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My Weird Views on “Religion,” Part 2: Practice

Regarding last week’s post on discourse, I feel I was too dependent on Bruce Lincoln’s theory of religion. While I will continue to use his outline, I am going to expand it with my own stuff. This is part two of four.

Here is a review of the outline. Religion is at least, though not necessarily reducible to:

  1. discourse
  2. practice
  3. community
  4. institution

What is practice in religion? Lincoln defines practice as rituals and ethics which designate a proper world order/person as defined by religious discourse.

Bruce Lincoln Source: University of Chicago
Bruce Lincoln
Source: University of Chicago

I see practice as the primary identifier of religion, for it is what people outside the religion (discourse, community, institution) primarily encounter. You do not see beliefs or institutions unless you look at their texts, which are the result of the practice of writing and encoding ideologies with otherworldly authority. However, you can see clothing or grooming. You can also see texts or architecture if you are aware of it. You can hear certain music (or not hear it in its absence) or rhythmic recitations. You can taste different cuisines or items associated with a ritual. You can smell smells associated with a space, and you can feel the touch of objects or other persons.

You could argue with me about what should be primary in religion. Beliefs, or discourse in my presentation, is usually what is asserted as primary, if Protestantism is taken as normative for religion. However, even when it comes to discourse—in the construction, maintenance, replication, polemics, irenics, apologetics, destruction, or reformation of it—I see the activity of practice employed in it. Why? The act of discourse defines who is in a group and who is outside a group, a practice that is always more mobile than discursive text (though I do not limit discourse to text alone).

I am not using my religious upbringing as representative of all religion, but merely to demonstrate a point. It seemed sometimes that signing onto a belief was as important, if not more important, than enacting a practice connected with that belief. This ended up being a practice in itself. One of the practices closely identified with my group was the practice of glossolalia, or speaking in languages you hadn’t sat down to learn. While the group pushed the practice, it definitely mattered if you even considered it a possibility. Southern Baptists, who did not condone the practice, were seen as other to us because they did not even consider glossolalia a possibility. It didn’t matter that we had many in our group who did not themselves “speak in tongues” as glossolalia was referred to; it mattered that we took the practice of believing Acts 2 in a way that Southern Baptists didn’t.

Certain practices seem to have religious connotations associated with them: ingesting a limited amount of food and beverage in a communal setting (Eucharist/communion), stretching limbs in a communal setting (raising hands in worship or some settings of Hatha Yoga), dressing up (wearing a hijab, niqab, skull necklace, funerary ashes), or feeling an object in a stylized manner (prayer wheel in Tibetan Buddhism or rosary).

Lincoln goes on further to say that no practice is inherently religious in itself until defined by the discourse. I described some practices in a purely material way. If I said I was making you a cake, would you consider it religious? Consider the following. Cake-bakers mix flour, sugar, and oil together, bake this set of ingredients, and then design it. When religious discourse is added to it, some Christian bakers decided not to bake and design cakes for same-sex weddings, because they associate their practice of baking with their religious discourse.

This example brings up some important questions. Who defines practice: religious specialists or ordinary religionists? When is a practice religious and when is it idiosyncratic? Is religious practice and idiosyncrasy mutually exclusive? Is religion primarily personal or social? I’m not asking what should be, but but how practice functions in a particular time and place.

Source: norepealsgf.org
Source: norepealsgf.org
How are ethics colored by religion? Ethics here would describe interpersonal or public actions toward one’s own group and outside of one’s group (as defined by the discourse) based on discourse. This discourse can be reasonable or not, but what matters is that a group finds the discourse reasonable enough from which to authorize practice. So making cookies for your neighbor could be a way of consoling him when he’s sick (and you simply performing a practice for a friend) or a way of demonstrating care motivated by proselytizing (a religious motive). It could involve speaking with (or not speaking with) members considered outside your community and doing so in a specific way (conversationally, in a rebuking way, avoidance, etc.).

ksmu.org
Source: ksmu.org
Recently in Springfield, MO, there was an issue on the ballot (“Question 1”) of whether or not to include the LGBT community in the City’s non-discrimination ordinance regarding housing, employment, and public accommodation. Depending on how you approached this, it could be merely a political and civil rights issue or a religious (or religious freedom) issue (and religious discourse occurred on the “Yes” AND “No” sides of the issue). Who got to define whether it was political/civil rights or religious?

Russell T. McCutcheon Source: Twitter
Russell T. McCutcheon
Source: Twitter
Regarding Question 1, I lamented to Russell McCutcheon that it didn’t seem that persuasive/reasoned discussion was possible when people held fundamentally different views. It seemed to me that groups lobbed talking points at each other without hearing others’ points. He gave me the following: “They’re trying to play fair — it’s just that their mutually beneficial definitions of ‘fair’ either compete or even contradict one another. They’re not all playing the same game but each is trying to portray theirs as the only game in town…”

Even when practices are similar within a community-e.g., providing public discourse on why you should vote a certain way–they are carved out from general use to serve to the interests of your own group. This seems true to me, regardless of how libertarian you want to be.


Next Saturday I will go over “community.” You might be able to tell this from reading so far, but all of the features Lincoln lists-discourse, practice, community, and institution-are integrally related. It helps to separate them to discuss them, but they generally don’t operate apart from one another, unless a religion is extinct.

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