Unbundling sincerity: Language, mediation, and interiority in comparative perspective

Niloofar Haeri


This HAU collection is an exploratory group effort in promoting comparative studies of followers of different religious traditions. We take the concept of sincerity as it is defined and used in the anthropology of Christianity and examine how it is attended to (or not) among ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York, Eastern Orthodox Russian women, Shi’a women in Iran, and Lutheran missionaries in Papua New Guinea. Sincerity in this sense is argued to be closely associated with autonomy, agency, freedom, and is seen to underlie modern subjectivity. We found a great deal of anxiety over notions of sincerity and its implications for constructing a relationship to the divine in our various communities. In unbundling sincerity from its associated concepts and consequences, we examine the different senses of interiority implicated by local concepts of sincerity in order to unpack those anxieties on the part of both believers and institutional clerical authorities. We argue that attending to interiority complements rather than denies the fundamental role of historical power relations in forming the religious subject. Power relations do not fully determine how, over time, the subject finds ways of shaping that relationship. In considering the modernity of Protestantism as illuminated through its attachment to sincerity, we show how, in moments of change, the very ideas, assumptions, and practices that have come to define certain communities as not-quite-modern become objects of reflection, intense debate, and disagreement, both within individuals and in their broader contexts.


sincerity, interiority, comparative studies, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, prayer

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau7.1.013