Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Theory of Religion

Occasionally, my Christian friends and I touch on the topic of defining religion. This came up recently, though only tangentially. I want to offer a brief description of my friend's definition, outline my problems with it, then offer an alternative definition.

So keep in mind that this is obviously a second hand acount of someone elses' beliefs, beliefs that I haven't heard articulated in depth. I know, I know, I should wait until I have a better handle on what he's saying. But I'm anxious. So iif I'm misrepresenting you, correct me and I'll edit this post, or post a second time on this topic.

This is how I understand my friend's views. Religion is a universal thing; everyone has one. It has at least two aspects. First, there is a "worldview." An individual might question their worldview in a theoretical way, but any change in the basics would require drastic stimulus. On a practical, day to day level, one's world view is fundamental and unquestionable. The worldview is centred around answering these three questions:

1. Where did I come from?
2. What am I here for?
3. Where am I going?
4. Is there a God?

I've also been offered a different view; religion as a habit. Any act performed with a high degree of consistency is a religious act. The specific example used by my friend is Monday Night Football; you can watch it religiously. These habits do not have to be spiritual; they can be entirely secular. Their hallmark is consistency - though perhaps my friend would prefer to use the word devotion.

I think there is a streak of truth here, but some serious remodeling needs to be done. The idea that religion can be defined as both an intellectual worldview and personal habits is problematic. These two aspects cannot necassarily be reconciled; the man who watches football "religiously" would problem never bring the idea of football into his worldview. No one uses "football" to answer those questions, though some might flippantly think it answers #2.

A second problem is the insistence of including question #4 as a fundamental plank in one's worldview. How one answers #4 tends to have few specific consequences for one's life. Theists (and all others such as pantheists and deists) engage in the whole range of human behaviours, from slaughter to love to suicide. There is also a vast range of answers to the first three questions, even with an affirmative answer to #4. Answer the question of God's existence however you like; a simple yes or no will not lead to any particular effects in your life. Therefore it cannot be regarded as a fundamental issue.

Thirdly, positing first three questions in this manner assumes there are answers available. We must consider the possibility that these questions are futile. To insist that they are fundamental is to open up human knowledge to a potentially crippling absurdity: if the fundamental questions have no answers, but human knowledge is based on answering these questions, then epistemological confusion would be absolute. Therefore I argue that these questions are also not fundamental; they are tangental issues and the human mind is capable of operating outside their bounds.

Fourth, defining the world "religion" so broadly as to include football utterly guts the word of any true use value. If the word religion means exactly the same thing as habit, why not just say habit?

I have an alternative view. At first blush, it is very similar to the one offered above. However, but shuffling ideas about and re-reading certain aspects of human experience, I believe the gap between one's metaphysics (vaguely equivalent to the above "worldview") and one's behaviour (vaguely equivalent to the above "habits) can be overcome.

For the sake of length (I know no one will ever read my CLS post) I'm going to skip over most of the thought process that led up to my definition. I'm also not going to explain the original form of the ideas I've been cribbing; for example, I won't go into the Stoic philosopher's notion of the "sympathy of the whole." But suffice to say, everything in this post is a hodge podge of the ideas of others, pressed down, shaken together, but not quite running over.

That being said, a few preliminaries are in order here. What I'm outling is a philosopy of religion, not a religion itself. Nothing I say here can be taken as an endorsement or rejection of any one particular religion; I'm merely outlining some of the common aspects of all religions.

I think that we all have a particular toolkit that we use to interact with and understand the world. Humans also have a common collection of needs. We understand the world in a way that helps fulfill our identified needs. I want to argue that a "religion" is a particular set of tools to help us fulfill a particular collection of needs. It is important to remember that there are also other toolkits, some that do not have religious aspects.

There are two primary aspects in any understanding of the world. There are two aspects to this understanding, also known as metaphysics:

1. Ontology. Ontology is the study of being; what are we, what is the world? One might have a generic naturalistic ontology - everything is the result of mechanistic processes. Or one might have a Christian ontology - created body/soul/spirit.

2. Epistemology. One's theory of knowledge. What is the difference between truth and falsehood? One could take a Cartesian view, for example, and doubt everything except that one exists. Or, one could say that "the fear of the Lord is the begining of wisdom"

Now, I intentionally offered "secular" and Christian alternatives to make a point. Yes, there are different metaphysics. Well duh. That's not the point; the point is that different metaphysics are geared to fulfilling different human needs.

There is a metaphysics geared to fulfilling a particular set of needs, and this combination is religion.

One example of a human need - one of the most important, I think - is recognition. We need others to acknowledge us. There are a variety of tools we use to achieve recognition: we display consumer goods, we engage in admirable physical/intellectual acts, we pass laws to force others to think or act like us.

Religion touches on this need, but only in a peripheral way. Religion primarily answers other needs.

1. Subsumation of the individual. There are other names for this impulse: the death drive, Dionysian ecstasy, the elan vital. Suffice to say, humans find it deeply pleasurable to abandon their individuality and dive into an intense emotional experience. This, I believe, is the basis of Charismatic worship. On the flip side of the coin, in another way, it can also be expressed in the deep, mystical mediation of the monk. Other religions provide routes to fulfilling this need; the Sufi Dervishers spin until their minds melt into a higher state. The Buddhist seeks to eliminate the self as well. Indigenous religions are big on this; all those ecstatic dances of the shaman are essentially the same experience.

There is also a secular, non-religious route - mosh pits and other dance events like raves. This helps me make my point about the nature of religion. Each of the religious experiences - from Christian charismatic worship to the shaman's dance - are connected to particular metaphysics. There is a framework each act takes place in. The mosh pit is without framework, and therefore not religious.

2. Symbolic cause and effect. This is perhaps a subheading of another human drive that I won't discuss here. Consider what we know of basic cause and effect; a car moving 100/kph hits an icy patch and spins out. Or, air pressure goes wonky and a drought occurs. Or an individual makes a choice to kill another person.

There is a human tendency to believe that symbolic actions and words can affect the chain of events. A shaman cuts a chicken's throat, and expects a good hunt. A group of Christians hold hands and prays for traveling mercies. Both of these acts are symbolic and related to a particular metaphysics, therefore they are religious acts.

Or, someone watching football jumps out of his chair as his team is about to score, shouting "go go go!" This is the same attempt to affect the chain of events though symbolic words and actions, but is unconnected to any particular metaphysics. Therefore it is not religious.

3. Totemism. A social group chooses traits to elevate to the highest and most noble positions. They believe their group best embodies these traits, even if done so imperfectly. Consider Muslims; the most noble trait to them is submission. They even take it as their name, and they organize their lives around this principle. Different Christian groups will have different priorities, so I won't bother with specifics here.

Totemism is the need to see our favoured traits reflected in the world. Think of the Bat signal; a social group is the strobelight, projecting their trait into the world, and seeing it reflected back.

Now, there is a strong form of totemism that isn't necassarily religious - patriotism. Patriotism can even be loosely connected to metaphysics - I'd suggest something like this goes on with Christian Right in the United States.

So to summarize, religion is a particular set of thoughts and actions geared to fulfill a particular set of needs. The list of methods and goals is probably a lot larger than I've outlined here. It's not just an intellectual position and it's not just habits of behaviour.

I don't pretend that this is a conclusive definition; there are huge swaths of religious philosophy and anthropology I haven't engaged with. But I think it's an interesting place to start.

No comments: