Who decides what’s religious?

There’s an interesting story from RNS on the debate going on in India over whether yoga is or isn’t a religious practice. According to the article, some, particularly Christians and Muslims, are wary of requiring yoga to be taught in primary schools because, as they see it, it is a Hindu* religious practice. It raises interesting questions such as,

  • Who gets to decide what is religious? The authorities in the tradition? The “everyday” practitioners? People outside the tradition from whence the practice came? The government? The media?

In practice, of course, it tends to be all of the above. The conflict comes when some the demarcations created by each group don’t converge. And the more activistic of us might be concerned that the power of outside groups, the media, or the government might overwhelm the power of self-definition of minority (or even large) religious groups.

  • Can you change a couple features (replace sacred words with non-sacred words, for example) in a practice and make it not religious? And who gets to decide this?

It is, particularly, an interesting example of how practices and “material” (that is, non-interior) religious “things” can take on a life of their own. In this case, it is seen by some Christians not only as a religious exercise but, in potentially forcing it into the schools, as political.



* My colleagues in religious studies will tell you that viewing Hinduism as a religion, indeed as a particular “ism” rather than the way of life of a certain people, is problematic.

4 thoughts on “Who decides what’s religious?

    1. Daniel Favand Post author

      I think looking at self-identification is fairly important for scholars. But as a scholar I wouldn’t want to rely on self-identification. Say a person engages in all the practices of, say, a particular pagan group, yet tells you she isn’t pagan. The denial becomes part of the thing to be explained, and it may end up that we decide she is pagan but that for reasons X, Y, and Z she tells people she isn’t. Or that she is in fact something else (say, a social scientist doing participant observation!)

      Or, perhaps more likely, someone says he’s Christian but also practices pagan rituals, etc. The situation becomes more complex. (And then we have to decide what is and isn’t Christian, and we’re back to trying to figure out who gets to define what a particular tradition/faith is.)

      1. fourthconfession

        Fair enough – some important reasoning there. I’m used to following these questions through sexual orientation, where self-identification has proved so useless that it has completely dropped out of the language if public health scholars. Still, if we are talking about identity, I’d rather trust people and merely judge them on orthodoxy as opposed to identity. Oddly that seems simpler

      2. Daniel Favand Post author

        Yes, for sure. It seems that the practicing-but-not-identifying (or identifying-but-not-practicing etc) cases are rather special. In those cases it would be important to distinguish between identity and practice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s