In Praise of Failure: Is Defining Religion Such a Good Idea?

Recently, the New York Times’ religion writer appeared to throw up his hands in despair at trying to fix on a definition of religion—since the word seemed to cover everything from Pope Francis’ latest encyclical to CrossFit. As Mark Oppenheimer exasperatedly wrote, “If everything is religion then maybe nothing is.”

As noted here in RD, Oppenheimer’s article drew a sharp and immediate retort from historian of religion, Damon Linker, who set out to school Oppenheimer for trivializing his subject. Linker offers a tidy definition of religion as: “any set of norms, practices and beliefs that establishes a comprehensive way of life that is held out as the right or best way of life for those who adhere to it.”

Further, religion distinguishes itself from philosophy, say, by being based upon a “revelation, mystical intuition, or extra-rational insight.” Fine.

Yet, as someone intimately involved in the academic debate about religion’s definition, I was frankly embarrassed to see some crude semblance of this, now rather sterile academic debate, turn up in public discourse. It was as if some exotic contagious killer virus had escaped the confines of CDC, and began infecting hapless passers-by. I say “embarrassed,” because the public version of this debate seems a carbon-copy of all the same posturing and feckless misunderstanding of the academic debate.

Without trying to speak too much with some God’s-eye-view of this issue, permit me to offer some observations about the Oppenheimer-Linker démarche.

Is Defining Religion Really Such a Good Idea?

A word first about the demand for definition. There are many words that we use quite happily and productively which have no precise meanings, or for which we do not demand precise meanings.

Think about the words we use every day — and fruitfully so — for which we do not seek or expect to have clear and distinct definitions. Art? Pornography? Language? Music? Power? Politics? Remember Justice Potter Stewart’s notorious ant-definition: “I can’t define pornography. But I know it when I see it“? Or, how familiar in our world is the question, “but, is it art?” But do the same questioners then reflect upon the new forms of art made possible by the artist that breaks the mold?

Oppenheimer’s frustrations with “religion” are not unique to it, nor any reason to despair about using the word. Would a journalist be equally frustrated about the term “art” and give up using the term? I doubt it.

No, “religion” has special enemies, about which I shall say something later. The point is that in many contexts, we do quite well with words for which we have no precise meaning. Instead, our words have meanings dependent upon the context in which they are used. (Think “bark,” for example.)

Referring to Religion

In part the argument between Oppenheimer and Linker is one about the proper “referent” of the term “religion.”

On one end, Oppenheimer sees “religion” so broadly deployed over such a wide range of referents that it doesn’t really identify anything: CrossFit, Sikhism, sex, Daoism, Scientology, baseball, etc. – they’re all religions. So, given his point of departure, he rightly despairs.

Oppenheimer would then be just as happy dispensing with the term, “religion,” entirely, and indeed to retire it from serious discourse. Indeed, Oppenheimer’s frustrations have profound significance. They effectively would eliminate any institution claiming to be “religious” from claiming any distinctive rights or obligations: bye-bye to the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the Constitution, etc. They might as well protect us from the “establishment” of widget and the “free exercise” thereof. Both are meaningless, since neither “widget” nor “religion” point to anything specific.

Linker, on the other hand, takes the exact opposite tack: he legislates the meaning of “religion” as those particular referents marked by the creation of “norms and practices establishing a comprehensive way of life” and so on, based upon “revelation, mystical intuition, or extra-rational insight.”

Linker would banish nonsensical talk about religion as CrossFit, “what makes me feel good,” Oprah, baseball, etc.: This is what religion really is, dammit!

Two more opposed approaches to defining religion could hardly be imagined. Oppenheimer scratches his head, asking “Religion? What religion?” while Linker demands we all march in step to his clear and distinct definition.

“Religion,” Get a Grip!

To get a grip on this seemingly irresolvable confrontation, we need to step back a bit and think about language, since we are at least talking about how we use, or should use, words.

Fully to appreciate what I am saying, know that here in Riverside County, California, I am writing close in time and space to the shootings in San Bernardino. I have been driven to distraction and anger by the way the word “terrorism” is kicked about. For example: mass shootings by a white Christian, “crazy, unexplainable,” but, mass shootings by a Muslim, “terrorism,” without question.

As it happens, Linker writes as if there is something like “terrorism” out there too—only he is writing about religion as if there were something out there with the name “religion” written on it. Instead, Linker could have wagered that that using his definition of “religion” would be more fruitful and informative than Oppenheimer’s. Then, instead of the stand-off we have now, we could have had a real experimental test of ways of defining religion.

Linker might have asked how his concept helps us enrich our understanding. While it is true that lots of folk would accept the designation “religion” to name what they are or do, how do we know whether they are right? We don’t. That is why my view of concept formation looks on our attempted definitions as exploratory, experimental.

Here’s how it works. We find ourselves in a world where words name things that “stand out” in reality, or which name what we “cut out” from reality. There’s lots of argument about what belongs in either category. But, take it that people think about religion either as “standing out” or as needing to be “cut out.” I am suggesting that we might bridge the gap between Oppenheimer and Linker by thinking more about religion as something we “cut out” from our world. “Religion” names something we choose to distinguish amid the impressions we have of our world.

Now, the question is what criteria should we use to decide what will distinguish it? What Linker has done, without perhaps being aware of it, is to have chosen, to have decided, that norms, practices establishing a comprehensive way of life, based upon revelation, mystical intuition, etc., distinguish what he will “cut out” from the impressions he receives from the world. This marks Linker’s decision – not one, of course, made for no reason. But, things shouldn’t end there.

Let’s see, for example, how well Linker’s choice works. What discoveries does it help unearth? We may, for instance, find many confirming cases of the things Linker seeks. Think only of the widespread phenomenon of seers who claim to pierce beyond the world of everyday experience. What benefits do we get when we lift those cases up for close examination? How, further, do the existences of such phenomena link with others – with doctrines, with moral obligations, with a people’s mythology and ritual life and so on? In our day, could this help us understand why Al Qaeda and ISIL are so dead set against their community’s seers, so much so that they try to eliminate them, devotion to them, and even attendance at their graves and other memorials? What is really going on here?

The Religion in…

None of this would dismiss talking about CrossFit as “religion.” But, it would give such talk another look.

Once we had offered a candidate for a plenary concept of religion, even Linker’s as an example, we might open up an entirely new area of inquiry into those phenomena that resembled this plenary sense, but did not fully contain all the necessary properties.

I would call these the cases of the “religion-like” or the “religion-in.” I take my lead from the way we already talk and think about the way concepts are extended across borders, however conventional. In a way, philosopher Michel Foucault’s oeuvre stands as monument to the exposure of the “power in” or “power-like. Foucault shows us the way the concept of “power” escapes its once conventional confinement in lofty professional, institutional life of “power politics,” and takes reveals itself in scientific discourse or the interpersonal world of the “micro-fascism of everyday life.” Foucault exposes the power in everything, so to speak, or in other terms, the power-politics-like power in everyday life.

If Foucault leads us to inquire about “power” in care facilities, penitentiaries, everyday interpersonal relations, why cannot scholars of religion similarly ask about the “religion in” CrossFit, daytime TV, like Oprah, and so on? Why not also explore “religion-like” phenomena?

So, Oppenheimer’s inquiry into CrossFit as religion might be better recast as an inquiry into CrossFit as “religion like.” Or we might ask about the “religion in” CrossFit. This places CrossFit into comparative relation with Banksy’s graffiti – an insurgent to a more “respectable” consensus notion of art. CrossFit as religion likewise leads an insurgency.

Question is, of course, as with every insurgency, whether it has staying power. We will see whether studies of “religion like” phenomena like CrossFit expand our concept of religion in fruitful ways, or whether it fizzles. And, as with Banksy’s work, or with that of the Surrealists in the arts, only time will tell whether such an extension of more consensus notions of religion can endure.

Indeed, this might allow us to think about all of history’s failed attempts at achieving the status of religion. Let’s not forget all the attempts at reformation of the medieval church that failed, and fell into relative obscurity, before Luther and Calvin led a sustained revolution that expanded the possibilities of Christian life in the West.

Becoming a Religion, and Failing at It

We can learn a great deal from failures, our own personal ones included, of course. Some of the most interesting architecture books I know are those chronicling “unbuilt” architecture – projects that never happened.

Surely, there must be a book or so in-the-making on religions that failed. Becoming a religion is not, I suggest, an easy or automatic matter. So, also is ceasing to be a religion always as easy as our secularist prejudices may suggest. Yoga in the West may have emigrated from India as a “religion,” but soon became something else as it took up residence with Occidental bourgeoisie in the suburbs. Yet, as recent protests against yoga classes in public schools by evangelicals in the United States witness, some Americans fear that Yoga’s non-Christian religious character lies hidden within it, ready to ensnare unsuspecting faithful. That yoga instructors often stage classes with joss stick incense burning, mutterings of bad Sanskrit, all done reverentially with hands folded in anjali mudra give fearful Christians all the evidence they need to press their case.

And, in case to case, this congeries of practices may speak of a yoga that is, in fact, more than an aid to suburban fitness. It might be a fitness practice striving to become a religion? But, as with proposed definitions of religion, these too will have to submit to the “wait and see” test.