PHILIPS BLOG Study of Religion: re-defining the object of enquiry

RE teaching aspires to place religions into a historical context. This is important because it prevents students from essentialising: just because a Scripture says x, or members of a tradition have done x, it does not follow that all members of a tradition will do the same. A historical context for the development of religion also encourages adherents of a given tradition to view their own tradition more critically. Notions of right behaviour can be more adaptive and flexible, and more engaged with other traditions, if adherents do not believe in a single truth, written in a Scripture that is never understood anew in changing circumstances.


However, research in the field of the Study of Religions has stressed an additional sense in which cultural context is important. Authors such as J.Z. Smith and W.C. Smith have emphasized that ‘religion’ itself is an unstable category, which has been shaped through political processes and is defined in different ways in different contexts. Concepts of ‘religion’ may be related to one another genealogically, but what they share, according to these theorists, is that they are determined by the assumptions and political expediency of the powerful over the less powerful.


A recent work in this school of the study of religion is Brent Nongbri’s ‘Before Religion’. Nongbri is trained as a classicist, but his work is also informed by his ethnic background: his father is a Khasi, one of the peoples of the uplands of north-eastern India. Nongbri draws on this background to illustrate how ‘religion’ is not a universal category. He describes asking his father the Khasi word for ‘religion’, and discovering that it is identical to the term for ‘custom’. This discovery stimulates his argument that Khasi ‘religion’ is something that is willed into being by translation, and the expectations of Anglophone dictionary writers and observers.


Religion has, of course, been defined in many ways by scholars. Members of the RE community may be familiar with the six-fold definition used by Ninian Smart, who was also famous for introducing the concept of phenomenology into the teaching of RE in the 1970s. Smart argued that religion was characterised by doctrine and philosophy; myth; a tradition of law and ethics; rituals; an emotional connection to the sacred and the presence of distinct hierarchies. Smart stressed that none of these characteristics were necessary for a tradition to be a religion, but that most religions included most of these features.


Nevertheless, the study of religion has been plagued by its difficulty in pinning down its subject matter precisely: it has been accused of becoming a discipline that has failed to find anything to study. But such accusations miss the point: instead of focusing on individual religious traditions (Islam; Christianity; Sikhism etc.), the study of religions has found a new focus in problematizing the term ‘religion’ itself. ‘Religion’, Nongbri or J.Z. Smith would argue, cannot be used as a term of analysis (an etic term) because its definition is too contested to be useful and we cannot be sure that we are comparing like with like. The Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin provocatively suggests that the only honest definition of religion is ‘something that looks like Protestant Christianity’. In other words, it is a term that purports to be neutral, but actually compares quite different traditions to the advantage of one tradition and the disadvantage of the others. The dice are loaded towards the assumptions of the Anglophone cultures that write the dictionaries and scholarship.


On the other hand, the study of religion has re-focussed its efforts around tracking the ways that ‘the powerful’ have used the definition of the word to re-forge the world in their own image. Nongbri’s work in particular has rebelled against the idea that traditions have a true religious belief, which is embedded in Scripture and which, like Protestant Christianity, can be privatised without intruding on the state. He emphasises that the notion of a true core belief (‘Christianity is the religion of love’; ‘Islam is the religion of peace’) is indebted to Romantic-era notions of the ‘true spirit’ of different national cultures. We might find it appealing to imagine ‘good’ versions of Islam and Christianity, with things we dislike as later accretions, this does not do justice to the formation of religious traditions as fluid entities that change and transform as they are passed between generations.


For each era, Nongbri suggests that we can examine how one set of expectations about what religion is has determined the responses of the less powerful. Thus, to give one example, he suggests that, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European expectations that religions should have a holy book determined the discovery of Hindu scriptures, which then determined how the caste system was embedded in law in British India. That is not to say that India did not host traditions that we might call religion before this date, but that the imagination of these as a single tradition called Hinduism, rooted in a set of common scriptures, was facilitated by European scholars, administrators and law-makers, together with Brahmin informants. His wider point here is that the comparative category of ‘religion’ is not a neutral term: the category itself acts as a lens through which the expectations of one culture can be used to organize the behavior of another.


Nongbri is not solely making a point about cultural and religious history here. He is also warning students of religion against using ‘religion’ as a comparative category without at least recognizing the uses to which the word has been put. He prompts them to ask whether, on reading any text that uses the term ‘religion’, whether a word like custom or culture might do just as well. He does not advocate abandoning the term entirely, but he asks instead for a more reflective usage: what is gained by describing x as religion, rather than as something else? The use of the term ‘worldview’ in the recent Commission on RE could be seen as a step in the right direction from Nongbri’s point of view. The term has the merit, from this point of view, of not privileging belief in god(s) or of assuming the restriction of ‘religion’ into a separate sphere from ‘politics’.



Philip Wood (@DrPhilipWood) is a historian of the Middle East. He has published on the development of political and religious ideas in late antiquity and is interested in the reception of these ideas in contemporary contexts. He teaches at the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations in London, part of Aga Khan University. He completed his doctorate at Oxford, and formerly taught at Cambridge and SOAS.