Learn about the Problems with the Term “Religion” and Submit Guiding Questions

How this assignment fits into this module and why you are doing it:

Religion is a category that emerges from a particular history. It is a modern term that has been around for about 100 years, and it is a term that was first used by scholars. Americans, and other people who live in euro-western cultures, assume the category of religion to be a natural and normal category. However, if we scratch beneath the surface we will find that the preoccupation our culture has with naming things “religious” is not shared by all. Since this is the case, it is our aim, in this course of study, to take you along a journey of inquiry that will, in the end, help you interrogate this thing we call religion. For this assignment you will learn to question and think deeply about the construction of the term religion. You will learn to ask critical questions about the origin, use, function, and problems with the word and its use in modern scholarly discourse.

For this module you will watch four short videos featuring scholars of religion. The first video is the most accessible, published by the scholarly YouTube channel religion for breakfast. You will watch this one first because it gives you the most basic understanding, and that will help you understand more about what J.Z. Smith and Kwame Appiah are saying in their videos. The arguments that are in all these materials are related, but hit the topic from different angles.

The point of watching these videos and digging into this complex academic conversation is to help you understand a reality that you will come up against over and over in your life (if you are thinking deeply about things), namely that the words we use to describe things can have a lot of power, they have histories, and people often do not realize that they mean very different things when they use those words. This assignment is meant to challenge you to understand a complex conversation and the thought process of sophisticated academics by introducing you to one of the first problems one encounters when embarking on the journey of systematic, critical study–the problem of definitions. We want you to take some time to question the terms we use and to weigh the various objections to and critiques of the terminology used by participants in a long-running scholarly discourse. These video presentations will give you the opportunity to wrestle with the theoretical issues that our use of terminology can raise.

Many students have a gut reaction to these arguments that is something along the lines of—what are they talking about?!? This is ridiculous of course religion exists! I can see it in a thousand places and this makes no sense!”—

Try to dig beneath that reaction if you find yourself in that mindset and realize that these are extremely intelligent people who have committed their careers to understanding the study of religion deeply—their ideas are being assigned for you to understand because there is merit in them, even if it’s difficult for you to understand at first. We will continue the conversation in our discussions on Facebook, but try your best to give these ideas their most generous and thoughtful comprehension. That’s not to say that critiques won’t be important and valuable, but the first step is trying to understand what they are arguing, the evidence they see to support their arguments, and the logic they are using to draw their conclusions.


If I complete this assignment successfully, I will:

  • have written a thoughtful substantive answers to the guiding questions in terms of coherence, clarity, and style,
  • demonstrate understanding of the problems associated with abstractions such as “religion,” and realize the importance of questioning the terms we use
  • demonstrate that you can understand a theoretically sophisticated argument correctly and fairly.
  • understand the difficulty in constructing definitions of abstractions.


Step One: Watch the video “What is Religion” by Andrew Henry, the religion scholar who created the fun religious studied theme YouTube channel Religion for Breakfast:

What Is Religion?What Is Religion?

Please take note that one of the scholars you will hear from in the next set of videos, J.Z. Smith is discussed in this video. You will also hear a bit about Emile Durkheim, we will read substantial excerpts from his work in Module Two.

Step Two: Read the quotation below and watch these two videos from Jonathan Z. Smith, one of today’s most famous historians of religion, and the Gandolf of Religious Studies (total badass).

For the purposes of this module, these videos focus on Smith’s contention that the very idea of religion itself must be questioned and challenged as a social construction. As you watch, keep in mind that J.Z. Smith is one of the most widely respected and influential scholars of religion alive today. This is not to say that you can’t disagree with him or that he is unquestionably correct, but rather that the ideas he expressed resonant powerfully with the majority of people who study religion professionally. Therefore, we must take these ideas seriously as a representation of how nearly everyone in this field understands the term “religion.”


In his book Imagining Religion, J.Z. Smith argued that …while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.”

Each of the videos below is a response to a question posed to Smith by an interviewer. The question he is responding to is listed above each video.

Video One Question: What is the most significant question in religion?

Video Two Question: How would you define religion?

Dr. J. Z. Smith 01 Dr. J. Z. Smith 01

Step Three: Watch the following TED Talk by Kwame A. Appiah, PhD in Philosophy, Cambridge University, London. Appiah teaches at New York University, Department of Philosophy, with an additional appointment in the NYU School of Law. Like Smith and many other scholars of religion, he has drawn a philosophical conclusion about the concept of religion that challenges the category as valid. In this video, Appiah lays out another line of argumentation for this conclusion.

Step Four: Answer the following guiding questions with at least a paragraph.

  1. In the Religion for Breakfast video, what does Andrew Henry say about the origins of the word “religion”? Identify at least three problems that arise when trying to establish a definition of religion. Please number your three responses.
  2. What are Smith’s objections to the concept of religion in these two videos? Identify at least two arguments he is making in these videos and explain what you think he means. Please number the arguments that you identify and write several sentences explaining their meanings as you understand them.
  3. What does Appiah mean when he says that there is no thing called religion? How does Appiah account for the rise of the term religion (what historical factors lead to its emergence)?
  4. Ask three people to define religion for you and write down their definitions. If for some reason you cannot identify three people who can answer this question for you, you can find definitions online (please include web address if you do this). Think about these three definitions with relation to what you have learned from these videos. Provide an analysis of these definitions based on what you have learned. Please number your three definitions.
  5. The term “religion” is not the only concept that is difficult to pin down and define. Identify at least one other term or concept that is similarly problematic and explain the issues with its use/definition.
  6. Given the difficulties and problems addressed by these scholars, why do you think the term religion is so pervasive and important in America?

Step Five: Submit your assignment to Dr. Grant. Remember to write your assignment in a program that will save your work (in case Canvas fails) and double check that your submission went through by checking your to-do list after you have pushed submit.

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