Is There Such A Thing As Religion?

In a vintage First Things article on religious studies as a discipline, “The Very Idea of Religion” Paul Griffiths explains the status quaestionis:

Over these intellectual moves, too, Parson Thwackum’s spirit hovers: “religion” means “things like Christianity.” The likeness often became quite strained, but the controlling power of the paradigm case can be seen clearly in the endless nineteenth–and early–twentieth–century debates about whether such things as Buddhism (no God?) or State Shinto (the Japanese Emperor as God and no theology?) are really religions—for they aren’t really very much like Christianity. Even in the analyses of religion offered by such resolutely anti–Christian figures as David Hume (in The Natural History of Religion, first published in 1757), or by such quasi–Christian thinkers as Immanuel Kant (in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone, 1793) and G. W. F. Hegel (in Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, first delivered in 1821), “religion” is analyzed by a process of abstraction from features of Protestant Christianity.

This history, sketchy though it is, should help to explain why scholars of religion who don’t find Parson Thwackum appealing as a founding father have found it so difficult to construct an idea of religion that will meet the needs mentioned above. The historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith puts the matter very clearly in an essay published in 1998: “‘Religion,’” he writes, “is not a native term; it is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes and therefore is theirs to define. It is a second–order generic concept that plays the same role in establishing a disciplinary horizon that a concept such as ‘language’ plays in linguistics or ‘culture’ plays in anthropology. There can be no disciplined study of religion without such a horizon.” Smith might have added, though he does not, that such a horizon is, as a matter of fact, entirely lacking.

Others do add this conclusion. There are now effectively only two camps among the anti–Thwackums about the possible scholarly uses of the category of religion. The first argues that the attempt to find a nontheological understanding of religion around which a scholarly discipline can be constructed has failed, and that as a result the category ought to be dropped. On this view, work hitherto done under the religion umbrella ought to disperse quietly (but quickly) in search of new shelter under other academic umbrellas. History, literary studies, anthropology (a discipline with its own deep identity problems), and cultural studies are the usual suggestions. This is the avant–garde position; it amounts to a concession that Thwackum was right, and a concomitant agreement that if thinking from within a theological perspective is to be abandoned (as this camp would wish), use of the category “religion” must go with it. The other camp, fighting a desperate defensive action and struggling not to appear quaintly positivist, argues that a scientific (nontheological) understanding of religion can still be productively used, and that in order to do so the avant garde must be fended off on the eastern front, as it were, while the advance of the theologians is blocked to the west. Two recent books illustrate the divide very nicely.