A reflection of religious statues and a minaret tower in a glass window, with a painting of Jesus Christ faintly visible in the foreground.

A mosque’s minaret is reflected in the window of a Christian souvenir shop in Bethlehem. Photo by Ahikam Seri/Panos Pictures


One good way to understand religion is to break it apart

A mosque’s minaret is reflected in the window of a Christian souvenir shop in Bethlehem. Photo by Ahikam Seri/Panos Pictures

by Joseph Blankholm + BIO





To understand what religion means, don’t reach for the dictionary. Better that you take it apart, break it, even throw it away

In some ways, dictionaries are useless. Sure, they’re useful for understanding words whose meanings we don’t know. But they’re awful at giving deeper understanding, and they’re facile as tools for settling debates over meaning. Take religion: Merriam-Webster defines it as ‘a personal set or institutionalised system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices’. This definition is great if I don’t know what the word means. But it’s useless for helping me understand religion, and has no business settling a debate.

When a dictionary tells us what a word means, it’s claiming authority over meaning. It centralises that authority and tries to unite all of us in a shared understanding. This is a noble project, but it also excludes, and creates a hierarchy. It fixes meaning from a central point that becomes a place of privilege. It separates the knower from the ignorant, and the educated from the not. Someone, after all, wrote that definition of religion. Why should I trust them?

The bigger problem is the strange truth about words that dictionaries encourage us to deny: words mean whatever we can use them to mean. Dictionaries claim authority, yes, but that authority could very well be ours. The more I read, and live, the grumpier I get about dictionaries. Why should I cede my authority over what a word means to some people at Merriam-Webster? No offence to them, but I’ve read a lot, too. And I’ve talked to a lot of people. I’ve shared with them in mutual understanding, which is the living proof of any meaning. This is the ‘we’ I keep repeating, that ‘us’ present here in this moment of reading. What about our freedom to say what we mean to one another?

I do not believe that religion can mean anything. To the contrary, it means specific things, albeit a bunch of them. Like people before us, we talk about religion to lump together parts of life that seem connected. I write in English, my native language. I didn’t invent it, and I was born into an American culture I didn’t choose. I borrow English’s words and concepts to try to be understood. All those words and concepts have their own vast histories of usage, of mutual understanding. I arrive midstream, and I rearrange what I have at hand.

These ways of understanding are not definitions. They are more like literal ways – paths that must be walked. They are shortcuts through a complex terrain

Forgetting our freedom to say what we mean allows what came before us to define us, to simply flow through us. If we’re to begin grasping and rearranging the concepts we inherit, we must remember our power. So, while this is an abstract way to start understanding religion better, it’s necessary.

Taking our freedom as our starting point, I offer three ways to understand religion, to rearrange it:

  1. We can take it apart.
  2. We can break it.
  3. We can throw it away.

These ways of understanding are not definitions. They are more like literal ways – paths that must be walked. They are shortcuts through a complex terrain. With use, these paths become clearer and easier to traverse.

The simplest way to understand religion is to take it apart. Social scientists do this by talking about the three Bs: belief, belonging and behaviour. Beliefs are the things that people affirm as true or real. We – those of us in mutual understanding – usually consider beliefs religious when they affirm the reality of God or the supernatural, though sometimes we call beliefs religious when they are based on faith, which is to say, not based on testable evidence. Belonging is about membership or identity. Religious belonging is membership of a Church or other group we consider religious, or claiming a religious identity, such as Christian or Hindu. Behaviours are things people do. We call behaviours religious when they are directed toward a deity, like prayer; when they perform rituals, like baptism; or when they’re done collectively by people we consider religious, as with festivals. Sometimes, we consider practices like yoga, meditation or energy healing religious, and sometimes we don’t. To resolve our uncertainty, Americans have filed lawsuits, and courts have decided them.

Nonreligion, ironically, shows us why it’s so important to take religion apart if we’re going to understand it. To talk coherently about the nonreligious, we need to know what they aren’t. According to the latest surveys, around a third of Americans have no religious affiliation. They do not belong religiously. But those same surveys show us that many of the religiously unaffiliated believe or behave religiously. They believe in God or a higher power, for example, or they pray daily or weekly. If someone believes in God and prays daily but doesn’t claim to be part of a religion, then are they nonreligious? There are a lot of people like this; they’re normal. What do we call them?

Atheists are even weirder. Surely, they’re not religious – right? But then, some are. Members of the Ethical Culture movement, often called Ethical Humanists, meet on Sundays to hear sermon-like speeches called Platforms. They have Sunday Schools where their children learn nonreligious ethics. Many, but not all, Ethical Humanists in the US consider themselves religious, and US courts and the IRS recognise their communities as religious. They belong and maybe behave religiously, but they do not believe religiously since they don’t believe in God or the supernatural.

His ex-wife, his family and a lot of his friends still consider him Jewish, he told me, because his mother’s Jewish. ‘You can’t un-Jew yourself,’ they’ve told him

Are Ethical Humanists religious or nonreligious? It’s hard to say. But if we don’t take religion apart – if we don’t disaggregate it into belief, behaviour and belonging – we can’t even understand why it’s hard to say. We can’t tell the difference between the religiously unaffiliated and atheists. We can talk vaguely about the nonreligious or religious decline, but we have no idea what’s actually going on with religion.

The more radical way to understand religion is to break it, which shows us that religion is always analogous to Christianity. This is a strange assertion, I know, but it makes more sense when we give religion a history. Writing and reading now, in English, we drag forth a particular history of language and concepts and, along with it, a material history. Merchants and missionaries travelled around the world redefining other cultures in the image of European Christianity. When encountering people unlike themselves, they called the parts of life that they thought resembled Christianity those peoples’ religions. They analogised. In some cases, they imposed an understanding of religion through violence, which had dire consequences for those whose religion was stamped out as superstition. The British did this in India, and Americans did this in the Philippines.

So I write now in one of the many languages of empire, which arrive to us by way of wars and other conflicts, fought, lost, and won. Religion arrives to us as one way of separating out some parts of life from others, and it’s not a way of separating that all people have always used. Originating in ancient Rome, religion as a concept has undergone many changes, but it has not changed completely. It carries the sediment of its accretions. It’s a complex mineral.

We can break this mineral religion in at least two ways. The first is what I just did. I drilled into its history, cracked it open, and fractured its sediment. This lets us see it for what it is, with all its layers of meaning bound together, and now, apart.

The other way to break religion is to use it in ways that should work but don’t. The limits of religion’s use lay bare its particular history and belie its universality. Jewishness, for example, breaks religion right away. I’m an ethnographer by training – an anthropologist – so I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about religion. A few years ago, I was conducting an interview outside of Detroit with a man who identifies as formerly Jewish. He told me how hard it is to be not-Jewish, which at first, surprised me. His ex-wife, his family and a lot of his friends still consider him Jewish, he told me, because his mother’s Jewish. ‘You can’t un-Jew yourself,’ they’ve told him. This is because Jewish is a religious identity, but also an ethnic and cultural one. The man I talked with cannot stop being Jewish like a Christian can become an ex-Christian; even if he doesn’t believe or behave religiously, he can’t stop belonging.

In its analogical misfit, Jewishness lays bare Christianity as the source of our thinking about religion. Being Jewish is sort of like being Christian and sort of not, but we accept it as a religion because the analogy is good enough. Ethical Humanists in the US show us the same. Their analogy to Christianity is good in some ways and bad in others. They are sort of religious because they are only sort of like Christians. They belong and behave, but they do not believe. Jamming religion’s square peg into a round hole, it cracks apart.

The most ironic way to understand religion is to throw it away. There is a secular liberal story that you’ll likely know. It opposes religion to science and associates it closely with faith. Religion is at times irrational, indeed by definition. There is a long history to this way of thinking, which is grounded in the European Enlightenment. Religion is belief without evidence. It is the source of subjective meaning and values, but not of objectivity. It is deeply personal and private. Its truths are ineffable – inexpressible – beyond communication from one person to another. Religion is what science is not. It is the opposite of modern; it was what modernised countries with modernised economies are losing more and more of every day.

This is a very belief-centred understanding of religion that has no way to make sense of Buddhism as an atheistic religion or of Ethical Humanists as actually religious. But it’s also a common, even banal understanding. The conclusion to this way of understanding is simple enough. Religion is the garbage heap of the Enlightenment. I promise, the dumpster diving is good.

These three ways of understanding religion are certainly not definitions. They are approaches to an object that looks different from different angles. They are ways of understanding something that has a history. Speaking or writing about religion, we drag forth that history even as we intervene within it. How each of us talks about religion reflects our personal histories and what we’ve come to know through reading and conversation, which is to say, through one another. A definition asks us to allow what’s come before to flow through us, as we agree on what it means. A freer way of understanding is to grasp what we’ve been asked to know and hold it for a moment at a distance. This is a better way to understand religion.





15 August 2022