Some Definitions of Religion

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This page is gradually accumulating definitions of religion from various sources and commenting on them, relating definitions to their proponentsagendas.

1 David V. Barrett: The New Believers: Sects, Cults and Alternative Religions (2001)

In this highly recommended book, now in paperback, the author aims for and achieves a sympathetic objectivity that contrasts with the sectarian bias of some other cult watchers. After pointing out that even the behaviour of football, rock and science fiction fans might be regarded as religious, Barrett offers, as he says, In more conventional terms, a useful definition of religion

A social construct encompassing beliefs and practices which enable people, individually and collectively, to make some sense of the Great Questions of life and death. [p 25]

Thus, while recognising that broader definitions of religion are possible, Barrett opts for one that relates specifically to his subject matter. In the context, this seems unproblematic: to get into the theory of religion could only confuse the issue.

This site, with different concerns, does understand religion more broadly. Here, we focus on the sacred, rather than on questions of life and death, and as well as including beliefs about the sacred, emphasise the institutionalised mediation of the sacred through organisations and practices.

2 Dorothy Nelkin: in Rose, H and Rose, S: Alas, Poor Darwin (2000)

In Less Selfish Than Sacred?, her contribution to a collection of largely ineffectual polemics against sociobiology/evolutionary psychology (SB/EP), the American sociologist aims to pin a religious label to Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Co. In this sort of academic game, it seems you score gold if you can pin a racist label to the opposition, silver for sexist and bronze for religious.

Nelkin defines religion as:

a belief system that includes the idea of the existence of an eternal principle ... that has created the world, that governs it, that controls its destinies or that intervenes in the natural course of its history [p 14],

where the embedded quotation is from the Random House Dictionary (1967) definition. Nelkin adds that the eternal principle, either God or a powerful idea, is understood as

the key to all knowledge, the explanation of history, and the guide to the conduct of everyday behaviour. [p 14]

There are two main differences between this definition and, say, that of Barrett above. First, it excludes all reference to anything other than belief: ignoring religious practice and the social in religion. Second, it focuses on a single belief: ignoring the possibility of a multiplicity of beliefs.

Nelkin's is not a definition that does justice to any religion of the supernatural because, for one thing, it turns a blind eye to religious practice. For even the most pared down of supernatural religions involve characteristic activities outside of everyday life, such as meditation and religious reading. Thus in minimal Protestantism there must at least be prayer and Bible reading.

Clearly, the Nelkin definition throws almost no light on complex religions such as Catholicism, where there are multiple beliefs, organisations and practices.

It's obvious that Nelkin has come up with an extreme reductionist definition so as to enable her to suggest that SB/EP is not scientific, on the grounds that its proponents regard natural selection not as a scientific hypothesis, but as a religious eternal principle. If she had adopted a more accurate definition, it would not have been applicable to SB/EP, there being no praying to its eternal principle or whatever. To score her point, Nelkin has had to misrepresent religion grossly.

Of course, for its own purposes, the SB/EP team likewise misrepresents religion, with its own reductionist understandings.

This site has a comprehensive definition of religion, as being about what people find sacred and about the ideologies, organisations and practices that relate to that. Positing that everybody is guided by some sort of sacred, some basis for decision-making, this site finds that everybody is religious, including our two groups of squabbling academics.

3 Pascal Boyer: Religion Explained (2001)

This contribution from the sociobiology/evolutionary psychology (SB/EP) camp is remarkable in that, even though it proposes to explain religion, it neither offers a definition of religion nor explains why it doesn't do so. A cursory check suggests that an earlier Boyer work, The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (1994), took a similar line.

Of course, it is possible to work out what Boyer means by religion from the text. Indeed, the subtitle in Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors points us in the right direction. Boyer has an SB/EP reductionist understanding of religion that suits his agenda, though not the reality of the phenomenon.

This sort of reductionism can usefully be understood as Protestant Minimalism taken a stage further. Protestantism first scorned the religion of Catholicism as mumbo-jumbo coming between the believer and God. Then, when other religions became known through exploration and colonisation, these were judged the same way. It is an approach that was still abundantly clear in William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), though it abated somewhat in the course of the c20th. The current SB/EP attitude to religion seems to be simply that of old fashioned Protestant minimalist anti-religion with God removed as well.

(c) John C Durham, 2004