The Disenchantment of the World, Part 1: What is Religion, Anyway?

Religious tolerance illustration


We’re talking about religion as roleplaying or fandom.  My thesis is that religion-as-roleplaying can best be understood as an attempt to re-enchant the world.  Before I can make that case, though, we have to look at just how, in the words of Max Weber, it became disenchanted in the first place.  This will require us to look more closely at the very concept of religion itself.  In short, we need to unpack the word “religion”, since, as Iñigo Montoya might say, that word doesn’t mean what we think it means. “Religion” is from Latin religio, literally “re-binding” or “binding back”.  Conceptually this is not unlike “yoga”–literally “yoking”–in Hindu thought.  We are “bound back” or “yoked” to the fundamental source of being, or the basic nature of the universe.  In the modern West, though, the first definition of “religion” that your average person would be likely to give is “Belief in and worship of God or gods.”  That’s fine as far as it goes; but it depends on what you mean by “god“.  Buddhism is generally construed to be non-theistic, though in some denominations it has beings that are somewhat god-like.  Jainism, too, has no concept of a creator God and is usually classed as non-theistic.  Beyond that, explicitly atheistic philosophical systems such as Marxism have been claimed to have the features of religion, not without controversy.  The main point I want to make is not about god(s) or Marxists, though, but about the function of religion.  Courses on religious studies often, in discussing religion, speak of the so-called “three c’s” which are held to be characteristic of religion in general.  They are:  cult, creed, and conduct.  Sometimes a fourth, “community” is added.  I’ll discuss that one in a future post, but in this post I want to look at the first three.

“Cult”, its common connotation of evil occult groups who perform arcane rites aside, merely means “worship”.  It is related to “cultivate”, and is exactly that–how one cultivates one’s relationship with God, the gods, the cosmos, whatever.  More specifically, cult is any prayer, action, rite, or other action of a religion.  Examples would be a Catholic Mass, a Protestant Bible Study, a Jewish circumcision, a Muslim fast, the wearing of amulets or talismans, sacred songs, and so on. “Creed” means simply “belief”.  Some religions have formal statements of belief (e.g. the Nicene Creed), but creed as defined here need not be so specific.  Believing that God exists or that the Buddha became enlightened or that Thor makes thunder with the wheels of his goat-drawn chariot are all examples of creed, though of course more complex examples could be listed. “Conduct” means your standards of behavior–don’t kill or steal, don’t eat pork, give to charity, and so on. The important point I want to make is that we moderns almost unconsciously assume that all religions do all of these things.  Not only is this not true, but it has historically been untrue of the majority of religions.  For the most part, all of these C’s have functioned more or less independently.

Classical Greco-Roman religion is an excellent example of this.  The main part of institutional religion was the cult.  Each town had one or more temples dedicated to the various gods.  The concept of temple worship was nothing like attending a modern Christian church, Jewish synagogue, or Muslim mosque.  The main function of the temples was to perform various rites–most notably sacrifices–to gods they honored.  Proper worship of the gods was seen as essential to the well-being of the state, be that the city, kingdom, or empire.  It is vital to note that belief and morality were completely irrelevant.  As long as the proper rites were carried out to propitiate Zeus or Apollo or Minerva or Mercury, the protection of the relevant god was ensured.  The morality and integrity–or lack thereof–of the leaders of the state and of those performing the sacrifices was immaterial, as long as the actions of the rites were properly performed.  What one’s personal beliefs were also mattered little.  I might be expected to participate in the festival of Zeus, for example, if he were my town’s patron; but aside from that, it would be of no interest to anyone what deities, if any, I worshiped at other times.

This is why Christians were persecuted in the Roman Empire.  The authorities could not have cared less what Christians believed, or that they worshiped a Jewish carpenter executed as a common criminal.  Heck, they would have been perfectly OK putting a statue of him in the Pantheon or building temples to him.  What they objected to was that the Christians refused to participate in the state religion.  Christians would not participate in the cult of the local gods, nor would they burn incense to the genius (patron deity) of the Emperor.  Such actions were not held by the Romans to have any relevance to one’s morality or personal beliefs.  Worship Christ all you want–just be sure to keep the gods satisfied.  This is hard for moderns to understand.  The closest analogy would be to paying taxes to support schools,  highways, or civic works.  We consider them public works for the good of all, and things that have nothing to do with one’s beliefs.  If a religious sect arose that objected to paying taxes on the grounds that it didn’t believe in roads or public works, we’d look highly askance at them.  “Look,” we’d say, “you don’t have to believe in roads and you don’t even have to use them; but everybody has to pay his fair share!”  Likewise, to the Romans, worship of the gods was seen as something vital for the good of the state, regardless of one’s personal religious commitments. It is also worth pointing out that this concept of the civic utility of formal worship of the gods was not confined to the condemnation of Christians.  Socrates was executed on charges, among others, of introducing “strange gods”, and of discouraging the worship of the traditional Athenian gods.  The Druids were banned by the Romans on the grounds that they opposed the Roman gods and discouraged the Celtic peoples from assimilating.  Pagan religions did not pursue jihads or crusades; but the modern image sometimes presented of them as easy-going and tolerant isn’t quite right, either.

In any case, public worship of the gods was mainly civic.  People did not “go to temple” as we “go to church”.  Individuals might visit a temple to offer sacrifice for a specific cause–to a temple of Aesculapius to pray for healing, to a temple of Poseidon to pray for a successful sea voyage, etc.–but these were exceptional cases.  By and large, the average person’s spirituality was based on folk customs and worship of the various types of household gods. The second C, Creed, in the way we conceive of that now, was more or less nonexistent.  There were numerous stories about the gods, creation myths, theogonies, and so on.  There were, however, no formalized sets of beliefs that were considered normative, let alone required.  In fact, like most pre-modern mythologies, Greco-Roman mythology had a dizzying variety of often inconsistent stories about the gods.  A given deity might have a multitude of birthplaces, contradictory characterizations, and even dozens of names.  Occasionally there would be attempts to sort  this out to make a consistent narrative; but more often than not, no one worried about this.  Life is complicated and messy–why should the gods be any different? Conduct, the last C, was manifested in two ways.  The main manifestation, for most people, was simply custom and community standards.  There might not be a specific belief that Athena or Hephaistos condemned theft or murder, for example; but if one did such a thing, the punishment of the community would be swift, with kinsmen of the wronged person taking decisive action. On a more rarefied level, the philosophers–literally “lovers of wisdom”–devised systems of moral and ethical behavior based upon their attempts to understand the world.  Often these systems involved notions about how and why the world came to be, how the Divine (conceived in various ways) interacts with humans, and what life after death (if any) would be like.

In fact, “philosophy” as understood by the ancients was much more like what we’d call “religion” than the actual worship of the gods.  Philosophy was more a way of life, taking elements of what we’d describe as Creed and teaching systems of morality (Conduct).  Meanwhile, most philosophers had no problem with participating in the Cult of the ancient gods.  Many of them considered the gods to be fables at worst or symbolic manifestations of the Divine at best; but they saw no problem with fulfilling one’s civic duty by participating in the rites. Thus, Cult, Creed, and Conduct merrily ran along more or less separate tracks throughout antiquity.  Ancient Chinese and Indian (Hindu) cultures were very much like this.  The people honored a dizzying array of deities; behavior was regulated by societal norms; and philosophers such as Confucius, Laozi, and Mencius in China, or the authors of the Upanishads in India, speculated on the meaning of human life and the best ways to live it.  Much of this division persists in modern Chinese and Indian culture. More broadly, this model, in which worship, belief, and morality had only marginal connections with each other was typical of almost all ancient societies.  There was one major exception,  however–the religion of a strange people living in a strip of land in the Middle East, right next to Egypt and south of Asia Minor.  This, of course, was Judaism; and it was ultimately to play a massive role in the scrubbing of this vast diversity of ancient religion from society–the “disenchantment” of the world–and the unification of the Three C’s.  That is a topic for next time, though.

Part of the series “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality


Posted on 06/10/2014, in religion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

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