What is religion?

Lecture for an online class at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

Clicking on the photo above will take you to the Youtube video lecture.

The full text of the lecture is below the fold.

N.B.: The written text diverges slightly from the text in the video.

What is religion?

This is the first in a series of adult classes on religion at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. Each class can be taken separately, but if you attend all of the classes, you’ll probably see that I’m making some long-term arguments about the role and place of religion in today’s world.

Full disclosure: I am not trained in religious studies. I have an undergraduate degree in philosophy, and a graduate degree in practical theology; I have substantial training in the arts; and I work full time in a religious organization. My biases and blind spots will, no doubt, become quickly obvious, but I hope I also bring an interesting perspective to the topic of religion.

Let’s dive right in and try to define religion. Since my job is in religious education, I spend a fair amount of time talking with children and teens, and American children and teens have a pretty good idea of what religion is. Religion, in their view, requires belief in a supernatural masculine deity named “God.” Religion is most often associated with conservative political commitments including opposing LGBTQ rights and abortion rights, and an unthinking American patriotism. Religious behaviors include praying to a supernatural masculine deity, attending worship services every week, reading the Bible, and behaving sanctimoniously. In short, religion looks a lot like white conservative evangelical Protestant Christianity.

Actually, many of the American adults I know define religion in much the same way. I know devout Jews who say, “I’m really not religious,” meaning they’re not conservative white evangelicals. I know devout Catholics who are apologetic because they go to mass regularly. The few white conservative Christian evangelicals I know are defensive about their religious commitment, which is not surprising, given how many other people don’t want to be identified with white conservative Christianity. Mind you, these are all people who live in the United States; I’m not speaking about everyone in the world here.

On the face of it, it’s obviously absurd to think that religion is the same thing as white conservative evangelical Christianity. Of course there are many other religions besides Christianity, and of course there are non-white Christians, and progressive Christians, and so on. Yet there’s a grain of truth in the common perception that religion is the same thing as white conservative evangelical Christianity.

We can trace that grain of truth back to the origins of the concept of religion. You see, religion is actually a fairly recent concept; it emerged from the European intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. The concept of religion was originally formulated in part as a way to justify how emerging nation-states were accumulating power. “Religious” was defined as something separate from “secular” to set up two spheres of influence; the nation-state stayed out of the religious sphere, but at the same time the nation-state reserved the ultimate authority over coercive power both within and outside its borders. You can find a good summary of this argument in the book “The Myth of Religious Violence” by William T. Cavanaugh.

Thus when we say we have “freedom of religion,” that’s actually just a way of saying that religions are prohibited from having any military or police power. It’s also increasingly clear that nation-states in fact do have what can only be called religious rituals. In the United States, some of our holidays — remember, “holiday” really means “holy day” — include veneration of quasi-deities such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King; we have huge temples dedicated to such quasi-deities, such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and pilgrimage sites such as the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. I see a strong resemblance between United States civil religion, and how the ancient Romans venerated and deified their emperors and heroes.

But to get back to the Enlightenment. While one purpose of the concept of religion was giving Enlightenment thinkers a way to better define the secular state, there was another less savory purpose. The development of the concept of religion coincides with the development of European colonialism. The secular nation-states of Europe found that the concept of religion was a powerful tool for justifying and extending colonialism. The Europeans equated civilization with Christianity, with Christendom. There were Jews in Europe, too, of course, and so Judaism was understood as a religion, though it defined as an early predecessor to Christianity and therefore not the equal of Christianity.

What about those other religions beyond Christianity? They were defined as primitive, heathen religions, and one of the justifications for colonialism was to extend Christendom, to extend civilization to the heathens. And those other religions could never match up to Christianity, because the concept of religion had been defined using Christianity as the paradigm, so by its very definition no other religion could be as good as Christianity. So you can see, when we say “religion,” we’re naming a concept that started out as a tool for justifying European colonialism, where the only real religion was Christianity, and anything else was there to be subjugated. No wonder we feel some visceral discomfort with the word “religion.”

Then as the Enlightenment continued, an increasing number of thinkers began to question the supernatural elements of Christianity. By the nineteenth century, the category of religion had been expanded to include Buddhism. Why? Because Buddhism looked to some Western thinkers to be like Christianity with the yucky bits taken out. These Westerners claimed that Buddhism was more in tune with science, and they saw Gotama Buddha as Jesus without the miracles; what they were really doing was helping to invent a new movement that scholars now call Buddhist modernism. In any case, at some point Buddhism began to look enough like Christianity that it came to be accepted as another religion, as something more than heathenism. Eventually, Buddhists in Asia and elsewhere picked up on this idea, and now Buddhist modernism is everywhere.

Another nineteenth century development led to European recognition of another religion. In the Indian subcontinent, a number of Indian leaders realized that their English colonial overlords guaranteed religious freedom. They then began defining some of their rituals and their philosophy as a religion that became known as Hinduism. Thus Hinduism as a “world religion” emerged during British colonial rule as a way for colonized peoples to enjoy some legally guaranteed freedoms.

During the twentieth century, scholars added more “world religions” to their field. World religions were typically distinguished from so-called local religions. Thus, the Navajo religion is a local religion because it only exists on the Navajo Indian reservation. But religions that spread to more than one locale had a chance of counting as world religions; here again, Christianity remains a paradigmatic case for how religion is defined, because Christianity is a missionary religion, which means is spreads over wide geographic areas. So too with Buddhism and Islam, the other two major missionary religions.

What’s remarkable during the twentieth century is the extent to which religions of Africa and the African diaspora were utterly ignored. Religions indigenous to Africa were often dismissed by religion scholars as “primitive religions,” or “local religions.” Religions of the African diaspora were at best dismissed as “cults,” or more often ignored altogether. In one example, Orisha devotion, now counted as a major world religion, was only studied by a few scholars prior to the 1990s. In another example, here in the States it’s difficult to find books or unbiased coverage on African Independent Churches or African Indigenous Churches.

As a case study, I’d like you to consider the way the Nation of Islam is covered in the popular imagination in the U.S. Most people will dismiss it as a violent racist cult. Those of us who know something more about the Nation of Islam might say they can’t be real Muslims because they don’t read Arabic, and they don’t follow the Five Pillars of Islam. As if we, non-Muslims that we are, get to define what constitutes Islam! This attitude towards this black religious group reveals the colonial impulse that still lives within the concept of religion.

There’s still this sense that we, as outsiders, get to judge other religions, and if we judge that some other religion is falling short in some way, then we can justify dismissing it, or even using governmental authority to forcibly control it. In other words, the concept of religion is still used to justify colonization. There’s plenty of scholarship to show how African Americans in the U.S. are treated as colonized peoples, and one of the ways white people maintain colonial control over black people is through religion.

Again, no wonder we feel discomfort with the word “religion.” But we should feel even more uncomfortable with the militant atheists. They claim to be not religious, and claim they want to eradicate religion. Yet what they do reminds me of the conservative Christian evangelicals they profess to hate. To my way of thinking, they look exactly like those purifying Protestants who want to get rid of everyone who doesn’t believe what they believe. And too many of the militant atheists seem to believe in a scientific triumphalism that seems as unbelievable to me as conservative Christian theology; instead of a big daddy God who’s going to save us all from our sings, it’s big daddy Science that will save us instead. Worse still, some of the militant atheists want to get rid of religion, which is just too similar to European and American colonial powers wanting to get rid of other religions among their colonized peoples.

So what do we do now? Should we just get rid of the concept of religion? Well, that’s pretty unrealistic. What we can do is to start thinking about a more accurate definition of religion.

First big point: When deciding what gets to be a religion, we should be more inclusive rather than less inclusive. Ideally, we want to divorce the concept of religion from colonialism, so we have to be careful about saying something “isn’t really a religion,” or it’s “primitive” or it’s a “cult,” or just be generally dismissive. As an example, here in the U.S., we have to be especially careful when it comes to black religions, or indeed any religion that does not have predominantly white member. Therefore, we better think hard before claiming the Nation of Islam “isn’t really a religion,” and we better be careful about being dismissive of Pentecostalism.

Second big point: When we define religion, we should not use Western Christianity as the paradigm. Western Christianity is deeply concerned with faith and belief and dogma. Therefore, we should be suspicious of any definition of religion that focuses on belief and personal choice. Instead, we will consider a wider range of defining characteristics for religion, including social organization, material culture, ritual, myths and narratives, and so on.

Western Christianity also understands religion primarily as a matter of personal choice. Therefore we should be wary of claims that religion is always a matter of personal choice. We’ll look for external factors that can affect the religious affiliation of individuals and groups, factors like economic pressures, colonialism, and globalism; as well as kinship ties, citizenship in a nation-state, and other social influences.

By the way, all this will make us skeptical of the term “spiritual but not religious” — this is a valid term only insofar as “spirituality” is located within the experience of an individual — so a definition of religion that extends beyond Western Christian norms can safely ignore the supposed difference between “spiritual” and “religious.”

Western Christianity also claims that there are well-defined boundaries between religions, that is, an individual is either one thing or another, and one person can’t have multiple religious identities. Therefore, we should be cautious of defining religion such that multiple religious affiliations are not allowed. Instead, we’ll consider multiple religious belonging as a normal feature of religion.

This leads us to a third big point: When defining religion, we must remember that religions interact with one another, trading influences back and forth, so much so that it can be difficult to determine where one religion ends and another one begins. For example, does the Chrislam movement in Nigeria belong to Christianity and Islam? — it’s almost impossible to say. So under our definition of religion, any taxonomy of religious groups will be considered quite fluid.

Religions also change over time. This means there is no static thing called “Christianity,” there is instead a dynamic changing movement. And religions also change radically in different cultural contexts, so that even within Christianity in one time period, the Quakers of suburban Philadelphia are wildly different from Ethiopian Orthodox Christians of Addis Ababa. In short, our definition of religion will recognize that religion is characterized by change and dynamism.

A fourth big point, based on the above points: As we define religion, we’re going to be extremely skeptical of any claims that there’s some universal truth that’s in every religion. Why are we going to be skeptical? First, such universalizing claims have been made in the service of colonialism, to help integrate subjugated people into the worldview of the colonizers. Second, such claims usually arise from the Western Christian notion of considering belief or doctrine or dogma to be central, rather than looking at ritual, social organization, or material culture. Third, such claims tend to ignore how religions change over time, and change across cultures.

One final big point: Any definition of religion is liable to change over time and across different societies. If religion is a social construct, then it’s going to be constructed by a social group. As that social group changes over time, the social construct might change as well. And two different societies — for example, the U.S. and China — might come up with different social constructs for religion.

Well, here we are at the end of the time allotted, and I still haven’t defined religion. Yet I feel as though we’ve made some progress. We know that religion is NOT the same thing as Western Christianity. We know that religions change over time and interact with one another. We know that belief and dogma is a small part of religion, and we know our investigations of religion have to look far beyond belief to things like social organization, material culture, ritual, myths and narratives, ethics, personal and group experiences, and so on. So even though we haven’t defined religion, at least we have some notions about how we might study religions.

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