How to Look at Religions
This post is a sort of prelude to several I’m planning to put up over the next few days. I want to look at certain aspects of “families” of religions, and types of religions in general, and to preface all that, I want to explore a few concepts here. More specifically, I’m going to look at classifications of religions and I’m going to discuss perspectives on how certain tendencies or views of religions tend to play out, affect their believers, and so on. In this regard, people often take one of two different and opposite perspectives, each of which, in my mind, is problematic.
First, the believer in a given faith may have objections to the attempts to study that faith in a sociological manner. He may think that this denigrates the faith, reduces it to mere human affairs, and fails to see the action of the Divine within this faith. For example, a historian might make the argument that the alienation and social changes felt by the populace during the early days of the Roman Empire were a large factor in the rise and rapid spread of Christianity. A Christian might object to such a characterization on the grounds that it does not make allowance for God’s providence and action in revealing Himself and in ensuring the spread of His word according to His will.
On the other hand, a skeptic might balk at religious motivations in explaining the actions of people and the shape of cultures across the ages. He might insist that religion is just a mask of the things that really motivate people; that is to say, greed, power, economics, politics, and so on. Thus, such a skeptic might insist that the “real” reason for the missionary impulse in the Age of Exploration wasn’t to save souls but to gain control over the inhabitants of newly discovered areas that harbored vast riches which the European powers wished to exploit.
In my mind, these are equal and opposite errors. On the one hand, religious belief systems function in the same way as any other belief systems. Though they may be of transcendent origin, they manifest in this world according the this world’s rules. As C. S. Lewis said in a different context, the wine at the Wedding at Cana may have been miraculously produced, but once it came into being it would behave chemically and physically like any other wine. A scientist examining it would find no aura of holiness about it! On the other hand, just because something can be explained in this-worldly terms, this does not mean that there is nothing transcendent about it. There may have been social, political, and economic facets of religion in the past and even now; but that does not ipso facto mean that believers do not truly believe in their faith, or have truly religious motivations. So much the more, such factors do not remove the possibility of true transcendental experience.
A model I find useful is the idea of the emic and the etic. In brief, “etic” means objective description of a culture or belief from the outside, as a scholar might do; “emic” means a description or understanding of culture from inside, from the point of view of someone within that culture. Each has its appropriate place. On the one hand, the insider knows from direct and daily experience what his culture or belief is like. On the other hand, the insider is too close to the matter to see the full context or to see factors of which he, as an insider, may not be aware. A full description requires the emic and the etic. Thus, when I post things like prayers or Gregorian chant or things for saints’ days, I’m being emic. I am posting things, as a Catholic, that are meaningful to me in that context and which may be meaningful to my co-religionists, or even to non-Catholics. When I’m discussing theology or the history of religions, I put on my etic hat, step outside the fold, and try to come at it as objectively as possible. The two methods are not contradictory, but complimentary.
A failure to understand this distinction pops up on blogs fairly frequently (not so much here as yet). A person will post a religious devotion or prayer or some such, and a skeptic will come by and post an anti-religious rant: “You’re praying to a mythical sky-god! What the F*** is wrong with you, you loon?!” You get the idea. Of course, believers do it, too, sometimes trolling atheist or agnostic websites to tell the users that they’re evil hell-fodder. IMO, this is a category error. A devotional post is really emic–it’s an “in-house” piece that is intended to be of interest to others of similar belief, not an invitation to ideological combat. On the other hand, there is a time and place for apologetics, debate, and such, and a bit of rough and tumble in such contexts is not out of place. As with most things in life, it’s all about context.
Having laid this out, I’d like to go on to look at the taxonomy of religions, beginning with the Abrahamic faiths.