Losing my religions?

Posted on October 21, 2009


A variety of conversations in the past week or so have reminded me of a conclusion I came to some years ago: I do not believe in ‘religion’. I do not mean this in some faux-evangelical, sub-Barthian sense (‘religion is humanity’s search for God; Christianity is God’s search for humanity’) – although if one hears Barth properly, as critiquing every human approach to the divine, and supremely our own, the point holds. Rather, I became convinced, largely through reading the sociological literature, that the concept of ‘religion’ is a meaningless one. There is just no general category under which we may usefully subsume the particular realities that we call ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’, ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, &c. They are not species of the same genus.

The ‘sociology of religion’ has attempted to define them as if they are, and has largely failed. That is, there is (as far as I could find in the literature a few years back, and I have heard nothing to change my mind since) no available definition which encompasses everything we would want to call a ‘religion’ and excludes everything we would not. Under the most convincing sociological definitions, football is a far purer religion than evangelical Christianity or Zen Buddhism. If, after nearly a century of trying (Durkheim was endlessly interested in religion when he invented sociology), and after the attempts of some of the greatest minds of that century (did I mention Durkheim?), we cannot begin to sketch an adequate definition of the genus, perhaps we should conclude that it is not, in fact, a genus?

Why, then, did we come to talk about ‘religion’ so easily and glibly? The origins are, I think, instructive. When Europe thought it was discovering the world (the world already knew it was there, and was doing fine, thank you very much…) in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, the sudden, disorienting (well, probably ‘disoccidenting,’ but…) realisation that there was quite a lot of the world that was not Christian was a serious intellectual challenge. At one level, the native Americans and sub-Saharan Africans were easy – they could be characterised, no doubt unfairly, as ‘primitive’ and in need of civilisation – but India, and particularly China, were big problems. China was (as through most of history) far more ‘advanced’ (whatever that means) than Europe; it was vast and populated; and it was profoundly alien.

We always narrate alienness through analogy with what we do know (see Socrates in the Meno for the final reason); some of what China’s people did could be made to look like certain Christian practices if you stretched the point; so we (as in ‘Western Europeans’) invented the concept of ‘religion’. In part because we were becoming suspicious of our own Christian tradition, and in part because, if we still believed in some sense in that tradition we found the notion that generations of Chinese were born and died in ignorance and so reprobation to be deeply uncongenial (so, say, Lord Herbert of Cherbury), we started to imagine that there was some more general category of human life that subsumed both what we call Christianity and what we call Buddhism. For Lord Herbert, it was a set of intellectual doctrines – the five ‘common notions’; when this became incredible, Schleiermacher suggested a basic human experience of dependence; Otto an awareness of the mysterium tremens; the list can be multiplied almost endlessly.

But – and back to the point – however we multiply the list, it fails. There is no credible definition of a general category of ‘religion’. The idea that there is should be named for what it in fact is: an arrogant colonial assumption that European thought-forms are adequate to explain the particularities of non-European life. (Anthropologists live within a culture as guests, and try – even if they fail – to tell its story from within; sociologists too often impose already-imagined concepts on a culture and try to force it to fit them. Sociology is a modern, anthropology a post-modern, science.)

Assuming this is right, so what? Well, let me offer just one significant theological result: much of our Old Testament interpretation is predicated on a ‘history of religions’ approach, which assumes a generic account of how religious thought evolves, or should evolve, in any culture from primitive animism to German protestantism. The account is of course borrowed straight from Schleiermacher, but with none of his insight or subtlety. If ‘religion’ is a meaningless concept, then this mode of interpretation is ruled out a priori. That seems to me already a non-trivial point.

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