Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

5 What is religion?

5.1 ‘Religion’ and ‘the religions’: two new notions

I want to begin our closer discussion of the question ‘what is religion?’ by looking briefly at the history of the use and meaning of the term. You may be surprised to find how recently the word ‘religion’ has taken on the meanings attached to it today.

Contemporary scholars of religion emphasise not merely the cultural breadth but also the antiquity of religious activity. Yet, the term ‘religion’ as we understand it today is very much a Western concept.

there are today and have been in the past relatively few languages into which one can translate the word ‘religion’ – and particularly its plural, ‘religions’ – outside Western civilization.

(Smith, 1963, p. 18)

We also need to appreciate that the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘the religions’ took on new meanings from the period in the eighteenth century known as the Enlightenment. Prior to that time, European scholars paid relatively little attention to religions other than Christianity except, for example, when dismissing Judaism and Islam as false or devilish. When they spoke of Christianity, they tended to use terms like ‘faith’ or ‘church’. The emphasis of Enlightenment thinking was on the individual applying the tests of reason in all branches of enquiry. This resulted in a questioning of religious authority and provoked stringent criticisms of Christian institutions and profoundly affected the ways in which Christianity, in particular, and ultimately ‘religion’ in general were considered. It was argued that Christian references to a god and the miraculous should be treated no differently from those found in other cultural traditions. In other words, Christianity was placed alongside other traditions that were thought to be in some way comparable. ‘Religion’ was seen increasingly as a widespread, if not universal, human activity, of which the ‘religions’ – including Christianity – were examples. Added to this, of course, European traders, colonists and missionaries were beginning to travel more widely. Information about the beliefs, practices and social organisations of other peoples flowed back into Europe.

A consequence of the expansion of Europe was the naming of several religions found beyond the continent. Previously, European writers had referred to many of these indirectly as ‘the religion of’ a given people; for example, ‘the religion of the Chinese’. The names given to religious traditions found in Asia, such as ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, ‘Confucianism’ and ‘Taoism’, are all European inventions and date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are labels applied for the convenience of Europeans and not translations of concepts found within these traditions. In the case of Islam, a designation taken from the Qur’an, the Arabic word islam (meaning ‘the state of accepting the will of God’), was brushed aside by Europeans and, following earlier Christian practice, replaced by ‘Mohommedanism’. This term implies that Islam centres upon the person of the Prophet Muhammad rather than Allah (God). Such a substitution is, in fact, blasphemy for a Muslim, which is why the continuing use of the term ‘Mohommedanism’ by some non-Muslims causes offence.

So really, it is only since the eighteenth century that the term ‘religion’ has come to be used as a broad category within which are placed particular expressions of religion, such as Christianity or Judaism. Because the term ‘religion’ is used to include many different kinds of beliefs and practices across cultures and down through time, establishing the boundary of ‘religion’ will prove to be difficult. We shall also have to determine what it is that these different beliefs and practices have in common that allows them all to be categorised as ‘religion’.

I suggested earlier that a ‘critical’ study of religion is what this course is about. Now we are going to look at three ways in which we might try to answer the question ‘what is religion?’ from the standpoint of a critical study of religion. We will look in turn at:

  1. the kind of answer you might find in a general dictionary;

  2. the kind of definitions that scholars of religion offer;

  3. a ‘dimensional’ model of religion.

Before we look at any definitions of religion, we need some sort of checklist that will enable us to test their strengths and weaknesses. The last thing I want to do is to saddle you with a single definition of ‘religion’; to do that would be to run the risk of making you less critical in your future studies of religion. But I do want to suggest a way in which you can evaluate the usefulness of different definitions of ‘religion’ and the respective merits of different types of definition. The following checklist should help you.

A definition should be:

  • specific – its criteria should be clear and distinctive;

  • flexible – it should not be so narrow as to be exclusive;

  • free from prejudice – it should not merely reflect personal dogmatism or unthinking cultural assumptions.


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