In the first part, we saw the nature of encounters of Christianity first with the Romans and later with the Indians. Indians, in turn, had an early encounter with the Greeks and later with the European Christians. Each of the encounters had special configurations and outcomes. The Roman encounter redefined the notions of religion; and the Indian encounter defined or created new religions in the Indian tradition when none existed before.
In the second part, we see how western attempts at defining and explaining religion took place; and how Protestant Christianity fought the atheistic movements across Europe creating some problems and category mistakes along the way.
Shifting Sands of Definitions of Religion
Unfortunately, thinkers across time have established religion as a fact and not a phenomenon in need of an explanation. Comparative studies of different religions and practices at the micro to the macro level characterise the religious studies today. ‘Trinity’ compares to ‘Trimurti’; ‘Dharma’ to ‘religion’ and so on. The different ‘isms’ and different domains makes it impossible for a global view to religious studies.
The most important dispute in the field of religious studies is that of definition. Authors trying to define religion have the following characteristics: they insist on the inability to give an adequate definition; provide their own definition; accept the permissibility of other definitions; and yet, spend a great deal of time and effort in criticizing others’ definitions.
Definitions have been varied according to the tastes of the authors. Shortening or broadening the scope of definitions come into play with awareness of new practices like magic or even disbelief in God as an entity. Conflicting definitions are much like a conflict of tastes, says the author. An adequate definition should throw light on the sorts of disputes and perplexities that produce a need to define religion, such as disputes whether communism or devotion to science are also religions. The disputes and perplexities involve either a problem in classificatory system or with our knowledge of the phenomenon.
When studying Hinduism or Buddhism, various authors state that these are religions even before they set out to define religion. Their belief that such traditions are religions get a backing by the enormous literature produced about them. Considering the definitions of religions, as true to Christian theology, Man was the summit of creation. But for Hindus, this is not so. So, what happens to Spiro’s definition which says religion is worshipping the superhuman placed above man, and praying to lower creatures and stones is not religion? The definitions merely express a linguistic and historical intuition of the Christian culture and exemplifies a secularized Christian theology.
In studying Christianity, Judaism, or Islam as prototypes of religion, the results show an inconsistency when comparing religions. The properties simply show that Christianity differs from some other traditions. Unless we establish what religion is, and what properties make Christianity a religion, we cannot make comparisons with Christianity to claim the existence of religion in other cultures.
Naturalistic Paradigm of Religion
A Christian theological framework guides the study of religion. All studies of religion presuppose the truth about Biblical themes, even as they couch them in secularized terms. Our secular world is in effect a secularized religious world.
Sometime in the 18th century, starting from Hume onwards, a new paradigm came about for developing theories in religious studies-the naturalistic paradigm. Instead of a supernatural account for the origin of religion, the paradigm shifted to natural causes to the origins of religion. The naturalistic paradigm undertook to explain why religion is a cultural universal, or why humans had to invent religion. The problem again with this is that they presuppose the truth of the claim that religion is a cultural universal and then come up with ad hoc explanations to fit this fact. The naturalistic paradigm states that the primitive man created religion based on the experience of a chaotic world around him and then trying to impose some order on it; or when he faced births and deaths. Hence, he devised mythical, magical, or naturalistic religious explanations.
The author is strongly against such arguments. The primitive man might have been instead impressed with the order of the cosmos, and thunder might have simply been an expected unexpectedness. The fact that he postulated gods does not render his world more orderly. Again, many of the pagan gods were full of caprice. This assumption that God creates order is characteristic of religions based on the Old Testament.
Similarly, creation of god as a longing for security in a world of scarcity is also an assumption because the author says that that scarcity and plenitude could be a part of his normal experience of the world and he might have found nothing unusual about it. The armchair psychology of backward extension of our psychology onto the psychology of the primitive man can be only true if cultural evolution has not had any impact on the nature and structure of human emotions. The primitive man might have had a very normal acceptance of the vagaries of nature or phenomenon like birth and death.
Lessius, an influential theologian, said that fear lies at the origin of atheism and not at the origin of religion. Fear leads to denial of god. This only shows the flimsiness of the fear origin of religion, because the same fear speculates on the origin of atheism! Funnily, during the times these theories came about, anthropological data was weak to even show that religion was a cultural universal. These theorists provided an explanation for something not yet an established fact!
Another biblical paradigm and later followed by the secularized narratives persist with the stories that wild nature was a hostile force, and the coming of religion removed this fear from man. Ironically, in some cultures, the wild is what is afraid of man. How do we make sense of this by the standard theories of religion? Complex pagan stories involving gods in various moods of benevolence, anger, greed, happiness, and so on cast doubts on the naturalistic theories claiming that religious explanations reduce fear making strange events appear familiar and manageable. To say religion removes man’s fears of natural events is another way of saying that true religion replaced the pagan superstitions.
Psychological Origins of Religion
Next, we have David Hume’s theory of religion in psychological terms. The religious explanation has five properties: religious explanation postulates invisible powers; it acknowledges human dependences on such powers; the invisible powers are unknown causes; the causes are of the same kind; and these causes model after human beings. The point is that even scientific theories have the first four of the above properties.
Even the activity of analogy or modelling does not make for a religious theory. Cognitive philosophies, philosophies, and sociologies of science are studying the roles of models also apart from metaphors and analogies in the development of scientific theories. Hence, the alleged anthropomorphizing on the part of the Early Man is in fact in the best tradition of scientific theorizing and rationality. By trying to explain the unknown in terms of the known, the primitive man is in fact indulging in classical human rationality, says the author emphatically.
Hence, Enlightenment thinkers like Hume thought humans explained divinity as assuming a human form and regulating the universe according to its plans, intentions, goals, or sentiments. But this explanation is typical of Semitic traditions and not of Asiatic traditions. Hinduism, Buddhism, or Shintoism never suggest that the universe holds together by the deities, and their thoughts govern the universe. So, Hume explains perhaps the genesis of a religion like Judaism, but not all religions. Or he does not consider religions of Asia to be religions at all.
Religion gets a definition of ‘all explicit and implicit notions and ideas, accepted as true, which relate to a reality that cannot be verified empirically’ in some writings. The notion of God or sacred comes here. Again, this is problematic. Not all empirically unverifiable entities or terms, like in theoretical physics, are religious in nature.
Religion and the Meaning of Life
The author says that religion has never answered this question and will never do so. Religion generates these problems and these do not antedate religion. The questions of meaning to life are internal to the religion. Christianity then posits faith. It is not enough to assent the existence of God but we must trust and believe in Him. Faith takes the dimension of ‘degrees of faith.’ A devout Christian may look at a Jew or a Muslim and believe that they too worship God, but quite deficiently. A pagan would simply constitute ‘an absence of faith.’
Unfortunately, faith and intolerance are two faces of the same coin. You cannot have faith without an inbuilt intolerance. Intolerance is necessary to being a religious person. He may not be a persecutor or a missionary, but it does entail that there is no question of accepting that other religions are equally true. A believer who believes in the truth of his doctrine and thus in God cannot be a tolerant person with respect to religion. Faith finally does not rest on reason. There are early Christian figures writing that Christianity needs believing because of its absurdity and impossibility!
Religion thus is the truth in the specific sense independent of truth of any other belief we may hold. The very existence of this account is the proof of its truth. This does not exist in any other sphere of human knowledge perhaps, says the author. By noting the relation between faith and truth, the understanding becomes easy that religion is intolerant.
Similarly, there is a deficiency in trying to define religion as a ‘religious experience.’ How can we but conceive of these feeling? Religion hence in the Semitic traditions can never have a scientific study from a neutral perspective. A person can judge the adequacy of one religion against another only from within the framework of a religion.
Contingent Properties of Religion
The first contingent property that religion acquires amidst human beings is the existence of God. The second property is that it makes a claim about the beings to whom such an account provides for. Generally, a claim that humans fulfil some purpose or other of God. The third contingent property of religion is that it must postulate a relation between God and humans. The fourth property is that it makes the Cosmos explainable and intelligible. Doctrine is the fifth contingent property of religion.
Worship is the means to understand and is a part of that account. In worship, man expresses his faith in God and affirms that he is using the means required to be a part of the purposes of God. Worship, of course, means worship of the true God. In a false religion, all traditional practices become idolatry. God, worship, prayer, eschatology are concepts internal to religion. Transposing these to other traditions makes them difficult to see why the heathens could prostrate to cows, monkeys, and serpents too. It is not worship, but the Christian scholars had to explain these in religious terms. Previously, it was a ‘heathen in his blindness,’ but today the politically correct statement is ‘symbolic’ forms of worship.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are specific religions because each is an explanatory intelligible account. A specific framework makes experiences of the world accordingly. But what makes them religions also divides them in an unsolvable manner. One may switch from one religion to another, but only in the belief that one is shifting to a better religion.
Finally, the three subjective dimensions of religion-faith, religious experience, and worship, set religions apart from each other. It also tells us why the pagans and heathens did not accept the descriptions provided by Christianity.
How Useful Are the Explanations of the Origins of Religion?
Useless, says the author. The naturalistic paradigm has plenty of defects. It is not obvious what is under an explanation; the truth value of the assumptions is disputable; the theories have trivial consequences; they transform Semitic theological ideas into the characteristic properties of religion; and all along they presuppose a theme while claiming to explain it.
There were many events and happenings which each culture saw in its own manner. The explanations to these phenomena became termed as ‘religion.’ The thinkers grasped the idea of religion as an explanation. The naturalistic paradigm makes theological assumptions too, though less explicitly and less honestly. The harshest criticism is that it smuggles in theology as a science of religion. It has never been a challenger to the supernatural explanation of religion. The real question is not about the universality of religion but the belief that it is so.
Protestant Response to Atheistic Movements and the Problems Generated
There appeared at the end of 1890s, a German religious school, openly Protestant in affiliation, who emphasized the unity of religions. This allowed a study of relationships of religions. They did not say ‘false’ or ‘true’ religion, but believed that all religions form a continuum of the human response to the revelation of the divine. The difference in degree is based on the adequacy of the response. They were very influential in the scholarship of the later 20th century religious studies in retaining the idea of a developmental ordering of history.
The response to the Divine is universal, but the variety of responses accounts for the variety of religions. The emphasis shifted in this narrative from an organized entity-doctrines, movement, structure to an individual experience. These experiences were typically ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ to make them a religious one. This was a response to the strong Atheistic movement when Christianity shifted slowly into a Theism. The focus shifted from Christ to a general God.
But this became a Christological dilemma-where on the one hand Christ is the only way for humankind; and on the other hand, multiple revelations of God allowing Christ to become one of the many. Unfortunately, even the exclusive claim for a single Jesus Christ has been responsible for divisions galore in the Christian world itself and the division of the world into believers and non-believers. The claim of an exclusive Jesus led to problems with accepting Christianity; and the claim of many revelations in Theism decreased the importance of Jesus Christ as the central figure.
To counter the problem of Protestant Christianity with Atheism, scholars came up with the concept of religious subjective individual experience. The emphasis was on intuition and feeling as a possible characterization of religion: demarcating religion from non-religion; guiding cross-cultural investigation into religion; defending religiosity independent of any beliefs. But this became problematic as religious experience cannot be just a matter of feeling or intuition without some specific object that this feeling directs towards. The writing of these scholars reveals that intuition and feeling become quite well-structured having a clear idea of the object of experience and the type of experience one must have. Which is not intuition at all!
The scholars of religion like Schleiermacher however made no hiding of the claim that in a spectrum of perfection, Christianity happens to be right at the top. The Protestant variety higher than the Catholic one too. Though an innate sense of divinity in each person abounds, the feeling nurtures only in certain specific religious traditions. The second Protestant theme comes here-the corruption of and degeneration of religion into dogmas, rituals, and priesthood. Similarly, some other scholar, based on Protestantism, believes that something of a revelation is everywhere. In the higher religion, only it is purer.
Finally, the characterization of religious experience is dependent on accepting some truth with what is commonly accepted religion. Otto, in his experiential form of religion again concludes Christianity as having unique clarity and abundance and clearly superior to other religions in giving this experience. Protestant scholars in the garb of general Theism, trying to wean away from Jesus Christ could not but help in developmental ordering of religion from the primitive to the most perfect and the most advanced religion ending with Protestant form of Christianity.
Protestants could allow secular values like tolerance and pluralism in their discourse and accept the Hindus (who challenge their gods) or the Jains (who deny the existence of God). But only after presupposing that they were religions; fitting them into a developmental framework; and ranking them in a hierarchy which includes Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. None of the authors popularizing the experiential aspect of religion were able to speak of this experience independent of the traditions to which they belonged. These authors could not speak of the religious experience of the Hindus, or Buddhists, or Americans without presupposing the truth of the Bible. The future writers used a similar experiential framework of religion, but without the Biblical background; however, the arguments remained the same though cloaked in secular terms.
One secular author is Durkheim who defines religion thus: a unified system of beliefs relative to sacred things, things set apart and forbidden, which unite into a single moral community called a Church…. Unfortunately, only the Semitic religions fit into that picture. A single religion becomes the framework to describe other cultures. The charge of the author is secular narratives are only an illusion of being free from the religious narratives.
Category Mistakes and Domination of a Single Discourse
A category mistake occurs when terms and concepts appropriate to some domain have an application elsewhere. Asking a Belgian priest, ‘Are you a Brahmin?’ is a category mistake. In a similar manner, ‘who is a religious person?’ is a category mistake, argues the author.
The author briefly examines the sayings of Buddha in two of Buddhist texts-The Dhammapada and the Sonadanda Sutta. Contrary to the claims of the missionaries and the textbooks that Buddha rebelled against and rejected the caste system are wholly untrue. Buddha tells us clearly who a true Brahmana is and he also goes on to explain the evolution of castes in society placing the Kshatriyas at the top of the hierarchy. Buddha was a Kshatriya too.
What is a rejection of anything? It does not entail trying to define the perfection of the rejected. Calvin rejected Catholicism, but defended Christianity in trying to define a true Christian. Marx rejected capitalism, but not by trying to define who a true capitalist is. Hence, Buddha’s explanation of the social system does not entail a rejection at all in any sense. Buddha criticized the false Brahmins and the exploitation, but he was keen on defining on who is true Brahmin.
Similarly, the Shramanas or the Bhaktas became a revolutionary movement in the writings of the missionaries and European scholars. The Shramanas were simply a tradition from which arose the Ajivikas, the Jain tradition, and the Buddhist tradition. For them renunciation was primary and a condition for enlightenment in contrast to the Brahmana tradition which later evolved a system of rituals and the philosophical schools. By virtue of opting out of the society, the Shramanas were outside the caste system, but not outcastes.
Buddha as a part of the Shramana tradition had clear terms of dialogue with the Brahmana tradition. He taught the eight-fold path and told that everyone in their position in the caste system could follow them in their quest for enlightenment. According to Buddha, all four classes are equally pure and what matters is their conduct. The most hostile critics of Hinduism like Weber and Warder have made this point clear in their writings.
In Agganna Sutta, Buddha discusses the formation of the castes according to universal dharma- the kings coming first followed by the Brahmins who were sub-grouped as people who meditated, people who wrote books, and people who learnt the Vedic lore. The Vaisyas and the sudras also form in the society. But he stressed clearly that the Shramanas compose from all the four classes of people. Buddha’s criticism of Brahmins is not a rejection of the caste system.
This is a great example of categories and the mistakes. Being a Brahmin or a non-Brahmin made sense to the people of the Indian tradition. The author argues that similarly religiosity makes sense to a Protestant. The experiential category of religiosity is an inbuilt tradition of Christianity, but it does not make sense to other traditions. The experiential domain of all and sundry as religiosity is a given, unfortunately. As ‘Are you a Brahmin?’ does not make sense to a Belgian Priest, it is a category mistake to ask about religiosity in other traditions because they fall outside the scope of both the question and the answer.
Everyone is now in a category mistake inclusive of anthropologists, philosophers, and theorists of religion because the language (Christian) and the ontology (the Christian faith) have become the universal language and the ontology of humankind. Religion had a different definition for pagan philosophers like Cicero who appealed to culture and tradition. The idea of reviewing or retracing places the idea of tradition handed down by the ancestors as synonymous with religion. But they made it amply clear that excessive traditional practices amounted to superstition.
Three hundred years later, Christian philosophers, importantly Lactantius, changed the focus of religion to whom one worships- the One who is a Maker and a Master- and to whom Man ties by bonds of obedience, piety, and so forth. This gained currency as the definition of religion replacing tradition. The relation of God and Man became central in the definition of religion. But this concept says the author is a category mistake. Religion is a word that is apt in the intra-traditional world of the Christians alone. It cannot characterize other traditions and cannot be an inter-traditional concept. Religion is a self-description of Christianity. The obvious problems which religion runs into when it encounters ‘Buddhism or Jainism’, where there are no Gods, are clear.
Today, even the secular world is a Christian framework, says the author. The idea that God gave religion to humankind turns into the secular guise that all cultures have religion; the theme that God gave one religion to humanity transforms into the belief that all religions have something in common. Similarly, the Idea that God revealed himself to humankind always gets a sanctification in the claim that in all cultures there is a subjective experience of religion, fundamentally the same. God implanted a sense of divinity is now a secular truth in the form of an anthropological human ability to have a religious experience.
Words like ‘prophetic’, ‘revelatory’, ‘liturgy’, ‘soteriology’, ‘eschatology’. ‘sacred’, ‘profane’, ‘sacrament’, ‘blasphemy’, ‘apocalyptic’, and so on came into free usage while describing other traditions and cultures. But all the while, these words make sense only in the Christian tradition and not elsewhere. This universal adoption of words is now internalised amongst all intellectuals across all countries not realising that the framework of describing other cultures and even atheism remains firmly Christian. Hundreds of books talk about ‘Sacrament of the Vedas’, ‘Hindu Eschatology’, ‘Buddhist Soteriology’, and so on which is unacceptable.
The author asks pertinently, ‘Are we to say that all cultures have religions simply because the linguistic practice of one cultural community allows that all cultures have religion?’ Thinking about religion takes place in linguistic practice and use of words which itself is religious. This is what the author means when the author says that Christianity has gone secular. The theological vocabulary, language, concepts, daily practice, does not seem tied to a specific religion today in the secular world. But the roots are clearly Christian, including that of atheism.
The Western world came across traditions and cultures in their colonial conquests. The rulers, scholars, travellers, and the missionaries confronted these. To make their jobs easier, they tried to make the foreign traditions intelligible to them. They classified, termed, defined, described, commentated, and dissected the foreign cultures to save themselves from the threat of total unintelligibility. Hence, came the creation of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Shintoism, and Taoism to render some order to the chaos they saw. The creation of religions in India was a conceptual compulsion for the Christian culture.
Religion in the eyes of Cicero was, ’re-ligare’, a uniting bond. By making religion into a belief in God, the world today is in a disarray, with no unity. There is in fact no other way to conceive of religion except as handed down by Christian theology.
Understanding Religion from an Indian/ Heathen Perspective
Intolerance and proselytization contain a solution to understand religion irrespective of our moral standpoint on that issue. The Christian Church fought with various powers in its history: the monarchy, Islam, military dictatorships, Jews, Romans, and Greeks. Also, there were the fights within its own fold amongst the various schisms. But it was clear which the religious fights were and which were not.
We need to find out what Christianity’s concept of religion is historically, and how is it possible to show that its concept is that of other Semitic religions Judaism and Islam too. Then we can answer the question how these religions see religions everywhere they go. Also, why neither of Roman or Indian traditions recognized themselves in the Semitic descriptions of religion.
For Semitic religions, the separation of religious rivals and rivals of other kind were by identifying a set of beliefs and attacking these beliefs. Christianity and other Semitic religions emphasized on doctrines or beliefs, and actions because of these beliefs. The rivalry with other religions involved differences in communities because of differences in doctrines. Consequently, conversion from one religion to another meant a rejection of one set of beliefs as false and the new set of beliefs as true. The doctrinal differences between communities had mainly to do with the nature of Gods, and the relationship between Man and God.
Natural sciences explain the causes by giving laws; while social sciences give the reasons (beliefs, desires, or mental states) and make human actions rationally intelligible. In most of our actions, there is a knowledge gap between the actions we perform and the belief states we are in. Religious doctrine as defined by the Christians suggested a God who creates the Cosmos and is the cause as well as the reason of Cosmos. A religious explanation is hence an explanation of the Universe. Which includes itself as the part of the explanation. God revealed his purposes by telling us about them. Religion need not prove the existence of God; the existence of religion is proof positive of God. Religion is thus God’s gift to humankind. To be a part of religion is to believe that that human life and death and everything else has significance, a meaning, and a purpose.
Continued in the next part.
(The series was earlier published on www.indiafacts.org)
Disclaimer: This piece by Dr Pingali Gopal was created with permission from SN Balagangadhara. The ideas and the themes solely belong to the latter. Many of the passages in the article are excerpted directly from the writings and essays of Dr SN Balagangadhara without direct indications in each case. Dr Pingali Gopal claims no expertise or primary scholarship in the subject matter. The purpose of the article is to bring the ideas of Dr SN Balagangadhara to a wider audience and hopefully stimulate the readers to explore further.
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