Religion is a word that is commonly used in everyday language uncritically by simply assuming that everyone knows what the term means. In like manner, the phrase “to be religious” frequently is employed without explanation to refer to people who practice religion. A prime example is found in the recent television program featuring British television presenter and adventurer Ben Fogle in the BBC production “Scotland's Sacred Islands.” The description provided by the BBC states that Fogle “is on a very personal pilgrimage” and explains that “travelling across Scotland's remotest islands, he discovers that their spiritual legacy still resonates today” (BBC 2021). Throughout the four episodes, Fogle repeatedly refers to “religion,” “religious,” “spiritual,” and “sacred,” while taking for granted that his audience will know immediately what he means by these terms. In various interviews with people living on the islands, Fogle discovered that islanders frequently associated religion with the church, religious with those whose Christian faith seemed to mean a great deal to the way they live their lives, spiritual to a sense or feeling of something greater than an individual (as demonstrated by the beauty of the sea, the islands, and the awe-inspiring power of nature), and sacred as something that somehow, inextricably, is evoked by the islands themselves.“Scotland's Sacred Islands” leads to two important conclusions for the academic study of religion. The first suggests that scholars have a responsibility to clarify what they mean by religion, not only for other academics to debate, but to inform the general public about how religion can be a contested term and to promote widespread reflection on how it is used and understood. The second point relates to religious experience. As Fogle demonstrates, spirituality is a common term used by those who do not consider themselves religious. Fogle himself is shown to be deeply moved when in solitude he looks out over the sea and observes a brilliant sunset or sunrise. He admits that he is not particularly religious, but he connects experientially, at times to the point of being brought to tears, to the environment he discovers on the remote Scottish islands he visits. The individualism associated with “spiritual,” often contrasted with institutional affiliations connected to “religion,” as illustrated by Fogle's television journey, calls for an in-depth academic analysis.To do this, I organize this article under five themes. I begin with religious experience by asking what makes an experience “religious.” I argue that to answer this question, we must first define what we mean by religion. Only then can we know what a religious experience is and what it is not, with the consequence that we can also clarify what is meant by “spiritual” and a spiritual experience. I approach this issue by analyzing the argument of Ann Taves that religion should not be defined substantively, but ascriptively, by calling religion anything that people deem to be religious. The second theme highlights the academic debate over the terms “religion” and “secular” by considering the argument articulated by Timothy Fitzgerald that religion as a concept is so entangled with Western colonialism and power that it should be dropped altogether. I then move in the third section to formulate my own definition of religion as the transmission of an authoritative tradition, which I use as a platform for critically assessing the positions advanced by Taves and Fitzgerald. The fourth theme I consider in this article focuses on research methods by building a case, derived from my prior arguments, for what I call “relational research.” In the concluding section, I reflect on how my approach to the study of religion appropriately delimits the field of religious studies while opening new avenues for research methods based on the scientific understanding of relationality.In 2015, Peggy Morgan, former director of the Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC), now located at the University of Wales Trinity St David, wrote the first article in the inaugural issue of the open-access Journal for the Study of Religious Experience (Morgan 2015, 3–19). In her article, Morgan traces the history of the study of religious experience primarily through the works of the seminal figure in this field, William James, and the founder of the RERC, the marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy, both of whom agreed that religious experience is distinguished from other human experiences by the testimonies of individuals that they have encountered a transcendent source or a higher being (see also Cox 2021).In the Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901–1902, which were subsequently published as The Varieties of Religious Experience, James defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine” (emphasis in original) (1902, 31). James clarifies that he uses the word “divine” not only to refer to “the primal and enveloping and real,” but to suggest the deep importance of the object of experience to the individual, who, as a result, responds to the divine “solemnly and gravely” (1902, 38). Of course, James understands differences in the intensity of experiences, but he maintains that for the experience to be “religious,” it must reflect an encounter with a “primal reality” that is treated with utmost seriousness (James 1902, 38).Morgan (2015, 12) contends that both James and Hardy viewed religion as “personal.” After citing James's well-known definition of religion in support of this assertion, she turns to a more detailed analysis of how religion, and hence religious experience, was understood by Hardy. In his important book The Spiritual Nature of Man, Hardy refers to religion as a “feeling of contact with a Greater Power beyond the self” (cited by Morgan 2015, 12). He adds: “The main characteristics of man's religious and spiritual experiences are shown in his feelings for a transcendent reality” (cited in Morgan 2015, 12). These statements suggest that because religion is seen always as relating to a greater power or transcendent reality, what makes an experience religious and distinguishable from other experiences for both James and Hardy is precisely its relation to such an alleged reality. This widespread interpretation is supported further if we look at a sampling of how scholars writing in respected reference books have defined the “object” of religious experience.An informative entry on “Religious Experience,” published in the Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions in 1981, was written by H. N. Malony, who at the time was a professor in the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Malony provides a classic example of a scholar who defines religious experience as related to transcendental entities. In his opening sentence, he provides an overview of what he discusses in the article and, at the same time, makes clear the parameters within which he considers an experience to qualify as religious: An encounter with what is seen as transcendent reality; varies among major religious traditions; can be theistic or nontheistic, individual or group, passive or active, novel or recurring, intense or mild, transitory or enduring, tradition-centered or not, initiatory or developmental, expected or spontaneous; types may include ascetic, mystical, or prophetic, either reviving, affirming or converting, either confirming, responsive, ecstatic or revelational. (Malony 1981, 613)He then defines the focus of religious experience as “a claim of an encounter with a novel object, i.e., the divine” (Malony 1981, 613). This “accounts for its uniqueness in comparison to all other types of experience” (Malony 1981, 613). For Malony, the experience need not be unusual or intense, nor is there any necessary relationship between a religious experience and a particular belief about the nature of the divine.This interpretation of religious experience, or permutations of it, has been repeated in numerous subsequent publications. For example, in his entry in the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, Robert Kaizen Gunn defines religious experience simply “as an experience of the transcendent or the supernatural (or some equivalent term)” (Gunn 2010, 773). A related, but more technical analysis is provided by Keith E. Yandell in his article on “Religious Experience” that appeared in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, in which Yandell defines religion soteriologically. He argues that every religion “has two essential components, a diagnosis and a cure” (Yandell 2010, 405) (emphasis in original). The important distinction between a religious and a nonreligious diagnosis is that a religious diagnosis “asserts that every human person has a basic non-physical illness so deep that, unless one is cured, one's potential is unfulfilled and one's nature cripplingly flawed” (Yandell 2010, 405). As a result, a religious experience occurs when a person is cured of the nonphysical illness that inflicts itself on every human as it has been diagnosed by a particular religious tradition. Another definition of religious experience is provided by Jerome Gellman. Writing in the Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, Gellman defines “religious” as referring to an alleged out of the ordinary experience “purportedly granting acquaintance with, or supporting belief in the existence of, realities or states of affairs not accessible by way of sense perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection” (Gellman 2015, 155).In each of these definitions, reference is made to what the individual perceives as the non-ordinary causes of the experience: “transcendent or supernatural” (Gunn); knowledge of cures of a “non-physical illness” that stifles individual development (Yandel); that which is inaccessible by way of ordinary perceptions, including sense, bodily, or mental apprehensions (Gellman). Writing in the SAGE Encyclopedia of the Sociology of Religion, Mihai Coman classifies these typical ways of describing religious experience as “radically different from any other type of human experience” because they are regarded as having occurred in isolation from “linguistic, cultural, or historical circumstances” (Coman 2020, 685).Much recent academic work has been done on rethinking religious experience that pushes our understanding of the “religious” nature of such experiences beyond theological or ahistorical assumptions. An important contribution to this discussion has been made by Ann Taves in her incisive book Religious Experience Reconsidered (2009). Of particular interest to me in this context is the manner by which Taves proposes to separate “religion” from “non-religion” by constructing a pragmatic interpretation of religion, with quite practical implications for the study of religious experience.Chapter one of Taves's book carries the simple title “Religion,” with the subtitle “Deeming Things Religious.” Initially, Taves distinguishes between what she calls a “sui generis” approach to religious experience, which assumes that some experiences are inherently religious, and ones that are ascribed as religious by those who have undergone the experience. These two methodological approaches are reflected in approaches to the study of religion: The first represents the idea that religion stands as a category by itself that cannot be reduced to other disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, biology, or any other field of study; the second argues that religion, in Taves's words, is “ascriptive,” by which she means that religion “is purely relational and has no essential content of its own” (2009, 16).By differentiating between sui generis and ascriptive methods, Taves suggests that defining religion or religions substantively is confusing. A far better approach is to study what people deem to be religious, that is, what they “view as special, or that they set apart” (Taves 2009, 17). By following this method, it is possible to reframe how religious experience is understood. Rather than adhering to the “sui generis model,” which assumes that “there are uniquely religious (or mystical or spiritual) experiences, emotions, acts, or objects,” the “ascription model” contends “that religious or mystical or spiritual or sacred ‘things’ are created when religious significance is assigned to them” (Taves 2009, 17).Taves argues that during the latter half of the twentieth century, scholars of religion advanced as a “disciplinary axiom” that religion constituted an irreducible object for study that could only be explained in religious terms (2009, 18–19). It was accepted that to do otherwise was to fall into the trap of reductionism whereby religion was erroneously interpreted using nonreligious categories. According to Taves, this had unintended consequences for the comparative study of religions, the field with which most scholars in the “sui generis” camp associated. If scholars assert, prior to any empirical study, that religion cannot be explained by employing nonreligious concepts, the consequence is that academic research in religion is limited to comparing what researchers define as religious things, such as Mircea Eliade's cosmogonic myths or Wilfred Cantwell Smith's expressions of personal faith (Cox 2010, 64–68). By contrast, the ascription model, as outlined by Taves, makes genuine comparative studies possible because, she argues, “it frees us to compare things that have features in common, whether they are deemed religious or not” (Taves 2009, 19). It also has the advantage of urging scholars to understand why “people deem some things . . . as religious and others as not” (Taves 2009, 19).The study of religious experience on the ascription model is based on empirical methods for interpreting causality and thereby avoids the theological associations of the sui generis model, which assumes that “religious things, existing as such, have special inherent properties that can cause things to happen” (Taves 2009, 20). Scholars of religion, that is, those who study what people deem as religious, focus on how people “characterize things as religious” and as a result how they “endow them with the (real or perceived) special properties that are then presumed to be able to effect things” (Taves 2009, 20). Even some scholars who define religion nontheologically fail to achieve genuine empirical results because they limit themselves to studying what they deem to be religious rather than investigating whether “people directly involved with the ‘thing’ in question deem it religious or not” (Taves 2009, 21).Were Taves to have stopped at this point, she would have been left open to the charge that the scholar of religion simply accepts commonsense, unreflective ideas about what constitutes religion and what types of experience qualify as being religious. She admits that “even if our primary interest is in how people on the ground deem things religious . . . we still need to specify what we mean by ‘religious’” (Taves 2009, 22). To avoid the problem of falling back into the error of the sui generis model, Taves introduces the concept “specialness” as a “generic net that captures most of what people have in mind when they refer to ‘sacred’, ‘magical’, ‘spiritual’, ‘mystical’, or ‘religious’” (Taves 2009, 26). She claims that by adopting this approach she is following in the steps of Durkheim, who referred to “sacred things” as “things set apart and forbidden” (Taves 2009, 26). In like manner, it is possible to study what things people identify as special and “if there are particular types of things that are more likely to be considered special than others” (Taves 2009, 26). This enables “specialness” to be studied both behaviorally and substantively. In this way, Taves addresses the problems created by all attempts to define religion, while at the same time resolving the dichotomy set up between sui generis and ascriptive methods in the study of religions: Rather than stipulating a definition of ‘religious ascriptions’ or ‘things deemed religious,’ we can use the idea of ‘specialness’ to identify a set of things that includes much of what people have in mind when they refer to things as ‘sacred,’ ‘magical,’ ‘mystical,’ ‘superstitious,’ ‘spiritual,’ and/or ‘religious.’ Whatever else they are, things that get caught up in the web of relations marked out by these terms are things that someone or some group has granted some sort of special status. (Taves 2009, 27)If we follow Taves, an experience to be considered religious must satisfy two conditions: It must be deemed religious by the individual experiencing it and/or the group among whom the experience occurs; and it must be granted the status of “specialness” by the individual who has undergone the experience and/or the group of which the individual forms a part.Throughout her analysis of what makes an experience religious, Taves has not suggested that the term religion should be abandoned. She has simply offered a way around the problem of defining religion by focusing on how individuals and groups interpret something as being religious in terms of specialness. By contrast, a fundamental case for dispensing with the word religion altogether was presented to the academic community during the first two decades of the twenty-first century by Timothy Fitzgerald, beginning with his controversial book The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000). In light of Fitzgerald's sustained argument, the question Taves asks about what makes an experience religious, if it is to be taken seriously, must address and respond to the points Fitzgerald makes. This is because Fitzgerald's critique of religion, and concurrently his rejection of religious studies as an academic discipline, challenges scholars who claim to study religious communities using nontheological social scientific methods to defend how they employ the term religion without reference to supernatural entities or the concept of the sacred.Fitzgerald, in agreement with Taves, contested the long-held dictum promulgated widely by phenomenologists of religion that the academic study of religion operates as a separate category, sui generis, which cannot be reduced to other academic disciplines (Cox 2006, 122–24). Fitzgerald, however, has gone much further than Taves by insisting that the term religion cannot be fitted into empirical studies of human societies because it is so closely bound to Western, Christian ideologies that it has been used as a tool for the wider exercise of power over non-Western cultures (Fitzgerald 2000, 8). A summary of Fitzgerald's argument will enable me to turn in the next section of this article to present my own definition of religion and to make a case for retaining the term both for critical academic study and for popular use.In his edited book Religion and the Secular (2007b), Fitzgerald challenged the persistent use of the term religion by analyzing the commonly maintained sociological distinction between “religion” and the “secular” (see also Cox 2019). He did this not so much on sociological grounds but by contesting the assumptions that support the distinction in the first place, which he traced to the gradual separation of individual spirituality from the processes of social and economic development as it occurred in Western Europe, beginning as early as the seventeenth century. He notes that being religious in premodern thought referred to those whose special vocation was dedicated entirely to the work of the church (such as monks, nuns, and friars—those in religious orders), whereas secular designated those whose work was involved in day-to-day activities in the world, such as the responsibilities assumed by parish priests. There was no idea that the label “religious” referred to those who believed in God and were involved in Christian institutions, whereas the “secular” was irreligious; on the contrary, both were religious in the modern sense of the word as being devoted to the work, faith, and activity of the church (Fitzgerald 2007b, 220–21). Fitzgerald argues further that the conversion of the traditional understanding of religion and secular into opposing attitudes toward Christian institutions and values entailed more than a change in nomenclature as society developed, but was an ideological construct imposed in support of political and economic interests, most notably originating in the thought of seventeenth-century English political philosophers such as John Locke.In addition to fostering separate categories for religious and secular institutions, Fitzgerald suggests that, from the seventeenth century onward, religion began increasingly to be conceived as inner and spiritual and the secular as public. This resulted in a transformation from what he calls “encompassing” religion to “privatized” religion. By encompassing religion, Fitzgerald is referring to the pre-Enlightenment Christian idea that “religion means Christian Truth,” that it “is all-encompassing and universal, and that nothing exists . . . outside religion” (Fitzgerald 2007b, 219). He adds that in premodern times, “what we today have separated out as ‘religion’, ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ were embedded in different configurations within the totality” (2007b, 219). This change has resulted now in what we commonly regard as “secular,” which, being synonymous with “nonreligious,” is rooted in the idea of scientific objectivity that “presupposes some idea of the observing subject who can stand back from the world and make factually true propositions about it” (2007b, 234).Fitzgerald contends that the emergence during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of the academic study of religion followed the same ideological model as the spread of privatized religion. This was evidenced by the establishment of departments dedicated to the study of religion, defined as the beliefs and practices of people who focus on sacred or transcendent entities, while consigning the investigation of secular aspects of life to similarly restricted and reified academic disciplines. The motivation supporting the isolation of religion from other specialized areas of study was based on an ideological commitment to the religion–secular divide, best illustrated in the historical shift from encompassing to privatized religion. In his second major monograph, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, Fitzgerald reinforced this idea: Religion as a distinct and substantive reality in the world or as a universal and autonomous domain of human experience and action is a myth, or a rhetorical discursive formation, and I conclude that religious studies is an agency for uncritically formulating and legitimating this myth and embedding it into the warp and woof of our collective consciousness—a modern ideological category transformed by ritual repetition such that it seems as though it is in the nature of things. (2007a, 9–10)Fitzgerald argues further that the uncritical attitude toward the study of religion “is not harmless; it has consequences.” (2007a, 10) One significant consequence occurred as Western colonial activities spread across the globe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which the notion of privatized religion gradually replaced the encompassing understanding of religion that dominated most non-Western societies. Religions as discrete, bounded entities were invented to describe the dominant expressions of local rituals, myths, protocols, and traditions, which, originally as all-encompassing, could not be separated from other activities of life. The Western division between religion and the secular, moreover, created the world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, and a host of “primitive” or “animistic” religions. By limiting religion to activities pointing toward a sacred or transcendent entity or entities, religious life among colonized societies was clearly segregated from the institutions of government, social organizations, and economic systems. Even “primitive” religions were discussed only in terms of beliefs about gods, spirits, witches, or other supranormal beings. Fitzgerald's primary examples are derived from Japan and India, where he contends that religion, conceived in Western terms, is largely meaningless apart from its close alliance with Western hegemonic institutions. To speak of religion as a self-contained, autonomous, and separate aspect of life that is delineated from secular institutions by its focus on the sacred, therefore, on Fitzgerald's reading, is to manipulate an entirely inappropriate, ideologically loaded term as a tool for managing interconnected customary practices.According to Fitzgerald, the privatization of religion that produced the religion–secular division not only had its roots in Western Enlightenment concepts, but equally reflected the theology of the Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on inward spirituality and personal salvation. As religions began to be thought of as distinct entities, Protestant theologians became obsessed with comparing the teaching of the religions of the world with the salvific efficacy of the Christian message. The studies of religions as academic projects thus were not only products of the move to separate religious from so-called secular institutions, but were also supported by the theological framework that sought to establish the superiority of Christianity as a religion over other religions of the world. This not only aided the Protestant missionary movement of the nineteenth century but firmly established the comparative study of religions as an instrument for promoting Christian theological and missiological intentions. The academic discipline that came to be called religious studies, on this analysis, was turned by early theologically trained academics, particularly in the phenomenological tradition, into a crypto-theology, veiling a hidden agenda aimed at demonstrating the superiority of Christian beliefs over other religious beliefs (Cox 2006, 104–7). In more recent times the Christocentric interpretation of comparative religions has been adapted into a liberal Christian ecumenical theology by advocating the notion that a transcendent force literally is the cause of religious beliefs and practices among human societies throughout the world. The core of religion, on this argument, is a sacred source of higher religious values and practices found among all the world's religious traditions. Fitzgerald explains: “Ecumenical liberal theology has been disguised (though not very well) in the so-called scientific study of religion, which denies that it is a form of theology and at the same time irreducible to sociology either” (2000, 7).In these ways, religious studies, as it now exists in academic institutions, has become doubly infected by ideology: As a subject, it promotes the scientific study of religion in line with the objectification and dissection of human behavior into reified categories, and it perpetuates, albeit in more subtle forms than in its late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century expressions, a theological bias toward defining religion in terms of sacred, transcendent beings that are compared using phenomenological typologies. This development in the study of religion, although positioning itself behind the notion of “empathetic neutrality,” is founded on the uncritical acceptance of the theological formulation that “religion is essentially about personal belief in some unseen supernatural power” (Fitzgerald 2007a, 11).Fitzgerald (2000, 17) argues in The Ideology of Religious Studies that the tainted history of the development of religious studies as a discipline means that the term religion should be dropped altogether as an unhelpful and uncritical analytical category: “It picks out nothing distinctive and it clarifies nothing. It merely distorts the field.” He contends that a term far more representative of the notion of what, as we have seen he later called “encompassing religion,” would be “culture,” which by definition does not make false divisions between the ways people live and understand the world in customary ways. Culture refers to all aspects of life as interrelated and interconnected, including what is generally meant by religion, but certainly is not restricted to it. Cultural studies as a field of investigation allows academics to enter local contexts to describe, understand, and analyze, in a holistic manner, various ways of life distinctive to a people living in a region. This leads Fitzgerald to conclude that the term religion, as a false, ideological construct and theologically loaded term, should be replaced in favor of culture. He explains: “When we talk about ‘religion’ in a non-theological way, we are fundamentally talking about culture in the sense of ritualized institutions imbued with meaning through collective recognition” (Fitzgerald 2000, 17).In Taves and Fitzgerald we find two scholars who resolutely refuse to define religion. Taves is happy to explore what people she is studying deem as religion due to the special qualities it possesses for them. Fitzgerald wants to dismiss the term altogether because he believes that the role “religion” has played in the history of Western colonialism is not as innocent as Taves seems to suggest. By replacing religion with culture, Fitzgerald believes he has shifted the ground on which religious studies has been erected by reconceptualizing what nontheological scholars actually mean when they refer to religion and at the same time exposing the surreptitious motives of theologically inspired scholars who use religion as a tool for promoting their own theological agendas. I believe that both Taves and Fitzgerald are wrong. Taves is

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