Religion is notoriously difficult to define, despite yeoman efforts by scholars like Clifford Geertz. This should really surprise no one because, like so many of the basic building blocks of our thought, it shares ranges of existences where its meanings vary, especially when it tries to move from popular parlance into more specialized academic usage. Besides, it just is no single thing. Its variation and its play is part of what makes it interesting to study.
I like that idea, that its movement, its flexibility, its shifts, make it worth studying.
For decades now, the category has troubled me. I have not been a fan of Geertz' efforts, nor those of many other scholars. I have never been convinced by the idea that somehow religion was different from other areas of human endeavor and, as a result, required its own concepts such as belief, symbolism, ritual, magic, liturgy, conversion, supernatural, god, spirits, evil, demons, transcendent, and so on. Other than marking something as religious and, despite the hearty efforts of scholars to work those concepts, I have never been convinced they had much to offer that was exclusive to religion. Furthermore, it has always seemed to me that the ordinary tools of social science should be applied to religion, that scholars should not take it as a special kind of thing, just because it said it was.
Nevertheless, not all that is defined as religion sees itself as special and unique. That may well be particularly the case where religion originally developed as a term and took utility, the West. I have long been a proponent that the only meaningful use of the term was as a self-descriptor that arose historically in a particular time and place with which it is inherently connected. At the same time, I had to recognize the importance of the category for marketing one's studies and for finding a niche in the academy and society, although it really was not all that useful in anthropology for most of my career. But it was elsewhere.
However, that marketing thing has spread and makes religion a social category to be dealt with. I mean that it is a jurisprudential category that establishes a field of behavior as different. Religion has become a space excluded from ordinary private and public law, and ordinary social behavior. Not only is this the case in the United States where religion as an exception--and yes I do mean to refer to Agamben and Schmitt--is established in the First Amendment to the Constitution, it is also the case throughout the world.
The Universal Declaration of Human rights establishes religion as a protected difference, just as it removes it from the ordinary particularity we anthropologists often demand, especially following Boas. It is declared a universal and made a right.
This is further made the case in other UN documents, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, and the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document. It has, as a result, become the matter of politics among nations, the actions of multilateral agencies, and cases brought before international and national tribunals on the basis these documents provide.
Therefore, religion now has a substance, as an exclusion. The problem, for jurists, is determining what qualifies an aspect of human life or an institution to qualify for that exclusion. Here they wrestle. And in their wrestling and decisions they will define religion. And the result may not be what Churches and other religious bodies of many sorts expect and use for their own self definition and action. But these decision will impact them, like a form of procrustean bed, and over time force them to fit whatever the issues come to be to qualify as a religion and thus be part of a universal exclusion, a human right.
No matter how we academics define and work the category, although we can expect our work to be drawn into the legal conflicts where useful, it has taken a substance as an absence whose boundaries must be defined.
Oh well. It will be lots of fun to observe this process and study its details. There is work to be done. Damn you Agamben anyway.