published in Global Religious Vision, 1:4, pages 351-367 2001-04
About: Controversies within religious studies over the categories of religion and religions are reflective of changes in religion that correspond to the historical development of global society in recent centuries. The globalisation of society has created social conditions that encourage the differentiation of religion as a distinct modality of social communication based on binary codes and centred on institutionalised programmes that flow from these. The result has been the gradual construction and imagining of an ambiguous but nonetheless observable and operative global religious system. From its beginnings in early modern Western Christianity, the system has spread haltingly and gradually to the rest of the world. Similar to the way the spread of the global political system brought about the discovery and construction of nations, the development of the religious systems has resulted in the crystallisation of ‘religions’, especially but not exclusively what we now call the world religions. The examples of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Chinese religion are discussed briefly as illustration. The purpose of the present article is to inquire into some key sociological conditions that generate this ambiguous situation. My general thesis is that the difficulties and the actual practice are not simply a matter of internal scholarly debate; that the question of religion and religions is more than observers arguing over the best ways to observe a supposedly neutral object. Instead I wish to suggest that the ambiguities reflect a particular social context, one which has brought about changes in what we now call religion and religions. These changes are what is at the root of the academic debates.