A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion

By Michele Dillon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Social Forms of Religion and Religions
in Contemporary Global Society
Peter Beyer

CONCEIVING AND DEFINING RELIGION AND RELIGIONS

It may seem to many readers that religion is a fairly straightforward notion, easily bringing to mind clear and concrete pictures: A group of Muslims at daily prayer, a Christian priest saying mass, a Buddhist monk or nun meditating, a person lighting a votive or holiday candle, and myriad other possibilities. Yet, as in several other domains of social life, such as art, sport, and that ever elusive term, culture, what seems clear at a quick and first glance is anything but upon further reflection. If a Shakespearean play and neolithic cave paintings count as art, what about the arrangement of flowers on the dining room table, a television advertisement, or the rousing performance of a popular politician on the hustings? If ice dancing is an Olympic sport, why isn't ballroom dancing even a sport? If dim-sum is part of Chinese culture, how many kung-fu centers do there have to be in Houston or San Francisco before they become an expression of American culture? Similarly, while most readers may agree that what happens in a Jewish synagogue or at a Shinto shrine qualifies as religion, many people in Western countries have just as serious doubts about what happens at a Scientology course as government officials in China have about Falun Gong. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Brahma Kumaris are clearly religious groups; are they also Christian and Hindu, respectively?

How important such questions are varies according to time, place, and circumstance. If the Christian status of Mormons and the cultural status of kung-fu establishments are currently not all that critical in the United States, the Islamic status of Baha'is in Iran or the cultural implications of the magazine, Sports Illustrated,1 in Canada have in recent years been hotly debated or highly consequential issues. Ambiguities and disagreement in these matters can often be of great practical importance; they interest more than detached intellectual observers. Moreover, it seems that the sorts of dispute that arise with regard to these concepts are basically of three kinds, two of them having

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1
Sports Illustrated, a large American-based sports magazine, publishes a Canadian issue, but sells advertisements at relatively low prices to Canadian companies, thus making it harder for Canadian-based magazines to survive only in the Canadian market. The argument against what Sports Illustrated does has been framed in Canada as a matter of defending “Canadian culture.”

-45-

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