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Religious Theories of Religion (1/2)

Panel Chair: Michael Stausberg, Jörg Rüpke | Tuesday, August 25, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

Theories of religion are conceptual and metaphorical narratives that seek to account for or/and explain religion. In particular, theories of religion account for the specificity, origin, function, and structure of “religion” (what it is, how it comes about, what it does, and how it works). Academic theories of religion need to satisfy the criteria accepted by the respective scholarly community; different disciplines may vary in their criteria. In addition, theories of religion can emerge in other discursive contexts. In this panel, we wish to explore the formation of theories of religion that may have emerged within different religious traditions, even though they obviously will not have used our term ‘religion‘ (or an apparent cognate term that might address problems which are only part of or more embracing than the range of cultural practices defined as coherent by the term “religion”). Are there such theories? How are they structured? How do they argue? When have they emerged and how have they changed?

Steven Engler

“There Is No Greater Plague”: A Brazilian Neo-Pentecostal Theory of Religion

Edir Macedo—leader of Brazil’s largest neo-pentecostal denomination, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD)—preaches that “there is no greater plague on the face of the Earth than religion, even evangelical religion.” Other neo-pentecostal groups hold comparable views: e.g., according to a pastor of the World Church of the Power of God, “The word of Jesus is not a religion. Religion catches you up in dogma. With Jesus, you get caught up in the Word.” Macedo goes further by defining ‘religion’ not just as the other of evangelical Protestantism but as the other of his particular denomination. In one sense, this is simply market positioning, given the IURD’s recent drop in adherents. However, a religious theory of ‘religion’ emerges if we analyze Macedo’s views in terms of the link between ritual and agency in his particular variant of the Gospel of Prosperity. For Macedo, only one path of action leads to salvation: "true sacrifice” (tithing as “challenge”) that invokes God’s purifying agency; all other paths invoke the agency of demons. ‘Religion’ is a worldly economy of counterfeit soteriological goods, motivated "from the cradle" (not "from on high") by “natural faith” (not "supernatural faith") and characterized by demonically oriented beliefs and ritual. The IURD’s recent Christian Zionism makes sense, in these terms, as a further turn away from ‘religion.’

Harald Matern

Hybrid theories of religion

Protestant-theological Theories of Religion are hybrid discourse phenomena. On the one hand, the academic tradition of German-speaking Protestantism leads theologians to stress the scientific character of their theories. On the other, the relation between academic theology and institutional and individual religious practices is not contingent: theology strives to describe personal faith – and to give it a normative shape when trying to direct the structure and the actions of its institutions. Theological theories of religion tend to be “scientific” and “religious” at the same time. On the one hand, “religion” is used as a normative concept addressing both the religious subsystem the general public. On the other hand, the use of the concept (or its substitutes) intends to describe a ‘reality’. An analysis of protestant theological theories of religion can describe this ambiguity as an essential aspect of the history of the concept ‘religion’ itself. It can, furthermore, describe the prismatic function of the concept (all theological discourses concerning the general public are discourses on religion) and show the process of its transformation (intensional or extensional) or substitution (or suppression: cf the ‘religious’ critics of “religion” in Ragaz and Kutter) as both a result of (historical) conceptual possibilities, societal (and religious) transformation. Hopefully this analysis of theological theories of religion can by such means contribute a specific aspect to the history of ‘religion’ itself

Ramona Jelinek-Menke

Religion as „Race Care“ – Early 20th Century’s Religions and their Conception of Religion as Eugenic Instrument

Religious theories of religion are often related to non-religious ideas of man and history. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the fear of “degeneration” as well as the claim for “eugenic actions” became very popular in European and North-American societies. Several religions incorporated as much as stimulated these ideas. Accordingly, Otoman Zar-Adusht Ha’nish, head of the Mazdaznan Religion in the early 20th century, wrote: “Race care constituted an utterly important, effective and race cultivating element of primordial religion”. Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, founder of Ariosophie, argues: “[In past times] religion, art and science had to serve the art of consciously procreation”. Additionally, Protestant, Catholic as well as Jewish authors were convinced that the duty of religion was the improvement of the race(s), its moral conduct, quality of health and, as a consequence, the achievement of salvation. This paper shows, firstly, that several religious authors at the beginning of the 20th century linked their conception of religion, of its diversity and evolution, to hierarchically structured categories of “race”. Secondly, it argues that for those authors religious practice was the central instrument for shaping mankind according to eugenic ideas. Thereby, it outlines the interdependence between religious and non-religious conceptions of religion, man and history.

David Zbíral

Medieval Inquisitors’ Theory of Sects

This paper focuses on how thirteenth- and fourteenth century inquisitors conceived of beliefs, practices, and functioning of non-conformist Christian groups. The inquisitors’ view of what constitutes a heretical sect and how it works was relatively specific in at least two respects. First, it was strikingly historical: besides genealogy – the traditional historical strategy of explaining the existence of a particular movement as well as its similarities to other movements – the inquisitors were interested in changes that particular heretical rituals, doctrines, and communities undergo in time. Second, inquisitors, driven by their need for hard evidence meeting procedural requirements, somewhat shifted the notion of heresy and error from inner beliefs to observable rituals and habits. At the same time, however, inquisitional trial records abundantly demonstrate that they were well aware of how precarious it is to draw a straightforward causal link between inner beliefs and outer actions. Based on a selection of trial records and manuals for the inquisitors, this paper examines how medieval inquisitors conceived of heretical sects, of their change in time, and of the relationship between religious beliefs and actions.


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