What is religion anyway?


In 2013, the Disciples of the New Dawn began posting highly offensive memes on Facebook. They attacked everyone from pagans and steampunk fans to women who had C-sections.

Tapping into fears about religious fundamentalism and the public’s obsession with ‘cults’, their vitriolic posts went viral.

As the posts were shared with increasing frequency, some began to question whether Disciples of the New Dawn was a genuine religious community or just a cabal of internet trolls driving us to digital outrage (it’s turns out it was them).

When I teach religious studies classes, I like to use the case of the New Dawn Disciples as an opportunity for students to grapple with the concept of religion itself. This leads them to think about questions such as: what makes a religion real? Or, what makes a religion “religious”?

Although we may feel like “we know religion when we see it”, we generally struggle to be exact when it comes to determining what counts as religion. Even if we have a vague idea, defining religion is like pinning jelly on a wall.

Which makes things difficult. For, before we can delve into the subject of religion, we must first define the object of our study.

So what is this thing we call “religion” anyway?

How we defined “religion”.

Many scholars, saints, and scholars have attempted to define religion. Although interpretations vary in style and substance, sociologist Peter Berger has identified two general types: substantive and functionalist.

In short, substantive definitions attempt to define what religion is. Functionalist definitions attempt to describe what religion does.

Here are some examples of substantive definitions:

  • Religion is “belief in spiritual things”. — EB Tylor
  • “Religion is what develops and expresses the experience of the numinous in its various aspects.” -Rodolphe Otto
  • “Religion is the recognition that all things are manifestations of a power that transcends our knowing.” —Herbert Spencer

Here is a sample of functionalist definitions:

  • Religion is “eminently social” because “religious representations are collective representations that express collective realities”. – Émile Durkheim
  • “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature…a protest against real suffering…it is the opium of the people…the illusory sun which revolves around man until he evolves not around itself.” -Karl Marx
  • “…something does religious work if it is engaged in negotiating what it is to be human.” —David Chidester
  • “Religion is anything that gets you through the night.” -Frank Sinatra

Others have defined religion from the perspective of anthropology, feminism, philosophy, and other disciplines. This led to definitions of religion as follows:

  • a “cultural system” (Clifford Geertz)
  • a category of family resemblances (Ninian Smart)
  • “categories of the masculine symbolism” (Grace Jantzen)
  • confluences of flows “that intensify joy and confront suffering” (Thomas Tweed)
  • “a cognitive act of creative and accurate memory” (Pamela Sue Anderson)
  • “a technology to interrogate human experiences and the boundaries between people and other things” (Anthony Pinn)
  • a vital reality of human “desire” (bell hooks)
  • “an ever-changing ecosystem of objects” (S. Brent Plate)
  • “Vestigial states” competing with nations for the allegiance of peoples (Naomi Goldenberg)

And that’s just to name a few!

In the end, no definition pleases everyone. No definition does all the work required of it. As American Studies scholar Thomas Tweed has said, “No constituent disciplinary term is elastic enough to do all the work that academics ask of it.”

But that doesn’t mean we give up the effort.

Instead, Tweed wrote, “we should continually refine and revise our understanding…for different purposes and in different contexts.” In other words, the definition of religion abounds!

Religion, religions, religious.

Examining this abundance of definitions, scholar Jonathan Z. Smith quickly concluded that religion is not a universal or consistently applied term.

Because it’s often white, European, and Christian-influenced guys who define it, it’s important to note that many cultures don’t have an equivalent concept.

For example, among Hindu traditions, there is no parallel for the word “religion”. Instead, practitioners prefer the concept of santana dharma (cosmic order or eternal obligation). Likewise, in Japan, there was no comparable word for “religion” or concept corresponding to its Western meaning prior to colonial contact.

This is why many now agree that religion is not even a thing in itself, but a concept of our own creation.

This conclusion does not render the whole enterprise of studying religion worthless. Instead, Smith and others encouraged students of religion to turn away from studying religions per se to study how people talk about religion. Or, study what counts as “religion” in the first place.

Study religion as a human creation.

What makes religious studies essential is not that it studies the “sacred” or anything particularly set apart or special (it is the work of disciplines like “theology”).

Alternatively, the study of religion leads us to pay attention to how humans use the concept of “holy” to make sense of the world around them and their place in it.

The why of the study of religion does not change. Religion remains interesting, complex and important. We just need to change what we study and how we are going to make sense of it.

As we embark on this “What You Missed Without a Religion Class” journey, we’ll talk about a lot of things we consider “religious,” but with a twist. Instead of treating these things as taboo, sacred or sacrosanct, we will study religious rituals, beliefs and objects as deeply human creations.

This means that instead of trying to reach the hidden, inner or mystical life of religious actors, our task is to study the external and the observable. Although this approach does not exclude the possibility of the numinous, it definitely does not try to prove, approve or criticize it. Heck, he doesn’t even try to figure it out or define it.

So we suspend [or bracket] our judgment and proceed to study beliefs, practices or objects as if they were simply the product of our own making. The same goes for our definition of “religion” itself.

In my next article, we’ll start doing just that, exploring the practice of ritual fasting in multiple traditions.

Further reading:

  • “The Invention of World Religions” by Tomoko Masuzawa
  • “Before Religion” by Brent Nongbri
  • “The Invention of Religion in Japan” by Jason Ananda Josephson Storm
  • “Consuming Religion” by Kathryn Lofton
  • “Interaction of Things” by Anthony B. Pinn
  • “Religion as Vestigial States”, by Naomi Goldenberg
  • “What is Religion? Debating the Academic Study of Religion”, ed. by Aaron Hughes and Russell T. McCutcheon
  • “Religion, Religions, Religious,” by Jonathan Z. Smith

Want an answer to your questions about religion? Connect with Ken on Twitter: @kchitwood.


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