Religion as a Grab Bag Concept
I stole this idea from a colleague and used it last week when talking about the definition of the word “religion.”
I told my students that we can’t come up with a technical definitions of “religion” that fits the colloquial use because the colloquial use is a grab bag term: the term “religion” usually groups together dissimilar things.
We can make generalizations about species of animals in a scientific taxonomy because all of the animals in that species share common properties. But those traditions we call “religions” don’t all share common properties.
To illustrate this I took a bag to class and told the students to pretend the bag is a concept that grabs together a number of things in the world. I threw a bunch of books in it. We can make generalizations because all the things grabbed together in that bag/concept are similar: “they are all made of paper,” “they all have words printed on them,” and so on. It wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a definition for “books” that distinguishes the stuff in that concept/bag from other things in the world.
Then I threw in a piece of chalk, the DVD player remote, and a bottle of soda: now we can’t define or make generalizations about what’s in the bag because what’s in the bag is a bunch of dissimilar stuff.
Similarly, I don’t offer a technical definition of religion because we can’t make one that fits the colloquial use of the term. But this means we can’t make many generalizations about those things we call “religions.”
What I like about this is that it doesn’t get into the quasi-mysterious “religion is this mysterious thing that is beyond definition” crap. It’s not that religion is a mysterious thing that can’t be picked up by concepts, it’s that the word is, just as a matter of fact, used to pick up a (relatively) random selection of things.