22 Feb 2023 Rethinking the concept of religion in a post-secular age
The phenomenon of religion has been my field of scholarly interest and research for the past four decades. My interest has been particularly in the interaction of religion, media and culture, a topic which over that time has become a significant new field of interdisciplinary research.
A major factor in the development and productivity of the field has been a shift away from thinking about religion solely as the formal beliefs and rituals and media practices of traditional religious institutions, towards a more functional understanding of religion that focuses on what people actually believe and practice in their daily lives and how media change and development are a part of that.
It is clear that for scholars working in the field, finding a name to describe this broader range of phenomena now being investigated has been problematic and elusive. The concepts put forward include pseudo-religion, privatised religion, mediatised religion, implicit religion, invisible religion, nature spirituality, esotericism, the secular-sacred, functionally religious, virtually religious, virtual sacred, religion-like, spiritual but not religious, and religious unaffiliated.
While these concepts go beyond the scope of traditional understandings of what religion is, they still consider and identify what is being studied as “religion” – the word religion or religious appears in almost every title. This broadening of the concept of religion to include a potentially unlimited range of human phenomena is producing a situation where it has become difficult to pin down exactly what the disciplinary parameters of this study of religion now are. What phenomena now qualify or don’t qualify as “religious,” on what basis, and in what ways if any are these newly considered religious or religion-like phenomena different from what the discipline of Cultural Studies calls culture, meaning-making or ritual or what psychology might call disconnection from reality or delusion? This broadening of the boundaries of what can be considered religion has led at least one scholar to express his exasperation at the situation:
“The question we are facing as scholars is no longer, What is religion? but in these terms, What isn’t religion? One finds in the published work of scholars working within religion departments the term ‘religion’ being used to refer to such diverse institutions as totems . . . Christmas cakes, nature, the value of hierarchy, vegetarianism, witchcraft, veneration of the Emperor, the Rights of Man, supernatural technology possession, amulets, charms, the tea ceremony, ethics, ritual in general, The Imperial Rescript of Education, the motor show, salvation, Marxism, Maoism, Freudianism, marriage, gift exchange, and so on. There is not much within culture which cannot be included as religion.” (Schilbrack, 2013)
Historians such as Toulmin (Toulmin, 1990) among others, locate this problem of defining the nature and scope of religion has historical roots in the bloody religious wars fought in Europe during the 16th century. The destructiveness and traumas of these recurring wars over conflicting, unprovable doctrines provoked a search for how society may be differently conceptualized and organized to contain or avoid these ongoing conflicts between differing religious interests. One major solution was to find a way to separate the so-called secular from the so-called religious, the concrete things of “this world” from the abstract things of “the other world.” This dualistic approach was drawn from Roman Catholicism, which at the time distinguished between life and activity within a monastery or religious order (the religious life) compared to life in the world (the secular life). A person who left or worked outside a monastery or religious order was referred to as having become “secularised.”
The ever-expanding discoveries and problem-solving successes in the secular spheres of empirical science and logical positivism, strengthened the attractiveness of the idea of a secular society governed by objective criteria that were more open to public scrutiny and critique, compared to what had been the dominance of religions and their beliefs and structures of authority based on esoteric, unprovable doctrines and world views.
Working out and working with that historical division between the so-called secular and so-called religious realms of life, what Casanova referred to as “new systems of spatial structuration of the spheres” (Casanova, 1994), was the ambit of debate and contest intellectually, legally, politically and socially in the centuries following, not just in grand contests but also at ground level in disagreements between individuals or within communities over the proper place and rights of religion. In her book The impossibility of religious freedom, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan provides a detailed study of the complexity of this dualistic personal, social and legal relationship even for a country like the U.S., whose founding constitution includes a formal statement that the two were to be kept separate (Sullivan, 2005).
It is becoming apparent that this historic dualistic framework by which the secular and religious have been distinguished and managed is showing its inadequacy for our current context. Scientific methodologies and discoveries are themselves challenging the concept of a single empirical materialism. Global media developments are now providing new opportunities for individuals to express their individual differences, beliefs and practices, readily conflating the two in ways that challenge the previous more integrated cultural understandings and structures that managed those differences socially.
These shifts in thinking and practice have progressed to the extent, as Schilbrack has highlighted, that the concept of religion and what is considered religious today is becoming so diverse and broad that it’s losing any real hermeneutical meaning. The inherited dualistic separation of secular and religious is straining at the edges as a framework for distinguishing and describing what is happening to such an extent that it provokes a necessary question: Is it time to explore a different kind of framework that considers the full breadth of human existence on its own terms, rather than trying to fit the broad characteristics of individual and social existence into the constraints of an inherited historic secular/religious duality?”
There are a number of reasons for this reconsideration.
If we simply widen the dualistic concept of religion to incorporate the new ways people are understanding and giving wider expression to vital dimensions of their being and experience that have previously been named religious, we restrict the personal and social options people have to understand these important and formative aspects of their human experience, and gain communal validation for them as a basis for action – without having to associate themselves with or fit themselves into existing religious ideologies and institutions. Not having a readily available social discourse separate from a religious discourse for understanding these important dimensions of human experiences can suppress their importance for individual and social life.
Simply widening the scope of the concept of religion by naming more and more human functions and activities as religious, can also be seen as a colonizing action by broadening the scope of what existing religious bodies and their advocates claim as their domain. This has been shown to have significant consequences on social and economic equality within communities and nations, where the historically promoted importance of “religion” to societies has enabled bodies and individuals that identify themselves as religious to claim rights and privileges that are not accessible to others. My home country, Australia, can provide examples of some of the social implications of this secular/religious confusion.
Though nominally a secular country, religious organisations and their representatives have been intimately involved in the governance of the Australian State from its inception, with some serious consequences. While justifying its initial occupation of the continent under the legal doctrine of terra nullius (that the land did not belong to anyone), the British invasion of Australia was also justified on the religious grounds that it was their Christian duty to save the souls of the indigenous inhabitants who, in their eyes, were seen as godless: even though the indigenous inhabitants had a highly sophisticated and wholistically integrated, conservatorial and cosmic relationship to the skies and the land and its living creatures – past, present and future – for more than 50,000 years. Over the subsequent 200 years, leaders and agents of religion were given rights and involvement in the management of Aboriginal peoples in the interests of the State, which included mass murders of indigenous people and the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and families from their land. In this allocated role, religious leaders and agents employed by the State have perpetrated extensive physical and sexual abuse of Aboriginal women and children, including within the walls of religious institutions.
Organized religion in Australia has continued to occupy and be given a privileged place and recognition in otherwise secular activities. Religious leaders are regularly invited to ask God’s blessing on such things as the opening of parliaments, local council meetings and war memorial celebrations and continue to be employed as chaplains by numerous education, social and industry organisations, some of which are funded by the State. Until recently, religious leaders, by virtue of their church authorization, had basically a legal monopoly for performing marriages on behalf of the State and until just recently used that privileged role to reject and fight against the legal recognition of marriage of homosexual couples because it contradicted selective religious doctrines.
This privileged recognition given to religious institutions has significantly declined in recent decades – less than 10 per cent of citizens now attend a religious service at least once a month and in eighty percent of marriages people now choose a civil celebrant. Yet governments continue to give taxpayer money to religious organisations to run separate education systems, even though their additional high fees put their publicly subsidised education beyond the reach of the majority of Australians. In a number of recent cases, a number of these publicly subsidised, religion-owned education institutions have ignored sex discrimination legislation and prohibited the enrolment in their schools of trans-gender youth and the employment of gay teachers. Religious organisations are similarly given public money by the State to run care facilities for the aged, even though those organisations also charge high deposit and operational fees that put them beyond the reach of the majority of the public. Unlike the income of workers and small businesses, the income that religious corporations make from their different enterprises, returns on property rentals and investment portfolios, are exempt from taxation.
Such inequities in social policy are facilitated by a confused importance and historical mandate claimed by religious institutions on the grounds that through their ideologies and activities they are contributing something essential to society that other organisations cannot give.
Could this continued artificial, historically-based division of human life and society into religious or secular be rethought to better reflect the reality?
Reconceptualising the transcendent character of human existence
It is here and in this context that I find resonance with Lagerkvist’s proposition that we need to reaffirm that human existence precedes religion, and that religion needs to be properly understood not as the catchall for anything or everything that has a touch of something ethereal about it, but as just one of the different ways by which humans seek to deal with and express some of the inescapable and ambiguous, but also enriching and demanding transcendent aspects of their human-beingness (Lagerkvist, 2016). I think this reaffirmation and rethinking can be advanced through a number of intellectual and social inquiries.
One is to make explicit the constraints of the hermeneutical framework of secular-religious that we’ve inherited and keep trying to work with.
We need to clarify that in an effort to find a solution to endless wars, divisions and bloodshed caused by religious differences in Europe in the past, an order was established in which the institutions and ideologies of religion were assigned custody and naming rights for particular aspects of human life and social reality that at the time secularists considered at worst disruptive and at least secondary to other aspects of shared public life. As a result, though our world and societies are changing significantly, we are still required to consider and deal with a range of non-empirical but important dimensions of our human existence through the lens and hegemonic discourses of religion, even though those discourses and their associated practices no longer serve the reality and needs of most people. Trying to engage with these new explorations being made by people of these transcendent aspects of being human by expanding the boundaries of “religion,” simply reinforces the unjustified social hegemony of the concept of religion and its associated partisan institutions and interests.
The word “human transcendence” to reframe this may not be the best term to use, but I’m having trouble finding a better one. Sumiala proposes the concept of immanent transcendence to describe situations or experiences we encounter that do not remove us into a separate dimension of life but make us aware of a particular dimension of “otherness” in our everyday material lives (Sumiala, 2013). Bradley and Johnson speak of it as embedded in Australian Indigenous cultures as vitality and supervitality, not as a dichotomy or polar opposites, but as a constant oscillation of relatedness in our everyday being: “of human and non-human, intention and non-intention, social and non-social, moral and amoral, poetic and non-poetic in particular socio-political instances and circumstances.” (Bradley & Johnson, 2015)
We are addressing those physical and social experiences and mental realisations that every human being encounters within everyday life – sometimes as a hint, sometimes as an impact – that lift us beyond the everyday and develop within us a sense of our place and identity within the vastness of universal life, a sense of our own ethical obligations within that vastness, and a basis for enjoying it.
These human experiences can range from the everyday search for meaning and presence that arises in the repetition and routines of our daily lives, to occasional profound, impacting experiences that become seminal in shaping our lives. Religions capitalize on those dynamics within human life as a recruitment device by saying they come from beyond us from a power they can give access to, they occur as part of the physical processes of our human bodies and minds. The occasional, impacting, life-shaping experiences of our transcendent character, variously described as extraordinary, mystical, numinous, metaphysical or simply “something special,” are now being researched empirically, giving valuable insights into the physiological, psychological and social causes and processes of these aspects of our human life. But while we are understanding more about their physical dynamics, I contend that we do not have an equally recognized and accepted alternative language for talking about them socially in terms of their existential significance. If we could find such a discursive expression for these dimensions of human experience, “religion” as we call it would find its proper and legitimate place as just one of several “languages” available to people by which these non-empirical aspects of human existence might be understood and given expression socially.
Developing such a non-religious discourse for talking about these transcendent aspects or character of human life is crucial for resourcing the growing number of people who do not want to associate themselves with religion or reject a religious discourse for any number of legitimate reasons, but for whom there are no readily available alternative social languages to integrate those experiences and their significance without feeling or being branded as having become disconnected or flaky.
Exploring an alternative accessible discourse for talking about the transcendent character of human being rather than a separate religious aspect of our life is important also because it challenges a reductionist view of secularization commonly used by religious apologists: that the consequence of expanding secularization is shallow materialism, or that seeking to find a logical, empirical explanation for why or how things happen takes away an appreciation of the magic or wonder of it. The recent scientifically developed telescopic images of multiple galaxies and their characteristics, new discoveries of minute inter-connected forms of life, and increasing awareness of the complexity of the inter-dependence of different forms of inanimate and animate life on this one planet is not reductive, but awe-inspiring and humbling in its complexity and inter-relatedness.
I want to advocate therefore that in non-dualistic terms we recognise, analyse and theorise everyday human reality as comprising not just the empirical practicalities of everyday living, but qualities of transcendent non-empirical imperatives embedded within that everyday: situations we encounter, things we need to deal with and experiences we have at different levels of intensity, that call us out of ourselves; that present or stir within us a realisation that we are part of a reality that is bigger than ourselves and the everyday transient; and that create within us an awareness in passing moments or at a deep level that while being autonomous individuals, we are not entire of ourselves.
While these dimensions emerge within and are contiguous with everyday situations, I suggest they have a number of characteristics, signposts as it were, that make them stand out and noteworthy and inform our ethical behaviour.
One is a sense of giftedness. These are situations or experiences we encounter that are marked by a quality of our being given something that is not of our creation, or effort, or deserving. It is as if it is a gift from life itself, big or small. This sense of giftedness frequently comes through such phenomena as grand or minute encounters with the earth or life as creation; perceptions of innocence, beauty, tranquillity, integration or wholeness; experiences of love, genuine forgiveness, the unexpected kindness of strangers, or the solidarity of communitas. It is those situations or occasions that impact us most decisively or deeply in this way to which we frequently ascribe the term “sacred” – a sacred moment, a sacred place, a sacred experience. These situations or experiences of giftedness commonly evoke within us ethical imperatives and challenges of gratitude, generosity and altruism, respect and reciprocity.
A second dimension of our human existential transcendence is expansion. It is the felt need or imperative that emerges within us to develop, to actualize, to expand, to grow, to continually improve or reach beyond ourselves. The transcendence of such experiences is deeply rooted in the physical drive we inherit through the hormones, genetic material and growth impulses of our human bodies. This transcendent drive to expand is commonly expressed in human activities of invention, creativity, curiosity, experiment, meaningful work, and travel. While many of these are subconscious or automatic, others can be consciously all-consuming.
A third is an inherent sense of obligation: a transcending of a singular focus on ourselves, our own self-survival and self-interest towards thoughtfulness, consideration, understanding, advocacy and at times intentional sacrifice. It develops significantly through the physical and emotional experiences of our socialization and our practical awareness of our interdependence on and reciprocal obligation to others. These are commonly internalized to such an extent that obligation ceases to be a conscious choice and becomes an imperative of duty, kindness, community, activism and destiny that calls us out of ourselves into a larger identity. Though it may at times or often be difficult, inconvenient or even painful, meeting our obligations can be enriching, growing our wisdom and our bond to the earth and the community around us.
A fourth aspect of the transcendent nature of our human existence is threat. In everyday experiences such as sickness, loss, death, disruption, disturbance or disintegration, we become conscious that, for all of our being a unique centre of physiological consciousness and agency, our lives are transient and subject to the external vagaries of physical and social life that demand of us responses beyond what we would otherwise have chosen. Ultimately, it’s encountered in the threat of our own mortality, that transcendent challenge that one day despite our best intentions our physical presence and consciousness will cease to be and life beyond us will carry on, incorporating us into the memory and cells of other living things.
A fifth encounter with the transcendent nature of our physical human existence is the drive to integrate. For some reason, it is not enough for us as homo sapiens animals simply to have immediate, repetitive, sequential or random sensate experiences or thoughts. We feel compelled to link these together into constructed conceptual or narrative connections in order to “make sense” of disparate things or experience them “properly”. Included in these situations and experiences is our shared human drive to develop on a personal imaginative level a sense of identity and direction within a local or global community commonly expressed as our own quest for meaning. The failure to do so successfully often presents us with the transcendental threat of disintegration or anomy and its physical consequences.
In talking about human existential transcendence in this way, it should be apparent that I am not talking about a separate “religious” dimension of life that can be optionally engaged or dispensed with – “I’m a person of faith” or “I’m not religious.” I’m seeking to identify innate qualities of our physical, psychological, social and material being as human animals that need to be addressed in some way, to the same extent as our everyday physical and social needs have to be, if we are to be fully human as we understand it.
How then do we understand religion?
While the concept of religion is a part of this full picture, I find myself in sympathy with those scholars who advocate that widening the concept of religion to include a wider range of other human initiatives or activities of everyday life has become a little anarchic. If the concept and study of religion is to have any analytic value, religion needs to be repositioned as one, and only one, ideological composition and explanation for these transcendent characteristics of our human existence and how they may be understood and addressed.
In that context, I propose a revised working definition of religion.
“Within the context of the physical and transcendent character of life, religion is particular social systems that have developed around the idea that the origin and subsequent functions of the physical universe and its human, animal and plant life, are the consequence of the actions of an unseen, immaterial supreme being or beings, god or gods. The character of these different systems are developed through historical construction and given expression through performance of particular beliefs, interpretations, communities, institutions, rites, practices and ethical proscriptions.”
As a study of religions throughout history reveals, it needs to be noted that while the partisan interests of these different religious ideologies and systems can be beneficial in many ways, they can also be destructive of human welfare and actualization. This understanding of religion gives equal recognition to the fact that those who do not want to associate or identify as “religious” within any particular religious system or ideology for a range of legitimate reasons, have no less currency nor authority regarding their experience of and response to the numinous, transcendent character of their life and its ethical imperatives than those who claim to be religious.
This approach also creates space to give equal recognition to other options apart from the religious for engaging with and giving expression to the transcendent character of human life. These include: the disciplines of science, including human physiology, which engage with human transcendence through sense-making theories of causes and effects; philosophy, which organizes disparate human experience into systems of meaning-making and ethical consequence; the creative arts, which provide verbal and non-verbal avenues for expression of transcending human experience in creative language, music, built environment, painting, dance, and the various virtual realities; the variety of expressive rites, routines, celebrations and rituals which give shared expression and meaning to disparate dimensions of transcendent experience on a personal, familial, networked or group level; and various expressions of a healthy personal acceptance of mystery – not evasive ignorance, but acknowledgment that there are aspects of life itself that we as humans are born into that are greater than we will ever fully comprehend.
Bradley, J. J., & Johnson, S. (2015). “Those old men who sing are our professors”. Songlines: Esoteric knowledge or empirical data. UNESCO Observatory Multi-Disciplinary Journal in the Arts, 4(2), 1–24.
Casanova, J. (1994). Public religions in the modern world. University of Chicago Press.
Lagerkvist, A. (2016). Existential media: Towards a theorization of digital thrownness. New Media and Society, 19, 96–110.
Schilbrack, K. (2013). What isn’t religion? The Journal of Religion, 93, 291–318.
Sullivan, W. F. (2005). The impossibility of religious freedom. Princeton University Press.
Sumiala, J. (2013). Media and ritual: Death, community and everyday life. Routledge.
Toulmin, S. (1990). Cosmopolis: The hidden agenda of modernity. The Free Press.
Peter Horsfield retired as Professor of Communication Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne in 2016. Prior to that he was Dean of the Uniting Church Theological Hall in Melbourne and a member of the International Study Commission on Media, Religion and Culture. His latest publication is From Jesus to the Internet: A History of Christianity and Media (2015).