What is “religion”?

Why Are There No New Major Religions? - The Atlantic.jpgAn activity I’ve come to enjoy doing early on in my classes (first day if possible) is to have the students, in small groups, come up with their own succinct, one-sentence definition of religion. Today, when I did this with my Asian Religious Traditions class, I added the instruction that they also had to come up with an apt metaphor for “religion” as well, thus completing the sentence, “Religion is like _______ because it ________.”

This exercise allows the students to reflect upon their assumptions about what counts as religion and what does not. When the groups report back to the class, I’ll probe certain aspects of the definition. Today I asked various groups about their use of the term “spiritual” (How is a “spiritual” practice from an everyday practice?), or why a religion needs to be “organized” or “systematic” (Can a religion be un-organized, non-institutional?), or why religion make one feel “comforted” from the unknown (Can a religion be stressful or cause more questions?), or whether a religion can be “any” practice or belief that “guides one life” (Are sports and fandom religion then?), or why belief play such a central role in the definition (Does a religion only govern belief?).

Admittedly, I often put myself in the position to make these critiques, but this is mostly for purposes of time. I could expand this exercise to have groups critique other groups’ definitions, or look for overarching themes that are common to all or most. As it stands now, I have students consult for 6 minutes in groups, and then have a class discussion for another 20 minutes or so (5 minutes for each group to report and respond to questions). This is a large block of time, but I believe this is important critical work that sets a tone for the class.

I was unsure how well the metaphor component was going to work, but I thought this would also reveal assumptions about how people conceived of religion. The responses I received were interesting (I told them it was okay to be creative, as long as they could defend their choice). Here were the responses:

  1. Religion is like sports because it’s deeply ritualized, ingrained, part of culture, people get passionate about it, and it can be difficult to pinpoint why it is as important to someone as it is.
  2. Religion is like a fruit tree because there are different types of fruit trees with different yields you can get from them; they vary but also have similarities and people can take or leave what they want.
  3. Religion is like Xanax because it relieves anxiety.
  4. Religion is like a puzzle because smaller pieces come together to create a deeper understanding of the world.

I thought these were great. They sometimes revealed a different understanding of religion than the definition the same group offered. These formed good conversation points as well.

This activity concludes with me showing several “classical” definitions of religion by scholars, and I point out that there is no consensus scholarly definition of “religion,” that it is contentious. In the context of this course, I then shifted to say that if there is no consensus definition, then how can we be sure other cultures have “religion.” How can we be sure what we call religion is similar to the experience of people in other cultures? I raise this point because I want to construct a critical stance to these questions as we move forward through the course.

Overall I hope to continue to experiment with this activity, it has proven to be insightful each time I have done it, allowing students to talk with each other and to potentially reveal recurring assumptions about “religion.”

It is perhaps worth noting that I had student post these definitions and metaphors to a class website, and plan to have students grapple with these definitions throughout the course and make them chose one (or invent their own) to use in writing assignments.

* Image Paul Spella / The Atlantic



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