Photo: The Mother Temple of the new religious movement Vale do Amanhecer, DF. Brazil. Founded in the 1960s, with Theosophical, Kardecist and Umbandist influences, this group has over 700 temples around the world, with 140,000 registered members and many more people attending its rituals.

Spirit-incorporation religions in Brazil & theory/method.

Research Statement

I have two guiding principles. Religions reflect their social and cultural contexts. Good scholarship unites substantive, methodological, theoretical and meta-theoretical work.

In the field, I look at a local market of religious services in Brazil, especially participation by self-identified Catholics in the rituals of spirit-incorporation traditions. Few scholars look at middle- and upper-class religiosity in the interior cities of São Paulo. The permeability of religious boundaries in Brazil has led me to study and publish on four separate traditions in this religious field: popular Catholicism, Kardecism (transplanted French Spiritism ); Umbanda (a esoteric hybrid of Kardecism and Afro-Brazilian Candomblé); and Neo-Pentecostalism (which appropriates and inverts competing religions’ doctrines and rituals in a “religiophagic” manner).

I recently received two research grants (SSHRC Explore and AAR Collaborative International) to lead a joint project on “Ritual Polyphony in Afro-Brazilian Religions,” with fieldwork in two cities in the state of Minas Gerais. The research team includes three Brazilian colleagues: Ângela Cristina Borges, Professor of Religious Studies at the Universidade Estadual de Montes Claros (UNIMONTES), a specialist in Afro-Brazilian religions; Guaraci M. Dos Santos, doctoral student in Religious Studies at PUC-Minas and pai de santo (“saint father”) of one of Belo Horizonte’s oldest multi-religious terreiros; and Alexandre Frank Silva Kaitel, Associate Professor of Psychology and doctoral student in Religious Studies at PUC-Minas, in addition to being an Umbandist medium. A small number of Afro-Brazilian terreiros (“grounds” or temples) hold the rituals of one religion one day and another the next, each with distinct beliefs, roles and artifacts. The four religions most commonly involved in this part of Brazil are Candomblé, Umbanda, Quimbanda and Congado. The same leaders organize and lead these sessions, and many members participate in both. This ritual polyphony (as I call it) is little studied, and it challenges how scholars frame religions as discrete entities and religious identities as mutually exclusive. In addition, there are few published studies on Quimbanda and Congado. Principal fieldwork as completed in the (northern) summer of 2019.

Studying in Brazil forces me to rethink what “religion” is. My assumptions and training initially led me down a dead-end path. I rebooted by foregrounding religious practitioners’ views of “religion” and “healing,” by reading widely in the Brazilian secondary literature (study of religion, anthropology, social theory) and by working with multiple methods and grounded theory.

A meta-theoretical frame emerges from my collaborative cross-disciplinary work with philosopher of language Mark Gardiner. This interdisciplinary project is having an impact on both the study of religion and philosophy. and it underpins the view that meaning is rooted in networked connections between words (and actions) in specific contexts, in my case particular regional and class locations in Brazil.