Adequacy of the Concept of Religion

In The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to Religious Traditions of Mankind[i], Wilfred Cantwell Smith is often insightful and thought-provoking, but his aim to prove that the term “religion” is somehow inadequate and even misleading seems futile. If this is only the reader’s first reaction to Smith’s thesis, the reader’s initial skepticism is later confirmed as Smith, though intelligent and logical in his approach, ultimately succumbs to the shear difficulty of the task he initially sets out for himself. Nevertheless, the reader can still appreciate Smith’s contribution to the theory of religion.

Smith is somewhat successful in problematizing “religion.” To begin with, he posits that “to be a participant in a religious movement is to recognize that that movement points to something or Someone beyond itself” (Smith, 118). In his typical thought-provoking manner he also puts forth that “a religious tradition has no meaning unless it enables those within it to see something that those without do not see” (Smith, 118). It seems reasonable enough to assume that transcendence is a defining characteristic of any religion, and that such transcendence is unique to those who experience it. Smith then quite rightly points out that “there is a difference between knowing a doctrine of salvation, and being saved” (Smith, 122), suggesting that the observation of religious behavior by outsiders is always incomplete. One can indeed appreciate the inherent limitations of outside observation when it comes to analyzing and comprehending religious transcendence. Arguably, too, the element of transcendence is central to religious behavior, so this observational limitation is not a minor one for the student of religion. From this lack of observational capability, Smith concludes, when we speak of “religion,” as outsiders we are in fact referring merely to the physically observable part of religious behavior. To Smith, the term “religious” has come to encompass the cumulative history of every observable aspect of religious life, with the exception of the very thing that defines religion as such, the transcendent:  “the observer’s concept of a religion is by definition constituted of what can be observed. Yet the whole pith and substance of religious life lies in its relations to what cannot be observed” (Smith, 124). Smith concludes that the term “religion” is therefore inadequate, since it cannot do justice to the phenomenon it purports to designate.

Smith makes an interesting case, but as I see it there are several fundamental problems with his argument. Firstly, to suit his argument Smith constricts the student of religion’s view of things to an unreasonably narrow specter. From reading Smith, one might conclude that the outside observer of religious behavior has no ability whatsoever to grasp the transcendent element no matter how hard s/he tries. For Smith, “the observer by the very fact of being an outsider, a non-acceptor of the context, has ruled out its transcendent quality in theory a priori” (smith, 124). But is this a fair depiction of the state of religious studies today? In light of our natural human tendency to engage in religious behavior, pointing as it does towards some inherent human attraction to the transcendent that even the outside observer may be sensitive too, does it not seem unreasonable for Smith to conclude that an outside observer of religious behavior can’t at least catch a glimpse of the transcendence experienced by the subjects observed? Is this not as false as stating that no white man can really understand racial prejudice against black people, even though the white man may himself from time to time encounter prejudice, albeit perhaps in a different form?

Another significant problem with Smith’s argument is its self-contradicting nature. In trying to demonstrate how the outside observer is strictly focused on context, and therefore misses the point entirely, Smith himself engages in the following elaborate description of what it means to be a Muslim, that is to say a follower of a religion to which Smith himself is an outside observer: “The commands of God … for the Muslim himself, in accord with the degree of vitality of his faith, rather liberate that behavior. They free it from the confines of purely human floundering and the ignorance of mundane device; and elevate it to a quite new plane – the in one sense unbounded, certainly eternal plane of cosmic appropriateness and validity” (Smith, 125). If Smith as an outsider observer of Islam has, as his theory suggests, a priori ruled out the transcendent quality of Islam, how then did he arrive at the above degree of insight into the transcendent effect of the commands of God on Muslims?


[i] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion : A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind (New York : Mentor Books, 1962).

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4 thoughts on “Adequacy of the Concept of Religion”

  1. Are you ever going to comment on Father Uwem Akpan’s book? You know, fiction created by a Catholic priest? You had my book before Oprah picked it for her book club? Connections!

  2. It seems that “religion” can indeed be used as a reasonable label for the outside observer/ student. Insofar as religious people are people, non-religious people (or, indeed, nonmembers of a given religion) can understand their thinking and their beliefs to some degree or another. The point is that it is possible, not impossible as Smith seems to think, simply because we are dealing with other people and the package of beliefs and emotions that comes with being a person.

    On a related point, I have heard an interesting critique of the idea of “religion” go something like this: from a western perspective, if we define it too narrowly (in both its substantive and superficial qualities), we risk leaving out such things as Taoism or Confucianism, which we typically consider to be religions in one way or another.

    However, if we define it too broadly so as to encompass those traditions, we risk watering the term down such that any philosophical school of thought suddenly becomes a “religion.”

  3. Dear Securalist,

    I obviously agree with your remarks on W. C. Smith – I too struggle with his total discounting of the student’s ability to grasp any hint of the religious meaning experienced by others. Regarding your second point, you are right to point out this problem of perspective when attempting to understand or define the concept “religion.” Many Western theorists have indeed been guilty of superimposing distinctly Christian concepts onto other cultures where they do not apply. One example that comes to mind is Colonel Olcott’s application of the concept of “belief” to Sri Lankan Buddhists in the 19th century (see “The Buddhist Catechism” by H. S. Olcott, 1881).

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