Understanding ‘religion’, a primer on Critical Studies, Part 3
The concluding part of my series of posts on the critical school of study of religion
Tomoko Masuzawa, in her The Invention of World Religions (2005) addresses the topic of the genealogy of the category of ‘world religions’ in western academy, through a philological analysis of scholarly works in the field of religious studies in the nineteenth century. Her critique, once again, concerns the (unwarranted) aura of universality which this category seems to possess:
Everybody…seems to know what ‘world religions’ means, more or less, that is to say, generally, vaguely. What this familiarity belies, however, is a rather monumental assumption that is as pervasive as it is unexamined, namely, that religion is a universal, or at least ubiquitous, phenomenon to be found anywhere in the world at any time in history, albeit in a wide variety of forms and with different degrees of prevalence and importance.
(Masuzawa 2005: 1)
Masuzawa traces the historical evolution—and the ideological backdrop—of certain forms of classification: from a initial four-fold division featuring Christendom, Judaism and Mohammedanism as variations of one true religion (where Christianity was identified with the most ‘correct’ form) plus a non-specified larger group usually labelled as ‘paganism’ (hardly identifiable as a ‘religion’ at all, whose members, lacking the knowledge of the One Deity were lost in a state of perdition), to a different taxonomy, witnessing the birth of ‘world religions’. The new system, arising together with the birth of Religionwissenschaft as an academic discipline in the nineteenth century allowed for a new subtle way indirectly to claim Christian supremacy (one that, according to Masuzawa is still implicitly present in contemporary publications which employ ‘world religion’ as an analytical category) where an acknowledgment of plurality granted for a different kind of hierarchical evaluation and where the possibility of comparison allowed for scholars to apply methods and concepts, now universally valid: once one ‘religion’ (Christianity) was known and understood, all other ‘world religions’ could be understood by the same means. Masuzawa argues that what is at stake in this process is
whether the idea of the diversity of religion is not…the very thing that facilitates the transference and transmutation of a particular absolutism from one context to another—from the overtly exclusivist hegemonic version (Christian supremacist dogmatism) to the openly pluralistic universalist one (world religions pluralism)—and at the same time makes this process of transmutation very hard to identify and nearly impossible to understand.
(Masuzawa 2005: 327)
This critique is therefore parallel to those we have already considered by stressing not only how the overtly dogmatic reduction of the Other to the same is methodologically wrong and epistemologically violent, but also how the apparent ecumenical pluralism included in the seemingly tolerant formula ‘world religions’ is really another form of control through a taxonomic regimentation which operates through the powerful assumption of a universal phenomenon which itself can be understood and evaluated through universal categories. As Talal Asad has phrased it:
[t]he claim of many radical critics that hegemonic power necessarily suppresses difference in favor of unity is quite mistaken. Just as mistaken is their claim that power always abhors ambiguity. To secure its unity—to make its own history—dominant power has worked best through differentiating and classifying practices.
(Asad 1993: 17)
The outcome of this historical analysis has direct repercussions on the present day understanding of what ‘world religions’ are, since current scholarship’s consistent use of the category of ‘world religions’ (which in turn often informs popular understandings)—inherited directly from nineteenth-century Religionwissenschaft, which, according to Masuzawa, was in turn heavily influenced by the dubious ‘scientific’ apologetic project of Comparative Theology—is an under-analyzed epistemological limitation capable of biasing any understanding of the phenomena under study. Indeed, Masuzawa notes how
as far as greater Europe’s stakes in the future destiny of the world are concerned, there is no ideological disjuncture between the theological discourse of traditional Christendom and the world religions discourse of today’s multicultural world. On the contrary, we have good reason to suspect that the discourse of world religions come into being precisely as a makeshift solution to the particular predicament that confounded European Christianity at the end of the nineteenth century, that is to say, as a covert way out of the profound conceptual difficulty confronting Europe and its imperial subject-position.
(Masuzawa 2005: 327)
Once the deep ideological distortion of our epistemological gaze upon the world and upon our very history is diagnosed thus, the only possible solution, she very vividly argues, can only be a relentlessly and painstakingly self-critical enterprise:
If we are serious in our critical intention, the exorcism of an undead Christian absolutism would not suffice. Instead, criticism calls for something far more laborious, tedious, and difficult: a rigorous historical investigation that does not superstitiously yield to the comforting belief in the liberating power of ‘historical consciousness’. We must attend to the black folds, the billowing, and the livid lining of the fabric of history we unfurl, the story we tell from time to time to put ourselves to sleep. This is one of the reasons historiography must always include historical analysis of our discourse itself.
(Masuzawa 2005: 328)
Having arrived at this point, and before dealing with how directly and urgently ‘science and religion’ is affected by all these reflections, I would like to recapitulate some of the main critical points which this trend of scholarship has made an issue of, specifically those which are most relevant to (and in my opinion determinate of) the ways in which our perception of what the ‘science and religion’ field is really about might need to be altered.
First, we have seen how religious studies scholars have argued that ‘religion’ is an analytical category rooted in a specifically Christian, western cultural environment (in fact, how ‘religion’ is par excellance ‘Christianity’), a term which tends to refer to a transcendent and essentialised realm of meaning. This configuration of religion as an autonomously existent and dislocated object is achieved by selectively discriminating ‘religious phenomena’ from the broader socio-political context in which they occur. This very movement of creation of ‘religion’ as a stand-alone category gave rise and authority to an academic field dedicated to its study, a field which created itself by manufacturing its object of concern. This misuse of the category (elevated as universal principle) is not simply the fruit of a confusion, but rather of a precise ideological agenda. The critiques of this stance examined above aim to do away with essentialism and the sui generis quality of the category in order to avoid the fallacy of manufacturing an object of study and studying it with the linguistic categories of the examiner, hence moulding the object into fitting those categories.
Second, and following from the first point, we have seen how the distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ operates in a circular relationship to the construction of ‘religion’ as an independent realm. The intellectual separation of a personal realm of values and a public realm of material existence is a historical product of western civilization, where it is assumed that the secular, public world holds no ideologically driven, transcendent, values, thus de facto reduced to a sphere of merely material interactions, while the transcendent domain (dominion? department?) of religious values remains impermeable to the socially constructed structures of power. In this way ‘religion’ thus acquires the franchised status of a public token of a private yet universal ‘experience’.
Third, given their precise historical and social location in the western world, both the category of ‘religion’ and its tacit corollary of the separation between secular and sacred lose any analytical value when applied cross-culturally. The use, and in fact imposition, of these categories in the history of the western encounter with its colonial objects was—and still largely is—an act of, at best, deep misunderstanding and, at worst, of cognitive imperialism.
Fourth, and consequently, the ecumenically driven attempts to expand the category of religion into ‘world religions’, are equally untenable. The postulated large family of ‘world religions’ exhibits no clear criteria of selection except what the West itself—as locus of its production in the first place—has selectively identified as religion by (arbitrarily) impressing the theological stamp of ‘religion’ on the plural and multifaceted cultural tissue of the societies it encountered outside of the European ‘home’. These last two points, where the perception the Other/object is made through predetermined categories and the representation of this Other is made possible only within the theoretical limits of these categories, perceived as being universally valid for the whole of humankind, can be confidently labelled as Orientalism.
The implications of these points, when applied to the field of ‘science and religion’, are far reaching. What I would like to stress here is how both sides involved in the debate between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ (i.e. theologically minded scholars and ‘new’ atheist of any kind) have a deep lack in sofistication (call it poor scholarship) when it comes to understand, and use, a concept like ‘religion’. At the very best the ‘science vs religion’ debate should be consistently renamed ‘science vs christianity’ and be acknowledged as an internal quarrel of western society with no possibility to be as universal as both sides would like it to be. Doen’t the constant quarrel over ‘Jesus’, ‘Genesis’, ‘God’ etc. give us quite a hint about the specific cultural location of this debate? (mostly from an hyperchristianized country such as the US?).
For as much as they seem to hate each other, the two factions share a very basic and constitutive assumption: they all seem to be motivated by the idea that, should their faction ‘win’, the whole world will benefit by this victory, it would be good for humankind. In other words, both sides are fighting the Good Fight. On one side Jesus will save the world, on the other Science will.
I hope that these reflections can contribute to bring some terminological sophistication and socio/political awareness into the ‘science vs religion’ debate, and highlight what the constitutive limits of such a discourse are.
 Masuzawa’s previous publication was In Search of Dreamtime: the Quest for the Origin of Religion (1993), where she proposed an application of deconstructionist methodology to theories of religion, uncovering the pervasive desire to recover a single and unitary origin of ‘religion’. I will consider this work and focus more on the problem of search of origins, both in religious studies and in the natural sciences, in my third chapter.
 Truth and ownership seem to go hand in hand in the study of religion. J.Z. Smith remarks that ‘[p]erhaps the most fundamental classification of religions is “ours” and “theirs”, often correlated with the distinction between “true” and “false”, “correct” and “incorrect”. At times, a comparative dimension will be added: “theirs is like ours” in some stipulated respect. Such comparisons are most frequently accompanied by a genealogical narrative which accounts for the perceived similarities in terms of filiation’ (J.Z. Smith in Braun and McCutcheon 2000: 39).
 Peter Harrison, commenting on Edward Berewood’s Enquiries Touching the Diversity of Languages and Religions through the Chief Parts of the World (1674) confirms Masuzawa’s claim when he reports that ‘[i]n his preface, Berewood explains that there are “four sorts of Sects of Religion”—Christianity, Mahometanism, Judaism and paganism, making it clear that these “religions” are species of the generic “religion”. This fourfold classification of religion was to hold for the rest of the century. It was generally agreed that the first three were religions of revelation (or at least claimed to a special revelation), while paganism or heathenism were forms, albeit corrupt forms, of natural religion’ (Harrison 1990: 39).
 Here other religions were, even when esteemed for their venerable age, almost inexorably seen as approximations of (Christian) truth. As Edward Said commented, ‘[i]t is as if, having once settled on the Orient as a locale suitable for incarnating the infinite in a finite shape, Europe could not stop the practice; the Orient and the Oriental, Arab, Islamic, Indian, Chinese, or whatever, became repetitious pseudo-incarnations of some great original (Christ, Europe, the West) they were supposed to have been imitating (Said 2003: 62). It must be noted here the central problem of monotheism: if the encounter with other, non-abrahamic ‘world religions’ questioned the universal validity of monotheism as a paradigm of religion, the assumption became then one of historical, providential process (or progress) where plurality was considered a lower stage of intellectual evolution, and where the unique, synthetic, and totalizing exclusivity of monotheistic faith naturally mirrored the ‘unique universality’ of reason (logos).
 Of course, the positions (and the scholars) which I have presented here are not necessarily universally accepted in the study of religions field. They have been criticised from different directions, from accusations of being too ‘postmodern’ (Segal in Clayton and Simpson 2006, Benavides 2000), to accusations of excessive ‘scientism’ (Cho and Squier 2008). The most notable and outspoken of the critics is probably Ivan Strenski (see Strenski 1996, 1998, 2001). As I see it, this debate is fundamentally the outcome of two radically different philosophical and epistemological positions that go beyond the confines of the study of religions field: a post-structural focus on the role of ideology in the cultural life of human beings and a scepticism for taxonomical fixity versus a pragmatist and realist persuasion according to which the evidential power of certain social realities cannot be completely overshadowed by the power of ideology. If my choice of authors certainly reflects my personal preference, it is not the aim of this chapter to openly defend their positions. I believe that the context against which I am using them—the ‘science and religion’ field—lacks so fundamentally an internal open arena of discussion around these issues that these critiques, even if not endowed with absolute truthfulness, are excellent tools to highlight its limitations and to provoke a movement of self-reflection.
 At this stage I do not think it is necessary to justify my borrowing of critiques directed towards a specific field in order to apply them to another: scholars of ‘science and religion’ have an interest in presenting ‘religion’ as a non-theologically committed, universally valid notion just as (or actually more than) those in the study of religions.
 I borrow this term from Fitzgerald, who titled a recent paper—presented at the conference Interrogating Religion: Etiology, Politics and Social Consequences of a Problematic Concept at the University of Ottawa (April 17–19, 2009): ‘Religion is not a stand-alone category: “religion”, “politics” and other mutually parasitic discourses’.
 This critique, of course, has not been limited strictly to the study of religions. Talal Asad, in the context of a polemic with Clifford Geertz, made a similar point regarding the field of anthropology: ‘what appears to anthropologists to be self-evident, namely that religion is essentially a matter of symbolic meanings linked to ideas of general order (expressed through either or both rite and doctrine), that it has generic functions/features, and that it must not be confused with any of its particular historical or cultural forms, is in fact a view that has a specific Christian history’ (Asad 1993: 42).
 Indeed, it should be noted that both McCutcheon and Fitzgerald ultimately propose the dismantlement of the field of study of religions as it stands now. McCutcheon argues that ‘[i]n maintaining that the study of religion has no special methodology and in arguing for a family of disciplines in the study of religion, we have in this statement early evidence for a non-essentialist, multidisciplinary field….The challenge, then, is either to reconstruct the study of religion without sui generis religion or allow it to dissolve into the various fields from which it originally arose….The study of religion conceived as a theoretically grounded interdisciplinary exercise is no different from any other scholarly pursuit within the university, because politics, economics, physics, biology, geography, and so on, are all equally analytic, strategic conceptual categories formed by assorted discourses’ (McCutcheon 1997: 208,210) and Fitzgerald similarly explains that ‘[o]ne aspect of my argument is that the best work being produced in the religious studies departments is not essentially any different from the work being done in departments of cultural studies or departments of cultural anthropology….My main concern has been with the pretensions of religious studies to constitute a bona fide distinct non-theological discipline with its own distinctive object of study, methodology and theoretical principles’ (Fitzgerald 2000: 221).
 S.N. Balagangadhara argues that this assumption is in fact pretheoretical, underlying any attempt of studying ‘religion’: ’the claim about the nature and universality of religion is not part of any one theory of religion: if it were, we could immediately see what the consequences of its falsity were. Rather, it appears to be a statement, which undergirds all (or most) ‘theories’ of religion. It is a claim that appears to precede theory formation about religion…. Let me sum up the consensus—and the concordance between theory and common sense—in a negative way thus: today it is almost sacrilegious to suggest that there might be cultures that do not have religion’ (Balagangadhara 1994: 153, 3).
 Fitzgerald indeed argues that ‘the secular itself is a sphere of transcendental values, but the invention of religion as the locus of the transcendent serves to disguise this and strengthen the illusion that the secular is simply the real world in its self-evident factuality’ (Fitzgerald 2000: 15) .
 Even if, for reasons of space, I am unable to explore this theme in any depth here, it is important to note that the revision of the category of ‘religion’ calls for a reconsideration of ‘religious conflicts’. As Harrison argues ‘The “world religions” were…generated largely through the projection of Christian disunity onto the world. It follows that much of the perceived conflict between so-called world religions can be attributed to the grammar of the term “religions”, rather than to substantive differences in matters of faith’ (Harrison 1990: 174). In the age of the ‘war on terror’ and of an increasingly perceived clash of religions, or indeed ‘civilizations’, this consideration should be always applied to question whether the ‘religious conflict’ hypothesis is not a dangerous oversimplification of complex socio-political events.