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.

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.).
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.

My Weird Thoughts on “Religion”

Here I would like to share my views on “religion.” It got pretty long, so I am breaking it into parts. This first part will cover classic definitions of religion, the instability in terms, and the concept of “discourse.”

1. Classic Definitions of Religion and Instability in Terms

Religion has classically been defined as:

  • The feeling of absolute dependence (Friedrich Schleiermacher)
  • Belief in spiritual things (E. B. Tylor)
  • A systematic belief and practice system that unites a community (Emile Durkheim)
  • A way of placating higher beings which control the universe (James G. Frazer)
  • A feeling of awe in the presence of the holy (Rudolf Otto)
  • An illusion or neurosis (Sigmund Freud)
  • An agent (“opiate”) that deadens peoples’ minds to accept their station rather than improve it (Karl Marx)
  • A state of being grasped by an Ultimate Concern (Paul Tillich)
Bruce Lincoln Source: University of Chicago
Bruce Lincoln
Source: University of Chicago

Let’s test some of those definitions. I consider myself religious, but don’t feel particularly dependent on God during data entry (contra Schleiermacher); I’m not really aware of material things, much less spiritual things, before my coffee has kicked in (contra Tylor); my mind doesn’t feel particularly numb when I’m thinking about religion (Marx could be brilliant at times and at other times preposterous); Buddhists who rely on self-power (some rely on beings to help them, such as Amitabha) aren’t placating higher powers.

Furthermore, I strongly insist that religion is colored by your time, place, and other identity markers. If you learn about the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism, or the Shema Yisrael of Judaism, do you think you have really encountered those religions in all their varied splendor? Is Christianity reducible merely to the Sinner’s Prayer? Do the previous general beliefs account for the subdivisions within each tradition which sometimes go to war with each other (literally), even when outsiders see each party as part of the same tradition?

You probably haven’t encountered a tradition until you’ve experienced a living, breathing member of that tradition, and then, one person does not represent an entire tradition. In the end, I don’t find religion to be a stable category. Here are some social factors that interplay with religion, so that even within the same tradition religion is never the same: gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, politics, economics, culture, family, age, region, education, ability, dietary habits, athleticism, or customs. Just as with religion, I don’t see how these nodes of identity can be defined apart from these other factors.

2. Working, Constructed Definition of Religion

Russell T. McCutcheon Source: Twitter
Russell McCutcheon
Source: Twitter

But saying that religion is hard to define doesn’t really help much. So what do I mean by religion? I approach studying religion from a constructivist and social perspective. That’s not the only way to analyze religion (I analyze religion theologically, too, but that’s within another context), but that’s how I approach it academically. I will employ some help from history of religions scholar Bruce Lincoln. He has written extensively, particularly on how communities in general (not just religious ones) form and maintain their cohesion. What follows is his minimal definition on religion, riffing off of Durkheim (who I also like). While I won’t say religion is merely these four things, it is at least these four things (taken from Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11):

A. “Discourse”

By religious discourse, Lincoln means truth claims that do not appeal to experience, experimentation, or human thought but that appeal to sources outside the human political (and other) interests. Many times this goes by the name of “revelation,” “scriptures,” “holy writings,” “sacred sayings,” “prophecy,” “oracles,” etc. Elsewhere, Lincoln remarks that discourse consists at least of myth, ritual, and classification used to construct, maintain, replicate, deconstruct, and/or reconstruct society. I will discuss myth here, ritual in the section on “practice,” and classification in the next post under “community.”

In his helpful primer, Studying Religion: An Introduction, Russell McCutcheon also offers a helpful definition, building off of Michel Foucault: discourse involves “the series of material as well as intellectual conditions, practices, institutions, architecture and conventions that make specific types of thought and action possible.” In other words, discourse is all about the background noise that influences your thought and action.


While Lincoln sees discourse employing myth, ritual, and classification to achieve its ends more overtly, it can covertly (or just less overtly) achieve its ends by means of “spectacle, gesture, costume, edifice, icon, [or] musical performance.”

So what are some examples of these subtle methods of discourse? If you think of a church setting, a costume can consist anywhere from a dress suit to clerical robes. Gestures can include raising one’s hands in Christian worship or bowing down on a prayer rug facing Mecca (which would also involve the icon of the prayer rug).

A word on “myth”

Roland Barthes Source:
Roland Barthes

Myth is typically used in a disparaging way toward beliefs you consider legend, fable, or something that just isn’t historical. Lincoln first explains myth by referencing Roland Barthes’ concept of myth: it involves ideas divorced from their original contexts/settings/histories and projected into a timeless story, or given “mystificatory” (that which obscures its origins) content. However, Lincoln develops a unique model of myth, by comparing it to the concepts of fable, legend, and history before plotting them on the axes of truth claim, credibility, and authority:

Fable Makes no truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
Legend Makes truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
History Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands no authority
Myth Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands authority

Adapted from Lincoln, Discourse, 23.

When Lincoln speaks of credibility and authority, he doesn’t measure it on the story/narrative itself, but on how it is received by a community. This means that the history of one group can be the myth or legend of another group (compare how typical American and British histories treat the American Revolution). In his book, Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Lincoln defines authority in the following way:

When these crucial givens [“right” speaker, speech, and setting] of the discursive situation combine in such a way as to produce attitudes of trust, respect, docility, acceptance, even reverence, in the audience, or – viewing things from the opposite perspective – when the preexistent values, orientations, and expectations of an audience predispose it to respond to a given speech, speaker, and setting with these reverent and submissive attitudes, “authority” is the result

Lincoln’s work can apply to religion as traditionally conceived or to social phenomena in general.

That’s it for now on my thoughts on religion. As you can see, I owe a lot of gratitude to Lincoln. It is also painfully theoretical. I apologize, but felt I needed to establish this before I start getting concrete. If you have questions of where I fall on something concrete, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail.

I will post tomorrow or Monday on the second part. I may include how I think my initial thoughts on gender and sexuality relate to religion in that second part, or I might make a third part.