Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

5.2 The ‘answer’ in your dictionary

Exercise 9

Please now look at the definition of ‘religion’ given in a dictionary. We have used the Concise Oxford Dictionary definition for this exercise.

  1. Do you think that the definition is going to help you when deciding what is or is not religion? Please give your reasons, using the definitions checklist.

  2. Would it have helped you to determine the status of TM, for example? Again, please note down the reasons for your answer.


Dictionary definitions are likely to differ in phrasing and length, if not in substance, so you will have to apply the following discussion of the definition I found to that in your own dictionary. The Concise Oxford Dictionary says in summary that ‘religion’ is:

  • a.monastic conditions, being a monk or nun;
  • b.the practice of sacred rites;
  • of the prevalent systems of faith and worship;
  • d.human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal God;
  • e.action that one is bound to do.
  1. What strikes me is the extent to which this definition reveals the influence of a Christian heritage in that all of these characteristics are to be found within Christianity but less so in other religions – see a, c and d. The potentially broadest definition, d, is closed down with its tail-end reference to a ‘personal God’. Definition b, on the other hand, although not narrowly applicable to a particular religion, is narrow in another way, stressing as it does ritual practice. So, to use our checklist, we might say that these definitions at their most specific are not flexible and not free from prejudice in the sense that they are tied to one set of cultural assumptions.
  2. My conclusion is that this kind of definition is unlikely to help us to characterise ‘religion’ when it is understood as a varied and worldwide activity. To my mind, therefore, it would have provided a very narrow basis upon which to make a judgement about the status of TM, one way or the other. This is why, when I set the earlier exercise, I did not advise you to look in your dictionary.

The purpose of a general dictionary of the kind we have just consulted is to provide the correct meaning of the word established in terms of its origins and usage. The outcome of the previous exercise suggests that the kind of definition required in a specialised enquiry may need to achieve a different level of precision – although the result may not be so concise!


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