Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Meta-Religion: Religion and Power in World History

James W. Laine
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Whereas many textbooks treat the subject of world religions in an apolitical way, as if each religion were a path for individuals seeking wisdom and not a discourse intimately connected with the exercise of power, James W. Laine treats religion and politics as halves of the same whole, tracing their relationship from the policies of Alexander the Great to the ideologies of modern Europe secularists, with stops in classical India, China, and the Islamic world.Meta-Religionis a groundbreaking text that brings power and politics to the fore of our understanding of world religions, placing religion at the center of world history. This synthetic approach is both transformative and enlightening as it presents a powerful model for thinking differently about what religion is and how it functions in the world. With images and maps to bring the narrative to life,Meta-Religioncombines sophisticated scholarly critique with accessibility that students and scholar alike will appreciate.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95999-6
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    James W. Laine
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    In order to avoid the sort of bland detachment and presumed political neutrality of the usual world religions survey, I will pursue a particular argument that I believe takes religion more seriously than is usually the case in the academic world, where religions are “appreciated” more than fought over. My argument is a simple one: If you have discovered the truth, will you not want to live in a world governed by that truth? In other words, if God has spoken to you in a revelation; or the subtle nature of Reality has appeared to you in meditative experience; or...


    • [PART ONE. Introduction]
      (pp. 13-14)
    • CHAPTER 1 Alexander and Ashoka: Cosmopolitan Empires and Religious Policy from Egypt to India, 330–230 B.C.
      (pp. 15-30)

      One obvious place to begin a broad reflection on the history of religion is with the founders of great religions—Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, Confucius, Muhammad—and then their immediate followers. But if we are to take seriously the issue of the way that religion is enabled and constrained by political power, perhaps the less obvious path of investigating the place of religion in the imperial polity will be more fruitful. How did the imperial state patronize Buddhism or Christianity? In late antiquity, how did the state adjudicate between the conflicting claims of multiple religions? How did minority religions carve...

    • CHAPTER 2 Imperial Religion: China to Rome, 250 B.C.–250 A.D.
      (pp. 31-58)

      How was religion related to the exercise of power in the centuries after Alexander? In distant China, as well as in India and the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean, religious diversity flourished, but under the careful management of those who wielded power and influence: in China, the emperor and the bureaucracy of scholar-officials; in Rome, something similar; and in India, far more loosely, the priestly caste, the brahmins. India will be the subject of the next chapter as we now concentrate on the two imperial wings of Eurasia, Rome and China, who opened trade channels and exalted emperors to divine...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Debate over Dharma: Hindus and Buddhists Compete for Ideological Dominance in South Asia
      (pp. 59-78)

      While political and cultural unity of China or Rome was never assured or fully achieved, the very fact that it was an ideal contrasts markedly with India, where cultural diversity remained the norm, and perhaps surprisingly, even the goal of those governing the society. Whereas Ashoka had accepted a measure of religious diversity, his promulgation of a universal, meta-religiousdharmamight have resulted in a cultural ideal and policy for rule that promoted unity. But in the centuries after Ashoka, brahmin intellectuals met the challenge of Buddhist universalism with a project to reclaim the word dharma, and to develop a...

    • CHAPTER 4 Confessional Religion and Empire before the Rise of Islam
      (pp. 79-104)

      In the centuries leading up to the rise of Islam (300–700 A.D.), the great empires of Eurasia transformed and were transformed by universalistic and confessional religious movements. Rome became a Christian empire. The Guptas in India saw a renewed Hinduism attain its classical form. Buddhism found a home in China in a period of north-south political division. The Sasanian Empire of Persia saw the revival and reorganization of a national Zoroastrian church. And betwixt and between them all, in the Central Asian bazaars and courts of the Silk Road, a rich variety of religious ideas found expression in cosmopolitan...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Rise of Islam and the Early Caliphate, 622–711 A.D.
      (pp. 105-118)

      It is often assumed that religions arise as the result of intense personal experience, and are appropriately the concern of sincere individuals in their quest for truth. This rather protestant bias assumes that the wedding of religion to politics is an illegitimate one, even though Protestantism itself arose as a very political movement. A bias of this sort, along with the historiographical bias mentioned above, namely that the world of late antiquity concludes with the beginning of medieval Christendom in western Europe, has pushed the history of the rise of Islam to the margins of both religious and historical discourse...


    • [PART TWO. Introduction]
      (pp. 119-120)
    • CHAPTER 6 Imperial Islam, 690–1500 A.D.
      (pp. 121-140)

      Just sixty years after the death of the Prophet, caliphs ruled not as tribal chieftains but as absolute monarchs in the Persian style. Indeed, by the time of Abd al-Malik (r. 685–705), caliphal rule could only be preserved only by ruthless absolutism. He was never reluctant to use brutal force to subdue fellow Muslims who resisted his authority. One of his generals even bombarded the Ka’ba in quashing rebellion in Mecca, and like Mu’awiyah, he policed Iraq with Syrian troops.² If as caliph he inherited the political role of the Prophet as military commander of the faithful, there was...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Great Islamic Empires of the Early Modern Era, ca. 1500–1700
      (pp. 141-160)

      In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, three great Muslim empires—the Mughal in India; the Safavid in Persia; and the Ottoman in Turkey, the Balkans, and the Middle East—were held in a balance of power that checked their individual ambitions, and strained but did not break the unity of Islamic civilization. In all three, emperors ruled who had Turkish bloodlines and whose legitimacy was buttressed by the royal traditions of Persia and the charisma of Sufi saints. Their rivalry with each other was of greater import to them than their rivalry with other civilizations on their borders. Only at...


    • [PART THREE. Introduction]
      (pp. 161-162)
    • CHAPTER 8 Putting Religion in Its Place, I: Reformers, Kings, and Philosophers Challenge the Church
      (pp. 163-181)

      The existence of Portuguese trading colonies on the coast of Akbar’s India certainly did not signal to him or to any of the great Muslim nobles in the next two centuries that the Islamic world was about to be eclipsed by European power,² any more than wealthy Venetian merchants in Istanbul threatened the confidence of the great Ottoman Sultan. But in the period from 1500 to 1700, as Muslim emperors ruled over an Islamic world that was politically divided but culturally linked, a world still at the peak of its wealth, power, and infl uence, developments in Europe—religious, political...

    • CHAPTER 9 Putting Religion in Its Place, II: Revolution and Religious Freedom
      (pp. 182-203)

      The Enlightenment impulses to secularize, rationalize, and reform—thus breaking with theancien régime’sinstinct to revere without question the doctrines of the church and sacrality of royal power—first bore fruit in North America, with its less aristocratic social system, to be followed perhaps more radically, if fitfully, in France. American and French revolutionaries were intellectual cousins. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were quite at home in France, Franklin a darling of Paris salons from 1776 to 1785, as ambassador, and Jefferson his successor there from 1785 to 1789. Both were enthusiastic rationalists and empiricists, committed to exploration...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Contemporary Era: The Worldwide Regime of Meta-Religion
      (pp. 204-232)

      In the nineteenth century, Europeans and Americans embraced religious and philosophical views that emphasized the freedom of the individual and with that, a consequent pluralism. They tried to uphold these ideals even while clinging to practices like colonialism and slavery that stood in direct contradiction to their egalitarian values. In much of the contemporary world, especially in the West, we are still plagued by similar tensions. The developed world is one where old Enlightenment notions of the freedom and dignity of individuals are upheld with a sort of religious assurance, and even promoted with missionary zeal, while being tested by...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 233-240)

    I hope that in this survey of religion and power from the age of Alexander the Great to our own day that I have shown a few critical things about this relationship:

    Any commonsense understanding of religion should assume that claims about the Truth will have political consequences.

    Mahatma Gandhi had a supreme confidence that his political activism was based on a truth not derived simply from Hinduism, but a truth that transcended all religions, a truth reflected in teachings found all over the world. It gave him the authority to challenge Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, to critique the ideas...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 241-262)
  11. Suggested Readings
    (pp. 263-266)
  12. Index
    (pp. 267-282)