Religion as knowledge

by Kajsa Brilkman & Anna Nilsson Hammar

Many seem to agree that if the history of knowledge wants to grasp more than the production and circulation of scientific knowledge, and, furthermore, understand knowledge as something that is historically and contextually changing, it should pay closer attention to religion. Hence, it is not difficult to find references to scholars writing about the possibilities of history of knowledge, adding religion as one field of investigation.[1] The idea is that religion, during the early modern period as well as during modernity, has structured the perception of the world and guided actions, in much the same way that scientific knowledge does. For historians of knowledge a 17th century Lutheran Minister is as much an agent of knowledge as a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine.

However, looking to the field of the history of knowledge, this insight is not necessarily acted on. The issue of how to write a history of religious knowledge seems to remain obscured, and few attempts have been made to truly incorporate religion into the field.[2] The difficulties that still arise when we speak of religion in terms of knowledge, seems to bear witness to that we may not fully have abandoned our conception of knowledge as something that at least resembles science and scientific production of truth.

Religion, we argue, is a legitimate component of a history of knowledge, and can indeed be viewed as knowledge. Religions produce doctrine, theories, room for action, models for interaction and practice, for self-fashioning etc., all part of the interwoven production and circulation of knowledge in a given historical context.

In her forthcoming article, “Confessional Knowledge; or how can the History of Knowledge and the History of Confessional Europe influence each other?”, Kajsa Brilkman shows that for the early modern context the concept of confessional knowledge could help us to think about religion as knowledge. The reformation caused the split of Christianity into several different, competing confessions during the 16th Century. Each of these confessions maintained an absolute claim to truth, and tried to systematize knowledge to preserve these claims. In the course of the process, they created documents, practices, institutions and agents to uphold these claims.[3] Brilkman argues that if we want to investigate religious knowledge in early modern Europe, we need to take into account this context-specific variety of Christianity, where representatives of the different confessional churches maintained parallel and competing absolute truth claims.

In her forthcoming monograph, Anna Nilsson Hammar studies questions of conscience and how different agents and institutions mobilized and negotiated them during the first half of the 17th century. The language of conscience was a vital part of confessional rhetoric, being used both to mark out the difference between confessions and to assert the core evangelical/Lutheran identity. The writers of the time were also convinced that people in general needed knowledge about the subject matter of conscience. Knowledge thus had to be produced and circulated, and it was. Such efforts are clearly within the scope of a history of knowledge, allowing us to study and follow the intertwined process of production and circulation. Knowledge about conscience was not only of interest to theologians and priests, but was considered an everyday knowledge, necessary for people within all levels of society. As a knowledge phenomenon, it appeared, not only in theological discourse, but also in practice and interaction between subjects and authorities.

In conclusion, the need to incorporate religious knowledge into the history of knowledge is apparent. “Far from being mutually exclusive, religion and knowledge are intertwined”, Kerstin von der Krone has argued.[4] Furthering the field of the history of knowledge includes developing methodologies to deal with religion as knowledge, if nothing more than at least as a way of taking the full consequences of what the history of knowledge actually has to offer.


[1] Simone Lässig “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the historical research Agenda”, Bulletin of the GHI 59 (2016), p. 47; Johan Östling & David Larsson Heidenblad, “Cirkulation – ett kunskapshistoriskt nyckelbegrepp”, Historisk Tidskrift 137/2 (2017), p. 269. See also many examples in Peter Burke, A social history of knowledge. From Gutenberg to Diderot (Cambridge: Polity, 2000). Philipp Sarasin discusses religion, but concludes that however intertwined, there may be analytical reasons to separate “Systemen rationalen Wissens, Glaubenssystemen und Kunst”. Philipp Sarasin, ”Was ist Wissensgeschichte?”, Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der Deutschen Literatur 36 (2011), p. 165f.

[2] See discussion in, Simone Lässig, “Religious Knowledge and Social Adaptability in the Face of Modernity,” History of Knowledge, July 21, 2017,

[3] For an introduction see for example Thomas Kaufmann “What is Lutheran Confessional Culture?“, in Per Ingesman (ed.) Religion as an Agent of Change Crusades – Reformation – Pietism (Leiden: Brill, 2016); Ute Lotz-Heumann ”Confessionalization”, in David  M.  Whitford  (ed.), Reformation and Early Modern Europe: A Guide to Research (Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2007)

[4] Kerstin von der Krone, “Religious Knowledge in Historical Perspective,” History of Knowledge, January 26, 2017,


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