Monday, February 2, 2009

Classical Theories of Religion: A Background

I said a while ago I was going to write a series of posts on classical theories of religion. I've put it off for a while, but I'm going to try to rectify that now. This post will be a brief, general background on the classical theories of religion. So, enjoy, or just skip if you're not interested.

The general goals of a theory is that it aims at a general definition - to generate an abstraction from particular cases or distill a common ground and basis. Likewise, with more modern theories, there is a constant interrogation of general definitions and assumptions.

In terms of religion, we hit an interesting problem at the very beginning. When does "what is religion?" become an askable question? The most general answer to this is that there is a moment in which a cultural encounter allows for comparison. Basically, in the encounter with the Other, one can compare oneself and the distinct Other, and "religion" becomes a category. Now, unfortunately, in a lot of ways, there also developed assumptions about the definition of the category and its characteristics - religion was constituted as good, and established an ethno-centric hierarchy. Thus, there was also the development of the "duty," as the "good, religious people" to bring "religion" to poor, backwards, inferior, subjugated people.

More below the fold...

Interestingly, with Muslims, the category distinction became one of faith and truth, and thus, not a benighted heathen who needs education, but instead a dangerous adversary. The colonial encounters were much less charged than encounters with Muslims, mainly due to power dynamics/gulfs.

Colonial encounters led to very early definitions and categories of religion, but our modern idea of religion and all its multiple forms arose during the Protestant Reformation. For the first time, instead of having cross-cultural encounters, people within the same group divided over religion - Catholic and Protestant.

Of course, the Reformation ended in the 30 Years War, a bad time all around. For the first time in European history, a war about religion was waged among those of the same religion. Religion came to shoulder the blame for the war, regardless of how it spilled out into local political realities. In reaction to this overall disgust, a new regime of truth emerged to contest the churches and faith - The Enlightenment. Reason was made to be the highest virtue; universities, academies, salons, and secret societies were formed; and the culture came to privilege debates and polemics, real questioning, and a multiplicity of opinions and research. Also, this was the first moment in which there was a general refusal to grant the object of study the right to define itself, which has become incredibly important for modern research in all fields.

The Enlightenment was not the end, though. A new reaction appeared - Romanticism, a reaction towards emotion, sentiment, and personal feeling. Romantics took the "local perspective" to be in danger and in need of being saved. They valued the distinctive qualities of a specific people and places. They also felt that the Enlightenment was caught up with modernity and progress, and were throwing out tradition and continuity in the process.

Romantics insisted on the inspired nature of poetry, on sublime contact with something more than oneself. They established a new definition of religion that privileged individual participation. The Enlightenment ran out of steam when it granted religion a sphere of its own, even a private one; as well as when Kant argued (for better or worse) that we can never know of the immortality of the soul or the existence of a deity through reason alone.

There's your basic introduction to the time period that I will be discussing. Most of these theorists will move back and forth across the Enlightenment/Reason and Romanticism/Emotion divide. These categories have stayed with us, and we have switched between them several times. It may be impossible to fully escape these options, though I feel that it's certainly a false dichotomy. Keep all this in mind for future posts. Note, I will not comment on my personal feelings about these theories and theorists, I'm just trying to present some general information.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, in 1915 the world's population was just 1.8Billion people. In 2009 the world's population is 6.8 Billion people. In the past 94 years the world's population has increased by 5 Billion people. That's only one lifetime. In 500 years that will be 25 Billion people. If there is poverty, starvation, global warming and a hole in the ozone layer now, what do you think it will be like in 500 years? Man is literally destroying the earth and himself by over populating. Save your generations from suffering a miserable and horrible end. Stop creating and if you have children tell them when they grow up not to create. Please help spread this message to the entire world. Byeyouall, Jesus