The Problem of Religion Classification in the Study of Religion

Scholar Rosalind Shaw argues that the categories scholars of religion assign to religions are informed by a Judeo-Christian template and that this template is the lens through which they are judged. She highlights the construction of Africa and African Traditional Religion (ATR) in academic discourse and how the Judeo-Christian template is used for interpreting these. She also argues that religion scholars implicitly ascribe value judgments to their classifications of religions and that they subsume secondary categories beneath primary ones.

Rosalind draws our attention to how scholars categorize religion in academic discourse. Western scholars have and continue to categorize religions when writing about them. For example, religions are typically categorized as “Eastern religion”, “Western religion”, “universal religion”, or “primal religion”, and so on. Categorizing religions raises questions such as how we are to judge what should be included or excluded in these categories. The West tends to bias religious texts and doctrines in its construction of religion. We might think of Edward Burnett Tylor’s (1832-1917) definition of religion as “belief in spiritual beings”, thus privileging belief and doctrine over the many other forms of religion. But is such a view and understanding as Tylor’s of religion universal? Many scholars of religion will argue that it is not and that such a limited definition is problematic to use.

A problem is that categories of religion create “gaps” (data on religions that do not fit into primary categories or have not yet been included in these categories), which leaves religion scholars with two options: they can question the validity of their classification or create additional categories in contrast to our primary categories. Rosalind argues that the latter route is taken in the study of religion, which has led to additional categories of religion being tacked on such as “non-literate religions”, “traditional religions”, “primal religions”, “primitive religions”, etc. Interested primarily in ATR, Rosalind argues that the category of ATR is one such gap and therefore a categorization or invention subsumed under primary categories. These gaps become secondary to the primary categories and are ranked in relation to the primary categories. This raises the problem of value judgments scholars ascribe to categories. 

Sometimes scholars ascribe an essentialist value to religion when they use the terms “traditional” or “primal” in their categories, which could suggest various things. For instance, it could suggest that some religions are a purer form of religion than others that are much younger. This explains attempts by scholars in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to seek after the earliest form of religion assuming that such a form is somehow purer and more authentic than older developed religious traditions. Further, a value judgment is evident in pitting “primal” or “traditional” against “great religious systems” (usually identified as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, among others) in the sense that they have contributed to the latter and are somehow inferior to the more “advanced” religions. “World” or “universal” religions are seen as greater than “primal religions” or “traditional religions”. Scholars ascribe value to their classifications and often rank classifications in relation to their primary categories.

Rosalind draws attention to how the Judeo-Christian worldview became the template by which African religions are judged and spoken about. ATR became defined in comparison to Christianity and Christian assumptions. This has an evolutionary history going back to when Christianity was introduced into Africa by missionaries. Christianity was translated into different cultural and linguistic forms. Some African beliefs and religions were considered by missionaries to be more “translatable” than others, for example, homologies were constructed between Christianity and the Yoruba religion that included God, prayer, and the concept of a mediator between humanity and deity.

Some African religious practices could be substituted such as communion for blood sacrifice. African gods (such as the trickster Esu) were assimilated to ideas of Satan and thus rejected. Other elements of African religion were favored by the missionaries, such as belief in a high God. The early study of African religions was thus informed by Christian missionaries and based on the Judeo-Christian template. The result was the editing, promoting, demoting, electing, privileging, etc. of certain beliefs and ideas over others. Further, as per the Judeo-Christian template, belief and cosmology were given priority over action and practice. Rosalind believes that these classifications of ATR have endured in African religious studies.

Ironically African scholars wanting to “decolonize” the Western perspectives of history and culture continued this Western-centric perspective on African religions. Christian discourse was so present in the discourse on African religion that it was affirmed by African scholars and so it remained that African religions were defined in terms of Judeo-Christian norms. The category of ATR was created by African scholars as a pan-African belief system comparable to Christianity. Thus, rather than challenging the comparison, these scholars ironically affirmed it. Rosalind writes that this classification of ATR remains a “very solid and standardized form of life which remains at least numerically dominant in studies of African religions… Thus, more than one hundred years after missionaries began to search for homologies between Christianity and African religions, what is striking is the extent to which this kind of approach has endured in African religious studies” (2).

Rosalind encourages scholars of religion to interrogate these categories and deconstruct them. She attempts to do so by offering an analysis of Yoruba beliefs and digging beneath them to remove the Christian baggage that they have accumulated since missionaries introduced the Christian religion.


1. Shaw, Rosalind, 1990. “The Invention of ‘African Traditional Religion’.” Journal of Religion in Africa 20(4):339-353.

2. Shaw, Rosalind, 1990. Ibid. p. 346.

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