VI. Ethically Neutral Definitions

Although religion itself is always normative, since each religion differs from others, modern specialists in religious studies (anthropologists, sociologists and comparative religionists) seek to discuss the normative without themselves becoming committed to it. Modem scholars seek to maintain objectivity and ethical neutrality. The development of a thorough-going neutrality in the study of religion has been achieved only slowly, however. Some contemporary studies in comparative religion still betray bias. Even in the social sciences, which are explicitly committed to value-free enquiry, certain prejudices are apparent in work done in the inter-war years. In particular, it was often gratuitously assumed that the course of religious change was analogous to the process of biological evolution, and that the religion of the most advanced nations was necessarily “higher” than that of other peoples. That assumption was readily acceptable to Christian scholars. For others (conspicuously Sir James Frazer) religion was believed to be an evolutionary step on the road from magic to science.

Today it is no longer assumed by scholars that belief in one deity is in some sense a higher form of religion than belief in several deities or none. It is acknowledged that a religion may postulate an anthropomorphic god, some other form of deity, a supreme being, a plurality of spirits or ancestors, a universal principle or law, or some other expression of ultimate belief, such as a “ground of being”. That religious concepts are likely to be more abstract in intellectually more sophisticated cultures and contexts, is not seen as a justification for designating such religions as “higher”.

As scholars became aware of the empirical diversity of religion in different societies, so their conception of what constituted religion had to change, coming increasingly to connote phenomena which had family resemblance rather than shared identity, and which manifested similarities of patterns of behaviour rather than identity of actual substance. The realization dawned that religion could not be defined in terms specific to one particular tradition. Thus, the concrete items that pertained to Christianity, and which, at any earlier stage, had been regarded as essential to the definition of religion were now seen to be merely examples of more general categories which a definition might include. The specification of such concrete elements was superseded by more abstract formulations that embraced a variety of types of beliefs, practices, and institutions which, although far from intrinsically identical, could be regarded as functional equivalents. Once such a conceptualization developed, it was perceived that in every society there were beliefs that transcended known empirical reality, and there were practices designed to bring men into contact or rapport with the supernatural. In most societies there were also people who undertook the special functions associated with this goal. Together, these elements came to be recognized as constituting religion, regardless of the substance of the beliefs, the nature of the actual practices, or the formal status of the functionaries in their service.

VII. Internal Consistency of Belief and Practice