History 280B: The Invention of Religion in Early Modern Europe

Instructor: Ethan Shagan

Since the work of Talal Asad in the 1990s, scholars have endlessly repeated the claim that the analytical category of “religion” was invented in early modern Europe. This assertion is demonstrably false; “religion” has been invented many times, and the modern category continues to evolve. But it does identify an important truth: early modern Europe was a time and place of enormous cultural flux in which competing conceptions of religion were canvassed and power in the world was reorganized around conflicting visions of the human relationship with the divine. This class examines the changing meanings of religion from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries in a series of fraught cultural context: the Renaissance encounter with “paganism”; the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Iberia; the European encounter with the New World; the Reformation’s fragmentation of Western Christianity into multiple “religions”; the theory and practice of religious toleration; the Enlightenment’s shaping of religion as an object of study; and European attempts to understand and control the religions of Asia. We will read both secondary scholarship and primary sources.