The Routledge Handbook of Material Religion – Interview with Pooyan Tamimi Arab

10 October, 2023

The Routledge Handbook of Material Religion has just been published. The volume is co-edited by Pooyan Tamimi Arab, Jennifer Scheper Hughes & S. Brent Rodríguez Plate. Click here to view the publisher’s website, where you can find the Table of Contents. Birgit Meyer interviewed co-editor Pooyan Tamimi Arab about this new publication.

Material approaches to religion are widely discussed, and there are a number of book series and handbooks already. What made you and your co-editors decide to come up with this volume?

The idea started with Brent Plate, who co-founded and directed the journal Material Religion for almost twenty years. We discussed what had been achieved in existing publications and what kind of work we’d like to receive more attention. We also compared existing volumes such as Sally Promey’s Sensational Religion (2017) and monographs such as David Chidester’s Religion: Material Dynamics (2018), to consider what kind of research to highlight. Given the defining groundwork achieved in prior volumes, we explain in the introduction that we didn’t try to “represent, consolidate, summarize, or frame or fix the boundaries of our field. Our volume does not serve as some sort of academic field guide: readers will find no maps or markers, no taxonomies. As editors, we are neither guardians of, nor evangelists for, the field of material studies of religion.” What was the point, then, of our “handbook”? I think it’s an exploratory source for scholars interested in smart, critical new research that pushes the field forwards, while it could also be used in class to teach a new generation of students about material religion.

What is the main idea you want to convey with this volume?

Above all, a handbook on material religion should place objects and bodies at the center of scholarly studies of religious life and practice. But we had noticed that, despite critiques of the so-called Protestant bias, still much literature was Western-centric, focused on small-scale personal beliefs and practices, that the contributions of women and non-Western thinkers still require attention, and that themes such as queer materialities haven’t received all that much attention in material religion studies. And what about the darker aspects of religious lives? Is the study of material religion not also about masculine attachment to weapons, diseases and discrimination, or even something like total annihilation and extinction? You could say this handbook is a bit wild. I really love that.

In the introduction, we emphasize the political relevance of the handbook’s chapters: “The study of material religion is redirected towards systematic, critical interrogations of the imbrication of religious structures of power with racial, economic, political, and gendered forms of domination.” Now, it’s not the case that all chapters are political, and I don’t think that would be appropriate if one is aiming for a comprehensive view of material religion studies. However, many chapters are doing some kind of political work: from discussing material religion in Spinoza’s 17th century critiques of religious authorities to the antics of the Satanic Temple of the United States today; from epidemic cataclysm in the history of Latin America to the gathering of millions in India’s Kumbh Mela, which can be viewed as a contemporary platform for Hindu nationalism.

Which difference does it make to how material religion has been studied so far?

We tried to look back and also to look forward. So, in the first part, on the genealogies of material religion, the chapters focus on those intellectual lineages that are recognized less. One example is the work of classicist Jane Harrison, who developed an aesthetics of religion that echoes in our theoretical apparatus.

In part two we focus on critically analyzing existing key terms in the study of material religion such as “book,” “symbol,” and “heritage.” There are beautiful contributions in there, for example about “animism” and Balinese masks or about Senegalese Sufi artists’ forging of found materials into something compelling, something imbued with spirit. In part three, we chose to work with Ian Hodder’s concept of entanglements as an overarching theme. This concept, and its darker version, “entrapment,” is crucial to move away from studying religious communities in isolation and instead to see them as interacting, with objects, with animals, and with people of other communities.

Part four explodes the material religion perspective by using Tim Morton’s concept of “Hyperobjects,” things so large in scale that no single person can fully perceive them in their totality. I like to call these the “Ginormous Things” that scholars of material religion should keep in mind. Brent Plate’s chapter about the Erie Canal is a great example. For him, the “canal is a geological, geographical, artistic, technological, and religious hyperobject. Without it, deeply engrained beliefs about free will, sex, science, manifest destiny, equal rights, the environment, the afterlife, and the imminent end of the world would not retain such a hold on the US imagination.”

We worked on the handbook between 2018 and 2023, and we were also inspired by the Coronavirus pandemic and, reflecting on the virus, by Marcel Mauss’s concept of total social facts which shape life and landscapes in a huge way, and which require a multidimensional analysis to understand. These complex phenomena are shaped, shape, and reshape the economy, ecology, politics, law, medicine, and religion, too, which only exists as part of a far greater whole. Such complexity requires an appreciation of indeterminacy, I think, of being aware that we don’t know what the future has in store for us.

Which readership do you have in mind?

Really anyone interested in religion from any discipline, but of course especially scholars in the social sciences and the humanities. Working on this handbook, I realized again why I’m so fascinated by religion. Religion is a perfect way to explore our humanity and our folly. I know that usually we say that “no one reads a whole handbook,” but designing a handbook and actually reading and editing all chapters helped me to develop more distance towards my current interests. It sparked that original curiosity and fascination I felt as a child and student. I’m proud of the fact that we were able to bring together an international group of scholars, living and doing research about religion in different continents, and gave a platform to researchers whose work you might not know, yet. I hope that readers will recognize their diversity of perspectives and that they are fascinated by the chapters.