Accepted Papers:

Divinity and experiment: conversion in a Japanese jam jar  


Philip Swift

Paper Short Abstract:

The paper considers the efficacy of experiment in a Japanese new religion, Mahikari. It argues for a more experimental method in anthropology, through an ethnographic focus on a particular artefact: the jam jar, an instrument in Mahikari experimental practice. I argue that the jam jar encapsulates a very different concept of religious conversion.

Paper long abstract:

This paper is concerned with the question of efficacy in religious practice and in social science alike. Through an ethnographic focus on the Japanese new religion Mahikari, in which members conduct experiments on samples of foodstuffs placed in jam jars, the paper attempts to ask not only what such experiments are intended to do, but also, what it is that social science does to such experiments.

According to Mahikari practitioners, their experiments demonstrate that their practices are capable of producing changes in people and things. Scholars, by contrast - and guided by a mode of inquiry that has recently been highlighted by Keane (2008) - take the jam jars as evidence of something else beyond them: the prior beliefs which make such experiments credible. Where - in Hacking's terms (1983) - Mahikari members say they are intervening, scholars have said that they are merely representing.

The paper tries to argue that Mahikari practice, encapsulated in the jam jars, is indeed a form of intervention. It does so by advocating a more experimental method in anthropology, in which the effectiveness of experiment is contrasted with the efficacy of interpretation in much social science. In conclusion, it is argued that Mahikari jam jars are capsular conversions that allow us to imagine a very different concept of religious conversion from that which is often articulated in sociology, in which conversion is much less intellectual than it is visceral, moral and material.

panel P01
Thinking, acting and knowing through religious 'things': artefacts in the making of cosmology