The Religious Dimensions of Popular Culture: Experiencing the Sacred in the World of Comic-Con

Thursday, 14 July 2016: 11:30
Location: Hörsaal BIG 2 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Michael ELLIOTT, Towson University, USA
One of the most enduring and controversial legacies of Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) is how he conceptualized religion, which revolved around “beliefs and practices about the sacred.”  The sacred, as he explained, is set apart by the group as something powerful, transcendent, and deeply meaningful, and is clearly distinguished from the mundane world of everyday affairs.  The primary means of distinguishing and experiencing the sacred is through collective rituals, which are central to Durkheim’s theory.  To be sure, this conception of religion includes beliefs and practices involving the “gods” or the “supernatural,” which is the typical focus of sociologists of religion.  But it is not exclusive to them – a variety of beliefs and practices can be sacred.  While Durkheim’s original conception challenges us to expand our understanding of what is traditionally considered religious or spiritual, few have applied it to the increasing variety of leisure activities in modern life.

This paper builds on The Elementary Forms, and other scholars, to explore how particular leisure activities can involve ritualistic behavior that evokes the sacred and, therefore, shares important similarities (or elementary forms) with traditional religion.  Specifically, I propose a study to investigate how, and to what degree, fans of popular culture can experience variations of the sacred.  While contending explanations may view fan devotion as a deviant obsession, the result of intensive commodification, or simply a form of mindless entertainment, I hypothesize that the more dedicated or devoted a fan is to a particular pop cultural form, the more their expressions and activities are endowed with sacred meaning.  Ideally, data gathering will involve systematic surveys of various types of fans at prominent pop-culture conventions in the United States, such as ComicCon.