Histories, Encounters, Communities

Religions or a sense of the religious have been integrally part of the human condition from antiquity to the present. Since Herodotus in the fifth century BCE in Asia Minor and north Africa, and Bartolomé de las Casas in the sixteenth century among Indigenous Americans, the early study of religion has combined the approaches of philosophy, history, and ethnography, and then philology and linguistics, literature and critical textual studies, and later psychology, sociology, and other social sciences.

At George Mason University this entails tracing key religious ideas through history. We explore how religious understandings have been culturally inherited but also how they have changed over time both within a particular religious tradition and also comparatively across different religious communities, especially when different religious constituencies encounter each other. Be it the arrival of the first missionaries from Europe during the establishment of modern empires across the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific or the critique of colonialism made by early missionaries, the evidence of previously unknown religions throughout the world brought back to Europe or the accounts of such inter-cultural encounters from the perspective of local religious elites, religious studies focuses on the spread of, mutual influences between, as well as resistance to religions just as much as the extent to which the field of Religious Studies is itself a product of these histories.

At times religion has been an instrument of liberation; at other times, an instrument of coercion. Religious identities have been a matter of choice and a mechanism of control as religious institutions have developed in collusion with and in antagonism to dominant modes of power.

The study of religion critically and reflexively attends to these varied and diverse histories and manifestations. Consequently, one aspect of the critical study of religion at George Mason seeks to redress the profound inequalities of history, challenging the legacies (and continued practices) of settler colonialism and the (mis)application of the category of religion to various socio-cultural histories and settings.

Study what (more broadly) matters.