What is Religion?
Belief in a metanarrative.
The question has come up in class, as it inevitably does in philosophy,
what the relationship is between philosophy and religion. This seems
relevant since most students who are taking a first philosophy course are
surprised to find religion considered a part of philosophy. Generally, the
subject matter of philosophy includes all other subjects, including
religion, while the subject of religion, does not necessarily include
philosophy. For example, in large departments of philosophy, there is
usually a philosophy of religion course or program of study. There are, as
far as I know, no courses offered on the religion of philosophy. This is a
bit more complicated today, since William James
wrote "The Varieties of the Religious Experience" to also study religion
from a scientific point of view. So, today we have the psychology of
religion, the scientific study of religion, the sociology of religion, and
the anthropology of religion. (See for example Pascal Boyer's recent book
I use the concept of religion in the broad sense.
I define a religious person as someone who has faith in a metanarrative and so religion would be defined as faith in a metanarrative. The
stronger the faith, the more religious the person.
The metanarrative does not have to be one traditionally associated with a
Narratives legitimate or justify human institutions and the values, and
rules by which those institutions function. This includes governmental
institutions, generally legitimized by a formal constitution that in this
sense is equivalent to the creed or dogma of a traditional religious
institution such as the Roman Catholic Church.
Notice that prior to the Great American Experiment, State and Religion
were mutually engaged in legitimizing the social structures of the relevant
communities. The establishment of the US Constitution, representing a
detachment from previous religious (and State!) institutions coincides with
the Deistic or non-sectarian, though Christian, view of the majority of the
So in this sense, and my use of the term religion, the US Constitution
not only serves as the official legitimizing narrative of the government but
also represents the "dogma" of our "state religion." (See Martin Marty
"Politics, Religion, and the Common Good"
It also seems clear that an anthropological and sociological analysis of
the expression of belief of the founding fathers can be traced specifically
to the evolving expressions of belief described by a Hobbes - (Descartes) -
Spinoza - Locke - Jefferson chain, and others. (See
Randall Collins "The Sociology of Philosophies.")
Questions concerning the usefulness of applying "religion" as a concept
to traditionally secular legitimatizing narratives are certainly important
here. Sociologists take the customary three sided views to this: for,
against, and undecided. Undecided folks are confused over the usefulness of
doing so. Those "against" are concerned that the words involved become
progressively less useful or clear. Those "for" point out the new uses for
relating these concepts. Since my overall disposition is to enjoy a rich
variety of tools instead of a focus on simplification, I prefer the "for"
As a result, my use of the word "religion" may very well be broader than
most students are used to. Since I even include those who hold firmly to
scientific narratives as "religious," some individuals who believe a
scientific narrative and consider themselves not religious, may take
offense. For this I apologize, however, see
Thomas Kuhn for
my supporting reference that this has been the dominant academic view since
his work has been largely
It is certainly also the case, that religion has been "privatized" in the
Peter Berger ). In general, people feel religion (and perhaps politics!)
are subjects that are not appropriate for public discussion. In our public
school system, religion is only presented in historical or sociological
contexts. To quote Max
"We know of no scientifically
ascertainable ideals. To be sure, that makes our efforts more arduous than
those of the past, since we are expected to create our ideals from within
our breast in the very age of subjectivist culture; but we must not and
cannot promise a fool's paradise and an easy street, neither in thought nor
in action. It is the stigma of our human dignity that the peace of our souls
cannot be as great as the peace of one who dreams of such a paradise."
Max Weber in
In philosophy the approach to all subject matter is critical, or analytic
(not critical in the sense of "putting down" or "correcting"), and the
intention is positive and truth seeking. In this sense, it is correct to
present all arguments in their best light ("principle of charity"). As a
result, I try to present each philosophical position from its strongest
In this, I am not proselytizing, or promoting a particular religion,
especially not from the perspective of supporting a particular institution.
None the less, I will argue for a "best narrative" since that is consistent
with our contemporary narrative.