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.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 27 October 2015

Dear subscriber,

Please be aware that the previous Opportunities Digest contained two mistakes in the posting of the 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, which may have confused some readers. A corrected version of the listing is found below. 

As usual, we would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

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Calls for papers

Symposium: 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2016

Deadline: December 7, 2015

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Conference: Construction and disruption: The power of religion in the public sphere

July 12–14, 2016

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: December 11, 2015

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Conference: Heritage, Religion and Travel

May 27–29, 2016

Mersin Congress and Exhibitions Centre, Turkey

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Conference: Landscape and Myth in North-Western Europe

April 6–8, 2016

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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Journal: Gamevironments

Topics: Gamevironments, Games, Religion, and Culture

Deadline: January 15, 2016

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Conference: Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Schools

University of Leicester, UK

November 13, 2015

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Conference: Allaitement entre Humans et Animaux: Représentations et Pratiques de l’Antique à Aujourd’hui

November 12–14, 2015

Université de Genève, Switzerland

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Winter School: Interrelational Selves and Individualization

January 5–9, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

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Workshop: The Diversity of Nonreligion

November 12–14, 2015

University of Zürich, Switzerland

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New managing editor

The Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network

Deadline: November 6, 2015

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4 new members for Editorial Board


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Junior Professorship: Anthropology and History of Religion in South Asia

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: November 30, 2015

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Senior Lecturer/Lecturer in Politics/International Relations and Religion

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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The Faith of the Killable: A Faith for Empowerment?

As one listens to Dr. Johnson describe the high homicide rates of Río de Janeiro, the gap in between the haves and the have nots, as well as the appalling conditions he witnessed –through use of an admirable methodology– in this city’s prison system, something that stands out clearly is how all these elements are strongly concatenated as pieces of the same dehumanizing setting. It’s not a coincidence that, in several countries within Latin America, scandalous levels of inequality coexist with elevated delinquency rates. Francois Bourguignon (1999) stated that, in developing countries, crime and violence are likely to be a socially costly by-product of, among other factors, uneven or irregular economic development processes, and affirmed that economic theory shows how property crime and, in general, all the violence associated with illegal activity may in part be the consequence of extreme inequality and poverty. This framework of socioeconomic disparity and violence is key to understand how entire population sectors in Río become and remain killable people, and to assess the serious restraints that inmates who proceed from these sectors will face again, once their time in prison is finished. Dr. Johnson refers to Pentecostalism as the faith of the killable and suggests that one of the reasons why Pentecostalism succeeds among those who come from impoverished areas –which is the case of many inmates in Río’s prison system– is that “it can empower people who are, otherwise, thrown into the edges”. In this response, I would like to argue that, in order to appreciate to what extent Pentecostalism could be considered empowering, it’s pertinent to take a look at its impacts (or absence of impacts) in the social context of those who convert to this faith.

Ignacio Martín-Baró (1998) stated that religious conversion has important social implications –even if each person experiences it as an individual process– and that, although conversion brings the knowledge of a new meaning that can make individual life more rewarding, this new meaning can either separate people from their social reality and history, or it can make people become more aware of that reality and turn them into subjects of their own history. Martín-Baró also proposed that the individual motivations for religious conversion acquire a wider historical meaning when they are situated in the net of social forces that affect a person, which can be humanizing or dehumanizing. Taking this into account, if we seek to estimate the empowerment potential of the conversion and affiliation to Pentecostal churches among the inmates of Rio’s prison system, it would be valuable to situate these events in a social background and to inquire: are these conversions able to generate only individual changes in the inmates, or do they also confer on them any resources to bring a positive contribution in the dynamics of their marginalized communities?

Recent research conducted in Central America has attempted to answer a similar question, and has explored the impact of Pentecostal and Charismatic movements on communitarian organization and civic participation. In the case of a traditional Pentecostal church, studied in El Salvador, the research results showed that this faith community conferred high importance upon evangelization and to the individual changes derived from religious conversion, as ways of making a contribution to society; an individualistic view was also present in the way this church interpreted the causes of social problems and in the type of solutions that they considered effective to confront them. In addition, they proved to give utmost importance to the involvement of their members in activities that belonged mostly to the private sphere, without encouraging their interest in the public sphere. Regarding the communitarian participation and political attitudes of the members of this church, it was interesting to find that, from the four faith communities that were studied and compared in El Salvador, the traditional Pentecostals reported the least favorable attitude to political participation in general, the lowest willingness to join political parties or to take over public positions, the strongest reluctance to take part in demonstrations, and a scarce participation in initiatives of their neighborhoods and municipalities. These results, of course, show only coexistence between some religiosity traits and political attitudes –not a cause-effect relation between them– but they suggest that the emphasis this Pentecostal church placed on individual change and on the private space participation didn’t offer favorable conditions for its members to recognize the importance of being active in communitarian organizations and articulating efforts with other citizens to pursue collective goals.

It can be useful to take into account these findings as we go back to considering the social impacts that would be reasonable to expect from the conversion of the inmates in Río´s prison system and from their affiliation to Pentecostal churches. In this sense, it would be interesting to analyze if what Dr. Johnson could observe in the prison churches provided reasons to anticipate that the inmates will, in the future, promote changes beyond their individual behavior and beyond the private space in which religious practice often takes place. For example, Dr. Johnson mentioned that personal testimony and tangible changes in personal behavior were a priority for those who had converted, especially in the case of those who had retired from gangs. When these inmates return to their neighborhoods, will this emphasis on the individual transformation be helpful or not for them to become aware of the structural causes of the deplorable conditions experienced in their communities, and the importance of collective solutions for development? Also, Dr. Johnson explains that Pentecostalism offers a platform for a strong identity and even the opportunity to assume leadership in the autonomous churches that exist inside prisons. Therefore, could the inmates’ experience as leaders in the private space increase their willingness to subsequently become active in community organizations?

The answers to these questions are also essential in regard to after-imprisonment reinsertion and relapse prevention because, if the context to which the inmates return is not improved in any way, it will continue exposing them to social exclusion, translated, among other elements, in deficient education opportunities and difficulties incorporating into labor life, two of the structural causes of the criminality epidemic in Latin America (Kliksberg 2008). In the particular case of inmates who previously belonged to gangs, this complex scenario demands that reinsertion initiatives –including those promoted by religious entities– have a holistic approach that transcends the pursuit of individual change; such initiatives have to be articulated, and coordinated with different resources and efforts, in order to impact the individuals, their families and closest relationships, but also the public spaces, the access to employment, the neighborhoods and communities, and the cultural, social and economic factors that contribute to violence (Aguilar and Miranda 2006).

In sum, affiliation with Pentecostal churches in Río de Janeiro’s prison system can certainly offer important benefits to the inmates in the hostile and dangerous situation that their imprisonment represents. Nonetheless, the transformation promoted by these churches could be very limited if it remains circumscribed to the individuals and those who are closer to them, without helping the inmates to understand and modify the social dynamics that keep them marginalized. This kind of empowerment is only relative if it gives people means to recover a sense of dignity in their lives but not necessarily to stop being killable.


Aguilar, J., & Miranda, L. (2006). Entre la articulación y la competencia: las respuestas de la sociedad civil organizada a las pandillas en El Salvador. In Cruz, J.M. (ed.) Maras y Pandillas en Centroamérica, Vol. 4. San Salvador: UCA Editores.

Bourguignon, F. (1999). Crime as a Social Cost of Poverty and Inequality: A Review Focusing on Developing Countries. Desarrollo y Sociedad, 44, 61-99.

Kliksberg, B. (2008). ¿Cómo enfrentar la inseguridad en América Latina?. Nueva Sociedad, 215, 4-16.

Martín-Baró, I. (1998). Religión y guerra psicológica. In Blanco, A. (ed.) Psicología de la Liberación. Madrid: Trotta.