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Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Beliefs are not written in stone. They change over time and sometimes we hold contradictory beliefs. Taking beliefs as changing and nuanced rather than fixed reveals the role of narratives and cultural context in shaping beliefs.  In this week’s episode, Sidney Castillo’s conversation with Ülo Valk introduces us to some of the ways in which this process occurs in the form of vernacular religion. Focusing on the personal nature of these changes, Valk sees beliefs as fluid, which problematizes the stability of other categories such as knowledge and truth. Especially when we express beliefs as narratives, we change the way we understand the world. Valk’s research in Mayong, a village in northeast India, shows how beliefs about the use of magic, divination, gods, and mantras, allow for personalized and open-ended cultural traditions ripe for innovation.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

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Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Podcast with Ülo Valk (2 March 2020).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/narrating-belief-vernacular-religion-in-india/

A PDF version is available for download.

Sidney Castillo (SC): And now we are back with a Religious Studies Project Podcast. Now the EASR 2019, in Tartu Estonia, is officially over. But we are still here – because we like to work a lot, and hard! We are still doing podcast interviews. And now I’m happy to have Ülo Valk, from the University of Tartu, here with me in the podcast. Welcome, Professor Valk, to the Religious Studies Project!

Ülo Valk (ÜV): Well, thank you. And welcome to the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore. We are sitting here in this library. And the folkloristics of religion . . . this approach is one that we’re introducing here at the University of Tartu. And perhaps we will talk about this as well: what makes it different from other approaches that we . . . . We have so many examples, so many possible methodologies and conceptual tools that we discussed during the conference.

SC: Exactly. It’s very stimulating to be in a room like this, because we are in an academic ambient context. So we can ask the questions properly . . . . But first I would like to do a brief introduction for Professor Valk. Dr Ülo Valk is Professor of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu. His publications include The Black Gentleman: Manifestations of the Devil in Estonian Folk Religion and two edited volumes: Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life and Storied and Supernatural Places. His recent research has focussed on belief narratives, place lore, folklore in social contexts and vernacular Hinduism. So I will just dive in with the questions. And I would like to ask this question to try to situate our Listeners, a little bit. How can we understand folk religion and its relationship with the supernatural?

ÜV: Well you used the concept of folk religion and perhaps that’s where we’ll start. It used to be a traditional way of talking about folk beliefs as a kind of survival. Folk religion appeared as a kind-of set of old beliefs and practices that was in opposition to the institutionalised religion, like Christianity. And that’s definitely not the way we understand it today. And the shift has been away actually from folk religion as some kind of topic or some kind of system of belief, thoughts, methodologies, theory and approaches. Folk religion offers one way to view religious phenomena as cultural phenomena. And if we talk about folk religion we talk more about the community; what is shared between the people. And it includes shared forms of expressions that we call genres. But then there is another approach, and that’s what we call vernacular religion. It is seeing religion through this lens of vernacularity. And this concept was introduced by Leonard Primiano, an American folklorist. And folklorists have been talking about vernacular culture in many connections, you can take (audio unclear) or Richard Bauman. But what makes the vernacular approach different from studying folk religion is that it’s more focussed on individuality, on subject and on creativity. Well folk, as you can understand it, talks about a group of people and something that is shared. But vernacularity is more about . . . it shows the dynamics of religion on an individual level. And it also includes this ambiguous relationship with institutionalised forms and with power – with authority. So the two are not synonyms.

SC: Oh. That’s very good to know.

ÜV: That something that’s a common mistake. I know my colleague, Leonard Primiano, he’s often quite disappointed when he see that his concept of vernacular religion has been used just to replace the old-fashioned word – the word folk. Both of them are useful, but it’s good to see them as two closely connected but still different approaches. Now to the question of the supernatural – and of course we know, originally, it’s a kind-of theological or philosophical term. And there is also a discussion that perhaps we should not use it at all, because it’s a kind-of Western concept. And there are so many cultures in the world that don’t use this. It’s kind-of intellectual colonialism, or something like this. But when you look at the situation, well, in European . . . in many countries, the term has been turned into a vernacular concept (5:00). It has become an emic term, with a huge field of meanings. And I find these concepts quite helpful. Sometimes words, if they become very technical, very narrow terms, they are not so useful to make sense of phenomena like religion, or culture. Because the semantic field is so broad. But as people who work from this perspective, a folkloristic study of religion, we mainly work with textual material. So our focus is connected to discourse, to verbal expressions, different kinds of genres. And we see, also, the supernatural as a function, as an expressive mode of certain genres. And this is related to the enchantment of the world. We see that the world is composed of many different outlooks, possibilities to understand this, and then these are connected to the modes of expression. And in folklore we talk a lot about genres. These genres are connected with tradition and they offer different perspectives, different outlooks on the world. And that’s a kind-of Bakhtinian approach Bakhtin spoke about the speech genres. So that’s very close to what we are doing.

SC: That’s a very good start to help make a differentiation between concepts. Because oftentimes, as you say, they are either used as synonyms or overlap one with the other. So now that we got that clear, in your presentation at the EASR you touched one of those topics that was the difference between truth and belief. So now I would like to ask: truth and belief are categories constantly in dispute in the study of religion. How can we develop a useful approach to study them?

ÜV: Yes, well that’s a big question. We know that in Western epistemology – how knowledge is generally defined around Estonia it is justified through belief. So the question is how the justification works, or what makes some arguments valid and the others not valid. But exactly I think that these two concepts are not enough. It’s much better to have more words. Like one of the keynote lectures that was given by Lotta Tarkka, Professor of Folklore Studies from Helsinki, spoke a lot about imagination. And now we have truth, belief, imagination and definitely knowledge. And to refer to the work of one philosopher, Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who has written about how knowledge is produced in the sciences. And he has shown that what makes scientific knowledge different is not so much its content, if compared with everyday knowledge, but its systematicity. Scientific knowledge is systematic. But what you can call vernacular knowledge is connected to belief and truth. It is more disordered, more loose. It is open, it is also systematically open. And of course it’s connected with different forms of expression. As scientists, or scholars of religion, we are used to giving lectures, or we write articles, or we write monographs. And there are certain rules for those genres. But if I talk with you, just person-to-person, and I would like to share with you, for example, some loose narratives from Tartu, or some people who have had some trouble with aliens or UFOs, it would be another very informal form of communication and form of genre. And it’s interesting how these arguments of belief are made in these genres. They’re different from the scientific argumentation that is systematic, that relates to the previous . . . – or it should at least – and connected to the quantitative approach, very often. But, for example, if I have to convince you that the neighbouring house – the Restaurant Verner, the Café Verner – it’s a very haunted house (10:00). Well, my daughter used to work there as a waitress years ago. And she told me there was this tradition of story-telling, among the young waitresses, that the house was haunted: that they heard some footsteps, and some lights, and it was a bit scary to be the last person in the building. And it was very interesting to for me to see this incipient tradition like this: how young people work together in an old house, and how this tradition is emerging, and how to conceptualise this. Is it . . . well, it’s a belief, a narrative. Because, of course, we have a lot of questions and in our rational world. We are generally sceptical, but this all belongs to this genre that we call memorates or legends, also expressing doubt and disbelief and expressing disagreements. So I think the concept of a belief is useful, because it doesn’t fix the meaning. It expresses a kind of modality towards the ways of how we see the world, how we discuss it. And truth, of course, it’s a big word. And it’s not very common to talk about this in vernacular . . . in oral communication. It’s more a question about the goal of scholarship and it’s also a religious concept, because all religions are somehow . . . they’re truth, or they’re connected with this.

SC: Through institutions sometimes. I think, having looked at all of these concepts, we will dive more into your research. And this is the next question I want to orientate towards your EASR presentation. You presented data on “The Mayong of North India: an everyday understanding of supernatural practices”. How does this case give insight on the different ways people relate to the different facts of experience?

ÜV: Well I have been visiting some places in North east India, in Assam, for many years. And one of them is this famous cluster of villages known as Mayong. It’s famous for magical knowledge, magical practices, tantra-mantra. And I have discovered there are many bejes, magicians. There are perhaps around one hundred, or nearly one hundred semi-professional, professional magicians who specialise in snake bites, who are dealing with exorcism, or who is more skilled in divination, etc. And there is also a very lively story-telling tradition among them and about these bejes. A lot of stories are projected into the past. They talk for example about human-animal transformations. The tigers – who were very active in this region – now there is no jungle, very little jungle is left, the tigers are gone. And there were these classical stories about magical flights and fights between the bejes, the magicians: magical fights, and also murders by black magical kind-of tricks that were made with the visitors. And it’s interesting to see how the story world, how it functions, how it empowers also the magical practices. It somehow builds up this aura of the place, this knowledge of a place as a special place. Otherwise it would have been just an ordinary Assamese village. There is nothing there that makes it unique or distinct. But this shows how common story-telling, how it works to enchant a place and also authorise . . . to give power to the people who practice and carry on the traditions there.

SC: Yes. And speaking about this re-enchantment, you spoke about this as well. And there are mechanisms of enchantment, like in the case of this village. Could you speak a little more about that?

ÜV: Well, in this village, what has been quite surprising for me is to see how lively the tradition of the mantras is. It in two ways: there are magical manuscripts and often they are kept in the families and they give also a kind of authority to the bejes. They don’t always use them to recite them, but it’s a source of magical power. On the other hand, sometimes they are considered dangerous. So to continue the tradition they are burned on the pyre (15:00). Or they are thrown into a river. Because there is this idea that the mantras are connected with certain deities, goddesses, and they need worship, they need sacrifice, for example. If you don’t do this, then they turn against you. So there are many scripts, certain traditions connected to them. But there is a lot of knowledge that is transmitted orally. And many mantras are born today, discovered. How the bejes they can revive a tradition, or start reading a manuscript, the mantra, that has been totally forgotten. They say they don’t understand the language. It’s not Sanskrit, it’s not Hindi. But then they start the reading somehow, and it starts to work. So there’s this possibility that tradition can be revived. Also the tradition that is there in the past. For example, the story-world or the knowledge about human-animal transformations. People carry this on. And there is also a belief that it has not gone. It is possible to make it alive again, if necessary. So, again, we see this relationship between practices, and story-world, and belief, and the sense of a place that keeps attracting hundreds and thousands of people who consult them. They come from far away, from big cities. Also educated people, of course, and politicians. There were elections in India recently. So to use this magical knowledge to support running for the parliament is not uncommon. Maybe it’s not so public. So this difference between public and private cultures is also there in India.

SC: Sure. One of the things that I remember from your presentation is also the position you take on vernacular religion (audio unclear). And you have many like vignettes of different magicians describing the process of how to proceed with a particular ritual, or how to make the enchanting of a charm, or to achieve this human transformation into the tiger. It was very, very interesting in the sense that you were focussing on them. Can you speak a little bit more about those cases?

ÜV: Well now, that’s this vernacular dimension of religion. That we are not working with some old, old stuff with some old, old stories. We’re just working with people. And the people have the life stories, they have characters, they have specialisations. And I have been working with a few bejes – most of them are men – whose life stories are quite different, whose status in the village is different. Some of them have been very poor and some more well-to-do. Most of them belong to the Neo-Vaishnava tradition. That’s also an interesting contradiction. Because in Neo-Vaishnava tradition, you’re not supposed to worship the goddess, or to be involved in tantric rites. It’s more a Bhakti movement, about Krishna, and certain forms of public worship. But how the same people can be carriers of alternative different traditions, and how they shift . . . . I will not say it’s shifting between individual identities, but it’s shifting between different forms of knowledge, or different forms of religious culture. So some of them have been raising assistant spirits, for example, working with them. There is a lively story-telling tradition about how their mothers have never, never tried this. But of course there are other magicians who use the help of assistant spirits. And there are local Assamese and there are local Bengali people who come in who carry a different kind of magical tradition. So, to look at this diversity, and to see it on the individual level, it’s very, very interesting. And here is the space, or this dimension in religion, that I think we need to work more with these ethnographic methods. And I know that you are an anthropologist, you are a fieldworker, and I think that’s what makes our work really fascinating.

SC: Definitely. To see the outlook of people as it is on its own terms, I think there’s a lot of value for scholarship in that. I think I’m going to move to the last question that we have here (20:00). It’s kind-of to understand this dimension of . . . more nuanced, having, not contradiction, but it’s just things that cohabit in the same place, at the same time. How is this liminal epistemological uncertainty useful to comprehend religious phenomena? Because you spoke about this . . . .

ÜV: Yes, well there are these two concepts. What I mean by epistemological uncertainty is that things are not fixed in story-telling. Also the belief narrative, it’s quite flexible, an open concept. There is a discussion about the supernatural, what is possible, what is not. Often things are projected into the past. And, well, there is this question that is how to relate to the stories, to take it seriously or not? And that’s one of the basic questions in cognition. It’s about the decision-making between fact and fictionality – what is true and what is not. And, of course, there are a lot of humorous modalities and not all belief narratives are taken seriously, even when they’re transmitted. But in another situation they might start to work to influence the behaviours, the practices of people. And now the concept of liminality – of course, we know it has been taken over from the ritual studies, and it has been applied in so many ways. We can also talk about the liminality between the story-world and the social reality: how experience is turned into a story and how the things that we know from the shared stories can be perceived, or they can become a psychological reality for some people who carry the tradition. It’s a kind of liminal world. Or we can talk about temporal liminality between the past – well, in the case of Mayong, the time of great magicians. And today, the magic is reduced, but the contemporary magicians they are like mediators. They can retrieve this knowledge from the past. And the status is also kind-of liminal. Because they know something that is secret. But they bring it to work in a social world. So these areas where things meet, and then mix, and interact, I think these are very, very interesting. A lot of work can be done there.

SC: Yes. Definitely. I remember that you mentioned about how even they themselves were figuring out if something could be effective. “Maybe, maybe not.”

ÜV: Yes.

SC: I think that there is some usefulness in trying address, vernacularly, what people think in everyday life and to understand. Do you have any comment on that? About this “maybe, maybe not?” How we can understand what the usefulness for the study of religion is in general?

ÜV: So that’s also a question about the epistemology, what we can do, and as scholars of course it’s a big question that we ask: how to see the boundaries between the world of fiction, and the world of facts, and the reality. But also people who carry these beliefs and ideas, they have similar kind of reflections. We can talk about vernacular theorising. And things are very much left open, so you can make different decisions, and see the world differently. And so I think it is also useful sometimes to see how people actually talk and discuss. Very often, they are aware of different frames of interpretation. And seeing how flexible it is in vernacular discussions, it’s also maybe inspiring for scholarship.

SC: So it has been very, very interesting to have this conversation with you, Professor Valk. I wonder if you have any concluding remarks or ideas for us, for closing the podcast.

ÜV: Well, you represent anthropology of religion, and I tried to explain the perspective of folkloristics of religion. I think what makes our approaches interesting is that there is never a final conclusion, because also the sources that we’re making, they’re not ready. They’re always in the making. We keep working with people and these vernacular ideas and the practices, they always go ahead (25:00). They go beyond. And we need to catch them to understand, to make sense. And that’s . . . also it means being on the way, all the time. Being on the move. And thinking about what kind of concepts we need. And if they’re becoming very technical, too narrow, they won’t be so helpful. So we work always in a dialogue with other people who don’t carry this academic burden of academic terminology, and very scientific methodologies. And I think it’s always wonderful to learn from them.

SC: Excellent. I think that’s a good way to wrap up the podcast. We thank you again, Professor Valk, for being with us here at the Religious Studies Project. And we hope to have you again, soon.

ÜV: Thank you for giving me this chance, and I hope to meet you soon at the next conferences.

SC: Perfect.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Nature alive: Amazonian religion in Peru

book cover ReganThe Amazon rainforest has always been a land filled with mystery since its ‘discovery’. Ranging from the first expedition of the conquistador Francisco de Orellana, to the establishment of Jesuit missions across the Marañon river, and the naturalistic explorations of Humboldt and la Condamine, it still feels as if it has more to be known.

This was also the case for the earliest ‘ethnographic’ records of Gaspar de Carvajal and Francisco de Figueroa . As was often the case with Spanish chroniclers, they ‘misunderstood’ the ‘indigenous’ way of thinking, in some cases even labeling them as atheists (Regan: 2015). In time, this would change, in part because of the continuing social interaction (between missionaries, laymen, other indigenous groups, and so on) but also in more recent times, because of the ethnographic research undertaken by many different anthropologists. This has enabled a more comprehensive knowledge about the beliefs and way of life of the Amazonian indigenous people. In this podcast, Dr Jaime Regan Mainville, a leading researcher in the anthropology of religion and linguistics, discusses his ethnographic research among some of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin; namely the kukama, the awajún, and the wampís, among others.

Regan argues that one particular characteristic of Amazonian  belief is highlighted above the rest: close links with the environment. Amazonian identity and belief systems are articulated into what Philippe Descola and other anthropologists have regarded as animism (Regan: 2015). Of course, these beliefs haven’t remained ‘untouched’ or ‘pure’, but have been particularly influenced by encounters with Jesuits and Franciscans during the sixteenth century. The interview continues to focus upon some of the impacts of this these encounters upon existing belief systems, practices and cosmologies (cf. Regan: 2001).

remate-libro-a-la-sombra-de-los-cerros-las-raices-513001-MPE20264898860_032015-F (1)In the final part of the interview Regan states that the indigenous way of life has drastically changed, because of the Peruvian state’s oil exploration policy s, combined with illegal mining and logging. For example, in the case of oil exploration, in June 2009 the “Baguazo” or Bagua conflict took place in part due to failed attempts at consultation and negotiation between with indigenous leaders of the Amazon region (mostly awajún and wampís) and the Peruvian state: Regan traces this to a conflict of worldviews (Regan: 2010).

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Andean Religion in Peru, Vernacular Religion, and the category of “indigenous religion”. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, stuffed animals, gobstoppers, and more..

References

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.

Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism

What would you think if I told you I had just come back from a holiday in Aya Napa? How about Santiago de Compostella or Glastonbury? How about Mecca? When does travel become pilgrimage, and what are the spiritual factors behind our holiday choices? In this week’s interview, Alex Norman and David Robertson discuss the history and modern relevance of journeys undertaken for spiritual benefit and transformation.

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, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Alex Norman lectures at the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he completed his doctorate in 2010. His central research interests revolve around the confluence of travel practices and religious practices. His book Spiritual Tourism (Continuum 2011) examines the intersection of travel and secular spiritual practice by contemporary Westerners. His other main research interest is in new religious movements, and in 2012 he co-edited the Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill 2012) with Carole M. Cusack. From 2010 to 2013 Alex was co-editor of Literature & Aesthetics, culminating in a special issue examining travel and literature published in 2012. His latest research project looks at the various ways in which travel events and traditions have impacted the formation of new religious movements.

Astrology

If statistics are to be believed, close to 100% of people in the UK know their astrological sun-sign. But what is astrology, exactly? Is it merely a “survival” from the medieval worldview, and what is its relationship to modernity and scientific thought? Most pertinently, does it have something profound to tell us about the nature of popular belief, or vernacular religion? Nicholas Campion tells David why it does in this fascinating interview.

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.

Nicholas Campion is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Anthropology, and Director of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture. His research interests include the nature of belief, the history and contemporary culture of astrology and astronomy, magic, pagan and New Age beliefs and practices, millenarian and apocalyptic ideas, and the sociology of new religious movements. This calls for a multi-disciplinary approach and, before joining Lampeter University in 2007, he was, in turn, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religions and Senior Lecturer in History at Bath Spa University. He is a member of the international executive committee of the conferences on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena (INSAP), is editor of Culture and Cosmos, a Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy and is in the editorial boards of Correlation, the Journal of Research in Astrology and Archaeoastronomy, the Journal of Astronomy in Culture. His most recent publications include Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions (New York University Press, 2012), Astrology and Popular Religion: Prophecy, Cosmology and the New Age Movement (Ashgate 2012), and the two-volume History of Western Astrology (Continuum 2009).

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.

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Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Beliefs are not written in stone. They change over time and sometimes we hold contradictory beliefs. Taking beliefs as changing and nuanced rather than fixed reveals the role of narratives and cultural context in shaping beliefs.  In this week’s episode, Sidney Castillo’s conversation with Ülo Valk introduces us to some of the ways in which this process occurs in the form of vernacular religion. Focusing on the personal nature of these changes, Valk sees beliefs as fluid, which problematizes the stability of other categories such as knowledge and truth. Especially when we express beliefs as narratives, we change the way we understand the world. Valk’s research in Mayong, a village in northeast India, shows how beliefs about the use of magic, divination, gods, and mantras, allow for personalized and open-ended cultural traditions ripe for innovation.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Podcast with Ülo Valk (2 March 2020).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/narrating-belief-vernacular-religion-in-india/

A PDF version is available for download.

Sidney Castillo (SC): And now we are back with a Religious Studies Project Podcast. Now the EASR 2019, in Tartu Estonia, is officially over. But we are still here – because we like to work a lot, and hard! We are still doing podcast interviews. And now I’m happy to have Ülo Valk, from the University of Tartu, here with me in the podcast. Welcome, Professor Valk, to the Religious Studies Project!

Ülo Valk (ÜV): Well, thank you. And welcome to the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore. We are sitting here in this library. And the folkloristics of religion . . . this approach is one that we’re introducing here at the University of Tartu. And perhaps we will talk about this as well: what makes it different from other approaches that we . . . . We have so many examples, so many possible methodologies and conceptual tools that we discussed during the conference.

SC: Exactly. It’s very stimulating to be in a room like this, because we are in an academic ambient context. So we can ask the questions properly . . . . But first I would like to do a brief introduction for Professor Valk. Dr Ülo Valk is Professor of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu. His publications include The Black Gentleman: Manifestations of the Devil in Estonian Folk Religion and two edited volumes: Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life and Storied and Supernatural Places. His recent research has focussed on belief narratives, place lore, folklore in social contexts and vernacular Hinduism. So I will just dive in with the questions. And I would like to ask this question to try to situate our Listeners, a little bit. How can we understand folk religion and its relationship with the supernatural?

ÜV: Well you used the concept of folk religion and perhaps that’s where we’ll start. It used to be a traditional way of talking about folk beliefs as a kind of survival. Folk religion appeared as a kind-of set of old beliefs and practices that was in opposition to the institutionalised religion, like Christianity. And that’s definitely not the way we understand it today. And the shift has been away actually from folk religion as some kind of topic or some kind of system of belief, thoughts, methodologies, theory and approaches. Folk religion offers one way to view religious phenomena as cultural phenomena. And if we talk about folk religion we talk more about the community; what is shared between the people. And it includes shared forms of expressions that we call genres. But then there is another approach, and that’s what we call vernacular religion. It is seeing religion through this lens of vernacularity. And this concept was introduced by Leonard Primiano, an American folklorist. And folklorists have been talking about vernacular culture in many connections, you can take (audio unclear) or Richard Bauman. But what makes the vernacular approach different from studying folk religion is that it’s more focussed on individuality, on subject and on creativity. Well folk, as you can understand it, talks about a group of people and something that is shared. But vernacularity is more about . . . it shows the dynamics of religion on an individual level. And it also includes this ambiguous relationship with institutionalised forms and with power – with authority. So the two are not synonyms.

SC: Oh. That’s very good to know.

ÜV: That something that’s a common mistake. I know my colleague, Leonard Primiano, he’s often quite disappointed when he see that his concept of vernacular religion has been used just to replace the old-fashioned word – the word folk. Both of them are useful, but it’s good to see them as two closely connected but still different approaches. Now to the question of the supernatural – and of course we know, originally, it’s a kind-of theological or philosophical term. And there is also a discussion that perhaps we should not use it at all, because it’s a kind-of Western concept. And there are so many cultures in the world that don’t use this. It’s kind-of intellectual colonialism, or something like this. But when you look at the situation, well, in European . . . in many countries, the term has been turned into a vernacular concept (5:00). It has become an emic term, with a huge field of meanings. And I find these concepts quite helpful. Sometimes words, if they become very technical, very narrow terms, they are not so useful to make sense of phenomena like religion, or culture. Because the semantic field is so broad. But as people who work from this perspective, a folkloristic study of religion, we mainly work with textual material. So our focus is connected to discourse, to verbal expressions, different kinds of genres. And we see, also, the supernatural as a function, as an expressive mode of certain genres. And this is related to the enchantment of the world. We see that the world is composed of many different outlooks, possibilities to understand this, and then these are connected to the modes of expression. And in folklore we talk a lot about genres. These genres are connected with tradition and they offer different perspectives, different outlooks on the world. And that’s a kind-of Bakhtinian approach Bakhtin spoke about the speech genres. So that’s very close to what we are doing.

SC: That’s a very good start to help make a differentiation between concepts. Because oftentimes, as you say, they are either used as synonyms or overlap one with the other. So now that we got that clear, in your presentation at the EASR you touched one of those topics that was the difference between truth and belief. So now I would like to ask: truth and belief are categories constantly in dispute in the study of religion. How can we develop a useful approach to study them?

ÜV: Yes, well that’s a big question. We know that in Western epistemology – how knowledge is generally defined around Estonia it is justified through belief. So the question is how the justification works, or what makes some arguments valid and the others not valid. But exactly I think that these two concepts are not enough. It’s much better to have more words. Like one of the keynote lectures that was given by Lotta Tarkka, Professor of Folklore Studies from Helsinki, spoke a lot about imagination. And now we have truth, belief, imagination and definitely knowledge. And to refer to the work of one philosopher, Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who has written about how knowledge is produced in the sciences. And he has shown that what makes scientific knowledge different is not so much its content, if compared with everyday knowledge, but its systematicity. Scientific knowledge is systematic. But what you can call vernacular knowledge is connected to belief and truth. It is more disordered, more loose. It is open, it is also systematically open. And of course it’s connected with different forms of expression. As scientists, or scholars of religion, we are used to giving lectures, or we write articles, or we write monographs. And there are certain rules for those genres. But if I talk with you, just person-to-person, and I would like to share with you, for example, some loose narratives from Tartu, or some people who have had some trouble with aliens or UFOs, it would be another very informal form of communication and form of genre. And it’s interesting how these arguments of belief are made in these genres. They’re different from the scientific argumentation that is systematic, that relates to the previous . . . – or it should at least – and connected to the quantitative approach, very often. But, for example, if I have to convince you that the neighbouring house – the Restaurant Verner, the Café Verner – it’s a very haunted house (10:00). Well, my daughter used to work there as a waitress years ago. And she told me there was this tradition of story-telling, among the young waitresses, that the house was haunted: that they heard some footsteps, and some lights, and it was a bit scary to be the last person in the building. And it was very interesting to for me to see this incipient tradition like this: how young people work together in an old house, and how this tradition is emerging, and how to conceptualise this. Is it . . . well, it’s a belief, a narrative. Because, of course, we have a lot of questions and in our rational world. We are generally sceptical, but this all belongs to this genre that we call memorates or legends, also expressing doubt and disbelief and expressing disagreements. So I think the concept of a belief is useful, because it doesn’t fix the meaning. It expresses a kind of modality towards the ways of how we see the world, how we discuss it. And truth, of course, it’s a big word. And it’s not very common to talk about this in vernacular . . . in oral communication. It’s more a question about the goal of scholarship and it’s also a religious concept, because all religions are somehow . . . they’re truth, or they’re connected with this.

SC: Through institutions sometimes. I think, having looked at all of these concepts, we will dive more into your research. And this is the next question I want to orientate towards your EASR presentation. You presented data on “The Mayong of North India: an everyday understanding of supernatural practices”. How does this case give insight on the different ways people relate to the different facts of experience?

ÜV: Well I have been visiting some places in North east India, in Assam, for many years. And one of them is this famous cluster of villages known as Mayong. It’s famous for magical knowledge, magical practices, tantra-mantra. And I have discovered there are many bejes, magicians. There are perhaps around one hundred, or nearly one hundred semi-professional, professional magicians who specialise in snake bites, who are dealing with exorcism, or who is more skilled in divination, etc. And there is also a very lively story-telling tradition among them and about these bejes. A lot of stories are projected into the past. They talk for example about human-animal transformations. The tigers – who were very active in this region – now there is no jungle, very little jungle is left, the tigers are gone. And there were these classical stories about magical flights and fights between the bejes, the magicians: magical fights, and also murders by black magical kind-of tricks that were made with the visitors. And it’s interesting to see how the story world, how it functions, how it empowers also the magical practices. It somehow builds up this aura of the place, this knowledge of a place as a special place. Otherwise it would have been just an ordinary Assamese village. There is nothing there that makes it unique or distinct. But this shows how common story-telling, how it works to enchant a place and also authorise . . . to give power to the people who practice and carry on the traditions there.

SC: Yes. And speaking about this re-enchantment, you spoke about this as well. And there are mechanisms of enchantment, like in the case of this village. Could you speak a little more about that?

ÜV: Well, in this village, what has been quite surprising for me is to see how lively the tradition of the mantras is. It in two ways: there are magical manuscripts and often they are kept in the families and they give also a kind of authority to the bejes. They don’t always use them to recite them, but it’s a source of magical power. On the other hand, sometimes they are considered dangerous. So to continue the tradition they are burned on the pyre (15:00). Or they are thrown into a river. Because there is this idea that the mantras are connected with certain deities, goddesses, and they need worship, they need sacrifice, for example. If you don’t do this, then they turn against you. So there are many scripts, certain traditions connected to them. But there is a lot of knowledge that is transmitted orally. And many mantras are born today, discovered. How the bejes they can revive a tradition, or start reading a manuscript, the mantra, that has been totally forgotten. They say they don’t understand the language. It’s not Sanskrit, it’s not Hindi. But then they start the reading somehow, and it starts to work. So there’s this possibility that tradition can be revived. Also the tradition that is there in the past. For example, the story-world or the knowledge about human-animal transformations. People carry this on. And there is also a belief that it has not gone. It is possible to make it alive again, if necessary. So, again, we see this relationship between practices, and story-world, and belief, and the sense of a place that keeps attracting hundreds and thousands of people who consult them. They come from far away, from big cities. Also educated people, of course, and politicians. There were elections in India recently. So to use this magical knowledge to support running for the parliament is not uncommon. Maybe it’s not so public. So this difference between public and private cultures is also there in India.

SC: Sure. One of the things that I remember from your presentation is also the position you take on vernacular religion (audio unclear). And you have many like vignettes of different magicians describing the process of how to proceed with a particular ritual, or how to make the enchanting of a charm, or to achieve this human transformation into the tiger. It was very, very interesting in the sense that you were focussing on them. Can you speak a little bit more about those cases?

ÜV: Well now, that’s this vernacular dimension of religion. That we are not working with some old, old stuff with some old, old stories. We’re just working with people. And the people have the life stories, they have characters, they have specialisations. And I have been working with a few bejes – most of them are men – whose life stories are quite different, whose status in the village is different. Some of them have been very poor and some more well-to-do. Most of them belong to the Neo-Vaishnava tradition. That’s also an interesting contradiction. Because in Neo-Vaishnava tradition, you’re not supposed to worship the goddess, or to be involved in tantric rites. It’s more a Bhakti movement, about Krishna, and certain forms of public worship. But how the same people can be carriers of alternative different traditions, and how they shift . . . . I will not say it’s shifting between individual identities, but it’s shifting between different forms of knowledge, or different forms of religious culture. So some of them have been raising assistant spirits, for example, working with them. There is a lively story-telling tradition about how their mothers have never, never tried this. But of course there are other magicians who use the help of assistant spirits. And there are local Assamese and there are local Bengali people who come in who carry a different kind of magical tradition. So, to look at this diversity, and to see it on the individual level, it’s very, very interesting. And here is the space, or this dimension in religion, that I think we need to work more with these ethnographic methods. And I know that you are an anthropologist, you are a fieldworker, and I think that’s what makes our work really fascinating.

SC: Definitely. To see the outlook of people as it is on its own terms, I think there’s a lot of value for scholarship in that. I think I’m going to move to the last question that we have here (20:00). It’s kind-of to understand this dimension of . . . more nuanced, having, not contradiction, but it’s just things that cohabit in the same place, at the same time. How is this liminal epistemological uncertainty useful to comprehend religious phenomena? Because you spoke about this . . . .

ÜV: Yes, well there are these two concepts. What I mean by epistemological uncertainty is that things are not fixed in story-telling. Also the belief narrative, it’s quite flexible, an open concept. There is a discussion about the supernatural, what is possible, what is not. Often things are projected into the past. And, well, there is this question that is how to relate to the stories, to take it seriously or not? And that’s one of the basic questions in cognition. It’s about the decision-making between fact and fictionality – what is true and what is not. And, of course, there are a lot of humorous modalities and not all belief narratives are taken seriously, even when they’re transmitted. But in another situation they might start to work to influence the behaviours, the practices of people. And now the concept of liminality – of course, we know it has been taken over from the ritual studies, and it has been applied in so many ways. We can also talk about the liminality between the story-world and the social reality: how experience is turned into a story and how the things that we know from the shared stories can be perceived, or they can become a psychological reality for some people who carry the tradition. It’s a kind of liminal world. Or we can talk about temporal liminality between the past – well, in the case of Mayong, the time of great magicians. And today, the magic is reduced, but the contemporary magicians they are like mediators. They can retrieve this knowledge from the past. And the status is also kind-of liminal. Because they know something that is secret. But they bring it to work in a social world. So these areas where things meet, and then mix, and interact, I think these are very, very interesting. A lot of work can be done there.

SC: Yes. Definitely. I remember that you mentioned about how even they themselves were figuring out if something could be effective. “Maybe, maybe not.”

ÜV: Yes.

SC: I think that there is some usefulness in trying address, vernacularly, what people think in everyday life and to understand. Do you have any comment on that? About this “maybe, maybe not?” How we can understand what the usefulness for the study of religion is in general?

ÜV: So that’s also a question about the epistemology, what we can do, and as scholars of course it’s a big question that we ask: how to see the boundaries between the world of fiction, and the world of facts, and the reality. But also people who carry these beliefs and ideas, they have similar kind of reflections. We can talk about vernacular theorising. And things are very much left open, so you can make different decisions, and see the world differently. And so I think it is also useful sometimes to see how people actually talk and discuss. Very often, they are aware of different frames of interpretation. And seeing how flexible it is in vernacular discussions, it’s also maybe inspiring for scholarship.

SC: So it has been very, very interesting to have this conversation with you, Professor Valk. I wonder if you have any concluding remarks or ideas for us, for closing the podcast.

ÜV: Well, you represent anthropology of religion, and I tried to explain the perspective of folkloristics of religion. I think what makes our approaches interesting is that there is never a final conclusion, because also the sources that we’re making, they’re not ready. They’re always in the making. We keep working with people and these vernacular ideas and the practices, they always go ahead (25:00). They go beyond. And we need to catch them to understand, to make sense. And that’s . . . also it means being on the way, all the time. Being on the move. And thinking about what kind of concepts we need. And if they’re becoming very technical, too narrow, they won’t be so helpful. So we work always in a dialogue with other people who don’t carry this academic burden of academic terminology, and very scientific methodologies. And I think it’s always wonderful to learn from them.

SC: Excellent. I think that’s a good way to wrap up the podcast. We thank you again, Professor Valk, for being with us here at the Religious Studies Project. And we hope to have you again, soon.

ÜV: Thank you for giving me this chance, and I hope to meet you soon at the next conferences.

SC: Perfect.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Nature alive: Amazonian religion in Peru

book cover ReganThe Amazon rainforest has always been a land filled with mystery since its ‘discovery’. Ranging from the first expedition of the conquistador Francisco de Orellana, to the establishment of Jesuit missions across the Marañon river, and the naturalistic explorations of Humboldt and la Condamine, it still feels as if it has more to be known.

This was also the case for the earliest ‘ethnographic’ records of Gaspar de Carvajal and Francisco de Figueroa . As was often the case with Spanish chroniclers, they ‘misunderstood’ the ‘indigenous’ way of thinking, in some cases even labeling them as atheists (Regan: 2015). In time, this would change, in part because of the continuing social interaction (between missionaries, laymen, other indigenous groups, and so on) but also in more recent times, because of the ethnographic research undertaken by many different anthropologists. This has enabled a more comprehensive knowledge about the beliefs and way of life of the Amazonian indigenous people. In this podcast, Dr Jaime Regan Mainville, a leading researcher in the anthropology of religion and linguistics, discusses his ethnographic research among some of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin; namely the kukama, the awajún, and the wampís, among others.

Regan argues that one particular characteristic of Amazonian  belief is highlighted above the rest: close links with the environment. Amazonian identity and belief systems are articulated into what Philippe Descola and other anthropologists have regarded as animism (Regan: 2015). Of course, these beliefs haven’t remained ‘untouched’ or ‘pure’, but have been particularly influenced by encounters with Jesuits and Franciscans during the sixteenth century. The interview continues to focus upon some of the impacts of this these encounters upon existing belief systems, practices and cosmologies (cf. Regan: 2001).

remate-libro-a-la-sombra-de-los-cerros-las-raices-513001-MPE20264898860_032015-F (1)In the final part of the interview Regan states that the indigenous way of life has drastically changed, because of the Peruvian state’s oil exploration policy s, combined with illegal mining and logging. For example, in the case of oil exploration, in June 2009 the “Baguazo” or Bagua conflict took place in part due to failed attempts at consultation and negotiation between with indigenous leaders of the Amazon region (mostly awajún and wampís) and the Peruvian state: Regan traces this to a conflict of worldviews (Regan: 2010).

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Andean Religion in Peru, Vernacular Religion, and the category of “indigenous religion”. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, stuffed animals, gobstoppers, and more..

References

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.

Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism

What would you think if I told you I had just come back from a holiday in Aya Napa? How about Santiago de Compostella or Glastonbury? How about Mecca? When does travel become pilgrimage, and what are the spiritual factors behind our holiday choices? In this week’s interview, Alex Norman and David Robertson discuss the history and modern relevance of journeys undertaken for spiritual benefit and transformation.

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, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Alex Norman lectures at the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he completed his doctorate in 2010. His central research interests revolve around the confluence of travel practices and religious practices. His book Spiritual Tourism (Continuum 2011) examines the intersection of travel and secular spiritual practice by contemporary Westerners. His other main research interest is in new religious movements, and in 2012 he co-edited the Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill 2012) with Carole M. Cusack. From 2010 to 2013 Alex was co-editor of Literature & Aesthetics, culminating in a special issue examining travel and literature published in 2012. His latest research project looks at the various ways in which travel events and traditions have impacted the formation of new religious movements.

Astrology

If statistics are to be believed, close to 100% of people in the UK know their astrological sun-sign. But what is astrology, exactly? Is it merely a “survival” from the medieval worldview, and what is its relationship to modernity and scientific thought? Most pertinently, does it have something profound to tell us about the nature of popular belief, or vernacular religion? Nicholas Campion tells David why it does in this fascinating interview.

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.

Nicholas Campion is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Anthropology, and Director of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture. His research interests include the nature of belief, the history and contemporary culture of astrology and astronomy, magic, pagan and New Age beliefs and practices, millenarian and apocalyptic ideas, and the sociology of new religious movements. This calls for a multi-disciplinary approach and, before joining Lampeter University in 2007, he was, in turn, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religions and Senior Lecturer in History at Bath Spa University. He is a member of the international executive committee of the conferences on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena (INSAP), is editor of Culture and Cosmos, a Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy and is in the editorial boards of Correlation, the Journal of Research in Astrology and Archaeoastronomy, the Journal of Astronomy in Culture. His most recent publications include Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions (New York University Press, 2012), Astrology and Popular Religion: Prophecy, Cosmology and the New Age Movement (Ashgate 2012), and the two-volume History of Western Astrology (Continuum 2009).

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.