What Does It Mean to Be Religious?

Recently, Lauren Markoe of the Religion News Service posted an article, “Report: Americans hold different views of what ‘religious’ means.” Markoe explained,

There is a lopsided divide in America about what it means to be a religious person, with a majority believing that it’s about acting morally but a strong minority equating it with faith. Nearly six out of 10 Americans (59 percent) say that being a religious person “is primarily about living a good life and doing the right thing,” as opposed to the more than one-third (36 percent) who hold that being religious “is primarily about having faith and the right beliefs.”

[These statistics were the result of research completed by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution.] The point of the piece was that even though Americans may agree generally about the importance of “religion” or “being religious,” there is little agreement on what that actually means. In many ways, those familiar with the academic study of religion should not be surprised. Few scholars agree on the definition of religion, let alone if there is something to define at all. Students of religion in America in particular should know that Americans have rarely agreed on what “counts” as religious practice or “real” religion. Nevertheless, findings like this can sometimes catch readers off guard.

This is precisely what happened to my students at Florida A&M in spring 2013. Although they had not read this piece, we held our own discussions that led to this conclusion. As an exercise to examine the class’ assumptions about what it means to be religious, each student wrote their own definition of religion at the beginning of the semester. I collected their definitions and created a word cloud based on the compilation of all definitions.

Screen Shot 2013-01-20 at 7.21.57 PM

Although it’s not scientific, it certainly was a valuable talking point for the class. Until they saw this graphic, the class was mostly pleased that nearly all students agreed that religion was an important part of people’s daily lives, universally across cultures. [In my experience, this class was an outlier compared to other classes I have taught. I had no skeptics who participated in class discussion] After looking at the graphic, they started to realize the distinctions within and among those who call themselves “religious.” Their own definitions reveal that, as a class, they fall into the minority of the above study, thinking that religion “is primarily about having faith and the right beliefs.” More importantly than falling into one camp or the other, we had a way to begin a semester long conversation about the variety of ways that religion is defined and why.

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