I know it’s a bit unfair to take one of my comments and elevate it to the status of a post, but it seemed to me probably worth saying to a wider audience. But I’ve just come back from a day of being unplugged, and I thought I should have something to continue the discussion. We have been discussing the relationship between theology and religion, Mary Helena Basson very spiritedly defending a definition of religion in which religion is separate from theology, in which, indeed, theology is seen as undermining religion. Indeed, religion, for Mary Helena has to do with the spiritual, with all the good things, like love, joy, peace, beauty, and so forth, all the “spiritual” values that we recognise as good. Of course, religion so understood seems to encompass everyone, for we all have spiritual moments, moments lived in the shade of those values, whether it has anything to do with “religion” as we commonly understand that word. And this is my jumping off point for the following brief reflection.
Mary Helena, I’m afraid I have to go with Rieux here. I can see that we can list “spiritual” values, qualities of mind and personality which are “elevating” in some sense. I am reminded of Paul’s exhortation: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4.8) But once you have done that, do you have a religion? Not necessarily, for religions are also, in some sense, ways of belonging. As Atran keeps saying — so long as we remember that there are no authorities here — the root of religion lies in hard to fake commitments which identify the individual with the (religious) group. He does not make a clear distinction between the values and the beliefs which accompany them. And besides, not all the values that religious people espouse are necessarily the uplifting ones, that is, those values that Rieux calls swimmy.
I acknowledge there is probably an unreflective level at which religion is about feelings, basically. However, those feelings are not always the elevating ones suggested in Paul’s list. There are the ones that lead people to kill their neighbours who have not displayed that hard to fake commitment. There are also feelings of guilt and sinfulness that lead people to sacrifice their children in propitiation. There are feelings that send people off on jihad, or crusades, or pogroms.
It is probably at the theological level that we find distinctions being made, theology which can moderate the intensity of people’s feelings, as well as theology which becomes rigid and dogmatic.
In other words, I don’t see theology quite as you seem to see it, nor do I think you can separate religion and theology in the way that you wish to do. — Yes, we seem to be right back at the start, and so I begin to wonder whether this is profitable. — You want to preserve a sacred centre of religion which is neither dangerous nor inhumane. I don’t think there is one. The “values” that you place at the centre of religion are just good feelings, which, of course, we can have in the absence of any religion at all. If they’re not, and we have to take into consideration spite and malice and the other negative emotions and “values” as well — which play a surprisingly large part in religion I suspect — then we have to have some reason for thinking that just these values are the ones that we need to treasure, and this is going to lead us into theology. Because, in the end, come what may, we’re going to want to be reflective and thoughtful about our values.
Take the conflict between Christianity and Islam at the moment. In one sense, you might say that this is just a conflict of theologies. Well, yes, it is. But it’s also a conflict over what values we think are more important. Christians, for example, accustomed, not entirely without reason, to thinking of their god as one of love, tend to favour the peaceable values. Islam, on the other hand, born in conflict and growing by conflict, tends to favour values that focus on the Ummah, as the perfect community of believers, and to encourage values (or feelings) that exclude those who do not submit. The value of faithfulness to the community is also an excluding value. It helps to make distinctions between in and out. So the values here are very different, and the difference is made, largely by theology, by how one regards God, and God’s wishes, what we take to underwrite the values that we express in our lives.
But religions which are only about values, without any reflective (theological) way of ranking those values, may be very oppressive and disagreeable. I just don’t think you can make the distinctions you want to make, preserving all that is best for religion, and shunting onto a siding called theology everything that you want to reject. And so we are right back where we started.
In my experience theology has tended to be a moderating influence — because, within its limits, it is a rational undertaking, although its foundations may be shaky – damping down the intensity of feelings and trying to channel it into constructive activity. The reason for this is not far to seek. Atran himself, if you remember, speaks of theology as working at cross purposes with the counterintuitive/counterfactual aspects of religion, so that it cannot ever be reduced to a system. This can result in dogmatism and rigidity (dogmatic theology) on the one hand, where theologians insist on producing systems though the heavens fall, or, on the other, in a loosening of the belief system itself, and a reflective disequilibrium which makes some beliefs unstable. This can result, as it has in liberal Christianity, in doubts and questions, rather than in rigidity. I don’t think Atran himself acknowledges this, but I think it is an important movement in the theological development of religious traditions.
However, a word of warning. Helpful as Atran is in getting a grip on what religion is, he isn’t the last word on the subject. Pascal Boyer also has much to say that is interesting about how the various cognitive “modules” are brought into play in the development of religious ideas and belief. His Religion Explained is a minor classic, and well worth while reading. And of course there is so much more. Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell is also worth some time, and, interestingly, he thinks of theology as a process of scratching the sceptical itch (very much as I do).
But I will say that I do not think your confidence is justified, as when you say: “If one keeps in mind that there is a real differentiation between theology and religion.” You may keep it in mind, but I do not think you have shown this to be true. Aristotle’s claim that by nature we seek to know means, I think, that, even in religion, theology — that is, reflective awareness of our beliefs — is bound to go hand in hand with religion and to be a part of it. I also think that what killed Salman Taseer is much more likely to have been religion without much theology at all, and that a bit of theological reflection would have helped his killer to see things more steadily and to see them whole.
Tomorrow, back to Philip Kitcher, which some of you have been discussing very profitably in my absence.