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Wilfred Cantwell Smith (July 21, 1916 – February 7, 2000) was a Canadian professor of comparative religion who from 1964-1973 was director of Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions. The Harvard Gazette characterized him as one of the field's most influential figures of the past century. In his 1962 work The Meaning and End of Religion he notably and controversially questioned the validity of the concept of religion.
He received a B.A. with honours in oriental languages in 1938 from the University of Toronto. After his thesis was rejected by Cambridge University, supposedly for its Marxist critique of the British Raj, he and his wife Muriel Mackenzie Struthers spent seven years in Pre-Independence India (1940–1946), during which he taught Indian and Islamic history at Forman Christian College in Lahore.
In 1948 he obtained a Ph.D in oriental languages at Princeton University, after which he taught at McGill, founding in 1952 the university's Institute of Islamic Studies. From 1964 to 1973 Smith taught at Harvard Divinity School. He left Harvard for Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS, where he founded the Department of Religion. He was also among the original Editorial Advisors of the scholarly journal Dionysius. In 1978 he returned to Harvard. After his retirement from teaching, he was appointed a senior research associate in the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College, University of Toronto, in 1985. He died on February 7, 2000.
In his best known and most controversial work, Smith contends that the concept of religion, rather than being a universally valid category as is generally supposed, is a peculiarly European construct of surprisingly recent origin. The anthropologist and writer on religion and post-colonial studies Talal Asad has characterized The Meaning and End of Religion as a modern classic and a masterpiece.
Smith sets out chapter by chapter to demonstrate that none of the supposed founders of the world's major religions had any such intention. The one exception on the face of it, he concedes, is Islam. In a chapter titled, The special case of Islam, Smith, a minister in the United Church of Canada whose academic speciality was Islam, argues that the prophet Muhammad would have been, above all others perhaps, profoundly alarmed at any suggestion that he was starting a new religion. Smith points out that the Arabic language does not even have a word for religion, strictly speaking: he details how the word din, customarily translated as such, differs in significant important respects from the European concept.
Smith suggests that practitioners of any given faith do not historically come to regard what they do as religion until they have developed a degree of cultural self-regard, causing them to see their collective spiritual practices and beliefs as in some way significantly different from the other. Religion in the contemporary sense of the word is for Smith the product of both identity politics and apologetics:
"One's own 'religion' may be piety and faith, obedience, worship, and a vision of God. An alien 'religion' is a system of beliefs or rituals, an abstract and impersonal pattern of observables. A dialectic ensues, however. If one's own 'religion' is attacked, by unbelievers who necessarily conceptualize it schematically, or all religion is, by the indifferent, one tends to leap to the defence of what is attacked, so that presently participants of a faith - especially those most involved in argument - are using the term in the same externalist and theoretical sense as their opponents. Religion as a systematic entity, as it emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is a concept of polemics and apologetics" (p. 43).
By way of an etymological study of religion (religio, in Latin), Smith further contends that the term, which at first and for most of the centuries denoted an attitude towards a relationship between God and man (p. 26), has through conceptual slippage come to mean a "system of observances or beliefs" (p. 29), a historical tradition which has been institutionalized through a process of reification. Whereas religio denoted personal piety, religion came to refer to an abstract entity (or transcendental signifier) which, Smith says, does not exist.
He argues that the term as found in Lucretius and Cicero was internalized by the Catholic Church through Lactantius and Augustine. During the Middle Ages it was superseded by the term faith, which Smith favors by contrast. In the Renaissance, via the Christian Platonist Marsilio Ficino, religio becomes popular again, retaining its original emphasis on personal practice, even in John Calvin's Christianae Religionis Institutio (1536). During 17th Century debates between Catholics and Protestants, religion begins to refer to an abstract system of beliefs, especially when describing an oppositional structure. Through the Enlightenment this concept is further reified, so that by the nineteenth century Hegel defines religion as Begriff, "a self-subsisting transcendent idea that unfolds itself in dynamic expression in the course of ever-changing history ... something real in itself, a great entity with which man has to reckon, a something that precedes all its historical manifestation" (p. 47).
Smith concludes (p. 48-9) by arguing that the term religion has now acquired four distinct senses:
The Meaning and End of Religion remains Smith's most influential work.