Approaches through Materiality

Joseph Webster

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Religion is a funny thing, because it always seems to be riding two horses at once. One could describe these horses in a number of different ways, using all sorts of familiar dichotomies; practice and belief, body and soul, earthly and heavenly, here and hereafter. “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses”. Here, food and forgiveness, or, perhaps more accurately, ingestion and salvation, are claimed, simultaneously – even seamlessly – by religion. This list could (and does) go on, being inclusive of, for example, immanence and transcendence – but more on this below. Yet these binary pairs can clearly be observed bleeding into one another. Ingesting pork, for example, often appears to be religiously more troublesome than does ingesting bread. This is because matter matters. We may ask, then, is religion really riding two horses, or are these ‘familiar dichotomies’ so familiar because they are false? Rephrasing the question in terms that partially echo the title and subtitle of Morgan’s (2010) landmark edited volume Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief, is, I think, helpfully clarifying. What, then, is the matter with religion? The answer presented below is that, very often, the matter with religion is the matter of religion. Put more simply still, the problem with religion is its materiality. This chapter examines the whys and wherefores of this problem for the anthropology of religion – its ethnographic puzzles and methodological opportunities, as well as its conceptual impasses and theoretical insights.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Handbook of the Anthropology of Religion
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusAccepted - 2017


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