What do you mean by “religion”?

Social scientists occasionally examine the impact of religion on various socioeconomic indicators. But what do we mean by religion?

Should we think of religion in theological terms—say those who follow the teachings of various religious prophets?

Or should we think of religion in terms of cultural practices that are linked with religion (such as prudishness), even if those practices have little or nothing to do with the religious documents on which the religion is supposedly based?

Or is a religious group a sort of tribe–like fans that are loyal to a particular football team? Based on what I’ve read about the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, the conflict there has little or nothing to do with religion as I think of the term.

Each of these three definitions would lead to very different implications in terms of the impact of religion on society. Here’s Norman Douglas describing the religious views of South Italians:

For the same reason the adult Jesus—the teacher, the God—is practically unknown. He is too remote from themselves and the ordinary activities of their daily lives; he is not married, like his mother; he has no trade, like his father (Mark calls him a carpenter); moreover, the maxims of the Sermon on the Mount are so repugnant to the South Italian as to be almost incomprehensible.

So “turn the other cheek” is not popular in Sicily?

Monkish ideals of chastity and poverty have never appealed to the hearts of people, priests or prelates of the south; they will endure much fondness in their religion, but not those phenomena of cruelty and pruriency which are inseparably connected with asceticism; their notions have ever been akin to those of the sage Xenocrates, who held that “happiness consists not only in the possession of human virtues, but in the accomplishment of natural acts.” Among the latter they include the acquisition of wealth and the satisfaction of carnal needs. At this time, too, the old Hellenic curiosity was not wholly dimmed; they took an intelligent interest in imported creeds like that of Luther, which, if not convincing, at least satisfied their desire for novelty. Theirs was exactly the attitude of the Athenians towards Paul’s “New God”; and Protestantism might have spread far in the south, had it not been ferociously repressed.

That final sentence (from a book written in 1915) might be viewed as a sort of prediction. So how’s Protestantism doing in Latin countries today? Here’s The Economist:

Evangelical Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in the region. Polls on religious beliefs vary widely, but around a fifth of Latin Americans identify as evangelicals, up from a tenth in 2002. In Guatemala and Honduras, they are set to overtake Roman Catholics as the dominant religion by 2030. This could happen in Brazil by the mid-2030s, too. In the past decade, a new church has opened in Brazil almost every hour, of which 80% were evangelical.

In the 1970s enterprising pastors, inspired by those in the United States, introduced a strand known as neo-Pentecostalism. This preaches the “prosperity gospel”, a radical reinterpretation of the Bible which claims that earthly wealth is a sign of divine blessings.

I suspect that Douglas was correct about southern Italy.

Researchers often discuss the impact of religion by pointing to various aspects of life in Catholic areas, or Protestant areas, or Mormon areas, or Moslem areas, of Confucian areas, or Hindu areas. I have no problem with that sort of study, but it seems to me that these studies are implicitly defining a religion as a cultural group, not a theology. They are describing the cultural practices of people that live in various regions, and attaching the term “religion” to those practices.

And that’s fine. But then don’t be surprised if the religious labels change, as we are currently seeing in Latin America. In a free market, cultures will gravitate toward the religions that provide the best fit. It would be much more interesting if the culture were to change (which also happens occasionally.)

PS. Here’s Jonathan Dean discussing Stephen Wolfe’s “The Case for Christian Nationalism.”:

Rather than appealing to the real, historical meanings of words like Christianity and nationalism, the ideology extrapolates from subjective experience. It is “Christian” to the degree that a person understands their life experience as definitively Christian; it is “nationalist” to the degree that a person understands their life experience to be representative of the character of their nation. In other words, Christian nationalism means little more than the experience of one’s life enforced on one’s neighbor by force. When terms are treated like this, communication—and, therefore, politics itself—becomes impossible. A reliable and accessible epistemic method is necessary for a community to function, and Christian nationalism, as Wolfe presents it, simply doesn’t have one. He can tell us nothing of Christianity or nationalism; all he can communicate is the Christian nationalism of himself—and himself alone.

I look forward in a few years to “The Case for Christian Fascism.”

PPS. The New Right favors a muscular government that uses its power to go after the left. Stephanie Slade of Reason pushes back against this view:

That radical, countercultural message is far too often absent on the right today. As the Catholic writer Leah Libresco Sargeant puts it, “A lot of social conservatism has defined virtue down to ‘refraining from certain modern errors’ rather than ‘living a life shocking in its generosity, courage, etc.'”

To truly care about virtue is to recognize that it matters how you win: Ends don’t justify means. If conservatives ever did have to choose which side of the barbed wire to be on—as the gulag inmate accepting persecution or the victor carrying it out—there would be only one right answer from a Christian perspective. It isn’t the New Right’s.

PPPS. After writing this post, I heard an interview of Russell Moore on NPR, a former leader of the Southern Baptist Conference Convention:

DETROW: Moore’s new book, “Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call For Evangelical America,” is an attempt at finding a path forward for the religion he loves. When we talk this week, Moore told me why he thinks Christianity is in crisis today in America.

MOORE: Well, it was the result of having multiple pastors tell me essentially the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount parenthetically in their preaching – turn the other cheek – to have someone come up after and to say, where did you get those liberal talking points? And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ, the response would not be, I apologize. The response would be, yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak. And when we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.

Maybe that’s why church attendance is down sharply. In this day and age, who wants to be told that they should love their enemies?

PPPPS. Matt Yglesias directed me to this tweet:



9 Responses to “What do you mean by “religion”?”

  1. Gravatar of Sara Sara
    11. August 2023 at 08:42

    The right has no interest in muscle government, but it is interested in honest government and limited government. You speak as if the left is the old classical left. It’s not. The left has sought to change the meaning of inalienable to include numerous qualifications over the last 60 years. They’ve consistently gone after religious groups nationwide, conspired with social media companies to shut down views they disagree with, both political and scientific, and they have used massive government coercion to force millions of people to choose between a job and a jab.

    The right is now organizing itself to fight the cultural war — a war they were hoping they could avoid — but the implementation of CRT nationwide, which incidentally was implemented in South Africa two decades ago (take a look at that shithole), is Marxist indoctrination. The effort to dehumanize, place people into groups, and shame their skin color has led to organized resistance against wokeness in academy and boardrooms, and particularly among Christians and other religious groups who believe that people are created equal by God. And those who believe in the rule of law, cannot standby as that law is eroded by thugs who call for “packing courts” and arresting presidential candidates on frivolous charges.

    At time when we needed open debate, the government and MNC’s were canceling voices under the pretense of emergency. Peter McCullough, the most cited cardiologist of all time was canceled. The government even went so far as to coerce Lancet editors to not publish his articles. Calling McCullough anti-science is like calling Alan Dershowitz a bad lawyer, or suggesting that John Nash was bad at math. It’s so utterly insane that nobody in their right mind can standby and say nothing at all.

    Those who value open debate, freedom of speech, limited government, and self expression are now willing to fight the cultural battle, because they know if they don’t, then the totalitarian movement on the left, and their self righteous, social justice foot soldiers will completely eradicate liberty.

    History has shown that it takes a lot to get the right organized, but once they are organized — WATCH OUT. Farmers will take punishment for years, because they don’t really care what pompous brats behind a desk say about them, or what some academic tells them is proper — but certain things like Marxism tend to get their blood boiling, and the democrat party in America has revealed its radical intentions.

  2. Gravatar of TMC TMC
    11. August 2023 at 08:47

    It’s nice to see the bubble in the middle. That’s where I’d put him. Jesus would be hard to categorize. Taking care of the poor etc is valued by both sides. It’s how it happens that is questioned. My own personal view is that Jesus did value helping others by choice. That at least keeps him out of the left.

  3. Gravatar of Alexander Turok Alexander Turok
    11. August 2023 at 09:51

    Honest question for Scott, do you think it’s a kind of ideological failure that young libertarians working in the private sector are often afraid to publicly express libertarian views? By “ideological failure,” I mean the feeling that Western communists should have felt when they toured the Eastern bloc and saw the gap between their utopian vision of communism and the reality.

    I’ve long thought that Christianity has succeeded precisely because it’s so inconsistent and contradictory, so you can make it whatever you want it to be. Do you want fire and brimstone, there are plenty of Bible verses to cherry-pick to make that work. If you want hippy-Jesus peace and love stuff, there are verses for that too. You can argue for radical changes in the way Christians view homosexuality and yet view yourself as the defender of traditional Christian values and anyone resisting you as heretics going against the Bible.

    It’s unsurprising that non-Christians would want Christians to hew to the love-thy-enemies, the meek will inherit the earth, slave morality version of the religion, and want to promote that as the True Kind of Christianity.

    I’ll note that people like Russel Moore never seem to apply the love-your-enemies mantra to white nationalists, radical Islamists, or Vladimir Putin. It only ever applies to his beltway cocktail party friends.

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    11. August 2023 at 13:03

    Alexander, It makes me sad that young libertarians would be afraid to advocate their views. I never received any penalties for doing so. Cancel culture is out of control.

    But then the entire political situation in America (and most of the world) makes me sad. People have stopped dating those with differing political views. That’s a sick society. When I was young, liberals and conservatives dated all the time.

  5. Gravatar of BC BC
    11. August 2023 at 14:49

    Yikes on the Moore interview. What strikes me is what these people mean by “doesn’t work anymore”. Do they mean that turning the other cheek won’t work in saving their souls? No, presumably, they are referring to more ephemeral, worldly matters like a culture war in the 21st Century US, or even a twitter battle. Even if these are people that attend church every Sunday, they seem like people that have lost all faith.

    Turok: “It’s unsurprising that non-Christians would want Christians to hew…” Actually, (many) liberals have long criticized the influence of evangelicals’ religious beliefs in politics and society more generally. I wonder how they are liking this new, more secular, Religious Right that is much more focused on worldly concerns than eternal salvation.

  6. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    13. August 2023 at 02:09


    Another hate-filled post about Christians.

    The Christian population in America is the least likely to limit your freedom. Out of all the religious groups it’s the most secular.

    This very nation was built by Christians’, so the idea that Christianity is a threat to the enlightenment is ridiculous. Many scientists are Christian, including John Lennox of Oxford, one of the best mathematicians in the world. Almost all of the enlightenment thinkers were Christian.

    Christian fascism only exists in the minds of a few radical Athiests many of whom believe government should ban religion. I know a lot of evangelic Christians’, and they are all good hearted people. Never met one that didn’t support the current relationship between church and state.

  7. Gravatar of temp temp
    14. August 2023 at 12:59

    “SB Convention” not Conference

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. August 2023 at 13:13

    Thanks temp

  9. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    16. August 2023 at 08:38

    I thought this would get more comments.
    I believe that religion can be both spiritual and cultural. Catholicism was a minor sect until it was adopted by Constantine and then it became the dominant religion. That tells me it’s cultural. But Christianity had survived up until that point, even through the terrible persecutions of Diocletion and others. That tells me it’s spiritual. In troubling times, many turn to a mystical religious asceticism some to a rigid, puritanical religion. That tells me it’s spiritual. In good times, people often settle into ritualistic and placid religious practices like the Roman pagan religion (to return to Roman times yet again). I’ll call these the worldly religions. That tells me it’s cultural. Then you have the people who are attracted to the religion of Jimmy Swaggart or Joel Osteen or those Protestant churches you mentioned. I can’t see those religions lasting long because they’re attempting to layer worldly religion on top of the suffering of the poor. For a while it may dazzle people but it will eventually lose adherents to worldly religions that don’t promise instant wealth or messianic or ascetic religions that promise purity and salvation.
    Why did the Taliban become strict adherents to a militant deobandism? You could say it was because they were culturally at a loss having had their country ripped apart, but they were also at a loss spiritually having been faced with so much seemingly meaningless death and destruction.
    What of the Christian nationalists? The fact that the religion is becoming nationalistic indicates to me that Christianity is losing some of its appeal to them. Otherwise, why bring in a second association. Maybe that leads eventually to Christian fascism, but it also may lead to the rise of more ascetic strains of Christianity as they begin to feel that Christian Nationalism doesn’t provide enough spiritual sustenance.

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