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The Transcultural Construction of “Religion” between Asia and Europe

Coordination: Hans Martin Krämer


Asian adaptations of the modern concept of religion since the middle of the nineteenth century have been the subject of increasing scholarly attention over the past few years. This interest is understandable given the vast consequences associated with the introduction of the concept into non-European societies: The reconfiguration of knowledge orders brought with it sweeping changes in religious practices such as the excision of rituals now deemed superstitious in Japanese Buddhism (Baumann 2012). Most saliently, however, religious policy was shaped by a new understanding of "religion", including new boundary drawings between "legitimate religions" and "illegitimate cults," not infrequently resulting in the suppression of the latter (Nedostup 2009, Josephson 2012).

So far, the global dimension of this process of knowledge formation has only been acknowledged for the West–East direction of exchange, i.e. by scholars of global history such as Jürgen Osterhammel (2009), who assume that a modern concept of religion was formed in Europe and only then exported into other parts of the world. This view, however, ignores at least three crucial dimensions of the transcultural construction of the concept of religion between Asia and Europe. First, despite the lack of a clear category of "religion," pre-modern Asian polities took recourse to a vast array of management practices vis-à-vis religious groups, including the patronage of religious traditions deemed beneficial to the state and suppression of groups viewed as illegitimate. Secondly, it was only in the context of contact with non-European religious ideas, objects, and practices that the early modern European concept of religion took shape. Missionary reports from both Meso-America and Asia were crucial in informing early European steps towards grasping religion in its difference to philosophy or the political sphere. Thirdly, the institutionalization of the "science of religion" as an academic subject in the second half of the nineteenth century coincided with a new phase in global exchanges of knowledge, one that for the first time included Asian actors actively contributing to new understandings of, among other things, religion.

The aim of this subproject is to throw doubt on the assumptions held so far in the literature that focuses on the nineteenth century by showing, both, how earlier developments were more complicated within Asia and in East–West exchanges, and how Asia played a role in the formation of the academic discipline of religious studies from the very beginning, even before the turn of the twentieth century. Potential subtopics within the subproject are understandings of religion implicit in premodern practices of managing religious groups; the shaping of early modern European discourses on religion by knowledge about Asia; the contribution of discourses specifically in the religious sphere to the construction of Asia between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries; the innovations of Asian Buddhism during the the nineteenth century, already a result of processes of exchange with Europe; encounters between Asian "students" in Europe and their European "teachers" towards the end of the nineteenth century, serving as opportunities for the "native informers" to contribute to European understandings of religion; the role of mission museums and collections in shaping knowledge about religion; and the consequences of new conceptualizations of religion in the academy around 1900 for lived religiosity in both Europe and Asia.



Hans Martin Krämer