Scholar of religion Jonathan Z. Smith cited a list containing more than fifty definitions of religion. Having so many definitions does not mean we cannot define religion, but rather, as Smith said: “It can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways.”
Religion — as a complex phenomenon — defies a single, universal definition. Not only do individuals understand religions differently, the term’s meaning differs across languages and cultures. In the United States, Protestant Christianity provides the dominant paradigm: faith in a divine being whose message for humanity is recorded in a sacred text and a weekly meeting to explore that text in a special building.
If all religions had to squeeze into this definition, we would be left with distorted and incomplete images. What about religions that emphasize practice over belief? What about multiple sacred texts? And what about religions that do not set aside a day of the week as holy?
If we insist upon a single definition of religion, we risk excluding or alienating people who identify as religious, especially those who do not belong to the majority religion. From this perspective, there are political and legal stakes in defining religion. We saw this in Tennessee in 2010, when then-Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey mused that Islam was less a religion and more a “nationality, way of life, cult, whatever you want to call it.”
Denying Islam the status of a religion does not stem from its historical, cultural and theological dimensions, it stems from views which — with no empirical basis — cast Islam as more violent than other religions. In this case, Ramsey’s definition hinged on the idea that genuine religions are peace-loving, but by that criterion, scholars of religion would have to ignore much of world history.
One might expect the law to generate clearer definitions of religion, but its unspoken assumptions and unequal power structures exert strong influences. For instance, gaining legal status as a religion brings the benefit of tax-exempt status, and it falls to the government to decide which groups qualify. In some parts of the U.S., Buddhist groups have struggled to be recognized as a religion because they do not fit the Protestant-centric definition of religion.
In “Dixie Dharma,” the scholar Jeff Wilson recounts how a Buddhist temple in Richmond, Virginia, faced a drawn out battle with the city government to be recognized as a “tax-exempt religious corporation.” One problem was that the Buddhist temple did not fit city officials’ definition of a church. For one, different groups used it: one Vietnamese Buddhist group, one Japanese Zen group. Moreover, it had no regular weekly meeting on a set holy day. Only when Richmond’s Buddhist community marshalled support from the American Civil Liberties Union did the city relent and recognize them as a religion.
It is easier to identify the act of defining religion — and the power dynamics involved in doing so — in politics and the law, even when the definitions remain unspoken. Yet in our daily lives we also define religion, often unconsciously. For example, the claim to be “spiritual, not religious” reinforces a distinction between a direct, personal relationship with the divine (spiritual) and a relationship with the divine that only occurs through rituals and institutions (religious).
Though this paints religion in a negative light in relation to “spirituality,” the spiritual-religious distinction is still rooted in the Protestant-centric (or specifically, Evangelical) emphasis on a direct, personal relationship with the divine and a suspicion of ritual and institutional mediation, which many Protestants associate with Catholicism.
Even when we use religion metaphorically, we presuppose certain definitions. For example, we might refer to fanaticism for UT football as “religious,” even though most people would not classify UT football alongside Judaism, Hinduism or Christianity. However, this metaphorical use still assumes an understanding of a “real” religion’s characteristics: a devotional attitude, weekly gatherings (games), rituals (Vol Walk), heroes (Peyton Manning), creeds (General Neyland’s Maxims) and institutional structures (Neyland Stadium) correspond to features of established religions. In talking about religious devotion to football teams, TV shows or bands, we participate in defining religion even if we do not see these objects of devotion as “religious” in a literal sense.
The academic study of religion does not endeavor to come up with a single, all-encompassing definition of religion. However, as Smith observed, this does not mean defining religion is futile. Instead, trying to define religion in a cross-cultural, comparative perspective can make us more aware of religious diversity and more cognizant of our own unspoken assumptions about what makes religion religious.
Abigail Brennan, Robert Cottingham, Jarrod Creasy, Katherine Harwell, Andrew Kitts, Savanna Sanford, William Simerly, Alexis Solomon, Grady Sutton, Meghan Tiller, Dustin Wade, Paige Rose White and other students of Method and Theory in Religious Studies class contributed to this article.