For a little more than $2,000, you can buy a small silver-plated case containing some hair of the Virgin Mary, a relic venerated by Catholic believers. Add a few hundred dollars, and you’ll get a wax-sealed reliquary carrying pieces of clothing worn by St. Peter and St. Paul, together with a yellowed record, handwritten in Latin, that supposedly attests to the relics’ authenticity.
A more significant investment, $16,750, will get you an austere multichambered reliquary with 50 of “the most important relics in Christendom,” including the remains of top-tier saints like St. John the Baptist and St. Benedict. But devotees on more of a budget can easily find scraps of the True Cross soaked in Jesus’ blood, ancient-looking nails containing iron filings of the nails used in the crucifixion, garments of martyrs, skullcaps worn by popes and the personal effects of revered mystics.
Most of the relics on sale online are counterfeit junk. Many of them even look fake in the pictures. The ads are carefully designed either to lure unsuspecting believers or to excite eccentric collectors. The whole business smells of scam. “Final sale with no returns due to the Sacredness of this item,” one online vendor warns, implying a peculiar moral system in which selling sacred articles is totally fine, but returning them is somehow sacrilegious.
In recent years, the business of relics has boomed. An article published in the Italian newspaper La Stampa in February documented the increased trade in all things holy, a trend confirmed by Vatican officials. The phenomenon is partly fueled by thefts from church altars in a rapidly secularizing Europe — according to the Italian police, on average more than 300 relics have been stolen in the country every year since 2010, and the number of thefts has spiked in the last three years. Buyers from the Philippines and Brazil lead the rankings of relic-hungry countries, but they’re not the only ones.
“The trade of devotional items, often of dubious origin, is widespread in the Western world, and it’s not limited to the global South,” said Massimo Introvigne, a sociologist of religion and director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, an international network of scholarly organizations focusing on emerging religious phenomena. “In a way, what we’re seeing today is a digital-era revival of an old practice that reached a sizable scope in the early twentieth century Europe.”
In 2017, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints issued a decree reinforcing a longstanding ban on trading in relics. “The commerce (that is, the exchange of a relic for something else or for money) and the sale of relics (that is, the cessation of ownership of a relic for a corresponding price), as well as their display in profane or unauthorized places, are absolutely prohibited,” reads Article 25 of the document, which provides moral guidelines for Catholics but is not legally binding outside the tiny city-state.
The market for this kind of item is not limited to Christianity. Buddhist monks in several countries fight against the stealing of sacred artifacts, and during the last decade the authorities in Thailand put in place stricter measures to protect temples from tourists and smugglers. The illegal traffic of Hindu idols is widespread.
The growing demand for items whose essential value is devotional rather than material is hard to reconcile with the classic narrative of the secularization of the modern world, summed up by Max Weber about a century ago: “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’” The main feature of Weber’s vision was its irreversibility — but a world ineluctably rationalized and intellectualized shouldn’t have much interest in venerating eerie remains of medieval saints, fake or not.
The digital exhumation of the age-old relic business may seem more in line with the theory of the “desecularization” of the modern world, pioneered in the late 1990s by the Austrian-American sociologist Peter L. Berger. According to him, the contemporary world is “as furiously religious as it ever was.”
Professor Berger’s hypothesis applied universally, but he also cited faster demographic growth in the religious global South as evidence of an accelerating trend in certain areas of the world — and indeed by 2050, a Pew study projected, the religiously unaffiliated will decline significantly as a share of the world’s total population. But it’s hard to square a world of religious fervor with the decades-old crisis of organized religions, especially in the West.
Both the long-accepted secularization theory and the more recent desecularization one have significant supporting evidence, but neither of them fully captures the strange mixture of religious yearning and rationalist tendencies that seem to characterize the contemporary world.
We might be able to draw a different narrative. In this story, religious impulses didn’t just vanish with modernity, to be fully replaced by the secularizing forces of enlightened rationality. Instead, perhaps, they sank miles below our collective consciousness and waited there, dormant, only to resurface more frequently than we might think, in unconventional forms.
“We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee,” wrote the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor at the end of his monumental 2007 book “A Secular Age,” in which he attempted to chart an alternative path to the binary clash between belief and unbelief.
The fragmented contemporary religious landscape in the West, at least, looks to be quite in line with Mr. Taylor’s observations. While organized religions are shrinking, religiosity is in full force.
In 2019, the number of Americans who consider themselves nonreligious was, for the first time, larger than the number who consider themselves Catholics and evangelicals. But this long-in-the-making trend coexists with the impressive rise of alternative forms of devotion — from Wicca and astrology to mindfulness and SoulCycle — in a staggering metaphysical quest for meaning through ever-adjusting combinations of ancient liturgies and postmodern rituals.
J. Gordon Melton, a leading expert on new religious movements, noted in 2006 that 40 to 45 new religious groups were emerging on average every year — and many scholars have pointed out that several aspects of this less conventional religiosity have percolated into the mainstream secular culture. Mr. Introvigne and the Center for Studies on New Religions, for example, have developed a reputation for defending movements like Scientology, often viewed by the rest of the world as cults, as valid religious expressions. The author Tara Isabella Burton made the ambiguous interplay between religious impulses and supposedly rationalist hypermodern life the subject of an upcoming book, aptly titled “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World.”
The resurgent business of relics and items vested with some sacred significance is just a small trace of the contemporary craving for the transcendent. It’s a deranged need, which translates into a highly questionable practice, one that is actually particularly offensive for believers. Still, it needs to be considered for what it reveals about the religious impulses that still inhabit our disenchanted garden.
Mattia Ferraresi (@mattiaferraresi) is a writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio.
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