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Dislodging "Embedded" Religion: A Brief Note on a Scholarly Trope

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Scholars of ancient cultures are increasingly speaking of the "embeddedness" of ancient religion — arguing that the practices modern investigators group under the heading of "religion" did not compose a well-defined category in antiquity; instead, they claim that "religion was embedded" in other aspects of ancient culture. These writers use this notion of "embeddedness" to help us see that categories post-Enlightenment thinkers often regard as distinct (such as politics, economics, and religion) largely overlapped in antiquity. The trope of "embedded religion" can, however, also produce the false impression that religion is a descriptive concept rather than a redescriptive concept for ancient cultures (i.e., that there really is something "out there" in antiquity called "Roman religion" or "Mesopotamian religion," which scholars are simply describing rather than creating). By allowing this slippage between descriptive and redescriptive uses of "religion," the rhetoric of "embedded religion" exacerbates the very problem it is meant to solve.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Religious Studies, Yale University, 451 College St., P.O. Box 208287, New Haven, CT, USA


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