Religion – Knowledge – Discourse

Key areas


The mutual relationship between human approaches to the world, which are discursively described as ‘religion’ on the one hand and ‘knowledge’ on the other, form the programme’s framework. Such jointly constructed understandings of the world can be observed within human communication. Both in ‘religion’ and ‘knowledge’ tendencies of perpetuation into social institutions – with their specific material substrates – as well as fluid, rapid changes occur.

In view of this, the programme is based upon the assumption that the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘knowledge’ cannot be strictly separated from one another. Rather, the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘knowledge’ – and what they describe, respectively – are contained within the other, constitute one another, and represent their mutual subject matters. In some contexts religion is understood as knowledge and is organized as social knowledge. In others, religion and knowledge are set apart in divergent, yet conflicting, discourses within which reciprocal challenges, or to some extent even conflicts of interpretation, occur.

As a result of the increasingly dissolving bonds of culture and space as described by Arjun Appadurai, Homi Bhaba and others, today’s many world religions are characterised by very different discursive notions of religion and knowledge that exist in parallel. Regardless, in a significant portion of European discourses of knowledge – even within the so-called ‘post-secular’ discourses – the demarcation line between ‘religion’ and ‘knowledge’ is predominantly organized by the ‘secular distinction’. That is, a particular form of discourse about ‘religion’ and ‘knowledge’ dominates that implies a clear boundary between the realm of religion and a secular realm, and where the competence for ‘knowledge’ is predominantly, or even exclusively, allocated to the latter.

Yet, the ‘secular distinction’ itself evolved from discourses about the attributions of religion and knowledge, and is thus highly dependent on its context today. Hence, within the context of the programme, the distinction itself shall be critically reflected and examined regarding its context of origin on the one hand, and in terms of its social function, which provides its discursive continuation, on the other. From the perspective of a postcolonial or rather decolonial knowledge practice, religion can be considered both, as a part of (colonial) hegemonic knowledge and as (decolonial) subaltern knowledge. 

The doctoral programme encourages and supports research projects that critically investigate and reflect on diverse discursive categorizations and notions of religion and knowledge. In the course of it, the individual research projects shall examine different approaches and viewpoints – contrasting, divergent, parallel, complementary, or other – from varying periods and cultures. With a particular focus on the present and the period from the late 18th century onwards, the programme aims at broad and widespread geographical references in order to foster a rich discussion on the interlacing and diverse dynamics of global communicative and discursive processes, within which the notions of religion and knowledge are situated.

Theoretical concepts will be examined during the programme primarily in view of their historically contingent context of emergence as such, as well as their own accountability. A critical engagement with the history of methodology and the history of theory therefore plays a major role in the subject matter focus of the programme. A critical dialogue shall be sought between different disciplines and their specific methodological approaches including hermeneutics, epistemology, systems theory, network theory and others. In this contexts, it is necessary to be aware of the issue that scholarly perspectives on the discursive relationship between religion and knowledge cannot be provided independently of epistemological presuppositions, which themselves constitute a subject area of the programme.  

The academic staff involved in the programme have come together over their shared interest for scholarly investigation as part of a transdisciplinary group to understand how the relationship between ‘religion’ and ‘knowledge’ is being determined within their respective discourses. Of particular interest in this context is to explore how the specific definitions of the terms ‘religion’ and ‘knowledge’ are created by putting the subjects in relation to one another, or drawing a demarcation line to one another, by means of case studies on various cultural regions.

Religion seen as a rather fluid communicative construct, as it can be observed in present day Europe by qualitative empirical methodologies, shall be analysed with respect to how it orients human behaviour in everyday life: It provides interpretational knowledge producing “sense”, extrapolates moral resources and stimulates practical motivations – yet maintains essentializing categories of knowledge.

At least since the late 18th century, within the context of the European scholarly knowledge orders, ‘Religion’ (in the singular) as a distinct knowledge category became a crucial theological and philosophical subject. This was closely linked to the emergence of new approaches in textual analysis, by which initially Christian-Protestant Theology distanced itself from the Bible as an absolute norm, and put itself into a historic-critically questioning relationship to the biblical texts. Subsequently, those (historical-critical) methods served as a model for the interpretation of other historical sources and literary texts.

In the course of the differentiation of the philosophical faculties in the 19th century, ‘Religions’ (in the plural) and their histories became the subject of the study of religion, social and cultural studies, and as a consequence thereof a subject-matter pattern of a European perspective on other religions of the world.

In Sub-Saharan Africa and some other regions, this European perspective resulted in the external documentation and discussion of those cultural systems, in which no distinction had been made between what the European approach separated into ‘religion’ and ‘knowledge’. Trough the contact with European cultures and hegemonic systems as well as trough the Christian efforts of ‘mission’ or the Muslim efforts of ‘da’wa’, respectively, new types of religious dynamics were put in motion in these regions, and new institutions of knowledge evolved. The doctoral programme also seeks to analyse those processes, which can be described – according to the specific perspective adopted – as ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ or ‘transcultural formation of knowledge’, and examined with regards to their mutual interaction with the European production of knowledge. 

Under contemporary conditions, in many places around the world various religious practices can be observed to be existing simultaneously, which under the condition of former knowledge orders appeared to be strictly allocated to particular cultural systems. Thus, for example, discourses about Jewish and Muslim religious practices and their transformations in the context of institutions of knowledge in different countries can be investigated comparatively, and the new network-like formations of the organization of knowledge can be surveyed in terms of their effects in new dynamics of the public discourses of religion in traditional predominantly Islamic countries.

Postcolonial and decolonial perspectives on the generation of knowledge – initially in Latin America, South Africa, and South Korea – led to forms of critical practice of knowledge in new types of religious communities that were conceptualized as egalitarian. Studies of the reception of those experiences as critical and self-reflecting practice within established systems of knowledge of religious communities are still to be examined to a great extent.