The Formation of the Discipline of Religious Studies in Asia


Background and Aims

Religious semantics are shaped not just by the actors of the religious field themselves, but also to a considerable degree by non-religious instances. In this regard, the discipline of religious studies has been particularly influential, shaping both the concept of religion itself as well as other religious concepts. While this fact may sound self-evident, it has not been generally acknowledged for religious studies outside of Europe, as the assumption has long been that they are merely more or less successful adaptations of the European model, just as is sometimes assumed that the concept of religion was simply taken over from the European example. Yet, both specific cultural dynamics (makeup of the religious field itself; conceptual configuration of the religious field prior to contact with Western ideas, differences in value attributed to the religious field in both society and academia) and political factors (colonial or semi-colonial status, role of the Christian mission within this colonial permeation) have to be taken into consideration when attempting to account for the role of religious studies in different non-European countries, as it took shape roughly between the 1870s and 1930s. Transnational factors do, however, obviously loom large and will thus have to be taken into account, albeit not as a one-way street: Even in the early phase of its formation in Europe, knowledge of Asian religions was instrumental for some of the central notions structuring the academic field. The workshop therefore included one paper by Arie Molendijk on nineteenth-century conceptions of Asian religions within the budding discipline of religious studies in Europe.


9.00–9.30    Welcome & Introduction

9.30–10.30    Arie Molendijk (Groningen/Bochum): The Light of Asia – Buddhism as a “World Religion”

10.30–11.00    Coffee Break

11.00–12.00    Isomae Jun’ichi (Kyoto/Bochum): The Process of the Development of Religious Studies in Japan – The Experience of “Religion”

12.00–13.30    Lunch Break

13.30–14.30    Şinasi Gündüz (Istanbul): The Basic Trends in the Studies of History of Religion in Turkey (1850–2010)

14.30–15.00    Coffee Break

15.00–16.00    Christian Meyer (Leipzig): The Emergence of Religious Studies in Republican China

16.00–16.30    Coffee Break

16.30–17.30    Jang Sukman (Seoul/Bochum): Religion, Science and Colonialism: Religious Studies in Colonial Korea

17.30–18.00    Concluding Discussion


While the early history of the discipline of religious studies (or “science of religion”) in Europe is one of “gradual emancipation from the patronizing power of theology”, the situation in East Asia was very different. To be sure, there had been a tradition of the scientific study of religions in East Asia conducted within religious organizations, but we find in the modern age less a process of emancipation from an older hegemonic field of study (as theology in Europe), but rather a  parallel process of adoption of modern, Western notions of what is appropriate or even necessary in academia. Crucially, the early religious studies scholars both in Europe and in East Asia, just like theologians, held a basic belief in the necessity of religion for humankind; other than theologians, however, they saw this as a universal property of human beings that could be realized in many forms and shapes. In this sense, religious studies in China or Japan played a similar role to that in Europe in that it served to defend the cause of religion in the face of modernity. Religious studies thus served quite a similar cause as theology, but with different, namely modern, means.

In the light of this insight, it is little surprising that most of the early exponents of religious studies in East Asia saw in Christianity and Buddhism the two prime examples of religion in a value-laden sense. Yet, research on religious groups or phenomena that were less adept at articulating themselves was also conducted, such as shamanism, folk religions, new religious movements, folk beliefs, and what was then called “superstitions”. Not infrequently, however, this kind of research was tied to political agendas: Ethnographic field work on popular religions in China contributed to the anti-superstition campaign in the 1920s; research results of Japanese anthropologists on Korean new religions was used by the colonial government to suppress groups; and in Japan as well, mainstream religious studies scholars supported government crackdowns on groups viewed as pseudo-religions and detrimental to the nation’s efforts of modernization.

In terms of the historical semantics of religion, religious research and the new disciplinary consciousness contributed to a process in which many religious phenomena were subsumed under the relatively new term “religion”. These phenomena were, however, often marked by clear hierarchical value assignments such as those following theories of developmental stages. In this sense, religious studies were clearly complicit in the strongly statist actual treatment of religious groups in China, Korea, and Japan up to 1945, where positive value was accorded only to large established religions, while all others were viewed with suspicion. At the very least religious studies reinforced the (new) categories of religion vs. superstition, which then became the fundament of discriminatory religious policies. Thus, perhaps even more so than in nineteenth-century Europe, religious studies in early twentieth-century East Asia contributed to defining the still young concept of religion, a contribution that had a crucial impact because of the way it fed into the making of religious policy of the modernizing nation states in East Asia.



Prof. Dr. Hans Martin Krämer