More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion

More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion

More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion

More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion


This book challenges the traditional idea that religions can be understood primarily as texts to be interpreted, decoded, or translated. In More Than Belief, Manuel A. Vsquez argues for a new way of studying religions, one that sees them as dynamic material and historical expressions of the practices of embodied individuals who are embedded in social fields and ecological networks. He sketches the outlines of this approach through a focus on body, practices, and space. In order to highlight the centrality of these dimensions of religious experience and performance, Vsquez recovers materialist currents within religious studies that have been consistently ignored or denigrated. Drawing on state-of-the-art work in fields as diverse as anthropology, sociology, philosophy, critical theory, environmental studies, cognitive psychology, and the neurosciences, Vsquez offers a groundbreaking new way of looking at religion.


To theorize is not to leave the material world behind and enter the domain
of pure ideas where the lofty space of the mind makes objective reflection
possible. Theorizing … is a material practice.

Karen Barad (2008: 55)

Why write yet another theory book, especially at a time when Terry Eagleton, a prominent exponent of the genre, has declared that “the golden age of cultural theory is long past” (2003: 1)? Eagleton quickly qualifies his claim, stating that “[i]f theory means a reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions, it remains as indispensable as ever.” Further, because cultural theory has tended to ignore or dismiss religion, he argues that theorists must reflect systematically on its global visibility.

In my case, theorizing comes out of a practical need. This book grows out of my frustration in the classroom. Trying to engage students about the religious creativity, cross-fertilization, and fluidity that accompany globalization, particularly about the ways in which transnational immigrants transform both their countries of origin and settlement by generating hybrid identities, practices, and spaces, I have found that the dominant “canon” in religious studies is for the most part unhelpful. Emerging from Protestant Biblical hermeneutics, religious studies has tended to focus on the great sacred texts, or the theologies of the Niebuhrs, Barths, and Tillichs of the world, or the symbolic systems of various self-contained, territorialized cultures. Up until very recently, our discipline has taken for granted the view that religion is primarily “private and interior, not shamelessly public; mystical, not ritualistic; intellectually consistent and reasonable, not ambivalent and contradictory.” It is “transcendent, not present in things. Religion is concerned, tautologically, with religious matters, not with what Sartre has called the ‘equivocal givenness of experience’” (Orsi 1997 : 6). This understanding of religion offers few resources to explore the constant movement, contestation, and hybridity involved in what has been called popular religion—religion as it is lived in the streets, workplaces, and . . .

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