Today religion matters much more than one would have imagined from the angle of secularization theory, which still dominated social and cultural research up until the late 20th century. Rather than becoming obsolete, across the world religion is in a constant process of transformation, manifesting in a plethora of forms and shapes.

Our increasingly entangled world not only opens up new possibilities that follow from an exposure to cultural difference, but also entails a desire for closure, protection of the familiar, or exclusion of strangers. Scholarly attempts to grasp and make sense of the world in its full complexity, with its complicated dynamics of flow and closure, must reckon with the resilience of religion as a relatively autonomous factor in shaping people’s being in the world. The salient decline of church membership and attendance in Northern Europe makes this part of the globe appear as quite exceptional. But here, too, religion is remarkably present. Especially urban metropoles are increasingly diverse, hosting people with various religious affiliations, next to outspoken atheists, agnostics and spiritual seekers. Their coexistence yields tensions and conflicts as well as new forms of conviviality, and poses many societal and scholarly questions about how to live together across religious, ethnic and other differences. 

This research program studies religion in plural settings in Europe (especially the Netherlands) and Africa (especially Morocco, Ghana and Kenya) from a comparative and transregional perspective. The term religion arguably refers to a notion of  transcendent, intangible realms – of God, gods, spirits and other powers – that are accessed and experienced as real through authorised and transmitted sets of practices and ideas in relation to these realms. Our guiding idea is that religion becomes concrete and palpable through people, whose ideas and practices imply the use of various materials – including buildings, images, objects, and texts – and whose bodies and senses are shaped through these ideas and practices. Taking a material approach to religion, we look at the acts and material forms through which religions are present, coexist and possibly clash with each other in particular plural settings. The manifestation of these acts and forms is subject to state policies, legal arrangements and social-cultural conventions embedded in historical patterns and path-dependent modes of regulating religion. We study the complex configurations of religious coexistence by focusing on religious matters such as things (especially buildings and images), food, bodies and texts as entry points. By doing so, we also seek to further develop concepts and methods for the study of religion from a material angle. 

Religious Matters consists of a multidisciplinary team of senior and junior researchers who engage in the study of religion from backgrounds in anthropology, (art) history philosophy and religious studies. The research program is made possible thanks to the NWO-Spinoza Prize and the Academy professor prize awarded to Birgit Meyer by the Netherlands Foundation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Next to a number of postdocs and PhD students funded through to these awards, the program also hosts affiliated members and international visiting fellows. While each of us engages in a specific research project in line with our specific areas of expertise, as a team we seek to contribute to a deeper understanding of religious dynamics in plural settings. We do so by engaging in intense exchange and conversation in bi-weekly seminars, workshops and conferences. This long-term project runs over a period of eight years, in which things, food, bodies and texts form subsequent entry points for our joint work.

Our research program has close contacts with the following institutes and initiatives:

Janskerkhof 13, Utrecht, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies

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