Knowing “Religion” When We See It

Few things are more critical, or boring, than arriving at a satisfactory definition of “religion” before embarking upon a study of the subject.  Despite this seemingly obvious fact, most studies of “religion” commence without any discussion of definitions, thus leaving us with the mistaken impression that the issue is somehow settled and obvious.

There are two things to be said in favor of this in media res approach.  First, the surest way to lose a reader is to commence an investigation with an extended analysis of definitions.  This is the sort of thing best mentioned in passing, with the analysis buried in the endnotes.  Second, there is something pragmatic about assuming people know “religion” when they see it.

This was the approach taken by Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), a case in which the Supreme Court considered whether the state of Ohio could ban the showing of Louis Malle’s classic film, Les Amants, because it was obscene.  His concurring opinion is justly famous:

I have reached the conclusion…that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to “hard-core pornography.” I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

While some have asserted that Justice Stewart’s approach was shallow, I suspect there is much more to things than that.  Justice Stewart was not playing around, even if his “know it when I see it” judgment was implicitly or explicitly grounded in Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s approach to language games and notion of “family resemblances.”

Not wishing to lose any readers of the blog or this post, I am not going to examine these ideas in any detail but simply wish to point out there is no reified or essential thing — actually existing somewhere out there in the world — which constitutes “religion.”  We need not despair, however, for Resemblances Among Religions allows us to approach the subject and use the word-concept “religion” in sensible ways.

For my genealogical purposes, Max Weber’s definitional stance — made infamous only because he never arrived at a conclusion — seems most reasonable: To define “religion,” to say what it is, is not possible at the start of [The Sociology of Religion].  Definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study.

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2 thoughts on “Knowing “Religion” When We See It

  1. Craig Martin

    I started my book with a long chapter on the definition of religion. But I said that Weber was way off. :)

  2. admin Post author

    It is really hard not to begin a book on religion without discussing definitions! Let’s hope that you have done it with greater aplomb than others, as I am sure you have. Perhaps you saved me from writing such a chapter.

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