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Exploring Aniconism: IAHR 2015 Panel Review

Mikael Aktor reviews the panel he co-organised on Aniconism at the 2015 IAHR World Conference in Erfurt, Germany.

Anicionic objects from different religious traditions together form a broad category of religious material sources. In fact, it seems both too broad and incoherent. It includes clearly recognizable depictions of wheels, fish, phalli, unmanufactured objects and elements in the natural environment such as unwrought stones, trees, rivers and mountains, fashioned objects, such as stelai and logs, as well as empty spaces, such as vacant seats, and empty rooms. While all of these objects are described as ‘aniconic’ at least in some religious traditions, they differ dramatically in their religious agency and manner of mediating divine presence. A South Asian river can be a Hindu goddess, while it is hardly an image of her. Similarly, a black meteorite could be described as Cybele the mother goddess, yet it does not seem to articulate a vision of the divinity’s imagined appearance. At the same time, a river and a stone have markedly different physical and visual relations to their viewers and worshippers as well as the deities to which they are linked. In order to explore the range of aniconism, Mikael Aktor and Milette Gaifman organised a panel at the 21st World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR)to discuss these questions.
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Thoughts on Death and Immortality

Ludwig Feuerbach, the 19th century philosopher and theologian, discusses the modern idea of the soul and immortality in this excerpt from his 1830 book, Thoughts on Death and Immortality. Feuerbach was the original “materialist” in that he felt human existence to be subsumed in the larger existence of nature and society. Philosophical anthropology, the philosophy of the existence and experience of personhood, remained a key theme across all of his work. Feuerbach thought that modern Christianity’s notion of the soul and its immortality was errant. His attempt to ground human existence in the natural world could be seen as one of the earliest attempts to overcome the mind-body dualism that had become entrenched in European religion, through Christianity, and European philosophy, through Descartes. Given Feuerbach’s perspective, a focus on materiality and environment cannot be separate from a philosophical anthropology that supports or denies their significance.

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History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates

Ann Taves reviews the accounts of the golden plates that Joseph Smith discovered and interpreted. In spite of conflicting historical evidence regarding the actuality of the plates, Taves suggests a nuanced approach of skilled perception as a means to resolve the challenges of accepting their reality wholesale or denying their reality and inferring that Smith intentionally misled people. This excerpt reproduces the first two sections of the longer article cited below.

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The ‘Magritte effect’ in the study of religion, Part I and II

In this theoretically rich piece, Jean-Pierre Warnier discusses the entanglement of ‘things’ and their representations.In most religious traditions, this topic plays an important historical role in determining how devotees respond to imagery and materiality, especially as these media convey or embody their most important religious concepts.Cycles of iconophilia and iconoclasm relating to this issue form a central thread in the Abrahamic faiths, for instance.Warnier insists that scholars of religion need to be more circumspect regarding the ‘cognitive gap’ that exists between the praxeological ‘things’ of a religious tradition and the representations of those things.

Non-ordinary Powers: Charisma, Special Affordances and the Study of Religion

Ann Taves presents a rich theoretical work on religious objects. Reviewing Max Weber’s ideas about charisma, J.J. Gibson’s ecological psychology, and a range of other theorists too numerous to mention, Taves produces a novel account, deeply informed by cognitive science, regarding the fascinating roles objects have played in religious traditions.
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