Defining Religion in a Multicultural World

Powerful Essays
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



Cited: in Alston, “Religion,” op. cit., p. 140. 13. See, for example, Borowitz, A New Jewish Theology in the Making, op. cit., pp. 44f. 14. For a survey of prominent examples of these rival theories, see James Thrower, Religion: The Classical Theories (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999). Remarking on the sudden appearance of these theories in the West from the mid-18th century, Thrower suggests that “it is only when religion has ceased to be at the living heart of a culture, that is, when its status has become problematic, that explanations to account for its existence come to the fore.” Ibid., p. 3. 15. Ibid. 16. Naturalistic psychological theories typically suggest that religion originally arose out of a primitive mental state such as fear or guilt, with Freud being the most famous exponent of such a view. Alternatively, sociological theories, which are also naturalistic, typically propose that religious beliefs and practices arose to fulfill a social function. One such function could have been to stabilize society through encouraging people to conform to social norms. The French sociolo´ gist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) went so far as to suggest that religions origi´ nated in primitive human beings who worshipped society. See Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, translated by Karen E. Fields (New York: Free Press, 1995). 17. It should be noted that an important debate is currently taking place between those scholars of religion who regard religion as merely a human activity that can be completely analyzed by the methods of the social sciences and those who believe that such analyses cannot provide a complete explanation of religion. Arguing for the former, naturalistic stance, one protagonist declares: “like all other aspects of human behavior, those collections of beliefs, behaviors, and institutions we classify as ‘religion’ can be conceptualized and then explained as thoroughly human activity, with no mysterious distillate left over.” Russell T. McCutcheon, Critics not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), p. xi. 18. Herbert Spencer, cited in Alston, “Religion,” op. cit., p. 140. 19. Keith Yandell, Philosophy of Religion: A Contemporary Introduction (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 16. DEFINING RELIGION IN A MULTI-CULTURAL WORLD 151 20. Geertz’s work is voluminous. However, see, for example, Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), ch. 4. 21. Ibid., p. 89. 22. Ibid., p. 90. 23. Geertz’s perspective continues to be developed by, among others, Russell T. McCutcheon and Timothy Fitzgerald. See, for example, McCutcheon, Critics not Caretakers, op. cit. and Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). 24. Smith’s thesis is taken even further by Timothy Fitzgerald when he claims that “[t]he construction of ‘religion’ and ‘religions’ as global, crosscultural objects of study has been part of a wider historical process of western imperialism, colonialism, and neocolonialism. Part of this process has been to establish an ideologically loaded distinction between the realm of religion and the realm of non-religion or the secular. By constructing religion and religions, the imagined secular world of objective facts, of societies and markets as the result of the free association of natural individuals, has also been constructed.” Ibid., p. 8. 25. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion: A Revolutionary Approach to the Great Religious Traditions (London: SPCK, 1978), p. 19. 26. This dynamic seems to have had a profound effect on the development of both Christianity and Islam, as these rival forms of monotheism were often perceived by their adherents as mutually threatening. 27. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1959), paragraph 66. 28. Ibid. 29. Examples might include Quakerism and Roman Catholicism (both are forms of Christianity that exhibit striking diversity but which, nevertheless, retain a family resemblance) or Hasidic and Reconstructionist Judaism. 30. At one stage, the Wittgensteinian family resemblance approach was almost universally accepted as the best method available for understanding “religion.” 31. See John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 3–5. Ninian Smart’s popular book The Phenomenon of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1973) was also instrumental in promoting the family resemblance approach. 32. While Wittgenstein himself does not appear to have held that possession of a common feature was a sufficient condition for two things to bear a family resemblance, many of those who have subsequently discussed the family resemblance approach to religion would nevertheless seem to have made this assumption. 33. For a discussion of this and other problems arising from the family resemblance theory, see Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies, op. cit., ch. 4. 34. Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, op. cit., p. 4. 35. Ibid., p. 5. 36. Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies, op. cit., p. 6. 37. Ibid., p. 4. 38. For the case of the Hopis, see Frank Waters, The Book of the Hopi (London: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 317–321. 39. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1949). 152 VICTORIA S. HARRISON 40. In Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), Russell T. McCutcheon argues that the modern academic study of religion serves to reinforce the projection of these concepts onto the world, and is thereby collusive in distorting the phenomena. 41. Joseph D. Bettis, Phenomenology of Religion (London: SCM, 1975), p. 170. 42. One need only think of the supposed separation of Church and state in certain liberal democracies. 43. For example, members of the Ahmadiyya movement (founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, d. 1908) have always claimed to be Muslim; an identity which has often been denied them by others, leading to their persecution in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. There are reports of Ahmadis being sentenced to death on the charge of apostasy simply because they do not meet the criteria which, according to some Muslim governments, define what an orthodox Muslim believes. Likewise, there is little agreement among those adhering to the various forms of “orthodox” and “non-orthodox” Judaism concerning what should count as authentic Judaism. Moreover, the struggle on the part of some Christian groups to establish their version of the faith as exclusively correct has been a long and fraught one, and has continued into the 21st century. 44. For the notion of “essential contestability,” see W. B. Gallie, “Essentially contested concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56 (1955–1956): 167–198. 45. It should be noted that many philosophers now reject the Wittgensteinian approach to meaning, especially with regard to natural kinds (such as water). The impetus for this rejection has come from the work of Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam. See Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), and Hilary Putnam, “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’ ” in Hilary Putnam, Mind, Language and Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 215–271. On the Kripke–Putnam theory of meaning, “water” is taken to mean H2 O. However, religion would not seem to be a natural kind entity with a caus` ally efficacious underlying structure a la water, with its specific molecular structure that is presumed to be causally responsible for its observable properties. Hence, the family resemblance approach might be thought to remain viable in the case of a number of concepts, such as “religion,” that do not refer to those features of the world ordinarily studied by natural scientists. Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

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