Defining Religion in a Multicultural World

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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: 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



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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