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.


CFP Rethinking Spirituality Through Gender and Youth

Panel coordinated by Mia Lövheim, Kristin Aune and Anna Fedele

at the Conference of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (ISSR), July 2015, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium


Call for papers

This session aims to debate the conceptual distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, which has been widely used in the sociology of religion. Drawing on the changing religious practices of the “Baby-boom generation” and the public interest in the “new age” phenomena in the 1980s, the concept of spirituality became crucial in describing a shift from institutional religion, characterized by adherence to traditional religious doctrines, to newer forms of flexible, individual and holistic religiosity. In previous research spirituality has, on the one side, been interpreted as a sign of religious decline through privatization and, on the other, hailed as a way for religion to accommodate to the new situations faced by late modern social actors. This session critically explores whether ‘spirituality’ is a useful concept for studying the ways in which people live out religio-spiritual lives in the twenty-first century. It does so through the lenses of gender and youth, two aspects of social identity that have received significant new attention from religion scholars since the late twentieth century. Scholars such as Woodhead (2012) have advocated ‘spirituality’ as better able to reflect the complex lives of women and young people, and as more open to material and emotional aspects of religious experience and practice. A new body of work, including Fedele and Knibbe’s (2013) collection of ethnographic studies of gender, critique the spirituality/religion distinction. Scholars such as McGuire (2008) and Ammerman (2013) have argued for the concept of ‘lived religion’ or ‘everyday religion’ as a better alternative. This session invites scholars conducting empirical studies of youth and gender to contribute their findings to help answer these questions: How, if at all, is the distinction between religion and spirituality helpful in interpreting the experiences of these social groups, especially through embodied and sensory encounters with the divine? How can the religio-spiritual practices of young people, women and gender-marginal men (e.g. men marginalised by ethnicity, sexuality or non-conformity to gender stereotypes) contribute to a development of concepts and theories about religion and spirituality?

Submit papers online through the ISSR website


Repenser la spiritualité à travers le genre et la jeunesse

Dans ce panel onla distinction entre « religion » et « spiritualité », largement utilisée dans la sociologie de la religion. S’appuyant sur les pratiques religieuses changeantes de la « génération du baby-boom » et l’intérêt public pour les phénomènes « new age » dans les années 1980, le concept de spiritualité devint crucial pour décrire le passage de la religion institutionnelle à des formes récentes de religiosité flexible, individuelle et holiste. Dans les recherches antérieures, la spiritualité a été interprétée comme un signe du déclin du religieux via la privatisation mais ausi comme un moyen pour la religion de s’accommoder aux nouvelles situations modernes.

On s’interroge si la « spiritualité » est un concept utile pour étudier les vécus religieux-spirituels des individus au XXIème siècle. Cela sera fait à travers les categories de genre et jeunesse, qui ont suscité une nouvelle attention de la part des chercheurs de la religion. Des penseurs comme Woodhead (2012) ont soutenu que la notion de « spiritualité » est mieux capable de refléter les vies complexes des femmes et des jeunes gens, et qu’ elle est plus ouverte aux aspects matériels et émotionnels de l’expérience religieuse. Un nouveau corpus de textes sur le genre tel que Fedele et Knibbe (2013), critique la distinction entre spiritualité et religion et McGuire (2008) et Ammerman (2013) ont affirmé que le concept de « religion vécue » ou de « religion quotidienne » est une meilleure alternative.

Nous invitons les chercheurs conduisant des études empiriques sur la jeunesse et le genre à répondre à ces questions : Comment, si c’est le cas, la distinction entre religion et spiritualité est-elle utile dans l’interprétation des expériences de ces groupes sociaux, surtout à travers des rencontres corporelles et sensorielles avec le divin? Comment les pratiques religieuses-spirituelles des jeunes, des femmes et des hommes marginalisés du point de vue du genre (ex. les hommes marginalisés à cause de leur appartenance ethnique, de leur sexualité ou de leur non-conformité aux stéréotypes de genre) peuvent-elles contribuer à un développement de théories sur la religion et de la spiritualité ?


New Book: Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality

Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality

Ethnographic Approaches

Edited by Anna Fedele and Kim Knibbe

Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality

This book contains captivating descriptions of the entanglements of gender and power in spiritual practices and detailed analyses of the strategies spiritual practitioners use to attain what to social scientists might seem an impossible goal: creating spiritual communities without creating gendered hierarchies.

Contemporary spiritual practitioners tend to present their own spirituality as non-hierarchical and gender equal, in contrast to ‘established’ religions. Current studies of these movements often reproduce their selfdescription as empowering, while other literature reacts polemically against these movements, describing them as narcissist and irrelevant and/or in league with capitalism. This book moves between these two poles, recognizing that gender and power are always at work in any socio-cultural situation.

What strategies do people within these networks use to attain gender equality and gendered empowerment?

How do they try to protect and develop individual freedom? How do gender and power nevertheless play a role?

The contributions collected in this book demonstrate that in order to understand contemporary spirituality the analytical lenses of gender and power are essential. Furthermore, they show that it is not possible to make a clear distinction between established religions and contemporary spirituality:

the two sometimes overlap, at other times spirituality uses religion to play off against while reproducing some of the underlying interpretative frameworks. While recognizing the reflexivity of spiritual practitioners and the reciprocal relationship between spirituality and disciplines such as anthropology, the authors do not take the discourses of spiritual practitioners for granted. Their ethnographic descriptions of lived spirituality span a wide range of countries, from Portugal, Italy and the Netherlands to Mexico and Israel.

“An important and original contribution to the understanding of the dynamics of gender and power in alternative forms of spirituality.” – Sabina Magliocco, California StateUniversity, Northridge, USA

Central to spirituality is a desire for personal liberation, we hear again and again. Yet this rich collection of ethnographies demonstrates that it is deeply shaped by performances ofgender and power.” – Dick Houtman, Erasmus University, Netherlands