16 Pages


At a time when the rhetoric of despair about “religion as an object of study” has become nearly hysterical (e.g. Dubuisson 2003; Fitzgerald 2000; Asad 1993), it might seem provocative or even perverse to propose that the academy ought to talk about the ontology of religion. Any umbrage is likely to diminish, however, with my claim that the ontology of religion is a subset of human social ontology, and that social ontology is also historical ontology. I hope to convince readers that the ontology of religion need not be either dangerous or banal. What then is such ontology? It is not some metaphysical project of general ontology, but simply enquiry into the question “of what does x consist?” Approached in this way, ontology can be an anti-essentialist project. The thesis of this article, then, is that “of what does religion consist?” is a subset of “of what does the social consist?” But why talk of ontology? One relevant, but insufficient answer is to say that it would be therapeutic. A good account of religion’s ontology would be an antidote for what one might call naive idealism.1 This is often a largely linguistic idealism that is usually a product of imported and recontextualized post-structuralist thought in English-speaking humanities faculties. “Religion is not a thing” and “religious studies has no object of study” have become commonplaces in certain circles. Such statements usually, but not always, come from different circles and a different context in the academy than the more openly apologetic “religion cannot be defined” or “religion should not be defined” or “religion should not be made an object of study.”