Original Research - Special Collection: Major Theorists of Religion

The self as a lens through which to study religion: Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness revisited

Garth J. Mason
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 77, No 2 | a6715 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v77i2.6715 | © 2021 Garth J. Mason | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 07 April 2021 | Published: 20 July 2021

About the author(s)

Garth J. Mason, Department of Religious Studies and Arabic, Faculty of Humanities, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa


This article offers an analysis of Keiji Nishitani’s understanding of the religious self as a window into his wider understanding of religion. It serves two purposes: to motivate for a revisiting of Nishitani’s book Religion and Nothingness (1983) and to argue that his ideas offer innovative approaches to contemporary Religious Studies. The self is the focus of Nishitani’s understanding of religion. Nishitani argues that the self is in crisis, rooted in the following question: ‘For what purpose do I exist?’ At the point of our deepest doubt (what he terms ‘the Great Doubt’) emerges an awareness of nothingness. That paradoxically leads to the potential for conversion: a uniquely religious experience. Nishitani’s analysis of religion and the self in crisis is valuable for the study of the religion more broadly because it locates the self as an important focus in the study of religion. Nishitani’s argument for the importance of religion and conversion in peoples’ lives foreshadowed two contemporary theoretical topics in the study of religion, namely posthumanism and postsecularism. To be human, to be aware of one’s death as a human being and the absolute doubt it causes, drives us to understand that we share the same fate as all life in the wider ecology and forces us to recognise that we share our creatureliness with all other life forms. Postsecularism is based on the prevalence of religion globally, despite predictions of its demise by secularists. This article reads the later writings of Derrida in the frame of postsecularism.

Contribution: This article contributes to the current research into religious experience in the field of Religious Studies. It also suggests that the current sociological research of religious expression concentrates on identity advocacy but does not acknowledge the opposite issue of identities in crisis. This article addresses the dearth of research on the latter.


Nishitani; self; death; purpose; religion


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