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Religion as a Grab Bag Concept

February 1, 2010

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2010 12:53 am

    But are there not some -some- common threads between most -most- religions? I definitely understand the exercise described here but at the same time can’t we come up with some general concepts that do pertain to a great many religious traditions?

    Perhaps they would be extremely generic, like: “religions propose a ideological framework contrary to, or at the bare minimum deviating slightly from, materialism”, or maybe “religions profess to maintain a set of moral precepts.”


    I suppose such generalizations aren’t all that helpful (if even fully correct).

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 2, 2010 8:41 am

    I agree that we could make relatively general statements like those—with the appropriate qualifications, of course. And of course that’s exactly what I do in my course. “Most of those traditions we call religious tend to do these sorts of things ….” But those statements don’t distinguish religion from other things, like nationalism, for instance.

    Like the crap in the grab bag: it’s all made up of molecules. That generalization would be true, but it wouldn’t distinguish what’s in the bag from what’s outside the bag.

  3. tom c. permalink
    February 3, 2010 9:04 am

    I can see the appeal of the grab bag analogy, and I can imagine stealing it, too, to use in the first or second week of an intro class to illustrate some problems with defining “religion”. The problem as I see it is that each of the items you placed in the bag could legitimately be placed in other bags, with like objects. It is only after (perhaps questionable) interpretation that we have “religions” to collect under the general concept. The items in your grab bag don’t fit because of their obvious fit somewhere else; items that fall under the conventional concept of religion can be shown not to fit (or to fit with each other) only with further analysis.

    p.s. I like the blog! I found it somehow a few weeks ago.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 3, 2010 10:31 am

    Hi Tom; glad you like the blog!

    I think I would disagree with what you’re saying, if I understand you right. I don’t think that the things that fall under the concept of religion don’t fit elsewhere. Some of the stuff we put in the “nationalism” bag is for all practical purposes identical to the stuff we put in the “religion” bag, and vice versa.

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