Marginalia Blog: Why How We Define Religion Matters

Thomas Whitley has an insightful and important blog post up now over at MRBlog entitled “Why How We Define Religion Matters.” The post is commenting on the Washington Post’s new feature, Acts of Faith, and it highlights and critiques the Western and Protestant framework that defines what counts as religion for the editors of the feature. For whomever edits Acts of Faith, religion appears to be delineated by collections of beliefs, but if we are going to attempt to define religion at all (more complex a concern than you might think), we need to be aware that religion is more fundamentally about praxis than about belief. Religions are lived, not just assented to. David Morgan has even defined the concept of belief itself as “a communal set of practices that structure life in powerfully aesthetic terms.” And where belief is detached from practice, it functions primarily as a tool for “constructing a particular kind of identity.” Because Protestantism has exalted a particular notion of faith over and against religious praxis, however, our contemporary Western worldview has come to know religion primarily through those lenses.

When seeking to understand a religion, scholars have long trended to ask: what are its teachings? Focus on ‘belief’ as a set of teachings derives from the creedal tradition of Christianity, which was intensified by Protestantism. From there, belief passed beyond the realm of religion into the philosophy of language, where it came to be strictly defined in terms of the truth-value of a proposition. (Morgan, “Introduction,” 1)

This has far-reaching implications for contemporary discourse about religion, public and private, as Whitley points out (see here, as well):

Though I have been critical of how the Washington Post has covered religion before, this is not an attempt to call just them out, but rather is an attempt to show that how we define “religion “determines what we classify as “religious” which largely determines what gets sacralized in our society, what is afforded legal protections, and what counts as terrorism. This discussion is not one without relevance outside of the walls of academia, for major news outlets are jumping on the “religion beat” left and right these days but are often doing a disservice to their readers because they have not critically examined the category, their use of it, and the implications thereof.

I have additional concerns about the possibility of actually “defining” religion as opposed to just describing it, but that’s a discussion for another day. I think Whitley’s call to examine our presuppositions about knowing a religion when we see one is timely and important. A final thought from Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy (p. 103):

The chief lesson of a survey of attempted definitions of religion is that, in religion, practice, feeling, and belief are intertwined, and every definition that would see the essence of religion in just one of these three facts is too partial.


2 responses to “Marginalia Blog: Why How We Define Religion Matters

  • Bowman Walton

    Therefore: read Robert Cummings Neville.

  • Howard Pepper

    These points are good and important. I might add that we were better off (in both academia and culture) a century ago when psychology of religion was much more prominent and had a significant niche in “the academy” that somehow quickly diminished around 1915 – 1935 and nearly disappeared thereafter. The presence of philosophical/psychological giants like Wm. James and others not quite as prominent had promoted this healthy period. One theory I have is that psychology being pulled further and further into an experimental/scientific discipline (though never entirely) aided the demise of this earlier more interdisciplinary study of sociology, psychology and religion. The results have been unfortunate.

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