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What is Religion?/the dynamic of religion : This is not about the definition of religion but the entity itself
Posted: 04 October 2012 11:39 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Hello all,

I was reading this interesting book by a social sciences professor S.N. Balagangadhara called ‘The Heathen in his blindness: Asia, the West, and the dynamic of religion’. In it, he addresses a simple but understated issue that has not been given enough importance among most scientists who want to study and understand religion, namely, what object or phenomenon in the world is the word ‘religion’ referring to?

I am aware that there are many definitions of religion available in different books, provided by different people over the years, but the issue still remains: one has to know what object one is talking about, before providing a definition of the object; that is how definitions work. In other words, what exactly am I trying to define?

For example, most people refer to Christianity as a religion

Why is Christianity a religion? What makes it a religion?

A common answer is belief in God, belief in supernatural, transcendent etc etc

But the question is, why does belief in God/supernatural/transcendent make Christianity or any entity into a religion?

furthermore, terms like supernatural itself is problematic, and require further clarification.

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Posted: 04 October 2012 12:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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And furthermore, a term like “clarification” requires clarification.

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Posted: 04 October 2012 12:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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What makes something a religion is a nearly intractable problem; there is no fully precise definition of a religion anymore than there is a fully precise definition of what is a chair or a dinner plate.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t reliably distinguish things that are religions from things that are not religions. (Christianity is a religion. Taking a stroll in the park is not a religion).

As for actual definitions, dictionaries have them, and if that’s not good enough, intro books to religious studies have some more well thought out ones. Or if all else fails there’s always Wiki.

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Posted: 04 October 2012 06:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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But when defining chair or dinner plate, one knows exactly what object one is talking about. we don’t even need to define ‘chair’ to know what chair is. we can easily point to a chair.

Things aren’t so simple when it comes to religion. The hypothesis (of the book) is that most ppl who study, write books about, and define religion, do so without knowing what object they are talking about.

This problem becomes especially acute and evident when you look at a common-sense belief within Western culture that religion is a cultural universal. That is, it is now accepted without question, that most, if not all cultures have religion.

This common-sense wisdom about the universality of religion does not just rest on the results of research – it also supports them. That is, the idea that religion is a cultural universal is the foundation for empirical and theoretical
enquiries into religion.

This is what most anthropologists and social scientists have done throughout history: they start with a pre-theoretical assumption that religion is a cultural universal, and then they pigeonhole whatever they encounter in other cultures as ‘religion’. That is the main reason why it has been almost ‘impossible’ to define religion, and there are hundreds of different definitions, and the definitions keep getting modified all the time; this is historically because anthropologists and ethnographers have been changing and modifying the definition in order to classify what they see in other cultures as religion. They see certain practices, which they assume is religion (an assumption that is not based on any scientific research), and then modify the existing definition so that it is also inclusive of these “religions”


Hence, the necessity of asking what object are we talking about when we speak of ‘religion’. I believe this is an important question and should be a starting point for any study/discussion about religion.

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Posted: 04 October 2012 06:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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arv13 - 04 October 2012 06:08 PM

But when defining chair or dinner plate, one knows exactly what object one is talking about. we don’t even need to define ‘chair’ to know what chair is. we can easily point to a chair.

Um, precisely the same with religion. I can easily point to a religion: Christianity.

If you’re hung up on chairs being physical objects and Christianity being an abstract concept, think of sports or trips. Or summer.

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Posted: 04 October 2012 07:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Doug makes a good point. You are deluding yourself to think that anything can be defined with perfect ease so that here is no ambiguity.

Are these all chairs?

rocking-wheel-chair-mathias-koehler1.jpg243_photo_1_154213.png
cool-chair.jpg
Ana_Linares_Conversation_Chair_full.jpg
wilson_chair_5.jpg

Their creators think so but it might be difficult to come up with a definition that encompasses all the chairs you are familiar with as well as these and many others.

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Posted: 04 October 2012 11:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I’m always fascinated by how often otherwise intelligent people get hung up on semantics and word definitions.  There’s nothing sacrosanct about any word.  It’s merely a set of symbols that we mutually agree is to be used to indicate some specific thing, be it physical or non-physical.  And by common usage word meanings can change so if we wish to communicate effectively, we can’t try to use a word with its obsolete meaning.  Two examples are very nice words that used to mean very bad (enormity) and something to stand on (podium) through frequent misuse are morphing into enormous and lectern.

There’s nothing magic about the word, religion.  Doug spelled it out very clearly.

Occam

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Posted: 05 October 2012 12:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I think people forget that dictionary definitions are driven by usage, not the other way around. Dictionaries define how words are being used, and this usage is flexible. (the word ‘nice’ used to be quite different from it’s current meaning, conserved in “Now, that’s a nice distinction”)

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Posted: 05 October 2012 03:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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You can’t really spend too much time on these type of questions, but if you do want to go down this road, why not find out when is a painting considered art. If you can answer that for me it’d be much appreciated.

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Posted: 05 October 2012 04:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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ExMachina - 05 October 2012 03:18 AM

You can’t really spend too much time on these type of questions, but if you do want to go down this road, why not find out when is a painting considered art. If you can answer that for me it’d be much appreciated.

Read Tolstoy’s “What Is Art?”  grin As Tolstoy got old, he got quite mad. Not that he only thought he knew what art was, he also went crazy over the “misuse” of the word “nice.” But then he died and life went on. Today even a wine or a salad can be nice—which, personally, drives me crazy.

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Posted: 05 October 2012 09:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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my point from the very beginning was that this was not about the definition but about the actual phenomena in the world.

I agree that discussions about definitions are sterile. this isn’t even about the word ‘religion’. instead of ‘religion’ use X.

There is common consensus that Christianity is X. But Christianity is not the only thing put in the ‘X’ category, Islam, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism are all classified as ‘X’. Why are these different phenomena/practices put into the same category set?

this bring us to the fundamental issue which is very simple : In order to classify certain phenomena as religion, one has to know what religion is.  The definitions are groomed merely as an answer to the pre-theoretical intuition of the author. Hence, the definitions vary according to their tastes. Before defining religion, one has to know what religion is.

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Posted: 05 October 2012 09:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Perhaps it would help if you could get at your point. I assume that you are using this supposed definitional problem with religion to make some point about either some of the phenomena labeled “religion” or some of the phenomena not so labeled.

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Posted: 05 October 2012 10:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Ok, you’re right, i’ll get to the point:

There are two main hypothesis of the book (The heathen in his blindness). It has been summarized by one of his students, so I’ll just quote him.

“Firstly, he claims that religion is not a cultural universal. He started with the following observations: most intellectuals agree that Christianity had a profound influence on western culture; that members from different cultures experience many aspects of the world differently; and that the empirical and theoretical study of both culture and religion emerged within the West. Balagangadhara argues that religion is important to the West because the constitution and the identity of western culture are tied to the dynamic of Christianity as a religion. He argued that the analytical tools with which the West has understood other cultures like India, are intrinsically shaped by Semitic and Christian theology. The doctrine that God gave religion to the humankind, Balagangadhara argued, lies at the heart of the originally ethnographic belief in the universality of religion:

  In the name of science and ethnology, the Biblical themes have become our regular stock-in-trade: that God gave religion to humankind has become a cultural universal in the guise that all cultures have a religion; the theme that God gave one religion to humanity has taken the form and belief that all religions have something in common; that God revealed himself to humankind is sanctified in the claim that in all cultures and at all times there is a subjective experience of religion which is fundamentally the same; the idea that God implanted a sense of divinity in Man is now a secular truth in the form of an anthropological, specifically human ability to have a religious experience ... And so the list goes on, and on, and on. Theme after theme from the pages of the Bible has become the ‘but of course!’ of intellectuals—whether Jew, Muslim, Dinka, or Brahmin.”

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Posted: 05 October 2012 11:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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The second hypothesis is the following. It is long so please bear with me:

1.  He claims that Christianity expands in two ways. (This is not just
  typical of Christianity but of all religions. ) Both
  of these have been present ever since the inception of Christianity
  and have mutually reinforced each other. The first is familiar to all
    of us: *direct conversion.*

2.  Funnily enough, the second way in which Christianity expands is
    also familiar to us: the process *secularisation*. Christianity
  `secularises’ itself in the form of, as it were,`dechristianised Christainity’.
    What this word means is: typically Christian doctrines spread wide and deep
    (beyond the confines of   the community of Christian believers) in the society dressed up in
  `secular’ (that is, not in recognisably `Christian’) clothes. We need
    a very small bit of Western history here in order to understand this
    point better.

2.1. Usually, the `enlightenment period’, which is identified as `the
    Age of Reason’, is alleged to be the apotheosis (or the `high point’)
    of the process of `secularisation’. What people normally mean by
    `secularisation’ here is the following: the enlightenment thinkers are
      supposed to have successfully `fought’ against the dominance that
    religion (i.e. Christianity) had until then exercised over social,
    political, and economic life. From then on, so goes the standard text
    book story, human kind began to look to `reason’ instead of, say, the
    Church in all matters social, civic, political etc. The spirit of
    scientific thinking, which dominated that age, has continued to gain
    ascendancy. As heirs to this period, which put a definitive end to all
    forms of `irrational’ subservience, we are proud citizens of the
    modern day world. 

2.2. The problem with this story is simply this: the enlightenment
    thinkers have built their formidable reputation (as opponents of `all
    organised religion’ or even `religion’ tout court) by *selling* ideas
    from *Protestant Christianity* as though they were `neutral’ and
    `rational’. Take for example the claim that `religion’ is not a matter
    for state intervention and that it is a `private’ affair of the
    individual in question. Who thought, do you think, that `religi on’
    was *not* a `private’ affair? The Catholic Church, of course. Even to
    this day, it believes that the Church mediates between Man and God,
    what youbelieve in (as a Christian) is decided by the Catholic Church. The
    Protestants fought a battle with the Catholics on *theological*
    grounds. To cut the long story short, the Protestants won
    this theological battle. The enlightenment thinkers repeated this
    Protestant story, and this has become our `secularism’.

2.3. The same story applies with respect to Human Rights (as we know them today). The doctrine of Human rights
    arose in the Middle Ages, in a theological debate between the franciscans and the dominicans. They were addressing the question
    of whether church could own property or not: Are human beings the sovereign dominus of this earth, or are they merely custodians?

2.4. He is not merely making the point that these ideas had their
    origin in religious contexts. His point is much more than that: The claim is
    that *we cannot accept these theories without, at the same time,
    accepting Christian theology as true.*

[ Edited: 05 October 2012 11:16 AM by arv13 ]
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Posted: 05 October 2012 11:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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arv13 - 05 October 2012 10:41 AM

Ok, you’re right, i’ll get to the point:

There are two main hypothesis of the book (The heathen in his blindness). It has been summarized by one of his students, so I’ll just quote him.

“Firstly, he claims that religion is not a cultural universal. He started with the following observations: most intellectuals agree that Christianity had a profound influence on western culture; that members from different cultures experience many aspects of the world differently; and that the empirical and theoretical study of both culture and religion emerged within the West. Balagangadhara argues that religion is important to the West because the constitution and the identity of western culture are tied to the dynamic of Christianity as a religion. He argued that the analytical tools with which the West has understood other cultures like India, are intrinsically shaped by Semitic and Christian theology. The doctrine that God gave religion to the humankind, Balagangadhara argued, lies at the heart of the originally ethnographic belief in the universality of religion:

  In the name of science and ethnology, the Biblical themes have become our regular stock-in-trade: that God gave religion to humankind has become a cultural universal in the guise that all cultures have a religion; the theme that God gave one religion to humanity has taken the form and belief that all religions have something in common; that God revealed himself to humankind is sanctified in the claim that in all cultures and at all times there is a subjective experience of religion which is fundamentally the same; the idea that God implanted a sense of divinity in Man is now a secular truth in the form of an anthropological, specifically human ability to have a religious experience ... And so the list goes on, and on, and on. Theme after theme from the pages of the Bible has become the ‘but of course!’ of intellectuals—whether Jew, Muslim, Dinka, or Brahmin.”

Well, I don’t think that is correct, really. Any careful student of religion will have their studies informed by anthropology and ethnography, and will indeed say that “religion” is only a relatively recent cultural invention, a systematization and institutionalization of what were various and sundry rites, rituals, and practices of magic and worship. Further, any theory or definition of religion that makes essential reference to God is not workable.

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Posted: 05 October 2012 11:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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arv13 - 05 October 2012 11:09 AM

2.4. He is not merely making the point that these ideas had their
    origin in religious contexts. His point is much more than that: The claim is
    that *we cannot accept these theories without, at the same time,
    accepting Christian theology as true.*

OK, but this is a false claim.

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