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Monday, 14 November 2011

What is religion, really?


I have been sound off about the issue of 'generic religion' in some recent blogs. Here is a review of a recent book that takes up the same theme. This is a revised, extended and slightly more conversational version of a review that originally appeared in St Mark’s Review (No.217, August 2011). Word limits left the published version somewhat elliptical in style.

Let me start by pointing to the connection between religion and violence that has become a familiar theme in both media commentary and the public polemics of the “new” atheists. Peter Vardy, Vice-Principal of Heythrop College in the University of London, has written, Good & Bad Religion to try and redirect the whole debate. He wants to get away from the sort of purely defensive reaction on the part of religious people that he believes, quite rightly I think, is neither helpful, nor interesting. Instead he embarks on an attempt to establish that there is some common ground between believers and atheists.

The outcome of this worthy enterprise is Good & Bad Religion, (SCM Press, 2010) a brief paperback, relatively accessible in style and targeted at a thoughtful, but non-academic audience. Hopefully this sort of audience still exists. In a relatively non-defensive and consistently even-tempered manner Vardy moves to place the entire public polemics about “religion” and the contemporary warnings and assumptions of its dangers, and indeed its deep and consistent inhumanity, more clearly within the history of western philosophical and theological thought than has been the case in much of the debate to date.

While this is a helpful step in placing the debate into a wider context, I want to note that Terry Eagleton’s interventions on this issue by comparison have sought to remind us of the taken for granted political background to the contemporary emergence of this debate.

Vardy develops his argument in two distinct parts and at the end of each section, he provides a clear summary of the argument that he has developed and the conclusions that he draws.

In Part One, entitled The Challenge, Vardy sketches the critique of 'religion' provided by contemporary atheists.  Religion can be bad, Vardy concedes to the atheists, but supporters of “good” religion should be at one with them in resisting “bad” religion. It may be, Vardy asserts, that … in today’s world there is a more important distinction between atheist and theist, namely that between those who pursue bad religion and those who stand for truth and what is right, whether it be within, or without a religious framework (p14).

Vardy then takes us through a discussion of the nature of the truth and the good in the major philosophical traditions as an aid to assessing what “good” and “bad” religion are, He concludes with an account of Aristotle’s approach to the nature of human flourishing which he argues is the most helpful way of distinguishing between  ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion. This is an interesting philosophical move, given the role that engagement with Aristotl,e played in the early development of Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of modernity and the fact that he moved on to recover the thought of Thomas Aquinas because of Aristotle’s inadequacies in the restatement of a natural law approach to ethics.

Aristotelian philosophy, Vardy contends … offers a partial solution to the problem of devising standards against which to judge religion and religious practices. … the natural law approach is compatible with the major world religions and indeed has been used by them in the past to extend and enrich their philosophies of religion … Further the approach may be acceptable to atheist philosophers as well.  …most normative philosophical systems rely on defining good and bad in relation to what it means to be a fulfilled human being.(67)

In Part 2: A Way Forward Vardy covers a range of issues that arise in any attempt to undertake an assessment of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad religion’, starting with questions of authority and textual interpretation, and then moving on to the topics of science and religion, justice, equality and freedom. From the discussion in each of these chapters Vardy provides us in The Conclusion with a summary based on an Aristotelian, natural law framework, of six broad conclusions, and 26 more detailed criteria that we can use to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ religion.

Given the natural law basis of his argument, the conclusions that Vardy draws are coherent, admirable in their intent and largely predictable. The major problem that I have with the structure and argument that he develops lies not in his analysis, or his conclusions, but back in the underlying assumptions about the character of religion that were touched on briefly in the first chapter but not systematically developed, either then, or later.

The brief references to 'religion' that he provides in the early part of the book do not add up to a consistent, or coherent account of what religion is. Vardy starts out the discussion in a promising vein by noting that religion is the cord of ideas, beliefs and practices that hold communities together and that it is not a consistent monolithic phenomenon. However, he then goes on to affirm that religion can be used in damaging ways, but that it is important to the human psyche and cannot be eliminated. In taking the argument in this direction he is moving   inexorably towards an essentialist and non-historical account of religion. Religion becomes a generic category into which particular faiths or traditions can be shoehorned (or not).

This is followed by the observation that religion has often been taken over for political purposes. A key question arises here. If religion is as he acknowledges, the cord that holds communities together, how could religion not be political in character, and can we then distinguish in any meaningful way between religion and politics? Augustine in his critique of Rome seems to have found himself up to his neck in political theology when discussing “religious” issues. This phenomenon has reappeared min modern guise in the form of civil religions, of which the cult of Anzac Day has emerged in Australia as a recent local variant.

The working assumption that I draw from Vardy’s references to ‘religion’ seems to be that we all know what religion is, and that it can therefore be treated as a timeless generic category that can be evaluated in its specific manifestations as either ‘good’ or “’bad’. Who indeed would be in favour of “bad” “religion”?

The problem with a generic account of religion becomes clear when Vardy refers to the early Christians as having taken a stand against “bad or debased religion”. This really will not do. The early Christians affirmed that they were followers of Jesus whom they affirmed as “Lord”, a term in with both political and the religious connotations and implications. What they took a stand against was not “bad” religion, the Romans called them “atheists”, but the specific political religion of the Roman Empire. Roman officials sought a commitment to the Emperor that would overrode their primary and basic loyalty to Christ. That after all is the whole point of the book of Revelation.

I would, therefore, argue against overall thrust of Vardy’s project to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion, that people are not committed to ‘religion’ in general. People are committed rather to living lives from within specific traditions, traditions that embody differing accounts of the world, and differing accounts of what it is to be human and how one should appropriately live and shape one’s life in that. Indeed they may have very differing understandings of what the "world" is.

As my friend William Cavanaugh argues in his important work, The Myth of Religious Violence, religion has a history … and what counts as a religion and what does not in any given context depends up different configurations of power and authority … the attempt to say that there is a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena, is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern secular state as it developed in the West. In this context religion is constructed as transhistorical, transcultural, essentially interior, and essentially distinct from public secular rationality. (59)

Entirely in its favour is that, in an era of loud shouting, and rhetorically excessive, and factually limited ambit claims passing as argument from protagonists on both sides of the debate, Vardy’s apologetic is overall an eirenic, even tempered and thoughtful response to the new atheists that tries to reframe some of the terms of the debate. He seems willing to share with them an account of religion as a transhistorical and trans-cultural phenomenon and hopes that something can be built on that common ground.

If, however, we do not accept Vardy's implicit account of religion as generic, as I do not, the task before Christians and members of other faith traditions and communities will take us down a different path from the one that he maps out in this book. Our task will be to interrogate the history of our own traditions, their specific beliefs and practices, both for their implication in encouraging violence at the individual, family and communal levels, and for their resources for witnessing to, and embodying shalom. This seems to me to be a more promising, and interesting, though more difficult project than the one that Vardy has undertaken and one that will require churches as communities committed to peacemaking to get involved.

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