Why can’t the New York Times’ religion columnist define religion?

Last week, The New York Times ran the column “When Some Turn to Church, Others go to CrossFit,” which discusses the tendentious way that attempts to define religion lean to more inclusiveness than intended. CrossFit is the example used in the article of a practice that is not usually called a “religion” but seems to meet the criteria of predominant definitions. Today The Week published an article by Damon Linker entitled “Why Can’t The New York Times‘ religion columnist define religion?” It basically insists that religion can accurately be defined and that The New York Times is being dumb. Here’s the money shot:

allow me to give this definition thing a shot: Religion is any set of norms, practices, and beliefs that establishes a comprehensive way of life that is held out as the right or best way of life for those who adhere to it.

Many of these comprehensive ways of life posit the existence of one or more deities, but not all of them do — just as others teach that a life awaits us after death, while still others make no such claims. What matters is the comprehensiveness, not the content, of the way of life.

The central feature of all religion, according to the author, is comprehensiveness. It requires “broader claims about the meaning or purpose of life, death, morality, love, and the origins, foundations, and ends of existence.” Where the line of comprehensiveness is drawn is never stated, which raises questions about traditionally recognized religions that don’t play politics or attempt to govern the bedroom or make claims about dress, diet, love, origins, etc. At the same time, there are plenty of non-religious institutions that absolutely make those broad claims. Philosophy and science are certainly capable of functioning as religions according to this definition, as are things like Atheism, Marxism, and various brands of nationalism, in addition to many adherents of CrossFit who absolutely do extend explicit and extrapolated CrossFit principles out into comprehensiveness.

The author produces the additional feature of reason v. revelation in an explicit attempt to excise philosophy from the definition:

Whereas religion is typically based on some form of revelation, mystical intuition, or extra-rational insight, a philosophical life is one lived in relentless pursuit of the comprehensive truth using reason or rational reflection alone.

But this is an ad hoc way of overcoming the objection that really only fits contemporary Western philosophical perspectives. During the Enlightenment period, the biggest religious debates largely took place between revelation-based and reason-based conceptualizations of religion. In fact, the entire category of religion is an invention of that period that grew in large part out of those debates. That contemporary use of “reason” as something distinct from religion is an effort to compartmentalize and control values. Religion as an independent category is a modern Western construct that was developed to serve and legitimize European colonial ideology. It is not some transcultural and transhistorical entity that exists outside of our minds. It’s something the Western world created in order to organize its understanding of the world in ways that served its economic, political, and ideological interests.

This leads to the next concern I have with this attempt to assert a definition about religion, namely the rhetoric of prescriptivism. People want clear definitions because it helps them to put things into categories so they’re more easily manipulable and adjudicated. Religion is a particularly critical category in the Western world given questions like tax exemption, the separation of church and state, and growing concerns over the boundaries of the religious and the secular. Those who control the definition can set the terms for those questions, whether officially or in public discourse. Often concerns for strict definitions are more about structuring values and power than about better understanding how categories are used. An undefinable category is particularly unhelpful. In any attempt to assert a definition about a cultural phenomenon, an important question is who benefits from the given definition. Why is it so important to Linker that religion be clearly delineated?

My final concern is the assumption that conceptual categories are able to be delineated. What definitions do is reduce the membership of conceptual categories down to the smallest number of features that (1) are shared by all its members and (2) distinguish the category from others. These are called necessary and sufficient features. They are necessary for inclusion and sufficient for distinction. The problem with this is that it presupposes that categories form and are governed by that underlying conceptual substructure, which is simply not how the human mind creates or uses conceptual categories. Neither children nor adults learn words and concepts by learning the necessary and sufficient features that delineate them. The meaning that we associate with words and concepts does not develop based on those features, it develops based on how words and concepts are used. This is why word meanings change, and it’s why trying to use definitions of conceptual categories predictively or prescriptively is particularly problematic. Dictionaries do not establish or adjudicate meaning, they just try to figure out how words are used and reduce that usage down to necessary and sufficient features. Conceptual categories are rarely amenable to that reduction, though, since they do not form around those features. The entire project of defining religion, as a result, is fundamentally and methodologically flawed.


7 responses to “Why can’t the New York Times’ religion columnist define religion?

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