Culture Magazine

Disrupting & Inventing “Religion”

By Cris

When I teach my anthropology of religion course the first order of business is to define and disrupt “religion” as a category. I begin by having students identify everything they consider to be “religion.” Our list grows and all the usual suspects make their appearance. After the list has been compiled, we then ask what they all have in common. The commonalities are turned into another list which we can then use to identify something as “religion.”

In conjunction with this exercise, I have students read Andrew McKinnon’s pitch for a Wittgensteinian language game and non-essentialist approach to “religion,” and another by Ake Hultkrantz which contends that the key concept in “religion” is the supernatural. Because both articles deal with notoriously tedious definitions and theory, there have been complaints about how much time is spent on these matters. Like Justice Potter Stewart and porn, students sense they know “religion” when they see it.

Because spending the first week of class delineating the Western history and genealogy of “religion” is not an option, I’ve been searching for a solution and seem to have found one. A recent article by Jason A. Josephson, “The Invention of Japanese Religions,” makes most of the needed theoretical points simply by telling the story of how “religion” has been rendered in Japan. My sense is that students would prefer reading a concrete historical narrative or an actual case that deals with the category-concept of “religion.”

Josephson argues that the Japanese lacked not only a word but also an idea of “religion” that corresponded to the Western construct, so it had to be invented. During the late 1800s there was considerable debate about how “religion” should be rendered in Japanese:

Japanese intellectuals and policymakers proposed over half a dozen possible translations for “religion.” When faced with the European term, even Japanese scholars educated abroad had to go searching for equivalents, and they proposed several different contenders and tried to hang different understandings of religion upon them.

It seemed that “religion” could be a type of education, something fundamentally un-teachable, a set of practices, a description of foreign customs, a subtype of Shinto, a near synonym for Christianity, a basic human ethical impulse, or a form of politics (among other possibilities). This is clear evidence that it is glib to talk of Japanese religion projected back through the centuries.

What is more, not only did Japanese intellectuals produce different terms for “religion,” they also debated which indigenous traditions and practices fit into the category. It was not clear to them what religions there were in Japan. The sole “religion” on which everyone could agree was Christianity. More than anything else, this clearly demonstrates the foreign nature of the category.

This is a nice contribution from Josephson, whose “When Buddhism Became a Religion” I’ve long admired. I wanted to assign that article for my course last year but we simply ran out of time and never arrived at Buddhism in Japan.


Josephson, Joseph A. (2011). The Invention of Japanese Religions Religion Compass, 5 (10), 589-597 DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2011.00307.x


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