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International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie

Vol. 21, No. 1, March 2011, 107120

Defining religion: a practical response
Steve Bruce*

University of Aberdeen
(Received October 2009; final version received September 2010)

After addressing the post-modern argument that defining religion is impossible,
bad or both, the case is made that functional definitions of religion are generally
not definitions but assertions about the consequences of religion substantively
defined. A substantive definition of religion is proposed. The relationship between
ordinary and sociological language is discussed. A review of recent debates in the
sociology of religion makes the point that our arguments rarely concern the
definition of religion; they are much more often about the practical identification
and measurement of the features of the social phenomenon which we want to
study and those problems are not peculiar to the sociology of religion.
Keywords: functional and substantive definitions; lay and professional language

In current British English the word ‘academic’ is often used to mean useless,
pointless, or irrelevant. Members of the academy naturally find this usage rather
irritating. However, if we are looking for an academic pursuit that merits the insult,
then the obsession of some students of religion with the definition of their subject
matter would be a strong candidate (for extensive examples, see De Vries 2007).
Doubtless cement engineers argue about exactly what sort of cement is best suited to
lining the holes drilled into a sub-sea oil well but one cannot imagine that they argue
about the meaning of ‘cement’ or that any of them will deny that cement exists.
Yet even a casual trawl of web or published sources will reveal that serious
students of religion devote considerable time and effort to arguing about the
definition of their chosen object of interest. I am not thinking here of Edward Tylor’s
considerations of alternative ways of defining religion in Primitive Culture (1871). He
at least concludes his review of alternatives with a preferred definition. What I have
in mind are the various post-modern approaches which argue that there is actually no
such thing as religion because ‘religion’ is a modern social construct (usually
constructed for bad purposes). Tim Fitzgerald (2000), for example, argues that
religion as an idea is the creation of the modern separation of church and state (with
some influence of the earlier separation of science and religion). Talal Asad finds an
older and wider set of ancestors for his Genealogies of Religion (1993) but also
concludes that religion is a construction of European modernity: ‘there can be no
universal definition of religion, not only because its constitutional elements and
relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the

ISSN 0390-6701 print/ISSN 1469-9273 online
# 2011 University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’
DOI: 10.1080/03906701.2011.544190

7576). the uses to which some idea is put does not exhaust the idea and even demonstrating that an idea has been used for bad ends does not of itself demonstrate that the idea is badly conceived and should be discarded. including those used in the construction of genealogies and in discussing alternatives. The explanation of my fleeing the house is that I believe it to be on . while objective reality may be relevant for understanding why some plan of action fails to achieve it goals. Some neatly reverse that approach: what they believe is just the truth and what everyone else has is ‘mere’ religion.1 As it offers no rational scientific grounds for arbitrating between competing discourses or voices. Second. The post-modern relativist will. pp. Fitzgerald wants to abandon the study of ‘religion’ in favour of the study of the supposedly material political and social relationships that are putatively disguised by the idea of religion. of course. p. Thomas in his discussion of the ‘definition of the situation’ (Thomas 1923). In a fine demonstration of a failure to understand the nature of language. reject the realism which underpins those three criticisms but this is one of those incommensurable divides about which one can do nothing but takes sides. . First. Newton’s discovery of gravity was a ‘historical product of discursive processes’ but prior to its discovery people did not have trouble adhering to the earth’s surface.108 S. back cover) that are morally bad. But to say anything useful about what supposedly lies behind religion requires other definitions and concepts that will be equally susceptible to the same dismissal by family tree and discourse. There is a very different approach to defining religion which the social scientist should also reject: separating true from false religion. the first page of a British government study of religious beliefs starkly announces ‘The actual term ‘‘religion’’ is an invented or constructed category’ as if this was unusual and as if there was some contrasting category of abstract nouns that was naturally occurring (Home Office 2004. what usually matters in explaining human action is what actors believe to be the case: the point made by W. p. the definition ‘authorizes . The errors in this approach to definition and conceptualization are many but we can confine ourselves to a brief consideration of three. Until I find an academic colleague who is as relativistic about his salary or workload as he is about his disciplinary interests. particular forms of history-making’ (1993. . Third. 1).I. we must observe it at the zenith of its evolution. Bruce historical product of discursive processes’ (1993. the origins and development of a concept have no necessary bearing on the reality it purports to comprehend because discovery is not the same as invention. Worse yet. I see no reason to abandon the assumptions of conventional social science. It is common for religious people to make a partisan distinction and they can do it in opposing directions: the term ‘religion’ may be an honorific or an insult. Some believers insist that what they believe about the supernatural is religion because it is true and that all competing faiths are pseudo-religions or magic or superstition. if applied rigorously the post-modern critique (like all others forms of relativism) authorizes only cacophony or silence. I see no sociological value in such partisanship because. the post-modern critique of the idea of religion applies equally well to every other concept and definition we ever use. it is in the most refined forms of Christianity and not in the puerile magic of the Australian aborigine or the Iroquois that we must expect to find the elements of the definition we are seeking’ (Pickering 1975. Emile Durkheim committed himself to a version of this when he wrote: ‘If then we wish to discover the true nature of religion. 9).

as Fitzgerald argues. Of course. the explanation will take the form of identifying which of their beliefs (not ours) were brought into play in interpreting their perceptions (not ours) of the circumstances in which they acted or reacted. we will continue to explore the contrasting organizational consequences of. Since the 1960s. It does not implicitly or otherwise support any particular theology because it treats all beliefs as human projections. The other good reason is that our appreciation of the role of social constructions has taken us beyond the initial problematic of the sociology of knowledge. It is worth stressing that methodological agnosticism is not a sociological response to religion in particular but is applied to beliefs in general. on the one hand. What matters for understanding Mormons is not whether I believe that the Angel Moroni delivered the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith but whether Joseph Smith and his followers believe this to be the case. As in the early sociology of science. 180181). pp. Our raw material consists of the beliefs and actions of identifiable people. it was assumed that correct beliefs required no explanation: only error needed to be explained. of course. Some may also. Fitzgerald has argued that by adopting methodological agnosticism the academic study of religion has embraced a particular theological position: a sort of wet liberal ecumenism in which all religions are vaguely true. In his determination to be unimpressed by protestations of religious neutrality. International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie 109 fire. whether or not that really is the case. permitting that all right-minded believers can comprehend the will of God. For example. Karl Mannheim’s famous Ideology and Utopia (1936) and his preceding work divided knowledge into truth and ideology and offered sociological explanations of only the latter. He may also be right that the scholars of religious studies he directly criticises (such as Ninian Smart) were both metho- dological agnosticists and unitarian-universalists but again that is not the fault of sociology. most sociologists of religion have attempted to avoid assessing the truth claims of competing religions by adopting a posture of methodological agnosticism. Fitzgerald may be right that the unitarian-universalist brand of Christianity has an attitude to other religions that is close to the sociological principle of methodological agnosticism but that is not the fault of sociology. it is always possible (as a devout Catholic might argue) that the fissiparousness of Protestantism is God’s punishment for heresy but as sociologists have no way of testing that assertion. positing a single final point of access to God’s will and. on the other. The Religious Studies version of methodological agnosticism may. sociologists have generally treated all knowledge as sociologically explicable. be true but claims about the divine are beyond empirical testing by the discipline’s methods and hence beyond our remit. suppose that all proper religions are in some sense true but what sociologists such as Peter Berger mean by the practice is importantly different: signalled in Berger’s case by calling it methodological atheism (1967. That this may seem to lock us into a circle is sometimes a problem but it is sufficient for my purposes here to establish that most modern sociologists (and not just sociologists of . For the last century. that a particular set of ideas seem to be effective is one good reason why people may be persuaded to accept them but in many fields efficacy is itself a matter of socially constructed shared perceptions. Which (if any) of them has an accurate grasp of what (if anything) may lie beyond the material world is none of our business. One good reason for it has already been mentioned: if we wish to explain why people act as they do.

pp. The obvious difficulty with that judgement (if it is not reversed) is that rather than clarifying what distinguishes religious beliefs from any other ideas or sources of inspiration that a plaintiff may claim are precious. anything taken very seriously is now a religion (Adams and Gray 2009). the judge defined as religious all strongly held principles of some generality. and may treat football grounds as sites of pilgrimage. for a discussion of the similarities and differences of football and religion. instructed the employee to fly to Dublin to deliver the phone. His employer. The employee refused on the grounds that the gain to his boss of being rapidly reunited with his means of communication was patently less than the damage to the environment of undertaking a plane journey. Tim Nicholson was sacked by Grainger PLC after refusing to obey a legitimate instruction. 104107). My difficulty with such an approach is that it obscures more than it illuminates. We can see the problem in a November 2009 British court judgement. may find that attending matches gives them an effervescent or liminal experience similar in some respects to the collective ecstasy found in shared religious activities. The particular version of this that we know as functionalism will be discussed shortly but I will first identify a variety of other examples. see Hervieu-Léger (2000. The above identifies one of the key problems in defining social phenomena. Bruce religion) routinely bracket the truth value of the claims made by people whose behaviour they are trying to understand. . Defining football as a religion discourages a detailed consideration of the differ- ences between sport and religion and achieves by fiat what should be established by empirical demonstration. which is to isolate the distinctive features of phenomena. Various forms of music and dance culture have similarly been treated as religious on the grounds that they share some features with religion more conventionally defined (Sylvan 2002. Because it is widely assumed that people (severally or jointly) have certain enduring needs that are met by religion. In addition to a range of potentially definitive characteristics (viewed in a static sense) phenomena are often attended by a range of typical causes and con- sequences and we may wish to incorporate some of these in the definition of the thing itself. Mr Justice Burton accepted his argument and allowed him to bring the case. Phenomena are often complex. Much of the difficulty in defining religion comes from arguments about which of a largely agreed set of characteristics should be constitutive.110 S. He argued that his environmentalist principles were sufficiently important and sufficiently strongly held to be the equivalent of a faith. Broadening the notion of religion to include anything that shares any of its features runs counter to the one of the key purposes of definition. In effect. it is common in descriptions of largely secular societies for a wide variety of beliefs and activities to be defined as religions. who had travelled from London to Dublin without his Blackberry mobile phone. And we may disagree about this. We have to select which of a range of character- istics we shall regard as definitive. For example. Lynch and Badger 2004). The employee wished to use the legal protections given to religious beliefs as grounds for seeking compensation for having been sacked. There is a second related but analytically separable problem which I will now address. football may be described as a religion because fans may be extremely committed.

just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. for example) and other forms of opiate (for example. Robert Bellah. But the same does not work in the other direction. But if followed strictly then that practice would add nothing at all to our understanding of either obfuscation or cohesion. Presumably Marxists allow that there are forms of ideological obfuscation other than religion (bourgeois nationalism. for example. That is. In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Karl Marx said: ‘religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature. p. there are functional equivalents of religion. in Tokugawa Religion. This is even more so the case for Durkheim’s definition of religion because it is not a necessary part of the definition that religion will disappear if social cohesion vanishes. It is the opium of the people’ (1970. they may not be identical. p. we have a good case for arguing that the substantive approach is of more . It is of course possible to be entirely rigorous about functional definition and assert that by ‘religion’ we will mean whatever provides either ideological obfuscation or social cohesion. That is. Nor is it necessary that only religion can serve the purpose of providing social cohesion. Instead they identify function separately from religion as such. two of the founders of sociology are conventionally described as having defined religion in terms of its supposed consequences. 17). The Marxist view of religion is co-terminous with its function read in one direction. Some confusion arises because it is not at clear that the supposed consequence or function is uniquely associated with religion or religion with it. As has often been noticed. It would simply be a renaming. If functional ‘definitions’ are better understood as assertions about consequences that are generally predicated upon more conventional substantive identifications of religion. functionalists often fall back on conventional substantive definitions. there will be no pain which requires the opiate of religion and religion will end. it is not strictly the case that such a consequence defines religion (or at least it does not do so uniquely). Wherever we saw social cohesion we would assert that the thing which produced it was religion (even if. If religion is not just the functions it serves then it must be identifiable separately from those functions. the heart of a heartless world. The upper classes use religion to oppress the lower orders and the lower orders use it to console themselves. That there would be little of explanatory value in just renaming is generally recognized by those who purport to use a functional definition of religion in that they do not present purely tautological statements. International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie 111 Functional definitions As is well known. Thus while we can say that Marxists think religion is a thing that has the consequence of quietening the masses. 154). p. Once the real source of oppression has been removed under socialism. literal opium). Jack Goody says of Talcott Parsons and Bellah: ‘it is perhaps significant that in their pragmatic treatment of religious phenomena the above authors adhere much more closely to the ‘‘traditional’’ sphere of discourse’ (1961. Emile Durkheim’s functional definition of religion makes its capacity to unite all people in a common consciousness the definitive feature. says: ‘It is one of the social functions of religion to provide a meaningful set of ultimate values on which the morality of a society can be based’ (1957. 6). it was the threat of violence). We do not need to go too far down this path to appreciate that what are commonly described as definitions of religion are more accurately described as assertions about the origins or common consequences of religion.

of course. this definition seems to fit perfectly well even the most philosophical brands of Hinduism and Buddhism. we appreciate that we need to examine the effects of religion. we permit the possibility that a society can have more or less religion and thus allow the possibility of secularization. Because we are no longer asserting them by definitional fiat. Religion.112 S. the purpose of a definition is to bring together analytically similar phenomena. objections to such a definition. Some critics of substantive definitions regard the fact that people argue about definitions (and. I define religion substantively because this allows me to formulate a number of theories which I believe have considerable explanatory scope. His logic is that religion (or other crucial elements of a substantive definition such as the sacred) is always one half of a contrast pair: in this case religion-and-science. There are. King 1999). This does not seem a pressing problem. in particular. In an interesting reversal of Fitzgerald’s claim that popular definitions of religion inadvertently endorse a particular kind of religion. even in the matter of identifying the uses and consequences of religion. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that most Hindus and Buddhists do actually worship deities. Such a formulation seems to encompass what most people mean when they talk of religion. the utility of a definition must in the end depend upon the success of the explanations in which it is employed. contest their placement in any classificatory system) as invalidating any particular definition. And as social scientists work within the paradigm of science. those who study religion effectively brand their subject matter as false. That is. One can see the problem but not accept the conclusion. a definition that fits with broad contemporary common-sense reflection on the matter is usually not a very bad place to start. Moreover. then. André Droogers (2009) argues that substantive definitions of religion are problematic for the opposite reason: because they assume that religion is false. Although it . The clear distinction between the identification of the phenomenon and claims about its consequences offers protection against tautology. Below I will say more about when analysts should argue with their subjects but that particular groups and individuals both contest and manipulate definitions does not of itself vitiate attempts at classification. or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose. We also bring back into focus important issues that are disguised by a functional definition such as whether and why religions differ in their capacity to serve the function in question. Gods are an example of the former. For example. As a pre-emptive rebuttal of those such as Richard King who reject such a definition on grounds derived from Edward Said’s critique of orientalism (Said 1995. and nor should it. aspects of which we believe we can explain in the same terms. the Hindu principle of karma is an example of the latter. I see nothing in this definition that confines it to the West or to theistic salvation religions. Bruce value. actions and institutions which assume the existence of supernatural entities with powers of action. Substantive definitions For reasons I will explain shortly. leaders of authoritarian regimes and their dissident critics argue over whether a country deserves to be described as a democracy but that does not prevent political scientists defining democracy (and its alternatives) or using the notion in social scientific description and explanation. Most importantly. consists of beliefs.

acceptance and conformity to the teachings of those organizations. Chemists do not need to consider the . Europe in the last 20 centuries  may be perfectly workable. pragmatic and immanent beliefs that accord little with the coherent. But most sociologists have the humbler ambition of producing lower-level generalizations about this or that sort of religion in this or that time and place. I do not see how social scientific analysis is hampered by treating all beliefs as being susceptible to social scientific explanation. and for such purposes a definition that covers a decent part of the human record  for example. Similarly. The first is empirical. we can imagine superstitious nineteenth-century Durham coal miners having little difficulty explaining their rituals of reassurance to Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). On the basis of detailed ethnographic studies of a number of contemporary Christian congregations. Just how much common ground is there in the way that peoples in different times and place view the religious? Provided one is content with a minimalist definition of religion. International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie 113 will not satisfy the adherent of any particular religion (who will insist that his faith be exempted from phenomenological bracketing). It is certainly true that a universally applicable ahistorical definition of religion (and of anything else in the non-material world) is impossible. However. we do not need to do all our conceptual work in our master definition. we would expect them to be mutually intelligible. disordered. The ancient Greek warrior making offerings to his Gods before battle. He takes this to mean we should change our definition of religion. The third response is pragmatic. I take it to mean that we should appreciate (a) that not all religions are the same and (b) members of religious organizations can differ in their appreciation. A detailed universally applicable definition of religion is clearly necessary if one aims to produce a universally applicable theory of the origins or purposes of religion. there seems a great deal of it. there are three sensible responses. the medieval knight promising to build a monastery if God gives him victory in his crusade. for those who are not complete relativists. if time-travel ever allowed them to meet. and the modern Protestant businessman praying for God to bless his new factory are engaged in recognizably similar activities and. transcendent and transformative view of Christianity found in official teachings and creedal state- ments. There is nothing in the disciplinary armoury of the sociologist that allows me to know whether televangelist Pat Robertson is right to regard the Haitian earthquake of 2009 as divine punishment for voodoo but for my purposes it is enough that Robertson believes this to be the case. the attitude of methodological agnosticism seems to resolve this problem. Should sociology have its own language? We can now turn from common issues in the definition of religion to the specific question of a sociological definition of religion. The most common criticism of substantive definitions of religion is a watered- down version of Asad’s assertion about the historical specificity of such definitions: there is just too much variety. That is. The second response is to appreciate that there is nothing particularly wrong with a very broad conceptualization of religion provided it is accompanied by a well- informed sense of the variety of forms it can take. Martin Stringer (2008) argues that ordinary believers may have superstitious.

if required. because it was developed by a large number of scholars trying to identify the causal relations between features of the religious life with the greatest . On the further fringes of the discipline there are technical terms which would be alien to most people: adjacency pairs. for example. We all understand deprivation. Indeed. the ultimate check that one had. There are three key differences between sociological and lay concept formation. But even these terms are translatable into lay language. pre-sequencing. the professional formulation is generally abstracted from more widespread usage than the lay counterparts. and applying this again to lay usage. and repair sequences are examples from conversation analysis. And we work backwards and forwards between observation and explanation. is likely to be informed by a much wider range of instances than that used by lay people when they consider their own. The elements have no consciousness of the characteristics that are used to construct the Periodic Table and cannot argue about their relative placing: the transition metals do not insist that they are every bit as good as the noble gases. refining varied use into a simplified and systematic formulation. First. It is hard to think of any concept used in mainstream sociology that is not in common usage. The subject matter of the social sciences has consciousness and uses the same language as the analysts. sociological concepts are generally broader than lay concepts because they are designed for purposes more abstract and enduring than those which motivate the lay person and they are refined in arguments between large numbers of scholars from diverse backgrounds. for example. which requires that we understand their language. Second. sociological concepts will generally have a degree of consistency and cohesion.114 S. whatever one thinks of the utility of the classic church/sect/denomination/cult typology of religious organizations. translate these into terms which ordinary people would recognize. As analysts we sometimes use concepts (social network. Third. families. The psychiatrists classified the patients according to elaborate diagnostic categories. correctly identified ‘Do you want to go see a film?’ as an ‘invitation’ requiring acceptance or decline rather than as a question requiring a yes or no answer would be to explore directly with the speaker his or her intentions. for example or social capital) that are rare in the bus queue or the barroom but even then we suppose that we could. The nursing orderlies classified their charges as either ‘wetters’ or ‘wanderers’ based on whether incontinence or disorientation caused most work with any particular patient. the sociological definition of the family. We shift between collecting lay usages of some term that refers to what interests us. The notion of relative deprivation may take the lay man or woman a moment’s thought but it is perfectly intelligible. Hence actors’ and analysts’ terms are inevitably tangled together. For example. An ethnomethodologist colleague of mine found a fine example of this distinction while working in a mental institution in the 1970s. and other known. an orderliness not required in everyday life. A sociologist who studies ‘the family’ may also invite ‘the family’ to dinner. Bruce relationship between their concepts and the concepts used by their subject matter. Because of our interest in generalization and comparison. There is no mystery about how sociological concepts develop. Our work depends upon understanding our subjects.

training and expertise involved in occupations. in the observer’s sense. . because one can ‘be religious’ without going to church. Instead we argue with our subjects. we find a systematic variation in the difference between how respondents describe themselves and how analysts classify them. we can leave it to respondents to decide what terms such as ‘religious’ mean or we can ask questions based on our definitions of such terms. self-identification as religious. it is common for the response sessions that follow any lecture I give on secularization to contain the objection that. and the like cohere. authority. we can improve the usefulness of concepts by empirical research. Not only do we disagree with them but we try to explain why some Scots get it wrong and we think we have an explanation: identifying strongly with the working class creates a distinctive political culture which both is objectively well suited to Scottish conditions and allows Scots to think of themselves as different from. church membership. International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie 115 explanatory power it has far greater internal consistency than my mother’s bifurcation of ‘proper churches’ and ‘dangerous cults’. And we can do so in ways that involve both actors’ and analysts’ definitions. we can search for consistency of usage in the statements and actions of those whom we are trying to understand. It is important to note that sociology’s reliance on lay language use does not commit us to accepting actors’ accounts in any or every particular instance. based largely on the extent of power. There are a variety of statistical techniques that allow us to examine to what extent various measures of interest in religion cohere. assertions of the relative importance of religion. We can see how well (or badly) church attendance. church attendance is a poor measure of religiosity and hence there is no secularization. freedom. and superior to. Scots who are. Let us leave aside for a moment the obvious riposte that every strand of the Christian tradition strongly recommends collective worship (and many make it obligatory). the English. Provided we accept that it is possible to operationalize our concepts. Consider the notion of social class. Having refined our usage. regular prayer. financial support of religious activities. even if it means arguing with our respondents. What is often not appreciated by the theorists who dismiss empirical social research on the grounds that it operates with flawed definitions is that we possess a range of tools for assessing the relative validity of different conceptualizations of our subject matter. we stick to it. The trade secret is factor analysis. For example. This is now conventionally described in a limited number of ways. res- ponsibility. we do not accept that valuation and report that the Scots are more likely than the English to be working class. middle-class are more likely than their like-situated English counterparts to describe themselves as working class. And we can compare the results for consistency and cohesion. When we ask Scots and English people to say what class they are. That is. conceptualization does not have to be a matter of abstract philosophiz- ing punctuated by unrepresentative anecdotage. importance of religious endogamy. We can also leave aside the equally obvious riposte that those of us who describe secularization in the West use a wide variety of indices in addition to church attendance. to construct valid and reliable measures. When they do so. and to analyse the relationships between those measures. In brief. That is. which was based on always obscure distinctions that appeared to shift randomly.

Since the publication of Dean Kelley’s Why the Conservative Church are Growing (1986) there has been a great deal of research and argument around the issue of whether certain characteristics of liberal and conservative varieties of Christianity (or weak and strong religion) explain their relative fates. To illustrate the point. if one supposes that people are less likely to choose an unpopular church. not of differentials in attracting or even retaining members. 148). the greater is the degree of diversity. which. was a brutal critic of the scientific pretensions of social scientists (psychologists in particular) of the 1940s and 1950s. b. that various features of the religious market explain levels of religiosity have often involved disagreements about how one should measure religiosity and how one should classify and scale such market features as religious establishment. then a plain count of options would be a better measure than the Herfindahl index. If one supposes that what explains high levels of church attendance is the range of choices satisfying diverse desires. it will score only 0. The Chicago University founder of symbolic interactionism. The first town with only five options will appear to have greater diversity than the second. But what is interesting about the strong-weak religion debate is that nothing hinged on the definition of religion. . Demographers demonstrated that much of the difference in the growth or decline of US denominations was the result. popularized by Rodney Stark.8. then the . the Herfindahl index.61. the most commonly used measure of religious diversity. takes the form of [1 1(a/z)2(b/z)2(c/z)2(d/z)2 . Conservative Christians tended to have larger families. religious hegemony. That a lot of us wasted much energy trying to explain a chimera suggests that a useful starting point for any explanation of apparent difference is a check on the underlying demography. Arguments over the claim. But if it has one large church with 50% of churchgoers. I will briefly mention some recent debates in the sociology of religion with which I am familiar. three each with 10% and four others each with 5%. Those disagreements have often been highly technical. If one takes the view that what matters about definitions is their usefulness. Herbert Blumer.] where z is the total number of churchgoers and a. it will score 0. etc. The same could be said of the ‘new paradigm’ (aka the supply-side or rational choice theory of religion) that has polarized much of the discipline for the last two decades (Bruce 1999). a good defence of my relaxed attitude to defining religion is that it does not prevent us doing good social science. actually offers greater choice. I do not. The important point about this measure is that it gives greater weight to popular choices than to unpopular ones. but of differences in typical family size. The closer to 1. c.116 S. having eight options. Blumer sees this as a weakness. Hence even if they were no more successful than liberals in socializing their children into their beliefs they would have grown faster. if a town has five equally popular churches. Blumer argued that the best we could do was create ‘sensitizing concepts’ which give ‘the user a general sense of reference and guidance in approaching empirical instances’ (1969. p. . For example. The resolution of the debate was something of an anti-climax. Bruce A pragmatic justification for relaxed usage This brings me to my final theme: a practical defence of our current practice. and religious pluralism. are the numbers attending any particular church. However. For example. Against those who believed that the social sciences could develop variables comparable to those of the natural sciences.

An extremely fertile field of research in recent decades has been the study of religious change in Africa and Latin America. because it compromises range of options by giving greater weight to evenness of spread of choices. How does one arrange such varieties of ‘establishment’ into a single scale? However. Others offer legitimacy by collecting membership dues on behalf of a particular church. they appreciate other people doing religion on their behalf. just how many . My response is not that the term ‘religion’ is being misused in the idea of vicarious religion (Bruce and Voas 2010). That story can be told in functional terms (where the choice is functional for Pentecostalists versus functional for American capitalist interests) or in terms of plausibility (where the argument is the extent to which US support for Pentecostalism increases its appeal). we should regard avowedly non-religious Britons who watched the cathedral funeral service for Princess Diana as being religious vicariously. One might imagine that the great secularization debate would depend on definitions of religion. I have no difficulty at all in appreciating the meaning of vicarious religion when it is applied to the common medieval Christian practice of paying others to say masses for one’s soul or to the Buddhist division of labour that sees the laity financially supporting monks to win religious merit on their behalf. But those arguments do not depend on us arguing about whether Pentecostalism is really a religion. What is at issue for the secularization paradigm is whether. for example. the important point for the topic of this essay is that none of these technical arguments depends on. But most of the arguments over secularization have not hinged on the definition of religion but on two pragmatic considerations: the interpretation of motives and the measurement of extent. The growth of Pentecostalism has intrigued very many scholars and a clear divide can be discerned between those who explain its popularity in terms of its usefulness for those attracted to it and those who stress the political agenda of those who promote it. For example. some critics of the secularization paradigm attempt to offset the implication of the agreed decline in interest and involvement in mainstream organized religion by pointing to other less obvious marks of enduring religious interest: vicarious religion (Davie 2007) and popular religion (Williams 1999) are examples. might be the better measure. There are equally difficult choices to be made in turning a complex characteristic such as the extent of state support for a particular religion into a variable. Some states give a particular church an honorific constitutional position but no financial support. If we wish to understand why Rodney Stark prefers the supply-side model of religious change to any secularization account. Davie believes that many Europeans who are not active participants in organized religion are nonetheless vicariously religious. or is changed by. we would note that he has a particular theory of religion which makes secularization impossible but even that rests on assertions about characteristics of religious and secular belief systems that in turn rest on a conventional and largely unobjectionable definition of religion (Bruce 1999). by which she means that with varying degrees of consciousness. Some have extended that practical help (but reduced its value as a source of legitimation) by collecting dues on behalf of a number of religions. And where we can identify modern examples of vicarious religion. It does at the fringes: some thoroughly functionalist definitions of religion obviously render secularization impossible. any particular definition of religion. International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie 117 Herfindahl index.

Both Samuel Johnson and Sydney Smith have been credited with one of the earliest philosophy jokes. for example. I now realize that the greater gulf is between those scholars who think that arguments about definitions are very important and those of us who believe that some loose largely commonsensical conceptualization of religion is sufficient to allow us to get on with our primary purpose of exploring its sociologically interesting features. Bruce people are involved? It is not the definition of vicarious religion (and hence of religion per se) that is at issue: it is the identification and enumeration of putative examples. What that very brief review of interesting arguments shows is that our problem is not the definition of religion: it is the operationalizing.118 S. Johnson (or Smith) is supposed to have said: ‘You know. Like the Marxists of the 1960s who derided the arguments between Parsonian structural-functionalists and symbolic interactionists as trivial because both groups of scholars were suffering from false consciousness. . When I originally wrote that sentence I imagined the quarrelling housewives to stand for those who favour substantive and those who favour functional definitions of religion. is the value of his detailed descriptions of what his respondents believe enhanced at all by his attempts to change how we define religion? Conclusion This essay has been brief. those women can never agree because they are arguing from different premises’. a substantive definition of religion that fits pretty well with lay usage seems entirely adequate for social scientists who do not aspire to grand theories of religion. not because the topic is unimportant but because it has been so well worked over. While a functionalist concern with the consequences of religion is quite proper. I have justified that pragmatism by noting that the definition of religion has not been a major consideration in a varied list of recent and major debates in the sociology of religion. I have made the following simple points. The options are limited and the grounds for choosing between them are well known. Do we learn more about religion in the modern world from Fitzgerald’s arguments about definitions or from empirical responses to Stark’s analysis of religious markets? Or to separate the two parts of Stringer’s Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion. As there is little hope of (or need to) develop sociological concepts that do not rest on common usage. Again I can only offer a pragmatic rebuttal. is sometimes tricky but it is no more difficult than measuring levels of education or social class or levels of health and well-being. Measuring and scaling personal religiosity. There is always a danger in justifying some course of action by its apparent results: readers may not be as impressed as I am by the value of the above debates. scholars who fret about the definition of religion may regard the illustrations I have offered as proof that a relaxed attitude to identifying our subject matter produces pointless work. On seeing two housewives shouting at each across a street from their respective upstairs windows. identification and measurement of features of religion and of all the other social phenomena which we wish to deploy in our explanations. In this brief review of the common difficulties of defining religion. That last phrase is important. Finally. the difficulty of consistently adhering to a functionalist definition of religion is demonstrated by the fact that leading functionalists actually define religion substantively.

Mannheim.C. Bruce. 263279. Culture and religion. D. 2007. 1969. 1999. 142164. Genealogies of religion.. 1997.. S.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press... H. B. 2009. Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right. 3 November. Note 1. 1936. Choice and religion: a critique of rational choice theory. British journal of sociology. London: Home Office. Asad. 2010. 2000. E. Fitzgerald. Oxford: Oxford University Press. International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie 119 Provided we hold consistently to the principle of methodological agnosticism and are not drawn into debates about the truth or falsity of religion. In: P. Davie. Marx. Horton.. The sacred canopy. Home Office. H. 25. Climate change belief given same legal status as religion.L.. 2004. 2000. Blumer. New York: Fordham University Press. New York: Dutton. The Oxford handbook of the sociology of religion. . J. The same criticism can be made of one of the oddest interventions in the definition argument: the idea that the putatively deleterious consequences of certain ways of defining religion can be avoided by replacing nouns (such as ‘religion’) by verbs (such as ‘religioning’). De Vries. Vicarious religion: a critique. Religion and ritual: the definitional problem. Religion as a chain of memory.. Bruce. S. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. as teacher and then colleague. 1957. Acknowledgements This paper was written while I was a Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow and I would like to thank the Leverhulme Trust for its generous support of my research. profoundly shaped my understanding of sociology. Berger. NJ: Prentice-Hall. Ideology and utopia. MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore. and Badger... ed. The theory of secularization.. 201226. G. Bruce. The sociology of religion. 1922. 1960.. India and the mystic East. The case is made by Malory Nye (2000). 2740. The mainstream post-rave club scene as a secondary institution: a British perspective. Ill: Free Press.. Droogers. References Adams. 1967. 1961. K. 2007.. Goody. T. and Gray. A. Englewood Cliffs. Oxford: Oxford University Press. R. I would also like to express my enduring gratitude to the late Roy Wallis who. Daily Telegraph. L.. S. Hervieu-Léger. 12. A definition of religion and its uses. 2009. K. Orientalism and religion: post-colonial theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Journal of contemporary religion. 1970. King. 90. London: Sage. defining religion is no more or less difficult than defining any other social phenomenon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.. The ideology of religious studies. Clarke. Symbolic interactionism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. and Voas. Tokugawa religion. Malinowski. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Garden City. London: Routledge.. S. 243259. 1999. New Brunswick. 7.. T. I would also like to thank Robert Segal of the University of Aberdeen for his helpful thoughts on the subject. R. Lynch. That such a switch changes nothing except ease of comprehension is obvious if one tries replacing theft by thieving and robbery by robbing.. Defining religion: a social science approach. 2004. G. Religion in England and Wales: findings from the 2001 Home Office citizenship survey.. P. Bellah. Religion: beyond a concept.R. NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2011. NY: Doubleday. R. D. Glencoe.

. Durkheim on religion: a selection of readings with bibliographies. London: Continuum. 1995. 447476. 2000. S. The unadjusted girl with cases and standpoint for behavior analysis. Thomas.18801939. Williams. M. W.. 12. Traces of the spirit: the religious dimensions of popular music. Contemporary Western ethnography and the definition of religion. and religioning: religious studies and contemporary cultural debates. Sylvan. 2002. Said.C. Pickering..S. E.. New York: New York University Press. Boston: Little Brown and Company. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2008. 1923. Method and theory in the study of religion. Orientalism: Western conceptions of the Orient. W. post-religionism. . 1975. R. Harmondsworth: Penguin.120 S. Religion..I.F. Stringer. Religious belief and popular culture in Southwark c. Bruce Nye. M. 1999.D...

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