I’m teaching a class at UAB called “America’s Religious Diversity.” One of the themes of the class is that it is difficult to define religion. Not all religions have scriptures. Not all have supernatural beings. Not all have dietary laws. Not all have clergy. Not all focus on beliefs. Not all focus on practices. It is unlikely to find a definition of religion that accurately encompasses them all.
This becomes clearer as you study world religions through history. Before contact with European colonizers, most indigenous people in the Americas and in West Africa didn’t think of what they did as “religion.” It was/is simply part of culture. It’s what your people do. Have a life question? Visit the wise woman and consult your ancestors. Have an ailment? Consult the herbalist for physical and spiritual medicine.
On contact with colonialism, many of those religions were forced to adapt, to re-organize themselves in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the dominant culture. Even “Hinduism,” some argue, is an invention of British occupiers of “Hindustan,” the Persian name for residents of that country.
There are two important points here. First, “religion” is an idea, a framework, a mental model or a lens we use to look at culture—especially a culture different from our own. Like imagining light as a wave or a particle, what you see will depend on what you are looking for. Second, you can practice a religion *without ever recognizing it as a religion.* To you, it’s just your way of life, one you share with your community.
This is why I find it fascinating that among both conservative and liberal folks today, “religion” is almost a universally negative term. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is the phrase preferred by many who don’t go to church. But someone who does go to church is likely to say “Jesus is about relationship, not religion.” Stephen Prothero writes that “One of the most common claims among Hindus of the West is that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’ rather than a religion,” but what I observe is that nearly every sincere religious practitioner would make the same claim about their own beliefs and practices. People don’t practice their religion in order to be religious. They practice in order to find God, or enlightenment, or meaning, or connection.
If I’m following a typical progression of human faith development, by the time I’m an adult, I don’t do things just because my parents or neighbors did them. I do them because they are meaningful to me — not to someone else.
In other words, “religion” has come to mean what OTHER people do—people whose beliefs and practices don’t hold sway over me. Calling something a religion is a way to delegitimize and mock it, as Michael Pollan does in his book Second Nature when he describes the absurd cultural symbolism of American lawns: “Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament.” This tremendous waste of energy, he says, reflects an aesthetic and cultural belief in democracy. We all have to pitch in and work to create this unbroken fake prairie that is the American lawn.
I often do the same thing when I compare sports to religion. At sporting events, we have collective singing and chanting, rituals and superstitious practices offered to the gods of chance and fairness (like the coin toss), animal-headed gods (mascots) who function as symbols for our team (just like the ancient Egyptians), and the sport itself, which echoes the ancient Greeks and Aztecs offering their ritualized combat to the gods.
But I think both of these things—sports and lawns—DO represent a civil and cultural religion. It’s just not one we question or regard through a religious lens, because alien colonizers haven’t shown up on our doorstep and told us how strange these practices are. They haven’t told us what we do is quaint, or primitive, or backwards, or barbaric.
So while I think “religion” is a particularly Western and colonial idea, I also think it is practically inescapable. It is a trap we have created for ourselves. We want to believe our particular rituals, practices, and beliefs transcend our culture, that they have universal significance; but it’s so easy to see other people’s spiritual striving as mere religion.