The Return of Religion or the End of Religion? On the Need to Rethink Religion as a Category of Social and Political Life
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During the last decades of the twentieth century, Western philosophy saw a renewed interest in religion. This ‘turn to religion’ was in many ways prompted by concrete geopolitical developments, such as the surge of religious fundamentalism or the new visibility of religious expressions and symbols in societies that had long conceived of themselves as profoundly secular. At about the same time, a growing number of anthropologists and historians began to draw attention to the cultural and ideological bias of the category of religion, revealing its roots in a particular phase of early modern European history. In this article, I give an overview of these significant theoretical developments and explore both the tensions and similarities between the different scholarly traditions. Drawing on both discourses, I argue that we should rethink the way we use religion as a category for organizing social and political life, especially in cultures that like to think of themselves as secular all the while still being oriented to Christian norms. In particular, I suggest that we need to shift focus from attempts to produce viable definitions of religion to critically analyzing the mechanisms and interests at stake when we name or interpret some phenomena or practices as religious and others as not religious. Moreover, I call for a renewed focus on the experiential level of various cultural practices as a way to critically deconstruct the way in which we sometimes pre-emptively reduce complex cultural tensions to a matter of ‘religious’ versus ‘secular’. While not necessarily bringing an end to the problematic aspects that adhere to the concept of religion, such critical inquiring may well challenge the linguistic confusion that permeates much discussion on religion today, and, in so doing, enable us to gain a richer understanding of the complex phenomenon that we for lack of better words still call ‘religion’.