Vol. 7 (2006)
The history of the study of religion is a gargantuan topic. To deal with it properly we would need to define what we mean by the words ‘history’, ‘study’, and ‘religion’ – and this would require a small book on its own. We would need to go into detail about the different methods of studying religion as they have developed historically – and this would require more than one book. We would need to develop and defend the assumption that the ‘real study of religion’ appeared only in the last 150 years or so. We would need to examine the proposition that the western way of studying religion is the only ‘real’ way of pursuing that study. We would need to work out how the history of our religion and the history of the study of our religion (if we have one) is part of the history of the whole study of religion. There is quite simply not the time or space to go into these matters in any detail.
Even so the attempt to tackle this well-nigh impossible topic remains worthwhile. The age of post-modernism, with its stress upon minutiae, particular contexts, conflicting paradigms and relativising fragmentation appears to be passing, and the way is opening up for wider studies and more general concerns. It is an exciting and exacting honour to be able to address this theme within a short compass. Perhaps only a Yorkshire Professor in a Scottish University would be brave enough, or foolhardy enough, to take up the challenge!
What is the Study of Religion?
As a working summary of what constitutes the ‘study of religion’ we will propose the notion that such a study is the objective and comparative study of religion. Thus in principle it is the study of all religions from a viewpoint not isolated within any one of them. In other words it is a fair and full study of all religions. The history of the study of religion would therefore be the objectively fair history of the study of all religions.
However we are all aware, and we owe this partly to post-modernism, that pure objectivity is not possible. This writer, and everyone else, is situated by circumstance in a certain gender, race, nation, colour, class, religion, culture and even intellectual discipline by which one is moulded almost willy-nilly. By self-reflexivity, empathy, fairness, awareness of others, scholarly dialogue and humility, and so on, we can to some extent transcend these limitations. Yet they will always remain and can be seen as both a challenge and an opportunity No one group of scholars, nations, cultures, or civilisations can find ultimate objectivity. We are all in it together in making the attempt.
Before summarising the contents of this paper, let us pause to intimate some short cuts that will be made to make the paper intelligible within the space allowed.
The Prolegomena to the Study of Religion
The study of religion in various senses began before 1850. It took different forms. In the main it was the study of one’s own religion viewed empathetically, or of other religions viewed judgmentally, or less frequently of religion viewed agnostically. Relatively little attempt was made to get outside one’s own tradition in order to see it dispassionately, or to get inside other traditions to see them empathetically. Nevertheless the pre-nineteenth century world was not devoid of the ‘study of religion’. It is worth looking very briefly at some preliminary efforts made around the world to move towards this study.
Relatively little investigation has been done on what might be called the ‘pre-universities’ and work on religion done within them. These might include the Upanishadic forest universities of early India; the Greek Academies of ancient Greece, including that of Plato and the first great library in Alexandria; the Confucian Academies in early China which extended from the first to the twentieth centuries; the Buddhist monastic universities of Nalanda and Sarnath in early medieval India; and the Muslim universities of Al-Azhar in Cairo and al-Ghazali’s Baghdad from the tenth century onwards.
The classical ancient world of Greece and Rome initiated an incipient study of wider religion. Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE), Plutarch and others explored the religion of others including Babylonia, Egypt, and Persia. The sixth century BCE Ionian philosophers including Thales, Anaximander and Xenophanes exercised an early critique of religion. The Persia/Alexander the Great period produced Berosus’s ‘Chronicles’ of Babylon, Megasthanes’ ‘Indica’ (on India), and Manetho’s work on Egypt. The Stoics began to classify religions and to see religion as being more cosmopolitan and an interest in mythology also arose in the descriptive or allegorical sense. Furthermore, Euhemerus (c330-260 BCE) supposed that the gods were ancients who had become deified.
Work done on religion in western universities before the nineteenth century, from the early ones of Paris, Oxford and Bologna to the many later ones, also bears further investigation. The study of religion in areas where religions lived together and cooperated together, such as medieval China wherein the Confucian, Daoist, and Mahayana Buddhist traditions lived side-by-side, and early medieval Spain wherein the Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions lived side-by-side, might also bear fruit.
The suspicion of this present writer is that the beginnings of the study of religion may be dated back before the mid-nineteenth century to an earlier period. However space does not permit of further reflection on this important matter. For the moment we begin with Max Muller.
The Early Period: 1850 to 1900 - A Background Note
This was a time of European empires arising in different parts of the world. Christendom was still dominant in Europe and Christian missionaries were able to operate safely in different parts of the world. The morale of the other great religious traditions was not vibrant. This was the age of increasing discoveries of texts and the rise of the critical/historical approach to texts. It was also the age of increasing discoveries of artefacts from many parts of the world, for example the Ashoka pillars in India. Although Christendom remained, and much religious thought remained traditional, liberal thought was emerging both in the churches and in the body politic in the West along with a new openness to other religious traditions and cultures. New academic disciplines were arising in the West, and science was increasing in importance. Agnostic and atheistic thought, exemplified in Darwin, was becoming more common too. The emergence of the United States and Japan, and the phenomenon of the 1893 Chicago World Parliament of Religions, were harbingers of an increasing awareness of a wider global and religious world.
Max Muller and the Rise of the Study of Religion
F Max Muller (1823-1900) is generally claimed to be the originator of the study of religion in its modern form. As suggested earlier, this is accepted here although not without reservations. <1> Muller, himself a German, was influenced both positively and negatively by the Enlightenment, and more positively by the German Romantics. His thought resided somewhere between Hegel’s rational critique of India and Schopenhauer’s obsession with the Hindu Upanishads. Muller reacted against Schopenhauer in his ambition to go further back, beyond the Upanishads to the Rig Veda, and his critical edition of this fountain-head of Hindu thought lay at the root of his scholarship.
Muller innovated in various ways that enable him to be viewed as a pioneer in the study of religion. He not only critically edited the Rig Veda, he also was general editor of the Sacred Books of the East with the help of a team of scholars he led from his post at Oxford University. Critical-historical academic work by a TEAM of scholars on NON-Christian sacred texts thus emerged. Only now, almost 150 years later, is the core of this epic series being revamped in The Classics of Eastern Spirituality. <2>
Muller also stressed the need for the study of religion to be comparative in his adaptation of Goethe’s aphorism to the effect that ‘he who knows one religion knows no religion’. Muller furthermore helped to coin the phrase ‘the science of religion’, and this helped to take it out of the realm of theology into a new discipline.
In fact, Muller had theological interests and he was what we would now call an unusual kind of fulfilment theologian who nevertheless had a sincere interest in other religious traditions. He had contact with some of the leading Hindu thinkers of the Indian Renaissance, and was a supporter of the 1893 Chicago World Parliament of Religions. He was an early exponent of western universalism. Nevertheless he was primarily a scholar of religion and he also contributed to the rise of Indo-European linguistics, and more idiosyncratically to mythology. As a bright Oxford undergraduate of the day put it, on the basis of Muller’s theory of solar myths it could be shown that Max Muller himself was a solar myth!
The Rise of Information about Religion
During this 1850-1900 period, a plethora of information arose about religion. As L H Jordan was to put it in 1905, ‘The accumulation of information, indeed, has never slackened for a moment, and the special embarrassment of today is the overwhelming mass of detail, still rapidly increasing, which confronts every earnest investigator’ <3>. Jordan’s point had been brought out in practice five years earlier in the monumental Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited in twelve volumes in Edinburgh by James Hastings (1852-1922).
Awareness of and work on what was then called Primitive Religion also emerged at this time among the Victorian anthropologists. Some of the investigations into what we would now call indigenous religion were done early – before there was undue invasive contact from the West. The work of Grey on Polynesia, Codrington on Melanesia, Strehlow on Central Australia, and Best on the Maoris was pioneering, and although occasionally academically amateur the work was important. Key terms, such as ‘mana’ and ‘totem’, were coined for academic research.
The emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution prompted a search for the origins of religion, for evolutionary progress in religion, and for survivals of early forms of religion. Different scholars came to different conclusions. For de Brosses, the origins of religion lay in fetishism, for Durkheim in totemism, for Frazer in magic, for Tylor in animism, for Schmidt in original monotheism, and for others in polytheism, pre-animism and so on. <4> Indeed, this early period experienced a general search for origins that was influenced not only by Darwinism but also by the western notion that ‘big bangs’ in religion and elsewhere happen at the beginning. Thus a somewhat disproportionate amount of research focussed upon the Qur’an and early Islam, the Pali Canon and (supposedly early) Theravada Buddhism, the Rig Veda and Upanishads in early Hinduism, the Pentateuch, and the New Testament.
During the latter part of this period the early social scientists began to take their study of religion in a different direction. Marx, Freud and Durkheim accepted religion as a social fact. For Marx it was an economic fact, for Freud it was a psychological fact, and for Durkheim it was a sociological/anthropological fact, and these impersonal factors were for them more important than personal motivations. <5> Moreover, at this time, religion began to be studied in universities. This study had begun, albeit intermittently, at Basel in 1834, it emerged at Leiden and Geneva (with a Chair) in 1873, at Amsterdam, Uppsala and Utrecht in 1877, at Harvard (in the person of G Foot Moore) in 1891, and at Chicago in 1892. However, it remained the case that in Germany in 1905 there were fifty Chairs of Oriental Studies but none in Comparative Religion.
Some Comments on the Early Period
Clearly much more could be said about this early period in the study of religion.
Among these early scholars there were four main groups. Firstly there were those who were idealists and had an enthusiastic sense of the importance of religion as a creative force. This group gave a warm welcome to events such as the 1893 Chicago World Parliament of Religions. Secondly there were those who welcomed the study of religion academically but opposed it personally, sometimes from a stance of atheism, for example Marx, Durkheim and Freud. Thirdly there were the scholars who saw themselves as being objective. In J B Bury’s phrase, in a famous turn-of-the-century inaugural lecture at Cambridge, the study of history was ‘a science, nothing more and nothing less’, and so too was the study of religion a ‘science’. And fourthly there were a significant group of liberal Christians including Rowland Williams and Max Muller who were a relevant force in the rise of the study of religion. Indeed the Unitarian J Estlin Carpenter began teaching at Manchester College, Oxford as early as 1876, and in the same year the Congregationalist A M Fairbairn began his work at Mansfield College, Oxford. These groups were not mutually exclusive; indeed, Max Muller had interests in three of them.
There was relatively little interest among these scholars in contemporary religion. As we have seen, their concern was more for the early stages of the major religions than their later history, and they also had a concern for Greek and Roman religion and the religion of the early Middle East, as well as the primal origins of religion.
The Second Period 1900-1950: A Background Note
This was the era of two World Wars and the beginning of the decline of empire. The death-toll resulting from the internecine conflict between Christian nations began to raise questions about Christendom. Nazism and Marxism arose as anti-religious forces, nationalism continued to grow in Europe and elsewhere, and the rise of capitalism became more pronounced. Technological innovations included the rise of aeroplanes, radio and new systems of communication. There was nevertheless still not much travel of scholars abroad, nor was there yet much mixing of people of different religious traditions across the world. Christendom was still intact, and the West was still basically in charge, although the rise of Japan and the effect of the Second World War opened up new horizons at the end of the period.
Continuation of Earlier Work
There was, at this time, a filling out of the history of the major religions. The spread of Buddhism to different areas was charted. The rise of Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism, especially in China, Korea, Japan and Tibet, was opened up and new light was shed in relation to Theravada Buddhism, and also in relation to modern Buddhism. Buddhist scholars such as D T Suzuki began to add their contribution to that of western scholars. <6>
New work emerged on the wider history of Islam, in Asia as well as the Middle East, and on Shi’ite as well as Sunni Islam. Work arose too on Sufi mysticism and some of its great figures. In addition to further work on the Qur’an, the Hadith and the beginnings of Islam, new research emerged on the Five Pillars, the general Islamic worldview, Islamic social history and Islamic modernity.
Studies opened up more obviously in less well-known religious traditions including the Sikhs, the Baha’is, the Jains, the Chinese Taoist and Confucian traditions, Japanese Shinto, indigenous South and North American traditions, some African traditions, and the Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Mithraic traditions of the Middle East. Moreover, new areas wherein religion was studied emerged in Scandinavia, Italy, wider Europe, and especially in the United States, and scholars from South and East Asia such as Coomaraswamy, Suzuki and Radhakrishnan began to make their contribution.
Relevant work on religion also appeared within the work of Theology departments. In Germany, Rudolf Otto was eclipsed by Karl Barth during this period but his ‘Idea of the Holy’ nevertheless had a significant impact on wider studies in religion, as did his comparative work on mysticism and devotional religion. <7> Soderblom at Uppsala attempted to reconcile Theology and Comparative Religion as well as producing interesting work on Iran. In the Netherlands van der Leeuw began to combine Theology with the new Phenomenology of Religion. In 1923, after a spell as Secretary of the YMCAs of India, J N Farquhar took the Chair of Comparative Religion that had been established at Manchester in 1904, and inspired a group of scholars who combined a type of fulfilment theology with productive and empathetic books on Indian religion. Examples include N MacNicol on Indian theism, Margaret Stevenson on the Jains and on the rites of the twice- born, McPhail on Ashoka, and Whitehead on the village gods of Hinduism. Reichelt in China performed a similar function.
In the emerging discipline of Anthropology, in place of grand theories about evolution and origins, fieldwork became more popular, especially in the work of Malinowski and others. Social and Structural Anthropology arose, and scholars such as Marrett, van Gennep, Levy-Bruhl, Lowie, Radin, Radcliffe-Brown and Levi-Strauss began to give weight to the function and structure, as well as the substance, of religion in so-called primal societies. In the Sociology of Religion Max Weber went beyond Durkheim’s fruitful interest in the Australian Aborigines, wherein religion was essentially social, to examine Hindu, Jewish and Chinese materials as autonomous but also comparative entities. Later Joachim Wach began very significant work on comparative religion and comparative sociological categories.
Also significant for the study of religion were developments in the Psychology of Religion associated with Carl Jung. Jung went beyond William James, whose 1900 Edinburgh Gifford Lectures on ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ had stressed individual conscious religious experience, and even beyond Freud by stressing that not only the individual unconscious but also the universal unconscious was far deeper than the conscious self we are aware of. He began his Eranos Circle in Zurich in 1933 that met annually and attracted the cream of religious scholars of the time. Buber, Campbell, Danielou, Eliade, Goodenough, Heiler, E O James, Jung, Kerenyi, van der Leeuw, Neumann, Pettazzoni, van der Post, Radin, Rhys Davids, Sholem, Suzuki, Tillich, Tucci, Zaehner and Zimmer debated together not only on Jung’s symbols, archetypes, universal unconscious and so on but more importantly on much wider matters in the study of religion. <8>
In various places in Britain new courses on religion were developing, notably in Manchester in 1904, where Rhys Davids took the Chair of Comparative Religion,
It is useful to offer, at this stage, some concluding comments on the 1900-1950 period. Not least, within the broader study of religion, much more data had been accumulated and more religious traditions and areas had been studied than ever before. Expansions in scope were matched by expansions in method, with new methods of approach becoming evident over and above the original historical, textual and philological studies. For example, the Social Sciences were generally growing in influence, so that religion was no longer conceived merely in terms of what is consciously known by individuals but within broader and wider parameters. It is instructive, for example, to contrast the work of William James in 1900 and Carl Jung in 1950. In terms of the geographical shape of the study of religion, Western Europe was still just about dominant. However, the United States, wider Europe, and even realms beyond Europe were beginning to have their say. Very few women were active within Religious Studies; they were not non-existent, as they had been in previous times, but neither were they plentiful. There was still relatively little migration of religious people around the world. Colonialism remained more-or-less in place and it gave some inter-contact, but it would be the Second World War that would prove to be the most significant catalyst for wider change that would erupt during the subsequent period. However, up until this point, Christendom was still loosely intact and western empires retained some significant control.
The Third Period, 1950-1985: A Background Note
At this time there came the dissolution of empires, the rise of new nation states around the world, the renaissance of religions in other parts of the world, the rise of a homeland for the Jews, the rapid growth of Marxism, and growing economic development and modernisation in the aftermath of World War II. The rapid growth of science led to a developing debate between science and religion. There came too increasing industrialisation with the attendant flight from villages to cities, a growing ecological awareness, the movement of people and information around the world with the advent of cheaper flights and television, the rise of new cultural blocks, and the emerging sense of living in a global world. The slow demise of Christendom in Europe began, people of non-Christian religions moved into Europe, and religious education in schools began to include non-Christian as well as Christian traditions. Elsewhere, sleeping giants such as China and India were beginning to awake, and while in parts of Western Europe the process of secularisation, however interpreted, appeared to produce a slow decline in organised religion, in India and elsewhere in the Third World, even incipiently in China, as well as in the advanced United States, growth in organised religion was more obvious. Rapid developments emerged within the study of religion in relation to content, method, possibilities of fieldwork, and global scope and engagement. <9>
Greater Diversity and Depth in the Study of Religion
At this time, a greater emphasis came to be placed on the study of the major religions with an increasing stress upon their contemporary situation. In addition to this a wider picture of the totality of religion in time and space continued to emerge. Thus greater interest arose in Palaeolithic and Neolithic religion, in indigenous primal religions, in minor contemporary traditions, in dead religions, in new religious movements, and in ostensively secular traditions such as nationalism, humanism, and communism. <10>
New centres of study proliferated around the world. In 1981 the present writer went with the British Academy to China to chart the religious situation and the study of religion there in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Elsewhere in the Marxist world, for example at Leipzig through Kurt Rudolph, the study of religion arose in a non-religious environment. In India the study of religion emerged separately from philosophy in Patiala and Delhi, and in postwar Japan a similar trend came into being. Meanwhile, in the West, a plethora of Religious Studies departments and courses arose at Harvard, Chicago, Lancaster, Paris, McGill, Edinburgh, Bonn and elsewhere. Around the United Kingdom the study grew within a variety of milieux – Theology departments, Social Science departments, Humanities departments, and (as at Lancaster) new Religious Studies departments. At this stage the study of religion in Theology and Religious Studies departments grew whether as part of Theology or separate from it.
Another important development was the deepening, widening, and even questioning of knowledge within religious traditions. For example, within Buddhist Studies Lamotte’s massive 850 page ‘Histoire du Bouddhisme Indien’ further opened up the study of Indian Buddhism, and innovative studies of Tibetan Buddhism saw the light of day, partly helped by the flight of the Dalai Lama to India. The dates of the Buddha were advanced by Gombrich and Beckert, and Bareau’s scepticism about the Theravadin origins of Buddhism triggered more research on early Mahayana and early Buddhism generally. Gombrich’s pioneering work on the divergence between precept and practice in Sri Lankan Buddhism promoted new fieldwork possibilities around the Buddhist world. Meanwhile, new translations and interpretations of various Mahayana Sutras, the work of Holmes Welch on Chinese Buddhism, new developments in Mahayana philosophy and analyses of Tathagatagarbha, and the founding of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, gave further impetus to research into the Buddhist tradition. <11>
Wider Developments, 1950-1985
A major development during this period was the emergence of the Phenomenology of Religion to a position of prominence. In different ways Kristensen, van der Leeuw and C J Bleeker in the Netherlands, Ninian Smart in the UK, and Eliade in the USA, among others, wanted to go beyond the stress on language and literature of Oriental Studies, the historicism of German Heilsgeschichte, the particularism of Theology, and the reductionism of the social scientific approaches. They used epoche (putting one’s views into brackets to avoid bias), Einfuhlung (getting inside the worldview of others), and a comparative approach to attempt to understand other traditions ‘as they are’. Phenomenology became a valuable tool for those seeking an understanding of unfamiliar religious traditions. <14>
The rise of a more inclusive view of Religious Education enabled the use of phenomenology as a fairly accessible route whereby schoolchildren and enquiring adults might understand religious traditions. Models of religion emerged to facilitate this understanding. For example, Ninian Smart’s model portrayed a religious tradition as an organism containing six dimensions: doctrinal, mythological, ethical, ritual, social and experiential. Frank Whaling’s model contained eight elements: religious community, ritual, ethics, social involvement, scripture, concepts, aesthetics and spirituality lying behind which were transcendence and a mediating focus. These were applied to the major five traditions – the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu – and later to the Sikh and Bah’ai traditions. <15>
Models were one way of introducing religions as separate entities but they were also a means of comparing them. Other modes of comparison arose, for example phenomenological typologies (Mircea Eliade), sociological comparisons (Wach and Berger), naïve comparison (Geoffrey Parrinder), and W C Smith’s comparing like with like in real (not superficial) terms, for example Christ and the Qur’an.
Within Anthropology fieldwork continued to predominate – two year stretches for France and one year for the UK. Theory was present in Levi-Strauss, Berger, Turner and others, as fieldwork on tribes in Africa, Asia, China, Oceania and elsewhere commenced or continued. Evans-Pritchard’s seminal work on the Nuer and on method raised the ongoing question as to how far personal faith helped or hindered in the study of religion. The sense was that it could help or hinder according to use. <16>
Wilfred Cantwell Smith and others raised the question as to whether the study of religion could envisage a global theology of religion that emerged out of but could also transcend particular religions. The allied but longer-lived issue was that of the relationship between Theology and Religious Studies, were they opposed or allied or simply separate? John Hick at one extreme saw a very close relationship compatible with their living together in departments of Theology and Religious Studies; Peter Berger, himself a Christian, proposed methodological atheism in that the sociologist had no concern with the transcendent focus of religion, this the theologian could tackle alongside the social scientist; others wanted a rigid separation.
Psychology of religion began to move from depth psychology, as Freud’s reputation began to suffer decline, into new paths. In different ways Allport, Argyle, Carstairs, Campbell, Maslow, Goldman, Fowler, and Erikson (on Gandhi and Luther) opened up new possibilities in the psychological study of religion. <17>
At the international academic level the International Association for the History of Religions was founded in 1950 and at its first conference there were 193 delegates who were mainly European. In the succeeding conferences at five-yearly intervals up to 1985, the numbers of scholars attending mushroomed, as did the variety of subjects tackled. In spite of attempts to globalise the personnel, however, it remained ineluctably western.
Deeper Questions, 1950-1985
A deeper underlying question during this era focussed upon the basic issue of what was religion, and what was the focus of religion? Wilfred Cantwell Smith in his ‘Meaning and End of Religion’ (1963) began an ongoing debate about the usefulness or otherwise of the very word ‘religion’ and the words for religions such as ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, ‘Confucianism’, ‘Taoism’, ‘Christianity’, and so on. He pointed out that these words had arisen in the modern West from around the time of the Enlightenment and had reified religions into ‘things’ rather than communities of living persons. The debate about the meaningfulness of the words ‘religion’ and ‘religions’ continues to this day. <18>
So does the debate about the focus of religion. Should the study of religion focus upon religious traditions as historical/sociological entities or on religious traditions as communities of living persons? Should it focus on religious traditions at all or upon the cultures or civilisations within which they are set? Should it focus neither upon religious traditions as entities nor upon religious traditions as communities of persons but rather upon phenomenological typologies such as Eliade’s hierophonies of the sky, the sun, the moon, water, stones, the earth, vegetation and farming, as well as sacred places, sacred time, myths and symbols?
Another debate arose in connection with the increasing contact between religious people and scholars through new modes of communication and transport. One feature of this debate was, as we have seen, the teaching of other religious traditions in Religious Education classes in British schools. A second feature was the growing sense that, if possible, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and others should teach their own traditions rather than them being mediated through westerners. A third feature was the rise of inter-faith dialogue, partly triggered by Vatican II (1962-65), and aided by increasing personal contacts through immigration and travel, and by the global movements of religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, the Venerable Thich Naht Hahn, Mohinder Singh and others. Was the aim of creating greater understanding and co-operation between religious traditions a valid concern of the study of religion or not?
A fourth emerging debate related to the rising interest in the study of spirituality. The 70-volume Classics of Western Spirituality was launched during this era and included mainly Christian but also a few significant Muslim, Jewish and American Indian classics. Also appearing at this time was the 25-volume ‘World Spirituality: An Encyclopaedic History of the Religious Quest’, which was to include every known kind of spirituality from Asian and European Archaic Spiritualities to Modern Esoteric Movements, and Secular Spirituality . At the other end of the spectrum social scientific studies focussed on the outward observable data which did not, however, really convey a sense of the inwardness and transcendent nature of religion. <19> Within the social scientific sphere different ‘mini-disciplines’ arose to explore in more detail new discoveries and theories within Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology.
In terms of personnel, more women became involved in the study of religion, partly through women’s studies, and partly through more women teaching and writing about religion. More non-western scholars were involved too although not in large numbers.
Background to the Period, 1985 -
The age closest to our own period is proving to be a climactic one. Secularisation theory seemed to have some validity in the West due to a partial decline of religion in its orthodox European structures. However, new forms arose in the West including a variety of New Religious Movements and the New Age phenomenon. Outside the West the Christian tradition, now steered by indigenous leaders, mushroomed in South America, southern Africa, parts of Asia, and Oceania, while other traditions sometimes took a growing and more radical form through the Khomeini revolution in Iran, the Hindutva movement in India, and so on. Religion grew in the post-communist lands and also in China where Marxism as a ‘faith structure’ was replaced by growing Christian (Protestant), Catholic, Muslim, Taoist, Buddhist, and nascent new Confucian and Folk religious forms.
Latterly terrorist attacks have made fieldwork more difficult in some areas and have alerted governments to the need for more expertise in religious matters. The situation in Israel and other volatile areas of the world has consequences for the study of religion. It has led sometimes to a retreat into internal methodological discussions, at other times into scholars becoming more active in helping government agencies, and at other times into facing up to the question as to whether action should be taken by religious experts in connection with the so-called clash of civilisations and/or the global inter-faith movement.
The post-modernist movement has exercised a radical critique with regard to grand theories and broad models, yet general scholarship has developed established areas of research as well as opening up new ones. The globalisation movement - with its influence upon multi-national companies, with the growing strength of the USA after the rapid decline of communism, with the stress upon capitalism and finance and organisation, and with the rise of global poverty, ecological decline and resource uncertainty - has posed new questions. While a more self-reflexive phenomenology of religion has arisen, there is also increasing interest in ‘engaged scholarship’, which may become more engaged in the religious and wider concerns of the world.
MAJOR TRENDS, 1985 -
If Jordan had stated in 1905 that a plethora of religious data was emerging, this was even more the case by 2007. Cascades of data were researched on existing topics and new topics were opened up. These included a wealth of investigation of New Religious Movements and of the New Age in its various forms, of indigenous religious traditions sometimes by indigenous people themselves, of esoteric movements in the West and elsewhere, of shamanism, and (through Ninian Smart and others) of ‘secular religious movements’ ranging from nationalism and communism to secular humanism. The data have transcended the ability of theories to control and subsume them. The multitude of topics discussed at the American Academy of Religion, the International Association for the Study of Religion, and the British and other national associations for the study of religion has continued to escalate. <20>
New ways of studying religion achieved greater prominence. One development was in the growing study of aesthetic approaches through architecture, sculpture, art, music, calligraphy, dance, film and so on, which moved beyond texts and words. Museums of religion in places as far afield as Taiwan, Hanover, Glasgow and the United States were symbols of this emergence. <21>
At another level television and computers came into their own. Presentations of great epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana galvanised and influenced audiences in India and fed into the Hindutva Movement in that country. Computerisation of texts ranging from the Greek and Latin Classics to major religious sacred writings began to revolutionise scholarship. This trend is bound to continue.
While at one level scholars from Asia, Africa, South America, Australasia and Oceania have begun to make their voices heard, and while the last two IASR conferences have been held in Durban and Tokyo, at another level there is still a western feel to Religious Studies in that western norms and academic injunctions tend to maintain their dominance. The rise of post-modernism has tended to accelerate this trend. With its stress upon small and inductive studies rather than wide narratives, its unveiling of the influence of the power-blocks of colonialism, men, and other vested interests upon the very nature of religious data, and its distancing of post-modernism from modernism, it has been ineluctably western in its attempt to transcend western thought-forms! Since world religious traditions, including Christianity, were ‘stuck in a modernist groove’, they were supposedly being outmoded by post-modernist thinking which could by-pass religious traditions in favour of a visionary and western secular model which could go beyond such passé matters as transcendence, faith, theology, philosophy and ‘religionism’. The West dominates again! <22>
Developments within the Phenomenology of Religion have moved it on in recent times. It has moved beyond the original Husserlian categories in the work of scholars such as Jacques Waardenburg and James Cox into a more refined and creative stance. Allied to this is the rise of a sense of a more self-reflexive phenomenology which can use rather than bypass the scholar’s own mode of being and move into a more creative hermeneutics (albeit not in Eliade’s sense). This new phenomenology, however, retains the aim of knowing and understanding others without judgmentalism. <23>
A recent development is the rise of ‘engaged’ scholarship in religion. This can have two meanings. In the first place it can mean helping governments and other institutions to understand and help different traditions internally, and to understand and help situations abroad externally. This need not necessarily mean agreeing with the stance of governments but it is a service that scholars can and should give and which governments are looking for. They are aware that they lack expertise in the area of Religious Studies and that they need it. In the second place ‘engaged scholarship’ can mean shedding ‘phenomenological neutrality’ in order to serve some cause or other. For example, one might ‘side with’ the Dalits in India against Hindutva-style Hindus, or consider boycotting Israel’s universities for condoning the Palestinian situation, and so on. The present writer has become involved as an adviser to government in giving help and advice when they are sought, and he has chaired and mediated at various gatherings wherein different views are put forward from varied stances. Every scholar must decide how to proceed in these matters, and whether to become involved at all, but the opportunity for creative engagement will grow rather than diminish. Eileen Barker’s work in fairly presenting data on New Religious Movements is an example of this. So is the increasing involvement of scholars in advising health services, education, social services, prisons, the military, and so on, in religious matters.
At the other end of the spectrum there has been a stress on the need for a scientific study of religion that would eschew the above involvements and engage solely in scholarship. This can take different forms. At one level it may involve applying scientific categories of evidence to the study of religion which would question the viability or reliability of much ‘religious evidence’ in so far as it cannot be proved by scientific standards of measurement. The danger is that this sort of study can become an armchair affair divorced from fieldwork and actual contact with religious people or communities in that their evidence is seen as ‘unreliable’. Schleiermacher’s cultural despisers of religion can thus become ensconced within the study of religion. At another level it may involve the suggestion that the word and category of ‘religion’ are inadmissible. However, similar academic caveats can be raised against words such as ‘civilisation’, ‘culture’, ‘sociology’, ‘anthropology’, and so on.
An allied point relates to the secularisation of religion in much of Europe. However, religious practice in southern Africa, southern America, Oceania, Australasia, and parts of Asia is growing rapidly rather than decreasing as other strands in the study of religion are showing, and to generalise from parts of Europe to the whole world is unhelpful. Moreover, other religions have come into Europe as have new modes of religion such as that encompassed by the New Age and New Religious Movements. It is perhaps time for scholars from other parts of the world to be heard more clearly. They have their own story to tell. It is also appropriate that more attention be given to the classical educational models that have dominated world scholarship through the ages. The Humanities were stressed in Greece and Rome, Religion was stressed in medieval Europe, and Science has been stressed in the modern West. These three educational models, and their concomitant symbols of humankind, transcendence, and nature, have always been there in actuality and as models for study. In principle they are not redundant or disintegrated. The study of religion is in principle part of a wider educational study combining in different ways and in different cultures the study of humans, the study of transcendence, and the study of nature. The study of religion has its part to play in a much wider educational enterprise. <24>
The relationship between Theology and Religious Studies continues to be debated. The United States has seen institutional differences, because of its institutional separation of church and state, between the study of theology and the study of religion. Departments of Theology tended to stress Christian themes and data, and departments of Religious Studies tended to focus upon a variety of traditions including Christianity as one among many. Elsewhere combined departments have held both together in various jigsaw-type combinations. While purists on both sides stress their difference, sometimes in extreme terms, and while friends on both sides also recognise their difference, nevertheless the debate continues.
During the period since 1985 the complexity within the study of religion has multiplied. The present writer edited two volumes on ‘Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion’ in 1984-85 that contained twelve chapters beginning with ‘The Contrast between the Classical and Contemporary Periods in the study of Religion’ and ending with ‘Sociological Approaches to the Study of Religion’. <25> In ‘The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion’, edited by John Hinnells in 2005, there were thirty chapters beginning with ‘Why study religions?’ by Hinnells and ending with ‘Migration, diaspora and transnationalism, transformations of religion and culture in a globalising age’ by Sean McLoughlin. <26> The twenty-eight chapters in-between run through a whole gamut of topics it would be vainglory to summarise now. Both these works emphasised the role of methods and approaches to the study of religion, and this is a feature of the present age, but the second work complexified the methodological aspect even more deeply. Methodology has become a dominant consideration in our own era. It is in danger of being seen as the end of rather than the means for the study of religion. Much more has happened since 1985 but space demands that we come to a close. Before we do so a brief summary of our story is in order.
A Brief Overview of Trends in the History of Religion
Thirdly, the study of religion began as a purely male preserve and as a mainly western matter. Western Europe took the lead followed by the United States. Although more women have entered the field and although scholars from Australasia, Asia, Africa, the other Americas and Oceania have become involved – in the case of Japan in rapidly increasing numbers – it still remains a mainly western male preserve. Although Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ highlighted the implicit colonial aspect of this trend it has continued in other ways, including post-modernism, and continues still. <27>
Fourthly, interest arose originally in the study of the major religious traditions as exemplified in Muller’s ‘Sacred Books of the East’. Studies of these traditions advanced in depth of analysis as did studies of dead religions such as those of Greece, Rome and the ancient Near East. Studies of minor traditions, esoteric traditions, new religious movements, secular religions and so on emerged later.
Fifthly, there arose a tacit division of labour between different academic disciplines as they arose. Anthropologists tended to study primal societies, historians and textual scholars literate traditions, sociologists modern societies in their social form, psychologists religious experience, theologians beliefs, phenomenologists the phenomena of religion, and so on.
Sixthly, there arose in the later eras a desire to study religion in order to ‘understand’. This was fuelled by the rise of phenomenology but was implicit elsewhere in different ways. The data of religion were used to open up the possibility of a deeper understanding of religion and religious traditions, both in the past and in the present..
Seventhly, with the rise of the social sciences interest arose in the functions of religion in society rather than the substance of religion as such. Marx, Freud and Durkheim with their atheistic backgrounds contributed to this trend that became more prominent, although often centred in methodology rather than religious unbelief as such
In the eighth place the question of the religious allegiance or non-allegiance of the scholar, the insider/outsider debate, became more prominent as a general issue. This could become a heated matter or involve an implied consensus to the effect that the ‘insider’ could have access to the inwardness of religion and to personal faith and spirituality in a way not available to the ‘outsider’ whereas the outsider could sometimes see more of the wider picture. The study and the practice of religion are different but the practitioner of religion can effectively study religion whereas the ‘pure’ student of religion cannot easily practise it.
Ninthly, there has arisen recently the debate about the word ‘religion’ and the words for ‘religions’ such as Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Helpful here is the differentiation between different meanings of the word ‘religion’. It can mean religiousness in the sense of personal religion, religion in the sense of religious traditions serving religious persons, religion in the sense of religious traditions as wider socio-historical entities, religion as ideal religion to which religious traditions aspire, and religion as a discipline over against other disciplines. More work is needed to bring out these nuances. More work is needed also to bring out the complexities within each religious tradition, not only between different ‘sects’ but also between conservatives, fundamentalists, liberals and radicals. Attempts to get rid of the words ‘religion’ and ‘religions’ have been made from W C Smith’s ‘Meaning and End of Religion’ onwards but it is more important to engage with the substance of ‘religion’ and ‘religions’ lying behind the attempts to get rid of these words.
In the tenth place there is the present need to coordinate better the study of religion. It has become fragmented. It is located within different disciplines including Religious Studies, Theology, Sociology, Psychology, History, Phenomenology, Language Studies, Literature, Aesthetics, and so on. It is engaged in different levels and types of Religious Education in schools, colleges, universities and further education bodies. It is concerned in different ways with schools, hospitals, the wider health service, the armed forces, prisons, the social services and so on. It serves different ends including the need to understand one’s own and other traditions, the need to critique one’s own and other traditions, the need to recognise different motives for studying religion (by women, by former colonial peoples, by other races, by people of different sexualities and so on), the need to grapple with or go beyond pluralism and multi-culturalism. There is the need for dialogue between different kinds of scholars of religion and for the consolidation of Religious Studies departments as unifiers of the field of Religious Studies
In the eleventh place the study of religion in recent times has moved perhaps unwittingly in the direction of the study of contemporary religious traditions, especially in the West, through the medium of sociology and anthropology. However, the study of religion remains implicitly the study of all religious traditions at all times and in all places in relation to all of their aspects not only their contemporary social concerns.
Finally, there is an eerie sense of ending where we began when it was stated that four kinds of scholars were engaged in the rise of the study of religion. Those four types remain not dissimilar today. We still have the scholars who see religion as a creative force that is important in the world today in enabling us to understand religious traditions and the world better and whose fine scholarship is partly aimed at increasing inter-religious understanding and mitigating any clash of cultures. We still have the second type of scholar who, while being non-religious or irreligious, is still interested in the study of religion. A contemporary example would be John Hinnells, an atheist, who writes ‘I question whether one can understand any culture and history - political or social – without understanding the relevant religions.’ <28> A third type of scholar remains the so-called scientist of religion who wishes to remain solely at the level of scholarship without becoming involved in the religious or other concerns of the wider world. And the fourth type of scholar remains the liberal scholar of all religions who, while having his or her attachment to a particular religion, engages in the wider study of religion as phenomenologist, historian, theologian, or whatever. Different scholars may bestraddle these boundaries that are not totally exclusive. It is important that they engage in dialogue with each other as the study of religion moves into a new age.
And so our story comes to an end. It is clear that not everything that has to do with the history of the study of religion has been included in this piece, but the hope is that it maps out the field better and enables us to oversee the picture that lies before us. It is a moving picture – and we are all part of it!
<1> Friedrick Max Muller lived from 1823 to 1900. Eric Sharpe in Comparative Religion: A History (Duckworth: London, 1975) argues that the Dutch Egyptologist C. P. Tiele was a possible contender for the title of father of the study of religion but he prefers Muller (see pp. 35-46)
<2> Muller had been a member of Christ Church Oxford in 1851 and became a Fellow of All Souls in 1858. He became Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford in 1868 but retired in 1875 to devote himself more fully to editing ‘The Sacred Books of the East’ which came out in fifty volumes.
<3> Louis Henry Jordan in ‘Comparative Religion: Its Genesis and Growth’ (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1905), p. 163.
<4> See Jacques Waardenburg, Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion (The Hague: Mouton,1973) for Charles de Brosses (1709-77) (p.8); Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) (pp.301-24); James George Frazer (1854-1941) (pp.245-56); Edward B Tylor (1832-1917) (pp. 209-19); Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) (pp. 265-86)
<5> See Waardenburg, op. cit. for Emile Durkheim (see above); Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) (pp. 361-77)
<6> For the contribution of non-western scholars to the study of religion including Ananda Coomaraswamy, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, D. T Suzuki, Martin Buber, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, John Mbiti and Wing Tsit Chan see F Whaling (ed.) Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion: The Humanities (The Hague: Mouton, 1984), pp. 391-443.
<7> For Rudolf Otto (1859-1939) see Waardenburg, op.cit., pp. 433-59. For J. N. Farquhar see Eric Sharpe, op. cit., pp. 151-54.
<8> For Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) see Eric Sharpe, op. cit. pp. 203-12.
<9> See Frank Whaling ‘Religion in Today’s World; An Introductory Survey’ in F Whaling (ed.) ’Religion in Today’s World’ (T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1987), pp. 1-52.
<10> See F Whaling ‘The Contrast between the Classical and Contemporary Periods in the Study of Religion’, in Frank Whaling (ed.) Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion, op. cit., pp. 1-28.
<11> See Paul Williams on ‘Buddhism’, in Ursula King (ed.) Turning Points in Religious Studies (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990), pp. 156-68.
<12> See Friedhelm Hardy on ‘Hinduism’, in King (ed.), op. cit, pp. 145-55.
<13> Trevor Ling, History of Religion: East and West, Macmillan: London, 1968; Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas (3 volumes) (University of Chicago Press, 1985); Robert Bellah, ‘Religious Evolution’ pp. 20-50 in R Bellah, Beyond Belief (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).
<14> See Eric Sharpe, ‘The Phenomenology of Religion’ in Eric Sharpe. op. cit., pp. 220-50.
<15> See N Smart’s model summarised on pages 16-17 in N. Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, 1969; F Whaling’s model summarised in F Whaling,’Contemporary Approaches..’, op. cit., pp. 270-72
<16> See E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).
<17> See David Wulff, ’Psychological Approaches to the Study of Religion,’ in F Whaling (ed.), Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion : The Social Sciences, (Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton, 1985), pp.21-88.
<18> Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: New American Library, Mentor,1964).
<19> The Classics of Western Spirituality: A Library of the Great Spiritual Masters in seventy volumes began in 1975 and is now finished. It was conceived by Richard Payne who was then an editor of the Paulist Press in New York and it contains not only Christian volumes but also a smaller numbers of volumes by Muslims, Jews and American Indians. Richard Payne also conceived ‘The Classics of Eastern Spirituality’, a revamp and extension of Max Muller’s Sacred Books of the East, which is also in process.
<20> In spite of the vast numbers that attend, for example, the American Academy of Religion conferences, that number is dwarfed by the many scholars who rarely attend conferences but contribute immeasurably to the study of religion.
<21> See John Hinnells on ‘Religion and the Arts’, in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (London & New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 509-26.
<22> See Paul Heelas on ‘Postmodernism’, in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, op. cit., pp. 259-74.
<23> Jacques Waardemburg, Reflections on the Study of Religion, Including an Essay of the Work of Gerardus van der Leeuw, (The Hague: Mouton, 1978).
<24> See F Whaling in F Whaling (ed.) Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion: the Humanities, op. cit., pp. 436-40.
<25> The two volumes of my Contemporary Approaches in addition to the beginning and ending chapters included chapters on history and phenomenology, comparison, myth and texts, scientific study of religion, and the global context in volume one. In volume two there came chapters on psychology, sociology (2), social anthropology, and cultural anthropology (2)
<26> The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion in addition to two opening chapters and an ending one has chapters on nine key approaches: theories of religion, theology, philosophy, religious studies, sociology, anthropology, psychology, phenomenology, and comparison. It also has chapters on eighteen key issues: gender, insider/outsider perspectives, postmodernism, orientalism, secularisation, spirituality, new religious movements, fundamentalism, myth and ritual, authority, hermeneutics, pluralism, politics, geography, science, cognition, culture, and the arts.
<27> Edward W Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,1978).
<28> John Hinnells in The Routledge Companion, op. cit., p. 6.
© Frank Whaling 2006