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Touch and American Religions



The sense of touch plays an important role in many American religious practices. Yet dismissals of touch as an inferior mode of perception and reliance on textual sources that ignore touch have shaped research agendas. This essay identifies theories articulated by philosophical phenomenologists, students of ritual and performance studies, historians and anthropologists of art and architecture, neuroscientists, and feminist scholars that envision touch as a unique mode of gaining knowledge about the world and oneself and stimulating ethical behavior by working directly on the emotions to motivate empathetic, compassionate concern for others. The essay suggests how touch-oriented theories can aid the development of research areas in American religions where scholars have already begun fruitful explorations of tactility: studies of religious embodiment and ritual and of pain and its alleviation through divine healing or Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).