religion_defined - DEFINING RELIGION A PLURALISTIC APPROACH...

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DEFINING RELIGION: A PLURALISTIC APPROACH FOR THE GLOBAL AGE Frank J. Lechner Department of Sociology Emory University Atlanta, GA 30322 [email protected] Draft prepared for presentation at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion meeting, Houston, October 2000. This paper draws on material presented at previous SSSR (1997) and ASR (1998) meetings. Please do not quote without permission.
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2 --That prejudice [that the idea of religion is universally valid] is not confined to missionaries; it is part of Euro-American civilization and modern culture . . . . religion does not seem to constitute a meaningful, let alone a universal category that may be studied profitably by itself. (Frits Staal, 1998: 67, 75) --[T]he task of identifying the essence or universal core of religion has largely been a failure, considering the lack of consensus among scholars. (Benson Saler, 2000: x) Defining Religion: The Questions 1. What definition of religion do I use? Instead of arguing for the virtues of one definition, I advocate a pluralistic approach. Since scholars have failed for over a century to settle on a single definition of religion as a distinct phenomenon with a universal core, attempting to establish such a definition at this late date is bound to fail. In scholarly practice, different definitions operate as tools within various fruitful research ventures, so it makes pragmatic sense to examine the benefits to be gained from following different definitional strategies. From a sociological standpoint, such a pluralistic approach promises to be more useful in addressing an important contemporary problem, namely how particular groups with different traditions contribute and respond to globalization. If meaningful responses to globalization are likely to take different forms instead of crystallizing into one set of shared sacred symbols, as one influential perspective on the subject suggests, then pluralism would seem to fit the demands of the global age. At the same time, as I explain below, a fairly conventional “substantive” definition of religion offers one powerful entry point into the predicaments of the global age. This substantivist allegiance tempers my pluralism. 2. What phenomena does this include/exclude? The point of advocating pluralism is to be cognitively inclusive. In effect, I propose to sidestep familiar controversies about defining
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3 religion because I am interested not in finding the correct way to think about religion but in pursuing the most useful tools for global cultural analysis. At this still-embryonic stage of global analysis, it would be premature to rely exclusively on one definition. 3. Does it really matter how we define religion? As I indicate below, definitions do not matter because they only play a subordinate role in theories, but they also do matter insofar as they structure research agendas. Minimally, then, advocating pluralism in definitions implies the pragmatic judgment that, at this point, the competitive pursuit of distinct agendas will help to maximize our collective cognitive gains.
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