Posted on November 13th, 2010 | Filed under Academic, Featured, News, Social Issues
Tagged with America, Barack Obama, Christianity, Europe, History, Islam, John Lennon, Religion, Tennessee, The Englightenment, Theory, Tomoko Masuzawa
John Lennon asked us to imagine a world without religion. But I would argue we have imagined religion into the world. Not the beliefs, practices, or traditions we call "religions." I mean the category itself. We have imagined "religion."
I'm really glad they chose State of Formation as the name for this blog about religion. Religion itself is always in formation but never fully formed. I don't mean that mystically--though one could take it in that direction. Rather, I mean the category of 'religion' in the modern world is an unstable one. It has no inherent or natural meaning. It is a term deployed for a variety of reasons and toward a variety of ends, mostly in the service of power.
"Religion" has a long history dating from ancient Rome through to modernity. Much of that history is tied up with Christianity. When the first European explorers ventured into the Americas, Africa, and Asia they equated religion with Christianity and the various practices and beliefs they encountered in Asia and the "New World" were most often understood as devilish or satanic. There was Christianity and there was Satanic heathenism.
In the Enlightenment, religion became a broader category. For the philosophes of Europe, religion was a universal category. Every culture had some form of religion and some were more advanced than others. For some of these thinkers Christianity was the most advanced, for others it was something beyond Christianity or even pure Reason. By the early nineteenth century, Europe and America had developed a four part taxonomy of religion: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and "heathenism" or "paganism." In her book, The Invention of World Religions, Tomoko Masuzawa traces the emergence of a "world religions" discourse in the nineteenth century. By the 1893, the World's Parliament of Religions recognized ten world religions. The "paganism" category had been fleshed out into Buddhism, Hinduism, and other newly minted "world religions."
Now in the twenty-first century, our concept of religion is much broader than the ten traditions of 1893. In his inauguration speech, President Obama included "non-believers" alongside Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. Our notion of religion in public discourse now includes companion categories for atheists, humanists, and others who don't necessarily fit into "religion" but still carry with them something that functions similarly. We are still forming this category of human behavior we label "religion."
I re-hash this historical and theoretical narrative to come to this point: The category "religion" is contested, changing, and negotiated moment by moment and what counts as "religion" is always inflected, determined, and authorized by the circulation of power. In short, religion is not a neutral category. It is shot through with political, economic, and cultural forces.
One example to illustrate this point. Recently in Tennessee, opponents of a proposed mosque in the town of Murfreesboro alleged that Islam was not a religion and, therefore, didn't deserve any First Amendment protections. Elsewhere in Tennessee, Lieutenant-Governor Ron Ramsey described Islam as a "cult" and not a religion during a stump speech in July. The "Islam is not a religion" rhetoric has been heating up in the past year among folks on the Right. This maneuver to push Islam out of the category "religion" is motivated by a number of factors but, in the end, it is an example of how the term "religion" is deployed to empower some and oppress others.
My point is not to disparage religion or religious communities and religious traditions. Things we label as religion have done a lot of great things and a lot of terrible things. My point is to make us aware of the label itself. Anytime the term "religion" is deployed in discourse it builds boundaries about what does and does not count as religion. These are not neutral boundaries. As we discuss the role of religion in a pluralistic society and a modern world we must be aware of the boundaries we are drawing and the ways power is working on and through them. Religion is always in a state of formation and we must be aware of the consequences.