Four Theses on Religion – Ben Sevart

Throughout this Fellowship, people have shared many of their person, familial, theological, or scriptural perspectives on religion, especially during our “Religion 101” sessions. When I was asked to put on an “Atheism 101” session with Kally, at first my mind drew a blank. What is there to talk about in non-belief? We have no founding prophet, no holy books, only one (atheological) tenet, and no holidays (sorry, Festivus).

         So, our discussion of atheism per se was relatively quick. Yet we needed to fill the time, and we realized that one thing we had not heard all semester was the critique or study of religion as a cultural object. From my coursework, I have some experience in this. I will take some of the major thinkers we talked about, and some we did not, and sketch their perspectives on religion, not to settle once and for all their interminable debates but to highlight the things we might learn from them and apply to Interfaith work.

Karl Marx wrote famously that religion was the “opium of the people,” meaning that it assuages and obscures the pain and suffering of the working class that capitalism necessarily causes — a polemical statement, to be sure. Yet many religions offer healing of pains spiritual and corporeal, some more obviously (Buddhism) or cynically (fraudster Peter Popoff comes to mind) than others. Might the Interfaith practitioner come to respect other religions in their utilitarian value as pathways to healing, and by doing so understand why they are appealing despite one’s profound disagreements about the theology?

Émile Durkheim defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden,” in opposition to those profane things of everyday life. The church is sacred; the car you park there is profane. These distinctions are neither random nor a matter of individual choice. The morals of a social group are products of and subconsciously stand for the group itself, especially when challenged. Might the Interfaith practitioner gain an understanding of the survival of moral rules that have an apparent insignificance or disproportionate seriousness?     

Michel Foucault was interested in the interplay between power and knowledge, the way that discourses can produce knowledge either to sustain or challenge established authority. He focused especially on human bodies—how they are punished, disciplined, controlled, regulated, and even constituted by systems of power. By pointing past abstract theologies to bodies and spaces, Foucault challenges us to critically examine how we act and what we do, not just what we think or feel. Might the Interfaith practitioner gain an appreciation for the role of hierarchy (or its relative absence) in structuring both religious lives and Interfaith work itself?

Clifford Geertz wrote that “a religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” Quite a mouthful. In practice, through his anthropological work, he understood religious systems as ‘social texts,’ fields of symbols on which play the drama of human lives. Might the Interfaith practitioner gain an appreciation for the way that both their own and others’ religions both provide for and circumscribe the limits of meaning-making in an otherwise (for Geertz) ultimately pointless, chaotic world?

There are others still, and the study of religion continues even today in inventive and thoughtful directions. And unlike these famous four, it is not only atheists (nor white men) engaged in this work. But I hope to have traced some thought-provoking ways to think about religion outside the usual modes.

What do you think these theories have to offer interreligious dialogue? Are there others more compelling that you have come across?

1 thought on “Four Theses on Religion – Ben Sevart”

  1. Hi Ben,

    This was a really interesting post to read- thank you for breaking down so many involved theories into little pieces for us 🙂 When I was reading over all the different theories you outlined, the one that resonated the most for me was the Durkheim one about differentiating sacred and secular. On Saturday nights in Judaism was have a ceremony called Havdalah (means separation or differentiation in Hebrew) to end Shabbat and start the new week that is not holy time anymore until it is time for the next shabbat. We sing a song about G-d dividing out the sacred things from the secular things, light from dark, shabbat from the week, etc. Another thing the theory made me think of is how some kosher rules are kind of arbitrary and probably just made to keep Jews in community with other Jews. Like for example kosher wine can only be made by other Jews, and there is no other real explanation for that.

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