Posts

Religion and its Publics (Part 2)

In the last feature of the “semester” we’re continuing with the video format. A couple of months ago the RSP attended the Open University’s conference on Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives. I went about asking the pundits a couple of questions about Religion and its Publics. This week we have the second question (link for Part 1 in the sidebar).  Read more

Studying Vernacular Religion in the US

Vernacular religion is a subject which fascinates us here at the RSP, because in keeping with our critical perspective, it challenges that idea that neat categorical boundaries may be drawn, and reminds us that when attempts are made to draw them, particular interests are being served. David Robertson was given the chance to sit down with Leonard Norman Primiano – one of the pre-eminent scholars of that field – at the BASR 2014 conference in Milton Keynes earlier this month, and we are delighted to bring you the fruits of that meeting today.

The Virgin Mary and Child Jesus with Saints, 1882, Oil on Wood, 13 1/4 x 17 3/4 inchesPrimiano begins by describing how he came to study vernacular religion as a young scholar under Don Yoder, who introduced the ethnographic study of “folk religion” to the US academy. We discuss the relationship between the study of religion and the study of folklore, and he then introduces some of his ongoing research. Particular attention is paid to the case of Father Divine and the Peace Mission movement, an indigenous US communitarian religious movement, now in terminal decline. Of particular interest is Primiano’s emphasis that vernacular religion should not be considered beside mainstream religion; rather, vernacular religion is all religion as it is encountered in the field.

Primiano is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pennsylvania. He has published widely – please click his photo in the right-hand column above for details of his recent publications. He is currently curating Graces Received, an exhibition of painted and metal ex votos from Italy at Cabrini College until October 26th, 2014. It will open at Indiana University’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures in January for the Spring semester.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Authors meet Critics: “New Age Spirituality”

Following from our interview on Monday with Ingvild Gilhus, today’s podcast presents an “authors meet critics” session on the new edited volume by Ingvild Gilhus and Steven Sutcliffe, New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion. This was recorded at the University of Edinburgh at the launch of the book, and features the editors, Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Gilhus, and critics Bettina Schmidt, Marion Bowman and David Robertson, and was ably hosted by Afe Adogame.

Steven Sutcliffe introduces the book, describing the plan to curate a volume which approaches empirical research into “New Age” religiosity through broader “theories of religion”. As Gilhus then suggests, our theoretical positions are impoverished if they don’t address “religion” in both classical and modern contexts.

Marion Bowman takes this up in her response, which addresses the similarity between this project and her own “vernacular religion” project. Bettina Schmidt addresses this disconnect between theories of popular and institutionalised religion from a anthropological point of view, pointing out that many phenomena have been removed from sociological view due to their perceived marginality, and because they don’t offer a clear box to be ticked in censuses. Finally, David Robertson critiques how the critique of “New Age” is positioned within academic, practitioner and popular discourses, and how it may reinforce, despite itself, the very categories it seeks to dissolve.

For anyone interested in New Age, the intersection between category formation – and the practicalities and politics of challenging them – this episode will be essential listening.

Book Reviews

When we were contacted earlier this year by a couple of publishers asking if we’d be interested in reviewing books, we immediately thought “Yes – but how?” We’re not a journal, and didn’t want to do the traditional journal review, but we do love books, and especially talking about them. So when Chris suggested we could combine several reviews into a roundtable format, we thought we had to give it a try.

For this first try at a new format, we thought it best to invite a few trusty friends. After many attempts, we finally managed to get David Wilson to a recording. He reviewed Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, edited by Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (2012: Equinox). He calls it “a valuable contribution to the task of increasing scholarly awareness of the need to attend to the variety of local practices that are accepted as ‘religious’ but which have tended to be overlooked when investigating religion in terms of ‘world’ religions“. It doesn’t offer easy answers, however, and “like many of the dialogues it explores, this collection is courteously, but deliberately, disruptive“. Read his full review here.

Chris reviewed Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, edited by David Goodhew. The book purports to ‘provide a forceful critique of the notion of secularization’ “by focusing upon the attendance and membership of Christian churches – the very thing which formed the empirical basis of the secularization thesis“. While he has issues with the volume’s theological imperative and uncritical acceptance of the secularisation thesis, Chris pointed out that it demonstrates “the potential for scholarly theories to, in some cases,  become self-fulfilling prophesies when released into the real world“. You can read his full review here.

Jonathan – philosophical as always – asked to review  Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims by R. Scott Smith (Ashgate 2012). He was less than impressed. As an introduction to naturalism, the philosophical position that there are no non-empirical entities, it is unsatisfactory, because it is “a thinly veiled Christian apologetic dressed in a philosophical discussion about naturalism”. His full review can be read here.

Finally, I reviewed Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012). It is essentially an introduction to critical theory (a “socio-functional” approach which seeks to expose the assumptions which a given group takes for granted) as applied to the study of religion, and aimed at an undergraduate level. “Religion” is a powerful tool in the naturalisation of socio-epistemological norms, of course, but the book is most interesting pedagogically, in offering “a potential alternative Introduction to Religious Studies course than the “here are the world religions” approach that concerns many of us”You can read my review here.

This has been enjoyable, but a lot of work. Please let us know if you found it useful and/or entertaining. We’re open to hearing about other books you’d like us to review, or if you’d like to take part in a future recording (for example, at the next BASR conference…). And we are enormously grateful to Ashgate and Equinox for providing us with books to review.

What is the Public Benefit of the Study of Religion?

This year’s BASR annual conference at the University of Winchester included a panel on the ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’. The panel was organised by BASR Hon. Secretary, Bettina Schmidt, and Chair of BSA-SOCREL, Abby Day, representing the two main professional organisations representing the UK’s scholars of religion. The other speakers taking part were Eileen Barker of INFORM, Tim Jensen and Douglas Davies. Given that the Religious Studies Project has a manifesto of disseminating contemporary RS research to the public, we felt that we wanted to talk to scholars about this question. This edited podcast was the result.  

Does the public benefit from the social-scientific study of religion? Should it? How do we demonstrate benefit, measure it, communicate it? What are the practical and theoretical issues surrounding the idea of how the study of religion can operate in the, or perhaps as a, public good? For that matter, what do we mean by ‘public’ or ‘benefit’?

This question relates to our daily practice as researchers when asking for funding or having to present the outcomes of our research. Research Councils ask every applicant to explain the possible impact of a research project and in the coming years we will have to demonstrate as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) the wider impact of our research. But are discussions of this type necessary in order to  understand and perhaps improve the relevance to the public of our research – and discipline – or are we simply looking for justifications to be able to continue research which has little public benefit?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

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. 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.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Albanese, C. L. 1996. “Religion and American Popular Culture: An Introductory Essay.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXIV(4):733–742.
  • Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. 2007. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives. Oxford University Press US.
  • Baird, Robert D. 1971. Category formation and the history of religions. Mouton.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2005. “Ancient Avalon, New Jerusalem, Heart Chakra of Planet Earth: the Local and the Global in Glastonbury.” Numen 52(2):157–190.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2004. “Procession and Possession in Glastonbury: Continuity, Change and the Manipulation of Tradition.” Folklore 115(3):273–285.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2006. “The Holy Thorn Ceremony: Revival, Rivalry and Civil Religion in Glastonbury.” Folklore 117(2):123–140.
  • Bowman, Marion, and Ülo Valk, eds. 2012. Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief. London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub.
  • Hall, David D, ed. 1997. Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  • Jolly, Karen Louise. 1996. Popular religion in late Saxon England: elf charms in context. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Korom, Frank J. 2002. Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Ortner, Sherry B. 2005. “Subjectivity and Cultural Critique.” Anthropological Theory 5(1):31 –52. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Primiano, Leonard Norman. 1995. “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife.” Western Folklore 54(1):37–56.
  • Schmidt, Bettina E. 2006. “The Creation of Afro-Caribbean Religions and their Incorporation of Christian Elements: A Critique against Syncretism.” Transformation (02653788) 23(4):236–243.
  • Swidler, Ann. 1986. “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.” American Sociological Review 51(2):273–286. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Vrijhof, P. H., and Jean Jacques Waardenburg. 1979. Official and Popular Religion: Analysis of a Theme for Religious Studies. Walter de Gruyter.
  • Yoder, Don. 1974. “Toward a Definition of Folk Religion.” Western Folklore 33(1):2–15. Retrieved June 20, 2012.

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. Over the past decades, a number of scholarly terms have been coined for such phenomena – ‘implicit religion’, ‘invisible religion’, ‘everyday religion’ or, the topic of this interview, ‘vernacular religion’. Each does different work, but each fundamentally acknowledges that what real people actually do on the ground, what they believe, what they identify with etc has a fundamentally greater impact upon religion as it exists in the real world than the discourses of theologians, philosophers and academics. 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.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Dr Marion Bowman is Senior Lecturer in the Religious Studies department at the Open University, former president of the BASR and of the Folklore Society, and currently on the executive board of SIEF’s Ethnology of Religion Working Group.

She began her academic career at Glasgow University, but switched to Lancaster University where she came under the influence of Professor Ninian Smart, a revolutionary figure who has acquired almost mythic status in the field of Religious Studies. Her research is concerned with vernacular/ folk/ popular religion – ‘religion as it is lived’ – contemporary religion (especially, New Age/Alternative Spirituality, Paganism, New Religious Movements, Vernacular Christianity) and contemporary Celtic Spirituality in Christianity, Paganism, Druidry, New Age/ Alternative Spirituality and New Religious Movements.

Marion’s Publications include Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief (2012) and Beyond the New Age: Exploring Alternative Spiritualities (2000). You can listen to Marion talking about airport chapels with Norman Winter at the Multi-Faith Spaces conference held at the University of Manchester.

Podcasts

Religion and its Publics (Part 2)

In the last feature of the “semester” we’re continuing with the video format. A couple of months ago the RSP attended the Open University’s conference on Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives. I went about asking the pundits a couple of questions about Religion and its Publics. This week we have the second question (link for Part 1 in the sidebar).  Read more

Studying Vernacular Religion in the US

Vernacular religion is a subject which fascinates us here at the RSP, because in keeping with our critical perspective, it challenges that idea that neat categorical boundaries may be drawn, and reminds us that when attempts are made to draw them, particular interests are being served. David Robertson was given the chance to sit down with Leonard Norman Primiano – one of the pre-eminent scholars of that field – at the BASR 2014 conference in Milton Keynes earlier this month, and we are delighted to bring you the fruits of that meeting today.

The Virgin Mary and Child Jesus with Saints, 1882, Oil on Wood, 13 1/4 x 17 3/4 inchesPrimiano begins by describing how he came to study vernacular religion as a young scholar under Don Yoder, who introduced the ethnographic study of “folk religion” to the US academy. We discuss the relationship between the study of religion and the study of folklore, and he then introduces some of his ongoing research. Particular attention is paid to the case of Father Divine and the Peace Mission movement, an indigenous US communitarian religious movement, now in terminal decline. Of particular interest is Primiano’s emphasis that vernacular religion should not be considered beside mainstream religion; rather, vernacular religion is all religion as it is encountered in the field.

Primiano is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pennsylvania. He has published widely – please click his photo in the right-hand column above for details of his recent publications. He is currently curating Graces Received, an exhibition of painted and metal ex votos from Italy at Cabrini College until October 26th, 2014. It will open at Indiana University’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures in January for the Spring semester.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Authors meet Critics: “New Age Spirituality”

Following from our interview on Monday with Ingvild Gilhus, today’s podcast presents an “authors meet critics” session on the new edited volume by Ingvild Gilhus and Steven Sutcliffe, New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion. This was recorded at the University of Edinburgh at the launch of the book, and features the editors, Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Gilhus, and critics Bettina Schmidt, Marion Bowman and David Robertson, and was ably hosted by Afe Adogame.

Steven Sutcliffe introduces the book, describing the plan to curate a volume which approaches empirical research into “New Age” religiosity through broader “theories of religion”. As Gilhus then suggests, our theoretical positions are impoverished if they don’t address “religion” in both classical and modern contexts.

Marion Bowman takes this up in her response, which addresses the similarity between this project and her own “vernacular religion” project. Bettina Schmidt addresses this disconnect between theories of popular and institutionalised religion from a anthropological point of view, pointing out that many phenomena have been removed from sociological view due to their perceived marginality, and because they don’t offer a clear box to be ticked in censuses. Finally, David Robertson critiques how the critique of “New Age” is positioned within academic, practitioner and popular discourses, and how it may reinforce, despite itself, the very categories it seeks to dissolve.

For anyone interested in New Age, the intersection between category formation – and the practicalities and politics of challenging them – this episode will be essential listening.

Book Reviews

When we were contacted earlier this year by a couple of publishers asking if we’d be interested in reviewing books, we immediately thought “Yes – but how?” We’re not a journal, and didn’t want to do the traditional journal review, but we do love books, and especially talking about them. So when Chris suggested we could combine several reviews into a roundtable format, we thought we had to give it a try.

For this first try at a new format, we thought it best to invite a few trusty friends. After many attempts, we finally managed to get David Wilson to a recording. He reviewed Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, edited by Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (2012: Equinox). He calls it “a valuable contribution to the task of increasing scholarly awareness of the need to attend to the variety of local practices that are accepted as ‘religious’ but which have tended to be overlooked when investigating religion in terms of ‘world’ religions“. It doesn’t offer easy answers, however, and “like many of the dialogues it explores, this collection is courteously, but deliberately, disruptive“. Read his full review here.

Chris reviewed Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, edited by David Goodhew. The book purports to ‘provide a forceful critique of the notion of secularization’ “by focusing upon the attendance and membership of Christian churches – the very thing which formed the empirical basis of the secularization thesis“. While he has issues with the volume’s theological imperative and uncritical acceptance of the secularisation thesis, Chris pointed out that it demonstrates “the potential for scholarly theories to, in some cases,  become self-fulfilling prophesies when released into the real world“. You can read his full review here.

Jonathan – philosophical as always – asked to review  Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims by R. Scott Smith (Ashgate 2012). He was less than impressed. As an introduction to naturalism, the philosophical position that there are no non-empirical entities, it is unsatisfactory, because it is “a thinly veiled Christian apologetic dressed in a philosophical discussion about naturalism”. His full review can be read here.

Finally, I reviewed Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012). It is essentially an introduction to critical theory (a “socio-functional” approach which seeks to expose the assumptions which a given group takes for granted) as applied to the study of religion, and aimed at an undergraduate level. “Religion” is a powerful tool in the naturalisation of socio-epistemological norms, of course, but the book is most interesting pedagogically, in offering “a potential alternative Introduction to Religious Studies course than the “here are the world religions” approach that concerns many of us”You can read my review here.

This has been enjoyable, but a lot of work. Please let us know if you found it useful and/or entertaining. We’re open to hearing about other books you’d like us to review, or if you’d like to take part in a future recording (for example, at the next BASR conference…). And we are enormously grateful to Ashgate and Equinox for providing us with books to review.

What is the Public Benefit of the Study of Religion?

This year’s BASR annual conference at the University of Winchester included a panel on the ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’. The panel was organised by BASR Hon. Secretary, Bettina Schmidt, and Chair of BSA-SOCREL, Abby Day, representing the two main professional organisations representing the UK’s scholars of religion. The other speakers taking part were Eileen Barker of INFORM, Tim Jensen and Douglas Davies. Given that the Religious Studies Project has a manifesto of disseminating contemporary RS research to the public, we felt that we wanted to talk to scholars about this question. This edited podcast was the result.  

Does the public benefit from the social-scientific study of religion? Should it? How do we demonstrate benefit, measure it, communicate it? What are the practical and theoretical issues surrounding the idea of how the study of religion can operate in the, or perhaps as a, public good? For that matter, what do we mean by ‘public’ or ‘benefit’?

This question relates to our daily practice as researchers when asking for funding or having to present the outcomes of our research. Research Councils ask every applicant to explain the possible impact of a research project and in the coming years we will have to demonstrate as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) the wider impact of our research. But are discussions of this type necessary in order to  understand and perhaps improve the relevance to the public of our research – and discipline – or are we simply looking for justifications to be able to continue research which has little public benefit?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

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. 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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References

  • Albanese, C. L. 1996. “Religion and American Popular Culture: An Introductory Essay.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXIV(4):733–742.
  • Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. 2007. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives. Oxford University Press US.
  • Baird, Robert D. 1971. Category formation and the history of religions. Mouton.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2005. “Ancient Avalon, New Jerusalem, Heart Chakra of Planet Earth: the Local and the Global in Glastonbury.” Numen 52(2):157–190.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2004. “Procession and Possession in Glastonbury: Continuity, Change and the Manipulation of Tradition.” Folklore 115(3):273–285.
  • Bowman, Marion. 2006. “The Holy Thorn Ceremony: Revival, Rivalry and Civil Religion in Glastonbury.” Folklore 117(2):123–140.
  • Bowman, Marion, and Ülo Valk, eds. 2012. Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief. London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub.
  • Hall, David D, ed. 1997. Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  • Jolly, Karen Louise. 1996. Popular religion in late Saxon England: elf charms in context. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Korom, Frank J. 2002. Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Ortner, Sherry B. 2005. “Subjectivity and Cultural Critique.” Anthropological Theory 5(1):31 –52. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Primiano, Leonard Norman. 1995. “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife.” Western Folklore 54(1):37–56.
  • Schmidt, Bettina E. 2006. “The Creation of Afro-Caribbean Religions and their Incorporation of Christian Elements: A Critique against Syncretism.” Transformation (02653788) 23(4):236–243.
  • Swidler, Ann. 1986. “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.” American Sociological Review 51(2):273–286. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  • Vrijhof, P. H., and Jean Jacques Waardenburg. 1979. Official and Popular Religion: Analysis of a Theme for Religious Studies. Walter de Gruyter.
  • Yoder, Don. 1974. “Toward a Definition of Folk Religion.” Western Folklore 33(1):2–15. Retrieved June 20, 2012.

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. Over the past decades, a number of scholarly terms have been coined for such phenomena – ‘implicit religion’, ‘invisible religion’, ‘everyday religion’ or, the topic of this interview, ‘vernacular religion’. Each does different work, but each fundamentally acknowledges that what real people actually do on the ground, what they believe, what they identify with etc has a fundamentally greater impact upon religion as it exists in the real world than the discourses of theologians, philosophers and academics. 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.

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Dr Marion Bowman is Senior Lecturer in the Religious Studies department at the Open University, former president of the BASR and of the Folklore Society, and currently on the executive board of SIEF’s Ethnology of Religion Working Group.

She began her academic career at Glasgow University, but switched to Lancaster University where she came under the influence of Professor Ninian Smart, a revolutionary figure who has acquired almost mythic status in the field of Religious Studies. Her research is concerned with vernacular/ folk/ popular religion – ‘religion as it is lived’ – contemporary religion (especially, New Age/Alternative Spirituality, Paganism, New Religious Movements, Vernacular Christianity) and contemporary Celtic Spirituality in Christianity, Paganism, Druidry, New Age/ Alternative Spirituality and New Religious Movements.

Marion’s Publications include Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief (2012) and Beyond the New Age: Exploring Alternative Spiritualities (2000). You can listen to Marion talking about airport chapels with Norman Winter at the Multi-Faith Spaces conference held at the University of Manchester.