Defining Religion

The CORE report recommends attention to the conceptual category of religion. [i] This is welcome. What do we mean by the word? The discussion needs opening, at both professional and classroom levels. It won’t be an easy one, as the field of religion is so varied that religion is hard to define.

According to CORE, religions are worldviews, and worldviews are philosophies of life.[ii] At the same time, the report recommends greater attention to individual lived experience and how worldviews work in practice.[iii]

Is this a conceptually clear account, or is there a tension between emphasising beliefs or philosophies on the one hand, but experiences and practices on the other? Which should be RE’s primary focus, and how should the foci relate? This month’s Research of the Month is chosen for suggesting some promising answers to these questions. It’s a book by the US scholar Christian Smith, Religion: What it is, how it works, and why it matters. [iv]

The definition of religion given by Smith has been described by one reviewer as ‘the best theoretical and analytical definition I know’.[v] It reads as follows:

‘Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices that are based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers. These powers may be personal or impersonal, but they are always superhuman in the dual sense that they can do things which humans cannot do and that they do not depend for their existence on human activities. Religious people engage in complexes of practices in order to gain access to and communicate or align themselves with these superhuman powers. The hope involved in the cultural prescribing of these practices is to realize human goods and avoid bads, especially (but not only) to avert misfortunes and receive blessings and deliverance from crises.’[vi]

Thus, the primary focus is on practices, but the practices are seen as based on beliefs or ideas. As he develops the argument, Smith offers supporting points. Religions also have secondary aspects including the forms of identity, community or aesthetic expression associated with the primary practices. Participants don’t necessarily hold the ‘established’ related beliefs, so religion consists in the cultural meanings handed on; these are realities apart from individual experiences, and it is as religiousness rather than religion that individual experiences matter hugely.

What might Smith’s analysis mean for RE teaching? To sketch it out, teachers would engage pupils in an enquiry into a range of religious practices. Firstly: what happens during these practices? For what goods do they aim? There would then be two secondary layers of enquiry, one into how repeated religious practices flow into aspects such as social identity, aesthetic expression and power, another into religiousness at the individual level.

This form of RE might flow from a clear conceptual account of religion, but it has limitations. It doesn’t include a philosophical element, so pupils don’t exercise a right to be critical about truth-claims that may be associated with the practices and meanings. It doesn’t include a reflexive element where pupils reflect on their own viewpoints, how these affect their own views of what’s studied and how their own ideas and values may have developed through their studies. Still, the approach could be compatible with both elements. The study of non-religious worldviews might have to come from a different angle, because it may not be possible to view these primarily in terms of practices. Nevertheless, I would certainly recommend Religion: What it is, how it works, and why it matters as stimulus to further thinking and discussion regarding the conceptual category of religion within RE.


[i] RE Council of England and Wales, Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward. A National Plan for RE, London (RE Council of England and Wales): 2018, page 31.

[ii] Ibid., page 4.

[iii] Ibid., pages 30-31.

[iv] We’ve reported part of the book at

[v] You can read Jose Casanova’s review of the book at

[vi] Christian Smith, Religion: What it is, how it works, and why it matters, Princeton and Oxford (Princeton University Press): 2017, page 3.


Dr Kevin O’Grady is Lead Consultant for Research at Culham St Gabriel’s Trust

See all posts by Dr Kevin O'Grady

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