Disrupting & Inventing “Religion”

When I teach my anthropology of religion course the first order of business is to define and disrupt “religion” as a category. I begin by having students identify everything they consider to be “religion.” Our list grows and all the usual suspects make their appearance. After the list has been compiled, we then ask what they all have in common. The commonalities are turned into another list which we can then use to identify something as “religion.”

In conjunction with this exercise, I have students read Andrew McKinnon’s pitch for a Wittgensteinian language game and non-essentialist approach to “religion,” and another by Ake Hultkrantz which contends that the key concept in “religion” is the supernatural. Because both articles deal with notoriously tedious definitions and theory, there have been complaints about how much time is spent on these matters. Like Justice Potter Stewart and porn, students sense they know “religion” when they see it.

Because spending the first week of class delineating the Western history and genealogy of “religion” is not an option, I’ve been searching for a solution and seem to have found one. A recent article by Jason A. Josephson, “The Invention of Japanese Religions,” makes most of the needed theoretical points simply by telling the story of how “religion” has been rendered in Japan. My sense is that students would prefer reading a concrete historical narrative or an actual case that deals with the category-concept of “religion.”

Josephson argues that the Japanese lacked not only a word but also an idea of “religion” that corresponded to the Western construct, so it had to be invented. During the late 1800s there was considerable debate about how “religion” should be rendered in Japanese:

Japanese intellectuals and policymakers proposed over half a dozen possible translations for “religion.” When faced with the European term, even Japanese scholars educated abroad had to go searching for equivalents, and they proposed several different contenders and tried to hang different understandings of religion upon them.

It seemed that “religion” could be a type of education, something fundamentally un-teachable, a set of practices, a description of foreign customs, a subtype of Shinto, a near synonym for Christianity, a basic human ethical impulse, or a form of politics (among other possibilities). This is clear evidence that it is glib to talk of Japanese religion projected back through the centuries.

What is more, not only did Japanese intellectuals produce different terms for “religion,” they also debated which indigenous traditions and practices fit into the category. It was not clear to them what religions there were in Japan. The sole “religion” on which everyone could agree was Christianity. More than anything else, this clearly demonstrates the foreign nature of the category.

This is a nice contribution from Josephson, whose “When Buddhism Became a Religion” I’ve long admired. I wanted to assign that article for my course last year but we simply ran out of time and never arrived at Buddhism in Japan.


Josephson, Jason A. (2011). The Invention of Japanese Religions Religion Compass, 5 (10), 589-597 DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2011.00307.x


Did you like this? Share it:

13 thoughts on “Disrupting & Inventing “Religion”

  1. J. A. LeFevre

    One is reminded here of the schoolyard joke: Juan does not know the meaning of ‘fear’.
    So he is very brave?
    No, his English is poor.

    This looks less a question of religion than translation, coupled of course with a bit or two of cultural imperialism.

  2. Cris Post author

    It’s really more about the Western and post-Enlightenment concept and category of “religion,” the history and development of which has resulted in cross-cultural difficulties in both application and translation.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    @ JA LeFevere
    My opinion is that it is not just a translation issue but indeed a fundamental view of language and its implications on our assumptions and cognitive pitfalls. I think Cris’ view is close, but I am not sure yet. I look forward to reading the papers. (slowly)

    @ Cris
    Great post.
    Having taught Statistics at University, I know that teaching concrete examples works far better than teaching abstractions. After enough concrete examples, the abstractions have a chance.

    Thanks for the papers — they are on my list. Having lived in Japan for 7 years, I look forward to Josephson’s paper. His middle name is Ananda (“bliss” in Sanskrit). Do you know his religious investments?

    I have written several posts on my site discussing the deceptive aspect of definitions and language, and specifically about the definition of “religion”. I find my opinions very atypical and are useful in challenging several approaches to religion — taken both by believers and non-believers. All this I did without ever reading anyone else’s thoughts on it – simply because I didn’t know if they existed. So it will be interesting to see how these papers effect my thinking. Thank you kindly.

  4. Craig Martin

    You might find some value in Tim Fitzgerald’s _The Ideology of Religious Studies_ (Oxford 2000). He’s got a chapter or two in there about Japan, as he was working in Japan while he was writing the book.

  5. Cris Post author

    Thanks Craig! Josephson discusses Fitzgerald in his most recent article. Definitely on my list and need to read.

  6. David Tomlin

    You don’t have to go to Japan to find people with no word for ‘religion’. The writers of the Old Testament don’t seem to have had one. People are commanded to ‘serve Yahveh’ and forbidden to ‘serve foreign gods’. Page after page, chapter after chapter, book after book, there is no mention of ‘religion’.

  7. Jack Laughlin

    In addition to Fitzgerald, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism by Tomoko Masuzawa.

  8. Jason

    I’m Jason Josephson. I got here by way of the Dish.

    Glad to have my work talked about. Thanks Cris! & your research looks really interesting too. I’ve long had an interest in the intersection of cog sci and religious studies.

    I’m happy to answer questions about the article.

    @ Sabio. To answer your question about my middle name and “religious investments.” I grew up Buddhist (hence the middle name) and still consider myself as such. How Buddhism fits into the category “religion” is a more complex issue. :)

    I’ll check back here tomorrow and if there are any questions answer them as best I can.

  9. Cris Post author

    Hi Jason and welcome to GofR. Were you just reading the Dish and happened to come upon language that looked and sounded familiar?! I’m guessing so. That is funny. I’ve let Sabio and others know you have checked in and are taking questions. Many thanks.

  10. Jason

    @ Cris, actually my cousin spotted the quote on the Dish first and pointed me to it (although I do read the Dish so that made it extra weird).

    @Sabio, Unfortunately I haven’t published about my background… But I’m happy to answer any specific questions you might have either here or by email (you can find my email from my professional page).

Leave a Reply