This talk was delivered by Nakita Valerio on March 18, 2017 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as part of the interfaith event, Religious Freedoms: A Community Conversation.

Assalamu ‘alaikum, peace be upon all of you.

I want to thank you all for having me here today, especially the organizers for putting together this wonderful day and program.  I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on Treaty 6 territory which is the traditional land of Indigenous peoples who have lived, gathered and passed through here for many thousands of years. In doing this, I want to convey my utmost respect for the dignified histories, languages and cultures of all First Peoples of Canada and reiterate that each and every one of us is a treaty person whether we arrived yesterday, are indigenous to the land, or were born here from settler-immigrant families. We all have a responsibility to uphold treaty values which include mutual respect and working to ensure we all remain here together.

I normally begin all of my lectures with treaty recognition but today it is especially important as I want to start my talk on religious freedoms by reading an excerpt from a different treaty – one written in the year 713, two years after the Muslim arrival from North Africa into what would be Al-Andalus – a Muslim polity in Europe for 750 years, and what is now known as Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tudmir was a peace treaty between ‘Abd al Aziz, the son of Musa ibn Nusair and Theodemir, the local ruler of an area called Murcia. The document is interesting because it counters the narrative that violent military victories are what enabled the conquest of the peninsula. In fact, it calls the entire notion of conquest into question as it suggests that the process of taking over the peninsula was gradual and piecemeal and required mutual respect and cooperation between incoming Muslims and their Christian and Jewish subjects. The treaty itself establishes the local religious communities as protected groups under Muslim rule, meaning a guarantee of their personal safety and allowing them to freely practice their religion in exchange for loyalty and (of course) becoming tax payers.

My point in bringing this treaty as an example is to show several things. Firstly, the idea of and anxieties about religious freedom go a lot further back into history than we think. And secondly, the very preoccupation with religious freedoms has historically been related to Muslim-Christian relations and how to navigate and negotiate our differences throughout our shared history together.

The Treaty of Tudmir is only one paragraph long, in which Abd al Aziz ibn Musa Ibn Nusair agrees not to set special conditions on the local Christians, nor harass them, nor remove them from local power. Christians would not be killed nor taken prisoner and they certainly wouldn’t be separated from their women and children (which was common practice in pre-Islamic conquests). Most importantly, the treaty notes that Christians and Jews “will not be coerced in matters of religion, their churches will not be burned, nor will sacred objects be taken from the realm.”

Much of this sentiment derives from the Qur’an itself, the Islamic Holy Book, believed by Muslims the world over to be the direct word of God, passed through the Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) during the 7th century. Chapter 2, verse 256 of the Qur’an clearly states: “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned.”

According to Islam, everyone has the right to live freely by his beliefs, whatever they may be. Anyone who wants to support a church, a synagogue or a mosque must be free to do so. In this sense, freedom of religion is one of the basic tenets of Islam, whether or not Muslim have been or are currently very good at implementing that.

So, if this has been a continuous preoccupation with religious freedom in Islam, being the most recent of the Abrahamic faiths, where do many of the modern problems concerning religious freedom come from then? Why are Muslims constantly in the news, particularly in secularized European and North American countries, and especially as it relates to their rights to worship, to build mosques, to pray and other rather simple aspects of Muslim life? Why are Muslim women, like me, constantly hearing about how our veils (worn freely for the sake of worshiping God through our modesty) are incompatible with things like Canadian values? When speaking of catastrophic refugee crises, why have many nations including America and at one point Canada, prioritized Christian refugees over Muslim ones because the latter seem incompatible with North American life? (leaving aside, of course, more important questions about the right to life and safety for these traumatized people fleeing terrible horror and tragedy) Why are these tensions continuously arising between Muslims and Christians? And more often and especially between Muslims and secular institutions?

The problem for me is an issue of translation and definition. Our ideas of religious freedom hinges on and differ based on how we define religion. In the verse of the Holy Qur’an that I quoted, about there being no compulsion in religion, I must note the term that God uses to refer to what we now call religion. In the original Arabic, which the Qur’an was sent down in, the term we now, in my opinion, improperly translate as religion is: Deen and this is largely where the issues stem from.

Deen is not the same thing as the current societal understanding of religion. Both of these terms have their historical geneaologies and both of them mean very different things according to those contexts. And our understanding of our terms has not been fully excavated or accurately translated. You know, academics in my circles are obsessed with defining terms because we know that defining them different ways manifests completely different understandings and social realities according to context and time. We build social worlds for ourselves based on how we define things, so it’s natural that when there is continuous issues, we would return to the terms as the root of our discrepancies.

The original Hebrew term, din, meant law or judgment and, in ancient Israel, often referred to governance and the Jewish legal system, as in beit din. In Islam, the term connotes government, law, reward, punishment, loyalty and submission. It is more accurately translated into our entire comprehensive way of life, or even more accurately, a cultural system.

This differs from the modern, especially secularized, understanding of the term religion. The term religion comes from a specifically Christian historical context but through time, has evolved beyond that and has come to relate primarily to one’s private beliefs about the “supernatural”. Because religion has come to mean what we privately believe about God, there is an assumption that we can simply keep those beliefs and our actions around them at home and the public sphere can somehow be a “neutral” space for community engagement whatever our backgrounds. Where Judaism and Islam are concerned first and foremost with practice and governing social behaviour, which is decidedly public, and we use appropriate terms that are reflective of that, the term religion in the definition of private beliefs, when applied to these systems simply doesn’t work.  It is most important to note that the assumption that the public space free of religion is EMPTY is simply a historical falsity. Just because a secular public sphere seems to be empty does not mean that it is and we all need to think critically about what cultural system is invisibly in place – what values are we taking for granted because we are continuously under the assumption that nothing is there?

A famous hadith (or historical testimony from one of the companions of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him at the time he was alive) states that Muhammad said: “Deen is very easy and whoever overburdens himself with it will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshiping in the mornings, the nights.” Here, it is clear that Deen must mean a complete way of life, and indeed, in Islam there are comprehensive guidances for almost everything you can imagine, from how and when to pray to how to brush your teeth, which shoes to wear, how to treat the environment, and what conduct is appropriate for dealing with our spouses, our families, our neighbours, our children and the wider communities. While the first pillar of Islam is, indeed, our declaration of faith, that there is no God except God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God, our way of life does not stop there.

Because Islam encompasses every detail of how we live our lives, it means that there can’t really be a secular, religion-free public sphere how people imagine it, as long as Muslims are around. Now before anyone thinks I am arguing that Muslims cannot live in secular society (which I am not) I want to state clearly and unequivocally, that historically Muslims have lived under persecution for their religion for hundreds of years, they have done so secretly for their very survival and will do whatever it takes to maintain their way of life, even if that mean, forcing it into the private sphere. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Further, does this tension mean that Muslims do not follow local laws as some groups would improperly claim, that we instead only follow shariah and are trying to implement it locally and impose it on everyone? Of course not. Part of the guidance of our way of life is in following the leadership and rule of our local governments as long as they do not cause us to leave our spiritual path. And that spiritual path is for us alone. And if there are local laws against aspects of our way of life, as I said, we are also permitted to acquiesce to those laws, depending on the context and time.

What it does mean, and explains historically, is why Muslims and Jews and many other “religious” minorities have decidedly been the OTHER in secular historical contexts, often with catastrophic results (most notably the Holocaust and colonization). In fact, there are virtually no other religious groups in the world who define their ways of life as privitizable or somehow limited to their beliefs only. There are none. And Christian groups who focus a lot on governing social behaviour are now feeling the same pressure against their ways of life in the so-called “neutral” public sphere, despite the fact that such a concept historically originated in Christian contexts.

While this is only the beginning of a much more complex and deep discussion of religion as an entity, I do want to briefly meditate on what the way forward for religious freedom then is?  I would say, that the first place to start is in definitions and translation, and that begins with education. If Islam, Judaism and virtually all other ways of life were understood for what they are, it would become immediately clear that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere will be very difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. And if the truth of diversity studies enhancing our shared communities has anything to say about it, it would be that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere is also detrimental to our understanding of one another.We have to recognize that historically and presently, we are not incompatible with one another. We have coexisted for centuries. We have to stay firm that it is not an option that coexistence fails. It takes hard work and agreements, and that work begins with the work of translating how we understand our own ways of life and having others learn that too.

Now, lest someone argue that I am against secularism, I need only mention that it not secularism itself which is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings. It is the idea of a homogenized, so-called “empty” public sphere that is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings and which I demand critique of. If the public sphere was instead understood as a pluralistic and diverse space for multiple ways of life to coexist in the spirit of treaties from 1300 years ago – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Brahmanism, the Sikh way of life, many others AND secularism, respectful of one anothers’ differences –  we could move forward in a much easier manner together. That is why I personally and professionally remain committed to protecting the religious freedoms of all ways of life, even when Islam is not part of the picture.

I look forward to speaking more to these issues on the panel.

Thank you.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta and sits on the advisory committee for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Join The Drawing Board community in congratulating owner and editor-in-chief, Nakita Valerio, on her recent appointment to the advisory committee for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life. The CRC is a gathering point within the University of Alberta: Augustana Campus focusing on a broad range of themes where religion and public life intersect. To the discussion of vital issues that often call forth deeply emotional responses, it seeks to bring original contributions that embody the highest standards of academic scholarship. While rooted in the academy, activities of the Center engage the public square and the full range of religious communities, bringing the depth and texture of the most varied religious and civil ideas into a hospitable and constructive conversation.

The appointment carries a 3-year term which involves service in shaping an agenda for research, public programming, and dialogue in relation to religious communities in Alberta and around the globe. Being offered the opportunity to serve this institution is a great honour.


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

This one is going to be uncomfortable, folks. Cultural appropriation is an ever-present hot topic these days and nowhere is this truer than on The Drawing Board blog where our posts on the subject have continuously garnered more traffic than most others in the archive. It is especially something to be talking about with Halloween being yesterday as brutally offensive costumes will have been worn all over North America (and they were). Something happened on social media recently that gave me some time and space to think about this still-emerging phenomenon (particularly among yogi New Age communities in the West) and even though it has raised hell on my emotions about the subject (there is still bitterness in my words that I cannot expunge), I want to take you through my thought process so we can all work it out together. At this point, I am inviting conversation about this issue. So here’s what happened:

A white girl started posting pictures of herself in religious head-gear* on her social media accounts.

*This is me being purposefully cryptic.

The first time I saw her picture, I thought: that is a nice colour. But I was unsettled by the whole thing so I tried to process how I was feeling for myself. What bothered me about this picture of a white woman wearing what can be described as a turban? Do I have a right to be bothered by this picture as a veiled convert to Islam myself? Maybe this person became a Sikh as their style of turban would suggest. Do I have a right to ask? Do I really just want to know her story or do I want to know if her head wrapping is “authentic”? Does the authenticity of her conviction behind the turban make a difference to her right to wear it? Do I have a right, as a feminist, to question what this woman is choosing to wear?

Then, I forgot about it. Or, more aptly, I chose to ignore it because I couldn’t properly process the answers to those questions and didn’t know how to venture a few questions of my own to ask.

But these things never go away for long. And soon enough, she had posted another picture of herself in a turban with friends “Oohing and Awwing” over it (something I am sure POC who wear them are not accustomed to, especially during their formative years when they get bullied for being alive, never mind wearing something on their heads). One person, however, decided to take a courageous step that I hadn’t and asked this woman’s thoughts on recent articles about the turban and cultural appropriations by white women by simply asking if she had thought about it before donning the turbans. It was a way of starting a conversation by asking a pretty straightforward question.

I added my two cents that I wanted to know if she had had a “conversion” experience – knowing full well that conversion is a very complicated topic and usually involves acculturation rather than solely the adoption of inner beliefs. The idea that accepting “inner beliefs” of a “religion” hinges on an orthodox Christiano-form secular definition of religion about private beliefs being more important than outward practices – a definition that doesn’t apply to most of the rest of the world’s so-called religions, or as I call them cultural systems/ways of life. It’s complicated. If she had converted, I would be very much interested to hear that story as a convert myself, even though – at the end of the day – I could live without hearing it.

I felt alright about my follow-up question. I thought this person would be open to conversation, to sharing their experiences for the rest of us who were curious about the new-found knowledge that led to such a drastic change in appearances. (As I have been open upon being asked about my conversion to Islam and donning of the hijab countless times).

Instead, we were met with a defensive response that was so quintessentially typical of the white, colonial, privileged mentality, I found that I could barely articulate a response and kept writing and deleting again and again.

At first, she started by mentioning that she had just finished a Kundalini yoga teacher training in the Sikh community and mentioned that you don’t need to be Sikh to wear a turban. Fair enough. This is actually true: Sikhs do not own the turban, and –for that matter- neither does the Indian subcontinent, where most people think of it as originating. That we didn’t know that at the time isn’t great, but it also goes to show what happens when you reverse the typical white-POC positions: normally turbaned people are being asked by ignorant white people about stuff they wear on their heads. This time it was a white person….and boy, did she not *like* being asked.

She could have acknowledged that some people have an issue with white women wearing it, but that is not true in the circles she had adopted it from. She could have disagreed with them. In that sense, she could have left it at that, having educated us that this was, indeed, an appropriate expression, and moved on. The turban, after all, doesn’t have the same connotations as the hijab does (being a commandment from Allah), nor is it made into a caricature as often as the hijab is (see: Halloween costume niqabis that crop up every October).

But then the response turned into something quite different: she actually tried to shut down the conversation by stopping us from either judging or “questioning” her. She asked why everything has to turn into a socially appropriate question. She asked “What if I follow my own religion called the (HER NAME) religion?” like an island unto herself?

*ahem*

I have had to let this sit for a number of weeks before responding via blog and I have had to cut out a hell of a lot of profanities at this point because: Come. tf. on.

I recently read an article on how toxic Call Out culture has become with activists shitting on people left and right in an effort to just be right. They do this publicly and in humiliating ways that shut down conversation, instead of opening it up**, but sometimes (like in this situation) calling-in is not possible and it is usually because white people are shutting down the conversation. Or trying to. Enter: the internet.

So, here is my contribution to the above-described discussion. I am keeping it broader than this single incident in an effort to not be a total, calling-out douche-bag and because this is the kind of distorted logic many people who engage in cultural appropriation use. And I think a broader discussion provides some serious food for thought for any white person choosing to wear things that have been typically, culturally, and religiously worn by POC:

Dear White People (even with the best of intentions and even when you are right),

Here is the thing about listening to people of colour about their religio-cultural traditions more than one listens to other white people: you just might learn something. I know I have and that’s why I am being an ally and talking to you about it today. You don’t exist as an island and you never will. Social meaning is shared at the most basic level of language and spatial orientation. Society not only flows through your memories and your reality, it shapes it. You might consider yourself part of an ascetic tradition that tries to negate the social to the point that some pure “human essence” remains (you might even call that “divine” as many New Agers have been wont to) but here’s the point that most modern New Age Yogis miss: that process is continuous, forever, until the grave. You don’t ever actually achieve a state of human essence-ness. Society cannot be negated away forever. It flows back into every moment. Or, more aptly, it never leaves just because we achieve “being present.” The concept of being present is, in itself, a deeply temporal, human and (therefore) social experience.

I know a lot of people will argue with me on the epistemology of that statement, but I am hard-pressed to find a convincing argument otherwise. Further, it makes my next point ever more crucial: if everything is socially shared, then everything is a socially appropriate question.

Yes, everything. Some things are less of an issue than others, but since this person is white and white people have been wearing people of colour as costumes for centuries without any regard for the deep social meanings found and shared in these items, then turban-wearing white yogis are just going to have to suck it up when people ask them about the authenticity of their conviction to wear them. Shutting down the conversation is what white people have done for centuries.

And if you are going to get all flustered and start telling me that I am judging you on the colour of your skin: my response is, quite simply – now you know how it feels. I had to feel that too and I felt it when a black friend of mine kindly reminded me that I can remove my hijab but she cannot remove her skin. That doesn’t negate my experience of daily Islamophobia, but it sure as hell made me think a lot about my privilege.

I am not judging you on the colour of your skin, by the way, but trying to help you see the historical privilege you have inherited by virtue of it. Part of becoming self-aware is recognizing these historical and genealogical inheritances and the socio-economic spheres we subsequently inhabit because of them. The road to self-actualization is a lot easier when you are at the top of the social food chain. Let that sink in for a second. You aren’t entitled to anything, except by virtue of the fact that you are part of a neo-colonial system of white supremacy that happens to privilege what you were born into.

As for the comment that turbans just look “pretty”- that’s fair, but one friend put it best when they said that that’s like coming across a white guy in an Indigenous headdress at Coachella who just “likes feathers”.

Well… to put it bluntly: who says we need to care about white preferences?

People of colour have been made to tiptoe around white preferences for centuries: preferences that orientalise their men, exoticise their women, make their style into child-labour-made-home-décor-shit you can buy at HomeSense and make their clothing choices into Halloween outfits. You might have every right to wear a turban or whatever you want on your head, as we have established, but the duty to question what unreflective white people are doing in the public sphere is – at this particular point in time – #stillrelevant.

**My argument against the claim that call-out culture is always toxic can be found here.

Image Credit: AZ Mag


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Join us in extending heartfelt congratulations to our very own writer and researcher, Rachael Heffernan, on a successful defense of her Master’s thesis this week. Rachael’s research was on the body of God in the Hebrew Bible.

In the course of her academic career, Rachael has received a number of scholarships and awards, including the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.

In an age of diversity and, unfortunately, hideous bigotry, it’s understandable that most of us are concerned with making sure the people around us are safe people. Are they racist? Homophobic? Sexist? Islamophobic? Judeophobic? Ageist? Sizeist? There are a lot of forms of discrimination to look out for.

Sadly, in many cases in our efforts to make sure we aren’t subject to stereotypes and generalizations we lump people into categories. Religious people aren’t safe for queer folk. Queer folk aren’t safe for religious people. White people aren’t safe for people of colour. Jews aren’t safe for Muslims, skinny minnies aren’t safe for the fat-bulous – the list goes on and on.

These are obviously problematic, and I don’t think it needs saying that stereotypes of all kinds are violent. They are pervasive though, and recently I’ve noticed a trend in some of my communities to simultaneously want to bring an end to bigotry while absolutely abhorring belief in God.

Of all the things to abhor in this world, that seems like a strange one. It’s like abhorring yoga, or a passion for decorating, or cooking with coconut oil – except it’s actually worse than those because abhorring belief in God leads to the alienation of religious (and non-religious, believe it or not) people the world over. Any kind of alienation causes more trauma than it prevents and it’s ultimately hugely problematic for anyone who believes in the beauty of diversity and wants peace. How can a person say ‘Ramadan Mubarak,’ and then unsubscribe to someone’s feed because they talk about God too much? That’s like going out to celebrate Chinese New Year and then getting angry that everyone keeps speaking Chinese.

So what’s the problem? What stereotype is causing that discomfort? Is it the idea that religious belief leads to violence and discrimination? Proselytization? Judgement? Ignorance?

Obviously each of these is problematic. Each is based on bigoted stereotypes.

Every day, every one of us has choices. The choices I make may not be the right choices for you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the right choices for me. It is our duty to be nonviolent people, and that includes abstaining from discrimination in all its forms. In addressing violence, it is important that we do not become violent ourselves.

Eid Mubarak, everyone.

This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board and graduate researcher in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

It’s a term that gets used confidently, like we all know what it means, but the first thing that happens in any theory of religion class is to reveal that, in fact, “religion” has no satisfactory definition. No matter how we may try – and try many do – we cannot figure out what makes a religion a religion.

To break this down:

Many definitions of religion centre on the belief in some superhuman power, like angels and deities, but this is problematic for multiple reasons. Firstly, not all major recognized religions include belief in any kind of superhuman power: Theravadan Buddhism is rather adamant about its lack of inclusion of anything transcendental in its worldview.

Secondly, for many, simple belief in a deity or deities is not enough for a person to be considered “religious.” There are behavioural obligations, dress codes, eating restrictions, and so on and so forth, that are understood to be part and parcel to ‘actually’ believing in G/god(s).

Thirdly, even those that do not believe can still be considered, and consider themselves, religious. If one is an atheist but nevertheless attends religious services, reads sacred texts, eats according to religious laws, and observes sacred holidays, would they be viewed as a non-religious person? Maybe by some, but not by all.

Fourthly, without a concrete definition of “superhuman power,” it is impossible to determine the exact qualities of the being(s) in which a person is expected to believe, and it becomes difficult to explain how belief in folk heroes, monsters, and fairies is different from belief in saints, demons, and angels. This problem becomes even further complicated by the fact that though the belief in certain figures (such as angels and ghosts) may be intrinsic to one religion, the belief in those same beings may be abhorred in another. What kind of definition, then, would be capable of differentiating between the religious and non-religious superhuman powers in light of these difficulties?

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The idea that religion can be defined solely based on belief in superhuman powers, then, is a pipe dream. In light of the shortcomings of one-dimensional definitions, some scholars have suggested outlining a number of different criteria of which religions must fulfill at least a few in order to retain their status as religions. These criteria often include things like:

  • Dietary restrictions
  • Sacred texts
  • Sacred buildings
  • Belief in superhuman powers
  • The existence of religious professionals
  • A particular way of dressing
  • Etc.

There are, again, many problems with this style of definition.

Firstly, the criteria that are normally put in place in these lists are drawn from distinctly Western ideas of what constitutes religion. This is perhaps unsurprising, as it is a distinctly Western pursuit to try to discover what religion is, or even to attempt to separate religion from other kinds of human behaviour. Some languages do not even have a word for religion, and many do not consider religion to be a particular set of behaviours within a culture, but rather as fully integrated and inseparable from the culture itself. What happens, then, is that these attempts at definition ultimately fall short in their attempts to define religion on a worldwide scale. They do not take into the account oral cultures, or the fact that eating restrictions may have multiple justifications beyond “religious concerns,” or that sacred spaces are often ill-defined and can appear spontaneously, or that some cultures do not have or see the need for dedicated religious professionals.

Secondly, it is possible for some patterns of behaviour, institutions, or practices that are not normally considered religious to fulfill the criteria outlined in the above definitions. Sports fandom, for example, is often cited as a modern form of religion: there are designated buildings and particular clothing, people arrive en masse to participate in certain events at the same time every year, there are heroes and legends, it includes devoted professionals, and fans (or adherents) treat their team, the events, and the players with reverence. The same problem can be found in a large number of cases: political ideologies, recreational groups, community centres, even online communities may fulfill the criteria necessary to be considered religious.

Thirdly, it is possible for groups who want to enjoy the privileges offered to religious groups to simply ensure that they tick off the boxes necessary to be considered one. It is not so difficult to write a text, call a building “sacred,” wear particular clothes, elect a leader and then *poof* enjoy tax breaks and extended rights and freedoms. Most recently, scientology has been removed of its religion status in Germany and declared a business – pointing out the power differential when it comes to naming what a religion is and who gets that privilege.

And with this, it starts to become apparent why it is important to define religion. I would like to be able to say that it would be fine to simply allow people to call themselves what they want, and leave labels out of it, but I can’t, because the issues surrounding definitions of religion are larger than self-identification. It is not only that recognized religions enjoy considerable privileges in our society, but also that the term religion is used to make blanket-statement condemnations, promote discrimination, and encourage us-vs-them mentalities. When people say “religion is violent,” or “this religion is violent,” they are glossing over the fact that we have no way of determining what religion even is. The end result of this behaviour is often that millions of people are lumped in with the few, and the only solution proposed is if religion, or that religion, is left behind in favour of a ‘superior’ way of life. Root causes of issues are ignored in favour of blaming a porous, ever-changing, inconsistent, undefinable thing.

So define we must, because the more we recognize the issues inherent in our own categorizations, the less we are able to condone worldviews of us-vs-them.

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