World Religions in the World

By Chidester, David | Journal for the Study of Religion : JSR, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

World Religions in the World


Chidester, David, Journal for the Study of Religion : JSR


I have been researching and teaching about religion and religions in South Africa since 1984. I confess that when I first arrived I thought that the study of religion in the country was underveloped, except for the work of Martin Prozesky, who besides leading a professional association and editing a peer-reviewed journal was developing research in explaining religion (Prozesky 1984), critically analyzing the entanglements of Christianity with apartheid (Prozesky 1990), profiling the emergent field in the region (Prozesky 1996), and providing textbook resources for the classroom (Prozesky & De Gruchy 1991). While his explanatory theory accounted for religions of the world as ways of maximizing human well-being, his teaching also focused on world religions in South Africa. In this brief essay in tribute to Martin Prozesky, I want to reflect on the ongoing importance of the study of religion and religions - even the study of 'world religions' - against the background of what I have learned in South Africa.

Why is the study of religion important? If we were only interested in writing advertising copy or generating propaganda for the academic study of religion, we might advance this circular argument: Like politics, economics, music, or literature, religion is an important and pervasive human activity. Therefore, teaching and learning about such an activity must obviously be important if we want to know about human beings. This argument is circular because it assumes that the study of something is important because the thing is important. But it tells us nothing about the importance of the study, about its distinctive value proposition. What does this field of teaching and learning bring to the party?

As we know, there are many answers to this question, which is something I like about the academic study of religion. This field is resistant to any orthodoxy. Many voices can be heard. Many positions can contend. This multiplicity of perspectives and positions, I am convinced, is a strength rather than a weakness of the academic study of religion.

Nevertheless, positioning myself, I have found that our key terms -religion and religions - are not merely objects for study. They are occasions for critical and creative reflection on problems of interpretation, explanation, and analysis in the humanities and social sciences. The study of religion, as I understand it, is a critical and creative enterprise. While the criticism of religion, as Karl Marx proposed, is the beginning of all criticism, the creative enterprise of imagining religion as a human project opens new possibilities for understanding a diverse array of powerful discourses, practices, and social formations that are underwritten by claims on transcendence or the sacred.

In my teaching, I dwell in the ambiguity of the very word, 'religion'. I focus on boundary situations. I concentrate on situations in which the designation has been denied to alternative religious movements in the United States (Chidester 1988a) or to indigenous religions in southern Africa (Chidester 1996). By contrast, I also focus on situations in which the term has been extended to include the ultimate commitments of modern nationalisms (Chidester 1998b) or the production, circulation, and consumption of popular culture (Chidester 2005). Accordingly, I find that the term, 'religion', is an enabling term, because it allows for critical and creative reflection on crucial problems of inclusion and exclusion that have both intellectual and social consequences.

The term 'religions' poses a related set of problems. How many are there? In principle, their number might be indeterminate and innumerable, but their classification bears traces of particular kinds of social projects. In trying to conceptualize, contain, and perhaps even manage this diversity, European and Euro-American scholars during the nineteenth century came up with the notion of 'world religions'. We live with that legacy. …

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