Early twentieth-century scholars of religion, especially in Europe and the United States, cultivated a curious understanding of ‘history’ when they named their field ‘the history of religions’. Innocent observers outside the West might have understood this field to be history in the ‘normal’ sense of a chronology of past events. Outsiders on occasion might have also thought of this as the comparative study of religion, which it partially was, but this qualification made the approach no less bewildering.
In reality, debates in ‘the history of religions’ were concerned with the ‘essence’ of religion, which now appears to be a relic of a bygone past. And yet, while the names and theoretical approaches associated with this branch of religious studies are no longer in vogue, the underlying concerns they raised about the study of religion remain unresolved. For example, the category of ‘religion’ continues to be important for demarcating departments of religion as separate from departments of theology and from other humanistic and social scientific-focused departments, such as sociology and anthropology. While scholars no longer seek the essence of religion, they nonetheless operate on the assumption that the study of something called ‘religion’ is a field of research worth preserving in the modern university.
Philosophical concerns sustain the debate about religion. Since the heyday of history of religions, other academic fashions like deconstruction, genealogy, affect theory, and new materialism, have emerged. But the conundrums surrounding issues of contingency, theology, and the role of philosophy, which the history of religions field sought to address, remain unsettled.
A brief history of ‘the history of religions’ field deserves attention in order to help scholars evaluate the genealogical study of religion, which explores relations of power, knowledge, and the body in the practice of religion. It also questions narratives centred on the primacy of origins and of unchanging truths. Yet there are scholars who take this approach express a longing for a pre-modern religious world, a world that the history of religions also sought to bring to life. We should be wary of the tendency that calls for a return to a more authentic way of being that is in the past. It is necessary to challenge this call for a ‘return’ because it results in an uncritical appropriation of the past that often aligns itself with politically reactionary causes. Such causes often harm rather than buttress the flourishing of those who live on the margins.