Prof.dr. B. (Birgit) Meyer

Religious studies, Utrecht University, Spinoza Laureate 2015

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Prof. dr. B. (Birgit) Meyer. Photo may be used free of rights with attribution of credits: NWO/Ivar Pel

Prof. B. (Birgit) Meyer (1960) is professor of religious studies at Utrecht University. Meyer conducts research on faith and religion from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist. She studies religion in its social and societal contexts, but in doing so does not view religion primarily as a social construct. Rather, she sees religion first and foremost as something tangible, something that people do and express in a variety of ways. To gain insight into religion as a complex and tangible phenomenon, Meyer combines perspectives from religious studies, anthropology, philosophy and media studies. By linking disciplines that previously remained distinct and unconnected, Meyer’s work is leading to an important new research area and is gaining her widespread international recognition.

Powerful vision

Meyer successfully combines these different insights into a single powerful vision. Her work is characterized by a combination of empirical research and theoretical reflection on forms of religious expression that use different media – text, image, objects and sound. She explains the appeal of religion as what she calls the ‘aesthetics of persuasion’. The aesthetics of persuasion is generated by certain ‘sensational forms’. These come in the form of religious expression that stimulates all the human senses and hence arouses emotions. Meyer’s approach is paving the way for a new, promising direction in religious research, because the reason why different religions clash is often not the result of philosophical beliefs but the way in which people express these beliefs. Meyer’s insights may help, among other things, to explain the renewed global interest in religion (for example, Islam, but also new forms of Christianity, such as the successful Pentecostalism movement in Africa).

Pentecostalism

Meyer obtained her doctorate in 1995 at the University of Amsterdam for her historical and ethnographic research on the development of African views of Christianity since the mid-19th century until the rise of Pentecostalism in Ghana in the 1990s. She analysed the link between modernization and the increasing appeal of Christianity. This research was the impetus for a great deal more research on how this movement’s preachers, following the American example, successfully employ the mass media to spread their version of the gospel. In 2011, Meyer became professor at Utrecht University. Recently, she has conducted much broader research in her original focus of study: the link between media, sensory experience, material culture and the presence of religion in the public sphere.

Impact

Meyer’s breakthrough work has already increased our understanding of the human senses and the emotional power of religious images. The full impact of her work, including on related disciplines such as aesthetics, the theory of the image and research into mass media and popular culture, will become evident in the coming years. Meyer has been a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2007 and sits in several of the academy’s selection committees, especially for young members. She has been involved in the founding of various multidisciplinary NWO research programmes in the area of religion and culture. Meyer is co-editor of the international journal Material Religion and vice-chair of the International African Institute. In 2015, she received the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences’ prestigious Academy Professor Award.

Birgit Meyer was nominated by the chairperson of the Social Sciences Council of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.