If it is difficult to define religion, what about if we try to avoid doing so? Can we talk about religion without a definition?
Trying to find a definition is almost like stepping through a quagmire, it is messy and difficult, and unhelpful in many ways.
The aim of this discussion is to encourage you to think about the difficulties of thinking and talking about religion.
Whether we are ‘for’ or ‘against’ religion, whether we have a particular religious faith or not, it is important for us to start from a point of recognising complexity. There are no simple answers, because there are no simple questions.
So is there any point in even using the term religion? Should we find ways of talking about this without using ‘religion’, which can often lead us think we understand something even though we don’t.
Some people suggest we should use something else, such as the word ‘ritual’ instead of religion.
We have to use words, we can’t stop using words to try and talk about the world we see about us. And in some cases, the word ritual may help us to understand other cultural activities better, and in other cases it might not.
So what I suggest is that we do not drop the word religion, but instead we keep it, and try to use it carefully.
Indeed, one way we can try to avoid a definition is to talk about religion in a new and quite different way.
That is, the idea that it is not so much ‘religion’ it is ‘religioning’, religion with an ‘i-n-g’ at the end.
To talk about religion as a verb rather than a noun. As something that is done, rather than something that does.
Most importantly, we need to recognise that whatever term we use, it will have its limitations. This is what I am most concerned about – not so much whether we talk about religion, and how and why. But rather what are the limitations of using a term such as religion, and how we can learn a lot more if we recognise these limitations.
And these limitations are
1) of course it is an English language term. We should not assume that the meaning we assume it has can be exported easily, and in fact what we think it religion is local, indeed parochial to our part of the world. There is nothing wrong with that, it is just recognising our limitations.
2) Whatever our religious outlook, belonging, and faith may be, the term religion carries a lot of meaning from European and north American histories of Christian thought and practice. Religion carries a lot of barrage from centuries of Christian cultural life. One strong example of this is that religion is not only/primarily about faith and what people believe. Religion is about what people do, how they behave, and how they understand what they and others do
3) Religion is a meaningful term in much – but not all – of the world. Most Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and many other followers/participants in particular traditions have an outlook that understands such traditions as ‘religion’ (albeit in many different ways) – marking off some of the things they do as religion, in their own particular ways (which might be different from how we understand ‘religion’)
4) The term religion is a starting point for understanding much of what people do. But that is only so long as we recognise we have to dig much deeper and understand the context, the particular, not the general.
5) Much of what we talk about when we talk of religion can be called ‘culture’ instead. I am not saying the two terms are the same, and indeed the term culture is equally if not even more problematic. But in most societies, including our own, religion and culture do strongly overlap and often it is hard to pick the two apart. And in cultural contexts where there is no concept of ‘religion’ what we will find is a lot of what may look like religion going on in the form of culture rather than religion.
And so, the lesson to learn is really, be careful what you assume, be careful what you say, listen and learn, and accept that ‘reality’ is a lot more complicated than you’d ever think.
And religion is just a small example of that.
About the Religion Bites Podcast
The Religion Bites podcast gives you quick and simple intros to the study of religion, to help you think a bit further about the issues of religion and culture in the contemporary world. If we want to understand today’s world, we need to ‘get’ why people are religious – why they ‘do religion’ in the many ways that religion is done. This is not a podcast about being religious, it is about understanding religion and the role that religion has in the contemporary world.