Defining and Studying Religion


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Defining and Studying Religion by Alix Landmann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at

The quest for a definition of Religion which enables us to study the phenomena labelled religion

Following Atkinson’s approach (1983: 685), I tend to define religion in the broadest sense as a historically grown cultural system through which fundamental problems of existence are expressed and managed (Geertz 1966).This definition of religion transcends the conventional distinction between world religions and traditional religions. With reference to his emphasis on symbols, Geertz defines religion as

  1. a system of symbols which acts to
  2. establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by
  3. formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and
  4. clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that
  5. the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1973: 90).

Systems of symbols are models in his understanding– both models of and models for (Geertz 1973d:93). In this, systems of symbols act as models of reality and models for reality. Geertz regards religions as particular cultural solutions to universal problems of meaning. Since problems of meaning are experienced by cultural actors only in the context of social systems, religions as cultural systems are impressed by the institutional conditions of their construction. Basically, religions as cultural systems are to be understood as adaptation to the environment and as devices for survival and reproduction.

“Each religious tradition has been influenced by cultural forces which rest in turn upon a complex of geographical, climatic, economic, and political factors.” (Hick 1992: 7)

As I employ the anthropological definition of religion, in order to integrate the socio-biologist argument, religion should be interpreted by reference to biological (Boyer 2001, Atran 2004, 2008, Dow 2007), historical and cultural factors. Culture overlays biological substructures with meaning systems that are both motivating and to a certain degree arbitrary – as they respond to natural and geographic phenomena in the first place, they secure survival of the individual and the group. Those cultural meaning systems or mind sets transform and transcend over time – in this they are adjusted by a process termed history.

The human capacity for religious thought and experience has its foundation in the human biological substructure, but it can only come to full expression with cultural inputs and processes as a social structure. Religions contain derivates of experience and systems of knowledge; in this they provide socially transmitted and inherited solutions to life problems (survival and reproduction) and specific ways of life.

Despite scholarly differences, both proponents of the anthropological and the socio-biological definition agree in one central point: culture and religion are to be understood as adaptation to the environment and as devices for survival and reproduction. Survival and reproduction of groups are linked with their ability to transmit and to learn knowledge. In this light, culture, religion,  and education inherit a common basic feature, namely the human ability of adaptive environmental learning. If considered as environmental learning processes to secure survival, then culture, religion and education approximate and unify in their adaptation quality genuine to the human species.

Whereas Hick (1992) and Swami Sivananda (in Prothero 2010: 2) seem to agree that

“The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the non-essentials”.

Prothero holds to the contrary that

“The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law. Those differences may not matter to mystics or philosophers of religion, but they matter to ordinary people”.

How those differences played out in the Indonesian negotiation of religious pluralism and state funded religious education is exemplified in the current study.

Something is a religion when it shares enough of this DNA to belong to the family of religions. What makes the members of this family different and (themselves) is how they mix and match these dimensions. (Prothero 2010: 13) The world’s religious rivals are clearly related, but they are more like second cousins than identical twins. They do not teach the same doctrines. They do not perform the same rituals. And they do not share the same goals. (Prothero 2010: 13)

Talal Asad (1993) identifies two key problems in the definition of religion: it must be universal, but it might not be too broad. Asad suggests that scholars determine what they mean by religion on a case-by-case basis. That is religion and religious traditions should be conceptualized as emic category to describe their particular belief system bound to its respective locally defined community of practice and social and cultural context in which religion is embedded. Thus, the concept of religion has to be properly formulated in order to observe the required (academic, legal, civic, political) purpose at hand.

Consequently, I propose to apply an emic (actor-centered) approach to analyze the particularity of the Indonesian fusion between state and religion. In order to operationalize the Geertzian definition, I used Prothero’s (2010: 14) four-part approach to the religions. Each religion articulates:

  • A problem
  • A solution to this problem, which also serves as the religious goal;
  • A technique (or techniques) for moving from this problem to this solution
  • An exemplar (or exemplars) who chart this path from Problem to solution

In sum, the complexity and the difficulty of defining religion and belief are illustrated by

  1. scholarly debates, and, at a more pragmatic level,
  2. problems in the definition of religion in either constitutions that regulate the relation between religion and state, or for legal purposes, and
  3. the ongoing history of the protection of freedom of religion in the context of international human rights[1].

With regard to legal purposes, the UN proposes a broad understanding of religion including naturalistic worldviews indicating “no legal definition of religion has yet garnered a consensus” (Gunn 2003: 191, 193) and “no convincing general theory of religion exists” (Gunn 2003: 193). Religion or belief is said to encompass “theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs”, as the Covenant reassures unequivocally the right not to profess any religion or belief. Therefore Jeremy Gunn has indicated a difficulty in the term’s usage for legal purposes.

The question what is religion has been endlessly discussed, those debates show how both the category ‘religion’ and faith traditions are socially constructed. (Scheifinger 2009: 3) As culture, the academic category of religion and several different religious traditions are conceptualized here as social phenomena[2].

Following Nesbitt (2006: 389), I use the term religion and faith interchangeably, but since they do not exactly share the same meaning, I employ the terms ‘faith traditions’ and ‘religious tradition’ to refer suggest a less “bounded and reified” property them the term ‘religion’ commonly denotes. An interpretation of religion must explain the plurality of historical channels of thought and imagination formed by religio-cultural traditions. (Hick 1992: 2)

“[T]here is no consensus, perhaps there will never be, as to what counts as religion”. (Casanova 1994: 26).

Hick (1992: 5) suggests that

“religion takes such widely different forms and is interpreted in such widely different ways that it cannot be adequately defined but only described”.

According to Talal Asad, it is thus required for scholars to determine what they mean by religion on a case-by-case basis. “There cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes“(Asad 1993: 29). Thus, Asad (1993) proposes a description of religion on a case-to-case basis and not a universal definition. The present study conceptualizes religion as cultural system providing solutions to life problems. (Geertz 1973; Prothero 2010)

The modern concept of religion is a European, North American, and particularly a Protestant[3] attempt to negotiate diversity (Alles 2005: 7703), since modern Western thinking derives its conceptions of the category ‘religion’ and ‘religious traditions’ mainly from the European post-Enlightenment tradition (Jackson, 2003: 8; Bowen, 2005: 25-6; Alles, 2005: 7703). The concept was used to delineate groups within Christianity and to classify and encompass what were perceived to be equivalent phenomena in non-Christian cultures encountered by the West in the colonial period (Jackson, 2003: 8).

By the eighteenth century, treatises on religions of the world began to appear, thereby introducing the concept of religious pluralism. Consequently, “(t)he plural “religions” is possible only when one thinks of religion as a cultural system rather than a person one” (Bowen, 2005: 26). “(T)he processes of defining ‘other’ religions reflected the unequal power relationship between indigenous peoples and European colonialist writers”. (Jackson, 2003: 8) During the nineteenth century, “the term ‘religion’ also changed to include the history of ‘religions’, and most of the modern names for religions were coined”. (Jackson, 2003: 8).

The emergence of the idea of religion as a distinct sphere of life having a universal essence (universal core of religion) heralded the beginning of the reification of religion (Jackson, 2003: 8; Alles, 2005: 7703; Bowen, 2005: 25-6). Both concepts of a ‘religion’ and ‘generic religion’ were held to embody an essence (Jackson, 2003: 8). This essentialist view of religion was perpetuated in the phenomenology of religion. Thus a methodology emerged for identifying and classifying ‘essences’ in particular religions and in religion generally. (Jackson, 2003: 8). The phenomenology of religion had a great influence on the development of comparative religion and religious studies in higher education (Jackson, 2003: 8).

The phenomenology of religion paved the way for the study of religion to enter the broader field of research in the humanities and social sciences (Strausberg 2008). By the late 1930s, the term world ‘religions’ was being used occasionally, and more widely in the 1950s, to denote distinct major religions with stable set of key concepts and beliefs (Jackson, 2003: 8). In the 1960s, there are theories of “modern” religions: which specifically modern forms religion may take in the modern world. (Casanova 1994: 26) “Modern” religions refer to religions that are not only traditional survivals or residues from a pre-modern past but rather specifically products of modernity.

Jeremy Gunn (2003: 193)points to two important aspects of definitions of religion. The first involves assumptions about the underlying nature of religion (what is being defined). The second aspect involves the type of definition that is to be used (how the term is defined). Gunn has identified two principle theories about assumptions about the underlying nature of religion. The first is a religious definition that acknowledges religion in its metaphysical or theological sense: the truth of existence of God, the dharma, and so on. Naturalistic definitions by contrast, interpret religion as

  1. it is psychologically experienced by people (psychological, cognitive, and socio-biological approaches),
  2. a cultural or social force (sociological and anthropological approaches), or
  3. delusionary (atheist approach).

In addition, Gunn (2003: 194) identifies two important types of definition: monothetical and polythetic. The monothetical or essentialist definition identifies the elements necessary for an observable behavior to be designated as a religion. Here the Sacred (Hick 1987; Hick 1992; Alles 2005) and its classifiers dominate the debate. The classic Frazerian definition of religion “religion consists of two elements … a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them” (Sir James G. Frazer 1922: 58 in Stark/Bainbridge 1985: 5), or Spiro’s definition of “religion as an institution consisting of culturally postulated interactions with culturally postulated superhuman beings” (M. Spiro, 1966: 66 in Alles, 2005 7703) may serve as examples for essential definitions.

The traditional approach has been to treat these constituent parts monothetically: that is, to consider all of them as necessary and, when taken together, sufficient to define religion (Alles, 2005: 7703). Whenever a definition is essentialist, it assumes that religion has one or more specific elements in common with all other religions. In this context the evident plurality of religious traditions imposes problems of extending the properties onto specific religious traditions. Thus, any definition of religion is challenged by the problem of extension, responding to the question if certain forms of Buddhism, Confucianism or certain ideologies have to be included or excluded into the definition. Thus, there might be no essential definition of religion.

In sum, for more than a century, scholars have searched for the essence of religion. “Today it is widely accepted that there is no one essence that all religions share. What they share are family resemblances – tendencies toward this belief or that behavior.” (Prothero 2010: 12-13) Philosopher of religion Ninian Smart (1996 in Prothero 2010: 13) has referred to these tendencies as the seven “dimensions” of religion: the ritual, narrative, experiential, institutional, ethical, doctrinal, and material dimensions. Only the cultural and religious dimension of social action might explain why, in response to what appears to be a similar event, people in one setting feel their interests threatened while those in another do not.

The second type of definition, the polythetic does not require that all religions have specific elements in common. (Gunn, 2003: 194) Although scholars occasionally define religion in terms of a single property, they more often conceive of it in terms of an explicit or implicit conjunction of properties. (Alles, 2005: 7703) Wittgenstein had directed scholarly attention to the possibility of conceiving of religion polythetically rather than monothetically[4]. Hick has posited ‘there are no characteristics that every member (of the family or the cluster) must have, nevertheless there are characteristics distributed sporadically and in varying degrees which together distinguish this form from a different family’. (Hick 1992: 4) Polythetic definitions see no particular property as necessary to religion and consider the presence of a collection of properties selected from a master set as sufficient to make a specific item a member of the class called religion (Alles: 2005, 7703-4). For example, William Alston (1967: 141–142, in Alles 2005: 7703-4), has suggested that the presence of an unspecified number of any of the following characteristics would make a set of cultural practices a religion:

  1. Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  2. A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  3. Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  4. A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  5. Characteristically religious feelings.
  6. Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  7. A world view or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein.
  8. A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view
  9. A social group bound together by the above

It may, however, be too simple to see religion as merely a European and North American construct (Alles 2005: 7703). People in many parts of the globe, not just in Europe and North America, have long recognized different religious traditions as belonging to the same broader class, even if they did not explicitly conceptualize that class as religion (Alles 2005: 7703).Hence, religion is a local category that scholars, along with others, have applied beyond the bounds of its origins. Alles concludes that it may not be reasonable to expect the kind of universally acceptable classifications in the study of religions that one finds in a natural science like biology. In any case, a consideration of history can only raise questions about the adequacy of a category like religion. It cannot answer them. The adequacy of a concept depends upon whether it can be properly formulated and whether it serves the purposes at hand. (Alles 2005: 7703)

Jeremy Gunn opines “(w)hile academics have the luxury of debating whether the term “religion” is hopelessly ambiguous, judges and lawyers often do not”. (Gunn 2003: 191, emphasis in original). Thus, on the one hand, there exist “important provisions guaranteeing fundamental rights pertaining to “religion”, but on the other hand the term itself is left undefined”. (Gunn 2003: 191). As a result, misunderstandings about how to define religion and what religion actually is, translate into international and national legal practice, while judges and lawyers “appear to have made assumptions about the meaning of “religion” on the basis of their own experiences”. (Gunn 2003: 192). But “judicial decisions about what constitutes religion make a very real difference in the lives of persons” (Gunn 2003: 191), the importance of a serious treatment of religion in politics and law is obvious, as “Asylum-case ad-judicators, (…) may be called upon to decide whether there is a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of . . . religion” regardless of whether the 1951 Refugee Convention offers a definition”. (Gunn 2003: 192, emphasis in original).

By considering which properties a religion requires to be defined as religion (as the belief in the supernatural for instance) no understanding of religious freedom in the legal and political context is attained. Thus, legal definitions of religion, Gunn remarks, generally appear in the complicating contexts of either

(1) protecting freedom of religion, or

(2) prohibiting discrimination (or persecution) of religion.

Other situations where state officials (including judges, administrators, and legislators) are called upon to determine whether something is religious include most notably

3.) whether an entity is a religion or religious association for purposes of granting legal personality, obtaining tax benefits, or limiting the personal liability of the organizers;

4.) whether someone has religious beliefs for the purpose of obtaining conscientious objector status; and

5.) whether someone should be exempted from a law of general applicability on the grounds of religious belief[5].

Legal definitions do not simply describe the phenomenon of religion, they establish rules for regulating social and legal relations among people who themselves may have sharply different attitudes about what religion is and which manifestations of it are entitled to protection. Legal definitions, as a result, may contain serious deficiencies, when they (perhaps unintentionally) incorporate particular social and cultural attitudes towards (preferred) religions, or when they fail to account for social and cultural attitudes against (disfavored) religions. (Gunn 2003: 195)

Legal definitions of religion have significant deficiencies as they have to establish international or national standards for regulating the relation between religious communities[6]. Gunn clearly shows an intrigue implication in the attempt to develop a legal definition of religion in state law and international law.

Under French law, for example, if a religious organization is recognized by administration officials as a religion, it becomes eligible to receive certain benefit and funding. But in the very process of deciding whether the entity should be so recognized, the courts are confronted with the express language of the law: “The Republic does not recognize (…) any religion” (1905 Law, art. 2). (Gunn 2003: 217, Endnote 14) Thus, the state provides benefits for recognized religions, but concomitantly the state must not recognize religions. However, such a “legal schizophrenia in France is only less apparent in other countries”. (Gunn 2003: 217, Endnote 14) As Jackson notes “(a) nation state cannot be entirely neutral when dealing with issues of religious and cultural diversity”. (Jackson 2003: 5) Whether or not state institutions are competent to determine what is and is not religion, in the actual world of law, judicial and political institutions are sometimes forced to make such determinations. In other words, while the universal right to religious liberty is acknowledged and self-evident, nation-states’ legal systems have to impose limitations on the freedom of religion. These deficiencies and limitations automatically extend to the establishment of religious education systems.

Legal systems may explicitly or implicitly evaluate (or rank) religions. Depending on the attitudes of the persons involved, religions may be described in ways such as proper religion versus deviant religion, or, religion versus non-religion. Probably some persons think of monotheistic religions in terms such as universal, while polytheistic or non-theistic religions may be perceived as primitive or superstitious. Persons with broader sensibilities might expand universal religions to include not only Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism — but nevertheless find that other groups (…) are “not really religions” or are “sects” or “cults” and thus are not deserving of the label of religion either for purposes of receiving benefits or being protected against discrimination. (Gunn, 2003: 196)

[1] There was one major international effort to explain the underlying rights protected under the concept of religion: The 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. In addition the UN Human Rights Committee issued General Comment No. 22 on article 18 on the scope of freedom of religion and belief within the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rightsin 1993

[2] For an excellent overview of the genesis of the term religion and the institutionalization of the study of religion in a global perspective see Alles (ed.). 2008. Religious Studies. A global View. London and New York: Routledge

[3] In the eighteenth century the Protestant reformist idea of religio as personal piety was largely displaced by a concept of religion as systematic, intellectual and ‘exterior’, in which religions were regarded as belief systems. (Smith 1978, in Jackson 2003: 8) The idea of religion as a system of beliefs, as opposed to personal piety, did not take hold until the seventeenth century. (Bowen 2005: 25-6)

[4] Alles 2005: 7703; quoting Wittgenstein, 1953: Philosophical Investigations, pp. 66–67

[5] A Sikh motorcyclist being exempted from a requirement to wear a helmet, or a Muslim, or Jewish slaughterhouse being permitted to kill animals in accordance with ritual laws. (Gunn 2003: 217, Endnote 14)

[6] This paragraph draws heavily from Gunn: 2003 and places weight on his judgment. In the article, the term religion is continuously put into quotation marks. The current study consequently omitted these quotation marks.


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