Is It the Job of Religion Journalists to Define “Religion”?

CrossFit as church?

When RD editors asked if I might be able to “bring some clarity to the dustup between Damon Linker (the Week) and the NY Times’ Mark Oppenheimer,” whom Linker takes to task for refusing to define “religion,” I was intrigued.

The dustup parallels debates (and disputes) among scholars of religion over whether and when we should define religion. The answer, in my view, is relatively straightforward: it depends on what we are doing and why.

As scholars of religion and as religion columnists, we can study or, in the case of journalists, report on the views of others or advance our own. In his piece, Oppenheimer reports on a new study conducted by ministerial students at Harvard Divinity School and in doing so reflects on the difficulties inherent in defining religion. Linker, who doesn’t really grasp what Oppenheimer is doing, misrepresents Oppenheimer’s agenda in the context of advancing his own (perfectly reasonable) definition of religion.

When Linker asks “why can’t the New York Times’ religion columnist define religion,” the answer I think is three-fold: First, Oppenheimer was writing as a journalist, who covers religion for the NY Times, much as journalists, such as Joe Palca, cover science for NPR. Just as Palca reports on research in the sciences that he finds interesting, so too Oppenheimer in the column in question was reporting on a study titled “How We Gather” coauthored by Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston, both students at Harvard Divinity School.

Second, the study in question focuses on “new organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious.” This is the closest the study, which focuses on new organizations that cater to non-religiously affiliated millennials, comes to calling these organizations religious. The authors note that these organizations use secular language to describe themselves, which “mirrors many of the functions fulfilled by religious community,” and that many of the leaders are “resistant to any public use of spiritual or religious language about their work.”

And finally, as a journalist writing about research conducted at Harvard Divinity School by two (apparently) non-affiliated students preparing for ministry to other disaffiliated millennials and other non-religious people, Oppenheimer reflects on the difficulties inherent in defining religion—supported by scholars, such as Joseph Price, who have focused on the blurry line between religion and popular culture. Oppenheimer’s reflections were—in effect—a journalistic riff on the issues raised by the research on which he was reporting.

Oppenheimer, in reporting on new research at HDS, and Linker in his opinion piece taking Oppenheimer to task, mirror issues that we face as scholars of religion. Linker seems to imply that as a “religion columnist,” Oppenheimer is obligated to define religion.

Some argue that as scholars of religion or simply as scholars teaching in departments of religion we have a similar role-specific obligation to define religion. I have argued that, when it comes to our research, we are in many cases better off not defining it. This does not mean that we do not need to specify our object of study; rather it means that, if we are interested in studying what others view as religious or spiritual or not, we are better off defining our object of study more broadly so that we can investigate when and why people choose to call something religious, spiritual, occult, metaphysical, philosophical, and so on.

If we simply focus on what we define as religion that is all we will see; we will learn little about what others are thinking and doing.

To translate back to the case at hand, if we are interested in the sorts of ministers that Harvard Divinity School is training these days and the sorts of ministries some of them are envisioning, it behooves us not to begin our study with our definition of ministry, but to investigate (or report) on how they are conceiving it. What we find in this case is two seminarians who are studying avowedly secular organizations that are promoting “a broad cultural shift toward deeper community” and who apparently view their future ministries in terms of fostering and connecting these innovative organizations to help foster “a fruitful movement for personal spiritual growth and social transformation.”

In the way he wrote the article, Oppenheimer did leave himself open to the “oh, but that’s not really religion” response, but in so far as he was reporting on the “How We Gather” study, whether CrossFit is religious or not was not the point. The question that Linker—or Oppenheimer’s editor—could legitimately ask is why he, as a religion columnist, considered this study within his portfolio.

The answer strikes me as quite obvious—even if this study is focusing on organizations that are avowedly secular, the authors are Harvard Divinity School students preparing for ministry to non-religious millennials. Oppenheimer could easily argue that the idea of ministry is changing rather dramatically as more people identify as “non-religious” and this phenomena bears investigation.

Damon Linker, by way of contrast, wrote an “op-ed” piece criticizing Oppenheimer for sidestepping the question of definition and inferred that Oppenheimer himself was asserting that CrossFit (an exercise franchise) was “a form of religion” when Oppenheimer—rightfully— does not even make this claim for the authors of the “How We Gather” study. The authors of the study raise this possibility but they do not assert it. Their goal, which Oppenheimer clearly amplifies, is to get us think about this.

The damning passage that Linker quotes out of context to assert that Oppenheimer has just argued himself out a job is actually Oppenheimer’s reflection on the very broad definition offered by scholars of religion in an edited volume, Religion and Popular Culture (2000). Oppenheimer questions their definition, stating: “But if anything that creates community and engenders passionate devotion can constitute religion, does the word lose all meaning? If everything is religion, then maybe nothing is.” He questions their definition, not to assert a definition but to walk us through the definitional issues.

So what then is Linker up to? Linker has a definition of religion, or more precisely a view of what religion really is that he wants to promote because he cares about religion. He’s personally invested. He thinks that Oppenheimer has “defined religion away” and that “it should bother all of those who, you know, care about religion.” According to Linker, “Religion is 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.”

The key term is “comprehensive.” CrossFit, football, Star Trek, and dieting fads are insufficiently comprehensive to count as religion. Linker, recognizing that his definition would encompass philosophy, distinguishes between them based on the source of their knowledge regarding the best way of life: “religion,” he claims, “is typically based on some form of revelation, mystical intuition, or extra-rational insight, a philosophical life is one lived in relentless pursuit of the comprehensive true using reason or rational reflection alone.” He recognizes that this is an ideal typical distinction and that neo-Platonism, Confucianism, and some forms of Buddhism do not fall neatly into one category or the other.

If and when we are in need of a definition, Linker’s strikes me as a reasonable option. But we need to distinguish between advancing a definition of religion and studying what others view as religion (or spirituality or ministry). In promoting this definition, Linker—like other believers— tells us what he believes religion is. He doesn’t tell us what ministerial students at Harvard Divinity School are studying, what millennials are doing, or how (spiritual but not religious) seminarians are envisioning ministry to a growing group of “nones.”