Religion as a Species of Human Activity

Andie Alexander’s conversation with Aaron Hughes on J. Z. Smith’s stature and legacy in the field of the study of religion is wonderfully ranging and thoughtful. It makes me wish I had been at the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” conference in Trondheim.

The conversation seems to circle around a few main questions or topics. What did Smith achieve? What was his project? Did he leave a legacy that is powerful or attractive enough to influence the study of religion in the future? How does one deal with that legacy in one’s research and teaching? Or, how can we “translate” Smith in a way that is appropriate for our analysis of our own specialized data? How do we translate Smith for our students? After all, in my own experience Smith is much easier to learn from than to teach. Smith is hardly imitable in his reach of data across time, space, languages, and religions. Nor, apart from his persistent comparatism, can one discern a Smithian method that can be followed like a recipe. In any case, he would have disdained a slavish devotion to him and trying to imitate him.

These questions are big and satisfying answers to them are too long for a short blog. So let’s start with a couple of basics that, I think, are necessary to think with Smith and easily taught to our students. Smith was a fundamentally a contrarian.  His project was to oppose and offer an alternative to two main, if not defining, tendencies in the religious studies academy. One is the pervasive influence of theology and religious belief, in whatever form, in the academic study of religion. He especially targeted a certain phenomenology of religion that has its roots in the Italian scholar Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883-1959), the first president of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), and that came to dominate the study of religion in North America under the powerful influence of Mircea Eliade (1907-1989). At the foundational core of this phenomenological orientation is the belief (and it is a belief!) in a transcendent, ahistorical numinous reality that Eliade simply called the Sacred. From it flow manifestations or experiences or epiphanies that are universal, historical, and transcultural. Most of us are familiar with this view in general. It’s enough to say that the postulated transcendent, primordial Sacred makes religion a universal reality all its own, fundamentally set apart from other dimensions of human societies and cultures. It sets religion outside the realm of human invention and protects it from scholarly critique.

Smith had little patience with this view. Aaron Hughes says that Smith, “more than anyone, was responsible for smashing the Eliadean phenomenological paradigm.” Smith used gentler terms, but that doesn’t matter. Aaron is right. As an alternative, Smith historicized religion. “There is no primordium, it’s all history,” he used to say. Religion and the religious are human social and cultural realities. Human religiosity is not rooted in a Sacred; the Sacred is itself a human religious product. This means that religion is not its own genus of human activity, but a species of it. The study of religion thus must be the study of humans across time, place, and cultures. Like Ludwig Feuerbach long before him, Smith thought that the most appropriate study of religion is anthropological, historical, and comparative (though comparative in a much different way than the phenomenologists practice it). Hughes is also right in saying that Smith’s criticism of phenomenology was not a “smashing” success. The religious studies academy continues to be thoroughly phenomenological in its orientation – notwithstanding some, though not many in relative terms, exceptions. It seems to me that this basic contrarian postulate and posture is easily explained to students and should be a foundational feature of all religious studies course. To achieve this, I say to instructors, introduce students to Smith early and often.

The other is that Smith turned his back on the ongoing preoccupation in our field to find the value of religion/s primarily in terms of spiritual meaning. Smith was an intellectualist and thought that both myths and rituals were strategies for thinking through complex or incongruous situations. In general, religions are human products that must be studied in their historical and social contexts in order to analyze how they are complexly shaped by social entities and that, in turn provide an overall charter of the world, both human and cosmic, for these entities. This sounds remarkably like the working of ideology, a term that Smith very rarely used. Regretfully so. Other people have analyzed religion as ideology, though—most incisively Bruce Lincoln, Smith’s colleague at the University of Chicago. To quote Lincoln: “religion must be understood as the most extreme form of ideology, for religions provide arbitrary social formations and habituated patterns not merely with persuasive rationalizations of an abstract conceptual nature, as do non-religious ideologies, but with nothing less (so they claim) than sacred warrants and ultimate legitimation” (Apples and Oranges, 2018, 23-24). This takes Lincoln a little beyond Smith in terms of articulation but is nonetheless a permissible extension of his historical and social analysis of how religions work. It may be a counter-intuitive concept for our students, who often think that ideologies are false while religions are true, but it is not that difficult to understand. Studying religion as ideology too is contrarian, or at least marginal in our field, and so another way to remember and work with Smith.

Habermas and the Problem with the ‘Problem’ of Religion in Public Discourse

Living in a country where you don’t know the language means you have a great excuse for not talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To be completely honest, I actually did understand the two Witnesses when they came to my door. Though I had just moved to Germany and just begun to study German, I knew what they were saying. “Bible” is the same in German and English and I knew the word for the verb, “to read.” Also they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t there to borrow sugar. I understood. But I lied.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m sorry. I only speak English.” It was a great excuse.

A week later, two more Witnesses came to my door. “You want to read the Bible?” they said. “You want to know God’s plan for human happiness?”

Their English was great.

Of course it was. As a religion that prioritizes proselytization, Witnesses put tremendous effort into reaching people who are different than themselves. They translate their message linguistically and culturally. They don’t expect to be accommodated in conversation; they accommodate.

There has been much theorizing under the heading of “post-secular” about the problem of religious participation in public discourse. For the religious to speak to those who do not share their ontological presuppositions, it is said, in public discussions in pluralistic, democratic societies, it must be necessary for there to be a reformulation of religious arguments into publicly accessible, this-world terms. This is a very literal case of that problem. Yet it illustrates, if nothing else, that there might be a problem with framing the matter of religious people dialoguing with those who do not share their religion as a “problem.”

As philosopher Jürgen Habermas explains the problem, religious language can be allowed into the public sphere, but only on certain conditions: “The truth contents of religious contributions can enter into the institutionalized practice of deliberation and decision-making only when the necessary translation already occurs in the pre-parliamentarian domain, i.e. in the political public sphere itself … citizens of faith may make public contributions in their own religious language only subject to the translation proviso” (Between Naturalism and Religion 131-32). They cannot, that is, just appeal to divine authority when they come to your door or come to the public square. They cannot just invoke revelation. What is sacred to them must be re-conceived in reasoned discourse as secular. This burden of “translation” has been central to talk of the post-secular, and also to Habermas’ noted post-secular turn.

However, because this theoretical conceptualization frames translation as a problem, it misses how, in common practice, religious people do speak.

Sociologist Michelle Dillon makes a similar (but not identical) critique of Habermas and the post-secular in her interview with the Religious Studies Project. She notes that in his earlier work on communicative action, Habermas didn’t speak of religious participation in public discourse, implicitly excluding it. In his more recent work, with his turn to the post-secular, Habermas corrects this. He acknowledges that religious reasoning does have a place in pluralist democracies, and yet that toleration still has limits. “Habermas was saying, let’s reassess how we have often marginalized religion,” Dillon says. “But on further reading of Habermas . . . while he’s bringing religion back in, into the public sphere, he’s doing so very much in a Habermasian way.”

According to Dillon, one problem with Habermasian toleration of religion is that it only allows for a very narrow definition of religion. Religion is only acceptable, publicly, when it exhibits a “high rationality.” In this way, he is still excluding a lot of religious reasoning and barring many religious people from public discourse. If someone’s religion is emotional, or traditional, or grounded in personal experience, it is disallowed. Though he sounds like he’s pushing for an act of inclusion — against, for example, “the blinkered enlightenment which is unenlightened about itself and which denies religion any rational content” (An Awareness of What is Missing 18) — it is also an act of exclusion.

This critique can usefully be pushed further.

It seems right that, as Dillon says, the burden of translation is exclusionary. More than that, though, the translation proviso makes exclusion the default. Religious citizens are kept out of the public discourse, unless and until they can prove their reasoning is sufficiently translated. The onus is on them. The starting assumption is that religious people will be fundamentally unable to speak to those who don’t share their faith.

But why start with the assumption that translation will be a problem?

Dillon, in her work, has looked at Catholic bishop’s arguments against legalizing divorce in Ireland. She found that the bishops made sociological claims about the effects of divorce on women, children, and society. They did not just invoke their own authority, nor rely on Catholic moral teaching. Even though most Irish were Catholics, the arguments made by the bishops on this matter were public, secular arguments, entirely within what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” (539-593).

Similarly, in the United States, many religious citizens have organized to oppose same-sex marriage. Mormon, Catholic, and evangelical groups have stated that they want to “defend traditional marriage,” and that their religious beliefs commit them to that position. However, when one looks at the legal briefs filed by religious groups in the landmark Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, for example, one doesn’t find mainly religious arguments. One finds religious groups making sociological arguments about the importance of traditional marriage and the probable consequences of changing that. The debate is about what the contested law would and wouldn’t do. Whether or not one agrees, all the purportedly religious arguments are quite intelligible from a non-religious perspective.

It’s not even clear that it would be right to speak of these religious forays into public discourse as involving “translation.” The idea that divorce in Ireland or same-sex marriage in the United States will hurt families is not the secular equivalent of a religious idea. The sense, rather, is that religious teachings are relevant to human flourishing. To the extent that the wider public shares those conceptions of human flourishing, the arguments are intelligible.

This too can be pushed further: Even when religious people do explicitly invoke an authority that is not generally accepted, that doesn’t, in practice, mean that those arguments cannot be understood. Dillon has found that pro-change Catholics use theological arguments to claim their legitimate social identity. “The Catholics I had studied,” she says, “were clearly grounding their emancipatory claims for greater equality within religious reasoning. And it was the sort of reasoning that would appeal or could persuade people who were Catholic or not Catholic.” The same could be said of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ more controversial practice of rejecting blood transfusion. While the argument is religious — blood is connected to the soul— it is not unintelligible to those who don’t share the presuppositions of Witnesses. To the general public, these claims seem wrong, but not radically indecipherable.

Habermas, even after his new openness to the religious, holds that religious reasoning is entirely different from and incomprehensible to non-religious reasoning. He writes that “The cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged” (An Awareness of What is Missing: 17). This is empirically wrong. Perhaps Habermas hasn’t seen such bridges, but they are quite common.

Religious people regularly enter into conversations with those from other religions as well as those with no religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door speaking English are good examples. They wanted to talk about God’s plan for a happy life. Their speech was, to use a Habermasian word, verständigungsorientiert. That is to say, it was oriented toward understanding (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 1).

The Witness’ speech, in fact, was a communicative action. It did all of the things that Habermas’ earlier work explains that communicative action is supposed to do. It was based on the four pragmatic presuppositions necessary to communication, “the shared presupposition of a world of independently existing objects, the reciprocal presupposition of rationality or ‘accountability,’ the unconditionality of context-transcending validity claims such as truth and moral rightness, and the demanding presuppositions of argumentation” (Between Naturalism and Religion: 28). It was, as argumentation, also grounded in the presuppositions of Habermasian rational discourse: publicity and inclusivity, equality, truthfulness, and the absence of coercion (Ibid: 50, 82). Though he might not have recognized it, the Witnesses are a good example of what Habermas has described as the embodiment of reason in everyday communicative practice (Ibid: 25).

Habermas’ ideas about the communicative action, then, usefully counter the so-called translation “problem” of the post-secular public sphere. These religious arguments are part of the normal spectrum of speech, and thus participate in the same normative conditions. To quote Habermas, “one can say that the general and unavoidable—in this sense transcendental—conditions of possible understanding have a normative content when one has in mind not only the binding character of norms of action or even the binding character of rules in general, but the validity basis of speech across its entire spectrum” (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 2).

To assume that translation will be a significant problem is to assume that religious people’s religious communication is not fundamentally verständigungsorientiert, not oriented toward understanding. But of course it is. For, as one can learn from Habermas, that orientation is internal to the structure of communication.

In her interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dillon suggests that Habermas is a great and underused resource. Thinking about religious people in dialogue with those who don’t share their beliefs is an example of how this is true. For those in religious studies, the problems and the potential of Habermas’ thought can serve as a starting place to ask about the kinds of arguments religious people are using in public reasoning and what frameworks they are using to legitimate their views.

Thinking with and against Habermas in this way can also, if nothing else, serve to correct the mistaken assumptions one makes when coming up with excuses not to talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses.



Habermas, Jürgen. Between Naturalism and Religion. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

——. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon, 1979.

Habermas, Jürgen, et al. An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard, 2007.