Jonathan Z. Smith on the Definition of Religion

Does Religion Exist? What is Religion?

Elevated View of a Crowd of People Praying
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Does religion exist? Most people will certainly say “yes, ” and it seems incredible to think that there is no such thing as “religion,” but that’s exactly what at least a few scholars have tried to argue. According to them, there is only “culture” and some aspects of “culture” have been arbitrarily singled out, grouped together, and given the label “religion.”

  • ...while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.
    - Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion

    Smith’s comment here may be the most forthright and straightforward statement of the “there is no such thing as religion” school of thought: religion, insofar as it has any existence, exists merely in the minds of scholars studying culture. There is plenty of data for “culture,” but “religion” is merely an arbitrary grouping of cultural features created by academic scholars for the purpose of study, comparison, nd generalization.

    Culture Vs Religion

    This is a very intriguing idea that runs contrary to most people’s expectations and it merits closer attention. It is true that in many societies people do not draw a clear line between their culture or way of life and what Western researchers would like to call their “religion.” Is Hinduism, for example, a religion or a culture? People can argue that it is either or even both at the same time.

    This does not, however, necessarily mean that “religion” doesn’t exist - or at least doesn’t exist outside the minds and scholarship of people in academia.

    Just because it isn’t clear whether Hinduism is a religion or a culture doesn’t mean that the same must be true of Christianity. Perhaps there is a distinction between religion and culture, but sometimes religion is so tightly integrated in a culture that those distinctions have begun to fade, or are at least very difficult to discern anymore.

    If nothing else, Smith’s comments here should cause us to keep firmly in mind the role that academic scholars of religion play in how we understand and approach the subject of religion in the first place. If “religion” cannot always be easily and naturally abstracted out of its surrounding culture, then scholars who try are essentially making editorial decisions that can have far-reaching consequences on how students and readers perceive both the religion and the culture.

    For example, is the Muslim practice of veiling women a part of religion or culture? The category in which scholars place this practice will obviously impact how people view Islam. If Islam is directly responsible for veiling women and other acts that seem to accord women a second-class status, then Islam and Muslim men will be perceived negatively. If, however, these acts are categorized as a part of Arab culture and Islam given as only a small influence, then people’s judgment of Islam will be far different.

    Conclusion

    Regardless of whether one agrees with people like Smith or not, we must remember that even when we think we have a firm handle on what “religion” is, we might only be fooling ourselves. Religion is a very complex subject and there are no easy answers as to what does and does not qualify as being a member of this category.

    There are people out there who think it is all very simple and obvious, but they merely betray a superficial and simplistic familiarity with the topic.