Religion Clichés #3 and #4


by Tenzan Eaghll

Note: This post is the second in a series that seeks to summarize some of the clichés associated with religion. It is framed as a critique of a 1972 article by Ninian Smart. For the first post and a definition of cliché see here.

#3 True Religion is about Peace and/or Religion is Inherently Violent

Did you know Carpocrates, a 3rd Century Christian Gnostic, suggested that sex orgies could help one attain salvation? That the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints did not allow African Americans to be priests until 1978 (because people with dark skin had formerly rebelled against God)? Or, that one of the female heroines of the Mahabharata, Draupadi, was married to all five brothers from the Pandava clan? Or, how about that, in Exodus 32, Moses orders the slaughter of thousands of Jews for not being sold on monotheism? What do these random facts imply about the nature of religion? Do they show how religion is inherently violent, peaceful, racist, or immoral?

The dual clichés that true religion is about peace and/or religion is inherently violent form a binary of idiocy that are routinely debated in the blogosphere. The positive version of this cliché grew in popularity in the wake of 9/11, when defenders of a “moderate Islam” tried to distinguish their interpretation of the Qur’an from radical groups such as Al Qaeda. By calling Islam a religion of peace these interpreters attempted to differentiate authentic acts of Islam from acts of terror. Former President Bush used this cliché on several occasions and in a recent speech President Obama used a version of it when discussing the group known as “Islamic State” (ISIL), suggesting that the group has nothing to do with Islam. The negative version of this cliché—that all religion is violent—has also grown in popularity over the past decade, particularly among self-identifying atheists. Some of those who hold to the negative version of this cliché, such as Bill Maher or Sam Harris, argue that most religions, and Islam in particular, are violent to the core.

To be clear, to suggest that any religion is either peaceful or violent is to engage in a game of definition that not only reduces history to a series of stereo-types, but assumes that there is a truth about religion. Anytime someone makes an argument that religion is about X (i.e., peace, truth, power, violence, etc.) and then lists a whole host of historical facts to support the association between religion and X, you can be sure that certain aspects of history are being privileged to further a particular agenda. What is important is not what religion is or is not, but how the term is used to carve up and define space.

4. Religion has dimensions

Next up on the chopping block is a cliché started by Ninian Smart. As a phenomenologist of religion with popular works such as Sacred Texts of the World: A Universal Anthology, Smart was one of the leading 20th Century popularizers of the comparative approach to the study of religion. Whether a religion was theistic or non-theistic, monotheistic or polytheistic, he suggested that it could be broken down into its fundamental aspects and studied. What Smart called the dimensions of religion is a classification schema that organizes religion according to its doctrinal, mythical, ethical, experiential, ritual, institutional, and material elements. As Russell McCutcheon notes, Smarts definition organizes religion according to “aspects or family of traits that typified religions.” (Studying Religion, 172)

This definition of religion is a cliché because it doesn’t actually say anything about religion, but merely passes the buck, so to speak, and assumes that religion is produced by a series of traits that are defined as religious. The logic here is tautological because the various dimensions of religion necessarily produce religious experience (i.e. that which causes religion (myth, narrative, doctrine, etc.) is assumed to be the ‘same/common’ as the source.

The underlying assumption of this expression is that by piecing together all the dimensions of the sacred the scholar is able to describe the nature of human experience. What is fundamentally at stake here is an uncritical acceptance of the correspondence theory of meaning. By organizing religions according to textual, sociological, psychological, anthropological, and historical dimensions it is assumed that we attain access to the essence of a culture. Smart thought that these dimensions provided a “psychology of spirituality” because they give us a glimpse of how human experience and institutions give rise to worldviews that organize the deepest aspects of society. However, by framing community according to a relativist logic of worldviews, or enclosed totalities, this definition merely provides an essentialist way of thinking about community and ignores the arbitrary nature of its classification schema.

(Note: I am not suggesting that the dimensions theory of religion needs to be rejected outright but that it needs to be used with a grain of salt. If it is employed as a tentative classification model then it can be a useful pedagogical tool. On the other hand, when it is used to provide a clear and distinct presentation of some religious or cultural essence it is a cliché.)

Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.

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