July 8, 2008

How Do We Think About Religion?

In the spirit of the discussion going on below about religious truth, I offer the following reflections from Talal Asad's Genealogies of Religion: Disciplines of Reason and Power in Christianity and Islam I offer these because Mr. Skeptic, you still have not addressed yourself to my (and rehenuma's) critique of the central conceit of western rationalism--that is its claim to be speaking from a place of 'objective' truth. You also did not address my critique of the free market along the same lines you criticize religion. You claim to be speaking from a postmodernist perspective. However, you also wrote:
"You can always tell which religions and belief systems actually do not have the real truths, because they are the ones that demand that you subject yourself to endless quotidian rituals and constantly recite passages from books, as though ostensibly the only way to convince one of a truth is to have them repeat it over and over and over again until one doesn't even think to challenge the habitual thought."

"Now, if truth and meaning are inherently subjective, then how is one 'always able to tell which religions and belief systems actually do not have the real truths'? I agree that truth is often constructed through discipline and instrumental power, but you are making a very interesting leap between postmodernism and rationalism. I don't think you have decided which side you are on, yet, maybe.
Anyway, lets marinate on these quotes from Asad, who draws his critique of anthropological study of religion from Geertz's definition of religion as "affirming something" ("it must if is not to consist of the mere collection of received practices and conventional sentiments we usually refer to as moralism, affirm something.") Geertz also says that religion helps man to cope with his intellectual, physical, and moral limits.

"This modest view of religion (which would have horrified the early Christian fathers or medieval churchmen) is a product of the only legitimate space allowed to Christianity by post-Enlightenment society, the right to individual belief: the human condition is full of ignorance, pain, and injustice, and religious symbols are a means of coming positively to terms with that condition. One consequence of this view would in principle render any philosophy that performs such a function into religion (to the annoyance of the nineteenth century rationalist), or alternatively, make it possible to think of religion as a more primitive , a less adult mode of coming to terms with the human condition (to the annoyance of the modern Christian). In either case, the suggestion that religion has a universal function in belief is one indication of how marginal religion has become in modern industrial societyas the site for producing disciplined knowledge and personal discipline. As such it comes to resemble the conception Marx had of religion as ideology--that is, as a mode of consciousness which is other than consciousness of reality, external to the relations of production, producing no knowledge, but expressing at once the anguish of the oppressed and a spurious consolation."
"Geertz'z treatment of religious belief, which lies at the core of his conception of religion, is a modern privatized Christian one because and to the extent that it emphasizes the priority of belief as a state of mind rather than a constituting activity in the world.

To me, religion is a way of engaging with the world, a method of practice that involves the body and is embodied in physical movement. Consider the following, also from Asad, quoting Mauss approvingly:
"According to Mauss, the human body was not be viewed simply as the passive recipient of 'cultural imprints' still less as the active source of 'natural expressions' that are 'clothed in local history and culture' as though it were a matter of an inner character expressed in a readable sign, so that the latter could be used as a means of deciphering the former. It was to be viewed as the developable means for achieving a range of human objectives, from styles of physical movement, through modes of emotional being, to kinds of spiritual experiences. This way of talking seems to avoid the Cartesian dualism of the mind and objects of the mind's perception.

So to sum up:
1) Religion as a universal concept for describing those practices which attribute divine agency to the world is a culturally conditioned definition, conditioned by our experience of religion as 'one choice among many'. This too is linked with our modern conception of the autonomous self.
2) This view of religion supported (and supports) a particular accretion of power in the modern secular states that constitute 'the West'.
3) Religion is a way of teaching bodies, it is a physical as well as a cognitive knowledge. As such, consciousness is interdependent with bodily practice. It follows then, that one 'knows' something, particularly religious truth, by DOING IT. Critiquing it as an irrational leftover of our primitive brain was and is made possible by the construction of religion as a dangerous historical object that must be confined to the private sphere as a belief, and constitutionally subordinated to the state.
So what do you think?


Sam July 9, 2008 at 1:50 PM  

Allow me a few elucidations:

1)Most things said will not be responded to. For instance, I'm begging that you define terms so integral to this conversation, namely 'truth' and 'knowledge.' I'm curious about the idea of truth and knowledge being divorced from propositional beliefs, but we need to be speaking the same language before we are able to communicate ideas effectively.

2)If you are going to insist on imposing the skeptic label on me instead of using my name, then you must accept that the condition of a skeptic is not to offer up truths and convictions of one's own, but solely to question and critique those who do offer up such truths and convictions. But it seems to me that insofar as being critical of the ideas provided us by humans and history, we are all skeptics here.

3) I only claimed to be speaking from a post-modernish perspective when I was talking about the parameters of conversation being founded on a shared, derived epistemology of Homo sapiens. I made it a point to say that I was merely making a case for rationalism from this perspective to see what you thought, it was not necessarily me advancing my own convictions. I don't use labels to define myself or my thoughts, nor should anyone.

4) I will only have a conversation with rehenuma if he responds to things I say/write, rather lumping me into some general category of snobby secular elitist atheist, and taking issue with things that he projects onto me/assumes about my worldview.


So, do you wish to divorce knowledge from propositional beliefs completely, or just not limit knowledge to them? Are the truths/knowledge gained by repetitions of prayer, chanting, prostrations, etc. the same kind of truths/knowledge once gained at Nuremburg rallies or presently at North Korean spectacularly choreographed mass dances? If the knowledge is of the same nature, how do we evaluate such knowledge/truths as erroneous or not? If these kinds of knowledge overlap with propositional beliefs, are there specific prostrations, yoga positions, or tai chi movements that reflect the belief that turtles originated as a taxonomic group sometime around 200 million years ago? These are not facetious questions, and I am hungry for you to address them. Here I will answer yours:

1) I will only defend rationalism as a source of 'objective' truth insofar as we're talking about the scientific purview of making accurate predictions through a theory as a ramification for how accurately that theory represents reality. The mechanisms used in such a paradigm, those of deduction , induction, those kinds of inferences, I think then make up the most reliable way of evaluating propositional beliefs that is known to us collectively as a species in accurately representing reality. I don't think this is conceited or oppressive. It is not about absolute truth but collective knowledge and the scruples we use when sharing knowledge and ideas with each other, hence the 'parameters of conversation' idea on which I was musing aloud.

2) Our ideas as a product of free market post-colonial imperialism: I'm not sure what you want me to address. Are you saying that this context of our worldview in a way invalidates our worldview? I'm not sure what to say.

3) I grant that the definition of religion you give is culturally conditioned. Geertz's treatment of religion as an amalgam of specific beliefs may be parochial. But let's not ignore that to MANY, MANY people, propositional beliefs are central to what they think of as religion. And that when someone tells me that my brothers and sisters cannot marry the person they want to marry, because an archangel spake unto Muhammed and told him it was a bad idea, or that the Bible was written by God and says that it's a damnable offense, they are moving to oppress other people on the basis of propositional beliefs that are, for lack of better words, bullshit. Well, I reserve the right to observe said bullshit.

Like I said before, I'd like to pursue the idea of knowledge outside of the cognitive domain with you, but have to know the answers to the questions posed above.

Parting Thought:
I do enjoy and thank you for carrying on this conversation, but I beg that it not distract you from the pleasure and productivity of your travels.

Nathaniel Mathews July 10, 2008 at 5:54 AM  

Sorry about the skeptic thing. I am genuinely enjoying your questions, as they force me to think about these things and the epistemological ground under my feet so to speak. I have to run to class now but I will respond more later.

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