There’s a thesis building steam of late that our notion of ‘religion’ is in need of some rinsing in historicist acids. What I have in mind here is not to be confused with anti-realist claims to the effect that, say, God is nothing more than a social construction. Rather, the thought goes that it’s about time we begin to question the supposition that the term ‘religion’ identifies a valid genus which can count among its species the likes of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. ‘Religion,’ too, that is, like so many other categories basic to modern Western societies, we should by now not be surprised to learn, has a history. The term has not always labeled what it labels today, raising the question of whether the realities so depicted are best served under this description. Again, we’re not talking here about the contents of particular religions, but merely the reigning categorial apparatus scholars use to specify a possible object of study. If this is sounding like a thesis that may be of any interest, you can follow it up — in various permutations — in works like the following:
- William Arnal, The Sacred is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion” (Oxford UnivPr, 2012).
- Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, (John Hopkins UnivPr, 1993).
- Daniel Dubuisson, The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology, (John Hopkins UnivPr, 2007).
- Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies, (Oxford UnivPr, 2003).
- Peter Harrison, ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment, (Cambridge UnivPr, 2002).
- Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, (UChicago Press, 2005).
- Russell McCutcheon, Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia (Oxford UnivPr, 2003)
- Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, (Yale UnivPr, 2013).
- Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion, (MacMillan, 1962).
- Guy G. Stroumsa, A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason, (Harvard UnivPr, 2010).
(For Extra Credit): Selected theological approaches to the category ‘Religion’
- Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism, (Yale UnivPr, 1990)
- John B. Cobb Jr., “Beyond Pluralism,” in Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered, ed. Gavin D’Costa. (Orbis, 1990): 81-95.
- Ford, Quash, and Soskice, eds., Fields of Faith: Theology and Religious Studies for the Twenty-first Century, (Cambridge UnivPr, 2012).
- Gordon Graham, Wittgenstein and Natural Religion (Oxford UnivPr, 2014)
- Tom Greggs, Theology against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth (Bloomsbury, 2011)
- Christine Helmer, “Theology and the Study of Religion: a Relationship,” In The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies (Cambridge UnivPr, 2011), 230-.
- Veli-Matti Karkkainen, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical & Contemporary Perspectives, (IVP Academic, 2003)
- Nicholas Lash, The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’, (Cambridge UnivPr, 1996).