accurately, or even a present one without exaggeration or distortion? Primiano admits that “[h]uman beings do not always communicate what they believe to others because their individual beliefs can be substantially different. This fact is especially true concerning religious beliefs” (Primiano 1995:50).  Bowman also tells us that lived religion has always had a “mix and match” quality, but that sticking to the “official script” was so necessary in the past that only in the 20th century has there been a “glorious coming out” of what “people actually do.” Clearly neither Bowman nor Primiano believe that we’ve managed to transcend self-distortion entirely, so how productive is it then, in this context, to talk about the “actual?” Finally, and even more broadly what are we to assume about our informants’ capacities to understand the underlying logic of their practices no matter how earnest they are with us?

I don’t think there are easy answers to those questions, and I’m not sure that Bowman does either. In my view, her work unpacking vernacular religion in Glastonbury seems more nuanced than her description of the concept. For instance she depicts the ceremony of the Holy Thorn in a way that challenges assumptions about “official” Christianity in the U.K. as well as the variable meanings of the practice to Glastonbury’s locals (Bowman 2006). And when she describes Glastonbury as “a context in which cultural tradition, informal transmission and the personal experience of efficacy are likely to be as important as authoritative texts or religious professionals,” she doesn’t cast aside the professionals and their authoritative texts, but instead shows how the thoughts and actions of her informants complicate and are complicated by them (Bowman 2005:165). But in my opinion this type of nuance needs more adequate formulation in the theoretical description of vernacular religion, or else it could lead other adopters of the term to believe “the actual” is actually within their grasp. There is also a case to be made for Catherine Albanese’s suggestion that vernacular religion should be rescued from its radical individualism and repositioned within the communal frame one expects from something being likened to a communal linguistic practice (Albanese 1996:736). And in fact Bowman’s ethnographic work seems to reflect the communal model more than the individual one.

The final critique I would raise goes back to perhaps the essential premise behind Primiano’s creation of vernacular religion as a concept—the dissolving of the distinction between “official” and “unofficial” forms of religion. Both Primiano and Bowman make a strong case for scholars getting out of the business of accepting centralized, authoritative forms of religion as more authentic or even more ideal typical than local practices. However, this should not mean analytically abandoning such distinctions altogether because when they exist in the world we study they are bound to be part of the “mental furniture” of our informants. They are also bound, therefore to structure their religious experiences and practices. So while vernacular religion is invaluable in reminding scholars of the heterogeneity and ambiguity of religion as it is lived this reminder needs to be tempered by the realization that religious actors often work hard to demarcate and disambiguate their religious experiences and that such actions often have meaningful consequences. No study of religion can be complete without taking these consequences into account.

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  • Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. 2007. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives. Oxford University Press US.
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  • Bowman, Marion. 2004. “Procession and Possession in Glastonbury: Continuity, Change and the Manipulation of Tradition.” Folklore 115(3):273–285.
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  • Bowman, Marion, and Ülo Valk, eds. 2012. Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief. London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub.
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