I had two insights in the course of writing this book that fundamentally altered my sense of how we ought to study religion. The first arose as I began to pay attention to the way scholars use terms related to religion. While we routinely refer to the study of religion and definitions of religion, I noticed that in switching to an ascriptive formulation, I was forced to use the adjective “religious” rather than the noun “religion.” Moreover, in drawing on Durkheim's definition of “the sacred” as things set apart and prohibited, I realized that he used his definition of “the sacred” to define a religion rather than religion per se. In fact, he makes a very clear distinction between “sacred things” and “religions.” In his words, it is only “when a certain number of sacred things have relations of coordination and subordination with one another, so as to form a system that has a certain coherence and does not belong to any other system of the same sort, [that] … the beliefs and rites, taken together, constitute a religion” (Durkheim 1912/1995, 38). He then adds: “By this definition, a religion is not necessarily contained within a single idea and does not derive from a single principle that may vary with the circumstances it deals with, while remaining basically the same everywhere. Instead, it is a whole formed of separate and relatively distinct parts” (38, emphasis added). Durkheim's distinction between “sacred things” and “religions” and his conception of religions as wholes formed of separate and relatively distinct parts led to the distinction between simple and composite ascriptions advanced in chapter 1.
The second insight, which came much later, had to do with the idea of “specialness” and its potential benefits as a second-order concept. This insight arose as I reflected on Sørensen's (2007) use of “magic” and “sacred” as second-order terms in relation to my use of “religious” as a second-order term in the first draft of this book. As I struggled to figure out how to discuss his theory of ritual, which he describes etically as a theory of “magic” and which he and I both think offers a coherent theory of how a great deal of “religious” ritual works, I finally decided it was just too confusing to use terms such as “magic,” “sacred,” and “religious” as second-order terms. In doing so, we wind up having to translate between second-order, scholarly discourses, when what we need is a common, more generic discourse that will allow us to analyze how