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Ask a Theologian II

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Plotinus, May 9, 2008.

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  1. Birdjaguar

    Birdjaguar Entangled Retired Moderator Supporter

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    Religion is an expresssion of the human need to understand our place in the order of things.
     
  2. Miles Teg

    Miles Teg Nuclear Powered Mentat

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    I wouldn't call that an accurate or useful definition of religion. The mere existence of atheists and the generally non-religious invalidates any claim of a "need" in the strict sense. More importantly, while this describes one possible source of religion, it does not define religion itself.
     
  3. Dachs

    Dachs Hero of the Soviet Union

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    And it doesn't usefully differentiate it from, say, existentialism.
     
  4. Birdjaguar

    Birdjaguar Entangled Retired Moderator Supporter

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    I think it defines all religions: an expression of a need. It allows for multiple expressions of that need as is fititng given the multi-cultural nature of human society. It allows for atheism as a different expression also. Its usefulness is in that it addresses why all the various specifics of a religiion are there.

    Now, you can challenge my claim that a "need to understand our place in the order of things" is valid if you like.
     
  5. pau17

    pau17 Chieftain

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    Did you see my question a few pages back on Islamic theology/theologians and to what extent they are related to what you do?
     
  6. Birdjaguar

    Birdjaguar Entangled Retired Moderator Supporter

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    And why is differentiation so important at such a high level? Existentialismis a way of organizing ones place in the universe. So is Catholicism. As expressions they are not the same, but their purpose is the same.
     
  7. pau17

    pau17 Chieftain

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    Also, could you give the title of the book you cited the Lindberg quote from? Thanks.
     
  8. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Sorry, I missed this. I've only studied Christian theology. As a rule, Muslim theology and philosophy are mainly relevant to medieval Christian thought, since some of the key philosophical and theological ideas of the early medieval Muslim philosophers were very influential on scholastic philosophy - such as al-Ghazali's Kalim argument for God's existence, or Averroes' odd doctrine of the intellect. So I know a little bit about that but not otherwise.

    That may be a feature that all religions have, but I agree with Miles Teg and Dachs that it can't be a definition of religion, because it is too wide. You might say that much of science is an expression of the same need, but you wouldn't call science "religion". And the same is true of much of philosophy.

    It was from The Lion handbook: the history of Christianity (in the US it's The Zondervan handbook). Although what I posted was the original unedited text, since I think I had to cut that one down a bit to fit it into the published version.
     
  9. Miles Teg

    Miles Teg Nuclear Powered Mentat

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    But we aren't talking about the purposes, we're trying to define a particular expression. You could argue that there are religious elements in philosophy or science, in fact, it seems to be a fad in OT recently, and one that probably inspired the original question. But that takes the meaning of the word too far from common usage. Instead, you're trying to equate causes with effects, and a source of religion with religion itself. Afterall, there are multiple possible sources of religion, besides that which you described, such as fear of death, explanations for the existence of life and the universe, the benefits religion gives to social cohesion, and so forth. Claiming one of these sources as the definition of religion strikes me as ridiculous, and I'm sure someone with more grasp of formal logic can pin a name to that error.
     
  10. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I suppose it's an ambiguity of predication, if you want to be technical. To say "X is Y" is, potentially, to say a number of quite different things (you might be identifying X with Y, you might be saying that X has a property of Y-ness, and so on).

    In this case, it seems to me that there are three possible claims here:

    (1) Religion came about as a result of human beings trying to understand their place in the order of things. (A historical claim.)
    (2) Religion does, as a matter of fact, function as an expression of human beings' desire to understand their place in the order of things. (A functional claim.)
    (3) Religion is (definitionally) the expression of human beings' desire to understand their place in the order of things. (A definitional claim.)

    All of these are tendentious if you take them as universally true. (1) seems plausible, but has the problem that we don't really know how most religions began, let alone how religion itself began. It could have begun for other reasons - perhaps people believed in spirits initially as an explanation for natural phenomena, and only subsequently related themselves to the worldview this generated. So we're just speculating here. (2) is also plausible and surely true in many cases. However, it is surely not true of every single religious person, at least. (3) is the most tendentious and surely false, because, as we have said, there are other phenomena that satisfy this description but which we would not generally be inclined to call "religions". But you might build upon this idea to produce a more plausible definition. You might, for example, regard this as the "genus" of religion but then narrow it down further to produce its "species". For example: religion is (=def.) an expression of our need to understand our place in the order of things, which... (insert specifying clause here).

    I should add that most attempts to define religion generally stem from the definer's own religious background and tend to leave out elements that are not present in that background. I say this because I exemplified this tendency myself when giving the list of common elements of religion that I think important on the previous page. My staid Anglican background led me to forget to add mysticism.
     
  11. Birdjaguar

    Birdjaguar Entangled Retired Moderator Supporter

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    Our approaches to defining religion are different. Your bottom up appraoch which lists those elements typically found in religions, as you said, has it problems in that it cannot be comprehensive nor complete. It falls short because it winds up being "too narrow". As you also said, my defintion goes long and is "too broad to be useful". Certainly "an expression of a need" would include many non religious answers. The correct definition perhaps lies somewhere in between. Your "genus-species" approach is particularly useful in that it sets the context for more specificity which was my goal to begin with. Those things that are "not religion" can be stripped away. What's left then can be used in conjunction with specific characteristics known and loved by all. The Wittgenstein approach is definitely easier, though.

    The red text that you used to discredit my appraoch, BTW, can be applied to just about everything that is formally defined. The fact that there are exceptions does not necessarily diminish the value of the rule.

    You raise another question. Is religion more a thing or is it more a function? Is it primarily a set of activities and beliefs (Catholicism means this and this; Hinduism means this and this, without common context) or is it primarily different manifestations of a single principle. Where you place religion on that slider makes a huge difference in how one sees it.
     
  12. Miles Teg

    Miles Teg Nuclear Powered Mentat

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    It's also too narrow. It only encompasses one aspect of religion. This aspect is part of things that don't seem to religions, but at the same time there are many major factors that aren't listed or implied in your statement.

    It depends on the usefulness of the rule, and how categorical it is. Mammals give birth live young, platypuses are mammals, and lay eggs. The reason we keep the live birth rule is because

    1. It's only one aspect of the rule. Technically, the rule about mammals could be defined as "descendants of the same proto-mammal carrying a requisite number of similarities to the modern form".
    2. The exception is small. Platypuses and echidnas form a small exception to the rule. If egg-bearing mammals were more widespread and numerous, the definition would be changed.

    Obviously it's both. Different manifestations of a few common principles, which can be categorized based on differing practices and beliefs.
     
  13. Birdjaguar

    Birdjaguar Entangled Retired Moderator Supporter

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    Perhaps, but I might well be able to work those other aspects into that broad statement.
    I agree; when a definition no longer serves us well it should be changed. Religion is a complex thing and collecting all the pieces in a single basket is difficult. It calls for multiple parts to address different aspects of it.

    Which common principles do you think fit best?

    Do the differing practices and beliefs determine the common principles (as you seem to state) or do the principles shape the practices and beliefs? Is the flow up or down?
     
  14. warpus

    warpus In pork I trust

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    Religion: bald guys and/or silly head gear

    (I'm not sure if that definition includes the Mormons, so it may not be complete either)
     
  15. Miles Teg

    Miles Teg Nuclear Powered Mentat

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    In order to do that, I think you would need to make a statement so broad that it could be applied to nearly anything. I mean, your statement is too narrow to really define religion, but it also includes philosophy and science. In order to get a comprehensive single statement, we would have to magnify that problem by several orders of magnitude.

    Exactly my point.

    I think we need to define principles to continue this discussion productively. Ultimately the core belief of all religions is that their is something that is beyond science. Not necessarily a belief that this thing is not supported by evidence, or that it's not a real person/place/energy, but the belief that it does not conform to the ordinary laws of the universe.

    This is a decent definition of belief, and can be near universally agreed on. Their are of course borderline cases, such as Juche, the official ideology of North Korea. While the state version is completely secular, the variant reported to be common among regular North Koreans tends to ascribe super-natural powers to the Kim dynasty.

    Of course, that aims more at beliefs than the origins I suppose you're looking for. We can list the various things that cause religious beliefs, and speculate on elements of religion that satisfy those needs, but the only thing that stands out is that religions tend to be less involved with the physical world and more with the spiritual world these days. This is probably because science has supplanted religion as the main source of answer in regards to the physical world. You can see some progression even in modern religions. For example, Christianity used to put heavier emphasis on the angels and demons in regards to the physical world. Now a days however, use of the Bible to explain the world is only common among Protestant fundamentalists.

    It strikes me that the flow is sideways. Most religions exist to satisfy a few needs, such as a purpose in life, comfort for the fear of death, and the need for additional social cohesion. However, many a prophet leaves enough of a mark on his religion that it pays heavy attention to one aspect, or none to another, or even creates a whole new principle, or variation upon one. This is more common in isolated and small societies, or larger ones where they form the native culture of a peculiar religious belief is the only major one. (Think Aztecs, Inca)
     
  16. Birdjaguar

    Birdjaguar Entangled Retired Moderator Supporter

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    I would say that all religion is an expression of the human need to understand and organize one's world and typically manifests some or all of the following....blah blah blah. In parallel to that there are non religious expressions of the same need that have a different set of traits....

    I have established/declared a fundamental principle that includes both sides of the issue. I think that with the exception of a platapus or two I can bring everyting into the same tent. The traditinal religions are over there; science to left; mormons near the far side and scientologists somewhere in between. Humans expresss their need to organize their world in a variety of ways....

    Not bad. I might change "beyond" to "out of reach" of science. And do we want to add "still accessible"?

    There is something that is out of reach of reason/science, but still accessible to people.

    I was not happy with my answer to the remainder of your post, so I deleted it. I need to think some more about it and it is late for me.
     
  17. Perfection

    Perfection The Great Head.

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    What's your favorite religion related movie and why?
     
  18. Eran of Arcadia

    Eran of Arcadia Stormin' Mormon Retired Moderator

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    For some reason, a lot of Mormon men go prematurely bald in their 20's, so yeah.
     
  19. PeteAtoms

    PeteAtoms FormulaRandom

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    Why have atheists been the minority throughout history? Or am I wrong, has there been a society somewhere that atheism was the norm?

    Where can I get (or do you know) a figure for how what percentage of individuals aren't of the same religion as their parents?
     
  20. GoodGame

    GoodGame Red, White, & Blue, baby!

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    Religion is frequently tied to the state as sanctioned culture in history, so deviating from it is often considered violently anti-social. And cultures often have creation myths as proto-science that get sucked up into the state culture. So generally, atheism is an intellectual reaction to religion that takes place in a relatively liberal society. For an ancient culture to start saying there is no creation, no creator at the onset of the culture's existence would be pretty weird.
     
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