Defining Religions is a book written by Arthur L. Griel that explores the western folk concept and the meaning of “religion”. It analyzes key aspects, as well various interpretations of religion by other societies – not just the West. Also giving the readers definitions of the two types of religion (substantive and functional), it mentions religions history as well as the challenges and controversy of attempting to define it. Having started from Protestant Christianity, the western folk concept assumes religion to have several distinct aspects; these include religion constituting of an “institutional sphere” and having an element of transcendence. It should also include “sanctioned dichotomy” between the normal and paranormal, having individuals as members of a singular religion as well as belonging to a specific creed in common. However, in my opinion, the western folk concept is very exclusive and tends to narrow out societies with different views as they don’t follow the same aspects. For example, the idea of religion in some non-western societies may be absent or may not be embraced as singular, and some cultures may not view belief as significant or may not make distinctions between the normal and paranormal -such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
Also, in addition to this, there are several connections that I found in the reading. One of them being the relation between the two types of definitions of religion – substantive and functional. Although substantive definitions view religion “in terms of characteristics… shared by all religions”, and functional definitions identify religion as “anything that performs the function which the definer attributes to religion”, they both approach religion as “an entity that exists independently of human interaction and social definition”. I also think that the history of the word “religion” and one of the challenges to define it also correlate. In my opinion, the challenge of the diversity of the phenomena is due to the history of the word itself. Religion or religion originated in Rome, and its concept began to change over the years. For example, when Europeans began to spread out throughout the world, they noticed “a whole cacophony of different cultural expressions”, which I think could explain religions diversity. This is because they soon came to understand religion as “different manifestations of a fundamental aspect of human nature,” not just Christianity. Although there are many connections in the reading, the main point that the author argues is that religion involves the exercise of power, corresponding and serving the interests of powerful groups; this can be proven by the authority of the Reformation that challenged the Catholic Church, the imperialist expansion of Europe over other parts of the world as well as the terms exclusive use to fit Christianity. First of all, the argument that religion involves the exercise of power, corresponding and serving the interests of powerful groups can be justified by the Reformation that challenged the “hegemony of the Catholic Church”. It seems to me that the reading shows the exertion of power as when “Europe began to take shape, the reformation in late medieval and early modern Europe… excluded much religious practice that had previously been accepted as Christian… the inquisition, heresy trials, and witchcraft accusations were… part of a sustained attempt to consolidate religious power in the hands of those authorized to possess it”.
In my opinion, not only was the power over the Catholic Church by the Reformation exerted through excluding certain practices, but also through the implementation of specific measures to control others (e.g. heresy trials). At the time, people were ordered to follow religious authority and were not free to practice their unique beliefs – such as practicing magic. Not only that, but propriety and respect were stressed when it came to religion, and policies and practices were imposed. This process demonstrates how religion corresponded and served the interests of powerful groups. In my perspective, as time changed, so did the ideologies and concepts that people had regarding religion – but the implementation of power always remained a factor. For example, new social, political and cultural order is what lead to the Reformation in the first place – which indicates the notion of religion changing as time changed.
Another point that proves the thesis would be the imperialist expansion that took place after the rise of the new secular state in Europe. An example of this from the reading would be: “As Europeans spread out to dominate other parts of the world… (they) occupied a position of power in relation to the rest of the world, the European category of religion was… one of the many things …other cultures had to adapt”. It is clear from this passage that Europeans were a powerful group of people that spread out and coerced others to follow their tradition – which was a very Christian concept. I observed that the Europeans (at first) failed to recognize that there were alternate variations and cultural expressions. In my opinion, this is a flaw in the western folk conception as it excludes other traditions, separating “religious” people from the “savages”. However, it does not surprise me as religion includes a factor of power corresponding to the interests of authoritative groups – which in this case were the imperialist Europeans. Lastly, the terms unshared use to fit Christianity points back to the fact that religion served and corresponded to the interest of powerful groups. In this case, it would be the Catholic Church and the Christians. A concrete example of this would be “the study of religion has…started from the perspective of the western folk concept of religion… the prototype for this conception is Protestant Christianity”. This indicates that as Christians became powerful in Rome, they used religion as a way to alienate the religious from the superstitious, or religion from the superstition.
From my perspective, being a part of the Church was a way for the Roman Christians to show that their devotion to God as joining a monastery was considered as “entering religion”. Not only that, but the Catholic Church played a huge role in what was constituted as religious practice – showing that there is certainly an element of power involved when it comes to religion. Therefore, the Reformations authority that challenged the Catholic Church, the imperialist expansion of the Europeans after the rise of the secular state and the term religions exclusive use to fit Christianity all lead to the argument that religion involves the exercise of power, corresponding and serving the interests of powerful groups.