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Comparative Study on the Contemporary Religious World through Things

Research period:2017.10-2020.3

YAGI Yuriko


Religion, things, faith


This study was conducted to develop an understanding of the contemporary religious situation, with emphasis on religious objects including many ‘religious’ things that construct religious space. Religious objects, which are fundamentally sacred objects in which a Divine Being is often represented, are used in certain religious contexts. However in today’s world, with the progress of industrialization and globalization, many replicas of religious objects such as saint images and statues are being produced. They can easily spread or be adopted in different contexts in which they will be obtained and used even by people who have differing religious traditions. This prevailing situation of religious objects requires elucidation of the contemporary religious world, where we observe new styles of religious practice.
This study mainly examines the cases of Christianity, Buddhism, Islamic, and Hinduism, observing aspects of expanding flows of ‘religious’ things beyond the original range of the religious sphere and the phases of their production on their increase and acceptance. This study also reveals those influences in their respective religious worlds, with discussion of the role of things related to religion and faith in the present day. As subjects of this study, we examine religious objects such as those used as representative materials of devotion (saint statue, religious painting, fetish, etc.) and also a variety of things related to religious contexts and use in rituals (as instruments of sound or music in religious ceremonies) and configurations of religious space (architecture, decoration, etc.). Through comparison of some cases of different religious things, we consider the relations among things, faith, and people.

Research Results

In this research project, we conducted a comparative analysis on the situation related with religious objects in different regions—from dogmatic aspects to practice—based on field cases reported by project members who studies on Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and folk religions. This enabled us to gain a more in-depth understanding of the condition about religious things in each religion, and develop a basic framework for examining the realities surrounding variety of objects, including both differences between religions and regional variations within the same religion.
Based on this, we shed fresh light on contemporary issues surrounding things in the religious sphere by focusing on religious objects that have spread around the world due to the expansion of the production, distribution, and consumption of things in recent years, and the surrounding landscape in each region. Notably, the following two groups of issues were discussed in-depth.
1) the reproduction of religious things: This relates to the production of multiples images or statues, such as the localization and popularization of sacred image, and the increase of commercialization of them. We found that while the overabundance of religious objects has resulted in problems related to disposal, the accumulation of these objects has also have an effect of increasing the holiness of the gods.
2) the materiality of things: This includes changes in material of religious things and related practices, the emergence of new device such as digital media that have introduced the religious sphere in recent years, and the diffuse of religious practices that have replaced by daily use commodities. In addition, the importance of focusing on materiality and senses instead of looking only at the aspect of visualizing the sacred image (i.e., things that cannot be seen) as the role of things in the religious sphere also emerged in the course of the research project, such as functions that affect hearing, smell, touch, and other senses.
In this way, while focusing on anthropology, the project members incorporated knowledge from adjacent disiplinces such as art history and musicology, which enabled members to look at a wide range of things used in religious contexts and the circumstances of practices surrounding them from a variety of angles.