Beginning from the observation that religious diversity today refers primarily to a distinct set of ‘religions’ and their subdivisions, this chapter traces the historical development of these understandings, their consequences, and their possible transformation in the current period. It begins by looking at certain concepts found in recent discussions of the ‘Axial Age’ thesis and suggests that the dominance of the religion/secular distinction is what characterizes modern religion that manifests itself as religions, not putatively Axial and pre-Axial distinctions like transcendent/immanent or sacred/profane. On the basis of a historical analysis, the argument proceeds to show how, beginning during the later Middle Ages, the development of institutional system differentiation in European society and the subsequent appropriation of this development in the rest of the world were the basis for the institutionalization of this modern religion and its religions. This prevailing pattern is now under some challenge, as alternate ways for forming the ‘religious’ become more prominent, including on the basis of different concepts (like spirituality and culture) and different distinctions, including transcendent/immanent and sacred/profane applied outside the framework of religious/secular. The chapter concludes with an illustration using results from research on the religion of second generation young adults in Canada.
Controversies within religious studies over the categories of religion and religions are reflective of changes in religion that correspond to the historical development of global society in recent centuries. The globalization of society has created social conditions that encourage the differentiation of religion as a distinct modality of social communication based on binary codes and centred on institutionalized programmes that flow from these. The result has been the gradual construction and imagining of an ambiguous but nonetheless observable and operative global religious system. From its beginnings in early modern Western Christianity, the system has spread haltingly and gradually to the rest of the world. Similar to the way the spread of the global political system brought about the discovery and construction of nations, the development of the religious system has resulted in the crystallization of ‘religions’, especially but not exclusively what we now call the world religions. The examples of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Chinese religion are discussed briefly as illustration.