Research at the Institute for Religious Studies
The material religious approach puts materiality at the centre of attention and asks how religions materialise. This perspective looks at more than religious objects such as pictures, statues, articles of daily use, ritual complexes, buildings or amulets and talismans. Material religion explores in a much wider sense how religion comes about on a material level. This approach investigates the embodiment of religions through actions and rituals as events which are the result of specific social, habitual and cognitive compositions. These compositions are imparted through the body, space and interplay with the material world. The interaction between actors and religious objects or settings is also looked at in the material religions approach.
Unavoidably and without historical exceptions religious practices occur in the medial level. Studies which have investigated the relation between religion and media have therefore not alone looked at the function and meaning of so-called digital media. Digital media in recent years has had and is having a not to be underestimated influence on religious practices. However, to be able to describe these transformations and also to question their innovation, scholars of religious studies must concern themselves with the media and mediality that preceded the digital age and are the contingent basis of any communication process.
Important links can be drawn to material religion, because materialities often (but not always) take on a medial function. Furthermore, material religion has shown that the function of media goes far beyond transmitting and storing information and messages. The material religions approach emphasises the emotional and affective dimension of media and thus decisively extends the term mediality for research into religion with a cultural studies approach.
Transculturality is a sign of our understanding of cultural contacts and relationships as a process in various scales. The concept can be applied both as a phenomenological findings of concrete case studies as well as a heuristic tool. The prefix of "trans-" in "transculturality" offers the critical analysis of culture not as some ethnically bounded, internally cohesive and linguistically homogeneous spheres. Instead, transculturality highlights spacial mobility, circulation, transformation and translation of people, discourse, practices and materialities.
Regional Religious Traditions and their Historical Dynamics
See our page about Zen here.
Owing to the diversity of the field, Japanese religious history and religions in Japan today are an interesting and challenging field of religious studies research. The material culture of Japanese Buddhism, recent religious history (especially new religions), the current discourse around spirituality and the practices which have emerged from this as well as the transformation of zen in Japan and the so-called west are at the centre of the research interest at the Heidelberg Institute for Religious Studies.
The religious history and current religious landscape of the USA provides an abundance of topics for research into religion. These range from investigations into the puritan pilgrim fathers and the religions of native peoples of America to research into specific American groups and phenomena such as Mormons, Megachurches, Televangelists and Apocalypticism. Research into religions in the USA is also concerned with the relationship between religion and politics (in popular culture), religion and sport and the so-called American civil religion.
Religious Transformations Today
The reception of martial arts, especially of Asian origin/Asian inspired, was globally established as part of holistic self-optimisation practices in the second half of the twentieth century amongst the urban middle class. The martial arts are located in different contexts: from education to wellbeing and disciplining of children to spiritual self-discovery using Buddhist and esoteric motifs. The standardisation of martial arts training and the disciplining that is considered to be pedagogically effective link these motifs, practices and ideas with the increased commitment to perform apparently caused by the spirituality of the practice. For this reason, Asian martial arts are considered to be religious / spiritual practices of post-secularisation in industrialised societies.
Under the influence of globalisation and the accompanying cultural contacts and diverse transcultural flows, that which often is essentialised as Buddhism, has been transformed and many new forms, described as modern Buddhism, have emerged. This term describes both the different modern forms of Buddhist traditions in the Asian countries of origin and diverse new formations which have come about in the urban centres of industrialised nations. The assumed compatibility of Buddhism with the natural sciences, rational thinking and the values of democracy, peace and equality as well as the supposed focus on meditation and therapeutic potential and wellbeing, is a defining characteristic of modern Buddhism, especially outside Asia. The trust in the power of Buddhist Dharma and Buddhist saviours, the pursuit of worldly and otherworldly benefits and the close alliance to state and rulers, which play a significant role in Asian Buddhist traditions, have been forgotten and in part are dismissed by modern representatives as magic or superstition. At the same time, the ideas about a de-mythologised and psychologised Buddhism transform the perception and practices of Buddhism in its Asian countries of origin. At the Heidelberg Institute for Religious Studies we are particularity interested in the popularity, reception and practices of formations inspired by Buddhism in Germany and northern Europe.
The novel interaction between religious and psychotherapeutic discourses, which came about in the nineteenth century in the course of the academic revolution and the formation of a new global concept of religion, has influenced global and local socio-cultural events to this day. Since we could observe it, there has been a relationship between various religious and therapeutic concepts. However only since the antagonistic confrontation of materialism and metaphysics in the early twentieth century, an amalgamation of opposing elements has been formed. Through this religio-therapeutic, understood as a dispositif of optimal adaptation, the religious appears in the therapeutic and vice versa. The convergence of religion(s) and psychotherapy can be seen in the worldwide yoga boom, mindfulness bug and zen hype, to name only a few examples.
Narratives, practices and materialities that are orientated in Buddhism, are currently being received in industrialised countries around the world as psychologically effective techniques. This reception is taking place on the basis of transcultural translation processes. Body and meditation practices of Buddhist decent are offered and practiced to positively influence the psyche to combat stress or other problems. The topos of mindfulness has been especially successful. It emerged from the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Vipassana and was initially received in therapeutic discourses in medicine and psychology in the 1970s. Since then, it has become a part of various discourses. Neuroscientists and psychotherapists are discussing and investigating the effects of meditative practices on mental health and the integration of meditative practices into psychotherapy is in increasingly higher demand. The Heidelberg Institute for Religious Studies is particularly interested in the question of legitimisation and plausibility strategies as well as the interplay between ascriptions and body practices in the field of mindfulness.
With the mediatization of society comes fundamental changes in all areas of society. The omnipresence of the influence and availability of media means that religious specialists and institutions no longer have the monopoly on religious narratives, designs and practices. Religious semantics are freely available and can be interpreted, reassembled and newly distributed by individual religious actors. Under these terms the narratives, materialities and practices which are commonly understood to belong to the so-called world religions, can be taken up by popular culture, reworked, blended and (re)interpreted on a large scale. This development raises questions about changes in the genuine religious field and the reciprocal effect of popular culture and religion. The question as to how far the field of popular culture is itself transforming into religion also arises.
The changing religious field which can be subsumed under the label of postmodern spirituality, is characterised by hybrids, syncretisms and innovations. These are at the centre of research focused on postmodern spirituality. Classic exclusive models of religious affiliation are replaced or supplemented by neu forms of social organisation such as mediation on the market, the establishment of religious networks, open participation structures, multiple affiliations and needs-orientated use of religious offers. This change is taking place under the influence of media, the internet and pervasive processes of aesthetic interventions. An abundance of content, practices and objects permeated with religious semantics are offered in the book market, the market for self-discovery and self-optimisation practices as well as in the media and on the web. An imagined transcendence is often thematised (through the term spirituality) as a power that lies within the human being or as a force that permeates all being. Historical religious rituals and practices are understood to be techniques, which are capable of giving access to the imagined entities.
Formations analogous to Religion
Developments in artificial intelligence are in the process of fundamentally transforming our planet, our society, and us as individuals. Our perception of humanness, our understanding of intelligence and consciousness, as well as how we live together is being shaken by AI. The disruptive power of AI also has severe effects on Religion. Artificial Intelligence is transforming religious institutions, movements, discourses, practices and actors. Independent of their religiosity all actors are completely involved in neu digital technologies. In order to not be helplessly subjected to the new technologies and the elites which utilize them, the modes of action of the discourses and practices of AI must be decoded.
Thus, the diagnostic potential of Religious studies should be applied in two areas. For one, the broad spectrum of interactions between religion and AI should be investigated. For another, the theories and findings of religious studies should be applied to AI as a formation analogous to religion.
Questions about the interactions between religion and artificial intelligence can be further divided into two areas: AI and religion and AI as religion. The former thematic block focusses in the influence of AI on religions, for example in mission and administration, in the use of AI (examples include religion in Apps or as the use of robots as priests), and in the transformation of religious beliefs and practices, such as in the form of new religious movements. Further, artificial intelligence can be investigated as a challenge to images of humans which are contingent on religion and culture and also as an impulse for theological processes of the conception of oneself (theologische Selbstverständigungsprozesse). The latter thematic block is concerned with the discourses and practices of AI as a formation analogous to religion. Key research questions point towards the religious rhetoric and soteriological promises of the discourses about AI, as well as the core functions of AI and the algorithms which AI can produce.
To investigate these questions, we must work with the discourse and ideology critical approaches of religious studies. With the help of multimethodological approaches, the societal dynamics and social consequences of AI can be presented and discussed. The material religion approach helps to consider the so far often neglected anthropological dimensions of AI-praxis. Aspects of gender-theory can generate insights about the effects of androcentric research into AI, as well as take the so far barely considered differences between male and female realities and the transformations of these realities through AI into account.
The research approach of economics of religion has in recent years successfully established the premise that religions need to be financed and so implement strategies to win and keep hold of paying users. Following this, research in economics of religion has, on one hand, delivered an abundance of pioneering findings, for example about the cost of religions and the competitive environment of religions on the market. On the other hand, this approach assumes that religious and secular offers can be differentiated.
By contrast, the approach labelled "religion and marketing/branding" investigates to what extent the narratives, practices and aesthetics of advertising, as part of a medialised and omnipresent popular culture, themselves take on traits analogous to religion. Also, which role semantics, which are seen as religious, play in advertising and how they transform fields understood to be secular.
For hundreds of years the phenomenon of conspiracy theories has appeared in societal discourses. In the last decades a rapid growth of conspiracy narratives can be observed in the new medial sphere of the internet. Religious studies research investigates conspiracy theories in religious contexts, conspiracy theories about religious groups, and conspiracy theories as phenomena analogous to religion. In the latter instance religious studies investigates conceptional similarities between conspiracy narratives and established religious communities and practices, for example in the conception of community, the formation of narratives or the negotiation of identity and boundaries of groups.
Religion and Society