Early in my introduction to The Norton Anthology of World Religions, the reader encounters the following deliberately casual and unchallenging sentence:
What is religion? The word exists in the English language, and people have some commonsense notion of what it refers to. Most understand it as one kind of human activity standing alongside other kinds, such as business, politics, warfare, art, law, sport, or science.
My decision for the organization of The Norton Anthology of World Religions was that we would begin with this “commonsense notion” rather than with a theoretically ambitious definition of religion—an academic definition that I would then be required to impose on my six associate editors, each of whom was far more learned than I about one of the six traditions anthologized. My decision was, first, to acknowledge that various competing academic theories of religion define the word quite differently; second, to note that no theory, no definition, had acquired universal acceptance; but then, third and at length, to proceed to give this very commonsense notion, however academically objectionable it might be, as plausible a history as I could manage, stretching back to its very beginning and forward, at the very end, to the twentieth-first century. The result was an origin story.
What makes the everyday American understanding of religion objectionable when extended to cultures very different from the American or European can be traced to the phrase “one kind of human activity alongside other kinds.” This ostensibly innocuous phrase has an explosive, disruptive potential because it asserts that religion stands indeed alongside the other activities mentioned—in other words, that it is separable from and distinguishable from them. But this is just the assertion that turns out to be objectionable when applied to “religions” that are practiced in a way or in a context that makes them indistinguishable and inseparable from business, politics, warfare, law, and so forth down a familiar list of human activities, not to speak of such larger background realities as language, calendar, marriage, diet, and nationality.
Over the years, those speakers whom I had found most clarifying and instructive, though they may have puzzled me at the time, were those who adopted a stance of disputatious protest against either Christian missionary activity or related Western colonialism and continuing cultural hegemony. Such would be my experience when I would hear an Indian speaker say, “What you people call Hinduism is for me just part of being Indian”; or when I would hear a Jewish speaker say, “Judaism is not a religion, Judaism is a way of life.” Hopi religion exists only in the Western Hemisphere, but I once heard a student of that religion say, and with good reason, “The Hopi do not have a religion in the Western sense of the word.”
Western in that sentence referred not to geography but to culture—namely, to the European culture that started to spread around the world with the great Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the late-fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and went on, through later colonialism and the spread of Western ideas of all kinds, to dominate much of the world. This culture, Western culture, has long approached religion in a way profoundly shaped by Christian assumptions, and Christianity had indeed, and very early on, introduced a separation of what it chose to regard as religiously significant from the rest of its adherents’ worldly lives. This being the case, the story of how just that artificial separation was made for the first time and then how the habit of making it spread to Europe and outward from Europe—through both missionary activity and secular Western colonialism—becomes the origin story of “religion as we know it.” To say that it spread is not to say that it was always welcome, but neither is it to deny that it was often enough borrowed or—its Christian origin quite forgotten—simply taken for granted. Cultures, after all, do borrow from one another and, over time, assimilate and indigenize what has been borrowed. Western coinages like Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and so forth do undeniably squeeze large, complex social and historical realities into the frame of religion as we know it, but at this late date, thanks to globalization and international migration, the option of simply retiring or retracting such terms scarcely exists. The affected populations themselves now have ownership rights and would exercise them.
The “origin story” of Religion As We Know It is told largely in a long section titled “How Christian Europe Learned to Compare Religions,” just as it originally was told in a section by the same title in the general introduction to The Norton Anthology of World Religions. Early in that section, I wrote:
Through most of world history, in most parts of the world, what we are accustomed to call religion, ethnicity, and culture have been inextricable parts of a single whole. How did Christianity begin to become an exception to this general rule? On the one hand, it appropriated a set of Jewish religious ideas—including monotheism, revelation, covenant, scripture, sin, repentance, forgiveness, salvation, prophecy, messianism, and apocalypticism—without adopting the rest of the Jewish way of life. On the other hand, it universalized these Jewish religious ideas, creating a new social entity, the church, through which non-Jews could be initiated into an enlarged version of the ancestral Jewish covenant with God.
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With hindsight, I would now like to refine or extend this claim in three regards.
First, the Jews who founded Christianity began most clearly to abstract the mentioned set of “religious ideas” from the rest of the Jewish way of life in the process of admitting non-Jews to their revised and enlarged sense of the Jewish covenant with God. Jews who became Christian simply by recognizing Jesus as the Jewish Messiah did not at that moment or by that action cease living as Jews. But then, by the same token, Egyptians or Armenians or Macedonians who later embraced a set of dynamic Jewish ideas as part of accepting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah were not required by that act to become Jews or to cease living in other regards as Egyptians or Armenians or Macedonians. Yet the embrace by so many non-Jews of these originally Jewish ideas almost certainly had the effect over time of severing those ideas not just from the rest of the Jews’ way of life but also from the rest of anyone’s way of life. To be sure, an almost equally powerful tendency toward reintegration would repeatedly bring about the fusion of Christian identity with the way of life of one nation or another, even one empire or another. Nonetheless a consequential severing took place in principle and could reassert itself at any time.
Second, the act of abstracting Jewish religious ideas from the rest of a rich and complex Jewish way of life had the tacit effect of defining the rest of that way of life as somehow not religious. For centuries, Jews had distinguished their own true, native worship from the false, alien worship of all others. But now there arose a distinction not between the Jewish God as the one true or “living” God and other purported gods but between the religiously consequential or essential parts of the Jewish way of life itself and the rest of that way of life, now taken to be not wrong but only religiously inconsequential or nonessential. This distinction when first made did not amount to a full-fledged distinction between the religious and the secular, but it laid the egg from which that immensely influential later distinction would hatch.
Before that point would be reached, Medieval Europe would for centuries incarnate the same key distinction by dividing the personnel of Christendom into the “religious” (monks and nuns) and the “laity” (everyone else: all those engaged in “worldly” pursuits). The Protestant Reformation would challenge this distinction, honoring once worldly pursuits as no less holy in principle than formally religious pursuits and the laity, who engaged in such worldly pursuits, as no less holy in principle than the clergy. The Protestant challenge had, to be sure, lasting consequences. However, the “Great Secularization” of the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would paradoxically revive and embrace the prior distinction while gradually elevating secular pursuits above religious ones. Secularization has been a profoundly transformative cultural process, and yet the transformation has necessarily reinforced the originally Christian notion of religion as separable from the range of other pursuits whose autonomy secularization has so insisted on.
Third, the early-modern study of world religions beyond the West was at first essentially the study of those religions naïvely taken as exotic versions of a reality whose domestic version was Christianity. That is, it was the uncritical study of the non-Christian religions of the world as if they all routinely understood themselves to be, like Christianity, separate domains open for adoption by any sincerely interested party. By this assumption, the religions of South and East Asia and the indigenous religions of Africa and the Americas were misconstrued rather as Christendom had long since misconstrued Judaism, Greco-Roman polytheism, and—to a degree—even Islam. In more recent centuries, more sophisticated students of religion have quite successfully challenged this naïve assumption. Thanks to a substantial academic literature, a more integralist understanding has taken hold which posits that religion, culture, and ethnicity are de facto often found in a fusion so seamless and taken for granted that its practitioners scarcely even have a name for it.