Plenary Lectures

Graham Harvey (The Open University), Re-defining religion and scholarship performatively

If we have wrongly defined religion as irrational beliefs perhaps we have also wrongly defined our scholarly relationship with religions and religious people. Seemingly endless debates about insiders and outsiders, and about objectivity and subjectivity, seem to be predicated on a notion of religion moulded by the Christian Reformation. Academics in various disciplines have, as Bruno Latour and Tim Ingold argue, believed in belief, emphasising interiority and transcendence over participative or performative activities. In the growing resistance to the “world religions” paradigm (in which a religions are taught as systems derived from founders, codified in texts, expressed properly in official dogmas, and believed in only imperfectly by “ordinary” people) there is hope that we might completely re-focus our attention on lived or vernacular religion. To do so, however, we need to do more than merely describe others more accurately. We need to revise our conception and performance of ourselves as scholars. Objectivity is often imagined to be much like surveillance by a transcendent and impassive deity — suggesting that post-Enlightenment scholars have hardly escaped the definitional ideals of Christian Theology. Rather than flipping over to a more subjectivist approach, a more reflexive and dialogical approach can be rooted in understandings of academic practice as also being a participation in the world. In this presentation, I propose to experiment with understandings both of religion and of scholarship as practices by embodied, emplaced and performative persons in a larger than human world. A simple first step might be emphasising that “participant observation” should not cease being participative when researchers begin writing or lecturing. More radical possibilities will be discussed, including rejecting hyperseparation, celebrating presence, and testing the value of indigenous knowledges about the ever-changing and always thoroughly relational world. In short, there should be more symmetry between scholarly performance and other ways of moving through the world.

Zdeněk Konopásek (Charles University in Prague & The Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic), Religion in action: When theology meets Latourian science studies

In his writings about religion Bruno Latour argues that we should understand religion in its own terms (“religiously”) while seeing it as something “local, objective, visible, mundane, unmiraculous, repetitive, obstinate, and sturdy”. When talking about religion, we should avoid, Latour insists, turning our attention “to the far away, the above, the supernatural, the infinite, the distant, the transcendent, the mysterious, the misty, the sublime, the eternal”. Only then we can reframe the relationship between science and religion in a new, mutually meaningful and acceptable way. In my presentation I will use empirical data on Marian apparitions in Litmanová (Slovakia) to come with a sympathetic critique of such a position. I fully subscribe Latour's general principles of non-reductionist STS as well as many his specific arguments on religion. I also share Latour's “political” interest in exploring how to talk about religion in a way that would be meaningful for both agnostics and the faithful. However, I will argue that it is misleading to insist that religion must be understood exclusively in terms of presence-making practices, as Latour does. It will be demonstrated that something like quasi-scientific fact-making is not alien to (true) religious talk. On the contrary, it appears an important element of what Latour himself might call “religion in action” - i.e., religion not ready made and undisputed (as is the case in iconographic analyses of religious art), but uncertain, collectively performed, attempted and more or less achieved. In fact, it will be shown that overall Latourian sensitivity for reality in the making seems deficient in his own work on religion and makes it somewhat puzzling and not quite convincing. And yet: if we rearticulate the relationship between presence-making (of religion) and fact-making (of science) in a more subtle way, Latour's main point about how to understand the truth of religion can still be kept. Even more it can be made more sound and elaborated, both empirically and theoretically.

Steven Sutcliffe (University of Edinburgh), A (qualified) return from the tropics: Why ‘new age’ is key to the study of religion

Extending the principle of Edmund Leach’s structural analysis of Genesis as myth, J Z Smith claimed that to analyze Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics was just as necessary as to analyze any other meta-text in the Religious Studies ‘canon’. Leach and Smith thus offer opening gambits in the symmetricalization or radical extension of data within and across formations, and thus the start of a ‘de-canonization’ of the study of religion. Widening this principle of inclusion enables analysis of source texts within marginalised historiographies of European religion, such as (in an anglophone context) Kingsford’s The Perfect Way (1895), Gardner’s Witchcraft Today (1954) and Spangler’s Revelation: The Birth of a New Age (1971). Opening a further research seam has enabled scholars to incorporate the practices and behaviours of non-elites in social worlds parallel to source texts, whether these be ‘Christian animists’ talking to ancestors in English graveyards (Stringer 2008) or ‘spiritual holists’ practising firewalking in Scottish new age centres (Sutcliffe 2003). The European location of these examples allows us to see that an expanded register of supernormal agents and special powers interacting with everyday life, previously cast out of Europe and projected into ‘the tropics’, has re-emerged as Latourian actants ‘at home’.

Importantly, data symmetricalization includes critical historiography of the study of religion itself. But despite these research innovations, institutional hysteresis reveals the continuing shadow cast by the ‘world religion’ category and its various declensions. The perceived ‘problem’ of demarcating ‘new age’ exposes the continuing effects of an implicit league table of religion entities derived from a particular ideological prototype. By simultaneously only surviving as a residual academic taxon while flourishing as a key Latourian ‘hybrid’ in the european field of practice, ‘new age’ formations bring into sharp relief ‘at home’ the inadequacies of the dominant taxonomy.

Analysis of new age as the Achilles’ heel of the ‘world religion’ declension suggests how a principle of symmetry similar to Bloor’s can be put to work in order radically to disaggregate, distribute and equalize primary sources within and across formations. Applying symmetricalisation at the level of explanation, in contrast, raises epistemological challenges to a different theoretical principle: ‘difference’ itself. To cite J Z Smith again: ‘ a theory, a model, a conceptual category, a generalization cannot be the data writ large’. A return from the tropics is to be welcomed with the qualification that we extend symmetry of data but retain asymmetry of explanation.