New Materialism and the Study of Religion (Manuel Vásquez)


Manuel Vásquez’s More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion has pride of place in the fairly recent materialist turn in Religion Studies. The three keyterms are embodiment, emplacement, and practice (p.325). The force of the title is to take the focus off “belief” and to look at quotidian life, structures of feeling, everyday resistance, the production and circulation of religious goods, networks, media, and so on. I am unsure of the author’s claim to being agnostic about the supernatural (pp.1-3). Of note too is the criticism of social construction of reality theory and the linguistic turn (represented alternatively here by Geertz and Butler). The chief debt is to materialist feminists who have sought to use body, neurology, embeddeness, and nature as feminist figures of thought.

The book is a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, students of Judaism and I would imagine Islam and Hinduism, these being traditions in which beliefs sit alongside law and other ritual and other social and political structures, might find nothing particularly new in More than Belief. On the other hand, it could be argued that Religious Studies has historically placed a primacy on the figure of belief about the gods as the privileged key to understanding the phenomenon of religion. This may or may not be a Christian problem or a Protestant problem, although Vásquez takes pains to complicate that picture. Rather than Christianity per se, the actual stumbling block to a materialist conception of religion remains, after all these years, Descartes. The royal road of the new materialism in Religion Studies is paved by Spinoza, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Foucault as it drives through classics old and new in the theory of Religion (Durkheim, Weber, Eliade, Geertz, W.C. Smith, J.Z. Smith, Tweed, McCutcheon, Orsi). In working through the literature on Religion, readers will want to consult this volume for new orientations.

Against McCutcheon, Vásquez keeps to the term “religion” as distinct, though not entirely separable “thing,” not just because the terms is ubiquitous, but for what it adds to creation and analysis of culture, and to “ecologies of life” (pp.327-8). Against the Cartesian-Kantian-Hegelian vein, the now quite common notion in (post) critical theory circles is that matter is no longer viewed as dumb-mute material to be worked over by mind; it now is said to enjoy its own vital life and agency (p.324). As represented by Vásquez, matter is posed against otherworldly transcendence and this worldly immanence. Proffered instead towards the end of the book as a bit of speculation is the idea of a “pneumatic materialism” conceived as a “malleable ‘spirit-matter’ nexus’ that bridges the seen and unseen.”

It’s barely an irony that the analysis of religion in Beyond Belief rests on belief (about matter, the world, the seen and the unseen). That this speculation comes at the end of the book is a welcome tonic to theories of religion that start with a belief presented as privileged and apriori, even as one assumes that the belief that is allowed to “emerge” was there implicit in some part at the very start of the project.

The more serious question marks about the book is the lack of any definition given to religion. This is handled not well. On the one hand, the “data” of religion is clearly represented by discourse, practice, and institution. On the other hand, there is nothing to mark those particular types of discourse, practice, and institution. That is a fine conclusion for McCutcheon and his group, but not if one wants to maintain a more robust conception of religion. The argument that Vásquez wants to avoid “foundationalism” feels like a form of special pleading in the absence of a more clearly defined set of particular beliefs presumed by these discourses, practices, and institutions (cf. pp.9-10). To put the stress on practice is one thing. But a main part of the problem is a recurring one in contemporary Religion Studies, which is the now common polemic, itself unquestioned doxa in the scholarly literature, that belief “is” somehow “private” and “self-contained,” i.e. liberal and bourgeois. This is itself an intra-Christian and Eurocentric polemic tilted around a Cartesian strawperson. If the study of religion has taught us anything since Durkheim it is that beliefs, i.e. religious representations, are not nearly so subjective, not private possessions of the individuals who hold to them, but always shared, distributed, “collective,” bound up with myth, ritual, and tradition.

If students of religions that are not Christian need this book it would be to confirm what they already know about embodiment, emplacement, and practice in religion and to raise that knowledge up to a higher theoretical and more contemporary pitch.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to New Materialism and the Study of Religion (Manuel Vásquez)

  1. dmf says:

    don’t see much advantage (beyond the academic value of trends for publication/advancement) to talk of materialisms vs practices.

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