In the fall semester 2011, the URPP Asia and Europe invited five distinguished scholars to participate in the public lecture series “Concepts of Religion in the Modern Age.” As an outcome, the event demonstrated the important role of political discourse in the process of secularization.
The topic “Concepts of Religion in the Modern Age” of the lecture series in fall semester 2011 is not only of special interest for historical research on the concept of religion and its transformations, but also refers to the question about the diverse political and social dynamics that have been set in motion by concepts of religion in Asia and Europe alike. Accordingly, the five lectures covered a broad array of subjects ranging from religion in the context of colonial encounters to modern nation-building and secularization.
Prof. Mayfair Mei-hui Yang (University of California, Santa Barbara) provided an in-depth analysis of the developments that have taken place since the early 20th century, tracing concepts and ideas concerning the modernization of Chinese religions including the People’s Republic’s religious policy up to current trends and tendencies. In her lecture, Prof. Yang characterized “religion” and “superstition” as political terminology to qualify or disqualify certain forms of religious practices. She provided information about the development of conflicts and political consequences for religious groups in China accompanied by such a normative concept of religion.
Prof. Patrick Franke (University of Bamberg) delivered a lecture on Islamic traditions of writing about other religions. His main thesis built on Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s conclusion about Islam as an exceptional case with its notion of religion, since Islam when employing the word “dîn” seems to express with it a concept close to the modern Western one. One reason for this similarity, Prof. Franke argued, may be seen in the religious plurality of the Near Eastern region at the time when Islam came into being. This situation of plurality seems to have fostered the development of a vivid Islamic tradition of writing about neighboring traditions. The word “dîn” was the preferred denotation of Islam while the others were referred to as “milal” (communities) or “madhâhib” (teachings/directions).
Prof. Christine Axt-Piscalar (University of Göttingen) spoke from the perspective of Protestant Theology on the meaning and function of religion in the modern age. Referring to current debates about the shortcomings of the secularization thesis, Prof. Axt-Piscalar argued for the important role that religion plays as a moral voice in public discourse―a role that became even more important under conditions of modernization. In her discussion, Prof. Axt-Piscalar followed Habermas’ argument on discursive reason as the necessity for the moral condition of modern society.
Prof. Jun’ichi Isomae (International Research Center for Japanese Studies Kyoto and Fellow at the URPP in fall 2011) identified a paradox in the introduction of the modern concept of religion in Japan: on the one hand, it was affirmed as a sign of civilization and a modern form of individual subjectivity. On the other hand, it brought with it a corresponding “other,” the concept of superstition. This was crucial for the formation of State Shinto as a “national/imperial” ideology, since it distanced itself from new and folk beliefs which were seen as superstitious. Furthermore, State Shinto had an interest in distancing itself from a notion of religion that was associated with Christianity―namely, any “Western” concept incompatible with the essentialist idea of “Japaneseness.”
The last talk was held by Prof. Richard King (University of Glasgow). He reflected on the influence of colonialism on religious policies in India. Prof. King is one of the first scholars who introduced the critique of Orientalism into the field of the study of religions, and he focused his lecture on the diverse problems that arose with the concept of religion within the colonial context of India. Following his discussion of the colonial encounter and its consequences for the political discourse about “Hinduism,” Prof. King concluded that concepts such as “religion” are embedded in political frameworks and that the deconstruction of “religion” is thus more than a theoretical agenda within postcolonial scholarship. It is instead an intervention into political discourse.
The different sessions of this lecture series consistently highlighted one issue in particular: the question of religion and modernity is hardly a problem that can simply be identified and embraced by the term “secularization.” To the contrary, the encounter with a special concept of religion, that is based on a differentiated sphere of church-like structures and personal faith can be seen as a central feature of the modern framework in which the political debates about civilization and rational speech have taken place. As a result, the different modes of secularization like those in north-western Europe, China, India or Japan point to the important role of different taxonomies of religion that are at play in the production processes of the modern nation state and its subjects.
(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 1/2012, p. 10)