Posts Tagged ‘theory of religion’

May 5th, 2016

Paradoxes of international religious freedom

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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomIt has been almost twenty years since the US Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which was signed into law in 1998 by then President Bill Clinton. The IRFA inscribed into law and US foreign policy a set of definitions and monitoring protocols, and it mandated the creation of a bureaucracy within the US State Department—the Office of Religious Freedom, which is charged with promoting religious freedom as a core objective of US foreign policy. Under the language and mandate of the IRFA, this office produces yearly reports on religious freedom around the globe, and its work becomes the basis by which the Secretary of State categorizes some countries as “countries of particular concern” for their “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Such a designation can trigger various disciplinary and punitive responses by the US government, including economic sanctions. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd shows through incisive analysis in her recently published Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion, the impact of IRFA and other efforts to mobilize a religious freedom framework in international relations is far-reaching, not only in practical terms, but also at the level of defining “religion” itself.

November 28th, 2011

State of the Species

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Human beings live in virtual worlds that define what they value, what they aspire to, and what they are able to imagine. Those virtual worlds are typically shared with fellow members of a given culture, and each culture is a collective projection of the human imagination, instantiated in a way of life. Robert Bellah has written a book whose objective is to understand how those virtual worlds—in other words, those cultures—came into being, and what role religion played in this process.

November 23rd, 2011

Dangerous evolutions?

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Religion in Human Evolution is an immensely ambitious book on a topic only a scholar of Robert Bellah’s stature could dare to tackle. It attempts no less than to explain human biological as well as cultural evolution in one sweep, beginning with early hominids and ending with the “axial age.” Bellah engages evolutionary biology as well as cognitive psychology for the framing of his argument. This is a courageous move of transcending conventional disciplinary boundaries, for which he should be applauded. At the same time, it draws Bellah into positions he might actually not always be comfortable with.

November 9th, 2011

Weber for the 21st century

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For almost one hundred years, all sociologists of religion have taken Max Weber’s great work on comparative religions as a primary point of departure. Whole libraries of scholarship have been produced to explicate Weber, expand on Weber, disagree with Weber, revise Weber. In the next hundred years, I think, the point of departure will be Robert Bellah rather than Weber. Bellah’s new masterpiece, Religion in Human Evolution is comparable in scope, breadth of scholarship, and depth of erudition to Weber’s study of world religions, but it is grounded in all of the advances of historical, linguistic, and archeological scholarship that have taken place since Weber, as well as theoretical advances in evolutionary biology and cognitive science.

November 2nd, 2011

Where did religion come from?

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When an interviewer for the Atlantic Monthly blog asked me “What prompted you to write this book?” I apparently replied, “Deep desire to know everything: what the universe is and where we are in it.” I don’t deny that I said it—it’s just that I would have thought I would have given a more pedestrian reply, because I am a sociologist, with a Ph.D. in my discipline and some 40 years experience as a professor at Harvard and Berkeley. And I am quite aware that early in the last century Max Weber, in a famous 1918 talk called “Science as a Vocation,” warned that “science has entered a phase of specialization previously unknown and this will forever remain the case.”

October 26th, 2011


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Broadly conceived the term religion-making refers to the ways in which religion(s) is conceptualized and institutionalized within the matrix of a globalized world-religions discourse in which ideas, social formations, and social/cultural practices are discursively reified as “religious” ones. Religion-making works, sometimes more and sometimes less explicitly, by means of normalizing and often functionalist discourses centered around certain taken-for-granted notions, such as the religion/secular binary, as well as binaries subordinated to it (such as sacred/profane, this-worldly/otherworldly, etc.).