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Religion in the National Agenda

What We Mean by Religious, Spiritual, Secular

John C. Sommerville

Publication Year: 2009

In this highly provocative investigation, C. John Sommerville examines common linguistic uses of the terms “religion,” “religious,” “spiritual,” and “secular” in order to discern understandings of these words in contemporary American culture. For example, he finds that, in English, “religion” is our word for a certain kind of response to a certain kind of power (the power and the response both being beyond anything else in our experience). Sommerville then uses these definitions to examine the ways that institutions in the fields of education, science, law, politics and religion are affected—often in unexpected ways—by a shared set of assumptions about what these words mean.

Published by: Baylor University Press

Title Page


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

Many Western societies today are searching for a definition of religion that will guide them in determining legal, political, and educational issues in this day of increasing social and cultural diversity. When natural scientists and social scientists study religion, they need to be able to pin the subject down. Oddly, this is not something ...

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1-Growing Confusion over Religion and Spirituality

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pp. 1-26

A half century ago, it would have surprised scholars to think that religion would be an interest and a concern in the third millennium. Modernization of institutions and modernism in culture were widely thought to be sweeping it aside, to make way for a more rational and technical civilization. But religions are more in the news today than they were then, showing remarkable powers of adaptation. As ...

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2-Defining “Religious” and “Religion”

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pp. 27-52

Paul W. Pryser, writing on the psychology of religion, announces, “I myself regard the problem of defining religion insoluble.”1 Bernard Spilka and his associates in the same field, declare, “We therefore agree with Yinger (1967) that ‘any definition of religion is likely to be satisfactory only to its author.’ ”2 Winston L. King begins his ...

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3-Why Religion and Education Challenge Each Other

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pp. 53-81

Ordinarily we think that making something part of our educational curriculum is a way of indicating its importance. Studying religion might be considered to be a way of showing respect. But our common definition of “religion” and an operative definition of “study” make things different in this case. In fact, we will see that religion in the ...

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4-Religion and the Law

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pp. 83-103

Since laws take the form of words, confusion over the meaning of “religious” or “religion” can cause not only individual unhappiness but social discontent as well. Secular states have succeeded churches in deciding the acceptable forms of religion and what religious activities are permitted to us, in their efforts to keep the peace. On the ...

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5-Religion and Political Variety

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pp. 105-129

The fact that, as we understand it, religion always makes demands means that it raises political questions for us. This is because religion’s demands characteristically strike us as absolute or ultimate, so that negotiating them may seem impossible. The current debate on “religion in politics” has to do with something much tamer, like ...

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6-Science and Reductionism

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pp. 131-148

When the public hears that scientists want to study religion, they may hope to hear conclusive findings on the truth of its ultimate claims, or on its ultimate origins, or a comprehensive report on its functions, so that its future can be predicted. All these are beyond anything an empirical science can achieve. Of course, religion’s historical origins are irretrievably lost. ...

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7-Sciences of Human Life

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pp. 149-165

Though sciences like cosmology may be susceptible to an incursion of religious terminology, we may expect the sciences of human life to be more directly involved and more threatening to the concept of religion, even when defined nominally and analytically—as something like faith responding to supernatural power. For it is here that the reduction of the concept of religion and of religious ...

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8-Religion and Theologies at Odds

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pp. 167-193

Theology is the discipline, or even the science, that offers to make sense of religion. While other religious scholars may take a cultural studies approach—interpreting religions within the context of particular cultures—theologians accept the integrity of a religion, to explore its own structure. So it is time that we asked what theologians think they are dealing with when they speak of religion in a ...

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9-What We Mean by Secular

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pp. 195-204

Having a sense of what religion means in a number of connections, it might now seem easy to define secular by way of contrast. But secular and its derivatives have given scholars and policy-makers no end of trouble recently. Not a few have declared that “secularization” is meaningless, ambiguous, incoherent, or self-contradictory. Actually, ...


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pp. 205-234


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pp. 235-241

Sommerville back cover

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p. 255-255

E-ISBN-13: 9781602582859
E-ISBN-10: 1602582858
Print-ISBN-13: 9781602581630
Print-ISBN-10: 1602581630

Page Count: 210
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1