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Beyond Conceptual Dichotomies and Eurocentrism: Aesthetic Approaches to the Religious and the Secular in the ‘non-West’

Panel Chair: Stefan Binder | Friday, August 28, 9-11 a.m.

While the so-called ‘classical’ secularisation thesis has proven empirically untenable and a rigid religious–secular divide has been critically interrogated on methodological and historical grounds there is still a lack of sustained empirical scholarship on contemporary negotiations and everyday realities of the secular in ‘non-Western’ contexts. The four contributions to this panel explore different forms of negotiating religious–secular binaries and the resulting consequences in India, Haiti and DR Congo. By engaging with aesthetic and praxeological theories, the panel leads beyond the focus on conceptual dichotomisations and retraces concrete dynamics of religious pluralism (including the non-religious) in artistic practices, civic engagements, economic networks, political and medical discourses. Hence, the geographically and thematically diverse case studies explore the potential of aesthetic approaches to the study of religion for retracing the globalizing diffusion of the religious-secular divide, by emphasizing specific historical trajectories, local transformations, socio-economic constraints, and lived experience.

Peter Lambertz

Spirits, soil and urban territorial ‘reattouchment’ in a Congolese new religious movement from Japan

Based on ethnographic data from my fieldwork with the Congolese branches of the Japanese Sekai Kyûseikyô movement (Church of World Messianity, Mokichi Okada Association International, Temple Messianique Art de Johrei) in Kinshasa (DR Congo), this paper investigates the different discourses that accompany the movement’s practice of Johrei healing between ‘medicine’, ‘science’ and ‘faith healing/miracles/magic’. A praxeological and aesthetic approach allows identifying the fluidity of these categorical distinctions in the emic perspective, leading to tensions and misunderstandings on the local level, and between actors in Congo, Brazil, Europe and Japan. This questions the religious-secular divide as an analytical dichotomy, while it also points to the necessity of studying the historical trajectories of this dichotomy on a transnational level.

David Frohnapfel

Commodified Religious Subalternity: Vodou-inspired Art from Haiti

Haiti’s Vodou-inspired paintings from subaltern artists have always been closely intertwined with processes of commodification, cultural branding and Othering. Karen Richman sees in the construction of “naïve art” in Haiti mainly a reflection of the Other for tourist consumption. It is not surprising that a new generation of subaltern artists emerging in the 1990s broke with the ‘naïve style’ of their predecessors but kept the Vodou branding intact. What function does the use of the religious system Vodou have for this new generation of artists? I argue that the members of Atis Rezistans virtually re-produce their own poverty as handy objects for transnational consumption. Furthermore, I argue that these artists use established discourses of religious marginalization for their own ends in an “auto-orientalist” manner. This paper analyses whether this is a means to escape marginalizing frameworks and acquire agency or is rather re-establishing persisting discourses of primitivism and authenticity.

Stefan Binder

Aesthetics of the Secular: Towards Plural Genealogies of the Secular beyond a ‘Protestant Origin’

Based on a case study of organised atheism and humanism in South India this paper explores aesthetic dimensions of ‘non-religion’. By raising the question of aesthetics of the secular it engages with the intersection of two trends in interdisciplinary scholarship of religion: (1) aesthetic approaches to the study of religion and (2) the interest in secularity beyond ‘classical’ theories of secularisation. The respective logics of these two trends call for an aesthetic approach to the secular and simultaneously produce obstacles for its realisation. While the focus on religions’ aesthetic dimensions seeks to overcome an overemphasis of meaning and cognition, the conceptual and historical focus of current debates on the secular leads to narratives based on cognitive frames, public reasoning, or even anti-aesthetics. I argue that this problem can be resolved by questioning Eurocentric genealogies of the secular and by engaging more persistently with empirical case studies – especially from ‘non-Western’ contexts.

Anandita Bajpai

‘Speaking’ the Nation Religiously Secular: Secularism in the Rhetoric of India’s Prime Ministers

This presentation aims to unveil how the Prime Ministers of India (1991-present) have projected India as a ‘secular’ nation, through the medium of their public speeches. In the face of religious riots between Hindus and Muslims (1992 in Ayodhya and 2002 in Gujarat), which intensified the urgency to re-weave the image of a secular India, the Prime Ministers’ public speeches have tried to rescue the ideal of India’s proclaimed secularity from a state of crisis. Secularism here is projected as a necessary basis for a religiously pluralist India. The paper presents a case study which will show (1) how the rigidity of the religious-secular divide is rendered questionable, if not irrelevant, whereby the ‘religious,’ in practice, becomes a means to stage secularism and (2) how the spoken words of a political elite, a cementing material which welds the nation, offer a means to grasp the aesthetics of the secular.


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