DANIEL’S BLOG Demarcation and authority: two challenges for religious educators best left open

The question of demarcation appears in most academic disciplines, and indeed, many areas of human endeavour. By what criteria should we separate science from non-science, for example? This is one of the most enduring problems in the philosophy of science, not only because it represents a question of pressing import itself, but because it is also a question which brings into focus further problems in the philosophy of science, such as how scientific knowledge is rightfully achieved, and to what extent that kind of knowledge may represent reality. Two of my favourite questions of demarcation are what should constitute an Olympic sport, and perhaps more controversial, what is the difference between a cake and a pie? Synchronised swimming seems to me to lack many of things required of a sport, whereas tug-of-war, now discontinued, would perhaps better epitomize the Olympian ideal than sailing. Cheesecake, on the other hand, is most definitely a category mistake.


The question of demarcation between the religious and the secular is another perplexing distinction. This is of continued importance to religious education, always there but perhaps raised most obviously by the wit at the back of the class that always proclaims Jedi as his or her religion.


Sociologically, many things take on characteristics of what we would commonly identify as religion. Sport provides opportunities for public ritual, identity, loyalty, and the enhanced emotional mental states of participants and audiences (just observe people watching the World Cup over the next few days). Indeed, the Olympics of classical Greece was religious in a fuller sense than the modern movement, held in honour of the god Zeus in the temple complex of Olympia. When trying extrapolate the necessary features of all religions, scholars have often found that their criteria admit what some may consider as obviously secular, like soviet communism, for example.


Is stadium rock religious or secular? When you consider the background culture from which it emerged, the beliefs of its innovators and the behaviour of its initiates, you could reasonably say it is more the former than the latter. What else would explain such a weird phenomenon? This example brings to the fore another important factor affecting demarcation: that the secular and the religious are relative concepts. By that I mean what you think is one is defined by what you think is the other. For some the idea of stadium rock being religious is ridiculous, for ‘religious’ is neatly defined as commitment to holy orders. (On this definition, a Catholic parish priest is secular in that he does not belong to a religious order, i.e. he is not a monk or friar). However, for the committed atheist, Bono is religious on the account he professes, on occasion, some kind of identification with Christianity. Added to this complexity is that in culture lurk everywhere things that have some oblique connection to religion. Recently, on a budget airline – the most austere and cultureless place I thought I could find – I tested this theory. Looking around me I looked for some traces of religion in the lurid colours, advertising and basic service. At first I thought any implicit religion had been vanquished in favour of ever-decreasing prices. But no, the mineral water was named after a Christian saint and one of the airline’s official charities had religious origins. Finally, as we took an unusually precipitous bump down onto the tarmac, I saw someone sighing, putting their hands together, and looking heavenwards in thanks.


Trying to separate religion from non-religion is a valuable exercise in trying to understand religion, even if we accept there may be fuzzy boundaries. (Just as learning what makes cake, cake and pies, pies may help you to be a better baker). Demarcation is also a useful heuristic to use to understand individual religious movements. What makes Christianity, Christian? Are Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Quakers, Christians? Asking this question brings us to the other concept I wish to introduce and scrutinize in this blog: authority.


Authority and demarcation are always linked. Someone somewhere decides if darts are an Olympic sport, or if pizza is a kind of bread (quite important to VAT calculations and medal counts alike). ‘Religion’, as a word derived from Latin – rooted in classical Roman religion, and then Western Christianity – tends to pick out things that are comparable to Christianity as defined by that tradition. That is, religions should pertain to God, have doctrines, systems of ethics, sacred places, defined commitments, hierarchies and rituals. These assumptions led to many errors in the understanding of non-Christian cultures, such as the mistakes made by the British colonials in the censuses of occupied India. Administrators presumed the population would identify with one or other religion, just like the denominational sectarianism of Europe. In actual fact, many ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ were devoted, or connected, to both traditions. Shrines were holy because they were holy, not because they belonged to anyone in particular.


When it comes to problems of demarcation, an authority sets the criteria of admission and exclusion. This makes it possible to get things done. Should a chocolate biscuit be a food stuff exempt from VAT, or sweet confectionary? The government makes the call. Likewise, in religious affairs, some authority makes a working definition. For example, the Evangelical Alliance, which brings together thousands of evangelical churches under one umbrella, has various stipulations about what Christianity is (that it is Trinitarian in nature, for instance). Such rules make religious communities and organisations possible. Non-Trinitarian Christian movements, such as those previously mentioned, equally centre around their own self-definitions.


But what authority decides the demarcation of religion and religions in the religious education classroom? This has implications for what is considered a legitimate religion for study. Presumably when the legislation for RE was created, this was to be a coalition of accepted (or ‘acceptable’) religions, with a bias towards the Established Church. But RE has evolved much since then in many ways, not least in the diminishing authority of Standing Advisory Committees for Religious Education (SACREs) in determining syllabuses. In addition to this, British society has changed since the 1944 Act, and indeed, since the 1988 Act too, with an exponentially increasing diversity of religious positions and practices. (Of course, you may say that Yoga, for example, is not a religious practice in any sense, but like cheesecake, things are not always as they seem).


Teachers are therefore often the arbiters of the demarcation problem in RE. And this is why I think the challenges of demarcation and authority should be left open. By this I mean the questions of ‘what is religion?’ and ‘who decides?’ should be posed to students, and a variety of reasonable answers considered. My reason for this position is not that, because the dividing line on the continuum between the religious and secular is relative to each concept, we should therefore let students decide for themselves. Rather, my argument is that because demarcation criteria are set by religious authorities we should let those authorities speak for themselves. On whose authority does the RE teacher decide what is religion, and what is not? Instead of working on our own definitions – as many religious educators have done and continue to do – we can do ourselves a favour and point students to sources of authority that went before us, and will continue long after our retirements. The study of various sources and forms of authority, and the categories of belonging they demarcate, comprise one essential aspect of the study of religion (so self-defined).


Dr Daniel Moulin-Stożek is a religious educator and researcher with experience of religion and education in England and continental Europe.