Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Secular Fallacy: Part I

or Why You Can't Separate Religion from Society (or Anything Else, for that Matter)

I think it's high time for another installment in my unofficial "Understanding Christians" series.

I don't mean to pick on Jon, but something he said once seemed symptomatic of a persistent myth about religion that I have encountered among the non-religious. I have been meaning to expose this particular myth for some time now, so I think its time has come. This myth I am calling "The Secular Fallacy."

The context of Jon's comment is irrelevant, so I'll leave it out. He suggested that I compose a list of moments during which I "felt infinite." He also specified that I try to avoid listing religious moments, but rather stick to non-religious ones. Jon went on to say that he realized I might take this as blasphemous, but then, "what do you expect from a heathen?" (His words.)

Of course, such an exercize is, for me, impossible. I wasn't even remotely insulted or offended by what he said for, I think, three reasons. 1) Jon himself pointed out that this might go against having a religion at all. 2) I know Jon, and I know that he isn't anti-religion, so I knew that his suggestion was not meant as anything offensive. 3) I recognized that the particular flaw in his suggestion was pandemic to contemporary areligious thought, so he can hardly be blamed for having committed it.* I would like to add a fourth reasons, that being that I do not get offended when people say silly things about religion, but that would be lying, which I generally file under "Don't Do This."

What, then, is that flaw? It's one that has been around for quite some time, at least as far as North America is concerned, one that is built right into the constitutions of both Canada and the United States. It seems to me as though most people who do not themselves follow a religion, well, religiously assume that a person divides their life into two distinct categories: the sacred and the profane.

"Wait," I hear someone cry from the back row, "don't most academics who have devoted their lives to the study of religion state that one of the defining features of a religion is the division of the world into two realms, namely the Sacred and the Profane!? And have they not provided solid evidence of this fact!?"

Yes. It is true that some religious studies scholars believe such a thing. It is true that there is some evidence pointing to such a division. It is also true that some people, perhaps many people (see the Gnostics, for instance), separate the realms of the world into the Godly and the unGodly, the holy and the carnal, the spiritual and the material, the visible and the invisible, the good and the evil. Many religions do have, implicit or explicit, a list of things that are holy or not-holy. But the thing is, it doesn't seem as though every tradition has this sort of ontological dualism (see, for instance, this essay I wrote on why some Aboriginal groups do not call themselves religious). So some scholars do not put the sacred/profane divide into their definition of 'religion'; rather, they talk about things like 'meaning' or 'transcendent reality.' If you want a really nice word for it, Otto once coined 'numinous.'

Numinosity refers to a quality of an object or place. This quality is hard to define. 'Holiness' comes close, but haunted things are also numinous. The best one can do, I think, is to say that a numinous object at once is whatever it physically appears to be, but also reveals or signifies a transcendent reality that lies behind it.** The lay lines are numinous, as are the sites (or paths) of pilgrimage. More importantly, numinosity demands an emotional and even physical response: a numinous thing provokes awe (according to Otto, "trembling") and commands attention.

What I think we can say with certainty is that all religions have some idea of the numinous. Each religion understands and frames itself around numinosity very differently, of course; some religions, like Buddhism, will eschew numinosity in the physical world, while others locate numinosity in virtually every aspect of our day-to-day lives. As a Christian who does not participate in the theology that the physical world is inherently evil***, I am willing to see God in everything. If you truly believe that God is both transcendent and immanent, that God works through the world, that God made the world both intentionally and lovingly, then I think you must say that all things reflect some element of God's nature. I'm not, of course, saying that everything is a sacrament, and neither am I saying that all historical events are as God willed them to be (the Holocaust is the most frequently cited example). What I am saying is that, to the person willing enough and blessed enough to see it, all things can be numinous. And every Christian who is trying very hard to have a relationship with Christ is, whether they know it or not, an amateur mystic. Practicing Christians are bound and bent on finding the numinous. To those who are looking, God is all over the place.

But I must concede that there are some people who do not see God in all things. I suppose, in truth, I don't myself. I may wish to see him in most things, but to an extent I must say things like, "Drunkenness does not for me contain a path to God." Thus we can say, provisionally, that someone like me puts sobriety under the sacred category and drunkenness under the profane category. There is some sort of a division going on after all. I think this is a fair thing to say. So, does this mean that my fallacy is not such a fallacy after all?

Of course not. And I'll tell you why in a later post.

See Part II.

*Do not take this to mean that Jon is atheist. What it is that he does or does not believe had better be taken up with him, but the last time he mentioned it to me, he said, "Oh, I believe there's a God. I just don't know what he's like," or something like that.
**I realize "transcendent reality" is a big term. I'm sorry to say this, but we're dealing with big ideas--the biggest of all ideas, actually--and so sometimes all we have to work with are big terms. "The supernatural realm" is a very poor substitute for "transcendent reality." Basically, what I and most religious scholars mean when they use this term is that part of the world that is just so true, just so real, that we can't access it directly. This seems like a post-Platonic idea, but, if Huston Smith is right, that's exactly the sort of worldview that indigenous peoples hold, too.
***The physical world was made by God. This does not mean that it cannot be evil--Satan was made by God, too--but it does mean that the physical world started good, and since it was not omniscient upon its fall, it cannot be all evil. When it distracts us from our holy purpose, then it is acting for evil. But while we do not live on bread alone, Jesus did hand out a lot of it. Food as a general category has Jesus' stamp of approval, and that's good enough for me.

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