Coping with ‘Religion’

The Annual Conference of the URPP Asia and Europe on “Concepts of Religion between Asia and Europe” was held November 1–3, 2012 at the Museum Rietberg, Zurich. The topic of the conference addressed current debates on the Western ‘genealogy’ of the concept of religion by tracing Asian counterparts and perspectives.

Philipp Hetmanczyk

Scholarly discussions on religion over the last two decades are marked by a tendency to move away from attempts to define religion as a concept or a social practice. Instead, the historicity of the term and the implications of its emergence as an abstract category in the period of European Enlightenment are highlighted in recent studies. While the constructed character and thus the usefulness of ‘religion’ as an analytical category has already been pointed out by religious studies scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith since the 1980s, important postcolonial studies deconstruct ‘religion’ as a European construct embedded in the history and structure of Western imperialism. They stress that the encounters between European colonial powers and non-European civilizations have had a lasting impact on both sides, including their understanding of ‘religion.’ It is argued, by Talal Asad for instance, that the term religion tends to fundamentally distort the social and cultural realities of the cultures to which it is applied.

The postcolonial critique rejects a supposedly universalized concept of religion that neglects its Eurocentric and Orientalist implications. With this critique comes the assumption that most Asian languages, prior to their encounter with western powers, seemingly had no conceptual equivalent for what in modernity has come to be the distinct sphere of religion and, therefore, the term should be applied only to European texts and contexts.

‘Religion’ in classical sources

This critique can be seen as an important prerequisite not only for studying the entangled histories between Asia and Europe with respect to the field of religion, but also invites us to have a closer look at the semantic orders of teachings, practices, and institutions before the advent of the abstract category ‘religion’ in non-European societies past and present. Furthermore, the precise nature of the conceptual and historical entanglements and their consequences for religious practices both in Asia and Europe still need to be studied in greater detail, although much research has been already carried out for particular regions and historical periods. One aim of the conference was to refine historical awareness and enhance our understanding of the concept’s career and impact in European and Asian social and intellectual history. The conference was structured in four panels addressing the issues from historical as well as systematic perspectives.

The first panel, “Before religion,” dealt with taxonomic fields connected with ‘religion’ in various Asian languages and cultural traditions before their encounter with the modern understanding of ‘religion.’ Christoph Uehlinger (Zurich) discussed representations of the religion of ancient Western Asia in academic discourse. He argued that ‘religion’ in this case is more useful for describing a certain milieu of educated specialists rather than as a designation for an overall belief system of societies as a whole. Raji Steineck (Zurich) presented the results of his research on the „Buddha Way“ in the writings of the Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher Dôgen and pointed not only to the differences between that concept and modern notions of religion, but also to the overlaps of the two. Max Deeg (Cardiff) dealt with the Chinese term jiao (teaching) as the closest possible equivalent to the concept of ‘religion´. The terminological status of this word can be explained by tracing the semantic shift that occurred when the word was applied to Buddhist teachings. It served to identify these new doctrines when they were disseminated in China by monks and travelers from India. Angelika Malinar (Zurich) dealt with the ambiguous Western perception of India as the ‘land of religion,’ yet as a culture without a ‘precise’ concept of religion although it is readily accepted that the Sanskrit tradition offers a remarkable terminology spectrum. She analyzed the delineation of religious ‘pathways’ in selected Sanskrit texts and pointed to some second-level terms which serve as functional equivalents of religion as general category. In a similar vein, Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz (Bern) argued for a dis-privileging of modern understandings of religion as the dominant framework for establishing historical as well as systematic watersheds. She demonstrated how Tibetan Buddhist concepts of chos and šasin were used to circumscribe the religious field in early-modern Central Asian societies independently of any European influence.

The impact of encounters

The second and the third panels dealt with the modes of encounter and entanglement between Asian and Western concepts and taxonomies relating to religion and focused on processes in which ‘religion’ was negotiated, defined and delimited. A particular emphasis was given to studying the ways in which Asian social elites adopted and initiated a discourse on religion, often in an attempt to inscribe their own tradition(s) into the new paradigms, such as models of evolution, progress etc., which since the late 19th century have been invoked as major factors of modernity. Jason A. Josephson (Williamstown) analyzed how in Japan the category of ‘religion’ was negotiated diplomatically between the Japanese and Western governments. In his view, ‘religion’ in 19th century Japan was partly a product of international treaty negotiations. In his talk, Vincent Goossaert (Paris) showed how the figure of the Daoist ‘Heavenly Master’ became declassified due to a Western concept of ‘religion’ that became a political standard with the Republican regime in China. He also addressed how the ‘Heavenly Master’ endeavored to reinvent his role in the new socio-political system. Stefan Reichmuth (Bochum) took up the term dīn, which is frequently referred to as the equivalent of religion in the Islamic world, and traced transformations of its meaning during the 18th century in a close reading of texts by Murtaḍ ā al-Zabīdī (d. 1791). The problems and distortions which occur when religion is used in Western classifications in order to group Islam together with Judaism and Christianity were pointed out by James Frankel (Manoa). He emphasized how such classification conflicts with conceptualizations of dīn in Islamic traditions. In India, the rise of the concept of ‘religion’ resulted – among other things – in the invention of the term ‘Hinduism.’

Geoffrey Oddey (Sydney) explored the process in which the term ‘Hinduism’ was introduced and found acceptance in colonial India. He argued that the term proved useful not only in the hands of missionaries and colonizers, but also as propaganda among Indian elites themselves. Sudipta Kaviraj (Columbia) sent a paper on different constructions of Hinduism as a religion in 19th century Bengal. After pointing to the major channels through which the Western concept was disseminated (Christian missionaries and Western education), he analyzed how Bengali intellectuals mediated rationalist social philosophies with traditional religious doctrines and practices in creating new formations of Hinduism. This historical trajectory was pursued into the 20th century by Christian Novetzke (Washington). He explored the ‘teleological’ and ‘eschatological’ propositions as well as the religious dimensions implied in the political ideas of two important political and religious leaders of 20th century India, Gandhi and Savarkar. Lily Kong (Singapore) drew attention to the ways in which the government of Singapore enacts a ‘management’ approach to religion in order to turn it into a useful instrument for propagating state values. She analyzed how the state seeks to shape religion through political and legal strategies and interferes in the affairs and practices of religious communities.

Reclaiming the concept of ‘religion’

The last panel “Religion contested and reclaimed” addressed contemporary discourses on religion that are actively engaged in defining ‘religion.’ Yang Fenggang’s (Purdue) paper aimed at producing a social scientific definition of religion for the study of religions in China. Katsuhiro Kohara (Kyoto) analyzed a change in the concept of ‘religion’ since the 3/11 Tsunami disaster – that is, a naturalization or de-anthropocentrization of the concept. From a sociological perspective, Volkhard Krech (Bochum) exposed a framework in which the constituents and boundaries of a religious field can be identified and systematized. This last paper was followed by general comments by Lucian Hölscher (Bochum) on problems and potentials of conceptual history or Begriffsgeschichte as highlighted during the conference.

One of the results of the conference was that historical entanglements that shaped the category of religion still need to be studied in more detail. The same is true of the study of classical and early modern sources and social contexts in which terminologies and taxonomies of the religious were developed, not only in Asia, but also in Europe.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 2/2013, pp. 10–12)