What is religion, anyway?

I’ve been doing a deep dive into the question: What is religion, anyway? It’s pretty clear that “religion,” as we use it today, is a concept that really arises fairly recently in human history, during the European Enlightenment. From what I can see, the concept of “religion” arose from more than one source.

On the one hand, as nation states emerged in the early modern era, there was a general cultural move to make a strong distinction between “religious” and “secular.” “Secular” meant the emerging nation states, which had control over armies, warfare, coining money, imperialism and colonialism, etc. “Religion” was a new category, or perhaps a radical redefinition of medieval Western Christianity. “Religion,” especially in Protestant nation states, was conceived as inhabiting voluntary associations (local congregations and larger groupings of congregations called “churches”), and as being a matter of personal experience. “Secular” meant public spaces; “religious” increasingly meant personal spaces, or spaces inhabited by small bounded communities.

On the other hand, at the same time that Europeans were beginning to distinguish between “religious” and “secular,” they were also sailing all over the world and colonizing other lands and other peoples. As Europeans encountered other peoples, they experienced a bit of culture shock: people in the Americas, in Africa, and in southern and eastern Asia didn’t have anything that looked at all like Christianity — nor like Islam or Judaism, the other two traditions that Christian Europeans knew best. For example, at first Europeans had a hard time knowing what to do with peoples in the Indian subcontinent; then the Europeans decided to subsume a diversity of traditions under the heading of “Hinduism,” arguing that all “Hindus” actually worshiped the same transcendent god, named Brahma, who was sort of like the Christian god; and Hindus all traced there lineages back to sacred texts like the Rig Veda. Before the Europeans colonized the Indian subcontinent, “Hindu” was mostly an ethnic descriptor, people who lived around the Indus River; after colonization, “Hindu” became an adherent of “Hinduism.” So Hinduism is, in a sense, a creation of the colonization process.

The European Enlightenment also challenged traditional European concepts of the Christian God. As the Enlightenment progressed, various people began doubting the truth of the Christian God. By the late nineteenth century, a robust tradition of atheism emerged in Europe and in (European-colonized) North America. From what I can tell, this European tradition of atheism knew little about, e.g., much older traditions of atheism in the Indian subcontinent. That still holds true today, so that what we call “atheism” is really mostly the narrow tradition of Euro-American atheism. I call it narrow, because it was heavily influenced by Protestantism. This is not to say that Euro-American atheism is somehow a kind of super-Protestantism (although it can seem that way at times), but both traditions are clearly the product of the same broader Euro-American culture. As a result, Euro-American atheism can look a lot like Euro-American Christianity, with an emphasis on: personal belief or non-belief; conversion stories; proselytizing or the seemingly similar activity of actively encouraging people to leave religions; etc. Again, it’s not that Christianity and atheism/secularity are two sides of one coin; but rather that they’re both products of the same culture, and seem to take up much the same sort of cultural space.

That’s a brief summary of what an increasing number of scholars agree upon. My deep dive into the topic? I’ve been reading a whole bunch of books.

One book I’ve found helpful on this topic: The Secular Paradox: On the Religiosity of the Not Religious, by Joseph Blankholm (NYU Press, 2022). The book is a sociological study of people who are not religious, and who are part of organized secular groups. One of the fascinating things Blankholm finds is that organized secular groups in the U.S. seem to be dominated by older white men from vaguely Christian backgrounds. Blankholm interviews Black atheists, Hispanic atheists, formerly Jewish atheists, “Muslimish” atheists, etc. — people who often don’t fit neatly into the organized secular groups. So how come the old white guys get to dominate U.S. atheism? Blankholm has some good things to say about this.

Another book I’ve found super helpful is: Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brett Nongbri (Yale Univ. Press, 2015). Nongbri is a scholar who specializes in the Ancient Near East. He also argues that “religion” is a concept that didn’t exist before the European Enlightenment. Thus, when we talk about “ancient Egyptian religion” or “ancient Greek religions,” we are using anachronistic terminology. Even when we talk about early Christianity or early Islam as “religions,” we are using anachronistic terminology. Nongbri goes into some textual analysis showing how modern translators use the word “religion” to translate ancient terms that do not carry our contemporary meaning. In other words, to say that Jesus of Nazareth (or Paul of Tarsus, depending on your theology) founded a “religion” is an anachronistic way of framing that history. Jesus may have founded something, but it was not what we mean today when we say “religion.”

If we take Nongbri and Blankholm (and many other scholars of religion) seriously, we find something rather disconcerting. The word “religion” works best to describe Western European Christianity from the early Modern period onward. That implies that “religion” does not work so well to describe the so-called “world religions.” And indeed, if we look closely, we see that the concept “religion” has been imposed on many phenomena that weren’t religions before colonialism, e.g., “Hinduism” wasn’t even a thing until after the British colonized India. Nor does “religion” work so well when applied to anything before the Enlightenment.

Which in turn implies that “religion” is not a universal concept that applies to all human cultures in all times and all places. This is something that scholars have been saying for some years now, e.g., Jonathan Z. Smith in “Religion, Religions, Religious” (1998). And if “religion” is not a timeless and universal concept, then neither is “secular.”

The practical effect of all this? Well, for us Unitarian Universalists, we are definitely part of a religion, since both Unitarianism and Universalism started out as Christian heresies. But at an institutional level, we got kicked out of the Christian club a century ago. You can be a Christian Unitarian Universalist, but Unitarian Universalism can’t really be considered Christianity. Which means the term” religion” when it is applied to us is not going to be a perfect fit. In fact, it might be argued that these days we look more like organized secularism than organized religion. And given the apparent complicity of organized religion in colonialism, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Noted without comment

“In the United States, Protestantism has been both the privileged religious discourse and the discursive frame privileged in efforts to define both ‘religion’ and race,’ alongside a host of other modern categories. Such was the case even as race, framed as secular, modern discourse, was hailed as the principle of social organization that trumped religion — as an umbrella term for a host of ‘primitive practices’ associated with a previous epoch — under the sign of modernity. In short, to become a modern subject was not simply to become secular or to lose one’s religion. Rather, it was to acquire ‘good religion,’ which meant ascribing to a particular sort of Christianity (read: primarily ethical, literate, and reasoning). Good religion took on the form of white Protestantism. In contrast, black religion was ‘bad religion” in that it carried, by definition, evidence of earlier, African ways of being in the world….”

Josef Sorett, “Secular Compared to What?”, in Race and Secularism in American, ed. Johnathan S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd (Columbia Univ. Press, 2016), p. 50

Pluralist theories of religion

Many Unitarian Universalist espouse pluralist theories of religion. What is a pluralist theory of religion? According to S. Mark Heim, such theories “attempt to transform religious diversity from an apparent embarrassment for claims to religious truth into supporting testimony for one truth subsistent in all faiths: (“Pluralistic Theology as Apologetics,” ch. 4 in Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion,Orbis: 1995, p. 123).

This is the familiar argument that while all religions might be different in specifics, they all have the same goal. One analogy used is that all religions are paths up the same mountain — the paths start from different places, and take different routes up the mountain, but they all wind up at the same summit. That’s what a pluralist theory of religion is.

Back to Heim:

“There is a great deal of discussion today about ‘post modernity’ and about the possible changes which may follow the dethroning of North Atlantic views of history, knowledge, and justice from their supposed universal status through a recognition of valid alternatives from other cultures. Insofar as such a transformation were actually to take place, pluralistic theologies would seem to be among the most likely casualities, defensively structured as they are around the presumed universality of the codes of modern rationality. Ironically, pluralistic antidotes to Christian particularism may prove to be much more culture and time bound than the theologies they condemn. The very religious traditions pluralistic theologies wish to affirm may find on the whole they have as much to fear from the pluralists’ embrace as the exclusivists’ denial.”

Ouch. Take that, Unitarian Universalists. Heim is telling us that we can’t have our commitment to rationality, which is a Western invention, and at the same time claim a commitment to pluralism, since by claiming the universalist of rationalism we’re undermining the very pluralism we claim to support. Heim continues:

“The primary challenge to pluralist theologies is to make explicit their case for the global normativity of the Western critical principles that determine their univocal definitions of religion.”

Arguing that “religion” is an invalid category

For the past two or three decades, there have been scholars who have argued (fairly persuaively, in my view) that “religion” is not a particularly useful category. I’m currently working my way through Tim Fitzgerald’s book The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), and Fitzgerald offers some compelling arguments why “religion” is not a useful category for academic study. For example:

“Claims … that religion is a phenomenon, or humans are religious beings, or all societies have religion(s), or religion is an aspect of society, or society is an aspect of religion imply a further proposition that ‘religion’ indicates some reality that is not already covered by ‘society’ and ‘culture,’ that religion is something over and above and additional to society and culture. Outside of a specific theological claim, this implication is, I believe, a fallacy. This is because there are virtually no situations now in the scholarly literature produced by religious studies writers where religion has any useful work to do as an analytical category pointing us to some distinctive aspect of human reality. The word ‘religion’ is now used to refer to so many different things that it has become virtually synonymous with ‘culture’ and ‘society’ in the broadest senses….” (p. 222)

I find a great deal to agree with in this statement. Having had some training the fine arts, I’m more inclined to think of ‘religion’ as part of one specific aspect of culture, the arts: a religious building combines architecture and installation art; religious services are performance art with music, or maybe they’re drama, improv, theatre games; ritual is conceptual art (or is conceptual art ritual? they’re hard to tell apart).

One of the differences between what we call “religion” and what we call “art” in our culture is that “art” is made by experts and bought and sold by rich people, whereas “religion” is co-created by a few experts and lots more non-experts, and it is (in many cases) self-funded and not consumed but participatory. If that’s the case, then when I look at the continuum from art (created by experts, consumed by rich people) to religion (co-created by non-experts, participatory-not-consumed), I want to be on the far left of the “religion” end of the continuum.

What is religion

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been intensively writing a curriculum on world religions for middle elementary grades. Most of my time has been spent in developing activities for children to get inside the stories that are the basis of the curriculum — so my home office, and my office at work, became workshops where I was making prototypes of paper bag puppets, mobiles, board games, masks, and so on. And the rest of my time was devoted to writing up those activities. Yet all the while I was producing material aimed at second and third graders, and their volunteer teachers, I was thinking about what religion is. Because when you’re trying to make something clear to second and third graders, you first have to make it clear to yourself.

Here, then, are some of my thoughts on religion:

First of all, it is widely accepted among current religious studies scholars that religion is not a thing; that is, there is not a “thing” out there that you can point to and say, “That’s religion.” Some religious studies scholars will say that religion is at most a social construct. Other scholars argue that there really is no such thing as religion; that what we call “religion” is actually the West trying to impose the characteristics of Western Christianity — belief in a transcendent being, hierarchy and clergy, weekly meetings, exclusive adherence to one religious group, etc. — on other societies. Still other scholars point out that religion is a valid category within Western jurisprudence, because the West holds dear something we call “religious freedom”; but that defining what constitutes a religion which can receive the legal protection under laws pertaining to religious freedom is often problematic (e.g., Scientology is defined as a religion in the United States, but not in some Western European countries; Mormonism was allowed to become a religion in the United States in the legal sense only after it renounced the tenet of plural marriage; etc.). Finally, still other scholars argue that “religion” is really merely a tool of colonialism; this may be seen, for example, when the British Empire took over the Indian subcontinent, and, for ease in colonial control, defined something called “Hinduism” that didn’t exist before; though then some newly-created “Hindus” figured out that the Western concept of religious freedom could give them some autonomy in which to resist colonial oppression, making everything far more complicated than it might appear at first.

In short, religion is at best a social construct; at another extreme, it might not even exist at all.

More importantly, when talking about “religion,” we must be very careful to avoid imposing Western definitions and criteria. This means that talking about “faith communities” is problematic: “faith” implies that Western-style belief in a transcendent being is the central feature of a religious group; but many Therevada Buddhists simply don’t have a transcendent being; certain strands of Judaism emphasize correct action (orthopraxy) over correct belief (orthodoxy); etc. Indeed, talking about “communities” is problematic, because it assumes Western-style voluntary associations called “congregations”; but many strands of Daoism in China have nothing that remotely resembles a congregation; the Buddhist sangha, usually conceptualized in the West as a congregation, in other parts of the world is a small grouping more like what we in the West would think of as monks.

Nor should we talk about “adherents,” a common term in the United States to designate persons who are associated with a religious group. The word “adherent” carries connotations of Western-style Christianity, where you get to choose which religious group you want to adhere to; but in many parts of the world, you are born into a “religion” and it’s not a choice, such that religious affiliation is closer to ethnic identity. We wouldn’t say that someone born in Ireland who emigrated to the United States is an “adherent” of Irish-Americanism; the same is true for many religious affiliations.

Even as a social construct, religion — considered carefully — challenges many of our preconceptions. We are accustomed to making broad, sweeping generalizations about a given religion: for example, all Christians believe in God. But that simply isn’t true: there are today a good many Christian atheists in the United States, people who embrace many of the teachings of Christianity, but who simply don’t believe in God. When I have pointed this out to some non-Christians, they become offended, because they “know” that all Christians believe in God, and therefore they didactically proclaim that a Christian who doesn’t believe in God isn’t a “real Christian.” But this kind of statement cannot be accepted: how can a non-Christian presume to dogmatically declare who is and who isn’t a Christian? — indeed, this kind of statement helps us understand how “religion” was used as a tool of colonial control: an outsider proclaims that what a colonized person is doing is religion, and therefore that colonized person has to do it a certain way, or else…. If we remember that religion is a social construct, and specific religions cannot be defined by broad sweeping generalizations, we can save ourselves from attempting to control other people in this way.

Along these lines, we can also remember to let religions speak for themselves, rather than trying to speak for religions. As I was looking at older world religions curriculums, I was struck by how often the curriculum writer was willing to take a religious story and turn it to their own ends. This most often happens when a curriculum writer takes a story, removes some specific religious content, and repurposes the story as a moral tale. A common example of this is the way curriculum writers (and children’s book authors) use Buddhist Jataka tales. Most Jataka tales take the form of a story-within-a-story: the framing story is an incident happens within the community of monks surrounding Gotama Buddha; next the Buddha tells the story-within-the-story, an incident from one of his previous incarnations; finally, we return to the framing story where Buddha and the monks talk over which of them was which character in the story-within-the-story. But curriculum writers (children’s book authors) tend to strip away the framing story, rewriting the story-within-the-story as a simple folk tale; but this imposes an outside (probably non-Buddhist, probably Western) interpretation on the Jataka tale.

When we let religions speak for themselves, we also have to remember the internal diversity within religions. One Christian cannot speak for all Christians; not even if he’s the Pope, for the Pope only speaks for Roman Catholics (and maybe not for all Roman Catholics, as we seem to be seeing in the resistance of conservative Catholics to the current pope’s reform efforts). When you look at the internal diversity of the “religion” of Christianity, it boggles the mind. How are silent meeting Quakers the same religion as Eritrean Orthodox Christians? How is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints the same religion as the Church of the Lord (Aladura)? It is true that they all share a reverence for Jesus; but there are Muslims and Hindus and Baha’is who also share some kind of reverence for Jesus (perhaps a lesser reverence, but how can we measure that?). It is true that the wildly diverse groups refer to some of the same books as a shared religious scripture, but these books are translated and interpreted differently, and some groups add other books, or leave out parts of some books. Moving beyond Christians, what about the internal diversity of Hinduism: what do Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism have in common, aside from all being rooted in the culture of the Indian subcontinent, and aside from all being grouped together by British colonial rule? In today’s political climate in India, it might be said that Hindusim has become more like a politicized ethnic identity; but where does that leave the large Hindu community in Bali?

We must also consider how religions vary over time. Today we thinking of all evangelical Christians in the United States as wanting to outlaw abortion; yet there was a time, not so long ago, when many or even most evangelical Christians supported the right to abortion. The Sikhs at the time of Guru Nanak’s death did not have the “five Ks”; yet they were nevertheless Sikhs. Mormons didn’t practice plural marriage, then did practice plural marriage, then didn’t practice plural marriage (except for a few small splinter groups); yet who am I, a non-Mormon, to say who was and who wasn’t a Mormon?

To recap, here are some of the things I had to wrestle with as I was writing this curriculum:
— “Religion” is at most a social construct, and may not even exist;
— We have to be careful not to use the social construct of “religion” to impose our will on others;
— “Religions” are internally diverse, sometimes wildly so;
— “Religions” vary over time.

Trying to embed these concepts in a curriculum such that middle elementary children can get some sense of them was challenging. Trying to embed these concepts in a curriculum so that adult teachers would challenge their own (Western, colonial) preconceptions seems almost impossible….

Noted with comment

“The contemporary version of religion is sport. It is sport, with its sacred icons, revered traditions, symbolic solidarities, liturgical assemblies, and pantheon of heroes, which is the opium of the people. It is also the culture of the people, in both major senses of the word: a communal form of life, but also a chance to display or appreciate the kind of artistry from which the mass of citizens are otherwise largely excluded.”

— Terry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God (Yale Univ. Press, 2014), pp. 45-46.

And consumer capitalism favors sports over organized religion not least because sports can generate a large amount of consumer spending. Ordinary religion does not generate so much consumer spending: Scientology generates ongoing spending by adherents though one could argue that it’s not spending on consumer goods; Hiillsong Music and other producers of Christian pop music generate some significant consumer spending; and not much more. How can religion serve as the opiate of the masses when what the masses really want to do is spend money on consumer goods?

What is religion? Yet another answer

“Stated simply, magic is … the religion of the other.”

— Suzanne Preston Blier, quoted in Yvonne P. Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African Conjuring Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), p. 3.

Chireau offers this quotation as a caution to academics against “value-laden assumptions” when studying a religious or cultural tradition. In particular, Chireau is warning against assuming that a dominant religious tradition (e.g., Protestant Christianity in the United States as practiced by white Anglophones) is normative. If you tacitly accept the norms of the dominant tradition, you will be tempted to make judgements about a different religious tradition with different norms; you may even be tempted to call the other group’s religion “magic” in a pejorative sense.

Obviously, the same principle applies in any situation where one is making judgements across cultural (or even subcultural) boundaries. One example of this is when people who accept scientism (which must be distinguished from science) as normative make judgements about other religions, calling them “magic” or worse. Of course, from another perspective, scientism is grounded on unquestioned assumptions, as should be obvious from anyone who has been exposed to Godel’s work on unprovability; and those who expect scientism to answer all questions and provide all meaning will be seen by some of the rest of us as mere practitioners of magic.

REA: Teaching about Islam using a worldview framework approach

In the final breakout session at the Religious Education Association 2014 conference, I attended a presentation by Mualla Selçuk of Ankara University and John Valk of the University of New Brunswick titled “Journeying into Peaceful Islam: A Worldview Framework Approach.”

Valk and Selcuk reported on a pedagogical model they used to engage Muslims and non-Muslims in learning about “a comprehensive Islam.” The problem they are addressing with their pedagogical model is pervasive stereotyping regarding Islam. In particular, Islam is stereotyped as violent; as authoritarian, patriarchal, and rigid; as a religion that persecutes other religions; etc.

Sometimes the stereotyping of Islam is subtle, particularly in media coverage of Islam in the west. Media coverage of Islam “often confuses correlation with causation” — if an individual Muslim engages in, say, an act of violence, the act of violence will be attributed to the individual’s religion. Sometimes the stereotyping is not as subtle, as when anti-religious and anti-Islamic discourse cherry-picks elements of Islam (or religion more generally) to “prove” that religion/Islam is bad.

Religious education can be complicit in stereotyping, if it uses a passive passive pedagogical model. It’s not enough to give students information about religion, e.g., disconnected facts (e.g., Muslims pray using certain prescribed body motions), or prescribed answers (e.g., Islam as a whole believes X).

Valk asserted that an appropriate pedagogical model must include an experiential component. He mentioned site visits, meetings with spiritual leaders, human interaction, etc. He added that “personal engagement” is also necessary, i.e., engaging the questions and challenges of Islam: religious, spiritual, science, religion, etc. Valk said that they challenge the learners to think. “So instead of saying, ‘Islam believes in God’,” he said, “We ask, ‘What does it mean to believe in God?’ … Let the students explore the possibilities.”

Valk then outlined their worldview framework for an appropriate pedagogy. This worldview framework has five sub-frameworks, including: personal/group identity;
cultural dimensions;
existentialist questions; etc.
The pedagogy uses a “Socratic” approach of open-ended questions.

Mualla Selçuk, a Muslim, pointed out that Valk is a Christian. Thus the collaboration between them reflects their pedagogical approach. She referred her listeners to their recent article in the REA journal for more information about their work. “This worldview approach to Islam, or I would argue to any religious or secular worldview,” she concluded, “is a valuable resource for religious educators and teachers.”

One questioner asked, “Both your presentations had components of unlearning. Do you have a pedagogical model for this?” While unlearning was not explicitly mentioned in their model, this was something they had thought about.

A thought experiment

Some scholars of religion criticize the very category of religion. There are several possible critiques, including:

  • “Religion” as typically defined by Western scholars assumes Western religion as a norm, so that for example belief in a supernatural, transcendent deity is a defining characteristic of religion, even though significant numbers of Buddhists and Confucians do not require such belief.
  • “Religion” can’t be separated from the larger culture; there is no religion separate from art, politics, sport, etc.

So here’s a thought experiment. Let’s jettison, just for the moment, the usual definition of religion as something separate from the rest of culture, something that requires belief in a perhaps unbelievable deity, and something the must be associated with a hierarchical or otherwise organized institutional structure.

Once we jettison that definition, we can understand religion as something that is akin to art and politics: it is something that is integral to culture, something that cannot easily be separated out from culture. Using this model of reality, we can make more sense of some otherwise baffling phenomena. Celebrity culture in the West, for example, may be considered as a religious phenomenon: Oprah and Princess Diana are saintly figures in just the same way as the Dalai Lama and the Pope are, which makes it more understandable why they receive the kind of religious veneration as the Dalai Lama and the Pope. Sports may also be considered as a religious phenomenon, right down to the orgiastic frenzies, reminiscent of Bacchic rituals, in which those who are not followers of one’s own sect are physically assaulted. Art and music may also be understood as religious phenomena: we’re all familiar with analogies between rock concerts and religious rites; and, speaking for myself, I get as much religious inspiration by going to an art museum as I get in a worship service.

If religion must be understood more broadly in this way, how then are we to characterize Western-style organized religion? It is a subset of religion, a specific manifestation of the way our broader culture does religion. We might consider it a discipline; early Christians sometimes referred to what they did as a disciplina, and it is Christianity more than anything else which has narrowed our Western understanding of what constitutes religion. However, “discipline” is somewhat problematic because it implies that this kind of religion can perhaps be done by oneself, which is clearly not the case. We could also speak of institutional religion, as opposed to other religious activities such as art, politics, etc.; organized religion is a less accurate way of saying much the same thing, for to say “organized” doesn’t tell us that this is religion organized into institutions.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with this thought experiment. What do you think?