Interpreting religious diversity: conversion, syncretism and religious practice

Erik de Maaker (Leiden University)
Vibha Joshi (Tuebingen University/University of Oxford)
Start time:
29 August, 2008 at 9:00
Session slots:

Short abstract:

By what processes and discourses are religious beliefs and practices classified as belonging to a particular religion, even if they also draw heavily on other religious inspirations? How does such labeling relate to and influence people's beliefs and religious practices?

Long abstract:

Contemporary anthropological studies of religion consider syncretism a universal phenomenon, and regard all religions as syncretic (Steward and Shaw, 1994). However, if 'neighbouring' religious traditions share common ground, how does religious diversity emerge? And how is it sustained and reinforced? Radical approaches to the study of religion, such as Asad (1993, 2003), indicate that conceptualizing religions as diverse and distinct cannot be separated from objectifying discourses involving agents or groups claiming religious authority. So, how are religious ideologies defined and objectified and by what agents? And perhaps more importantly, in what manner are people who engage in religious practices influenced by the ideologies voiced or formulated by people who (claim to) represent religious authority? In the proposed panel we intend to develop these issues in relation to processes of proselytizing and conversion, as these tend to trigger the (re)formulation of religious ideologies. In our perception, such processes are not limited to the activities of e.g. 'Western' missionaries in the former colonialised world. It also encompasses sub-national efforts, such as when Christian Nagas attempt to convert Naga animists. Moreover, proselytizing and conversion are not limited to so-called world religions, but can involve the reformulation of animist religious traditions as well. We invite theoretically grounded papers that are strongly rooted in ethnographic research. In particular, we would like contributors to proceed from the varying and changing significances attributed to religious material objects, as well as ritual performances in which such objects play a role.