Defining Religion Describing Religious Practice

Defining Religion Describing Religious Practice


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



That things are separate and distinct do not make them “divisive.” By definition, for me,

religion reaches out and embraces all. Religion  it cannot be at odds with itself; whenever

 that occurs it is not religion at all but rather something else parading as if it were.



Books by Wilson Jeremiah Moses

Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (1988)  / The Wings of Ethiopia  (1990)

 Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent (1992)  / Destiny & Race: Selected Writings, 1840-1898  (1992) 

 Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth (1993)

Liberian Dreams: Back-to-Africa Narratives from the 1850s  / Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History (2002)

Creative Conflict in African American Thought (2004)

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Defining Religion, Describing Religious Practice

A Conversation with Wilson


Rudy: Topics like church and religion make me uneasy, and especially when one talks about individual beliefs and faith and how well they have been absorbed and lived.  It gives me no pleasure at all in taking up the subject of how blacks actually live out their religion and how the “Black Church” actually operates in our lives. 

Of course, as black women, you probably are much more familiar with those intimate matters than I. I say that only because it is primarily black women who make the numbers in the “Black Church.” I am like most black men at odds with and outside the “Black Church.”

But the role of the black church in liberation struggle is a necessary topic. It needs more poignant reflective thought than it has been given in the last several decades. In my humble view the so-called Black Church is probably one of the most reactionary, perverse institutions within the black community, and have become more so since the deaths of Martin and Malcolm. There was hope when it retained its congregational, community, agrarian oriented aspects. As it manifests itself in urban centers now in the South, North, elsewhere, they are harbors for sycophants, demagogues, and scoundrels—now educated and trained in the best seminaries, and thus loaded down with well-honed dogma and doctrines which they hoist by force upon the people


They are more akin to ceos and censors than the poor prophet from Nazareth, as they recline in their luxury cars on making their entrance among the populace. So I am not surprised that the emotional ills derived from racial oppression are not getting healed and served there. These male religious leaders (primarily) are aligned with the status quo. They get served and hoisted up.

Their primary message is the “gospel of success.” You can be as comfortable as I, they say, if you take the gospel road as I. Pyramid schemes thrive in these institutions. Let me remind you: institutions by nature are conservative. That for which they were created becomes secondary. Much of the energy and resources are spent on preserving the institution rather than the service it symbolically represents. That means the preachers and their clique gain more than any from this kind of church activity. The cult of personality is alive and well in the “Black Church.”

From my view black church authorities are the primary purveyors of the worst in black thought when it comes to moral, social, and political views. Du Bois didn’t trust them. I have not trusted them since I was baptized. Most of them did not support King and the Civil Rights Movement. That was why King created SCLC, a necessary alternative. The Black Baptist Convention and its leaders were a hotbed of reactionary acts and conservatism. But all these authorities received benefits from the Movement. Most of these religious did not support the Black Consciousness Movement. But they all received benefits from those sacrifices.

The “Black Church” is dead and it has been dead for sometime. It was stillborn but it has been propped up as if it were a real living being. That’s the great deceit. This Great Lie has been propagated too long about the vitality and creativity of the Black Church. That notion only serves the interest of the preachers and their handlers. These fellows have to be brought down a peg or two, or even farther. They are excellent functionaries. But as far as the social, moral, and political their voices are in reality very small and rather insignificant in that they are ventriloquists, rather than prophets of the Lord, liberators of the poor and the powerless.

Religion and church are sustained and fostered by the interrelated activities of the people on a daily basis. It is not in ritual. It is not in romanticization of institutions. It is not in glorifying he who created the largest edifice. It is not in whether your church is on radio or TV. It is not in the cut and quality of cloth you wear to church. It is not in how well the preacher speaks. Religion and church are not in any of these superficialities. 

What is called the Black Church today is a collar and a chain around our necks. In the last several decades we have experienced atrophy in the development of black religion in America. That has resulted from an excess of black theologians and doctors of divinities. It is they who have driven a stake in its development, and purely for reasons of self aggrandizement and self promotion. They want the people totally dependent on them.

We must not only wake up, we must grow up. Each of us much be experts in our own religion. We must realize that real religion is a growing, living thing. Individuals acting as community create and sustain religion, not institutions. In this new world, we must be open to thoughts and ideas of all religions and philosophies of life, as we are in our literature, in our music, in our art. We must liberate religion and church from the priests. And in this, women have a great role to play.

That black women do not run the Black Church today is an extraordinary absurdity and sign of the oppressiveness of the Black Church and black religion. Black women need to free themselves from the church as it is now organized and find religious rapprochement with the men in their lives. This process will go a long way to reviving the spirits and women now in the Black Church.

There are many steps between “implosion” and “explosion.” We do not have to confine ourselves to negatives. There are many little steps one can take.

Wilson: Religion is seldom a unifying force; often a divisive force.   African Americans are united only when someone seeks to practice overt racial discrimination.   We are not united on matters of religion.   Some of us accept Jesus as our savior and others do not.  Some of us accept the Koran as the word of God; others do not.   Most black Christians on this planet are under the authority of the Pope (Brazil, Angola, Congo, Haiti, Cuba, Mozambique, etc.).   Religion is a point of division; not a point of agreement among us.  

Rudy: Religion is often divisive but not by necessity. There’s a Savannah Jew who has written a book with the title “The Home of God” or something to that effect. He points out how Cyrus the Persian (the “messiah”) freed the Jews from the Babylonians. Cyrus welcomed 25 different nations and all their varying religious views in his empire.These religions and cultures were in conversations with each other and were the better for it. And man was the better for it. I submit that it is not the divisiveness of religions that is problematic. But rather it is the divisiveness of religious and political leaders that generate divisiveness among the people in their religious sentiments.Here is what Johns Hopkins News-Letter reported one leader, James Carville said in a speech, his recommendation to the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate:

Religious faith, predominantly Christian faith, would be essential to this New Patriotism, Carville said. He asserted that the wisdom of the Old and New Testaments is relevant to the modern practice of compassionate government in America.

Here he courts the Churches and their leaders, challenging Republican dominance. Religion as religious dogma and doctrines (created by priests or other censors for religious purity), as religious institutions, which sustain dogma and doctrines, acts as the source of divisiveness.  This dogma and  these institutions are promoted and sustained by a privileged elite. There is a need for a liberation of black religion. The church cannot promote a liberation theology until it first liberates itself and returns the church to the congregants themselves. Until that happens I cannot have any faith in institutions that specialize in divisiveness and distinctiveness.While taking a course in theology I asked a young Catholic priest how he knew that salvation can only occur in the church. What proof did he have of that? Or was he stating his own prejudice? For such questions I was reported to the dean, who later called me into his office and began to grill me and wanted to know whether I had read the student handbook carefully. He thought me some uncontrollable heathen. I dropped out of the program. It was just not worth the hassle.

Wilson: First point:  Religion divides people into institutionally separate categories.  It need not place them in positions of violent opposition.  To say that peoples are divided is not to say that they are at one another’s throats. Indeed, religiously separated peoples have sometimes been able to live in harmony and friendship, but this is in spite of, not because of their behavioral and doctrinal differences.  Second point:  I shall never be able to accept your definition of religion.   I apply the term exclusively to social institutions.  I do not apply the term “religion” to individual faith or personal creeds.  Third point: While some religious people may be moral (whatever that means) and while some moral people may be religious (whatever that means), I see no logical or empirical basis for confusing the concepts of morality and religion in attempts to define either one. 

Rudy: I’m not sure that I altogether follow the argument you make. It seems logical and fair. But it does not correspond to my experience, that is, your equation of religion with institution.  I’m not sure that that view corresponds to the Protestant experience. I’m not sure that it corresponds to the black experience, which I view as primarily a protestant experience.

I’m not sure that it corresponds with the Muslim experience, at least, not that experience as taught by the prophet, in which there is no priesthood. If there is no priesthood, there is no institution. If there is no institution, religion becomes a portable thing. It changes and alters, grows or diminishes in how it is practiced in relations to others.

I suspect your definition of religion is a Catholic view, which holds that salvation can be had only within the institution, not outside the Church. There are however Catholic theologians that allow that Buddhists and Muslims can be saved not by being in the Church, but rather by the exemplary lives they lived.

To equate religion with institution (dogma, doctrine) is to kill it instantly. 

Wilson: Religion can be defined by anybody to mean anything.  I can merely be clear about what I mean.  For purposes of clarity I define religion as “the observance of common prayers and pious rituals institutionalized within an organized social group whose members profess common beliefs regarding the supernatural.”  

I don’t expect people to agree on my definition.  Most people define religion purely in terms of their subjective emotions; others define it in terms of mystical revelations, etc.  In practical terms: people who call themselves Muslims will never agree on what is essential in the teachings of the prophet; Christians will never agree on what is essential in the message of Jesus; Jews will never agree on what is essential in the teachings of Moses. All three groups disagree among themselves, hence there are both sectarian differences and individual deviations within each of the groups. 

Sometimes each of these groups is divided by internal hatred and bloodshed.  Perhaps you feel comfortable declaring what the prophet taught.  Over the centuries and at present Muslims themselves exuberantly kill one another because they cannot agree on what the prophet taught.   Christians have the same propensity.  

Remember Itzhak Rabin was killed by a Jew.  I don’t pretend to understand what is meant by Christian teaching.   I have no idea of what constitutes Christian teaching, and I see nothing resembling any consensus among Christians as to what Christianity means.

Rudy: Yours is a very tight definition that curls up in itself. If that is what religion is–“an observance”– it is not a bother or a concern at all. Surely, mere observance is not a divisive act.

Wilson: Rudy, you define religion in terms of a set of moral principles that you personally endorse.   I define religion broadly enough to include both behaviors and beliefs that I accept, and also behaviors and beliefs that I reject.  Fred has a personal moral code, including the principle “Thou shall not steal.”   Bob observes the rules of an institution that prescribes prayer three times a day, along with human sacrifice, and temple prostitution.  My definition would be too narrow to include Fred’s admirable principles, but broad enough to include Bob’s despicable practices.  In my view, institutionalized worship is the only essential feature of religion.  Your second point:  The Oxford English Dictionary  vol. X, page 661, defines observance as: “The keeping of a prescribed ritual; the performance of customary worship or ceremony.”   Your third point:  Any social group that distinguishes itself by its observances clearly divides, distinguishes, and separates itself from other groups that do not follow those observances.

Rudy: You might have an advantage on me in this discussion in that half of the time I have no idea what I’m saying. I did not know that I was confining religion to “a set of moral principles.” In practice, for me, I know, religion is more than a matter of what one thinks, that is what “principles” one may hold on an intellectual level. I allowed, initially, as I recall, that religion is an interrelated daily activity. That is, it is what one does, not restricted by periodical “observances.”

That when it comes to just “observances” religion is dead, it has been placed in a box, which requires a tribe of officials to attend to it and requires those periodical observances which you have noted. When it reaches this stage of “development,” it is true, I want nothing to do with it. That is indeed a principled response, for I am not really into worshipping the dead. 

The prophet of Nazareth says, “Let the dead bury the dead, and you follow me.” Religion is much more portable than you allow. He says further that where two or three of you gather in my name, there I am.

True worship is not a periodical, ritualistic, institutional activity. That is the shadow, the mere ghost of real worship and thus not real religion. Your definition of religion is a planned, orchestrated activity that requires a corps of specialists and tricksters who restrict, manage, abuse true religious activity, an activity that makes no extraordinary division between the mundane and sacred, between the profane and the holy.

That things are separate and distinct do not make them “divisive.” By definition, for me, religion reaches out and embraces all. Religion  it cannot be at odds with itself; whenever that occurs it is not religion at all but rather something else parading as if it were. These are the ghosts and shadows of which I have spoken.

Wilson: I don’t know what the Prophet of Nazareth said.  All I know is that certain statements are attributed to him by the same institution that produced the Bible.   We have no knowledge of his teachings outside of that Bible, which is the creation of an established institution known as the Church.  The Church created the Bible, and the rituals prayers and other observances that go along with it under the name of religion.  Jesus is the property of the church and his teachings are exactly what the Church says they are.  Sort of like the Supreme Court and the Constitution.  

Religions are always exclusive and Christianity, separates the sheep from the goats and sends the non-believers into eternal hellfire.  At least that’s the doctrine that is attributed to Jesus.  But of course we can always pick and choose.

Rudy: That’s where I am, the place I will stand: I’m for picking and choosing and that is what I recommend to others. Free yourself from these institutional worshippers. If there is no picking and choosing I want no part of it. And I recommend that stance for others. That the priests and the managers and ceos of these institutions might have done certain work necessary but they do not altogether know what they do, what they have done, and especially not in all of its particulars. They were and are mere men. We have a history of their errors and misjudgment.

We the people are no longer the people we were. We have no need of these specialists any longer. We can make those decisions and the interpretations for our selves now, especially in defining what religion is. We know the letters, we know how to interpret the letters, the words, even the spirit of the words. We have grown up. We are more awake than we have ever been. And we see more clearly than ever the charlatan character of these “priests.”

You are on point when you note the arrogance of the priests and the institutional managers when they gather the Bible and Jesus as their property and from such an exalted height they pass and distribute the “truth” therein. Well, nobody who has a head on their shoulder will accept that lying down. From what I understand of it we have a religious history that mirrors the struggles against such outrageous arrogance. The people will have none of it.

I cannot wholly agree with you that it is impossible to “know” what Jesus of Nazareth said or says. It may indeed be unlikely. It may indeed make for the charlatans I spoke of earlier, a situation that makes me wary of the Church and its henchmen, and their spiritual thuggery. I for one do not fully discount those who have had conversations with God, I mean just mere men.

I was raised in a culture in which religion is viewed and experienced in a way different from how you have described it. It is not uncommon to hear such expressions as, “God told me,” “God said to me,” and “The Lord told me to give you this message.” There are numerous other expressions that I could put forth as evidence that there are numerous reports of ordinary fellows, speaking with Jesus.

And I suspect that in these conversations the Lord affirms or denies those words found in the Bible, or how to interpret. All this I believe occurs much more frequently than you imagine.

Nathaniel Turner reports he had such discussions with Christ. And I have no reason not to believe that the report is not true. Now, as a historian and social scientist, I know this kind of matter does not set well with you. It makes you uncomfortable that such phenomena could be in all truth.

We read such reports as a problem of diet, too much acidity in one’s fluids, hallucinations caused by depression, vain apparitions. Instances this type of  diagnosis may prove right. I cannot believe, however, every instance such visions are the products of material dysfunctions.

I asked Mama about Kierkegaard’s dilemma, his reflection on the situation of Abraham and Isaac. How do you really know? My questions were nonsense to her sensibility. She knew with a conviction so deep and rooted that her faith in what Jesus had done for her could not be moved. It rendered me silent. Yes, reasoning to the contrary would have been mere nonsense indeed. So I concluded I was an errant knight and withdrew.

Recall the religious rhetoric of King, “I think I hear him saying.” He was speaking of Amos, I think. For King, the personages in the Bible were not dead: the words on the page are living, they converse, they speak for those who have ears to hear, and appear for those who have eyes to see. In short, this is the essence of black religious experience, as I know it, as I understand it, and, I think, it is also how I experience it. I will allow that I may be mistaken, that this what I describe is not “religion” at all, that I have misnamed it, and that it is something other altogether.

I will accept that I am manipulating the dictionary definition to make it into something that is not, and never has been. I want to be agreeable. It is quite possible that which I speak of is something that I desire, that my writings are mere apparitions of my fancy, a waking dream world. But I submit to you this madness is the norm.

Wilson: Okay.  Fair enough.  You are interested in the practice of religion.   I am only interested in defining a term. 

Jeannette: Depending on the mood I’m in, I may talk to any one of God’s three personalities (as I understand them) at any given moment, anywhere.   Most often I talk to Jesus, probably because I was introduced to him first by my mother.  (One of the earliest stories I heard was about how she heard his footsteps coming down the hall to heal her when she was ill.) I’m never fancy, proper or studied when I talk directly to Jesus. He’s just like a best friend, so I can be plain old me. I’m don’t have to pretend or choose my words carefully. I can just “be,” without exception.

When I am in the mood for being childish or adolescent, I talk to God, the Father.  Katrina hurt. I cried and cried until I was tired of crying. It was hard to eat and sometimes sleep. There was nothing else left for me to do except talk to God, the Father.  In those intimate moments the idea for the purple ribbons came from Him, but not until after I had expurgated some of the anger and sadness by writing an ugly poem. The poem, though fairly well-written, I think, was not enough. It did not really help. In the quietness, kneeling beside my bed, God, The Father told me that this was not just about my feelings.  The idea to make the ribbons was born. 

Now when it comes to the third aspect of God’s personality (as experienced by Christians,) The Holy Spirit/Ghost, everything, at least for me, becomes a little more complicated. I’ve learned that The Holy Spirit is nothing with which I want to play. It is energetic, powerful and “magical.”   I have yet to come to a full understanding of its power. What I have learned is not to treat it lightly. 

For example, if I begin a day by asking the Holy Spirit to guide me, I end up doing all kinds of things that I personally have not planned on, such as asking perfect strangers if they need a ride or if they would like for me to write them an affirmation. Not once has it ever been the wrong thing to do. I have never been endangered by this behavior.

However, since I don’t necessarily want to spend my time in street ministry (not preaching,) I have, in very recent years, decided that a better way for me to talk to the Holy Spirit is simply to ask questions, like “what is the priority for today?” This quieter (more closed) way of asking for guidance gives me more “space” to do things my way as opposed to being propelled by this incredibly, mysterious energy.  I’m still learning how to be comfortable and choose my questions wisely with the Holy Spirit.    

I don’t know how all of the above may or may not be related to the institution of the church. What I have learned about what works best in my life comes, to a large degree, through conversations with God, dreams, a few good sermons that caused me to think and theological discussions. I need to revisit the biblical text because for the most part I stopped regularly reading scripture when I went to college. I was very happy to have the freedom not to attend church, although at Hampton Institute vespers were still required on Sunday evenings. 

This Katrina purple ribbon project does not belong to me. It is God inspired and I am “called.” For some time my dreams have informed me of my role as servant. It will be intriguing to see how this all evolves. 

Depending on my daily moods, I will always hold plain talks with Jesus, and/or God, the Father and/or the Holy Spirit.  

Rudy: Religious experience is always personal and unique. Yours call to mind those of Methodist women in early 19th-century America. If you have not, read William L. Andrews’ Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (1986). Andrews’ book reports the experience of three women evangelists who were in some way or another barred from certain Church activities or assigned secondary roles in the church.

In response to their trivialization by the male church ministry, each of these women reports her unique revelatory experience with the three persons of Christ to demonstrate indeed their worthiness as a servant of the Lord. These women suffered the compromise that from the congregation they could act only as “exhorters.” Of course, their exclusion from the pulpit was not an invention of the AME, which in the 19th century was probably the largest and most influential “Black Church.” After Jesus liberated them, the priests under the influence of Paul’s teachings adopted the doctrine of female inferiority and concluded that the fair sex was much more receptive of deviltry than men.

So their enthusiasm had to be kept in check. Thus regular church attendance under a male ministry was necessary to keep them in order. The ecclesiastic who works the “miracle” of hysterical abasement before the pulpit (throne), says H.L. Mencken in his In Defense of Women, tend to be “a fair and toothsome fellow, and a good deal more aphrodisiacal than learned. . . . in transactions far more suitable to the boudoir than to the footstool of the Almighty.”  Though possibly influenced by the Church, I suspect your religious experience is quite genuine and far more valuable than the exhibitions prevalent in such church behavior as can be found in male-led churches here in Baltimore.

Your Katrina inspired “ribbon project” is a worthy response to the New Orleans tragedy and expresses, in my mind, God’s love, care, and mercy for the poor and powerless. Whatever cynical view of religious emotionalism you may encounter, I say ignore it, and be assured of your own conviction. Paul was great but he was not Christ, and the same experience that was opened to him, was/is indeed opened to all.

Jeannette: Actually I have recorded dialogues with God in one or two manuscripts.  Unfortunately, unlike one popular white male writer, I have not been able to find a publisher for my Conversations With God.  I suspect that black women, like Sojourner Truth, your mother and mine, have been holding dialogues with God for a long time.

posted 19 October 2005

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