Friday, May 31, 2013

Religion and Belief

Arun and I have frequently clashed over his assertion that Hinduism and certain other Asian religions are not "religions" in the sense of the Middle Eastern religions that dominate the West - mainly because they supposedly lack a dogmatic theology. Now I don't know whether Sanskrit scholars argue about theology or not, but Anthropologist and religious scholar T. M. Luhrmann weighs in on the pages of the NYT today with an argument that theology is the least important component of religion. An excerpt:

The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

In fact, you can argue that religious belief as we now conceptualize it is an entirely modern phenomenon. As the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, “to believe” meant something like “to hold dear.” Smith, who died in 2000, once wrote: “The affirmation ‘I believe in God’ used to mean: ‘Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to Him. I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusting His mercy.’ Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: ‘Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is yes.’ ”

Which is why I really don't think that the divide amongst various religions is as sharp as Arun imagines.

Now it is true that Christians and Muslims routinely slaughter each other in the name of this or that supposed article of faith, but I've always considered these pretexts rather than reasons - the theological equivalent of gang tatoos or colors. It may be that Hindus never engage in this kind of "my God is better than your God" conflict. If so, good on them, and it might be useful to try to figure out their secret. But they probably find other pretexts for violence.