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“More than Belief” – Exploring the sensory side of religion

Date:04 March 2013
The logo of the conference on aesthetics of religion, designed by Volker Scheub. For more of his work see
The logo of the conference on aesthetics of religion, designed by Volker Scheub. For more of his work see

Alexandra Grieser discusses new research approaches in the aesthetics of religion, being showcased at a conference held in Groningen later this week.

Over the last few decades, scholars have recognized that the study of religion is often shaped by an over-emphasis on the cognitive dimensions of religion. Researchers expect the essence of religion to be a holy text or set of beliefs, and the material and sensual forms of religion are secondary or inconsequential, little more than expressions of these ideas and thoughts. Often, however, it is the other way around: the bodily sensation people feel, the inner voices they hear, the sacrificial action they do, these are persuasive powers in themselves which, together with texts and interpretation, constitute the authoritative strength of religion. Dancing or walking on a pilgrimage, lighting candles, eating and taking drugs, but also technologies such as reading and writing, they all become “material” for religious practice and a way through which religion gains pervading power in individual and social life.

Focusing also on the forms of religious practice, instead of only asking for the meaning of images or symbols, helps to get a fresh view upon what makes religion “effective”. How do religious systems succeed in mediating transcendent realities and convince people that there is something ‘above’, ‘behind’ and ‘hereafter’? From the scholarly point of view, religions ‘use’ the cognitive and sensory apparatus of humans, and the ‘im-mediate’ access to other realities is mediated by the range of experiences humans can have. How temples and churches create a special atmosphere; how power and hierarchies are not just expressed, but created through staging, costumes and strict rules how to behave; how religious practice not just stimulates the senses up to extremes, but also deprives the senses by closing the eyes or sitting still for hours, these are only examples for the variety of aesthetic devices working together for making religion work.

But religion does not only ‘use’ the senses, religion also shapes the ways humans perceive the world, and this is true for adherents and ‘believers’, but also for the whole of a culture. We will find religious forms migrating into politics (think, for example, of the increasing presence of rituals of apology within public politics, rituals that include physical as well as verbal expressions of contrition, such as Willy Brandt’s famous kniefall) as well as overlap with forms of alternative medicine and healing. Even with topics like violence and self-sacrifice, it does not suffice to look at beliefs and ideologies. Introducing an aesthetic approach to the analysis of violent action also takes into account how the ‘sacrificed’ body becomes a powerful sign recognized by media and the world’s public, and how emotions and ritualization play a crucial role in overcoming the instinct of survival by creating a perception of reality stronger than the will for life.Cultivating the perception through ritual action can lead to extremes, be they destructive or be they altruistic. In any way, aesthetic forms are social forms. Even the most reclusive Buddhist retreat in the mountains of Switzerland has become attractive within a capitalist culture full of stimuli, demands and action, just to mention a less spectacular example for the political also being sensual.

Engaging all the senses, from hearing to smell, from healing touch to sacred music, creates a specific style and a “sensual panorama” (H. Mohr), different over time and between the traditions. Aesthetics was the concept scholars at different places used to respond to the text-centrism and all too narrow ideas of religion. Normally, people think of art and beauty when hearing about aesthetics, or they associate philosophical theories by A. Baumgarten, Kant and Hegel. These are important to know, but rather, our understanding goes back to the Greek word aisthesis, meaning sensory perception, and how human beings ‘make sense’ of what their senses give them as information. So beside the relationship between religion and the arts, the main questions of the aesthetic approach are: How does religion stimulate, govern, and discipline human perception? How are religious experiences, emotions, and attitudes created, memorized, and normalized? And, how do religious modes of perception interact with other ‘ways of world making’ (N. Goodman) in a larger culture, such as science, art, and politics?

These are the questions that we will explore through a three-day conference being held here in Groningen later this week:

“How Religion becomes Effective – Aesthetics as a Connective Concept for the Study of Religion”.

We are proud to have many distinguished speakers from various countries – Denmark, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, the US and of course the Netherlands. They have all been using and developing the aesthetic approach for a long time, but many of them have never met before. This makes it an exciting and pioneering event, and we are very much looking forward to the exchange. All of the speakers focus on aesthetic as a connective concept, because we think that not only new fields of research and theory evolve from this approach, but that it is particularly interesting to link different disciplinary approaches to each other, and we hope not least that the polarized debates about the cognitive and the cultural study of religion can be made fruitful instead of competing with each other: aesthetics touches upon the cognitive and the cultural as well, and we need interdisciplinary perspectives to get a grip on how they interact.

So if you are interested in such questions and also in theories which help us to answer them, then this is an opportunity to learn more about it! And maybe you will take part in one of the events which are also linked to the conference, the special lecture of prof. Christoph Uehlinger on iconography, or the master class of our American guest Manuel A. Vasquez whose book gave the title of this post, namely that religion is “more than belief”. Let’s discuss, in how far and how we can investigate it.

Alexandra Grieser is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department for the Comparative and Historical Study of Religion, Groningen, conducting a research project on aesthetics as a comparative approach to the relationship between religious and scientific knowledge, focusing particularly on the popular usage of scientific imagery. She is the director and co-convenor of the conference “How Religion Becomes Effective”, in cooperation with the working group on Religionsästhetik of the German Association for the Study of Religion (DVRW) and prof. Birgit Meyer from the University of Utrecht.

For publications see


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