Robert Segal takes a postmodern 21st-century trip through the A-Z of belief
In 2002, the fourth edition of the celebrated Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart was published. In 2005, the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion appeared in 15 fat volumes (the first edition had been published in 1987). At the end of 2005, there appeared The Brill Dictionary of Religion, in four volumes; it is a revised English edition of the 1999-2002 Metzler Lexikon Religion , also in four volumes. Two of the editors of the German edition contribute a lengthy introduction on "The academic study of religion - historical and contemporary issues". Kocku von Stuckrad, the editor of the dictionary, is not a veteran scholar but an assistant professor of religious studies at Amsterdam University. Yet he is already recognised as a budding authority on, especially, Western esotericism, and he has proved an excellent choice as editor.
As Stuckrad emphasises in his introductory "Conceptual framework of The Brill Dictionary of Religion ", this dictionary purports to be one for the 21st century. It touts itself as "postmodern". It seeks to reflect the "transformation that the academic study of religion has undergone within the past 20 years".
What does that transformation mean? To begin with, we are told, religion has defied predictions that it would disappear, initially in the West but eventually worldwide. In fact, almost the opposite has occurred. If religion has declined, it has done so only in Europe. Elsewhere, religion seems to have grown, and not just in professions of belief but in the invocation of religion in politics, including violence. Second, we are told, terms and categories that were once taken for granted are now questioned, not merely for their suitability but also for the ideological motives underlying their employment. "Depicting terrorism and violence as a 'misuse' of religion reflects a theological idea of 'pure religion' that is essentially peaceful and tolerant." Activities that undermine conventional characterisations of religion "are expelled to the realm of 'magic', 'superstition', 'folk belief', 'commodification', 'political exploitation', 'brain washing' and so on." Third, we are told that "religion" is not a private, insular, otherworldly affair severed from the public, outer, material world but instead "a powerful element of public discourse that shapes identities by way of communication and interaction". Far from cutting off adherents from everyday life, religion is a part of it and a shaper of it.
Religion "is capable of providing groups and individuals with meaningful interpretations of their places in time and space". Because religion is part of the rest of life, other disciplines, especially the social sciences, are indispensable for deciphering it.
These "postmodern" changes in the understanding of religion are evinced in the choice of entries. The resurgence of religion is reflected in entries on "Disenchantment/re-enchantment of the world", "Modernity/modern age", "Postmodernity" and "Secularisation". The entries on "Conflict" and "Terrorism" discuss the linkage of religion to violence. The communicative aspects of religion are discussed under "Advertising", "Communication/discourse", "Language", "Media", "Perception/sensory system", "Publicity", "Televangelism" and "Television". The concern of the social sciences with public issues is manifested in the host of entries on "Abortion/contraception", "Capital punishment/ execution", "Environmentalism", "Eugenics", "Genetic engineering", "Government/rule/ politics/state", "Handicapped", "Illness/ health; minorities", "Peace", "Poverty", "Power", "Prejudices/stereotypes", "Protest" and "Race/racism".
There is also an array of entries on psychological, sociological and medical topics - for example, "Age", "Birth", "Breathing", "Child/childhood", "Emotions/ feelings", "Everyday life", "Family/kinship/ genealogy", "Gender stereotypes", "Memory", "Minorities", "Pain", "Puberty", "Sexuality/socialisation", "Son/daughter" and "Upbringing". Many of the approaches that are touted as uniquely postmodern are in fact traditional. Long before the emergence of postmodernism, it was recognised that terms and categories are often tendentious and revisable. Ironically, the boldest challenge to stock terms is to "religion" itself. While the dictionary declares its kinship with cultural studies, no contributor dares propose that "religion" be replaced by "cultural studies", as others have done.
As a test of the distinctiveness of the dictionary, let us compare the first 20 of the 500 entries in the dictionary with those in the much larger Encyclopedia of Religion. The dictionary entries are "Aborigines", "Abortion/contraception", "Academic study of religion", "Advertising", "Africa I: northern Africa, including the Sahel", "Africa II: central and southern Africa", "Afro-American religions", "Afro-Caribbean religions", Age", "Agrarian religion/agrarian magic", "Altar", "Amazons", "Amulet", "Anarchism", "Ancestors", "Ancient East", "Angel", "Animal I: hunting societies", "Animal II: world religions" and "Animism". The encyclopaedia entries are "Aaron", "Abrahu", "Abbaye", "Abd Al-Raziq, Ali", "Abduh, Muhammed", "Abelard, Peter", "Abhinavagupta", "Ablutions", "Abraham", "Abravanel, Isaac", "Abu Al-Hudhayl Al-'Alle Af", "Abu Bakr", "Abu Hanofah", "Abulafia, Me'ir", "Abu Yusuf", "Achenese religion", "Adad", "Adam", "Adams, Hannah" and "Adi Granth".
Where the encyclopaedia tries to cover as many gods, religious figures and religions as possible, the dictionary covers only the major religions, often grouping them together, and gives biographical entries for only key figures such as Augustine, Buddha and Freud. (There is no entry on Jung. Similarly, there is Weber but no Durkheim.) The encyclopaedia is more of a conventional reference work, though not even it possesses the richness of the 13-volume Hastings' Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (1908-26).
At the same time, the encyclopaedia has many of the same, supposedly distinctive entries as the dictionary. There is an article on "Violence", though not on "Terror". There is an article on "Modernity", though not on "Postmodernity". On the communicative aspects of religion are entries on "Media and religion" and on "Religious broadcasting". On public issues, there are ten entries on "Politics and religion" and 21 on "Gender and religion". For the social sciences, there are hefty articles or sets of articles on anthropology, sociology and psychology.
Overall, the difference between the dictionary and the encyclopaedia is one of degree rather than of kind. Still, that difference can be considerable, as a comparison of the topic I know best - myth - shows. The entry in the encyclopaedia is unrevised from the first edition, save for the bibliography. Written by a spellbound devotee of Mircea Eliade, the editor of the first edition, it mechanically presents the master's position: that myth is part of religion, that religion is about the sacred, that the agents in myth are gods or god-like figures, that myth describes the origin of things by these agents, that the demise of religion is a facade, and that myths are therefore still to be found in the modern world. There is only perfunctory mention of the social scientific study of myth. Claude Lévi-Strauss, by far the most important contemporary theorist of myth, is faulted for "the absence of any notion of the sacred" in his work. In other words, Levi-Strauss should have subsumed myth under religion.
The article on "Myth" in the dictionary strives to conform to the ethos of the work. It rejects any "essence" of myth, such as the sacredness of myth.
Anti-essentialism is, of course, central to postmodernism. The entry in the dictionary lists five disparate functions of myth, only one of which is religious. There is no one universal function of myth, only the functions deciphered within individual social sciences. The meaning of a myth is local. The rejection of universal generalisations and the obsession with context are also quintessentially postmodern. By contrast, the article in the encyclopaedia seeks universal characteristics and castigates approaches that do not. The entry in the dictionary calls "myth" a construct and proceeds to trace the varying uses of the term over the millennia. By contrast, the entry in the encyclopaedia takes for granted the existence of the referent and simply traces the changing ways that myth has been understood over the same long period.
One can readily bemoan the illogic of this entry. A universal definition of myth does not mean the metaphysical essence of myth. The universality of any one function of myth does not mean the exclusivity of that function.
Changing approaches to myth do not mean that the subject has been constructed, which itself refers to only the origin and not the applicability of the term. What matters here is the effort at a postmodern take on the topic.
The Brill Dictionary is delightfully user-friendly. The typeface is big and the margins wide. There are running summaries of longer articles in the margins. There are illustrations galore, each with a pithy identification.
At the end of each volume are striking colour plates. For major religions (such as Buddhism), groups of religions (for example, "Antiquity"), and geographical regions (for example, North America) there are helpful time charts. All but the shortest entries include bibliographies. Entries are meticulously cross-referenced, and the index is most comprehensive.
As a complement to the Encyclopedia of Religion , The Brill Dictionary of Religion is a most worthy investment.
Robert A. Segal is professor of religious studies, Aberdeen University.
The Brill Dictionary of Religion
Editor - Kocku von Stuckrad (Editors of the original version Christoph Aufforth, Jutta Bernard and Hubert Mohr)
Publisher - Brill
Pages - 2,100 Four volumes
Price - €499.00 or $599.00
ISBN - 90 04 12433 0