1: What is Religion?

I. What is Religion?

St Peter's Basillica
Vatican City

  • Is it a social category?
    • Eg. What religion do you belong to?
  • Is it a psychological category?
    • Eg. What religion do you believe in?
  • Is it a way of life?
    • Eg. Are you a religious person?
  • Is it a political category?
    • Eg. Would you live in an Islamic country?
  • And central to all of these questions:
    • Has "religion" always been thought of in the same way?

II. "Religion" in the Ancient World
Threskeia / θρησκεία (Greek): sacred practice

Key Terms

  • Religion (ancient meaning)
  • Religion (medieval meaning)
  • Religion (Catholic meaning)
  • Religion (Protestant meaning)
  • Study of REL (comparative)
  • Study of REL (functionalist)
  • Religion as we might understand it wasn't a concept in ancient
    Greek society; rather, ceremonial acts were embedded in everyday life (link)
  • The Greek historian Herodotus used the word threskeia to describe
    the sacred practices of foreign priests like the Egyptians
  • Ancient Hindus had no word for "religion." The closest Sanskrit word
    for religion is dharma (धर्म), which actually means "law"
  • Arabic had no word for "religion." The closest Arabic word was din (دين), which actually means "duty." Din is now used by Arab Christians and Muslims to mean "religion."
  • The closest word to "religion" in the Hebrew Bible is daht (דת), which is a borrowed word from ancient Persian and also means "law"
    • And this use of daht as "religion" only came about after Christianity began

Religions of Rome, 1998

There were no “special institutions and activities set aside from daily life and designed to pursue religious objectives; but rather a situation in which religion and its associated rituals were embedded in all institutions and activities.”

Crónica del Perú, 1553

The indigenous peoples are found “observing no religion at all, as we understand it.”

III. "Religion" & Early Medieval Christianity
Religion (Latin): sacred social practice

  • 380 | Christianity is declared the official religion of the Roman Empire
  • 394 | Augustine describes the act of becoming a monk as "entering religion"
  • 405 | Jerome completes his definitive Latin translation of the Bible
    • The Greek threskeia (as used by Herodotus) becomes the Latin word religion
    • Threskeia occurs only 4 times, and only in passing, in the New Testament
  • 600s | Due to the work of missionaires, religion becomes a word used in Old English 
    • The Medieval English conception of religion is one of "sacred ritual"
    • In English, religion will not mean "to believe in" for another 1000 years

English Dictionary, 1755

“Religion is virtue, as founded upon reverence of God, and expectations of future rewards and punishments.”

IV. 1500s | Early Modern Catholic conception of "Religion"
Religion: public belief system that results in sacred practices

  • 1500s | Modern Europeans come to assume that every culture has a religion, and thought it notable that American Indians (as they saw it) had no religion
  • Conquistadores (Catholic): Religion is about social customs, superstitions,
    ceremonies, feasts, etc.

The idea of doing something "religiously" comes from this conception of religion.

V. 1600s | Protestant conception of "Religion"
Religion: private belief system that results in sacred practices

  •  1534 | England separates from the Roman Catholic Church. The idea spreads across Northern Europe that communities should choose their own version of Christianity.
  • 1700s | English encyclopedias and dictionaries describe “religion” as the private belief of having reverence toward God. This privatization of belief is in part what enabled Americans to concieve of a nation of citizens who could all belong to different religions. This was a very new and radical idea at the time.
  • 1738 | Example: John Wesley describes having a personal religious experience and goes on to found the Methodist denomination apart from the Church of England.
  • Religion in Protestant areas becomes more about a state of mind than a series of actions

The phrase "getting religion" comes from this conception of religion.

VI. Early 1900s | Comparative Study of Religions
Thesis: Each religion has an "essence" that can be compared with other religions

Prothero, 2010

The idea that all religions lead to the same place is "a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into the fantasy world in which all gods are one.… In fact, this naive theological groupthink — call it Godthink — has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide."

  • 1918 | WWI ends. Europeans and Americans decide there is a practical need to better understand the beliefs of other peoples. Why do they do what they do over there?
  • 1933 | The phrase "World Religions" is first published as a book title
  • Comparative Religious Studies begin, wherein the "essence" of each religion is compared to other religions (e.g. Jews follow laws whereas Buddhists are mystical)
  • 1958 | Huston Smith publishes The World's Religions making the claim that all religions are basically aimed at the same thing—the differences don't matter so much

VII. Scholarship Today | Functionalist Study of Religions
Thesis: The category of "religion" functions differently in different times and places

  • As the scholarship of religion met up with historical, sociological, psychological, and philosophical research models, the notion that religions had unchangeable “essences” shifted to an approach that paid closer attention to internal and external changes
  • As seen above, religion is not a static category but a word that has drastically changed meanings throughout history and across territorial borders
  • Rather than having essences, religious identities also change over time—what is unthinkable for Christians of one generation may be perfectly normal for the next
    • e.g. reading the Bible in one's own language, eating pork, drinking alcohol, infant baptism, indulgences, women teaching men, faith healing, military service, speaking in “tongues,” what to wear, slavery, democracy, the papacy, etc.
  • Religions also change across distances as well. In the 1500s, Italian Catholic Christianity and German Protestant Christianity were very different in both conception and practice—and they certainly weren't polite about it! They strongly felt the other to be absolutely wrong
  • As such, the scholarship of religion now focuses on the “function” of religion within a certain time and place, while disregarding any normative comparisons of religion

McCutcheon, 1997

Religion is “a powerful and persuasive means by which human communities authorize their claims of historical and practical import.”

VIII. Religion and the Academic World

Normative Terms to Avoid


  • Religion can be used to authorize and approve of some things and to disapprove of others. So how does this fit in the academic world?
    • Scholars of religion seek to be as objective as possible
  • A scholar's job is to 
    • Contextualize a social group's origins, texts, and claims
    • Compare claims of a social group with the historical record
    • Critique social power structures and how they are used
    • Analyze the ways social groups perceive and simplify complex social problems
    • Resist social forces that aim to make religious authorities unquestionable

IX. Scholarly Claims about Religion

  • Normative - claims that assert this is what you ought to do
  • Descriptive - reporting on historical and cultural phenomena in a way that is not prescriptive, but is instead focused on an objective explaination
    • This is the approach scholars of religion take
  • Scholars of religion are neither "pro" nor "anti" theology
    • They simply respect the role of theology as separate from the academic world
    • The academic study of religion is not the same as a "religious course"