The Invention of Religions

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Daniel Dubuisson
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing
    , August
     210 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since the 1980s, there has been a growing reflexive turn in the academic study of religions to examine how and when and why the concept of religion was developed. Daniel Dubuisson has contributed to this turn himself (The Western Construction of Religion [Johns Hopkins UP, 2003]) and, in the present work, The Invention of Religions, he “wishes to present a clear, if sometimes critical, synthesis of the principal themes, controversies, and works that have fed into and continue to nourish this vast current,” which he calls “Critical Studies of Religion” (CSR) (2). His title reflects the fact that some in this group also argue that given the concept’s European provenance, scholars should realize that religions have not been discovered in cultures around the world but rather been invented by the use of the term (9).

This short and incisive book describes how the concept of religion is rooted in Christian assumptions and desire for cultural hegemony, the problematic assumptions of phenomenology of religion, the inadequacies of religious studies curricula and textbooks, and how scholars might respond to this conceptual problem. Throughout, Dubuisson rightfully stresses the role of colonialism and imperialism in the development and deployment of this concept. Without denying the agency of those who adopted the label for themselves, he explains how the practices now called, for example, Hindu and Shinto were molded by this “epistemic imperialism” (137). A great deal of the book simply summarizes other publications (including a rehearsal of each of seven short articles in a special journal issue on the problematic assumptions of world religions textbooks). Nevertheless, Dubuisson writes with clarity and verve. He is also occasionally critical of CSR, for example, when he notes that its philosophical roots are limited not just to Continental thought, nor just to French thinkers, but primarily to those who have been translated to English (63). The book includes some poor choices for translating words (the French conscience should be “consciousness,” not “conscience”; acceptation should be “understanding,” not “acceptation”). In general, however, the book is a valuable overview of this issue.

One weakness in the book is that Dubuisson does not see that there are two approaches in CSR in tension with each other. On the one hand, some proponents of CSR argue that when scholars study the religions found in human history, it is crucial to exclude theology so that one’s work is strictly scientific. Dubuisson agrees, arguing that the academic study of religions should be “authentically scientific,” or, as he puts it, a priori free from all religious preoccupations (54, 55). Though he admits that one cannot separate the practice of science from all ideological presuppositions, he says that it would be “rather easy” to separate it from the religious ones (56). The goal is to study the religions in human history “objectively” (62, emphasis in the original), and science is impartial and detached (102). On the other hand, there are other proponents of CSR whose goal is not to study religions scientifically but rather to critique the ideology that leads people to think that any such entities are out there. Dubuisson also agrees with these debunking scholars who challenge “the existence of religion itself” (64), and he repeatedly labels an “illusion” the claim that there have been religious forms of life outside the sphere of Christian influence. Since they are “invented,” “constructed,” and “created” from Western assumptions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism are “sham religions” (123). Let’s call this the illusion thesis.

How persuasive is the illusion thesis?  The central argument of this book is that “the definition of this term [“religion”] . . . makes it delicate—indeed, impossible—to apply it to non-Christian cultures” (125). One of the well-known features of the term “religion” is how many definitions it has had over the years. Is “the” definition that Dubuisson rejects the one assumed by Christopher Columbus, according to which the only religion was the worship of the true God, so that those outside the influence of the Catholic Church had no religion? Or is it the definition that E. B. Tylor offered and J. Z. Smith used, according to which a religion is any form of life based on a belief in spiritual beings? Or is “religion” defined also to include practices involving conceptions of a general order of existence, as with Clifford Geertz? The problem is that Dubuisson does not say; he never spells out “the” definition. In fact, however, the illusion thesis follows not from any definition of “religion” but rather from Dubuisson’s view that one cannot ever situate oneself “above” one’s historical situation to identify something that is transhistorically or cross-culturally the same (48; cf. 174n15). Two different cultures will not even share a single synonymous idea (133). This historicist rule makes it delicate—indeed, impossible—to apply any concept from one culture to another.

At one point, Dubuisson says that scholars cannot use the label “religion” legitimately unless the people so described were conscious that they had a religion (126). This condition is common among proponents of the CSR. It is, however, a bogus restriction for the study of cultures. Given this condition, if there were, say, inhabitants of a valley who had a form of life that involved prayers and sacrifices to get help from superempirical beings, and they institutionalized certain social roles for people to serve as intermediaries to those beings, certain buildings for the practices, and a book about these beings as holy, this would still not be a religion—unless they consciously applied the concept religion to it. But it is easy to imagine practices being described accurately in ways not known by the participants (as “sexual harassment” or “economic recession,” say). Given the definition that J. Z. Smith used, for example, a statement like “forms of life based on beliefs in spiritual beings have been practiced for centuries in what we now call Japan and Senegal and Peru” is a truth and not an illusion. If one does not grant Dubuisson’s historicism, religions can be discovered outside the West and not simply projected there.

Though I am skeptical of the position defended in the book, Dubuisson provides a smart overview of this important critique of the central concept in our field, and this slim book would be useful for the classroom.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Schilbrack is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University.

Date of Review: 
September 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Dubuisson is Research Director emeritus at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS, Paris). He studied and worked with Georges Dumézil until his death in 1986. 


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