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 "Religion Explained." Religion Explained)

Of course, the definition of religion is controversial. In short, there are views that consider religion in very broad terms, not so broad terms, and variations in the middle. I think of Ward E. Goodenough's article "Toward and Anthropologically Useful Definition of Religion" in the book "Changing Perspectives in the Scientific Study of Religion" where he gives a description of the problems associated with defining religion and adds a focus on a particular topic which I also talked about in class --salvation. Which, starting from the second paragraph, presents a definition of religion, and then explains a view of salvation events -- note the quiz question for this that I often use "Have you ever been saved?" is meant in these terms. (See also Josiah Royce The Sources of Religious Insight.)

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 religious institution.

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 "founding fathers."

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" Martin Marty)

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" side.

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 accepted.

It is certainly also the case, that religion has been "privatized" in the US. (See 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 Weber:

"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 1909

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 side.

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.

 See also: Miroslav Volf Flourishing

Phenomenology of Religion

Josiah Royce: http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=y7yJP67BRz0C&dq=josiah+royce+sources+religious+insight&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=jlM98jTr_g&sig=j_QDfnAIhD8-ZfSz7a81ymxAYs0#PPA12,M1



This page is maintained by William S. Jamison. It was last updated July 11, 2016. All links on these pages are either to open source or public domain materials or they are marked with the appropriate copyright information. I frequently check the links I have made to other web sites but each source is responsible for their own content.