International Journal for Philosophy of Religion (2006) 59:133–152 DOI: 10.1007/s11153-006-6961-z
© Springer 2006
The pragmatics of deﬁning religion in a multi-cultural world VICTORIA S. HARRISON
Department of Philosophy, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, Scotland, UK (E-mail: V.Harrison@philosophy.arts.gla.ac.uk) Abstract. Few seem to have difﬁculty in distinguishing between religious and secular institutions, yet there is widespread disagreement regarding what “religion” actually means. Indeed, some go so far as to question whether there is anything at all distinctive about religions. Hence, formulating a deﬁnition of “religion” that can command wide assent has proven to be an extremely difﬁcult task. In this article, I consider the most prominent of the many rival deﬁnitions that have been proposed, the majority falling within three basic types: intellectual, affective and functional deﬁnitions. I conclude that there are pragmatic reasons for favouring the formerly popular view that essentialist deﬁnitions of “religions” are inadequate, and that religions should be construed, instead, as possessing a number of “family resemblances.” In so arguing, I provide a response to the view that there is nothing distinctive about religions, as well as to the recent claim that religions do not exist.
Our world contains a striking diversity of religious traditions. Given that most of us probably have no trouble recognizing such traditions as religious, it is perhaps surprising that there is little agreement about what religion is or, indeed, if “it” is anything distinctive at all. Scholars have sought to deﬁne religion so as to identify both what makes something a religion and what, if anything, distinguishes religions from secular social organizations like clubs. Elementary though this task may seem, it has proven difﬁcult to formulate a deﬁnition of religion that can command wide assent. Many rival deﬁnitions have been proposed, most of which can be classiﬁed as examples of one of three basic types:1 intellectual deﬁnitions, affective deﬁnitions, and functional deﬁnitions.
Rival deﬁnitions of religion Intellectual deﬁnitions stipulate that the deﬁning, or essential, feature of religion is belief about a particular sort of object. The following deﬁnition, suggested by James Martineau, is of this type: “Religion is the
VICTORIA S. HARRISON
belief in an ever living God.”2 While deﬁnitions of this type highlight something important about religions – the undeniable fact that propositional beliefs typically play a signiﬁcant role within them – nevertheless, they take no account of other, equally prominent, features of religion. They fail to recognize, for example, the centrality of “religious” emotions like piety, the importance of faith, and the key role of traditional practices. Yet each would seem to constitute typical features of many religions. A further problem is that deﬁning religion in terms of belief that has a particular kind of object, such as God, entails that certain belief systems which are routinely regarded as religions – Theravada Buddhism, for example – would have to be classed as non-religious; an entailment which strikes many as counter-intuitive. To avoid this problem, one might suggest that any kind of belief would sufﬁce, as long as it was held with sufﬁcient seriousness and intensity. However, building into intellectual deﬁnitions conditions about the way a belief is held is tantamount to admitting that intellectual deﬁnitions by themselves are inadequate. It would also allow any kind of belief system to be a candidate for the label “religious,” provided only that it was held with sufﬁcient passion. Moreover, we do not need to look to non-monotheistic religions to see the inadequacy of intellectual deﬁnitions. For they would not even seem to be applicable to Judaism. As Eugene Borowitz claims: “for the Jew, religion cannot be so easily identiﬁed with the afﬁrmation of a given...
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