Monday, February 19, 2007

On The Non-Existence of Religions

Questions of method, important as they are, need not be raised at all until the researcher can first determine and circumscribe the object of his studies in a convincing way. And here it seems worth mentioning-just for precision’s sake-that religion does not actually exist. Rather there are a great number of traditions of belief and practice that, for the sake of convenience, we call religions but that could scarcely differ from one another more. It might seem sufficient, for the purposes of research, simply to identify general resemblances among these traditions, but even that is notoriously hard to do, since the effort to ascertain what sort of things one is looking at involves an enormous amount of interpretation and no clear criteria for evaluating any of it. One cannot establish where the boundaries lie between religious systems and magic, or folk science, or myth, or social ceremony.

There is not even any compelling reason to assume a genetic continuity or kinship between, say, shamanistic beliefs and developed rituals of sacrifice, or between tribal cults and traditions like Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, or to assume that these various developed traditions are varieties of the same thing. One may feel that there is a continuity or kinship, or presuppose on the basis of one’s prejudices, inklings, or tastes that the extremely variable and imprecise characteristic of a belief in the supernatural constitutes proof of a common ancestry or type. But all this remains a matter of interpretation, vague morphologies, and personal judgments of value and meaning, and attempting to construct a science around such intuitions amounts to little more than mistaking "all the things I don’t believe in" for a scientific genus. One cannot even demonstrate that apparent similarities of behavior between cultures manifest similar rationales, as human consciousness is so promiscuously volatile a catalyst in social evolution.

Moreover, the task of delineating the phenomenon of religion in the abstract becomes perfectly hopeless as soon as one begins to examine what particular traditions of faith actually claim, believe, or do. It is already difficult enough to define what sort of thing religion is. But what sort of thing is the Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths? What sort of thing is the Vedantic doctrine that Atman and Brahman are one? What sort of thing is the Christian belief in Easter? What is the core and what are the borders of these phenomena? What are their empirical causes? What are their rationales? Grand, empty abstractions about religion are as easy to produce as to ignore. These, by contrast, are questions that touch on what persons actually believe, and to answer them requires an endless hermeneutical labor-an investigation of history, and intellectual traditions, and contemplative lore, and so on and so forth-which ultimately requires a degree of specialization that few can hope to achieve; even then, the specialist’s conclusions must always remain open to doubt and revision.
-David B. Hart, Daniel Dennet Hunts the Snark

I hope Hart's clever little denial of the field of religious studies will go far in ending all the vacant-eyed ramblings on religions and their threats from Daniel Dennett and his friends. In our age men find it more open-minded to dismiss religion tout court than to target specific creeds or cultures for disdain. Were one to start blasting Quakers or Evangelicals or Calvinists any other specific religion, vague contempt cannot be sustained. Religion: "creepy!"

At the same time, the vague therapeutic invocations of religion are to be shunned. The other day, one acquaintance said that True Islam wasn't anything like the violent barbarians who use its name. I wished I had pressed that idea more. For a muslim to speak of true Islam is piety. For a non-muslim to speak of true Islam is vacuity. How should a non-muslim judge the best kind of Islam? According to some other non-Islamic philosophical or theological criteria, of course.

Our present sectarian and anti-sectarian confusion is entirely because nobody knows what religion is anymore. The declension of the concept "religio has been mapped out by William T. Cavanaugh:

Religio for St. Thomas is just one virtue which presupposes a context of ecclesial practices which are both communal and particular to the Christian Church. Wilfred Cantwell Smith notes that during the Middle Ages, considered by modems the "most religious" period of Christian history, no one ever thought to write a book on religion. In fact he suggests that "the rise of the concept 'religion' is in some ways correlated with a decline in the practice of religion itself."32 In other words the rise of the modern concept of religion is associated with the decline of the Church as the particular locus of the communal practice of religio.

The dawn of the modern concept of religion occurs around the late fifteenth century, first appearing in the work of the Italian Renaissance figure Marsilio Ficino. His 1474 work entitled De Christiana Religione is the first to present religio as a universal human impulse common to all. In Ficino's Platonic scheme, religio is the ideal of genuine perception and worship of God. The various historical manifestations of this common impulse, the varieties of pieties and rites that we now call religions, are all just more or less true (or untrue) representations of the one true religio implanted in the human heart. Insofar as it becomes a universal impulse, religion is thus interiorized and removed from its particular ecclesial context.

The second major shift in the meaning of the term religion, which takes shape through the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is toward religion as a system of beliefs. Religion moves from a virtue to a set of propositions. Political theorist Hugo Grotius, in his De Veritate Religionis Christianae, can therefore write that the Christian religion teaches, rather than simply is, the true worship of God. At the same time the plural "religions" arises, an impossibility under the medieval usage.

The next time someone asks me if I am religious, I'll play the pedant and ask "what do you mean?" I entertain few warm and fuzzy thoughts about self and universe, and I do not recognize myself in most televised religiosity. All I can say is Credo... Amen!

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