Religion: Overview

views updated

Religion: Overview

Like all items of culture, words have a history; meanings and usages change over time. So too, "religion," and the assumption that the world is neatly separated between religious and nonreligious spheres (i.e., Church/State), is a product of historical development and not a brute fact of social life. In the early twenty-first century, long after the modern usage of the word was first coined, it is no longer obvious how it was understood or how it ought to be used. Therefore, contrary to other articles that employ the term as if it refers to a universal feature animating those social movements called "the world's religions"a term first coined in Europe in the nineteenth century (see Masuzawa)this discussion will be concerned instead with the history of the idea of "religion."

The Beginnings of "Religion"

The English "religion" has equivalents in other modern languages; for example, in Germany the academic study of religion is known as Religionswissenschaft (Wissenschaft systematic study) and in France it is known as les Sciences Religieuses (in nineteenth-century Britain the academic study of religion was sometimes called Comparative Religion or the Science of Religion). A cursory comparison reveals that lexicons influenced by Latin and, later, European culture possess something equivalent to "religion." This means that for pre-contact cultures, or those few that remain unaffected by Europe and North America, there was no necessary equivalent term.

Consider the case of modern India; although "religion" is not a traditional concept there (i.e., Sanskrit long predates the arrival of Latin-based languages), British colonialism ensures that contemporary English-speaking citizens of the Indian nation-state conceive what is called "Hinduism" as their "religion"although, historically speaking, that which world religions textbooks now call "Hinduism" was understood by its practitioners as sanatana dharma : the cosmic system of obligations that impacted all aspects of samsara (the almost endless cycle of births and rebirths). Consider another case: even the New Testament is not much help since its language of compositioncommon, or koine Greekalso predated Latin; its authors therefore lacked the roots from which in the early 2000s are derived the word "religion." So, although English translations routinely use "religion" or "godliness" to translate such Greek terms as eusebia (1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:5), or threskia (Acts 26:5; James 1:26, 27), these ancient Greek terms are much closer to the Sanskrit dharma, the Chinese li, and the Latin pietas all having something to do with the quality one is thought to possess as a result of properly fulfilling sets of social obligations, expectations, and ritual procedures, not only toward the gods or ancestors but also to one's family, peers, superiors, servants, and so on. Despite "piety" currently meaning an inner sentiment or affection, to be pious in ancient Athenswhat Socrates was accused of not being, as the story is told in Plato's dialogue on defining piety, Euthyphro (c. 380 b.c.e.)meant recognizing and publicly signaling differences in social status. This, of course, is the great irony of the Euthyphro : Socrates' accuser is a young upstart, and Socrates' teacher is an outright braggart; by their behavior the ancient reader would have known that neither can judge either eusebia or Socrates.

If by religion is meant a matter of belief, separable from forms of action and political organization, signified by one's assent to a creed and enacted in certain ritual behaviors (i.e., worship), then even in Latin the modern term "religion" has no equivalent. For its precursors are thought to have meant, "to bind something tightly together," "to re-read," or "to pay close attention." Recognizing that the term's history holds no clue concerning how it ought to be used, scholars find a number of questions in need of investigation: If a culture does not have the concept, can "their religion" be studied? Should scholarship only employ concepts local to the group under study? Is the thing to which this word points shared by all people, regardless of their self-understandings (as Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet")? Is using the local term as if it were a universal signifier an act of cultural imperialism?

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbiddenbeliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them. In showing that the idea of religion is inseparable from the idea of a Church, it conveys the notion that religion must be an eminently collective thing. (Durkheim, p. 44)

These are important questions for those who attempt to develop a cross-culturally useful definition of this concept, distinguishable from its popular or folk definition. Just as chemists develop a technical vocabulary that enables them to talk about "H2O" instead of "water," so too scholars of religion attempt to develop technical categories capable of working with cross-cultural data. As with anthropologists who study "culture"yet another Latin-based termthe challenge, then, is to take a contextually specific word and use it in diverse historical and geographic settings.

The Essentials of Religion

A notable early attempt was that of Edmund Burnett Tylor (18321917) in his influential book, Religion in Primitive Culture (1871); religion, he argued, was to be defined as "belief in spiritual beings." In this minimalist definition is seen the still common emphasis on an essentially private, intellectual component (religion believing this or that) rather than on, for instance, the behavioral or the social components, as in Émile Durkheim's (18581917) emphasis on public ritual and institution in his still influential study, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912). In Tylor's onetime popular definition is therefore found the philosophically idealist remnants of an earlier era in European history, when one's membership within certain groups was thought to be primarily dependent upon whether one believed in something (i.e., a creed). In fact, the presumption persists that "the cumulative tradition" is the deadened expression of a prior, dynamic affectation known as "faith" (e.g., W. C. Smith's 1962 work, The Meaning and End of Religion ). In contemporary popular culture, people who distinguish spirituality from the institution of religion are easily found.

With its emphasis on the intellectual component (along with Herbert Spencer [18201903] and James G. Frazer [18541941], Tylor is numbered among the Intellectualists, a nineteenth-century anthropological tradition), Tylor's work offers an example of a classic definitional strategy: essentialism. Because religions struck such observers as obviously having a number of different characteristics, many of which were understood as mere accidents (i.e., the result of specific cultural, historical, or geographic context), they thought it unwise to define religion based on what they took to be its secondary, external aspects. Instead, Tylor reasoned, one ought to identify "the deeper motive which underlies them." Belief in spiritual beings, he concluded, was therefore the "essential source" for all religions; accordingly, his naturalistic theory of religion sought to account for belief in spiritual beings. Tylor's definition are therefore referred to as essentialist (also termed substantivist): identifying the one essential feature (or substance).

In other words, if, as the German Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto (18691937) once argued in The Idea of the Holy (1917), that which sets religions apart is the participant's feeling of awe and fascination when in the presence of what Otto termed the mysterium tremendum (the compelling yet repelling mystery of it all), then without this sense of awe and fascination there is no religion. The feeling of awe (a complex combination of fear, trembling, fascination, and attraction) was, for Otto, the essence of religion. Although Tylor's and Otto's classic definitions are significantly different (i.e., the former is anthropological, interested only in the fact of a belief, rather than its truth, whereas the latter is theological, presuming the object of the belief to exist and to prompt an emotional response), both went about the task of definition in the same manner: the inductive method was used, whereby one compares a number of empirical examples, looking for their underlying similarity. Here is seen the common strategy of employing the comparative method to identify nonempirical commonality, such that difference is understood to be a nonessential feature of contingent historyan approach characteristic of a number of scholars, from Frazer's multivolume The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (first edition 1890) to Mircea Eliade's (19071986) Traitê d'histoire des religions (1949).

The Functions of Religion

With the essentialist approach in mindan approach adopted by those who presume religions house a core experience that is set apart from all other human behaviorsit may be contrasted with the functionalist approach. Consider the thing that appears in many classrooms: a lectern behind which the professor stands while lecturing. What is the difference between a lectern and a pulpit, for the same physical object could easily be identified as both? For the functionalist scholar, there is no one essential feature that unites all things people call "lecterns"; instead, the context into which something is placed, the expectations placed upon it by its users, and the purpose it serves are what cause things to be defined as this and not that. For early twentieth-century scholars, it was this shift from speculating on universal, nonempirical qualities and affectations to observing the role of local, historical context and empirical effects that signified the development of a truly scientific (i.e., historical, documentable) study of religion, in distinction from a well-meaning but, nonetheless, theologically motivated study of religion's enduring value or groundless speculations on its prehistoric origins and evolutionary development.

While there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religiousthere is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study. It is created for the scholar's analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy. For this reason, the student of religion must be relentlessly self-conscious. Indeed, this self-consciousness constitutes his primary expertise, his foremost object of study. (Jonathan Z. Smith, p. xi)

In the early twenty-first century, functionalists owe much to such writers as Karl Marx (18181883), whose materialist, political economy theorized religion as a social pacifier that both deadened the oppressed's sense of pain and alienation while simultaneously preventing them from doing something about their lot in life since ultimate responsibility was thought to reside with a being who existed outside history; Durkheim, whose sociological study understood intertwined sets of beliefs and practices to enable individuals to form the idea of a common social identity; and, of course, Sigmund Freud (18561939), whose psychological studies led him to liken public ritual to private obsessive-compulsive disorders and myths to the role dreams play in helping an individual to express symbolically antisocial anxieties in a manner that does not threaten their place within the group. Twenty-first-century scholarship is pressing such classic work in new directionsfor example, drawing on materialist scholarship and semiotic theory to study myth (Lincoln); using a social theory to account for such things as the beginnings of Christianity (Mack); and developing a theory of religion based on the findings of cognitive psychology and evolutionary theory (Boyer).

Religion as an Item of Public Discourse

When it comes to defining religion, there are thus two common approaches: either one inductively browses through the group of things called religion, looking for an essentially shared feature or one sets about looking for the universal function it performs. If one takes the former route, then objects are defined by some feature that is internal to them, more often than not some nonempirical feature judged to be sui generis (i.e., self-caused, one of a kind). For instance, because there are innumerable observable differences among the members of the group known as, say, "U.S. citizens," people often fall back on the assumption that what really unites the members of this group is an internal experience, a feeling, an attitudeall things that cannot be tasted, touched, smelled, or heard, but, instead, only felt by the participants themselves and approximated rather crudely by the uninitiated observer. Because for many people religion is assumed to refer to an invisible but all-too-real interior world that is fully experienced only by the believer (a point often associated with Otto's work), this essentialist approach is still popular, within and outside the academy.

But, if "religion" is to be used in the human sciences as a classification to name an aspect of the observable, intersubjective world, then the essentialist approach is not helpful for it is premised on the priority of a subjective, private world of affectation and aesthetic appreciation. Because the functionalist approach focuses on the use to which something is put, it shifts attention to defining something in light of an observable group of people, their needs, their goals, and their interests (demonstrating the debt scholars of religion owe to such anthropological predecessors as Mary Douglas and her 1966 study of the sociology of classification, Purity and Danger ). The functionalist approach therefore holds more promise for the academic study of religion practiced as part of a public discourse.

Resemblances among Religions

A final approach to consider is the one sometimes favored by those who wish to steer a middle path between essentialist and functionalist approaches. This is referred to as the family resemblance approach, credited to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951), who asked people to stop and consider how it is that they actually go about classifying things. If they did this, he suggested, they would see that all members of the family called "game" more or less shared a series of traits or characteristics, just as no two members of a family are exactly alike but, instead, each more or less share a series of characteristics (such as name, hair color, temperament, height, favorite foods, blood type, and so on). Definition, for Wittgenstein, was therefore an activity of choice; it therefore falls to the users of classificationssuch as those who seek to define religionnot only to have what an anthropologist, Benson Saler, has termed a prototypical definition, but also to be prepared to make judgmental calls when a cultural artifact meets so few of their prototype's characteristics that it is questionable whether the artifact can productively be called a religion.

Contrary to both the essentialist and the functionalist scholar passively recognizing either some core feature or purpose served by a religion, Wittgensteinian scholars of religion actively constitute an artifact as religious insomuch as it does or does not match their prototype. That the family resemblance definition widens in the case of more liberal scholars (either politically or theologically), and narrows in the case of those who are more conservative, should not go unnoticed.

To define "religion," to say what it is, is not possible at the start of a presentation such as this. Definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study. (Weber, p. 1)

To define is not to finish, but to start. To define is not to confine but to create something. To define, finally, is not to destroy but to construct for the purpose of useful reflection. In fact, we have definitions, hazy and inarticulate as they might be, for every object about which we know something. Let us, then, define our concept of definition as a tentative classification of a phenomenon, which allows us to begin an analysis of the phenomenon so defined. (Brian K. Smith, pp. 4-5)

Classification as a Scholarly Act

Keeping in mind this relationship between classifier, classification, and that which is classified, it may be seen why a number of contemporary scholars have found the essentialist approach to be unproductive insomuch as its metaphysic presumes a common essence to underlie its varied manifestationsthe presumption that motivated an earlier movement known as the Phenomenology of Religion (e.g., van der Leeuw's 1933 work, Religion in Essence and Manifestation ). Moreover, just as studies of the politics of scholarship have recently appeared throughout the human sciences, so too in the study of religion once this field was re-conceived as a site constituted by choice and interests rather than one based on sympathetic spiritual insight (e.g., Fitzgerald, Wiebe). Due to the breadth of his own work and its international influence, the University of Chicago's Jonathan Z. Smith is, perhaps, the best representative of this recent development among scholars of religion who now take seriously that "religion" is their analytic tool and that it does not necessarily identify a universal affectation lurking deep within human nature.

Contrary to Max Weber (18641920), who famously opened his now classic The Sociology of Religion (1922) by stating that exhaustive description must precede definition, many scholars no longer see classification to be concerned with linking a historical word to an ahistorical trait identified only after all empirical cases have been considered. Instead, classificationlike all human activitiesis now understood as a tactical, provisional activity, directed by deductive scholarly theories and prior social interests in need of disclosure. Classification ensures that some generic thing stands out as an object worthy of describing; for without a prior definition of religion Weber would have had nothing to describe. To paraphrase Jonathan Z. Smith, classification therefore provides scholars with some elbowroom to get on with their work of disciplined inquiry.

See also Anthropology ; Buddhism ; Christianity ; Free Will, Determinism, and Predestination ; Heresy and Apostasy ; Hinduism ; Islam ; Judaism ; Mysticism ; Orthodoxy ; Orthopraxy ; Phenomenology ; Sufism ; Shinto ; Zen .


Arnal, William E. "Definition." In Guide to the Study of Religion. Edited by Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon. London: Continuum, 2000.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Karen Fields. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Fitzgerald, Tim. The Ideology of Religious Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lincoln, Bruce. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Mack, Burton. Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy. London: Continuum, 2001.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions, or How the Idea of European Hegemony Came to be Expressed in the Language of Pluralism and Diversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Morris, Brian. Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Peterson, Derek, and Darren Walhof, eds. The Invention of Religion: Rethinking Belief in Politics and History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Saler, Benson. Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1993.

Smith, Brian K. Reflections and Resemblance, Ritual, and Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Smith, Jonathan Z. "Classification." In Guide to the Study of Religion. Edited by Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon. London: Continuum, 2000.

. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. The Meaning and End of Religion. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1991.

van der Leeuw, Gerardus. Religion in Essence and Manifestation. 2 vols. Translated by J. E. Turner. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Weber, Max. The Sociology of Religion. Introduction by Talcott Parsons and translated by Ephraim Fischoff. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Wiebe, Donald. The Politics of Religious Studies. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Russell T. McCutcheon

About this article

Religion: Overview

Updated About content Print Article