Special Issue: Uncertainty in Vernacular Religions



Uncertainty in Vernacular Religions

/ Incertitudes et religions vernaculaires


Editors: Élisabeth Claverie et/and Anna Fedele


In the last decades social scientists and religious historians have emphasized the need to pay more attention to religion as lived and practiced. Contrary to the assumption that religion works as a sort of magical remedy against uncertainty, providing people with a set of answers and solutions they totally embrace and rely upon, what emerges from ethnographical accounts is that uncertainty and doubt are inherent in lived religion.

In this special issue we encouraged the authors to produce ethnographically grounded papers that explore the role of uncertainty and doubt in religious practices focusing on the way in which people test the efficacy of rituals as well as the healing power of sacred figures and sites. How do people establish that a certain religion works for them in a historical period in which they are increasingly aware of the existence of religious traditions that are different from the one they grew up with? How do they criticize with their own religious creativity the dogmas and rules of the religious tradition they belong to?


Table of contents:


Introduction: Uncertainty in vernacular religions

Élisabeth Claverie and Anna Fedele



Créativité et incertitude dans les nouveaux rituels contemporains

Anna Fedele

This paper is based on fieldwork among Portuguese, Italians, Catalans and Spaniards influenced by the transnational Goddess spirituality movement. Through an analysis of ritual narratives the author analyses the role of doubt and uncertainty in contemporary rituals created within Goddess spirituality. She will show that contemporary crafted rituals offer a privileged window on the uncertainty intrinsic in ritual because participants feel less constrained by a long-standing religious tradition and talk more openly about their doubts and their strategies to neutralize them than in the case of secular ceremonies. Drawing on Simon Coleman’s analysis of pilgrimage and ritual (2009, 2013) she suggests that uncertainty may play an important role not only in rituals created in the context of ‘New Age’ spirituality but also in other contemporary rituals created in plural and increasingly secularized Western contexts.

Access English version of this article


Uncertainty at the heart of a ritual in Lebanon 2011

Emma Aubin-Boltanski


In Lebanon and Syria, a network of Christian female mystics has been forming since the early 1980s. Every year on Good Friday, all these women relive Christ’s sufferings more or less dramatically. Some, crippled with pain, tend to isolate themselves. In contrast, others show the wounds that appear on their bodies to crowds of devotees. This article will focus on the ritual of ‘crucifixion’ (insilâb). Based on a description of Catherine Fahmi’s insilâb, the author will show that stigmatization is both a paradigmand a process: even if it inscribes itself in a long imitatio Christi tradition, which has been formalized and theorized over the centuries, the ritual also contributes to deeply transforming the Passion myth. Uncertainty – along with its subsequent questions, concerns, and hesitations – is key to this process.


À l’épreuve des certitudes : récits d’une sanctification locale (Ceará, Brésil)

Agnès Clerc-Renaud



In Brazil, the cult of saints brings into focus differences between formerly hegemonic Catholics and an increasing number of Evangelicals. In the context of a small town where a vernacular saint is worshipped, the practice of hagiographic narratives is viewed as a means of testing certainty. Analysis of these narratives (motifs or plots), the order of their episodes and the situations in which they are spoken reveals differing ways of exploring doubt and certainty. The missing elements that leave the story open are seen as ‘commonalities’, which contribute to social cohesion, allowing for creative reinterpretations of past and present events. The paper concludes with a brief comparison of the implications of exchanges of goods and exchanges of words, which demonstrates the role of the latter in the construction of the group’s social temporality.


Certainty and uncertainty in contemporary spirituality and Catholicism: Finding proof versus destabilizing certainties in popular religion in the Netherlands

Kim Knibbe


This article is based on several years of ethnographic research in the Netherlands on contemporary spirituality and Catholicism. The emphasis within the networks of contemporary spirituality discussed here is on finding ‘proof’ of ‘the other side’. This quest for certainty is compared to another religious context, dominated by a discourse of liberal Catholicism, where the emphasis is on learning to deal with uncertainty (previously discussed in this journal: see Knibbe, 2008). Here, uncertainty is experienced as liberating. This comparison is the basis for the development of a theoretical approach to understanding both the quest for certainty and the quest for uncertainty, based on Jackson’s essay ‘Minima ethnographica’ (1998). The article ends with a reflection on the implications of these findings in relation to the tendency within the sociology of religion to look for causal links between societal changes and changes in religion.


NEW BOOK: Looking for Mary Magdalene

Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France

 Looking for Mary Magdalene:

Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France

Anna Fedele offers a sensitive ethnography of alternative pilgrimages to French Catholic shrines dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. Drawing on more than three years of fieldwork, she describes how pilgrims from Italy, Spain, Britain, and the United States interpret Catholic figures, symbols, and sites according to theories derived from the international Neopagan movement. Fedele pays particular attention to the pilgrims’ life stories, rituals and reading. She examines how they devise their rituals, how anthropological literature has influenced them, and why this kind of spirituality is increasingly prevalent in the West. These pilgrims cultivate spirituality in interaction with each other and with textual sources: Jungian psychology, Goddess mythology, and “indigenous” traditions merge into a corpus of practices centered upon the worship of the Goddess and Mother Earth, and the sacralization of the reproductive cycle. Their rituals present a critique of Roman Catholicism and the medical establishment, and question contemporary discourse on gender.


“In this theoretically nuanced and ethnographically rich study, Anna Fedele carefully lays out the complex and imaginative worlds of Mary Magdalene’s contemporary spiritual pilgrims and their sacred landscapes of European forests, waters, caves, and rocks imbued with symbol and meaning. Immersing herself in their created ceremonies, she reports back to us with sensitivity and insight about their reinterpretations of gender, sexuality, community, and religion.”

Sarah M. Pike, author of Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community


“This is a rich, thoughtful, and quite startling account of the new spirituality around Mary Magdalene, and around menstruation, darkness and the creativity of loss.”

Tanya Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor, Department of Anthropology, Stanford University

Oxford Ritual Studies Series, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

336 pages; 6-1/8 x 9-1/4;ISBN13: 978-0-19-989842-8ISBN10: 0-19-989842-1