When Religion Is Not Religion: Inside Religious Studies’ Fight for Religious Literacy in the Public Sphere

After wrapping up a Q&A session at a public conference where I presented on the topic of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations to a largely evangelical Christian audience, an older man who was sitting in the back approached me at the podium.

Rather nonchalantly, he asked, “You do know that the Constitution wasn’t written for Muslims, right?”

As we talked, he elaborated on his opinion that the concept of religious freedom does not apply to Islam and Muslims because, he said matter-of-factly, “Islam is not a religion.” At the time, it seemed to me a fringe theory cooked up in the dark corners of the internet or in 6am greasy-spoon breakfast meet-ups.

In short, I could not really believe — given my own biases — that people could actually think that the First Amendment and its promise of religious freedom did not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

However, far from fringe political theory or radical cultural posturing, this view has found its way into legal briefs, court cases, and political contexts in recent years. In fact, these legal and political perspectives are the fodder for Asma Uddin’s new book When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom.

In this work, Uddin points out that many Americans insist that the religious liberty they so quickly claim for Christianity or Judaism (or other religions beyond the nation’s so-called “Judeo-Christian” heritage) does not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

Concerned that the loss of liberty for Muslims means a loss of liberties for all, Uddin surveys an alarming amount of politicized legal and social battles over whether or not Islam can be considered a “religion” and whether, by extension, Muslims should be afforded the same human rights and constitutional protections that others claim. Weaving together her legal expertise and personal perspective as an American Muslim, Uddin makes the case that despite today’s fraught culture wars, there is a path forward for defending religious liberty for Muslims in the U.S. that can – and should – appeal to those of multiple faith perspectives or none at all.

As I listened to her interview about the book and its ramifications on the Religious Studies Project, I not only appreciated her balanced and thorough approach to this topic, but found myself wanting to focus on three points that she touched on in the talk: 1) the ways in which “religion” is defined in the public sphere; 2) whether or not we should listen to “fringe” Islamophobes and their rhetoric on religion; and 3) thinking about “when Christianity is not a religion.”

1)  Definitions of “religion” in the public sphere.

Discussing how “religion” is defined in the courts, Uddin referenced how the majority of cases she reviewed contained definitions that reminded her of Paul Tillich’s: religion as “ultimate concern.”

The debate over what constitutes the category of “religion” has been lively in the field of religious studies over the proceeding decades since Tillich’s work and many within the discipline have landed on “definitions” that are highly critical of “religion” as a sui generis phenomenon (a la Jonathan Z. Smith and Russell T. McCutcheon). Others have turned to definitions that seek to address religion in terms of globalization in the late-modern era (Thomas Tweed) or from a materialist perspective (Manuel Vásquez). Suffice it to say, these are not the only definitions of religion – or of the field of religious studies – that are out there right now, but they point to the fact that definitions of religion abound.

Despite the robust conversation about “religion” and its referents in the field of religious studies, the general public’s interpretations of religion remain reified in the past or overly influenced by a Judeo-Christian frame.

Therefore, when public figures make comments about what does or does not constitute a “religion,” the greater populace relies on fairly outdated definitions of religion by which to respond to such claims.

For example, the current head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and President of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins wrote:

only 16 percent of Islam is a religion — the rest is a combination of military, judicial, economic, and political system. Christianity, by comparison, isn’t a judicial or economic code — but a faith. So to suggest that we would be imposing some sort of religious test on Muslims is inaccurate. Sharia is not a religion in the context of the First Amendment.

This is exactly the kind of rhetoric Uddin addresses in her work. However, it is concerning that conversations around Islam being “only 16% religion” can gain such steam because of a general religious illiteracy or an overly Judeo-Christian conceptualization of what “religion” is. While Uddin does more than a fair job of deconstructing claims such as Perkins’, there remains a lot more work for those of us in religious studies.

We must humbly admit that we have largely failed in communicating the potent and helpful conversations we have had in the academy over the last decades to a wider public. Our discussions about religion as a construct have not been widely disseminated. While we may feel that such conversations are meant for the academic study of religion proper, I would argue that helping the wider public see that religion is more convention than “thing” would help address the constructions that frame Islam as “only 16% religion.” Furthermore, if we could successfully engage the public in this discussion about definitions, they might well become the best critics of the ways in which the term “religion” is constructed in popular parlance or politics.

Rather than dismiss the various definitions of “religion” that exist in the public sphere – or solely critique them in academic circles, conferences, and publications – scholars of religion should focus our energies in articulating proper responses to the definitions that are at work in the world and invite the wider public into seeing “religion” as a construct rather than a definitively defined category to apply to such things as Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Uddin’s work helps prod us in such a direction.

2) Do we have to listen to “Islamophobes?” 

Such a move presumes that scholars of religion engage with the mainstream public in broad, but meaningful ways. This also means listening to supposedly “fringe” groups and their ideas about religion.

Uddin makes the provocative point that her research involved taking the claims about Islam not being a religion seriously. We might do well to take up her cue in order to better confront and critique such opinions.

Thus, when an individual such as the man at the conference I referenced earlier claims that “Islam is not a religion, but a political doctrine and form of government” we must take the time to not only listen, but parse out what this means. Where does such a view come from? How has it become operational in the lives of those who claim it? Why is it such a powerful perspective? Where, when, and how did it move from the margins to the putative center of public discourse?

Paying attention to such fringe opinions would help us better apperceive and address how wider publics give rise to the legal opinions, cases, and briefs that Uddin addresses in her work.

For example, in my current research I am aiming to go beyond the legal, state, and extreme social expressions of global Islamophobia to understand its social mechanizations and manifestations in quotidian contexts through an ethnographic study of “everyday Islamophobia.”

Rather than seeking to normalize such behavior, listening to “Islamophobes” can help scholars of religion better critique such perspectives and postures toward the “religious other.”

3) When Christianity is not a religion

While listening to and reading Uddin, I could not help but think about how one could make the argument that the political ideologies among Christians in the U.S. could also – by the very rules that lead to the conclusion that “Islam is not a religion” – be used to make the case that Christianity is not a religion either.

Christianity in the U.S., particularly in its specifically politicized evangelical varieties, could be seen as not only a set of religious beliefs and practices, but explicitly political doctrines that seek to shape social behavior through a combination of laws and penalties, not only by God, but by the state. According to the opinion that frames Islam as not a religion because of these very characteristics, one could argue that Christianity is not a religion either, but a form of government.

Let me be clear: I am not trying to say that Christianity or Islam (or any other “religion” for that matter) is not a “religion.” However, this rumination on whether Christianity should be considered a “religion” in light of the very arguments that make Islam not so in certain circles helps point us back to the very important task before religion scholars presented in this response to Uddin’s work.

First, scholars of religion must do a better job of discussing and addressing the many ways that “religion” is defined as a category in the public sphere. The helpful and powerful debate that we have had over preceding decades can, and should, benefit popular and political disputes over religious freedom and human rights. This is not only important for Muslims, but for people of any religion or no religion in particular. Debates over religious freedom in the U.S. and abroad are not going to go away any time soon. Confusion over what constitutes religion cannot be left to the wayside by scholars of religion or simply as a phenomenon to be studied. Religious studies scholars should insert themselves into the conversation.

Second, entering into these conversations and introducing the wider public to religion as a construct more than a sui generis category will not only require appealing to more progressive circles that might be more supple to our ideas, but also the conservative communities that espouse the very perspectives Uddin addresses in her work and that we might find ourselves highly critical of. While listening does not necessarily mean condoning, it does require a more humble and interpersonal engagement of attitudes we might often avoid or critique from a distance.

Uddin has done a great job in opening up such an avenue for other scholars. We would do well to follow in her footsteps. There remains much work to be done.

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