Accepted paper:

Heritagization of religion, secularization of the spirits? The case of spirit possession in Vietnam


Oscar Salemink (University of Copenhagen)

Paper short abstract:

The referent object of many cultural heritage sites, objects and practices are religious in nature, but we approach these differently if defined as religious or as heritage. I explore this paradoxical separation with reference to spirit possession practices in Vietnam.

Paper long abstract:

When Shia and Sunni Sufi shrines are threatened by the advance of ISIS in Iraq, UNESCO and the AAA decry not the threat to religion but the loss of heritage. The referent objects of much cultural heritage are religious in nature, both sites (temples, churches), museum objects, and ritual practices glossed as intangible cultural heritage. In the 2001 destruction of the Buddhas of Bhamiyan as an act of religious purification we sense the problems created by categorical ambiguity of objects that are simultaneously regarded as religious and as heritage: Their religious classification as idols and their secular classification as world heritage are part of separate discursive registers that speak past each other. If much cultural heritage has the ontologically same referent object as 'religion', then why are we seeing and approaching these as different things, both scientifically and politically? Currently, anything defined as religious is cordoned off along a clear-cut secular-religious divide, from which the state should - in Western/Westphalian thinking - be absent ("separation church-state", "freedom of religion"). If defined as heritage, it is seen with a secular gaze, inviting state interventions for conservation management. I will explore this paradoxical separation of one set of sites, objects or practices into religious and heritage aspects with reference to a number of religious/ritual/heritage practices in Vietnam. In particular, I will analyze divergent attempts to lobby the state to officially recognize a specific spirit possession practice - lên đồng - associated with mother goddess worship - đạo mẫu - as a Vietnamese religion respectively Vietnamese heritage.

panel Reli002
The heritagization of religious and spiritual practices: the effects of grassroots and top-down policies (SIEF Ethnology of Religion Working Group)