Losing my religions?

A variety of conversations in the past week or so have reminded me of a conclusion I came to some years ago: I do not believe in ‘religion’. I do not mean this in some faux-evangelical, sub-Barthian sense (‘religion is humanity’s search for God; Christianity is God’s search for humanity’) – although if one hears Barth properly, as critiquing every human approach to the divine, and supremely our own, the point holds. Rather, I became convinced, largely through reading the sociological literature, that the concept of ‘religion’ is a meaningless one. There is just no general category under which we may usefully subsume the particular realities that we call ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’, ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, &c. They are not species of the same genus.

The ‘sociology of religion’ has attempted to define them as if they are, and has largely failed. That is, there is (as far as I could find in the literature a few years back, and I have heard nothing to change my mind since) no available definition which encompasses everything we would want to call a ‘religion’ and excludes everything we would not. Under the most convincing sociological definitions, football is a far purer religion than evangelical Christianity or Zen Buddhism. If, after nearly a century of trying (Durkheim was endlessly interested in religion when he invented sociology), and after the attempts of some of the greatest minds of that century (did I mention Durkheim?), we cannot begin to sketch an adequate definition of the genus, perhaps we should conclude that it is not, in fact, a genus?

Why, then, did we come to talk about ‘religion’ so easily and glibly? The origins are, I think, instructive. When Europe thought it was discovering the world (the world already knew it was there, and was doing fine, thank you very much…) in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, the sudden, disorienting (well, probably ‘disoccidenting,’ but…) realisation that there was quite a lot of the world that was not Christian was a serious intellectual challenge. At one level, the native Americans and sub-Saharan Africans were easy – they could be characterised, no doubt unfairly, as ‘primitive’ and in need of civilisation – but India, and particularly China, were big problems. China was (as through most of history) far more ‘advanced’ (whatever that means) than Europe; it was vast and populated; and it was profoundly alien.

We always narrate alienness through analogy with what we do know (see Socrates in the Meno for the final reason); some of what China’s people did could be made to look like certain Christian practices if you stretched the point; so we (as in ‘Western Europeans’) invented the concept of ‘religion’. In part because we were becoming suspicious of our own Christian tradition, and in part because, if we still believed in some sense in that tradition we found the notion that generations of Chinese were born and died in ignorance and so reprobation to be deeply uncongenial (so, say, Lord Herbert of Cherbury), we started to imagine that there was some more general category of human life that subsumed both what we call Christianity and what we call Buddhism. For Lord Herbert, it was a set of intellectual doctrines – the five ‘common notions’; when this became incredible, Schleiermacher suggested a basic human experience of dependence; Otto an awareness of the mysterium tremens; the list can be multiplied almost endlessly.

But – and back to the point – however we multiply the list, it fails. There is no credible definition of a general category of ‘religion’. The idea that there is should be named for what it in fact is: an arrogant colonial assumption that European thought-forms are adequate to explain the particularities of non-European life. (Anthropologists live within a culture as guests, and try – even if they fail – to tell its story from within; sociologists too often impose already-imagined concepts on a culture and try to force it to fit them. Sociology is a modern, anthropology a post-modern, science.)

Assuming this is right, so what? Well, let me offer just one significant theological result: much of our Old Testament interpretation is predicated on a ‘history of religions’ approach, which assumes a generic account of how religious thought evolves, or should evolve, in any culture from primitive animism to German protestantism. The account is of course borrowed straight from Schleiermacher, but with none of his insight or subtlety. If ‘religion’ is a meaningless concept, then this mode of interpretation is ruled out a priori. That seems to me already a non-trivial point.


  1. JohnO
    Oct 21, 2009

    Well said. How religion ‘ought’ to evolve is a rather silly concept – especially when applied to historical circumstances. As if any one historical figure could have made sense of exactly what affect their ripple would have in the pond of history. Just like you put “advanced” in single quotes – and evolution must deny any value judgment, since what is being judged is the appropriateness to its environment – not some ideal form it might match or approach. Too often we place our forms as that ideal form. A sad mistake of pride.

  2. Pseudonym
    Oct 22, 2009

    Sorry, I don’t understand. This isn’t a sociology problem, it’s a linguistics problem.

    Wittgenstein pointed out that exactly the same thing can be said about the word “game”. There is no feature or set of features that all games have in common that all non-games don’t have. Card games, board games, the Olympic games, war games and mind games have very little in common. And yet, apart from the inevitable borderline cases, we’re pretty good at classifying everything in the world into the categories “game” and “non-game”.

    • Steve H
      Oct 22, 2009

      Welcome to the blog. Three comments:
      1. As I am sure Wittgenstein knew(!), one of the issues there is that we happen to use the same English word for a set of different, but perhaps superficially related, things – the OED has 16 meanings of ‘game’, (plus one in the draft additions), of which about ten remain in play once we have removed the ‘blood sport’ set. ‘Religion’, once we remove the ‘monastic vows’ set, is far more unitary in meaning. I am not sure the analogy holds, therefore.
      2. When we talk about ‘religions’ we tend to mean about 5-10 specific objects (Christianity; Judaism; Islam; Hinduism; Buddhism; Sikhism; Jainism; Shintoism; perhaps a couple of others); of these, I would argue that almost all are the ‘inevitable borderline cases’ you acknowledge – if the proposed concept identifies almost nothing helpfully, surely it is a bad concept?
      3. The problem becomes sociological rather than linguistic when we give the concept explanatory power. No-one would argue ‘this happens in Poker, so it, or something very like it, must also happen in Monopoly and The Sims’, yet that is what we have done repeatedly with the concept of ‘religion’. I claim that this procedure is illegitimate.

      • Pseudonym
        Oct 23, 2009

        Thanks for the welcome.

        Linguists have since studied the problem of how humans generate semantic categories, and what it seems to be is that we use prototypes. Poker is a game, target shooting is a game, Scrabble is a game… and things that are like them are games.

        This leads into your point #2. The top dozen or so “major world religions” are undeniably religions… and things that are like them are also religions.

        Whether or not it identifies anything probably doesn’t matter. Humans are very good at placing things into categories which add no value. I’m reminded of the famous example from Jorge Luis Borges about how animals were supposedly categorised in a Chinese encyclopedia. Humans are pattern recognition machines. We see patterns even where there is no underlying pattern. And I guess this is your point.

        I agree with your third point, but with reservations. People like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong have identified a huge number of similarities between religions. I don’t think we can discard that out of hand.

        (Incientally, the borderline cases that I was thinking of are things like cults of personality, or certain types of political movement.)

  3. Gordon Arthur
    Oct 22, 2009

    There does seem to be some sort of family resemblance between such belief systems as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. (leaving out marginal examples such as Buddhism and Marxism).

    If religion is an empty word, as you suggest (and I will need to reflect further on this), is there not some alternative category that could apply, or am I being too Aristotelian?

    • Steve H
      Oct 22, 2009

      Hi Gordon, welcome.
      I’ll give you Christianity, Islam and Judaism. There is a clear family resemblance amongst the children of Abraham.

      An alternative category? I suspect that there is, but that it is tradition-specific. That is, I could in theory construct an account of human social realities from a Christian (or perhaps even more narrowly from a Baptist/Reformed) perspective, and this account would include a set of categories into which I placed the particular social realities we name as Islam, etc. But my Jewish – perhaps even my Roman Catholic – friend would have to do something different, and might well end up with different categories and/or different placements of the particular items.

  4. Shawn Bawulski
    Oct 22, 2009

    I wonder if the notion of ‘religion’ doesn’t collapse into the concept of worldview? Let me explain.

    Contra the sociological categorization, I don’t see any set of criteria that would make, say, Christianity, Animism, Mormonism, and Buddhism all different types of one entity (religions) but would at the same time exclude from that category being extremely devoted to the Chicago Cubs. It seems to me that Steve is exactly right on this point, and the idea of ‘religion’ is a bad one. However, the concept of worldview *does* have criteria that would make Christianity, Buddhism, etc. all species of the same genus but at the same time would exclude extreme sports fanaticism (or at least reduce it to some version of a paganistic worldview!).

    So then what makes a worldview- what are the criteria? Vaguely and from the hip, a worldview answers questions like “what is reality?”, “what is humanity?”, “what is the nature of the world around us?”. It is a commitment about the basic constitution of reality the provides the foundation on which we live.

    If its such a flawed notion, why was the concept of ‘religion’ developed, and why is it alive and well today? That’s a very difficult question to answer (although I think Steve is off to a good start), but I might at least suggest this: Naturalism is not a religion on most every definition of ‘religion’, but it is undeniably a worldview. It seems to me that the concept of ‘religion’ was birthed and raised in the ethos of Naturalism- perhaps it was in part, even subconsciously, designed to provide Naturalism a subtle and unfair means of sequestering competing worldviews to a category of lower credibility or legitimacy?

  5. Rachel Muers
    Oct 22, 2009

    Thanks Steve, I discovered this at an opportune moment when I’m starting work on a textbook chapter on “Christianity among the religions”. Maybe I should just give up now? To be fair, I’d already written the first sentence: “There was a time when ‘religion’ did not exist – or at least, there was a time when Christianity was not ‘a religion’”.

    Love “disoccidenting”. May reuse it, with acknowledgement.

    Question: what do you make of the terminology ‘faith communities’, now much more in vogue? Is it another attempt to define non-Christian people in Christian terms (because it’s a very Christian thing to focus on “faith”)? Does it presuppose the whole set of intra-Christian conversations/debates about “faith and reason” & attempt to relocate them in a multi-religious [oops, there I go] context? Or what? Why have people started talking about “faith” instead of “religion”? And is it any better? (At least it’s blatantly theological. Except that it’s used in a way that cuts off its theological roots).

    A comment on “worldviews” – I have a stock explanation of “theology”, for use in worldview-mixed company e.g. on university open days: “theology is reasoning about God; Luther says your god is whatever you worship; we could interpret “worship” as e.g. “accord ultimate importance to, organise your life around, see as the definition and source of good [etc]”; on that basis, theology is critical and constructive reasoning about what people accord ultimate importance to [etc]”. I am never quite convinced by it myself (and in order to be honest I have to go on and say “and what we do here under “theology” is study a particular tradition of reasoning-about-what-people-worship”). But I do it to try to break through some assumptions about the scope and nature of both “religion” and theology, and it may come somewhere close to the idea of worldviews, suggested above (“commitment about the basic constitution of reality”).

    For myself, I got the idea from Nicholas Lash – which rather reveals where I’m coming from on this issue.

  6. Tomas Romson
    Oct 25, 2009

    Although I’m far from any knowledge in theology but doesn’t the quote:
    “It is a commitment about the basic constitution of reality the provides the foundation on which we live.”
    lead to science being a religion? Or is that already a problem with the definition of religion? And science should be one of those things in the “non-religion” category… Tricky indeed. Just my thoughts that didn’t seem to have been said already.

  7. Greg Seymour
    Nov 6, 2009

    the agreed suspension of ‘real’ world rules and truths, so that an attempt can be made, within an agreed upon set of arbitrary rules, parameters and presumptions, to achive an agreed goal, which is, of itself, non-fatal. This is a game, the goal can be achieved or not (barring external constructs like betting on the outcome) without reference to or affect on the ‘real’ world.
    the agreed suspension of ‘real’ world rules and truths, so that a worldview can be seen to hold true in all circumstances. This is a religion, it can include a god concept or it can be nihilist and its outworking (barring external constructs like agressive proselytizing) is to explain to the adherent the cause and effect (and future?) nature of his/her reality.

  8. Andrew
    Nov 15, 2009

    I don’t know if it is still online, but Paul J. Griffith’s had an extensive article along these lines in First Things a while ago, “The Very Idea of Religion”.

    Also, there’s pretty clearly a connection between Wellhausen’s JEDP theory and a Hegelian dialectical philosophy of history.


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