Religio and the Definition of Religion

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Essay Excerpt

An inquiry into the history of religio is one of a multitude of inquiries that might serve to disabuse us of a longing for the authority of pedigree in the fashioning of our analytical categories. Many of the constructs and terms that we employ in the study of religion are taken from cultural traditions where meanings are not only multiplied and accreted over time, but where their impacted complexities and subtleties are preserved for us by texts and by the diligent labors of generations of humanist scholars. Yet while a cultivated appreciation of their histories enlarges our understanding sand heightens our sensibilities, our analytical categories must be pointed to the issues at hand. The power of religion as an analytical category, we might well affirm, depends on its instrumental value in facilitating the formulation of interesting statements about human beings, the phenomenal subjects of anthropological research. To borrow an adjective from the Romans, the anthropologist needs to be "religiosus"-'scrupulous', 'conscientious'-in the shaping of cross-cultural instruments. While we should be knowledgeable about words, we must also struggle against a facile surrender to their authority, an authority that all too often turns out to be unstable or evanescent when probed. (Saler, 398)

About the Author

Benson Saler is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Brandeis University. His areas of expertise are anthropology of religion and psychological anthropolog. He has done fieldwork in Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela and the United States. He is especially interested in the epistemological issues relating to the study of religions and beleifs. 

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