Religion / not religion – a discourse analysis

By Suzanne Owen

In the study of indigenous religions, one of the issues a scholar faces is the gap between self-representation and scholarly classification, particularly with regard to the concept of ‘religion’. So how does the scholar of religion approach this issue? Shamanism is an interesting example, one which illustrates this problem, as this term was also coined by scholars, derived from one group in Siberia and applied cross-culturally to others, which then influenced diverse peoples to adopt the term when describing their traditions to outsiders, often in distinction to what is regarded as ‘religion’.

‘Shaman’, from šamān, a specialist among the Evenki (Tungus), became the prototype, the model, on which to judge similar roles in other societies. Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy was published in English in 1964, and it has been difficult to get away from his conception of shamanism ever since. He employs a comparative approach that draws examples from a wide range of cultures. Since then, ‘shaman’ has been used as a ‘catch-all’ designation for a variety of specialists among indigenous communities from Siberia to South America. For Eliade, shamanism is a ‘technique’ rather than a religion per se, emphasizing its universality as a set of practices found in many traditions.

Similarly, Merete Demant Jakobsen defines shamanism as ‘a flexible configuration of behavior patterns, including magical flight, trance and, first and foremost, mastery of spirits’ (Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits, Oxford; New York: Berghahn Books, 1999, x). She cites Ake Hultkranz, who also states that shamanism is not a religion in its own right. Jakobsen herself categorizes shamanism as a ‘spirituality’ (Jakobsen 1999, viii-ix).

In contrast, Piers Vitebsky sees ‘shamanism as a religion, or rather a name given to a collection of religions’ (‘Shamanism, in Graham Harvey, ed. Indigenous Religions: A Companion, New York; London: Cassell, 2000, 55). Here he also describes shamanism as ‘the world’s oldest religion’, which implies that indigenous traditions are ‘primal’ or foundational, as well as ‘primitive’. That aside, scholars are caught between employing the term ‘shamanism’ as it is understood by the practitioner, influenced by popular and scholarly constructions, and the need to deconstruct it.

In the case of the Cofán of Ecuador, ‘shamanism’ is a term they are comfortable employing when speaking to outsiders about their traditions. According to one Cofán leader, Fidel Aguinda (pc), communication is a three-way process with the shaman (na’su) acting as the link. The shaman communicates with the ‘hidden’ world while the leaders communicate with the external world, and both report to each other about what is going on in their respective realms. To the question about whether shamanism is a religion, Aguinda insists that ‘it is not a religion’ and that he has no religion, because, to him, Catholicism is ‘religion’ while shamanism is ‘tradition’.

This reluctance on the part of indigenous peoples to equate their traditions with ‘religion’ stems from its association with missionary activity. Anthropologists have generally been complicit in this by using a variety of other labels – ‘life-way’, ‘tradition’, ‘culture’ and, when trying to be specific, ‘ritual’ – rather than ‘religion’ – supporting the indigenous view that what they are doing is not religion. We could point out, of course, that they are assuming a Protestant Christian model of ‘religion’, which does not match indigenous traditions. Also, their rejection of ‘religion’ is not surprising bearing in mind they were at first told they had no religion due to the absence of churches and scriptures, an argument employed to justify colonization.

Religion is not a universal concept; it is just as historically contingent as any other concept. According to Timothy Fitzgerald, ‘“Religion”, rather than being a kind of neutral category which can be created by the scholar for his or her own purposes, is laden with cultural and ideological assumptions and interests’ (Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. London: Equinox, 2007, 40). If we describe an indigenous tradition as ‘religion’, we are likely imposing a category onto those who are intentionally rejecting it and its colonial associations. It may be useful instead to employ the classifications used by practitioners to avoid imposing categories where they are not wanted, but, even so, emic or insider constructions would need to be defined and understood cross-culturally, thereby becoming etic. As Russell McCutcheon noted, there is no emic perspective until it is explained to or constructed by an outsider (Studying Religion: An Introduction. London: Equinox, 2007, 51). The reverse is also true – that etic or outsider constructions derive from emic ones and therefore an etic construction could well be privileging one particular emic perspective – that of the western European. ‘Religion’ is one emic term among many that are employed etically, that is, cross-culturally. Done unconsciously, imposing one culturally-derived category onto another can be regarded as a form of cultural imperialism.

How does one avoid this? One could just acknowledge the differences in categorization, or another approach would be to employ discourse analysis to determine how terms are understood and employed or rejected. Whether one takes Tylor’s definition of religion as belief in spiritual beings or a Durkheimian one that sees it as relating to things set apart – sacred things – definitions of religion tell us more about the definer and their assumptions than it does about ‘religion’. One reason why religion is hard to define is that religion is not a ‘thing’; it is not something out there in distinction to other things. So, religion becomes something voluntary, of which one can opt in or out. Jonathan Z Smith indicates that religion should be treated instead as a linguistic, conceptual tool, as definitions made by those employing the term are ‘intimately linked to their interests’ (McCutcheon 2007, 68).

This is illustrated by the case of the Druid Network in England, who went against the trend by registering as a charity for the advancement of religion when in general Druids do not regard what they are doing as ‘religious’. The Charity Commission for England and Wales ( ) agreed initially with the general view until the Druid Network convinced them that ‘nature’ was a form of deity and that respect for nature was a form of worship (to simplify the complex negotiation between the two parties). Daily Mail columnist, Melanie Philips (‘Druids as an official religion? Stones of Praise here we come,’ 2010), responded to the decision by saying it ‘is an attack upon the very concept of religion itself.’ She stated that ‘Druidry is simply not a religion’, though admitting that ‘religion is notoriously difficult to define. But true religions surely rest on an established structure of traditions, beliefs, literature and laws. Above all, they share a belief in a supernatural deity (or more than one) that governs the universe.’

Public recognition as a religion, according to Druid Network sources, legitimates Druidry and gives them acceptance and validity in society. Perhaps other groups will move away from the ‘we’re spiritual not religious’ and say, ‘yes, we’re a bona fide religion and therefore should be taught in schools’. However, as scholars, we need not take sides in the debate about whether one tradition or another is a religion or not, but we can try to understand the assumptions, interests and intentions of those who employ or reject the term.

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3 Responses to Religion / not religion – a discourse analysis

  1. Louise says:

    Hi Suzanne,

    Interesting article. Only I wonder if this ‘imposing on’ is the case with any religion. Anthropologists also intend to call people in the non-Western world Christians, or Muslims whereas they define themselves otherwise. What makes this finding specific for Indigenous Religions ? How are you doing further ?

    greetings louise

    • Suzanne Owen says:

      Hi Louise, yes, it applies to any area of study, not just ‘religion’. If in the case of Ghanaians anthropologists are calling them Christian or Muslim, but some Ghanaians are calling themselves something else, that is interesting to take note of and to see what the underlying assumption are from the anthropologists and what the Ghanaians are resisting/constructing (e.g. a ‘new’ indigenous identity).

  2. Dave W says:

    Interesting piece. Melanie Phillips has the power to even make me sympathetic for neo-Druids..

    I think we do, nonetheless, always end up taking sides as to whether a particular tradition fits a specific set of criteria we might look as at defining a ‘religion’, and while we appreciate the diversity of attempts at definition, we will also, I think, come to favour a certain definition – thinking it better/more accurate at capturing the phenomena, etc. As such, most scholars will have a view, albeit often implicit, as to whether a certain tradition is a religion or not..

    Personally, I would think there is little question that Druidry is religious, even when some use the SBNR self-description…

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