Religion, a genealogical investigation

part one of “Four essays on Religion and Freedom “ – Dick Wursten, 2019, translated from the Dutch

next: The identity crisis of the Christian religion


God is back, and with a vengeance. Many sociologists of religion were surprised by his return. Secularization was the buzz word. They had been diligently preparing for God’s continued disappearance from society. Religion was losing its relevance, slowly but surely. Every follow-up study into ‘God in the Netherlands’ or ‘Belgium and its gods’ – to limit myself to two well-known Dutch-language publications, the patterns apply throughout Western Europe – showed that the impact of faith and faith organizations on society had  declined again. By way of explanation, they pointed to the advancement of science and technology. As a result, beliefs lost credibility and/or became redundant: If you can choose between ‘praying against an impending locust plague’ and spraying DDT, the choice is easily made. The natural-scientific worldview thus supplanted the mythical, and this process was irreversible. It all sounded very plausible, and the facts did not lie: churches were really emptying, the number of vocations was declining dramatically, Christian morality was losing its grip on life, and one christian organisation after another was going through an identity crisis, broadening its statutes, changing its name. It was clear: religion was an expiring issue and the secularisation process was irreversible. The ‘godfather’ of sociology, Max Weber, had seen it correctly : rationalisation had led to a ‘disenchantment of the world’ and thus initiated the process of secularisation. Nothing to be done about it. Or to quote the most famous sociologist of religion of the second half of the last century, Peter Berger : ‘The sacred canopy’ that had sheltered us from external threats for centuries is broken.1 From now on, we must survive under the open sky, on our own, whether we like it or not. In 1968, he predicted that by the year 2000, religion would be completely marginalized in society. It would only exist organizationally in the form of small sectarian groups, which would come together to protect themselves against the evil effects of secularization (NY Times, Sunday, February 25, 1968, ‘A Bleak Outlook is Seen for Religion’). A person, even a scientist, can be wrong. He freely admitted it, long before the year 2000.

Are we really secular?

Such an analysis was not only common among scholars looking at things from the outside (sociologists), but also within the church. There, too, ‘secularization’ was the main theme. Albeit that there – logically – the phenomenon was not viewed in an entirely positive light. But even where it was seen as a threat, the factual assumption ‘that people were experiencing life more and more secularly’ was not denied. Generally, theologians tried to interpret the time-honoured beliefs as best they could in such a way that they remained acceptable and relevant even to ‘modern secularised people’. Some (especially Protestant) theologians in the 1960s completely changed tack and welcomed secularisation. They saw in it a completion of religion-critical and demythologising tendencies that were also already present in the Bible itself. Books with titles like ‘Honest to God’ (by Anglican bishop John. A.T. Robinson) and ‘God and the Secular City’ (title of a book by Harvey Cox, Baptist pastor and Harvard Professor) topped the bestseller lists for years. According to them, secularisation was an opportunity to finally rid the Christian message of its primitive mythical ballast. All those outdated religious claims, the ‘Hinterweltlerei’ of God in heaven with his angels (not to mention, hell with its devils), miracles and the like. After peeling off the mythological shell, they believed, a purely human message would remain (remarkably often of a political and social left-wing persuasion). Optimists believed in the persuasiveness of their attempts to interpret the gospel within this context; others saw things less rosy. Even conservative Christians who naturally did not participate in such superficial talk did not deny the underlying assumption: secularisation as a fact. Only they deplored it. They saw in secularisation the great Enemy at work, against which one should vigorously resist. True atheists gloated secretly, or even openly, because they saw their great rightness confirmed by these developments, although they were also a little disappointed that bitterly few apostates joined their ranks. Indeed, the majority of people thought it was all just fine. The level of substantive commitment to faith among average believers is never as high as church leaders would like it to be true. In other words, many in Western Europe, inside and outside the church, were happy to see secularization continue. It had its downsides, but by and large it was liberating.

Even the naturally conservative institution of the Roman Catholic Church decided to update in the early 1960s. The church was in danger – many felt – of losing touch with secularised people and society. From the beginning of the ‘Modern Age’, it had tried to turn the tide, it had fought tooth and nail against the Enlightenment, which it saw as man’s rebellion against divine law. Anyone who wanted to hold a position or office in a Roman Catholic organisation, including Catholic universities, could only do so if he swore an anti-modernism oath (abolished in 1967). the ‘autonomous man’ who said he needed neither God nor commandment, was the Church’s seasoned enemy throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century. Now she tried to cut her losses. During a four-year international ecclesiastical congress (the Second Vatican Council, 1961-1965), it was all hands on deck for the council fathers in an attempt to get the unwieldy ship of the church to take a turn so that it would not end up in dead water. An ‘aggiornamento’ took place. The church adapted – as best it could – to the fact that the world had become secularised. For churchgoers of the time, these changes were spectacular. Protestantism was no longer seen merely as heresy. The right to freedom of religion was recognised under great pressure (especially from America). The vernacular was introduced and the Church no longer wanted to be a sacred institution of salvation, but ‘God’s people on the move’. These outcomes did not come without a struggle. They were fiercely contested and led, among other things, to the secession of a small section, which saw in this adaptation a ploy of the devil to destroy the true Church (Bishop Lefèbvre and the Pius X priestly fraternity). Looking back half a century later, one wonders whether, from the perspective of the secularized, even then it was not too little too late. And, from the perspective of religious man, whether the council fathers sometimes adapted things they would have been better off leaving alone, while leaving undisturbed things they should have modified. With regard to the former, I am thinking of some liturgical interventions, and regarding the latter, the intertwining of priesthood, gender and sex. I admit: it’s easy speaking in hindsight, nevertheless.

Religiosity is human, religion a construct

That meanwhile religiosity (the impulse, the urge, the need from which religious institutions derive their emotive power) did not disappear, but rather sought other channels to express itself, eluded many sociologists of religion. Those were perhaps just a little too happy with the results of their own research. Church leaders and theologians often saw it, but scornfully dismissed much of what emerged as alternative forms of religiosity as ‘forms of superstition’, which would surely disappear as quickly as they had appeared. The condescending tone in which ‘New Age’ was talked about from official church circles in the 1980s is telling. That in the meantime large groups of Christians continued to exist in fairly traditional ways and there was even an evangelical revival in the United States: They had to be and would be rearguard actions, last convulsions. Just wait. Secularisation would do itself in. So, no matter how massively Hal Lyndsey’s apocalyptic books, The Planet Called Earth (1984 would be the end) sold, it remained a fait divers. Even though the evangelicals, supported by American pastors with their own TV channels, stamped out an almost complete ‘evangelical’ subculture, including universities and film studios, you read that that was ‘typically American’ after all, as if that explained anything. That the EO soon made a go-ahead in the Netherlands and was able to hitch its wagon to popular culture: it wasn’t really taken seriously. French sociologist Gilles Képel was one of the few who did pay attention to it. In 1991, he published a book with the telling title ‘la revanche de Dieu’, in which he pointed to trends that showed that secularisation was certainly not an autonomous process that automatically unfolded in one direction, sc. more secularisation. He signalled a countermovement, a ‘reconquista’ of various religious movements trying to regain territory lost to secularisation, and with success.2 In fact, not just since yesterday, but certainly since the 1970s. The Iranian revolution was an iconic event for Képel on this point: the shah (= we organise life secularly) is ousted by the ayatollah (= we organise life religiously). Parallel developments he saw in the US (indeed the rise of Protestant evangelicals) and with the Jewish Lubavitcher. Western Europe with its advancing secularisation might well be the global exception, he said, confirming rather than denying the rule that religion is inherently a socio-political factor. Then again, for how long would that exception last? Even for Képel, however, the concept of God is still strongly westernised. The singularity in the title speaks volumes. This is about the ‘god of the book’.

Secularization as emancipation

In the meantime, however, in the free space created by advancing secularisation, all kinds of groups had taken the floor that had not been able to get their due under the prevailing religion and in the corresponding culture: Women and gays stepped out, blacks demanded their rights. As that public latitude increased, so did freedom (of expression). Hippies flocked to L.A. and in May 1968 students and workers walked hand-in-hand in Paris, claiming a new world. The times they are a-changing, sang Bob Dylan. A new world seemed imminent. And religion’s place in it – if any – would at least be radically different from before. Let’s reinvent the gods sang the Doors, while others set up their own stairway to heaven with droning guitar chords, and the Beatles went to India. The 20th century was preparing for a definitive transformation of the religious into… , yes into what actually? According to some, a kind of spirituality would remain, with or without an undefined form of transcendence (‘somethingism’); according to others, people would henceforth bricolage a private religion together; and according to still others, religion would evaporate completely or fizzle out into other human activities such as art, sports, with the accompanying ‘group experience’: festivals, mega-events. What all disagreed on was that the future of religion, at least, would be non-institutional. The time of the church was over. And if there were to be institutions at all, they would behave socially decently. In public debate, they would participate by translating their arguments into generally acceptable and intelligible terms and also acquiesce to the fact that the majority would sometimes decide otherwise. The reimbursement of the contraceptive pill by the sickness fund, the legislation on euthanasia and abortion were cases where this tacit understanding was tested. King Baudouin’s refusal in 1990 to sign the abortion law had only symbolic significance. It demonstrated the factual state of affairs: the political impotence of Christian morality. Then the wall collapsed and the ‘cold war’ ended. The typical Western opposition between capitalism and communism no longer determined the ideological discussion. That soon shifted to the Middle East and suddenly God was back. Only now he was no longer called ‘God’, but Allah.

God returns as Allah

In the first year of the new millennium, at nine-eleven, a violent political statement was made in the name of that god – rightly or wrongly, that does not matter for the moment, what matters is the link itself. Western society was labeled “godless” and contrasted with it was another society that would be “pleasing to God. War rhetoric with a religious tinge was back. In the West, we still tried to keep the ball rolling by pretending that the return of God only took place outside our society, but the loud and silent support that Islamic criticism of Western society turned out to have within society itself, inevitably confronted us with the question: how do we give God and religion a place in our society without society falling apart, with as a test case no longer Christianity, but Islam. Does a secular society tolerate a cohabitation religieuse? As mentioned, sociologists, political scientists, theologians and “opinion makers” were surprised by these developments, busy as they were with the advancing secularization in the capitalist West. Impressed by the changed situation after 9/11, many sociologists quickly turned their cart. God is back and we better take heed, was now their message. Books and articles argued loudly that secularization was past its prime, and that we were entering a “post-secular” age. Others spoke more cautiously of an incipient de-secularization. After some hesitation, Christian authors and church leaders also jumped on the bandwagon – they were only just getting used to the cautious and modest tone they had adopted in order to still be able/allowed to participate in the social debate. Religious leaders of various persuasions were now claiming respect for their respective gods and the peculiarities of their religion jointly but side by side (this was a novelty, not sufficiently weighed for its significance). Much less than before were they inclined to hermeneutically interpret their discourses as well. And even if the title of Charles Taylor’s masterpiece suggests otherwise, “A Secular Age” is an intelligent apology for Christianity, with the basic assumption being that secular thought has run up against its own limits.3 In all the zeal to respond to the return of God, many forgot that it was not so much that the traditionally familiar God (singular and Christian) had returned or retaliated, but that a plurality of gods were now operating on the same stage. Little account was also taken of the fact that the stage was now no longer one continent, but covered just about the entire globe and that the one attracting the most attention was a different one from the God we had come to know during the discussion of secularization. To lump Allah and the Christian God (and – why not – also add the Jewish God) together [“they are all three ‘religions of the Book’ aren’t they?!”] is very short-sighted, to say the least, given the fierce animosity and competition that existed between the adherents of these gods until recently, and still exists today, as anyone can ascertain who delves a little more than superficially into the matter. No petty details, it seems to me, when it comes to organize human society, living-together.

Blind spots when it comes to religion

So are we actually asking the question about the place of religion, of God in society, properly? Are our conceptual frameworks (Western Christian) tailored to the realities we want to understand and whose risky effects we want to control? Have we yet understood why the secularisation thesis has produced at least partly wrong predictions? And why does the thesis still work, even though it has been partially falsified? Western thought is even more mesmerised by it than before. After all, it cannot discuss religion without bringing up the opposition ‘secular-religious’. This no doubt has to do with the fact that we believe that our democratic rule of law is secular and that it is therefore threatened if ‘religion’ becomes widespread. Also still raging in the background is the tug-of-war between Enlightenment and Religion that has been going on for several centuries. Especially in Flanders, it seems as if the pillarisation has nestled itself into the mental frame with which the topic of religion and society is perceived. However: Whoever wants to fight a contemporary war – excusez le mot – with the weapons of the previous one, has lost the battle beforehand. Other times call for a different approach to similar problems, because history never repeats itself. Time periods do not even follow each other neatly, it does not even necessarily progress, let alone that people’s perceptions would adhere to historical, chronological or sociological divisions. God never went away in Europe either. Researchers mostly suffered from some persistent blind spots and tunnel vision. When they probed for religion, they only investigated Christianity, and even then they preferred to do so via easily classifiable items such as: beliefs, frequency of church attendance, number of baptisms, church loyalty, funeral rites, etc.

Many sociologists of religion were actually just sociologists of church.

This means that only one facet of one variant of what is for sale in the field of religion(s) has been mapped: the institutionalized Christian religion. And yes,ndeed, then the secularization thesis is correct, and in 2017 still is: engagement with the official form of faith as offered by the church has declined dramatically in Western Europe. Even after the return of God in the early twentieth century, that form of religion has not begun a spectacular remonte. Churches are still aging, it is only through imports that staffing levels can be maintained, etc. But the question is: do these figures actually say anything about the phenomenon of religion in our society? I fear not. Even the Christianity which one then thinks to have investigated is already so much more than one has measured with this question, and once you leave Western Europe the palette of Christianity becomes even more colorful. And those colorful varieties of the religion known to us are now generously present in our country through migration. Africa is in the classroom and immigrant churches are springing up like mushrooms. If you widen your view and consider religions other than Christian, all definitions of religion break down because of the diversity of realities you then encounter. The concept of god is already barely adequate once you cross the Indus. Ditto if you move towards Africa, where a concept like ‘spirit’ or ‘force’ has more claim to be the common denominator for the religious than the strongly delineated and person-like concept of ‘god’. Not to mention the importance, or non-importance, of a set of beliefs. That too turns out to be particularly relative once you leave the world of book religions. And even in that world, the fixation on the book and the set of beliefs is far less essential to many ordinary “believers” (to call them that) than theologians and church leaders want to make true. So if I want to know what religion means to people and what place it should, could or should have in society, I think it is very important that we question our Western concept of God (and associated concept of religion). It is not wrong, but it is limited. If we don’t broaden it, or don’t put other concepts alongside it, then chances are we won’t even get to see a large piece of the reality we want to talk about. It is also important to realize how much our Western view of religion has been shaped by the discussion around religion and secularization. We – in the West – almost automatically approach the issues from that opposition, even if we do not (no longer) subscribe to the secularization thesis itself. That in itself is not a bad thing, because the thesis is interesting and relevant, if only because it so clearly reveals our Western preoccupation with religion, and especially its one-sidedness. But if we want to analyze these questions, we must dare to start with the question. Framing the question determines the answer. That means calling a spade a spade, parler vrai. What matters is the reality of people living together in a concrete world, not the correct theorizing around that reality. If certain theories (religious or theological), however venerable, seem to interfere with the perception of reality then reality should take precedence, not theory. I am aware that this is a subjective factor of size, a matter of “sensing”: The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If everyone says that the headscarf is not a problem (not theologically, not culturally, not from the women’s movement, etc.), then that does not solve the question, it just poses it. Because the headscarf ìis a problem, the only question is: why exactly? Not only can a certain theory narrow our field of vision, but we can also sometimes be so impressed by venerable concepts (the “Enlightenment,” the “liberal constitutional state,” the “separation of church and state”) that we lose sight of the reality experienced and lived that lies beneath and behind it. Always returning to a correct theory of secular society with its rights of freedom, etc., is not enough. For the sake of humanity, we must dare to descend deeper into reality, to listen longer before we speak. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty expressed this ‘Anliegen’ better than anyone else when – in his analysis of the problematic relationship between communism and violence in 1946/7 – sought to go beyond the standard views. In an exemplary way, he did not succeed. His essay (humanisme et terreur) is a plea not to succumb to the fatigue that can overwhelm you when you have to analyze difficult and hotly contested questions of society. Many a thinker has succumbed to it, and – because he couldn’t figure it out – finally contented himself with solemnly formulating yet another set of platitudes disguised as “venerable truths” (vérités vénérables) in order to close the file. ( quote ). Merleau-Ponty thinks that’s desertion. If we want to salvage something of ‘humanity’ in times of crisis, we must get as close as possible to human experience itself in all its complexity, however much this sometimes presents us with unpleasant observations (e.g. that our actions have consequences we did not want, or that our truth suddenly becomes arbitrary in other circumstances), and tests our thinking to the limit. The dialectic in which a concrete society finds itself must never be stopped, even during contemplation. ‘To understand and assess a society, one must penetrate to its deepest core, to the way people connect with each other, to that on which it is built. This has to do with rights and duties, certainly, but equally with the way people work, love, live and die.’ 4. This is about political phenomena, but I couldn’t have phrased it better with regard to religious phenomena.

‘Religion’ is a secular concept

The term “religion” in the sense of a category designating a well-defined part of human reality begins to come into play precisely at the moment when the world begins to secularize in the primal meaning of that word: the church must allow certain areas of life that it had been in control to begin to withdraw from its authority, to emancipate. This coincidence is not a coincidence. “Religion” is a “modern” concept. It is an invention of the Enlightenment, or put slightly less crassly: The term religion denotes phenomena that are described (can be described) as a more or less independent and coherent phenomenon only in the period when Reason begins to do its analytical work. For once, I write Reason with a capital letter to indicate that I do not mean here but simply “reason. People have always used their reason, but broadly speaking, in the pre-modern era, reason was primarily a means to prove, explain, defend, understand, make plausible, etc., something that was already established outside or above reason. The finest formulation of this approach still comes from the medieval monk, Anselmus of Canterbury: Fides quaerens intellectum. From faith you put full effort into also understanding what you believe and why it is as you believe it. Even the way in which, at the beginning of what we now call the New Age, the intellect is used to re-examine the ancient sources, for most still assumes the service of reason to faith: philosophy and philology are “ancillae theologiae,” service to theology. However, the enthusiasm with which in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries all kinds of people threw themselves into all the new information that became available and started to read those texts (often new editions and translations of old texts) slowly tipped the scales in the other direction. One masters new and classical languages better and better, rereads old texts again, and diligently shares what one finds in the circles of the literate. The uniqueness of those ancient texts and what they say is better understood. As a result, the inherent message also gets a better chance to come to the fore. Renaissance and Reformation hang together. For a long time, people continue to believe that in terms of worldview, everything can remain the same. The new knowledge, it enriches, even if it criticizes. Daring to face the fact that all kinds of traditional insights do not have to be emended simply on the basis of the new information, but may have to be abandoned, or replaced by others, that is a realization that is slow to penetrate, and then the process of seeping through those insights to the level of lived life has yet to begin.

Read sacred texts as new

What characterizes and distinguishes the period from about 1600 onward from previous periods is that around that time people began to systematically look critically at all parts of reality, and not just by a few, nay, this became “mainstream” in the world of the literate. People like Isaac Casaubon and Justus Scaliger (to limit myself to two great names), with their philological historical-critical examination of classical texts (which they edited, annotated and commented on) opened the way for other ancient texts, including Christian source texts, to begin to be read in such an open way. They did so not so much to prove anything, but out of a kind of curiosity as to what those texts actually say, if you don’t rush into them with what you think it says or with what people have always said is meant. People are beginning to get a feel for letting texts speak for themselves, and especially within their own context, textually and historically. There is a realization that you do them more justice that way than keeping them within a system of meaning at all costs. For classical authors it was easy to publish, but when it came to the Bible this was not yet self-evident. The name of Baruch de Spinoza automatically springs to mind, but one can also think of Richard Simon, priest and linguist, excellent Hebraistst, who, in his Histoire critique du Vieux Testament, takes enormous strides toward a sober historical reading of the Bible, placing all the stories in their context, reaping, as it were, the harvest of the boom in philology that had taken place in the sixteenth century. Typically, he stops at philology and leaves theology intact. As a Roman Catholic, he can do the same. After all, unlike Protestant theologians, for him the Bible is only an illustration of eternal true doctrine, not place of discovery and touchstone. But in the meantime he is genuinely interested in the Jewish religion as such and – also important – not only as he finds it in the Bible but also as it developed further in Rabbinic Judaism up to his time. For example, he provides a French translation of the sixteenth-century writing Historia degli riti hebraici by the Venetian rabbi Leone Modena and thus introduces the world to Judaism as a living religion. In addition to this philological activity (focusing on classical antiquity and later the Bible itself), others also tried to represent and analyze as orderly as possible all the information flowing in from all corners of the earth about religious customs and practices. Again, the novelty after roughly 1600 is that in describing it, people got rid of the classical patterns of thought and prescribed schemes within which they were supposed to interpret all those phenomena.

Strange religions?

An example of an arrangement of all knowledge about other people’s religious customs, but still entirely within the classical frameworks, is Johann Böhme’s (Boemus) book entitled Mores, leges, et ritus omnium gentium (customs, laws and customs (or rites) of all peoples) from 1520.5 An example of an arrangement of all knowledge about other people’s religious customs, but still entirely within the classical frameworks, is Johann Böhme’s (Boemus) book titled Mores, leges, et ritus omnium gentium (customs, laws, and customs (or rites) of all peoples) from 1520.4 The work was reprinted 47 times during the sixteenth century, and translated into Italian, English, French, German, and Spanish. A bestseller, in other words. It was a description of the entire known world of the time, a kind of ethnographic compendium. Böhme had drawn his knowledge from classical sources, medieval reports and contemporary travel accounts, neatly classified according to the three continents: Africa, Asia and Europe. The tone and focus is strikingly different from, e.g., the fifteenth century Livres de Merveilles, where ripe and green, truth and falsehood, stand side by side without distinction and weighting: everything is good as long as it is spectacular. With Böhme a different wind blows, a rather sober spirit prevails. Sources must be reliable. Therefore, many medieval legends are not included and he does not yet venture into the stories from the New World. These are still too controversial in 1520, he thinks. When Böhme mentions non-Christian religious practices or beliefs in his book, he does so in a descriptive sense. His intellectual curiosity is genuine, and he may also express admiration for certain customs. For example, he explicitly appreciates how the “Saracens and Muslims” ruled very carefully and applied the law (sharia) scrupulously. But at the same time, he underlines that Mohammed is, of course, a false prophet, and that his followers are the mortal enemies of the Christian faith.Thus, while the depiction of other people’s religious customs becomes more descriptive, the appreciation of other people’s beliefs does not change. Anything that is not Christian is reprehensible. So, theologically, Böhme is still looking completely to the past, but he is already surprisingly objective, curious, with a sense of realism. That is why his book was for many years the ethnographic compendium of the entire world of the time.

Incomparably different it is, two centuries later, when we turn to the seven-volume work Cérémonies et coutumes religioses de tous les peuples du monde . This can rightly be called the first religious encyclopedia. The seven volumes appeared in Amsterdam between 1723 and 1737 (JF Bernard), illuminated with the still very popular engravings by Bernard Picart. 6 And if we were to indicate an end point of the new approach to religion that began to emerge from 1600, one could point to Charles Dupuis’ four-volume encyclopedic work, L’origine de tous les cultes, ou Religion Universelle (Paris, 1794). That this work appears just after the French Revolution put an end to the ancien régime may be called symbolic. The Christian god has fallen from his pedestal, and the short-lived cult of l’Être suprème, the Supreme Being, the supposed “universal religion” of the title, is also already over. The relationship between religion and society will never be the same as before, but neither is it particularly clear. In this confusion, the “old dispensation” perishes and a new relationship is sought. Then, in the nineteenth century, not only does the scientification of religious science take place, but a more literary and romantic interest emerges (Schiller, for example), in itself also an interesting phenomenon, but we will leave that aside here. Of greater importance for today’s understanding of religion is the rather descriptive rational and analytical approach that flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is also the background of the term “religion” in the legal texts that first sought to establish freedom of religion (Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson). Descartes, Locke, Leibniz and French philosophes such as Diderot and Voltaire all draw their material from such studies. Religion is addressed in them in a combination of ethnographic curiosity about multiplicity (exotism) and philosophical interest in the “universal natural religion” that is said to underlie that motley world of “cults,” the dual approach also contained in the title of Dupuis’ work.7 We readily recognize in this view the still very common idea that “all religions come down to essentially the same thing anyway, and so the differences don’t really matter. In my opinion, one of the misunderstandings that partly causes the impasse in which the debate about the place of religions in society has ended up. A typical Western framing, created by the focus of the Christian glasses one had on. Such a position takes away the multicolored nature of experience from religion and blocks an in-depth examination of the phenomena we conveniently subsume under “religion. Do a passionate pilgrim of the Madonna of Guadeloupe and a Reformed person singing psalm to whole notes actually ‘profoundly’ do the same thing? If you think so, at least don’t tell these people. And that leaves me within the Christian religion. Who says that chanting is actually a form of prayer? Only a Westerner who does not know what an Eastern religion “feels like” can say something so superficial. Also, it is questionable whether you should translate ‘salat’ as ‘prayer’.

Christianity: end of plurality

We are not the first to look for the right words to name complicated and seemingly new states of affairs in the field of religion in order to understand them. Nor is it the first time religion has caused tension in a society. A crucial moment was the transition from what we call the “Middle Ages” to the “New Age. No one knows when the Middle Ages began or ended, and no medievalist has ever experienced himself as such. Everyone lives in a New Age for his or her sense. It was nineteenth-century historians who coined the term to name the period between two – in their eyes – high points of Western European history: Classical Antiquity and its supposed Renaissance in the fifteenth century, first in Italy and thence in the next century spreading throughout Europe: the period of the Humanists. The era in between was automatically given the epithet “dark” because the other two periods were considered enlightened. This construction is extremely questionable. The terms say more about their creators than about the period they designate, but that is not important here. What does matter is that in ancient times, among the Greeks and Romans that is, it was no problem at all to speak of religions in plural, this in contrast to the Middle Ages, when there was only one religion (everything else was ‘error’, simply wrong, false).

gods and religions in plural

In ancient Greece, however, there were legions of gods. They argued among themselves, but as gods of different peoples they did not bite each other. In the Roman Empire they were preferably brought together in a pantheon. By means of comparative god research, people tried to limit the number of different deities by defining certain ‘types’, by which they could link particular manifestations to a basic type: love gods, fertility gods, war gods, protection gods, household gods, etc. So: Aphrodyte = Venus = Freya =… The gods that could be fit into the pantheon were allowed to be simply served by their worshippers, because they were regional, had a specific field of action, and were thus state-imposed. When the Romans spoke of “religion,” they envisioned a multitude of gods, all locally anchored and whose worship united certain peoples. Religion was an ethnic phenomenon in which plurality and diversity posed no problem, for claims were limited. In such a constellation, a religion claiming to be universal was more difficult. If such a god did not even allow itself to be placed in the place of the supreme god (Zeus, Jupiter) because it “did not tolerate other gods beside it,” Rome had a problem. So with the Jews, but they did not claim universal worship for their God. So that wasn’t too bad. The most successful variant of Judaism, Christianity, however, did universalize that claim and was promoted to state religion under Emperor Constantine. Who gained the most by that, the emperor or Christianity, I’ll leave aside here. The god of the Christians is just as “jealous” as that of the Jews, so the consequences for the other religions and their gods can be guessed. These now had to disappear. These were not interesting local variants of something similar, but forms of paganism, idolatry that had to be eradicated: submission and conversion was all that remained, starting with all Roman citizens, but if possible to be extended to the entire inhabited world, urbi et orbi. And there go the missionaries, departing from Rome to all ends of the (then known) world, or so the theory goes. De facto, they actually only went to the West and Northwest, and not even from Rome yet. That came later. And after France, which likes to call itself the “eldest daughter of the Church,” it was already a stretch to win parts of England. In fact, after the collapse of the Roman state structure, the future of Christianity hung by a thread. Had not the former prefect of Rome, and ambassador of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, Pope Gregory, vigorously seized not only spiritual but also political leadership, the story of Western Europe might have turned out very differently. He is not nicknamed “the Great” for nothing. After a difficult period, the tide turned. And look, now the missionaries from the North-Western ends (Ireland, England) are coming back to continental Europe to finish half the work of the first 500 years of Christianity: There the Frisians, the Germanic people enter the baptismal font. The story, their story, is well known: “754: Boniface killed at Dokkum,” we used to learn in school. It is the story of heroic missionaries, steadfast saints, martyrs for the faith, in which good and evil, God and idol (or devil) are clearly opposed and the service to God is clear and unambiguous. However noble or noble the “pagan culture” encountered may be, if one does not bow the knee to Christ, the cult must disappear. However, the already mentioned Gregory had worked out a very clever strategy to gild this bitter pill somewhat. In order to win the hearts of the people, missionaries were allowed to lavish holy water: they were allowed to purify pagan cult sites with consecrated water and turn the buildings there into churches. They may even try to “Christianize” local rites and gods, i.e. give them a Christian flavor. (Letter to Melitto) The philosophy was that then slowly but surely the purification from within would take place. Not bad judgment on the part of this pope. He had a feeling for the expressiveness of narrative constructions. As I said, he is not called “the Great” for nothing. It explains why the Christian religion is still such a wondrous amalgam of biblical doctrine, theological exaltations, and all sorts of wondrous customs, including pagan gods who live on in Christian saints, many even on their own consecrated ground (caves, mountains, springs) or by a healing tree (the oak between Zichem and Diest: Scherpenheuvel). This is why we look for eggs at Easter, why Christmas coincides with the Solstice, why we go on pilgrimage to Santiago, and why there is something as miraculous as Carnival. Jesus could never have invented it!

Christianity as a cultural phenomenon

And while in the South (Spain) and the East (Byzantine Empire) Christianity already has to cede ground to Islam again, by the end of the first millennium the “evangelization” of Western Europe begins to take root in people’s minds and hearts to such an extent that we can begin to speak of a Christian Europe, where “Christian” is thus much more syncretistic (a religious mishmash) than Christians themselves think. By the way, still I tell the story too template Western European. After all: the whole of Russia does not fall to Jesus until around the year 1000, and the Scandinavian and Baltic regions were ‘Christianized’ much later still, and – by now – the bishops of Rome and Constantinople had put each other under a spell (1054: the Western schism). To finish the story Lithuania was not officially Christianized until 1387, when it was conquered by the Poles. Christianity really took root there only when the struggle between Reformation and Roman Catholicism brought things to a head and political interests appeared to be involved. This eventful, far from straightforward history eventually led to the fact that in France there is a church on every colline inspirée and that many an ancient church was most likely built on the grave of, or around a relic of, a holy man or woman. And if one digs a little further, there is a good chance that behind a statue of Mary cum shrine one will also find some trace of a pre-Christian mother goddess. So the great achievements of Christianity, the medieval churches and the great pilgrimage routes and places of pilgrimage, have deeper roots in the popular devotion of the Western European Middle Ages (which was not particularly Christian at its core) than in the Holy Gospel itself. This becomes even more pressing when we realize that what we can still know of the Middle Ages comes, by definition, from the upper crust of society, which often coincided with ecclesiastical authority. What a peasant plowing the land thought when he heard the word “God” and what he experienced when he went to Mass, we have largely guessed. At least something, but most likely not that which the clergy desired. And then I should be even more precise: what the higher clergy wanted, because the ordinary village priests often only batted at it too. By the way, even when we talk about that upper clergy, we should not sneak in some colorful carbon copies of today’s bishops, cardinals and abbots. The church was strongly world-oriented: it did preach heaven and hell, but its focus was definitely on this earthly life. She also recruited accordingly.

Dionysius the Areopagite

Even the high points of Medieval art, the soaring cathedrals, with their play of light and color, the richness of the “mobilair,” the altarpieces and statues, which we now admire so much, all this is inconceivable without the mystical philosophy of being of a certain Dionysius the Areopagite, who wrote thick books on how the world of being is ordered in stages and how, through mystical meditation, one can ascend from the earthly bustle to the eternal God, who brilliantly explains how God makes the uncreated light visible in the natural play of light and colors, each with its own meaning, each with its own place in the eternal divine order. This Dionysius had great authority in Christendom. Logical, after all, he was a disciple of the apostle Paul. Is he not mentioned by name in the Bible? Isn’t he the one who turns to Paul after his sermon in Athens on the Areopagus? (Acts, chapter 17). So his words – that goes without saying – no doubt reflected Paul’s own thoughts on these matters, which his busy life had left him no time to write down. And hadn’t the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea written about him becoming the first bishop of Athens. Orthodoxy guaranteed! In reality, the author was a Syrian Christian of the early sixth century, versed in Neo-Platonic philosophy, a student of Plotinus. His real name is unknown. Well into the New Age, no one doubted his identity and thus his authority. Lorenzo Valla, who also debunked the donatio Constantini (legal basis of the pope’s secular power) as a pious fraud, did have his doubts about authorship but it was not until 1666 that the Protestant theologian Jean Daillé (Dallaeus) definitively proved that it was a pseudepigraphic work. Much earlier, of course, there had been Christians who found it strange that e.g. Augustine never mentions him, but such wonder rarely led to doubts about the validity of his worldview. After Augustine, he was the highest authority in the Western church. Thomas Aquinas (who brilliantly systematized the Church’s teachings in the 13th century) also refers to his writings very often, not to mention the mystics, Meister Eckhart, for example: These are not even conceivable without him. Philosophically, this means that Plato’s Greek worldview and philosophy of being (in a mystical variant) is married to Christ’s message on quasi apostolic authority. While this is already the case in the Western Church, it is even more true in the Eastern Church, where the entire church conception and liturgy is permeated by Greek being-thinking. Logical, because the Eastern Church is Greek. In short: Without the primal Greek mysticism of being of Plotinus, Christianized by his disciple whom today we scientifically correct call “pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite,” no iconostasis, no play of colors, no light and dark in the churches. And no “Lamb of God” in St. Bavo’s, because without Dionysius’ ordering of all that is (in heaven and earth) within one perfect hierarchical being, the Van Eyck brothers would never have been able to capture the very heterogeneous apocalyptic images of St. John the Seer in such a harmonious composition.

The Virgin Mother Mary

And what to think – finally – of the very emotional bond of the whole of Christendom, East and West, with Mary, the mother of Jesus. That too does not come from the Bible (to the regret of those who envy it) but it does permeate all of Christian history. Cut Mary out of that and you are left with a bloodless body. This has all been known for a long time. I am not writing anything new, but that this state of affairs should actually have implications for the self-definition of the Christian religion is often not seen, or people do not want to see it, let alone wish to think it through. And before you say, there you have the Protestant again who is snapping at the rich Roman Catholic faith, I can also extend this story to the Protestant variant of Christianity. For example, they too adopted the whole early church dogma (councils in 321-(Nicaea), 381 (Constantinople), 451 (Chalcedon)). In those decisions, the Jewish rabbi Yeshua of Nazareth is definitively deified, including the highly speculative and strongly anchored by Greek philosophy of being, which underlies it, also including the two-nature doctrine (Jesus is truly God, and truly man, and those natures are unseparated, undivided, unmixed and yet one and indivisible), and including the formula that God is one in essence but simultaneously three persons: Jesus would not have understood much of it, let alone have realized that it was about Himself. And even though Protestants always cry out loudly that they only follow the Bible, when Miguel Serveto expressed and published such thoughts in the sixteenth, the Papal Inquisitor and Protestant Reformer Calvin, in a joint venture, saw to it that he was quickly silenced: excommunicated as a heretic with the only punishment that fit: death. By the way: Even in Protestant circles, all sorts of “non-theological” factors lead to fierce church quarrels, such as the type and tempo of the songs to be sung in church (one reads Maarten ‘t Hart’s book on the Psalms rebellion in Maassluis) or the precise manner of baptismal administration, or the bickering over whether “the congregation is now being received before or after the return of Christ. Their real-life religion also draws from many more sources than they are aware of themselves. Religion, it is a difficult thing to grasp, always has been.

The battle for true religion

By the end of the Middle Ages, after nearly 1,000 years of Christian hegemony in the Latin West, the last few hundred years of which were actually (s.b.), it was clear to everyone that there was only one God, the Christian. All pre-Christian gods and religions had become memories, similar to the Greek and Roman, and the societas christiana was a fact, not invented, but grown. From this world fully steeped in Christianity (in that unconsciously syncretistic form outlined above) one looked at religions that one learned were practiced outside the Christian territories. The judgment was predetermined: it was certainly not a service to the one true God, but an attempt by the arch-enemy of God, the devil, to keep people away from the true Gospel by offering them a “surrogate. Two such perfidious religions were known by name and for real in Christendom: Judaism and Islam (then usually called Mohammedanism).


The former religion consisted of people who refused to see that Jesus was the promised Messiah (‘Christos’ in Greek), while their own scriptures, the Christians believed, proclaimed this loud and clear. Strange that the people who had written the Scriptures themselves, the Jews, and who read them in the original language day in and day out, saw things differently and could not be convinced. The devil had to be behind it. He blinded their eyes and darkened their minds. Hence the symbol for the synagogue in Christian art is a blindfolded woman. They were barely tolerated, and in fact not tolerated at all, in the Christian world. Their sheer existence, survival, (being there), was a constant criticism of the Church’s truth claim.


Islam was another matter. That was a dangerous competitor, an enemy. Muslims did not live in the Christian world like the Jews, but on its outskirts, sometimes advancing dangerously far into what was Christian territory: In 1492 they had just been driven out of Spain again, after being present for many centuries. Via the Balkans they were also rapidly approaching again at that time (Constantinople had fallen in 1452), and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they would appear twice before the gates of Vienna. Theologically, they were soon done with it: Muhammad was an imposter, pretending to be a prophet and twisting the holy scriptures. Thus he tried to deceive people. Devilish work, that was for sure. And the devil is the “father of lies,” surely everyone knows that. Nowadays we sometimes wax lyrical about periods of peaceful coexistence of the three scriptural religions, especially in Spain (“El Andalus”), but then we forget that these were exceptions that could only exist under an autocratic regime, and then also succumbed time and again under pressure from zealots, alternately Muslim and Christian. By the way: strategically allowing other religions because you can use the people and their knowledge and expertise from a position of power is not quite the same as “tolerance” in the modern sense of this word. Even Francis of Assisi’s legendary visit to the sultan in 1219 is read in its historical context. The “Friars Minor” went as sheep in the midst of wolves to preach Christ to the unbelievers (so the oldest account literally says). The biography of Bonaventure even explicitly introduces this visit as an attempt by Francis to acquire ‘martyrdom’8 But this aside.

Exotic religions

At the edge of the world – in the Far East, in other words – we knew from classical sources and, since Marco Polo, also from first-hand experience, there were peoples who had all kinds of strange customs and rituals, but who also had a high form of civilization. The legends that circulated about this world make it clear that there was little real knowledge in the end. They paint an exotic, curious picture, with traits of an ethnographic freak show. One reads Umberto Eco’s Baudolino or views the tympanum in Vézélay for more details. They also populate world maps, such as Pierre Desceliers’ famous Mappa Mundi  from 1550, and this well into the New Age. These peoples with their rituals were fringe phenomena, just as strange as the biblical peoples with their Baals and Astartes (Canaanite fertility gods) that the Old Testament prophets raged against. One thing was certain: One day all nations would recognize Christ as Lord, if not by conversio (conversion) then by subversio (submission). In short: there is only one religion on earth worthy of the name, and that is Christianity. And if one is in a country where that religion is practiced, one is in the right place..

Heretics: the enemy within

Christianity is not the true religion (as if there were others), it is simply the only religion, all the rest is deception and/or devil’s work, idolatry. Vera religio is an internal Christian qualifier. It indicates to serve God truly, sincerely, from within. So the term “religio” indicates the service obligated to God, which consists in prayers, rituals, but which is also in the ordering of life. The king is there “by the grace of God” and the laws are not of men but of the Lord. Nature, too, is created by this God. As early as the Middle Ages, Christian thinkers and church jurists incorporated the classical Roman notion of the “natural law” into their theology. That that law could be none other than the divine goes without saying. The sometimes fierce disputes over whether the church, in interpreting and practicing that service to God, got it absolutely right were not debates between religions or denominations, but a struggle for orthodoxy and orthopraxy (right doctrine and right living) within the one religion. Losers were disqualified as heretics and usually suppressed rather efficiently with the help of secular government. That God would be served in a wrong way (falsa religio) was unacceptable. Behind heresies is the devil and he must be fought with fire and sword. After all, he constantly hijacks the human faculty to serve God and puts it to his own use. The devil is never original, he cannot create anything himself, he can only imitate, imitate God. He is the archplagiarist. Within the Christian world he tries this through heretical movements. In these, the devil imitates the “church” while falsifying pieces of it. The devil is God’s monkey. He can falsify doctrines, parody ceremonies and rituals, pervert the walk of life (ethics) and thus disturb the entire Church order. The Cathars even offered a complete alternative with their “counter-church” and therefore had to be completely eradicated. Doctrinal heresies were most easily neutralized: burning the writings and the main heretics sufficed. Thus, before the printing press enabled the rapid and widespread dissemination of thought, heresy was very often a local phenomenon. Moreover, the line between heresy and legitimate protest was sometimes wafer-thin, especially since the last word had not yet been spoken about many things in the Church and Rome could not control everything. That is why Pietro Valdes, who traveled around with the poor of Lyon in pairs, preaching the Gospel, living in poverty, could be condemned as a heretic, while his spiritual twin brother Francis of Assisi, who did much the same thing, could be canonized, albeit also after narrowly escaping heretical condemnation. Ditto for doctrinal heresies: Thomas Aquinas had a pretty hard time during his lifetime staying “within the framework” of the time, especially since he gave the pagan philosopher Aristotle such a generous place within his thinking. He had yet to be defended by his widely respected teacher, Albert the Great, against charges of heresy, while a few centuries later his thinking became dominant and his “system,” Thomism, was quasi canonized when the Roman Catholic Church wanted to clarify against the chaos of Protestants (Council of Trent). From heretic to doctor ecclesiae.

Four kinds of religion

So the religious world was not a world without strife, nor was Christianity by any means a monolithic uniform block, but in itself it was uncluttered at the core of the conception of faith. You had only two options: you served God correctly, then you were a Christian. You served God wrong, then you were either a Jew, or a Muslim, or an idolater. And behind these last three was the devil. There were no other options. Irreligiosity was not an option, not because it was not allowed, but simply because it was unthinkable, inconceivable. One could not serve God nay. That was an ontological impossibility. An atheist was not a theoretical denier of God, but a practical one: he lived as if God did not exist when, of course, He did. His portrait is already sketched in the Book of Psalms. There he is called a “fool. Dominant until well into the New Age, then, was the medieval division of all religious phenomena into four groups: Christians, Jews, Muslims and idolatrous pagans. The last category was the residual group, which included everything that did not belong in one of the first categories. People really only knew this category by hearsay. They appeared in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. They served “idols. These could be male and female (Baal and Astarte). They made images and worshipped and sacrificed to them. What was in the Bible was confirmed in the writings of classical antiquity, reading about similar customs, but around Greek and Roman gods. This was all paganism, idolatry. There is only one God, the Christian. So there are no other religions with which to live finely, no, there is idolatry and it must be eradicated. Example stories abound – again – in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament: Think of the prophet Elijah, who challenges the priests of Baal, defeats them and then kills them with his own hands. Also in the Christian tradition itself were numerous stories of saints, the greatest of which were those who had purged Europe of idolatry: In our area: Amandus, Willibrord, Boniface. Stories about the cutting down of idol statues and the destruction of cult objects were part of every storyteller’s standard material. Numerous were the martyrs and especially martyrs whose life story (death story) was constructed as a heroic refusal of worshipping some pagan god, either Roman or of later European cut. The more exotic the better!

Religion Across the Ocean (Columbus)

And then Christoforo Colombo (Columbus) crossed the ocean and discovered, among many other things, a world of religious manifestations that would put heavy pressure on standard frames of thought. It is 1492, he sets foot on an island – which he thinks is the “West Indies” – and immediately claims it for the only Lord who matters in his world: Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind: San Salvador. On that (Caribbean) island live people with whom something peculiar is going on. In his diary and letters, Columbus describes it in detail. The people walk around naked, or pretty much so, and without any shame. They are peaceful, seem to know no weapons, are good-natured and extremely helpful. And – quite remarkably – they have “no religion, nor idols” (in the original it says “secta” and “idolatras” – diary, Oct. 12, 1492). So, according to him, they should be easily won over to Christianity. He repeats this observation several times later, adding that as far as he can tell – which is difficult because he does not speak the language, so he has to rely on their behavior – they also have “no sense of evil. He then sees this confirmed with the six “Indians” he takes with him on his ship to Europe. Of their own accord they never say a prayer or anything of the sort, while they neatly join in the Ave Maria and the Salve Regina they have been taught during the ship’s liturgy, with their hands raised to heaven as they should. Afterwards, they even strike a cross. Because they are “quick-witted,” friendly priests who would learn their language would have no problem “bringing them into the Church” (diary entries between Oct. 12 and Nov. 12, 1492).

These are telling phrases, but easily misunderstood. By “having no religion,” Columbus does not mean that they are atheists or pure humanists – those are anachronisms – but that they are uncategorizable in terms of religion. Columbus is a medievalist. So he knows the four options, which we described above: Christian, Jew, Muslim or idolater. Judging by their behavior, however, these people do not seem to fit into any of these four boxes. They are hors category in matters of religion. Without saying it emphatically, Columbus suggests by the terms he uses in his description that these people may well be hors category themselves.

When it was later discovered that Columbus had stumbled upon an as yet unknown and very large continent, speculation began: Who did these people really descend from? Surely it must be from one of Noah’s sons: Shem, Cham or Japhet. And: How did they get there? First, one assumes – like Columbus – that Asia and North America are actually more or less contiguous (as can still be seen on world maps well into the sixteenth century, e.g. Gastaldi (1546, still often served as the basis for later maps). On the famous Mercator-Ortelius map (1569/1570) that connection has disappeared.  Here are the two maps underneath each other. But if there is no land connection, perhaps they were descendants of the inhabitants of the mythical sunken island that gave the Atlantic its name? Or would they be the descendants of the ten tribes of Israel who were led into exile and from whom nothing has been heard since? Or could Saint Brandaan have something to do with it, he,who once sailed in that direction as the legend tells us? Or could they be descendants of the Carthaginians who, according to Aristotle, once sailed out of the western sea? Or – even more spectacular – could they perhaps be direct descendants of Adam and Eve, who would have lived there even before the flood and thus would not have perished during the great flood? In addition to these more or less innocent fantasies about their origins, there were also less innocent speculations about their “being. Aristotle had written (Politica) that there is a category of people who are ‘naturally’ predisposed to serve other people. This theory naturally came to fit perfectly into the stall of the colonizers who needed workmen, slaves. It therefore soon caused a furor and led to the famous debates at the University of Salamanca in the mid-sixteenth century, where Spanish theologians confronted Bartolomeus de las Casas, among others, who pleaded the cause of the “Indians” and insisted that they were ordinary and therefore free people. As an aside, both the Spanish crown and the Vatican had actually settled the matter long before, when they officially accepted the new territories as belonging to the Spanish Kingdom and catalogued the inhabitants as “subjects of the Spanish crown. For Columbus, too, this was not at all in dispute. From his diaries and letters it is evident that they were ordinary people, a little childish and with a very basic culture, but certainly not backward. For our subject, we are particularly interested in the way in which people began to catalog the religion (or rather the non-religion) of the New World citizens and, in particular, what name they put on their concrete human customs and rituals. If not ‘religious’…  Nomina omina sunt .

To worship [idols] is human

Because the behavior of the residents of Guanahani (now commonly referred to as the ‘Taino’) did not seem to fit into any of the four known categories of religion, this group of people was particularly interesting. Apparently the devil had no control over them, yet. They were still an almost blank slate. The natural religiosity created by God – and it had to be there, they were convinced – had apparently not yet gone off the rails, that is, had not yet been hijacked by Satan. People lived – as Columbus suggests in his language – almost as God intended. Theologians would say that they still lived according to ‘natural law’: peaceful, friendly and vegetarian. In terms of missionary work, this would pose no problems, because Christian doctrine was – still according to all theologians in the fifteenth century – seamlesslyaligned with man’s nature. It was like nature and super-nature: foundation and extension. Indeed, the breach in it caused by Adam’s Fall had been undone by Christ. He had restored the original unity that had been lost. So it was just a matter of explaining things a little and they would be led right into the church, piece of cake. As Columbus’ account shows, they had already begun to teach them the basic prayers, externally, as the linguistic communication had yet to take off. Whether Columbus, or the editor, deliberately described the mores of the Guanahani in these terms to appease his patron and financier is another matter, but does not change what we are concerned with: European Christians found these stories fascinating and the sketch of an almost intact natural religion particularly credible. The stories also spread quickly across Europe, especially when an unauthorized version of Columbus’ letter to the king was translated and printed in Latin. A positive start, then.

homo naturaliter religiosus

The most interesting theory was the one implicit in Columbus’ observation: these people are religiously a case apart and could be considered people on whom “original sin” has no hold. Similarly, the comments that they were naked, had no shame, and “had no knowledge of evil” suggest a paradisiacal condition (the terms come from the second creation story, Genesis 2). Because theology ultimately does not allow that any human being would have escaped the Fall, this speculation could not be allowed to progress in a literal sense. But the idea that people could in principle live in a very natural way and then make no gross mistakes in terms of religion (in the literal sense: service to God) was widespread. There must – it was believed – be something like a natural religiosity, planted by God in every human being. Church fathers spoke of a “semen religionis” (a religious seed), in our time they would speak of a religion gene. The thought, by the way, is not so strange. A consensus is growing among cognitive scientists and evolutionary biologists that man is indeed more predisposed (hard-wired) to have an imaginative and animated worldview than a coolly rational mechanical one. His brain is like that, they say. Evolutionary biologist Pascal Boyer and cognitive scientist Justin Barrett have even labeled this: Human perception of the world is colored by HADD (hyperactive agency detection device), which means that humans will always tend to attribute what happens around them to an “agent” (an acting being, an “actor”) rather than take it for granted. ‘What’s rustling in the bushes over there?’ ‘It wouldn’t be a predator…’. Better 100x startled and false alarm, than 1x ignored and chewed up. Add to this man’s psychic need to be able to give a place to what is happening (why? to what end? what is its meaning?) and our instinctive preference for causal explanations that sound credible (not because we understand and judge the arguments, but simply because of the emotive, reassuring and satisfying power of the word ‘therefore’), and religion is not far off. For example, we are more likely to believe that nature is an animated nexus than to conceive of the world as a product of abstract natural laws. Just ask children. We impute intentions and “have our suspicions that way,” we give meaning to (apparently) random events, even when we do not participate in an institutional faith community. We are not nearly as rational as we believe and see “actors” at work everywhere. And since big events require big explanations, something superhuman as an actor is very obvious. From this view, the various religions, or rather the motley world of religiosity, are simply variations in operating systems (software), all using the same hardware (our brain). Of course, the medieval people did not know all this, but in another sense they did. They were people with eyes in their heads and had a surprisingly large dose of common sense. They observed in themselves and others that they were like that. And as the world grew larger (the first “globalization” took place between 1500 and 1600) they soon determined that actually all peoples had something to do with God (or spirits, or superhuman forces, or supernatural influences) in one way or another. And the more developed a culture was, they also noted, the more elaborate often the cult. [The exception to the rule will be discussed later: China] Not only the peoples of classical antiquity or biblical times, but actually all “developed peoples” made of this homage to the gods a whole spectacle, with rituals, feasts, statues, temples, sacrifices. Because Christ was missing in that, the verdict was quick: ‘sects’, category 4, idolaters. So submit and convert, only the order could be disputed. And this, incidentally, was the subject of fierce dispute. What was certain was that the more extensive the religion, the harder the nut is to crack. After all, a fully developed idolatry meant that the devil had already gained quite a foothold.

And – indeed – when Columbus and in his footsteps others penetrated further into the areas of the American mainland and encountered highly developed cultures (Incas, Mayans, Aztecs), the memory of the simple and pure inhabitants of Guahanani was soon forgotten and the question changed. It was no longer about a “minimal natural religion” to which Christianity could easily connect, but about manifest forms of idolatry (“sectas,” category 4, idolaters). Yet the interpretation of what was observed turned out to be more complicated than first thought. The rituals were so different from what people knew, and written sources were not there to explain them. Thus, new questions arose: Were certain libations offered during mass gatherings a sign of idolatry or simply a social ritual? Were the buildings in which people gathered that did not contain obvious images of gods now pagan temples or public buildings? What about the absence of monogamous marriage, free or strange sexual behavior, gender roles, dress? And the other social classes, absence of private property, things that were believed to be part of “natural law”? How do you distinguish, so that became the question, cult from culture? What does and does not belong to idolatry? That strange ball game,9 people played in delineated squares, where sometimes rituals took place and sometimes not, what was that all about, really? Discussions ran high, especially when the first missionaries emerged as would-be ethnologists and began to publish more detailed descriptions. They learned the language, researched the narratives behind the rituals, tried to reconstruct the worldview of the Amerindians (as they are called today), obviously with the intention of converting these “pagans” all the better, but in the meantime genuine interest was growing. Some even began to sympathize with the people and tried all the more diligently to understand them. A few came to surprisingly nuanced judgments. But this required criteria and, above all, a definition of religion, in the literal sense: demarcation, delimitation: Where does religion begin and where does it end? Where does cult end and culture begin? Not an easy question, not then, not now, not ever, because the two are one.

Comparing religions

Yet people wanted to make a distinction. Since one could not fall back on manuals and ready-made church decrees, one had to work “by analogy. To do this, they appealed to the descriptions of strange religious behavior, category “idolatry,” that were available. So, with more than ordinary interest, one began to study again the religions of the “Old World. At least then one had comparative material, which had already been thought about by the Church and had also already been the subject of value judgments in relation to real faith. One compared rituals of Aztecs with what one knew from the Bible and classical authors (e.g. Herodotus) of the ancient Canaanite, Egyptian, Babylonian or Persian religion. Or with Roman and Greek rituals and myths. Indeed, the sacrificial practices encountered were reminiscent of the religion as known from the Old Testament, both of Israel and the surrounding peoples. Although this research, too, was aimed at better missioning, here we witness the birth of comparative religious science and ethnography (Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man. The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology, 1982). That the “devil was the monkey of God” was convenient in a sense, because it also allowed one to draw parallels with Christian practices without diffusing the latter. They were simply cunning manipulations of the devil, to use to his advantage the religious impulse inherent in man. Thus one encountered purification rituals in which the closest comparison seemed to be that with the Christian baptismal ritual. THAT people worshipped idols and practiced all sorts of strange rituals became, through this vision, an observation with two sides. It was wrong, of course, and that error must be “corrected,” for one must not give the devil a foot. But on the other hand, it was also to be appreciated. People who had had to live without Christian revelation could not really help but wander as well. So their reverence for the divine was not in itself wrong, it was merely misdirected. That they threw themselves so zealously into all kinds of rituals was in se a good thing. They were God-fearing, but – unfortunately – misguided. You couldn’t really blame them for that. They didn’t know any better, because they couldn’t know any better. Actually they were as innocent as all those other nations before Christ had appeared on earth and the 12 apostles had gone out into the world. Yes actually they were – however much they did wrong and sometimes even horrible things (child sacrifices) – victims rather than perpetrators. The devil had them in his power. They had to be set free, enlightened by the proclamation of the gospel. The famous lawyer of the Amerindians, Bartolomeus de las Casas, did not tire of hammering on this anvil, so much so that he co-founded the image of the “noble savage,” especially when he denounced the contrast with the barbaric methods of the colonizers: “Idolas colere humanum est” is the bottomline. Not only erring is human, worshipping idols is too. So the Amerindians cannot be blamed for getting it wrong.

José de Acosta: Historia natural y moral

The great synthesis that the Jesuit José de Acosta (1540-1600) published at the end of the sixteenth century was written entirely with this framing of the issue. He applied it without any hesitation to everything that had been discovered in the New World. For years he had lived and worked in Peru and Mexico and finally returned to Spain to advise Philip II on his policy towards the New World. As rector of the University of Salamanca, he published his life’s work: a six-volume Historia natural y moral de las Indias , first published in Seville in 1590. The first two volumes were edited in Latin, the others appeared only in Castillian. They were soon translated into all European languages, a Fundgrube for everyone who was interested in what really happened to all those Indian stories that were heard and read left and right. And given the success of his books, many people were interested. Please note, this is not a theological book. He had already written and published that while he was still a missionary. This is a proto-scientific book in which he describes, contextualizes and explains just about everything that has been discovered there on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Time-Life, or National Geographic, anno 1600. The subtitle leaves nothing to be desired in terms of clarity: I quote, just for fun, the original Dutch translation of it (Enkhuizen, 1598): Historie naturael ende morael van de Westersche Indiën: waer inne ghehandelt wordt van de merckelijste dinghen des hemels, elements, metalen, planten ende ghedierten van dien: als oock de manieren, ceremoniën, wetten, regeeringen en oorloghen der Indianen. title page It is not until the fifth book that the religious issues are addressed. Previously, he had already talked extensively about the rich vegetation, animal species unknown in Eurasia, about climatic differences, including observations about the habitability of the tropical zones (contra-Aristotle), and other matters such as the occurrence of altitude sickness(He himself had trekked through the Andes). He sought explanations for everything, within the framework of his time, of course, but consistently and patiently, based on observation, and if possible, confirmed by his own experience or others’ reliable input. For example, he suspected that after the Flood, various large animal species, through a combination of “natural instinct” and “divine providence,” wandered out to different parts of the earth, ending up in regions where they could thrive and reproduce just fine. In other regions, they would then have died out over time because they could not adapt (Book IV). You couldn’t get much closer to the selection principle of survival of the fittest in the sixteenth century. When he talks about the origins of the original inhabitants of the New World, he resolutely relegates the theories about Atlantis, Carthage and the lost tribes of Israel to the realm of fantasy. He suggests that most likely there must have been a connection via the polar regions that is “unknown at present, since the North Pole has not yet been found. He suspects that the migration from one continent to another occurred spontaneously, spread over several 1000s of years. This view of the ‘palaeo-Indians’ and the migration of hunter-families from Eurasia to North America is still the most common..

The Rites of the ‘Indians’

In Book V, Acosta then describes the ‘superstitions, rites, idolatries and sacrificial practices of the Indians’. The epigraph of the first chapter immediately makes it clear that his approach is the classic one: Que la causa de la idolatría ha sido la soberbia y envidia del demonio (that the cause of idolatry is pride, and the devil’s envy). Acosta therefore fully supports the hypothesis that all idolatry is not the fault of the people but must be blamed on the devil. The paradoxical conclusion immediately follows: Indians are very preoccupied with idolatry, superstition and other ritual. Ergo: Indians are a deeply religious people. It’s just a shame that they shape and apply that religious energy incorrectly. And even if some of the rites he describes appear to us as cruel and barbaric, they should not be used against the Indians. These rituals are no worse than what we already know from the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. Then follow long passages of ‘comparative religious studies’, in which not only the Greco-Roman gods, but also the Egyptian gods are discussed: Isis, Osiris, Amon, etc. Christian rituals, customs and institutions are also regularly included in the comparison. For example, he finds forms of circumcision (Inca princes), baptism-like rituals, monastery-like foundations (for men and women), which he immediately compares with the Buddhist monasteries he had heard about from his colleagues in the Far East, an imitation of communion. and even an imitation of the feast of Corpus Christi (ch. 24), all perversions of the devil, the ‘father of lies’, who thus steals God’s honor, but also proof that the source of religiosity is always the same. He always concludes such comparisons with an argumentative genre: ‘What they could not yet see in their darkness is visible in full glory in the rites of the holy Church’.

The underlying view is the classic medieval one, but it is systematically applied to the entire phenomenon of ‘religion’. The basic view is that there is a kind of general human nature in which there is a religious component. This was created by God and perverted by sin (the devil). Fortunately, Christ came and restored that nature. As a result, man can come into his own again and, through brokenness, even become a more radiant person than ever before. Nature is completed in glory. Acosta and many of his colleagues combine this with the way in which Christians have valued both Biblical Judaism and the philosophy of classical antiquity as a stage of preparation for Christianity. Thus the Old Testament was read (and some still do) as a long announcement of and preparation for the revelation of Jesus Christ (the Jewish ‘Messiah’) in the New Testament. Jewish rituals, especially the sacrificial cult, are then a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice. The gospel is the ‘fulfillment’ of the Jewish law, which is therefore immediately passé in the experience of many, even though Jesus expressis verbis says the opposite in the gospel. Once Christianity settles, Judaism is relegated to an antiquarian religion. It canbe thanked for services rendered. Der Mohr hat seine Schuldigkeit getan, der Mohr kann gehen.10 For Christians, the Old Testament stories are then only material to illustrate the Christian message, nothing more. Eusebius of Caesarea, the court theologian of Emperor Constantine, does something similar with Greco-Roman culture. Despite all the faults the Greeks and Romans had, he argues, their culture is a praeparatio evangelica. This then referred preferably to moral-philosophical developments and political ingenuity, but it could be extended to elements of their religion if necessary. The Greek and Roman myths and sagas, for example, could be used as catechetical material, and the beloved Stoic philosophers could serve to develop Christian morality. So one did not have to throw everything overboard when becoming a Christian. Much of the culture and elements of the cult were incorporated into the Christian narrative. If only they were “purified” then it was a stepping stone to life in the service of the true God. It should come as no surprise, then, that in much Christian reading one sees David standing next to Orpheus when it comes to music and Ovid’s Metamorphoses regularly pop up in moralizing Christian sermons.

Natural religion?

Well, says Acosta, again echoing the voice of many of the missionaries active in the New World in the sixteenth century: if this was true of those old cultures, why not also of these new cultures?So in his assessment of the “superstitions, rites, idolatry, sacrifices,” he brings in as many nuances as possible. Not only does he note a great willingness among the Incas to acknowledge the idea that there is a “supreme God,” even if it remains difficult to convince them of the existence of only one God and especially to separate it from the sun, but all will be well if we continue our missionary effort diligently and kindly. The focus, according to Acosta, should not be on eradication, destruction of culture and cult, but on education, instruction and purification. Show that devil is responsible for the perversion, peel the pure content from the form, and one does get the “Indians” along, into the worldwide community of the Catholic Church. They will experience it as a fulfillment. In fact, he is plainly positive about most of the cultural and social institutions of the “Indians. In the 6th book, for example, he shows that many social customs and political forms of organization are not primitive, or inhuman. On the contrary. They are clever forms of government. He advises Philip II, who is now also “their monarch,” to govern the new peoples as much as possible through the existing institutions and according to their own rules, of course insofar as they do not clash with ecclesiastical laws.

Acosta does not go as far as Garcilaso de la Vega who in 1609 argued that the Inca religion was actually a form of the natural religion, not tainted by devilish manipulation, but pure and human, and which therefore did not need to be abolished at all. According to him, the “idols” many missionaries spoke of were not actually idols in the Christian sense, but rather “manifestations of the divine” for which the European language has no proper word. De la Vega, it will not surprise you, was a mestizo: the son of a Spanish father and an Inca mother. Even De Las Casas had suggested in the previous century that the Incas did not actually have a concept for God that really corresponds to the Christian concept of God. Here we hear the intuition that has become so important in modern comparative religious studies, namely, that religions must be judged on their own mérites and thus one must be enormously careful to apply stories, perceptions, terms of one religion to another. A good comparative religion scholar realizes that when it comes down to it, the comparison he has made is probably ultimately invalid. For the – extinct – Middle American religions, researchers today point out that the “mezi” (the term the missionaries usually translated as (af)idols) rather depict “spirits of deceased ancestors” that they carried around in processions as “puppets,” thus more similar to “our” statues of saints than statues of gods. But this too is only a comparison, and thus irrevocably flawed.

To be clear: by no means all New World missionaries agreed with Acosta. On the contrary: In 1991, for example, one found a memorandum printed in Bolivia to King Philip II by a certain Bartolomeus Alvarez, De las costumbras y conversion de los Indias del Peru, in which this missionary urged the king to outsource the conversion of the Indians to the Inquisition. The tone of this writing is militantly anti-Indian. Philip II may not have listened to Alvarez, but the tenor of the Spanish mission, even without the Inquisition, was so focused on the eradication of “idolatry” (the devilish work that was assumed to underlie the entire superstructure) that with the “cult” they also destroyed the “culture. Harsh exploitation and imported germs did the rest. The ‘natural religiosity’ so highly regarded turned out to be a de facto empty shell. What remains of the culture is a couleur locale of an imposed culture, a coloring that has often been preserved in spite of rather than thanks to the church. This does not alter the fact that some Spanish missionaries did come to love the people and their culture while they were eradicating it. This is how it goes when representatives of one culture meet people who have a really different culture. People don’t understand each other and yet they want to. And all a well-meaning person can do then is to start with that which seems familiar, to look for similarities, points of contact, and then “think he understands. Imagine if the Taino of yore had sailed to today’s Europe and attended a soccer game. How would they be expected to give head and tail to that? Surely only from their sacred ball game. One would see a world of rituals, community hymn-singing, huge emotions and believe one was witnessing a religious ritual. One can only begin to get acquainted (de-familiarize) by seeing where one is similar. Otherwise, one remains as strangers to each other and there is no beginning. After an initial acquaintance, one can find out through sustained attention that things are “just different” from what one thought. But if the gap is wide and unequal power relations are at play, there is a real danger that the other has already been equalized in the meantime, which, in the case of “being essentially different,” amounts to the same thing as destruction.

Despite everything, what is to be admired in the attempt of some of these theologian-missionaries is that, in their own way, they have made an attempt to “understand the other. The comparison of religious phenomena, however imperfect, provided an opportunity, an entry point, to do so. It turned out to be a long road with many pitfalls, but it was passable. The postulation of a “universal natural religiosity” as a basis, seemed sufficiently supportable for the effort to thrive and bear fruit. An unexpected effect was that by limiting the comparison not only to ‘idolatries’ among themselves (category 4), but also including the other categories, including one’s own religious practices, one also began to see one’s own religion with the eyes of an outsider. In other words, one took a first step toward a “self-understanding of Christianity as a religion in the midst of other religions. The end result: with the eradication of the “pagan elements” in the cult, the culture also perished – while striving to spare it as much as possible – is a fact that is still not sufficiently thought through in the reflection on the phenomenon of religion. Indeed, it also applies to religions rooted in other cultures that are trying to take root here. Culture shock is never neutral, because at the same time it is a “questioning” of lived religion. It also applies to the receiving end: the cultural peculiarities of Western European countries are not neutral or interchangeable, but religiously charged, even for those who do not follow an official religion. This is precisely what makes integration so difficult.

Culture or religion? (China)

Another important step in mapping hard-to-place phenomena is taken by the Jesuits who were active in the Far East. They were confronted with a form of “alterity” they had not actually thought possible. Following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, they had arrived in China and found there a society in which a “sect” was dominant that did not explicitly engage in religious activities. Unlike the Taino of Guahanani, whose life was “close to nature” (with little cultural and cultural superstructure), this was a highly developed, hyper-complex and highly ritualized culture. The Jesuits who went on site, Matteo Ricci and his five colleagues, had first presented themselves as “Western monks. They thought that Chinese culture was akin to Buddhist culture and believed they were thus gaining credibility and respectability. However, they soon discovered that the Confucianism prevailing among the elite was quite different. Like good Jesuits, they adapted, learned Chinese, lived with the Chinese (food, drink, clothing) and at court behaved like Western Mandarins. With success. They had the ear of the emperor. But as they “accommodated” themselves, respect for Chinese culture, politics and morality also grew. One thing they did not fully understand, however, was what about the religion of these Chinese? Buddhism and Daoism they thought they could classify in category 3, i.e. by analogy with Islam: not idolatry, but wrong. So they compared the position of Buddha and Lao Tze to that of Muhammad within Islam: venerable but not divine: teacher, prophet. That in popular religion the line between veneration and worship was erased, especially in rituals around the Buddha and his statues, did not escape them, but they were not really interested in that. That was just the transition from category 3, to category 4: idolatry. What fascinated them was that the political elite seemed to be far away from that. Indeed, they seemed to have no religion at all. They belonged to the “sect” of Confucianism, in which Confucius was surrounded with great honor, but in which you certainly could not speak of a religious cult. Also, in Confucius’ mind, God himself did not play a major role. Certainly not a person-like God, rather general: “the divine” as a kind of term for that which transcends us. Actually, Confucius was more like a scholar, a philosopher, a sage, than a cleric. Accordingly, the first translation of Confucius’ Conversations (‘Analecta’) was therefore published with the telling title: “ Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, sive scientia Sinensis. ” (Confucius the Philosopher of China, or Chinese Knowledge). 11 Thus, in Confucius’ statements, although “the divine” is assumed in a general sense, it is not the object of thought, nor does it – substantially – influence thought. Confucius talks about human action: political, social with strong moral overtones. This meant, according to Ricci and his colleagues, that the Chinese elite therefore could not actually be considered “idolaters. If they had rites at all, or offered sacrifices to the “heavenly spirits,” it had to be considered a “civil activity. Theologically, the Jesuits justified themselves by referring to the concept of ‘religio civilis’ found among the Romans (Varro – three types of religion). In it they make no statement about deity, but recommend a moral code for the people, though grounded in very general religious principles, but elaborated by purely human means and with a social purpose. Well, if Seneca, the Roman stoic, could be venerated in the Christian West, why could not Confucius also be accorded this honor? They had counted beyond the worth, however. Their fellow missionaries of the order of Dominicans assessed Chinese culture and Confucianism much more negatively. They did acknowledge that Confucianism was strongly “diesseitig,” but that, in their view, could not disguise the fact that this worldview was grounded in an erroneous conception of God and thus fundamentally flawed. Christ was missing, and surely that was no détail. To simply assume that Christian doctrine could be placed as a superstructure on the foundation of Confucianism went too far for them. One may “accommodate” oneself to people, but not flirt with idolatry. The controversy, known as the Querelle des Rites reached its peak in 1700, when the theological faculty of the Sorbonne condemned the efforts of the Jesuits, followed in it by Rome. As is often the case in history, losing a battle does not mean losing the war. Partly because of their knowledge of languages, the Jesuits had such an advantage, not to say a monopoly on everything to do with Chinese culture, that they became the conduit for Chinese culture for interested Westerners well into the nineteenth century. Their sinophilia also proved contagious, but what is more: their attempt to understand Chinese culture (including its wealth of ritual and ceremonial elements) as a “creation of man” that is valid precisely because it does not refer to a deity unacceptable to Christians, will also prove groundbreaking. With this, secularity has crept into the discussion about religion, and this time not in the sense of “the church losing control over a domain that actually belongs to it” (the primal meaning of the word “secularization”), but in the sense that here a capacity is attributed to man to be able and allowed to fend for himself for a large part of his life. The Jesuits tried to make this acceptable to the mother church in the West by calling it “civil religion,” but they did not succeed in getting away with it.

Looking for words

The tension between the positive appreciation of a supposed natural religiosity that would be universally human and the real manifestations of religiosity has dominated thinking about “religion” since the beginning of the first globalization. The attempt at positive appreciation soon came up against its limit when the barely fleshed-out ‘natural religiosity’ of the Taino of Guahanani had to be placed within the spectrum of the four forms of religion, which the religion that considers itself the only true religion could perceive. It did not fit in. The Medieval fourfold division was broken open and a general concept of religion was imposed, which would be the basis of all forms of religiosity. On the rebound, people also began to see their own religion, at least in its outward manifestations, as “a religion” in the midst of others. Christianity also became “a religion,” admittedly the true one, but not hors catégorie. This relativization, if one was aware of it at all, was not intellectually thought through, let alone theologically discounted. For that, the Christian church was still too self-evident and too convinced that it was the only true one. And in fact, what this “juxtaposition” of all religions actually means for the truth claims of each individual religion is rarely thought through by theologians, and this to this day. The truth claims of the two major religions we know in Western Europe, Christianity and Islam, both contain unmistakable rejections of the other religion’s truth claims. Ask a Muslim what he thinks of the second article of the creed (“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son”) and ask a Christian whether Muhammad is the greatest of all prophets, and you know what I mean. Nevertheless, the awkward contacts between the great world religions, the love-hate relationship, the bashing and anointing at the same time, is a clear symptom of this.

On the other side of the world, another deficit of the Western understanding of religion came to light, when missionaries had to characterize the extremely developed society, in which rituals, customs, ceremonies and laws were enough, but where “God” hardly played a role. Some Jesuits did not hesitate to speak of atheism, and they meant it positively, because they believed that precisely this ‘atheism’ – like ‘natural religiosity’ – could be an excellent preparation for Christianity. One could simply connect to this. Christianity could be placed as a superstructure on top of Chinese civil religion, and the Christian cult could appear perfectly as an addition to, crowning, the already rich Chinese culture. As mentioned, the Jesuits had to give in, but the line of thought did not disappear as a result, quite the contrary. It only gained strength afterwards.

From the perspective of our question, both this conflict over the almost godless civil religion of the Chinese and Acosta’s twofold analysis of the religious impulse of the Amerindians are of great importance. Indeed, they bring to light two characteristics that still characterize the Western concept of religion to this day, including the associated fields of tension.

Natural religion: an ambiguous concept

First, it is often assumed – starting from Western religious sensibilities – that there is such a thing as a “natural universal religion” or a “general human disposition to seek God” – something that was assumed by all missionaries and – to some extent – is confirmed by the latest developments in evolutionary biology and cognitive science. If so, how does it relate to true service to God (asks those who think they belong to that true religion)? Until about 50 years ago, the double feeling that Acosta expressed so well in the sixteenth century was still very recognizable: People spoke positively about the religious impulse, but negatively about the concrete effect. This discourse was dominant in all churches and to some extent outside the church, although agnostics and atheists believed that the question of whether there was a ‘true religion’ was actually meaningless. This means that within the Western churches people accepted that there was such a thing as a ‘natural religion’ (as preliminary, primitive, unfinished), but as soon as it became more concrete, the concept was over and the main thing was to be ‘converted’. become. Actually, Jean Calvin’s formulation from his Handbook of the Christian Religion (known to Calvinists as ‘The Institutes’) is quite adequate. He assumes a ‘semen religionis’ in every person that he values ​​positively, because it is a remnant of the ‘image of God’ that is ingrained in human nature, even after the Fall. De facto , however, man always turns out to be a ‘fabricator idolorum’, producer of idols, as soon as he starts working with that gift of creation. Calvin did not necessarily have ‘remote pagan people’ in mind when he talks about ‘fabricatores idolorum’, but contemporary Roman Catholics, but this aside.12 This duality is characteristic of people who approach real religious phenomena from the recognition that there is such a thing as a “natural religion. One strikes and anoints at the same time. With one sentence the other religious man is invoked, with the next rejected. I note at the same time, in this connection, that – once again – the institution and professional theologians are much more ‘narrow’ and ‘fearful’ on this point than the average believer. In fact, most people do not make much trouble about this, rely more on a gut feeling. They are more ecumenical than the pope and more multi-faith than the rabbi. A little yoga can’t hurt, says a Catholic mother, and a Korean Protestant often has his child blessed by a local Cheondogyo shaman, whose “religion” in turn is a 19th century native mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and Roman Catholicism, just to be sure. Official religion is often based on a theological construct, coming from the pen of religious professionals (theologians). Actual religious experience does not necessarily coincide with it. In fact, it often lives at odds with it.

Cult and culture: a symbiosis with advantages and disadvantages.

On the other hand, we constantly try to distinguish between cult and culture. But they are so closely related that we are unable to do so.

Acosta still believed that by “purging” the demonic elements from the cult you could save the culture (and even parts of the cult), but when the religion was eradicated, it turned out that the culture also disappeared. In the Quérelle des Rites, Jesuits and Dominicans put their finger on the wound. What is actually the value of that rich human activity we call “culture,” regardless of the presence or absence of “cult”? And so by culture I mean everything that man ‘adds’ to the natural impulses that arise from his physical existence as ‘homo sapiens’ in a cumulative tradition. We are talking about the ordering of life, cohabitation relationships (family, family, clan, tribe, nation, state), how one regulates the sexual impulse, how one deals with the nature in which and from which one lives, how one gives a place to death and the dead, how one deals with the future, etc. Everyone agreed that these naturally needed to be judged from God’s point of view, but they could not agree on how that judgment would then turn out if in that foreign culture God is barely mentioned. Could that culture then simply continue to exist? The Jesuits in China wanted – so I understand their attempt – to start from the other side when analyzing Chinese culture. Not from the perspective of theology (like Acosta), but from the culture itself. They presented it as one organic whole, and they did so in such a way that the religious component became almost invisible. God was present only as a guarantor of the moral and political order. From this view, Christianity could simply be brought in as a new element, a crowning achievement. Civil religion was the substructure, upon which Christianity could be placed almost seamlessly, as a superstructure. It was a bridge too far for the church. The message of the church was – so the church finally decided – still a total package, take it or leave it: cult including culture. Although in practice there were many more compromises with local cultures than church authorities thought desirable, this has been the philosophy of mission (and Protestant mission) well into the 20th century.

Although thus coming from the other side as Acosta, the outcome is the same. The intertwining of cult and culture (religion as part of culture) makes every religion also a cultural phenomenon. The way the Christian religion has made work of this in its globalization still marks the perception of this religion. Indeed, in other parts of the world, Christianity is still seen as a Western religion. And it remains so, even if a prolonged inculturation in Africa, Asia and South America has since given birth to other variants. And this repeats itself also on a regional scale. Living in Flanders for more than 40 years, I am still perceived as Dutch, and therefore Protestant, or as Protestant, and hence probably Dutch. (Protestantism is a “Dutch religion”).


The religious ‘(pre)disposition’ as a human faculty, has generated a rich variety of ideas, actions, views. These did not arise separately from other human efforts, but are part of them. Such a cumulative tradition, we call ‘a culture’. It is not easy to determine which form this religious impulse will develop. The neurological wiring can be activated in very different ways and the energy generated can apparently shoot in all directions. Anyone who is a bit familiar with the world of religiosity, will immediately notice this. The way it is intermingled with other cultural phenomena also varies enormously. From all-pervasive to a peripheral phenomenon. Religion, then, is not only far more diverse than was thought around 1800 when freedom of religion was constitutionally enshrined, implicitly assuming that various “religions” could well co-occur within one culture. The guess was still a reasonably safe one, because at that time it was still about variations of one religion (Christianity) that all somehow shared the same culture. Since you cannot simply separate cult and culture, it is therefore not a given that you can transplant a religion that flourished in one culture to another, quite apart from the fact that it might clash with the dominant religion there. This is what Acosta had to experience in South America. The idea of culture as the substructure and religion as a superstructure is far too simplistic. That – in theory – any religion could graft itself onto any other culture, is also an idée fixe. Many people think this way, including many policy makers. However: if it is true that religion and culture cannot actually be perceived as separated from each other, but in reality are connected by 1001 strings, then they therefore form an indivisible whole. If you touch one, you touch the other. If you try to separate one from the other, you endanger both. And also: If you try to connect cult A to a culture B, it will start to spark. It doesn’t work, or – at least it doesn’t happen overnight, by its own. Quite apart from the fact that the “disconnection” of cult and culture is already a life-threatening process, for cult and culture both, as we saw in Acosta’s example.

Of the harmful consequences of such experimentation, the many vanished cultures from the times of colonization and mission/mission bear witness. But we also witness this in our time. Miraculously also on a voluntary basis. The Christian religion in Western Europe detaches itself from Western culture. It says that that culture is only “sideshow,” it can do without it. But strange: Something changes as it detaches itself, it becomes more abstract, theological, harder too. And just merging with Christians from other cultures, is actually also difficult, even though one theoretically thinks it should be. At the same time, the Islamic religion is presenting itself where Christianity and culture have been linked for so many centuries and have therefore shaped the culture, including that of non-believers. And this religion too of course reports itself including the culture belonging to it, how could it be otherwise. Religion without culture is an abstraction. Endless debates about whether or not both are “reconcilable” are conducted from the highest to the lowest levels of society. Briefly formulated one can hear: ‘Islam must pass through the Enlightenment, otherwise it does not fit in in our society’, or: ‘It is time for a European Islam’. Very often people then discuss the views (dogma, ethos) of the religions under discussion: theological debates in the public domain: experts politely talking past each other at best, a hateful cacophony in at worst.

In my view, this discussion is mortgaged not only by a failure to recognize the intertwining of cult and culture, but also by the presence of a fixation on “doctrine” in Western European discourse on religion. Almost everyone who gets involved in this debate, proponents, opponents, and mediators, apparently believe that religions are about “what you believe” or don’t believe, and how that may or may not be “reconcilable” with certain behaviors. Precisely because in matters of religiosity words are ‘creative’ – that is, if you repeat it often enough, it becomes true – it is important to see where this focus on ‘belief’ and pre-occupation with ‘set of beliefs’ actually comes from. For it was not there before, or at least not in this sense. Indeed, I believe that if you watch carefully you can very quickly observe that religion is usually not about beliefs, even when believers themselves emphatically say that it is. The most striking example of this is that various faith communities, which arose around a very specific set of beliefs, namely that Jesus would return at date/time x or that the great Endgame would begin in year y etc. , did not cease to exist when their claim was falsified. Quite the contrary, in fact: They often only really began to grow afterwards. The Adventists (Jesus returns on October 22, 1844), the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Armageddon begins in 1874, 1878, 1881, 1914, 1925, 1975). And also Hal Lindsey (“The Late Great Planet Earth“) has been making all kinds of predictions about the dawning of the end times since the early 1970s, but shifting the crucial periods by decade or so. Yet his works remain just as popular. So the truth claims are, to say the least, of a different nature than many onlookers believe. They have more to do with the psychological mechanism of faith itself than with the objective content of faith. To understand this, we must again go back in time, to be precise: 500 years, to the year 1517. There a monk asks the question of what exactly the Christian religion is (the ‘essence’), and he does so in such a way that we still today we are captivated by his “framing” of the question. Within his framing, the question of personal faith became a major issue, and to define that faith, he put full effort into the reading and interpretation (exegesis) of a collection of 66 to 72 ancient books written in Hebrew and Greek, the Bible. That in discussions of religion today we so often speak of “the faith of individuals” and of “what the Holy Book does or does not say” is – in large measure – due to Martin Luther, for he is, of course, the monk I am referring to. [continue reading]

© Dick Wursten: fair use policy : ie all use is permitted provided the source is mentioned.

next: The identity crisis of the Christian religion


  1. Peter Berger (1929-2017) was an influential sociologist of religion. His 1967 book  The Sacred Canopy  established his name in this field. In this book he combined Weber’s secularization thesis with his own view of religions as ‘social constructions’. He soon noticed the narrowing of his vision. In the 1990s he stated that Modernity leads to plurality  (as a fact) in the religious field and therefore to the conclusion that one can no longer be religious in the  same way  as before, namely self-evidently. This can then lead to both relativization  and  fundamentalization  of religion. Secularization is then an option (Europe), but not a compelling consequence. A little more on this post
  2. Giles Képel, La Revanche de Dieu. Chrétiens, juifs et musulmans à la reconquête du monde (1991)
  3. Charles W. Taylor,  A Secular Age  (Harvard University Press, 2007) more interesting anthropologically than historically, but this aside.
  4. “Pour connaître et juger une société, il faut arriver à sa substance profonde, au lien humain dont elle est faite et qui dépend des rapports juridiques sans doute, mais aussi des formes du travail, de la manière d’aimer, de vivre et de mourir.”, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanisme et terreur, p. X
  5. Johann Böhme (c.1485-1535) was canon of Ulm Cathedral. The book can be browsed digitally on the website of Camena (University of Mannheim). See further, K. A. Vogel, “Cultural Variety in a Renaissance Perspective: Johannes Boemus on ‘The Manners, Laws, and Customs of All People’ (1520),” in Shifting Cultures: Interaction and Discourse in the Expansion of Europe, eds. Henriette Bugge and Joan Pau Rubies (Periplus Parerga, Bd. 4; Munster: LIT, 1995), 17-34.
  6. Full title: Cérémonies et coutumes religiouses de tous les peuples du monde representées par des figures dessinées de la main de Bernard Picard: avec une explication historique, & quelques dissertations curieuses. A Dutch edition was published in 1727 and an English edition in 1733 (in London). The enlarged reprints follow each other in rapid succession. Digitized version .
  7. For this section I rely on Paul Hazard, The European Mind and Guy Stroumsa, A new science (see ‘ sources ‘)
  8. Bonaventure, Great Biography , IX.7-8. The text in a separate post. Tip: Read the original, before presenting it to a Muslim.
  9. For an elaboration, see the final chapter where I continue the comparison with our sacred sport, football.
  10. Winged word, taken from Friedrich Schiller’s play: “Die Verschwörung des Fiesco zu Genova” (III, 4) from 1783. When the conspirators enter, “the Moor” (at the time a normal designation for a black African) who has just provided important info must leave: FIESCO. Ich höre Tritte. Sie since. Kerl, du verdientest deinen eigenen Galgen, wo noch kein Sohn Adams gezappelt hat. Geh ins Vorzimmer, bis ich läute. MOHR (im Abgehen): Der Mohr hat seine Arbeit getan, der Mohr kann gehen.
  11. Confucius sinarum philosophus, sive, Scientia Sinensis Latine exposita (Paris, Daniel Horthemels 1687). The translation is dedicated to King Louis XIV and made by four Jesuits: Philip Couplet, Prospero Intorcetta, Christian Wolfgang Herdtrich, and François de Rougemont. In the preface Confucius is highly praised.
  12. Already in the third chapter of the first book, dealing with Creation, there is an extensive passage about the natural ‘sensus divinitatis’, the ‘semen religionis’ (In the French text:  semence de religion ). I quote the original French text (edition 1560): Livre I, chapitre III Que la cognoissance de Dieu est naturellement enracinée en l’esprit des hommes. 1. Nous mettons hors de doute que les hommes ayent un sentiment de divinité en eux, voire d’un mouvement naturel […] Et ceux qui en tout le reste semblent bien ne différer en rien d’avec les bestes brutes, quoy qu’il en soit retiennent tousjours quelque semence de religion.” Full quote