Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Assumes a background of "official religion." Just as "religion" is now widely seen as a distinctively Western concept, and the articular "religions" as typological concepts, so "religion" itself begins to look like a typological concept, a particular form of "commitment."

Eighteenth-century philosophers and subsequent scholars may have derived "religion" from classical Latin, but its ordinary usage in Western languages follows medieval Latin. It then referred not so much to "joining together" either people, or people and divinities, as to the whole (holistic) way of life religio , of those who lived according to a Rule (regula) .

In the first instance, the Rule was that of St. Benedict (480-c. 550). This was gradually extended to include, first, "returns" to that Rule, then, "reforms" of the Rule, and finally confessedly new Rules, such as those of the Friars. However, with the gradual secularization and dissolution of monasteries, and the development of a universal, organized church, which was first centralized and then nationalized, the focus of meaning shifted from the canonically "religious" (i.e., monastic) orders to the ecclesiastical (or canonically "secular") hierarchy. In recent times, the continuing, popular meaning of "religion" (epitomized in its medieval reference) has resurfaced: whatever is both conscientious and "habitual" (e.g., "I answer all my correspondence religiously").

Against this background, what is sometimes called nonofficial religion includes all those phenomena that are considered to be "religious" (i.e., as expressing the core within all intentionality) but that are not incorporated within "official religion." The precise boundaries of official (or real, proper, true, recognized, or canonical) religion vary in accordance with the religion, denomination, religious status, culture, and person. Thus Icelandic Christians may take for granted, as part of their faith, "spiritist" concerns, which other churches, or their own Lutheran denomination in other countries, may consider beyond the pale, either of the Christian faith or of human reason. (The extent of such variations is seldom welcomed or realized.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum to official religion is sometimes placed the "heresy" and "sect," or "blasphemy" and "sacrilege," which official religion recognizes as constituting a rival to itself. However, these are better described as the truly profane: as opposing forms of similar sanctities. The alternative to "official religion," therefore, consists of those expressions of a sacred intentionality that official religion tends to call "pagan" (Latin, pagus , rural, that is, outside "a" [named] religion), or "irreligious" (in the sense of a-religious, nonreligious), or "secular" (of this age and therefore not of fundamental religious significance), or "apathetic" (without [the capacity for] suffering [including action] or "uncommitted" (i.e., not committed in ways that official religion recognizes as being religious).

Thus between the two ends of this spectrum lie all those ways in which official religion is related to (or "exploits") human concerns, such as anxiety or changes in status (superstition, magic, or popular religion) plus all those ways in which people relate to (or "exploit") religious facilities, such as canonical symbols or the rites de passage (civil religion or folk religion), and all those self-chosen philanthropic ways in which religious people put their faith into practice—and the nonreligious likewise put their (nonreligious) faith into practice.

In practical life, religious discrimination is as necessary as, for instance, medical or educational discrimination. However, the empirical study of religion (or of humanity) is incomplete if restricted by the official normative definitions of its subject matter. Indeed, the official institutions will themselves be impoverished, and alienated, if they neglect their roots, in popular religion, medicine, education, and so on. For the specialist institutions of highly differentiated cultures are either the dramatic expositions (typologizations) of aspects of ordinary life or else they are "unreal."

See also Implicit Religion, Popular Religion, Secular Religion

Edward I. Bailey


J. Baillie, The Roots of Religion in the Human Soul (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1926)

E. H. Erikson, "Ontology of Ritualization in Man," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 251(1966):337-349

A. Gallus, "A Biofunctional Theory of Religion," Current Anthropology 13(1972):543-568

R. Horton, "African Traditional Thought & Western Science," Africa 37(1967):50-71, 155-187

L. Moore, Jr., "From Profane to Sacred America," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39(1971):321-338

C. J. Sommerville, The Secularization of Early Modern England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

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