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Ethics as Piety1

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AbstractThis article is meant as a contribution to a larger project about the relations between religion and ethics. It sketches out some approaches to the following questions: assuming that what we call “religion” and “ethics” are in principle distinct from each other, what is the conceptual relationship between them? What are the historical pathways along which the two often seem to converge? What are the social implications of that convergence where it occurs? And when they converge, what remainder escapes the conflation of these two? As a way of opening up these questions, this article compares two recent studies from the anthropology of religion, Joel Robbins’ ethnography of new evangelical Christians in Melanesia, and Charles Hirschkind’s study of a Muslim piety movement in Cairo. The comparison centers on how monotheistic religious traditions tend to objectify ethics in ways that render them cognitively explicit and thus expose them to pressures toward rationalization, generalization, and abstraction. But these traditions also expect ethics to guide everyday life, in all its concrete particularity, with potentially paradoxical consequences. These paradoxes seem to be one source of the restless urgency of those revival movements that identify ethics with piety.

Affiliations: 1: University of Michigan, Department of Anthropology101 West Hall, Ann Arbor, MI


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