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Materiality and the Study of Indigenous Religions  

Amy R. Whitehead

Academic attention to Indigenous religions has grown steadily since the 1990s in parallel with increasing attention to the lived, material dimensions of religions. The global emergence of the subfield of material religion in the late 1990s began to highlight the often taken-for-granted and marginalized material aspects of religions by placing religious “things” front and center within cutting-edge debates. Paying scholarly attention to geographical sites, temples, ritual tools, texts, clothing, language, the body, and the things that people use to live their religions with and through began to unmask a scholarly heritage that privileges mind over matter, subjects over objects, culture over nature, the sacred over the profane, and metaphysics over the tangible. Simultaneously, the 1990s saw the re-emergence of Indigenous religions as an area of interest for the study of religions. These two trajectories, while at first seemingly unrelated, are both responding to a transformative and decolonizing shift in the study of religions, where researcher positionality, institutional structures, power relations, and processes are being critically and practically reassessed. Features of this shift include a series of moves in scholarship that problematize the discipline’s modern, Enlightenment, colonial legacy; emphasis on metaphysics, texts, and beliefs in the academic study of religions; and the world religions paradigm. Combining the fields of lived and material religion with the study of Indigenous religions, beginning with their related historical trajectories, offers rich and complex possibilities for the future innovative development of theories and methods. These theories and methods extend beyond established, anthropomorphic positions about material cultures, offering relational theories (such as the new animism and the new materialism) that allow Indigenous religious materialities to reveal new understandings about the ontological and other potentialities of so-called “things.”

Article

New Spiritualities in Western Society  

Adam Possamai

Various social and cultural changes from modernity to late modernity have been key to the appearance and development of new spiritualities in Western society. The often-contested term of “new spiritualities” is often liked with other no less contested ones such as “mysticism,” “popular religion,” “the New Age,” and “new religious” movements. Further, if the expression new spiritualities or alternative spiritualities took off outside of institutionalized religions in the Western world, this term is now re-used by these institutions within their specific theology. As new spiritualities are becoming mainstream in the first quarter of the 21st century, they are having a low-key impact on post-secularism (i.e., a specific type of secularism characteristic of late modern societies).

Article

Violence and New Religions  

Rebecca Moore

Although new religions have a reputation for being intrinsically violent, research shows that they are no more aggressive than the world’s major religious traditions. Memes in popular culture tend to stigmatize adherents of these marginalized groups because of their unusual clothing, habits, lifestyles, and beliefs. Rather than employing the neutral term “new religious movement” (or NRM), journalists and others often use the pejorative label “cults.” Nevertheless, violent outbursts involving members of NRMs have exploded at moments of crisis—or perceived crisis—throughout history. Scholars attempting to identify the factors involved in these eruptions have determined that external as well as internal elements dynamically collide to create conditions that precipitate violent outcomes. Internal causes may include apocalyptic beliefs, charismatic leadership, and social encapsulation. A few groups may develop a worldview that justifies, or even welcomes, the use of violence; they may stockpile weapons for self-defense or develop plans to prepare for a final reckoning. External influences include provocative, aggressive, or combative actions by government authorities prompted by news media and cultural opponents comprising family members and professional anticultists. This outside pressure may trigger violent measures within the group, as leaders and members tighten social controls, quash dissent, and demand unquestioning loyalty in the face of opposition. Since violence is a social relationship in which the actions of each opponent serve to shape the responses of the other, destructive interactions with new religious groups are not inevitable. They may be forestalled when dangerous situations are adequately identified and intelligently addressed through careful investigation, patience, and well-managed negotiations.

Article

Nature and Religion in America  

Brett Grainger

One of the most complex words in the English language, “nature” (sometimes personified as “Nature” or “Mother Nature”) has been central to developments in American religions. Despite their different origins, the three cosmologies present on the North American continent during the early modern “age of contact”—Native American, African American, and Euro-American—shared a number of similarities, including the belief in an enchanted or animate cosmos, the ambivalence of sacred presences manifested in nature, and the use of myth and ritual to manage these ambivalent presences in ways that secured material and spiritual benefits for individuals or communities. Through encounters on colonial borderlands and through developments in society and culture (in science, economics, politics, etc.), these cosmologies have been adapted, developed, and combined in creative ways to produce new forms of religious life. These developments have been characterized by a series of recurrent tensions, including the notion of divine or spiritual realities as being transcendent or immanent, organicism or mechanism, and of the natural world as including or excluding human beings. Organicist and animist cosmologies, severely challenged by the early modern scientific revolution, were resurgent in the antebellum period, fueling a series of new religious developments, from Transcendentalism and revivalism to Mormonism and the early environmentalist movement. These generative tensions continue to reverberate into the modern day, in part as an outworking of the environmental crisis of the 1960s, which saw a purported “greening” of established religions as well as the rise of new forms of nature spirituality.

Article

The Violence at Jonestown  

Rebecca Moore

The eruption of violence carried out by members of Peoples Temple, in which more than nine hundred men, women, and children died by ingesting cyanide-laced fruit punch in 1978, seemed incomprehensible. Scholars, journalists, pundits, and government officials presented a variety of explanations to account for the mass murder–suicides of US citizens that occurred in Jonestown, Guyana. The range of analyses in the weeks, months, and years that followed sought to understand why group members assassinated a US congressman and fatally shot four other people, why parents murdered their children, and why they then took their own lives. Shocked by news reports and goaded by professional cult-watchers, popular opinion focused on so-called brainwashed followers who did as they were told under the authority of a charismatic—some said deranged—leader. Psychiatrists and psychologists tended to blame maladjusted individuals seeking refuge from autonomy and independence. Scholars who specialize in new religions studies noted historical precedents, religious beliefs (especially apocalyptic theology), and the influence of cultural opponents—relatives, the news media, and government actors—placing pressure on the group. Political analysts found religion in general, cult leaders, and vulnerable followers responsible. Contesting official and consensus understanding, conspiracy theorists viewed the deaths as mass murder rather than mass suicide. Some former members of Peoples Temple adopted this perspective, although many came to believe that residents had been conditioned by coercive practices to follow the leader. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, documents and audiotapes generated in Jonestown have illuminated the community’s internal practices and rhetoric and have served to complicate traditional views. This evidence has made it clear that Jonestown leaders conspired to develop a mass suicide plan to be enacted when the community faced imminent destruction. Although the logistics were carefully crafted, the various justifications for this irrevocable step remain obscure and ambiguous.

Article

Mormonism  

Patrick Q. Mason

Mormonism is the collective name for a group of related churches, movements, and theologies that trace their origins back to the prophetic revelations of Joseph Smith Jr. (b. 1805–d. 1844). The movement splintered following the death of Smith, with the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) becoming by far the largest institutional manifestation of Mormonism today. Mormonism claims to be a restoration of ancient Christianity, following a period of apostasy after the death of Christ’s original apostles. The movement began with a series of revelations to Smith in the 1820s in which God called him to be a prophet and then an angel directed him to a buried ancient record written on golden plates. Smith translated this record “by the gift and power of God” and published it as the Book of Mormon, which is one of four books considered by Mormons to be scripture (along with the Christian Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price). Mormons believe that God leads their church through living prophets and continuing revelation, and that ordinances necessary for salvation and exaltation are performed only through the priesthood that was restored to Smith and passed on to the church today. Mormons prioritize family relationships, which they believe can be maintained after death through marriage ceremonies conducted in Mormon temples. Heavily persecuted in the 19th century for their practices of polygamy and theocracy, today Mormons are fully integrated into society even while maintaining a distinctive theology and group identity. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operates an ambitious proselytizing campaign around the globe and continues to enjoy steady worldwide growth, with the majority of its members now residing outside the United States. Though strongly influenced by its origins in a modern American context, as it nears the beginning of its third century Mormonism is emerging as an increasingly mature global religion.

Article

Contemporary Pagan, Wiccan, and Native Faith Movements  

Chas S. Clifton

Paganism is based largely in an Enlightenment-era rejection of Christianity and Romantic-era ideas of the individual experience, emotion, and creativity, combined with a search for true ethnic culture in the lore and practices of the pre-Christian past and a rejection of universal transcendental religion, in favor of the local, the particular, the polytheistic, and the animist. Particularly in the United States, Pagans have challenged governmental accommodations for existing religions by demanding equal status in public spaces. Contemporary Pagan groups began forming in the 1930s, but the largest, Wicca, emerged in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s.

Article

Sufi Communities in Secular Mexico  

Lucía Cirianni Salazar

The emergence of an organized presence of Sufi communities in Mexico dates to the last two decades of the 20th century. Sufis constitute a part of Mexico’s minority Muslim community. Their groups are mostly made of Mexican and other Latin American converts who follow the leadership of Western sheikhs, who themselves converted to Islam and were initiated into Sufi orders as adults. These characteristics shape many of the particularities of Mexican Sufi communities and their relationship to the Sufi orders from which they originated. The oldest and most established Sufi community in Mexico is the Nur Ashki Jerrahi order, an offshoot of the Turkish Halveti-Jerrahi order. The second community of Sufi Muslims to have been established in Mexico is the Murabitun community, a branch of the Murabitun World Movement that settled in the southern state of Chiapas in 1995. Apart from these two larger communities, other Sufi orders have representatives in Mexico who guide smaller groups of followers. Some Sufi groups in Mexico have combined traditional gatherings with commercial activities, especially in the form of workshops and alternative therapeutic services that are advertised as being based on Sufi concepts and ritual practices. These groups have also offered intellectual approaches to Sufism, such as reading circles and seminars. By considering groups whose Sufi dimension has been overlooked, either because they are secular communities or because they are organizations focused on social transformation with little or no mystical emphasis, scholars can query the conventional Western construal of Sufism as Islamic mysticism.

Article

Spirituality  

Louise Nelstrop

This article details spirituality and the three main approaches that are found in academic and popular literature—theological, historical-contextual, and anthropological. It traces the etymology of the term and how thinking on it has developed. It offers carefully chosen case studies that show its use in the anthropological approach—the largest and fastest growing category.