This article isn’t about simply inventing a definition of what religion is or should be. This is about digging into the very soul of a word, understanding not only the concepts it attempts to explain but the nature of the word itself. Words are symbols. They are meaningless on their own yet they point to meaning. A word like religion does not point at something tangible. It points at an idea. It is an idea that shapes language as much as language shapes ideas. In this essay, I intend to explore the relationship between the word religion and the ideas that both define it and are defined by it: social inclusion, personal identity, and the experiences and practices used to unite the faithful and distance the outsider.
A word is an arbitrary symbol, given meaning through human use and the meanings imparted into it (1 p. 98). The first step in understanding a word is to consider its roots, and its meaning as it was originally understood (2 p. 50). In Latin, Religio means an authentic, careful, and faithful way of acting; in contrast with its opposite Superstitio, a kind of conduct based on ignorance, fear or fraud (3 p. 748). From its earliest roots, religion has been defined as the rituals of the dominant discourse, while marginal practices have been labelled as cults, sects or superstition (4 p. 257; 3 p. 748; 1 p. 101). To the culture of the medieval Christian church where this word first developed, the assumed meaning of religion was not only held in opposition to secular thinking, but also to false religion (5 p. 244; 2 p. 50). Religion defines not only what acceptable practice is, but also what it is not (6 p. 3).
The meaning of a word changes over time. Definitions are produced, reproduced and transformed (5 p. 238). The second step in understanding a word is to observe how its use has evolved. Just as religions change in the face of conflict, the definition of the term has adapted to the age of enlightenment and the development of inclusive ideologies (6 p. 6). It is no longer possible to provide a single definition of religion which is universally applicable (5 p. 238; 7 p. 265; 1 p. 99). Proposed definitions can no longer be assessed in relation to a perfect example. It no longer makes sense to talk about definitions of religion in terms of true or false. Definitions are now best assessed by criteria of usefulness to a given context (1 p. 99).
The third step is special for this case. It is to observe the mutual redefining relationship between language and religion. Just as the development of language alters the meaning of religion, a common theme for many of those definitions is that religion also alters the common assumptions which define language (2 p. 50). Since language is built on these assumptions; when a change in religion alters the assumptions, the meanings of language also change (1 p. 99). Religion, like language, can be seen as a cultural system dealing with symbol and meaning (5 p. 237). Language is an essential element of most religion as it allows things which cannot be experienced to be expressed, understood and believed in a way that sensation alone cannot provide (2 p. 49; 8 p. 272).
The approaches to a definition of religion which are available to academics can be divided into reporting and stipulating (1 p. 98). Reporting involves studying a specific group to find the definitions assumed within their common assumptions (2 p. 50; 1 p. 98) as Hyman and Handal have done in their 2006 study of 32 religious professionals in America to conclude that their test sample defined religion as “objective, external, and ritual or organisational practices that one performs in a group setting and that guides one’s behaviour” (264). Stipulating is offering a reader an explanation of what the author intends to mean when they use the word (1 p. 98). Keane stipulates that religion is the “subjective experience of an invisible presence” (47).
The kinds of definition for religion can be categorised as either substantive or functional (1 p. 99). Substantive definitions deal with what religion is; “religion is the belief in a supernatural being or force”, for example (1 p. 99; 2 p. 51). Functional definitions deal with what religion does or its form (1 p. 99; 2 p. 51); religion is a set of beliefs and practices that “endow the world with meaning and value… (it) affirms and reinforces the social solidarity of a community” (3 pp. 744, 748).
Regardless of the approach to definition or what category a definition is placed in, something common to all definitions of religion is that they draw a line between what is religion and what is not (6 p. 3). Regardless of where this line is placed, the choice of definition, and even the choice to define, will always be an ethical and political issue (9 p. 97; 4 p. 255) because it is not possible to define what religion is without also defining what it is not (6 p. 3). Some countries provide tax benefits to organisations deemed to be religious. Many countries also place strict regulations in what areas of society religion is permitted to influence (1 p. 105). The lack of a universal definition allows individuals and organisations to be discriminatory or their choice of definition while technically treating all religions fairly (1 p. 104). The alternative of having a single definition that is globally accepted would be equally discriminatory against the systems which cannot be easily defined into the category where they place their own identity (1 p. 105).
In its earliest form, religion is drawing a line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. When an individual states a definition of religion, they are in fact practicing religion. The assumption that religion needs to be clearly defined is itself a product of Western culture. Having looked at the nature of definitions, the way definitions of religion are formed, and the costs of the arbitrary choices inherent in the process; I have to wonder if it is worth it. Does society really need laws protecting religious freedom separately from secular freedom? Should secular charities receive the same monetary incentives as religious ones? Could religion have a place in schools when it supports the values of a community? Rather than find a definitive definition for religion, I have come to question the grounds for the assumption that religion needs to be defined. So to the question of “What is religion?”, I can only answer with this: Religion is a word which divides.
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