Reflexive Religious Studies: A Note

Jason Ānanda Josephson

* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

I’ve been lecturing about and, even calling for, what I term “Reflexive Religious Studies” for some time. My comments about it will be appearing in print in the near(ish) future in greater detail, but I thought a small note about the idea here might prove useful.


As I have been arguing for a long time, the category “religion” is transformative. [i] Various entities become “religions.” I want to emphasize that this is not a teleological or transhistorical process, but one that came out of a particular logic at a particular moment in Western Christendom, and its globalization was necessarily selective and to some extent arbitrary. It should also be noted that this was a modern process, articulated in various stages, but in essence coinciding with the formation of globalization or transnational modernity.

This process is always incomplete. Christianity, Buddhism, and so on always retain remainders that are not fully brought under the category. Moreover, this process of becoming a religion is still ongoing. Indeed, in a certain sense it may be seen as having permeated the whole intellectual stratum of modernity. Even in modernity, “religion” cannot be taken as a self-evident category. Religious Studies must therefore be the discipline that suspends its primary object of inquiry, never taking for granted religion’s meaning.

To put it in different terms and to indicate this non-universal category, one might say that: things become religions. At the risk of skirting typographical silliness, I want to use the strike through here (evocative of the Lacanian barred subject) in order to indicate religion as an impossible object, something like a term “under erasure” (Sous rature) in the Heidegger/Derrida sense, which for our purposes we might identify with a de-essentialized process. By this I mean more than the reification of an abstraction. Irrespective of any “essential” nature, to designate something a religion is to place it into a series of relations with other “religions.” Various entities become religions by being linked up to the world-system in a way that transforms them. Here I mean to gesture toward the insights of both Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis and Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory (as well as those articulated more recently by Peter Beyer). According to a synthesis of these accounts, our current world-system came into effect along with the formation of a system exchange of knowledge and capital, which began to encircle the globe over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In so doing, it produced global systems of self-reinforcing discourse.

Once this insight has been granted, it provides an opening for a new vantage in Religious Studies that would study these processes of becoming, a way to study the term “under erasure.” Not as a universal or essential part of human nature but in its transformative effects.

What I have in mind is what I call “Reflexive Religious Studies.” I model this on a movement in sociology, which notes that you have to have different kinds of sociological techniques to examine those societies in which sociology as a discipline is itself an influence.[ii] You need a new “reflexive sociology” to take into account the way that people’s social identities are shaped by “sociological surveys” or transformed by governments that have already internalized some form of the discipline of sociology. Put differently, there is a place for a higher order sociology that recons with the fact that academic sociology is in a sense porous and tends to seep into the societies that it purports to study.

I want to extend this move to Religious Studies. Reflexive Religious Studies would examine those societies in which religion and its attendant differentiations (e.g. secularism) have begun to function as concepts. It would trace the continuities and disruptions that this category produces in older conceptual orders and aim for precision. And it would also necessarily take into account how the discipline of Religious Studies shapes and produces religions.

Secular Studies.


If Religious Studies had a counter-discipline, a shadowy field implied by its focus but which largely failed to cohere, it would be Secular Studies. This discipline would trace not the things defined as “religions” and therefore included in the disciplinary matrix of Religious Studies, instead its task would be the reverse to study the potential substitutes for religion. This too would be a long and varied list but which includes many of the things that we think of as incompatible with religion. It would be a shadow discipline because while it never gets to be formalized, it comes to take over the academy.

Let me put this differently, disciplinary objects are constructed through a process that comprises both inclusions and exclusions. Art history for example has spent a lot of time attempting to adjudicate what counts as art and what doesn’t. In so doing certain kinds of human activity, like painting, have been subject to art historical scrutiny while others, like toy manufacturing, have largely been excluded. We could imagine all these acts of exclusion as producing a kind of negative space around a disciplinary object, which serves to demarcate its limits. In other words, art has been defined as much by what doesn’t count as art, as what does.

It shouldn’t surprise you that Religious Studies has had its own kind of negative space. It consists in different potential contenders for membership in the category religion. Obviously just as the category religion has changed over time these different potential contenders have changed as well. If one were to make a discipline out of exploring this negative space around the category of religion, one might call it Secular Studies. While the study of “Secularism(s)” (or laïcité) has been a growing issue, this discipline would examine not merely the mirror-exclusion of religion in the political realm, but various sundry forms of rejected substitutes. Although it quite doesn’t yet exist, this is the other side of Reflexive Religious Studies, and another image of the field I want to call into being.

This is just a brief note for more details you’ll have to read my monographs Dialectic of Darkness: The Genesis of Disenchantment and/or Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory After Postmodernism.

[i] See Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan.

[ii] Extending on the insights of thinkers like Robert Merton and Karl Popper, more contemporary sociologists such as Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens have begun to work out the way that sociology itself reflexively shapes society. We might also add Bourdieu to this list and note that they are also drawing on Alvin Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology.

Jason Ananda Josephson received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Stanford University in 2006 and has held visiting positions at Princeton University, École Française d’Extrême-Orient, Paris and Ruhr Universität, Germany. He is currently Chair and Associate Professor of Religion at Williams College. He has two primary research foci: the history of Japanese Religions and Theory more broadly. Common to both foci is an attempt to use the Japanese case to decenter received narratives in the study of religion and science. His main targets have been epistemological obstacles, the preconceived universals which serve as the foundations of various discourses. Josephson has also been working to articulate new research models for Religious Studies in the wake of the collapse of poststructuralism as a guiding ethos in the Humanities.

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2 Responses to Reflexive Religious Studies: A Note

  1. karen zoppa says:

    Thank you for this meta-perspective – it helps to locate one-self and one’s inquiry on the tilting ark we call “religion.”

  2. Chris says:

    Just a very brief note to throw ‘Secular Studies’ at Pitzer College into the mix:

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