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On (not) defining (non)religion

On (not) defining (non)religion

Jonathan Jong

Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, 64 Banbury Road, OX2 6PN, Oxford, United Kingdom.



 Social scientific research on religion (and related phenomena, including nonreligion, atheism, and secularity) is invariably prefaced by sheepish attempts to define these terms, followed by apologies for the inevitable inadequacy of the proposed definitions. This paper argues that scholars of religion and nonreligion should accept the fact that “religion” and “nonreligion” are, like all social scientific concepts (and some biological ones), fuzzy categories. There is no such thing as religion, such that the term “religion” picks out all and only all examples of religion, or specifies the necessary and sufficient conditions for counting as religious. Rather, there are causally and phenomenologically distinct phenomena—such as the belief in supernatural agents, participation in rituals, formation of non-kin groups, obedience to moral codes, and so forth—that variously co-occur in packages we intuitively label as particular religions. Furthermore, these distinct phenomena are also present among ostensibly nonreligious (or secular) individuals and groups. Scholars of religion and nonreligion should therefore all but abandon the terms “religion” and “nonreligion”, and with them the clichéd definitional handwringing that typically comes with attempts at defining these terms. At best, they may retain their social functions—in names of departments, scholarly organizations, conferences, and journals, for example—but they have no legitimate scientific use.


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Science, Religion and Culture


Vol. 5, Sp. Iss. 1 Pages 1-82


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