1 What are World Religions?
In the following video, David G. Robertson outlines some of the problems with the World Religions model – that it presupposes a Christian idea of religion, misrepresents the religious lives of adherents, oversimplifies the diversity of traditions and marginalises non-elite voices. The interview emphasises that the concept of World Religions comes from a particular historical context.
Download this video clip.Video player: world_religion_day.mp4
DAVID G. ROBERTSON
It seems entirely natural to us to talk about world religions. It’s in the media constantly. It’s in popular and academic books. It’s even encoded into the structure of many introductory courses at universities. But what makes something a world religion and not others? Why are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism always afforded this classification and not others?
Is it just numbers? If so, why is Judaism there and not, say, African religions? Is it that they have a universal message? Again, this doesn’t really apply to Judaism. The fact is that the idea of world religions actually has a very specific history. It emerges in the Victorian period when scholars like Max Muller and Cornelius Tiele set out to categorise religion in the same way that Linnaeus produced a taxonomy of the natural world.
Muller and Tiele were not neutral observers, however. They were very much a part of the colonial project. And so the data they produced was of nations that were being subjugated and that the colonial governments would have to deal with. Implicitly, they produced a categorisation that was based on Christianity.
So for example, in the case of Hinduism, Hinduism was presented as something that took place in temples, had priests, had a trinity, and holy texts just like Christianity. But, in fact, this was a relatively small aspect of Hinduism and only represented the position of a relatively small priestly elite.
Nevertheless, religions were classified on their similarity to Christianity. And those which had or could be presented as having a universal transcendent message were ranked higher than others. So the idea of world religions preserves this colonial position today. It presents religions as being these monolithic traditions which have gone along unchanged for centuries. And then prioritising the ideas of the elite, they, therefore, silence minorities, women, and the poor.
It also suggests that we have to have one religion and one only, which doesn’t work, for instance, in the case of Japan where one can be Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian in different contexts at different times. And it creates the idea of religions as these consistent things with their own agency which can speak in their own voice. So when we talk about world religions then instead of a neutral category, we’re actually preserving a Victorian colonial idea of religion and imposing it onto today’s world.
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