Slide show


What Is Religion?

The quest to define religion has pre-occupied both scholars and non-scholars for many centuries. Despite all these efforts, however, it has proved extremely difficult to come up with a definition of religion that is true for all the people in all the places at all times. Definitions that have been put forward have always been seen to contain certain deficiencies by others and the counter definitions have suffered from this same fate as well. 

For instance Hopfe (1987:2) contends that definitions that have been proffered do indicate elements that are common in many religions but no single definition “can do justice to them all”. Such Examples of definitions include John Ferguson’s collection of seventeen definitions which have been summarised into five broad categories of theological, sociological, moral, psychological and philosophical definitions (Cox 1992:3-8). This paper seeks to explore the reasons why it has proved difficult to define religion despite the spirited efforts of various scholars and non-scholars alike from time immemorial.

What Is Religion?

Much of the discussion in this paper will heavily rely on Hall, Pilgrim and Cavanagh, the three American scholars who outlined five problems associated with defining religion. These problems were that most of the definitions suffered from one of the following deficiencies (1) vagueness; (2) narrowness; (3) compartmentalization; and (4) prejudice. Barnhart also added his voice to this scholarly discourse and weighed in with another approach to identifying problems of defining religion in which he exposed the shortcomings of the traditional definitions of religion of his time. He identified five of these, namely, the problems of: (1) Belief in the supernatural; (2) evaluative definitions; (3) Diluted Definitions; (4) Expanded Definitions; and (5) true religion. Some of these issues or problems in defining religion as identified by Barnhart do correspond to what Hall, Pilgrim and Cavanagh discussed in their approach.

This paper will therefore seek to discuss the Hall, Pilgrim and Cavanagh in juxtaposition with Barnhart’s findings. The two approaches are not in conflict but do complement and reinforce each other. This is how the two approaches are related; the problem of (1) vagueness will be equivalent to that of diluted definitions; (2) narrowness will be equivalent to belief in the supernatural; (3) compartmentalization will be akin to expanded definitions; (4) prejudice will be equivalent to evaluative definitions; and (5) Barnhart’s problem of true religion finds no equivalence in the Hall, Pilgrim and Cavanagh method.

Vagueness of definitions is problematic in our attempt to define religion. They take too much from other fields of study to such an extent that the subject matter of religion is not at all discussed. This problem as identified by Hall, Pilgrim and Cavanagh will be equivalent to the diluted definitions problem of Barnhart. Again, the definition carries almost everything with it to the extent that its original intention of defining religion gets diluted. An example from Ferguson’s list of definitions will be Religion is the ultimate concern by Paul Tillichi. This definition scarcely tells us what the “ultimate concern” is all about; hence it will be difficult to understand religion from it.

Secondly, in an attempt to run from vagueness, most definitions will be found guilty of narrowness according to Hall, Pilgrim and Cavanagh. This problem is akin to Barnhart’s problem of belief in the supernatural. These definitions limit the religion by defining it to the exclusion of other religions. Most definitions classified as theological definitions will be guilty of this accusation. An example will be the general belief that religion has to do with God (= Theos which is the Greek word and root word for theology). This according to Cox (1992:9) will exclude “non-theistic or polytheistic forms of religion”.

Compartmentalization is yet another critical shortcoming that most definitions will suffer from. This is when religion is defined in terms of one aspect of it in a way that assumes that the single aspect constitutes the whole or our total understanding of religion. For instance, to equate religion, as Alfred Norton Whitehead does, to “what a man does with his solitariness” is to commit the crime of compartmentalization. Whereas most forms of religion will have an aspect of human “solitariness” much of religion is played in the public domain and “in the company” of or in “fellowship” with others. This will relate to Barnhart’s expanded definitions where one single component of religion is expanded so that it excludes other components.

Further, looking at Ferguson’s seventeen definitions, one cannot help but note with concern, as Hall, Pilgrim and Cavanagh do, the existence of the problem of prejudice. This will be equivalent to Barnhart’s evaluative definitions. One of the biggest problems, especially committed by those who are outside the religious experience is to judge on their terms what they observe. Such normally do not seek to understand that particular form of religion or religion in general from those who practicing it or most affected by it. So such definitions do not shed light on the meaning of religion but do judge or evaluate religion, hence evaluative definitions. It passes judgment on religion based on the person’s biases or prejudices. An example of such will be Karl Marx’s definition which alleges that “Religion is the opium of the people”. This seems to dismiss all religious experience as an attempt to seek refuge in falsehood or temporary relief measures akin to what drug users will do with drugs. Such is a key problem in defining religion hence the difficulty in coming up with a universally accepted definition.

Barnhart goes further than Hall, Pilgrim and Cavanagh to identify yet another problematic issue in defining religion. He calls it the problem of true religion.
Hall, Pilgrim and Cavanagh would call these definitions prejudiced but Barnhart’s additional category clarifies that prejudice need not result just from an evaluation against religion… but also may include claims of truth or revelation from within a religion itself.
Cox (1994:10)

Definitions exhibiting such tendencies will include (1) “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet” and (2) Religion is belief in Jesus”. What these definitions do is that while they judge other religions (presumably labeling them false) they make “claims of truth from within” (Cox: 10). But truly this does not sufficiently define religion!

The above discussion clearly outlines points of difficulty in coming up with a universally accepted definition of religion which true for all people in all places at any given time. Even if we assumed it “… is many things, many different things” (Bourdillon 1990:3), we do not eliminate the difficulties associated with defining it. Such problems as outlined above, do impact on the objectivity of the one trying to define the phenomenon because they do bring consciously or unconsciously their own subject biases into the whole process hence leading to evaluation, compartmentalization, narrowness and vagueness in the definitions. Some even result in arrogant claims of religious superiority over other religions by laying claim to superior revelation from within a religion itself.

Bettis, JD 1969. Phenomenology of Religion- Eight Modern Descriptions of the Essence of Religion. New York: Harper & Row

Bourdillon, MFC1990. Religion and Society- A Text for Africa. Gweru: Mambo Press.

Cox, JL 1992. Expressing the Sacred- An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publication.

Connolly, P 1999. Approaches to the Study of Religion. New York: Cassell.

Hopfe, 1987. LM Religions of the World 4th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company