A Cultural Event: Proceedings of the LISOR Project on the Definition of Religion Published

by PierLuigi Zoccatelli


In the mid-1990s, within the Theological Faculty of Leiden the Leiden Institute for the Study of Religion (LISOR) was founded. It started an interdisciplinary, international research program called MTSR (Methods and Theories in the Study of Religion) whose first aim was to re-examine the century-old problem of the definition of religion. Sociologists, historians, theologians, psychologists and others in the field of religious studies were asked to contribute. Although it soon became clear that irreconcilable differences existed, and that no common methodological or theoretical framework was to be found, or even sought, the project went on for a number of years, involving mutual discussions between the participants. Now, it culminates in the publication by Brill (Leiden, 1999) of a book of more than 500 pages, edited by Jan G. Platvoet and Arie L. Molendijk under the title "The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests". This publication is an important cultural and academic event, and the LISOR project will be a reference on the definition of religion for years to come. No short note may do justice to the book’s content, and I will confine myself to outline its structure, emphasizing what is most crucial for the scholar of new religious movements.

Part I (pp. 3-19) is the general introduction by Arie L. Molendijk. The "pragmatic" approach of the project is explained as shared by "most contemporary scholars". This approach is non-essentialist, and denies that such a thing as a ultimate or "true" definition of religion may exist. The project "looks for the usefulness (and not for the truth) of definitions, but also to actual practices, in which definitions are brought into play" (p. 10). The pragmatic instrumentality of proposed definitions is explored in Part II (pp. 21-122), "Modern Contexts", which is the most relevant section for scholars of new religious movements and cult controversies. James Beckford (pp,. 23-40) explores controversies in the United Kingdom, particularly about religious education in schools and the right of the Church of Scientology to advertise as a religion on television. The Independent Television Commission (ITC) policy against Scientology, challenged by the latter in court with some success, would risk, Beckford says, to "encourage the standardisation of religious organisations in a relatively bland, non-challenging and non-controversial form. ‘High demand’ and ‘exclusive’ religious organisations would be, by the same token, driven out of the ‘religious market’ because they would not have access to television - the most powerful medium of publicity" (p. 37). The definition of religion, Beckford concludes, often results in a "public imposition of narrower limits of ‘acceptable’ forms of religion" (p. 39). These problems are further discussed by Massimo Introvigne (pp. 41-72), who also focuses mostly on Scientology, while discussing other historical cases as well. Introvigne states that "the label ‘religion’ is a politically negotiated claim" (p. 47); for instance, the comparatively recent popular idea that a religion should be "benevolent" led to deny the status of religion to organizations such as the Indian Thugs engaged in obviously criminal activities, yet "religious" according to most standards used by historians and ethnologists. Another tool used in order to deny the status of religion to controversial groups has been "the hypnotic paradigm" (p. 49), once applied to Mormonism and later evolved into theories of brainwashing and mind control. Criteria invoked in the Scientology controversies leave the impression "that the selection of a set of criteria, among the many available, is really result-oriented, and governed by an initial feeling that an organisation deserves protection or punishment " (p. 65). On the other hand, self-definition by a group cannot be accepted as a criterion by the authorities, as the patently fraudulent cases of the U.S. "mail-order ministries" confirm. While he favors broader definitions of religion as "perhaps more consistent with the aims of religious liberty" (p. 70), Introvigne’s final list of five recommendations to scholars serving as witnesses in court or before public bodies insists that they "advise institutional actors that there is no such a thing as a ‘true’ essentialist definition of religion" and, rather than recommending definitions, help the authorities to "evaluate the likely results of the legal and administrative use of broader or narrower definitions" (pp. 69-70). Daniele Hervieu-Léger (pp. 73-92) and Jacob A. Belzen (pp. 93-122) have something more to say on possible definitions of religion. Hervieu-Léger thinks that religion rests on the (explicit or implicit) invocation of the authority, and heritage, of a tradition, although its forms may vary. Belzen, writing from a psychological point of view, states that "it is not psychology’s business to define ‘religion’" (p. 121), although psychology may find something experiences regarded as "religious" and/or "spiritual" may have in common between themselves as well as with other experiences.

Part III, "Conceptual Changes" (pp. 123-224) is less immediately connected with contemporary political issues and new religious movements, and is mostly historical. Chapters by Ernst Feil (pp. 125-148) on Wolff and Edelman; by Arie L. Molendijk (pp. 149-171) on Troeltsch; by Wouter W. Belier (pp. 173-206) on Durkheim and the group of the Année Sociologique; by David M. Wulff (pp. 207-224) on the historical development of psychology of religion, confirm that scholarly definitions of religion progressively expanded by rejecting first a necessary connection of religion with a belief in a personal God, then a connection with obligatory practices and rituals. Part IV, "Methodological Issues" (pp. 225-333), seeks to show that the pragmatic and non-essentialist approach is not necessarily relativistic in the worst sense of the term, nor is it premised on a non-existing "essential indefinability", as Hendrik Johann Adriaanse (pp. 2227-244) explains. Although they present very different opinions and "preliminary definitions" - with Adriaanse being among the few contributors going back to a definition involving "God or the gods" (p. 243) -, Jan G. Platvoet (pp. 245-265), James L. Cox (pp. 267-284), André F. Droogers (pp. 285-312) and Jan A.M. Snoek (pp. 313-333) agree that the fact that definitions are not photographs of the "true" situation but provisional epistemological tools should not prevent scholars from using them (and perhaps using many of them at the same time). This, in turn, allows for Part V, "Definition Proposals" (pp. 335-459), where proposals for using, although in an "anti-hegemonic" spirit, some of such tools are offered. Wouter J. Hanegraaff (pp. 337-378) offers a very useful survey, although necessarily through samples, of how "an ever-increasing proliferation of comparative definitions" has been produced, "without there being much evidence of an emerging consensus or cumulative argument" (p. 340). Considering inter alia the secularization debate and the New Age, Hanegraaff distinguishes, within a general category of "religion", between religions and spiritualities. The former include "any symbolic system, embodied in a social institution, which influences human action by providing possibilities for ritually maintaining contact between the everyday word and a more general meta-empirical framework of meaning". A spirituality, on the>other hand, is "any human practice which maintains contact between the everyday word and a more general meta-empirical framework of meaning by way of the individual manipulation of symbolic systems" (p. 372). Peter Byrne (pp. 379-396) proposes a Kantian tool which insists on religion as a system enabling human beings to cope with evil, and Meerten B. ter Borg (pp. 397-408) sees religion as a way to overcome human finiteness by postulating "something" transcending this finiteness. Jeppe Sinding Jensen (pp. 409-431) criticizes Clifford Geertz’s definition, and offers a "semantic" definition linking religion to "the existence of counter-intuitive supernatural entities as referents of these semantic universes and [the idea] that these entities are able to enter (as is believed) into reciprocal relations with humans" (p. 428). Hetty Zock (pp. 433-459), criticizing some concepts of religion in the psychoanalitical tradition, explores "faith" and a possible definition of religion as "the realization of faith".

Jan G. Platvoet argues in the "Epilogue" (pp. 464-516) that "a pragmatic, anti-essentialist, and anti-hegemonic approach to defining ‘religion’ and ‘religions’" (p. 464) defines the science(s) of religion as science(s). Scholars should "shift from the hegemonic search for the one essential definition of ‘religion’ to the humble business of developing many modest ‘operational’ ones that are explicitly instrumental, pragmatic, revisable, and non-hegemonic" (p. 511). This will not solve all the problems of "political economy" (p. 512) but may at least debunk some manipulative use of the "religious" label in order to discriminate against unpopular minorities.

Work in this and related field, of course, remains to be done. Although Hanegraaff's contribution offers an interesting starting point (which may be used, in my personal opinion, in order to relate magic to certain "spiritualities") , there is not much in the book about whether a distinction between religion and magic is an operational tool worth being maintained, and whether esotericism or what I have called elsewhere the "esoteric paradigm" is a form of religion or something different (perhaps to be related - or so I would suggest - to what Hanegraaff calls a "non-institutional form of religion": p. 375). What is important, however, is to understand that even these distinctions are mere tools to be interpreted in a non-essentialist context. Hanegraaff's "esoteric brotherhoods" can, and probably should, be recognized as religions when they ask to be protected by international provisions on religious liberty against a discriminatory regime, while their specific differences may (and probably should) be emphasized in an academic course on the history of esotericism. Methodologically, the LISOR project establishes at any rate boundaries which will prove very difficult to be crossed in the future by any attempt to return to essentialist definitions, both in the academic and the extra-academic field. It is in this sense that the publication of the book is a significant cultural event for everybody involved in the study (or, indeed, the practice) of religion.

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