Saturday, February 02, 2013

What Qualifies as a Religion?

Ever wonder what people mean when the use the word 'religion'? It turns out that it's not always clear.

Around the same time European merchant and military adventurers, especially of the sturdy British variety, were placing the rest of the globe under imperial rule, European scholars were rudely awakened to the emptiness of their cherished intellectual idols. The best scholarship to date had categorized religion in terms of three or four basic forms: usually Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and pagan. Judaism was somewhere in the mix, but didn't always qualify, or so it was thought, for independent treatment.

Then Europeans got wind of the ancient civilizations existing in India and China, and also the great literary traditions associated with Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. Some of the more perceptive of these men, and they usually were men, realized the old categories didn't actually match the reality of the situation. The newly discovered depths of these ancient religious traditions--for, presumably, that was what they were: religions--fit, by default, into the category of inferior pagan traditions, on par with the Ancient Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, or Rome. With its many gods and goddesses, Hinduism seemed to conform to the old pagan pattern. The civilization and literary tradition associated with it, however, suggested anything but inferiority. In some ways, its content even suggested a greater maturity than anything Christendom had produced.

Buddhism and Confucianism were even more difficult to press into the old way of categorizing religions. Adherents of some stripe of Christianity, European scholars tended to presume religion involved the worship of a transcendent deity, a singular being whose existence comprehended the existence of all other beings, and went by the non-descriptive title God. While certain varieties of Buddhism had gods, of course, it quickly became clear that the Buddha himself, and the mainstream of Buddhist teaching, taught that the pinnacle of existence was characterized rather by a profound Emptiness, or Nirvana. Likewise, Confucius' insistence that human beings ought not speculate about things they could not know, but focus on things that were within their mental grasp, like the the ills of society, also reminded European scholars of the ubercritic, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.

At the end of the 19th century, Freidrich Max Muller stated the dilemma like this: We have believed that religion was characterized by worship of gods and God, all personal deities. If this definition is always everywhere true, then Buddhism and Confucianism are not religions. And, as a consequence, we seem to need to find some other name for them.

A few Europeans scholars took up and defended the latter proposal. The intellectual inconveniences the rustic Hebrew texts had saddled their interpreters could be swept aside, they believed, and a new rational, uniform system put in its place. And Buddhism, for example, showed us how to do that. Or a fresh look at social ills as social ills could be taken, and not as supposed expressions of God's wrath towards moral failings. And Confucianism, the great humanist doctrine that it appeared to be, showed us how to do that.

These attempts to redefine the eastern religious traditions would not carry the day. The ancient traditions ended up looking a little to modern and secular than saner minds deemed possible. Later generations saw that their teachers had co-opted the great eastern traditions in order to criticize the great western traditions. Using intellectual weapons fashioned half-a-world away that they hardly knew, they criticized things they thought the knew only too well. Belonging to polite society, of course, the charges were never put in quite such stark terms, but the implications are there, hovering in the background.

Muller had the wherewithal to see that minor intellectual skirmishes, for example, over whether Darwinian evolution could be made to fit with the first chapter of Genesis, whether scientific minds could any longer believe in miraculous events, or how a good God could allow evil to exist, were nothing more than intellectual vanities--which also made them distractions. Religious traditions may yield theoretical dilemmas, but they are not discredited on the basis of an apparent logical inconsistency.

The problem, Muller realized, was that scholars had sought a definition which would fit their their particular understanding of how divinity related to the world. If certain instances of religion failed to fit into the definition very easily, this was usually explained away by calling the religion false.

The better way was not to place oneself in the seat of divine judgment; the better way was to listen and watch human beings articulate how they they ordered their lives and their worship. Instead of placing God at the center of his inquiry, Muller placed the human being looking out and up towards the infinite extension of sky beyond the horizon, where the eye does not reach, and down and in at the infinite depths of the self, where the mind cannot go.

And he wondered about what sort of being it was that could ask questions that had no apparent answers--which, as it turned out, gave him a definition that applied in all instances.

1 comment: said...

Very interesting. My understanding is that Islamic conceptions about eastern high traditions filtered through to the West prior to the sixteenth century. The Islamic world was the great transmission belt through which goods, ideas, and techniques were exchanged between the east and the west until de Gama's voyages. It was this conception of the east as pagan which was suddenly challenged when the richness of the traditions was discovered. This is one aspect if Said's work which is not much explored in the construction of the 'Orient'. Did you ever explore this angle??