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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.