What is religion - a comparative answer
The two questions that scholars of religion are primarily concerned with when asked to explore the question of “what is religion”, and for the purposes of this essay I would limit the meaning of this question to the definition of religion, are the origins of religion and the persistence of religion. To answer these two questions early theorists proposed the essentialist theories. Essentialist theories focus on the content of religion and that beliefs have a reason to exist because there is an essence underlying the presence of religion. Whether or not there is an essence to religion and what this essence may be is the important theoretical question because it would explain both the existence as well as the persistence of religion. Wilfred Cantwell Smith boldly stated that “one might almost say that the concern with the religious man is with God; the concern with the observer is with religion”. In this essay I will explore the evolution of the term religion in the last century, limiting myself to the evolution from the point of of the essentialists (specifically James George Frazier, Edward Burnett Tylor and later Mircea Eliade) comparing and contrasting it with the points of view of Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Jonathan Z. Smith. In this essay I attempt to answer the question regarding the difference in the approach and methodologies amongst the perspective of these scholars, or theorists to be more precise. Specifically I will explore the answers given to the central question between essentialists and their critics of whether there is an essence to religion and what this essence may be according to their theories.
The essentialist Edward Burnett Tylor focusses on the idea that religion provides an explanation to the religious actor of phenomena that would otherwise be unexplainable, so to the religious actor the essential nature of religion is explanatory. Tylor defined religion as “a belief in spiritual beings.” He determined that belief originated in natural phenomena. He theorized that religion was an attempt to explain life and death, and that it was in death and dreams that primitive people saw the supernatural, and their dreams were the key to their spiritua understanding. And in league with his time and the theories of evolution, Tylor theorized that as primitives evolved into monotheists, and then today into scientists, so did beliefs and religion. Tylor’s theory does not extend to encompass the answer to the question of the persistence of religion in a world that uses scientific explanations as is today’s world.
His contemporary follower and equally famous essentialist Frazier did additionally distinguish between magic and religion, adding that the essential nature of magic is to provide a means to influence the world of the primitive through magic laws and ritual. So for Frazier on the one hand religion is a pleading relationship of the religious actors to the often anthropomorphic deities, and on the other hand magical beliefs restore the control of life to the religious actor through the performance of magical rituals. For Frazier belief holds intrinsic value in and of itself. For Tylor and Frazier religion holds the essential quality of providing a value to the religious actor, and so religion is distinct from God because religion is the belief in God.
What I would like to contrast to the views of these two essentialists is the view proposed by Wilfred Cantwell Smith. In his classic book “The Meaning and End of Religion” Wilfred Cantwell Smith explores the idea that the word “religion” did not take its present, almost assumed, meaning until the last century. Part of the disagreement over the meaning of the word comes certainly from historical developments, and the etymological origin of the word can be traced back Christianity. So what Wilfred Cantwell Smith proposes is that the question of what religion means should instead be the question what it is that the word “religion” means. This has been and is still a raging debate in religious science. Willdred Cantwell Smith boldly suggests to eliminate the term: “my own suggestion is the word, and the concepts, should be dropped – at least in all but the first personalist sense. I suggest that the term “religion” is confusing, unnecessary and distorting” (p 52). His suggestion is of course only a desperate solution: when there is a problem avoid the problem instead of offering a solution. Eliminating the word religion does not seem to me practical, or constructive for that matter. In the same argument since we do not agree exactly on what the word God means we should eliminate God. Or in a more practical term, if we cannot agree what marriage is we should eliminate marriage? I find that there are other approaches to the problem of definition that simply eliminating the word due to the absence of an ostensive definition.
In a critical evaluation of Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s book, Talal Asad (2001) evaluates the attempt by Wilfred Cantwell Smith to question the nature of religion by denying that religion has any essence as an attempt of rejection of the essentialism of religion,. “The argument is that no thing corresponds, properly speaking, to the noun religion. The use of that term to refer to what does exist – namely, personal quality of faith – inevitably reifies the term.” Wilfred Cantwell Smith suggests that the adjective religious, as opposed to the noun form religion, escapes the danger of reification because it refers to a quality. “The rejection of essentialism appears not to be qualified. There is, after all, something essential that the term religion has been used to identify”. Wilfred Cantwell Smith notes from a historical perspective that “man is everywhere and has always been what we call today religious”. I also find that the term religion is vague but it does hold an essential quality of pointing to the very real and very present worship and various rituals around the world of religious actors. I would like to close this part of the essay with a chuckle: the criticized methodology of the “armchair theorists” Tylor and Frazier can only be compared to that of the linguistic historical investigation of Wilfred Cantwell Smith.
In the second part of this essay I consider the theories of another essentialist Mircea Eliade, whose essentialist claims for religion focus on the idea of the quest of the religious actor to find a link to the outwardly perfection, of his quest for meaning. And while the aforementioned essentialists looked for similar beliefs and practices in all societies, theorizing mostly from the primitive savages regardless of time and place, Eliade focuses on the patterns of sacred time and of sacred space. As a historian of religion Eliade used the concepts of sacred time and sacred space as the two proposed drivers that aid in both the origin and the persistence of religion. This is the axis mundi around which religion is built and where religion functions “on its own terms”, where it can in fact be explained historically through phenomenology and through symbolism.The intense desire of the people to imitate God comes from a desire that archaic people have not only to mirror the realm of the sacred, but to actually be in it, and for Eliade there stems the essential nature of religion.
Eliade offered a natural explanation on how the fabric of society is woven with religion. He may or may not have succeeded in making the study of religion a phenomenological and historical enterprise, using comparison in hugely varied time and space events and theories. For him the symbol was the link between the sacred and the profane. This concept of the “axis mundi” that he professes, may simply be put into the “map” of the “time” does seem to in fact to provide a basis for an essential nature of religion itself. Eliade, in studying comparative religion and societies, offered the concept that religion provided meaning and contact with the sacred in history through the understanding and expression of sacred time and space.
The theorist I contrast with the views of Mircea Eliade, a self-professed historian of religion, although in my view so much more than that, would be the views of Jonathan Z. Smith. Eliade proposed a model of sacred time and sacred space to begin the conversation in a scientific way that religion is its own justification. The early critics attacked Eliade as a theologian even though he never expressed his own personal opinion, since for a scientist he seemed to bring respect towards the concept of the sacred itself. As Eliade’s student and later his critic, Jonathan Z. Smith (1972) proclaims that “for Eliade, the Sacred, and sacred space and time in particular, is the extraordinary, the realm in which the sacred paradoxically manifests itself through hierophanies, kratophanies and the like. The profane is the ordinary, the neutral, the realm of the adiaphora, the irruptive element experienced by the religious man as non-homogenous a breakthrough in the normal ontological levels [that] allows the possibility of reifying or sacralizing the profane.” “There is nothing that is inherently or essentially clean or unclean, sacred or profane. There are situational or relational categories, mobile boundaries which shift according to the map being employed.” In religious studies, as we try to find a scientific way to address the motivation, basis and understanding of religion, and of its essential nature, the question to define and contain in a particular time and space, calling it sacred, the feeling and possibly the reality of connectedness that is generated through religion and in fact transcends those boundaries is limiting for Jonathan Z. Smith. So, for Jonathan Z. Smith these boundaries are both artificial and mobile.
Jonathan Z. Smith’s views evolved past the views of Eliade. I already gave an example of the critique that Jonathan Z Smith brings specifically to Eliade for the concepts of sacred time and space, that he himself considers as fluid boundaries. What really created a drift though was Jonathan Z Smith’s now famous statement “There is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy.” Jonathan Z Smith with this bold and copiously documented opening statement to his book Imagining religion, referenced his opinion by offering scores of “e.g.” of human behavior from across the globe and throughout time, mirroring the critique to the essentialists that Wilfred Cantwell Smith proposes. Whereas it is true that this statement would place Jonathan Z. Smith solidly in the critics of essentialism, he has had the chance to offer opinions that vary greatly throughout his long academic career.
In terms of the methodology of the last two scholars explored, namely Mircea Eliade and Jonathan Z. Smith I would jokingly also remark that their investigation was not focused on fieldwork, rather that their prolific writing was based on investigation of scholarship. I would add though that the anecdotal account (2004) of Jonathan Z. Smith’s interest in agrostology informs us of his lifelong interest in classification and taxonomy and in fact his other interests include incongruity and difference, generalization and description, and translation, focusing on “the insistence on the cognitive power of distortion, along with the concomitant choice of the map over the territory”. This systematic juxtaposition and “exaggeration in the direction of the truth” place him close also to the direction of Edward Barnett Tylor’s methodology (1996).
In conclusion, this adventure in the exploration through time and space of the question of the definition of the term religion, led me to question whether today the questions surrounding the term religion have changed. Over time the focus shifted from whether the essentialists’ explanations can shed light as to the question of the existence and persistence of religion, to the question of whether there is at all an essential nature of religion. And in answer to the suggestion of eliminating the word religion as suggested by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, or to the statement that religion has no value except to the academics, offer enough of a counterargument to the essentialists claim, I showed that these two argument are really arguments over the usage of the word. In a purely academic context we can dissect the word and find it problematic. Yet if I walk down the street and ask ‘what is your religion” people would gladly offer “Buddhism”, “Islam”, “Christianity”, etc. as the answer. So even though I honor the scholarship and the scholars themselves who find that “religion is dead” I would like to propose that we do not discard this old friend or foe, rather I propose we continue to explore our relationship with the word, and with the concept, further. To answer the question of the existence and persistence of religion. I do believe that even though the answer to this question may not be very clear, it is a lot clearer that it was a century ago.
Asad, Talal (February 2001) “Reading a Modern Classic: Wifred Cantwell Smith’s “The Meaning and End of Religion” History Of Religions Vol 40. No 3, pp 205-222. The University of Chicago Press
Eliade, Micrea (1949) The Sacred and the Profane. Harvest Book, New York.
Pals, Daniel (2006) Eight Theories on Religion Oxford University Press
Pals, Daniel (2008) Introducing Religion Oxford University Press
Segal, Robert A. (2005) “Theories of Religion” in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion edited by Hinnel, John R. Routledge, NY
Smith, Jonathan Z. (1972) The Wobling Pivot. The Journal of Religion, The University of Chicago Press. vol 52 No 2 pp 134-149.
Smith, Jonathan Z. (1982) Imagining Religion. University of Chicago Press
Smith, Jonathan Z. “Nothing Human in Alien to Me” (1992) in Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion (2004) University of Chicago Press
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell (1962) The Meaning and End of Religion Macmillian New York