Skip to content

The Invention of World Religions – Review

Bernini’s Elephant in Rome   Photo Credit: The Busy Bee Traveler (click photo)

Every semester students pack into a lecture hell hall for a class titled not far from “Survey of World Religions.” They are assigned a textbook with a map and a short list of “world religions.” These classes are popular and profitable. It’s also not entirely clear what they are, what they accomplish, or on what principles they operate. It is widely understood, however, that world religions courses are to be pluralist, not dedicated to the advocacy of any single religion. In this way, they seemingly distinguish themselves from a long history of apologetic and biased comparison. Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism seeks to inform contemporary practice by offering a genealogy of the academic discourse regarding “world religions.” Looking closely at the subtitle, we can see an argument. The academic study of religion arose in an intellectual environment that stressed European norms as universally valid; this environment may be tougher to shake than realized. I’m going to summarize the genealogy Masuzawa provides, explain how it calls into question some assumptions and practices in religious scholarship today, and offer some concluding remarks.

Before there were “world religions” or even “religion,” there were just religions. That is, ancient Christian surveys of religions are not so much devoted to religions conceived abstractly or even to religion in itself, but to particular groups who practiced in certain ways. The first attempt at a comprehensive, global taxonomy of religion (to my knowledge) was the Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis. Epiphanius was a heresy hunter; he conceived of wrong religious ideas as poisons for which remedies were need. Panarion in Greek means “medicine cabinet.” At the end he appended a summary of the orthodox faith. His book is long, uneven, and suffers from using several conflicting organizational schemes, but it set a precedent. For Christians, comparative religion was a kind of process of elimination by which all the wrong ideas are grouped by likeness and systematically refuted, until only Christianity—the author’s particular sect of Christianity—remained. (Note: The information in this paragraph comes from me, not Masuzawa, but I think it’s helpful context.)

The number four provided the organizational structure throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Christians saw the world as divided into Christians, Jews, Muslims (often called Mohammedans), and heathens. This reflected their lived experience: Christians in the West, Muslims in the East, Jews scattered about, and heathens on the fringes or merely ghosts of memory. In the sixteenth century, sailing technology advanced to make both the New World and the Far East reasonably accessible by sea. Christians circumvented Islam and in doing so came into close contact with new cultures whose beliefs were strange. In some cases, Europeans expressed little interest in these heathen cultures, dismissing them as savage. But particularly in the East, where civilizations of impressive size and development existed, one could not help become curious. As Christianity fragmented in the Reformation and became even distasteful to some after the Enlightenment, the old fourfold classification seemed terribly outdated. Still, an organizational framework was needed to make sense of all this data.

Help came, perhaps surprisingly, from the philologists, those linguistic scholars who pored over texts and made the most acute observations on etymology, grammar, and syntax. In the late eighteenth century, a number of scholars devoted themselves to comparative linguistics, classifying languages by either etymological roots or formal characteristics. Often this was tied to ideas about national or ethnic unity and the concept that both languages and ethnicities had an inner essence that drove them to certain kinds of development. When scholars noticed striking similarities between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and older Persian documents, they theorized an “Indo-European” family of languages that all derived from a linguistic ancestor. The term “Aryan” was lifted from ancient texts and pressed into service to describe these people. From England to India, modern “Aryans” were interested in each other’s cultures. The Indo-European languages were often contrasted to the Hamito-Semitic family, which included Hebrew, Aramaic, and African languages. Europeans now had scholarly support for pursuing ties with exotic eastern lands while distancing themselves from their old religious rivals, Jews and Muslims.

Buddhism and Islam are useful examples of how academic trends related to religion reflected European cultural anxieties. The vocabulary of “world religion” or “universal religion” started to appear in the nineteenth century. The concept, not entirely new, was that many religious practices were linked inseparably to a particular ethnic group. This was seen as a failure, an inability to produce a religious system capacious enough to expand across boundaries. Christianity, by contrast, plainly declared itself a universal religion, suitable (and mandatory) for everyone. The question, then, was how to account for other religions that also held large numbers of adherents dispersed across the globe. The most commonly given answers reveal the prejudices of the European academic establishment.

Buddhism was welcomed by many as a universalizing religion. However, “Buddhism” is itself something of a creation of nineteenth-century European scholars. Putting together texts written in Sanskrit with practicing communities scattered across China, the scholars decided that these disparate groups were in fact religion. Their description of Buddhism demonstrates how enmeshed they were in Christian thinking, even as they were attempting to describe something new. First, they defined Buddhism with reference to a purported founder and founding texts. Then, they furnished it with a strikingly Protestant history. True Buddhism, these scholars asserted, was the lofty ethical and metaphysical system of Gautama Buddha. This system was explained in ancient Sanskrit documents, not all of which were widely known or revered as Scripture in the East but which European scholars had expended massive energy editing and translating. This rendered Buddhism Indian and therefore Aryan in its origin; it also made it a biblical religion, the better for direct comparison. These scholars traced the history of Buddhism as a departure from the pure teachings of Buddha as people became more mundane and ritualistic in their practice. The actual communities living in the Far East practicing their religions were like benighted Catholic peasants before the Reformation. The “failure” to keep Buddhism pure was often taken as a mark against it. The Buddha almost matched Christ, but not quite. (The history of “Hinduism” is similar in that Western scholars often combined disparate groups into religion and judged their practice by texts of unclear authority.) Buddhism the world religion as constructed by late nineteenth century scholars was a convenient prop for the European ego. It helped point out the best parts of Christianity while shaming the people who actually practiced it.

The European attitude toward Islam was completely different. For centuries the Ottoman Empire had menaced Europe militarily and intimidated it with impressive cultural achievements. But by the nineteenth century, Europe was ascendant and the mood was vengeful. Additionally, attitudes toward Islam were inflected by struggles within European Christianity. Elite European Protestants who had drunk deeply from the well of Enlightenment wished to distinguish themselves from all others. The idea floated that Europe actually had two roots, the Greek (itself a species of Aryan culture) and the Semitic. The Greeks prized reason, culture, and the universal. The Semites were driven by passion and given to crude, narrow notions of the divine. How exactly Christianity fit into this scheme was debated. For radicals such as Renan,  even Christianity was irreparably compromised by its Semitic elements; Europe would have to transcend Christianity to keep making progress. More often, Christianity was presented as taking a few good Hebrew ideas and polishing them with Hellenic universalism. If the connection between Christianity and European identity had become disquietingly fuzzy, comparison with other religion might shore up failing boundaries.

Compared to aryanized Christianity, the Jews are those left behind, unable to transcend their narrow rituals to follow Christ’s universal teachings. The Muslims (and Catholics!), by contrast, are the reverts, those who for some (probably racial) reason were unable to keep hold of lofty truths. Islam did indeed spread, these scholars admitted, but not by transcending its birth culture. Rather, Muslims violently assimilated other groups into their own homogeneity. So, Islam may have a large number of followers and a wide geographic distribution, but it does not deserve to be called a world religion.

It’s important to point out that the presentation of Islam above is entirely false. Islam, like Christianity, expanded by a combination of conquest and proselytizing. As for being Semitic, it did originate in Arabia and the Quran was written in Arabic. Nevertheless, even by the early modern period, the majority of Muslims were not Arabs. Islam possessed, as it does now, incredible ethnic and cultural diversity. Throughout the Middle Ages, Muslim rulers were often much more lenient to minority faiths than were Christian rulers. The Ottomans, the most powerful group in the modern period, were based in Turkey and spoke Turkish, a non-Semitic language (though it does have characteristics that scholars were categorizing as Semitic). The lack of both accuracy and nuance in nineteenth century presentations of Islam contrasts sharply with research into eastern religions. Whereas Buddhism and Hinduism were exotic and alluring, Islam and Judaism were familiar and despised. All were guilty of failing to be European. And even many Europeans were guilty of not being European enough.

By the turn of the century, scholars of religion were uneasy with the tone and approach found in both academic and popular works in comparative religion. In particular, they were unhappy with comparative religion being a tool for Christian apologetic and mission, even though the missions movement had in fact provided much of the impetus for research. Know your enemy and all that. To explain this change I have to depart from Masuzawa for a moment, because she marks it but doesn’t really explain it.

First, the premise or pretense of European scholarship is a certain kind of impartiality. From the Reformation onward, most European universities were officially aligned with a particular Christian sect: Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed. Faculty were responsible for holding to the tenets of the sect and furthering its claims. This of course led to an abundance of one-sided scholarship, which was ridiculed throughout the Enlightenment. In the nineteenth century, universities underwent significant institutional reorganization, with the principal consequence being weakened ties between scholars and church bodies. Scholars were now praised for transcending party lines by muting their own religious affiliation and presenting information in a way that presumably everyone could engage with it. Good scholarship didn’t overtly favor one denomination or smuggle in assumptions others would find objectionable. Academics socialized in this new environment found it easy to extend the reasoning from Christian denominations to religions in general. One could still reach pointed conclusions, but it was important that they appeared free from personal prejudice.

Second, Christianity itself was changing. Biblical criticism, deep geology, historical consciousness, and moral qualms regarding the Bible caused many scholars to lose faith in orthodox Christian teaching. Strains of German idealism and romanticism held out the promise of a revised Christianity immune from those kinds of criticisms. Very briefly put, liberal Christians talked as if there was a root understanding, impulse, or experience common to all humans, which connected them to the divine. How this seed manifests in any given society is a matter of historical contingency. Different cultures have raised varied crops from the same soil. (If readers notice a mixture of metaphors, this is intentional.) This model does not rule out all judgments, as I may prefer pansies to lilacs or award the fair prize to one tomato rather than another. For the first time, though, religions were no longer being narrated in terms of their proximity to the one true, universal religion. Instead, all religions were united as representatives of something “below” or “beneath” them. This ensured a kind of sameness underneath diversity, which might promote camaraderie rather than competition. At this point, we can rejoin Masuzawa, who points to the sociologist Ernst Troeltsch as a significant proponent of “religion in itself.” Troeltsch’s idea was to study religion as a distinct, trans-cultural, ubiquitous sphere of human existence.

High theory was done mostly in Europe, but in the United States it was most visible in practice. (Do remember that Emerson and the Transcendentalists were operating under a similar set of assumptions.) Outside the academy proper, private foundations were endowing lectures on comparative religion. The World Parliament of Religions first met in 1893. Its precise influence and even rationale is difficult to establish, but it was at minimum a token of American comfort with pluralism. As the twentieth century advanced with global commerce and global war, popular sentiment in educated America held that worldwide peace and stability depending not on abolishing religion but on transcending narrow, exclusive forms of religion. Courses on world religions appeared first in American schools, then were replicated elsewhere. In other words, by the time world religions became part of the school curriculum, it had been shorn of its overtly Eurocentric, even racialized language. It had also been deconfessionalized and pluralized. The list of world religions continued to be drawn the tables of contents in scholarly tomes, but the term had lost most of its theoretical bite. World religions now are simply the religions with which a fairly large number of people happen to identify.

Masuzawa comes now as a kind of gentle gadfly. What is the significance of the current state of affairs? Today a particular work of religious scholarship is viewed as scholarly in part because it refuses to take a particular religious stance. Are the reasons for this preference themselves scholarly or religious? If commitment to pluralism is justified  with reference to the concept of “religion in itself” and a consequent belief in the underlying sameness of religions, is this not just the next installment in a saga of enshrining Protestant Christian ideals as universal standards? But if it is not justified with respect to any particular fact or concept, is it not a mere preference? Western liberals, on Musazawa’s reading, are much like medieval Christians, justifying the replacement of all opposed discourses on the grounds that liberalism alone is properly universal.

The picture at the top shows Bernini’s elephant in Rome. An Indian elephant bears an Egyptian obelisk inscribed with runes, which is in turn topped by a cross. The elephant represents religious studies as viewed through Masuzawa’s suspicions. Several traditions are present, but it’s clear who is on top.

My summary went much longer than anticipated, so I will be brief in my concluding remarks. The Invention of Religions is quite good in terms of content, though the close reading method leads to some unevenness. I think that as an explanation of world religions discourse, it concentrated somewhat too heavily on comparative philology and not enough on theology, leading to some jarring moments. However, that is largely a matter of source selection, and in fact Masuzawa is to be applauded for slogging through extremely technical treatises to discover the influence of philology on religious studies. Her approach greatly elucidates how European scholars came to hold such divergent attitudes toward various religions. I also found the order of chapters somewhat disjointed, though by the end the narrative became clear.

This book shines brightest in raising and framing a central burning question. All academics should be able to articulate the history of their own field in a fully historical manner, not simply as a piling up of facts and procedures. Placing ourselves and our own work as the object of study is uncomfortable, but we who do it to others, living or dead, ought to undergo it ourselves.

As to Masuzawa’s concluding questions about the role of pluralism, I think it is worth pointing out that scholars in the last few decades have indeed been wrestling with these issues. A variety of approaches, which might collectively be referred to as critical identity theories, have interrogated how societies sustain structural inequalities along various axes. These approaches could be considered a variation on the Enlightenment, since structural inequality is viewed as an obvious injustice to be righted. The theorist’s task is no less moral than intellectual. At minimum, she should unmask the inequality. At maximum, she may offer a proposal for overcoming it.

Academia itself has not escaped criticism. One fruit of this is the drive for diversity and representation in the academy. The underlying conviction is that people who are not allowed to represent themselves will invariably be misrepresented. Scholarship absent diversity is merely a tool for oppression. Surely, had Jews and Muslims been full-fledged members of European research departments, the most egregious errors could have been avoided. (Masuzawa’s book can even be read in terms of intersectionality, as when she remarks that the ways Christians distinguished themselves from Muslims are similar to how elite Protestant academics distinguished themselves from the uneducated and Catholics.)

The problem is that achieving diversity usually requires some coercion. That is, integration has often been achieved by refusing to allow one group, or at least the dominant group, to segregate itself from the rest.The creation of a shared space, though, excludes precisely those who refuse to share space. Religious studies in the West is shaped like a wheel with no outer rim. The center hub is composed of ecumenical and interfaith representatives, who speak to each other. Trailing behind each representative, though, is a long line of people who aren’t comfortable sitting at the table. The more their convictions differ from those sitting at the hub, the farther out they go on the spokes. From there, they are harder to see, and they have to shout louder to be heard. Scholarship is produced by the hub and largely for the hub, even though the majority may dwell on the spokes. Bluntly put, liberals of all religions often find it easier to talk to each other than to the conservative wings of their own groups. Clearly, this is its own form of structural inequality. Is the ecumenical hub actually more moral or more scholarly than any other form of organization?

My answer: I hope so. An academy that is sensitive to inequalities and has made some progress at rectifying them might just make it even farther down that path. For instance, when Jonathan Haidt at Heterodox Academy draws attention to discrimination against political conservatives in academia, liberal academics are at least momentarily discomfited. The mere accusation of discrimination stings, and I think we should regard that as no small accomplishment. By contrast, a return to confessional scholarship can end only in politically enforced homogeneity or in the infinite proliferation of echo chambers, each shouting into the void.

Further reading: 

Orientalism by Edward Said — it’s the granddaddy of this sort of scholarship

The British Discovery of Buddhism by Philip Almond — the primary basis for Masuzawa’s chapter on Buddhism

Philology by James Turner — one academic pursuit gave rise to the humanities; did it lose its soul in the process?

The Soul of the American University by George Marsden — a genealogy of religion’s role in scholarship

Published inReview