Religion, religions and modernization

Authored by: Bryan S. Turner

Routledge Handbook of Religions in Asia

Print publication date:  September  2014
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415635035
eBook ISBN: 9781315758534
Adobe ISBN: 9781317636465


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Every chapter in this Handbook has either explicitly or implicitly confronted the problem: what is religion? More specifically it has examined the idea of ‘Asian religions’. Because religious studies have until recent times been dominated by Western conceptions of religion, inevitably scholars have worked with the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as providing a model of religion in general. Scholars in the nineteenth century often wrote confidently about the ‘world religions’ as a category for studying Christianity and Hinduism or Judaism and Daoism as ‘religions’, but contemporary scholarship has become far more hesitant and uncertain about such generalization. This reluctance to make unquestioned assumptions about religion in general was reinforced with the criticisms of the Western scholarly traditions that emerged from the critical analysis of Orientalism. This movement was, especially in the humanities, associated with the work of Edward Said (1978). The argument has been that, while making claims about the universality of such categories as the sacred, Western scholars inevitably saw the world through the particular framework of their local traditions. One example might be taken from the work of the famous Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade (1911–1986) whose magisterial publications on the sacred in such works as The Sacred and the Profane (1961) and Shamanism (2004) captured both an academic and lay audience. His style of writing with expressions such as ‘total existence’, ‘innate plenitude’, and ‘mystery of totality’ had a wide appeal, but his vocabulary and approach are now widely questioned. It is now claimed that his universal categories were in fact constructed through the lens of Eastern Orthodox Christian theology (Rennie 2010). In addition, his interpretation of religion was deeply influenced by his political and theoretical opposition to Communism, and hence contemporary scholarship wants to question the apparent neutrality and generality of the classical religious studies tradition (Mocko 2010). The criti--cal trend of modern scholarship is well illustrated in the chapter by Jason Ānanda Josephson on the invention of religion, the discussion of Shinto by Aike P. Rots and also in the account by Andrea Pinker of how ‘Hinduism’ was created by the classificatory schemes employed by British colonial administers in the construction of a population census in the late nineteenth century. There is general agreement that the growth of comparative religion was slow to emerge because of the absence of substantial empirical evidence and this gap was only filled after the growth of European imperialism had created opportunities for gathering relevant data. In short we can only understand the rise of comparative religious studies in the context of Western imperial power (Jordan 1905).

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