The Blind Spot in the Study of Religion

view3Religion’s Impact on the Nonbelievers

In this post [i],  Petra Klug, discusses what questions may be raised regarding the definition of religion, in light of a recent focus on, and understandings of, nonreligious and irreligious populations.

 In recent years, we’ve gained a great deal of new information about non- or irreligion. But I wish to argue in this article that through the study of the nonreligious and their relationship towards religion, we can also gain a new understanding of religion itself. If we look at common definitions of religion, they typically frame our understanding of religion through its meaning for the religious alone. What religion might mean for the nonreligious – or for the “rest” of society – is not included, and remains a blind spot in the understanding of religion.

But in societies with strong religious populations or governments, religion influences many areas of public and private life. Religion creates power relationships, especially when it is implemented in political processes or when majorities stand against minorities, be they religious or nonreligious. I refer to this as religious normation, and I’ll illustrate what I mean by this with some remarks about the United States.

The US is a religiously pluralistic country and claims freedom of religion. But the concept of God has always played an important role in American politics and citizenship, as is obvious from the very first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (1776), which states “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[ii] Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution (1789) does not refer to God specifically, but defines the relationship between religion and the state in what is commonly referred to as the “Non-establishment Clause” and the “Free-Exercise Clause”: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[iii] However, the American definition of religious freedom has not always included the right to not believe, as is obvious for example in the Texas Constitution’s Bill of Rights (1876), which states: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledges the existence of a Supreme Being.”[iv]

While this legal discrimination of atheists is contested (Goodstein, 2014), polls show that it is still impossible for an openly atheist candidate to get elected, since almost half of voters would not cast a ballot for the candidate of their own party if he or she were an atheist (Jones and Saad, 2012). And despite the constitutional separation of church and state, religious – and usually monotheistic – symbolism is still prevalent in many public spaces and governmental mechanisms. For example, currency bears the imprint “In God We Trust” since the mid of the 19th century, and the Pledge of Allegiance contains the passage “one Nation under God” since 1954. Furthermore, many laws regulating concrete issues like abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage are influenced by religious doctrine but apply to all citizens, whether believers or not. So while the justification for politics through a transcendent entity is only shared by some, the rules that emerge from this bind everyone in the state. Religious normation of the irreligious, of nonconformists to religious rules, and even of minority religions, is present not only in politics but in law, business, and the private sphere – especially in the family – as well. It manifests itself in structural mechanisms, in social interactions, and sometimes even in violence.

But when I tried to find religious normation reflected in definitions of religion, I soon realised that none of the ones I encountered incorporated it. All the definitions I found – no matter if functional, substantive, or working with dimensions – define religion exclusively or primarily through its meaning for believers, practitioners or adherents of religions. An understanding of religion and its role in society, especially for nonbelievers or followers of minority religions, is missing.

In disciplines that deal with different cultures, researchers usually distinguish between emic and etic perspectives. While emic means according to the terms of the studied groups, etic means through the lens of the observer. But the problem of religious normation is not sufficiently addressed with this distinction. Even scholars who work with etic definitions of religion (as most scientific or cultural studies approaches do) still define religion primarily or exclusively through its meaning for the religious. I’ll refer to this as an implicit emic perspective––which means that it is an etic attempt to define what religion is on the emic level of its followers, instead of defining religion in terms of its role in society and culture. Religion is then defined (to illustrate this with only one example) as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (Durkheim, 1968). Religion is thus defined for its adherents, which it binds into one community. The implications of religion for those who do not belong to it, or for a society that consists of religious and irreligious people, are not included in this focus.

But in order to analyse power relationships in societies, within cultural or religious groups, and in the private sphere, we must realise that diversity exists not only in terms of religious beliefs, but also in terms of degrees of belief and nonbelief. And that means to extend our definition of religion in a way that allows us to study religion not only in its meaning for adherents, but in its impact on society and culture as a whole, including the nonconformists and the irreligious.

This requires a new definition of religion that encompasses these complexities. Therefore I propose a definition of religion as a cultural set of beliefs, norms, and practices with reference to a transcendent being or principle, which is held by parts of a society and may be applied particularly or universally through positive or negative sanctions, and whose bindingness depends on religion’s influence on the respective group.

And that means that religion and irreligion are related not only because one implies the lack of adherence to the other, but in the way that they form the environment for one another. While the relation of ir- or nonreligion toward religion is widely acknowledged, that religion affects and seeks to affect the irreligious is often missed, as most definitions of religion illustrate. So, the way we define religion might change significantly if we try to analyse religion and irreligion in relation to each other.


Durkheim, Émile (1968): The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 47.

Goodstein, Laurie, (2014) In Seven States, Atheists Push to End Largely Forgotten Ban. New York Times, 12/6/14. 

Jones, Jeff and Lydia Saad, (2012) Gallup News Service, online

[i] This article is based on a paper presented at SSSR and RRA Annual Meeting in Indianapolis 2014.

[ii]  The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America (1776), online:

[iii]  Joint Resolution of Congress Proposing 12 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (1789): The U.S. Bill of Rights, Amendment 1, online:

[iv] Constitution of the State of Texas (1876): Article 1, Bill of Rights, Section 4, online:

Petra Klug obtained a Masters degree in Sociology and cultural Studies, as well as a Masters degree in the Study of Religion, from University of Leipzig. A past recipient of the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes scholarship (German Research Foundation) and current Research Associate at University of Bremen, she is completing her dissertation on the relationship between The Religious and the Secular in the United States.

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1 Response to The Blind Spot in the Study of Religion

  1. I enjoyed reading you post, Petra. I’m interested in the definition of religion primarily from a legal perspective. I am, however, currently trying to get a broader understanding of the issue from sociological and philosophical perspective too.

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