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In the academy, certain ideas about modernity and religion have loomed especially large for the study of visual and material cultures of religions. In the twentieth century, as the disciplines most relevant to this field of inquiry took institutional shape, the secularization theory of modernity asserted a waning role for religion in Western cultural production. Academics in the past decade or so have directed considerable attention to dismantling the secularization paradigm, documenting religion’s refusal to go quietly—or even to go at all. Moving into scholarly focus now is the extent and nature of impact, for the study of religion’s material practices, perpetuated under intellectual regimes that characterized religion as a vestigial production unsuited to modern nations like the United States.

If modernity’s narration stumbled over the notion of religion’s persistence, having relegated religious practice to a distant past and to antiquated cultures, this scenario situated material objects at the heart of the difficulty. Western narratives of modernity have inevitably been developmental ones, pressing religious people from idolatrous behaviors to the metaphysics of belief, in the process securing modern religion from presumed corruption by animated objects: the idols, fetishes, and totems of purportedly pre-modern “others.” Modernist re-formations insisted on properly constraining and transforming the material world.

The modern development of the category “art” consequently lifted some objects and pictures out of the material realm and into the intellectual or abstract. Among the objects left stranded by this set of divisions, demoted to the position of minor arts if noticed at all, were those most intimately connected to the material practices of religions. This Center seeks to address some of these focal and interpretive gaps and to suggest alternative histories, means, and theories of engagement.

For more on this subject see: Sally M. Promey and Shira Brisman, “Sensory Cultures: Material and Visual Religion Reconsidered,” Blackwell Companion to Religion in America, Philip Goff, ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 177-205.