Putting religion in its global context (3): three premises of Religious Studies

The new school year has begun. I confess: remote (online) teaching is a lot more work than ‘normal’ teaching. That being said, I’m glad we started the year online where I work. It was the safe decision. It was the right decision.

It’s been a few weeks since I blogged about my course ‘Religion in Global Context’. I’m enjoy the semester thus far. I really like how the curriculum is unfolding. In my most recent post on the topic I mentioned how I’ll be introducing (and now have introduced) my students to some of the principles found in AAR‘s ‘Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States’. That previous post looked at three reasons (premises) for why high school students should learn about religion. The follow-up lesson (in progress with my students) examines three premises for Religious Studies, or three premises for how Religious Studies should be teach. Those premises are:

  1. Religions are Internally Diverse
  2. Religions are Dynamic
  3. Religions are Embedded in Culture

These principles are important for students to understand because they show/remind them that:

  1. If you’ve met one adherent of a religion you haven’t met them all.
  2. What you’ve heard in the media about a religious group should be taken with a grain of salt since not all members are alike.
  3. While it may be a ‘necessary lie’ to say things like ‘Christians believe…’ or ‘Muslims practice…’ (because you can’t spend all your time unpacking the caveats), it’s still an overgeneralization.
  4. No religion is static and unchanging, so it shouldn’t be surprising if you hear that some members of a religion are rethinking what others hold dear.
  5. While we may separate religion from ‘philosophy’ or ‘culture’ or ‘politics’ these are practical distinctions that don’t actually reflect how religious people live their lives.
  6. Buddhism in China may not look like Buddhism in California; Christianity in Brazil might not look like Christianity in Japan. Just as religion impacts culture; culture impacts religion.

I could go on but you get the point. What students need to know is that there’s no single, eternal definition of religion (speaking from the perspective of Religious Studies and not theology). It gives permission to students to learn about different religious groups and their claims without being preoccupied with whether or not they should be accepting or rejecting that religion’s truth-claims (they can do that later once they understand various religions in all their diversity).

Anyway, for those who are interested, here’s lesson

Defining ‘religion’: four options

In Units 1.3, ‘Family Resemblance v. Suprahuman Essentialism’, and 1.6, ‘The Three B’s: Belief, Behavior, and Belonging’, I’ll be introducing a handful of definitions of religion to my students who are taking ‘Religion in Global Context’ this year. Unit 1.3’s first draft is finished. Unit 1.6 will be complete next week, probably. I’ll share them in due time. For now, I’m writing out some of my thoughts on these definitions as part of my thinking-process.

Family Resemblance

The first theory, and the one that probably resonates the most with me personally, is the ‘Family Resemblance’ theory. This way of defining religion is inspired by the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on the definition of words. Wittgenstein challenges the idea that there can be a definition of the word ‘game’, as one example, that actually represents all the things we call ‘games’.

In his book, Philosophical Investigations (§ 66), Wittgenstein asks these questions:

“Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. – Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared!”

As we can see, there are board, card, and ball games. There are games we play without an opponent. There are games without a winner/loser. There are games like ‘ring-a-ring-a-roses’ played by kids that are for pure fun/amusement. We might say that this game has a goal (fun! falling!) and rules (sing this song until you fall down). But does it have a feedback system? If someone doesn’t fall, can they still have fun? Do they ‘lose’? You get the idea.

In an excellent summary of Wittgenstein’s thinking, ‘Wittgenstein: Family Resemblance’ (very much worth reading in its entirety), FEEST.IO says this:

‘The ‘family’ that constitute games may share various features between them, but need not all share any one feature, like in the following sets:

{A,B,C} {B,C,D} {C,D,E} {D,E,F}

‘We see here that ‘C’ is common to the first three sets but not the fourth just as balls may be common to rugby, golf and tennis but not chess. However, golf, tennis and chess share the feature of being non-contact whereas rugby does not. We would call all of these activities games, however, even if they are not united by any singular property.’

The same might be true of religion. Maybe four religions have divine beings but the fifth doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s not a religion. It just means that not all religions share the exact same features.

To see this idea applied to religion, I recommend Andrew Mark Henry’s ‘What is Religion?’:

Suprahuman Essentialism

Of course, what bothers some philosophers is that Wittgenstein’s family resemblance approach seems to leave the door open for all sorts of things to be considered a ‘religion’ including sports, Wall Street, and even Coca-Cola. Yes, Coca-Cola. See Henry’s view on that idea here:

So, while I don’t know of anyone who would argue in a Platonic/Augustinian sense that the word ‘religion’ has some essential meaning—some ‘form’ if you will—there are scholars like the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith who advocate for definitions that at least include some sort of suprahuman being. This isn’t a ‘superhuman’, per se, but something above human. Let me share Smith’s definition from his book,  Religion: What it Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, p. 22 (emphasis mine):

Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad.

Smith’s definition covers a lot of ground. It can include more ‘personal’ gods like those common to forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It can include the dynamic found in Hinduism which has both a monoid (Brahman) and various gods. It can include ‘the Dao’ of Daoism, which is impersonal, and sort of like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars mythology. It can include ancestors and their veneration, as we find in all sorts of cultures. But it rejects all non-theistic ‘religions’, whether that be a form of Buddhism, Confucianism, Satanism, Dudeism, whatever.

The Albanese Definition

Catherine Albanese of UC Santa Barbara has a definition of religion known popularly as the ‘4 C’s’ listed in her book, America: Religion and Religions (the summary of which I’m drawing from Joseph P. Laycock’s Speak of the Devil, pp. 118-119):

  1. Creed: ‘an explanation about the meaning of human life’;
  2. Code: ‘rules than govern human behavior’;
  3. Cultus: ‘rituals that perform the creed and codes’;
  4. Communities: ‘that are bound together by the other three elements’.

The Bostian Definition

My colleague, Nate Bostian, has one more C. His definition of religion that’s he taught students is this. Religion is:

A Religion is a shared CONSCIOUSNESS of Ultimate Reality, Supreme Value, or Collective Identity, which is bounded by a shared CREED of beliefs about the world and humanity, a shared CODE of moral values and standards, and a shared CULT of sacred rituals and events, – all of which unify and bind together an identifiable COMMUNITY of persons.

In essence, this definition is an agreement between Smith and Albanese.

I won’t push my students to choose one. In fact, I hope that the course continues to complicate their understanding. They’ll learn about a variety of religions with Hinduism and Judaism receiving the most attention. Confucianism will be highlighted toward the end to complicate matters further. They’ll encounter Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Pastafarianism, and Dudeism, at least. As you can see from that list, some of these aren’t religions by one definition but are religions by another.

Putting religion in its global context (2): three premises for teaching religion in high school

It’s been a few weeks since my first post (see ‘What’s wrong with “World Religion”?’) on the topic of rethinking and reshaping my class formerly known as ‘World Religion’, which we’re rebranding as ‘Religion in Global Context’. I’ve completed a couple of lessons, so I’m ready to resume blogging on the topic. The first lesson—1.1, Why Study Religion in High School?—is built around AAR‘s ‘Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States’. Now, I teach at a private Episcopal school, so I don’t have to worry about violating the First Amendment, or tearing down the wall that separates ‘church and state’, but I do teach a diverse body of students who are associated with a variety of religious traditions. Therefore, I think the same rationale for trying to teach about religion rather that training in religion applies.

AAR promotes three premises for why we should teach religion to high schoolers:

  1. There exists a widespread illiteracy about religion in the U.S.
  2. One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of religious illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.
  3. It is possible to diminish religious illiteracy by teaching about religion from a non-devotional perspective in primary, middle, and secondary schools.

I’ll begin by asking students to explain what they think these three premises mean. Then, I’ll go premise-by-premise in order to better explain them. To teach the first premise, I’ll be walking students through a series of absolute statements—’Christians believe…Judaism teaches…Buddhists practice…’—and I’ll push students to think critically about these statements in order to help them recognize that the religion is far more complicated than most people recognize and that it needs to be rethought, as a conceptual category, in order to avoid dangerous oversimplifications.

To teach the second premise, I’ll talk to my students about (1) how Sikhs have been mistreated in American; (2) how Islamaphobia fuels this mistreatment; and (3) how Islamaphobia itself is a problem that needs to be addressed (in other words, mistreatment of Sikhs isn’t wrong just because they’re mistaken for Muslims but because Islamaphobia is a dehumanizing and misleading ideology that doesn’t represent Islam and doesn’t correctly address how to respond to difference). I’ll make sure to give students a basic introduction to Sikhism as well (no reason to show them how many Americans misunderstand Sikhism only to leave them without any understanding) using Religion for Breakfast’s helpful video:

To teach the third premise, I’ll lead them through a discussion on what makes our class different from a ‘devotional’ approach to studying religion. Then I’ll give them several reasons for studying religion even if the class isn’t teaching them what to believe religiously.

Here’s a PDF draft of this first lesson for those who are interested:

Timeline: Religion in California

I’ve been thinking about religion in my home state. I’ve noticed there’s not much by way of a broad overview of the religious history of the state, so I’ve been collecting resources. Here’s a timeline and a few links that I’ve gathered thus far:

Timeline: Religion in California

1767-1784: Junipero Serra in Spanish California

1769-1821: Spanish Colonial Period

1769: Founding of Mission San Diego de Alcalá (SD)

1776: Founding of Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) (SF)

1849: The ‘Gold Rush’ begins

Sept. 9, 1850: California Statehood

1851: Temple Israel founded in Stockton (longest continuous Jewish community)

1852: Tin How (Tianhou) Temple founded in San Francisco (oldest Daoist temple?).

1857: Sze-Yap Temple founded in San Francisco (first Buddhist temple) (SF)

Oct. 9, 1890-Sep. 27, 1944: Aimee Semple McPherson (LA)

1889: Temple Beth Sholom founded in San Leandro (oldest standing synagogue)

1900: The ‘Old Temple’ founded in San Francisco (first Hindu temple) (SF)

Apr. 9, 1906-1915: The Azusa Street Revival (LA)

Apr. 18, 1906: 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Oct. 24, 1912: Gurdwara Sahib Stockton founded in Stockton (first Sikh temple)

March 31, 1927-April 23rd, 1993: Caesar Chavez

1947: Founding of Fuller Theological Seminary

1949: Billy Graham’s Los Angeles Crusade

1952: Islamic Center of Southern California established (oldest mosque in California?)

1962: Graduate Theological Union (GTU) founded in Berkeley 

1964: The Council on Religion and the Homosexual (i.e. beginning of the California Gay Rights Movement) (SF) 

1965: Founding of the John Coltrane Church (N.L. Baham III,The Coltrane Church) (SF)

July, 1965: Jim Jones moves The Peoples Temple to Redwood Valley, CA 

Apr. 30, 1966: Founding of the Church of Satan by Anton LaVey (SF)

1968: The ‘Gold Base’ headquarters for the Church of Scientology founded in San Jacinto (LA)

February 15, 1968: Caesar Chavez begins his 25-day water-only fast in Delano

1970: Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple open buildings in San Francisco and Los Angeles (SF) (LA)

March, 1997: Heaven’s Gate suicide (Heaven’s Gate’s website) (SD)

May 21st, 2011: Harold Camping’s predicted day for the return of Christ

Online Resources:


California Pluralism Project

USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture

Clifton L. Holland’s ‘An Overview of Religion in Los Angeles from 1850 to 1930′


Eldon G. Ernst, ‘The Emergence of California in American Religious Historiography’


Theology and California: Theological Reflections on California’s Culture


Boom: A Journal of California

Pete Enns discusses the Book of Job

Every time I teach the Book of Job (I do this to close my class on the Hebrew Bible), it inches closer and closer to being my favorite book of the Hebrew Bible (if not the Bible—Christian Bible—as a whole). Pete Enns has a wonderful discussion that I’d highly recommend as I continue to believe that the theology of the Book of Job is some of the best theology (by poking at bad theology). Listen here: Episode 133 – The Book of Job.

Grace Cathedral’s Forum

Many years ago, I heard N.T Wright and Anne Rice at The Forum at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. (Thankfully, there’s evidence of this session on another blog, because who would imagine Wright and Rice as a pairing.) If I remember correctly, I may have heard Brian McLaren there as well. This week I rediscovered The Forum via their podcast episodes (iTunes; Spotify). They have some great episodes available. I’ve listened to the interview with Dr. Grace Kao, Professor of Ethics at the Claremont School of Theology and co-director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender and Religion, talk with the Dean of Grace Cathedral, Malcolm Clemens Young, ‘about individualism and inequality, solidarity and the common good, and discerning a sense of the global common good in a time of crisis.’ Also, the one with Dr. Wendy Doniger, about Hinduism and her book (which I’ve been ready slowly for a while now), The Hindus: An Alternative History. Next up: Dr. Christine Carter on ‘the New Adolescence’ and Dr. Katherine Sonderegger on Christian Systematic Theology.

By the way, how does one get a job as Dean of a Cathedral? I think going to work at Grace Cathedral every day, with that view of San Francisco, and with a job to facilitate discussions like these, sounds like a dream!