Letter to the Editor: What is Religion?

I was disappointed in the lack of intellectual rigor displayed by members of the Religion Department when they collectively responded to the question, “What is religion?” Arthur McGill, a former professor of religion, would have had no problem with such a question: He would have said that religion was the paying of strict attention to where the power lies. He might have added Paul Tillich’s response that what was meant was ultimate power, but he might have seen this as too restrictive, implying a higher or theistic power, which might have excluded Julian Huxley’s humanism. My main point is that the current Religion Department, perhaps in its attempt to be nice guys and gals, have departed from the serious and disciplined tradition, which was once (and I hope still is, notwithstanding this lapse) the tradition of Wesleyan.

Hugh Lifson ’59
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

In response to Mr. Lifson’s note: We are always pleased to hear that alumni of our department are carrying their academic training with them. Mr. Lifson graduated in 1959, which was a time when the department was still employing theologians and the discipline was much more focused on Christianity. Current approaches in both the discipline and our department are more rigorous about situating definitions of religion within their social and historical contexts, eschewing general definitions (which, like Professor McGill’s, are most often influenced by Christianity) for cultural, temporal, and geographic specificity. Our current rigor extends to examining how definitions of religion are shaped by power in much broader geographic and historical contexts, including Professor McGill’s, than would have been explored in 1959.

Justine Buck Quijada
Associate Professor of Religion