“There seems to be a split between people thinking about religion as one thing and other things as being religious,” said Mount Royal University religious studies professor Steven Engler. Although the terms religion and religious don’t seem all that different, his study may just prove otherwise.

The beginning

Twelve years ago, Engler began studying religion in Brazil after being interested in one particular theme: the tension between popular religion, what people actually do, and orthodox religion, what people are supposed to do according to religion.

To explore this hunch, Engler distributed a survey to a sample of selected neighborhoods throughout the city of São Paulo and had participants recruit others they knew. In doing so he obtained information about people’s beliefs and practices from a sample of almost 400 respondents.

To deepen his understanding, Engler also attended various religious services —“Catholic popular rituals, Kardecist, Umbandist and Neo-Pentecostal services” — to watch what happens.

He went on to interview dozens of participants both mediums, who work with spirits, and service goers. He also asked participants to list 20 things they consider religious.

Surprising findings

What he found was quite surprising even to himself.

“I thought it was going to be straight forward,” he said, “but then I realized that I was starting with all sorts of [assumptions].

“I started to notice that the people I was interviewing were doing things that I didn’t expect them to do.”

An example was when participants, who considered themselves to be Catholic, reportedly attended rituals of other religions.

In São Paulo, Brazil, “when people get sick, their relatives will often take a t-shirt or some other [form of clothing] and they’ll have it blessed and they’ll wear that blessed t-shirt.”

That may not be a practice approved by the Catholic Church since it hasn’t been recognized by religion but it is still being done by Catholic people. The ritual is similar to that done in other religions like Umbanda, Kardecism and Neo-Pentecostalism, according to Engler.

“So we find the same ritual in four different religions in the city and people will often take clothes to more than one of these religions to try to help with a health problem.”

Another popular example of a similar behavior is present in the country of the Philippines, where devout Catholic men are crucified during the Easter season. The Catholic church has not approved of the practice but the tradition still lives on.

“So the religious things they’re doing don’t fit within their religion,” Engler explained, “and that forced me to think, well maybe I better stop assuming I know what these words mean and start asking them what they mean.”

Religion vs. Religious 

There are hundreds of definitions for religion according to Engler: “One of the key ideas that I find most useful is that religion is characterized by a separation between normal things and special things.”

The word religion has been defined as a “system of faith and worship” by Oxford.

“Religion creates or recognizes categories of special things,” Engler said, citing the Roman Catholic Eucharist as an example.Engler did research at Vale do Amanhecer, a religious community and movement that draws on Umbanda and Kardecism. It is located just outside of Brasília, the capital of Brazil. Photo courtesy of Steven Engler.

“The priest will lift up a cup with wine in it,” he explained. “Why does it have to be a gold cup? Could it be a plastic cup?

“No, because the wine, from a Catholic point of view, is the blood of Christ so it’s special [and] it needs a special container.”

“Religion has all sorts of rules like, you must wear this kind of clothing, you can only eat these kind of things, only people of this gender or from this group can go into this place, or … I Ching, the Book of Changes (an ancient Chinese philosophical text), traditionally one is supposed to keep it about a meter off the ground so it shouldn’t be on the bottom bookshelf, it should be up. Why? Because it’s special.”

Being religious, on the other hand, is anything related to religion.

“What I would have assumed is that religion and religious is practically the same thing,” Engler explained, “but I’m starting to see people going in different directions with that.”

“Religion tends to be looking back in terms of the traditions of a community or established beliefs, what has been given [to] us from the past in terms of sort of a heritage of belief and practice, doing things the same old way,” said Engler about the new meaning he now sees from his study. “But when people look for religious or spiritual things, they’re looking to the future, they’re looking for solving a problem – achieving some sort of a goal.”

“People’s sense of religious or spiritual things is broader than their sense of what falls within a religion,” Engler commented. “The key difference is the formers’ focus on healing — this worldly salvation: health, employment, physical and mental health, for self and family.”

“I was trained to expect that religions are sharply distinct from each other,” Engler admitted. He said that his work taught him to spend less time teaching others what he was taught and more time showing them what he has found — the similarities between religions despite their distinctions.

“I am paying more attention to the spaces between religions now, the similarities they share despite their explicit distinctions.”

Engler hopes his research will make an impact on those who study religion and how they address it, adding that his work “could potentially have an impact on giving a more open and perhaps honest basis for talking about religious pluralism, where the difference is between people in different religions.”

“A place like Canada is not simply a conflict between these very sharply defined things called religions but just different ways [of] people trying to ask very basic questions about life, death and people trying to accomplish basic goals like health and happiness.”

For more information on this study, visit Engler’s website.

rdesouza@cjournal.ca

Editor: Deanna Tucker | dtucker@cjournal.ca