MRBlog | Why How We Define Religion Matters


By Thomas J. Whitley

The Washington Post has a new venture called Acts of Faith. I was alerted to this via a Twitter notification that told me that various people I follow had just begun to follow @WashPostFaith. I checked it out because I am always looking for good sources for religion-related news and have a lot of respect for a number of people who work for WaPo. I was immediately struck, though, by the name for the new religion section, “Acts of Faith,” and the implications of such. The description offered on their website says that Acts of Faith

covers religion and spirituality news wherever it exists, from politics to parenting, from sex to sports. Look for news, analysis and opinion to keep you up on daily conversations about faith, spirituality, ethics and values.

Their description is intentionally broad, and rightfully so, but there is an inherent bias in what counts as “religious,” even if only as a result of the name they have chosen for this venture. Defining “religion” as that which deals with matters of faith and belief necessarily precludes that which deals with matters of praxis and that is less obviously about, or not at all about, faith or belief. (That they have called it Acts of Faith, I think does not diminish from my point, especially given the first articles they have posted.) That is, the focus on faith prioritizes a Western and a Protestant notion of what counts as “religion.” To further make the point that this is a prioritization of one interpretation of religion, we need to go no further than the New Testament. The traditional understanding of the divide between Judaism and Christianity is that Christianity is about belief. John 3.16 is the go-to verse here: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Yet while belief is of primary importance in the Gospel of John, it does not hold the same weight in other New Testament texts. The book of James is famous for its “faith versus works” talk:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. . . . For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (James 2.18, 26)

Well, maybe James distorted the message. This is certainly what Martin Luther thought, as he tried to have James removed from the New Testament. But we see that a “works” message is quite prominent in the Gospel of Matthew as well. As Jesus is finishing the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7 he says that it is works that count.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matt 7.21; emphasis added)

Or we can turn to Revelation and see how it says one gets her name written in the Book of Life.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. (Rev 20.12; emphasis added)

Again, we see the emphasis on works/praxis and not on faith or belief. While the Washington Post may not intentionally exclude certain religious expressions, it is inevitable when they have envisioned their project as work that covers “acts of faith.”

Those of us who study religion academically regularly struggle over how we define religion. Many  opt for the definition offered by Bruce Lincoln in his famous Theses on Method:

Religion, I submit, is that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal.

What Lincoln’s definition does is try to remove as much as possible any sense of essentialism. That is, there is no reference to what someone believes, or even what someone does. There is no reference to a “scripture” or to specific doctrines.  There is not even a reference to the “divine.” Instead, Lincoln has fashioned his definition in such a way that he does not exclude groups, texts, or actions from his study because they do not look like one of the “great religions.”

Though I have been critical of how the Washington Post has covered religion before, this is not an attempt to call just them out, but rather is an attempt to show that how we define “religion “determines what we classify as “religious” which largely determines what gets sacralized in our society, what is afforded legal protections, and what counts as terrorism. This discussion is not one without relevance outside of the walls of academia, for major news outlets are jumping on the “religion beat” left and right these days but are often doing a disservice to their readers because they have not critically examined the category, their use of it, and the implications thereof. In other words, even when those at the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and CNN have good intentions about covering “religion,” they necessarily leave a void due to their lack of critical academic training in the subject. Not only does this come through in their work, but they are actively contributing to the larger conversation over what gets to count as “religion” in this country through what they cover, how they cover it, and what they call their coverage.

This is, of course, the void that Marginalia and others are trying to fill.