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Not what we say, but what we do

25 October 2013

Religion is not simply a matter of private belief, defined by texts or founders, argues Graham Harvey. It is more to do with eating food, and daily living.


RELIGIOUS people often say that religion is an everyday matter. It is not just for Christmas, Yom Kippur, Solstice, Diwali, Eid, or other festivals. It is not something done one day a week, but infuses whole lives.

They also have a habit of telling researchers, however, that to understand things properly they ought to talk to experts - priests, rabbis, imams, theologians, and so on. Or they advise reading the scriptures, or focusing on founders, or saintly people.

Both of these ways of understanding and representing religion make perfect sense together. Religion is an ordinary, everyday matter; but people do not think that they are perfect examples of how to do it. None the less, the temptation to turn to experts and official teachings can distract attention from the lived reality.

Certainly, most books that introduce religions devote more attention to founders, texts, teachings, and ideals than to what real people actually do. Indeed, sometimes they tack on a short chapter that suggests that many people misunderstand the true teachings, and mix up one religion with another.

So we read about superstition, syncretism, and folk religion - all words that imply that proper religion is really only found among saints or scriptures.

As if this wasn't enough, unless you define religion as "what people actually do", you are likely to play into the hands of those who define religion as "deluded beliefs". The contrast between belief and knowledge, or religion and science, is a popular one, but not a useful one. It has its origins in the conflicts that ravaged Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and gained strength during the subsequent Enlightenment.


DEFINING religion as a private and personal matter of individuals' beliefs rather than as an aspect of their transnational communal identities was an important plank of the creation of modern nation states. Citizens were expected to have no commitments other than those to the nation states that were being violently established out of earlier, more fluid social structures.

The religion of local rulers came to define what was legitimate for everyone else. People could be free to believe whatever they wished, but they could not do all that they might want to do unless this was in concord with the will of princes and their bureaucrats.

We can celebrate the contribution of these ideas to the decrease in wars between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian armies. But we should not mistake those wars for "wars of religion", even though this is what they are often called. Rather, these were wars fought to establish the new nation states. An ideology of political and social formation was being imposed.

In order to train people to think of themselves as citizens within new boundaries, religion had to be redefined as a private matter. If nothing else, this explains two other things that people often say: that religion should not mix with politics; and that religion (like sex and death) is not a polite topic of conversation.

I have found, however, that mentioning religion in a taxi or a pub will generate lengthy discourses, and vehement assertions. It is an occupational hazard for scholars and students of religion (quite apart from having to explain that "No, I am not a priest, or any kind of religious leader"). The usual content of those discourses and assertions is, unsurprisingly, about beliefs.


SOMETIMES the refrain is that religious people assert beliefs, but do not live ideal lives; accusations of hypocrisy are bandied about. Sometimes it is that all religions really teach the same beliefs. Often it is that religious people believe daft things that have no place in the modern world. Or, grudgingly perhaps, that religious beliefs may comfort people, but are not about the real world.

These conversations rarely, if ever, begin with the idea that religion is something people do every day, in quite ordinary circumstances. (This is not to ignore the doing of religion in more dramatic ways: rituals that deal with life-changing events, prayers for solutions that seem beyond human abilities, and so on.)

There is, in short, a mismatch between common religious claims about everyday, lived religion, and the pervasive definition of religion as beliefs about odd, irrelevant, or irrational matters. Perhaps that is too harsh. But religion does appear to have been pushed into a box where it can do no more than provoke occasional heated exchanges in pubs.

When people are thought to take their religion so seriously that they are willing to fight and kill for it, they are denigrated as fundamentalists or extremists; they have refused to keep religion to themselves. We have been persuaded that this is at least eccentric, and probably mad and bad. This is not to say that I condone violence, but to indicate the poverty of a definition of religion which allows it only to be a marginal and ineffectual fantasy.

We can do better than this, but we might need to work hard to do so. We can begin, quite simply, by paying attention to everything that happens in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples.

A small but important example would be to consider the relative importance of drinking wine at the altar, and tea in the church hall. Too often, we think of one as a religious ritual, and the other as a social event. What if they are both necessary parts of being Christian - or should I say "of doing Christianity"?


WE COULD also pay more attention to what happens in homes. Many religious people offer some kind of thanks, or "grace", before or after meals. But what if these are not the only religious bits of meals? What if religion includes the preparation, consuming, and clearing away of food? In fact, most books about Judaism recognise this to some degree, noting that homes and lives are structured around the food rules of kashrut (dietary laws).

Hinduism, too, might be defined with reference to what people eat together - and, indeed, with whom they eat. One researcher has written of her surprise in finding that American colleagues talked about Hinduism only by referring tothe Vedas and other scriptures. Her own first thought associates "Hinduism" with her grandmother's way of cooking and serving lentils. I am intrigued by the possibility of taking questions about meals to be central to defining religion.

I am not interested in reducing religion to something else: a function of society, a strange cognitive aberration, or even curious culinary habits. Rather, in my book Food, Sex and Strangers, I seek to reclaim a richer understanding of religion,as something people do every day, in ordinary as well as ritual contexts.

To force myself to think differently about religion, I have tried to start again "elsewhere". Sometimes, this has involved travelling to distant places, and spending time with people who might turn out to have different assumptions about religion to those with which I am familiar.

I hope I have gained a better understanding of "taboo" from Maori and Native Hawaiians. I hope to have understood what Anishinaabeg, and other indigenous North Americans, mean by "totem". (It is interesting to discover how quickly these words were adopted into the English language, and fascinating to consider how people previously managed without them.)

I hope my thinking about religious statues, icons, and other things has been improved by participating in ceremonies venerating orishas (spirits, or deities) in Yoruba shrines in Nigeria. Always, the point has been to reinforce efforts to see how religion is done, how it is lived in particular places, so that a wider view becomes possible.


GOING elsewhere is not intended to facilitate an eccentric collection of odd facts, but is a way of finding a new (to me) place from which to see what religion looks like, as people do it in various places and various ways. It is an experiment intended to force me to see the vital and everyday stuff that goes unremarked in most discussions that claim to be about religions.

For this reason, I have also joined in a Jewish pilgrimage festival, where people elbowed me out of the way in their eagerness to touch a rabbi's tomb. I have chatted with flower arrangers and floor-cleaners in churches. I have camped in chilly winters with animist pagans, seeking to honour the animals and plants whom (the choice of pronoun is deliberate) we eat.

And I have interviewed people whose religious choices determine or inspire whom they have married, with whom they will eat, and what music or films they enjoy. Sometimes, of course, religious choices conflict with some people's enjoyment of some music, films, or company.

I can be discreet about that, but tensions between ideals and realities, imagination and intimacy, is also vital and life-shaping. There is no absolute barrier between what religious leaders, or texts, teach, and what people actually do - sometimes people follow the teachings, sometimes they do not.

There are ebbs and flows across the boundaries that some people would like to be less permeable.All religion is everyday religion, but the "official" parts and the bits about odd beliefs tend to be emphasised.

We have not treated the doing and living of religion as the truly definitive matter deserving of attention. Indeed, the "official" teachings even get used as measures, against which lived reality usually fails, rather than as an ambition that people might wish to achieve.

THINKING about uses of the word "taboo" is helpful here. Both in the Pacific and among Oceanic peoples living in Britain, "taboo" refers to the dynamic ways in which tensions in social relationships (between people, places, acts, and objects) are negotiated.

Taboo involves both separation and bringing together in appropriate ways. It is an aspect of social etiquette, and can require learning and policing. But the important point is that taboo continuously requires negotiation, because people can disagree about separations and associations, as well as about what is desirable as a result of those acts of separating or bringing together.

We can, perhaps, better understand what the media often present as the obsessions and arguments of the Church of England in this light. Whether the media are correct is not my concern here. I only ponder whether conflicts about homosexuality (for example, in relation to marriage), and gender (for example, of bishops) reveal the operation of a taboo system, whether in the media, the Church, or wider society.

In this context, at least, sexuality and the performance of gender roles contribute to defining a religion in lived reality. My argument is that this is not an aberration or a distraction from the real business of religion. Religion is, and always has been, about ordinary human relationships.

Religion is not about peculiar metaphysics, or wishful thinking about nice afterlives; it is about negotiating appropriate ways of living in a world that is full of competing demands and desires. It is about food, sex, strangers, and communities.

Food, Sex and Strangers: Understanding religion as everyday life by Graham Harvey is published by Acumen at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50  - Use code CT923  ). Dr Harvey is head of the Department of Religious Studies at the Open University.

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