Religious Embodiment, semiotics and the mundanity of ‘Worldview’: Reflections on the 2019 NGG Conference [Paper]

Baptist Standard

In de herfst van 2019 bezocht ik, net als in 2018 (‘Interpreting Rituals’), de NGG conferentie in Groningen, waar Charles Hirschkind te gast was om onder andere met PhD en RMA-studenten over embodiment, semiotiek en materiële benaderingen van religie te spreken. In mijn (waarschijnlijk niet al te toegankelijke, excuus) reflectie-paper kijk ik terug op enkele discussies en teksten rond deze thema’s, en koppel ik ze aan mijn huidige thesis-voorstel m.b.t. een documentaire over the Satanic Temple (Hail Satan?, 2019).

Religious embodiment, semiotics and the mundanity of ‘worldview’
Reflections on the 2019 NGG Conference

Tim Bouwhuis

Conferences are not only a means to hear about the research of fellow scholars; they actively encourage us to rethink the angle(s) from which we conduct our own projects. The NGG Conference in Groningen (30 Oct. – 1 Nov.) allowed me to prioritize some of the considerations that already kept me occupied when I was writing my RMA thesis proposal in the spring of 2019. Therefore, this paper aims to discuss some [theoretical] core questions that arose in the sessions with Charles Hirschkind (the masterclass on Wednesday morning, the keynote lecture on Wednesday afternoon) and during the ‘worldview’-roundtable on Thursday. My focus is twofold. On the one hand, I share some fragments from my proposal, which I subsequently discuss alongside the selected conference debates. On the other, I intend to stretch my reflection a bit further, stressing some questions and observations that apply to my research field (e.g. Religious Studies). Thus the paper will read as a personal recap annex extension of Religion and the Production of Difference.

Hail Satan? a thesis proposal

My RMA thesis proposal centers around the documentary Hail Satan? [dir. Penny Lane, 2019], a film that frames the American discourse on religious freedom through the lens of the Massachusetts-based Satanic Temple. On August 16th, 2018, members of the Temple exhibited a statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed representation of Satan, in front of Arkansas State Capitol. The statue was erected for one day and then taken down, because state laws did not allow permanent exposition. The Satanic Temple ordained that the statue was a symbol of free speech and plurality of beliefs, and it was also meant, quote, ‘’to protest the explicitly Christian values promoted by a Ten Commandments monument on capitol grounds[1], in keeping with the Satanic Temple’s belief that religious displays should not be placed on public property.’’[2] I state that the political and the religious merge beyond the point of return in this ‘religioscape’[3], a contemporary locus of fierce contestation that is exemplary for a much broader – and ongoing – public discourse.

One of the elements that fascinated me from the moment I started working on this case is the apparent paradox between the signs and symbols that the Temple members employ and the meaning(s) they adhere to them. I type ‘paradox’ because the gist of their discourse is that they make ample use of referents to an entity [e.g. Satan] they claim not to believe in. This is something that most [Christian] opponents of the Temple [here I am referring to the documentary] cannot understand, and it is one of the reasons the conflict appears indissoluble. The only tenable scholarly response to this diverging understanding and employment of what I call [group-based] social semiotics[4] is that we are dealing with different conceptions of how signs and symbols function, and, more particularly, of how tangible signifiers relate to that which is signified. In the case of the Satanists, the signifier [e.g. the Baphomet] in the sign is discursively disconnected from the signified. In the perception of Christians that oppose this view, however, the signifier and the signified are intrinsically connected. What I found striking with regard to the conference, and especially concerning the sessions with Charles Hirschkind, was that we actually had a more theoretical discussion about this precise distinction. In what follows I set out how we talked about it and why I am critical of any decision to privilege one of the two approaches.

Embodied dominions

In the masterclass, Hirschkind criticizes and destabilizes the discursive inclination to separate; mind from body, signifier from signified, meaning from practice. In Clifford Geertz’ work, for instance, there is a distinction to be found between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ that enforces the separation of life from unembodied, abstracted knowledge that exists ‘somewhere out there’. Hirschkind refers to an anecdote in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein that demonstrates how shifting expressions of ‘pain’ by children are not symbolic/referential but merely signify different modes or practices of living. He also mentions the paradox that is inherent to our mode of speech that connects ‘expression’ to the ‘inner self’ (e.g. our psychology]. If the two are separate, can the inner ever become ‘truly’ outer? Hirschkind stretches this argument in his keynote lecture, where he at one point states that he does not know where to draw boundaries between ‘culture’ and ‘religion’. This hesitation is [of course] consistent with the idea that embodiment and knowledge cannot be separated, which also makes it impossible to, for instance, relate culture to lived practice and religion to metaphysical gnosis. And indeed, in general I agree that such ideas are short-sighted and ultimately untenable. I see a problem, however, if this means we have to evade any kind of separation between embodied ‘directness’ and, in my case, the language of signs and symbols.

In the long run, Hirschkind’s critique would make it impossible to uphold a semiotic approach, for the distinction between ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ collapses once you refuse to adopt the respective ‘concrete’ [object that is used to refer to something] and ‘abstract’ [what that object refers to]. In this line of thought, the signifier somehow becomes the signified as well, because the argument against the semiotic approach is that the transcendental projection of the signified can never be validated, while it perpetuates the type of binary that many scholars working in academics nowadays love to deconstruct. My primary objection with Hirschkind’s critique, however, is that it is not so value-free as it initially appears to be. Moreover, it would problematize and further complicate my own research if I would adopt his critique as a theoretical starting point.

Decisionism and Religious Studies

When Ananda Abeysekara [whose texts we also discussed during the masterclass] talks about the separation of origin from change, which has informed many scholarly, postcolonially-minded narratives of religion and the problem of time, he argues that this idea is not given as such but based on what he calls a ‘decision’ that then turns into a decisive critique.[5] I would argue that something similar is at stake in Hirschkind’s decision to refute a separation between a realm of ideas and a realm of [embodied] reality. Although I can understand that this decision is grounded in the belief that we cannot say anything about the immaterial or the metaphysical [a very modern belief that bypasses most continental philosophy], I worry that it will affect our scholarly discourses on religious ideas about transcendence to a greater extent than we should wish for. The point is not that either one of the two approaches can be considered ‘false’ as such but that I am troubled we will fail to do justice to the lived experience to people who do uphold the signified and the transcendent if we ourselves have literally no scholarly space for anything immaterial. Partly, this argument might also align with a comment by Pooyan Tamimi Arab (Utrecht University), who contended that we should not forget the linguistic turn, which drew attention to the ways in which people configure their world(s) through language. While I do not think that Tamimi Arab was referring to the capacity of language to construct the immaterial, it does demonstrate the importance of semiotics and the apparent ease with which academics can start to criticize and deconstruct this concept.   

In the case of my research, it would mean that I would have to take the ‘paradox’ in the Temple’s discourse for granted from the start, since they publicly express the idea that all meaning is embodied and that their discourse be successfully ‘activated’ through material signs – this is completely in line with what I for now call the material approach. It would also mean that I cannot pay equal attention to their opponents, because I instantly disqualify the abstract, metaphysical realm that they refer to when they express their objections. Again, the point is not that I can state which one of the two discourses is credible, but that I am actually unable to – which is also why I cannot adopt Hirschkind’s perspective on semiotics and embodiment. Instead, a binary like ‘signifier’ versus ‘signified’ can actually help to conceive of the discourse these people frequently use; for the level of enchantment may vary from religious group to group and from individual to individual, but the notion that a portion of experience remains ‘concealed’ will usually occur, and it definitely does so in my research.

The risks in ‘worldview’

In our roundtable on Thursday, the question of ‘embodiment’ versus ‘transcendence’ became a question of definition. How do we define our field of study and which [political] implications does that choice bring along? ‘’Worldview and Levensbeschouwing: Productive Terms for Religious Studies?’’ was led by professor Todd Weir (RUG), who introduced the term ‘worldview’ to a panel of four speakers.[6] The speakers were encouraged to tell the audience how they used [or discredited] the term, after which professor Weir offered a more general critique. He mentioned the risk of having clashing ‘worldviews’, an idea that is obviously not new but inherent to the very notion of religious conflict and to theses such as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1996). The encompassing question is whether it is even possible to employ a general term that does not encapsulate this risk.

One of the most just comments during the session indicated how the ‘view’ in worldview perpetuates the connotation of a vast outlook, an abstract cadre of knowledge that informs a person’s [religious] orientation. View also gives the impression of a process that somehow starts from the inner, expressing a mental state, literally a particular sight or mode of seeing. This cognitive state is than implicitly opposed to emotional aspects, states Anja Visser (RUG) – recall how this comment is similar to the suggestion that knowledge can somehow stand apart from lived experience. Moreover, the term worldview tends to exclude the process of mobility and change, ‘the ‘searching’ for meaning. The idea in favor of the term here might be that if the ‘view’ would be too inconsistent, it would escape our understanding and it would become impossible to pin anything down. This is one of the most significant challenges for scholars of religion, for, especially in modern times, they do not want to essentialize and yet face the fact that they cannot say anything if they do not categorize in one way or another.

‘Worldview’ personally fascinates me as well because the ‘world’ in worldview [to twist the equation] does not encapsulate the supposed metaphysical world of the believer but merely the set of standards, ideas, beliefs [and so on] that informs one’s [supposedly overall] view on the material world. Thus, the definition appears to echo Hirschkind’s conception of religion as a phenomenon that is first and always embodied. In the roundtable, one attendant commented that she wondered where we leave the transcendental element if we would take ‘worldview’ as a new term to denote what is now the study of religion. This, I take it, is an essential comment, for it does justice to the experience of people many who call themselves ‘religious’ and do use that term to refer to something that is ‘not of this world’. Another comment by Helena van Coller (Rhodes University, SAF) had a similar implication, for she suggested that we should look at the ways in which the term ‘religion’ is understood and employed in local contexts. In line with my argument on the semiotic approach, I deem it important that we keep some space for experiences of the immaterial in and beyond the perceptible material world. ‘Life-view’ and ‘self-focus’, two other terms that were mentioned during the roundtable, also fail to deliver on this last promise. While they may justly indicate that we are generally experiencing an age of individualization, or what Charles Taylor phrased ‘expressive individualism’[7], they also exclude the senses of community and metaphysical experience that so often continue to (co-)inform religious life.  

Concluding remarks

The roundtable was rich in insights and opinions, but it also gave the impression that there was a general hesitance or maybe even unwillingness to move beyond endless nuances. It is evident that objections to either ‘religion’ or ‘worldview’ can always be brought up, but I am worried that if we start deconstructing and reconstructing again, as we already did so often [see, for instance, Shilbrack [2013] and Hanegraaff [2016], we will feed our zeitgeist but not necessarily progress, for in my own department [Philosophy and Religious Studies, Utrecht University], it is still only seven years ago that religious studies found solid ground in its final separation from theology. Maybe we also have to evade the idea that one term ‘has to cover it all’ – or we could continue to use ‘religion’ and process all nuances in the marge, rather than in the core, where discussion is doomed to eternalize.

I suggest that ‘religion’ and ‘Religious Studies’ remain useful terms to denote our field of study, that, albeit being far from ‘neutral’ due to their historical and scholarly usage, keep enough space for different conceptions of its content. I also think that we should give up the pretension of complete neutrality, since that very idea will always remain contested in the context of ‘religion’ and, as one of the attendants remarked during the roundtable, neutrality can be resentfully used as an excuse to evade those fundamental choices that have the potential to actually move your research forward. In the end, the notion may betray we us if we think we can successfully circumvent it. Objectivity remains a noble ideal, but I wonder whether we can ever meet its standards. I am well aware this observation may sound fierce in the context of my reservations with regard to Hirschkind’s discourse on embodiment. This particular insight, however, is not meant to discredit the material turn in any way, but rather to stimulate the search for effective combinations of scholarly perspectives and the convictions of religious practitioners, whereby we should always pay ample attention, following Birgit Meyer’s comment at the end of the roundtable, to pluralist and entangled configurations of religion in our modern world.


Abeysekara, Ananda. ‘’Modern Decision of Time and Life in Religion’’. Forthcoming, 2019.
Bouwhuis, Tim. ‘’Hail Satan? Arkansas State Capitol as a religioscape’’. Accessed November 7th, 2019.
Ducharme, Jamie. ‘’The Satanic Temple Protested a Ten Commandments Monument in Arkansas with its Baphomet Statue’’. Accessed June 18th, 2019.
Hayden, R.M. and T.D. Walker. ‘’Intersecting Religioscapes: A Comparative Approach to Trajectories of Change, Scale, and Competitive Sharing of Religious Spaces’’. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81 (2) (2013): 399-426.
Leeuwen, T. van. Introducing Social Semiotics. Routledge: Routledge University Press, 2005.
Religion and the Production of Difference. Annual Conference of the Dutch Association for the Study of Religion. Program Book. 2019.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Harvard: University of Harvard Press, 2007.

T.a.v. Kim Knott.


[1] E.g. the same capitol grounds.

[2] Jamie Ducharme, ‘’The Satanic Temple Protested a Ten Commandments Monument in Arkansas with its Baphomet Statue’’. Accessed June 18th, 2019.

[3] This spring, I wrote an essay for a course on Materiality in the study of Religion, in which I elaborated on the possibility of using the term ‘religioscape’, a shared and [thus] contested religious space, [Hayden & Walker, 2013] within my theoretical framework. Tim Bouwhuis, ‘’Hail Satan? Arkansas State Capitol as a religioscape’’. Accessed November 7th, 2019.

[4] I adopt this term from the work of Theo van Leeuwen (2005). Social semiotics refers to the consistent usage of a set of signs and symbols in a group context, whereby the group has a particular understanding of how these signs and symbols function.

[5] Ananda Abeysekara, ‘’Modern Decision of Time and Life in Religion’’, Forthcoming, 2019, 1.

[6] Hans Alma (University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht), Brenda Mathijssen (RUG), Anja Visser (RUG), Markus Davidsen (Leiden University)

[7] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard: The University of Harvard Press, 2007), 473.

Note by the author (March, 2021): I have shifted to a new subject in autumn 2020.

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