Thursday, July 1, 2010

Defining Religion

So I haven't put anything up yet, and I figure I should do something with this blog, so here is my final 2-page paper for "Introduction to the Study of Religion" from first semester of 2009-2010.

Defining Religion
Clifford Geertz offers a valuable and well thought-out definition for religion: A system of symbols which act to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [(wo)]men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. Geertz was indeed a formidable scholar within the field, and his definition appears to be as flawless as one can possibly hope for. However, the question that I think should be raised is whether the very act of defining the concept is flawed by the origins of the term. [1]

Religion, as J.Z. Smith puts it, is an anthropological, not a theological category. It is a second order category, meaning that it is imposed from the outside and thus characterizes phenomena in a way that is shaped according to the scholar’s own experiences with them (as well as that of the social, cultural, and academic background the scholar hails from). [2]

It is these problems with the term that plague a scholar of religion. Forced to make do with a category that is externally produced, ‘religion’ becomes a matter of studying the various aspects and features that appear to be universal to a certain class of phenomena that is classified as ‘religious’: ritual (or ‘performance’), belief, culture, practice, experience, etc. This creates the potential (perhaps a necessity) for a unique blending of approaches: psychological, philosophical, theological, anthropological; all must more or less work in unison (at least in theory) to understand religion.

Perhaps this is the best possible way for us to understand religion, through understanding its composites and then piecing together a complete picture from them. But there may be other routes to be considered. If we accept (or at least entertain the idea tentatively) that ‘religion’ might have been an anthropological misstep, then we can rework our historical understanding of the various phenomena that have been labeled ‘religion’.

Such a major revision of acquired knowledge has certainly been tried in the past in a variety of fields. In pre-Newtonian physics, the concept of impetus held that an object will move only if a force is continually applied to it. Newton not only overturned this concept, but also completely disregarded it, for it had no relevance to his own formulation of the laws of motion. In studies of literature and of history by feminist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic writers, various ideas regarding women, class, and important social and cultural forces were exposed as being unfounded, unscientific, or imperialistic (though some of these attempts have turned out to have similar results). And of course, within religious studies itself, there has been substantial revision to certain concepts, such as ritual theory (see Catherine Bell, “Performance”). [3]

To attempt a revision of the history of religion is no small task, nor is it something that should even be attempted without proper analysis of the consequences that a de facto abandonment of the term would entail. But there are real problems with a field whose very definition repeatedly fails consistent and agreed-upon definition. They are, of course, issues that may be worked around without ever raising life-or-death consequences for the field (philosophy has managed to survive and thrive for much longer without definition). Still, the idea should at least be explored before we to continue to use such a problematic heuristic as ‘religion’.

1. Geertz, Clifford. “The Interpretation of Cultures”. Theory and Method in the Study of Religion. Olson, Carl, ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, c2003. 285-297. Print.
2. Smith, Jonathan Z. “Religion, Religions, Religious.” Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Taylor, Mark C., ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 269-284. Print.
3. Bell, Catherine. “Performance.” Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Taylor, Mark C., ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 205-221. Print.

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