Religious Knowledge in Historical Perspective

My year began with a session at the 131st Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association on “the dynamics of religious knowledge” in the modern era, a panel I organized with Simone Lässig. The three papers—presented by Anthony Steinhoff, Jana Tschurenev, and myself—approached developments in religious knowledge as manifestations of social and cultural change in the long nineteenth century. The studies explored a variety of religious groups in a broad array of historical configurations, from nineteenth-century Jewish religious education to the multireligious setting of Alsace Lorraine after 1870 and anticaste and feminist critiques of Hinduism in colonial India.

Simone Lässig served as chair and provided a short introduction on knowledge as an object and category of historical analysis, drawing on her recent article in the Bulletin of the German Historical Institute. David M. Luebke took on the task of commenting on the three case studies from the perspective of an Early Modernist. His thoughtful and inspiring remarks highlighted points at which the three papers intersected.

Among other things, Luebke observed that all three papers turned the concept of secularization upside down by deviating from the classic top–bottom approach, which has long focused on the state, on major religious players, and on rather formal indicators of religiosity such as service attendance. Instead, the papers discussed how various religious groups and individuals navigated social and cultural change by advocating and redefining religious knowledge. They addressed the contexts, forms, and organization of religious knowledge, asking questions about authority and access to knowledge as well as knowledge transfer practices.

Although none of the papers explicitly referred to the concept of secularization, they did engage with the broader scholarly discussion on the history of religion and religiosity in the modern era. These debates now take into account that the secular and the religious are entangled—mutually constitutive rather than mutually exclusive. In the context of Indian history, on the other hand, Jana Tschurenev emphasized the problematic and contested nature of terms like secularization in colonial studies, which criticize the Eurocentric notions and historiographical narratives they manifest. Here too, however, Luebke’s observation appeared to have been on target.

The ongoing need to reflect on and rethink our categories and terminology raises a fundamental question, which came up in the subsequent discussion: What can historical research on knowledge, in this case religious knowledge, add to our understanding of the past? As Anthony Steinhoff emphasized, the three case studies and the sources on which they drew were, in the end, all about knowing. They were about gaining a particular set of knowledge as a foundation for ostensibly correct practices and beliefs. They concerned redefinitions of what counted as reliable knowledge and how it should be presented and transmitted in the context of the emerging influence of scientific knowledge and its modes of classification and systematization.

In particular, the papers considered changing structures and methods of knowledge transfer in the context of education and rule (the state versus self-governance, public versus private schooling). Also important was the question of access, with social actors challenging restrictions about who should acquire religious knowledge, who should have access to foundational texts as well as the ability and right to perform religious rites. Girls and women? The poor? Members of the lower castes in India?

This AHA session shed light on the varieties of religious knowledge and its underlying dynamics. It was not comprehensive or definitive, of course, but it showed that studying the intersection of religion and knowledge is a worthwhile undertaking. Far from being mutually exclusive, religion and knowledge are intertwined.