06/08/2013 05:54 am ET Updated Aug 08, 2013

What Does 'Religion' Mean?

Can anyone tell me just what definition of the word religion is being used in the media these days? In the past, public use of the word was easy to identify: "religion" meant "belief in God" and, in general, was used to refer to the one true religion, Christianity. Today, "religion" can mean anything at all, from the most personal and intimate spirituality for the individual to the most diffuse cultural activity in any given society.

A new Gallup poll is declaring that according to a large majority of Americans religion is losing its influence in society, a perception this study and all the media coverage emphasize is not related to measures of personal religiosity such as church attendance or self-reports about the importance of religion. This news is on the heels of the now-familiar religion media story about the rise of the "nones" in American society, individuals who are not affiliated with any religion at all.

While survey results and pie charts are supposed to provide a clearer picture of a particular question or phenomenon, in the case of religion this data seem to be creating more distortion and confusion than enlightenment and insight. Some obvious questions come to mind when confronted with these recent polls concerning religion in America: Are there other measures for religious commitment than church attendance and self-reporting on a scale of importance? Is it more accurate to say that Americans perceive Christianity as losing its influence than religion in general? Can people who don't affiliate with any religious institution or didn't choose one of the available religious identities on the questionnaire still be religious?

On the other hand, and in the very same week, you have the publication of a Forbes article that asks, "Is Religion an Essential Driver of Economic Growth?" It offers a preview of an interview with Peter Berger, a well-known sociologist of religion who wrote one of the classics in the field, "The Sacred Canopy," and suggests the boundaries between religious orientations and cultural development are porous and historically determined. Focus is placed on another classic in the study of religion, Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," which argues that certain elements of the Protestant "lifestyle," like worldly asceticism, contributed to the emergence of modern capitalism.

So religions can blend into culture and become a driving force in the economy? Certainly this notion can also apply to political spheres, as well as the realm of art, and maybe even popular culture and entertainment. Perhaps this is a two-way street as well -- maybe politics, economics, popular culture, art and so on can shape the religious lives of Americans, if not lead to completely new forms of religion.

Another recent news article conveys this possibility quite well. CNN just published a profile on superstar surfer Kelly Slater with the title, "Kelly Slater: 'Surfing is my religion.'" In it, we learn that surfing is more than a sport, more than a career for Slater; it is, the author writes, a "spiritual experience." Here, religion is not something found in institutions and formal traditions, but arises in physical activity with nature and solitary exertions on the ocean, riding waves.

Whether Slater falls under the "none" category is not as important as the fact that religious dimensions are found for him and I suspect many other surfers outside of sacred texts and traditional organizations; in other words, spiritual values and experiences that define his religion might not be recognizable to some Americans, but they can constitute a religion profoundly meaningful to those on the boards.

Even while we will continue to remain fixated on the "nones," it is worth nothing that the history of religion in America may be most dynamic and vibrant outside of conventional sacred settings, perhaps located in what is simplistically and inaccurately referred to as "secular" culture. The astute and often ironical American writer Mark Twain remarked in the later 19th century that popular culture, newspapers and sensational literature provided Americans with religious values and orientations, not just sermons and church publications.

Looking at these few examples gives one the impression that the media, as well as Americans more generally, are working with extremely varied and diverse definitions of religion. The three takeaways from this brief discussion help point out a few of the dilemmas.

First, the meaning and valences of the word religion change over time, and in American history it has been coupled with the dominant and ubiquitous religion of the land, Christianity. Only recently has religion been uncoupled from Christianity, and the implications of what one might call the dechristianization of America for the public understanding of religion remains to be seen.

Second, religion cannot be compartmentalized and separated from the rest of culture. Instead, religion, and especially Protestantism in America, has suffused numerous spheres of social life -- is a "driver" in economics as well as politics, entertainment and so on.

Third and finally, the rise of the "nones" does indicate the end of religion as we know it, as I've written before here. If we can take the notion that surfing can be a religion for some, than what can't be a religion? And who can determine what counts as a religion and what doesn't? The Christians used to be the prime authority on these matters in American society. Now the media and Internet do not have as much of a stake in maintaining traditional boundaries and have instead leveled the playing field completely.

Religion can mean everything and anything. Does that mean it now has no meaning at all?