Introduction

The Anthropology of Religion (and Non-Religion) in Context, Theory, and Method

in Religion and Society
Author:
Sondra L. Hausner
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Simon Coleman
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One of the most exhilarating aspects of the anthropology of religion is that our field spans so many contexts – by definition – in such a way that we can never take either theory or method for granted. Our discipline consistently asks us to consider epistemological questions about the acquisition and the presentation of argument and knowledge: both the ways we go about deriving our material and the lenses through which we interpret it must always be assessed. Our ethnographies are our method, and our contexts, all in one. This year's issue takes up all these themes – our theoretical approaches; our fieldwork; and the data or the stories that we collect, translate, analyse, and present – with sophistication and depth, in ways that we hope can push our discipline farther.

One of the most exhilarating aspects of the anthropology of religion is that our field spans so many contexts – by definition – in such a way that we can never take either theory or method for granted. Our discipline consistently asks us to consider epistemological questions about the acquisition and the presentation of argument and knowledge: both the ways we go about deriving our material and the lenses through which we interpret it must always be assessed. Our ethnographies are our method, and our contexts, all in one. This year's issue takes up all these themes – our theoretical approaches; our fieldwork; and the data or the stories that we collect, translate, analyse, and present – with sophistication and depth, in ways that we hope can push our discipline farther.

Our Portrait section in this issue features the work of Mayfair Yang, who reminds us that anthropology's job is not to apply a singular critique in multiple contexts, even when the topic of analysis is an ostensibly global system – such as neoliberal capitalism – but to hone its critiques wisely, and always in contextual frame. Over the course of her career, Yang's insistence on grounding theoretical questions has seen her using French social theory, feminist theory, economic theory, and post-colonial theory to assess topics as broad as ritual, womanhood, money, gift exchange, and the state in China, in order both to shed light on historical and ethnographic material and to nuance the theoretical canon still further. Her interlocutors, here including Peter van der Veer, François Gauthier, Prasenjit Duara, and Susan Brownell, all comment on the granularity of her ethnography, and particularly the way religion intersects with economic and political spheres in China, even as she pushes our theoretical approaches in new directions.

Two articles in this issue take up very different approaches in the anthropology of religion as it pertains to Christianity: Andrea S. Allen offers an ethnographic investigation of LGBTQ congregations in Brazil that looks at the relationship between Afro-Brazilian intersectional identity and theological interpretation, showing how race and queer sexuality come together in an evangelical context that is challenged on all sides, but which still finds resolution in locally understood biblical exegesis. Joseph Streeter, by contrast, presents an interrogation into the nature of belief, challenging the premise in our field that a historical focus on belief has emerged from a predominance of Christian thinking. These two articles are followed by a discussion on methodology in the form of a debate between anthropologist of Christianity Jon Bialecki and Christian anthropologist Eloise Menses, whose dialogue explores whether the anthropology of Christianity is commensurable with a Christian anthropology.

Returning to last year's issue, and to the anthropology of Buddhism in particular, this issue publishes a response by Alastair Gornall to the article by Ananda Abeysekara on Gornall's work and on the representation of agency in religious studies more broadly. Gornall argues that foregrounding the relevance of authorial position is a necessary way to challenge earlier work that focused exclusively on royal courts and patronage: he wishes to centre the actions of the scholar-monks who were the subject of his study in a solid grounding of the historical context in which they were operating. The dialogue between Abeysekara and Gornall converges on how best to analyse and represent – and how best to read historical representations of – the always-changing dynamics of power relations: the debate becomes an epistemological one, whereby scholars in the present seek to locate a history (and a definition) of power for authors of the past. And power, of course, can be read in multiple ways. This classic conversation between structure and agency – here infused too with questions about authorship and creativity – is one that continues to motivate scholars not only in the study of historical monasticism in Sri Lankan contexts, but also across regions and fields including anthropology, history, and religious studies.

Our ‘Author Meets Critics’ section returns to the Anthropology of Christianity to take up Andreas Bandak's recent work on exemplary sainthood in Syria. His critics (all complimentary, in truth) – Maya Mayblin, Joel Robbins, Amira Mittermaier, and Bjørn Thomassen – each ask what it means to hold a religious personality aloft, and indeed what it means for a system to present its own exemplars. And all wonder whether the fact of the paradigmatic example – when someone or something is not just one example but the very exemplar – has significant implications for our discipline, too, in the way that one example is held above or set apart from all other cases. Are our own ethnographies not only examples but exemplars?

Our special section, “An Anthropology of Nonreligion?,” edited by Mascha Schulz and Stefan Binder, takes up the longstanding theoretical question of what counts as a religion, or as a religious worldview. Beginning with a review of our field's large recent literature on secularism and secularization, Schulz and Binder have chosen to reassess the anthropology of nonreligion and secularism anew. The articles they bring together position those who do not consider themselves ‘religious’, or who challenge the categories of religious and secular in different ways, into dialogue with each other. By taking up cases in Morocco, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, and the USA, the authors in the special section explore whether secular commitment looks like religious commitment; how the very notion of religious identity may vary; the ways in which challenges to secularism may manifest; and the extent to which atheism differentiates its believers from those who call themselves religious. It is by design that we bring this set of analyses of atheism, secularism, and what Schulz and Binder call ‘nonreligion’, into this year's issue of Religion and Society: the special section argues that we precisely need to reckon with positions that challenge religiosity in its formal guise, whether explicitly or implicitly, in our thinking about society and religion more broadly.

Finally, we include a superb selection of reviews on contemporary works that span region and religion, ethnography and theory. In addition, this issue features a kind of ‘Film Meets Critics’ for an ethnographic film directed by Dana Rappoport: two reviews are followed by the director's own response. We are delighted that the priority we place on dialogue in the anthropology of religion can now be extended to ethnographic film: we see once again how authors and their critics together produce valuable discussions that encourage our field to grow, across medium and modality. If the medium is the message – and the method chimes with the content – this year's issue recalls that the anthropology of religion specialises in many languages indeed.

Sondra L. Hausner and Simon Coleman

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