God Terms and Activity Systems: A Definition of Religion for Political Science

Ira Allen, Saul Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Political science struggles, sometimes more than it knows, to study religion’s relationship with politics, democratic and otherwise. The difficulty is in part theoretical. This paper synthesizes diverse strains in recent scholarship on religion to propose a theoretically attuned definition well suited for empirical political science. Religions are defined as systems of shared activity organized around transcendental signifiers. Transcendental signifiers are readily identifiable in public discourse and are “god terms” that organize (or rest at the center of organized) systems of shared activity. This parsimonious definition admits both belief-oriented and practice-oriented phenomena and allows political scientists to study religion as it shapes political acts, interventions, and possibilities. For illustrative purposes, the paper examines a key speech delivered by Sukarno at Indonesia’s founding moment, in which naturalistically observable transcendental signifiers mark the mobilization of religion. Revising older histories that discover a contest between “secular” and “religious” actors, or that are keen to determine the sincerity of Sukarno’s own belief, we contend that Indonesia’s founding is best understood in terms of competing religious discourses that merge in the development of a new civil religion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)557-570
Number of pages14
JournalPolitical Research Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Indonesia
  • founding moments
  • methodology
  • political Islam
  • religion
  • secularism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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