What is religious language?

Some of the first questions any scholar of religious language will wrestle with, very early on, are these very difficult ones: what is religion and what is religious language?

Judging by the types of tweets about religious language that people tag me in, people tend to think of religious language as explicit references to God, to religious leaders, quotes from sacred texts, and other overtly religious concepts, people and objects.

Eric Metaxas inciting religious extremism.

The idea here is that religious language is what “religious people” use to do religious sorts of things. Want to understand religous language? Find “religious people” and study their language. Among scholars, this is a common way of approaching the study of religious language. And there’s no doubt that this is an important type of religious language.

But several problems quickly emerge from this narrow way of viewing religious language (and indeed religion).

1. It isn’t just people affiliated with organized religion who use explicitly religious language.
Explicitly religious language (language more frequent in/derived from organized religion) appears in nearly every community (whether overtly religious or not) and is a powerful instrument wielded on some of the world’s most influential stages (politics, advertising, sport, pop culture, to name a few).

“If I were to be a religious person, this would be like going to the cathedral.”
“Sports is where we humans place our faith.”
“Each time you fight, it’s kindof like a baptism.”

2. Contrary to what some scholars argue, explicit religious language is used in similar ways by all kinds of people, whether in organized religion or not. Even tongue-in-cheek uses of religious language tap into connections between some aspect of our world and the sacred (whatever is set apart, especially revered or hated). Labeling food as “heavenly,” for example, may not indicate that an individual person reveres what they are eating. But by using language to mark food as sacred, a person is reinforcing and participating in a socially-constructed notion of food as a source of potent, cultural meaning. So religious meaning is constructed not just individually but also socially. Religious language is therefore not just about what individuals believe but what groups of people believe.

3. Narrow conceptions of religion and religious language foster an othering of followers of organized religion. They perpetuate the false assumption that there is something profoundly different or unique about people who affiliate with organized religion and about the language they use.

On the contrary, all human beings wrestle with the same set of fundamental questions about who we are, where we came from, where we are going, what is right and wrong, and so on. And all of us use language to indicate our answers to those questions.

4. This leads me to my final point, for now. Religious language, broadly defined, is any language we use to point to answers to life’s deepest questions. We use religious language to indicate what we love and value the most, what we fear, what we hate, what we believe is right and wrong, as individuals and as members of community. Often people will rely on the explicit religious language they are familiar with to do this. But other times, the language we use to mark something as sacred will not look particularly religious, on the face of it.

In the Eric Metaxas tweet at the start of this post, for instance, Metaxas’s reference to “God” is certainly doing some heavy lifting when it comes to religious meaning. But there is also implicit religious meaning embedded in and expressed via his other language choices, i.e. being “happy to die”, the reference to “us,” etc. These speak to his most deeply held beliefs and the community he most closely identifies with in the moment of speaking.

All this makes religious language a much more complex phenomenon to describe, to study, to delimit. If religious language is much more than the language of “religious people,” more even than references to overtly religious concepts, people, places and objects, how can we identify which language is religious and which is not?

In my forthcoming book on religious language, I argue that there are certain contexts where we tend to talk about what we hold sacred and where religious language will therefore by necessity appear, including but not limited to moments of crisis and conflict (e.g., disputes about national election results).

Approaching religious language in this way, as something profoundly and universally human, grants us opportunities to approach each other more empathetically, at least more honestly, even when we are divided by profound disagreement.

Available January, 2021.
Pre-order now via Bloomsbury and other online retailers.


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