Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Concept of "Religion"

In my philosophy of religion class yesterday I gave everyone in the class a chance to give their own concise answer to the following question: “What is religion?” (To be more precise, I asked them to imagine they were being interrogated by space aliens, and that the fate of the Earth depended on their answer).

Not surprisingly, there were many diverse responses—some emphasizing social and institutional phenomena, some emphasizing beliefs or ways of looking at the world, some emphasizing practices or ways of life, and some stressing inner spiritual experience. Some definitions were, I’d say, quite gilded—that is, they used language aimed at highlighting the beauty or value of the thing being defined. Other definitions were quite the opposite. For example, one student defined religion as a system for justifying the exclusion or marginalization of people from a community.

Once I had the chalkboard covered with these various accounts, I pointed out how this diversity is also represented among scholars—with understandings of religion ranging from the more private, personal, “feeling”-oriented understanding (favored by theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and philosopher/psychologist William James), to more sociological understandings (promulgated by, for example, Emile Durkheim).

I then spent a few minutes considering the idea I advanced in my book—namely, that “religion” is what Wittgenstein calls a “family resemblance” term (see p. 15 of Is God a Delusion? for an account of this idea). Then, in the last few minutes of the class, I turned to another approach—one that, based on some further reflection I’ve done since writing my book, I’m becoming increasingly convinced is the right one. According to this approach, “religion” is best understood as what philosopher W. B. Gallie called an “essentially contested concept”—but with a twist.

Since I didn’t have time to fully explain this idea in class, I want to do so in this post. In fact, I’ve already done so on this blog—here and here. But since it’s always helpful to try to explain ideas in different ways, let me have another go at it here.

What Gallie noticed was that there are some terms whose proper use, rather than being determined by an established definition (one that sets out the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to fall within the term’s scope), is instead determined by a shared set of complex exemplars or paradigms along with a shared appraisive meaning. So for example, there isn’t a common definition of “rape.” Instead, there are a bunch of exemplars—sexual acts that we all agree count as rape—together with general agreement that when an act is labeled “rape” there’s a strongly negative appraisal that goes along with that.

Here’s the thing about “rape.” It just isn’t and never will be a neutral, purely descriptive term. To call something rape is (among other things) to condemn it in a particular way. That condemnation is part of the meaning of the term. And so it matters a lot whether or not a particular act qualifies as rape. Acts of rape are morally worse than other classes of sexual acts (such as seduction, say, or aggressive lovemaking, or adultery).

The paradigms of “rape” exist because there are a bunch of things that we all agree deserve to be condemned in this distinctive way. But these paradigms are complex. They have lots of different features. And we don't all agree on what it is about these paradigms that makes them deserving of the negative appraisal. And this means that there are controversial cases.

Consider: A guy keeps pressuring his high school girlfriend to have sex. She doesn’t want to. He threatens to break up with her. She closes in on herself. He backs off for a few minutes, then begins groping her again. She doesn’t resist. He undresses her. She remains totally passive and unresponsive. He puts on a condom and penetrates her.

Is it rape? More people would be inclined to say “yes” today than twenty years ago—but there are still many who’d say it isn’t, that the guy is being insensitive but isn’t a rapist.

The reason for the dispute is that there isn’t agreement about whether the boys behavior in this case deserves the negative implications of the “rape” label. In other words, this is a moral dispute about what warrants a certain kind of negative appraisal.

And moral disputes can’t be resolved through definitional fiat. Suppose someone says, “From now on, rape will mean an act in which someone uses physical force to overcome a woman who is actively resisting sexual penetration. As such, the case at hand isn’t rape.” Such a move isn’t going to just be accepted. Why? Because to call something “rape” is to say that there's a certain kind of “badness” to it—more precisely, the same kind of badness that the agreed paradigms of rape possess. And so, to define rape as “an act in which someone uses physical force to overcome a woman who is actively resisting sexual penetration” is to say, in effect, that only acts which meet these conditions are bad in the relevant way. Put another way, to define “rape” is to take a stand in a moral dispute.

And as long as there is moral dispute, to impose a uniform definition of “rape” on a community of speakers is to impose one disputed answer to a moral question on everyone in the community. This wouldn’t be merely an act of establishing a linguistic convention. It would be an act of using language to truncate debate and to effectively delegitimize certain moral views.

And this is why some concepts become essentially contested. Their being essentially contested is a good thing—a way to keep some voices in a moral debate from being illegitimately silenced through definitional fiat.

My claim is that this idea of essential contestability is useful for understanding religion—but not if we accept Gallie’s idea without modification. Religion, I think, is an essentially contested concept with a twist. And what’s the twist? Here’s how I explain it in a forthcoming article (“Moving the Goal Posts?” to be published in Philo: A Journal of Philosophy):

But unlike “art,” whose appraisive meaning is positive, or “terrorism,” whose appraisive meaning is negative, “religion” has come to be used such that there are two competing communities of discourse, each using the term in an essentially contested way. But whereas one community of discourse treats “religion” as a positive appraisive concept and seeks to gauge which features of the paradigms warrant the positive appraisal, the other treats it as a negative one and seeks to judge which features warrant the negative appraisal. When a concept comes to be used in this way, we might call it a “bifurcated essentially contested concept.”
Unlike essentially contested concepts as Gallie understood them, I’m not at all convinced that bifurcated essentially contested concepts serve a useful function. When an essentially contested concept becomes “bifurcated,” what happens? On the one hand, you have those who attach a positive appraisive meaning to the paradigms of religion. They will be formulating their definition of religion by looking for what it is about the paradigms of religion that justifies the positive appraisal (and so will sift out of their understanding of religion anything in the paradigms that warrants a negative appraisal). On the other hand, those who attach a negative appraisive meaning to "religion" will be doing to opposite. The result may be that you have two parties with virtually identical value systems, who therefore make the same appraisive judgments about the various features of the religious paradigms—but who appear to be utterly at odds. An analogy—again from my forthcoming article—can be helpful:

It’s as if one community of discourse attaches to the term “sex” the appraisive meaning that typically attaches to “rape,” while another attaches to it the appraisive sense of “making love.” The former group looks at the range of phenomena that go by the label “sex” (ignoring, of course, those phenomena which no one would ever call rape) and tries to identify what justifies the negative appraisal. The latter does the same (ignoring the phenomena, such as rape paradigms, which no one would ever call “making love”), in the attempt to identify the parameters within which the positive appraisal is warranted. The latter holds up its results, saying, “This is the kind of sex (by which we mean making love) that deserves label!” The former protests, “That’s not sex (by which we mean rape) at all!”
This, I think, is what’s going on in the conversation between Christopher Hitchens and Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell, whose unusual debate inspired one of my recent Religion Dispatches articles. It may also help to explain some of the common charges leveled against my book—charges to the effect that I respond to the new atheists by coming up with this definition of religion that has nothing to do with real religion as it exists in the real world.

Of course, what I defend in my book has a great deal to do with actual religions—but when I look at those real-world phenomena, I’m trying to identify the features which might justify a positive appraisal (what I call the germ of a true religion that might be salvaged from the crud of “superstition” and “fundamentalism” and “religionism”). My critics, meanwhile, are sifting through the same phenomena in an attempt to identify what makes religion so bad. And what do they pinpoint? What, from my standpoint, is the crud from which true religion needs to be salvaged. And so they’re holding up the crud and calling it religion, while I’m holding up the gem that was buried in the crud. And they protest, “That’s not religion at all!”


  1. I really think it is time you addressed your own issues regarding sexual abuse. It is long past time. Not that you are an offender by any means, but as a victim.

  2. Anonymous

    As somebody who has thoroughly enjoyed and indeed valued the opportunity to engage in an intellectually stimulating and generous discussion, your comment is disappointing. It feels to me like an unwarranted intrusion, a tawdry piece of emotional vandalism.

    I just wanted to let you know how it reads to this outsider anyway.


  3. I agree with Bernard. Something like this should only be said, if at all, in a private communication. This is hardly the place for this and I hope you will think appropriate to delete your comment.

    I understand you may have some issues with this but, from out here, it does not read well at all.

  4. I will give a more expanded explanation of this on later today, but a religion is any group or philosophy built around a supernaturalistic idea. The critical aspect for it to be a religion is the supernaturalism. The difference between say the idealological group say... libertarians, or marxist, or a person that wants to save the planet from pollution and a religious group is the SUPERNATURALISM aspect to a religion compared to other simply ideological group.

    Religions involve a believe in supernatural element.


  5. Bernard and JP: Thanks for your very appropriate responses to "Anonymous."

    Webulite: Emphasizing beliefs about the supernatural is certainly one way to go--since one of the recurring features of organized religious communities is such belief. But it is hardly the only feature of interest, and there are those who think other features are more important or more central to our appreciation of it.

    And so you have, for example, functionalist accounts that emphasize social functions (and it is these which are most likely to treat Marxism as a religion).

    My broader point is that to dismiss these approaches because religion just IS about supernatural beliefs, period, is to fail to appreciate the contested character of the term and the kind of conversation that its contestability facilitates.

    (That it's contested character has become "bifurcated" doesn't facilitate conversation, I don't think--but rather leads to people with very similar views talking past one another.)

    To highlight the difficulties with any effort to make supernaturalism essential to religion, consider liberal Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends). A Friends Meeting will typically involve an hour of collective silence, followed by a meal or other more informal socialization. Occasionally, during the meditative period, someone will feel moved to speak--to share a thought or an experience. But there is no designated clergy person, no one whose "job" it is to impart the religion's teachings, let alone challenge the orthodoxy of what someone feels moved to share. And the truth is that in most of the Friends meetings I've attended, the hour has passed without anyone saying a word.

    Those who come together for the meeting share an appreciation for the value of the time of silence and the experience that goes with it--but individual Friends will understand its meaning differently. Some will see it in supernatural terms, but not all. I've known several naturalist Quakers who are active, respected, and equal members of their community. There is no specified doctrine about the nature of reality to which Friends must ascribe (although there tends to be a collective commitment to promoting peace and nonviolence, and the "worship" experience is seen as facilitating those aims by promoting an internal spirit of peace from which peacemaking practices more naturally flow).

    So: Is the Religious Society of Friends, in its contemporary liberal incarnation, religious? There are many, including Friends, who are inclined to say yes. But if so, what makes it religious? An insistence on supernaturalism being essential to religion would, I think, force one to say that what makes the RSF "religious" is some kind of attenuated connection to the supernaturalism to which the founders of the Quaker movement were committed to, or something like that. But that seems inadequate to me, since it ignores what the Quaker fellowship IS NOW.

  6. For those interested, I wrote a somewhat longer reflection on Quakerism here.

  7. From wikipedia;

    Religion is the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or a set of beliefs concerning the origin and purpose of the universe. It is commonly regarded as consisting of a person’s relation to God or to gods or spirits. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories associated with their deity or deities, that are intended to give meaning to life. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.

    The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith or belief system, but it is more than private belief and has a public aspect. Most religions have organised behaviors, congregations for prayer, priestly hierarchies, holy places and scriptures.

    The development of religion has taken different forms in different cultures. Some religions place greater emphasis on belief, some on practice. Some emphasise the subjective experience of the religious individual, some the activities of the community. Some religions are said to be universalistic, intending their claims to be binding on everyone, in contrast to ethnic religions, intended only for one group. Religion often makes use of meditation, music and art. In many places it has been associated with public institutions such as education and the family and with government and political power.

    One of the more influential theories of religion today is social constructionism, which says that religion is a modern concept that developed from Christianity and was then applied inappropriately to non-Western cultures.


    Now there are some, especially some Christians, that are trying to redefine the term. They want to call, evolution, or use of science, and a number of things... "religions". Usually their goal is to cloud the term "religion" so that their religion can often get special treatment. For example, in the USA some crazies call "science" a "religion", and then they say... "well, you teach that religion [science] in public schools, so you should also teach Christianity in public schools.

    Very often groups are trying to call lots of things "religions" or "faiths", but you will always find some agenda behind them doing this


  8. My sense is that it would be very difficult--even if "religion" is taken to be an essentially contested concept--to make a case for calling science or the theory of evolution a religion. This is because essential contestability does not erase all parameters of acceptable use, bur rather imposes parameters different from those that guide usage with respect to non-contested concepts such as "television set."

    To use the example of "rape," its essential contestability establishes a gray area but doesn't imply that one can use the term any way one likes--to refer, say, to rutabagas.

  9. Eric

    I am interested in this notion of clearing away the crud to see if there is anything of value remaining at the heart of religion. It seems to me the way we might judge this is to ask, with the crud cleared away, does the thing that's left have any characteristics that distinguish it from the more generic activities of human socialising and story telling? Is there any distinctly religious residue?

    I think also this residue would need to have an element that is broadly accepted as fitting the term religious, because when we communicate we have a responsibility to acknowledge the interpretation most likely to be applied by our audience.

    I'm interested in attempting to work out what liberal theologians (is that an okay term? not sure what to use) see as the key remaining elements. Before entering this discussion, I might have nominated the strength of conviction as being important, which is to say I assumed religious belief entailed some sort of commitment to deeper truths, rather than pragmatic constructions. Upon reflection though this is a hopeless attempt at demarcation. Earlier this year I spent an evening with Richard Dawkins and my impression was that his is a personality strongly attracted to certainty, and clearly he is not most people's religious archetype.

    I think, your Quaker response notwithstanding, this notion of the supernatural as a defining characteristic is worth exploring. The way we answer the questions 'is there more to existence than that we can perceive or model?' and 'can we gain any knowledge of such a realm if it exists?' seems, at least within the context of these discussions, to do some powerful sorting.

    So, although you explain your beliefs in pragmatic terms, you also make reference to a Hegelian notion of our deeper instincts being able, when properly contemplated, to bring us closer to aspects of reality (I may be misexpressing this). To me that is the aspect of the system of thinking you express that feels most 'religious', and most at odds with my own. I think at other times you have referred to it as having Platonic elements.

    I would agree that the difficulty pinning down the term religion, and the vested interests we have in making it fit our own prejudices, makes the discussion more difficult than it needs to be.


  10. I wish I had time to regularly read all your posts. Thank you for them. Intelligent, articulate discourse of such topics constitutes a very small percentage of their discussion.

  11. Bernard: Your comment here might actually serve as a description of the project of my book--although early in the book I distinguish "theistic religion" as a species of religion and indicate that my project will be to identify a version of theistic religion that is intellectually respectable and morally benign. Insofar as it is theistic, it preserves the supernaturalist element that is common to many understandings of religion.

    What I'd say about supernaturalism is that its presence may be sufficient to render something characterized by it legitimaty called "religious" without doing violence to ordinary usage. What I resist is saying that it is necessary (for reasons already mentioned).

  12. It's worth noting too that the idea of "religion" as something that can be split off from the rest of the human experience is of fairly recent historical origin. The idea that there are separate realms of life, (eg. political, religious, scientific, etc.) and that these realms can and should be separate and distinct from one another is a cultural one. I'm not saying it's bad or good, it's just one particular way of viewing the world that is unique to our time and place.

  13. C.P.O, and Everyone,

    You make a very good point. This is also something William Cavanaugh has developed and explored, especially in his book “The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict,” where he notes the recent creation of the idea of “religion.”

    In a deeper and wider understanding of the term, I would propose that everyone is “religious” in some way in that they worship something (even if it is themselves) and they have an overarching “narrative” or story (philosophy) even if it is unstated or poorly understood, which helps them make sense of the world and functions in the very same way a religion does. I think this is true for the atheist as well.

    Doubt, after all, is only belief set in the opposite direction. I doubt such-and-such, because I BELIEVE this other thing. Doubt is only possible because of belief. The atheist or agnostic is a BELIEVER to some degree in the same way a Christian or Buddhist is a believer.

  14. Darrell

    There is a danger in broadening a term to the point that it includes al possibilities, and that is the term loses important aspects of its meaning. So, we can easily construct a case that we're all capitalists really, or we're all murderers, or we're all agnostics or believers or whatever, but at this point the key reasons for the term existing in the first place can drift out of view.

    More interesting than whether we're all believers, is the types of beliefs we hold and why. I'll try to answer your question on this point n the other thread.


  15. What about Hermann Dooyeweerd and Roy Clouser ("New Critique of Theoretical Thought" and "Myth of Religious Neutrality", respectively)? To my reading, their definition of 'religion' and 'religious' add much to the dialogue with atheism. Both authors though place their insights in continuum with a long list of history's philosophers and intellectuals in noting the common role of the Radically Non-Contingent in historical 'religions' as well as most all higher theoretical thinking;

    I think it also does much to the critiques of religious belief based on neurological claims for agency detection and belief in "The Divine".

  16. Pierre,

    “What about Hermann Dooyeweerd and Roy Clouser ("New Critique of Theoretical Thought" and "Myth of Religious Neutrality", respectively)?”

    Absolutely, if anyone wants to do a serious study of “religion” and what it means they would need to address both these people or at least be aware of their views. I tend to agree with Dooyeweerd and Clouser as far as the idea that, at bottom, everyone is religious and cultures or civilizations are simply religion writ large. Of course, I am making a generalization, but both these men unpack and delve deeply into why they think this true.

  17. Darrell; I'm curious if anyone else even reads the neuro-theology stuff in light of their critique (which as an insight - but not critique - is both ancient and perennial). Provided the validity of their claim of the ubiquity of prime belief in that which is Radically Non-Contingent is "religious" - attacks on the "God" gene or part of the brain are attacks on all fundamental abstract thought. I would hazzard to guess that those who thunked the thought before them would also offer such a critique, if they were likewise challenged today.

  18. BTW Darrell, are you Byzantine Catholic, orthodox or 'nonall' of the above?

  19. Pierre,

    While my historical tradition is Prostestant/evangelical, I have moved over time to a more Eastern Orthodox/Catholic view of the world and faith so I am rather a strange mix of several traditions.

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  21. I understand! I think reality is best expressed through mixed metaphors - I think our lives would be so much easier if they were less 'real' in that regard! But it's always good to have those you call your immediate family, among whom you learn to love others and their families for whom they are. Lets enjoy the road trip, meet fellow travelers and read "Mount Analogue" outloud along the way. Have you ever read Jesuit astronomer/author Guy Consolmagno? wonderful book called "God's Mechanics" on techies and religion.

  22. Pierre,

    No, I have not read that book. Sounds interesting.

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