Aaron W. Hughes and Russell T. McCutcheon
In the once well-known (and still cited) appendix to his 1912 book, A Psychological Study of Religion, the American psychologist James H. Leuba famously provided his readers with a set of forty-eight different definitions of religion. He trusted that perusing such a diverse list “will not bewilder the reader, but that [they] will see in them a splendid illustration both of the versatility and the one-sidedness of the human mind in the description of a very complex yet unitary manifestation of life” (339). The first definition that he chose was that of the German philologist and scholar of myth, F. Max Müller, still credited by many with establishing what, in Europe, was originally called Comparative Religion about 150 years ago.
In his 1873 Introduction to the Science of Religion (not insignificantly, perhaps, dedicated to the American essayist, poet, and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson), Müller defines religion as follows: “Religion is a mental faculty or disposition, which, independent of, nay in spite of, sense and reason, enables man to apprehend the Infinite under different names, and under varying degrees.” Whether or not we agree with Müller’s once influential, proto-psychological approach, the locution “religion is…” has long resided at the heart of that collective enterprise that we today call Religious Studies or the academic study of religion. We will accordingly use this locution to frame the challenge set before us last Fall by Marginalia’s editors when inviting us to write a piece answering the question: “What is Religion?”
Our interest in addressing this question makes sense, given that our field, the non-confessional study of religion (which has sometimes also gone by such other disciplinary names as the History of Religions or even the Science of Religion), ostensibly spends an awful lot of time with something everyone calls “religion” as well as its attendant adjective, “religious.” Scholars therefore not only study various religions, in the plural (e.g., Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism, Islam, etc.), but sometimes also the supposed thing that is said to animate and thereby unite them all (i.e., religion in the singular). Much energy is thus devoted to discussing such things as religious experiences, religious texts, religious rituals, religious institutions, religious faith, religious sacrifice, and even religious exemptions. And so a plethora of academic articles and books are written annually about all of these topics and more, not to mention all of the classes taught at all of the universities where Departments of Religious Studies now exist (established all across the US and Canada beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s). In those classes students encounter everything from surveys of world religions to courses on such topics as religion and film, religion and food, or religion and politics.
Careful attention toward this thing called “religion” would therefore seem to structure our entire field. But does it? In our experience, the majority of these books and classes rarely focus on what makes something “a religion” or “religious.” They often fail, in other words, to offer an explicit definition of their object of study and, in our opinion, they often just presume some commonsense understanding that their authors presumably assume to be shared by their readers or which an instructor happened to have grown up hearing and therefore just kept using—whether aware of this habit or not (e.g., belief in god or an experience of the sacred are two that we often come across). Many of these studies and most of the classes moreover tend to focus on the local or the specific (that is, these particular Hindus here and now or those specific Muslims then and there), rarely entertaining what religion in general may or may not be. We therefore rarely ask ourselves why we are so easily able to group those people called Hindus all together, much less mention them so naturally in the same sentence as such other people as those who are called Muslims (let alone Confucians, Christians, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Daoists, etc.). After all, if we designate something as a religious text here and then something else carries that same attribute there (say, the Torah, on the one hand, and the Bhagavad Gita, on the other), must they not have something fundamental or basic in common, given that they share this particular identity? But for the most part, the designator is left undefined, empty, and free floating.
We see this as a problem.
So problematic has this become—in what other scholarly field do you proceed with your work unaware of the limits of your object of study; after all, not everything gets to count as inflation for an economist or 2,4-Dinitroaniline for a biochemist—that some today have even called for scholars to cease and desist from using the term “religion” altogether. Regardless of whether the people we study call themselves or the things that they do “religious” (let alone “spiritual,” a term that has currency among some today), some advocate for scholars to dissolve those claims, things, actions, and organizations into other, far wider notions, such as culture, ideology, or maybe even worldview. In this way, those things formerly known as religion or religious turn out to be but another routine instance of far broader and entirely mundane human doings. As such, worrying over a definition of religion seems hardly productive, since whatever someone claims it to be, it turns out merely to be a component of something else.
What we hope is becoming evident is that answering “what is religion?” can be a highly contentious topic and thus a little tougher than it first seemed. To be sure, among both scholars and the general public alike we find people using the term in their own self-designations, such as requesting a so-called religious exemption from either a vaccine mandate or a tax law to claiming that mandating the display in public government buildings of such things as the motto “In God We Trust.” We also see it, in places like Quebec or in Europe, where crucifixes are not seen as religious but, instead, as a sign of “heritage”—a strategic reclassification that ensures that such obviously Christian displays are seen as constitutional and therefore legal. But just what is going on during these moments when something is said to be religious (or not)? Who gets to decide (and how, based on what criteria) what makes something religious or not? There are those in Religious Studies who have now shifted to this alternative set of questions, leaving disputes over defining religion to those who see the term as important to how they divide up and rank their own social worlds. Instead, such scholars now inquire into the assumptions that produce this thing that others of us so casually call religion and thereby making of it an item to be discussed, let alone carried out, performed, and of course contested. In this way, the academic study of religion as we understand it—i.e., the study of people who make sense of their worlds by naming things as religious or not (not unlike naming some actions as legal or illegal or labeling some people as “us” and others “them”—can be distinguished from simply using the term, however defined, as if it’s an obvious aspect of the world. After all, the modern word derives from long disputed ancient Latin roots, over two thousand years ago, that all had nothing necessarily to do with what, at least in modern times, the word has come to mean for us today.
With this shift to an alternate set of questions, we think of our colleague, the late Jonathan Z. Smith, who remarked in his 1998 essay, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” that Leuba was both correct and incorrect in his desire to arrive at a singular definition of religion. According to Smith:
It was once a tactic of students of religion to cite the appendix of James H. Leuba’s Psychological Study of Religion (1912), which lists more than fifty definitions of religion, to demonstrate that “the effort clearly to define religion in short compass is a hopeless task” (King 1954). Not at all! The moral of Leuba is not that religion cannot be defined, but that it can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways. Besides, Leuba goes on to classify and evaluate his list of definitions. “Religion” is not a native term; it is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes and therefore is theirs to define. It is a second-order generic concept that plays the same role in establishing a disciplinary horizon that a concept such as “language” plays in linguistics or “culture” plays in anthropology. There can be no disciplined study of religion without such a horizon.
Smith here reminds us, as he so poignantly did throughout his career, that, despite how many people persist in using the term, there is nothing special about the category “religion” (let alone those things it helps some people to name and thereby group together). If anything, it is a term that, though often imprecise, structures much of our modern social lives (think again of those religious exemptions or “freedom of belief” woven directly into the governing documents of liberal democracies). Understandably, it’s also a building block of scholarship as well. Case in point, the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the largest U.S. professional association for scholars who study religion, has also gotten into the game of defining religion. According to their website:
Because it crosses so many different boundaries in human experience, religion is notoriously difficult to define. Many attempts have been made, however, and while every theory has its limitations, each perspective contributes to our understanding of this complex phenomenon… The variety of approaches in the attempt to define religion can be imposing and sometimes frustrating. Discussion about widely differing approaches to the subject matter, however, gives the study of religion its vitality, and most students and scholars in the field appreciate its many crosscurrents.
Rather than follow the lead of our national guild—which, along with so many of its members, somehow already knows religion to be more complex and elusive than the various attempts to define it, an intuition that we find to be an unscholarly basis for our work—we maintain, following Smith, that “religion” is nothing more (nor less) than an imagined category. Like any other such categories, that some people use in practical settings (often quite effectively, of course) when talking about, and thereby making sense of, themselves, others, and thus their situation in the world. Following this line of thought, we conclude that there are therefore no religions in the world, existing naturally in the wild and just waiting to be found by the intrepid comparativist. There are, however, diverse and assorted claims, practices, and institutions that, given this or that set of criteria, are classified and grouped together as such by those who are using the word at specific moments for specific effect—whether that means scholars going about their studies of, say, religion in America or the people those very scholars may study who may also use the word while going about their daily business.
So, we return to our title: what is religion? What might now be clear is that it’s simultaneously both an exceedingly difficult and a rather easy question to answer.
Concerning the former, we could here document, akin to Leuba himself, the dizzyingly diverse ways that social actors have used the term—limiting ourselves just to scholars, we could go from Karl Marx’s critical sense of it being the illusory “the opium of the people” to countless theologians, over the past few centuries, who have been far more sympathetic in seeing it as some sort of deeply meaningful experience of either God, the gods, or such equally ill-defined terms as “ultimacy” or “the sacred.” Opting for this approach today will surely result in a list far longer and more diverse than Leuba’s earlier attempt—by some measures Pastafarianism will undoubtedly fall on this side of the line, allowing its adherents to wear their colanders for a driver’s license photo, yet by other measures so-called invented religions will be seen as a mere parody hardly afforded the liberties of so-called authentic, mainline, or traditional religions.
But, given how contentious scholarship on the topic has become, and how arbitrary the support for this over that definition proves to be, we favor the latter, easier, and therefore more modest approach; and so we answer the question of our title by saying that “religion” is a word that some people use to help to make their social worlds manageable, always done for practical effect—whether to mark something as privileged, set apart, and therefore off-limits to others or, in yet other cases, to demean someone or something. What’s more, when that word is connected to governing institutions and the mechanisms that we regularly use to operationalize and police them, it becomes a fundamental component in how many modern groups makes their social worlds work by appearing to themselves and others as authoritative, natural, and inevitable.
And so, what is religion? It is just a word—a word often of tactical consequence, to be clear, all depending on who uses it, when, and how. Scholars of religion, as we understand their task, ought to be studying just those variables, thereby avoiding the arm-wrestling match of coming up with some definitive take on some sort of specialness that, according to many, the words supposedly convey.
Aaron W. Hughes is the Philip S. Bernstein Professor in the Department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester and Russell T. McCutcheon is University Research Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. They are the co-authors of the two-volume Religion in 50 Words and Religion in 50 More Words (Routledge, 2021) and co-editors of What is Religion? Debating the Academic Study of Religion (Oxford, 2021)—a volume in which seventeen leading international scholars of religion offer their own and then critique each other’s, answer to this question. This essay is a revision of the latter book’s introduction (by permission of the publisher).