Problematizing “Religion”: A Contested Term in Religious Studies

The notion of “religion” is a contentious term and category (1) that has invited criticism (2) and debate (3). There are two views noted in this article. One is that “religion” has a certain (problematic) history in that the term did not appear out of thin air, but emerged within colonial histories of White European Protestant Christian traditions (4). Another view problematizing “religion” is that it lacks an essence and becomes meaningless, leading critics to argue that the term should be jettisoned altogether. We will briefly consider both views. Regarding the former view of “religion” and its connection to its colonial routes, Kathryn Lofton writes that,

“Religion as a description of human behavior was created through colonialism and its governments, its sciences, and its theologies. To be trained as a scholar of religious studies is then to practice a postcolonial methodology of a profoundly colonial subject” (5).

Some critics argue that to study religion is not to study a ‘thing’ in itself, which exists across humanity as a universal, but to study how particular ideas (and discourses) of “religion” are practiced and operationalized in various contexts. The notion of religion that can be applied in most contexts across the world is the result of European colonial rule (6).

This perspective argues against the traditional and common assumption that there are objects in the world to which the category of religion points that can be described and analyzed. To use the term “religion” traditionally, as corresponding to how the world is, is itself a power formation serving specific interests into which modern scholars have been indoctrinated and their critical faculties disabled. It is the category of religion and its various discursive deployments that require attention.

These ideas have been embraced by decolonial scholars of religion. On the more radical end, decolonial scholars want to overturn the current paradigm of religious studies in that if it undergoes successful decolonization, only very little of the discipline would be left. This would require transforming the syllabus, getting rid of the classical Western theorists in religion and sociology, including historically marginalized and oppressed voices of persons of color and women, and more. The “soft” version of decolonization attempts to iron out the most ostensible signs and tenets of colonialism in the discipline, but it still keeps intact the discipline’s terminology, disciplinary structure, and academic power structures. Both approaches seek to problematize the term “religion” by bringing to our attention its colonial origins, assumptions, and how it has privileged certain (Eurocentric and Western) notions of “religion” over and above that of others, or Others. These theorists note how religion is a power category that constructs a world and our apprehensions.

But some theorists object to these justifications for eliminating “religion” from our vocabulary. Scholar of religion Ivan Strenski counters that the term “religion” is hardly unique in this regard. He notes that “religion” can indeed be used as an appropriate cross-cultural term: “It is no answer to say that because a term has a particular origin it is disqualified from serving as a good cross-cultural comparative term. After all, every term has some particular historical origins” (7).

Another argument that critics of the term “religion” have forwarded is that “religion” either lacks an essence or the term becomes meaningless because it attempts to include too many items. Scholar Timothy Fitzgerald objects these lines,

“The idea that as researchers we can simply decide what we intend to mean by religion is an illusion. Many people in various disciplines have tried to give religion a scholarly definition, and many of them are contradictory. In the wider public discourse, religion is in fact deployed to include such a wide range of practices that it ceases to have any specific meaning. Even theories of socialism have been consigned to the religion category. If religion can mean anything, then it means nothing” (8).

Another theorist to argue similarly is the anthropologist Talal Asad who has attempted to eliminate the term “religion” from all usage. In his view, “religion” is without content or reference. To use “religion” to point objects out in the world will either result in us ending up with no object at all or too many objects that will reduce us to confusion. Asad argues that “religion” is not an empirical object like is a car or a table (9), but rather a vast category like politics, art, or culture used to organize the data of experience.

The category of “religion” is itself contentious as it can be debated to no end what items should be placed within it. Further, what we put into this category of “religion” will also depend on culture and context. Some cultures might share similarities to a (Western) concept of religion whereas others might not. 

There is also the claim that our concept of “religion” inundates us with too many items. As a critic might point out, has religion to do with God, gods, or goddesses? Or is it primarily about feeling, as Friedrich Schleiermacher would argue, or to do with the imminently social (Emile Durkheim)? What about religions without a creator God like Daoism or Buddhism? Is religion exclusively about “belief in Spiritual Beings,” as E. B. Tylor would have it, or with moral sensibility (according to Immanuel Kant)? Can the singular category of “religion” apply equally and universally between, say, the Confucians and the Australian aborigines? Thus, as Asad argues, religion does not point at any one object item in the world, which renders it problematic to employ to study the world. It might be better just to talk about Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, etc., and abandon the term “religion.”

But Strenski objects. He does observe some value in Asad’s criticisms of “religion” (10). For example, Asad is correct to urge scholars to think critically about the analytical category we call “religion.” It is because of such criticism that many scholars have moved away from defining religion simply as “belief in God.” Asad has encouraged scholars to widen their scope by asking them to pay attention to certain aspects of religious life, such as emotions and bodily practices, and other overlooked features of religious life.

Asad (and others) also encourages scholars to look critically at how we might construct others by how we define and conceive of religion. For example, when Others do not conform to our Western and Eurocentric definition of religion, why do we brand them as practicing “magic” or “superstition”? Asad invites us to ask such questions.

But as Strenki argues, Asad is inconsistent (11). On one hand, he advocates an eliminationist view of eliminating “religion” from usage altogether. But on other occasions, he takes a reformist line in proposing that we reform our concept of religion. Strenski argues that one cannot have it both ways. Either one is an eliminationist or a reformist. Regarding the category of religion naming too many things to be of any use, Strenski counters,

“I think, students of religion need to tread carefully. We can agree that the term “religion” covers a good deal of territory overlapping with other disciplines. Its definition shifts as need require… Actually, the study of religion is not alone in holding to concepts and terminology that may fail Descartes’ geometric test of being “clear and distinct.” Does “culture,” claimed by anthropology as its own turf, have such a model of clarity and distinctness? What of history which declares itself dedicated to the study of the “past”? All of the past, everywhere, and under any aspect? Or what, finally, of philosophy, a discipline that often claims as its mark of distinction that it “reflects upon” reality? “Reflects,” really? Doesn’t that make us all philosophers? And if so, therefore none of us?” (12)

Strenski then turns the argument against Asad,

“And what, finally, of the concept of “power,” so central to Asad’s entire project? Borrowed from Foucault, the use of power has been subject to the same logical and historical criticism as has religion or art or politics, or language, and so on. “Religion,” thus suffers the same disabilities in this regard as all the main categories of the humanities. Perhaps we should than Asad and others for reminding us of that… Not being attached to religious studies, Asad risks nothing in asking us to declare our discipline empty of content. Let him first similarly eliminate what is for him a key, but highly conflicted and vague concept, like “power” before he asks us to eliminate “religion”” (13).

Strenski agrees that we should have a critical attitude about the categories we use. But this is different from committing “disciplinary suicide” by eliminating the term “religion,” as Asad wants.


1. Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. 1991. The Meaning and End of Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

2. Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. 1991. Ibid.; Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

3. McCutcheon, Russell T. 1997. Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. New York: Oxford University Press; Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2000. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. Sheffield: Equinox; Arnal, William E., and McCutcheon, Russell T. 2012. “Maps of Nothing in Particular: Religion as a Cross-Cultural Taxon.” In The Sacred Is the Profane, edited by William Arnal and Russell T. McCutcheon, 102-113. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2015. “Critical Religion and Critical Research on Religion: Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Critical Research on Religion 3(3):303-319. 

4. Nongbri, Brent. 2013. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. New Haven: Yale University Press. 

5. Lofton, Kathryn. 2012. “Religious History as Religious Studies.” Religion 42(3):383-394. p. 384.

6. Nongbri, Brent. 2013. Ibid.

7. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 244 (ebook format).

8. Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2015. “Critical religion and critical research on religion: Religion and politics as modern fictions.” Critical Research on Religion 3(3):303-319.

9. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 233 (ebook format).

10. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 237 (ebook format). 

11. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 231-234 (ebook format). 

12. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 238 (ebook format). 

13. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 238 (ebook format).



  1. Zachariah’s book from the old testament could describe religion as a basket, he said within the basket is a prostitute that was worshipped because of sin – it could also be said that the Church/religions benefit from our conscience – not that conscience is a bad thing – but why all the gold, government and prestige of an intuition?

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