Saturday, January 07, 2006

Does religion exist?

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Belief systems

There is no more a thing called religion that can be studied than there is a thing called life. In particular, there is no definition that will encompass religion and exclude everything that is not religion. The chief reason why people can never say that religion is "really" anything else is that it isn't, really, anything to start with.

Reading further it turns out that Andrew Brown's thesis is less apocalyptic: he argues that religion is, at best, a "family resemblance" notion so that attempts to find an essence characteristic of all the phenomena we ordinarily classify as religion are doomed to failure.

I'm not so sure. Here is a minimalist analysis of religion that I'd argue, applies to all central cases of religion, excludes all beliefs and practices that are clearly not religion and explains why the borderline cases are borderline. So try this: a religion consists of

(1) The belief that there is some supernatural reality
(2) A cult--public, private or both.
(3) The belief that there is some causal connection between the supernatural reality and the cult.

Each of these conditions is itself minimal, e.g. the "supernatural reality" in question can be anything from a theistic god with psychological states who acts in the world to an impersonal, transcendental something-I-know-not-what to a conglomerate of ancestors, daimons, faeries and godlets. It also doesn't include any ethical dimension which from our prejudice in favor of "Great World Religions" is usually thought to be central but, insofar as we want a criterion that everything we commonly understand as religion will satisfy, doesn't figure.

Counterexamples anyone?

Every religion I can think of satisfies these conditions. Atheistic versions of Hinduism and Buddhism for example recognize some supernatural something or other and recommend meditation and cultic activities as a means to get in touch with it. Borderline cases are borderline because they satisfy one condition but not the others. Neoplatonism, with its elaborate theology, isn't a central case of religion because it doesn't involve any cultic activity though if you regard it as the ideology of late Greco-Roman paganism the combination of Neoplatonic theology and pagan sacrifices and other cultic activities clearly is a religion. The North Korean dear leader cult isn't a religion because, even though it involves cultic activities, it doesn't involve any beliefs in the supernatural.

Ok? Objections? So that's religion: not as big a deal as most people think and something we can all enjoy even if we don't believe in the supernatural even in the most minimal sense.

By laying too much on religion, we're destroying it. By insisting not only on supernatural belief but ethical commitment for religious participation we dissuade people from participating in the cult: so the churches close, the myths die, the ceremonies fall into disuse, the processions stop, the hymns are forgotten--everything that matters about religion disappears and the world is a poorer, duller place.


Anonymous said...

This looks quite convincing, but I have two questions.
What in this context does "supernatural" mean? I suspect that everyone except perhaps for properly trained buddhists has some beliefs about supernatural things, but this makes it a very wide category indeed, and a supernatural being that doesn't _do_ anything is very different to one which does, and different again to one who does.

Can you have a religion with one adhernet? your definition would appear to make ths possible.

Unrelatedly, did you hear the programme?

Unknown said...

I got the transcript (very impressive how this whole thing was put together!) but couldn't pick up the actual broadcast. It was intriguing though I'm still not convinced.

Supernatural, hmm. Something along the lines of "inexplicable by an ideal physics." The kind of account I'm thinking of is what you get in philosophy of mind where the question of what makes a theory count as dualistic or materialistic poses the further question of what is it for states, events or substances to be "non-physical." A variety of criteria are proposed and disposed of. Take your pick: we know the meaning even if we don't know the analysis.

My worry is that many adherents don't have the concept of the natural vs. the supernatural or science as an institutionalized cultural activity distinct from other practices. I'm not knowledgeable enough about Hinduism for example but it seems that some practitioners who have theories about chakras and energies, go in for yogic exercises and massage to adjust them, take themselves to be operating scientifically. My intuition is that this doesn't count as religion because they have the mistaken idea that what they're doing is "scientific" to the extent that they think dealing with chakras, energies and yogic postures is all of a piece with applying leeches, administering purgatives, or whatever other medical practices are current. Maybe the real question is what is cult?

I don't think casting the net widely though is a cop out. It's a response to the current idea that the ethical dimension that figures in some religions and the social control job they do are central, are central. We make that mistake because we're currently focused on fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, but also because theology has been so dominated by 19th century Germans who picked up Hegelian notions about Religion, and History, and had axes to grind. The "great world religions" that packed lots of moralism and wisdom literature were the paradigms and highest development of religion. But if you start without any preconceived notions, without any axes to grind, and pick out practices that you would clearly count as religious what you get is not morality tinged with emotion but something more like cult tinged with superstition.

I don't find it at all unintuitive that you could have a religion with one adherent. The cult would be impoverished because you need large groups to do cult well and expensive props that most individuals can't afford. Here's an article, "In Defense of Proselytizing" (pdf) in which I argue that evangelism is justified in order to attract adherents to support the cult by financing church buildings and their furnishings.

Gosh all fishhooks, am I the last gut-level Anglo-Catholic (or the only heterosexual female one), the last person to have been moved by Pater's description of the Ship of Isis drifting out to sea or to have wept at the death of Marius or the last to sigh for sunny Mediterranean Folk Catholicism? Maybe what we really need to fix this mess is another Italian pope!

MikeS said...

(1) The belief that there is some supernatural reality
(2) A cult--public, private or both.
(3) The belief that there is some causal connection between the supernatural reality and the cult.
I don't know which Marius for whom you are weeping, but for me it would be the Roman general.
Item (1) - it has already been said - Bhuddhism; and 'we know the meaning, even if we don't know the analysis' - pullllleeeeeze.
Item (2) - granted, by insignificant me, anyway.
Item (3) - here must be some odd definition of supernatural going on here; I think your other correspondent on this nails it.
"My worry is that many adherents don't have the concept of the natural vs. the supernatural or science as an institutionalized cultural activity distinct from other practices."
What has that to do with epistemic warrant or grounding? What has gut-level got to do with anything? Are you a gut level liberal, or do you have a more coherent reason for your politics than for this metaphysical drivel?

MikeS said...
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MikeS said...
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Unknown said...

Just removing duplicate posts here...

The Marius I was thinking of was Pater's Marius from Marius the Epicurean.

I agree that gut-level as such hasn't got anything to do with epistemic warrant or grounding, though gut-level feelings don't preclude one's having beliefs rationally justified on independent grounds. And, please note, my politics don't come from gut feelings or, as you put it, metaphysical drivel.

The question I'm asking is about the appeal of religion--which doesn't have anything to do with whether it's true or false much less whether it motivates political or ethical views. I don't understand why people don't find it appealing. I'm a skeptic I suppose but I've been intrigued by religion since I was a child. I love church buildings and sacred music. I'm fascinated by mysticism and the quest for altered states of consciousness--with or without the use of recreational drugs. I read the history of the church in Late Antiquity and the Byzantine empire and fantasize about that world of shrines, processions and saints days, elaborate liturgies and Empress Zoe talking out loud to her icons.

It's hard for me to understand how anyone wouldn't be attracted by this--it seems like not liking chocolate or sex. So I wonder why. Is it because people simply don't think of mysticism, art or high church when they think of religion, because they think of the pure tedium of the Bible and Sunday School, dull moralizing and Songs of Praise? Is it because even if they know about high church it's poisoned by association with puritanical, stupid rules and parental control? Or is it just that this whole magical mystery tour simply doesn't turn people on?

MikeS said...

Sorry about the accidental multiple posts. I know your politics are reasoned, I was simply contrasting that with your view of religion. I think you have missed one important universal of religions, they are supposed to provide a basis for ethics and therefore it would seem that they are inextricable from politics...

Unknown said...

What I am arguing is precisely that this ethical dimension is NOT a universal feature of religions. We conventionally take it to be universal because we take the "Great World Religions," which incorporate ethical teaching and wisdom literature as paradigms of religion, rather than Shamanism, Shinto, Chinese folk religion or Voodoo.

Greek religion as such didn't have any significant ethical dimension even though there were cults and mystery religions that prescribed codes of conduct--and Christianity started as one of them. If you were seriously interested in ethics you applied to your local philosopher--if you were a rich, male citizen with the education and leisure to do it.

These cults, including Christianity, were the poor man's Academy--for slaves, thetes and women--and the wisdom literature they produced was philosophical Cliff's Notes, a distillation of all the philosophical results and moral rules without the tedious, difficult arguments for people who didn't have the time to do philosophy. Sort of like a book I saw advertised in the back of Scientific American once: "Mathematics for Engineers--NO PROOFS!" Historically I think that's how the Church got into the ethics business.

Now there's plenty of secular wisdom literature, from Dear Abby to Oprah to the self-help section in the mall bookstore so we don't need churches to do this job. From this you can either infer that we don't need churches--or that churches should get out of the ethics business.

MikeS said...

I agree in some ways, religion can be stripped of, or seen apart from, an ethical dimension. That does not alter the fact that most believers think that their ethics are given by their deity - argue that if you will. And I think much of the appeal of religion is that adherents don't need to bother themselves with philosophy, because their ethics come cheap -so in a way I suppose I agree with you. What I think many of us find repugnant about religion is this very 'of the shelf ethics' aspect.
Incidentally, Paul Dirac was an engineer.

Unknown said...

This ("ethics off the shelf") is the conventional view but it's false--I haven't got the reference at hand but in surveys where religious believers are asked where they get their ethics from most say family, second most say peers and only a minority claim to follow the Bible or teachings of their churches in this regard. And, operative word, "claim."

Even more to the point, almost all believers are selective about which doctrines they buy and (in the US at least) it's common to "church shop" for the church that preaches the doctrines that one already believes on independent grounds. Moreover, when churches start preaching doctrines that people don't like they ignore them or leave. When the Catholic Church affirmed its ban on artificial contraception virtually no Catholic listened; when the Pope condemned the death penalty virtually no conservative Catholics in the US took it seriously. When the Episcopal (Anglican) church in the US did a volte face on homosexuality there was not a single member that said, "Gosh, I used to think homosexuality was wrong but the Church sez it ain't so I guess I've gotta accept that and change my views." Liberals said wow great the Church has finally got on track and conservatives left and either joined other churches that supported their pre-conceived notions or started their own.

I can tell you from 20+ years of teaching philosophy to undergraduates that very few people "bother themselves with philosophy"--or theology. They absorb their views, including ethical views, from their immediate environment and mindlessly buy into the conventions of their social group. They are not getting "off the self ethics" from their churches--at most they regard what these churches preach as just another consumer product on all fours with the Mars-Venus literature and all the other crap they pick up in the self-help sections of mall bookstores, newspaper advice columnists and Oprah. They don't take the official views of their churches seriously.

So, why not buy what you like? Enjoy the stuff of the Church, the buildings, music, art, etc. and don't pay attention to the nonsense they preach--any more than you pay attention to the "mission statements" of the organization you work for or the firms with which you do business?

Or, for that matter, why should it bother you if other people take this stuff seriously (which most don't): consider my father-in-law, lifelong "freethinker" baptized, confirmed, married and buried CofE and wouldn't have it any other way, or Uncle Eddie, a Communist and avid change-ringer at his local parish church.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post - hope it's okay to comment even though it is old.

I think your definition is both too broad and too narrow; it includes small children hanging up Christmas stockings for Santa, it excludes Kierkegaardian existentialism. Or?

Unknown said...

Interesting, Caroline. Actually consulting my intuitions for all that's worth I do think Kierkegaardian existentialism as such should be excluded, at least if understood as free-standing. Kierkegaard himself is a "religious thinker" insofar as is understanding of existentialism is folded into institutional Christianity, with its cult and myth, insofar as he was a member and critic of the Danish Lutheran church and so on.

As far as children hanging Christmas stockings that does seem to me at least a borderline case of religious activity. Part of what makes us reluctant to call it religious I think is that only children do it. If adult members of the community did it as well, if it weren't an intentional ruse perpetrated by adults on children, we'd surely call it, or activities like it, religious. Think of cargo cults...

Anonymous said...

Hm, I don’t think I would call the Christmas stockings belief cum ritual religion even if it involved adults. In my opinion it would lack ‘scope’ of the beliefs involved. Compare carrying a rabbit foot in your pocket for good luck; it satisfies your criteria, but it seems to me that it is too marginal a concern to count as religion. (But of course there is a long discussion here about the relation between magic and religion.)

As to the Kierkegaard example, if someone truly believes in God, thinks of this belief as utmost important, makes her choices in life according to what she believes the Bible says and maybe even has a mystical experience or two, I would say that that person was religious even if she was not a churchgoing person.

So, for what it’s worth, we seem to have diverging intuitions concerning the concept of religion.

Unknown said...

"What is Religion" is like the "What is Art" question: there's the temptation to see "religion" like "art" as value-loaded, or at least, value-tinged. So people will question whether avant-garde pieces in museums and galleries are "really Art" and other people will say that trash like Thomas Kincade pictures are certainly "not Art." I'd say the value question is separate.

Some with religion--there's an assumption that by its nature it must deal with important issues, be significant in peoples lives and at least minimally plausible--which rules out most folk religion.

With the Kierkegaard example, I don't claim that churchgoing is a necessary condition on counting as religious. What makes, e.g. believing what the Bible says as religious? The fact that the Bible figures in public cultic activities, is the canonical literature of an institution devoted to perpetuating myth and cult, etc. Rabbits' feet don't satisfy my criteria, not because they're superstitious, magical or trivial but because they're not associated with myth or cult. But imagine there were special ceremonies for blessing rabbits' feet associated with myths about the Big Bunny in the sky. Or think of other fetishes--from icons to "prayer cloths" blessed by televangelists for contributions to their "ministries." What makes them religious objects rather than MERE fetishes is the way they figure in connection to myths and organized cultic practices.

Maybe it isn't just a matter of brute intuitions here but distinguishing between Religion as a value-laden notion--like Art upper-case which excludes Thomas Kincade--and a value-neutral notion according to which religion as such isn't a particularly good or important thing but is just a particular kind of human activity like stamp-collecting, cooking or doing crafts. And being religious isn't a particularly good (or bad) thing--just something some people enjoy.

Anonymous said...

I take it that you don’t mean that the Bible is a religious text merely because it “figures in public cultic activities” etc., but also because of the nature of it’s content. But it wouldn’t stop being a religious text even if all Christians disappeared (and activities and institutions with them), would it?

I didn’t mean to imply that religion is necessarily value-loaded (good or bad), only that I think there is a ‘threshold’ of importance at play; supernatural beliefs and practices which fall under a triviality limit is not considered religious (cf. e.g. Pascal Boyer 2001: 104-5 for a similar point). But again, we may just have different intuitions about religion–-as religion is not a natural kind, I think this is likely (especially across cultures and religious traditions).

Unknown said...

Important vs. trivial is, I think, a value-laden distinction. If you exclude practices that fall under what I take you regard as the triviality threshhold then all folk religion is excluded--and that means, historically, the majority of activities that would ordinarily be regarded as religious: public Greco-Roman paganism (as distinct from mystery religions), shaminism, animism and most of Mediterranean folk Catholicism--from the Day of the Dead to the San Gennaro Festa.

As for the Bible, would the Old Testament be any more "religious" apart from its cultic/institutional context than the Illiad--which also has lots about causal interaction between gods and people? Would the Gospels be any more religious out of context than the Life of Apollonius of Tyana or the quasi-biographical accounts of any other hellenistic teacher of wisdom or wonder-working rabbi?

Granted, religion isn't a natural kind--that doesn't get you off the hook. Most activities that the folk would characterize as religious you would likely call trivial and even more clearly, the folk call people "religious" to the extent that they engage in these activities--church-going and participating in various other public ceremonies, superstitious and quasi-superstitious activities like petitionary prayer, candle-lighting, icon-kissing and rosary-mumbling, knowing and rehearsing the stories and myths of an institutionalized religious tradition, reciting various formula, et.. The folk certainly wouldn't see a concern with "ultimate" issues, with "Meaning" or the human condition or whatever as inherently religious.