What is Religion?

—This is the narration of my first video on Youtube: What is Religion?

In today’s discourse, we’re commonly used to thinking of religion as a sui generis phenomenon, a distinct cultural entity that can be defined on its own. We’re also used to understanding religion as a set of beliefs with essential elements like a concept of God, a doctrine on eschatology, teachings written down as scripture, prophet-like founding figures, sacred places, and ritual performances.

If the word religion is mentioned, things that immediately come up in our minds are such things as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shintoism, and so on. We also tend to imagine religion as a certain realm of life that somehow has a clear boundary separating itself from the non-religious one, or the secular, and we therefore define reality in a binary way: that everything must be either religious or secular.

However, over the past few decades, scholars of religious studies, particularly those following the social constructivist trend, have suggested that we should not take this common understanding of religion for granted as it is something recent. It emerged no earlier than the 17th century, from the context of the Enlightenment in Europe, and was later brought to the rest of the globe, thanks to the Western colonization. In other words, today’s common discourse of religion is a modern invention.

Among the books dealing with this topic are The Meaning and End of Religion by Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1962), Orientalism and Religion by Richard King (1999), Formations of the Secular by a prominent anthropologist Talal Asad (2003), The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa (2003), and more recently Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri (2013).

To understand the thesis of religion as a modern invention we can start from thinking of at least two things.

First, religion cannot be objectively defined. It is hardly possible to offer a definition of religion that is both distinctive and comprehensive enough to encompass all religious phenomena and is universally applicable across times and places.

If we define religion as a set of beliefs that must have a concept of the one true God, we’d reduce it into monotheism and as such exclude, among others, Theravada Buddhism, Confucianism, and many indigenous religions across the world. If we oblige religion to have a scripture, well, Vedas of Hinduism were just written down completely only in the 19th century, and in the previous time they were mostly handed down orally and transferred quite exclusively among the Brahmins or the Hindu priests. Most of the major religions’ scriptures were just written down and canonized in decades or even centuries after their respective founders passed away.

Most of the world religions’ founders even didn’t give their names to the movements they led and it was their followers or sometimes outsiders who gave a name and regarded their movement as a religion. Jesus didn’t invent Christianity; he reformed Judaism. Siddhartha Gautama didn’t invent Buddhism; he was a Hindu reforming traditions practiced by Hindus of his time.

This idea is worthy of consideration while looking at cases of countries where religion plays a defining role in the discourse of politics and law. In some, like in my country, Indonesia, which according to the 2015 Pew Research was ranked third among the countries whose citizens regard religion as very important for their lives, there are still discussions of whether local beliefs and traditions can be considered religions so that their followers can get the full benefit of citizenship as their counterparts from followers of the world religions.

In some Western countries, defining religion has an impact on which is recognized to be religion and as such has rights of religious freedom protection and receives funding from the state.

Therefore, every attempt in defining religion is always a political decision, and that depends on those in power. Defining religion creates a limit or a constraint that we need to be aware of: how much can it be inclusive and exclusive enough; how much a given definition religion is in favor of some priviliged groups and not of the other groups. This means that every definition of religion should always be open to change and negotiation, because it is always politically contingent.

Second, religion of today’s common discourse has undergone what the scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith called “reification” or the process of concretization of the abstract; and it was an invention. By looking at the history of the word “religion”, we’d know that the word itself carries a Western historical baggage.

The word “religion” originates from the Latin word religare, which means “to bind”, which then evolved into the word religio, which means “to be pious and obedient to one’s social rules”. It was, in the beginning, a form of quality and as such, according to Smith, whose work traces the history of the word in the ancient writings, it had no plural form, and is more proper to be translated as faith or religiousness, which means being pious to God, and not religion as an institution.

The case by and large remained so until the advent of the Enlightenment era, the so-called age of reason, in which people began trying to separate reason and empirical science from myths and metaphysical beliefs. It was that time when religion underwent reification: from a quality into a thing called “religion”, which eventually have its plural, “religions”. A binary division of life then emerged: on one hand we have religion that is seen as irrational and metaphysical, which must be set aside and marginalized from political affairs, and on the other we have the secular, which is rational, empirical, and superior to religion. In fact, these were among what modernity was meant in the beginning, as it was defined against the primitive, the traditional, and the irrational. Religion is then defined in a negative way: religion is what the secular is not.

This discourse of religious-secular binary division was eventually brought from the West to the East during the age of colonization. The colonizers began identifying what are mythical or irrational in their colonies and put them in the same box called “religion” while using Christianity as the prototype. As a result, they invented a name or adopt an already invented name for a cultural tradition, while the practitioners of that tradition themselves didn’t institutionally name or even didn’t care about the name of the tradition they’re practicing. It was in this era where Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Zoroastrainism, and other religions with “ism”, emerged.

Hindus didn’t have a name for their “religion”. Even they didn’t have a word that is exactly equivalent to the word “religion”. The closest term to the word is dharma, but it means more of a social duty rather than a set of beliefs. “There were Hindus,” said Smith, “but there was no Hinduism”. The word Hindu itself was invented, according to Smith, by Muslims who invaded the land beyond the Indus river, hence Hindu.

Chinese people who practiced Confucianism didn’t regard their beliefs and practices as religion. In past East Asia, you can be a Shinto, a Confucian, and a Buddhist at the same time, because people were not yet exposed to the religious-secular binary discourse.
So, many names were invented, and religion then had its plural form, religions. In my country, Indonesia, the word religion translates as agama, while agama in its original Sanskrit language refers to the scripture. There was an evolution from a name of scripture adopted and given a new meaning referring to an institutionalized form of religion.

There is one special case, however, and that is Islam. This case is addressed specifically in Smith’s book, because since birth Islam has already been conscious of the existence of other ways of believing in and worshipping God. There is a word in Islam that is usually translated as religion, and that is “din”. Nevertheless, Smith and other scholars of his like argue that the word “din” is not fully equivalent to the word “religion”. While religion is meant to be something institutionalized and differentiated from the political and the secular, “din” means many. It could mean customs, judgment, and someone’s way of life, but there was no sense of a separation between the political and the private. In other words, the religious-secular binary doesn’t apply to the word “din”.

So, in short, while talking about religion, we must be conscious of the underlying paradigm behind a given definition of religion, because religion cannot be defined on its own.

Even though this paradigm is one of the hotly debated topics in religious studies, it is beneficial for helping us to be more aware of what is commonly taken for granted while in fact it is a social construction. This paradigm can also help us to be more critical in engaging with discourses related to religion, such as religion and democracy, religion and liberalism, religion and human rights, religion and nation-states, religion and violence, religion and public life, and so on so forth.

Most importantly, the social constructivist perspective of religion can be a lens to locate a given definition of religion in the context of a power relation: who defines; in service of whom; what are nuances that fail to be captured, and which group is given privilege over the other.


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About Azis Anwar

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