Thursday, September 2, 2010

A working definition of religious rhetoric

Let me go out on a limb and suggest a working definition of religious rhetoric: “Religious rhetoric is persuasive language to or about the supernatural that takes as its base assumption the existence of the supernatural.” If it does not assume the supernatural but is nevertheless about religion, it is rhetoric about religion--not religious rhetoric. If we say “Brian is religious” we mean Brian has cultural practices that assume a supernatural power; if we say “this rhetoric is religious,” we mean something similar.

This definition needs more flesh than I have time to give it right now. First, I need to defend the way I define religion itself: belief in supernatural beings, forces, or powers. This definition, for example, would make it impossible to identify as a religion marxism or capitalism or baseball or a number of other human endeavors often called, sloppily I think, religions.

Second, I need to explain more of what I mean by "persuasion," since I believe the very architecture of a mosque, church, synagogue, temple, prayer room, or other religious building constitutes a rhetorical strategy designed to invoke a particular experience in those who enter and worship in them.

In other words, by defining American religious rhetoric, I have opened, rather than closed, an important semantic debate. I hope others will participate with me in defining our terms. (A wiki might be better, eh?)


  1. I just grabbed my Miriam Websters and looked up "religious." And it says, "relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity." So of course some people would read this and say that being religious doesn't necessarily have to involve the super natural- some might claim that their ultimate reality is football! But I think I agree with Brian that the supernatural needs to be involved.

  2. I'll add a little bit more to my comment. I think that "religious" needs to include a belief in the supernatural because I think that it is this "beyond this earth" quality that gives people the desire to persuade others of the importance of their belief...let me try to clarify. The supernatural implies a power greater than ourselves that influences our existence now and after death, and since it is something of such great significance, people feel the need to persuade others to believe in a similar way. You don't get such a "need to convert" out of football fans. They can cry over the results of a great game, feeling deeply touched, but they are not overly concerned if their spouse shows no emotion whatsoever or doesn't even watch the game. With religion, there exists the desire to convert. A little scrambled here, but maybe you catch my gist.