STUDY OF RELIGION: AN OVERVIEW
Unlike theology, the academic study of religion seeks to provide accounts of the world’s religions from perspectives that have no confessional (religious) ground or agenda. As an empirical pursuit, it is concerned with understanding and explaining what people actually think and do without establishing or enforcing norms for that thought and behavior. It takes the entire universe of religions as its object of study; classically educated scholars were once fond of quoting the Roman playwright Terence (c. 186–159 BCE), a freed slave
from North Africa: “homo sum; nihil humanum mihi alienum puto” (“I am a human being; I consider nothing human foreign to me”). It also aspires to treat all religions equally. Of course, these characterizations are subject to critical interrogation, both in terms of the degree to which individual works live up to them and the degree to which they are themselves philosophically defensible.
Despite the field’s universal reach, Europeans and North Americans have tended to conceive of the study of religion ethnocentrically. Although the objects of study—religious people—have been universal, the subjects—the people doing the studying—have not. When they did not physically reside in Europe or North America, they were intellectually, if not biologically, of European or North American descent. They studied religions—as a young scholar in the Middle East recently described his professional activity in correspondence with this author—from a Western perspective. The pervasiveness of European and North American political and economic colonialism and cultural influence gives some credence to this conception. Nevertheless, a view of the academic study of religion excessively centered on the so-called West also takes several risks. It risks ignoring antecedents of that study in various parts of the globe that predate or do not depend upon the European Enlightenment. It risks neglecting vigorous traditions of that study that are emerging in various parts of the world. And it risks impoverishing that study by looking only to Europe and North America for theoretical and methodological inspiration. In other words, it confines the academic study of religion not within the boundaries of a religious community, as in the case of theology, but within those of a culture or civilization. The entries that follow treat the academic study of religion throughout the world. It has seemed expedient to divide the articles in terms of large geographical regions arranged alphabetically, but one should remember that these regions are themselves somewhat artificial. The entries seek to address how religious studies has come into being in different ways in different academic settings. They treat the contribution of scholars in each region to the study of religions that are found outside as well as within the regions. Thus, the entry on South Asia, for example, treats the manner in which South Asians have studied religions, not the study of South Asian religions. The remainder of this entry offers more general observations about the emergence of the study of religion, its development, and its methods.
THE EMERGENCE OF THE ACADEMIC STUDY OF RELIGION.
According to a well-worn German clichй, Religionswissenschaft—the comparative study of religion, the history of religions, the academic study of religion—is a child of the Enlightenment. Insofar as this clichй invites us to disregard intellectual developments outside of Europe, it issues an invitation that we should decline. But it does begin to identify the conditions under which the academic study of religion appeared in Europe, and in doing so it invites us to reflect more generally on the conditions under which that study has emerged.
There are many kinds of knowledge about religions. Before the emergence of the academic study of religion, people learned about their own religions from people such as relatives, neighbors, priests, shamans, teachers, preachers, monks, nuns, and maybe even philosophers and theologians. They learned about other religions from similar sources, along with proselytizers, apologists, polemicists, and heresiologists, who provided information about the practices and beliefs of other people but also gave reasons either to adopt those beliefs and practices, to disregard them, to fear them, or even to persecute and kill the people who adhered to them. In addition, travelers like Herodotos (c. 484–between 430 and 420 BCE), Xuanzang (602–664), and Ibn Battuta (1307–1377), at times less interested in specific religious agendas, provided knowledge of the practices and beliefs of people who lived in more remote lands. All of these people and others as well, such as foreign service officers and journalists, may provide information about religions, but that information does not in itself constitute the academic study of religion. In order for that study to emerge, at least three conditions need to be met.
First, the academic study of religion encompasses only certain kinds of knowledge, namely, those kinds associated with institutions devoted to the professional production and dissemination of knowledge, such as universities. These kinds of knowledge derive their authority in part from the application of approved procedures. Scholars self-consciously pursue methods that are presumed to eliminate mistakes and errors that plague ordinary knowledge and/or that produce accounts that have the appearance of greater-than-average sophistication.
These kinds of knowledge also derive their authority in part from various forms of institutional validation: material support for those who produce and transmit knowledge by approved means; the certification of those who have mastered both the techniques and content of the produced knowledge; and the codification and preservation of the knowledge produced—either in human memory, as in the case of suЇtras and ґsaЇstras, or via external media such as handwritten, printed, or, increasingly, electronic books and journals. One condition for the emergence of the academic study of religion, then, is the development of such institutions of knowledge, as has happened for example among MahaЇyaЇna Buddhists in north India in the first few centuries CE, in the Middle East toward the end of the first millennium CE, and in Europe beginning in the thirteenth century CE.
The mere existence of institutions such as universities is not, however, sufficient for the emergence of the academic study of religion. In Europe, for example, an interval of over half a millennium intervened between the development of the medieval universities and the emergence of the academic study of religion. (By contrast, in sub-Saharan Africa that study has been a component of such institutions almost from the very beginning.) At least two other conditions are necessary. The first of these conditions requires thinkers to class practices, claims, and forms of association together in ways similar to the ways in which they are classed together by the term “religion” in English and other European languages today, and then to view the resulting set as a proper object for study by a distinct group of scholars. Martin Riesebrodt has argued that this classification is not as culturally limited as it may at first seem. He has pointed out that people have grouped together phenomena that German (and English) speakers think of as religious even without having a generic notion of religion. For example, Aґsoka’s edicts treat braЇhman: as (early Hindus) and ґsraЇvan: as (early Buddhists, Jains, and other renouncers) as if they belonged to the same class. Polemicists at Chinese courts during the first millennium CE also thought of Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian teachings as of similar kind. Nevertheless, the manner in which such classes are conceptualized—whether as dharm[a] in Sanskrit-based languages, din in Arabic, shukyoЇ in Japanese, or something else—may present difficulties for the emergence of the academic study of religion. For example, the traditional institutionalized study of dharma, whose sense in Sanskrit we might convey by terms such as statute, ordinance, law, duty, justice, virtue, and morality as well as religion, bears little resemblance to anything that we would know as either the academic study of religion or theology, as even a passing acquaintance with the DharmaґsaЇstras makes clear. Abrahim Khan suggests that this term’s meaning has in fact hampered the emergence of the academic study of religion as a single, independent academic pursuit in India.
Japanese scholars in the Meiji era and later wrestled with the meaning of the term “religion” in a somewhat different way. In order to endorse the politically desirable view that Japan was a secular state, they had to separate into religious and nonreligious spheres beliefs and practices that had customarily been classed together as ShintoЇ. In the second half of the twentieth century, Africans, reacting to imported European concepts, questioned the extent to which the term “religion” really worked in African contexts. Although in North America and Europe the academic study of religion is fairly widely established today, some scholars in that region, too, have questioned the extent to which the category “religion” is applicable across cultures. In doing so, they have seemed to call the legitimacy of that study as a distinct field into question.
The combination of the institutionalization of knowledge and the identification of religion as a fit object of study does not inevitably lead to the emergence of the academic study of religion. It might just as well lead to apologetics, as happened in Middle Eastern and European universities during the medieval period, or to a global theology or religious philosophy, such as the philosophia perennis that attracts thinkers around the world today. At least one further condition is necessary for the emergence of the academic study of religion.
That is the relinquishing of interest in establishing traditional religious claims and turning instead to understanding and explaining religious phenomena, regardless of provenance, through nonconfessional models. Herodotos displays something of this attitude, in the absence of the other two conditions, when he remarks that all people know equally (little?) about the gods, so he is simply going to talk about human affairs and customs. Academic communities may adopt these pluralistic, humanistic projects via different tracks. In contexts within which one religion, such as Christianity or Islam, is considered to be uniquely true, an important step between apologetics and the academic study of religion may be the conviction that all religions share a basic core, rooted somehow in the essence of humanity. This step is transitional, because it leaves in place a tension between the concerns of a global religious philosophy or theology on the one hand, and understanding and explaining religions through nonconfessional models on the other. Europe and its cultural descendants largely followed this track. European thinkers such as Herbert of Cherbury (1583–1648) responded to the wars of religion by formulating the notion of a “natural religion” common to all people. The Romantics responded to Enlightenment rationality by celebrating universally human “intimations of immortality” and of other religious profundities.
Both laid the foundations for the emergence of a comparative study of religion whose character as a global theology was expressed well in the dying words of an early Swedish scholar who also happened to be a Lutheran archbishop, Nathan Sцderblom (1866–1931): “I know God exists; I can prove it from the history of religions.” Tensions between the comparative study of religion as a global theology and an academic study of religion that is more self-consciously humanistic remain especially strong in North America, in part as a result of the profound influence once exercised by Mircea Eliade (1907–1986).
In contexts in which traditional claims to religious exclusivity are lacking and all religions are somehow seen as manifestations of religious truth, a different track for the emergence of the academic study of religion is probably necessary. That is because in these contexts it would simply be a task of the local equivalent of theology or religious philosophy to elucidate the common core of truth that all religions share. Precisely what forces have stimulated a shift to the use of nonreligious models in these areas remains a question for future research. One certainly cannot overlook the importance of external stimuli, especially in regions that were heavily colonized (sub-Saharan Africa) or that saw themselves engaged in military and cultural competition with Europeans and U.S. Americans (Japan). At the same time, it may not do justice either to scholars who have urged the adoption of humanistic models or to their situations simply to refer to them as “westernized.” On the one hand, “Western” models of education, such as Britain introduced into colonized Africa, were actually heavily theological. On the other, some non-Westerners like early Japanese scholars of religions have criticized Westerners for blurring the distinction between the academic study of religion and theology.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE ACADEMIC STUDY OF RELIGION.
The preceding section contains unmistakable resonances with the thought of Max Weber, especially his notions of routinization, rational-bureaucratic authority, and the disenchantment of the modern world. Of the three conditions discussed above, however, perhaps only the second is actually distinctively modern, and that only if we extend modernity back into the immediate post-Reformation period, as historians of philosophy usually do. Nevertheless, the emergence of the academic study of religion as a result of the confluence of these three conditions is in fact a modern—or more recent—development. Individual entries will summarize regional histories in more detail. Here it may be helpful to venture a few signposts.
A tradition common in Europe and North America attributes the birth of the “science of religion,” as it was called, to the comparative philologist Friedrich Max Mьller (1823–1900), who referred to it for the first time in the 1867 preface to his Chips from a German Workshop. Nevertheless, several factors complicate this birth story. First, Europeans before Mьller had done philological, ethnographic, and theoretical work that might just as well be considered a part of the academic study of religion, e.g. the work of Eugиne Burnouf in the study of Buddhism. Second, inasmuch as Mьller’s own vision of the science of religion, informed by German idealism, sought a scientific means to religious truth, it is not clear that his science is precisely what we mean by the study of religion. Third, traditions in the Middle East, Japan, and perhaps elsewhere, too, that predate Mьller’s talk can claim equal regional significance in moving toward a science of religions. In short, the birth of this field of study is attributable not to a single event but to an extended and complex series of events in several regions.
One major player in the European buildup to the study of religion was philology. During the humanist movement of the fifteenth century, Europeans learned Greek and Hebrew and critically edited ancient biblical manuscripts. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they followed a similar pattern with regard to a broader range of materials. They learned the “classical” languages of the Middle East and Asia and set themselves to work on the “sacred books” written in these languages, a move that some connect with a residual Protestantism. They further deciphered ancient writing—hieroglyphics, cuneiform—and opened new vistas in what they saw, somewhat oddly, as their own antiquity, especially prebiblical civilizations in the Middle East and the linkage of European languages to Sanskrit and Old Iranian. Within Europe incipient cultural nationalisms, inspired in part by J. G. Herder (1744–1803), stimulated the collection, and at times the wholesale invention, of local folklore. At the same time, ethnographic reports of ideas and practices elsewhere—custom reserves for Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) the honor of being the first actual anthropological fieldworker—poured into Europe. European thinkers filtered all this material through mental sieves that sought to retrieve the essence of religion and its earliest or primal forms, resulting in once well-known theories such as fetishism, solar mythology, totemism, animism, pre-animism or dynamism, primitive monotheism, and the magic-religion-science schema of James George Frazer (1854–1941). These theories, in turn, provided a context for the reflection of thinkers such as Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), Max Weber (1864–1920), and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939).
Alongside philological, ethnographic, and folkloristic studies, liberal Protestant theology played a major role in the development of the academic study of religion in Europe and North America. Inspired by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), liberal theologians attempted to rescue Christianity from the critical results of natural science, history, and ethnography by appealing to a supposedly universal religious experience of which Christianity was the supreme manifestation. The result in the first half of the twentieth century was a phenomenology of religion as developed by Nathan Sцderblom, Rudolf Otto (1869–1937), Friedrich Heiler (1892–1967), Gustav Mensching (1901–1978), Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890–1950), and their associates, and, with less Christian emphasis, the similar endeavors of thinkers like C. G. Jung (1875–1961) and Mircea Eliade. While philologists, ethnographers, and folklorists were often content to work within academic units defined either by language and culture (e.g., East Asian Languages and Civilizations) or by a more general method (e.g., Cultural Anthropology), the phenomenologists generally favored the placement of the academic study of religion in a single, autonomous academic unit or department.
Although the political convictions of individual scholars varied, none of these moves happened in a political vacuum. For example, Michel Despland has discussed the relationship between the policies of the July Monarchy in France and a hermeneutically oriented study of religious texts. David Chidester has noted similarities between Britain’s management of colonized peoples and its management of their religions.
What Europeans and North Americans have noticed less, perhaps, is how the encounter looked from the other side.
Colonial mastery provided Europeans with ready control over an extremely wide variety of materials not so easily available to the colonized. It provided the motivation to study those materials by making knowledge of the people to whom they had belonged desirable. It also provided a safe space from which scholars could examine the materials but ignore the claims they made—or even become enamored with them without surrendering any real sense of identity or control. At the beginning of the twentieth century colonial endeavors presented Japanese scholars with similar opportunities, although their range was more limited.
For the colonized the situation was different. Quite aside from possessing different histories of the formulation and organization of knowledge, people on the receiving end of the colonial project did not need to develop academic fields to learn about the “sacred books of Europe.” Missionaries were more than willing to provide that knowledge, even if colonial governments did not always appreciate their efforts.
And far from being able to study the claims and practices of the colonial rulers from the detached perspective of a supposedly disinterested, value-free science, colonized people were forced to define themselves over against claims by representatives of a dominant power that threatened to undercut their traditional identity and destroy their intellectual autonomy.
The early leaders in the academic study of religion were in fact the Europeans, with help from the Japanese and North Americans. Nevertheless, it would be simplistic to see the study of religion merely as a colonialist enterprise. It may also be seen as in part a response in the arena of reflection on religion, and not always the dominant one, to fundamental infrastructural changes that made colonialism as well as nationalism possible: the increasing compression of space and time as a result of ever more rapid technologies of transportation and communication. The results of this space-time compression include increased personal contacts between peoples previously separated, closer economic, political, and cultural interdependence, and substantial increases in the scale of institutions of knowledge as well as manufacturing and trade. This compression facilitated the appearance of an academic study of religion not simply by granting greater access to data but also by making confessional frames for knowledge less convincing—although they certainly remained convincing to many—and creating a context in which knowledge of religion not limited by confessional boundaries became more desirable. It did so under the shadow of increased nationalism and colonialism, which both resulted from and enforced inequitable control of new technologies as well as intellectual and cultural activities.
From a long perspective, what may be remarkable about the institutionalization of the academic study of religion is not that it first took place in Europe, Japan, and North America but how quickly it occurred all over the world. (That occurrence should not be isolated from the simultaneous emergence of many other aspects of contemporary life, from scientific medicine to weapons technology.) The institutionalization of the study of religion came in two waves.
The first wave occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Europeans along with North Americans and Japanese took the lead in establishing university positions and programs (Lausanne 1871; Boston 1873; Tokyo 1903) as well as professional societies (United States 1890 [dissolved ten years later], Europe [International Association for the History of Religions] 1900, Japan 1930) for the study of religion. (In 1905 only the Tokyo chair carried the title “science of religion.”) Research and publication were, of course, the inevitable concomitants of such foundations—in one sense they were their raison d’кtre—symbolized but certainly not exhausted in the English-speaking world by the massive Sacred Books of the East series. The second wave, which came in the third quarter of the twentieth century in the wake of decolonization and the cold war, was much more wide-ranging. It saw the development of programs for the academic study of religion in sub-Saharan Africa; Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania; Latin America; and to a limited extent South Asia and the Middle East, along with the founding of new programs in Europe as well as a burgeoning of programs in the United States.
These efforts have met with varying success. Despite a long tradition, Japan has programs in the academic study of religion in only about one percent of its universities; by contrast, by the 1970s the corresponding number in the United States was about one third. Such efforts have also encountered a variety of challenges. For example, programs in sub-Saharan Africa have suffered from a lack of infrastructure as well as a loss of intellectual talent to more prosperous parts of the globe. In most places a primary challenge has come from dominant religions and ideologies. French institutions have been adamantly secular for over a century, but elsewhere in Western Europe dominant programs in Christian theology have outdone the academic study of religion in competition for scarce resources and public status; for example, in the United Kingdom the leading programs have been in so-called new universities (Lancaster, Manchester, Stirling), and a similar pattern is visible to some extent in Germany (Bayreuth, Bremen), despite traditions in older universities (Berlin, Bonn, Marburg, Tьbingen). Programs in Eastern Europe and China have had to negotiate a state ideology antagonistic to religion, while programs in the United States, which blossomed during the cold war, have needed to negotiate a state ideology whose opposition to “godless communism” favored religious commitment. In the Middle East, space-time compression has brought about a very different relationship with the rest of the world: the rerouting of formerly vigorous, intercontinental trade either around or, in the case of air travel, over the region and a shift to oil as a source of wealth, often actually or seemingly controlled by foreigners. This context has encouraged a religiously defined cultural loyalism. Although some programs in the academic study of religion have arisen in the region, most work takes place in the context of the presumed superiority of Islam as God’s final revelation.
The academic study of religion has often justified itself in terms of its public utility. For example, in Japan before 1945 some advocated pursuing it as a contribution to national unity. In postcolonial Africa scholars turned to the study of indigenous religions as a means to foster independent political and cultural identities. More broadly, Mircea Eliade aspired to revive culture through the formulation of a “new humanism.” At the beginning of the twenty-first century scholars of religions were pursuing yet another public role: providing the general public and more specifically mass communications media with reliable information about religions (Japanese scholars after the Aum ShinrikyoЇ attacks; ReMID in Germany and INFORM in the United Kingdom; the information bureau of the American Academy of Religion). In addition, many countries have been wrestling with ways to make their traditions of religious education in schools more pluralistic. Although some have adopted a pluralistic confessional approach, as in Germany, where students choose an education in either Catholicism, Protestantism, or a more general ethical culture, others, such as South Africa, have at least proposed replacing confessionally based education with a pre-university public education in the academic study of religion.
METHODS AND ISSUES IN THE ACADEMIC STUDY OF RELIGION.
There is still very little by way of a universally acknowledged theoretical or methodological canon in the academic study of religion. One positive result is that the field admits a considerable amount of creativity. Another result, however, is that the remarks that follow will inevitably be idiosyncratic, reflecting regional and personal preferences at least as much as any greater unity. They touch briefly upon commonalities that unite the academic study of religion, methods and theories of that study, and recent trends.
Commonalities. In the English-speaking world, there has been considerable uncertainty about both the name and character of the academic study of religion. In the last one hundred years scholars have called this pursuit the science of religion, comparative study of religion(s), history of religion(s), religious studies, (more colloquially) world religions, and the academic study of religion(s). The terminology used in this set of entries, “the academic study of religion,” remains ambiguous. For example, in those parts of the world where Christianity is the dominant religion, biblical studies are traditionally a part of theology. As sometimes practiced, however, biblical studies might just as well be seen as a highly developed subfield within the academic study of religion.
Uncertainty about the name of this study finds a reflection in uncertainty about its character. Is it an academic discipline, united in the application of a specific method, or is it an unruly, polymethodic field, including any and every academic pursuit that somehow treats religious data? Is the object of study—“religion”—a category sui generis, which must be studied on its own terms, or does it conveniently bring together elements from different areas of life, permitting the reduction of the religious to the nonreligious? Is the goal to understand human religious insights or symbols as they come to expression in human speech and action, as one understands the meanings of books, or is it rather to provide explanations for various occurrences along the lines of the social and natural sciences? Does one require a special sympathy for religion in order to make sense out of it, or is one required to be an outsider—a “methodological” if not actual atheist or agnostic—in order to see clearly? Arguments about these and similar questions have perhaps generated more heat and smoke than they have light. Nevertheless, one might detect a trend in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries toward a conception of the study of religions that is polymethodic, explanatory, at least methodologically agnostic, and sees religion simply as a convenient category. If the efforts of a century and a half have had uncertain results in precisely denoting or defining the academic study of religion, they have been somewhat more successful in creating a common language for it. Scholars have abandoned earlier, almost Linnaean attempts to group religions into meaningful classes—natural religions, national religions, prophetic religions, ethical religions, world religions, and so on—as a preliminary to locating them in grand developmental schemas. They have also abandoned attempts, inspired by Hegel, to identify the essence of each religion in a simple term or proposition (for example, Zoroastrianism as “the religion of struggle,” Christianity as the “religion of love” [van der Leeuw]). But other efforts have been more successful.
Consider the matter-of-factness with which we now speak of various religions as givens—Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, ShintoЇ, and so on—where, at least from a Christian or Muslim perspective, these now distinct religions were once simply paganism and idolatry. Scholars have also created the rudiments of a technical vocabulary, in which the terms myth, ritual, rite of passage, sacrifice, and perhaps symbol may be the most widely successful terms. Other terms that were once prominent, such as experience, numinous, sacred, and profane, not to mention older creations like totem and taboo, now seem characteristic of disputed or discarded positions. Since the 1980s, however, studies have appeared that vigorously seek to deconstruct these common categories, both in terms of descriptive and conceptual inadequacy and political disutility. Although these studies often present compelling analyses, they have as yet had only a limited effect on actual linguistic usage. Scholars now seem, however, to be abandoning the term “myth.”
Methods and theories. At the beginning of the twentyfirst century there is some consensus that the academic study of religion is a polymethodic field. There is also some consensus about some of the “approaches” or “perspectives” that this field contains. Almost invariably mentioned, along with other approaches, are history, psychology, sociology, and comparative studies or phenomenology; the meaning of the last term varies considerably. Although one might define these approaches primarily in terms of problems and theories, in the way, for example, physicists and sociologists delineate their fields, scholars of religions have generally begun instead with the ideas of “great thinkers,” for example, William James (1842–1910), Sigmund Freud, and C. G. Jung for psychology; Karl Marx (1818–1883), Max Weber, and Йmile Durkheim for sociology; Gerardus van der Leeuw and Mircea Eliade for phenomenology. Work in the related field of anthropology has received similar treatment, although the “great thinkers” there may be somewhat more recent (Bronislaw Malinowski, E. E. Evans-Pritchard [1902–1973], Claude Lйvi-Strauss [b. 1908], Clifford Geertz [b. 1926]). In addition to knowing the ideas of these “great thinkers” and their epigones, the common expectation today is that scholars of religion will also know the languages of the people whose religions they study. Such expectations provide a clue to the methods that scholars of religions actually employ. Work in the field tends to depend upon textual analysis, ethnographical observation, or both, combined with a generous amount of theorizing to set the context for the application of these methods. It less frequently analyzes nonverbal artifacts with the methods of archaeology, art history, and musicology, a tendency some attribute to a residual Protestantism. Such a modus operandi assures that scholars are attuned to the richness of their data. It also means, however, that work in the field tends to consist of anecdotal observations coupled, in the best instances, with sophisticated reasoning. Scholars of religions have had relatively little interest in the formulation of generalizations based on a statistical analysis of data. They tend to regard such generalizations as overlooking complexity and to relegate them to the “social scientific” study of religion, located in other academic departments, professional associations, and journals.
Trends. Readers looking for specific topics that interest scholars in the academic study of religion probably do best to consult the topical outline of this encyclopedia, but it may be helpful here to note some broader trends. One is the increasing specialization that has taken place over the last one hundred years. The demand that scholars possess sophisticated linguistic and cultural knowledge, coupled with the increase in the number of people who have such knowledge for different languages and cultures, has resulted in specialization by areas, such as South Asian religions, Islam, and Buddhism, along with subdivisions of these larger groups, like Vedic studies, contemporary Islam, and Japanese Buddhism.
Other kinds of specialized groupings—women and religion, religion and literature—exist, although they often straddle the divide between the academic study of religion and theology. Specializations defined by applying specific methods to theoretical issues, as in, for example, the distinction between physical and organic chemistry, are much less common.
A second trend has been an emerging tension between two broad orientations within the field, critical theory and science. The former is the more established, growing out of the field’s traditional interpretive interests and relying heavily on the French “philosophers of 1968,” such as Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) and Michel Foucault (1926–1984), as well as postcolonial thought, most notably, perhaps, the thought of Edward Said (1935–2003). These scholars have focused on the conditions in which knowledge is produced, critiquing claims to objectivity and universal validity. They embrace a wide variety of positions, but among common tendencies we might note the following: the conviction that knowledge is a culturally limited social construction; an emphasis on the inevitable distortions of translation tending to an assertion of incommensurability between languages, cultures, and communities; the interrogation of the cultural rootedness of the categories and methods of scholarship; the deconstruction of general groupings in favor of particularity and difference; an interest in the corporeal and material as opposed to the ideational that presupposes at the same time as it critiques a Cartesian dualism or Platonic idealism; a preference for the marginal, variously defined by race, gender, class, and other categories as well; the identification of political, economic, and social domination as the actual if unstated goal of social science and scholarly endeavors more broadly; an insistence upon plurivocity and an experimentation with nontraditional, non-monographic literary forms; and—despite the generalizations implicit in some of the preceding characteristics—a rejection of the possibility of formulating adequate generalizations about cultural materials.
More recently, voices have arisen claiming to produce just the sorts of knowledge that the critical theorists find untenable. This trend has been strongest, perhaps, among those who claim to have found in cognitive science a ground for universals that transcend the limitations of social construction. (Cognitive science itself arose as an alternative to behaviorism in psychology and philosophy.) When those who favor science do not simply dogmatically insist upon science as the most compelling form of contemporary knowledge, they may emphasize considerations like the following to justify their approach: the large amount of shared mental content which the intersubjective communication that we appear to observe presupposes; the evolutionary demands that require communication and commensurability for the survival of the species; the ability of controlled, cross-cultural experimentation to establish adequate generalizations about universal mental structures; the need to postulate these structures in order to explain various human abilities, such as the learning of language; the tendency of critical-theoretical accounts to overlook commonalities and overstate differences and so make generalizations seem implausible; the apparent logical fallacies, such as the genetic fallacy of rejecting categories on the basis of their prior history, and self-contradictions within the critical theorists’ approach; and the tendency of critical theorists to exempt their own scholarly efforts from the scathing criticisms that they direct at others. At present the lines between critical theory and science are sharply drawn, and it is impossible to predict what the future of this tension might be.
Finally, one might note a growing awareness of the global character of the academic study of religion, as witnessed in part by the entries that follow. The International Association of the History of Religions now boasts affiliates in such diverse places as Cuba, Indonesia, Nigeria, and New Zealand and has been very active in hosting conferences outside of Europe and North America. The International Committee of the American Academy of Religion has sought to foster connections between scholars in North America and other parts of the world. The impetus for both sets of activities remains, however, largely European and North American. One would anticipate that a growing self-consciousness among scholars of religions in regions outside Europe and North America would lead them to explore their own traditions of knowledge about religions which predate European contact, as literary scholars have begun to do (e.g., Ganesh N. Devy, After Amnesia: Tradition and Change in Indian Literary Criticism [Bombay, 1992]; cf. Japan; North Africa and the Middle East). At the same time, scholars will need to reflect critically on the extent to which a regionalized view of the academic study of religion will remain expedient. For example, are South Asian scholars fascinated with Marx “Westernized,” or does that label, or more broadly does the consideration of the academic study of religion region by region, obscure what may be alternative and ultimately more compelling interests uniting groups of scholars across regional boundaries?
Braun, Willi, and Russell T. McCutcheon, eds. Guide to the Study of Religion. London, 2000.
Chidester, David. Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa. Charlottesville, Va., 1996.
Chidester, David. Christianity: A Global History. New York, 2001.
Connolly, Peter, ed. Approaches to the Study of Religion. London, 1999.
Despland, Michel. L’йmergence des sciences de la religion. La Monarchie de Juillet: un moment fondateur. Paris, 1999.
Devy, Ganesh N. After Amnesia: Tradition and Change in Indian Literary Criticism. Bombay, 1992.
Jordan, Louis Henry. Comparative Religion: Its Genesis and Growth. Edinburgh, 1905.
Kippenberg, Hans G. Die Entdeckung der Religionsgeschichte: Religionswissenschaft und Moderne. Mьnchen, 1997.
Lincoln, Bruce. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. Chicago, 1999.
Michaels, Axel, ed. Klassiker der Religionswissenschaft: Von Friedrich Schleiermacher bis Mircea Eliade. 2d ed. Munich, 1997.
Preus, J. Samuel. Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud. Atlanta, 1996.
Sharpe, Eric J. Comparative Religion: A History. 2d ed. La Salle, Ill., 1986.
Taylor, Mark C., ed. Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago, 1998.
Wasserstrom, Steven M. Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos. Princeton, N.J., 1999.
GREGORY D. ALLES (2005)