Putting religion in its global context (1): What’s wrong with ‘World Religion’?

I’m not vehemently against the label ‘World Religion’ but I was uncomfortable enough with it to petition our school to change the name of our comparative religions course from ‘World Religion’ to ‘Religion in Global Context’. For many, this may seem like petty semantics. I get that. But when you’re obsessed with your area of study, sometimes being petty is necessary for precision, and precision is necessary for educating. Also, I’m convinced I don’t want to just teach ‘World Religion’, as it has been traditionally understood, but religion—that sloppy ‘term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes’ which is not natural but instead a ‘a second-order generic concept that plays the same role in establishing a disciplinary horizon that a concept such as “language” plays in linguistics or “culture” plays in anthropology’ (see Jonathan Z. Smith, ‘Religion, Religions, Religious’, pp. 281-282 in Critical Terms for Religious Studies).

In other words, I want my students to wrestle with how we define ‘religion’, what makes something a ‘religion’, and why we care so much about differentiating ‘religion’ from say ‘culture’, ‘worldview’, ‘philosophy’, etc. Sure, there are pragmatic reasons for this separation, but there’s also been a long history of political reasons for doing so. I know my students don’t know those reasons, but I sensed that the structure of the class—a class that focused mostly on surveying the ‘Great Traditions’ of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, and Daoism—lended itself toward being an information dump that undermined other important religions like Sikhism and Shinto while overgeneralizing the unity of say ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Christianity’ as if these are monolithic realities.

I could ramble on about this but the ‘Keeping It 101’ podcast has two episodes that are way more entertaining and insightful than what I can write here, so if you’re wondering about the problems with the label ‘World Religion’, let me invite you to listen to one or both of these episodes:

Next time, I’ll start sharing how I hope to morph my class away from just a survey of the ‘Great Traditions’ and more toward a foundational class for Religious Studies and philosophy of religion that will equip my students to think not only about the ‘Great Traditions’ but all the other traditions as well. And it won’t be as hurried because honestly, teaching a survey of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and then some years Confucianism and Daoism) is almost impossible to do in a single semester if you want to avoid just providing an ‘info dump’.


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