taking apart religion, and putting it back together

It’s been a long time since I last posted anything here; in that hiatus one thing I’ve been working on is a critique of the concept of religion. Such critique has been offered in various ways in the past few decades within anthropology, sociology, and even religious studies itself, but it’s rare that this work has spilled over into philosophical discussions of religion. Too often, philosophers still take “religion” as something unified – frequently, as I’ve mentioned before, in order to dismiss it out of hand as something that “we” have put “behind us” in one way or another, but perhaps just as frequently in order ostensibly to analyze it or take hold of it in a positive way. But the types of things – phenomena, customs, practices, beliefs – that we normally designate “religious” are in fact so varied that it’s extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) to include them all under one conceptual category without doing serious disservice to much of this content.

One of the most urgent problems with the use of the category “religion” is that this term’s history has been closely intertwined practically since its inception with the history of the rise of Christianity within Europe and of European political and cultural influence in the world. One of the most incisive (and strongly-put) analyses of this conceptual history in recent scholarship is Daniel Dubuisson’s The Western Construction of Religion. Emphasizing the Christian theological determination of thought about religion in general, Dubuisson makes his point in an imaginative way:

[A]sk, for example, what the Christian theology of the Trinity would look like if translated into the Algonquin, Quechua, or Buryat languages. To think of the symbols of the papacy or the function of the exorcist on the sole basis of voodoo categories would be a no less instructive or invigorating exercise. (92)

In the tradition of European philosophy (as well as other social-scientific disciplines, ultimately), we are used to talking about Nanai “beliefs” or the “faith” of Buddhist monks. We almost never give a second thought to the fact that these terms are alien to the traditions begin discussed, but native to the tradition(s) dominant in the Western cultural milieu.

Now, Dubuisson ultimately argues for dropping the term “religion” and associated language in favor of what he calls “cosmographic complexes”  – any system of thought and action that serves to place everyday life within a horizon of meaning. I can’t agree with him that religion-language needs to be left behind entirely, but I do think it needs to continue to be criticized and reformulated. I think there is actually some productive work being done as well to revamp our understanding and use of religion-language. One example is the work of Danièle Hervieu-Léger, which has been on my shelf, so to speak, for a couple of years and which I’m only recently at long last beginning to turn my attention to. I also have a hunch – though I may get proven wrong on this point because I haven’t really been able to explore it at all yet – that some of Latour’s recent work would be a fecund basis on which to build a more adequate understanding of all (or at least some of) that which we’re used to calling “religion.”

Posted on April 20, 2010, in religion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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