Fighting Words on 'World Religions'

Anne Monius

In Review | Books Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, by Tomoko Masuzawa. University of Chicago Press, 384 pages, $47.50.

Tomoko Masuzawa's Invention of World Religions is ultimately a disappointing work that frames a detailed, yet partial, analysis of the emergence of "world religions" in nineteenth-century European discourse with a series of largely unsubstantiated criticisms of religious studies scholarship today, particularly in the United States.

Arguing that the construction of the now-standardized list of "religions of the world" (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.) reveals much more about the formation of European identity—with "Europe as a harbinger of universal history, as a prototype of unity amid plurality"—than it captures anything of historical realities, Masuzawa marvels at the stability of both the category itself and the accompanying itemized list into the twenty-first century. Seeing in such stability an inability—or unwillingness—on the part of religious studies scholars today to recognize the absolutist claims on which both concept and list rest, she contends that the current discourse of sympathy toward and tolerance for religious diversity simply gives "new lease" to "the logic of European hegemony."

Masuzawa's introduction clearly lays out an ambitious project: to develop a "genealogy of a particular discursive practice, namely, 'world religions' as a category and as a conceptual framework initially developed in the European academy" to assess the "social, cultural, and political practices observable among the inhabitants of regions elsewhere in the world," a conceptual framework that is "totalizing," "othering," "suprahistorical," and ultimately "depoliticiz[ing]."

Her first chapter examines the transition from a centuries-old way of classifying the peoples of the globe as Christians, Jews, Muslims, and "others" (polytheists, pagans, etc.) into new and tentative categories. The following chapter credits the nineteenth-century discourses of comparative theology with more substantially influencing current scholarly practices of studying "world religions" than "the arcane technical and scholarly tradition of the nineteenth-century science of religion." Chapter Three examines the appropriation of the idea of world religions first found in Dutch and German sources into English, and the following chapter explores the sudden rise of Buddhism as a "world religion" alongside Christianity.

In the next two chapters, Masuzawa discusses the nineteenth-century debates over Europe's "fissured" inheritance of both Hellenic and Hebraic streams of thought, and the ensuing tussle over whether Islam (classified as "Semitic") warranted inclusion in the list of "world religions" alongside Christianity and Buddhism (the latter far less problematic for its "Aryan" origins).

She moves on to consider the idiosyncratic thought of F. Max Müller—often cited as the founder of the comparative study of religion—as a locus to examine what she takes to be the distance between nineteenth-century "science" of religion and contemporary discourses of pluralism. She then reflects on several legacies of the nineteenth century—from Müller's Sacred Books of the East series to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago—and their enduring contribution to an unanalyzed category and list of the "great religions of the world." Masuzawa closes with a brief consideration of Ernst Troeltsch, whose call to the world's religious communities to unite in order to fight the rising tide of secularism participates, in her eyes, in "the European expansion project," and rests on—even hopes for—a "return of the unencumbered absoluteness and true universality of Christianity" that still undergirds the study of religion in the academy.

The absorption and rearticulation of Euro-American constructions of 'Hinduism,' 'Buddhism,' and 'Islam' extend far beyond the political context of the colonial subject.

Despite the impressive array of (mostly English-language) sources cited throughout, one is left with the distinct impression that Masuzawa has not offered much that is new here. Although she mentions a number of works—both inside and outside the field of religious studies—that have also taken up the task of tracing the genealogy of concepts like "religion," that list is neither exhaustive nor its contents ever engaged directly. Where, for example, does Masuzawa place her work alongside those who have come before her, from Talal Asad to Hans G. Kippenberg? She certainly traverses much the same ground, and her general argument for the modern discourse of pluralism as the direct inheritor of nineteenth-century Christian supremacy echoes Timothy Fitzgerald's claim that "ecumenical liberal theology has been disguised (though not very well) in the so-called scientific study of religion."1 Although numerous articles by Fitzgerald are listed in Masuzawa's bibliography, nowhere are their arguments acknowledged or, more to the point here, critically discussed.

In addition to this curious lack of engagement with other scholars concerned with similar issues of genealogy and persistence, Masuzawa also fails to mention, much less engage, scholarship in particular religious "traditions" or communities that has assumed much the same mantle of critical responsibility (although some such scholarship is listed in her bibliography). Turning to her treatment of the emergence of Buddhism, for example, as a "world religion," her claim that "philological scholarship yielded—discovered, constructed, invented?—Buddhism to begin with" and that the "import" of such invention "remains still unexamined and poorly understood to this day" at best ignores a generation of contemporary religious studies scholars who seek more complex understandings of the heavily politicized participation in such "inventions" on the part of both colonizer and colonized. Charles Hallisey and Anne Blackburn—to name but two such scholars—seek to chart carefully the ways in which precolonial constructions of what it meant to be a Theravadin "Buddhist" not only existed—and existed in transregional networks across Asia—but also shaped colonial European understandings of Buddhist thought and practice. Hallisey's use of "intercultural mimesis"2 to describe the participation of both European philologists and Buddhist monks in the processes of defining the contours of "Buddhism," as well as Anne Blackburn's3 careful study of the role of the Siyam Nikaya of Sri Lanka (with its precolonial origins) in that construction, render Masuzawa's comments about both the emergence of "Buddhism" in European discourse and the unreflective nature of Buddhist studies scholarship today unconvincing at best.

Indeed, if one issue that consistently demands Masuzawa's attention is the persistence of the very idea of "world religions" into the twenty-first century, then Hallisey's notion of "intercultural mimesis" perhaps provides a more productive point of analysis than Masuzawa's analogous discussion of "colonial self-articulation." The absorption and rearticulation of Euro-American constructions of "Hinduism," "Buddhism," and "Islam" extend far beyond the political context of the colonial subject. "World religions" exist not only on the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble bookstore, but also as political components of national, ethnic, geographical, racial, and sectarian identities out there "in the world" today. To cite but one example, the current articulation of "Hindutva" that defines India as a "Hindu nation" and has fast gained currency in the last two decades would be unthinkable in its current formulation without the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Euro-American scholarly discourses of "Hinduism."

It is one of the ironies of "intercultural mimesis" that just as scholars of religion try to move away from such colonial constructions (despite Masuzawa's odd contention, seldom backed by any specific citations, that so few religious studies scholars do), those very same colonial constructs are present everywhere on the ground, in foreign-language bookshops, in newspaper editorials, in censuses, in the self-identification of pilgrims and temple-goers. "Hinduism," in other words, is no longer simply the product of philologically obsessed, racially driven, exoticizing nineteenth-century European imaginations. While Masuzawa promises no definitive conclusions, one might have dared to hope for an examination of this postcolonial appropriation of colonially constructed categories as part of her discussion of the enduring stability of "world religions" such as "Hinduism."

This lack of engagement either with recent work in the field that critically examines the genealogy of "religion" or with more field-specific works that do much the same renders Masuzawa's critique of religious studies tedious at best. She opens with what may only be characterized as fighting words: the public discourse of religion still assumes religion to be universal and "traditional" societies to be more religious than the "modern," and claims that "when it comes to the subject of religion, it appears that the scholarly world is situated hardly above street level." In accusing the American Academy of Religion of operating on universalist assumptions, however, she quotes Bill Moyers.

At other points she focuses on the "business" of universities and the structure of introductory courses, rather than engaging scholarship in the field. Who—or what—represents the current intellectual contours of "religious studies" as a scholarly endeavor? Are physicists vexed by the popularity of books like The Tao of Physics? Should religion scholars make more of an effort to influence public discourse on the nature of religion? All are interesting questions, to be sure, but questions that Masuzawa neither clarifies nor pursues.

The framing of her argument in terms of the intellectual shortcomings of religious studies ultimately fails to convince because Masuzawa fails to engage the scholarship of the last two decades that might have shorn some of her presentation of its urgency. In fact, the current lack of critical reflection in the field of religious studies on "world religions" is, quite ironically, perhaps the clearest signal of the demise of the category itself.


  1. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford University Press, 2000), 7.
  2. Charles Hallisey, "Roads Taken and Not Taken in the Study of Theravada Buddhism," in Curators of the Buddha, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 33.
  3. Anne M. Blackburn, Buddhist Learning and Textual Practice in Eighteenth-Century Lankan Monastic Culture (Princeton University Press, 2001).

Anne Monius is Professor of South Asian Religions at HDS and author of the book Imagining a Place for Buddhism: Literary Culture and Religious Community in Tamil-Speaking South India.

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