Book Note: The End(s) of Religion: A History of How the Study of Religion Makes Religion
The End(s) of Religion: A History of How the Study of Religion Makes Religion Irrelevant by Eric Bain-Selbo. New York: NY, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. ISBN 9781350045255, 278 pp.
In this volume, Eric Bain-Selbo employs the word “End(s)” in the title to refer to two main concepts. The first idea, which is presented in a methodical fashion, is the “end” or purpose of religion in human society as interpreted and advocated by various individuals in the last several centuries from philosophers to sociologists. Thinkers discussed in the volume include Kant and Hegel (the ethical/philosophical function of religion); Dukheim and Weber (the sociological function of religion); Freud and Jung (the psychological function of religion); and Eliade and Tillich (the existential function of religion). All these reductionist approaches reduce religion to a particular goal, such as having a set of rational principles, a social function, or a set of practices to cope psychologically with life.
The other meaning of the word “end” in the book refers to the the “demystification, marginalization, and ultimately irrelevance and decline” of religion that we are experiencing today. The author argues that the increasing secularization and decline of institutional stereotypical religion can be attributed in various ways to the reductionist approaches in the study of religion by these philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and scholars of religion. And there is no evidence that this trend will reverse itself in the future.
In so far as religion is interpreted as serving to fulfill a particular human need, the author identifies various cultural practices that have been seen to play a similar role as religion, e.g., sports, arts and entertainment, nationalism and civil religion. Thus, the void left by the end of institutional stereotypical religion and be fulfilled by the “religion of culture”. In other words, what we perceive as fundamental “religious” needs do not necessarily have to depend on the existence of institutional religion. One approach, according to the author, is to turn to humanism, which is “a philosophy or outlook that focuses on the human ability to live moral and meaningful lives in the absence of religious beings or realities that stereotypically provide us with a moral code or capacity and are the basis or foundation of meaning in our lives.” Through humanism, the religion of culture – sports, theatre, art, film, dance, literature, and music etc. – can be promoted and protected from forces and dynamics that threaten to do harm to its intrinsic nature and prevent it from achieving its noble ends.