IV. Culture-Boundedness in the
Definition of Religion

The range of religious variation to which principles of toleration and nondiscrimination were extended was initially quite narrow, embracing only a limited number of Christian denominations and, less equitably, the Jews. The conception of what constituted a religion was premised on this variety of Judaeo-Christian movements. Religion as such was conceived as being virtually synonymous with Christianity, and the experts in religion were theologians who were themselves committed Christians. It was they who traditionally provided the definitions of what constituted religion, and their concepts were inevitably cast in exclusively Christian terms. Theologians’ definitions of religion may be regarded as largely academic, but they have their influence in other more practical spheres, not least in courts of law, sometimes with very unjust results. For example, the absurd result obtained from a legally-adopted narrow, culture-bound definition of religion may be instanced by a case in England as late as 1754, when a judge, Lord Hardwicke, ruled that, although religion was a charitable object, the teaching of Judaism was not, and he ruled that the funds left by a testator for instruction in Judaism should be applied instead to the provision of instruction in Christianity. For the courts at that time, the term “religion” did not include Judaism: it meant only Christianity.

V. Modern Definitions of Religion