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Often repeated but little understood, the injunction to “take religion seriously” is as ubiquitous today as it is vague. As the phrase itself suggests, such a project is defined first and foremost by what it is not. It represents a reaction against a moment when religion was not “taken seriously” by historians, a moment when the dominance of Marxian approaches consigned religion to the status of an epiphenomenon whose truth lay outside itself—an expression of more fundamental social or economic forces. But beyond rejecting this form of demystification, what does it mean to “take religion seriously”? Does this entail an affirmation of the truth claims professed by the religious actors we study, or at least a “suspension of disbelief,” in the memorable words of Amy Hollywood?1 What political commitments, if any, are implied in the admonition to “take religion seriously,” and what role does it prescribe for religion in the presumptively secular public sphere? More vexing still is the question scholars of religion are now asking with increasing urgency: does the term “religion” in fact denote a coherent entity?2 Precisely what, in other words, are we being asked to “take seriously”?

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1 Hollywood, Amy, “Gender, Agency, and the Divine in Religious Historiography,” Journal of Religion, 84/4 (Oct. 2004), 514–28, at 528.

2 The most thorough recent investigation of this problem is the exhaustive volume edited by de Vries, Hent, Religion: Beyond a Concept (New York, 2008). See esp. the introduction.

3 Chappel, James, “Beyond Tocqueville: A Plea to Stop ‘Taking Religion Seriously’,” Modern Intellectual History, 10/3 (2013), 697708, at 698.

4 Ibid., 700.

5 Ibid., 707.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 707–8.

8 See, for instance, the forums on Gregory's book at The Immanent Frame,; Catholic Historical Review, 98/3 (July 2012), 503–16; Church History, 81/4 (Dec. 2012), 912–42.

9 Historians have long argued, for instance, that the Middle Ages were far from an unambiguous “age of faith.” This was a key claim of Delumeau, Jean's classic Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter-Reformation (London, 1977); see also Stark, Rodney, “Secularization, R.I.P.,” Sociology of Religion, 60/3 (1999), 249–73; Arnold, John H., Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (London, 2005).

10 See Brad Gregory's response to the forum on The Unintended Reformation in Catholic Historical Review, 98/3 (July 2012), 503–16, at 516.

11 A notable exception to this trend is Schloesser, Stephen's Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris (1919–1933) (Toronto, 2005), which highlights Raïssa's significant contributions to Catholic aesthetic theory.

12 The best account of this wave of conversions remains Gugelot, Frédéric's La conversion des intellectuels au catholicisme en France (1885–1935) (Paris, 1998).

13 In this respect, Moore's work echoes Mahmood, Saba's Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, 2004).

14 Raïssa Maritain, Journal de Raïssa (1963), quoted in Moore, Sacred Dread, 132.

15 Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History (1988), quoted in Moore, Sacred Dread, 147.

16 Raïssa Maritain, “Deus excelsus terribilis,” quoted in Moore, Sacred Dread, 175–6.

17 Skinner, Quentin, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory, 8/1 (1969), 3–53, at 1622.

18 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Habitations of Modernity (2002), quoted in Moore, Sacred Dread, 187.

19 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2000), 113.

20 Ibid., 113, 112.

21 Ibid., 112, 93.

22 Orsi, Robert A., Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars who Study Them (Princeton, 2005), 198.

23 Ibid., 201.

24 Pritchard, Elizabeth A., “Seriously, What Does ‘Taking Religion Seriously’ Mean?”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 78/4 (Dec. 2010), 1087–1111, at 10991102.

25 On the purportedly secular nature of critique, see Asad, Talal, Brown, Wendy, Butler, Judith, and Mahmood, Saba, Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (Berkeley, 2009).

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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
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