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  • Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality edited by Dick Houtman and Brigit Meyer
  • Ian Lowrie

Dick Houtman, Brigit Meyer, Mathew Engelke, materialism, religion, ritual, non-human

Dick Houtman and Brigit Meyer, eds. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. Pp. 496.

Lately, everybody seems to be thinking about how matter matters: across the social sciences and the humanities, there has been an explosion of theoretical and descriptive work investigating the intersections of humans, objects, and environments. Increasingly, it seems that any thoroughgoing account of social processes is obligated to pay serious attention to the nonhuman on its own terms: microbes, air pollution, spoons, and power lines are turning up in more and more surprising places within academic thought. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality sets out to put the resources offered by this ‘‘timely turn to matter and materiality’’ (p. xv) to use in correcting several pernicious, interlocking tendencies in contemporary interdisciplinary scholarship on religion. Given that the misuse, misappropriation, or even simple misunderstanding of material objects such as religious paraphernalia is regularly the occasion for charges of magic use, and the oft-paramount importance of the material setting for the felicitous performance of ritual, [End Page 98] scholars working on the material culture of magic, ritual, or witchcraft would do well to follow up the lines of inquiry opened by this volume.

In their introduction, sociologist Houtman and cultural anthropologist Meyer charge that much of the academic study of religion has been myopically preoccupied with the belief of religious practitioners. In their reading, this methodological and theoretical focus has led to the (mis)identification of the interior mental life of religious believers with the true essence of religion, conceived in turn as a system of ideas and dispositions. They provocatively—but ultimately convincingly—argue that this situation is the product of a distinctively secular, which is to say distinctively Protestant, milieu. The focus on the interior and the private at the expense of the material and public grew out of a nineteenth-century focus on ‘‘world religions,’’ whose loci classici are the works of Tylor and Weber. Viewing religiosity through the lens of a protestant Christianity itself committed to universalizing the centrality of belief, the tradition inaugurated by these thinkers denigrated or simply ignored the public, material expressions of religiosity characteristic of Catholicism and Islam, for example. In short, this so-called ‘‘dematerialization’’ of religion is the result of a particular, ideological understanding of what matters.

Through focused examination of how the ‘‘beyond’’ of religious experience is only ever articulated through or with material objects and practices, the contributions to this volume set out to invert (or at least destabilize) this scholarly orthodoxy, which they argue privileges spirit over matter, belief over ritual, and mind over body. Unlike some of their less cautious fellow travelers, however, the contributors to this volume are, on balance, careful to avoid wholly collapsing their analysis of religion as a social phenomenon into physicalism. As in Meyer’s earlier work, such as Magic and Modernity, the contributions to this volume are thoroughgoingly historical in their assertions about the relations between people and material things. While remaining dissatisfied with constructivism, they and their contributors remain acutely aware that the material world is the product of social and political forces. They are not simply interested in chronicling the material culture of religion, but in the recursive relationship between material objects and ritual practices, systems of religious beliefs, and local understandings of the material world.

If the introduction serves as an excellent overview of how we might begin to approach these questions, the individual contributions themselves put forward a range of focused, empirical investigations of how matter comes to matter—or disappears from view. These contributions go a long way toward undermining the credibility of an approach to the study of religion centering on belief as such. Further, they provide an excellent source of middle-range theory for those working on the confluence of the material and the spiritual [End Page 99] in a whole host of contexts, ranging from Europe to Thailand to Bolivia, touching on practices from the construction of a Sukkah to early...


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