Toward a Definition of Religion
|One of the peculiarities of the academic study of
religion is that scholars spend a large amount to time trying to
define exactly what they are supposed to be studying. In reality,
trying to define religion is not as easy as it may seem.
The very concept of "religion" may be problematic.
The term "religion" comes from a Latin word "religio" that, at root,
means "to tie back/connect." It originally referred to rites that honored
one's ancestors. In contrast, the Chinese word that is often
translated as "religion" literally means "education"! Obviously, the
Latin/western concept of religion differs in some fundamental ways
from some eastern cultures. In addition, some cultures do not
even have term that corresponds to the concept of religion. Why?
Because what we might consider religion is actually just a part of
their society and culture. They do - and cannot - conceive of
"religion" as a separate compartment of their lives and cultures. It
is so thoroughly integrated into their lives and customs that it is
impossible to say where "religion" ends and the non-religious
begins. For example, until the arrival of Buddhist missionaries in
the 6th century, the Japanese did not even have a name for their
religion. It was simply a part of who they were, and, consequently,
they felt no need to "name" it.
Nevertheless, we must come to some
agreement about how to define the term religion. Almost every
text book of religions begins by listing the various possible
definitions of religion along with a critique of many of those
definitions. While this is necessary, it must be remembered that any
adequate definition of religion is not just a starting point; it is
also a conclusion that is based upon observation, study and
reflection. In other words, defining religion is to a certain
extent a circular, ongoing process. We start with what one may call
a "working definition" of religion. We then observe those
phenomena that fall under our definition of religion and use
the observations to refine and modify our definition. Subsequently,
we will used the refined definition as the basis for further
observation that will help us describe and define religion even
Consequently, throughout the course, we will refer
back to the question of defining religion as we explore how various
systems of belief and practice support or refine our
definition of religion.
A Working Definition
You text book proposes this definition of religion.
A person's reliance upon a pivotal value (or set of values)
in which the person finds wholeness as an individual and as a person in
The authors note that they are dependent upon the prominent
sociologist Clifford Geertz. Typical of the social sciences, Geertz's
definition is primarily interested in how religion functions (what it does).
According to Geertz, religion has two functions:
it provides a system of symbols for understanding the nature
it provides a system of values that demand complete devotion
The textbook develops the idea of a system of values noting that
certain values are "pivotal." Pivotal values are:
are meaningful to the
individual (i.e. they are authentic)
Power or Being." (Why do we not just say "God.")
are values to which all other values are subordinate
In other words, religion provides order and meaning: it makes
sense out of the world by ordering all things around the pivotal value(s). The
pivotal values are thus: "a unifying power, a center of meaning, a supreme
or pivotal value in the life of an individual or group."
Possible critiques of the definition.
Is it too broad? I.e. can the
definition include such things as Marxism, Sports, etc? What makes something a
"quasi religion" rather than a religion?
It is balanced? Note that
the definition is functionalist. That is, it
tells us what religion does, but it doesn't address the
question of what religion is.
Does it encourage one to look at religion in its
own terms? That is, does it encourage us to look at religion as merely an
outsider, or to understand its significance to its adherents?
TWO APPROACHES TO DEFINING
What Religion Does
|This bring us to an important point. In general, there are two approaches to
defining and understanding religion. The functionalist
approach describes religion in terms of what it does. In other
words, the functionalists would define religion in terms of the way
it functions in the lives of individuals and communities. For
example, religion may be understood in terms of how it functions to
give hope and courage in the face of suffering, death and other
difficulties that we may call the "ultimate problems" of life. The
difficulty with the functionalist approach is that it allows too
broad a definition of "religion." Philosophy, technology,
psychology, Marxism and nationalism may also function to help people
deal with the ultimate problems of existence, but most people would
not classify these are religions. Moreover, a definition that
focuses exclusively on how a religion functions will tend to be
reductionistic. In other words, it may reduce religion to merely
an institution which orders society.
|On the other hand, there is the substantive
approach to religion. This approach attempt to define religion in
terms of "what it is" rather than "what it does." Consequently, the
substantive approach focuses on the substance of religion, the
"essential core idea or essence that distinguishes religious
approach to life from moral or scientific ones." This understanding
significantly narrows what may be characterized as "religious." The
challenge of the substantive approach, however, is to identify
precisely the essence of the distinction between religious
and non-religious. Those who emphasize the substantive approach
suggest that there is an essential, irreducible element within all
religions that separate them from everything else - the element of
the sacred. In other words, what separates religion from other
phenomena is the belief in a realm known as the sacred.
A religious phenomenon will only be
recognized as such if it is grasped at its own level, that is to
say, if it is studied as something religious. To try to grasp
the essence of such a phenomenon by means of physiology,
sociology, economics, linguistics, art or any other study is
false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element in it -
the element of the sacred. Eliade
In reality, an adequate definition of religion probably needs to
be both functionalist and substantive. On the one hand, religion does
fulfill certain roles and meets real needs of people and society; that is, it is
possible to describe what religion does. On the other hand, it is
necessary to focus the
essential features of a religion: core beliefs, practices, rituals, etc.that
connect people to the realm of the sacred. In other words, religions must be understood
from its own perspective. (More about this under the phenomenological
Can we study religion?
Your text book raises the question
of whether there can be true dialogue between persons with differing pivotal
values. In other words, if you are convinced of the truth of certain
values and you have invested energy and intellect in subordinating everything
else to those values, can you really understand someone whose pivotal values are
And if our goal in studying
religion is to understand, can we really even study religion in general and
other faith traditions in particular?
In his article "Why study religion," Jacob Neusner
puts the question this way: "...do I have to believe in order to
study [religion], or, if I do believe, can I study [religion] at all?" In other
words, if I am devoted to certain beliefs and practices, can I really study
religions with beliefs and practices that differ from my own?" Can you be
faithful to your own beliefs and examine in any kind of objective way what other