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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Social Science & Religion

The Brill Dictionary of Religion, 4 volume set edited by Kocku Von Stuckrad (Brill Academic Publishers) given the size of this dictionary, one might be led to consider that the entries would be more inclusive of the unique features of each religion, their special terms, unique theologies, traditional metaphysics, rituals and festivities, lifecycle events, history and philosophy.  Instead the editors have focused on how religion is studied academically in the West through social scientific, anthropological, phenomenological, sociological, historical and humanistic studies.  In some ways this dictionary is how religion can be look at non-religiously.  However this dictionary is not written with the view that religion will eventually wither away in human experience but rather with a renewed appreciation of the traditional strengths and esoteric vigor of religious studies today and of the religions as they affect history and culture.  These volumes act as a nearly encyclopedic overview of the pattern of religious studies in Europe and America.  It is possible that the English edition of this German original has been slightly ‘dumbed-down’ for its new audience but only a detailed comparison with the German original could give an answer to this qualm.  All in all, this dictionary will provide students of religious studies a healthy panorama of the way real religions are approached academically.  Highly recommended. 

The new and impressively comprehensive Brill Dictionary of Religion addresses religion as an element of daily life and public discourse. Richly illustrated and with more than 500 entries, the dictionary is a multi-media reference source on the many and various forms of religious commitment. It is unusual in that it not only addresses the different theologies and doctrinal declarations of the official institutionalized religions but it also gives equal weight and consideration to a multiplicity of other religious phenomena. People perceive and express religious experiences in many different ways: through dance, sensuality, in relations between sexes and in compassion at death. Religions help determine how people form and perceive their identity as part of a social group. The diverse effects of religions can also be perceived in the environment, society and the public sphere. The Brill Dictionary of Religion helps map out and define the networks and connections created by various religions in contemporary societies, and provides models for understanding these complex phenomena.

Excerpt: From Editor’s Preface to English Edition: 1. Religion in the Twenty-First Century

Well into the twentieth century, it has been the expectation of the majority of scholars that religions will sooner or later disappear from the modern world. Scholars based their expectation on the assumption that in the wake of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment the rational and scientific world-view would ultimately lead to a decline of religious truth-claims. We have been told that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the rise of modern science, the separation of church and state, industrialization, and individualization have led to an inescapable secularization and a disenchantment of the world. In these scenarios, Europe was regarded as the `normal case; rep-resenting a development that sooner or later would seize the rest of the world.

Much to the surprise of sociologists and scholars of religion, the last thirty years have witnessed a remarkable revival of religious truth-claims. Religions entered the public spheres and became strong identity markers both for individuals and for communities. In the name of religious traditions people raised political claims and interpreted history with reference to an ongoing global apocalyptic scenario, to a struggle between `good' and `bad,' or to the conviction that the project of `modernity' has utterly failed. Often, these claims went hand in hand with violent action or even terrorism.

Scholars of religion have responded to this surprising development by adjusting their older models of interpretation. Some scholars talked of a mere `misuse' of religion for political goals or of a `patchwork religion; in which `postmodern' individuals `syncretistically' build their own private religion. `Religion' was now located in individual biographies, rather than in larger communities. Notions of `desecularization' or `reenchantment' were introduced in order to integrate the (still surprising) existence of religions in the modern world. Recently, scholars have begun to regard Europe as the `exceptional case,' while the persistence of religious worldviews in the United States, in South America, Africa, or Asia is viewed as the `normal case.'

All these models of interpretation, interesting as they are, render an impression of helpless attempts at coping with a changing world. Therefore, new strategies of interpretation have been put forward, strategies that reflect on—and often undermine—the basic assumptions and concepts of the older models. As a result of the `cultural turn' that affected both the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the natural sciences, scholars today focus on the rhetorics of academic interpretation. For example, from a meta-theoretical point of view the notions of 'Enlightenment' and `modernity' are themselves ideological programs that rest heavily on religiously inclined ideas of progress and salvation; depicting terrorism and violence as a `misuse' of religion reflects a theological idea of `pure religion' that is essentially peaceful and

tolerant. Critical scholars argue that in a discourse of sui generis religion phenomena that are thought to threaten or disturb `modern' identities are exorcised and banned with the help of academic models of interpretation: they are expelled to the realm of `magic, `superstition, `folk belief, `commodification," political exploitation, `brain washing,' and so on.

We can conclude that today the academic study of religion has lost its innocence (see also the `Introduction' by Christoph Auffarth and Hubert Mohr). Scholars are themselves part of an ongoing cultural discourse of identity, which means that if they apply concepts and models of interpretation, they constantly have to be aware of the underlying biases that shape these models. On the one hand, this is an uncomfortable situation. On the other hand, this self-reflection opens up a new understanding of historical and social research into something called `religion. "The combination of meta-theoretical analysis and serious historical and sociological work has turned the academic study of religion into a modern discipline that finds its place in the concert of cultural studies. Two consequences are particularly relevant here. First, after the demise of the sui generis approach to religion, scholars scrutinize `religion' as a powerful element of public discourse that shapes identities by way of communication and interaction. From being a signifier of inner beliefs and sanctified traditions, `religion' is turned into an everyday phenomenon that is capable of providing groups and individuals with meaningful interpretations of their places in time and space. Second, this understanding of religion fosters an interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. Locating religions in public spheres and communicational processes calls for the collaboration of many disciplines, among them history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, theology, political sciences, literary studies, art, law, and parts of the natural sciences.

2. The Brill Dictionary of Religion

The Brill Dictionary of Religion explicitly reflects the transformation that the academic study of religion has undergone within the last twenty years. It is not by chance that all the catchwords mentioned above—Modernity, Disenchantment/Reenchantment, Secularization, Identity, Industrial Society, Money, but also Terrorism and Violence—are addressed with individual entries. The rationale that underlies the selection of entries and their respective presentation is aimed at reflecting the many aspects of religious fields of discourse in modern societies. To succeed in this endeavor, two perspectives have to be combined: First, the public and communicative aspects of religion have to be addressed explicitly; entries such as `Media,’ 'Perception; `Collective Representations; or `Everyday Life' are examples of this attempt. The large number of illustrations, sometimes tracing religion in unexpected places, likewise underscores this rationale. Second, the historical dimension is of crucial importance, because a proper understanding of modern religious discourses is impossible without knowledge of the past and a comparison with different periods and contexts. That is why the reader will also find historical overviews both of concepts and of religious traditions.

As an overall structure, the entries are organized in six thematic fields: (1) the human being (body, life cycle, perception, sexuality, psyche, emotions, illness and health, death and dying); (2) the individual and the group (socialization, family and genealogy, everyday life, work, violence); (3) environment, society, culture (nature/environment, media, collective representations, identity, society, government, politics, the `other,' law, economy, science, art, aesthetics); (4) elements of religious systems (religion and critique, ritual, communication, dynamics of groups, belief systems, theologies, myth and mythology, gods and goddesses, meaning and signification, morals and ethics); (5) history of religions (time, calendar, history, individual epochs, religious and philosophical traditions, forms of reception); (6) geography and territoriality of religion (place, migration, pilgrimage, heaven/sky, orientation, specific geographical regions and cities). In addition to these six thematic fields, a group of entries discusses critical terms for the study of religion, such as `communication,' `discourse,: 'language ,' `colonialism,' 'gender stereotypes,' 'tradition,' 'memory,' or `materiality.'

The thematic fields are made accessible with different kinds of entries. While large entries provide an overview and orientation for the major aspects of all thematic fields, the more specified entries can be distinguished as follows:

Systematic entries explain basic elements of religion, such as `sacrifice;`purity,' 'trance,' or `ritual:

Historical entries present an overview of important religious and philosophical traditions (with extended time tables); in addition, they historically contextualize elements of religions and provide information of certain de-tails (e.g., 'cemetery ,"pilgrimage; `vegetarianism,' or `mysticism').

Focused entries access themes that are of public interest in contemporary societies, sometimes discussed controversially; examples are `anti-Semitism,' `fundamentalism; `anti-cult movements: `suicide; `abortion; or 'genetic engineering:

  • Biographical entries introduce important representatives of religious traditions (Jesus, Muhammad, Hildegard of Bingen, Luther, Gandhi, etc.) and trace their influence, reception, and perhaps mythologization; there are likewise entries to introduce influential figures in the study of religion (Freud, Eliade, Weber).

  • Regional entries open up cultural and anthropo-geographical units, such as the `Indian subcontinent,' `North America, Africa; or the 'Mediterranean region' (see the overview of maps).

  • Epoch entries provide an overview of certain historical periods, at the same time reflecting on the difficulties involved in constructing these periods (e.g., `antiquity,' 'Middle Ages,' `Renaissance; `Reformation,' 'modernity,' or `postmodernity').

  • Information entries give brief information on certain historical phenomena and terms, such as `druid,"genius,' 'Hare Krishna,' or `sphinx'

The Brill Dictionary of Religion is a thoroughly revised version of the German Metzler Lexikon Religion: Gegenwart, Alltag, Medien (4 vols., Stuttgart/Weimar: J. B. Metzler 1999-2002), edited by Christoph Auffarth, Jutta Bernard, and Hubert Mohr. Although I subscribe to the underlying rationale and the approach of the Metzler Lexikon Religion, substantial changes were necessary in order to compile a dictionary for an English-speaking audience. Some of these changes pertain to the dictionary's very structure. More important, however, are changes in the selection of entries, their focus, and their reference section. My overall policy here was to carefully remove the focus on Europe in general and on Germany in particular. Several entries were dropped, while other entries were added. When I had the impression that certain entries did not match international scholarly standards or were superfluous, I found new authors for these entries or left them out.

The edited translations were sent to the respective authors, along with suggestions for changes in the entries' reference section. For various reasons, only a minority of authors responded to these requests, which left me with the delicate task of providing the respective literature myself. On the one hand, the nature and theoretical background of the entries should be reflected in the reference section; on the other hand, the editor is also an advocate of the English-speaking reader and an international audience, which means that he has to make sure that the relevant English literature is mentioned. I hope that my handling of this dilemma works out for the benefit of the reader.


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