Book Chapter

Complex learning and the World Religions Paradigm: Teaching Religion in a Shifting Subject Landscape


The intellectual history of the idea of world religions involves a complex interplay of historical, political, cultural and academic discourses (see, for example, Masuzawa 2005a, 2005b; Owen 2011; Segal 2007). It has become a stream of knowledge accepted and implicit in common understanding and curricula. The Encyclopedia of Religion includes an entry for ‘world religions’ which, though it is written by a key challenger to the paradigm, notes its ubiquity (while stating it is not a ‘technical term’, and identifying different uses of the term; Masuzawa, 2005b). World religions has become a category paradigm in social understanding: it is often used uncritically, occasionally reflectively as a useful shorthand, or a pointer to varied patterns of behaviour and belief. It is an umbrella term for diverse phenomena. In the study of religions, the term ‘religion’ is also generally understood as an umbrella term, a lexical signifier for diversity. As will be discussed below, category construction requires such ‘shorthands’. Butknowledge and understanding require reflexive application – even as we use knowledge to develop greater understanding we critically reflect upon the substance of that knowledge. Academic study requires an eternal return to its foundations, modes and representations. Just so, in the study of religions students and tutors begin, repeatedly with each new year’s intake, defining, challenging and investigating the primary category of religion. The study of religions is the subject of study and the cumulative history of a variety of approaches to a subject area. It is also a discourse that critically considers itself as an object, and that is the beginning of the pedagogic enterprise for undergraduates; it is ideally the key topic of the first class of the first module introducing the study of religions. The study of religions is concerned to critically consider the labels and categoriesused in discourses on religion. Matters of what these phenomena should be calledand who has the authority to decide, insiders or outsiders, are core to this academic project. At a deeper level, the effects of these categories are also a serious area of consideration. To what extent are they accurate representations? How much do they mould disparate phenomena within the boundaries of an external category? How much do the categories exclude? And to what extent are the borders and liminalities an affective part of the category? There is, within this analysis of categories, a linguistic and philosophical question about the relationship between language and the ‘world’. Epithetical responses to this question include Ferdinand de Saussure’s foundational linguistic observation that the sign is not the signified (1974). Jonathan Z. Smith emphasized this point with the epithet ‘map is not territory’ (1978). Both de Saussure and Smith provide an important epistemological warning for the study of religions: signs and maps are constructs created by scholars of religion from their (equally constructed) evidence base, that which is signified, or the ‘territory’. The substance of knowledge is attained in the field. Perhaps it might be argued that this perspective, simply described, offers an unsophisticated philosophy of language by separating perception of the world from the linguistic bases by which humans bring the world into being – when there is a much more symbiotic relationship between the world and language. As Russell McCutcheon states, in relation to the terms religion and religious experience,It could be persuasively argued that the only reason scholars find religions everywhere in the world, and religious experience in everyone’s heads, is because those very scholars approach the world – in fact make their world – by using this term, defined broadly enough, so as always to find sufficient things that they can deem/group together as religion – suggesting to me that a theory of deeming (i.e. a theory of signification) and grouping (i.e. a theory of classification) are far more required than theory of religion.

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Corrywright, Dominic

Oxford Brookes departments

Department of History, Philosophy and Culture


Year of publication: 2016
Date of RADAR deposit: 2020-02-06

This is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter published by Routledge/CRC Press in After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies in 2016, available online at

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