Archive for May, 2007

May 5, 2007

indian and chinese religion vs. the three monotheisms

Religion is a vague term. Hinduism, buddhism, confucianism, daoism share a large set of family resemblances; the three religions of the book (judaism, christianity, & islam) also look very much alike; these two super-groups of religions are as similar as poodle and a german shepherd.

The most important and defining difference seems to be the presence or absence of communitarian aspects. The east-asian religions are individualistic at the family level: in hinduism and buddhism religion takes place in the family, either in front of the shrines in people’s houses or when some family members go to the temple, do what needs to be done, and leave – without speaking to another soul during the process. The monotheisms wouldn’t survive without the chit-chat among believers after friday, staurday or sunday morning services: judaism and its younger brothers cut through families, proudly sundering fathers and sons or mothers and daughters because of religious differences. If honoring ancestors is essential to one type of religion, it is anathema to the other.

Monotheism wants to redefine the concept of the family: by making all believers brothers and sisters, it excludes ‘real’ siblings who don’t believe. Monotheism is violent with existing social structures, believing them to be often detrimental to god’s purposes. (In this sense, Rousseau was a good christian.)

Hinduism and its child, buddhism are built upon the idea of the family and on the whole work to preserve existing social structures. You cannot convert to hinduism because there is no sense in being hindu if your whole family, including your dead ancestors, were not already good hindus.

In this pair of religious types, monotheism is the odd one out. It is monotheism that seems to go against the grain and it is thus monotheism that tends more often towards violence. Mohamed can encourage forced conversions without contradicting the fundamentals of his religion; and Jesus can preach the destruction of the family in order to foster love!

And yet, monotheism was on to something. If we learnt anything from jesus, it is that all men are brothers – or rather that all people are siblings. It is surely neither necessary nor good to fear your dead ancestors or to turn against your living parents. What is good and necessary is, of course, to be kind to all people (including your parents) and to need fear none (including your prospective benefactors).

May 5, 2007

rationalizing religion (a response to chadai)

Over at Chadai Scott has some very interesting thoughts about Jim Ryan’s and my attempts at understanding of religion. I fully agree with his comments about Jim’s idea of naturalizing religion and will let Jim reply if he feel so inclined. As to Scott’s comments about my desire to rationalize religion:

Scott doesn’t like my idea because he does not believe there is much in religion to rationalize; instead, he’d prefer we worked up from the ground of science and ethics, formulating something like an alternative to religion. In addition to the basic objection that religion is not rational enough to be rationalized, another concern is rightly raised, namely that the very attempt to rationalize religion might itself turn into a religious endeavor. Both of these ideas are summed up in the thought that religion is our most fundamental source of meaning.

i will respond to these comments by clarifying what i meant and perhaps even coming up with formulations that Scott could find agreeable.

1. the result of a rationalizing of religion would not be ‘a rational religion’, and would probably no longer be ‘religion’ at all. The goal of rationalizing religion is not to come up with a better religion. The rationalizing process is only a means to an unknown end: the hope is that as we gradually understand why we are religious, our religion will be transformed into something that is no longer religion. We must come to a point where we realize that the idea of religion was mostly wrong; to do so, however, we must figure out what we believe and why we believe it.

put in religious terms: religion needs to be saved. and this salvation can, at the moment, only lie in hard, honest science because that is the only thing we humans are rather confident about at the moment.

2. the best way to understand religion is to translate the relevant portions of our old-fashioned theologies and practices into the more familiar language of science. As the anthropologists of yore, we must stop asking religious people why they do what they do and begin explaining their actions from a different, more objective, point of view. Again, the goal should not be to re-construct an ersatz ‘scientific religion’ but rather to see what happens when we finally realize what religion really is and does. We must attain to the next level of religious consciousness – only then to perhaps realize that we are no longer religious.

3. scott’s and my projects could probably meet half way, he having started from the sciences and ethics and myself having begun with religion and morality – where we meet is a completely new place, somewhere beyond religion and ethics. It is this new place we must reach by working through existing religions with a few philosophical and scientific tools. My method is analytic, whereas Scott’s is more synthetic.

3. rationalizing religion needn’t assume there is a core or an essence to religion – nor any deep structure waiting to be revealed. Rationalizing religion only means clarifying it. The term ‘religion’ does not necessarily designate one clearly definable thing. For one, there are probably more differences than similarities between est-asian religions on the one hand and the three monotheisms on the other. ‘Religion’ is much more the name of a problem or of that which is left once science, culture and everything else is accounted for. Hence the futility of designing a new and improved religion. There is perhaps no such thing as religion; however, that does not imply that we shouldn’t try to better understand (and move beyond) those mysterious aspects of society and of our brains that ordinarily go by the name ‘religion’.