Suppose Pilate had asked Jesus, “What’s this I hear about you being the founder of a new religion?”
We can only imagine such a scenario. Pilate wouldn’t have been able to ask this question. Even if he had, Jesus wouldn’t have known what his interrogator was getting at. The word “religion” wasn’t in their vocabularies; there wasn’t even an Aramaic equivalent. Pilate’s question would have made sense only in a modern context.
The concepts of “religion” and “religions” came to achieve their contemporary meanings in 1799, when a German theologian named Friedrich Schleiermacher published a book that has been translated as On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith has shown in The Meaning and End of Religion (1963), up until that time “religion” (from the Latin, religio) had a variety of other meanings.
Smith wasn’t satisfied with tracing a history of the concept and its meanings. He went further. To him, the evolution of “religion” has been a process of reification, that is, making religion an objective systematic entity that exists outside our minds. And this process has included a series of entities called “religions,” such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the like.
To avoid this reification, Smith suggested that we replace “religion” and “the religions” with “cumulative tradition” and “faith.”
Smith’s recommendation has been hugely ignored. In an ordinary Religious Studies 101 course, a student will still be treated to chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, often preceded by ones on preliterate/tribal/primitive and dead religions. It seems that Smith himself wasn’t immune to the reification bug. Shortly after he wrote his controversial book, he became Director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions; after a decade in that post, he moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he founded Dalhousie University’s Department of—you guessed it—Religion.
Like it or not, we seem to be stuck with these words. But what meaning can we give them?
Without swimming in the swamp of the discussion of definitions of “religion” and “religions”—how Great Thinkers have defined them, how those definitions have failed, what a definition should be—let me dangle a toe in this quagmire. Let me stipulate a pair of definitions.
Religion is the activity (1) in which humans seek liberation from whatever they consider the greatest evil, and (2) in which this liberation is legitimized by a mythology.
Religion is about liberation and legitimation. Or, maintaining the mood of alliteration: religion is about soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and its sanctions.
Religions are variations on this theme.