When I was a 20-year old atheist I would read books on the philosophy of religion and explore arguments for and against the existence of god(s). Though I was never naive enough to think that just if people could be exposed to arguments against the argument for design people would be atheists, I wouldn’t have rejected it out of hand.
This is not a view I hold on to in any way because I believe religion as a social-cultural phenomenon is too complex and multi-faceted to reduce to a set of philosophical propositions. The “god of philosophers” ultimately misses the point of the reason so many people believe in god, and what sustain’s religion. But because the philosophers write the histories and dominate the priestly class, they have rewritten religion in their image.
A more complex view has to be brought to bear when we talk about ideas such as the “invention of Hinduism” by the British. If one limits the term “Hindu” to its utilization to point to a self-conscious and concise confessional community unitary across South Asia and disjoint from that of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, etc., then one can assent to the proposition that the “Hindu identity” was “invented” relatively late in history.
But this is a piss-poor resolution to understanding the dynamics of human cultural evolution in South Asia.
As I have noted before, 1,000 years ago al-Biruni presented and anthropological understanding of the religion of Hindus that is totally recognizable and comprehensible to us. I say here “religion of Hindus” because he was referring here to the people of India, Hindus, rather than a religion called Hinduism. This is a shading which refines the descriptions with more precision, but if you actually read al-Beruni you notice that the term “Hinduism” is pure semantic sugar. It doesn’t add much substance, though it tightens up the style. He clearly outlines a religious system and communal identities which we would recognize today as Hindu.
For the philosophers and intellectuals, religion can be reduced down to particular parameters. My own view is that when people say a “Western view” of religion, they are actually alluding to the conception that arose out of the Calvinist framework, which strongly informed the American conception in relation to church-state interaction (and, in some ways, modern atheism is the child of the demystified Calvinist cosmology). Even within the West, this highly rational, confessional, and individualistic, understanding of religion is an artifact of the past few centuries, and not normative across all Christian traditions and societies.
When it comes to this weblog the usage of terms always needs to be framed in the context of their times. If you speak of the “Sunni-Shia” conflict of the 7th-century, you need to realize this is highly anachronistic. Sunni Islam, as we understand it, only developed organically over the centuries in reaction to the claims of the party of Ali and his scions, those who became Shia. Similarly, if one talks about “Hindus” in the context of Maurya India, one realizes that one is bracketing a host of philosophical schools and religious sensibilities which are at variance with Buddhism and Jainism. One can argue whether the term “Hindu” is more or less informative, but one should also understand that one can extract significance from the term even before its 19-century maturation.*
* I would be personally cautious about using the word “Hindu” before the Gupta period, but think that it makes sense after that, even if there was no a self-conscious Hindu religion for many centuries after. Your mileage may vary.