Religion and the Secular outside the West: Does Their Study Require a New Social Science Vocabulary?

Mirjam Künkler, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study

The paper reflects on the research agenda of global comparative studies of the secular and religious, which have taken a recent non-Western turn. The publication of comparative studies of secularization that are firmly situated in Asian, African and Latin American experiences has shifted the gaze away from Western geographies and actors to highlight the agency of local actors in shaping their futures. Some voices have therefore called for a new conceptual vocabulary that is better equipped to make sense of these local actors’ practices that (allegedly) “escape, circumvent, and confound both Enlightenment epistemology and the constraints of traditional religious” authority” (Cady and Hurd 2010, p. 21). What such new vocabularies might consist of and where they might come from is however left unaddressed in such calls. Area studies scholars have reacted to these calls for new vocabularies with widespread bewilderment. Experts of Japanese or Chinese religions, of Islamic and African societies have long worked through the local concepts associated with religious experiences, tracing shifting meanings over time, the association and dissociation of concepts of devotion, doubt, meditation, faith, spirituality, education, and others. As scholars in these areas have long shown, a way to do this well is to work with the local concepts in the local languages and aim at thick description. One paraphrases, scenarises, finds cognates, delineates meaning and describes the shifting boundaries around these concepts. The paper discusses how the long-standing study of religion and the secular by area specialists has dealt with the problem if incommensurate vocabularies and what it can teach those reflecting on the methods of comparative sociology of religion.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 25. Comparative secularity: Concepts and Methods