2011–2012 Seminar: Popular Religion

In criticism of the secularisation thesis, many pointed to the presence (if not phenomenal expansion) of popular religion. To some extent one might argue that after the critique of secularisation, research came to be focused either on fundamentalism (especially radical Islam) or on popular religion. Perhaps this contrast is not entirely apt; the underlying implication has often been that fundamentalism is authentic where as popular religion or spirituality is seen to be by definition inconsequential, trivial and fleeting. Against this rigid distinction, we need to consider the interconnections between what is regarded as fundamentalist and by contrast what is regarded as popular. Another aspect of this distinction involves the contrast between folk religion and official religion which has manifestly political dimensions.

The seminars address problems of definition in examining popular religion. Clearly popular religion is not a modern phenomenon and these movements are certainly not exclusively western. In exploring the basic features of popular religion, we will first examine historically cases of religious movements that began as popular expressions of faith, often being antinomian and therefore without solidified institutions. The seminars will consider the ‘life cycle’ of such movements, and how and why some disappeared and others became transformed and institutionalised – in many cases often becoming the opposite of what they were originally. Turning to the modern period, the seminars will consider what sociologists of religion have described as the post-institutional, post-orthodox, hybrid and individualistic manifestations of ‘the new spirituality’. It is self evident that the contemporary explosion of popular religion is highly diverse and includes ‘religion-online’ , TV evangelism, the global trade in amulets, and the ‘commodification’ of religion and religions.

In conclusion, these seminars  aim to grapple with the historical and comparative dimensions of popular religion in many different religious traditions.