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2009-10-14
A theory of religion
Here is an attempt to say what all and only religions share in common in virtue of which they are religions.
From (2001). A Theory of Religion Revised. Religious Studies 37 (2):177-189. This goes against
the prevailing view that there is only a 'family resemblance' tween religions.
Comments welcome.

I take it to be intuitive that religions are
concerned with a reality that surpasses the ordinary world that
sense perception reveals. This reality consists either of (a)
sentient supernatural beings (e.g. gods) or of (b) an insentient
metaphysical principle underlying the universe (e.g. The
Unconditioned, Sunyata, or The Tao). This principle has features
that mark it as belonging to a different order of reality from
the objects that make up the mundane world: it cannot be named or
cognized, it can be described only in contradictions, it doesn't
arise or pass away, it issues in everything else, it is utterly
changeless, or...

In short, religions relate practitioners to a reality that
transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception; we
might call it a 'supermundane reality.' ...Even supposing we occasionally see
the gods walking among us, a significant part of their existence
must be unseen. (Indeed, the beings in question might better be
described as 'supermundane' than 'supernatural,' for the
practitioners may lack our concept of 'nature.') They reside
primarily on Mount Olympus or in a celestial realm. A 'god' who
rents the apartment next to mine, gets a job driving a bus, joins
the Libertarian Party, marries a coworker, and becomes completely
immersed in the mundane realm forever, is a theological oxymoron.
Similarly the insentient metaphysical principle must at least
partly transcend nature, even if we sometimes see its operations
in nature. It comprises a level of reality deeper than what sense
perception (even assisted by scientific instruments) reveals, and
its nature is best discovered by other means, e.g. meditation.

In addition,
the elements that comprise the reality to which a religion
relates us must be sufficiently grand (taken either individually
or collectively) that they can figure centrally in satisfying the
sort of substantial human needs that people generally want
religions to meet (e.g. long life, immortality, the end of
suffering). Gremlins do not a religion make.

I said above
that religions are concerned with a supermundane reality that
consists either of sentient supernatural beings or of a
metaphysical principle that underlies the universe. This reality
must be sufficiently grand that it can figure centrally in the
satisfaction of substantial human needs. There is, of course, a
certain vagueness in the idea of 'substantial' human needs.
Consequently there may not always be a fact of the matter about
whether a possible set of practices is a religion (the User's
Manual for the new theory advises us to err on the side of
inclusion, however). But a vague idea needn't be a 'family
resemblance' concept; consider 'baldness.' Nor is vagueness
theoretically problematic so long as we know what to say in clear
cases--doubly so if borderline cases are merely possible.
Let's call a supermundane reality that has all these
features a 'SR.'

This suggests the following account:

A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs
according to which the practices place the practitioner in a
relation-of-value to a SR.

Counter-examples?

2009-10-14
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Not a counter-example but a problem. You write: "In addition,the elements that comprise the reality to which a religion relates us must be sufficiently grand (taken either individually
or collectively) that they can figure centrally in satisfying the sort of substantial human needs that people generally want religions to meet (e.g. long life, immortality, the end of
suffering). ..."

I don't think religions generally have promised long lives or an end to suffering.  And many have said nothing about life after death.  Even the idea that religions have existed "to satisfy human needs" sounds odd to me.  Makes them sound a bit like supermarkets.  Perhaps some people only discover the "need" that a religion meets when they experience their religious conversion. 

DA



2009-10-14
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Thank you. The 'supermarket' impression is an artifact of that particular quotation, which is from a longer paper. My emphasis was elsewhere.
I wrote (edited, paraphrased):

'A religion, I wrote, is often rationalized by beliefs that articulate an account of the reality that underlies the universe, according to which there is the possibility of fit. That is, the beliefs entail that there is a relation in which a person can but needn't stand to the rest of what is, which is fundamentally appropriate to the way the reality that underlies the universe is, such that standing in this relation is, in and of itself, the greatest human good.'

Holiness and God-realization are examples. I then argued that the religious practices typically aren't merely productive of fit. To perform the practice for the right reason
is ipso facto to enter somewhat into the relationship that is the sumum bonum. I called this relation 'constitutive of fit.'

            I wrote:

'Similarly, taking the Mass may produce a deeper relationship with God, but the Mass isn't a method or technique for getting closer to God. To participate in the Mass is already to stand in the appropriate relation to God. At the same time, taking the Mass may not be essential for fit: we might allow that a man on a desert island who finds a copy of the Gospels might be saved simply by his love of Christ. Nor is fit reducible to the whole set of behaviours we do because we accept a Christian religious world view, for there may be degrees of fit attainable only by God's grace. The force of the claim that a practice constitutes fit is that to perform it is to enter significantly (but not necessarily completely) into the appropriate relation. What matters is that in performing it one ipso facto participates in the relation that is the summum bonum: the practice isn't merely instrumental to the attainment of fit.'

I added: 'This theory explains why religion is nearly as ubiquitous as human culture and why religion is attractive even to those who are not afraid of death or particularly hungry for security.  People generally want to know the point of their existence and where they stand in the scheme of things.  The capacity for metaphysical yearning is perhaps the most human attribute of our species.  A religion explicates a metaphysical connection that (it maintains) is the main point of human existence, and it enables the believer to enter into that relation through the performance of constitutive practice.  ...  Our theory, therefore, explains why so many people care to be religious.'
 
Initially I thought Fit was the whole deal, but Phil Quinn persuaded me that I had to take into account  entirely 'mercenary' religions, even if such are merely possible. Which is why the
paper is entitled 'A Theory of Religion Revised.'

I expressed the revised defintiion as follows:  

' A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs according to which (i) the practices constitute fit, or (ii) they produce a relation to a SR which is of value because it is instrumental to attaining human goods.'

It's meant to be equivalent to the one I gave above:

'A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs
according to which the practices place the practitioner in a
relation-of-value to a SR.:'

I maintain this is what all and only religions share in virtue of which they are religions.





2009-10-16
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
How do you distinguish between crank religions - or crank versions of religions - and the 'real' thing?

DA 

2009-10-16
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
I don't. I notice that most art is bad art, and so I think an account of art that doesn't allow bad art as art is therefore mistaken.
Religions may all be entirely misguided as far as my account goes, or some of them. As long as the definition
is satisfied....

2009-10-17
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
JS: "I think an account of art that doesn't allow bad art as art is therefore mistaken."

Depends what you mean by 'allow'.  I think an account of art that does not explain what bad art is is likely to be inadequate. That explanation, presumably, should flow from the definition of (true) art. A definition of art that did not allow for any explanation of the difference would arguably not be a definition of art at all since it would lump together things that are (true) art with those that are not.

Doesn't one strike the same problem with defining religion?

DA




2009-10-18
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
No, I don't think so.

'A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs
according to which the practices place the practitioner in a
relation-of-value to a SR.:'

Whether or not the beliefs are true, whether or not the practices actually place you in a relation of value to a Supermundane Reality,
if there is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs according to which the practices place the practitioner
in a relation-of-value to a SR, it's a religion just the same and just as much.

Calling a system of practices a 'religion' in no way connotes success, in fact..People who think that religions are one and all utter nonsense because
there is no SR, they maintain,
would have no trouble accepting my account of what makes religions religions. Devout Christians would have no trouble either.


2009-10-19
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I'd want to know more about the character of the "practices" that figure in this account of religion.

It seems to me that if the idea is conceptual analysis, to get at a possibly improved and tidied up version of how the folk understand religion, the essential feature of religion is cult. If so, then a crucial feature of such an account would be some criterion for distinguishing cultic activities from other practices.

Suppose I believe there is some "supermundane reality" that grounds value and motivates the moral life, and suppose that I put my beliefs into practice by working for social justice, treating others as I would be treated, etc. That seems to me, speaking as one of the folk, a borderline case of religion at best. On the other hand, suppose I believe in gremlins, daemons and other supernatural agents that aren't "sufficiently grand" for a "Great World Religion" but that I engage in a variety of individual and communal practices that would generally be recognized as cultic: I and my tribesmates dress up in funny clothes, do dances, shake rattles, light candles, swing incense, bow down before representations of the gremlins and daemons, etc. hoping to make them more favorably disposed to me and my tribesmates. Now that's religion.

It may not be "good religion"--but surely the folk, and anthropologists would count it as religion without any qualms. Whereas I don't think they would be so inclined to count belief in a sufficiently grand supermundane reality without a cult together with non-cultic practices as religion. I'm not even sure that you need any belief in a supermundane reality. What about the cults of authoritarian political leaders? Crank up the cult enough--have citizens keep pictures of the Supreme Leader in household shrines at which they light candles and keep offerings of flowers and fruit, have them engage in communal activities to celebrate his birthday and other events in his life that are comparable to the cults we recognize as religious, and it seems to me that that would count as religion.

2009-10-19
A theory of religion
Reply to H. E. Baber

Thank you for these helpful questions. I address them specifically toward the end of this post.  Here’s what I say in my paper about cults (sorry to write a lot but there is no other way to do these issues justice, and I hope it’s interesting stuff):

Review: A religion, I wrote, is often rationalized by beliefs that articulate an account of the reality that underlies the universe, according to which there is the possibility of fit. That is, the beliefs entail that there is a relation in which a person can but needn't stand to the rest of what is, which is fundamentally appropriate to the way the reality that underlies the universe is, such that standing in this relation is, in and of itself, the greatest human good.'

This gets revised to:

' A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs according to which (i) the practices constitute fit, or (ii) they produce a relation to a SR which is of value because it is instrumental to attaining human goods.'

So all and only religions are systems of practices rationalized by beliefs according to which the practices place the practitioner in a relation of value to an SR.

Note (as you do) that an SR must be sufficiently grand to satisfy substantial human needs or ground an account of fit.

I originally wrote: 'Cults are ritual practices intended to please a supernatural or quasi-supernatural being (or collection of such beings) too limited in its attributes to ground an account of fit.' This deficiency of cult objects tracks another one, I believe. If x is too limited in its attributes to ground an account of fit, x is too limited to by itself satisfy most of the substantial human needs that people generally want religions to meet. The Virgin Mary cannot by herself enable us to attain what we ask her to help us get; propitiating the small-pox god may spare us pox, but there are plenty of other things we want that relating to him cannot secure. A SR (as I defined the term) is sufficiently grand that it can by itself figure centrally in the satisfaction of those needs. As both 'fitful' and 'fitless' religions require a SR, a cult is not a religion.

    Note, however, that a multiplicity of cult objects, each one getting us something else we want, can constitute the SR of a 'fitless' religion. A religion can be comprised of a bundle of cults. And such a collection can ground an account of fit, too. The breakpoint between such a 'fitless' religion and a 'fitful' one may come when the collection of cult practices, taken collectively, is taken to constitute fit with the gods, taken collectively. The summum bonum is to stand in the relation to The Divine Realm, as manifested by the gods, which is constituted by ritual devotion to the particular gods. Hence the idea of holiness emerges. Consider, for instance, Euthyphro's suggestive contention that holiness isn't holy because the god's love it; rather the gods love it because it is holy. Holiness doesn't owe its value to the gods. But surely it owes its value to some extent to the divinity to which the believer is related. This suggests that holiness transcends the gods: the terms of the relation are the believer and The Divine. In sum, a cult cannot by itself be a religion, but a bundle of cults may comprise a 'fitless' religion from which a 'fitful' one can readily emerge.

    I wrote of cults that exist within religions that 'a figure (supernatural or human) may arise against the background of a pre-existing religion, who is taken to have the power to provide a quick route to fit for those who worship her.' As there can be 'fitless' religions, and relations to the SR of a 'fitful' religion that are of value because they are instrumental to attaining human goods, the cult object may be thought to be able to intercede in ways that produce a relation between the SR and us that is of value because it is instrumental to attaining human goods. For instance, Catholics believe the Virgin Mary can effectively petition God to give us what we want.

OK, your questions. My responses are in brackets.

Suppose I believe there is some "supermundane reality" that grounds value and motivates the moral life, and suppose that I put my beliefs into practice by working for social justice, treating others as I would be treated, etc. That seems to me, speaking as one of the folk, a borderline case of religion at best.

[Right, this is also so on my account.]

On the other hand, suppose I believe in gremlins, daemons and other supernatural agents that aren't "sufficiently grand" for a "Great World Religion" but that I engage in a variety of individual and communal practices that would generally be recognized as cultic: I and my tribesmates dress up in funny clothes, do dances, shake rattles, light candles, swing incense, bow down before representations of the gremlins and daemons, etc. hoping to make them more favorably disposed to me and my tribesmates. Now that's religion.
                                                    
[Not a religion on my account.  The supernatural agents must be sufficiently grand to satisfy substantial human needs of the sort people want religions to satisfy. Now obviously ‘grandeur’ and ‘substantial human needs’ are vague, and I’m glad to err on the side of inclusion. But where it’s plain that we do not have an SR grand enough to satisfy substantial human needs, we have a cult, not a religion. Rituals directed at elves and fairies, so they will not play pranks on us, do not a religion make. As mentioned above
a religion can include a cult figure and even be comprised by a bundle of cults.]


I'm not even sure that you need any belief in a supermundane reality. What about the cults of authoritarian political leaders? Crank up the cult enough--have citizens keep pictures of the Supreme Leader in household shrines at which they light candles and keep offerings of flowers and fruit, have them engage in communal activities to celebrate his birthday and other events in his life that are comparable to the cults we recognize as religious, and it seems to me that that would count as religion.

[On my account this would be a cult, not a religion.]

P.S. This isn't quite 'conceptual analysis.' I'm giving a philosophical theory that is supposed to be more precise and more useful to religious studies than what we usually say,
but is meant to derive support from our conceptual intuitions too.

2009-10-20
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Well I'm not using "cult" to designate either what you'd consider <i>mere</i> cults, as distinct from "proper" religions or cults that figure as parts of religions, e.g. the cult of the Virgin Mary. I just mean cultic activity--what would ordinarily be described as "religious ritual."

I do quite understand that <i>your</i> account would exclude the veneration of gremlins, Kim Jong-Il, etc. But I'm still not clear why a theory of religion <i>should</i> exclude these cases given that you don't want to exclude "bad" or "primitive" religion, or folk religion. Consider, e.g. Shinto. As I understand it most modern Japanese are highly secular when it comes to "world views" and beliefs about supermundane beings, but still visit shrines and engage in various cultic practices.

Or what about Pater's depiction of the Religion of Numa in <i>Marius the Epicurean</i>? Marius' patrician family had a little shrine for the household gods, in which they didn't seriously believe, but where little offerings were left, etc. not because they expected even minor favors but because it was what was Done--part of the national culture, etc. I suppose you could appeal to a division of labor between the religious experts, who to do the believing so that the the cultic activities others do count as religious.

Or take your first Hard Case: "Suppose we believe that God
created us on earth solely so that we will better appreciate the
delights of heaven. All of us are saved and bound for glory, no
matter what we do. Nothing we do can constitute a more suitable
relationship to God or dispose him to treat us differently.
Indeed, there is no need to even think of him. This is not a
religion on my account, for nothing we do can place us in a
relation-of-value to a SR"

Now suppose people who hold this view also engage in elaborate religious rituals--rites of passage and other church services because that's what's Done and because they enjoy singing hymns and rehearsing the theological story in the way that Civil War re-enactors or members of SCA like rehearsing stories. I suspect this is what religion in fact amounts to for most churchgoing folk in "mainline" denominations--American Shinto--and that the paid professional religious experts in these outfits don't believe in any SR at all. If not a family resemblance story, I suppose you could tell a causal story: once there were experts whose religious practice satisfied your criteria, who instituted the practices in which these churchgoers now engage.

2009-10-20
A theory of religion
Reply to H. E. Baber
I'm very pleased by these questions. This is what I needed. Today is becoming absolutely koo-koo, unfortunately.
Will respond as soon as I can. Thanks, Jim

2009-10-21
A theory of religion
Reply to H. E. Baber
[I quote parts of your previous post. My answers to your questions are in brackets. Thanks]

I do quite understand that your account would exclude the veneration of gremlins, Kim Jong-Il, etc. But I'm still not clear why a theory of religion should exclude these cases given that you don't want to exclude "bad" or "primitive" religion, or folk religion. Consider, e.g. Shinto. As I understand it most modern Japanese are highly secular when it comes to "world views" and beliefs about supermundane beings, but still visit shrines and engage in various cultic practices.        

[I’m not clear why you think it matters whether many practitioners are going through the motions. Lots of people practicing paradigm religions are going through the motions, but Judaism, say, even if many people practice it because that’s what’s Done, is still a religion on my account. It just satisfies the definition on the official account. The point of saying folks are ‘going through the motions’ is that they aren’t really practicing or aren’t practicing for the reasons they understand they are supposed to. Maybe if nobody cares about the official account, maybe if everybody is going through the motions, that’s a problem.

Shinto, as I understand it, is plainly a religion on my account.  This whatever modern Japanese have in mind when they visit shrines. That is,  Shinto (the official account) just satisfies the definition–a system of practices rationalized by beliefs.....  

Two reasons: First, Shinto practice is of one cloth with Buddhist practice, so that rituals concerning death, for instance, are performed in Buddhist temples. A religion syncretic with a paradigm religion is a religion. So wiki (on Shinto) writes:

‘Because Shinto has co-existed with Buddhism for well over a millennium, it is very difficult to untangle Shinto and Buddhist beliefs about the world.’ And there is also overlap of practices.

Second, Shinto appears to involve a supermundane metaphysical principle that qualifies as an SR (if I understand it). ‘Kami’ according to wiki:

‘Kami is generally accepted to describe the innate supernatural force that is above the actions of man, the realm of the sacred, and is inclusive of gods, spirit figures, and human ancestors. All mythological creatures of the Japanese cultural tradition, of the Buddhistic tradition, Christian God, Hindu gods, Islamic Allah, various angels and demons of all faiths among others are considered Kami for the purpose of Shinto faith.’]

Or what about Pater's depiction of the Religion of Numa in Marius the Epicurean? Marius' patrician family had a little shrine for the household gods, in which they didn't seriously believe, but where little offerings were left, etc. not because they expected even minor favors but because it was what was Done--part of the national culture, etc.

[On my account a little shrine for the household gods, even if one believes in them, so they will grant minor favors isn’t a religion. It’s what I call a ‘cult,’ not in a pejorative sense, but simply because the object of the rituals is too minor to be an SR. All the more so when the practitioners are just going through the motions. Of course such activities could be part of a religion, but on my account they can’t be the whole deal. Again I think this tracks intuitions–as mentioned, rites meant to please elves so that they won’t play barnyard pranks on us do not a religion make.]

Or take your first Hard Case: "Suppose we believe that God
created us on earth solely so that we will better appreciate the
delights of heaven. All of us are saved and bound for glory, no
matter what we do. Nothing we do can constitute a more suitable
relationship to God or dispose him to treat us differently.
Indeed, there is no need to even think of him. This is not a
religion on my account, for nothing we do can place us in a
relation-of-value to a SR"

Now suppose people who hold this view also engage in elaborate religious rituals--rites of passage and other church services because that's what's Done and because they enjoy singing hymns and rehearsing the theological story in the way that Civil War re-enactors or members of SCA like rehearsing stories. I suspect this is what religion in fact amounts to for most churchgoing folk in "mainline" denominations--American Shinto--and that the paid professional religious experts in these outfits don't believe in any SR at all. If not a family resemblance story, I suppose you could tell a causal story: once there were experts whose religious practice satisfied your criteria, who instituted the practices in which these churchgoers now engage.

[This is a bit hard to grasp. (Again, I’m not sure what role the idea that folks are doing this because it’s what’s Done plays. ) The point is this: suppose we have elaborate religious rituals and rites of passage that in no way place us in a relation of value to God. We have baptisms and weddings but we don’t say: God bless this child, or God bless this couple. I don’t have an idea of how such religious rituals would go.

If I may try to read between the lines, I think you are wanting to know why I draw the lines where I do. Why require an SR for a religion? Why require practices directed at an SR that either constitute fit or are instrumental to the attainment of human goods?

First, it’s intuitive, it tracks intuitions, it seems to me. That isn’t decisive, still it’s a source of some confirmation.

Second, this is the terminus of human religiousity. People sooner or later end up here, often it’s there from the beginning. Once you get into a Supermundane Reality, folks do tend to go for broke. Even very local animism tends to develop into this sort of thing. As this is where we wind up (or begin) it’s good to have a concept that describes the conclusion.

Third, I think    the definition is helpful to religious studies and it generates a helpful taxonomy of closely related phenomena. So Yoga, intuitively, isn’t a religion. Why not?
' A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs according to which (i) the practices constitute fit, or (ii) they produce a relation to a SR which is of value because it is instrumental to attaining human goods.'

Well, Yoga practices don’t Constitute fit, breath control exercises don’t ipso facto place you in an appropriate relation with God. They are merely productive of fit, in the way that exercise is productive of strength. So Vivekananda entitled a book: Yoga, the Science of God realization. Nor do they produce a relation to an SR which is of value because it is instrumental to attaining human goods. God-realization, while the summum bonum, isn’t Instrumental to attaining human goods. So Yoga isn’t a religion (the right result and we know why) but a spiritual technology–what I call a ‘spiritual path.’ So things are getting sorted out nicely.

Finally, I think the idea of fit constituting practice is very important to the study of religion.

2009-10-21
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim,
I'm just responding to this post now, but have just saved the PDF of your paper and will hopefully be able to engage constructively after reading it.

I like the inclusive approach your taking - a large umbrella covering a variety of expressions. I also really like your usage of the word supermundane and am likely to switch over to that from supernatural. Also, taking the qualification out of it really helps: whether excellent or poor examples, faithful or subsversive, healthy or dysfunctional or cultish, a religion/faith/spirituality is still what it is.

Some thoughts:

I understand religion and spirituality to include our ultimate commitment and the idea of lent recognition. As such I work with a three-tiered approach:
  1. Transcendent personalities, e.g. angels, gods, spiritual guides, ascended masters, etc. (as you describe)
  2. Natural forces, e.g. Tao (as you describe) 
  3. Philosophies, e.g. Marxism or atheism  
Here one can lend recognition to any as Godde, whether correctly or incorrectly doing so. As such 'God' or 'Godde' becomes a placeholder term that gets loaded with the meaning of who we're speaking to or what we're speaking about. This means that the actual substance of someone's faith is as important as their subscription, the who or what they're faithful to. As such, one may technically be a theist but in actually lend commitment to a philosophy.

2009-10-21
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

Thanks for posting this; I think it is a good definition! I completely agree that there is no need for family resemblance and that the ’grandness requirement’ explains the vagueness. I have a few other comments/questions though:<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

 

1) Your definition focuses on cognitive content, but maybe some sort of additional 'character condition' would be helpful—it could be that that phenomenology of the propositional attitudes involved are relevant as well (examples of these attitudinal characters could be internalization or immunity to criticism). At least I think this is intuitive in most people’s understanding of what it is to be religious.

 

2) I would prefer not to call your account a ‘theory’—I think it is an account or a definition. One would expect a theory of religion to explain what religion really is (e.g. a neural virus, a true presentation of the world, a projection of human values,...) . Many people in the study of religion think (wrongly, I believe) that definitions of religion are short versions of theories (so that definitions are always theory laden). I think your analysis shows that this is not so.

 

3) Isn’t “surpasses what sense perception reveals” too arbitrary to be a good criterion for something being supernatural (if that’s what you intend)? Wouldn't it mean that supernaturalness is relative to history of science or that we do not know whether something is really supernatural?

 

4) How would you classify Aristotle’s metaphysics (including unmoved mover and all) on your definition? (In my mind this hooks up to my first suggestion.)


2009-10-21
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I didn't read any of the other replies so if this is repetitious I apologize, but I'm curious how Christianity figures into your definition of religion, and if it might not be the counter-example.  It seems to me that Jesus Christ was just the kind of theological oxymoron you spoke of when you said:

"...A 'god' who
rents the apartment next to mine, gets a job driving a bus, joins
the Libertarian Party, marries a coworker, and becomes completely
immersed in the mundane realm forever,..."

Jesus lived in an apartment next to someone, had a job cutting wood until he was 30, created (in a sense) his own political party, didn't marry but had numerous friendships, and was completely immersed in the mundane realm (he ate, drank, slept, burped, laughed, cried, etc), yet also somehow maintained that connection with the supermundane, drawing every 'mundane' activity into the transcendent, thus sanctifying them.  And he claimed to be God. 

If Jesus was able to connect the mundane and the supermundane, without violating either, shouldn't we consider him to be the greatest god-man of all time?  And might we not then draw the conclusion that he was in fact God (and the only one), because he did what no other could do, by entering the mundane and sanctifying it (whereas all other religions seek some kind of escape from the mundane; as you said "religions relate practitioners to a reality that transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception")?  And truly, the end-goal of Christianity is not some cloudy, ephemeral pie-in-the-sky heaven.  It is a physical reality (New Heaven and New Earth) dwelt in by physical bodies.  You could say, it's mundane.  And yet, it's very nature is not mundane because God is there. 

I think that might modify your definition of religion to this:

A FALSE religion is a system of practices that rationalize beliefs according to which the practices place the practitioner in a relation-of-value to a SR.  TRUE religion is a system of beliefs (i.e. that Jesus, the man, is also God) that rationalize practices (i.e. makes life worth living, both here and in the next life) according to which the beliefs restore the practitioner to a relationship with the SR (Jesus) and re-valuate his or her relationship to Reality.

Responses?

2009-10-21
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Dear Mister Stone, you wrote

"'A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs
according to which the practices place the practitioner in a
relation-of-value to a SR.:'

I maintain this is what all and only religions share in virtue of which they are religions."

But I believe that in your phrasing of this 'element' shared by all religions and only by religions, the concept 'religion' can easily be replaced by another (broader) concept, and your words would equally be true, thus making this not the defining element for what constitutes a religion.

The other element I'm talking about is 'a system of virtue ethics put in practice'. Please forgive my elaborate wording, but I'm afraid I don't have a more succinct way of putting it, I'm afraid this wording makes it look like I'm begging the question, nevertheless here goes:

"A system of virtue ethics put in practice is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs according to which the practices place the practitioner in a relation-of-value to a SR."

If both statements hold up, then it would mean that religions are actually systems of virtue ethics put in practice. However I believe it is clear that religion does not equal any random system of virtue ethics.

Maybe, and I am just speculating on this, the thing that sets religions apart from other systems of virtue ethics (like fe: Aristotle's ethics) whom we do not label as religions, is the order in which beliefs about practices and beliefs about metaphysics are dominant toward each other.

I have always held that religions are forms of virtue ethics in which we use our beliefs about practices to base our beliefs about metaphysics, while those systems which we so far have labeled virtue ethics but not religions are forms of virtue ethics in which our beliefs about metaphysics determine our beliefs about practices.

So a what constitutes a religion could be defined in any way that we would define 'a system of virtue ethics', with the added note about which kind of believes supervene on what other kind of believes.

I'm sure that this leaves a lot of people hungry for more explanation about the 'historic' and 'psychological' factors that we so often encounter in our studies about religion, and it is by all means not exhaustive enough to base any thorough study about the phenomenon 'religion' on it. But I believe it to be more correct and more to the point then your earlier definition of what constitutes a religion and what not.

your thoughts?

2009-10-21
A theory of religion
Of course, according to Christian doctrine Jesus did not become totally immersed in the Mundane realm forever. He performed miracles, he was resurrected from the dead, he existed from eternity.

2009-10-21
A theory of religion
This is interesting. Of course one wants to know how a system of virtue ethics put into practice ipso facto places one in a relation of value to an SR.

2009-10-21
A theory of religion

Thanks for the kind words, Timothy and Caroline’
 
Caroline writes:

3) Isn’t “surpasses what sense perception reveals” too arbitrary to be a good criterion for something being supernatural (if that’s what you intend)? Wouldn't it mean that supernaturalness is relative to history of science or that we do not know whether something is really supernatural?

[I write: ‘I take it to be intuitive that religions are
concerned with a reality that surpasses the ordinary world that
sense perception reveals. This reality consists either of (a)
sentient supernatural beings (e.g. gods) or of (b) an insentient
metaphysical principle underlying the universe (e.g. The
Unconditioned, Sunyata, or The Tao). This principle has features
that mark it as belonging to a different order of reality from
the objects that make up the mundane world: it cannot be named or
cognized, it can be described only in contradictions, it doesn't
arise or pass away, it issues in everything else, it is utterly
changeless, or...’

So I don’t rely entirely on what I say about sense perception; a and b play a role too.
Possibly there are difficulties here, however I suppose what matters is what satisfies the criteria according to the religion itself. That is, its own idea of the super mundane is what counts. I don’t suppose it matters whether we know something is really supernatural.]

 
4) How would you classify Aristotle’s metaphysics (including unmoved mover and all) on your definition? (In my mind this hooks up to my first suggestion.)

[I probably don’t know enough about this, however my inclination is to say that there is nothing there that constitutes an SR such that practices place us in relation of value to it. Maybe you can give a reason to think otherwise.]

2009-10-22
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Maybe I haven't made myself entirely clear. I DON'T think it matters whether many practitioners are going through the motions. I took it however that this was a problem for YOUR account--or at least it would be a problem if everyone was just going through the motions.

I'm also skeptical about your distinction between religions and mere cults. There are really 2 quite distinct worries about whether a practice counts as a religion: (1) too instrumental and (2) too trivial. Yoga is too instrumental. Rites intended to placate the elves are too instrumental as well as too trivial. But the Religion of Numa isn't instrumental at all. Your objection is that it's trivial.

I'm not sure that triviality is a disqualification. Of course we say "God bless this child" and "God bless this couple" at church-sponsored rites of passage--in the same spirit that we say "God bless you" when someone sneezes." I doubt that this places sneezers or sneeze-blessers in a "relation of value" to God--unless you think that sneeze-blessing is sacramentally ex opera operato.

I'm also skeptical about whether as a matter of fact cultic practices do evolve into relations of value to a sufficiently grand SR. Did the Greeks/Romans believe in their gods? By the Roman period the cults of the official gods were little more than civic rituals. Elite Romans were thoroughly secular and regarded the gods as allegorical figures; hoi polloi worshipped the stocks and stones at the end of the road and did business with daemons.

I'm admittedly flying by the seat of my pants here but by my lights the essence of religion is cultic practice--ritual, ceremony, churchiness if you will. Some religions pick up "philosophies" broadly construed: wisdom literature, "world views," ethics, etc. and become "Great World Religions." Others don't.

2009-10-23
A theory of religion
Reply to H. E. Baber
        Maybe I haven't made myself entirely clear. I DON'T think it matters whether many practitioners are going through the motions. I took it however that this was a problem for YOUR account--or at least it would be a problem if everyone was just going through the motions.    

[Okay, suppose that everybody is going through the motions, nobody performs the practices because they believe the beliefs, including the clergy, it’s been that way for a long time and there’s no reason to believe that it will ever be any different in the future. However the books articulate a system of practices rationalized by beliefs according to which the practices place practitioners in relation of value to an SR. Part of going through the motions is that people pay lip service to the account in the books. A consequence of my view is that it isn’t clear that the religion survives, because it isn’t clear that my definition is satisfied. But I think this is as it should be, because it really isn’t clear whether the religion survives under the circumstances. So my account is tracking intuitions.]

I'm also skeptical about whether as a matter of fact cultic practices do evolve into relations of value to a sufficiently grand SR. Did the Greeks/Romans believe in their gods? By the Roman period the cults of the official gods were little more than civic rituals. Elite Romans were thoroughly secular and regarded the gods as allegorical figures; hoi polloi worshipped the stocks and stones at the end of the road and did business with daemons.

[I wrote this: “Second, this is the terminus of human religiousity. People sooner or later end up here, often it’s there from the beginning. Once you get into a Supermundane Reality, folks do tend to go for broke. Even very local animism tends to develop into this sort of thing. As this is where we wind up (or begin) it’s good to have a concept that describes the conclusion.”

My claim is that human religiosity tends to evolve in the direction of satisfying my definition. Not that, once reached, it stays there. Certainly once reached a religion(on my account) can devolve, be lost, etc. Also I find it hard to believe that Greco-Roman religion NEVER satisfied my account. Also it’s hard to believe that many of the hoi polloi, even if they worshiped  stocks and stones and did business with daemons, didn’t  also worship sincerely at the temples of the gods. You know, such religions are very syncretic, can include a diversity of practices. (I’ve lived in cultures with a diversity of gods and temples for them. The gods are hard to resist.) Why would people who worshiped stocks and stones be so critical as not to worship the gods too?  Finally I need to emphasize more than I did the word ‘tends.’ I wrote ‘even very local animism tends to develop into this sort of thing.’ I didn’t mean that this happens inevitably or invariably but that it often happens.]

 I'm admittedly flying by the seat of my pants here but by my lights the essence of religion is cultic practice--ritual, ceremony, churchiness if you will. Some religions pick up "philosophies" broadly construed: wisdom literature, "world views," ethics, etc. and become "Great World Religions." Others don't.

[A difficulty seems to me to be this. If talk of God need only be a formality (as in saying ‘God bless you’ when someone sneezes, which devout atheists can do without difficulty) , it’s hard to see why such talk is necessary at all for religion in your sense. Surely what makes religion religion isn’t going to be the presence of certain empty words. But then why won’t birthday parties be religious ceremonies? Why not high school graduations? If people wish to study rituals and ceremonies independent of whether they occur in a religious context, that seems a good idea. But it’s hard to believe that religion extends as far as ceremony does.]

2009-10-23
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
"Surely what makes religion religion isn’t going to be the presence of certain empty words. But then why won’t birthday parties be religious ceremonies? Why not high school graduations? If people wish to study rituals and ceremonies independent of whether they occur in a religious context, that seems a good idea. But it’s hard to believe that religion extends as far as ceremony does."

That's the question. So maybe what I'm proposing is a different methodology: starting from the other end so to speak--not asking for conditions under which beliefs about some grand SR that grounds value, "world view," wisdom literature or ethical system counts as religious but rather asking for conditions under which ceremonies, fetishes, and cultic practices count as religious.

But more substantively I'm puzzled by the suggestion that "human religiousity tends to evolve" in the direction of satisfying your definition.

(1) First, there's the question of identity conditions for religions. Even if a few members of the population, say Plotinus, believe in a supramundane reality that grounds value, etc. most of those Greeks are still worshiping stocks and stones. OK you can say: their practices count as religious because the beliefs and practices of some who practice the same religion or belong to the same cultural community or whatever satisfy your conditions for paradigmatic religion. But then of course there's the question of what counts as same religion or same cultural community for your purposes. The religion of the masses hasn't evolved. Can you make the case that it counts as a primitive or degenerate form of the same religion or that they belong to the same community in the requisite sense, without begging the question?

(2) Secondly, as a matter of empirical fact, one could make the case that religions tend to evolve in the direction of ceremonies and traditions without any connection to any supramundane reality, whether grand or trivial. Greco-Roman religion among the elite evolved in this direction: the gods became allegorical figures, representations of various virtues, and religious ceremonies became civic rituals. Or look at contemporary Judaism. Only 48% of Americans who give Jewish as their "religious preference" profess to believe in God. Of the other 52% I grant many are just giving an ethic identity. But others do engage in various ceremonies and communal practices comparable to what the elite Romans were doing: affirming communal identity, engaging in rites of passage, etc.

Again you can say that this represents the demise of religion rather than its evolution. But why pick the point at which, for an elite, ceremonies become associated with "world view," wisdom, ethics and the vision of a grand supramundane reality as the terminus of religious evolution rather than the point at which the practices of the community become civic rituals or affirmations of communal identity without commitment to any supramundane reality, whether grand or trivial--other than an interest in taking the snapshot of religious evolution at its height in the place where it satisfies your theory?

2009-10-24
A theory of religion
Reply to H. E. Baber
I want to ask you a quick question, if I may: you say that 'most of those Greeks are still worshiping stocks and stones.' What do you mean by this?
I thought I understood but I'm not sure.

OK, I gave these reasons to think I’m drawing the lines in good places.

'First, my account of religion is intuitive, it tracks intuitions, it seems to me.

Second, this is the terminus of human religiousity. People sooner or later end up here, often it’s there from the beginning. Once you get into a Supermundane Reality, folks do tend to go for broke. Even very local animism tends to develop into this sort of thing. As this is where we wind up (or begin) it’s good to have a concept that describes the conclusion.

Third, I think    the definition is helpful to religious studies and it generates a helpful taxonomy of closely related phenomena. So Yoga, intuitively, isn’t a religion. Why not? (Then I said why not...)

Finally, I think the idea of fit constituting practice is very important to the study of religion.'

For instance, I think the introduction of a new fit-constituting practice marks the emergence of a new religion from an old one (e.g. the Eucharist marks Christianity's emergence from Judaism).

Now I'm very sorry to have later used the world 'evolve' in expressing the second reason. This can be very confusing, I agree. People think it means improvement. I mean what I said above, with more emphasis on 'tends.' It is not part of this
view that when human religiousity gets this far it necessarily stays a religion. (Note too that it also sometimes begins there.) Also I agree with you entirely that people (especially educated people) can become skeptical about Supermundane Reality and that may affect things considerably, so that they don't go where they otherwise would have.

Now why do I consider this the terminus? Why do I think we tend in that direction--unless we are stopped by skepticism, education, secularism,
or just don't change? Two reasons: First, once we get into positing supernatural things such that interacting
with them in the 'right' sort of way gets us goodies, being greedy buggers we tend to inflate their capacities so that they can give us more. Second, we want
to know where we stand in the universe and feel that we fit in somehow (the capacity for metaphysical yearning is a widespread feature of our species,
however inchoate). So it's tempting to inflate the SR in that direction also, so that there are ways of relating to it that constitute fit. The fact is (I maintain)
given human nature, once us humans get into the supernatural, even small, local and trivial, there is a tendency (just a tendency, mind you, which certainly
can be defeated by all sorts of things, even contentment with the status quo) to inflate it. And what do you get at the teminus of that inflation?
A system of practices motivated by beliefs according to
which the practices place us in a relation of value to an SR. That seems to be the logical conclusion. It's good to have a word for it. Given the first, third and fourth
reasons, 'religion' seems to fill the bill.

The reason I don't take the point at which community practices become civic rituals or affirmations of communal identity without commitment to any SR
as the terminus of religious 'evolution' is that this is the point at which, intuitively, its increasingly doubtful that you've still got a religion.
It's good that my theory tracks these intuitions. Not because I think this is a bad state of affairs. It may be a big improvement. If someone says: 'This is the point to which religions really tend, finally! That's what they are really evolving toward! '
I have no quarrel with that. In that case, my point is that in reaching their real teminus, they cease to be religions (or become marginal religions, intuitively),
as the caterpillar ceases to be a caterpillar in
becoming a butterfly.

You suggest another methodology: 'starting from the other end so to speak--not asking for conditions under which beliefs about some grand SR that grounds value, "world view," wisdom literature or ethical system counts as religious but rather asking for conditions under which ceremonies, fetishes, and cultic practices count as religious.'

Good idea, and I think it won't get far unless the conditions advert to divinities, supernatural beings, and the like.




2009-10-30
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I am an anthropologist (Ph.D. Cornell, 1973) with a background in philosophy (B.A. Michigan State, 1966). I am also the author of the chapter "Traditional Chinese Religion" in Ray Scupin, ed., Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus. Pearson, Prentice-Hall, 2nd ed. 2009. In the introduction to that chapter I write,

Turn back the clock a century. You have graduated from university and accepted a post with one of the great British trading companies that operate out of Hong Kong. To reach China from England, you must travel by ship. En route, your ship will stop in Italy, Egypt, India. Wherever it stops, you have a few days to explore the countryside and pursue your interest in comparative religion.

Italy is strange but also familiar. With its crucifixes, candles, incense, priestly vestments, carnivals and saints days, Italian Catholicism may seem a bit exotic. Still, it is Christianity, the most common form of religion in Europe. Its churches, priests and doctrines are not all that different from what you imagine when you think of religion in the West.

In Egypt you encounter Islam. Mosques replace churches. Friday not Sunday is the holy day, and religious images are forbidden. But Islam also has its saints and festivals. Islam is, like Christianity and Judaism, a religion of the Book. All three are monotheistic religions rooted in belief in one, transcendent God, who exists apart from his creation and reveals His will through prophets whose words are recorded in canonical, sacred texts: Torah for the Jews, the Bible for Christians, the Koran for Muslims. For believers in all three religions, their faith is the mark of membership in an exclusive religious community. 

In India you encounter Hinduism. Here, too, there are temples, rites, and festivals. The division between Brahmin and warrior castes recalls a familiar division between priestly and secular authorities. But instead of one God there are many—goddesses as well as gods, and a seemingly endless variety of both. Stranger still, devotion to one does not preclude the worship of others. Instead of one sacred Book, you find a seemingly endless list of scriptures, commentaries, folktales and myths. There are, to be sure, similarities between their content and what you find in the sacred Books of the monotheistic religions of Europe and the Middle East. There are, however, no rabbis, priests or judges with the power to determine which are canonical and which are not. 

You may note, too, that Hindu creation myths do not describe a singular event. Instead of a one, definitive pronouncement, "Let there be light," creation in Hindu thought is an endlessly repeated dream. Mystics of all schools seek to free themselves from the dream by losing their mortal selves in the great Self that is God. In this archetypically mystical religion, the mystic's search for that true Self has replaced submission to God's revealed Word

Then, at last, you arrive in China. Here, again, there are temples, rites and festivals; images like those of Catholic saints or Hindu gods and goddesses; fire, incense and offerings. When, however, you ask, "What is the religion of China?" you hear two surprising answers. Some say that China has three religions: Confucianism and Daoism, both indigenous to China, and Buddhism, imported from India. The other says that China has no religion. The three religions aren't religions at all, but schools of moral philosophy. The customs of the masses are only superstitious magic.

 If you live long enough—to the middle of the twentieth century—you will also hear some scholars say that there is, after all, one Chinese religion . It is not, however, a monotheistic religion; there is no single high God. Like Hinduism, Chinese religion is polytheistic and only in one of its many dimensions—the worship of ancestors—exclusive. But in contrast to Hinduism, there is no Creator who exists apart from His creation. The world does have an invisible dimension, the realm of spirits; all spirits—whether gods, ghosts, or ancestors—exist, like the human beings they resemble, inside the one, self-sustaining, natural order of things. 

 In Chinese religion, mysticism aims, not to escape from a world seen as a dream, i.e., as a snare and illusion, but instead to become one with the constantly changing cycles of Nature. Ritual is seen in functional terms, either as essential for maintaining social or cosmic order or, more pragmatically, as a means of achieving the long life, wealth and numerous descendants that define worldly success. 

You were asking for counterexamples. Chinese popular religion may just provide one. Yes, there is a belief in invisible, spiritual beings. But are they supermundane? In terms of traditional Chinese cosmology, they are part of the same, uncreated, self-sustaining universe as the human beings they resemble. They are, thus, no more supernatural than, for example, electrons and quarks in the cosmology of contemporary physics; they, too, are invisible but part of the natural universe as science conceives that universe. 

One could, of course, simply assert that the Yin world of Chinese spirits is supermundane vis-a-vis the mundane Yang world of visible human beings. There is, however, no more ground for this assertion than for the claim that invisible electrons or quarks exist in a separate world from that inhabited by visible human beings.


2009-10-30
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Rather than coin a new term like SR, which in my mind still misses the underlying virtue by which all religions are so, let me put forth the following. 
If, we were to apply Occam's Razor to this question, then the underlying virtue (I am most uncomfortable using he word 'virtue' in relation to any aspect to do with religion, even when I realise it has been used to mean nothing more than 'property'), amongst all (Judeo/Christian/Islamic, Eastern, pagan) is the final subjugation, mainly through fear, of an individual and his/her independent growth through rational knowledge.

I also think that where the word 'reality' is used in context to religion by Mr. Stone, it might be much better served by the word 'perception'.

Perhaps, what I state above, may be better understood if the following hypothesis for the origin of all religions, is considered.

During the days of being hunter-gatherers, there necessarily emerged a leader in the tribe/group by virtue of his physical prowess. 
In the group, there was one who could never think of competing with the leader on physical terms.  Nevertheless, his thinking capacity far outweighed the relative moron giving the cry to battle, leading the pack to greener pastures, fresh material possessions, what-have-you.
The 'thinker' also observed the adulation, wealth and obedience garnered by the moron. 
Would it be that unthinkable for the 'thinker' to evolve a mechanism whereby the same riches, if not more, showered upon the moron, only due to the physical fear he generated amongst the populace, would bestow the same wealth and the good life on him?  Ergo, the birth of (all) religion, with the 'thinker' presenting himself as the conduit to a higher power, responsible for thunder, lightening, floods, droughts, in short all things in nature not explainable without centuries of knowledge and science.

All religions ignore such a non-god(supernatural) explanation for their reason to exist, because it would negate the fear of the unknown.  Religions thrive only because they seem to offer answers to the unknown.  Fear of the unknown, being a trait having well stood its need and usefulness throughout evolution.

I trust, this brief exposition, does serve as a counter-example Mr. Stone asked for?

Further thoughts from Mr. Stone and others, welcome.

2009-10-30
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
You write: "In short, religions relate practitioners to a reality that
transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception".
Notice that if I replace "religions" with "sciences" nothing else changes!

2009-10-30
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
OK, back from conference. I don't have much more to say myself not being conversant with the empirical literature on comparative religion. But I'm interested in the response to the Chinese religion (or "religion"?) counterexample because it poses the question of individuating religions that I raised.

About the worship of stocks and stones, just from my admittedly recreational reading, the conventional story is that the indigenous cults of the chthonic deities merged uneasily with cults of the sky gods imported by northern invaders. By the Classical period you have the official religion of the city gods, the ones on the Parthenon frieze, alongside the folk religion of the masses centered around the godlets of boundary markers and crossroads, household gods, daemons and ghosts, etc. just barely polished up and recruited into the pantheon. With the collapse of the city states as significant political entities during the Hellenistic period, the official religion declines, popular folk religion and imported oriental cults become the religious lingua franca and are ultimately imported into Christianity.

My point though is that for the folk, as I understand it, the official cults of the city gods were always at best peripheral. And without an institution to locate them and the folk cults in one official theology or system or practices--the Greek city-state or the Christian Church, I'm not sure why we should count these folk beliefs and practices as part of the same religion as the cult of the city gods. Or why we should count Chinese folk "superstition" as a popular manifestation of Buddhism or some other "Great World Religion." And if we don't, we then have a religion that didn't evolve or develop according to your story.

2009-10-31
A theory of religion
Reply to John McCreery
Here's what I wrote about this in my paper. The spirits are not supernatural but they are, on my account, supermundane.
Chinese religion, as I understand it, qualifies as a religion under both a) and b), below.

'I take it to be intuitive that religions are
concerned with a reality that surpasses the ordinary world that
sense perception reveals. This reality consists either of (a)
sentient supernatural beings (e.g. gods) or of (b) an insentient
metaphysical principle underlying the universe (e.g. The
Unconditioned, Sunyata, or The Tao). This principle has features
that mark it as belonging to a different order of reality from
the objects that make up the mundane world: it cannot be named or
cognized, it can be described only in contradictions, it doesn't
arise or pass away, it issues in everything else, it is utterly
changeless, or...
I
n short, religions relate practitioners to a reality that
transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception; we
might call it a 'supermundane reality.' Symptomatic of this fact
is that religions often involve individuals specially empowered
to negotiate the supermundane level of reality: shamans, saints,
holymen, or priests. (a) and (b) share the feature that each
constitutes such a reality. Even supposing we occasionally see
the gods walking among us, a significant part of their existence
must be unseen. (Indeed, the beings in question might better be
described as 'supermundane' than 'supernatural,' for the
practitioners may lack our concept of 'nature.') They reside
primarily on Mount Olympus or in a celestial realm. A 'god' who
rents the apartment next to mine, gets a job driving a bus, joins
the Libertarian Party, marries a coworker, and becomes completely
immersed in the mundane realm forever, is a theological oxymoron.
Similarly the insentient metaphysical principle must at least
partly transcend nature, even if we sometimes see its operations
in nature. It comprises a level of reality deeper than what sense
perception (even assisted by scientific instruments) reveals, and
its nature is best discovered by other means, e.g. meditation.

The physical forces binding quarks will not serve. In addition,
the elements that comprise the reality to which a religion
relates us must be sufficiently grand (taken either individually
or collectively) that they can figure centrally in satisfying the
sort of substantial human needs that people generally want
religions to meet (e.g. long life, immortality, the end of
suffering). Gremlins do not a religion make.'

My thanks to everyone for all of these interesting and helpful comments.
I have to move on now; simply overwhelmed with work.
Much appreciated, Jim


2009-10-31
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
JS: "they can figure centrally in satisfying the sort of substantial human needs that people generally want religions to meet (e.g. long life, immortality, the end of suffering)

This is where the real problems start. One can talk in general terms about "supramundane realities" etc, but once one comes to the core of the matter - the quality of religious experience itself - such general terminology no longer suffices. Some religions had no interest in "long life" (indeed the early Christian martyrs seemed often to want a short one).  Some had only the vaguest notion, if any, of immortality (this seems to have been the case with early Judaism for example). And far from wanting an end to suffering, some religions - eg Christianity itself - saw suffering as a means of coming to know the "supramundane reality" (eg Christ, who was the "suffering servant").

Generally speaking I think philosophy - especially of the analytic variety - will always struggle trying to understand religion in any fundamental way. Religion is centrally about certain forms of human experience, not about concepts and the world of the intellect. 

DA

2009-11-03
A theory of religion
Reply to Aarmin Banaji
Does this provide a counterexample? The answer is no. Why? Because there is no empirical basis for these speculations; they do no more than uncritically repeat the "if I were a horse" stories told by authors from Frazer to Freud, projecting their views on to pasts for which they had no direct evidence. For an alternative, and more solidly grounded view, see Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols, which includes evidence that the classic association of "the primitive" and "the religious" is misleading. The more complex facts of the matter suggest that religiosity is a function of (1) the the strength of group boundaries and (2) the importance of competitive rank. Where both factors are weak (Ituri pygmies, Basseri nomads, 20th century hippies, for instance) religious attitudes tend to be casual; a vague pantheism or indifference prevails. Where both factors are strong (traditional South and East Asia, for example), religious traditions become baroque in their complexity and to include belief in both witchcraft and sorcery (where "witchcraft" and "sorcery" are used as technical terms borrowed from African ethnography that distinguish intrinsic evil from magical manipulation). Witchcraft beliefs and taboos related to ingestion or excretion (food, feces, menstruation, etc.) are common where group boundaries are strong. Sorcery is common where competition for rank is fierce. Generally speaking, then, religiosity tends to be most strongly associated with traditional states with economies based on peasant agriculture — not hunters and gatherers. The relevant fears are realistic ones, fear of flood, drought, plague, taxes and wars.

2009-11-03
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Jim Stone: "In short, religions relate practitioners to a reality that
transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception;"
How come you call it "a reality"? The mundane world is the only reality we have evidence for.
So: religions relate practitioners to a imaginative wonderland that
transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception.

2009-11-03
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek,

I share your doubts about such supposedly common-sense goals of religion as long life, immortality, and the end of suffering. But I would question the dichotomy that you construct between religious "experience," on the one hand, and "concepts and the world of the intellect," on the other. Surely experience is always structured by concepts of one kind or another. The striking thing about the "great religions" is how hard they _push_ common-sense concepts, e.g. into realms of "creation," "salvation," "enlightenment," and so forth. They share this feature with Platonic philosophy--the ascent from the Cave, etc.--which is why all three "religions of the book" took to Greek philosophy so avidly. Plato himself one can take to be pressing the question, precisely, what indeed would be _rationally grounded_ goals of human life (and hence also of religion)? As distinct from such common-sense goals as long life, etc. Vedanta, Judaism, Buddhism, all can be understood as asking the same question that Plato asks. Much of religious "experience," then, can be understood as involving the vertigo that goes with opening this question wide open. Often the officially "religious" response to the question looks dogmatic. But outside official structures, the experience of "religious" individuals continually recreates this vertigo. And thus in modern times we get the wonderful non-sectarian "religion" of people like the Quakers, William Blake, Shelley, Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, Rilke, and Virgina Woolf, for whom "experience" is indeed what it's all about, but if one examines the nature of the experience that they report, it turns out to resemble in important ways the experience of open-minded inquiry, "ascent," and expanding horizons that Plato, Plotinus et al. describe and analyze.

Best, Bob

2009-11-04
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
You raised this concern earlier (the second post in this thread).  I responded this way (third post):

'I originally wrote (edited, paraphrased):

'A religion, I wrote, is often rationalized by beliefs that articulate an account of the reality that underlies the universe, according to which there is the possibility of fit. That is, the beliefs entail that there is a relation in which a person can but needn't stand to the rest of what is, which is fundamentally appropriate to the way the reality that underlies the universe is, such that standing in this relation is, in and of itself, the greatest human good.'

Holiness and God-realization are examples. I then argued that the religious practices typically aren't merely productive of fit. To perform the practice for the right reason
is ipso facto to enter somewhat into the relationship that is the sumum bonum. I called this relation 'constitutive of fit.'

            I wrote:

'Similarly, taking the Mass may produce a deeper relationship with God, but the Mass isn't a method or technique for getting closer to God. To participate in the Mass is already to stand in the appropriate relation to God. At the same time, taking the Mass may not be essential for fit: we might allow that a man on a desert island who finds a copy of the Gospels might be saved simply by his love of Christ. Nor is fit reducible to the whole set of behaviours we do because we accept a Christian religious world view, for there may be degrees of fit attainable only by God's grace. The force of the claim that a practice constitutes fit is that to perform it is to enter significantly (but not necessarily completely) into the appropriate relation. What matters is that in performing it one ipso facto participates in the relation that is the summum bonum: the practice isn't merely instrumental to the attainment of fit.'

I added: 'This theory explains why religion is nearly as ubiquitous as human culture and why religion is attractive even to those who are not afraid of death or particularly hungry for security.  People generally want to know the point of their existence and where they stand in the scheme of things.  The capacity for metaphysical yearning is perhaps the most human attribute of our species.  A religion explicates a metaphysical connection that (it maintains) is the main point of human existence, and it enables the believer to enter into that relation through the performance of constitutive practice.  ...  Our theory, therefore, explains why so many people care to be religious.'
 
Initially I thought Fit was the whole deal, but Phil Quinn persuaded me that I had to take into account  entirely 'mercenary' religions, even if such are merely possible. Which is why the
paper is entitled 'A Theory of Religion Revised.'

I expressed the revised defintiion as follows:  

' A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs according to which (i) the practices constitute fit, or (ii) they produce a relation to a SR which is of value because it is instrumental to attaining human goods.'

It's meant to be equivalent to the one I gave above:

'A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs
according to which the practices place the practitioner in a
relation-of-value to a SR.:'

I maintain this is what all and only religions share in virtue of which they are religions.'

That was my response to you on this point the first time you raised it. I add two points now:

First, the three examples I gave of substantial human needs '(e.g. immortality, long life, the end of suffering)' weren't meant as an exhaustive list but just as examples. Being delivered from slavery, finding a secure and bountiful home, vanquishing one's mortal enemies, survival as a people, and so on count too as substantial human needs. .
Nor do they need to ALL be satisfied. Immortality OR long life OR......   Understood as I meant it, I think Jews, Christians et al certainly did relate to God
in an effort to satisfy SOME substantial human needs. Of course, another substantial human need is Fit.

Second, suppose, to take a possible example, that we worship a supermundane being sufficiently grand in its attributes that it can satisfy
substantial human needs (e.g. any of the ones above) but we don't really want much from it, just small things. Practices place us in a relation of value
to this SR but they don't aim for much. Then they are rationalized by beliefs according to which they place us in a relation of value to a supermundane reality
grand enough to satisfy substantial human needs, even though we want little from it. So the definition is still satisfied and there is no counterexample.

P.S.  If you wish to read the paper, click on my name. You'll find a link to it.



2009-11-04
A theory of religion
Bob

You write in part "Surely experience is always structured by concepts of one kind or another."

I'm not sure I would say "structured".  I think human experience (including religious experience) is constituted in part by concepts but I don't think they are the driving force, if I can put it that way. Thus, one could become very adept in Christian theology, for example, without ever having any genuine religious experience.  And one could have very powerful religious experiences without being able to frame them in conceptual terms. (Personally I suspect that the former is quite common among "religious" people these days but that is just a guess.)

This is why I am bothered by descriptions of religion in terms such as belief in a "supramundane reality" etc.  At this level the thing has become far too abstract, far too.. dessicated.  And the same would go for general talk about "creation," "salvation," "enlightenment," etc. Taken to its logical conclusion, this "conceptual" approach to religion leads in the direction of theosophy - the view that all religions are really concerned with the same deity (or whatever) and one should therefore try to work out a lowest common denominator that would satisfy them all. I'm sure one could work out such a lowest common denominator, but I'm equally sure it would have nothing to do with genuine religious faith.

DA

2009-11-04
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I should be honest and say that I don't think I follow your argument very well. It sounds somewhat behaviorist to me at points - as if simply following certain practices is enough to establish that one is genuinely religious.  But I think I must be misreading you.

But however that may be, I am bothered by the notion of "substantial human needs" (or "human goods" in your definition). Clearly, many such needs/goods - such as some you mention - are quite concrete and practical in nature and not, presumably, the kind of thing religions are supposed to satisfy (though there is an island in the vicinity of New Guinea which once had a full-blown "cargo-cult").  If we exclude those things, however, and confine ourselves to satisfying what you term "metaphysical yearning", one problem I see there is that said yearnings might presumably be satisfied by systems of thought that are not religions (Hegelian thought might be one example - and perhaps even Marxism if believed sufficiently strongly).  Do you see a way around that?

DA



2009-11-04
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Let me encourage you to read the papers. There are two of them. They discuss your concerns in some depth, including your interesting comments about
metaphysical systems as counter-examples (this is in the first paper (Plato and Spinoza are discussed in that connection)).
The second paper is a revision of the first one. I was thinking seriously about cargo cults when I wrote the second paper. I do think you will get a
better picture of what I'm up to, better than if I answer bit by bit.  And there are a number of alleged counter-examples discussed in these papers.  Thanks for the comments.

2009-11-05
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Thanks. I might pass on that. Question of time partly.

There was one other comment in your recent post that caught my eye. You write: "'Similarly, taking the Mass may produce a deeper relationship with God, but the Mass isn't a method or technique for getting closer to God. To participate in the Mass is already to stand in the appropriate relation to God."

This really puzzles me.  Surely, practicing Catholics would say that taking the Mass is a method for getting closer to God?  (Which, in any case, is surely the same as having a "deeper relationship" with Him?)  Also the last sentence puzzled me because I'm not sure what "participate" means in the context.  Presumably not just being present? But if it means more than that, we are back to the issue in the previous sentences are we not?

DA

2009-11-05
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
The first four pages of the paper go into this:


A Theory of Religion Revised.

2009-11-05
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,

Thanks for the response. We agree then that all human experience is constituted in part by concepts. I don't think I suggested that "they are the driving force." If explicit concepts are the driving force, you have the "intellectual constructions" that we all know are not experience. "General talk about 'creation,' 'salvation, 'enlightenment,' etc." as such is obviously not (religious) experience. But if that general talk is _motivated by_ experience, attempting to understand it, as I think it clearly is in cases like Plato, Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, George Fox, William Blake, R.W. Emerson, W. James, Virginia Woolf--that's a different story.

Best, Bob

2009-11-05
A theory of religion
Hi Bob

We're probably saying much the same thing. I guess I'm reacting to the suggestion - which you are not making anyway, I think - that one can boil down religions to a few basic concepts and, as it were, regard that as a satisfactory understanding of them. My own view - based partly on my own experience and partly on what I see and read - is that very, very few people today (and I include myself in this) have the slightest inkling of what genuine religious experience is - which effectively means what it has been in its various manifestations in the past, since there is no such thing as a "hypothetical" religion.

I think, for example, that we are worlds away from what Christian faith was at its height and have not the slightest chance of recapturing it - assuming we wanted to.  I think the versions of Buddhism that find their way into the Western world are very pale copies of the original, and that the original is in any case beyond our ken. And so on. In short, I think that we are so deeply imbued with the materialistic values of Western culture (I mean "materialistic" philosophically not as value judgment) that the "supramundane realities" Jim speaks of are, for us, just empty concepts - general ideas without any substantial connection with anything we actually experience.   

DA



2009-11-05
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,

I can't speak of Christian faith (as such) or of Buddhism, but I have had powerful spiritual experience, certainly "supramundane." I'm still reeling from it. I find that the poets and philosophers I've mentioned--most of whom also functioned in a western, more or less "materialistic" context--help me to make some sense of it.

Best, Bob

2009-11-06
A theory of religion
Hi Bob

Yes. Likewise I have occasionally had what I would perhaps describe as "spiritual experiences" - though the term seems loaded to me. In my case, the only authors I know who speak of anything that seems similar are the French writers Eugene Ionesco and Andre Malraux (neither of whom were religious) . I do not doubt that many people have at some time had an experience they might broadly term "spiritual" (again, a very unsatisfactory term in my view).  

But where does this take us re the matter under discussion - as I put it in my last, the idea that "one can boil down religions to a few basic concepts and regard that as a satisfactory understanding of them"?

DA.

2009-11-06
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs
according to which the practices place the practitioner in a
relation-of-value to a SR.

interesting. although, it's not obvious that this conclusion follows from the observations. even if we accept that religions are systems of practices and beliefs that relate members at least epistemically to an SR, and possibly in a relation of value to an SR, it is not obvious that the relationship between these elements has to be the one that you have proposed. for example:

1. it's not obvious that the relationship between practices and beliefs is one of rationalization. in many religions (e.g. catholicism), some aspects of the religion are explicitly not rationalizable (they are essentially mysterious). so those aspects are definitely not rationalized by the beliefs that go along with the religion.

2. further, it's not obvious that religions are primarily systems of practices, and not primarily systems of beliefs. one of the central controversies of the reformation was the question whether practices were central to salvation, or whether belief was sufficient. this would allow at least the possibility of a departure from a practice based religion to a religion that was entirely belief based (whether or not that has ever happened).

3. finally, it's not obvious that the practices are what place the member of the religion in a relation of value to the SR. the relation of value in which an individual stands to a god, for example, does not seem to be constituted by their worshiping the god, but by their believing that the god is worthy of worship: the practices of worship could stop while the relation of value would remain upheld by the beliefs (in a society where religious practice is oppressed, for example), or alternatively the practices could continue while the relationship of value ceased, just in case the beliefs collapsed (in a society, for example, where certain religious practices are enforced!). given these considerations, it would seem like the beliefs are the primary constituents of the relationship of value to an SR, not the practices.

2009-11-07
A theory of religion
Thank you. The best thing I can do now is encourage you to read the paper(s), which discuss or relate significantly to these questions. We've been at this awhile
and pulling things out bit by bit will go on indefinitely and may not be understood half as well as simply reading the papers. For example, I discuss alleged Protestant
counter-examples. The second paper is probably more important, as the first was refuted.

The papers were published in an important journal, they are easy
enough to read, and the issue is an interesting one. If upon reading the second paper you still have these (or other) concerns, I'd like to hear them.
Either here or at jstone@uno.edu. Thanks again, Jim

2009-11-08
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,

Sorry for slow response. I'm not sure there's anything wrong with relying on "a few basic concepts," if they're powerful enough. I agree that the word "spiritual" doesn't, by itself, contribute very much. You mentioned theosophy, which as far as I know was not very strong on philosophical concepts. I suspect that deeper experience might have motivated deeper philosophical engagement, as opposed to globe-trotting in search of gurus, and holding lots of meetings. I have a lot of affection, personally, for Aldous Huxley's _Perennial Philosophy_, which seems quite serious and fruitful to me, despite Huxley's very limited knowledge of philosophy in the narrow sense. He was doing serious work with the materials he had available. Or think of Mechtild of Magdeburg (d. 1280 or so), who knew no Latin and consequently had very limited written sources to draw on, but formulated a few pretty powerful concepts, presumably reflecting deep experience. I think she probably had a better understanding of (say) Vedanta -- which she had never heard of, under that name-- than many of us who've read volumes about it.

Best, Bob

2009-11-08
A theory of religion
Hi Bob

My objection to the "few basic concepts" approach is not that the concepts might not be powerful enough but that this whole approach is bound to miss what is essential in any genuine religion. 

Of course one can talk about "supramundane realities" etc, but the supramundane reality of the Aztecs (for example) implied a fervent belief in mass human sacrifice - an abomination for Christianity and many other religions. Likewise the "supramundane realities"' of say African religions often centrally involved fear/reverence for the spirits of the ancestors which again is quite absent in many other religions. And so on. In short, one can certainly reduce religions to a lowest common denominator (a la theosophy) but it is an LCD that is only possible to the extent that it deprives them of their very lifeblood - what made them what they are. One would be dealing with mere shadows - phantoms - of religions. And what kind of useful philosophical speculation could be built on that basis?

Moreover, belief in "supramundane realities" is by no means limited to religions. Romeo and Juliet believed in a supramundane reality - their love for each other.  Which is why they were prepared to die for each other: the mundane - the world of the everyday, or mere living - was "well lost" for love.  And on a more modest scale (perhaps) the same is true for anyone who is passionately in love. Similarly, the soldier who willingly dies for his country, believes in a supramundane reality - his notion of his country. And there are other examples.

DA





 

2009-11-09
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,

I'll have to let Jim Stone defend the "supramundane reality" notion. And of course he'll want you to read his papers on it. As for myself, (and not having read his papers carefully myself) I think there's something in the idea. What is that? Your examples of Romeo and Juliet and so forth are very much to the point. It's love. Plato's notion of eros identifies, I think, what religion is essentially about. But romantic lovers don't have to be religious, you object. Well, not in an institutional sense, of course they don't. But when I fell in love, I discovered what religion is about. The agenda of Plato's Symposium is to show that falling in love is the first step on the path to immortality, i.e. to a "religious" outcome.

How does eros relate to religions of ancestor worship or of human sacrifice? The ancestors embody the values of the community, so it's through them that life is possible; and "obedience" to them expresses one's love of one's way of life. Human sacrifice expresses one's awe at the lack of congruence between mere personal goals and the transcendent goal of community survival and functioning. (Note that Jesus's crucifixion can be read in the same way. "The King must die.") In each case, there is a love (yes, love) of something that transcends one's merely personal satisfaction. All of these things are indeed "supramundane": they _matter_ to us more than the "mundane" does. The task of religious _philosophy_, then, is to help people to clarify what it is that they _really_ love. You can either wearily abolish or trivialize love (as much "secularism" seems, in effect, to do), or you can get down and dirty and try to clarify it. The latter is what the Platonic tradition, above all, does.

Best, Bob

2009-11-09
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
You're welcome, and thanks for an interesting paper. I especially liked the quotation from Soto Zen about the stream-crossing. The way you handle the point from Evangelical Christianity is interesting - that while there a religion that is based on belief and not practice is proposed, believing in itself is an action so it satisfies your requirement that the relation of value to the SR be established through some act. I think, though, that there is still a puzzle about the role that practice plays in the constitution of the relation of value. Here's what sounds a bit like a paradox: on your view, we can only be placed in a relation of value to an SR through practices (even in the minimal sense of actively believing some p); so we would not stand in a relation of value to an SR until we undertook some religious practices; so, we would never undertake any religious practices because we wouldn't value the SR until we did! In other words, nothing could motivate us to be religious, since we wouldn't value the SR that particular religion would place us in a relationship with unless we already were religious. Is this a problem? If so, it might indicate that beliefs play a stronger role than practices in the constitution of the relation of value.

2009-11-09
A theory of religion
I'm afraid I have to disagree. The effect of this reasoning is much the same as reducing all religions to a belief in "supramundane realities" i.e. it eliminates what is central and crucial to them and reduces them (a la theosophy again) to phantom presences. One can argue that the Aztec religion and Christianity were both "really" about love, but the simple fact is that, for a Christian, Aztec beliefs were/are the last word in brutality and inhumanity.  And so on.

You say that "the task of religious _philosophy_, then, is to help people to clarify what it is that they _really_ love".  What the Aztecs really "loved" - it seems - was to see the still-beating heart of the victim held high by the priest for all the people to see.  Was that what the medieval Christian loved?  Or the Ancient Egyptian? Or the Chinese Taoist? And did the last three themselves all "love" the same thing?  And re the Platonic tradition, how might Plato have felt in a medieval Mass, an Aztec sacrificial rite, or an Australian Aboriginal initiation ceremony?

This is why I think it is essential to bear in mind that religions are not just systems of ideas - theologies. They are forms of human experience. The recurrent tendency in the philosophy of religion to reduce them to systems of ideas (and preferably, it would seem, to one or two ideas - such as beliefs in a "supramundane reality" or "transcending one's merely personal satisfaction" etc) leaves one simply with pseudo-religions - religions that no-one ever practiced, and which exist only in the mind of philosophers...


DA

2009-11-10
A theory of religion
Kind words much appreciated. You write:

‘Here's what sounds a bit like a paradox: on your view, we can only be placed in a relation of value to an SR through practices ...; so we would not stand in a relation of value to an SR until we undertook some religious practices; so, we would never undertake any religious practices because we wouldn't value the SR until we did!’

Well, I can value a relation of value to an SR even though I’m not yet in the relation. So for example, I might want the gods to be pleased with me (that’s the relation of value) because I believe if they are pleased with me I’ll get cattle, good health, and long life, which I already want. Still, though I value that relation, the gods probably aren’t going to be pleased with me until I sacrifice a goat and perform some pujas. So, I value a relation of value to the gods even though I don’t yet stand in it to them. Alternatively I may wish to rest in Nibbana because I believe that is the end of all suffering as well as the greatest happiness humans can know. Still, even though I value that relationship, I don’t yet rest in Nibbana, because I haven’t done any Buddhist practices. In short, I can sensibly value a relation of value to an SR that I do not yet stand in.

I want to add two points: it isn’t part of my account that religions MUST maintain that the practices are necessary to stand in the relation of value. The gods may simply favor some of us, people who don’t practice at all. Also, some people get enlightened spontaneously, without practicing at all. (Carrying a pail of water from the well one night, the bottom drops out and they are liberated ('No water in the pail! No moon in the water!')) Nor is it part of my account that religions MUST maintain the practices necessarily guarantee a relation of value. The gods may sometimes not like my sacrifices and rituals, for reasons of their own. Of course some religions do maintain these things, but this isn't required for a system of practices to satisfy the definition.

2009-11-12
A theory of religion
Reply to Herbert Huber
JIm,

(Respectfully) This is very naive.  The "mundane world" is a contrivance
of the human mind/ CNS and perceptual apparata that is constantly
filling in the gaps of "received" information, and even the received "evidence"
is contorted by human perceptual and mental capacity.  And then
a bunch of humans get together and agree on the basis of their shared
capacities and blind spots, and call this scientific consensus, and
describe it with a mathematical poem or some cartoon-like PowerPoint
images. 

Your remarks are just simplistic scientism that bifurcates what is 
ostensibly "mentation" (e.g., that of some religious practitioners)
from other mental experience which you like to call "reality."
I fail to see any evidence for your belief that one act of human
imagination (so-called empiricism) is more "real" than another,
i.e., some types of religious experience.  This belief also indicates
that you don't have much experience with the religious life of
grown-ups.

I can happily report that this position of suspicion about "reality"
is a prominent one in my Religion&Science Working Group at Yale
(held by scientist and religionist alike).  I have never heard any working
scientist refute this.

Steve

2009-11-12
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
aha, I see! so, now I get the significance of the reflexive nature of the relation of value that you insist on in your paper. This addresses, I think, of some of the worries about the dominance of practice in your account that have appeared on this forum. so, if I have this correct, the relationship of value is not just one where I value the SR, and not just where I value the relationship that I might someday stand in to the SR - but where the relationship I stand in to the SR is already valuable to my human interests (I get something out of it) and is sustained by my active participation in it. Right. I wonder if this might be made clearer by precisifying the expression 'relation of value'; intuitively, a) valuing something is standing in a 'relation of value' to that thing - potentially a non-reflexive one (where I want the gods to love me but they don't or won't); so too is b) being valued by something that you don't value - so the SR/gods might value me without my knowing it, and this would place me in a relation of value without actively participating in (or even knowing about) the relationship; so, perhaps it would be clearer if you defined the relation as a 'valuable relationship with an SR', not just a 'relation of value to an SR', from the outset. this might exclude the unrequited relationships just considered (which are relations of value, but either (a) aren't valuable or (b) don't demand I do anything to sustain them). just a suggestion - thanks for explaining!

2009-11-12
A theory of religion
Reply to Herbert Huber
'Jim Stone: "In short, religions relate practitioners to a reality that
transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception;"
How come you call it "a reality"? The mundane world is the only reality we have evidence for.
So: religions relate practitioners to a imaginative wonderland that
transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception.'

Missed this post. Best to clear this up. My account:

'A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs
according to which the practices place the practitioner in a
relation-of-value to a SR.'

As all such beliefs may be false, there may be no reality that transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception.
All religions may be fundamentally mistaken. There is nothing in my account that a complete atheist
couldn't accept. 'In short, religions relate practitioners to a reality that transcends the mundane world revealed
revealed by sense perception' is best taken in context. Implicit: 'if the beliefs that rationalize the practices are true.'



2009-11-13
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,

(Busy times.) How do you know what the Aztecs "_really_ loved"? Have you asked them? It seems to me that it's very appropriate to ask _why_ they "loved to see the still-beating heart of the victim held high by the priest." What did this event signify to them? I suggested that it signified something like the endurance of their way of life; that the ritual emphasized how that way of life had a value that surpassed that of individuals. I'd suggest that the ritual of the Mass, in Christianity, has a somewhat similar significance. Even the Son of God is sacrificed, to achieve something whose significance goes beyond that of his personal life. Thus the Aztecs and the Christians aren't necessarily totally different, as your remarks suggest they are.

In Plato's Symposium he puts in the mouth of Aristophanes the famous story according to which each of us originally had four legs, four arms, two faces, and so forth.  Then Zeus split each of us down the middle, into two separate organisms; and when the two who once were one, meet each other again, they are inexorably drawn to each other. This is the common view of falling in love. It resembles what you've said about religious experience: different people, different cultures simply love different things, and that's the end of it. But Plato's Diotima then challenges Aristophanes's story. She says that it's not enough to recognize something as "one's own" (sc. one's own long-lost "other half"); one also has to see it as in some way _good_, in order to love it. Because we do in fact often relinquish what we thought we loved, when we discover that it isn't in fact good (for us or in general). This is where Plato finds, I suggest, a rational dimension in love. Applied to the case of religion, this means that there must be some reason why the Aztecs or the Christians or whoever it is "love" the strange things that they seem to love. And when we've identified what that reason is, we'll be in principle able to enter into some sort of discussion with them about whether the ritual to which they're attached is in fact the best way to express what it is that (as I put it earlier) they _really_ love. Something like this is presumably what happened to the very early Hebrews who apparently practiced human sacrifice. And to the archaic Greeks, who also practiced it. And to the white southern Christians who in quite a few cases seem to have revised their former understanding of what their "Christianity" required of them in race relations. And so forth. In all of these cases, I submit, people got a better understanding of what it was that they _really_ loved.

None of this has anything to do with preferring "ideas" to "experience." Our love of what we love is as much an "experience" as anything can be. But the reality is that a major part of what we experience, in love, is what we take to be Good; and thus our experience of love has, in fact, an intellectual, rational, "ideal" element.

Best, Bob

2009-11-14
A theory of religion
Hi Bob

I think you introduced the notion of love, suggesting it might be a kind of lowest common denominator of religions (or that was more or less what I understood).  I was using it rather ironically.  Whether the Aztecs "loved" mass human sacrifice is in the end a matter of pure conjecture, though all the evidence suggests that they believed it to be an indispensable part of their religious faith.  If asked what exactly the Aztecs felt, I would have to say I have no idea. And I don't think anyone else has either.  Just think of it. A culture that regarded mass human sacrifice as essential to its religious faith!  We today put people who do such things in front of judges at The Hague. And yet, amazingly, it seems the Aztec culture in general was by no means barbaric - I mean in its everyday practices. In fact, it seems in many respects to have been quite refined.  In the face of that, I think we just have to admit we simply do not understand.  And trying to draw parallels between what the Aztecs felt and what Plato thought or Christians believed seems to me just a waste of breath.

Moreover, we don't even have to choose such extreme cases as the Aztecs. I was listening some time ago to a distinguished French Egyptologist who had spent decades studying the Ancient Egyptians, written various books about them etc. He said that the longer he studied the Egyptian religion, the less he felt he understood it. He said that even the word "god" which commentators tend to use for Amun, Horus etc, seemed to him now quite wrong. He said they seemed rather to be "spirits" of some kind but he couldn't say exactly in what way...

My point is that all that remains to us of the religions of the past - and I include Christianity here - is the dry husks, the empty shells. We can narrate the mythologies (when we know them), we can sometimes describe the rituals (eg mass human sacrifice...) but we cannot enter into the religious beliefs; we cannot experience them - which means that we cannot in any significant sense know them. They belong for us, in the phrase of a favourite author of mine, in "the charnel house of dead values".  Mere skeletons.

This is why I see all attempts to develop a kind of general template for religions as leading at best to a kind of thin, dessicated theosophy.  And vague notions of "supramundane realities" or "love" are good examples of that.  They simply scratch around on the surface ...

DA
 




2009-11-14
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,

I guess I'd have to ask, do you think there's any prospect of your understanding _me_, or the guy down the street, or some other contemporary? Of "entering into" our beliefs and our experiences? If there _is_ such a chance, then why is there no chance of entering into the beliefs or experiences of Aztecs or "genuine" Christians? I feel the presence of here of some unspoken Romanticism of the utterly "other," and I doubt that it reflects your actual life practices.

Best, Bob

2009-11-15
A theory of religion
Hi Bob

A few difficult questions here. To what extent does one ever "understand" another person?  Writing about his close friend, whose death he regretted so much (whose name I forget), Montaigne says that he always knew instinctively what his friend was thinking - but Montaigne recognizes that that such friendships occur perhaps once in a lifetime (my own experience too). Then of course there is the further tricky question: how well does one ever know oneself? 

But those questions really have very little to do with the issue at hand. Here one is asking: To what extent do we understand those specific forms of "revelation", of perceptions of "ultimate reality", that have existed is past cultures which we call religions? You know my answer to that, so I won't burden you with it again.

I suspect you are really saying to me: "Well, after all, we all share the same 'human nature', so something experienced by the Egyptians or the Aztecs must surely be accessible to us". Whether or not there is a "human nature" is question I cannot answer (if there is, I would not like to try my hand at saying what it is...)  But however we might respond to that, it is, again, not the same question as the one we are addressing.  Even if at some "basic", "human nature" level we and the Egyptians or Aztecs have something important in common (and, as I say, I leave that question open), how do we know that our religious sense (assuming we have one, and whatever it might be) is part of that "something important"?  Put in concrete terms, even if we happened to share some of the Aztecs' feelings about, say, family life and children (which is by no means certain) does that imply that we share their feelings about the importance of mass human sacrifice?  In fact we feel sure we don't share their feelings about that. We know that we find them not just incomprehensible, but completely repugnant.

DA


2009-11-15
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Dear Derek,

"Here one is asking: To what extent do we understand those specific forms of 'revelation'..."  Indeed yes. So broad-scale skepticism is beside the point. You grant, that is, that it may be reasonable to claim understanding of other people in general; you deny that it's reasonable in this specific kind of case.

But every suggestion that I make of possible ways of understanding this specific kind of case, you dismiss as obviously ungrounded! Shallow, mere superficial scratchings at the surface, etc. You haven't addressed my specific proposals, giving reasons why they're inadequate; you've simply dismissed them.

The Aztec's beliefs are "not just incomprehensible, but completely repugnant," you say. Of course they're _repugnant_. So was the southerners' belief that their "Christian" religion supported slavery and "racial purity." Does it follow that the southerners' belief was _incomprehensible_?

I suggest this does not follow. You see the line I'm going to take. If you can "comprehend" your next-door neighbor, you can probably "comprehend" to some degree the southern racist slave-owner. And if you can comprehend to some degree the southern racist slave-owner, you should be able (in a similar manner) to comprehend the Aztecs. I don't see how you'll be able to draw a principled line and say, up to this point comprehension is possible, but beyond this point it's not. Don't tell me that that point is the point where things become "repugnant." For we have plenty of examples of understanding "repugnant" attitudes. If you have never understood a "repugnant" attitude that you yourself have held (if only for a few seconds), you're a pretty unusual human being.

Best, Bob

2009-11-15
A theory of religion
Bob, you write: "If you can "comprehend" your next-door neighbor, you can probably "comprehend" to some degree the southern racist slave-owner. And if you can comprehend to some degree the southern racist slave-owner, you should be able (in a similar manner) to comprehend the Aztecs."

But in a sense, as I've said, we do "comprehend" the Aztecs.  Whole books - sometimes very interesting ones - are written about their everyday life, their religious practices, their tactics in warfare etc. Just as similar books are written about the Egyptians.  But what does it mean to "comprehend" a religion?  I mean a real, living religion, not an abstraction dreamed up in the mind of an analytic philosopher. It's obviously not just describing a mythology or ritual practices.  I could do that, in a rough and ready way, for the Aztecs (e.g.) after a bit of research but would I then believe - as they obviously did - that mass human sacrifice to the Rain God was absolutely essential?  Obviously not.  So I would have only "comprehended" the shell, the husk of the religion.  For me, as for everyone else, their religion is dead - like so many others. What we have left - to "comprehend" - are just the bones lying about. Interesting bones, but bones nonetheless.

DA

2009-11-15
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek, you ask "would I then believe - as they obviously did - that mass human sacrifice to the Rain God was absolutely essential?  Obviously not.  So I would have only 'comprehended' the shell, the husk of the religion."

Of course you wouldn't "believe" what the Aztecs believed. To understand P, it isn't necessary to believe that P.  As far as I can see, you have just conceded my claim that we can understand Aztec religion. Which was our test case. Call it "dead," if you like. The point is, we can understand it and (my previous point) envisage a possible dialogue with it. Ditto, I submit, for all the religions and religious experiences that you have been describing as utterly inaccessible to us. They may be inaccessible in the uncontroversial sense that we don't subscribe to them or haven't experienced them. But they're not inaccessible in the sense of being beyond our comprehension or the possibility of dialogue. Nor need we assume that we couldn't have or don't have experiences that can usefully be compared to them.

Best, Bob

2009-11-15
A theory of religion
Bob you write: "To understand P, it isn't necessary to believe that P."

A good point if we were talking about an argument, such as a series of philosophical propositions.  But a religion is not an argument. It is only when transformed into a theology that it starts to look like that. A religion, as I have been stressing, is an experience, a revelation, a kind of urgent personal call, and is only marginally dependent on arguments and concepts.

Moreover, it is not simply that study of the mythology etc would not led us to believe what the Egyptians or the Aztecs believed; we couldn't believe no matter how desperately we tried.  To enter into the world of the Egyptians (eg) we would not only have to understand the significance of Horus etc (understand in the deep sense); we would also have to forget - to "un-understand" - everything that science has taught us about the world, our while historical outlook (quite unknown to the Egyptians and doubtless completely incompatible with their religious faith), and a thousand other things whose influence on the way we think we are not even conscious of. The way back in other words is blocked - blocked not just by our limited understanding of the what the Egyptians believed but also by what has happened over the intervening ages (the two things in fact being closely related). You say "Nor need we assume that we couldn't have or don't have experiences that can usefully be compared to them". But what would our "comparable" experiences be like?  What experiences of our own would we choose for this comparison exercise? What would be our criteria for choosing them, and not others? And on what basis could we feel confident that they are comparable?

In a similar vein you say we can "envisage a possible dialogue with" such religions of the past, yet you also seem to concede they are dead. Can one dialogue with a corpse?

DA



2009-11-16
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,

Can one dialogue with a corpse? I dialogue frequently with my father, who is no longer physically alive. Furthermore, I possess various kinds of knowledge that my father didn't possess. No doubt he possessed knowledge that I don't possess. Plus, he (like the Egyptians) believed some things that I find quite irrational and objectionable. He thought that he had experienced a revelation, one that I certainly have not experienced. _None_ of this prevents me from engaging in dialogue with him, precisely because I recognize his experience as comparable to mine in various important ways. I can project myself into his situation, as I'm now projecting myself into yours, in my effort to communicate, to have a dialogue, with you.

Thus it seems to me that if I'm not deluded in thinking that you and I can engage in dialogue, neither am I deluded in thinking that I can engage in dialogue with my father and with Egyptians and Aztecs. What is the difference in principle between these cases? Why should I suppose that I can understand where you're coming from, in a way that I can't understand where my father and the ancients are coming from?

Obviously the "dialogue" that I have with the dead differs in certain ways from the dialogue that I have with the living. But it doesn't face the insuperable obstacles that you continually conjure up. My dialogue with you could be cut off at any moment now, forever. Would it follow from that, that you and I could never hope to understand where the other person was coming from? I don't think so.

Best, Bob

2009-11-16
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim,
now that is a completely other account than the one I answered to.
There is a lot in your account that a rational thinking being can't accept. Let alone an atheist.

1) Religion is not just a system of practices. Most religious persons will tell you that the system of beliefs and faith is more important. (With that latter point sometimes the bad practices of a lot of religious persons in the past is excused.)
The religious beliefs the religious practitioners have are not just to support the practices.
2) Religion is not a rationalized belief-system. In English you distinguish very well between beliefs (which have to be justified to be rational accepted) and faith (founded – if at all – on something else, not rational reasons: wishful thinking, tradition, group behavior etc.). If religion were (by definition) a rationalized belief-system, there is no religion. At least no one I know of.

What is a "SR" ?

2009-11-16
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi All,

If it's permissable, I'd like to draw your attention to a draft paper I recently posted on philpapers entitled "Getting Scientific With Religion: A Darwinian Solution... Or Not?" which will appear in J. Consciousness Studies next year and speaks directly to this thread. The paper makes a fundamental multidisciplinary analysis of spirituality, a subject I've seen discussed in this thread, that adds up to a novel  parsimonious theory of spirituality/religion (to the extent that religion is about spirituality). I have yet to submit my final version to the journal and will appreciate feedback from anyone interested.

-Barak Morgan, University of Cape Town.

2009-11-16
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Could it be that a religion is neither theology nor a particular form of experience? After all the Latin religio means only obligation, and by far the most common answer that anthropologists receive when asking about what we take to be religious behavior is simply, "It's our custom."

2009-11-16
A theory of religion
Reply to John McCreery
This is the thrust of the account I gave.

I wrote:

'The feature of religions that provides the basis for my theory is
that a religion can be practiced. Judaism, Christianity, Islam,
Buddhism each involve activities that, when done in the right way
for the right reasons, constitute the practice of that religion.
A religion is a kind of system of practices. But what
differentiates religious from non-religious practices?'

Religious practices are religious because they are rationalized by beliefs according to which
they place one in a relation of value to an SR (see the first post for an account of 'SR). By 'rationalized' I mean that the beliefs in question, if true,
would provide a good reason to perform the practices. So, for example, I meditate because I believe
this practice leads to Nirvana.

So beliefs are involved, but in a subsidiary role. Religions are not literally true or false but efficacious or misguided.
Religious beliefs are simply the beliefs that rationalize the practices that comprise a religion. (Of course we
can say of a religion that it is a 'true religion,' by which we simply mean that the beliefs that rationalize
the practices that comprise the religion are true.)

The account then comes to this:

'A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs
according to which the practices place the practitioner in a
relation-of-value to a SR.'

I think this is putting the emphasis in a helpful place. Theology and religious experiences
do not a religion make, which is not to say they are unimportant. Ultimately a religion
is a sort of behaviour, something we do. Thanks.





2009-11-17
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I have to say that, to the extent this theory is true, it is true only in a very trivial sense.  It is the kind of proposition one finds it difficult to disagree with, but which tells one very little about the subject at hand.

Of course
"practices" (making offerings etc) are generally a feature of religion, and of course those practices are usually connected with a belief in what one might broadly term a "supramundane reality". But one surely wants to say "So what?" It's the kind of definition one might read in a dictionary. But what does it tell us about the nature of religious experience? What does it tell us about the the nature of the human impulse that leads to the birth of religions?  The definition is behaviorist, and like most behaviorist accounts (sorry if this sounds harsh) very superficial.

It's like saying that falling in love is "carrying out certain certain conventional courtship practices associated with a belief in the superior qualities of a particular human being". 

DA


2009-11-19
A theory of religion
Hi Bob

I can't of course comment on your dialogue with your father. That is your own personal matter.

As for your dialogue with me, that's between two living people who are more or less part of the same culture, and we manage to understand each other - more or less. 

Understanding a dead religion is however quite another matter - for the reasons I've given. I have absolutely no confidence that I could say anything accurate about how an ancient Egyptian felt about what Jim calls his "supramundane reality".  Ditto for the Aztecs and so many others...  It is an intellectual black hole - and always will be.


DA

2009-11-19
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

In every religion I’ve read about, I found two poles:

  1. An esoteric pole for a select few high priests or wisemen who rely on complex teachings, intuitive rationality and metaphors (understood as metaphors) for understanding and “mystical” experience. This is an associated with an inward experience.
  2. An exoteric pole for the masses who rely primarily on simpler literal teachings and analogies (often taken as historical facts) for understanding and “religious” experience. These are generally based on #1, but are presented and experienced outwardly.

I think that this demarcation can be made in every religion. Some religions will dispute this saying that they are purely exoteric and that the teachings were written directly by their god(s) without human involvement. If you accept this, then that’s your business, but if you don’t then the esoteric side is, at the very least, those who contributed to the origins of that religion. But I think the esoteric-exoteric spectrum goes well beyond this least case.

I think that the term “religion” covers both of the two poles, but usually is describing pole #2 (“organized religion”). The failure to make this distinction results in much of the confusion in this thread. Every religious experience or outlook falls somewhere between these two poles. Oftentimes, the same text or oral tradition is designed to have two meanings simultaneously (an exoteric and an esoteric layer).

The many diversified beliefs (taken literally) of world religions found in the second pole can have little to do with each other and only have a “family resemblance”. The esoteric ideas of pole 1, however, have much in common across the world. I feel that Jim Stone’s original universal description of religion is better suited more narrowly for #1 above where many of the criticisms of this definition cite the term “religion” more closely associated with pole #2. The problem, of course, is that pole #1 aims for the ineffable, whether these ineffable truths are real or merely imagined, descriptions of them can fill many volumes but never reach completeness.

As one gets deeper and deeper into the ideas in pole #1, one finds congruency with the metaphysics that some philosophers practice. But, only those metaphysicists with a top down model of causality (or a non-causal ontological hierarchy). A reductionist’s bottom-up metaphysics has little to do with pole #1, but surprisingly can be congruent with pole #2 (with the exception of the existence of divinity[s]). Pole #1 is satisfied only through a top-down spiritual experience or belief that is deemed real, necessary or intuitive. Pole #2 can be satisfied with a contingent universe. For example: the universe is the way it is because god made it that way and that’s that.

Thus far, I have used a mostly sociological perspective, but this relates to philosophy as well which included religion discussions up until recent centuries. An example from the history of philosophy/theology to clarify the subtle difference between the two poles (in light of what is perceived to be necessary versus contingent truth) is to look at the famous Leibniz-Clarke correspondence. Clarke (allegedly a proxy for Sir Isaac Newton) argued for a contingent metaphysics: Clarke/Newton’s god was the first actor in an equilibrium of absolute space-time. Leibniz argued for a necessary metaphysics: Leibniz’s god was the first rational decider among a disequilibrium of relative space-time. To Leibniz’s view, the alternative (Clarke’s god) made arbitrary (thus contingent) creative decisions.

Jim, I think that if you add this distinction (esoteric/necessary vs. exoteric/contingent) to your theory, you will avoid the present confusions. If you agree with me that this demarcation is useful, then to go much further than I have, I recommend Ralph Slotten’s Exoteric and Esoteric Modes of Apprehension for a 2-dimensional model (where mine is only a 1-dimensional spectrum). Slotten further divides “eso-exoteric (exoteric B, or tropological) and exo-esoteric (esoteric B or specular) readings or levels.”1 But Slotten’s new language is not merely intended to apprehend religion, but ambitiously, the whole of civilization.

Personally, I think “good art” covers both pole 1 and 2 where bad art only exists in pole 2. In this respect, one can make judgments on how good a religion’s “art” is thanks to this useful demarcation.

References:

1. Exoteric and Esoteric Modes of Apprehension, Ralph Slotten, Sociological Analysis, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Autumn, 1977), pp. 185-208 (article consists of 24 pages). Published by: Oxford University Press. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3709801


2009-11-19
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

Hi,

I think Jim Stone's idea that religion is a practice that places one in relation to a SR is useful but I also empathise with what Derek Allan wrote:

"This is why I see all attempts to develop a kind of general template for religions as leading at best to a kind of thin, dessicated theosophy.  And vague notions of "supramundane realities" or "love" are good examples of that.  They simply scratch around on the surface ..".

So what would it take to penetrate the surface, to really get to grips with what it means to transcend from the mundane to SR? To survive Derek Allan's critique the solution should model the phenomenon of transcendence from multi-disciplinary vantage points with laser-like precision such that it cannot wriggle free. It should also do so in such a way that explains existing data but moreover generates novel insights/predictions in unanticipated directions.

One way to model transcendence is to focus not on what transcendent states of mind are but on what they are not: all spiritual practices worth their salt agree that for transcendence to occur, there must be self-sacrifice, self-negation, via negativa, kenosis etc. (see Karen Armstrong’s book, The Great Transformation, but also Wm. James, Jorge Ferrer, George Ellis). If we define the self as the subject position within the mind, the evolved entity that experiences, inter alia, desire towards what is good and aversion to what is bad, in the Darwinian sense of good/bad for reproductive survival, it follows that self-negation means transcending evolved adaptive ‘Darwinian mind’. Desire/aversion and the self are two sides of the same coin.

Transcend Darwinian mind to what or where…? A parsimonious option is towards the raw materials Darwinian mind is made from. The term for the raw materials of evolution coined by Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba is ‘nonaptation’ – nothing in evolution is de novo. So transcendent mind could be nonaptive mind, selfless ‘non-Darwinian mind’.  Now non-Darwinian mind has no reproductive survival issues, like nonaptive oxygen or carbon or water, dead or alive, it doesn’t care. But Darwinian mind certainly cares and won’t stand idly by while spiritual practice riddles away at the self. Darwinian mind/self resists, big time, and it does so by increasing desire/aversion which is why the spiritual path is so hard (I can resist…. except temptation :)).

So far the model triangulates transcendence from psychological and evolutionary perspectives and Darwinian mind/self’s resistance to self-sacrifice provides an opportunity to add an affective neuroscience perspective. Most simply, humans as an ultra-social species walk a delicate line between competition and cooperation with one another. At a mechanistic level the evolved neural substrates of selfish/competitive motivations inhibit the evolved neural substrates of “unselfish”/cooperative/”altruistic” motivations unless the individual benefits of cooperation outweigh the costs (hence the quotes around “unselfish”, “altruistic” etc.). When Darwinian mind/self resists self-negation, it is the selfish neural substrates that are immediately activated and the “unselfish” ones become more inhibited. But if the person practices very hard, remaining resolutely indifferent to the efforts of Darwinian mind/self to divert them from the path of self-negation through potent motivations of desire/aversion, the neural substrates of selfish motivations will eventually suddenly, albeit partially,  give way and a transient partial transcendent experience will occur. Such a revelation/satori/awakening etc. may have all sorts of subjective features but two properties are commonly reported: (1) A transformation of the sense of self (sometimes described as an expansion, sometimes as a diminution, but invariably there is less ego, less self-concern, and more “oneness” with others/nature; (2) The mind is flooded with goodwill to others, with righteousness, guilt, compassion etc. –  with prosocial thoughts and feelings.  

Now organised religion and even purer spiritual practices make much of morality but according to this model, the flood of prosocial “moral” emotions that accompany transcendence are nothing other than the disinhibited expression of the neural substrates of Darwinian/evolved/adaptive etc. “unselfish”/cooperative/”altruistic” motivations. As evolved self-serving entities, the latter are equally bound up with self-interest/ego/reproductive survival etc. But in the first instance, i.e. relative to evolved selfish motivations, they are largely compatible with self-negation, superficially they pull in the same direction. For this reason, these “moral” prosocial motivations do not impede early inroads into transcendent territory. But unselfish is ~= to selfless (‘no self’) and advanced transcendent states are beyond morality - to reach them even the “moral” prosocial aspects of the self must be left behind. In this model morality is therefore somewhat incidental to religion, an unavoidable by-product on the road to full enlightenment.

This model does not only cast existing data in a new light, it also makes testable predictions, eg. Darwinian mind and non-Darwinian mind should have different neuroimaging profiles (measureable as entropy differences because adaptations are more complex and information rich than raw materials). It also speaks to free will – an agent enslaved by desire/aversion is not very free. Non-Darwinian mind provides a new reference point for what it means to be free.

These are the broad strokes of a scientist's attempt to get beneath the surface of transcendence. As mentioned a few posts above, a draft of a longer treatment forthcoming in J. Consciousness Studies is available on philpapers. Any comments?


Barak


2009-11-19
A theory of religion
Reply to Gary Geck
PS. I should add that my goal is not to bring insight into religion by dissecting it in two much like a biologist cuts a labratory mouse down the middle and says that is "mouseness" as its guts spill out. Now if that biologist could sew the two halves back together and make the mouse come back to life, then i would say he really understands "mouseness".

My more subtle intention is to make the most insightful demarcation that i can among all religions. I think this is the esoteric-exoteric divide. Then the real understanding or theory of religion becomes what can unify these two poles. Sort of like what Nicolas de Cusa, in the 15th Century, called the coincidence of opposites.

To fully understand and describe something you have to in some way rise above or beyond it. Doing so with religion is no easy task.

Regards,
Gary

2009-11-20
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,

Evidently then your principle is that people who are members of "the same culture" can be expected to understand one another, more or less, whereas people who belong to different and perhaps historically prior and posterior cultures can't be expected to achieve this. I think this principle is vulnerable to simple thought-experiments. If I can understand X, whose life overlapped with mine both in terms of time and of "culture," then why shouldn't I be able to understand also Y, whose life overlaps with X's but not with mine in terms of time and culture? Or Z, whose life overlaps with Y but not with X or with myself? There is an endless gradation between the cases in which you think that comprehension is possible, and the cases in which you assert that it's not possible. That being the case, I don't know how you can regard it as reasonable to draw the sharp distinction that you're drawing between what's possible at one end of the line, and not at the other.

Seeing no argument for your claim, I can only conclude that you are attached to the idea of (something like) a Romantically alien and inaccessible "other." I don't think you've given me any reason why I should share this idea. And I doubt that you really hold to it in practice, because I suspect that your imagination in fact often works (as everybody's imagination that I know works) on the forever intriguing task of _trying_ to get into the heads of other people, including those who are culturally and historically remote from you. Why else do we read Greek or Chinese or Hindu or aboriginal poetry or mythology? Rather than just throwing in the towel, knowing in advance that understanding Those People will be impossible?

Best, Bob

2009-11-20
A theory of religion
Hi Bob

You are tending to ascribe to me positions I don't hold.

I am not "attached to the idea of (something like) a Romantically alien and inaccessible "other." (Though I confess I don't quite know what that means.)

Also my claim has not been that "people who belong to different and perhaps historically prior and posterior cultures can't be expected to [understand one another, more or less]". I have been speaking specifically about dead religions.  Whether or not we understand other cultures (ie more broadly) is a different question - though I should add that the view that we can't is by no means out of the question. (There is a fascinating article on this by Peter Winch - on the Azande). 

I should add that you "gradation" argument - if I understand it correctly - does not establish the case for something permanent enduring throughout all cultures. X can overlap with Y, and Y with Z without anything overlapping between X and Z (not to mention A and Z...)

My criticisms have been directed at the claim that we can somehow "capture" what is common to all religions through general concepts such as "supramundane realities", "practices" etc.  I think this allows us to capture everything about a religion except what is important. 

DA


 

2009-11-22
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Gary,

The esoteric-exoteric divide is easily unified. I quote from p. 34 of my paper:

"There is nevertheless no getting around the fact that kenosis is a hard pill to swallow and it is not that surprising that many traditional religious interpretations concur with S that “God has no right to force such a choice upon man” and consider kenosis unsuitable for the masses who are at best expected to practice Darwinian “morality” (Nuesner&Chilton, 2006). Non-Darwinian mind (practicing kenosis towards full selflessness) being only for saviors and saints."

Check it out... you won't find fault with this biologist's sewing up of the mouse.

Barak



2009-11-22
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim,
I really like the way you put this: "Religions are not literally true or false but efficacious or misguided.
Religious beliefs are simply the beliefs that rationalize the practices that comprise a religion." This leaves a lot of room for diversity and change within religious traditions and opens up the question of what value particular practices serve along with who/what those practices are oriented toward.

2009-11-22
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,
Its definately hard to try and capture what is common to all religion. People are the one common denominator. However, we need something more than, well, people, to explore the topic. The challenge of a 'working definition' to 'suffice' is an important one to work through, especially as Jim is doing here.

I suggest that people are common to all religions (including religious worldviews not classified as religions) and therewith their commitment to SR. It is people and their commitment and desire for SR that is common, and it is this that they express variously, but appropriately. Practices are developed in relation to the SR and not in relation to belief alone and need to be efficacious enough for people to adopt them.

2009-11-25
A theory of religion
Hi Timothy

People are common to a lot of things...

As for commitment to "supramundane realities", who could really disagree? But where does that get us? And adding the stuff about "practices" gets us no further.

DA

2009-11-28
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek,
My suggestion hinges on what we accept as SR, if we go with a completely vague and ambiguous statement then I've made an essentially meaningless suggestion. We may, however, speak of SR:

  • Ancestors
  • Ascended Masters 
  • Spiritual Guides
  • God, Godde, Gods and Goddesses
  • Nirvana, Sunyata
  • Self-Enlightenment
  • Etc.
This illustrative then points us in a direction and allows for a variety, hence we're able to move toward a "working definition".


2009-11-29
A theory of religion
Hi Tim

Of course, we can exemplify these "supramundane realities" by various labels. Christianity had a "supramundane reality" called the Trinity, Islam has one called Allah, African tribes had (for example) the ancestors (as did the Chinese though in a different way), the Egyptians had spirits of some kind (Horus, Anubis, etc). And so on and on and on. 

In a simple dictionary sense this tells us what religions are, and we can even add in Jim Stone's point that they are "practised" - which a dictionary probably would too.

But what have we learned about religions? Nothing we could not have got from a dictionary...

DA



2009-12-07
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim,
Thanks for uploading the paper, I am looking forward to reading the detail. One thing that I have to commend you on is that you are actually taking up the question 'What is religion?' It has impressed me that so little attention has been given in philosophical circles to theory of religion, its a fascinating field of enquiry, but we usually ignore it and march straight to the arguments for or against the existence of God. In any case with that preemptive vote of approval for the general project I better go and read the paper.

Phil

2009-12-15
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
The view that only religion deals with a supermundane "reality" is wrong on at least two counts. All science traces back to the very same roots (generally ignored outside cosmology and particle physics), so that such an appeal actually argues for the union of science and religious activity, not their distinction. In modern times this root has re-appeared as the problem of the Superset. See Badiou's Being and Event, and of course, the obligatory Cantor-Godel-Einstein literature.

Secondly, religion is only partly an individual phenomenon. Many of its so-called irrational features are actually rational cognitive processes in large-scale cognitive systems such as religious communities and cultures. We should speak of a dynamic hierarchy of religious systems, cultural systems, and cognitive systems (the computational unit of which is not always a biological individual, but may be a small group or a religious community stretching across centuries). What could be argued to be irrational in an individual could be a perfectly rational collective response, when seen from the perspective of the larger system.

Cultural systems are designed to deal with limits and structures. Religious systems are designed to deal with the limitless and structureless. Current events illustrate the collective psychopathy of a religion mistaking itself for a culture, and a culture mistaking itself for a religion.

Theologies, sacred architecture, and ritual spaces are cognitive objects which result from these processes as the systems face the limits of description and identity. They present infinity, hyper-recursion, unknowability as tractable presentations. They are logical placeholders and necessary responses which make religious cognition possible. And there are other arguments which show that religious cognition is a human default, not a fault. I. J. Good provides an interesting description of this cognitive process in his "Note on Condorcet Sets," Public Choice 10:97-101, Spring 1971 [JSTOR], managing even to unintentionally reflect the design of some ritual complexes in his diagrams.

Malcolm Dean
Research Affiliate, Human Complex Systems
UCLA



2009-12-15
A theory of religion
Reply to Malcolm Dean
It is not my view that only religions deal with a supermundane reality. And I am alive to the possibility that science and religion trace back to the same roots.
I discuss this issue in the first of the two papers. You can find that in manuscript if you click on my name and look at the list of publications--
1991, A theory of religion.

Also there are two definitions operating in tandem, and the idea of 'fit-constituting practice' plays an important role (you can find some explication in
the third post in this thread, as well as in the paper). I maintain that these definitions generate a taxonomy of practices distinct from but
closely related to religions and I deploy it in regard to 'philosophical' attempts to relate to an SR, e.g. the intellectual love of God
in Spinoza, and the apprehension of the Good in Plato. But I don't think it's productive to try to explain all of this here!
Anyone who reads the papers is welcome to e mail me questions and comments. jstone@uno.edu.

Thanks for your comments.



2010-02-06
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Try <renovabis.com/viewpoint>

2010-04-11
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I'm struggling to understand why Jim's attempt to clarify the meaning of 'religion' has raised such opposition. It seems spot on to me. Perhaps I could quibble here and there but can't see the point. That he has been credited with inventing the term 'supramundane reality' suggest that some correspondents are relatively new to the topic.   

In an essay in the archive I partially clarify the meaning of SR as it is most commonly used in religion, and it may satisfy Derek's desire to get closer to the core of the issue.   
I suggest that the root doctrine of all major religions is metaphysically neutral. For a neutral metaphysical position 'Reality' would not be the psychophysical world of spacetime phenomena but a (normally) hidden realm accessible to us through certain psychological practices. Supramundane Reality would be Bradley's Reality, Hegel's spiritual unity, Schopenhauer's 'better consciousness' and so forth. I can see no problem with the idea that the realisation of this reality, or the search for an understanding of it or relationship with it, call it Divine Union, Enlightenment, Nibbana, the Kingdom of Heaven or whatever, is the motivation for religion. For the alchemist the wedding is the goal. Rather, I have a problem with any other idea. The alternative is to suppose that religion is all guesswork and dogma.   

Of course, this isn't to say that the search for SR motivates all those who consider themselves to be a member of a religion, anymore than the search for truth motivates all people who consider themselves philosophers, but there would be little of substance or value left in religion if we take away the idea that we do not live in a wysiwyg universe, and a meaningful generic definition would probably become impossible. 

The point about making a distinction between exoteric and esoteric religion seems a good one, however, and maybe for some people the definition would be helped if it said more about this.



 


2010-04-12
A theory of religion
Hi Peter

I think you have supplied part of the counter-argument yourself.  You write: "Supramundane Reality would be Bradley's Reality, Hegel's spiritual unity, Schopenhauer's 'better consciousness' and so forth." But these are not religions, are they?  In other words, the notion of a "supramundane reality" is hopelessly vague and covers all kinds of things that are not religions. When a person dies for honour or for love, they are dying for a supramundane reality, are they not?

The nature of religion is a much more profound question that simple formulae like "supramundane reality" could ever suggest. Which is why whole books have been written about it. Mircea Eliade has written some very interesting stuff, for example. Especially since he pays a lot of attention to the religions of non-Western and "primitive" cultures and is not stuck in the usual, narrow philosophical rut of atheism vs theism etc.

DA  



2010-04-12
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
D ..."I think you have supplied part of the counter-argument yourself.  You write: "Supramundane Reality would be Bradley's Reality, Hegel's spiritual unity, Schopenhauer's 'better consciousness' and so forth." But these are not religions, are they?" 

I'm not sure it matters whether they're religions or not. As has been noted, religion does not have exclusive rights to the study of these things. But as it happens all three philosophers are regularly accused of mysticism for their proposal that the universe is a unity, and clearly this is what they're proposing. If they are wrong then so was the Buddha.  

D... "In other words, the notion of a "supramundane reality" is hopelessly vague and covers all kinds of things that are not religions."

Well, it's vague to you. It would not follow that it's vague for everyone else. It's well defined in the literature. But, of course, it's a little like trying to define what it's like to be a bat. The phrase refers to Reality as opposed to Appearances, and as soon as you split the world into reality and appearance you have a religious view. 

D..."When a person dies for honour or for love, they are dying for a supramundane reality, are they not?"

No. This would be an idiosyncratic use of the phrase, or even an incorrect one.

D... "The nature of religion is a much more profound question that simple formulae like "supramundane reality" could ever suggest. Which is why whole books have been written about it. Mircea Eliade has written some very interesting stuff, for example. Especially since he pays a lot of attention to the religions of non-Western and "primitive" cultures and is not stuck in the usual, narrow philosophical rut of atheism vs theism etc."

Yes, I'm aware that whole books have been written about religion. For a more theistic approach to supramundane reality try Keith Ward's 'God - A Guide for the Perplexed.' He explains the dependence of the  Christian faith on such a reality and argues that we make a mistake when we associate it with a creator God. The benefit of JS's definition is that both forms of Christianity, roughly-speaking the exoteric and the esoteric (or even more roughly the Roman and the Orthodox), are covered. 

2010-04-12
A theory of religion
Hi Peter

You wrote:

I'm not sure it matters whether they're religions or not.

But we are supposedly talking about a theory of religion, are we not? That how the "supramundane" thing arose (in the context of Jim Stone's definition).

You also wrote

DA..."When a person dies for honour or for love, they are dying for a supramundane reality, are they not?"  Your reply: No. This would be an idiosyncratic use of the phrase, or even an incorrect one. "

Why so?  Is honour or love a concrete thing one finds lying around?  What is your understanding of "supramundane"? (bearing in mind also that you now seem to have extended it to "Bradley's Reality, Hegel's spiritual unity, Schopenhauer's 'better consciousness' and so forth")

And you also wrote:

The benefit of JS's definition is that both forms of Christianity, roughly-speaking the exoteric and the esoteric (or even more roughly the Roman and the Orthodox), are covered.

I would see that as a limitation not a benefit - that is if it only applies to Christianity - which represents only a fraction of the world's religions across history (and prehistory). A theory of religion that only applied to Christianity and the various "isms" springing from it would be a severely truncated theory. Rather like writing about art and only recognizing Western art. I realize that this very limited view of things suits modern philosophy (especially analytic) which prefers to tread well worn paths, but unfortunately it is highly unrealistic.

DA






 



2010-04-12
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

But we are supposedly talking about a theory of religion, are we not? That how the "supramundane" thing arose (in the context of Jim Stone's definition.

I don't understand your objection. I was saying that whether Hegel etc's view counts as religious or not, or whether you think it does, is irrelevant to anything.  

Why so?  Is honour or love a concrete thing one finds lying around?  What is your understanding of "supramundane"? (bearing in mind also that you now seem to have extended it to "Bradley's Reality, Hegel's spiritual unity, Schopenhauer's 'better consciousness' and so forth")

I haven't extended it anywhere. I read it as equivalent to 'supermundane,'  defined as 'not associated with the mundane.' In Buddhism it denotes matters relating to the Noble Path and its fruits. This is consistent with my remark about Hegel etc.   

I would see that (JS's definition) as a limitation not a benefit - that is if it only applies to Christianity - which represents only a fraction of the world's religions across history (and prehistory). A theory of religion that only applied to Christianity and the various "isms" springing from it would be a severely truncated theory. Rather like writing about art and only recognizing Western art. I realize that this very limited view of things suits modern philosophy (especially analytic) which prefers to tread well worn paths, but unfortunately it is highly unrealistic.

Of course it doesn't relate only to Christianity. A theory of religion that only applies to Christianity isn't a theory of religion.  

  

2010-04-12
A theory of religion
Just to add that I lived for three years in India. Also I've spent a good deal of time in Thailand and Sri Lanka. My paper draws on this experience and is in no
way limited to Western religion, as anyone who reads it will see.

2010-04-13
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim

Would you care to explain how it applies to all religions?  (I don't have time to read you paper and in any case my feeling about discussion lists is that posts should explain their arguments. It's fine to refer to other books, articles etc, but people should not be required to read them to stay in the discussion.)

DA

2010-04-13
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
I've already done a lot of explaining in this thread about this and other matters related to my paper.
I believe there is an intellectual responsibility to read the philosophical work of which one is seriously
and persistently critical. Having a doctorate in philosophy sharpens that responsibility.
I've found that there really is no substitute for getting up to speed.

Kind regards.


2010-04-13
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I've commented on your position as you've outlined it on the thread.  If I were obliged to read all the articles and/or books that pertain to posts that interest me, I would have to give up contributing altogether. Besides, it makes winning an argument rather too easy, doesn't it?  In difficulty, all one has to say is "You should go away and read X", and even if one's interlocutor obliges by doing so, one can still fall back on "You didn't read X properly" - or maybe even "You should go away and read Y".  

I should add that I think it's encouraging to see philosophers occasionally taking an interest in religion, rather than the remote, artificial topics that so often preoccupy them. ("Zombies" is not  bad example of that!). But the topic is, by its nature, likely to generate debate and people will inevitably have their opinions...

DA 

2010-04-13
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
There is indeed the option of posting less and reading more. Your posts will be even more helpful if you do.
Nobody expects you to read all the articles and/or books that pertain to posts that interest you.
A single article, not long, readily available and not terribly hard to read, that you persistently
target is another matter. At one point I appealed to you to read just four pages of
the manuscript. At a certain point any professional is liable to ignore
people who proceed in this way.. Persistent criticism without reading the particular article you
target risks being perceived as ignorant axe grinding. Also professionals often leave a board where people
do this a good deal. Becomes hard to have a good discussion. Encourage you
to read more.  All the best, Jim


2010-04-13
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Thank you for this advice Jim.

Actually, I did read some of your article at one point. But, from memory, I didn't find it was helping me with the questions I was asking you. I was not "targeting" the article by the way. I was simply wanting to engage you in debate about issues you yourself had raised when you outlined your argument early in the thread. They are issues which I happen to find interesting, but have limited time to look into.

But not to worry.

DA

2010-04-20
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
I am actually responding  to Jim Stone's original article. He says that " religions relate practitioners to a reality that transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception; we might call it a 'supermundane reality.' " In short. religions have a God. or at least most do , that  they have some sort of supernatural features to them.

But they have other features, also. They have rules of behaviour, some of which are specific to a religion, such as eating or not eating , worshipping (in temples, churches, synagogues for the main religions). They are social functions, separating  our "in group" from "the others" . So these factors could define a religion also, irregardless of a supermundane reality.

But again, they have rules  which define moral behaviour. Many websites will demonstrate that the Golden Rule is espoused by all religions, ,either in its " Do unto others' version  .or the version "Do not do to others that which you do not want done to you". And many  expand it in various ways that further define how we should behave morally  - the ten commandments, the five do's and five don'ts of Buddhim etc. So are not these factors what defines a religion? A definition which is separate from the supernatural . A definition that is also at the core of the simplest of ethical theories on right and wrong - do no harm, do good 


Yet again there is a third categorisation - the theories that tell us that we, along with religion, are a  product of our evolutionary history. That we are genetically wired into systems of beliefs that gives some reassurance  that the next harvest may not be wiped out; or that our sick child may recover. Or that we live forever, albeit perhaps in some other form. 

The institutionalising of human  practices may be yet a fourth categorisation,,, We have developed methods of succession for our rulers, far more humane than those of the Roman or Byzantium empires , systems for treating the sick, looking after the poor, systems for detecting, assessing and treating offenders against us . All far from perfect, but is not religion just another instiutionalised system for mankind? This one for meeting any one of the three causes above; or all three together. We have developed and institutionalised systems of all types over the centuries; most of them still evolving, most bringing some  improvement to  mankind.  Religion is just another institionalised sytem    


Peter Bowden


2010-04-20
A theory of religion
Reply to Peter Bowden
Hi Peter

Yes I think these are valid comments.

There's also the point that there are many other supramundane realities apart from religious ones. If a supramundane reality is defined as one that "transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception" then various ideals such as honour, fidelity, liberty, patriotism and so on would also be covered. In fairness to Jim, (it seems I have not been fair...) I think he also insists that the supramundane reality must be associated with certain "practices". But many countries have celebrations for national days, victories, etc, so I'm not sure that gets around the problem. (Indeed one could argue that in a country like France, for example, practices associated with the Republic are more prominent, and more influential in everyday life, than any concerned with religion. And I'm not sure the French would accept that their Republic is a religion - despite Robespierre.)

Personally, I think any worthwhile "definition" of a religion (if such a thing were possible) would need to come to grips with the nature of the "sense of the sacred" (for lack of a better phrase)  which seems to characterize religions. Not that I think that's a simple task. And it's all too easy to fall into the trap of syncretism - i.e. assuming that religions are all "basically" the same, much as theosophists do. I think it's a tough one. I find Mircea Eliade quite interesting because he seems to recognize the depth of the problem and the variety of religious experience, but I haven't read enough of him to make up my mind. I suspect I'm going to be a bit disappointed in the end.

DA

2010-04-20
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan

Hi Derek and Peter

I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘the sacred’. Many contemporary theorists of religion react against the very notion, particularly the role it plays in Eliade’s work. One point that is made is that ‘the sacred’, if it is meant to represent some untheorisable element to religion, becomes insulation. It is an attempt to preserve ‘mystery’, one that is perhaps religiously inspired in the first place. I think that this makes sense. So, it depends what you mean by ‘the sacred’.

I would also be very hesitant to accept Peter’s claim “In short, religions have a God”. This seems to me to be reminiscent of Dennett’s claim that a religion without God or Gods is like a vertebrate without a backbone. I think that this takes us to some core issues. I mean Theravaden Buddhism does not really have a God or Gods, Confucianism does not really have such features, philosophical Daoism likewise. Australian Aboriginals are also an interesting point of reference as the beings of the Dreamtime are not Gods, nor are they worshiped (not in the way that Dennett thinks is necessary for religion). I am told that similar points could be made about other tribal traditions. Then there are a whole host of contemporary para-scientific religions that do not have God or Gods. What about UFO cults? What about the Human Potentiality Movement? What about Scientology? Scholars of religion like Michael Pye and Michael Jindra make the point well in their works: you do not need either God, Gods or super-nature for religion.

Its no good, of course, to suggest that those things that we call religion, but that don’t have God, Gods or super-nature are not in fact religions, as that just begs the question. We are asking the question: What is religion? I think this throws an interesting light over the psychoanalytically inspired atheists, particularly of a Freudian sort, which basically fail to get beyond a theistic conception of religion – as if all religion is ‘big daddy in the sky’ religion.

Further I am not sure about how far having rules of behaviour can go. Yes religions have rules of behaviour, but so does my local Leagues Club (further they have in-group/out-group distinctions). People can have rules about what they eat and what they don’t eat that are not religious, vegetarians do and again this act of eating and non-eating can be constitutive of in-group and out-group tensions. Some religions have no food prohibitions, some religions have many. Yes, there are some ‘holy-places’, where you cannot eat (like my local library), but then there are some where you can and where the taking of food is part of religious practice. To me simply having rules of behaviour or even having ones that define in-group and out-group, is just too broad, for me that would have to be refined: Australia has rules of behaviour, the various institutions I work at do too, so do my local associations.

Also the idea that religions have morality, is something that I would want to clarify. Morality or ethos? Certainly the idea that the Golden Rule is a universal seems false. The Greeks of the Homeric period did not seem to follow such a rule, nor did many of the pre-Christian European groups. What about the Aztecs? (just to refer back to another discussion in another string)

In regard to evolutionary accounts of religion. They are interesting enough – they show why a being like us may have evolved to have certain types of beliefs. Fine. But if this is meant to be an argument for irreligion or atheism then it seems to commit the genetic fallacy. Simply showing how a being constituted as we are could have evolved to believe a certain thing does not, of itself, show that the thing believed is not actual. Its also in the ballpark of circularity because you seem to have to have already decided that the whole thing is bunkum in order for it to do any work. Psychoanalytic arguments seem to suffer from similar faults – but I have gestured at them above.

On the issue of institutionalization. Not all religions are institutional. I think that Kwasi Wiredu makes this point.

One thing that I think we have to be aware of or be wary of in thinking about religion is that presupposition that what we have experienced in our own religion will somehow be recapitulated in every religion. That is not the case and I think the more empirical study one does of actual religions the more complex these matters become. But these are just loose thoughts late in the evening.

 

Philip


2010-04-20
A theory of religion
Excellent post. There are atheistic religions, I agree, and the idea of the sacred plays no role in some of the world's (so-called) great religions.
Theravada Buddhism paradigmatically satisfies my account:

A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs
according to which the practices place the practitioner in a
relation-of-value to a Supermundane Reality.

Nibbana (also known as The Unconditioned, The Deathless) is plainly a supermundane reality as I explicated the idea in the first post of this thread.
The Noble Eight-fold Path is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs according to which the practices place one in a relation of value
to Nibbana, namely one attains Nibbana and is thereby liberated from suffering and rebirth.

One nice thing about Theravada Buddhism is that it offers atheists a religion consistent with atheism. As Nibbana isn't God or god or Self or self,
as it's a vast emptiness underlying what arises and passes away, disbelief in God or gods doesn't preclude one's being a Buddhist (though
of course one may not wish to be a Buddhist for other reasons).

Another interesting feature of Buddhist practice is that in meditation one ipso facto enters to some degree into the relation to Nibbana that
is the summum bonum. The meditating monk 'fares along not grasping at anything in the world.' We reach the other shore with every step
we take across the stream of suffering. In a sense, enlightenment is the meditative mind.

This feature of a practice that ipso facto enters into a relation of intrinsic value to a Supermundane Reality,
is what I call 'fit.' There can be religions without such 'fit-constituting'
practices, but the world's 'great religions' all seem to include them. This provides a way of making interesting distinctions within
religious practices. Reading from the Torah on the Sabbath and participating in the Mass are other practices that
have 'fit.' In doing these things (for the right reasons) one ipso facto enters into a relation of great intrinsic value
to a supermundane reality. For instance, in taking the wine and wafer one shares in the life of the risen Christ.

2010-04-20
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim,
thanks for that, I think we are pretty much on the same page here. Particularly your comment: "A religion is a system of practices rationalized by beliefs according to which the practices place the practitioner in a relation-of-value to a Supermundane Reality." So long as we leave open the possibility that the 'supermundane reality' that we discuss need not be considered as some kind of 'super-nature' or 'other world' in the dualistic sense (something radically broken off). I think your definition of religion here makes sense and is consistent with some of the better theory of religion that I have been exposed to, indeed its not too far from Geertz “(1) A system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." To my what is most valuable about these ways of relating to religion (yours and Geertz's) is that they seem to permit a theoretical engagement with religion (thus help to push our understanding of that phenomenon forward) without being shadowed by either a religious or irreligious agenda, motivation or ideology. What I think is most problematic about contemporary engagements with religion in philosophy is that they are quite often bound up with either a theistic or atheistic, a religious or irreligious motivation, they are either attempts to promote religion or irreligion. 


Philip

2010-04-20
A theory of religion
Right. I'm much more interested in Religious Studies than in philosophy of religion, at least as far as this paper goes.
One bottom line for me is that a religion is made of practices. Practices are first and foremost. The practices that constitute
a religion are rationalized by beliefs according to which... etc. but the religion is a system of practices. Belief in a supermundane reality is essential
but secondary. On my account, if nothing we could do constitutes the practice of
the religion, there is no religion--no matter what we believe.

For me religion is centrally something people do (or can do).
This actually facilitates its study. I'm also interested in discerning the difference tween religious practice and
non-religious practice, as most of what we (in the West anyhow) do, is non-religious--even if we are religious.
What makes religious practice religious? How do we tell which are which? is some of the questions I address.



2010-04-21
A theory of religion
Hi Philip

I enjoyed your post and agreed with a lot in it.  But I am not so sure about one or two aspects of the ensuing discussion.

In particular I have doubts about the idea of defining religions in terms of practices. I have no doubt that most religions do involve practices of one kind or another* but I wonder how far this takes us. To my mind a religion is inseparable from a sense of the sacred. As you rightly point out, this is a difficult notion and I can understand why some philosophers of religion baulk at it. But when one reads religious texts (I don't mean theology, which often seems to me to rationalise things too much) one often encounters a sense of the fundamental mystery of things, often mixed with a sense of human insignificance, and even sometimes a kind of dread - like "It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God" in the Bible. (I don't mean to limit things to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This just happens to come to mind).

So the question that occurs to me is whether perhaps the concerns of said philosophers might not point to a limitation of philosophy itself. Perhaps - and this is a very heretical thought - understanding religion is not something that philosophy can do very well, especially philosophy of the Anglo-American kind that is so attached to explaining our experience in logical, “objective” terms (e.g. the idea of practices).

"Metaphysical" ideas of the kind I refer to are, I realize, very unfashionable at the moment (the philosophical topic called metaphysics is not metaphysical at all in my view) but I seriously wonder if in the end one can approach the nature of religion without it.

This is all a bit rushed and maybe a bit incoherent, but I hope it makes some sense.

DA

* And the thing gets so vague.Even Geertz's definition could cover dispays of patriotism etc.

2010-04-21
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

Okay, yeah, so I think philosophers have generally not engaged much theory of religion, but I am, like you, very interested in that side of things. I think you are right about the importance of practice in religion, religion is always just as much a doing as a believing. I think that philosophy of religion have often over-emphasised belief because of the importance of right-belief (orthodoxy) in Christian religion and philosophy of religion (for the most part) can be a parochial affair. And yes, tentatively agree that practices are orientated by beliefs, although I would qualify that by suggesting that some practices are orientated by narratives and where a narrative is mytho-poetic the doxastic side of things can be a little tricky – so myths are not necessarily believed as much as told, repeated and so forth. But I agree, that there is always a doing, even if its minimal doing.

I think we have to negotiate in terms of supermundane reality – on my understanding this does not necessarily mean ‘other world’ for it would seem to me to be the case that something like Brahmin or Nibbana is better to be considered the truth of this world and so immanent, that is, not fractured or broken off.

I think the question of differentiating religious from non-religious practice is actually fascinating. We generally project our sense of these matters onto other cultures in a way that creates political problems.

 

Philip


2010-04-21
A theory of religion
'I think we have to negotiate in terms of supermundane reality – on my understanding this does not necessarily mean ‘other world’ for it would seem to me to be the case that something like Brahmin or Nibbana is better to be considered the truth of this world and so immanent, that is, not fractured or broken off.'

Right. So 'supermundane' means super-ordinary, not super-
natural. Indeed, many religious people on this planet do not have the western idea of 'nature.'
It really would be strange to describe Nibbana or The Tao as supernatural.
Neither is miraculous.


2010-04-21
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan

Hi Derek,

I am not sure that we can define religion in terms of practice, because I do not think that any particular practice is essential to ‘Religion’ even if some practices are essential to some ‘religions’. But I do agree with Jim about the centrality of practice. An interesting aside it is often said that the Hindu tradition is a tradition of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy as multiple ways of believing are tolerated within that tradition (this is probably a little strong because I think that the multiple ways of believing leads to a multitude of practices – so…).

In terms of ‘the sacred’ perhaps we get into some difficult ground with some of the New Religious Movements, UFO cults which many would class as a religious phenomenon (no matter how wacky we find them): but do they posit something sacred? Its not clear. In any case that is not a central point. I think that the important point is that the problem that some people have with the notion of the sacred, in Eliade in and those that follow his line of thinking in particular, is that it seems to be a religiously inspired attempt to insulate religion from theory. Perhaps we can understand the motivation, fear of total disenchantment or something like that. In any case I think when people make a claim to an irreducible mysterium that we can worry about this sort of thing. What worries me about such the notion of an ‘irreducible mystery at the heart of religion’ is the potential of the mysterium to become a way of mystifying action, the way it could be pulled into some kind of justificatory discourse, as is regularly the case within religious movements. The mysterium can always underwrite abuse, it can be used to legitimate. It’s a short step from mysterium to mystification.

I don’t think that a focus on practice leads to a kind of ‘dreary old’ analytic philosophy of religion. What I think it does is lead to a way into a certain orientation on the world, by looking at the discourse that underwrites or is connected to the practice one gains some insight into an orientation. But the further point here: Analytic philosophy of religion seems very disinterested in the sort of issues I am discussed. It mostly just takes the form of religious apologetics, the defense of beliefs and doctrines, the attempt to show why ‘my’ religion is right, or why ‘my’ doxastic commitments are justified. We all know how it goes from our own student days; you take a course on philosophy of religion, expecting to learn something about religion and what you learn about is God. Okay these days there are a few atheists about but their horizons are just as religiously circumscribed. Religion is interesting, philosophy of religion can be quite dull. So, I take it I can speak for Jim here, what we are talking about is not so much philosophy of religion (although it does not exclude philosophy) but theory of religion, as conducted in religious studies departments. So, I think we are interested in people who are actually attempting to theorise religion from as broad and encompassing perspective as possible, rather than defend their own particular faith – and you don’t get much of that in philosophy, most philosophers of religion just don’t seem to want to consider theory of religion. Which is why Jim’s paper is interesting and original. Of course the atheists just seem to be the dialectical other of the theistic analytic philosophers of religion.

In any case to me looking at the connection between practice and discourse (or lack thereof) rather than focusing on belief, is not something overly analytic. And besides, you know I do not really care about whether someone is analytic or not, I try to judge contributions by their individual merits, I have broad enough experience with both Continental philosophy and Analytic philosophy to be able to appreciate both and pull both into my own projects, and religion is a substantial part of that. Although I do end up reading more theory of religion that philosophy of religion, possibly because I neither of a religion, nor an irreligion, to defend.

The Geertz thing, yes I think that the definition is broad, so perhaps patriotism might get pulled in. But I am not sure that this is a bad thing, because perhaps thinking that through will help us get clearer on the nature of religion.

 

Philip 


2010-04-21
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Thanks Jim, so we are just on the same page with this stuff. Great! Its a rare thing.

2010-04-21
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
An interesting case would be ancient Greek religion, and the philosophical theology that developed out of it in Plato, Plotinus, and so forth. Are Plato's "soul" and "Forms" "supernatural"? Are they "miraculous"? I don't think so. In which case, the "divine" and "gods" whom he discusses aren't "supernatural" either. How then can it be that so many Jewish, Christian and Muslim intellectuals found Plato's accounts of these matters illuminating in regard to their religious practices and beliefs? Where exactly do the supposed "Western idea of 'nature'" and the correlated "supernatural," and the apparently technical notions of "transcendence" and "immanence" that go with them, originate? Why is it that these familiar notions don't illuminate the apparently religious thinking of such modern writers as Boehme, Hegel, and Whitehead? Could it be that the entire conventional discussion, both public and academic, of these issues is shot through with unanalyzed preconceptions? Shot through, in fact, with what Hegel calls "spurious infinity"?

Best, Bob W

2010-04-21
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

Shot through with distinctions that we reify rather than sublate. And so we become trapped in a coincidence of contradictories, beset by riddles and paradoxes like the mind-matter problem, unable to break out of our language games because we never think to examine our preconceived rules of engagement. Maybe, as you say, Hegel was right about this, I'd say so.

  


2010-04-21
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I will add that the idea of the sacred plays no role in classical Theravada Buddhism.
As soon as we get away from divinities, gods, God and so on, the idea begins to lose its purchase.
It has no place in the teaching of the Buddha as preserved in the Pali canon.
Nobody thought Nibbana was sacred, the 8-Fold Path was noble, not holy or sacred.
Nobody thought Enlightenment was sacred.
The Buddha was a man, what he did we can do, others had done it before him,
and he opposed getting attached to Buddhism, which he predicted would
one day be forgotten. The emphasis was on self-reliance,
so he taught

No one saves us but ourselves,
No one can and no one may.
We alone must tread the path,
Buddhas only show the way (The Dhammapada).

Nibbana is hard to talk about, being so different from our mundane conditioned expereince,
but it isn't a Mystery, unattainable except through a glass darkly. Nibbana is close at hand,
likened to a candle going out when the fuel (of desire) is consumed. Each of us gets
to investigate Nibbana for himself/herself when the practice purifies
the mind of craving, aversion and delusion. Again, no where in the Buddha's
teaching does he suggest Nibbana is sacred. It's just what's there when
delusion goes and once you attain it, it doesn't turn out to be
something terribly special.

(So Suzuki Roshi says (in the later Zen tradition), 'Don't think you will necessarily
like being enlightened. From where you are sitting you may find it boring.' )

The Buddha didn't deny the existence of the gods, but put them in their place,
maintaining that they also suffer and die and would do well to become
Buddhists if ever they were fortunate enough to be reborn as humans.
He taught that a human rebirth was most fortunate and rare, because
we alone have the right balance of pain and pleasure in our lives
to practice. The lives of gods are too pleasant for them to practice.

There is a tradition that the gods came to the Buddha an hour a week,
Tues night, I think, for meditation instruction. So he was called
'teacher of gods and men.'  He taught that worship of gods,
ceremonies and rituals, were useless to Buddhist practice,
and that a sign of progress is that all inclination to ceremonies
and rituals falls away.

Nonetheless the Buddha's Buddhism is a religion all right, with a monastic order, priests and nuns,
a saintly founder, to which scores of millions of people in Asia
and elsewhere have converted. But without a role for the sacred.


2010-04-21
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

Buddhism is obviously a fascinating example of what a "religion" can be. Platonism I suggest is similarly, as one might say, "humanistic," in that it doesn't (in general) expect divine beings to intervene miraculously in our lives. However, Platonism assigns an important role to the "divine," asserting that humans can become "like gods." So apparently "divinity" or "gods" can play an important role where divine "intervention" does not. This fact is obscured by the conventional, in Hegel's terms "spuriously infinite" way of conceiving of "God" and the "divine."

Best, Bob

2010-04-21
A theory of religion
Thank you for your sympathetic comment. I'd be curious to hear more about where you see this dynamic at work, and (perhaps) how we can hope to get beyond it.

Best, Bob

2010-04-21
A theory of religion
Hi Phil

Just to clear up a couple of points.

I wasn't wanting to suggest that a focus on practice "leads to a kind of ‘dreary old’ analytic philosophy of religion". It was rather the other way around. I was suggesting that a purely philosophical approach to religion (not necessarily analytic - though that's a very likely candidate) is likely to content itself with focusing on things like practices. Certainly, most religions have an accretion of practices, doctrines etc that grow up around them, and of course one can partly describe a particular religion in terms of its practices. But the question is - I assume - whether the notion of a practice belongs to the essence of a religion - as distinct from some other human activity. And the answer to that to my mind is obviously no. 

The question of the sacred and whether it leads to mystification etc is trickier. Certainly, all kinds of movements that are not religions will claim to have experiences of the sacred. Just as all kinds of movements that are not religions will have "practices" of various kinds (naked rompings invoking Beelzebub etc). Religions shade off into non-religions in much the same way as art shades off into non-art: the line of demarcation is blurry. Moreover, a genuine experience of the sacred is, I think, extremely difficult to capture and communicate, lending itself easily to distortions, simplifications etc. Hence the tendency of institutionalized religions to reduce things to doctrines and various ritual practices. (Would Jesus ever have wanted people to worry about communion wafers etc - not to mention things like policies on contraception?  St Francis' message of poverty was forgotten almost as soon as he died and his followers spent up big on the the basilica at Assisi). The question, to my mind, however, is: can one conceive of a religion without an initial revelation of the sacred? - and the answer to that, I think, is obviously no. Here we are at the essence of religion - or at least of a genuinely religious apprehension of things.

How would I define an experience of the sacred? Not going to attempt it. But one recognizes its "tone", don't you think, in parts of the Bible (New and Old T ) in Buddha's teachings, in St Francis and so on. That's not going to satisfy a philosopher of course. But as I say maybe the essence of religion is not something that philosophy can deal with readily. Maybe it's more the field of literature...

DA


2010-04-22
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
'But the question is - I assume - whether the notion of a practice belongs to the essence of a religion - as distinct from some other human activity. And the answer to that to
my mind is obviously no.' 

No, that isn't the question. The objection attacks a straw man.

No one is claiming that the notion of a practice belongs to the essence of a religion--AS DISTINCT FROM some other human activity. This would be the claim that there are only religious practices!

If I say that being a mammal is part of the essence
a kangaroo, it is no objection that being a mammal doesn't distinguish kangaroos from some other animals. Mammal is a genus, what differentiates the species of mammals isn't that they
are mammals, but something else.

Similarly being a system of practices is a genus, what differentiates the species of practices is something else. Medical practices aim at health. Farming aims at crops.
Religious practices aim at a relation of value to an SR.  The objection that being made of practices doesn't distinguish religion from other activities, so practices aren't essential to a religion, is no stronger that the objection that mammality can't belong to the essence of a kangaroo, since some other animals are mammals.

I wrote in 1991 (A theory of religion).

The feature of religions that provides the basis
for the theory I will present is this: a religion can
be practiced. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism
each involve a set of activities that, when done in
the right way for the right reasons, constitute the
practice of that religion. This suggests that for
every religion, there is a system of practices that
comprises the religion. A religion is a kind of
system of practices. But plainly this is insufficient.

Medicine is a system of activities performed regularly
by doctors, but medicine is not a religion.
What differentiates practices that constitute a
religion from practices that do not? What makes a
system of practices religious? Part of the answer is
the way the system of practices is rationalized.

,,,,,




2010-04-22
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim

Yes, I realized you had an additional element - the relation to a "supramundane reality". But it seemed to me that the discussion was tending to place an awful lot of emphasis on the idea of a practice itself - which in fact you yourself seem to do in a statement such as "This suggests that for every religion, there is a system of practices that comprises the religion."

But the second element - the "supramundane reality" - raises the other problem I have already mentioned. If we take the phrase as it stands, and do not illegitimately read into it the notion of a religious reality (which would make the argument circular), it could obviously cover a wide range of non-material realities that are not religious - ideals, for example, that people have sometimes fought and died for just as they have fought and died for a religion. And those ideals often have"practices" associated with them.

I assure you I am not being critical for the sake of it. These objections are surely serious, just as my interest in the subject is serious. The question of religion interests me greatly, partly because it seems such a distant possibility these days. I mean, we are now so deeply imbued with the sense of a purely material universe (even consciousness, many argue, is purely physical) that notions of religious feelings or "the sacred" seem almost totally closed off - absurd, alien. How many today can seriously believe in the Christian idea of life after death, for example?  Yet one senses - perhaps I am wrong - that the very absence of "a meaning to it all" is gnawing away at modern civilization like dry rot.  And the situation is made worse by the apparent futility of all modern attempts to resolve that fundamental problem. As one writer puts it: "The door is closed but we keep bashing ourselves against it hoping to break it down." (A closed door is not a bad metaphor in this case I think.)

Anyway I am wandering a bit so I'll leave it there.

DA


 

2010-04-22
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Here's (from the first post in this thread) what I say about supermundane reality. I think this is sufficiently clear and circumscribed that it doesn't include non-religious
ideals for which people have fought and died, or non-religious 'non-material realities.' If you think otherwise, examples would help.

'I take it to be intuitive that religions are
concerned with a reality that surpasses the ordinary world that
sense perception reveals. This reality consists either of (a)
sentient supernatural beings (e.g. gods) or of (b) an insentient
metaphysical principle underlying the universe (e.g. The
Unconditioned, Sunyata, or The Tao). This principle has features
that mark it as belonging to a different order of reality from
the objects that make up the mundane world: it cannot be named or
cognized, it can be described only in contradictions, it doesn't
arise or pass away, it issues in everything else, it is utterly
changeless, or...

In short, religions relate practitioners to a reality that
transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception; we
might call it a 'supermundane reality.' ...Even supposing we occasionally see
the gods walking among us, a significant part of their existence
must be unseen. (Indeed, the beings in question might better be
described as 'supermundane' than 'supernatural,' for the
practitioners may lack our concept of 'nature.') They reside
primarily on Mount Olympus or in a celestial realm. A 'god' who
rents the apartment next to mine, gets a job driving a bus, joins
the Libertarian Party, marries a coworker, and becomes completely
immersed in the mundane realm forever, is a theological oxymoron.
Similarly the insentient metaphysical principle must at least
partly transcend nature, even if we sometimes see its operations
in nature. It comprises a level of reality deeper than what sense
perception (even assisted by scientific instruments) reveals, and
its nature is best discovered by other means, e.g. meditation.

In addition,
the elements that comprise the reality to which a religion
relates us must be sufficiently grand (taken either individually
or collectively) that they can figure centrally in satisfying the
sort of substantial human needs that people generally want
religions to meet (e.g. long life, immortality, the end of
suffering). Gremlins do not a religion make. '



2010-04-22
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
POST-RELIGIOUS "MEANING"

Derek, you wrote:

"The question of religion interests me greatly, partly because it seems such a distant possibility these days. I mean, we are now so deeply imbued with the sense of a purely material universe (even consciousness, many argue, is purely physical) that notions of religious feelings or "the sacred" seem almost totally closed off - absurd, alien. How many today can seriously believe in the Christian idea of life after death, for example?  Yet one senses - perhaps I am wrong - that the very absence of "a meaning to it all" is gnawing away at modern civilization like dry rot.  And the situation is made worse by the apparent futility of all modern attempts to resolve that fundamental problem. As one writer puts it: "The door is closed but we keep bashing ourselves against it hoping to break it down." (A closed door is not a bad metaphor in this case I think.)"

I'd suggest that an important answer to the question of post-religious "meaning" that you raise here is provided by the Platonic tradition, pagan, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and post-all-of-those, in philosophy, literature, and such organisations as the Quakers and the Unitarians. This tradition is systematically blanked out of the public and media discourse on "religion," because it doesn't  employ conventional, in Hegel's terms "spuriously infinite" conceptions of God, or the likewise spuriously infinite orthodox Christian idea of life after death. And it's largely blanked out of academic discourse on religion which, at least when it focuses on the West, identifies religion with belief in these spurious infinities. But for those who've been aware of it, this tradition has been the backbone of rational spirituality in the West since before the time of Plato. Its intellectual leaders--Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Hegel--have systematically addressed the "sense of a purely material universe" that you mention, not by postulating an alternative, spiritual realm, but by showing how our activity of thinking, in this world, presupposes and constitutes a reality that while including "matter," goes beyond it and deserves to be called the fullest reality. That the media and the academic world in general are largely ignorant of this line of thought and this source of "meaning" is a sad fact, reflecting the history of philosophy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but I see no reason why it should be irreversible. We can't and shouldn't bash our way back through the door to orthodox Christian/Jewish/Islamic theology, but we can and should walk through the open door to the Platonic view.

One account of the Platonic view in its modern form is my _Hegel's Philosophy of Reality, Freedom, and God_ (Cambridge U. Press, 2005), portions of which can be downloaded from my website, www.robertmwallace.com

Best, Bob W

2010-04-22
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I've listened to the various objections and it seems to me that they all fail, so I would be happy with JS's definition of religion as far as it's accuracy is concerned. It's also useful, since it draws attention to those aspects of religion that are central, subtle and necessary to understand, and not to accidents of geography, culture, methodology etc.. It's almost more of an explanation than a definition. But I'm not sure why anybody with a different view of religion should have to accept it. 

The disagreement about the 'relationship with the supramundane' idea goes back a long way. Here is a passage I've always found useful from Bouquet's Comparative Religion.

..." Religion’ is a European word, and it is a European convention which has led to its employment as a general term to embrace certain human interests all the world over. In latin it was usually spelt ‘rel(l)igio’, and from very early times scholars have been divided as to its basic meaning. Of Roman writers Cicero held that it came from a root ‘leg-’, meaning ‘to take up, gather, count, or observe’, i.e. ‘to observe the signs of a Divine communication or "to read the omens". Servius, on the other hand, held that it came from another root, ‘lig-‘, ‘to bind’, so that ‘religio’ meant ‘a relationship’, i.e. ‘a communion between the human and the Super-Human’. Subsequently it seems to have carried both meanings. St. Augustine the Great uses it in both senses. It is, however, most likely that the earlier one (whether or not we dislike it) was the original, since it is the exact counterpart of a Greek word (parateresis) which means ‘the scrupulous observation of omens and the performance of ritual’. Most significantly the historical Jesus is reported as saying ‘the Kingdom of God cometh not with parateresis’, which may mean ‘not by looking for omens will you discern its approach’, or ‘not by ritual observance will you bring it nearer’. He adds ‘the Kingdom of God is entos humon’, which may be interpreted as ‘already realised in your midst’, or as ‘realised inwardly, and not by outward ceremonies’."

The phrase 'whether or not we dislike it' reveals the long-standing division between those who would view religion as being concerned with omens and ritual and those who would view it as being about relationship and communion.  One advantage of JS's definition may be that while it favours the latter view it allows for both.     




  


 




  
 



2010-04-23
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim

Yes I had read this. One difficulty I have is that one ends up defining religion by religion.

Take: "an insentient metaphysical principle underlying the universe (e.g. The Unconditioned, Sunyata, or The Tao)."

But it is perfectly possible to think of secular notions that can be described as "an insentient metaphysical principle underlying the universe". One that immediately springs to mind is Wordsworth's

"A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought
And rolls through all things..." (Tintern Abbey)

One can presumably only eliminate such possibilities by stipulating that one is referring only to religious cases (which you have effectively done). At which point things get circular.

DA

 



2010-04-23
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
You are going for an isolated phrase, taken out of context: 'an insentient metaphysical principle underlying the universe.' There are several further conditions
a Supermundane Reality must meet to count as one In fairness to provide a counter-example you need an example that satisfies them all.

If I say a triangle is a closed three-sided figure with just three-sides, it's no counter-example
to say, well, a rectangle is closed figure with sides but it isn't a triangle. The counterexample has got to be something that satisfies ALL the conditions, not just some of them,
that still isn't a triangle.

Of if I say a bat is a flying mammal it's no counter-example to say, well, a cow is a mammal but it certainly isn't a bat!

Also the Wordsworth quotation is vague and underdescribed. It isn't clear what he is talking about and it is hardly obvious that it's
about something 'secular.' .On the face of things, it sounds like Brahman. AUM! The quotation reads like the Upanishads.

You need an example that satisfies my (whole) definition, one that
is sufficiently clearly and completely expressed for us to get a good idea of what's  being talked about,
and  that nonetheless is plainly secular. . The three lines from Wordsworth don't
satisfy any of these conditions--lovely poetry, of course, thanks for quoting it..

Here again is what I wrote

'I take it to be intuitive that religions are
concerned with a reality that surpasses the ordinary world that
sense perception reveals. This reality consists either of (a)
sentient supernatural beings (e.g. gods) or of (b) an insentient
metaphysical principle underlying the universe (e.g. The
Unconditioned, Sunyata, or The Tao). This principle has features
that mark it as belonging to a different order of reality from
the objects that make up the mundane world: it cannot be named or
cognized, it can be described only in contradictions, it doesn't
arise or pass away, it issues in everything else, it is utterly
changeless, or...

In short, religions relate practitioners to a reality that
transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception; we
might call it a 'supermundane reality.' ...Even supposing we occasionally see
the gods walking among us, a significant part of their existence
must be unseen. (Indeed, the beings in question might better be
described as 'supermundane' than 'supernatural,' for the
practitioners may lack our concept of 'nature.') They reside
primarily on Mount Olympus or in a celestial realm. A 'god' who
rents the apartment next to mine, gets a job driving a bus, joins
the Libertarian Party, marries a coworker, and becomes completely
immersed in the mundane realm forever, is a theological oxymoron.
Similarly the insentient metaphysical principle must at least
partly transcend nature, even if we sometimes see its operations
in nature. It comprises a level of reality deeper than what sense
perception (even assisted by scientific instruments) reveals, and
its nature is best discovered by other means, e.g. meditation.

In addition,
the elements that comprise the reality to which a religion
relates us must be sufficiently grand (taken either individually
or collectively) that they can figure centrally in satisfying the
sort of substantial human needs that people generally want
religions to meet (e.g. long life, immortality, the end of
suffering). Gremlins do not a religion make. '

2010-04-23
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim

I think you are setting impossible conditions for criticism. You seem to be saying that if I don't address every single sentence in your article I have no right to discuss any of it. That principle would quickly put an end to all philosophical discussion everywhere!

The fact is you state: "This reality consists either of (a) sentient supernatural beings (e.g. gods) or of (b) an insentient metaphysical principle underlying the universe (e.g. The Unconditioned, Sunyata, or The Tao)."

My criticism related to the second condition. Now, you also add "This principle has features that mark it as belonging to a different order of reality from the objects that make up the mundane world: it cannot be named or cognized, it can be described only in contradictions, it doesn't arise or pass away, it issues in everything else, it is utterly changeless, or..."

Frankly, this hardly helps you. On what basis, for example, can you assert that the reality in question "can be described only in contradictions". Is this true of all religions, now and in the past? Is it even true of Christianity? Does St Paul describe Christ "only in contradictions"? Does St Augustine? Do Christian theologians all do this? The other conditions you list here are also doubtful, I would think. So maybe you are safer not to insist that I take these additional bits into account.

Re your comment on Wordsworth, you can't be serious. See if you can find anywhere in Wordsworth criticism the suggestion that Tintern Abbey resembles the Upanishads! As for "underdescribed", I quoted you three lines of a fairly long poem. Do you know it? It is one of the most famous in the English language - usually understood as a kind of paean of praise for a notion of Man (not God) associated with Romanticism - the kind of idea that animated much of the 19th century and which is expressed with enormous power in this particular poem. If you aren't aware of this kind of thing, and you are writing about religion, I suggest, with respect, that you read a little more widely outside philosophy. One can hardly talk about religion without some sort of affinity for, and familiarity with, good poetry. Large numbers of the world's key religious texts were, after all, written as poetry or in poetic language. (Perhaps if these sages had all lived in the 21st century they might have captured their revelations in the dry, clinical style of analytic philosophy - but I am inclined to doubt it...)

DA

2010-04-23
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek, My responses are in brackets.

I think you are setting impossible conditions for criticism. You seem to be saying that if I don't address every single sentence in your article I have no right to discuss any of it. That principle would quickly put an end to all philosophical discussion everywhere!

[Nope, nothing impossible about it. Obviously you don’t have to address every sentence in my article. You do have to satisfy the account I gave of an SR in the passage I quoted.
That’s what it IS to give a counter-example to my account!]

The fact is you state: "This reality consists either of (a) sentient supernatural beings (e.g. gods) or of (b) an insentient metaphysical principle underlying the universe (e.g. The Unconditioned, Sunyata, or The Tao)."

My criticism related to the second condition. Now, you also add "This principle has features that mark it as belonging to a different order of reality from the objects that make up the mundane world: it cannot be named or cognized, it can be described only in contradictions, it doesn't arise or pass away, it issues in everything else, it is utterly changeless, or..."

Frankly, this hardly helps you. On what basis, for example, can you assert that the reality in question "can be described only in contradictions". Is this true of all religions, now and in the past? Is it even true of Christianity? Does St Paul describe Christ "only in contradictions"? Does St Augustine? Do Christian theologians all do this? The other conditions you list here are also doubtful, I would think. So maybe you are safer not to insist that I take these additional bits into account.    

[If it doesn’t help me at all, it should be all the easier for you find a counter-example that satisfies it!
 It is most certainly part of my account that the metaphysical principle  has features
that mark it as belonging to a different order of reality from
the objects that make up the mundane world: it cannot be named or
cognized, it can be described only in contradictions, it doesn't
arise or pass away, it issues in everything else, it is utterly
changeless, or... These are given as EXAMPLE S of the sort of things that mark a principle
as belonging to another order of reality. They don’t ALL have to be satisfied, and maybe others
I don’t mention suffice–but to satisfy my account the metaphysical principle must have SOME
features that mark it as belonging to a different order of reality from the objects that make up
the mundane world. A counter-example must satisfy this feature, along with the others.

OF COURSE it isn’t true of Christianity. There the Supermundane Reality is not an underlying metaphysical principle but a sentient supernatural being!]

   Re your comment on Wordsworth, you can't be serious. See if you can find anywhere in Wordsworth criticism the suggestion that Tintern Abbey resembles the Upanishads! As for "underdescribed", I quoted you three lines of a fairly long poem. Do you know it? It is one of the most famous in the English language - usually understood as a kind of paean of praise for a notion of Man (not God) associated with Romanticism - the kind of idea that animated much of the 19th century and which is expressed with enormous power in this particular poem. If you aren't aware of this kind of thing, and you are writing about religion, I suggest, with respect, that you read a little more widely outside philosophy. One can hardly talk about religion without some sort of affinity for, and familiarity with, good poetry. Large numbers of the world's key religious texts were, after all, written as poetry or in poetic language. (Perhaps if these sages had all lived in the 21st century they might have captured their revelations in the dry, clinical style of analytic philosophy - but I am inclined to doubt it...)

[The problem with the Wordsworth quotation as a counter-example is that it is vague, incomplete and underdescribed. It isn't clear what he is talking about and it is hardly obvious that it's
about something 'secular.'  The response that these three lines of verse are part of a larger poem and I really ought to go read it is hand waving.
You say it’s easy to find a counter-example? Then you have the burden of producing one HERE, in clear language, your own or someone else’s but clear enough to evaluate. That’s what it IS, Derek, to give a counter-example.

Let me make it easier for you. if you are going to give a counter-example you will need to describe a metaphysical
principle that A) underlies the universe, B) is marked in some way as belonging to another level of reality than the mundane, and C) It comprises a level of reality deeper than what sense
perception (even assisted by scientific instruments) reveals, and
its nature is best discovered by other means, e.g. meditation (D) it can figure centrally in satisfying the
sort of substantial human needs that people generally want
religions to meet (e.g. long life, immortality, the end of
suffering). Finally it will have to be plausible that the principle that satisfies A, B, C and D is secular. And you will have to do it here, in words that give us a good idea of what you are describing. That’s entirely fair. Nothing impossible about it, unless I’ve got it right. Good luck  with it. ]

2010-04-23
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I must say, it never occured to me to read Tintern Abbey as a secular poem. The three lines quoted seem to be about what religion is about.    

2010-04-24
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim

I don't think we are achieving much now.  If you stipulate that you require objections of a certain kind and then systematically refuse to accept any of them when you get them, genuine debate is really not possible.

But just briefly in relation to your last bit where you write: "if you are going to give a counter-example you will need to describe a metaphysical principle that A) underlies the universe, B) is marked in some way as belonging to another level of reality than the mundane, and C) It comprises a level of reality deeper than what sense perception (even assisted by scientific instruments) reveals, and its nature is best discovered by other means, e.g. meditation (D) it can figure centrally in satisfying the  sort of substantial human needs that people generally want religions to meet (e.g. long life, immortality, the end of suffering). Finally it will have to be plausible that the principle that satisfies A, B, C and D is secular. And you will have to do it here, in words that give us a good idea of what you are describing. "

A wide range of nineteenth century ideas about the nobility of Humanity, or Humanity's ideal future, satisfy A, B, and C. (I gave Wordsworth as an example but you don't seem familiar with his poetry (!) and just dismiss the example as "hand waving".) As for D, this is a rather silly requirement, as I think I've pointed out before. But if we must have it, most 19th century notions of the progress of humanity hold out Utopian promises about the end of suffering. I'm sure you must know that.

I think your theory of religion is an honest attempt and I'm sure you put a lot of thought into it. But it falls a long way short, I'm sorry to say.

DA

2010-04-24
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hello Jim,

When you wrote:

"The problem with the Wordsworth quotation as a counter-example is that it is vague, incomplete and underdescribed. It isn't clear what he is talking about and it is hardly obvious that it's
about something 'secular.'"

I wondered why you didn't take the line that Peter Jones suggests, that Wordsworth's topic is indeed "religious," by your definition of "religion." It surely deals with a "supra-mundane reality," not accessible by scientific instruments, etc.

Best, Bob W

2010-04-24
A theory of religion
Re: "Wordsworth's ... (expand) topic is indeed "religious," by your definition of "religion." It surely deals with a "supra-mundane reality," not accessible by scientific instruments, etc. "

Indeed. And on this basis what reality apart from what one could see through a microscope etc would not be religious? We would be swimming in religion!  A bit like Moliere's M. Jourdain, we would be "speaking religion and not knowing it"!

DA

2010-04-24
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I'd have thought that a definition of religion which excludes Wordsworth's 'spirit which rolls through all things' would be utterly useless. This is the essential Christian idea of of God as 'All in All.' So I'm not sure why the poem is relevant here.  Was it supposed to be a counterexample? It looks like a supporting example. We don't have to confuse the idea of the supramundane with phenomena that just happen to be difficult to observe, and when we do we make a mockery of any meaningful definition of religion. The question remains of whether there is an example of a religion that does not fall within the definition given, or an example of a non-religion that does.  

To further unnecessarily confuse the issues, I wonder whether it would be possible to argue that the God of many theists is in fact not supramundane, since as a concept He's so strongly conditioned by anthropomorphicisms and metaphors drawn from the mundane world. In this way we could say that the classical God of Christianty was supramundane, and what went wrong is that over time He became mundane. Keith Ward has suggested something similar.  
  
  

2010-04-24
A theory of religion
I wrote:
'I take it to be intuitive that religions are
concerned with a reality that surpasses the ordinary world that
sense perception reveals. This reality consists either of (a)
sentient supernatural beings (e.g. gods) ....

Even supposing we occasionally see
the gods walking among us, a significant part of their existence
must be unseen. (Indeed, the beings in question might better be
described as 'supermundane' than 'supernatural,' for the
practitioners may lack our concept of 'nature.') They reside
primarily on Mount Olympus or in a celestial realm. A 'god' who
rents the apartment next to mine, gets a job driving a bus, joins
the Libertarian Party, marries a coworker, and becomes completely
immersed in the mundane realm forever, is a theological oxymoron.’

Jesus is as mundane as gods get, 33 years as a man. But even so he is extraordinary,
performing miraculous acts, he winds up rising from the dead, continuing his ministry,
and finally ascends bodily into the heavens. According to mainstream Christian theology,
Jesus eternally pre-existed his embodiment, too.

Antrhopomorphism may be inescapable, still it is consistent with a substantially super-natural or supermundane being,
even if the god is sometimes among us. At the least there is something unknown, mysterious, magical, removed about
divinities.

Even the Ganges, worshipped by millions, is unknown, mysterious, magical--vastly extra-ordinary, though it
is located always on the planet. I lived on the banks of the Ganges at Rishikesh and also at Benares, and I worshipped the river
with everybody else. I know what it is to feel in my heart that the river is God. It helps that the object is partly
inaccessible--the Ganges originates high in the Himalayas where it is virtually impossible for most people to go. In India
the Himalayas are 'another realm.' So the river
is partly unseen. If you die in the river you are not reborn, so many people literally die in the river--held on the surface
of the water by their relatives as they are dying. Sometimes, if it isn't your time to die, the water
recedes around you and will not accept you. A magical supermundane river.

2010-04-25
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

Dear Jim,

 Thank you for evoking so well the believer's experience of the Ganges.

I wonder what exactly this "super-mundaneness" is, on which your theory turns. You wrote:

 "Anthropomorphism may be inescapable, still it is consistent with a substantially super-natural or supermundane being,

even if the god is sometimes among us. At the least there is something unknown, mysterious, magical, removed about

divinities."

Of course subatomic particles and remote galaxies are "unknown" and "mysterious" in various ways. But I take it they are not examples of what you're referring to. If we turn, then, to "magical" or "removed": What exactly is "magic"? "Removed," in what way? What kind of "distance" are we talking about?

My own impression  is that religious believers don't want to think of themselves as projecting human attributes onto divinity. So when Xenophanes and Plato criticized the Homeric gods for having qualities that were merely human, Greeks who understood the complaint quickly ceased taking seriously that kind of divinity. (Except, of course, as "literature.") When the Upanishadic author wrote "Neti, neti" (not this, not that), Hindus who understood his point ceased to think of the divine in terms of what they could perceive with their eyes. I think the reason for this response, in Greece and in India, is  that believers want divinity to be (precisely) _supermundane_. (Though they are sometimes willing, as you say, to imagine incarnations by which the divine appears temporarily, or in one respect, in human form.) And it's this supermundane, non-anthropomorphic quality that makes divinity "magical" and "removed."

Of course, the critique of anthropomorphism has historically been a long and sometimes backsliding process. But it's hard for me to imagine how one could simultaneously embrace "philosophy" and take the Ganges to be literally divine. As opposed to temporarily suspending one's philosophical attitude, and temporarily entering into the state of mind of someone who takes the Ganges to be literally divine. Maybe you could explain this.

Best, Bob W.


2010-04-25
A theory of religion
Hi Bob,

I wrote earlier that a metaphysical
principle that constitutes an SR A) underlies the universe, B) is marked in some way as belonging to another level of reality than the mundane, and C) It comprises a level of reality deeper than what sense
perception (even assisted by scientific instruments) reveals, and
its nature is best discovered by other means, e.g. meditation (D) it can figure centrally in satisfying the
sort of substantial human needs that people generally want
religions to meet (e.g. long life, immortality, the end of
suffering).

I added earlier that it has features that mark it as belonging to another level of reality, e.g. it can be spoken of only in contradictions, it cannot be named, it is utterly unchanging....

Also sentient supernatural beings, gods, can comprise a supermundane reality.

Now remote galaxies and subatomic particles, conceived as we conceive them, are not thought to be best revealed by means like worship or meditation, but by sense perception assisted by scientific instruments. Nor are they thought to satisfy human needs that people generally want religions to meet, like long life, immortality, the end of suffering.
So they don't constitute a supermundane reality. But I don't mean to deny that we COULD think of them in that way. But it would be different from how we
presently do think of them,

By 'magical' I mean 'miraculous.' So the Ganges has miraculous powers, according to Indians. If you aren't ready to die (not your time), and you are held in the river
as you are dying (as many Indians are), the water will spontaneously recede around you. Nobody thinks there is a causal mechanism or scientific explanation.

I lived by the Ganges during my first two years in India (72-74) and wasn't really a philosopher at the time. So I can't really tell you how to do both at once, not personally.
But if you live there, surrounded by millions worshipping the river, the hard part is NOT worshipping the river, which is beautiful and seems to be
a living thing. Mostly in those years I was getting into India as deep as I could. I hitch-hiked around on trucks, slept on the streets. I became just one
of millions of people, free as a bird. In 86 I returned as a Fulbright Teaching Fellow, posted to teach philosophy in Calcutta, which was a very
different sort of experience. Best wishes


2010-04-25
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
@Derek Allen
In defense of Jim's view, he would seem to have already excluded the case of Wordsworth's personifications of humanity and nature because people don't engage in practices designed to curry favor with the poetic personification of humanity - one of Jim's criteria for being a religion; alternatively, depending on how literally you take Wordsworth's invocations to his dear friend the sylvan Wye, it might be fair to say that Wordsworth is being religious - it wouldn't be a stretch to call his poetry in some sense religious... 

2010-04-25
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Thanks, Jim. Very helpful.

My next question is, do Plato, Plotinus and Hegel fit your description of "religion"? They all identify and promote what seems to be a supramundane reality, which we benefit by relating to in the right way. However, they describe us as knowing this reality neither through sense perception (including sense perception aided by instruments) _nor_ by "worship or meditation," the alternatives to sense perception that you mention. Rather, we know this reality through thought, dialectic, etc. Plato, Plotinus and Hegel (PPH) seem to fall in a no-man's-land between the two ways of knowing reality that you mention.

I take it you don't require a "religion" to believe in miracles; that's only one way in which the SR could differ from mundane reality. So I needn't emphasize the fact that PPH don't appear to believe in miracles.

Best, Bob

2010-04-26
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I don't know about Plato, but I'm sure that Hegel and Plotinus would go along with the ideas here. 

Hegel showed why the supramundane (and thus the world as a whole) can be spoken of only in contradictions. By reduction all distinctions would be unreal. The universe would be a unity and all positive metaphysical positions would be false. Any statement for which the universe is this or that in any instance will embody such a position and will therefore be unrigorous and inadequate. This forces the mystic, who must always speak from a neutral metaphysical position, to speak, when speaking rigorously, in contradictions,  

Plotinus seems to hold the same view, likening this unity to a hypersphere for which, I think it would be roughly correct to say, the surface is the mundane realm and the centre is the supramundane,with every point on the surface directly connected to the centre, or even identical with the centre. Or something like that in a more theistic language. 

The Wordsworth discussion surprises me. I'm not a student of his poetry but I've always taken it for granted that Tintern Abbey (or at least the section quoted here) is about God. I can't see what else he could have been talking about. Is another view possible? 



  

  

2010-04-27
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim,

Just to repeat the question that I hope you'll address:

Do Plato, Plotinus and Hegel fit your description of "religion"? They all identify and promote what seems to be a supramundane reality, which we benefit by relating to in the right way. However, they describe us as knowing this reality neither through sense perception (including sense perception aided by instruments) _nor_ by "worship or meditation," the alternatives to sense perception that you mention. Rather, we know this reality through thought, dialectic, etc. Plato, Plotinus and Hegel seem to fall in a no-man's-land between the two ways of knowing reality that you mention.

Which makes me wonder whether "religion" is indeed an ultimately useful category (as your theory seems to propose), or whether it doesn't obscure important alternatives.

Best, Bob

2010-05-13
A theory of religion
Hi Cathal

I seem to have missed your comment earlier. Yes I suppose you are right about the absence of "practices" concerned with the "poetic personification of humanity" (though there were for example the Festivals of Reason in the French Revolution). But if the notion of a "surpamundane reality" is itself inadequate for a definition of religion, the point doesn't really seem to matter anyway.

As for Wordsworth, I think one would be very hard put arguing that his is religious poetry. Hopkins, yes, Donne sometimes, Milton sometimes, Wordsworth no. Just consider:

A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

"In the mind of man".  Where is God? I cannot recall any literary critic arguing that Wordsworth is a religious poet. One would have an uphill battle. Though of course if one stretches the idea of religion far enough I guess anything is possible...

By the way I'll take advantage of this post to mention an article that those on this list might like to glance at. I though it excellent.

It's called Believe it or not.

I particularly liked the comment "A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection."

I think the same might often be said of those who attempt to reconstruct religions thorough a series of abstract arguments - as so much of the current philosophy of religion seems to me to do. Religion is much more than a philosophical hypothesis.

DA

2010-05-16
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Dear Jim,

Are you okay? I'm still hoping you'll find time to reply to my question (copied below).


Do Plato, Plotinus and Hegel fit your description of "religion"? They all identify and promote what seems to be a supramundane reality, which we benefit by relating to in the right way. However, they describe us as knowing this reality neither through sense perception (including sense perception aided by instruments) _nor_ by "worship or meditation," the alternatives to sense perception that you mention. Rather, we know this reality through thought, dialectic, etc. Plato, Plotinus and Hegel seem to fall in a no-man's-land between the two ways of knowing reality that you mention.

Which makes me wonder whether "religion" is indeed an ultimately useful category (as your theory seems to propose), or whether it doesn't obscure important alternatives.

Best, Bob

2010-05-19
A theory of religion
Hi Bob

Doesn't look like you're going to get a reply. Personally, I agree broadly with what you are saying. It chimes in with the general argument I have been putting - that approaches to religion in terms of broad abstractions like "supramundane reality" will give us, at most, an empty shell of religion. They remind me of the attempts by some theosophists to establish a universal religion by inventing a kind of lowest common denominator god.

The article by David Hart I cited in my last makes a similar point - though in relation to the so-called New Atheists. He writes (in his colourful style!): 

"What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap)."

While I would not put the matter in quite these terms (!) I do feel that a lot of the discussion in the philosophy of religion wants (adapting Hart) to purchase its religion cheaply. Appealing to neat little formulae made up of categories like "supramundane reality" and "practices" strikes me as an example of this.

DA

2010-05-20
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

Theosophy has no God. Do you never read about what you object to?   


2010-05-20
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,

I don't see any great similarity between your general argument and the issue that I raised. I have no objection to broad abstractions, as long as they are tested against particulars. Jim Stone has tested his against a range of particulars, but perhaps not quite enough of them.

Best, Bob

2010-05-21
A theory of religion
I have no objections to broad abstractions either. They can be quite useful at times. But I do think the attempt to capture religion (and only religion) by means of the notion of a "supramundane reality" is bound to fail. There are just too many other possible non-religious referents for the term. And the addition of "practices" does not help. Apart from anything else it risks making the argument circular:  Question: What is a "practice"? Answer: The kind of thing religious people engage in.

Again, I think all this (I'm not just thinking of Jim Stone's ideas) is an attempt to purchase religion much too cheaply, to re-use the phrase I used in my last. Much the way theosophists do: choose a range of religions, add a dash of philosophy, and stir. And, hey presto, a god - or should I say a "supramundane reality"? - for all seasons!  I am not religious myself, but I have too much respect for genuine, profound, religious faith to think that it could ever be come at in this way.

DA


2010-05-24
A theory of religion
Yes, I'm OK. Thanks for asking.
I'm no longer posting on phil papers. I answer these particular questions (at least concerning Plato and Spinoza) in my papers themselves,
especially the first of the two papers.
I expect my answer applies to Plotinus and Hegel too, but you may be better positioned than I am to decide the issue.
If you want to discuss these matters with me, you can reach me
at jstone@uno.edu.  Namaste, Jim



2010-05-24
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
hi

well, I think Jim's proposal doesn't reduce religion either to a 'supramundane reality' or to a philosophical hypothesis; rather, "a set of practices... etc". Given the lack of practices in Wordsworth, it's also consistent with Wordsworth not being religious. On the other hand, it may seem to identify the Cults of Reason as a religion - however, these seemed only very ambiguously a rejection of religion. They professed atheism - but that doesn't automatically make them non-religions, given that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. so, still no obvious counterexamples I think. The Cults of Reason is a nice example though. I wonder what Jim thinks.

cathal

2010-05-25
A theory of religion
Hi Cathal

Thanks for your thoughts.

RE: " Given the lack of practices in Wordsworth, it's also consistent with Wordsworth not being religious." 

The problem I see here is that the notion of "practices" is so vague. One could argue that Wordsworth had a very important practice associated with his (strongly humanistic) beliefs - viz. writing poetry about them.  In fact, he devoted most of his adult life to just this "practice". One might object "Oh, that's not the kind of practice we mean!" So what kind of "practice" is meant?  The kind associated with a religion perhaps...? (This is the circle I mentioned in another post).

Once the formula is essentially just "supramundane reality" plus "practices, all kinds of things come rushing in. Arguably, fanatical soccer supporters believe in a "supramundane reality" - The Team, its Traditions etc. And they certainly have "practices"! (It's no accident that people sometimes say that, for some people, sport is a religion - but surely a serious conception of religion would not want to allow it.) 

DA



2010-05-25
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,
I just want to get clear. You do not like understanding religion or approaching religion through practice because it is vague, but the alternative approach is through the notion of the sacred or sacrality. Of course there is some vagueness to the notion of practice, just as their is some vagueness with the notion of 'the sacred'. In general I would see the latter as being far more vague than the former. One problem we have here is that we have a term that is itself vague - religion, but given that it is our theme that is a burden of vagueness that we just have to carry. So, shouldering that burden:

Why not just opt for the following understanding of 'religious' practice (taking it that we have adequately defined 'religion' and I don't think we have): an action that is underwritten by, or flows from one's 'religious' commitments. Here the primary problem would be understanding religion and the nature of religious commitments and orientations, but once we understood that it would seem natural to consider religious practices as those that are guided by such commitments and orientations. Here writing poetry or even quietly contemplating nature would all be up for grabs, depending on the kind of reasons that underlie those actions. The vagueness would fall back upon the term religion, but I do not think that the other terms we are dealing with in this way of understanding practice are vague. I think that the issue of sacrality is much more difficult - granted the vagueness involved in the notion of religion, how are we to understand the notion of sacrality or the sacred in a way that does not invoke other vague terms. Also, understand that one of my primary worries here is that the very notion of the sacred is often invoked as a way of insulating 'God' from critical eye, setting it beyond human ken and as such leads to mystification.

Philip

2010-05-25
A theory of religion
Hi Phil

Yes, you are perfectly right to say that the notion of the sacred is also vague. But I would not want to just use it baldly in a definition- eg "religion = sacred + practices" or something of the sort. I think neat formulae like that are bound to fail where religion is concerned. I mentioned the idea of the sacred because I think the word points to the area of human experience we need to investigate if we are going to begin understanding religion. But it's only a point of departure. The word itself, I agree, doesn't get us far.

As for the notion of practice, I had a quick look back at Jim Stone's earlier post and also at his article.  I am not sure if he defines what he means by the term. Perhaps he does and I missed it. My point was simply that if he intends it to form part of a definition of religion, then limiting it to recognized religious practices (if that is what he does) would be a rather dubious step, would it not?  The definition of religion would then be making assumptions about what religion is.  And, of course, if the word is not limited in this way, it can mean almost anything people might do on a semi-regular basis, from making human sacrifices, to writing poetry, to brushing their teeth.

You also say, interestingly, that "the very notion of the sacred is often invoked as a way of insulating 'God' from critical eye, setting it beyond human ken and as such leads to mystification."  I think that can often happen, yes. But it does not need to. For example, there are certain authors (mostly not philosophers...) who convey what I think approaches a sense of the sacred and I would not describe what they write as mystification - though it does certainly involve a sense of the mystery things.

Derek

2010-05-25
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,
I wanted to set my quick account of 'practice' aside from Jim's own account for the reason that, from my understanding, he uses the notion of practice as part of his definition of religion - and I did not really want to get into the evaluation of his theory. But, if one has an account of religion (that does not invoke practice as part of the definition) then I think you can understand practice in the way I outline and its not at all vague. I do, however, think that practice is important to religion - I think it almost ubiquitous that actions flow from religious commitments or that religious commitments are action guiding and so have normative force. A commitment that was not at all action guiding; what would that be?

I think that religion, like art and other complex human phenomenon, is quite hard to define. I don't want to get bogged down with a discussion of essentialism and anti-essentialism, but in the end I think we need 'conceptual clarity' on the point. I mean if we feel that it is important to separate "politics and religion" or if you think that the contemporary "return of religion" is an important issue, then you have to be able to say what it is that is returning or what it is you want to separate from what. That makes the conceptual issue more pressing. I think Geertz' formula is reasonable, although many think it is too liberal, but I think it gets the matter in the ballpark (and no reference to practice or sacrality): Religion is "1) A system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”  Of course: a) you could question whether all religions are symbolic and so forth; b) its formulaic and so we can pursue matters further or develop a richer account of matters- but I think that there is much to Geertz' way of looking at things. Some people might not like the way this formula situates religion as a product of human activity, but I suppose that such a response needs to formulate some reason as to why we ought to consider it as anything else. 

Philip

2010-05-25
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,
I wanted to set my quick account of 'practice' aside from Jim's own account for the reason that, from my understanding, he uses the notion of practice as part of his definition of religion - and I did not really want to get into the evaluation of his theory. But, if one has an account of religion (that does not invoke practice as part of the definition) then I think you can understand practice in the way I outline and its not at all vague. I do, however, think that practice is important to religion - I think it almost ubiquitous that actions flow from religious commitments or that religious commitments are action guiding and so have normative force. A commitment that was not at all action guiding; what would that be?

I think that religion, like art and other complex human phenomenon, is quite hard to define. I don't want to get bogged down with a discussion of essentialism and anti-essentialism, but in the end I think we need 'conceptual clarity' on the point. I mean if we feel that it is important to separate "politics and religion" or if you think that the contemporary "return of religion" is an important issue, then you have to be able to say what it is that is returning or what it is you want to separate from what. That makes the conceptual issue more pressing. I think Geertz' formula is reasonable, although many think it is too liberal, but I think it gets the matter in the ballpark (and no reference to practice or sacrality): Religion is "1) A system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”  Of course: a) you could question whether all religions are symbolic and so forth; b) its formulaic and so we can pursue matters further or develop a richer account of matters- but I think that there is much to Geertz' way of looking at things. Some people might not like the way this formula situates religion as a product of human activity, but I suppose that such a response needs to formulate some reason as to why we ought to consider it as anything else. 

Philip

2010-05-26
A theory of religion

Hi Phillip

I don’t have any major objection to the proposition that, in general and as a matter of observational fact, religions seem to generate “practices”. My problem is with defining a religion (partly) on this basis. 

Geertz’s formula is interesting, but if one puts out of mind for a moment that he is speaking about religion, he could be defining something else. What about, for example: “Art is "1) A system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” Works OK, I think?

I think defining religion via approaches like Geertz’s is fraught with problems. The subject matter is so varied that any definition broad enough to encompass all of it runs the risk of encompassing much else besides. 

How should one go about defining religion? I don’t have a satisfactory answer. The topic fascinates me nonetheless. Especially because the world in which we now live seems so far removed from anything religious. I can imagine an historian of the future writing something like this:

“The twentieth and twenty-first centuries were remarkable for their lack of interest in religious responses to human existence. They seem not so much to have dismissed the issue as to have forgotten that it could even matter. Their ceremonies for major events in life such as birth, marriage and death were just pale copies of those of previous religious cultures. They invented none of their own. And their philosophical speculations, such as they were, avoided anything that could be described as metaphysical, except in a trivial sense of the word.

Some speculate that this a-religious state of mind may have been due to factors such as a constant fascination with technological change, and, in the “advanced” nations, a comparative insulation from the harsh facts of existence. But none of these explanations seems adequate and the phenomenon remains a mystery to this day...”

DA



2010-05-26
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,
I am not committed to defining religion through practice, I have my own ideas regards to definitions (although the people who are paying me at the moment, unfortunately, are not paying me to think about that issue and so I cannot put time into it), my main point in regard to Jim's work is to acknowledge the importance of praxis - that our commitment lead to actions or are action guiding. As such it seems to me that one could come to understand what it is to have certain commitments by considering not just the content of those commitments 'what' is committed to but by attending to the the kind of actions and practices that flow out of the commitments.

I was not putting Geertz forward as a solution to our problem, just an interesting landmark in theory of religion. I am not sure how that would sit as a theory of art - is music symbolic, musical notation is but why consider music to be symbolic? Nor does musical necessarily create "long lasting moods and motivations" or "formulate a general order of existence" never-mind "clothing them with an aura of factuality" to render them "realistic". Indeed I am not even sure that painting necessarily does this. What Geertz is saying is that religions will necessarily do these jobs. Of course the general point you are making about Geertz' formula, that it could capture non-religious phenomena as well as religious is quite true, as I said in the post - one has to worry about how liberal the definition is. But to my mind what it offers us that might be of interest is a way of relating to religion as a human phenomenon without invoking concepts that put that phenomenon or aspects of it beyond human ken thus facilitating mystification - so here Otto or Eliade, perhaps even Kant.

One thing I appreciate about Jim's work is that he is one of a small number of philosophers who have taken up theory of religion and offered something of a theoretical or definitional account of it. Now of course as philosophers we all love to outsmart the theory or outsmart the definition - that's useful, it pushes us to refine our understandings - but in regard to this issue, religion, it is important that we actually do proffer some kind of philosophical account of what it is we are talking about when we use the word religion, particular if we are: condemning it, praising it, trying to keep it out of politics or public life, trying to prevent children from being indoctrinated into it, worrying about its implications for science, fearing its evaporation from social space....

I think your historian of the future would not be a historian perse but more likely to be a historian of philosophy. I do think that in the contemporary world, particularly in one of the most important social, cultural and political contexts of the contemporary world, the USA (particularly in the last 20 years), there is a much greater religious consciousness than you give credit for. This is also in South America, Africa, Asia and the Islamic world - one cannot say, in the context of the Islamic world, that the late 20th and early 21st century are conspicuous for the a-religious state of mind, nor can one say this about other parts of the world. Its true of Australia, England and parts of Europe for sure, its also probably true to some degree amongst the intellectual elites of the US. But we cannot pretend that this constitutes the limit of relevance.

philip

2010-05-27
A theory of religion
Hi Phillip

Thank you for your very interesting reply.  I thought I might just respond to the past paragraph, and I'm going to be a bit provocative I fear. 

You say: "I think your historian of the future would not be a historian per se but more likely to be a historian of philosophy. I do think that in the contemporary world, particularly in one of the most important social, cultural and political contexts of the contemporary world, the USA (particularly in the last 20 years), there is a much greater religious consciousness than you give credit for. This is also in South America, Africa, Asia and the Islamic world - one cannot say, in the context of the Islamic world, that the late 20th and early 21st century are conspicuous for the a-religious state of mind, nor can one say this about other parts of the world. Its true of Australia, England and parts of Europe for sure, its also probably true to some degree amongst the intellectual elites of the US. But we cannot pretend that this constitutes the limit of relevance."

I know it's sometimes said that there's a re-awakening of the religious sense in various places around the world. But is this really the case?  My impression of the US (from a distance) is that the "religions" in question are mainly fundamentalist/sentimentalist versions of Christianity, and quite frankly I don't regard these as serious candidates. I know very little about South America and Africa from the religious point of view but nothing I've read seems to point to a major religious renaissance - leaving aside, once again, the fundamentalist movements. As for Islam, well, that a touchy subject obviously. Someone described what we see around the world now as the "death-throes" of Islam rather than a rebirth, and that seems to me quite a plausible view. It helps explain the violence, for example: people often thrash about in their death throes. And Christianity was also quite violent when it was expiring.

So in short I am not at all convinced. I see a world mainly caught up with a fascination for things technological, with various forms of escapist entertainment, with a pursuit of creature comforts, with a vague fear that all that might be put at risk by unpredictable events, and with beliefs - if they can be called that - pretty much limited to what can be seen and touched and bought and sold. A pragmatic, post-Enlightenment, world in short - in every corner of the globe. One might call it a global agnostic culture, although that could imply that people think about religious questions and then form an opinion - an agnostic opinion. In most cases, I doubt if the issue even reaches that level of consciousness now.

But maybe, after all, a civilization can function quite well without any deep religious sense. Maybe that is ultimately for the best. Certainly the Dawkins of this world would say so...

Derek

2010-05-27
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan

Hi Derek,

I am not sure I would want to agree with you about fundamentalism in the US. I would not make that judgment. I mean one might say that scientology is not a ‘serious religion’ but is not the way its practitioners take it, they take it very seriously indeed, it motivates them. Likewise with contemporary fundamentalism, you or I might not see it as ‘serious’ but then, whether or not it could be considered a ‘serious’ religion would depend on having a clear understanding of what religion is, and we do not seem to know what that is. Labeling it as ‘non serious’ seems a good way of popping it outside of the scope of inquiry in regard to the question of religion in the contemporary world and I do not see any grounds for doing that – unless of course one had already determined what ‘serious religion’ was, and where such presuppositions are suppressed they often turn out to be self-serving or arbitrary or both.

In general I can see no reason for setting aside fundamentalist movements in the question of religious consciousness and would worry that doing so would just prejudice the sample in favour of ‘liberal theology’ – which, personally, I am far more comfortable with, but I see no reason why I ought to be comforted by my considerations in this regard.

Africa is an interesting religious context – both Christianity and Islam are booming there, South America is more predominantly Christian but certainly the idea that there is a lack of religious consciousness there is wrong.

The ‘death throws of Islam’ idea is interesting. I think that if one looks at the uptake of monotheism in Africa and Asia then its hard to sustain this. Besides such a story is usually seen as going hand in hand with some kind of ‘myth of secularism’ the idea that liberal secular political philosophy on the one hand and scientific rationalism on the other are burning away the dark clouds of religion and so, as ‘Western’ education and political life spreads so religion will decline. Contemporary fundamentalist Islam is then seen as being in its death-throws  vis-à-vis this movement – Islam is like the vampire exposed to the sun, it thrashes about before dying. But while there is probably much to the idea that contemporary fundamentalist approaches to religion (Christian, Islamic  or whatever) are a response to modernity and secularity (they have to be a response to something) I think it is a leap to suggest that this represents the ‘death throws’ of religion. There seems to me to be a lot of presuppositions behinds such a claim – particularly the presupposition that ‘our’ ways will prevail. I see no reason for presupposing that – history will provide the answer.

The thing is that if one accepted the ‘death throws’ thesis then one might have said the same thing about religiosity in the 19th century. If the ‘myth of secularism’ was true (actually there are two myths: 1. Prior to modernity there was an age of faith; 2. With modernity, secularity and science religion will wither) then one would have expected that from the Enlightenment onwards it would be all down hill for religion, but none of the sociological data confirms this and in fact the 19th century seems to have evidenced a far greater ‘religious consciousness’ to borrow your term than the 18th century. We could have said that this was the ‘death throw’ of religion too. But it would just seem strange to say this, because one might then want to say that the upsurge in ‘religious consciousness’ in the US since the 1980’s was a second death throw. Further one would have to explain the resurgence of religion in Russia since the 1989. Tricky stuff. It would be better to just try to understand the way religion configures and reconfigures itself according to fluxing social and historical conditions. That might lead to the thesis that the religion has a social and historical ‘essence’.

In terms of the fascination for technology I cannot see why that fascination discounts religion. In the last 50 years or so we have seen an explosion of scientific and para-scientific religious movements. Much of this blends popular culture with religion: think about Chaos traditions that suggest that so long as certain formal elements are present in your religious practice you can inject whatever content you like into it – so if you prefer a pantheon made up of your favorite sport stars then, so long as other requirements are met, why not? You want to replace the monotheistic God with James Brown then, so long as other formalistic requirements are met, why not? These people approach religion through psychology, they see religious practice as a way of modifying subjectivity or interacting with one’s psyche, ways of exploring ‘inner space’ as it were. Here the upsurge of ‘Jedi Knights’ in the Australian census is interesting as Phil Carroll had suggested very similar things in his work. You might not take these ideas seriously and I find them odd myself but the more relevant question is whether those who are committed to them take them seriously.  Or, perhaps more pertinently we might ask whether or not these are reconfigurations of religion that reflect our contemporary life, perhaps they are.

Also I think that your comment “I see a world mainly caught up with a fascination for things technological, with various forms of escapist entertainment, with a pursuit of creature comforts, with a vague fear that all that might be put at risk by unpredictable events, and with beliefs - if they can be called that - pretty much limited to what can be seen and touched and bought and sold” is a little too parochial. Okay that might be the case in the Anglo-European world, particularly the more bourgeois elements of it (the biggest part of it) but  is it generalisable?


2010-05-27
A theory of religion

Hi Phil

I'm enjoying our conversation, though we are clearly not seeing eye to eye.

In the end, as I imagine we could have anticipated, all depends on what one means by “religion”. If Hollywood Jedi Knights a religion make, then I guess, seriously, anything goes. The person who says "soccer’s my religion" would be as good a candidate as Francis of Assisi or Buddha. Personally I don't accept that, but I can see that if one is happy to define religion as a belief in virtually anything, plus practices, I am disarmed. (Actually, given the weakness of some modern philosophers for Hollywood fantasies – zombies, brains in vats etc – Jedi Knightism might have a bright future!)

Christianity, in my view, has been effectively dead for two hundred years – well before Nietzsche’s pronouncement in fact. The figures on 19th century churchgoing etc don’t signify much in my view. Christianity got a handy shot in the arm from certain forms of Romanticism, and in any case religions don’t die overnight, especially when supported by worldwide organizations, vested interests, modern communications technologies etc. I think various forms of Christianity will be around for some time yet – quietly (or noisily!) withering on the vine. Ditto for Islam. Ditto for Buddhism and Hinduism too, I imagine.

Sometimes I wonder if the very notion of religion misleads us. After all, if in say 100 years, Western culture breaks out of what I see as its all-pervasive agnosticism and discovers a new revelation, there is no self-evident reason why that should result in something resembling the "great religions" of the past. Perhaps it might take a form we cannot even foresee. 

Derek



2010-05-27
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,
I know what you mean about some NRM's, I did not say it was inspiring or even rational, just that people take it seriously. But people like Carroll have an interesting point. They have a very psychologistic understanding of religion, they can jetison most solid content because what they are doing does not need it, their mystery lies within and not in a metaphysical beyond (at least insofar as the psyche itself does not constitute a metaphysical beyond). So I suppose that for them the 'sacred' is the 'psyche' and the 'psyche' is the 'sacred' - or mystery... 

In any case while its not my bag people do take it seriously. The point is that, when your job is understanding religion, you cannot have presuppositions about what constitutes 'serious religion' your job is more to look at what people take seriously and try to understand it. Once you understand what religion is then you might move onto the normative side of matters - I suppose the point is easy enough to see. There might be multiple contenders for non-serious religiosity, fundamentalists, UFO cultists and those that astral-travel in X-wing fighters, but the task is to say what religion is, then we can perhaps make normative judgements. 

I am not sure about what you say in regard to Christianity. There have always been large numbers of people that were basically irreligious, sure there are periods where there is a definite rise in what you call religious consciousness, sure there are periods where religion becomes more dominant within a society, but from what I know of the history of religions this follows a bit of saw toothed pattern, it fluctuates. The idea that the medieval period constituted an 'age of faith' is a bit of a push, for most of that period most people did not really know anything much about the Christian faith that they were a part of - they could not speak Latin, the clergy did not worry about how much they understood and so forth, they knew a few basic things. Neither was their any concern amongst the clergy about what it was that most common folk actually believed. Its not until relatively late in the piece that anyone becomes concerned with doxastic unity. An Eighth Century peasant would have been far more concerned with the necessities of life than with religion. Similar things could be said of pre-Christian Europe. On the other hand the idea that scientific or socratic rationalism killed God is also questionable - it might transform religious comportment, it might make certain modes of religiosity, certain modes of theism, harder to sustain and so forth but I am not sure if it kills religion. In the end the world today is pretty much as it has always been - the largest number of people just get on with the job of living and don't concern themselves too much with religion. 

As such I see the notion of a "new revelation" or a sentimentalism for "the 'great religions' of the past" as possibly a little Romantic - we could have a new revelation and the world could be gripped by a new outbreak of commitment to something or other that becomes a dominant social force. But most people would get on with their lives without being so committed and doxastic unity would never take hold - it never has.

phil 

2010-05-27
A theory of religion
Hi Phil

I am a bit surprised by your comment that the Middle Ages were not an age of faith.  Surely, this is generally accepted cultural history, isn't it? And the cathedrals are there for all to see - the "pyramids" of Christianity. Peasants didn't need to speak Latin or be experts on theology. God, Christ, the saints, Satan, angels, sins, Hell, confession, salvation etc were part of their everyday lives - like the bells of Angelus that called them to prayer. And surely if the Enlightenment didn't herald the end of all that, an awful lot of books by an awful lot of historians have been gravely mistaken?

Re your other point re people taking things seriously, I really don't think this helps us. People take all kinds of things seriously. Sometimes quite weird things. Otherwise psychiatrists would be out of business. 

DA.






2010-05-27
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Glad to hear you're well, Jim. I will see what you say about Plato and Spinoza.
Best, Bob W

2010-05-27
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan

Hi Derek,

 

Europe was not completely Christian until quite late – indeed the people of the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) are a great example of this, there Christianity did not really have much influence until the 13th century and the pre-Christian traditions have hung on. The Germanic world was still being Christianised in the 8th century. If you look at conversion histories (see Carole Cusack on the conversion of the Germanic lands) you see that the focus of conversion was always the nobility and the fact is that as far a the Church was concerned so long as the King and the nobility of a region were Christian that region was Christian. Whatever the lower social orders believed and did was not really an issue. People were taught about heaven and hell, about Jesus and God, but no one really asked their opinions of it all. They just were not that important. Your average person from the lower social orders did not really go to confession. Most people went to Church on Sunday, most did not really know what was going on and many non-religious activities took place there – people traded goods during mass. The cathedrals are the “pyramids of Europe” it’s a good expression – the pyramids were built predominantly through the desire of the pharaoh. The point is not that the Church did not dominate European culture through the medieval period its just that the idea that during the middle ages we have solemn piety from all the social orders misrepresents things. Most other aspects of cultural history are approached with a degree of suspicion, turn a suspicious gaze on this aspect of cultural history – power was vital to the story of Medieval Christianity. Power is vital to the post-medieval narrative of the age of faith.

Prior to conversions doxastic unity was not an issue and there is good evidence from Northern European pre-Christian traditions that many people were irreligious and suffered no real diminution of social standing for it, so there were terms that basically translate as ‘Godless’, further amongst those who had chosen to follow a certain God, say the German Frey, not all of them would have been devout followers. Things were probably much like they are today – about 10-15% of the population were really devoted.

In regard to what we ought to take seriously – there is some kooky stuff in the field of religion, it does not make it any less religious, Jim Jones and the people of Jones town – its closer to the genuine piety that you perhaps want, but its not particularly healthy minded stuff. Religion is everything from nominal Christianity right through to the White Night of Jonestown and everything in between. No, if I am thinking about religion and what it is I include the kooks – it distorts the sample to leave them out.

 

Phil


2010-05-28
A theory of religion
Hi Phil

Yes I'm aware that Christianity took a while to spread all over Europe. But I think the suggestion that it was only ever a religion for the nobility - if that is what you are saying - is very odd indeed. Those wonderful, vast cathedrals must have been mighty empty during the Middle Ages!  (And then they didn't even have the rows of chairs taking up space...)

Re: "I am thinking about religion and what it is I include the kooks – it distorts the sample to leave them out."

Well, if the "sample" includes nincompoops who worship Jedi Knights, thoroughly evil individuals who poison their "congregations", and who knows what else, count me out. I wouldn't want to waste my time on it. 

DA

2010-05-28
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan

Hi Derek,

You seem to misunderstand both points, and the misunderstanding is more or less gross. 

I am not sure what kind of picture you have of what people were doing in those “wonderful cathedrals” when they attended mass; what were they listening to? The mass you might say! But even some of the people who gave the mass were struggling with the language of it, never mind those who attended it most of whom would not have understood any of it – indeed they could not even see most of it, as there used to be a wall/barrier separating the priests performing the mass from the assembled ‘faithful’.  Classical Latin was not commonly understood, those who understood Latin were mostly familiar with pig-Latin, or vernacularised Latin, this is also true of a large number of clergy outside of the large cities and most nobility. For many of the smaller towns there would have been some question about whether the priest even understood what was being said in the mass they were reciting. Even in the larger urban centers classical Latin was not well understood, although I am not implying that senior clergy in places like Paris did not understand the language they used. During the mass many of the ‘faithful’ socialized, traded goods and even played games – piety indeed; a wonderful expression of ‘religious consciousness’.

What else can be said? Well, if you were living near an urban centre you might have had the benefit of attending one of these ‘wonderful cathedrals’ where you could have gone to hear, but not so much see, a priest muttering a language that you and sometimes they, did not understand. But if you lived outside one of these centres you probably would not have sacrificed much of your time to go there.

I did not say that Christianity was only ever a religion of the nobility what I said was that for the longest part of the middle ages (6th to 11th Century) that there was little concern from the Church what ordinary people believed or did or to educate them about the detail of the Christian message – God, Satan, Heaven, Hell  and a Bible that they could not read – that is what they got - although to say they got the bible misrepresents things as these were extremely valuable items, what they got was the knowledge that there was a bible. Vernacular bibles only emerge very late in the piece,  14th century (although there is a very early Gothic version, and vernacular dictionaries only in the 16th century. How much care do you think that Rome had for how well the various princes and so forth understood the bible or Christianity? So long as they were loyal to Rome that is all that really matter. Indeed how many noble folk do you think could read the bible? How many could read? How many of the copyists in monasteries do you think could read it (and understand it)? And the latter were part of the clergy. I am not suggesting that the cathedrals were empty, all I am suggesting is that the general attendance was not due to the kind of piety or ‘religious consciousness’ that you talked about. Even amongst the educated the level of commitment seems to span from instrumentalist (handy connection to Rome an important seat of power) to the pious.  Great architectural works are not necessarily a symbol of piety either; they can symbolize much more besides. The way you seem to be reading it is as if religion and belief provide some kind of total explanation for the building of Cathedrals and for people attending church, which is like trying to explain 9/11 as purely the product of religious belief – it’s a monolithic explanation that fails to take into account a more fulsome range of issues, particularly material issues. The Cathedrals were not just built so that there would be a place to perform a mass and for people to enact their piety and people did not attend simply to enact their piety.  

I think that this sort of notion is based on a kind of mythologised understanding of the past where prior to modernity and the reformation there was an age of faith where all ‘religious activity’ was truly pious activity and had no instrumentalist or non-religious motivation but that with the reformation, modernity and so forth this all changes and things become more and more inauthentic, more and more instrumentalising until we reach the cynicism of contemporary culture. It’s the kind of paradise lost understanding of history. Its what I worry about in your comments about a ‘new revelation’ that will take us back to something – but whether that something actually existed or not I think is questionable. Modernity and the reformation brought change and indeed they brought religious change but that’s not really the point. One thing that we can say for sure about the reformation is that efforts to ensure doxastic unity become increasingly fervent in the counter-reformation. Of course the earlier Albigensian crusade (which resulted in the Inquisition) is a prelude to this, but that is 13th century, rather late, and its all about power, not piety or religious consciousness. But a concern for doxastic unity and a concern for what people believe only really become important when there are viable competitors on the scence (such as the Cathars and then the reformers).

In regard to the ‘nincompoops’, it does not matter whether you think that they are nincompoops, your opinion of their commitments is not at all relevant. But such groups are of relevance to the sociology of New Religious Movments (often just called NRMs). What is relevant is that these ‘ninconpoops’ are practicing something that they call religion, what they are doing is, to them, ‘religious’. Now I deliberately picked what ‘I’ see as some of the most bizarre manifestations of contemporary NRMs as an example of what lies on the spectrum and did so because you raised the issue of ‘seriousness’. I think that, next to these ‘nincompoops’ our fundamentalists look positively serious – and indeed our fundamentalists have a very serious agenda – but they don’t meet your criteria of serious religiosity!  Besides the very use of terms like ‘serious religion’ and ‘nincompoops’ seems to indicate rhetorical language, the serious versus the non-serious, the sensible versus the non-sensible or nincompoops.  These are just crass dismissals that place arrogance and opinion over thought. One thing that the sociology of NRMs does well is stand back from what is believed by any NRM to look at what is occurring. The ‘Jedi’ (they don’t worship Jedi they simply use the Star Wars mythos) are very interesting for the sociologist of religion because what is implicit in what they are saying is that there need not be anything external to the subject that is the referent of religion.  What does that tell us about religion? What does it tell us about the contemporary understanding of religion? Now given that it is just one manifestation, a funny one, in a more complex way of thinking about religion and the psyche that emerged in the 1970’s (and ultimately drew on sources from the early 20th century that flow into other interesting religious movements) it is certainly worth thinking about – people in the last 50 years have reconfigured their understanding of religion in such  way that things like this can register on our census data. Whether or not they are nincompoops is not relevant, how they have been able to do so, the mediating influences that permit it, are relevant. Crass dismissals just don’t help.


Philip


2010-05-29
A theory of religion

Hi Phil

I’d have all kinds of objections but I’ll let that pass.

One thing you might be able to help me with though is this: These days I seem to notice an increasing tendency among apparently intelligent adults – especially males – to treat Hollywood fantasy as if it were the real world – for example, philosophers who spend serious time pondering about Hollywood zombies, brains in vats, “The Matrix”, swampmen, etc. And now you tell me there are actually people whose “religion” is the “Star Wars mythos”, for heaven's sake.

I mean what are we talking about here? This is the world of tawdry Hollywood fantasy – of “entertainment product” as they disarmingly call it – dreamt up with one, and only one, thought in mind: commercial gain, dollars, box office, the sacred bottom line.

I can certainly understand the appeal of this stuff to children (I liked it myself when I was a child) and perhaps early teens, but to adults? Do you think we’re witnessing an epidemic of infantilism among apparently mature adults?  Is today’s “supramundane reality”, as Jim Stone calls it, the bogus, juvenile world of (often vicious) films and video games? Yeats, I recall, once asked:

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Maybe we have the answer...

DA


2010-05-29
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,
to say that their 'religion' is the Star Wars Mythos would not be accurate, the Star Wars mythos is used within their religion. The basic idea is that form and content are separated, form is understood psychologistically, so what religious symbols, texts, rituals.... do is effect the psyche in various ways. So, the appropriate content to inject into the form is considered to be dependent on the individual. Now what I do not like about this has nothing to do with the idea that people might use hollywood, or other aspects of pop culture to provide a content. What I find objectionable is that it is such an individualistic understanding of religion - religion is about me. 

I think most of the people who are involved in this kind of stuff - people in the Chaos tradition and various related groups would find it very humorous that you were upset by the use of "tawdry Hollywood fantasy" because your focus on that would just seem to them a focus on the external trappings, which according to them are really not important. Remember its not about interaction with a super-mundane reality, its about exploring and influencing one's own psyche. But really think about what is going on, don't fixate on the idea that some people inspired by Phil Carroll and Michael Aquino use Hollywood or literary motifs in their practice, its a very interesting phenomenon at the cultural level. Its individualistic, rabidly so in most cases, it is metaphysically minimalist and so forth. What does this say about the understanding of religion?


In any case, its clear that mentioning it touched a nerve. But the world of NRMs is a wild place full of creative engagements with religion. Japan is one of the most interesting contexts for those interested in NRMs. Many people, particularly those with religious or irreligious commitments might have things to say about the seriousness of much there. Personally I have no religious or irreligious commitments - my interest in religion comes from being raised in a certain kind of environment.


Phil

2010-05-29
A theory of religion
RE: "your focus on that would just seem to them a focus on the external trappings, which according to them are really not important. Remember its not about interaction with a super-mundane reality, its about exploring and influencing one's own psyche."

I wonder what aspects of "one's own psyche" are revealed and influenced by Star Wars characters and Hollywood zombies?  How pathetic it all sounds! What an intellectual and emotional desert!

DA



2010-05-30
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,
I think your concern for Zombies is clouding matters, you seem to think that these guys are trying to see what star wars says about the mind in the same way that Chalmers is asking what Zombies say about the mind, as such your engagement becomes more solipsistic than it ought to be. But I don't want to defend either zombies or star wars. Perhaps this is just a sign of the bankruptcy of contemporary culture... Perhaps its better to go back to an age where they built the wonderful cathedrals... Perhaps its better to long for 'new revelations'... But after all is said and done, the question is what does the work of people like Phil Carroll say about religion? Is this a reconfiguration that is understandable in terms of the 'crassness' or contemporary culture? 

If you take a superficial view of a cultural phenomenon, allow it to irritate you to the point that you do not even both to think about it and dismiss it with rhetorical 'nincompoops' or as lacking 'seriousness' then you behave in a way that I think you have accused analytic philosophers of behaving in regard to other phenomenon in other strings. I don't care for either zombies, star wars, Phil Carroll or the rest of it - what I am interested in is religion and the way it is understood. 

Philip

2010-05-30
A theory of religion
Hi Phil

2 questions:

(1) "your engagement becomes more solipsistic than it ought to be"  Solipsistic? How?

(2) Who is Phil Carroll and what does he say about religion?

DA

PS I keep getting messages about "follow-ups" in various threads but have no idea how to access them. Do you?

2010-05-30
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,
1. The remark about solipsism was more metaphorical than anything else - the way I see it is that you are assimilating what we are discussing to one of your own interests, philosophical zombies, at least from what you have been saying you do not at all seem to be interested in the point I was making about religion, so filtering our discussion through the lens of your interest or distaste for philosophical Zombies. 

My point here was 2 fold:
a) if you want to dismiss Fundamentalists as not being serious then what are you going to say about many contemporary NRM, and I picked out some ideas that I felt took matters to an extreme: the answer there was clear, not serious - but then we have predetermine what ought to be considered serious religion before we have determined what ought to be religion. 
b) what is the understanding of religion and religious practice implicit in, or underwriting, a tradition that rejects the idea that 'religious' practice has to be orientated on supra-mundane reality and that, within the limits of a certain structural and psychological analysis an individual is free to inject whatever content they like into their practices.

2. There are a range of people that are important for the sort of ideas that I am discussing. To what degree they are responsible for the emergence of Jedi in the Australian census data is completely up for grabs. But it can be understood through the Chaos tradition - which is a kind of "urban neo-shamanism" or school or "ritual magic" that grew out of the writigs of Peter (sorry) J. Carroll. Phil Hine (I always get the Phil and the Peter mixed up between Peter Carroll and Phil Hine) is another important guy whose writings have been lauded by people like William S. Burroughs. Both Carrol and Hine are influenced by people like Robert Anton Wilson, R. Bandler and J. Grinder. Now, of course many people associated with this sort of tradition reject the name religion, because they see that as being about worship of something external whereas what they are orientated on is a kind of self-transformative practice. I think that is an uncritical use of the term religion and one only has to consider the practices of the Indian subcontinent to collapse the whole distinction. 

In any case, do I take this serious? I take it that the people who are committed to it take it seriously. The above, like many NRMs has elements that many people find laughable or easily dismissed. But that is not the right way to go about things. When I was a student in Religious Studies (I have had an association with the Department of Studies in Religion at University of Sydney every since my undergraduate years and still do some teaching in that department) one of the things we were taught is that if you want to gain insight into a tradition you have to take what those practicing it say seriously.

In any case, I have not commitments of either a religious or irreligious nature, just an interest in religion. I don't think Fundamentalism can be dismissed as lacking seriousness as, in a discussion about the nature of religion I find that question begging, further if we are going to reject it on that basis we are going to cut most of the colour out of our discussion and leave ourselves with the so called 'World Religions' as being the only relevant traditions to understand. That's stifling.

In regard to the PS, yes I get a lot of messages from Philpapers I don't check them all though, I generally only check the boards when I have time. 

Take care,

Philip

2010-05-31
A theory of religion
Hi Phil

"the way I see it is that you are assimilating what we are discussing to one of your own interests, philosophical zombies,"

I am not "interested" in philosophical zombies. I am interested - or maybe "appalled" would be a better word - by the way would-be serious philosophy takes Hollywood fantasy as serious subject matter. I think this reveals a kind of juvenile superficiality - the transformation of philosophy into a pseudo-philosophers' playpen. To the extent that modern "religious" movements do the same thing - and you seemed to be suggesting some do - my view would be the same.

In answer to your other worry, I  do not necessarily want to restrict discussion to so-called 'World Religions'. For example, I think traditional African tribal religions are very important - and too often ignored in this kind of analysis (not that I am an expert). If, as you seem to be suggesting, we treat anything that people "take seriously" as a religion, the floodgates are well and truly open. Lots of people are very serious about cars - different models, their performance etc. Others are serious about stamp collecting or gardening. There are heaps of examples like this. (And despite what you say, I would put idolizing Jedi Knights in the same basket - ie not relevant to religion).

Personally, I think the attempt to draw hard and fast lines between what is and what is not religion is pretty much doomed. (The same thing applies in art.) The better way in my view is to choose a range of what are generally regarded as religions (Christianity, Islam, African religions, the Aztec religion, etc) and try to see what they have in common. Actually, I think that's pretty much doomed too (it risks turning into a kind of theosophy), but at least it's looking in the right areas.

DA. 

2010-05-31
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,
You say you are appaled "by the way would-be serious philosophy takes Hollywood fantasy as serious subject matter. I think this reveals a kind of juvenile superficiality - the transformation of philosophy into a pseudo-philosophers' playpen" and add that to "the extent that modern "religious" movements do the same thing - and you seemed to be suggesting some do - my view would be the same".

In regard to the first part (the philosophers) I just shrug my shoulders. If you don't like it that's fine with me, I neither like it nor loath it. I am not sure that it is fair to David to say that he takes Zombies seriously. From what I can see he uses them as part of a general thought experiment. Don't ask me to pass judgment on it, its not really an area I work on - philosophy of mind. My general thoughts about that area are irrelevant to this string.

In regard to the latter bit about religion. This sums us my problem with what you are saying. You think that the people I am referring are basically taking fantasy seriously. They are not, they are treating fantasy as fantasy. As I have said over several posts, what they take seriously is far more formal and the move that is made is that they say: you want to lay fantasy over this, fine - it does not matter what you lay over it, be as creative as you like. You want to do all your practice by using Latin, great! Do it. But don't think that Latin itself has some special and generally available 'sacrality' or 'power'. You want to practice in Russian, great do it! If that makes it more affective and powerful for you than that is the justification for using it, but don't think that there is anything about Russian per se. You want to have a pantheon made up of 'Mickey and Friends', go for it, but don't think that there is anything about 'Mickey and Friends'. How ever you want to do the specifics that's up to you, because ultimately IT DOES NOT MATTER!!! Is that taking fantasy seriously Derek? Is that assimilable to Zombies? I don't think it is. In fact what it is saying is that what counts underlies the symbolic form of any religion. And, no one idolizes Jedi Knights that is just a mistake on your part.

I am not saying that we treat anything that people take seriously as religion I am saying that we treat anything that people take seriously as religion seriously. The floodgate might open but its not really a flood, its just diverse. Further if you want to exclude contemporary reconfigurations of the religious that do not seem 'serious' to you then you might distort your understanding of what contemporary Western religiosity is. Of course all of the stuff we have been talking about was far more common a decade ago and so this is not so contemporary. What is more contemporary is the return from the eclectic and creative expressions to the Churches and institutions. Hillsong here in Australia. So, while 10 years ago you might of expected a flood of diversity the waters are flowing at a far more even pace today. But, is Hillsong to be considered 'not serious' because of the way it incorporates consumerism into its practice, because it markets to the faithful while they are in Church, because they have their own designer label clothing. I imagine that you would find that to be non-serious. But to me it just looks like a very contemporary reconfiguration of Protestant religiosity.

Philip 

2010-05-31
A theory of religion
Hi Derek,
just as an afterthought. What about people who say of African religion that its not really religion its all just animistic 'spooks in the trees' stuff. An appalling thing to say but some people say that sort of thing, as if only the organised, theological traditions are religions. How do we take that sort of stuff? Or as one of students, a theology graduate who was studying religion "Aboriginal traditions are not really religion, its just ancestor worship". So, what about people who do not take tribal traditions 'seriously'? What kind of mistake have they made? 

What about cargo-cults? What do we say about these sorts of belief? Are they really religious or are they just superstitious mistakes. I can see that from a certain outsider view you could say that they were just superstitious mistakes, but then again you miss a really important reconfiguration of religiosity.

How do these sorts of things compare with the sort of thing we are talking about?

In my view anyone who was willing to start out their considerations of religion by throwing that sort of stuff out would be saying more about themeselves than the phenomenon concerned. Further they would just end up distorting their own engagement with religion. The string is about a theory of religion. What is the right perspective to bring to a consideration of theory of religion? One that determines in advance that 'animism' and 'cargo cults' are not religion? 

Philip

2010-05-31
A theory of religion
Hi Phil

You write: "I am not saying that we treat anything that people take seriously as religion I am saying that we treat anything that people take seriously as religion seriously."

Well, that's fine. But where does it get us?  We'll get all sorts of crank sects, silly nocturnal devil worshippers frolicking around starkers (I saw some on TV recently), latter day would-be "Druids" who wouldn't know a Druid if they fell over one, Jedi Knightists, that horrible Jones individual whose idea of serious religion was to administer cyanide to his followers, holders of seances communing with those who have "passed over", people with pointy hats imagining they are witches, you name it.

I just couldn't be bothered - any more than I could be bothered wasting my time puzzling myself about whether video games are art (a currently modish idea) or whether True Romance stories are great literature, or whether rock is good music. A value judgment? If you like. But I make them all the time. Life's too short to waste on nonsense (unless it's clever nonsense and this stuff is not even that).

Derek


2010-05-31
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,
yes it is a value judgment and I don't think its particularly helpful. 

But you might be interested in a book that one of my friends has just finished (it will be available in the next few weeks). Carole M. Cusack _Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith_ Ashgate 2010, its a short book considering: Discordianism, Church of All Worlds, The Church of the SubGenius and so forth - there is some discussion of Jediism. While I have not read it I would imagine that Robert Anton Wilson will get a good degree of treatment. Carole also discusses the contemporary context in connection to invented religions and finally what it all says about religiosity today. She is a good scholar of religions former Chair of the Department of Studies in Religion at USYD and very well published - she also wrote that book on the conversions of the Germanic peoples that I mentioned earlier.

When it comes to teachings, doctrines and so forth, I don't want to defend any of these religions, nor do I want to defend any religion, I am just not interested in it. But when the question is whether considering them can tell us something about religion and 'religious consciousness' in the contemporary world then I will defend them as relevant as I have done. I mean dismiss Jim Jones all you want but Jonestown has been the subject of fascinating writing by Jonathan Z. Smith, probably one of the most important scholars of religion alive today. I know Carole Cusack is very interested in contemporary Druids, and knows more about the historical religion of the Celts than anyone I have met. Guess what Derek? She knows that there is a massive gap between the two!!!! But, you know what, so do the Druids!!! Crank sects! Devil worshipers! Its all too lowbrow for you, just not 'clever' enough for you to waste your time on. Not enough genuine 'religious consciousness' I suppose! Not enough cathedrals! But how will you know that they don't have the new revelation? Really. Good thing this is a philosopher's forum.

2010-06-01
A theory of religion
Hi Phil

Oh dear! From what you say the epidemic is worse than I thought. "Fascinating writing" on Jones. Great. But, then, books on the Holocaust sell well too, I'm told. And Jack the Ripper still turns a buck.

There's apparently a real market in philosophy for the kind of book you mention too. Lots of titles like Philosophy and Batman etc. Me, I'm waiting for Philophy and Fairy Floss. Gotta come.

There's a story you probably know about Melba. When asked by another singer what she should sing in Australia, she replied "Sing 'em muck!"  This, I think, is the general policy of many publishers today. It has, of course, always been the policy of Hollywood. They know there's an endless supply of suckers (their word no doubt) who will take it for the real thing. And so they laugh all the way to the bank.

DA


2010-06-01
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
This is ridiculous. Smith's writing on Jonestown hardly sells well, its very technical and very theoretical. This is an ignorant comment. 
But you would not know, because you don't know and its hard see much detail from up on the high horse you ride. I took much of what you said in the analytic/continental string at face value. But it seems that in general the sort of thing you tend towards is simply scoffing and sneering at what you don't like. It reminds me, ironically, of the way some analytic philosophers (when I was a student at least) used to deal with Continental philosophy. It does not matter if you don't know what is going on, it does not matter if you have not read or even tried to understand it, it does not matter if your comments are based purely on impressions taken at a great distance - just scoff and sneer and laugh without saying anything worth hearing. 
Value judgments, based on your intuitions stimulated by lose impressions. Scoffing, sneering, arrogance. Tally-ho! But its hard to see where the rabbit runs from so high up.


2010-06-01
A theory of religion
RE: "Smith's writing on Jonestown hardly sells well,"

I don't think I said it did. I just meant that that sort of thing has "market appeal".

What puzzles me is that you don't seem interested in recognizing any qualitative difference between Jedi Knightism or the vile Mr Jones, on the one hand, and, say, the meditations of the Buddha or the best of Christianity (eg Francis of Assisi)  on the other. They are just all equally "religion"...

I feel absolutely comfortable "sneering" at Jones ("sneering" is much too feeble a word for his thoroughly despicable actions). I would feel very uncomfortable not doing so. And although Jedi Knights etc are much more harmless, I am quite happy to "scoff" at such feeble, celluloid fantasies as well. One might as well worship Superman or Wonderwoman - or zombies - and expect to be taken seriously.

I'm sorry if you see this as "arrogance". It just seems like plain common sense to me.

DA

2010-06-19
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan

I hope that, as a new member of Philpapers my input will be useful. I am personally interested in normative religion as part of the solution to present  global problems, but I side with those who understand religion as describing a family of practises and factual beliefs.It is only after 'religious'practises and factual beliefs are regarded as sociological and anthropological phenomena that  man's religious experiences can be   adapted to global benefit.

I have read with interest most of this year's posts on this topic, and was encouraged to reread in 'The Mende of Sierra Leone' the chapters on religion , and on secret societies. The author, Kenneth Little, a social anthroplogist, explains that what modern educated people call 'supernatural' is not regarded as substantially so  different from natural.The Mende around the 1940's and later believed in the factuality of a sky god who is a creator of all, but the more active spirit beings , who are degrees of personalisation of the Supreme God who is not an immanent being, are ancestral spirits, nature spirits associated with natural phenomena,mischievous and nameless spirits also associated with the natural environment, and the 'spirit' associated with various  secret societies which Kenneth little says exemplifies
 
'a more or less conscious attempt to endow spiritual force and power with an active personality achieved by means of masks and various kinds of body gear. In this conception spiritual power has been 'canalized' for purposes of social expression and action.Objectively, the power thus personified is simply a social construction depending on the collective behaviour of the members of the cults subscribing to it. In the minds of the people , however the supernatural qualities of the (society) spirit are intrinsic to it.'

--------'The quality of awe and respect shown towards this kind of spirit and its cult paraphernalia is emotionally distinct from that evoked by other spirits.'

In the following chapter Kenneth Little explains how the secret societies are 'of primary significance in determining ritual behaviour and social attitudes, because the sanctions in nearly every sphere of the common life derive from them.'
Specific societies deal with  'different fields of the cultural life and their regulation'  but  'collectively they provide an institutional structure which bears resemblance to the medieval church in Europe.'

I therefore conclude that 'religion' can be defined upon a sliding scale according to the degree to which the religious experiences and behaviours are indicative of, and control, what the society endorses as necessary aspects of the culture.This sliding scale  definition allows for emergent cults and religions however nincompoop they are  and also allows for comparatively powerful institutions such as an established church. Any religion, from the nincompoop to the established must provide certain private rewards and punishments or the people will not adhere to it. But the rewards and punishments are not the core of a religion: the received expression of a society and its culture are the core of a religion.


2010-06-19
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Jim,

"...concerned with a reality that surpasses the ordinary world that
sense perception reveals. This reality consists either of (a)
sentient supernatural beings (e.g. gods)..."

Not sure that your definition includes 'natural' sentient beings, ie. evolved biological intelligences elsewhere in the universe(s) who have progressed beyond what Ray Kurzweil has labelled the 'technological singularity', and developed a mechanism to remotely (and perhaps benevolently) manipulate our physical millieu (ie. turn water into wine and so forth but also implant ideas).  Don't know the formal name of such a belief, but as a possible underlying source of all belief, it is surely worth accounting for in your definintion,

kind regards,
Rowan Grigg

2010-06-22
A theory of religion
Derek

Just to say that I think you should take the comments of Philip to heart. You may have a genuine point to make but it's far from obvious.  
  

Hello Eileen

You seem to assume that religion is not about truth. Or am I misunderstanding you?  I ask because I also feel that a normalised religion is the only answer to our problems, but only if it's doctrine is true.  

2010-06-22
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Derek.My apologies. That was well out of order and it's too late for an edit. 

2010-06-23
A theory of religion
Hi Peter

No worries. I do in fact feel a bit disappointed about my conversation with Phil. We were probably generating more heat than light towards the end.

DA

2010-06-23
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek, it makes no sense to say that conversion comes before recognition (perhaps you might say before construction).  Persons are impelled in the direction of conversion because they feel that their current attempt at happiness isn't working.  The felt need, or recognition, even if vague, is already there.  Look cross-culturally for a fresh take on this -- the legend of the Buddha, or the process of becoming a Buddhist today, and arousing the motivation to "renounce samsara" by reflection on the Four Reminders (a.k.a. Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind to the Dharma).

2010-06-23
A theory of religion
Reply to Steven Deedon

Hi Steven

The comment of mine you may be referring to is this one, I think:

Perhaps some people only discover the "need" that a religion meets when they experience their religious conversion. 

I was perhaps overstating the case a bit (I was reacting to what I called a kind of "supermarket" approach to religion – Jim Stone’s view that religions “figure centrally in satisfying the sort of substantial human needs that people generally want religions to meet (e.g. long life, immortality, the end of suffering). ...".)

Basically though I don’t resile from my point. Even the Buddha was originally awakened from the “things of this world” unexpectedly – by the sight of the sick man etc.  And St Paul’s conversion was apparently quite unexpected. Ditto for Mohammed I think

Presumably, a person would need at least to be receptive to revelation, but I wonder a bit about the familiar idea of people “in search of a faith to fill a vacuum in their lives” etc.  It makes religion sound a bit like a little tonic to take when one has most of the other things but still doesn’t quite feel 100% happy. I’m not religious but I doubt if true religious faith is like that.

This may be off your point.  I am thinking aloud a bit here.

DA  


2010-06-24
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Derek - thanks for letting me off. I became a bit frustrated at the stagnation of the discussion. No excuse though.  

A couple of minor thoughts. The Buddha did not undergo a conversion of the road to Damascus kind on meeting with sickness and old age. This was the very beginning of his research, the arousing of his interest. Only years later did he form his final view, and it had nothing to do with faith, other than that he had faith that to discover the truth is possible. Whether he did discover the truth is another question. I'd say he did, and I suspect so also would Jim Stone, but I wouldn't expect you to take that claim seriously.   


>>Presumably, a person would need at least to be receptive to revelation, but I wonder a bit about the familiar idea of people “in search of a faith to fill a vacuum in their lives” etc.  It makes religion sound a bit like a little tonic to take when one has most of the other things but still doesn’t quite feel 100% happy. I’m not religious but I doubt if true religious faith is like that.<<

I don't know. I think for a lot of people it is exactly like this. Buddhist doctrine is often compared to a medicine, and there is no doubt that many people are looking for such a medicine in religion. The danger is that we fall into the trap that Dan Dennett does and assume that this implies that it is a quack medicine, no more than the abandonment of reason and logical discrimination in favour of a cheap and tawdry consolation. In fact, of course, it is perfectly possible for a religious belief to be completely true and also a source of consolation.

In this respect I could mention that I converted to Buddhism (from total religious scepticism) on the first afternoon I came across it, since I had already arrived at the Buddhas metaphysical position (or, rather, a position that implies the truth of his teachings) before I knew what it was. This proves that you are right, religion is more than just a receptivity to revelation, and more than simply a faith in a comforting fairy tale. It can also be a response to coldly honest philosophical analysis. I feel this is also demonstrated by Chalmers' work on consciousness. 

 
   

 


2010-06-24
A theory of religion
Hi Peter

Yes things were going around in circles a bit. Maybe that's an occupational hazard with talking about religion!

Yes, I agree about the Buddha. His "enlightenment" only came much later, after much searching. But it does seem to me that part of his story - and perhaps part of any deep religious revelation - was an initial recognition of the vanity (or some equivalent term) of the "things of this world", and a sense that the only reality that mattered was a deeper "eternal" one. My feeling about the Buddha is that he took this initial step when he saw the sick man etc (I've forgotten the details) and that this triggered his long search for enlightenment. But I'm not an expert on Buddhism.

You also write :"The danger is that we fall into the trap that Dan Dennett does and assume that this implies that it is a quack medicine, no more than the abandonment of reason and logical discrimination in favour of a cheap and tawdry consolation."

Yes, I think this is a trap, and one that often catches thinkers too zealously attached to scientific and "rational" values.  Religion is equated with fairies at the bottom of the garden, and God with an "imaginary friend". I am not religious, as I say, but I think this is a serious underestimation of genuine religious feeling. 

Moreover, when one looks at what such thinkers propose as answers to "meaning of life" questions, it usually becomes apparent that they haven't got much to say. One senses they would really rather the question wasn't raised at all because it is somehow not a "rational" one. But that's a vain hope, in my view. Everyone one asks themselves those questions - I mean everyone tries to make sense of their life in some way or another. Trying to pretend that we are walking calculating machines without hopes, fears, aspirations, loves, hates, etc is not an option.

Sorry this got a bit off the point...

DA 


 

2010-06-25
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

Yes. It seems that an initial enthusiasm for religion usually originates in some sense that our ordinary wsyiwyg view ot the world is inadeqate. I'd only say that this inadequacy is clear from a study of physics and metaphysics, and not only from a lack of meaning (or somesuch) in our personal lives. But maybe this is taking us OT.    


2010-06-26
A theory of religion
Hello Peter I think public religion is about pragmatic truth. I think of public religion as a part of the structure of a society.Economically developed  societies have largely lost that part of their structures that were, in past times in the same nations, what expressed a society's ethics.True, for large sections of populations there was no objective overview of the pragmatic application of rituals and mythology and kings and chiefs annexed religion for their own purposes, but this is not to say that religion was not structural.The OT Jews needed Yahweh just as he was and as he became.

The doctrines of any religion can usefully be separated into cult and ethics . Without deprecating cults of ritual or of mythology, I think that we need to revise and reform ethics so that they can again take their place at the spiritual head of our societies, and put cults of ritual and mythology in their place. The proper place of cults and ritual is where religion differs from philosophy.Cults and ritual help to fill the actual needs of actual people who are not as reasonable as philosophers sometimes assume that they are.On our way to a normalised religion  one of the difficulties we have to surmount in the meantime are those attachments to mythologies and rituals which are sometimes superstitious attachments and sometimes idolatrous attachments.


  
In order to do this we need to establish units of value. These are usually conceived of as the nation, the individual, the species, the biosphere, the race, the sex etc. We have come to certain conclusions about the relative value of sex and of race as units of value, and I don't see that it's impossible to conclude whether or not individual, nation, species, or biosphere is sovereign.
It took a lot of atrocity to discard race prejudice and sex prejudice, but we can try to decide peacefully about these other units of value. 
Regards, Eileen

2010-06-26
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

Eileen - Sorry, I missed your post. I wonder why you have such a low opinion of religion, and suspect you may mistake the trappings for the substance. But I've no time to get into this now. I'll have to take a raincheck on an argument.    


2010-06-30
A theory of religion
Hi Peter. I thought that an explanation of religion as the expression of a society's main aspirations and concerns was a favourable opinion about  the place of religion in the structure of a viable society.The 'trappings' of religion are the myths and rituals and indeed the religous art  that make what would otherwise be a rather dull statement of  values appeal to the expressive and non rational part of human nature; and are therefore not to be despised either. 

What matters with regard to the future of our species is not the religious paraphernalia though, even taking the myths and rituals  to include beliefs in the reality of supernatural states of being, but the pragmatic truths of the ethics thus expressed.

2010-06-30
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

Jim Stone:  "In short, religions relate practitioners to a reality that
transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception; we
might call it a 'supermundane reality.' "

I think the last concept has not received the attention it deserves, although it's been adverted to by several: John Mc Creery 2009-10-30; Herbert Huber 2009-11-03; Derek Allen 11-04. Most recently, Ms E. Cameron quoted Kenneth Little,

''in 'The Mende of Sierra Leone' the chapters on religion , and on secret societies. The author, Kenneth Little, a social anthroplogist, explains that what modern educated people call 'supernatural' is not regarded as substantially so different from natural.''

I appreciate that Jim S. was trying for neutrality in avoiding the term 'supernatural,' but 'supermundane' may be equally open to question. On the one hand, as Derek Allen suggested, the love between Romeo and Juliet  may qualify; the term is hopelessly loose. On the other hand, the term 'transcend'  and Jim's statements such as,

"It comprises a level of reality deeper than what sense perception (even assisted by scientific instruments) reveals, and its nature is best discovered by other means, e.g. meditation."

suggest a strict sense: that the world as described by the natural and physical sciences is one which religious persons allegedly go beyond, using special methods to do so. Jim introduces a bifurcation, which, to the believer, does not exist, at least in the way Jim describes it. (Obviously practices connected with what's held sacred are by definition, not routine and 'mundane'.)

Jim S, so far as I can see,  has given no answers to queries on this issue, and I've looked at a portion of the auxiliary paper he posted.

A basic question is, Can there be a neutral definition? Jim S says, indicating his intention along those lines,

"As all such beliefs [in the supermundane] may be false, there may be no reality that transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception. All religions may be fundamentally mistaken. There is nothing in my account that a complete atheist couldn't accept. "

Derek A made the point well in this example:  "It's like saying that falling in love is "carrying out certain ... conventional courtship practices associated with a belief in the superior qualities of a particular human being."

Again, a certain type of psychological account might be couched in such terms, but at the cost, as DA suggested, of ignoring experience (where truth of belief is assumed). More fundamentally, the well known 'emic' 'etic' issues are raised. Since I am no anthropologist, I'll leave this anthropological debate to McCreery, Cameron, and others.

In philosophical terms, the set up proposed by Jim S. seems almost inevitably to suit the a priori position of the skeptic. Whether the love of Romeo and Juliet strikes Jim S. as 'supermundane,' I don't know. Perhaps not. But, if we take 'supermundane' in a strict sense, the religious person is set up for the classic Ayer-ian retort, "Ah, you're involved in metaphysics," and the next step is what Hume recommended for books dealing neither with mathematics, nor fact.

Jim S's account, despite its merits and lucid defense, seeks neutrality, and thus misses a key feature of most religions (perhaps all; I'm not discussing essence v. 'family resemblance'):  A holistic reality (notwithstanding the existence of 'planes' or subcategories). The statement,

In short, religions relate practitioners to a reality that transcends the mundane world revealed by sense perception; we might call it a 'supermundane reality.' 

is fundamentally inaccurate, if read in the most obvious way, i.e., extensionally (de dicto).  It's like saying, "The Greeks believed that the goddess Aphrodite was connected with the second planet circling the sun."


2010-06-30
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I note that Jim S. briefly talked about supermundane in these terms, 2010-4-21:

Philip Quadro: 'I think we have to negotiate in terms of supermundane reality – on my understanding this does not necessarily mean ‘other world’ for it would seem to me to be the case that something like Brahmin or Nibbana is better to be considered the truth of this world and so immanent, that is, not fractured or broken off.'

Jim S. 
 Right. So 'supermundane' means super-ordinary, not super-
natural .  Indeed, many religious people on this planet do not have the western idea of 'nature.' It really would be strange to describe Nibbana or The Tao as supernatural.   Neither is miraculous.

It's unclear if Jim is  endorsing "immanent, not fractured or broken off."  The gloss of 'superordinary,' unexplicated, seems not to solve the problems mentioned in my most recent post. Further it's entirely possible that "immanent" for Jim, implies a difference of kind;  this would be consistent with his earlier statements.

And one might ask, Why is 'the truth' about this world 'superordinary'?  The Taodejing, at several points, links the Way and the ordinary.  Although there is some skepticism with regard to the senses, the following passages support the use of the term 'ordinary'.

[Merel translation]
12  In this manner the sage cares for people:
He provides for the belly, not for the senses;
He ignores abstraction and holds fast to substance.

46  When a nation follows the Way,
Horses bear manure through its fields;

59  Manage a great nation as you would cook a delicate fish.

http://www.chinapage.com/gnl.html






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2010-07-01
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Hi Eileen

I can see why you say 'an explanation of religion as the expression of a society's main aspirations and concerns is a favourable opinion about the place of religion in the structure of a viable society.' But it does not seem at all favourable unless one sees religion as no more than this. Religion responds to social concerns, or concerns itself with how we should live together, but this would not be the heart or origin of religion (or not as JS defines it). Speaking of Buddhism, the rules for the community of monks and nuns and the advice for the rest of us are as they are because the nature of reality is as it is, not because the rules are the raison d'etre of the religion. It seemed you were suggesting that the expression of social aspirations is the origin of religion and its social function its main task, while I'd say that its origin is not social and that its social function is secondary to its soteriological and knowledge-seeking role. But maybe this is not what you meant to suggest. .  

I also have a problem with the idea that 'The 'trappings' of religion are the myths and rituals and indeed the religious art  that make what would otherwise be a rather dull statement of  values appeal to the expressive and non rational part of human nature'  These myths and rituals may often be inessential trappings, but at their best myths are explanations and rituals are effective, and neither are an appeal to the irrational. I think what I object to here is the idea that religion is a statement of values. It's a bit like saying that physics is a statement of theories. But again, this may not be quite what you were getting at.   
 
>>What matters with regard to the future of our species is not the religious paraphernalia though, even taking the myths and rituals  to include beliefs in the reality of supernatural states of being, but the pragmatic truths of the ethics thus expressed.<<

The ethics are not plucked from thin air. They originate (so say) in the supramundane or, if you like, in the truth, and the myths and rituals (at their best) are designed to help us to realise this. The laws of the earth are as they are because the Tao is as it is, says Lao-tsu. Religion did not invent them. I could agree that much of religion is non-essential paraphenalia, but only for someone who has gone beyond the need for them. 

JS's idea is not about 'supernatural states of being', but states of being that are competely natural and from which we can never entirely escape, yet which are hidden away under layers of mental distractions.   

I suppose my general objection was to the idea that religion as a social phenomenon has no foundation in knowledge. If a million people give up smoking because science has established its hamful effects this is not an expression of social aspirations but a pragmatic response to knowledge accepted on faith. Until we can show that knowledge of the true nature of reality is impossible we are not in a position to dismiss the ethical scheme of a religion as merely a social phenomenon, or at least not in the case of a religion that claims this foundation in knowledge. 

What I like about JS's approach is that his language defuses to some extent the argument between religion and naturalism. This is important since many people see religion as naturalistic and do not see a need for the argument. Just to be provocative, and to air a bee in my bonnet, I'll say that I'd strongly defend the idea that the doctrine of Buddhism, and that of mysticism in general, is entirely naturalistic, and that all other cosmological theories are not. It is significant that the term 'supramundane' appears regularly in the Buddhist literature while 'supernatural' is very hard to find and may not appear at all. .
   
Harold - I don't quite see your objection. I'd say the whole point of using 'supramundane' is to avoid reifying the bifurcation suggested by 'supernatural'.  We could say that that quantum mechanics is 'supramundane' in relation to our everyday fanatasy of tables and chairs, since it is a more nearly fundamental view. This is all it would mean, I think, that for a fundamental view we must see beyond what normally appears to be mundane and natural to what is actually mundane and natural.    


 
  
   

   

2010-07-09
A theory of religion

Peter said, Harold - I don't quite see your objection. I'd say the whole point of using 'supramundane' is to avoid reifying the bifurcation suggested by 'supernatural'. We could say that that quantum mechanics is 'supramundane' in relation to our everyday fanatasy of tables and chairs, since it is a more nearly fundamental view. This is all it would mean, I think, that for a fundamental view we must see beyond what normally appears to be mundane and natural to what is actually mundane and natural.

Hi, Peter
You're taking a similar line to Derek, who proposed that love was supermundane.

You say, quantum mechanical processes are.

I think Jim is quite unclear on this, but there are a number of indications that he does indeed posit some sort of 'bifurcation.' He says the order of things to which religious people relate, "transcends" the ordinary; it's not connected to sense experience. He speaks of a "metaphysical" principle. He mentions access by special methods, e.g. meditation; in other words, hardly the 'ordinary' or mundane methods of either scientists or laypersons.

But these are issues of textual interpretation and Jim can settle them, if he cares to.

The philosophical problems I've raised : 1) How does one characterize the 'world' of the religious person. Is it 'above' ours, as 'super' suggests. Is it the depth of ours; or a type of richness, as when your TV picture goes from black and white, to color.

2) If it's not different from the 'naturalistic world,' how does it support ethical values, norms of behavior for the adherent?

A specific form of the problem of 2a) does the concept of 'truth [raised in connection with Buddhism]', to which the adherent directs her mind and her behavior, do the job of supporting an ethic?

3) Jim clearly has in mind the religious person acting voluntarily so as to 'fit' with, or so as to constitute a fit with this supermundane reality. It's clear in Daoism that some sort of fit is always there: Those who make fun of the Way, are acting in a way congruent with it. Congruence with truth, one might say, is ordained; proposed deviance from it is momentary, like the adventure of the person who, convinced he's dreaming, steps out into traffic on a busy roadway. There is, in Daoism the suggestion that 'not doing' is a way of dealing with apparent incongruities with the Way.

There are a number of dilemmas, here, and I doubt that Jim's account, at least so far, has successfully avoided coming to grief with some of them.


2010-07-10
A theory of religion
Reply to Harold White
RE: "You're taking a similar line to Derek, who proposed that love was supermundane."

I don't recall exactly what I said and I can't bestir myself to search for it. But if I just said "love is supramundane" I disagree with myself. 

Love can take many forms, some quite earthbound. But love as it is represented Romeo and Juliet for example does seem to me to have a "supramundane" (I would prefer to say "transcendent") quality.  My reason? Romeo and Juliet both die for it. They forsake all earthly things for it.

In the same way, a soldier who dies for his country dies for something "supramundane" - an idea of his country and what it stands for.

The term "supramundane" catches a lot of experiences that are not necessarily religious.

DA

2010-07-11
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I suppose the problem is that within religion there is no agreement on what religion is about, so that a definition is always going to fail for being too narrow for some and too wide for others.  

JS tries to get around this but I don't think it's possible to do so. Behind his proposal there is, I suspect, a strong view on what is and is not 'true' religion, and this leads him to a useful and legitimate definition. But I doubt we can capture all religion within a definition that would serve for true religion without widening the net so far that the definition becomes useless. It's like trying to find a definition of Science that includes Astrology. If we don't exclude any religions then the definition is going to be too vague, and if we do exclude them then it's a partial definition.

I seem to share JS's view of what religion ought to be, or what true religion is, and so can agree with his approach, but I'm not sure I see why everyone else should agree with it. After all, it appears to be the case that many, perhaps a majority of Christians, Muslims and Jews are happy with supernaturalism and would see no need for 'supramundane.' I can also see that others might regard it as simply a underhand terminological trick to avoid a direct confrontation with the natural sciences. Yet others might say that there is nothing supramundane about the spaceship that will soon be coming to take them to take them away.  

   
  



  

2010-07-11
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
PMFJI (again). I've been writing on a related topic--"theism and globalization," reading some of the literature on religious pluralism and such.

What strikes me in a lot of the literature is that there are agendas driving attempts to give an account of what religion is which make it difficult to get at any useful <i>descriptive</i> account. So the question of what religion is gets treated like the question of what art is--with a lot of people pointing in disgust to objects featured in art galleries and discussed by art critics saying, "That's not art!"

Well, if we're interested in a purely descriptive account that accords with what the folk regard as art, it is <i>of course</i> art since it's hanging in a gallery and discussed by art critics. Case closed. Similarly, if we're interested in a purely descriptive understanding of what religion is I think we want to be a little deflationary. RS people especially I noted in my reading seem to think that religion is inherently <i>important</i>--that it's concerned with value, is essentially associated with moral illumination and has something to do with "big questions" about the meaning of life or whatever. But is that true?

Arguably religion (understood descriptively) is institutionalized ritual, associated with beliefs about non-natural beings or states. So if you're looking for a purely descriptive account, test it: three conditions have to be met for something to count as religion:

(1) belief concerning non-natural beings or states (I prefer this to "supermundane" since the beings in question on my account could be minor godlets or trivial spooks)

(2) ritual (whatever that means, we know it when we see it)--ceremonies, trappings, equipment

(3) an institution to organize the rituals and maintain facilities in which they're performed.

On this account the big stuff about "values" and "meaning" doesn't figure. But try out my account. What would the folk say? Can you think of a central case of what the folk would call religion that doesn't meet all three conditions or a practice that meets all three but doesn't count as religion? It also takes care of borderline cases so, e.g. unitarianism and ethical culture are borderline cases of religion because they fail (1) but satisfy (2) and (3); freelance New Ageism is a borderline case because it satisfies (1) and (2) but isn't institutionalized. How many of the folk who practice religion have any interest in the "big questions?"

The interesting questions to me are: what makes an activity count as a "ritual"? And in what way do rituals have to be associated with beliefs about the supernatural to count as religious rituals? etc. On the account I'm proposing religion is interesting but trivial. There's possibly another enterprise, "philosophy of life," "wisdom" or whatever that deals with values, the meaning of life and such. Historically this enterprise became associated with some religions. And some religions, like Christianity and Buddhism, grew up around deified teachers of wisdom. But "philosophy of life" isn't religion as the folk understand it and shouldn't figure as part of a descriptive account.

2010-07-12
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
This seems to illustrate the problem. As you say, and just as for 'art,'  if a definition of religion is made sufficiently wide it becomes rather pointless. Even this aspiring catch-all definition would be too narrow, since not all religions meet these three conditions.  But I have no counter-suggestion. I don't know how to define art either.    

2010-07-19
A theory of religion
What central case of religion fails to meet these three conditions? Some forms of Buddhism may be non-theistic but they still I think recognize non-natural events or states of affairs, e.g. reincarnation.  I suppose there's the question of what constitutes an "institution" but being fairly liberal about that so that institutions don't have to be centralized I think congregationalist and non-hierarchical religions count as embodied in institutions: as long as you have some bureaucrats or administrators dealing with finances and logistics that's good enough to count as an institution. Then there's the question of what sort of activities constitute ritual. Well we know it when we see it. But on the account I'm suggesting ritual is the primary religion-making factor. And ISN'T this the way the folk see it?

2010-07-19
A theory of religion
Reply to H. E. Baber
RE: "I'm suggesting ritual is the primary religion-making factor".

This could easily become circular, couldn't it? The idea of ritual tends to be principally associated with religion anyway. In other contexts, it is often just metaphorical. ("He performed his daily ritual of washing his car" etc)

DA

2010-07-19
A theory of religion
Reply to Derek Allan
Could, but doesn't. Think, e.g. of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Or of all the innumerable other secular rituals in which we engage: graduation ceremonies, the rituals involved in the conferral of various awards and honors, coming-out parties, the dedication of a public building.

What, I wonder, is ritual: intentional, scripted behavior that has no practical purpose?

2010-07-19
A theory of religion
Reply to H. E. Baber
RE: "What, I wonder, is ritual: intentional, scripted behavior that ... (expand) has no practical purpose?"

If that were the definition, it would be hard to make the necessary link to religion, would it not? One would be obliged to define religion as something having no practical purpose (whereas many other things don't seem to either).

I think its core meaning comes from religion - though I agree it's co-opted for many other purposes.

DA


2010-07-19
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone

The problems go on and on. Rebirth is a natural phenomenon if it happens. Ritual, for from being the central 'religion-making' factor is of no importance in some religions and may even be discouraged. The tea ceremony has strong religious connections etc etc.  
 


2010-07-19
A theory of religion
RE: "The problems go on and on."

Yes. Agreed. It makes one think that there is something basically wrong with this approach to understanding what religions are - i.e. this "behavioral" approach that seeks to define them by certain external characteristics (rituals etc).

Personally, I think religion is better approached by trying to understand the state of mind it involves. But since I have never experienced anything I would dare call a religious revelation, and do not fully understand those who seem to have experienced one, I am not going to attempt to say what a religious state of mind might be.

However, unlike the Dawkins, Hitchens, Onfrays etc of this world, I do not think one can simply dismiss (genuine) religious experience merely as belief in "fairies at the bottom of the garden" etc. That view sounds to me like a kind of sclerotic, scientistic narrow-mindedness.

DA

2010-07-19
A theory of religion
What? Rebirth if it happens "natural"? I admit I didn't give any criterion for counting something as natural but c'mon: do even serious Buddhists imagine that physicists should in principle be able to figure out and quantify the Laws of Reincarnation?

Tea ceremony "religious connections"? How? What? This sure looks like reading "religious connections" back into it just because it's very clearly what anyone would count as a ritual. But if there's somethig about the Tea Ceremony I don't know, how about the innumerable patriotic rituals in which Americans engage, including the pledge of alliegance (to which "under God") was a later addition.

Finally, show me a central case of a religion in which ritual is of no importance. Calvinists may claim to despise "empty ceremonies" but they meet weekly in distinctive buildings to engage in activities that outsiders would recognize as ritual. And the "extemporaneous" prayers of "non-liturgical" churches are conventionally structured and stylized.

Finally the religions that claim to consider ritual of no importance or to shun it altogether are anomalous--Baptistical protestantism is a novelty and a parochial one at that. If you look globally and historically, the paradigm for religion is something more like Mediterranean Folk Catholicism: lots of ceremonies, public and private, lots of gadgets and gimmickry, lots of spirits and godlets backed by a more remote high god. If anything is optional it's stuff about the "meaning of life," "salvation" and "sin."

2010-07-19
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
The laws of physics are not the laws of nature, although perhaps they will be one day. So while physicists can't figure out or quantify consciousness, say, this has no bearing on whether it is a natural phenomenon. If rebirth is an actual phenomenon then it must be a natural one. I can never understand how anyone can believe in a non-natural phenomenon. It's only possible for someone who fully understands Nature, and I don't expect any of us do. Hence the advantage of using 'supramundane.'   

I'm no expert on the tea ceremony, but my impression is that it is (ideally) linked to religious practice and sensibility. One washes and enters the ceremony purified, one endeavours to be fully present in the actions of the ceremony etc. It's all about mental states, mindfulness etc. (The pledge of allegiance is just the State using God for its own purposes.) 
  
I don't meant to suggest that ritual is of no importance. Graduates receive their degrees in cap and gown for a reason. Life is full of such rituals and ceremonies. But for Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism and others ritual is entirely optional and often warned against. Mind you, if you call it a ritual when people meet to say a few prayers together then almost anything would count as ritual.  This Buddhist teaching story is suggestive.

"When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice." (Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors)

 
>>  Finally the religions that claim to consider ritual of no importance or to shun it altogether are anomalous--Baptistical protestantism is a novelty and a parochial one at that. If you look globally and historically, the paradigm for religion is something more like Mediterranean Folk Catholicism: lots of ceremonies, public and private, lots of gadgets and gimmickry, lots of spirits and godlets backed by a more remote high god. If anything is optional it's stuff about the "meaning of life," "salvation" and "sin."

This seems a very narrow idea of religion. I'd say that Mediterranean Folk Catholicism is an aberration. Even within Christianity I'd say it's an aberration. What I would call 'true religion,' and what I suspect JS would call it, is not backed by any gods, remote or otherwise, so this view does not even include it. 

At their best ceremonies and rituals may be useful or not, and this will vary from person to person. Salvation would never depend on even knowing about them, let alone taking part. The Upanishads are pretty scathing about the the ritualists.  

It is true, of course, that a religious ritual can become as pointless as tying up a cat for meditation practice, but usually it is designed to serve a purpose, even if the participants don't always know what it is. I would agree that some religious institututions place what seems too great an emphasis on ritual and ceremony, but so do many non-religious institutions.  
 
Just my view, of course.

2010-07-28
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
Especially if one has to consider the applied misconceptions of "a just and loving God" in Judeo-Christian evaluations where god is depicted or portrayed as a "cheat", where he ordains socalled misguided commandments, without advertingly forewarning practioners of our human society of the unnoticed or imperceived pittfalls and traps which exists, which according to god has to be blindly abided for, by the practioner's free-will, to simply mention an example, where the first people, Adam and Eve, who were created by god in the garden of eden and were commanded by god to be obedient under the condition of having a "free will", and not being foretold or forewarned of the existance of the adversary or anti-god, which folly had a consequence, generations after, that for me is a misconception of a just and loving god, besides being a cheat, being aflicted by absoluteness, and so I can quote many biblical contradicions and misguidances, not to wantingly label those incidences as untruths, where I have my reservations, and I can go on and on.   

2010-07-29
A theory of religion
Reply to Jim Stone
I'd go for a less literal and more charitable reading but each to his own.