Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories

Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories

Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories

Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories

Synopsis

In recent years scholars have begun to question the usefulness of the category of ''religion'' to describe a distinctive form of human experience and behavior. In his last book, The Ideology of Religious Studies (OUP 2000), Timothy Fitzgerald argued that ''religion'' was not a private area of human existence that could be separated from the public realm and that the study of religion as such was thus impossibility. In this new book he examines a wide range of English language texts to show how religion became transformed from a very specific category indigenous to Christian culture into a universalist claim about human nature and society. These claims, he shows, are implied by and frequently explicit in theories and methods of comparative religion. But they are also tacitly reproduced throughout the humanities in the relatively indiscriminate use of ''religion'' as an a priori valid cross-cultural analytical concept, for example in historiography, sociology, and social anthropology. Fitzgerald seeks to link the argument about religion to the parallel formation of the ''non-religious'' and such dichotomies as church-state, sacred-profane, ecclesiastical-civil, spiritual-temporal, supernatural-natural, and irrational-rational. Part of his argument is that the category ''religion'' has a different logic compared to the category ''sacred,'' but the two have been consistently confused by major writers, including Durkheim and Eliade. Fitzgerald contends that ''religion'' imagined as a private belief in the supernatural was a necessary conceptual space for the simultaneous imagining of ''secular'' practices and institutions such as politics, economics, and the Nation State. The invention of ''religion'' as a universal type of experience, practice, and institution was partly the result of sacralizing new concepts of exchange, ownership, and labor practices, applying ''scientific'' rationality to human behavior, administering the colonies and classifying native institutions. In contrast, shows Fitzgerald, the sacred-profane dichotomy has a different logic of use.

Excerpt

The argument in this book is that the formation of a distinct subject area within the humanities and social sciences known as religious studies, and the accompanying reification of the category ‘religion’, has produced and continues to reinforce a one-sided and distorted discourse that has repercussions beyond its own delimited area. the degree to which, for example, the ‘history of religion’ has sealed itself from the history of political theory, and thus from any serious discussion of the importance of the state in the modern construction of ‘religion’, is a flaw in the field’s conceptualisation. This academic separation may also account for distortions in the understanding of ‘religion’ from the point of view of political theorists, with consequent repercussions for their understanding of the state too. My arguments here will be more tentative in terms of the critique of political theory, because I was not trained in that discipline, and my explorations of the relevant literature from that discipline are consequently less confident. Nevertheless, I have here attempted to offer an interdisciplinary discussion of the category ‘religion’ in order to suggest the theoretical confusions and historical inaccuracies upon which religious studies as a discipline has been founded, and to argue in favour of a theoretical reconnection of the study of the state and those areas of life that are now known as ‘politics’ with religious studies.

I am by no means the first or only voice to challenge the viability of the category for valid description and analysis, and many arguments on the topic have been put forward by other writers. However, despite this critically reflexive literature, there is considerable . . .

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