This chapter justifies the general application of the taxon ‘religion’ as a unitary analytical concept situated in history, and locates religions as interculturally translatable and communicable systems of beliefs and practices related to superhuman agents. It argues that the postmodern claim that religion was an exclusive invention of modern European scholarship should be dismissed. The author shows that European discourse did not impose on non-European cultures alien colonial configurations such as the separation of the sphere of religion from other spheres of human culture. That this separation was not ‘invented’ is implied by the universal process of construction of boundaries between distinct domains of social life and the consequent elaboration of cross-cultural categories. The possibility itself of defining and translating religion into the most diverse historical and geographical milieus shows the panhuman character of this historical constellation.
Philip A. Mellor and Chris Shilling
The category of the sacred was central to classical sociology, and remains key to understanding the contribution of social theory to the study of religion and society. Durkheim highlights the ‘socio-religious’ sacred, operating within otherworldly cosmologies and practices. Durkheim also enables us to conceptualize a ‘bio-economic’ modality in highly differentiated capitalist economies. The ‘transcendent sacred’ central to Weber’s account of the Protestant ethic highlights how forces experienced as extraordinary and otherworldly can coexist with a social sphere differentiated as secular. Weber highlighted the power of forces of rationalization and bureaucratization in modernity. Extending this today suggests a ‘bio-political’ modality of the sacred expressive of the extraordinary power that modern law and governance have over life. These modalities of the sacred can be used to provide new insights into phenomena such as resurgent forms of Islam and Christian Pentecostalism, fetishization of commodities, and bio-political governance of bodies.