Religious Diversity and the History of Religions

Daniel Barbu

On May 22-23, the Confucius Institute at the University of Geneva, in collaboration with the University’s Religious studies department, organized an international workshop on “Religious Diversity & the History of Religions.” Scholars from China, the United States, France, and Switzerland, were invited to discuss the notion of “religious diversity,” in contemporary China or in the historiography of Religious studies.

The presence of specialists of both Chinese and Western religions provided an opportunity to consider the impact of Western ideas of religion in China, as well as the Western reception of Chinese religions and culture from the early modern period on. This workshop aimed at advancing a critical reflexion on “religion” and “religious diversity,” in particular in the Chinese context, and to reflect on the concepts, categories, both Western and Chinese, used in that context.

As underlined by the workshop’s chief organizer, Prof. Philippe Borgeaud, China, and the Western imagination of China, played a fundamental role in the emergence of a critical reflection on “religion” in early modern Europe. China offered, and still offers, a privileged case to think about religious diversity in the scholarly enterprise of studying religion.

The workshop’s morning session was chiefly concerned with discussions on the Chinese religious diversity in the early modern world, in particular in the works of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, a leading figure of the Jesuit mission to China in the late 16th century. Philippe Borgeaud suggested looking at Matteo Ricci as an original case of cultural hybridization. Cases such as Ricci’s, argued Borgeaud, allow scholars of religion to rethink about comparison in the study of religion, and to go beyond the comparison of essentialized cultural entities (e.g. China and the West) with a view to explore the dialogical dimension of cultural encounters. Ricci’s discussions on the history of Chinese religions subtly intertwine traditional Christian heresiology and theories on the history of religion. Also, in his effort to recast Christianity as a doctrine befitting the expectations of his Chinese audience (essentially Chinese literati), Ricci did not hesitate to sidestep fundamental aspects of the Christian faith. The question thus remains as to what sort of Christianity could have ensued from Ricci’s mission, as his attempt at evangelizing China may equally be considered an attempt to sinicize Christianity.

Matthieu Bernhardt’s presentation, on the European reception of the works and figure of Matteo Ricci, explored the construction of a European discourse on China in the early modern context. Questioning the official Jesuit historiography of the Jesuit mission to China and its consistent yet incomplete narrative, Bernhardt suggested looking at sources testifying to diverging views among contemporary missionaries. Contesting voices, advocating against the principle of cultural accommodation as promoted by Ricci, were excluded from the historical account, particularly following the rise of the Chinese rites controversy. In the context of the controversy (eventually leading to the first dissolution of the Jesuit order), the Jesuits, defending the need to “accommodate” the Christian doctrine to the Chinese context, were accused of flirting with “idolatry.”

I myself explored the notion of “idolatry,” an ubiquitous notion in early modern descriptions on non-European religions. “Idolatry” is a key concept in the history of Western thinking about religion, as an all-encompassing category in which all religions more or less alien to the Christian tradition could be subsumed.  Until the 19th century, taxonomies of religion essentially revolved around a four-way classificatory scheme, distinguishing Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and “idolatry,” that is, everything else. In that sense, the notion of “idolatry” also allowed reducing the actual diversity of religions experienced by European travellers in the early modern era to a certain taxonomic unity. I argued that the history of the European understanding of the diversity of religions is that of a gradual sophistication of the category of “idolatry,” from the 18th century on, as different sub-types of “idolatries” came to be identified and eventually defined as religions in the full sense—e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc.

In the last morning paper, Vincent Goossaert invited us to ask whether we are better equipped in our endeavours to account for the religious diversity of China today. The official classification of religions recognized by the Chinese authorities (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, plus “popular faiths”; note that Confucianism is not considered a religion) hardly does justice to the complexity of the contemporary Chinese religious landscape, and the entanglement and intricacy of religious spaces, priesthoods, rituals, and tradition as encountered by anthropologists on the ground. For Goossaert, we need to think along other lines, and distinguish for instance between the ascriptive (connected to territory/space, history/descent or local economies/networks) and voluntary dimensions (pertaining to self-cultivation, study, charity) in the religious life of specific and localized social communities—irrespective of the official denominations these communities or the individuals that compose them claim to belong to. In that view, Goossaert argued in favour for a greater focus on ritual, and the “liturgical frameworks” of the groups and communities whose religion the scholar seeks to describe and analyse.

Two papers in the afternoon session directly addressed specific cases, allowing us to consider with greater precision important aspects the Chinese religious traditions in their actual complexity.

James Robson first presented his current research on so-called Chinese idols. These small-scale religious statuettes connected to the Taoist tradition were long hidden or forgotten, and have recently been found in thousands. These “idols,” which were often infused with life through complex activation rituals, involving stuffing the statuette with diverse materials, talismans, and fabric entrails, offer an interesting case for students of religion interested in religious images. Robson’s paper raised the issues of sacralisation, consecration and de-consecration of religious images, which are supposed to be alive and breathe. These images also allow us to think about the ways certain images were disregarded, as pertaining to “folk-art,” by scholars and museums. Yet to ignore such image is to overlook a fundamental component of China’s religious life up to the 20th century, and the place of images in China’s traditional religions.

Aurélie Névot’s discussion on the bimos among the Yi nationality, took us from the centre to the margins of the contemporary Chinese world. The bimos, explained Névot, are traditional religious experts (shamans) among various Tibeto-Burman people now grouped under the calling Yi.  She showed how these religious experts traditionally used many different types of writing as part of their rituals, and how such diversity became problematic for the Chinese state, seeking to standardize the traditions of so-called “native” people with a view of fostering “progress” and education.  Névot argued that the Chinese state policies aiming at standardizing and safeguarding the “religion of the bimos,” in truth profoundly transformed their religion, touching upon the core of their traditional transmission of knowledge, and cutting their traditional relation with any specific lineage and territory.

Closing the afternoon session, Yang Quingzhong, invited us to consider the notion of religious diversity from the perspective of ancient Chinese philosophy. Discussing fundamental notions of the Chinese discourse on religious diversity by looking at their meaning in classical Chinese texts and ancient Chinese philosophers, he allowed us to have a better appreciation of the problems posed by religious diversity for contemporary Chinese policy makers, as it may lead to conflicts stemming from diverging “holistic” worldviews.  Discussing the notion of dao, summarized as “diversity from one root,” Yang advocated for the Chinese principle of “harmony without uniformity,” that is, the integration of religious pluralism within a harmonious social framework allowing for the coexistence of different religions and religious traditions.

On the next day, we had the honour of receiving Yang Huilin, vice-president of the Renmin University, who presented some thoughts from an ethician’s view on “Mutal Understanding/Interpretation in a Diverse Context.”  Yang advanced arguments from both contemporary Western ethics and theology and Chinese classical texts, in favour of interfaith discussion and toleration. Reading the Christian missionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries with the help of contemporary thinkers, such as Alain Badiu and Jacques Derrida, Yang discussed the construction of religious categories in the Chinese context (in particular “Christianity” and “Confucianism”). He raised fundamental questions regarding the very possibility to translate such notions into foreign languages, and the flexibility of their meanings in different contexts.

For the final keynote lecture, James Robson addressed the problem of religious categories and taxonomies, in particular with respect to the Taoist/Daoist tradition. Starting from his fieldwork in contemporary China, he then traced the history of the modern invention of Taoism as a philosophical/spiritual tradition, and its reception in the contemporary Western world. Traditional religious practices for their part were left out of this sophisticated picture. As such, the Western imagination of Taoism introduced an artificial distinction between Taoism as a philosophy and Daoism as a practiced religion.

This fascinating paper encouraged us to be again self-conscious about the construction of the categories we use when studying religion. Our categories, first among which the Western concept of “religion” (and its various sub-types), are historical constructs, and often remain difficult to articulate with the empirical realties they purport to describe.

A round-table, including all speakers and participants, concluded the workshop, allowing a vivid discussion on the political implications of scholarship.

In the end, this workshop proved to have succeeded in his mission to provide scholars from very different academic backgrounds with an uninhibited space to discuss the question of religious diversity in the contemporary study of religion. Clearly, it demonstrated the need to tackle with the complexity of the contemporary Chinese landscape with new tools, addressing the diversity of religious practices and rituals on the ground, in their shifting configurations, and the complex articulation of competing religious traditions. Many of the papers presented encouraged us to put ritual, rather than abstract concepts and theories, at the center of our reflexion, with a view of allowing China to be an instructive instance in the scholarly enterprise of studying religion(s) today.

Cette contribution a été relue par Philippe Borgeaud.

BARBU, Daniel. « Religious Diversity and the History of Religions ». In Blog Scientifique de l’Institut Confucius, Université de Genève. Permanent Link:, accessed 06/23/2024.