Organisation: Dr. Philippe Bornet (Faculté des lettres, SLAS), Prof. Raphaël Rousseleau (FTSR, IHAR), Dr. Nicolas Meylan (FTSR, IHAR)
Conversion to Christianity is still often presented as either the result of an internal individual crisis, or as part of a larger process of disenchantment of the world, involving a “rationalization” of beliefs and practices. While the first perspective is directly inherited from apologetic discourses, the second has been particularly developed in postcolonial studies, which often assumed that conversion was a kind of “collective inevitability”, going hand in hand with the colonial project, and leaving little space for individual appropriations or movements of resistance.
Since the seminal study of Comaroff and Comaroff (1986), a number of works about “religious change” in imperial and (post-)colonial contexts have revealed the complexity of the phenomenon, underlining that it could not be reduced to a purely religious dimension and that it was interacting with other cultural, economic, political and social aspects. More recently, historical and ethnographical studies of Christianity have emphasized the fundamental “hybridity” of colonial and missionary situations, considered as kinds of “terrains of exchange”, “contact zones” (Becker 2015, following the formulation of Mary-Louise Pratt), or analyzed under the lens of cultural and moral values. These models certainly do not ignore power imbalances, but they encourage scholars to delve deeper onto the actual local historical and social contexts, so as to understand the multiple meanings and implications of religious transformations.
The symposium explores various case studies that address the complexity of narratives about religious change in in imperial and (post-)colonial contexts. Interrogating the narrative construction of conversion narratives and recasting them within their respective cultural, social and political context, the goal is to get a more complex understanding of processes of religious change: Why are narratives telling about conversion redacted in the way they are ? What dimensions are prominently represented in these texts? Who are they targeting and why? What do they tell us about the motives for “conversion”? What do such narratives tell us about encounters between different religions or cultures? Who are the actors interacting with these narratives?
The contributions examine different cases stemming from various regions and religious contexts – notably Europe, Africa and South Asia, in both Antiquity and modern times, thus allowing broad comparisons at a global level. With this, we hope to highlight dimensions of “conversion” that go beyond Christian and European understandings of the notion, and that are heuristically helpful for making the concept into a fruitful tool for the comparative study of religions.