While others are often quick to dismiss New Age religions, Kelly E. Hayes is happy to step in and explore the stigmatized and marginalized.
Hayes, associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Indianapolis, researched and wrote a book about a complex set of religious beliefs that most Brazilians label “macumba,” or voodoo, and now she has directed her research to a religious movement called Valley of the Dawn. She will discuss the religion in a lecture titled “The Enchanted World of the Valley of the Dawn: Envisioning the New Age in Brazil” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture theme is “Brazil: The Interplay of Religion and Culture.”
Hayes’ expertise is popular but stigmatized religions in Brazil — religions many scholars have been slow to focus on. Valley of the Dawn is comprised of influences from Christianity, Afro-Brazilians, Hinduism, a variety of esoteric traditions and a belief in extraterrestrial life.
“It’s this incredibly complex conglomeration of a lot of ideas and practices that come from all over,” Hayes said. “In many ways, it’s a little microcosm of Brazil itself.”
Brazilians have a saying that they are “cultural cannibals,” Hayes said, and Valley of the Dawn is a prime example of this mentality.
“They sort of devour and digest all these different influences from outside, while also mining their own cultural heritage, in order to produce something new and wholly Brazilian,” she said.
Valley of the Dawn is an incredibly visual religion, Hayes said, in which participants wear elaborate ritual vestments. The religion has garnered attention both in Brazil and internationally because it is colorful and unusual, and because its members believe in aliens.
“The religion not only has this complicated cosmology, but it has an incredibly unique aesthetic and visual sense,” she said. “The aesthetic is kind of kitschy. It’s kind of Legoland meets a miniature golf course.”
The religion, founded in 1969, now boasts more than 600 temples and almost 1 million adherents worldwide. The temples span Brazil, South America, Europe and the United States, and like many religious movements that emerged post-Cold War and post-space age, practitioners of Valley of the Dawn have a fascination with flying saucers and the extraterrestrial, Hayes said.
Valley of the Dawn is headquartered about 40 kilometers outside Brazil’s federal capital, Brasilia, a city that was completely planned out and built in a highly rational, hyper-organized fashion. Millions of Brazilians came from across the country to help build Brasilia — including the religion’s founder, a truck driver — to fulfil a utopian vision of a new capital with everything in its place.
“Of course, human beings don’t live in such a hyper-organized fashion, and so it was disaster from the beginning in terms of a liveable city,” Hayes said. “You have this kind of vision of this utopian city … that very quickly becomes problematic, to say the least.”
The religion, in part, developed as a response to the poor, suffering and marginalized masses, and it offers two primary ways to work off karmic debt: by offering inclusive spiritual healing to anyone who shows up in search for it, and by performing rituals, manipulating karmic heritage in certain ways by reenacting events.
“The Valley sort of offers also this utopian position that through performing rituals, you can atone for your own karmic debts,” Hayes said.
Valley of the Dawn is usually portrayed as a kooky but harmless cult or a New Age oddity, but to Hayes the Valley represents the incredible richness of the religious imagination and how people process and synthesize various influences.
“I’ve been really struck how a lot of people dismiss this religion. I think this is true of any religions that are non-mainstream or that are particularly unusual,” Hayes said. “I think it really challenges us to expand our categories of what constitutes authentic religion.”