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DEFINING RELIGION Why is it necessary to define religion?
1) In order to construct a theory of religion, we need to know, for the purposes of the theory at least, what kind of thing will be considered the subject of that theory - a theory of religion needs to have drawn a line between Christianity and, say, football, such that the theory is concerned with one and not the other. 2) A definition (or at least, a provisional one) is required in order to construct a theory of religion since it must be possible to demonstrate that 'religion' is the kind of thing that can be explained uniformly before one attempts to do so - we need to show that the things we want to explain or theorise about are sufficiently similar to each other so as to fall into the same category. So any explanation of religion requires the theorist of religion both to broadly delineate the bounds of the object of analysis and to establish its basic character, and to convince the reader that the object under scrutiny can indeed be analysed as a unified entity. 'Operational' definition: a preliminary definition offered at the initial stages of the enquiry, to allow the enquiry to take place but which will be amended or completed once the survey of religions is completed. 'Theoretical' definition: A definition offered at a later stage of enquiry, summing up the essential unity of religion postulated by the theory, encapsulating the final interpretation made by the theory.
Operational definitions - Three initial sources of doubt:
1. Conflicts and unclarities in the established sense of the word 'religion' - since in defining 'religion' we are not coining a new term but merely establishing a more precise and accurate definition of an already extant word, it should be productive to look at already established ordinary usage of the word. However, dictionary definitions of religion are vague and unhelpful: 'prevalent system of faith and worship'. Equally, there are conflicts in the conventional use of the word: Maoist China had no state religion, but in another context it would be acceptable to say that Maoism had become the religion of 1970s China.
2. The confusion over the meaning of the word left by its chequered history - 'religion' itself is a western term, and has gone through radical shifts in meaning throughout the centuries. This obviously presents a problem regarding its applicability to non-western institutions, and makes efforts to posit religion as a universal closed concept immediately and fundamentally vulnerable to a charge akin to that of Orientalism: that western academia, in attempting to locate this definition, inevitably conforms unique elements of non-Western religious traditions to pre-existing categories (such as 'principle of non-violence' or 'inherent sinfulness of man') based upon the western understanding of religion, which is invariably born almost exclusively out of an understanding of Christianity, in order to fit them under the posited definition. Milbank: religion is not a genus - cites various examples of Hindu and Buddhist religious practices being considered inappropriately as correlating to particular Christian concepts. The opposite side of such the dilemma, however, is that the original sense of the word is inevitably 'whittled away' in a conscious attempt to produce a neutral means of highlighting elements of belief systems analogous in important respects to those systems we have in the west, or are structurally similar to those monotheistic structures developed in the west. The resultant lack of clarity stems from the attempt from these unpromising beginnings to single out and define a more or less universal aspect of human behaviour.
3. Definitions of religion are made more problematic by the obvious fact that a definition is bound to be coloured by a particular scholar's own purposes and prejudices (compare Mueller - 'apprehend the Infinite' - with Geertz). Different definitions of religion are born out of different areas, such as generalisation from religious beliefs and practices held by a person as an adherent of a particular world religion, or definitions of religion developed as a response to professional requirement - in the practice of law, or academic history.
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