Publisher’s Description: The Stranger at the Feast is a pathbreaking ethnographic study of one of the world’s oldest and least-understood religious traditions. Based on long-term ethnographic research on the Zege peninsula in northern Ethiopia, the author tells the story of how people have understood large-scale religious change by following local transformations in hospitality, ritual prohibition, and feeding practices. Ethiopia has undergone radical upheaval in the transition from the imperial era of Haile Selassie to the modern secular state, but the secularization of the state has been met with the widespread revival of popular religious practice. For Orthodox Christians in Zege, everything that matters about religion comes back to how one eats and fasts with others. Boylston shows how practices of feeding and avoidance have remained central even as their meaning and purpose has dramatically changed: from a means of marking class distinctions within Orthodox society, to a marker of the difference between Orthodox Christians and other religions within the contemporary Ethiopian state.
Abstract: This article discusses the rise of evangelical carnival parades in Rio de Janeiro in relation to spectacular carnival parades that feature Afro-Brazilian religious elements. The article exposes divergent intersections of religion and cultural heritage in Brazilian carnival. The first intersection aims to affirm the intrinsic connection between samba enredo carnival music and Afro-Brazilian religion by means of cultural heritage narratives, and the second type employs similar narratives to undo this connection, attempting to make samba enredo accessible to evangelical religious performance. The article demonstrates the important role secularism plays in upholding distinctions between “culture” and “religion,” and shows how evangelical carnival groups engage with such historical formations by means of estratégia (strategy)—evangelical performances in cultural styles that are commonly perceived as “worldly.” This estratégia depends on and proposes a particular set of semiotic ideologies that allows for the separation of cultural form and spiritual content. Efforts to open up “national” cultural styles to different religious groups in light of multicultural politics are laudable, but advocates of such politics should keep in mind that cultural heritage regimes concerning samba push in the opposite direction and support a different set of semiotic ideologies.
Abstract: In the wake of the postsecular turn, we propose to reappraise both the religious as studied in anthropology and how anthropologists who have religious or spiritual interests can contribute to an emerging postsecular anthropology. Such an anthropology recognizes the failure of secularization theory to dissolve the dichotomy between the religious and the secular. We propose that as anthropologists we consciously occupy the ontological penumbra, an ambiguous and plural space in which we engage with various counterparts, both human and nonhuman. This means that we have to be open to the real possibility of the existence of gods, spirits, and other nonhuman entities. These should not only be treated as subjects of study, but also recognized as valid counterparts with whom we can engage in the ethnographic encounter. While this necessitates relinquishing the former privileged position of secular and Western epistemology, it opens up the discipline to a potentially unprecedented ethnographic productivity that is epistemologically and ontologically innovative. Without neglecting its secular heritage, such a theologically minded postsecular anthropology places anthropology in a better position to explore what it is to be human, especially in terms of understanding religious and spiritual experiences.
Abstract: The role of religion in Latin American politics can no longer be interpreted with reductionist schemes. The faithful—citizens—are combining faith and politics in unprecedented ways, and churches and denominations are no longer factors of political identity. The reconfiguration of new social and political movements interweaves complex linkages with the religious. The transformations of the political field and especially of democratic processes have reshaped identities in a context of increasing religious and cultural diversity with relatively less Catholic presence and greater Evangelical presence. Institutional secularization and religious pluralism seem to go hand in hand with a new cleavage between religion and politics.
Publisher’s Description: The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains.
Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.
A provocative work of scholarship, Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges us to rethink the promise and limits of the secular ideal of religious equality.
Abstract: Through practices such as cryonics and plans to build robotic bodies for future “consciousness transfer,” the Russian transhumanist movement has engendered competing practices of immortality as well as ontological debates over the immortal body and person. Drawing on an ethnography of these practices and plans, I explore controversies around religion and secularism within the movement as well as the conflict between transhumanists and the Russian Orthodox Church. I argue that the core issues in debates over the role of religion vis-à-vis immortality derive from diverse assumptions being made about “the human,” which—from prerevolutionary esoteric futurist movements through the Soviet secularist project and into the present day—has been and remains a profoundly plastic project.
Abstract: Among Syriac Orthodox Christian migrant communities in the Netherlands, liturgical performance is a site of controversy over where and how to draw a boundary between “religious” and “ethnic” identity. Tensions materialize in discordant singing styles and modes of performance, echoing complex historical encounters with Dutch, Syrian, and Turkish secularisms. These encounters, I argue, have refashioned the liturgical tradition’s role as a central axis of ethnoreligious social life and kin relations across the diaspora. Secular state practices shape a diasporic sensory culture that is met with a distinct form of vocal agency. Syriac Orthodox liturgical experiments show how the voice can transform the sensorial interface between human subjectivity and social intelligibility, in turn transforming how categories of secular modernity—whether ritual, art, ethnicity, or politics—are distinguished and lived.
Abstract: In this essay I review three important volumes for the field of secular studies: Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, Rethinking Secularism, and The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. All three volumes explore the nature of the secular and the status, role, and possible futures of religion in our late modern, globalized world. The volumes present 34 essays by 30 authors representing seven disciplines, and at least six end games. For some, questions of religion-secular entanglement are a historical matter and the task is to map intellectual and ideological trajectories. A second purpose is to empirically document the complexities of particular religion-secular entanglements in particular socio-cultural locations. For others, the remit is theoretical, to discern a conceptual agenda for the ongoing study of religion-secular entanglements. Others are more philosophical, chasing the existential consequences of secularity. A fifth end game is applied in nature: reflections on how political actors might best engage the religious and the secular in acts of governance and international relations. Finally, there are normative voices, those seeking to name what a good, productive religion-secular entanglement ought to look like. Taken together, the volumes mark a thriving, mature field of scholarly inquiry: secular studies has come of age.
Abstract: In this article I explore the relationship between the secular and ‘cultural’ Catholicism in France through the lens of a contemporary art exhibit displayed at a new project of the French Catholic Church. Visitors’ varied responses to the exhibit, I argue, ultimately reinforced the organizers’ claim that the activities that occur within this ‘non-religious’ space of the French church are self-evident aspects of a broadly recognizable and ‘secular’ French or European culture.
Publisher’s Description: In this work of qualitative sociology, Anna Strhan offers an in-depth study of the everyday lives of members of a conservative evangelical Anglican church in London. “St John’s” is a vibrant church, with a congregation of young and middle-aged members, one in which the life of the mind is important, and faith is both a comfort and a struggle – a way of questioning the order of things within society and for themselves. The congregants of St John’s see themselves as increasingly counter-cultural, moving against the grain of wider culture in London and in British society, yet they take pride in this, and see it as a central element of being Christian. This book reveals the processes through which the congregants of St John’s learn to understand themselves as “aliens and strangers” in the world, demonstrating the precariousness of projects of staking out boundaries of moral distinctiveness. Through focusing on their interactions within and outside the church, Strhan shows how the everyday experiences of members of St John’s are simultaneously shaped by the secular norms of their workplaces and other city spaces and by moral and temporal orientations of their faith that rub against these. Thus their self-identification as “aliens and strangers” both articulates and constructs an ambition to be different from others around them in the city, rooted in a consciousness of the extent to which their hopes, concerns, and longings are simultaneously shaped by their being in the world.