Friday, September 5, 2008

Defining Religion

"The classic paragraph (as defined by Clifford Geertz), on which a generation of students was trained (on what religion is), posits that: a religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

Within the last decade this formulation has fallen badly out of favor, largely as a result of Talal Asad's critique, which involves two telling points. The first proceeds from his observation that Geertz made interiority the locus of the religious (as indicated by his nouns: symbols, moods, motivations, conceptions). This works well for certain styles of religiosity: above all (and not coincidentally), Protestantism, which thus becomes the implicit model of religion per se. There are, however, things one intuitively wants to call "religion" - Catholicism and Islam, for instance - that are oriented less toward "belief" and the status of the individual believer, and more to embodied practice, discipline, and community. Under Greetz's definition, such concerns and traditions tend to be ignored, distorted, rendered aberrant, or relegated to the margins of the religious...

Any definition that privileges one aspect, dimension, or component of the religious necessarily fails, for in so doing it normalizes some specific traditions (or tendencies therein), while simultaneously dismissing or stigmatizing others. Asad calls specific attention to the need to include both practice and discourse. As he made clear, one also has to get beyond models that privilege interiority and understand that religious subjects are also bound in moral communities that enjoy their allegiance and serve as a base of their identity (thus, Durkheim). Further, communities are governed - sometimes more and sometimes less strictly - by institutional structures that direct the group and command their members' obedience (thus, Weber).

A proper definition must therefore be polythetic and flexible, allowing for wide variations and attending, at a minimum, to these four domains:

(1) A discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent, and that claims for itself a similarly transcendent status;

(2) A set of practices whose goal is to produce a proper world and/or proper human subjects, as defined by a religious discourse to which these practices are connected;

(3) A community whose members construct their identity with reference to a religious discourse and its attendant practices; and

(4) An institution that regulates religious discourses, practices, and community, re-producing them over time and modifying them as necessary, while asserting their eternal validity and transcendent value.

All these four domains - discourse, practice, community, and institution - are necessary parts of anything that can properly be called a "religion". Each can be developed and emphasized to differing degrees and can relate to the others in various ways."
... Bruce Lincoln

1 comment:

saedah said...

Wow. The last few entries are truly challenging to my thought processess and prevalent mental modes as I suffered from 'laziness and cowardice'to try to comprehend the given guidance. :)
The beauty of philosophy is that even a rejection of philosophy is in itself philosophy. :)