Religious memory as a conveyor of authoritative tradition: The necessary and essential component in a definition of religion

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Cox, James
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ISASR in association with the Study of Religions, University College Cork
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In a landmark book published in 2000, the sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger defined religion as a chain of memory, by which she meant that within religious communities remembered traditions are transmitted with an overpowering authority from generation to generation. After analysing Hervieu-Léger’s sociological approach as overcoming the dichotomy between substantive and functional definitions, this article compares a ritual honouring the ancestors in which a medium becomes possessed by the senior elder’s ancestor spirit among the Shona of Zimbabwe with a cleansing ritual performed by a Celtic shaman in New Hampshire, USA. In both instances, despite different social and historical contexts, appeals are made to an authoritative tradition to legitimize the rituals performed. This lends support to the claim that the authoritative transmission of a remembered tradition, by exercising an overwhelming power over communities, even if the memory of such a tradition is merely postulated, identifies the necessary and essential component for any activity to be labelled “religious”.
Defining religion , Tradition , Authority , Zimbabwe , Celtic Shamanism
COX, J. 2015. Religious memory as a conveyor of authoritative tradition: the necessary and essential component in a definition of religion. Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions, 2(1), 5-23.
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©2015, The Author(s).