• Wed. Jun 12th, 2024

Religion Defined Substantively by Markus Altena Davidsen

A substantial definition of religion constitutes a third dimension of my approach. Since I will be looking for religion outside established institutions and traditions, and since I aim to identify types and distinctions within the subject matter, I need a definition of religion which is above all a useful analytical instrument. It is therefore clear that I cannot use a colloquial or “social constructionist ‘definition’, which takes religion to be simply those practices which participants themselves identify as “religious”. Such an approach would fail to capture much, for most religionists prefer to identify sub-institutional religion as spirituality, magic, gnosis, or even science. It might also include too much, if it misinterprets such metaphorical expressions as “football is my religion”. For similar reasons, a broad, functionalist definition of religion such as Clifford Geertz’ or Thomas Luckmann’s will not do. Such definitions can be useful for highlighting similarities between religion and religion-like phenomena such as film, fan culture, and commitments. But their potential weakness is to equate all that is meaningful, social, or important to people with religion.

I strongly agree with Luckmann’s insistence that sub-institutional religion belongs to the subject matter of the study of religion, and that it is necessary to define religion in a way that includes religious conduct and ideas which are not institutionalised. I agree with Jonathan Turner that if scientific theorising is to have any analytical value, a fundamental prerequisite is clear definitions of core concepts and categories. Since analytical theorising is what the study of religion needs, our first task is to produce a clear definition of religion. I must disagree with those who argue that we should abandon the concept of religion because it has been defined in Christocentric terms in the past. And I vehemently oppose those who claim that religion cannot be defined because people (including scholars) use it in different ways, and who suggest that we should therefore be content to catalogue the various meanings which people attribute to the term. The problems with earlier definitions, which these scholars rightly point out, should not lead us to abandon defining religion, and by implication, to abandon theorising about religion. The current problems rather call for clearer definitions and stronger theories.

I am convinced, however, that a substantive definition, rather than a functionalistic one, will serve us best as a starting-point for analytical theorising about religion and its structures, patterns, and modes. A definition that contains no reference to the functions (e.g. meaning-giving and securing social cohesion) and the forms (e.g. the presence of a canon) that are commonly associated with institutional religion, will furthermore be particularly suitable for identifying religion in unexpected places (outside of institutions), in unexpected guises (also when parading as non-religion), and in unexpected modes (such as the casual and playful). Taking these considerations into account, I shall therefore define religion as beliefs, practices, experiences, and discourses which assume the existence of supernatural agents, worlds, and/or processes. Supernatural agents include both personalised agents, such as gods and spirits, and impersonal powers with will, and power of action, such as ‘the Universe’, or ‘the cosmic life force’. Supernatural worlds include both dualistic concepts of a spiritual world, for example the Christian Heaven, and the Celtic Otherworld, and notions of other planes or dimensions, such as the astral plane. Supernatural processes refer to supernatural ‘laws’, such as the karmic law, that are believed to govern the workings of the universe, and to magical processes by which the universe can allegedly be influenced.

I make no distinction between religion and magic (of either the Frazerian, or Durkheimian sort), but consider magic to be a key component of religion, indeed the part that has to do with the attribution of supernatural efficacy to thought and action. The Catholic Eucharist, by this definition, is a splendid example of magic, combining (a) magic based on similarity and supernatural efficacy attributed to speech (turning wine into blood) and (b) magic based on contagion (transferring the power of the god to the devotees through consumption). I therefore oppose those scholars who argue that (de-traditionalised) spirituality is something categorically different from (traditionalised) religion, and who draw the conclusion that spirituality should henceforth be studied within the framework of a “sociology of spirituality”, or suggest that we re-name the sociology of religion ‘the sociology of religion and spirituality’. Such arguments only serve to further reify the problematic conception of religion as, by definition, institutional religion. Since ‘spirituality’ is a form of religion, what we need is instead more “sociology of non-institutional religion” within the framework of the sociology of religion in general.


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