2013 SAR Biennial Meeting

Society for the Anthropology of Religion

Biennial Conference April 12-14, 2013

Religious Syncretisms and Synergies

To be held at the Pasadena Hilton, Pasadena, California

Deadline for paper submission: January 15, 2013 February 1, 2013

Send papers and panel proposals as PDF or Word Documents (including author or organizer email address) to SAR Program Chair Joel Robbins


Paper proposals should be under 200 words, and panel abstracts under 1000 words

The aim of this conference will be to explore interactions between different systems of belief and practice, but to take this idea a bit further than usual models of “conversations between religions”, or “interfaith dialogues”.  The encounters between different religions engender new forms of ritual and new ways of thinking which are not a simple “blending” of different elements but a more complex alchemical mix.

Anthropologists have long studied the diversity of different religions and have particularly concentrated on documenting “disappearing traditions” using a salvage model.  However, a recent more dynamic turn in theorizing religion and ritual has emphasized the mutual constitution and oppositional energy that goes into new religious understandings of the world.  Even when a group makes claims to “timeless authenticity”, this claim to continuity is a choreographed effect.  It may be accompanied by campaigns to “purify” the faith of undesirable elements, but each religious “reform” is not really a “return” to the original but a spiral which circles in new directions even as it tries to return to the origin.

“Syncretism”, which in a general sense refers to any combination of mixing of different traditions of belief, has become a controversial term. Some regard it as a pejorative term, referring to local versions of notionally standard `world religions’ which are deemed `inauthentic’ because saturated with indigenous content. It is said to imply that the mixture is in some way undigested, contradictory, in defiance of the “essence” of the individual faiths that are being combined.  Syncretic versions of Christianity, for example, are those that do not conform to `official’ (read `European’) models. In other contexts however, the syncretic combination of religions may be used as a way to resist colonial hegemony, a sign of cultural survival or revitalization, or as a means of legitimate political dominance in a multicultural state.

Yet in many cases today we confront religious formation for which this great/little, orthodox/folk model of religious encounter is not the most helpful.  Instead, we encounter a series of paradoxical religious forms in the contemporary world that appear paradoxical in the light of these older approaches to religious change: “indigenous” religions with a global outreach and cosmopolitan ambitions, “traditions” regularly re-invented to face new challenges, and highly localized interpretations of the “world religions” which integrate many new elements into a narrative of doctrinal consistency.

The conference would focus on the ethnography of religious combinations and re-combinations, some of them cast within the language of “conversion” and rupture, others cast within the language of continuity and persistence.  The policing of the borders of religions and the punishing of those who transgress them has long been an important function of religious hierarchies, creating heretics, apostates and outcasts.  But almost any study of localized practices will find signs of innovation, intersections and idiosyncratic interpretations.

This conference will focus on these innovations, intersections and idiosyncratic interpretations, in an effort to understand how globalization and new forms of media, migration and movement have de-stabilized conventional notions of the “world religions”, “big” and “little” traditions, and distinctions between folk practices and transnational belief systems.

Possible panels or sub-topics:

Is the term “syncretism” still useful?

“Islam Observed” Revisited:  How does Geertz’ work look today? —  Indonesia, Morocco and beyond

Should “syncretism” be used for the three great Asian traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism?

Syncretism and Esotericism:  Occult Mixtures

Can “new religious movements” be described them as “syncretistic” without compromising their legitimacy?

Who does the selection, combining and reconciliation of different elements in a syncretic mixture?

What is the role of a literary elite as opposed to popular practice?

What can the study of religious syncretism teach us about processes of cultural change more generally?

What are the roles of ritual and myth in creating and/or stabilizing novel combinations of religious elements?

How is syncretism related to governance and governmentality?  Can there be a syncretistic political theology?

Is the term “synergy” (indicating a creative, inventive combination of different elements) a more appropriate one than the older notion of “syncretism”?

Charles Stewart (in Syncretism and Its Synonyms: Reflections on Cultural Mixture Diacritics, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 40-62 1999) has argued that syncretism has been seen as a positive phenomenon in Latin America and the Caribbean, but as a derogatory term when used in the context of African and Middle Eastern religion.  He relates this to the more recent history of colonialism in those areas, but the issue may be more complicated.  What are the regional differences in the use of the term syncretism?

Meeting Information:

When: April 11 (evening reception) to April 14, 2013 (morning)

Meeting Registration: Register through AnthroGateway–the AAA’s website for meeting registration. You may submit a paper or panel proposal before registering, and then register only later (for example, once your submission has been accepted by the program committee). It is also, of course, fine to register and attend without submitting a paper or panel proposal. Those who register through the link above before March 11 will get the lower online registration rate.

Where: Hilton Pasadena Hotel

Address: 168 South Los Robles Avenue Pasadena, California.

Phone: 626-577-1000.

For hotel reservations and SAR Discount visit the following link. Group Name: American Anthropological Association. Conference Code: SARS. The deadline for reservations is March 21, 2013.

Check-in is possible as early as April 9th, and check out as late as April 16th, but the conference panels themselves will be on April 12, 13 and 14.