Who creates religion?

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Page author: Luke Burns

This page created on: 31/10/2020

Last modified: 31/10/2020


The modern study of religion, beginning in the 19th Century, has been traditionally driven by male European scholars, who have carried their own cultural biases and assumptions - some unconscious, others less so.



The modern study of religion, beginning in the 19th Century, has been traditionally driven by male European scholars, who have carried their own cultural biases and assumptions - some unconscious, others less so.

Until recently, there had been little awareness of these assumptions, and this had affected the ideas and methods used by academics; naturally we will have to negotiate some of these potential pitfalls if we want to build a more comprehensive and accurate picture of religion in the modern world.

Blind spots and bigotry

Some of the major issues are an over-emphasis on written texts as sources of religious authority and meaning, exclusion of female voices, exclusion of indigenous and ethnic minority voices, and an emphasis on belief over practice.

Racism also plays a role; the academic study of religion originated in Western nations who often had a relationship of power over the people and practices they were studying. It was easy for activities or experiences to be ignored or dismissed if they didn’t fit the mould of ‘religion’ as understood in the Christian West. Power differences between groups can generate differences in language – one activity is cult, another is religion.

Race and nationality frequently play a role in the perception of religious adherents and traditions, especially outside of the academic world. In the article below by Scott Mitchell, the point is made that Shin Buddhism in America is sometimes viewed as a foreign tradition, belonging to immigrants, while Zen Buddhism, with a nearly identical history in the country, has a greater share of (white) American converts and is therefore seen as less alien.

If we claim that Shin Buddhism is merely Japanese Buddhism by virtue of the fact that its founders were Japanese, why do we not say the same about American Zen, which has a parallel history and a similar pedigree? Is it because of the assumptions implicit in dichotomies of “ethnic” and “convert” Buddhism? Is Shin Buddhism not American enough or not Buddhist enough?

Mitchell, S. (2018) Shin Buddhism Is American Buddhism

This historic issues of racism and power differences were (and are) compounded by the fact that – in many cases – religious studies scholars are almost always outsiders from the religious groups they study. Religion was defined, studied, and controlled by people in positions of cultural, political, and academic authority - often in a context of colonialism and conquest.

Understanding relationships

The language of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ is useful for identifying the relationship between scholars and the groups they investigate.

It might sound a bit like it’s throwing up unnecessary boundaries between people - but the truth is, this is a necessary process of acknowledging who we are in relation to who (and what) we study. There can be very real differences between the perspectives and attitude of people who belong to a social group, and those who don’t.

Insiders are people who belong to a social group; they are participants in behaviours and beliefs specific to that group. They may have grown up within, or joined from without, but ultimately their identity is linked to the larger group in some way.

Outsiders are people who do not belong to the social group they are studying. They claim no special relationship, and do not link their identity, to the group.

It’s not fair to assume too much from these labels, but there are some general tendencies that emerge when outsiders and insiders think about or write about a religious tradition.

Insiders can often provide good accounts of how it feels to be part of a religious tradition, but are less likely to make critical observations or comparisons to other religious practices. This is because they often have a personal stake in how their group (and in turn their identity) is presented.

Conversely, outsiders are often free to make difficult or challenging observations without a sense of conflict about how this may interfere with their spiritual or social life. Yet this also means that due to their position, outsiders cannot always provide a detailed and empathetic exploration of meaning or value from the perspective of the people they study. Or rather, they are limited to reporting the words of others, they do not tend to experience first hand the phenomena under investigation.

You can test this idea out in your own life: think about a group that you belong to, it could be family, friends, colleagues, or perhaps a religious, political, or recreational group. How well do you know the details of this group? The social dynamics, the history, the way it feels to belong, and perhaps the pain of separation.

How willing would you be to dissect that same group in analysis, to uncover difficult facts that might disrupt its cohesion? To treat the people you love as objects of study?

Now imagine a completely different group, one you don’t belong to - an alien group you know very little about. How well could you report on its social aspects, the feeling of membership, the little personal details that make it meaningful for its insiders? And how willing would you be to investigate the group, even if your findings proved controversial to the group or went against the common understanding?

Hopefully this little thought experiment demonstrates the principals at work here.

Now it’s not true that insiders can’t make good critical observations of their own traditions, nor that outsiders cannot provide an empathetic assessment of someone else’s practices and beliefs. But, there’s certainly a tendency for these things to happen, and it’s something to be aware of.

Methods of study

Insider and outsider are categories used to describe perspective in religious studies.

You might also come across some more unusual terms: emic and etic.

These words come from the study of language, and were originally phonemic and phonetic. In other words, how things sound vs how sounds are studied.

In sociology (and religious studies) these categories of investigation became emic: examining how things feel from within, and etic: how activities can be categorised and studied.

We can see that there’s an immediate similarity between etic / outsiders and emic / insiders, but it’s not quite that simple (we wouldn’t want to make things too easy!).

A good way to think about it is that insider/outsider refers to perspective. Where are we in relation to the group or tradition we’re studying?

On the other hand, emic/etic refers to method. How do we engage with the phenomena we’re studying?

A Sikh academic from England might participate in an Ayahuasca ceremony in the Amazon rainforest in order to understand the experience of indigenous groups who engage in shamanic healing. This would be an outsider using an emic technique to study their subject.

Subtle erasures

The scholar Victoria Kennick Urubshurow has coined the term subtle erasure to describe the largely unconscious omittance of people or ideas from consideration in studies or research (Urubshurow, 2008, p.11). As a result, these non-standard or marginalised cultures can become lost and sometimes completely forgotten.

Subtle erasure is the non-intentional act of ignoring certain aspects of a culture, and failing to report them in papers, books, or discussions - it reflected in our choice of data.

It can arise due to inherent biases such as sexism or racism, of which the investigator is unaware. It can also come about due to a focus on the literature of a culture, or cultures which are literate, thereby ignoring those people who are non-literate or parts of their culture not committed to writing.

It can also occur due to marginalised voices being ignored in the culture’s literature, thereby propagating pre-existing inequalities, and preventing marginalised groups being acknowledged or discussed.

Finally, it can happen when a strong focus on literature that marginalises helps to divert attention from the powerless in society, and instead reinforces the cultural assumptions of the literature.

Religion: a Western phenomenon?

There are some scholars who argue that religion – as a category – is so inextricably tied to Western thought that it shouldn’t be used at all when discussing non-Western traditions and practices.

The idea that there is something separate from every-day public life and experience called ‘religion’ is part of the Western cultural heritage, which often assigns religion to limited times and places – for instance the church on Sunday, or a parade at Easter.

This attitude, that religion can be placed in a separate category to ‘public’ or ‘shared’ life, is related to the secularisation hypothesis, which suggests that religion is declining, often in relation to wealth, education, or other metrics of economic success. Thus, the argument goes, as a society becomes wealthier and more educated, religion will drop away as an unnecessary superstition.

In any case, the idea that religion is separate from culture, or philosophy, or lifestyle, is part of the Western understanding of the term, but it doesn’t really align with religious experiences and expressions around the world; in many countries, religious activity is an intrinsic part of life – every day – and therefore cannot easily be separated out from culture, law, ethics, or individual personality.

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama make this point, in discussing whether it’s more appropriate to look at religion and culture (separate entities) or religion IN culture (one aspect of a larger system).

…to study religion in culture means one is not beginning with the assumption that these two distinct domains periodically bump into each other. Instead, the preposition “in” signifies that the area of human behavior known as “religion” is assumed, from the outset, to be an element within human cultural systems–systems which are themselves historical products.


What’s clear is that how we understand the meaning of ‘religion’ can vary depending on our frame of reference, and our cultural background. It might not be possible to define religion without also setting the broader context of who we are and how we understand our social structures.


Hopefully it’s clear that the creation of ‘religion’ is something that always takes place in the present. Religion was not defined once in the past and forever fixed - it represents a dynamic point of discussion for those interested in human activity that relates to the unseen world, and continually challenges us to re-examine our relationship to the people and phenomena we study (and those we choose not to). Key to this process is self-awareness.

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 independent existence apart from the academy. For this reason, the student of religion, and most particularly the historian of religion, must be relentlessly self-conscious. Indeed, this self-consciousness constitutes his primary expertise, his foremost object of study.

Smith, JZ (1982, p.xi)


  • Smith, J.Z. (1982) Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • Urubshurow, V.K. (2008) Introducing World Religions, Oxon, Routledge.

Image credits

Image by Konevi from Pixabay

See also