Religion as Emotion Knowledge: Religious Knowledge Systems and Emotions from the 18th to the 21st Century

Conference at the Harnack House, Berlin
20-21 June, 2019

Organisers: Yaara Benger Alaluf and Julia Lieth


Within the growing field of the history of emotions particular interest has been devoted to bodies of knowledge through which meanings and practices of emotions are produced and circulated. Studies of emotion knowledge range from theoretical discussions on its disposition (e.g. normative, praxeological) and its means of organization and circulation (e.g. law, cinema, children’s books), to empirical cases of transformation in particular knowledge systems. Less attention has been given to the ways in which different emotion knowledge systems interact with and affect each other. Additionally, recent years have seen an increasing interest in the relation between religion and emotions. Much debate has been focused on "religious emotions" or on specific emotional states associated with faith and devotion as well as on the role of emotions in religious practices.

Understanding religion as a particular system of emotion knowledge, this workshop follows a different path, concentrating on the ways in which religions cultivate and shape emotions in and beyond the religious, and vice versa, how emotions influence religions over time. Just as other aspects of religious faith and rituals, religious emotion knowledge is by no means uncontested or immune to outside influences and change. Quite the opposite: this knowledge might be transformed in time and space through specific developments, crises, and encounters with other religious, emotional, and socio-cultural contexts and knowledge systems. This workshop aims to explore such dynamics and enhance our understanding of the operation of religion as emotion knowledge. By doing so we hope that the workshop will help to develop tools for the broader study of historical change as an outcome of encounters, conflicts, and mutual influences between different emotion knowledge systems.

On a theoretical and methodological level we are interested in exploring the potentiality of conceptualizing and operationalizing the notion of religion as a system of emotion knowledge. Possible questions that can be derived from these discussions include: Is emotion knowledge inherent to religion? How do religious sources inform and negotiate ideas about and practices of emotions? How do normative and praxeological forms of emotion knowledge production intersect? A second area of questions addresses the issue of goals and interests: are emotions in religion a means to an end or an end in itself? What can we learn from the role of emotions in religion about the concepts of rationality and irrationality? Finally, we should think critically about the notions of religion and secularity in relation to the emotional: should we conceptualize "religious emotions" in contrast to "secular emotions", and if so, how do we deal with this dichotomy and the great variety of its (dis-)entanglement in space, time, and context, particularly when it comes to notions of "modernity"? Do processes of secularization and of spiritualization affect emotions (e.g. romantic love vs. the love of God)?


The workshop will consist of four main sessions:

  • Therapeutic cultures: This session will be dedicated to the interrelations between religiously-informed emotion knowledge and therapeutic ideas, concepts and practices, elucidating the similarities and contrasting aspects of these epistemologies. We could ask for example: What are the effects of medical notions of emotion on religious thought and vice versa? What historical conditions facilitate the translation of emotion from religious to therapeutic languages? How does the relation between religious and therapeutic emotion knowledges affect the notions of the individual and of the collective?
  • The secular (?) state: This session explores the entanglement of the religious and the secular and engages with the multi-directional usages and functions of religious emotions within the state’s normative frameworks. At stake will be questions about negotiations between the Church and the State as well as the mobilisation of individual and collective religious emotions in the attempt to ostensibly disentangle the religious and the secular and the emotional and the rational at particular moments in time. What kind of definitions and practices of religious emotions were at play and which purposes served their genesis? 
  • Economy: The main objective of this session will be to analyze the ways in which religious emotion knowledge (e.g. greed, benevolence, asceticism) and economic ideas, norms and practices (e.g. debt, charity) are co-informed. What role does emotion knowledge play in theological influences on economic thought? How does neoliberal emotion knowledge inform beliefs, practices and ethics of new-age and alternative spirituality institutions and their members? Hopefully the conversation will lead us to a better theorization of emotions as a variable in the historical relation between religion and economic thought on the one hand, and economic position, poverty or affluence on the other.
  • (Ir)rationalities: The focus of this session will be the divide between the rational and the irrational and their multi-dimensional display in discourses as well as psycho-physiological experiences. Notions of the “correct” performance of religious emotions, their intensity and the appropriate degree of rationality underwent various transfigurations in time and space, which have been placed and shifted along the poles of praise and critique. To what extent does the induction of rational elements or their reconstruction into religious emotion practices correlate with ideas of modernity? How can we as historians fruitfully analyse the complexity of interrelations between faith and reason and the immanent but surely shifting notions of the emotional and the rational therein?


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