Why religion is seen as an activity all its own.
Pulitzer Prize winner Miles (Emeritus, English and Religious Studies/Univ. of California, Irvine; God in the Qur’an, 2018, etc.) presents a slim volume drawn from his work as general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions. Miles sets out to explain the process by which the West, and then the world, came to see “religion” as a distinct activity which could be observed, categorized, and studied apart from language, culture, and other aspects of society. After an unnecessarily long introduction—at roughly one-fifth the length of the book, the preface wears out its welcome—the author examines the idea of religion, an ill-defined yet universal concept, which he and the Norton Anthology approach through the aspect of practice rather than “belief.” He moves on to note that until the advent of Christianity, there was no sense of religion as we understand it today. “Religious” practices could not be divorced from one’s culture and/or ethnicity. However, as Christianity took aspects of Judaism and transferred them into a proselytizing, transcultural movement, the Christian faith became something unique. Eventually, Islam would do much the same thing. As Christendom came to dominate Western thought, Europeans increasingly saw other faith traditions from a Christian viewpoint and thus imposed the idea of “religion” on cultures where such forms of practice had hitherto been inseparable from other aspects of life. With time, this view spread and became a worldwide phenomenon. Within this global story, Miles succinctly encapsulates what is essentially the history of religious studies, including particular scholars and authors who made surprisingly vast contributions to the world’s understanding of religion. The author’s use of his own personal story in this already-small volume is not particular helpful. However, his presentation of a fascinating and rarely understood background to modernity’s way of thinking is worth the read.
A brief but beneficial guide to where “religion as we know it” comes from.