“Religious Studies”: The Future of an Illusion

On a shrine's wish board: "Chihiro and Tomoko, together forever!" Is this religion? Does it even matter? (Peter Held)

A century ago Sigmund Freud proclaimed the end of religion as an influence on humanity. He defined an illusion as something which people want to believe but can be neither proved nor disproved, and combined it with the concept of religion, which he either perceived or defined as a collection of childish ideas people used to hold about the world. The real illusion, invisible to Freud’s eyes, was his imposition of that idea onto the entire world. He claimed without proof to perceive a single concept which has existed in all times and places, but religion is a Western word, developed in a Christian society. As religious scholars, we hasten to equate it to concepts in other language: dharma, tao, bhakti, or even islam. We draw our anthropology from The Golden Bough, assuming in some way or another that the coincidental practices of strange or incompletely developed peoples echo pan-human themes. Although we in fact find that the language worlds of other cultures have created quite different societies, we insist that they are expressing a form of our permanent entity, “religion”. This is unacceptable.

The field of religious studies has spent over a century building up scholarship based on this falsely presumed universality. What is the benefit of a comparison between medieval Japanese and Arab mystics, when you don’t understand either language? Such pursuits do not lead us closer to an understanding of either Japan or the Islamic caliphate, but are in fact an exercise in finding new meanings for tired English words such as “insight”, “ecstasy”, or “ineffable”. This is not a work of cultural exchange, but of ecumenical theology. Historical examples from faraway places are transformed through our work into precedents for our more complete understanding, mere ingredients to enrich these Western categories. One would think, after decades of this work, that we would have developed sufficiently rich language to enlighten the entire world.

Instead, by attributing a wealth of practices to the Western construct which was already enraging intellectuals like Freud a century ago, we have succeeded in alienating ourselves from our human siblings in the global south, and undoing the careful work of anthropologists and sociologists. Today, “religion” is a bogeyman: popular speakers or bloggers will frighten audiences with the specter of Islamic extremism, or “religious delusion” in general, as a worldwide phenomenon responsible for keeping faraway cultures in the Dark Ages or threatening the very basis of civilization. We must ask ourselves: what has the importance given to the Western religious category added to our discourse on Middle Eastern politics, if not to mystify discussions of the subcontinent with claims of widespread brainwashing by some vaguely imagined, church-like institution, the pan-regional “Religion”? If we dropped our pretenses of “sacredness” and the “transcendent” and moved to interpret lowercase-I islam as just one pattern of life among many in the diverse cultures of the Middle East, wouldn’t Western readers be less guarded and more open to understanding these different but altogether human conceptions?

Meanwhile, those communities whose cultural property we have appropriated and transformed for our own theological quests are not always happy with their exploitation, as we have seen from the backlash by Indians against the Wendy Doniger school of “Hindu studies”. When these groups deny the validity of Western analysis, the academic response has been to fall back on mean-spirited Orientalist rhetoric, and what seemed like a friendly, inclusive ecumenicism quickly becomes a harsh verbal battle. Consider the response of Morris J. Augustine to Timothy Fitzgerald’s point that most Japanese people do not self-identify as religious:

It is not surprising to me that Japanese students and/or professors never really think about what they are doing [during family ceremonies] … this is a typical example of the “nihonjinron” or conscious or unconscious feeling that their own race and culture is in a class by itself and cannot simply be compared to others.

We see here the dark side of religious studies: if the subject people does not want to be included in our peculiar Weltgeist, they’re either too ignorant to understand their own culture, or they think they’re better than us! Both these claims are clearly based directly on a belief in “religion” as an immutable, universal, and sacred category. Augustine is not the first religious scholar to make condescending generalizations about Japanese self-identity; D.C. Holtom shrugged off Japanese complaints in a similar way in the 1930s, leading to the invention of the term “State Shinto” to describe Japanese fascism religiously and the pronouncement of a “Shinto Directive” during the Allied Occupation which imposed Western secularism by force.

One could argue that interfaith dialogue, drawing distinctions between religions and explaining them, has deepened understanding between Christians and Jews as well as other “faith communities”, but has “religion” really done any work here that “culture” could not? In fact, is it even proper to describe Judaism as “religion” when it is practiced culturally by a large number of atheists? Meanwhile, the sanctity of the religious category has served to create a perception in India of an irreconcilable divide between Hindus and Muslims. To claim despite all this that religious studies is a net benefactor on our perception of current events, you must first confess your faith in its theological tenets—for example, Augustine’s belief “that the mysterious Source-Ground from which all religions have emerged has fired the inspiration of very different charismatic leaders in hundreds of different societies in every age”. (No wonder he so vehemently denies Japanese non-religiosity.)

For the rest of us, it is well past time to open up the discourse. Not only questions of “religious” and “secular”, but also constantly changing categories like “state”, “politics”, “civility”, “barbarity”, and so forth, must be examined in a way that does not hold any of these words to be endowed with any permanent and unchanging meaning throughout the centuries. If this approach is bad-mouthed as postmodernism, I deny the accusation: this is Buddhism, and the philosophy I here employ is emptiness. If critics insist on relying on some particular definition for any of these words, that will allow them to examine Japanese society from the perspective of the Religion and the Church, then they are relying on a different perspective in which some concepts are written in the sky, unchanging now and forever. To those people, I leave the job of repairing religious studies. They can write whatever they like—just don’t assume that anyone will automatically consider it relevant.

There is much work to be done, to present the worlds of non-Western societies in a comprehensible way that does not diminish the value they give to insiders. To the prospective scholar, I ask: are you willing to take on the challenge?

Posted: March 11th, 2010 | Japan, Postcolonialism, Secular-Religious