My Take on Vernacular Religion
The setup: If you haven’t heard of the Religious Studies Project yet I sincerely suggest checking it out. The project was founded by Chris Cotter and David Robertson in association with the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR). Ontop of collecting an ever increasing slew of resources and links to opportunities in the religious studies field, they publish weekly audio interviews with leading scholars every Monday. Then on Wednesdays they follow up the interview with a written response by a junior scholar. So that’s where I come in.
The Post: As a followup to their interview with Marion Bowman about “vernacular religion” this week, the Religious Studies Project published my response, “Vernacular Religion: Because you’ll Find More than the Devil in the Details.” Here’s a taste:
There is an important message embedded in Marion Bowman’s notion of “vernacular religion”–that when we plant our feet firmly on the ground, amidst the fray of religious life, we are confronted with the unmistakable heterogeneity of both belief and practice. As living people “do religion” on the ground it may not always resemble the religion of the Qur’an, the Vatican or your Buddhism 101 textbook. It should come as no surprise then that this type of grounded religion was understood for years as “folk religion,” or as folklorist Don Yoder put it “the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside with strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion” (Yoder 1974:14). The near synonym “popular religion” has also been used with frequency (e.g. Jolly 1996).
Yet, as we heard, Bowman objects to both “popular” and “folk” religion as scholarly categories because of what they imply in contradistinction. For instance, in regards to “popular religion” she says “so this is opposed to…unpopular religion?” But the problems run deeper. “Folk religion” is hampered by a legacy of distinguishing the religion of the folk from, as Yoder put it “official religion” and thereby demeaning its value. Indeed this is true of “popular religion” as well (e.g. Vrijhof and Waardenburg 1979). So while Bowman credits Yoder for trying to rescue “folk religion” from this two-tiered structure and the negative valuation it gets within it, she chooses instead to follow one of Yoder’s former students, Leonard Primiano, in rejecting the term altogether (Primiano 1995; Bowman and Valk 2012).
Overall I’m a fan of what concepts like vernacular religion attempt to do in directing our attention away from the elite or ideal typical molds that religious beliefs and practices are often baked in by scholars. On the other hand official/unofficial distinctions are often emic categories within and between religious groups and not “solely the creation of the scholar’s study,” to quote J.Z. Smith. We therefore have to consider our path carefully when we choose to critique such distinctions, because we don’t want to lose sight of what they entail to the life-worlds of our informants. Read more about this in my full response, linked above.