Thursday, 6 November 2014

Some Other Ways of Looking at Religion

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

Having gone through all of the taxonomies about which I felt I could write substantial posts, I’m now going to do a quick lightning round for taxonomies which I find limited, but still probably worth mentioning. Think of it as that drawer in the kitchen where you keep the miscellany.

Harris’s Wakefulness

I have not read Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion; rather, I’ve read a single review. So I can’t say much about it. However, it clearly tries to create a dichotomy—which is, in a way, a simple taxonomy—for different religious traditions. Namely, Harris considers whether a religion encourages or discourages wakefulness. From the review, it seems that wakefulness might mean something like ‘a state of awareness of certain neurological truths,’ with a strong Zen Buddhist connection. So Harris finds that Buddhism encourages wakefulness, though some Buddhisms encourage it better than others, while Christianity, Islam, and Judaism discourage it. As I said, though, I haven’t read the book, so I can neither assess the ‘wakefulness’ construct nor his application of the construct to different religions. (I am summarily dismissing the spirituality/religion distinction because that distinction is only useful as a rhetorical device rather than as an analytical one.)

Feser’s Traditionalists and Modernists

As I haven’t read Harris’s Waking Up, so I haven’t read Edwar Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. However, I’ve argued with people on the Internet who like to trot Feser out on occasion, and I’ve read the odd review of Feser, so I might take a shot at explaining his distinction between Traditionalists and Modernists. (A person usernamed Yvain gives a much better summary at his livejournal blog Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz, which is where I get most of my own understanding of it.)

According to Feser, most people today are Modernists; indeed, most religious people today, even very traditional ones, are Modernists. However, the traditional teachings of most religions—or, anyway, of Catholicism and maybe the Orthodox churches—are based in Traditionalist logic, and the theologians in those traditions are mostly still Traditionalists. But because most people are Modernists. This is why most religious people have difficulty arguing for the things they believe; according to Feser, Modernism pretty much necessitates atheism. Traditionalism seems very weird to us, but Feser wants to make a case for it. It’s very hard to give a pithy statement to sum up each viewpoint, but the following three examples might help to sketch out some outlines:

Where Modernists see the human soul as an ethereal presence that exists in some relationship to the body, Traditionalists see the human soul as another name for the body’s shape and nature. Where Modernists see God as either “an old man with a beard” or a more ethereal being “that escapes being an old man with a beard only through a technicality” (Yvain), Traditionalists see God as a being of pure existence and/or another name for existence itself. Where Modernists think religious morality means doing things because God commanded them, Traditionalists understand that religious morality has little to do with God; rather, goodness is the same thing as existence and since God is pure existence, God put also be pure goodness. Modernists see things as existing because of certain causes; Traditionalists see things as existing for certain purposes (or telos).

Maybe this works as a taxonomy. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t be sure. From I can see, I think Tillich’s work drops a bomb in Feser’s dichotomy and blows it to pieces, but maybe Feser has Tillich-proofed it and none of the reviewers mentioned that part. (Or maybe Tillich is the quintessential traditionalist and Feser just wouldn’t like what Tillich does with that? Or maybe Feser isn’t as hidebound as it sounds from his critics and supporters?)

The Most Suitable Genre

I wrote a while ago about using genres as a way of thinking about worldviews. For instance, if a person with this worldview were to write an epic, what would the underworld look like in that epic? Or if a person with this worldview were to write a mystery novel, what would count as a crime? If a person with this worldview wrote the script for an exploitation flick, what plot points or visual cues would they use to establish their identity in it? More importantly, which genre would give them the best way of exploring their concerns: the epic, with its historical or universal arc and its characters’ virtues? the mystery, with its focus on human communities and the things which rupture those communities? the romance novel or romantic comedy, with its focus on interpersonal relationships and individual happiness? the horror movie, with its insistence that there is something worth fearing, and fighting against, especially when one is alone? the western, with its focus on individuals making difficult decisions in small communities but also, simultaneously, on how these decisions feature in the making of a nation?

This question might require a lot of thought, and it might be harder to answer (or require more of a particular kind of knowledge or interpretation) than other questions here, but it might work for some people as a taxonomy.

The Four Campfires of Art

I’m really not sure whether this will work for religions, but Scott McCloud’s Four Campfires come to mind. I’ve written on them before, but I can summarize again. Based on Jung’s archetypes, the Four Campfires represent artists’ different motivations and how these influence the work they create. These Campfires are created by overlaying two dichotomies: Tradition/Revolution and Form/Content.

Classicists, at the intersection of Tradition and Form, have Beauty as their watchword. They seek to create art which as perfectly as possible adheres to the formal standards of their tradition.
Animists, at the intersection of Tradition and Content, have Content as their watchword.* They seek to create art which tells engaging stories according to the tastes and conventions of their craft.
Formalists, at the intersection of Revolution and Form, have Form as their watchword. They create art in order to experiment with its forms and capacities, discovering what it is capable of.
Iconoclasts, at the intersection of Revolution and Content, have Truth as their watchword. They create art in order to tell the truth, by which they mean the stories which have not been told before.

Of course most artists tend to visit two campfires rather than live permanently at one, usually showing loyalty to one side of a dichotomy (Tradition, Revolution, Form, or Content), though McCloud gives a few examples of artists who visit diagonal campfires (Classicist-Iconoclasts or Animist-Formalists). Some artists might even visit three; a rare few might draw from all four.

There is an artistic quality to the performance of religion: a high church service will involve reading of texts (two artistic forms here—the text itself, and the reading of it), music and singing, choreography (ie. liturgy), oratory, fashion (ie. vestments), architecture, and possibly perfume (ie. incense). But even low church services have these features, even if less attention is paid to them. So, I wonder, is it possible to apply these four campfires to religions? Form/Content might indicate a distinction between ritual and belief—for instance, Shinto is sometimes described as a religion without theology but with lots of ritual. And Tradition/Revolution might reflect some of our previous distinctions between static priestly religions and dynamic prophetic religions, or Tillich’s concern with self-criticism. This strikes me as far too simplistic, but I’d like to offer it in case it helps you.

Conclusion and Future Directions

Despite their heterogeneity, I’ve collapsed all of these questions into a chart. Of course, some apply better to religious traditions (wakefulness) and some apply better to religious people (trad/mod).

There are some other comparisons I might want to draw—personal epistemology comes to mind, as do the nominalist/realist distinction and the ideographic/nomethetic distinction—but I don’t think they stand alone as taxonomies of religion. Rather, they are most helpful as ways of thinking about how a person’s adoption of a certain kind of religion might accord with their pre-existing psychological tendencies. Anyway, it’s the subject of another post.

And on the note of other posts, these are all of the taxonomies I have! I would like more (my unachievable goal, actually, is to list all of them), so if you know of anything I missed, please let me know! I’d love to add to my collection. In the meantime, I’m going to talk about putting these to use and I’m going to compile all of these taxonomies into a big list of questions to help you described a religious tradition or religious person. (Also, eventually, I plant to read Feser’s and Harris’s books, so I might beef those sections up at that point.)


*Yes, it’s super annoying and confusing that “Content” and “Form” are both watchwords and half of one of the two dichotomies. If it helps, pretend that the Animist watchword is “Story” or “Engagement” and the Formalist watchword is “Experiment” or “Discovery.”




victoria said...

I've been reading these posts with interest but haven't really had much to say on them.

As far as things that are out there that you haven't covered, William James's Varieties of Religious Experience comes to mind, kinda-sorta. It's been so long since I read it that it's tough for me to cite specifics here, and he's definitely not working within a framework that would lend itself quite so neatly to organizing religions as you have in this series.

Where I think his work is relevant to this project is in pinpointing some of the things that people are trying to get out of religion and why different people are attracted to different forms of religious praxis. The last couple chapters lectures would be the most useful, IIRC.

Christian H said...

Thank-you, victoria. I haven't read Varieties, except perhaps excerpts in my undergrad that I have since forgotten. I will make sure to take a look at it.

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