Religion, Western Perceptions of World Religions

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Religion, Western Perceptions of World Religions

As one names the various religious traditions now grouped under the rubric World Religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Shinto, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism—it is important to note from the outset two very significant points. First, the category of "world religions" is itself a historical phenomenon, emerging through specific forms of academic and popular discourse in the nineteenth century. Human beings have not always named religions in this way, nor understood in the same way which human practices or beliefs should be described as "religious." Second, such a list of "world religions" by no means names the full range of religions around the globe. Those so named have become, through complex historical and ideological transformations, the "great religions of the world" that were thought to have grown out of more "primitive" religious practices such as shamanism, to temism, ancestor worship, or other practices more commonly associated with "indigenous religions." Yet what makes one religion "great" and another "primitive" is not intrinsic to the religious practices or beliefs themselves. Rather, such designations are a reflection of the intellectual and cultural habits of an emerging "human science" of religious studies, which undertook the ordering and ranking of different religions in the world in a way that met the intellectual and social needs of Europeans preoccupied with managing a rapidly expanding colonial enterprise.

Indeed, the category of "world religions" emerged in part from that colonial experience. Like other intellectual practices developed by Europeans in the nineteenth century that sought to describe "religion" as an essential and qualitatively human experience with many diverse facets, faces, and practices around the globe, the study of World Religions was not itself an explicitly colonialist project, but it nevertheless participated in an ordering of the world that corresponded to rapidly expanding colonial ambitions and the needs of a new elite colonial administration. Certainly, some knowledge of the religious worlds in which colonial peoples lived—and of how their religious beliefs affected and shaped their political and social lives—was important to effectively governing such places as India during the time of the British raj. Civil servants faced with the diverse religious contexts found in the Middle East, India, Africa, and Latin America ranked high among those for whom the new science of religions was developed. In recent decades, this interaction between an emergent science of religion and the needs of a new elite colonial administration has become one of the focal points of the postcolonial critique of religious studies.

The emerging science of religious studies, as with other human sciences, required the accumulation of an immense body of knowledge concerning human practices, beliefs, and histories in diverse contexts around the world—but it was not as if the acquisition of this knowledge had to start from scratch. After all, Europeans had long encountered other religions, and it was in part from the history of these encounters that knowledge of non-European societies was made available to nineteenth-century theorists of religion. The data on which the new science of religious studies relied was found in the accumulated accounts of religious practices, beliefs, and histories written primarily by missionaries, adventurers, and later colonial administrators themselves. However, also like the other human sciences, the emergent discipline of religious studies sought to shape and transform such data on the basis of contemporary philosophical, theological, and scientific models. The goal was to make such enquiries into human customs and practices truly "scientific" in ways analogous to the transformation of the study of various natural phenomena into the "natural sciences" of geography, geology, or zoology. But how did one find the "truth of religion" (rather than "the true religion") in such an array of "unscientific" and hardly disinterested accounts?


Postcolonial critics of the disciplinary presumptions of religious studies often argue that the very term religion is also a nineteenth-century phenomenon and derived from within the history of Christian thought itself, rendering problematic at best the use of the word to describe other forms of thought, practice, and ritual performance outside the Christian West. Yet it is also the case that religious studies inherited and subsequently transformed terms and models dating from the European Renaissance, which have their roots in a history of European interaction with non-European "others" that stretches back to late antiquity.

Renaissance humanists became outspoken advocates of the study of history, culture, and language (studia humanitatis), over and against the modes of theological and philosophical thinking that had dominated the Middle Ages. It was through their influence that Classical vocabularies and models for describing human practices as "religious" were recuperated and applied to contemporary cultures. It was also during those same centuries that both the largest expansion of the Christian missionary enterprise and the largest geographical expansion of European colonial projects took shape, providing ample opportunity to encounter and describe human practices.

The terms invoked to describe these practices were not originally Christian, but derived from Roman usage. The Latin language possessed no single word for "religion" as a set of beliefs, practices, and ritual performances, but it did rely on several terms to describe human practices now collapsed under the term religion. The cognate religio described not beliefs or practices per se, but rather one's orientation toward duties, ritual observances, and public rites—hence a "religious" person performed his or her obligations faithfully and was considered trustworthy. Classical and Renaissance writers contrasted this with the term superstitio, literally "in terror of the gods," which was applied to the performance of rites and rituals out of fear and as an attempt to manipulate the gods to do what one needed or wished. Renaissance writers often preferred the term cultus to describe the object or form of those rites and rituals themselves, and used the language of mores (customs and habits) to describe other aspects of belief and social practice. Therefore, to speak of "true religion," as some Renaissance writers argued, was not to describe a belief system but to speak of properly carrying out one's duties, cultic practices, and obligations toward the gods. The application of these terms to the non-Christian practices of newly discovered peoples in the Americas, Africa, and Asia became possible in part out of the recognition that the terms were themselves pre-Christian and had already been adapted and put to multiple uses.

Such moments of adaptation and cultural transformation were nothing new to Christianity: as Renaissance writers argued, it was in late antiquity that the "pagan" religions of the Greco-Roman and Persian worlds were directly challenged by the rise of Christianity and Christianity emerged from its own conflicted history with Judaism. Classical understandings of the interaction of human beings with the world of the gods, Classical ritual practices, and debates over the nature of oracles and prophecies were now confronted with new exclusionary categories and the particularity of Christian claims. After the conversion to Christianity of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century, Christians increasingly held positions of political and intellectual privilege, and new forms of imperial authority were instituted to ensure the suppression of pagan religious practices deemed idolatrous or heretical. Furthermore, in the early Middle Ages the combined impacts of the Christianization of the Roman Empire, early missionary movements in places as distant as Britain and Scandinavia, and resistance to Islamic expansion into North Africa and Spain coalesced to create a Europe distinct from the old borders of the Roman Empire. The "reconquest" of Spain that ended in 1492 with the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian mainland—and Turkish threats to Christian kingdoms in Austria—furthered the identification of Christendom (as a matrix of religious, political, and social structures) with a new European consciousness. Latin Christianity achieved hegemonic cultural status, and the precepts and norms accompanying it were encoded in civil laws.

Although rich moments of interreligious encounter and dialogue did exist on the frontiers of Christendom in the Middle Ages, the European identity emerging in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries tended to reinforce the privileged position of Christianity as a constituent of that identity. As a consequence, European approaches to the problem of religion were forcefully shaped by encounters in which "others"—like Jews and Muslims—were considered guilty of invincible ignorance; that is, inexcusable, willful, and irreparable rejection of religious truth given their presumed knowledge of Christianity. This orientation toward Jews and Muslims was to be sharply contrasted with the attitude taken toward the indigenous peoples of the Americas or the Chinese, Indians, and Japanese, who were thought to be guilty of evincible ignorance—unknowing and hence reparable rejection of Christian truth. The legal distinction between evincibleand invincible ignorance—formed in part to respond to problems posed by the Crusades and the treatment of Jews in parts of Europe—divided the world into Christians, Jews, Muslims, and evincible "others." Borrowing from their Greek heritage the term for non-Greek speakers, Europeans named those others barbarians. Although the term may have often been pejorative, it was not necessarily so—and it was at times invoked by those who favored better treatment of others, because "barbarians" were nonculpably ignorant and thus not subject to the legal or religious strictures applied to those guilty of willful rejection of Christian truth.

The complex mix of intellectual exchange, polemic, and politics that shaped Christian encounters with Judaism, Islam, and "others" shaped certain categories for understanding religion that would remain remarkably resilient in European thought until the nineteenth century. Among the most potent of early Christian claims was that Christian truths served to "fulfill" the promises or intentions of other religions. Hence, the life of Jesus was said to have "fulfilled" both the promises of God to the people of Israel and the intent of the Mosaic Law as understood by Judaism, thus rendering Jewish understandings to be imperfect in their originary form and now antiquated by the revelation of God in Christ. Christian writers such as St. Augustine of Hippo would extend that framework and write that Roman religious practices were also "shadows" of which Christ was the fulfillment, and were idolatrous by virtue of misdirecting the human drive for worship to "false gods" now that the "one and true God" had been revealed in Christ. Hence modes of thinking emerged that posited "true religion" as the implicit goal of all religions, and that rendered other religious practices outmoded, incomplete, or imperfect expressions of one essential religion. In this way the conception of "sacred history" as the processual narration of God's self-revelation—first in the people of Israel and then in Christ and the Church—often provided the basis for analogous narration of the history of other religions yet to be fulfilled in Christ.


The first religions to be described as such by Europeans were thus not conceived of as "World Religions" in the contemporary sense of the term: Judaism and Islam were seen as recalcitrant, and the newly encountered indigenous religions of the Americas were thought of as evincible. Furthermore, early modern discourses on religion were shaped by the most expansive phase of the European colonial enterprise that began in the fifteenth century with Spanish and Portuguese exploration in Africa and culminated with the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish Empire. By the end of the sixteenth century, as the rapidly growing Christian missionary enterprise took shape around the globe alongside rapidly expanding European colonial interests, Europeans would begin to describe the religious worlds of Japan, China, and India. Although Christianity arrived in the Americas as part of the Spanish practices of "pacification, evangelization, and colonization," Christian missionaries, particularly in Mexico and Peru, began to learn indigenous languages and produced tomes full of detailed ethnographic descriptions of beliefs and ritual practices. The writings of Bernardino de Sahagun in Mexico and Joséde Acosta in Peru, deeply shaped by Renaissance humanism, formed the basis for what some contemporary historians refer to as comparative ethnography. Acosta's Natural and Moral History of the Indies offers a naturalizing and developmentalist account of indigenous American religio that would be read by many nineteenth-century scholars of religion. Yet the ways in which Christian orientations informed the very basis of such accounts, and shaped their description of indigenous practices—seen as everything from innocent or benign to idolatrous and even demonic—demonstrate the extent to which the history of Christian thought about the "other" would reflect and shape histories of non-European customs, beliefs, and practices. Christian writers, adopting and shaping the model of "fulfillment" developed by Augustine, would often find indigenous religions to be precursors to Christianity; on other occasions, documentation of the practices of indigenous religions allowed for a more thorough "extirpation of idolatry" from the American religious landscape.

However, in areas not subject to Spanish or Portuguese colonial control, a different kind of encounter with non-Christian religions developed. Jesuit missionaries such as Alessandro Valignano sought to enter Japan as "wise men from the West," albeit, in the case of Valignano, dressed as a uddhist and speaking Japanese. This strategy would be most successful with another Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, who adopted Confucian dress and customs after entering China from the Portuguese garrison of Macao. Roberto de Nobili lived in India as a Brahmin and learned Sanskrit from gurus, and Alexander de Rhodes lived in what is now modern day Vietnam conversant with Buddhists. In those contexts, missionaries often studied Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian doctrines, histories, and rites under the direction of practitioners, sought to introduce Christian teachings as sympathetic to aspects of those religions, and intervened in internal debates. The writings of these missionaries were among the primary vehicles for introducing Europeans to Asian religious thought, as evidenced in particular by the seventeenth-century fascination of European philosophes with China. The comparatively positive approach to these other religions evidenced by the Jesuits in Asia may account in part for the early inclusion of Asian religions in the category of World Religions. In contrast, study of the indigenous religions of the Americas continued to be shaped by revulsion at the practices of human sacrifice, and the highly developed Aztec and Inca religious worlds were collapsed within the category of shamanic and natural religions.


The emergent human science of the study of religion took as its evidentiary base the mass of documentation about human customs, practices, and rituals provided in part by missionaries, travelers, and colonial administrators from previous generations. To this was added the new experiences of missionaries, travelers, and colonial agents in the early nineteenth century. However, what began to shift was not the nature of data, but the mode of interpretation. The problem for Europeans now, after the catastrophic loss of religious authority following the collapse of a unified Christendom in the years of the Reformation and subsequent wars of religion, was not to find in other religions imperfect forms of Christian revelation, but something more ostensibly universal. Religious particularity, Christian or otherwise, appeared to be yet another occasion for war, and dependence upon religious authority was seen—especially by philosophers like Immanuel Kant—as a form of intellectual immaturity that must be cast off with vigor. Kant framed in particularly potent ways the search for a new "cosmopolitan history" of humankind in the wake of the apparently irreconcilable cultural and historical differences among human beings, and argued that it was only the universality of reason that could transcend the differences of human particularity. From this argument flowed his assertion that religion achieved its highest level of development when casting off the culturally embedded history of language, forms of authority, and ritual practices—and that "religion within the limits of reason alone" would be realized only by finding universalizable ethical norms within the teachings of all religions. Theorists of Indian religions, such as the Sanskrit scholar Max Müller, would remain highly indebted to Kant's philosophical framework.

In Kant's philosophical reflections on history and religion, the old genre of "sacred history" began to give way to other forms of universality, and religion itself became something to be "fulfilled" not by universal revelation in Christ, but by universal reason embodied in the ethical life. Sympathetic critics of Kant, wishing to preserve aspects of human religiosity against excessive rationalization, insisted on the primacy of interior religious experience as a transformative moment that fulfilled the intent of external religious practices, and gave the ethical life an added experiential dimension. Hence, rites and rituals no longer were the primary referents for discussing human religiosity, but came to be seen as those things that hindered the realization of a true universal religion. Once there was a decreasing emphasis on rites, rituals, and structures of religious authority—along with increasing rationalization and an emphasis on ethical teaching and private religious experience—it was possible to speak of a common and essential core of all religiosity. These shifts would later allow Emile Durkheim to argue that religion was simply a primitive form of the modern institutions of law, science, and political life.

The search for the ethical teachings of religions and for transcendent religious experience was enabled by the hierarchical classification of religions into "lower" and "higher" forms according to the extent to which they could be freed from "externalities" such as ritual observances and forms of religious authority. Forms of developmental progression were certainly central to the older genre of sacred history, but the fulfillment now represented was to be realized in the ethical teachings of all developed religions and in private religious experience itself rather than in one particular "true religion." That passage from lower to higher religious forms could be expressed in evolutionary terms that were later made analogous to the passing of a species from less-developed to more-developed biological forms. The search for the common source of all religions, not unlike the search for common ancestral life forms that preceded all species differentiation, led to the creation of the elaborate diagrams, charts, and genealogical accounts of religions springing from one another that proved ubiquitous in literature on the newly categorized "great religions of the world." Only when categorized and organized in this way could the various World Religions be presumed to all share the essential defining characteristics of religion: identifiable traditions, canons of sacred texts, and sets of ethical teachings, all of which can be taught comparatively, and in each of which one may find the genuinely universal truth of human religious experience.


Although the shift from religious particularity to universal ethics and experience has allowed many scholars of religion to remain committed to the idea of World Religions as a genuine celebration of religious plurality, critics writing in the wake of the collapse of the European colonial projects in the twentieth century have taken a dimmer view less amenable to Western culture's celebrations of its own great accomplishments. Rather than seeing the study of World Religions as leading to the triumph of religious diversity, these critics point to the imposition—more insidious than in the past because more hidden from view—of Christian categories of interpretation on the diverse human cultures of the world. In their view, the developmentalist and evolutionary models upon which religious studies was built privileged highly rationalized forms of Protestant Christianity as the model through which other religions were to be interpreted. And, critics charged the discipline of religious studies with providing an indispensable service to colonial regimes—the rationalization of religions, thereby meeting the needs of an increasingly rationalized colonial bureaucracy. In the wake of that critique, many contemporary religious studies scholars remain committed to the "human science" approach, but are seeking new and less universalistic idioms to describe the various cultural and social practices of the world subsumed under the term religion.

see also Christianity and Colonial Expansion in the Americas; Religion, Western Perceptions of Traditional Religions.


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Religion, Western Perceptions of World Religions