DOLEŽALOVÁ, Iva; MARTIN, Luther H. and PAPOUŠEK, Dalibor (orgs.)
The Academic Study of Religion during the Cold War: East and West. Toronto Studies in Religion 27. New York: Peter Lang, 2001, 354 pp. ISBN 0-8204-5151-7.

por Steven Engler []

This collection of twenty-one essays emerged from a Special Conference of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) held in 1999 in Brno, Czech Republic. The book is of great value for its portrayal of national and regional differences in the study of religion and for its meta-theoretical work on the ways that political ideologies and cultural differences can shape the manner in which religion is studied. Despite (in part due to) its rich range of voices and issues, the book lacks a coherent focus. The essays vary widely in terms of approach, scope, and depth. The four introductory, two concluding essays, Foreword, and Preface do not manage to set out any coherent theme for the volume. I will evaluate the book according to three of the various topics that it addresses.

National and regional variations in the study of religion. The field of Religious Studies is only now beginning to pay greater attention to the important extent to which the intellectual history, institutional status, and theoretical allegiances of the study of religion vary dramatically from country to country. This volume is a benchmark in this process. It offers fairly uneven and limited coverage of national variation, a function, of course, of the specific set of scholars present at the Czech conference. No general coverage of any specific region, of the field, or of theoretical issues is offered. Five of the ten short papers in the "Eastern" section focus on the Czech Republic; one discusses the Slovak Republic, two Poland, one China, and three the former Soviet Union. The "Western" point of reference is largely the U.S., with papers on the Dutch and German study of religion and brief mentions of Canada. There is no mention of Latin America.

Individual contributions vary widely, with some valuable thumbnail sketches of national trends in scholarship but with much (e.g., autobiographical narratives) of little general interest. Several contributors mention the relative lack of emphasis on, or outright antagonism to, the study of religion in countries under communist rule, given Marxism's "scientific atheism." Some Eastern bloc work is praised as world-class: studies of animism, totemism, and shamanism, drawing on Central Asian materials; studies of myth and history, informed by the Marxist emphasis on the role of ideology in relations between religion and culture; psychology of religion; semiotics of religion. Weigang Chen offers an interesting analysis of why the Chinese government pursues a policy of religious toleration regarding Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. but "excludes all popular rituals from the category of religion": he argues that religion formed a central axis of authority in China, with the communist elites seeking to impose Confucian values downward while defusing the tradition symbolic authority implicit in popular religion. (As is the case with several papers in the volume, the relation to the academic study of the religion and the Cold War is unclear here.)

The Western contributions to national/regional studies cover more familiar ground. Gary Lease offers a masterly overview of twentieth-century religious studies and religious events in Germany, noting the prevalence of "a theologized study of religion" (33) and a prominent conservatism in the study of religion, despite a dynamic religious environment. Willem Hofstee traces the declining influence of theological and phenomenological approaches in the Dutch study of religion, primarily after the death of van der Leeuw in 1950.

In sum, the book offers significant fragments that contribute toward our understanding of national and regional variations in the study of religion, but its haphazard approach and limited coverage do not allow the reader to form a coherent picture, and none of the introductory or concluding chapters attempts to provide one.

Impact of the Cold War on the study of religion. Several of the papers approach this topic only superficially, but the stronger contributions seek to describe causal relations between the ideologies and political structures of the Cold War and the academic study of religion. Jacques Waardenburg examines both Soviet and western views of Islam and finds ideological distortion in both camps: in general, both saw Islam as a traditionalist survival, though the situation in the west was more complex, where this ideological distortion was in part a legacy of colonialism. Dmitriy Mikulskiy notes that Soviet policy led to Islam being seen as a competing trans-national ideology, resulting in a relative valuation of ethnic beliefs as nationalistic; for the same reason, popular and local Islam was emphasized at the expense of orthodox Islam.

Gustavo Benavides analyzes the use in Germany, under National Socialism and during the Cold War, of Jakob Wilhelm Hauer's reading of the Bhagavad Gītā. Hauer was used to mythologize the Indo-Aryan past in the first case and, in the latter, to argue for the essential role of the Germanic peoples in the maintenance of the "free world" that confronted "the new enemy, dialectical materialism" (231). William E. Paden argues that "the Cold War fear of reductionism" (259) led to a misleadingly sharp distinction between Eliadean (sui generis) and Durkheimian (reductionist) views of religion.

Luther H. Martin cites research that suggests that U.S. military agencies shaped the agenda of university research in the social sciences, primarily through funding certain sorts of projects. With respect to the study of religion specifically, Martin suggests that religious studies benefited from, and was shaped by, an increasing emphasis on area studies, shaped by Cold War policies. Martin admits, however, that effects on religious studies, if any, were of a very general nature: "I know of no instance where the academic study of religion in American public universities was overtly exploited or directly funded by government agencies in opposition to … an ‘atheistic communism' or in support of Cold War strategies" (215). Donald Wiebe extends this note of skepticism. He notes that only two works have asserted that the Cold War supported the institutional growth of the study of religion (Neusner and Neusner 1995; McCutcheon 1997), and he concludes that there is "no evidence that any direct support" (280). McCutcheon (2004) has recently responded by arguing that government and private funding in the U.S., explicitly shaped by Cold War values, did, in fact, have some impact in establishing the study of religion; further work would be needed to explore the issue more thoroughly.

Ideology and the study of religion. In many senses the most important issue that this book raises is the extent to which—and the mechanisms by which—the study of religion is shaped by ideology in general. Pye notes that a "scientific study of religion which is not itself religious," that is "a serious tradition in the study of religions," (314, 323) was present during the Cold War in Poland and the Soviet Union. He suggests that western scholars have largely ignored this work, due to ideological presuppositions that it was necessarily biased. He argues that this ideological blindness continues: "Now that the Cold War is supposedly finished, political correctness makes a new demand, namely that the ‘victory' of the western world over ‘communism' be indefinitely celebrated" (327). Ironically, Pye notes, work conducted during the Cold War may have been less "religiously or theologically oriented" (326) than work conducted since 1989: "the Marxist ideological perspective to which deference was previously paid, at least formally seems to have been replaced by the view, even in non-theological schools, that religion is probably, in general, ‘ a good thing'" (326-327).

Pye's paper raises valuable questions about how scholars of religion in different regions evaluate each others work, given the increasingly global nature of the study of religion. Papoušek insists that a proper evaluation of the work of scholars working under communist regimes is "the methodologically delicate separation of their official ideological positions from a potentially sound academic study" (126). But Cold War ideology is only one example of ideologies influencing the study of religion. Scholars like Wiebe (1999) and McCutcheon (1997) would argue that the academic study of religion in the west has an "official ideological position" (sui generis views of the sacred), which must also be teased out from "sound academic study."

This raises the possibility of another dimension of interaction between these political developments of the mid-twentieth century and the study of religion, not positive but negative. Wiebe thinks it likely that the Cold War bolstered the teaching of religion but hindered teaching about religion. The public climate of opinion during this period in the U.S. fostered "an extension of the civic religion fostered and sustained by the wars, hot and cold which … was essentially that of the liberal, mainline Protestant churches" (279). As a result, "The Cold War provided support for continuing the traditional role of religion in the college and university curriculum and in doing so may have delayed the emergence and development of a genuinely scientific study of religion…" (280; original emphasis). Waardenburg takes a similar stance on this point (301-304). Martin similarly argues that this development reflect not the specific context of the Cold war, but a broader puritanical tendency in American culture (219-220).

In sum, this book stands out for its unique contributions to understanding both the study of religion as a global endeavour and ideological impacts on the field more generally. Given that the book is neither well focused nor of consistently high quality, it would not make a useful text for the classroom, though several chapters would be of great value for graduate students. Libraries and scholars with an interest in the history of the Humanities and Social Sciences, especially the study of religion, and theorists of religion will find the book well worth having on their shelves.


NUESNER, Jacob and Noam M. M. Nuesner, The Price of Excellence: Universities in Conflict during the Cold War, New York, Continuum, 1995.

MCCUTCHEON, Russell T., Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse of Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.

MCCUTCHEON, Russell T., "'Just Follow the Money': The Cold War, The Humanistic Study of Religion, and the Fallacy of Insufficient Cynicism," Culture and Religion 5, 41-69, 2004. Last accessed: August 17, 2005.