It has repeatedly been claimed that the study of religion should not essentialize “religion” as an object of study that exists “out there,” waiting for us to discover and understand “it.” Reflection on the contexts and hidden agendas of concepts of religion are part and parcel of scholarly activity. But can there be an end to such a circle of reflection? This paper argues that definitions of and approaches to religion are intrinsically linked to the episteme and the discourse of the time. After clarifying the terms “discourse,” “episteme,” and “field,” this dynamic is exemplified with the emergence of the academic field of “Western esotericism.” The paper concludes that rather than looking for a better definition of religion, the academic study of religion should focus on describing, analyzing, and demarcating the religious fields of discourse. These fields are both the object of study for scholars of religion and the scholars’ habitat.
The article scrutinizes the genealogy of transgressive discourses in the fields of the natural sciences, metaphysics, and religion. Throughout Western cultural history, and still today, we find influential examples that transgress the borders between empirical method and metaphysical knowledge claims. These borders are shifting constantly and thus it seems more fruitful to address their negotiation as an ongoing discourse in Western culture, rather than trying to fix the distinction between knowledge of nature and knowledge of the divine, linking these fixed borders to the systems of religion and philosophy on the one hand, and to the natural sciences on the other. The article analyzes the discursive entanglements of scientific and religious systems of knowledge about nature and the divine. Within a theoretical framework of historical discourse analysis, the “scientification” of religion since the eighteenth century is discussed, followed by a case study that addresses contemporary life sciences and synthetic biology.