Words and concepts have a history; their meanings, the terms with which they’re associated, and the objects or referents they select from the world change over time. A trivial example: the word “thong” once was used to refer to what we today call a “flip flop,” but the word now more commonly refers to a particular type of underwear. A more significant example: in ancient Israel, a “marriage” was a social relationship where girls beyond the age of puberty were given by their fathers to other men in exchange for a dowry. When a man raped an unmarried virgin, he was legally required to pay the father a fee and marry the woman, since she was, for all practical purposes, damaged property. A man could have as many wives as he wanted, although wives could only have one husband. Quite literally, the Bible says that men “marry” and women, by contrast, are “taken” or “lorded over.” By contrast, in the middle of the twentieth century—at least in the United States—the word “marriage” referred to a mutually voluntary, legally certified relationship between one adult man and one adult woman. Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the word has been changed to refer to voluntary, legally certified, relationships between two adults, of whatever gender or sex. If a community changes the use of a word, the objects (or types of relationships, in this case) to which the word points can be partly or even completely different. In addition, as is clear in the case of “marriage,” the changes are contested and highly political. This is especially true of the word “religion,” which has changed dramatically over the last several centuries. However, before looking at the complicated history of the word “religion,” let’s consider a very different politicized word.
Political Definitions: Wetlands
In Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning
(2003), Edward Schiappa provides an account of how the definition of the word “wetlands” changed in the United States during the early 1990s. At the time, conservationists who
wanted to protect wetlands were in competition with developers who wanted to build houses, strip malls, etc. on existing wetlands.
For the conservationists, the keys to defining a “wetland” were threefold. (1) The soil had to be sufficiently saturated with water such that (2) less oxygen could get into the soil, creating conditions in which (3) only certain types of plants adapted to soil with less oxygen—called “hydrophytes”—could thrive. Their definition was not random, and nor was it based on a simple description of patches of land that were sort of wet. On the contrary, the conservationists were concerned first with protecting those species of plants and animals that could only live in these types of wetlands. Second, wetlands—at least on this definition—absorb and hold sediments that we, as humans, don’t want in our drinking water, keeping the water table cleaner. Third, this sort of soil can also absorb excess water during heavy rainfall, thus protecting humans to some extent from possible floods. So the conservationists fabricated a definition of “wetland” precisely because they wanted to save certain plants and animals, improve drinking water, and protect us from floods. By contrast, developers had another sort of human interest: they wanted to make money by building on the properties designated and protected as “wetlands.”
When George H.W. Bush was running for president of the United States in 1992, “wetlands” were a crucial political issue, and Bush needed to earn the votes of those citizens sympathetic to the conservationists. Consequently, one of his central campaign promises was that under his presidency he would ensure that no wetlands would be lost to development. However, at the same time he also wanted to please the developers so as to continue to get their support—developers can donate more campaign money than conservationists. When Bush finally came into office, he signed into existence legislation that protected “wetlands,” but the legislation completely changed the definition of wetlands in ways designed to serve the interests of the developers. Specifically, the legislation said that wetlands had to be very wet, not just below the surface of the soil, but also at the surface. Bush said, “I’ve got a radical view of wetlands. I think wetlands ought to be wet” (Schiappa 2003, 87). This benefitted the developers because it greatly reduced the number of “wetlands,” as, based on the definition of the conservationists, not all of the “wetlands” were really wet or had water on the surface.
Estimates suggested that probably 30 to 50 million acres of land that had been “wetlands” on the conservationists’ definition were reclassified as “not wetlands”—reducing the number of wetlands by a third or by half—so that the developers could build houses and strip malls. A great deal of money was made, and Bush could claim he kept his campaign promise: he did in fact approve legislation that protected the “wetlands,” even as he redefined the term to suit his purposes. It was a successful bait-and-switch.
The conservationists, of course, were unhappy with these results, insofar as the “really wet” wetlands were so different from the “wetlands” they had singled
out that the new legislation no longer served their interests. “Really wet” wetlands couldn’t absorb sediments dangerous to human drinking water in the same way, couldn’t absorb floodwaters, and didn’t sustain the types of endangered species that thrived in the type of “wetlands” that fit their definition. On the new definition, all of the desires of the conservationists were thwarted.
For Schiappa, what is interesting about this case is that both definitions of “wetlands” are tied to human interests, just different sets of interests. What is a wetland? The answer to that question depends on whether one wants a clean water table and to avoid floods, or if one wants to build a suburb. Note: we cannot simply answer that question by going out and looking at one. Whether a particular patch of land is a “wetland” depends not on whether it is wet—just looking at it won’t help us. The very same patch of land might look like a wetland for the conservationists but not for Bush and the developers.
Another crucial point for Schiappa is that these definitional decisions are always related to political power, which is why they’re so contested. At the end of the day, what is crucial is the legal definition enforced by the state. Conservationists can define “wetlands” differently all they want, but their definition has no real-world consequences as long as the state is endorsing and enforcing another definition.
Schiappa concludes that abstract questions like “what is a wetland?”—especially when considered outside of any social or political context—are generally useless. Rather, “the questions to ask are ‘Whose interests are being served by this particular definition?’ and ‘Do we identify with those interests’” (82)? Do we want to make money or save houses from floods?
Political Definitions: Religion
“Religion” is a lot like “wetland”: how the term is defined, as well as what’s included or excluded in the definition, depends on the interests of those making up the definition. Consider, for instance, two legal cases about whether “yoga” falls under the definition of “religion.”
The state of Missouri began taxing yoga studios in 2009, treating them the same as any other business—like gyms—that provides such services. The owners and operators of yoga studios immediately objected to the policy. They insisted that yoga was religious, or spiritual, and as such should be tax exempt, just like churches and other “religious” institutions. “Yoga is a spiritual practice. It’s not a purchase. . . . Somehow, we need to get the state to realize that” (Huffstutter 2009). Despite the fact that yoga is a highly profitable, $6 billion industry (Huffstutter 2009), yoga enthusiasts were successful in getting the state of Missouri to change the policy.
By contrast, consider another case from California in 2013. Following the recommendation of yoga enthusiasts, yoga began to be taught in physical
education courses in public schools. Soon thereafter, two conservative Christian parents who were uncomfortable with their children being taught yoga filed a lawsuit alleging that, insofar as yoga is “religious,” teaching it in public schools violated the separation of church and state. According to the parents’ lawyer, “If yoga is a religion and has religious aspects, it doesn’t belong in the public schools” (Graham 2013). The lawsuit failed, and the judge ruled—in favor of the yoga instructors—that the yoga was not religious.
So, is yoga religious? If we follow Schiappa’s lead, this is an unhelpful question to ask. Instead, let us ask: according to whom and in what social context is yoga religious? What are the interests of the various parties involved? Yoga enthusiasts in Missouri defined yoga as religious, because they didn’t want to pay taxes to the state. Yoga enthusiasts in California defined yoga as not religious, because they wanted to be able to teach it in the public schools. The definition of religion in this case turned on the interests of the parties involved—these definitional games are self-serving. Do we want to make money or get some exercise? Ask other yoga enthusiasts if yoga fits into their definition of “religion,” and we’re likely to get different answers depending on their individual social and political contexts. What is included and excluded from the definition of religion varies, depending on the politics of the definers. Thus, rather than ask ourselves “What is religion?,” it would be better to ask, “Why does this group define religion this way rather than that way, what do they hope to accomplish, and how does the definition serve their interests?” As with wetlands, what do we want to put into our definition, and why? What do we want to protect, or what do we want to sell?
Defining Religion: A Brief Historical Survey
Today people often think of “religions” as special cultural traditions organized around the belief in a god, as well as a set of rituals and communal practices related to that belief. It is often assumed that religion is a matter of individual, personal choice, and a private matter that ought to be kept separate from politics. This contemporary use of the word “religion” has a long history, starting with early modern European politics. There is, in fact, no equivalent word for the modern term “religion” prior to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. For reasons we’ll discuss below, it was not until the Reformation that people began to characterize “religious” institutions as private, separate from politics, and related to spiritual rather than material or bodily concerns.
"Religion" before Modernity
Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the worship of gods was not seen as a special part of life fundamentally segregated from politics or other social spheres.
For instance, in ancient Rome many emperors were worshipped as divine, and people made sacrifices to gods in the hopes that the gods would protect their health, their wealth, or their businesses. Similarly, the Bible presents the kings of ancient Israel as appointed by God; the king’s duty was to implement the divine law given to Moses—including, for example, the Ten Commandments. In ancient Greece, ancient Rome, or ancient Israel, a distinction between “religion” and “politics” would have been nonsensical.
If we look at modern English translations of premodern texts, we’ll often find that translators do, however, use the word “religion” in their translations. For instance, in the Qur’an—written long before the Protestant Reformation—there is a passage that is typically translated in the following way: “I [Allah] have perfected religion for you” (Surah 5:3). If there is no premodern equivalent for the word “religion,” then what ancient Arabic word is being translated here? We could ask the same question about translations of ancient texts from many premodern languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, etc. If there is no premodern word for religion, what are these translators translating? As J.Z. Smith once said in an interview, “It’s a well-known conundrum: nobody else has a word remotely like that. If you really want to falsify a translation, find the word religion in any other language” (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTVeX4Jp418
). Translations are often deceptive.
In Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013), Brent Nongbri looks at many of these instances of problematic translation. He finds that the Latin word religio is often translated as “religion,” but in ancient Rome the word religio did not mean a private institution, separate from politics, which prepared one for the afterlife. On the contrary, the word meant something like “scruples,” “devotion,” “reverence,” or “rules.” Of course, this use overlaps a little bit with some modern uses of “religion,” but only slightly. In ancient Rome, one could have religio or scruples with respect to any kind of life circumstance—obeying the law could constitute religio. Religiones were not “religions” but, rather, any set of “rules or prohibitions instituted either by gods or by humans” (emphasis added; 28). Similarly, the Arabic word in the Qur’an often translated as “religion” is dīn, which simply meant “custom” or “law.” Thus, “I have perfected religion for you” is a misleading translation; a translation closer to the Arabic would be “I have perfected the law for you.” Nongbri demonstrates the same with many other premodern words that continue to be poorly translated. When we translate premodern terms as “religion,” we are actually projecting our own, contemporary ideas back into the past. The scholarly term for this is “anachronism”; an anachronism is something that is out of place in history (for instance, talking about automobiles in ancient Greece would be anachronistic, since automobiles were not invented until much later in human history). Translations that find “religion” in premodern texts are anachronistic, and we must guard against making such errors.
"Religion" in the Early Modern Era
How did “religion” come to be seen as a special kind of institution or culture, fundamentally separate from other forms of culture or politics in general? Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic church was involved in the political affairs of all Western European states. After the Protestant Reformation—when Protestant churches began to secede from the Catholic church—some European kings sided with the Catholics, and others sided with the Protestants. Those kings who had allied with the Catholic church attempted to suppress the growing Protestant movement, as they saw Protestantism as a threat to the unity of their state. Many people were killed, and several wars ensued.
The Protestants responded to the violence and attempts at suppression by claiming that their institutions should be tolerated, as they were not, in fact, a threat to political unity (although the fact that they were literally warring with the Catholics made this a bit of a disingenuous argument). Martin Luther—the initiator of the Protestant Reformation—argued that states and churches had completely separate jurisdictions. The duty of a king was to oversee bodies and the welfare of the nation; the duty of ministers was to oversee the preparation of souls for the afterlife. In an important treatise on the essential differences between religious institutions and state institutions, Luther wrote that the state is supposed to oversee “laws that extend no further than the body, goods and outward, earthly matters” (Luther 1991, 23). Since the jurisdiction of churches did not overlap or interfere with the jurisdiction of the state on Luther’s account, the state should tolerate minority religious groups whose affairs were indifferent to “earthly matters” (see Martin 2010 for a summary and critique of these arguments).
This was a very radical view at the time: the Catholics certainly understood the duty of the church as concerning both this world and the next. However, the Protestants were eventually successful in earning the right to be tolerated, largely because, at some point, ongoing war between Catholics and Protestants became a losing situation for all parties. Tolerance of hated enemies became preferable to perpetual fighting. In this instance, defining religion as a cultural sphere separate from politics and law first served the interests of the Protestants, protecting them from Catholic oppression, and eventually served the interests of everyone who wanted to avoid the wars over these competing political allegiances.
The philosopher John Locke wrote what is probably the most famous defense of religious tolerance. The basis of his argument was, as with Luther, jurisdictional:
The care of the souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind . . . And su...