[Link to Original Portuguese Language Version, including responses by Aparecida Vilaça, Cecília L. Mariz, Johanna Sumiala, Luiz Fernando Diaz Duarte, Maria Laura Viveiros de Castro Cavalcanti, Pablo Semán, Thomas J. Csordas, & Ramon Sarro, and a reply by Joel Robbins]
Excerpt: I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to present this talk at a meeting on the theme of “Pluralism and Interculturality: Flows and Religious Itineraries.” The topic is a timely and important one in a world where a heightened concern with the public role of religion is rooted in, among other things, a realization that almost everywhere more than one religion is vying for the chance to influence social and political life. But I should confess at the outset that where religious pluralism is concerned, I feel myself to be at something of a comparative disadvantage in present company. In the introduction to a 1995 volume of essays that took on the relationship between ritual and pluralism, one of my key themes here, Jan Platvoet and Karel van der Toorn (1995: 10) note that Brazil “may serve, as perhaps no other [society], as a laboratory for the study of plurality and pluralism.” Discussions of the nature of religious pluralism, the way it is lived out by religious practitioners, and the problems it raises for social scientific analysis are arguably more developed in scholarship in and about Brazil than in any other body of literature. As a scholar of global Pentecostalism, I have been stimulated by a good deal of this scholarship, but I know that what I have read is only the tip of a huge iceberg of important literature, much of it more conceptually sharp than my own present work on this subject, which is at a very early stage of development. I fear, then, that in talking about religious pluralism here today, I run the risk of not only of carrying coals to Newcastle, but of carrying coals of a quality decidedly inferior to the local varieties as well.
Faced with what I am quite sure is a justified sense of inferiority in my understanding of the contemporary literature on religious diversity, I am going to rely on two time honored scholarly strategies for maneuvering out of tight spots of this kind. One of these is quite general in nature and involves somewhat subtly changing the subject in ways that bring it on to ground I have some experience in covering. I deploy this strategy here by shifting our focus first from religious pluralism as it is most often understood to value pluralism, which I want to suggest ought to be seen as a closely related issue, and also by directing our attention away from religion in general to ritual, which I will argue is an aspect of religion that is centrally involved in the expression of values. My second strategy is a more specialized anthropological one, and involves developing my theoretical argument about value pluralism and ritual not through an analysis of the religious situation in Brazil or in any other large, religiously and culturally diverse nation state, but rather in a very small Papua New Guinea community in which everyone insists that they are members of the same religion and where I happen to have carried out anthropological fieldwork. Toward the end of the paper, once I have worked through the kind of analysis of pluralism I am proposing in this Papua New Guinea setting, I will try to bring my account back to more familiar social terrain for the discussion of religious pluralism, but that is not where I will start.
My intention in implementing these two strategies – redefining the problem of religious pluralism and enlarging the range of places in which it might make sense to study it – is not to displace or discredit more usual ways of discussing this topic. I have no interest in doing this, nor would I have the expertise needed to bring it off successfully. I simply want to suggest another angle from which it might make sense to look at problems of pluralism. This is not, then, a critical intervention into the existing discussion of religious pluralism. At best, it hopes simply to be a suggestive and perhaps somewhat novel one. With this in mind, we can start with what it might mean to set aside religious pluralism as it is usually understood in favor of a focus on value pluralism.