“ Map” becomes a useful conceptual device for thinking about religion in a few respects. First, however self-evidently the category of “religion” claims to correspond to an object, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Jonathan Z. Smith argue in this section that there is no data for religion, no signified for the signifier “religion” because it is not a thing but a class, a conceptual or topographic tool for organizing the plurality of human phenomena. Second, if “religion” is a concept-thing and not an object-thing, what also needs to be said is that the construction of the category of religion has a specific history in the West, and in particular it has a specific history in the formation of Western identity viz. cultural others. In other words, “religion” has not only served as a scholarly map in the context of the human and social sciences, but as a racial and cultural map in the contexts of colonialism and European-American representations (scientific, aesthetic, cultural, etc.) of non-Western others. To the insights of the two Smiths we would have to add, as David Chidester does in this section, those of Edward Said and Talal Asad in postcolonial theory, and we would have to understand, as George Frederickson does in this section, the intimacies of religious and racial classifications of the human in the recent history of the West. Finally, “religion” can usefully be thought of as a map when it is regarded in functional terms as emblematic of the way humans in general construct their world. As Jonathan Z. Smith points out in the classic essay “Map is Not Territory” in the post-Kantian world it has become customary to draw a line between the world as it might be in itself and the world as it is “for us,” as it comes to be known and made intelligible.
Drawing from traditions of sociology, philosophy, anthropology, cultural theory, and structuralism, the authors in this section model a variety of ways in which the academic study of religion benefits from an ability to similarly draw lines between notions of reality in itself and the role that human cognition and cultures play in fashioning the worlds that we inhabit. Mapping, they will show, is both inevitable and sometimes problematic, particularly when maps are taken for territories. To be sure, there are real discrepancies between the authors presented here. While Talal Asad and Jonathan Z. Smith agree with Wilfred Cantwell Smith that “religion” is an imagined category, they do not agree with the latter’s identification of “true” religion with faith. At the same time, Asad and J. Z. Smith converge in important ways, but Asad argues that while “religion” may only be regarded as a thing because it has been reified in Western culture, this does not mean that one can simply wish it away or explain it away; as a culturally reified object, religion, though it isn’t one, acts like a thing, leaving behind it a historical wake with material impacts. Jonathan Z. Smith’s later work compared religious and racial classification systems, though that work has received less attention. A similar concern is taken up in George Frederickson’s essay on religion and the invention of race. It studies the way the construction of religion worked in tandem with the construction of race, informing the elaboration in Western modernity of a complex but artificial human topography whose socio-historical effects would be (Asad’s point is well taken) altogether concrete. And finally, the essays by Asad and Chidester forged important links between the study of religion and postcolonial theory, contributing to the kind of heightened disciplinary self-consciousness and historical specificity that was increasingly demanded of the humanities and social sciences in the latter half of the last century.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith
It is customary nowadays to hold that there is in human life and society something distinctive called “religion”; and that this phenomenon is found on earth at present in a variety of minor forms, chiefly among outlying or eccentric peoples, and in a half dozen or so major forms. Each of these major forms is also called “a religion,” and each one has a name: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on.
I suggest that we might investigate our custom here, scrutinizing our practice of giving religious names and indeed of calling them religions. So firmly fixed in our minds has this habit become that it will seem perhaps obstreperous or absurd to question it. Yet one may concede that there is value in pausing occasionally and examining ideas that we otherwise take for granted. Let us consider how and where this way of viewing human life arose, and how it has developed and how it has spread. Let us think about its implications, discovering, if we can, what is involved in thinking in this way. We may then be in a position to consider a question of whether or how far it is valid. In what ways does this analysis of human life clarify, and in what ways does it perhaps distort?
Retaining the historical treatment, we may rephrase the last question pragmatically. After surveying the route by which we have traveled to our present thinking on these matters, one may hope to be in a better position to see what the next constructive step in the continuing process may legitimately be. For with an historical perspective it will be seen that my proposals are not so radical or disruptive as they might appear. Rather than subverting a fixed position, they are offered as carrying forward a development. And if the new direction proposed seems at first an abrupt change, this is only in order to salvage the development from an impasse into which it has recently been sidetracked. What appears for the moment as a revolutionary reversal will be seen as rather a return to the long-range lines of classical advance.
The recent meeting of religious faith with rationalistic and then scientific inquiry, and the increasing meeting among diverse traditions of faith, have led to a temporary confusion of terms and beclouding of issues. These meetings have set our new problem but have first muddled our means of grappling with it. By seeing more clearly what has been happening to our thinking, we may be enabled to disentangle intellectually the various elements in the present situation, so that each may more easily move forward with renewed vitality.
Our method will begin with simply a verbal inquiry. For the way that we use words is a significant index of how we think. Also, more actively, it is a significant factor in determining how we think. To understand the world, and ourselves, it is helpful if we become critical of the terms and concepts that we are using. Further, to understand other people and other ages, it is requisite that we do not presume uncritically that their meanings for words are the same as ours. A mature history of ideas must rest on a careful scrutiny of new words, and also of new developments in meanings for old words. Once attained, it may further our realistic understanding of the world itself.
Three levels are here involved. First, there are the words that men use. Secondly, there are the concepts in their minds, of which these words are the more or less effective expression. Thirdly, there is the real world, of some aspects of which the concepts are the more or less adequate representation.1
We must be alert lest, out of casualness or lack of historical perception, we fail to notice changes in word usage that may be quite significant, so that we read back into the past what are actually our innovations. We must be alert also lest we fail to grasp how the ideas behind even the same words vary, in subtle or profound ways, from thinker to thinker, from century to century, from community to community—so that we read into other people’s minds ideas out of ours. Finally, and most exacting, we must be alert lest the concepts that either they or we have in our minds be taken as axiomatically valid, so that we read our ideas into the universe rather than vice versa.
In the next two chapters we shall consider the names of the individual religions, and the idea that each of these religions is in some sense an entity, deserving a name. Self-consciousness here is overdue.
At present, let us consider the word and the concept “religion” itself.
The term is notoriously difficult to define. At least, there has been in recent decades a bewildering variety of definitions; and no one of them has commanded wide acceptance. In some cases of this sort, a repeated failure to agree, to reach any satisfying answer or even to make any discernible progress towards one, has turned out to mean that men have been asking the wrong question. In this instance one might argue that the sustained inability to clarify what the word “religion” signifies, in itself, suggests that the term ought to be dropped; that it is a distorted concept not really corresponding to anything definite or distinctive in the objective world. The phenomena that we call religious undoubtedly exist. Yet perhaps the notion that they constitute in themselves some distinctive entity is an unwarranted analysis.
It is not necessary, however, to be so hasty. The conclusion is too massive to rest on so delicate a foundation. An alternative suggestion could be that a failure to...