A few years ago I participated in a colloquium at UCLA that included, besides myself, two other academics who studied various aspects of the origins of Christianity, and a lawyer, somewhat unjustifiably famous for battling “religious theists” [sic]. The latter category he habitually referred to as “religion” or “supernaturalism,” which in his head amounted to the same thing.
With a kind of cocksureness that always comes naturally to the malinformed, he told me minutes before delivering his spiel that he welcomed the opportunity to “set these religion scholars straight.” I muttered something agreeable about the nature of scholarship–always being a willingness to accept correction, though privately I have always thought that Jesus’ words about lawyers are among the wisest things he is ever reckoned to have said.
At the end of his discussion, the three of us sat quietly. Carol Backhos, a UCLA professor of Judaic Studies, who had kept track of the number of times the speaker had equated religion and supernaturalism in his talk, asked him fairly pointedly what he thought the three of us did to earn a living. Her implication was that if our work corresponded to what he thought we did, we should not be permitted near the gates of a university.
Reuven Firestone, a leading expert on medieval Judaism and Islam, pressed him a bit further, asking whether he could make the distinction between “supernaturalism” as a view of the world that could only have become intelligible in modernity, especially through science, and a view of the world that would not have included it–indeed would have been unintelligible–even to educated people–prior to the “dawn” of science. He asked especially about Spinoza’s view on the self-contradictoriness of miracles as proof of God, as an illustration.
As the hapless panel moderator, my final word was that he (the lawyer) should understand that “providentialim” and “supernaturalism” are useful to historians only in charting superficial descriptions in history, and that all serious historians share a methodological disbelief in ghosts, spirits, fate, kairos, gods and divinities causing anything to happen. Consider, I tamely said, that in Shakespeare’s great tragedy of the name Julius Caesar dies in Act III but is still considered causative as a literary device until the end: “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!/ Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords/ In our own proper entrails (5.3.94-96).” (Most students of historiography know the problem as Caesar’s ghost–explaining something that really happens in terms of forces you know aren’t really there but may be in the minds of people with a different disposition towards cause and effect.) Supernaturalism, I said, is not a word that scholars often use as equivalent to religion in modern study and not even a likely descriptor that a religious person would use about himself.
For different reasons, mainly related to discussions of scientific naturalism as a term in need of an opposite, philosophers sometimes revert to it and an older generation of anthropologists used it “descriptively.” Historians, on the other hand, have been ferociously critical of its use.
The lawyer mumbled something unhelpful and sat down, plausibly thinking that the scholars had not learned much about religion from him.
Those of us who teach the study of religion at college level battle two assumptions: first, the assumption of many students that courses in religion are religious–hearkening back to an era of undertrained divinity school-trained lecturers who were very often protestant ministers themselves; and second, the often grotesque ignorance of our colleagues in the academy, and not just in the sciences, about what is actually studied in a religious studies curriculum. Academic apartheid is another name for what universities call “disciplines.”
I have no statistic to prove the following point, but I would guess that courses bearing the “Religious Studies” label are probably among the least understood in the average college catalogue. And it isn’t the fault of students or colleagues in other disciplines that this is the case. Religious studies “professionals” are sometimes the worst spokesmen when it comes to explaining what they are doing in the classroom, inviting the suspicion that they are doing priestcraft and witchery and alchemy instead of more useful subjects. Or perhaps, though I hope not, this reluctance to explain, defend and inform comes from the esoteric nature of religion itself.
Beyond this, some of the best programs in the field, such as the longstanding one at the University of Chicago, share a common designation with the worst, such as the ones at self-described ‘Christian” universities like Liberty in Virginia or Oral Roberts in Oklahoma–and these, alas, are not the worst examples of Christian apologetics masquerading as serious academic study. Einstein once said of the physics of his generation that “A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem.” In religious studies both the means and the aims are often not made clear.
So who can blame our lawyer friend for being confused? I sometimes like to say to advanced students taking methodology or historiography courses that religions are morphologically similar and anatomically different. They exhibit common structural features in widely divergent ways. Some have priesthoods, some have brotherhoods, others only monks or congregants, others only inquirers. They meet in churches, mosques, tents, open fields, temples and not at all. They resound in highly structured public celebrations, ecstatic and emotional outbursts, and total silence. They base their practices on sacred books, private revelations, only conscience, believe in one God, thousands, and none, and produce codes ranging from axioms and laws to questions and puzzles. Some see a complete rift between the world of experience and the world in which a divine spirit suffuses reality. Some believe these worlds are continuous or periodical. Some see the natural world as the only world there is.
“In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befal me in life – no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinte space, – all mean egoism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the universal Being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God (R. W. Emerson, Nature)
There have been famous attempts to solidify structural points of similarity in religion, notably by scholars like Ninian Smart and anthropologist Clifford Geertz–both of whose contributions are indispensable reading for anyone who really wants to know about the nature of religion at a methodological level. But the “essence” of religion is notoriously difficult to capture and even harder to describe. A lot of what we do in a first year religious studies course is giggle at definitions proposed by well-intentioned scholars a hundred years ago. Here, to save space, they will be nameless.
Smart thought that religions (“religion” is a less adequate collective noun) express themselves in seven more or less discrete ways which he labeled “dimensions”: experiential, emotional, pratical, ritual, legal, and mythic (or narrative) forms. By this he simply meant that religions tell stories (myths) that either stem from or result in practices that satisfy an emotional need or moral situation. In some cases, they claim that this story is rooted in history: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do this. In other cases, especially in the Asian traditions, the seminal stories may just be stories–myths whose meaning lay in their ability to form a cohesive community–a church, or some other institutional structure dedicated to propagating the values and teachings of a particular faith. A religion’s success or failure is the aggregate of the way in which the dimensions contribute to its survival.
Smart also believed that there were competing worldviews that were not strictly speaking religious but which satisfied the same objectives and exhibited many of the same dimensions. These secular worldviews included nationalism with its myth of the history of a nation (often highly mythologized for politial purposes over centuries–Roma Aeterna, Mother Russia, Pioneer America, Albion.) Political and economic philosophies, like Marxism and capitalism, also exhibited many of the same characteristics, especially with respect to the essentially conservative (i.e. tradition-preserving) nature of the institutions and legal systems such philosophies create.
Certain parts of Smart’s “seven-dimensions” seem a bit strained in the contemporary context, but they still represent a useful conceptual entry-level model for coping with the complex characteristics that “religion” exhibits.
Descriptively, the better models were proposed by Clifford Geertz (who died in 2006 at the age of eighty) and whose work on the etiology of culture has been priceless for all areas of the field of religious studies. Focusing more on family resemblances and what he termed “thick descriptions” (comprehensive analysis of why people do what they do, rather than, as Smart, the fact that they do it), Geertz saw religion and ritual essentially as “The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, [something] evidently as real and pressing as the more familiar biological needs…”
Any attempt to make sense of the term “religion” after Geertz that does not take the functionalist approach into account, even if it does not depend on it, is simply deficient. The same would be true of the essential work of Michael Gilsenan (NYU) on Islam, and a former “superior” of mine at Heidelberg, Gerd Theissen on the sociology of early Christian communities. Theissen is especially interesting as an example of a scholar who sees his primary work as that of a theologian trying to grapple with the approaches sociology has imposed upon various inquiries into the beginnings of the Christian church.
I have often complained on this blog about the way in which otherwise well-spoken people such as my lawyer-friend use terms like “religion,” “superstition,” and “supernaturalism” as though the analysis of these terms reached a dead-end in the ninetenth century, when science dethroned theology and the Church seemed not to notice. In fact religion only began to be understood in the nineteenth century, and science–or rather methods of investigation common to a scientific and skeptical outlook–helped us to do it.
What is less commonly understood is that much of what made the reign of science possible in the first place are theological programs of the eighteenth and nineteenth century (and habits of inquiry that go back much further in time) that cleaned the house of “supernaturalist” thinking in the interest of saving a ship that was sinking in the sea of modernity. The names, ideas and work of the men and women who participated in that project are almost (but not quite) as deserving of mention as names like Darwin and Faraday.
I can tell you that it is increasingly embarrassing to see that the ineffectiveness of people in my own field in explaining what they do for a living to people unacquainted with the basic Wissenschaft in religious studies has now resulted in a debate that would be far more interesting if people would update it from 1765 to 2011. There is simply no excuse for dumb lawyers anymore.