History Of Religion Research Paper

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1. Historical Background To The Term ‘History Of Religion’

The Latin term historia religionis first appeared in the sixteenth century and was employed alongside related terms such as historia ecclesiastica to entitle chronicles of important events in church history, and the life histories of influential theologians and witnesses of the Christian faith. The term was also applied to accounts on the origin and development of Judaism and portrayals of foreign religions. In his Historia Religionum (1697), Gebhard Theodor Meier used the concept in the sense of a comparative study, aimed at portraying a history of the three monotheistic religions. Compared with the more descriptive treatises on religion, comparative historiae religionis drew on theological distinctions, such as that between God’s chosen people and heathens, to the end of justifying the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. In his Abris einer Geschichte der Religionspartheyen (1755), the Protestant theologian and student of Christian Wolff, Sigmund Jacob Baumgarten (1706–1757), examined these different methods and aims of religious historiography, explicitly distinguishing between a usus historicus and a usus polemicus.

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From the 1880s onwards we find the introduction of new compound terms of religious historiography which competed with history of religion(s), Religionsgeschichte or histoire des religions and reflected a heightened interest in scientifically recording and interpreting religious phenomena. The appearance of the terms ‘philosophy of religion’, ‘science of religion’, ‘religious studies,’ and—later—‘sociology of religion’, ‘psychology of religion,’ and ‘phenomenology of religion’ demonstrated the increasing differentiation within the scholarship dedicated to scientifically interpreting religious culture. However, none of these new academic subjects succeeded in establishing itself as a dominant or authoritative discipline for investigating and interpreting religious systems of belief. Academic research into religion is characterized, rather, by a high plurality of divergent and competitive disciplines that have been institutionalized quite differently, mainly in the countries of Europe and in the USA. This rivalry between disciplines also applies to the historical inquiry into religions: besides professional historians, who sought to render their discipline the new leading human science of the nineteenth century, other cultural scientists and theologians also participated in the historical study of religion and contributed significantly to its advances. As a result, most of the ‘classical’ works in nineteenth century religious historiography were not compiled by historians but by theologians (or former theologians), philosophers, ethnologists, philologists, sociologists, and professors in the nascent university disciplines, Sinology, Indology, and Egyptology.

In the course of these developments, the term ‘history of religion’ remained controversial. Friedrich Max Muller (1823–1900), who is regarded as the founder of the ‘comparative science of religion’ (ver-gleichende Religionswissenschaft), abandoned the term ‘history of religion’ in favor of the ‘science of religion’ in order to emphasize the scientific aims of an inquiry directed towards all historically given religious phenomena and traditions, and which strives to emancipate itself from the prejudiced approach of both theology and philosophy. Other researchers of religion, such as Cornelius Petrus Tiele (1830–1902), preferred the term ‘comparative religion’. Nevertheless, common to all these different terms and their respective definitions of approach was the motivation to dispense with theologically orientated normative constructions in the study of religion. In Anglo-Saxon countries, this movement found its most important source of support from the so-called ‘Lectures’, an institution backed by the private endowments of wealthy patrons (in 1878 Friedrich Max Muller inaugurated the ‘Hibbert lectures’ and, in 1888, the first ‘Gifford lectures’ were given). The first professor-ship for the ‘General History of Religion’ was established in Geneva, in 1873; in 1877 the universities of Leiden and Amsterdam followed suit. In 1879 France’s first chair in Histoire des religions was founded at the College de France and in 1886 the Graduate School of Sorbonne, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, instituted its Section des sciences religieuses. However, this appearance of several chairs in the ‘history of religion’ and ‘religious studies’ did not achieve the full emancipation repeatedly postulated by Christian theologians. In Germany, for instance, most religio-historical chairs were set up within evangelical–theological faculties; and even where this was not the case and provision made for institutional independence, as in The Netherlands, the majority of scholars appointed to such chairs were theologians.

2. History Of Religious Historiography

The intellectual reflection on religion(s) can be traced back to scholars in Greek and Roman antiquity. Here we find the origination of several important topoi that continue to influence the study of religion (such as the critique of religion, theories on the origin of religion and its social function, the comparison between polytheism and monotheism). Notwithstanding this degree of continuity, the ancient world’s approach to the subject of religion cannot be termed ‘historical’. Beyond the context of Graeco-Roman traditions, we can also find evidence of the examination of religious life in early Arabic, Persian, and South-East Asian scholarship. However, the influence of these traditions on European historiography of religion has been minimal. One central impetus for broadening Europe’s religio-historical horizon was provided by the overseas conquests of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. What conquerors and travelers had to report on the foreign religious ideas and practices of the far-off lands they had visited led scholars to question the cultural self-evidence of Christianity, particularly after its confessional pluralization following the Reformation. In an attempt to intellectually overcome religious pluralism as well as the denominational conflicts within Christianity, E. Herbert of Cherbury (1581–1648) focused on a ‘natural religion of reason’ which he believed to be the true essence of all the different guises of positive religion. In doing so, this British deist introduced a distinction that would later be appropriated by Enlightenment theologians.

However, strictly speaking, it was the seventeenth century that gave birth to the historiography of religion proper. In the wake of the ecclesiastical schism and resultant religious wars, the Christian ‘culture of unity’ (Troeltsch) began to crumble and was soon replaced by an absolutist state which succeeded in politically neutralizing the vying religious parties by way of an absolute leader ruling over all religious parties. At the same time, the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century gave rise to the interest in a history of religion which was not conceived theologically, but had recourse to an impartial ‘third’ standpoint beyond confessional polemics. This was found in the ‘historico-philological method’ based on the principles formulated by Jean Mabillon (1632– 1707) in his De re diplomatica, which was one of the first comprehensive treatises on methods of documentation and the study of hand-written manuscripts. The publication of this work in 1681 can be seen as the birth of textual criticism that played such a central role in the development of religious historiography. At about the same time, Richard Simon (1638–1712) applied literary-critical methods to the study of the Pentateuch in his Histoire critique de l’Ancien Testament (1678) and, in doing so, was one of the first to expose the religious history of the Judaeo-Christian tradition to the process of historicization. This rigorous distinction between the theological and historical historiography of religion also formed the guiding precept of Johann von Gro(e)ing’s Historie der heutigen Religionen which appeared in Hamburg in 1702. In dismissing every form of theologia polemica, this author declared his commitment to a historical approach orientated towards the facts.

That the historian had not irrevocably displaced Christian apologetics, however, is evidenced by Jacques-Benigne Bossuet’s (1627–1704) work Discours sur l’Histoire uni erselle (1681) which appeared in the same year as Mabillon’s important treatise and adhered to an interpretation of world history stressing God’s saving grace. In opposition to Bossuet, Montesquieu (1689–1755) banished the guiding hand of divine providence from history and declared mankind to be history’s focal point. The human being, expounded Montesquieu in Esprit des lois (1748), is determined by lots of factors—climate, laws, customs, and traditions as well as religion—the combination of which gives rise to the particular intellectual characteristic of a nation and its underlying ‘spirit’. The work of the Gottingen exegete Johann David Michaelis (1717–1791) illustrates how Montesquieu’s point of departure could be used to widen the religio-historical perspective. According to his own statements, Michaelis sought to view the Old and New Testament ‘through the eyes of Montesquieu’. To this end he reconstructed in his six-volume magnum opus, Mosaisches Recht (1770–1775), the structure and contents of the Mosaic codex from the climatic, economical, political, and socio-cultural preconditions of its natural environment, and thereby offered an interpretation of this codex in the spirit of Montesquieu and in reply to the demands of his day. Alongside this historico-philological examination of religion, we also find the appearance of the psychological approach to religion, as represented by David Hume (1711–1776) in his treatise The Natural History of Religion, published in 1757. Hume was not primarily concerned with explaining religion historically, but rather with accounting for religious ideas and practices as phenomena of the human psyche under the dictates of irrational emotions such as fear and hope. Because Hume saw reason as having gradually overcome these irrational forces in the course of history, however, this Scottish philosopher had also furnished the historiography of religion with an evolutionist perspective that would then feature as a key concept in the second half of the nineteenth century.

With the conception of world history as a developmental process from lower to higher, that is to say, from uncivilized to rational forms of life, religion came to represent not an exception to, but a manifestation of these historical dynamics. The evaluation of religion’s status within this process of advance was divided: either one adopted a religio-critical stance, and assumed that reason would eventually replace religion (Voltaire, 1694–1778), or one took up a more positive, religio-historical position, and integrated religion into historical progress. One leading exponent of the latter position was Charles de Brosses (1707– 1777). In his study Du culte des dieux fetiches (published in 1760) he employed a comparison between ancient and contemporary African cult ritual to support his claim that fetishism—understood as the worship of arbitrarily chosen natural objects or living creatures—is to be identified as the original form of all religions. However, in the course of mankind’s historical advance this has been successively superseded by the worship of celestial bodies, by polytheism, and then finally by monotheistic religions, he contended.

In his Grundriß der Geschichte aller Religionen (1787), Christoph Meiners (1747–1810) also construed the history of religion as part of a general historical process of cultural advance. As a result of this pronounced tendency in the eighteenth century to assimilate the portrayal of religion into an allencompassing cultural historiography, the traditional anchor of religious history in the theological field of church history began to corrode, causing a telling shift of emphasis. Johann Christoph Gatterer (1727–1799), for instance, dealt with church history within the framework of a universal history of religion. In a similar vein, Christian Wilhelm Flugge approached church history as an aspect of religious history that he conceived as a branch of the general cultural history of the human spirit.

Resistance against this linear and optimistic idea of historical progress had already begun to emerge in the eighteenth century. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), scientific and technical progress amounted to a moral step backwards behind the original and good ‘natural state.’ Even religion, he argued, has not escaped this cultural decline, but degenerated from an honest ‘affair of the heart’ into an institutionally depraved ecclesiasticism no longer capable of integrating the community. Nonetheless, because Rousseau considered religious feeling to be the strongest social bond, in Contrat Social (1762) he spoke up for a religious ‘occupation’ of the values which hold together the political community, viz. the establishment of a ‘civil religion.’

Similar ideas were to be voiced by Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) almost a century later who, in his famous work De la democratie en Amerique (1834 40), prognosticated that the a politico-moral consensus within democratic societies would adopt the socially integrative role which religion had played in the social system of the Middle Ages. In eighteenth-century Germany, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744– 1803) likewise objected to the belief in progress of Enlightenment thinkers, supporting the Romantic conception of history as a process of organic growth. In doing so, Herder influenced the organo-historical ideas of classical German historicism. This school of thought also rejected the Enlightenment’s linear concept of history and belief in universal-historical progress, viewing history as the unfolding of individual cultural units.

The turn of the century into the 1900s was also a transitionary period for European historical consciousness which had begun to move away from universal generality and attach greater importance to that which is particular and individual. This change of perspective not only enhanced the status of the historical religions, which had been neglected by the concepts of historical progress of the eighteenth century, but also paved the way for the empirical research into the history of religion, especially the intensive analysis of ancient religious traditions.

Among others in Germany, Otto Jahn (1813–1869) and Karl Otfried Muller (1797–1840) devoted their scholarly activities to investigating ancient mythology. In his influential study La cite antique (1864), the French historian N. D. Fustel de Coulanges (1830– 1889) examined the stabilizing function of religion for the Greek polis and Roman system of rule. Furthermore, this new interest in empirical research into religion led to what Edgar Quinet described in his work Genie des religions (1842) as an ‘Oriental Renaissance’: the first translations of India’s holy scriptures had already begun to appear at the end of the eighteenth century.

In 1808, Friedrich Schlegel published his writings on the language and wisdom of India (Uber die Sprache und Weisheit der Inder) whose conception of religious history diametrically opposed that of the Enlightenment. In India’s ancient wisdom, Schlegel saw the realization of a unity between nature and spirit (Geist) which ‘enlightened Europe’ had forfeited and India itself submerged, and which he strove to reconstruct from the oldest of India’s religio-historical sources. Drawing on Schlegel, Georg Friedrich Creuzer (1771– 1858) and Joseph Gorres (1776–1848) called into question the origins of antiquity’s mythical tradition, claiming that Greek myths originally derive from the wisdom of Indian priests. With this Romantic enthusiasm for oriental languages and literature, the availability of translations of the latter and, not least, the advances in the field of ‘historical and comparative linguistics since the turn of the nineteenth century,’ the historiography of religion in the nineteenth century was afforded a wide range of new stimuli.

The endeavors of Franz Bopp (1791–1867) to distill a common Indo-European proto-language from a grammatical comparison between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian, and German, for instance, gave the comparative study of religions new impetus, temporarily pushing universal interpretations of history into the background. Aside from the work of Eugene Burnouf (1801–1852), a prominent figure in the historiography of Iranian religion, it was above all the services of his, and Bopp’s student, Friedrich Max Muller, which rendered the philological approach beneficial to religious historiography.

Analogous to the Romantics’ interest in the origins of religious history, Muller linguistically classified the Indo-European languages, particularly with reference to their respective names for God, to the end of reconstructing a primal religion common to all these peoples, which he saw as having once flourished in the advanced civilization of ancient India. Hermann Usener’s (1834–1905) investigations into ancient religious history were also based on a combination of philologico-comparative studies and theoretical-explanatory ambitions. With his programmatic work on an interdisciplinary ancient religious history— which his students Eduard Norden (1868–1941) and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848–1931) advanced—Usener not only influenced the study of ancient religion, but also classical philology, art history and/oriental studies, not least cultural theory until well into the twentieth century.

Besides the philological exploration of religious traditions, which chiefly focused on antiquity and the Orient, the second half of the nineteenth century also witnessed the proliferation of ‘ethnological’ research into contemporary, non-European religions which had not been taken into consideration by the romantically inspired religious historiography of such scholars as F. M. Muller. That these religions had become the focal point of attention within nineteenth-century religiohistoriographical discourse was due to a revival of the evolutionist theory, aimed at assimilating the individual, historical, and divergent forms of religion into a universally applicable model of cultural advance.

In his major work Primitive Culture (1871), Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) held the view that the religions of contemporary tribal societies represented the beginnings of religious history and therefore attached great importance to the investigation of such communities. However, Tylor’s claim that animism (the attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena) constituted the primal form of religion was soon superseded by other theories on the origins of religion, the most influential of which was William Robertson Smith’s (1846–1894) totemism theory tracing religion back to the worship of ancestors symbolized by totemic emblems of plants and animals. Emile Durkheim’s (1858–1917) writings on the elementary forms of religious life (Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse, 1912) can be seen as the most prominent adaptation of Smith’s propositions. Religio-historical evolutionism proved to be an extremely resilient paradigm, providing the working hypothesis for James George Frazer’s (1854–1941) reconstruction of religious history on the basis of contemporary ethnological material in his famous twelve-volume opus The Golden Bough (1890–1915).

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, ethnological and philological investigations into the history of religion found enormous support within academia and aroused ever greater interest among the general public. This trend was evidenced in the UK by the positive response to lectures in this field of study (cf. Sect. 1) and the huge popularity of Ernest Renan’s (1823–1892) L avie de Jesus (1863) in France and David Friedrich Strauss’ (1808–1974) works Das Leben Jesu (1835 36) and Dervalte und der neue Glaube (1872), as well as Hermann Oldenberg’s book Buddha (1890), in Germany. Historical scientists, by contrast, showed very little interest in religio-historical phenomena; the majority of professional historians adhered to a narrow politico-national approach to their subject in which religio-historical questions remained peripheral.

The few exceptions, held in high esteem today, were then decisive outsiders, such as Jules Michelet (1798– 1874), who in his 17 volumes on the history of France (Histoire de France, 1833–1867) drew attention to the religious folklore of the Middle Ages and, in doing so, became a predecessor of the histoire des mentalites (cf. Sect. 3), or Jacob Burkhardt (1818–1897) who in Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (1868–73) and Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien reflected on religion as a third historical ‘power’ (Potenz) alongside culture and politics.

The cultural-historical revival at the turn of the twentieth century effectively placed religion at the forefront of scholarly discourse throughout Europe and the USA. The rapid erosion of time-honored cultural traditions, the growing insight into the social costs of capitalist modernization, and the new disintegrative tendencies in many Western societies provoked heated debates on the relationship between the religious history of European countries (as well as that of the USA) and their individual formation processes as modern societies. In defiance of traditional disciplinary borders, the historical research into religion became a central medium for the self-reflection of Western societies. From a systematic perspective, three closely connected issues came to play a decisive role in this intensive exploration of religious history around 1900. These issues included: the participation of religious traditions in the genesis of modern occidental rationalism; the socially integrative potential of religion in functionally differentiated and politically fragmented societies; and the cultural relevance of differences between Christianity’s denominations on the one hand, and non-Christian religions, especially those of the East, on the other.

First and foremost, this discourse applied to Protestant theology which had largely viewed itself as a historico-cultural science of Christianity since the mid eighteenth century and, since the 1880s, became increasingly aware of the interrelations between the Christian religion and its non-Christian environment. Above all, it was the proponents of the so-called ‘History-of-Religions School’ (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule) within German Protestant theology who, in classical exegetic and religio-historical treatises, analyzed the interconnections between Jewish antiquity and the religious worlds of the ancient Orient, and the syncretistic character of Christianity. Although religio-historically minded scholars of the Old and New Testament, such as Hermann Gunkel (1862– 1932) and Wilhelm Bousset (1865–1920), as well as the systematic theologian and cultural philosopher Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923)—named the ‘systematist of the History-of-Religions School’—viewed ‘religion’ as a relatively autonomous cultural power sui generis, they nevertheless gave greater priority to investigating the interactions between religious and other spheres of culture. Ernst Troeltsch’s ‘The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches’ (Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen, 1912) is regarded as the most important work of this religio-historical group. In this publication, Troeltsch embarked on a culturalhistorical reconstruction of the formative influence of Christianity’s denominational churches and sects on social ideas and the effects of social structures on the formation of religious ideas and communities. Appropriating the typological distinction between ‘church’ and ‘sects’, developed by his friend Max Weber (1864–1920), Troeltsch differentiated between ‘ecclesiasticism’, ‘sectarianism,’ and ‘mysticism’ as specific forms of religious socialization. With Weber, Troeltsch shared the ambition to demonstrate the significance of religious ideas and practices for the emergence of the modern world. In Die Bedeutung des Protestantismus fur die Entstehung der modernen Welt (1906), he focused on Protestantism and Calvinism, in particular.

While Troeltsch transformed church history into the cultural and social history of Christianity, Weber expanded his pioneering study ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ (Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, 1904 05) into an extremely elaborate enterprise of categorically com- paring the economic ethics of the world religions (Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen, 1915). In ‘The Protestant Ethic’, Weber had inquired into the effects of a religiously shaped habitus in areas of life and culture far removed from those commonly associated with religion in the narrower sense of the term—above all, in the economic sphere. In his comparative analyses of the economic ethos of the world religions, however, he primarily concentrated on occidental rationalism and sought to grasp its particularity and formative power on cultural life. Today, scholars are more skeptical of the details of Weber’s ideas. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the worldwide reception of his theories and derivations in the study of religion has scarcely been matched by any other oeuvre.

3. Overview Of Recent Research

Since the 1960s, the renaissance of religious movements in many societies, the upward trend of ‘fundamentalism’ and Protestant sectarianism, the spread of charismatic Christianity, and the manifold processes of a rapidly changing religious landscape (conversions, new syncretism) have attracted the attention of historians and led to a critical revision of the ‘secularization theory’, which equated social modernization with a general decline in religion. Religion has been rediscovered as a relatively autonomous system of communication and symbolism which shapes the habitus of individuals or identity constructions of social groups, and exerts a positive or negative influence on the development of societies. As a result, the old debates on the definition of religion and master narratives on modernization de-Christianization or secularization are being steadily replaced by micro-studies into the diverse religious milieus of the modern age. While religion has become a central topic in the historical discourse of all countries generally, several national-cultural particularities deserve mention.

In France, the work of Lucien Febvre (1878–1956) and Marc Bloch (1886–1944), together with the journal Annales, Histoire, Sciences Sociales (originally entitled Annales d’histoire economique et sociale) they founded in 1929, supplied the historiography of religion with an innovative approach which broke with the politico-historiographical tradition of the nineteenth century. Their objective was to uncover a temporal stratum of longue duree (Fernand Braudel, 1902–1985), that is to say, extensive periods of time which formatively shape not only political and socioeconomical history, but also the concrete experiential world of the general population. Concepts stemming from Annales-historiography, such as ‘structure’ and ‘longue duree,’ were then applied heuristically to the broader discussion of collective ‘mentalities,’ from which the historiography of religion profited in particular.

Although the term histoire des mentalites soon became a key concept of Annales-historiography, no agreement had been reached on the question as to what ‘mentality’ exactly means. These definitional problems notwithstanding, histoire des mentalites can be generally described as an historical discourse directed towards the collective consciousness of an epoch, i.e. its cognitive, ethical, and affective dispositions, which form the unquestioned cultural basis for the daily life of individuals and social groups, thus constituting their identity. In its application to the history of religion, this approach initiated a change in perspective away from the narrow argumentation of ecclesiastical historiography: religious history came to be seen as a history of religious consciousness whose carriers remain for the most part anonymous. Following this, historians of religion in France began to attach less importance to major events, personalities, and institutions, and focus on ‘structural-historical’ and, in particular, ‘anthropological’ lines of questioning.

Here their investigations have been concerned with historically varying attitudes to birth and childhood, mortality and death, corporeality and sexuality, nature and the environment, God and the Church, heaven and hell (cf. Ph. Aries, M. Vovelle, J. Le Goff, J. Delumeau). To date, however, exponents of histoire des mentalites have scarcely researched the religious culture of more recent history, concentrating rather on the Middle Ages and early Modern Age, and—in cooperation with experts in ancient history such as J.-P. Vernant, M. Detienne and P. Vidal-Naquet since the 1970s—on the religious history of antiquity. Further drawbacks of applying this historical approach to religious historiography arise from its emphasis on the alleged durability of mental dispositions, its disregard of the processes of change within religious mentalities, and its neglect of the conflicts caused by differing religious backgrounds (resulting from the acculturation of foreign ideas and practices or due to inner-social differences).

In Germany, the ‘socio-historical turn’ of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the institutional separation of church history (pursued within theological faculties) and general history encouraged scholars to view religion and confession as nothing other than marginal factors in the history of the modern age. Since the 1970s, however, several attempts have been made to integrate religio-historical perspectives into social historiography (cf. W. Schieder, R. van Dulmen, R. von Thadden) and to open up historical research in church history and theology to the methodological debates of cultural and social scientists (cf. M. Greschat, K. Nowak, F. W. Graf ). Numerous younger historians are now conducting research into a range of religious milieus, such as ecclesiastical organizations and festivities, theological controversies and quarrels over religious symbolism as well as the tense coexistence of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. The collapse of East Germany, moreover, has generated a new sensibility for the political role of churches and their partly antagonistic, partly affirmative relationship to the ‘political religions’ of the twentieth century. And last, but by no means least, the holocaust initiated worldwide intensive research into the cultural climate of German Judaism and the conflict-ridden history that finally led to the destruction of the ‘German– Jewish synthesis.’

In the UK, discussions continue to be determined by the weight of social anthropology (cf. B. Malinowski, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown). Here, from the outset—unlike in Germany—‘society’ and ‘culture’ were seen as one, and consideration given to the class-specific religion of the workforce and the processes of religious change in this country’s urban centers (cf. H. McLeod). Particularly pioneering were the studies on the connection between religious radicalism and revolution (cf. Ch. Hill) and between Methodism and the emerging labor movement (cf. E. P. Thomson). Research into the processes of religio-theological differentiation in the Anglican churches has also drawn on the interpretative approach of histoire des mentalites.

In the USA, historians of religion since the 1980s have been strongly influenced by the ‘interpretative’ ethnology (stressing the concept of ‘understanding’ rather than that of ‘explanation’) and cultural anthropology of C. Geertz. Beyond the classical self-reflective discourse on the religion of native Americans, the faith of the Pilgrim Fathers, pluralism within Protestant denominationalism, the emergence of a specifically American Catholic self-understanding in the late nineteenth century and a ‘civil religion’ (N. Bellah) capable of integrating religious pluralism, in the most recent American historiography of religion themes such as gender, race, language, and the religious forms of minority groups have played an important role. In addition, the ethnological debate on ‘Writing Culture’ (viz. the constructive character inherent in self-portrayal and the description of that which is foreign; cf. F. Clifford G. E. Marcus), the comparative analysis of fundamentalist movements in the world religions (M. E. Marty), the interpretation of Latin America’s religious developments (D. Martin) and the interrelation between law and religion (W. Fallers Sullivan) have featured as central concerns of recent research. Current North American religious historiography has also profited greatly from the application of economico-theoretical approaches (R. Stark, Bainbridge W S (1985), Stark R, Finke R (2000)).

4. Outlook

Religion has gained in importance worldwide and this situation has accordingly afforded the research into religion greater significance. At the forefront of this discourse we find the questions concerning the interrelatedness of religion and ethos, the political relevance of religion, the construction of religious identities of minority and the conflicts between members of different religions and confessions. The debates on migration, religious conversion and new syncretism have shown, however, that historians of religion find it difficult to precisely grasp the long-term changes of religious mentalities. The correlation of conflict-ridden modernization, on the one hand, and the renaissance of strictly binding religion on the other, promises to become an issue of particular concern in the future: for the rapidly advancing globalization of capitalism, together with its constraints on heterogeneity, will only fuel those religious movements intent on communicating a more fulfilled form of human life which transcends an existence solely defined by the utilitarianism of economic rationality.


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