Review of M. Vásquez “More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion”

Manuel A. Vásquez, More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 382 pp, ISBN: 978-0-19-518854-7.


In More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion, Manuel A. Vásquez undertakes a genealogical study of anti-materialist and materialist trends in the study of religion in order to present his own materialist theory of religion, which is designed to aid scholars in their study of religious peoples as embodied beings in specific historical, geographical, and social contexts. Vásquez’s analysis draws on a variety of disciplines, from philosophy and religious studies to psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Throughout, Vásquez makes a compelling case for the necessity of a materialist approach to the study of religions – without a sense of the corporeal, the material, and placement, the study of religions is critically lacking.

More Than Belief contains an Introduction, eleven chapters, and a Conclusion. Vásquez arranges the chapters under three broad headings: Embodiment, Practice, and Emplacement. Part I, Embodiment, encompasses seven chapters; the remaining two sections have two chapters each. This division reflects what Vásquez identifies as three key sites of focus: the body, practice, and places and spaces constructed by religious activity.

Over the course of the chapters in More Than Belief, there is a vast quantity of information presented to the reader. Combined with the variety of subjects discussed, a reader may lose sight of the end goal – Vásquez’s materialist theory of religion. A general understanding of Vásquez’s theory places the content of the first two sections in context. Vásquez describes his materialism as “non-anthropocentric, networked, flexible, and immanentist” (319), and with his theory seeks to incorporate all aspects of living which affect the religious practitioner. This includes overcoming the body-mind dualism that has persisted in Western philosophy into the 20th Century, an awareness of the impact of environmental factors (social and ecological) on religious traditions, and broadly, the interconnectedness of peoples, places, and things. To Vásquez, the study of religion must value more than religious texts or notions of belief; although those are clearly relevant, as scholars we must embrace the full scope of a religious tradition as it is embodied, practiced, and lived.

The first four chapters of Part I focus on Western philosophers and philosophies that have had a significant impact on the way the body has been viewed historically, in relation to Western religious traditions, and in the early academic study of religion. It is important to note that Vásquez is concerned here with only Western philosophers and Western religious traditions, primarily Christianity. Vásquez traces an impressive lineage of thought starting with Plato and Aristotle, touching on early Christian theologians, and modern Western philosophers including Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Nietzche, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Marx. In Chapter 3 Vásquez begins his discussion of phenomenology and offers his conception of a materialist phenomenology which would consider how religious meaning is made by embodied individuals as they explore their world via the senses and experiences, power relations with others, and various constructed and natural environments. This in turn sets the stage for his discussion in Chapter 4 of the major phenomenologists of religion from Max Muller, Gerardus van der Leeuw, Mircea Eliade, Ninian Smart, and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, to Gavin Flood, Ann Taves, Thomas Csordas, and Leigh Schmidt. As a side note, a reader unfamiliar with phenomenology and phenomenology of religion will benefit from addressing that gap prior to starting More Than Belief.

Chapter 5 shifts the conversation to the notion of social constructionism and the various forms it takes (i.e. ‘softer,’ ‘stronger,’ ‘discursive,’ ‘non-discursive’). Once again Vásquez takes a historical-genealogical approach looking at the origins of modern social constructionism in the work of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Durkheim, Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger, and Mary Douglas. The second and third sections of the chapter look at the post-structuralist work of Michel Foucault and the social constructionism of Judith Butler. Prior knowledge of these writers and theories is quite helpful, if not absolutely required. As Vásquez writes at the end of the chapter, his discussion of social constructionism’s origins and key proponents is a necessary foundation for Chapter 6, in which he attempts “to sketch a social constructionism that allows for the body’s multiple materialities, materialisties that are surely encountered through but can not be exhausted by discourse” (147).

In the introductory section to Chapter 6 Vásquez expresses a key theme of More Than Belief, “[i]t is not enough for scholars of religion to examine the textual and discursive strategies through which religion is constituted as a field of activity. Scholars of religion must take into account how ecology, biology, psychology, culture, language, and history interact to give rise to particular ways of being religious” (150). This statement positions Vasquez and his arguments both for the current chapter and previews the chapters to come.

Vásquez divides Chapter 6 into four sections; the first two sections discuss the works of three feminist materialists, Susan Bordo, Susan Hekman, and Karen Barad. The third section moves away from feminism to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theories of the body, such as ‘body without organs (BwO),’ autopoietics, and autopoiesis. The final section examines the work of Donna Haraway’s vision of cyborgs and ‘material-semiotic actors.’ The connecting thread of these various theories is social constructionism, which Vásquez views as falling short in taking “seriously the multiple materialities that constitute the body” (169).

The focus of Chapter 7, the final chapter in Part I, is to show how the incorporation of new research in the areas of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and evolution can, when combined with “materialist insights of phenomenology and social constructionism,” create a “flexible and robust framework” for the study of religions (173). In order to do that, Vásquez first provides a brief history of cognitive science as a discipline, reviewing Noam Chomsky’s ‘generative linguistics,’ David Chalmer’s ‘cognitivism’ or CRUM (computational-representational understanding of the mind), and the enactive approach of Varela, Thompson, and Rosch. The second section of the chapter moves to the cognitive science of religion and discusses the work of scholars and scientists such as Dan Sperber, Pascal Boyer, Harvey Whitehouse, Justin Barrett, and Richard Dawkins. The third section considers the work of Edward Slingerland and ‘ontological dualism.’ Vásquez concludes Part I by borrowing from Haraway’s cyborg theory, observing that humans are cyborgs who are “determined by different but networked forms of materiality” and that the task of the “religion scholar is to study how the relatively fluid interaction among these forms of materiality makes possible symbols, beliefs, affects, practices, object, institutions, and environments that come to be lived as religious” (208).

Chapters 8 and 9 – Part II – are concerned with textualism and the study of religious texts as they relate to practice and material location. The ethnographic work of Clifford Geertz factors strongly in Chapter 8, displaying what Vásquez describes as an “excessive symbolism” despite Geertz’s effort to locate his subjects in time and space, leading to a “one-dimensional view of religion” which sees religion as “a set of expressive texts to be enacted and decoded” rather than something enacted by people in the physical world (220). Vásquez indicates that the purpose of Chapter 9 is to “trace a genealogy of the praxis approach to religion” (234). Vásquez concludes that texts are an important part of the study of religion, and as with all other aspects of religious traditions, must be located in time and space as the results of “production and consumption” (255).

Chapter 10 is the first chapter in the final section, Emplacement. Vásquez begins by highlighting space as a key category in the academic study of religion, and additionally states that space is a “core epistemological category” in a non-reductive materialist approach to the study of religions (262). For Vásquez, space and emplacement are “tightly entwined with time, mobility, organic evolution, ecological interconnectedness, and the contested construction of individual and collective identities” (262). Over the course of the chapter, Vásquez guides the reader through key thinkers about place, space, and religious communities, considering the work of Durkheim, Eliade, J.Z. Smith, and Thomas Tweed. It is helpful to keep in mind that Vásquez is particularly concerned with theories which are flexible enough to account for the relocation of people. Tweed’s theories form the bridge between Vásquez’s discussion of space in Chapter 10 and the discussion of place, mobility, and networks in Chapter 11. Vásquez observes in the last paragraph of Chapter 10 that his use of networks as part of his materialist theory is a “salutary corrective to the anti-structural force of Tweed’s notion of flows” while networks also allow him to retain the “dynamism and open-endedness” of Tweed’s theory (290). In considering space and mobility in Chapter 11, Vásquez critiques Tweed’s hydrodynamic theory by examining the complexities of global movement in an age where “segregation, surveillance, and control” are factors in (and potential barriers to) transnational flows (292).

The focus of Chapter 11 is on network theory and the potential application for the materialist study of religion. Vásquez offers a reconceptualization of networks as systems which “evolve across time and space” and will often be “flexible, highly dynamic, nontotalizing, and multidirectional structures of relationality” (298). As applied to religions and the study of religions, networks provide “structured and structuring dynamism” which may be viewed as complementary to Tweed’s hydrodynamic flow theory. In closing his discussion on networks, Vásquez persuasively summarizes his perspective: “Networks can help us to account for mobile religion’s flexibility, mobility, connectivity, and innovation, without ignoring how it is often implicated in the hard realities of exclusion, exploitation, and subjugation, which are also part and parcel of globalization” (311). Chapter 11 concludes with a section on ecology and emplacement which argues for a holistic and nontotalizing “approach to religious place-making” which can be understood as “an interplay among multiple materialities: social construction and the environment afford each other” (317). While pieces of Vásquez’s materialist theory of religion are spread throughout the chapters, it is at the very end of Chapter 11 and in the Conclusion that Vásquez finally arrives at a discussion of his materialist theory of religion in a condensed form, which I summarized above.

More Than Belief is a substantial contribution to the field of religious studies, particularly for those scholars concerned with transnational movement of religious populations. Vásquez’s materialist theory of religion reinforces and solidifies the argument that it is vital for the study of religions to account for all aspects of a religion, including those material factors (physicality, socio-cultural and geographic locations, etc.) which significantly affect practitioners. Furthermore, Vásquez’s approach to forming a theory of religion argues for the necessity of a multi-disciplinary approach for the study of religions, drawing on the diverse fields of philosophy, feminism, cognitive neuroscience, anthropology, ecology, and geography.

However, this lengthy and complicated text is also hindered by that same multi-disciplinary approach. This is not a volume I would recommend for undergraduates; Vásquez indicates in the Introduction that he wrote this book due, in part, to his experiences as a graduate instructor lacking a sufficient model or theory to use to make sense of the study of transnational religious populations. While there are aspects of the book’s structure that reflect a classroom use – Vásquez’s summaries at the beginning of each chapter, and topical summaries scattered throughout the chapters – they may not overcome the density of material a reader is required to absorb in preparation for Vásquez’s theory presented in the final chapter. Also, as someone who has not formally studied philosophy, the first several chapters were daunting and required me to do a bit of background reading on phenomenology before continuing with Vásquez’s text. More Than Belief was recommended to me after my work on theories for studying Buddhist communities in the United States, so I was disappointed to find that Vásquez spends so little time, comparatively speaking, on the potential applications of his theory in regards to religious populations on the move.

In conclusion, Vásquez’s theory provides a valuable and much-needed approach to studying contemporary religious communities, especially those in motion. I couldn’t agree more when Vásquez writes in the concluding chapter that “we can only appreciate their full materiality if we contextualize and historicize them, if we approach them as phenomena produced, performed, circulated, contested, sacralized, and consumed by embodied and emplaced individuals” (321).

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N.B. After writing my review, I was curious what other reviews say about More Than Belief. Here are two that offer very different perspectives on the book than what I’ve offered here:

Review by Chad E. Seales in Sociology of Religion Vol. 72, Issue 4 (Winter 2011) p.485-487. [Preview available on the journal’s website]

Review by Paul-Francois Tremlett in Culture and Religion Vol. 12, Issue 3 (2011) p. 339-342. [Preview available on the journal’s website]

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