Religious objects have been making headlines lately. From controversies surrounding the presence of religious objects in schools and on city streets to proposed legislation for regulating the presence of religious objects and clothing in Québec and at Canadian citizenship ceremonies, religious objects remain an important – if sometimes problematic – aspect of contemporary Canadian society.
But the presence of religious objects in Canada and elsewhere has also been problematic for academic scholarship on religion. In fact, the continued public presence of religious objects seems at times to contradict two extremely influential paradigms for understanding the place of religion in the modern world: secularization and disenchantment.
Secularization and Disenchantment
Basically, the secularization paradigm holds that “modernization creates problems for religion” (Bruce 2002, 2) by virtue of its being a process according to which “religious institutions, actions, and consciousness, lose their social significance” (Wilson 1982, 149). In other words, if the secularization paradigm is correct in its diagnosis of the modern situation, religious objects should be less present (and less problematic) in contemporary Canadian society than they appear to be.
The Disenchantment paradigm, on the other hand, argues instead that modern individuals prefer rational, technical, and scientific explanations to religious or magical ones. Or as Michael Saler puts it, disenchantment means that “wonders and marvels have been demystified by science, spirituality has been supplanted by secularism, spontaneity has been replaced by bureaucratization, and the imagination has been subordinated to instrumental reason” (Saler 2006, 692). In other words, if the disenchantment paradigm is correct in its diagnosis of the modern situation, objects (religious or otherwise) should have lost their power to fascinate and enchant.
A Digital Exhibition of Religious and Powerful Objects
What, then, are we to make of the continued presence of religious and powerful objects in contemporary Canadian society? What do these objects look like? How are they used and how do they influence our lives?
This digital exhibition explores these questions through a curated collection of words and images. We asked Canadians to reflect on the presence of religious and powerful objects in their everyday lives. Each submission includes a photograph of a religious or powerful object as well as a brief description of what makes that object special, different, powerful, or religious.
The idea was to ask Canadians to speak for themselves about the powerful objects that exist in our shared religious and secular spaces. We wanted to see and hear about some of the special objects Canadians encounter, wear, touch, keep, and hold. We wanted to explore what these objects mean, the roles they play in our everyday lives, and the ways they influence our subjective experience of the world.
The exhibition contains nine objects photographed and described by nine different Canadians. In it, we encounter nine unique views on the nature, role, and importance of religious and powerful objects. Some of these views are expressed in a single paragraph; others come in the form of academic essays. But what, if anything, do these objects have in common?
Like any exhibition, this one showcases a limited and non-representative sample. As such, its goal is not to provide answers but rather to help frame new questions about the presence, importance, and significance of religious and powerful objects in Canada. But I would still like to point out a few interesting themes and ideas that struck me when thinking about the images and objects we received.
I think it’s interesting to think about where religious and powerful objects are kept. The submissions in this digital exhibition reveal that these kinds of objects appear in public institutional settings such as retirement homes and museums and in private spaces such as dorm rooms, offices, and homes. Sometimes these kinds of objects follow us around either worn as bracelets and necklaces or else tattooed on our skin…
I also think it’s fascinating to consider what these religious and powerful objects mean. Sometimes these kinds of objects are associated with family or religious traditions. Other times they refer back to personal experiences or important memories. Often these objects make us think. They can make us think about our personal and religious pasts and present, about our family, and about our hopes for the future…
But these kinds of objects are not only reminders of shared traditions and experiences. In some cases, these objects are something that we use as well. Sometimes we use these objects in religious practices. Other times use them to boost self-confidence, to help generate luck, or to protect us from misfortune. In other words, sometimes objects have a life of their own; they are not only symbols, sometimes religious and powerful objects do things as well.
Finally, I think it’s interesting to consider how these objects make us feel. Several of the submissions contain reflections on the kinds of emotional or affective these objects help to create in us. Religious and powerful objects do not only make us think, they can also inspire focus, calm, love, comfort, reassurance, motivation, optimism, and a sense of community, to name just a few of the emotional states mentioned.
But this exhibition is not only an excuse for me to think about religious and powerful objects, it is also an invitation for you to do so as well. My hope is that this exhibition will inspire questions about the ways these objects exist in and contribute to contemporary society. As you stroll through the exhibition and encounter these religious and powerful objects I invite you to consider what the presence and importance of these objects means for contemporary Canadian society, especially given recent attempts to limit and control the presence of religious objects in the public sphere. As you see these objects and read about the roles they play in our contributors’ daily lives I encourage you to ask what makes some objects special, important, or religious and others less so.
Editor Biography: Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s university where he also teaches a first year religious studies course. Ian’s research interests include secularization and secularism, disenchantment and re-enchantment, and material religion. Ian lives in Montréal with his wife Virginia and their beloved cat Mickey. Visit Ian’s website at iancuthbertson.com.