Uses of Social Theory in Comparative Religious Studies: Assessing Chidester's Sociological Analysis of 'Wild Religion' in Post-Apartheid South Africa

By Strijdom, Johan | Journal for the Study of Religion : JSR, July 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Uses of Social Theory in Comparative Religious Studies: Assessing Chidester's Sociological Analysis of 'Wild Religion' in Post-Apartheid South Africa


Strijdom, Johan, Journal for the Study of Religion : JSR


Introduction

In Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture David Chidester (2005:9, 49-50) challenges producers of critical knowledge about religion and religions to expand the analytical category of 'religion' by including popular culture and its objects within local and global contexts as part of the field of comparative Religious Studies. He argues that the broadening of scope to include new religious movements and popular culture may be seen as an extension of the intellectual labour that it took in the history of Religious Studies to acknowledge the status of African indigenous religions as on a par with world religions. All of these, he persuasively argues, are considered 'religion' by participants (i.e. emic or insider perspectives) or do the work of 'religion' as defined by social theorists (i.e. etic or analytical, outsider perspectives), according to whom religion creates communal solidarity around desired objects and facilitates the exchange of gifts.

Chidester's contribution is not only firmly located within current debates on the genealogy of 'religion' as an analytical concept constructed and used within colonial and post-colonial contexts1, but has also undoubtedly opened new avenues for research in Religious Studies by arguing that popular culture, new religious movements and African indigenous religions may be comparatively studied as serving the same functions as the conventional world religions.

Drawing on social theorists such as Durkheim, Bataille, WEB Du Bois, Weber, Marx-Adorno-Horkheimer and Benjamin, Chidester (2005) foregrounded in Authentic Fakes three crucial aspects or functions of religion: sociality, materiality and exchange. In her review of Authentic Fakes Kathryn Lofton (2007:466) considers these three terms as descriptors of the generic category of 'religion' to be 'the most likely exports from Authentic Fakes' and praises Chidester's application of the terms to 'messy material' as exemplary of 'the sort of transnational, interdisciplinary work that is required for any future political economy of religion.'

I understand Chidester to mean the following by each of these critical terms2:

· sociality refers to religion's function of forming group boundaries, i.e. of inclusive or exclusionary collective identities;

· materiality refers to the desire for material objects, sensory experiences and gendered bodily performances of rituals; and

· exchange focuses on communist or capitalist economic exchanges in rituals of gift-giving and expenditure.

Although Chidester does not always explicitly and consistently apply these analytical concepts from Authentic Fakes (2005) in Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa (2012), these do arguably constitute crucial categories that informed Chidester's production of critical knowledge about forms of non-conventional religion in South Africa since the advent of its first democratic elections in 1994 until the FIFA World Cup in 2010.

Under 'wild' or 'unconventional' religion Chidester (2012) includes for social analysis not only forms of indigenous religion within the postapartheid South African context (e.g. neoshamans with their extraordinary dreams and visions, indigenous gendered rituals of reed dances, virginity testing, illegitimacy and marriage, or theosophical renderings of indigenous religion), but also colonial statues and monuments in Cape Town, prison gangs, Pentecostal Christian churches and Islamic fundamentalist groups, national museums and heritage sites (e.g. Freedom Park), and finally the religion of football3.

Of these examples of 'wild' or 'unconventional' religion I will engage with Chidester's (2012) sociological analysis of the last two, ie of Freedom Park and the 2010 FIFA World Cup, not only in their interaction with indigenous religion, but also as doing the work of religion as such within local and global contexts.

I will argue that the application of 'sociality' and 'exchange' as critical terms to these cases demonstrates the contribution that sociological concepts and theories may make to understand African realities4. …

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