Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

5.5 Common sense and analysis

Faced with the choice between narrow substantive definitions and broad functional definitions, we should require any definition to ‘fit with broad common-sense reflection’ and ‘encompass what ordinary people mean when they talk of religion’ (Bruce, 1995, p. ix). The definition must also assist in the analysis and explanation of what is being studied. For these reasons, Steve Bruce, who is a leading sociologist of religion, opts for the following substantive definition:

Religion, then, consists of beliefs, actions, and institutions which assume the existence of supernatural entities with powers of action, or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose.

(Bruce, 1995, p. ix)

In referring to common sense and ordinary meanings, Bruce is clearly not saying that a scholarly definition does not offer a considerable refinement of ‘common-sense’ reflection. But if his definition of religion is rooted in the common-sense meanings shared by ordinary people, this suggests that he is likely to be working with an understanding of religion found in English-speaking European culture. Moreover, he handles these meanings as a scholar standing in the European intellectual tradition. Yet, religion – as we keep noting – takes different forms across cultures. It will be important to ensure that Bruce's definition avoids narrowness and does not reflect cultural assumptions unthinkingly. Bruce sets out to avoid these dangers through a reference to beliefs, actions and institutions that points to the multi-dimensional nature of religion and takes us way beyond the narrowness of the substantive definition I derived from the Concise Oxford Dictionary. His definition is specific in referring to a characteristic belief in supernatural entities and impersonal powers, although here too he allows for difference. Certainly, using Bruce's definition, I think we could draw a line between following a football team and attending a church service. Similarly, his reference to ‘impersonal powers or processes possessed of a moral purpose’ would enable us to keep Buddhism within the frame while still being able to draw a line between it and, say, Marxism. Although Marxism looks to the evolution of a better social and economic order, this is to be achieved through historical and economic forces which are not in themselves possessed of moral purpose.

Without taking back what I said earlier about not wanting to force any one definition upon you, in conclusion I should say that I think Bruce is right when he points to the advantages of a carefully constructed substantive definition of religion. On the other hand, I would not reject the usefulness of dimensional models of religion as a way of expanding upon an initial definition such as that offered by Bruce. Contrary to Ninian Smart, I tend to the view that a dimensional model of religion is likely to prove inadequate when taken by itself. When used in combination, however, a substantive definition and a dimensional model of religion are likely to be far more helpful than broader functional definitions when it comes to testing for a boundary between religion and other things that are said to resemble religion: for example, Scientology, football, TM or secular ideologies.

Let me illustrate the usefulness of working with both a substantive definition and a dimensional model of religion in the next section by considering briefly some examples of ‘religious’ beliefs and practices found in contemporary Britain. I will refer largely to Christian, Jewish and Muslim beliefs so you should reread or check your notes on the accounts of these religions in Bowker's ‘I live by faith: the religions described’. (You will also find it helpful to relate the next section to the video clips.)


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