Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Vol 43, No 4 (2014)

Atheism and the Invention of Religion: Notes on History and Anachronism

Richard Amesbury
Issued Date: 2 Dec 2014


A characteristic feature of the so-called "new atheism" is that it opposes itself not simply to Christianity, or even to theism, but to religion. One of its central contentions -- meant to deflate particularistic claims to uniqueness -- is that religion admits of a unified theory: though Christianity differs from Islam, say, both -- and indeed all tokens of the type -- are explicable in terms of the same basic mechanisms. Yet, this understanding of religion as a transcultural and transhistorical universal is a distinctively modern, Western one. This paper seeks to locate the emergence of the contemporary concept of “religion” partly in European philosophical and theological debates over the threat to Christianity perceived to be posed by secularization. Developing a line of thought advanced by Tomoko Masuzawa, I argue that the invention of “religion” (as a genus) and the “world religions” (as its species) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, like the creation of deism in the seventeenth and eighteenth, served apologetic goals but also exposed the resulting formations to new forms of criticism. Whereas atheism is often said to be “negative,” in that it can be defined only by reference to what it rejects (and thus does not constitute a unitary viewpoint), I argue that “atheism” and “religion” are dialectically co-constituted categories, and that lines of influence continue to push in both directions. The distinction between “religion” and its other(s), I conclude, is better understood as emerging out of, rather than as the underlying cause of, ongoing debates about atheism.

Download Media

PDF (Price: £17.50 )

DOI: 10.1558/bsor.v43i4.40


Amesbury, Richard. 2010. “Changing the Subject: Atheism, ‘Friendly Fire,’ and Contemplative Philosophy.” In The Contemplative Spirit, edited by Ingolf U. Dal-ferth and Harmut von Sass, 267–92. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
———. 2014 (forthcoming). “‘Religion’ as a Philosophical Problem: Historical and Conceptual Dilemmas in Contemporary Pluralistic Philosophy of Religion,” Sophia. http://link.springer.com/journal/11841/on-lineFirst/page/2.
Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Buckley, Michael J., S.J. 1987. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Cavanaugh, William T. 2009. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dalferth, Ingolf. 2003. Die Wirklichkeit des Möglichen. Tübin-gen: Mohr Siebeck.
Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Feuerbach, Ludwig. 1989 [1841]. The Essence of Christianity, translated by George Eliot. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Harris, Sam. 2004. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: Norton.
———. 2009. “Killing the Buddha.” Shambhala Sun.http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=2903Itemid=247
Hick, John. 1989. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Hitchens, Christopher. 2007. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve.
Johnson, Dominic. 2012. “What are Atheists for? Hypotheses on the Functions of Non-belief in the Evolution of Religion,” Religion, Brain & Behavior 2 (1): 48–99. Lopez, Donald S., Jr. 2012. The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2005. The Invention of World Religions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Equinox Publishing Ltd - 415 The Workstation 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1 2BX United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)114 221-0285 - Email: info@equinoxpub.com

Privacy Policy