Around the turn of the twenty-first century, the focus on “public religion” emerged as a critical project to deconstruct modernist understandings of religion and thus the category of religion itself. This project implied not only the need to transcend a Eurocentric scholarly approach to religion, but also required that scholars became aware of and venture into an ethnographic study of the taken-for-granted, normative, and increasingly politicized take on religion as a private affair in policies and debates in European societies. Scholars used the qualifier “public” as a critical signpost to highlight not only the ways in which religious traditions actually are present in and continue to shape the public domain, but also the blind spots in conventional conceptualizations of religion through which one fails to notice how, in various societies past and present, religions “go public” and “make things public” in multiple ways.

In his introductory essay to this forum Matthew Engelke rightly states that the term “public religion” “does not always make sense outside of the framings of liberal modernity in which it first came to prominence.” Religion may not only be so omnipresent and enmeshed within all spheres of life in certain societies that its publicness is taken as natural by their members, but also the meaning of “publicness” itself may be quite different from how scholars grounded in Western academic epistemologies understand the term. Of course, this caveat is not meant to dismiss the study of “public religion,” but part of its critical rethinking. And this rethinking, as the eight essays featured in this forum show, proceeds by moving between grounded research and epistemological reflexion. Taken together, these essays question the “silo effects” that impede scholarly conversations across regions by highlighting broader issues about the religion-public nexus that call for further comparison and, perhaps even more importantly, contemplation. The latter is what drives this essay, which I do not intend as a conclusion but as an outlook indicating new vistas.

As a collective, social phenomenon, religion gathers people around certain authorized practices and ideas, the material articulation and perpetuation of which require at least some degree of publicness. Normative ideas about religion in the public sphere, as they emerged in post-Enlightenment societies in Europe, are part of a distinct, liberal mode of regulating the public role and place of religion(s) that exists next to other modes. While we need to be sensitive toward those alternative modes, we must also acknowledge that the framings of liberal modernity, though of Western provenance, touch ground across the world in adapted forms. This has occurred since the colonial era and gained momentum in the wake of IMF-induced policies of good governance that accompanied the spread of neo-liberal capitalism, entailing the concomitant deregulation of state-controlled mass media and their appraisal by religious groups, that prompted the initial scholarly turn to public religion in the late 1990s. It is one of our key tasks as scholars to explore the conditions and power relations under which the publicness of religion occurs in various modalities and across a broad spectrum of societies all over the world. Taking a relatively “thin” understanding of public religion that challenges—rather than transports—the term’s typical liberal and normative baggage, the essays assembled here alert us to various intriguing modalities of the religion-public nexus.

Religious Publicity in Plural Spheres

The crucial role of mass media and social media in shaping publics has often been emphasized. Patrick Eisenlohr aptly summarizes the point: “Publics come about through circulating interplays of images, sounds and discourses, and acts of circulation are often also acts of perception.” But of course, not all those who witness such images, sounds, and discourses are prepared to perceive and sense along. People may feel addressed and compelled to be part of a particular religious group, but they may also neglect such articulations, be tolerant or indifferent, or openly detest and oppose them. Being part of a public that is targeted by all sorts of religious media expressions does not necessarily involve active and positive participation. Refusal or reluctance of being targeted by certain forms of public religion, possibly entailing the cultivation of “techniques of inattention,” form an intriguing research topic.

As the essays in this forum show, when religious groups go public they operate in plural settings with different majority-minority relations and competing (religious) publics. In Rwanda, the flourishing Pentecostal churches manifest themselves through dancing, singing, and loud preaching, contrasting significantly with silent meditation privileged by the still dominant Catholic Church and even becoming charged with “noise” pollution by the state. As a tiny minority in Myanmar, evangelicals keep on preaching to a largely indifferent Buddhist audience, and the very act of preaching that serves to realize publicity over and over again is cherished as an aim in itself. As a double minority (vis-à-vis Sunni Muslims and the overall Hindu majority), Shia Muslims in Mumbai conduct highly mediatized Muharram processions so as to assert their right to certain parts of the city. And across the Muslim world, by using commercial global channels like YouTube and Facebook, Sufis seek to reach transregional Islamic and other publics with their music against the dominance and power of Salafi-oriented forms of Islam.

These cases, though different in many respects, alert us to the fact that religious groups embark on going public from different positions in highly heterogenous, unequally plural environments and employ different “forms of religious publicity” specific to their orientation. Publicity itself is inflected by theological ideas about being in and (re)making the world that may accommodate new media more or less easily. For actors and groups positioned outside of the mainstream, the possibilities of achieving publicity and addressing (let alone constituting) large publics are limited. Exactly for that reason, the struggles of these actors and groups form exemplary starting points for exploring less successful facets of “public religion.” Paying attention to them moves the scope of our research beyond the strong focus on the internal dynamics within the groups that negotiate and adopt new media, or on highly successful modes of achieving a smashing public presence (as, for instance, has been the case in much research on Pentecostalism in Africa, including my own). The dynamics of publicity in plural religious environments from the angle of disadvantaged groups certainly deserve much more attention in future research.


Even for religious groups that dominate a particular environment, going public comes with certain problems. Arsalan Khan draws attention to the “paradox of Islamization” in his study of the Tablighi Jamaat movement in Pakistan, whose members scold other Muslims for abandoning pure Islam and causing fitna. To revert the situation, Tablighis draw the attention of other Muslims through certain public modes of preaching and a characteristic outfit that makes them identifiable as pious. This public visibility, of course, also exposes them to public scrutiny, ensuing criticisms and charges of hypocrisy. The increasing public expansion of pious Islam into virtually all domains of society comes at the cost of watering down the very piety that is intended to be spread. This is not only an important contribution to research on Islamic piety movements, but also interesting in comparison with, for instance, Pentecostal movements, where (as I also noted in my own research) a similar logic of spread and dilution can be identified. Repercussions of this stance are also evoked in Naomi Haynes’s essay on the framing of Zambia as a Christian state, and its deceased presidents as staunch men of God. The actual operations of these presidents raise doubts about their sincerity and moral righteousness that cannot easily be effaced by the grave monuments built in their honor. It remains to be seen for how long such a precarious balance may hold.

That “religion’s publicness can be fatal” in other respects than the cases offered by Khan and Haynes, is shown by Kajri Jain who calls attention to the attachment of publicness to icons and shrines. The procession of icons out of the shrines into a plural religious environment that is “beyond the control of Brahmin priests” implies that images of Hindu deities not only take place in and temporarily take over the public domain, but also become possible targets for desecration and outbursts of communal violence. A powerful public presence of a religious form may unleash forces that try to break it—and yet may ultimately strengthen it again, as in so many cases of public “iconoclash” (in the sense of Latour). These three essays invite longterm historical research on the dangers and paradoxes involved in what at first seem like successful ways of claiming public presence and becoming highly visible and audible in the public domain.

Sensory Spectacles

All the essays in this forum approach public religion from a material and sensorial angle, paying attention to sensations evoked by various “religious matters,” including images of deities, monuments, processions, dress, and beards, as well as public sermons, songs, and so on. Taken together, they point to the importance of redressing the long-dominant visual bias by paying attention to sound and smell—not in isolation, of course, but as part of a larger, synesthetic whole.

Jain and Eisenlohr are most explicit in this regard. Jain evokes a “teeming cornucopia of images and sensations interwoven into the fabric of everyday life,” making that Hinduism permeates the atmosphere in which people live and worship. How might we theorize a fluent notion such as atmosphere, as a way to rethink the pervasive, sensorial ways through which religions go public? While I am not sure about Eisenlohr’s claim that the sonic has a privileged role in making for the “holistic character of sensory religion”—why not assign this privileged role to the sense of touch, for instance?—I welcome his suggestion to employ the notion of atmosphere in the sense of a holistic Gestalt that synthesizes sensory impressions into a certain “feel.” Such a “feel”—or mood or ambience—is difficult to grasp and yet real. I think that the notion of atmosphere may well be used to analyze the capacity of a religious group to design a pervasive, albeit temporary, public presence. This pertains not only to the phenomena studied by Jain and Eisenlohr, but also to the difficult-to-neglect public presence of the Tablighis in Pakistan, Pentecostals in Zambia and Rwanda, and Buddhists in Myanmar.

Given the plurality of the settings in which religions go public, the issue is not only to understand how atmospheres become dominant, but also to be alert to dissonances that are perceived to spoil a “good” atmosphere. While a focus on atmosphere may thus allow a grasp of a holistic Gestalt, it is important to pay attention to the forces—and possible alternative, competing atmospheres—that disrupt and fragment attempts at holism, and concomitant totalizing power claims. So here, too, my interest leads to the gaps, cracks, and paradoxes that are part of and shape public religion, which I take to be a plural, differentiated phenomenon by default.