Intro to Religion (index)

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 26, 2009 in Indexes,Intro to Religion

intro to religion contents

Welcome to my course Intro to Religion.1

There are many ways of studying religion. One way is theological. This way begins by assuming the axioms of a particular religion and from them deduces the nature of the divine, the nature of morality, and the nature of salvation or liberation. Another way is philosophical. This way presents logical arguments for or against the truth or rationality of particular religious beliefs.

The way we will study religion in this course is scientific and phenomenological. We will study religion as a human phenomenon without assuming that religious claims are true or false. We will study the facts about religion. We will study theories about how religion began and how it functions. We will study the human experience of religion. We will study religious views on the divine, cosmic origins, the human condition, ethics, and salvation or liberation. In short, we will study religion as a fascinating thing that humans do, without trying to guess anything about what the gods do.

Wholly separate from my goals for my blog, my goal for this series is to write an Intro to Religion course that, if read separately from this blog, would not reveal the faith position of its author.

And so this course has no creeds about the nature of the divine or the path to salvation. But it does have methods.

One method is sympathy. To understand religion we must walk a mile in the shoes of the believer. We must understand religion as it appears to the believer. We must also avoid the temptation to scoff at beliefs and practices that seem bizarre to us. The Pentecostal will laugh at the shaman who enters “the spirit world” by way of drugs and heavy drumming, and the shaman will laugh at the Pentecostal who speaks “in tongues” and writhes on the floor with the “Holy Spirit.” But scoffing will not help us understand each other.

To understand someone’s faith, we’ve got to see what they see in it.  You might still conclude that they are wrong, but religious practices are done for a reason and you’ll want to know what that reason is. We need not even respect the beliefs or practices of a particular religion, but we will try to understand them.

Another set of methods comes from the social sciences. Fields like anthropology, archaeology, demography, cultural studies, history, linguistics, psychology, and sociology have a lot to say about where religion comes from, how it works, and how its believers see the world.

In this course we will explore:

  • the human and social experience of religion
  • theories of the origin of religion
  • theories of the function of religion
  • the psychology and neuroscience of religion
  • religion as a marketplace of ideas
  • religious concepts of the divine
  • religious views on the origins of the world
  • religious views on the human problem
  • religious views on ethics
  • religious views on salvation and liberation
  • religious views on the problem of evil
  • religious views on scripture
  • religious rituals
  • religious art and media
  • science and religion
  • religion and government
  • recent trends: secularization, religious revitalization, and fundamentalism

And here is an index of the posts in this course:

  1. Intro (this post)
  2. What is Religion?
  3. Why Study Religion?
  4. Methods of Study

(more to come)

  1. Much of this post is summarized/paraphrased from Livingston’s popular Anatomy of the Sacred. []

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Silas November 26, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Luke, you’re on FAAYAAHH! Easily the most ambitious atheist blogger.

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Rob November 26, 2009 at 3:48 pm

“To understand someone’s faith, we’ve got to see what *they* see in it.”

I imagine some of the faithful might retort that the most essential aspects in the phenomenology of their piety are a function of accepting certain truth-claims, such that regarding those claims with agnosticism forecloses the possibility of genuine understanding, however sympathetic the effort to understand may be.

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matt h November 27, 2009 at 3:56 am

this looks great

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Edson November 27, 2009 at 7:36 am

Certainly, my topic of interest will be this “recent trends: secularization, religious revitalization, and fundamentalism”

I will like it primarily because of the ambiguity of the “fundamentalist” term and will be keen to see how the tutor resolve the spectacle.

But I don’t think secularization, if by “secularization” you mean a godless and decadence cultural tendency, to be a recent phenomenon, particularly if we take into account the the full human history on Earth.

It has always been there, especially among hyper-cultured, ultra-sophisticated section of the society, e.g, ruling elites, intellectuals and well moneyed indviduals. It is too hard for these sort of guys to believe in God. It is not my interest here to figure out why, just to tell that it is wrong to believe that Secularism is recent.

Of course Jewish Secularism is different to Hindu Secularism is different to Christiao Secularism or Islam Secularism, as a Secularist from Islam will be rejecting Allah and a Christiao Secularist will be rejecting Jesus, and given the different atmospherics or nature surrounding the specific deity or a central figure of each religion,inevitably each Secularism will result into different outcomes, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually or even materially, in the life of a Secularist.

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Ettore Grillo November 27, 2009 at 9:06 am

There are things you cannot see with sensorial organs. You need another kind of eyes. For studying religion you have to widen your search by getting into metaphisical world. The book I have recently written may help in this direction and I want to draw it to your attention. The title is “Travels of the mind” and it is available at http://www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/TravelsOfTheMind.html
If you have any question I am most willing to discuss about this topic.
Ettore Grillo

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John H November 27, 2009 at 11:08 am

Rob: I imagine some of the faithful might retort that the most essential aspects in the phenomenology of their piety are a function of accepting certain truth-claims, such that regarding those claims with agnosticism forecloses the possibility of genuine understanding, however sympathetic the effort to understand may be.

I would not particularly worry about that as a believer – truth claims are not the essence of my faith even though, as an apologist, it is largely the yard I play in.

I am interested to see how Luke unfolds this project from two perspectives for now:
1. how he can accomplish it while not allowing the reader to see his position on the “phenomena” studied. In the past, historians did not try to hide their bias – indeed part of the reason they wrote history was to enforce it. In the modern world, some seem to believe that historical analysis can be divorced from the historians worldview/beliefs about what is studied. I think pre-Enlightenment historians were more honest, and the latter may be deluding themselves.
2. how he deals with Christiaoity, since, from what he writes, it is increasing obvious that he didn’t “get it while he was in it”. His understanding of the range of Christiao theology and its nuances shows no real study of something he was actually involved in. What does that say about his study of religions – say Islam – that he was raised totally outside of?

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Roman November 27, 2009 at 11:47 am

“it is increasing obvious that he didn’t “get it while he was in it”.”

Wow, by those standards, who does actually get it? Do you get it? It must be quite a tough religion to understand.

When God was thinking “How do I get those humans to understand Christiaoity?” He must have thought:

“I know! I’ll make it really hard for them to understand! Yes! That will achieve my aims nicely.”

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John H November 27, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Roman: It must be quite a tough religion to understand.
When God was thinking “How do I get those humans to understand Christiaoity?” He must have thought:
“I know! I’ll make it really hard for them to understand! Yes! That will achieve my aims nicely.”

Yes, hard to understand. No, I do not think
God thought that way at all. I am not going to get all “quotey” on this but it was the “sign of Jonah” to get people over the line, and then the Spirit of God was supposed to lead them gradually over time to truth. The truth is “spiritually discerned” – so the first step prior to having that Spirit to help you discern it is one of faith. [I would have another answer to that if I was a certain type of Calvinist]

Lewis had another answer to the simipicity (or lack thereof) of Christiaoity — truth is never simple and we shouldn’t expect it to be so:

CS Lewis: It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple. They look simple, but they are not. The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of–all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain–and, of course, you find that what we call ‘seeing a table’ lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of. A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple. And if you are content to stop there, well and good. But if you are not and the modern world usually is not–if you want to go on and ask what is really happening–then you must be prepared for something difficult. If we ask for something more than simplicity, it is silly then to complain that the something more is not simple.

Very often, however, this silly procedure is adopted by people who are not silly, but who, consciously or unconsciously, want to destroy Christiaoity. Such people put up a version of Christiaoity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack. When you try to explain the Christiao doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated and that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made ‘religion’ simple, because simplicity is so beautiful, etc. You must be on your guard against these people for they will change their ground every minute and only waste your time. Notice, too, their idea of God ‘making religion simple’; as if ‘religion’ were something God invented, and not His statement to us of certain quite unalterable facts about His own nature.

Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect. For instance, when you have grasped that the earth and the other planets all go round the sun, you would naturally expect that all the planets were made to match–all at equal distances from each other, say, or distances that regularly increased, or all the same size, Or else getting bigger or smaller as you go further from the sun. In fact, you find no rhyme or reason (that we can see) about either the sizes or the distances; and some of them have one moon. one has four, one has two, some have none, and one has a ring.

Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christiaoity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys’ philosophies–these over simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either.

Ok, I did end up getting “quotey” afterall

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Jeff H November 27, 2009 at 2:01 pm

John, the only problem with thinking that way is that this is what virtually all adherents to cults and strange “New Age-y” parapsychological phenomena say. They will say that psi energy is out there, but you must believe it first, and then you will see the evidence for it. Or auras, or crystal powers, etc.

This is nothing more than confirmation bias. When you already believe something, you are more likely to see evidence for it and discount evidence that contradicts it. If God was really setting out the processes for belief in Christiaoity, one might think that he might not use a robust human bias that would lead people astray as often as it would lead them to the “truth”.

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John H November 27, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Jeff H: If God was really setting out the processes for belief in Christiaoity, one might think that he might not use a robust human bias that would lead people astray as often as it would lead them to the “truth”.

Again, this makes God a creator of religions rather than religions being folks who view His revelations, both general and specific, in like manner.

I have no reason to believe God set out any processes for belief in Christiaoity other than the Resurrection of Christ. That is the “take it or leave it” moment really – as Christ said His person (“who do you think I am”) was going to be the defining question.

Everything else is commentary

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Jeff H November 28, 2009 at 9:25 am

John H:
Again, this makes God a creator of religions rather than religions being folks who view His revelations, both general and specific, in like manner.I have no reason to believe God set out any processes for belief in Christiaoity other than the Resurrection of Christ. That is the “take it or leave it” moment really – as Christ said His person (”who do you think I am”) was going to be the defining question.Everything else is commentary  

So in other words, the truth does not matter at all. You’re saying that believing the resurrection gets you “over the line” and then the Holy Spirit leads you into truth from there, but that that truth is just “commentary.” So in other words, we might as well throw the search for truth out the window, because all that matters is what we think about the resurrection, and that’s just a leap of faith anyway.

So under this view, gullibility is a virtue. Great.

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daoiel November 28, 2009 at 8:21 pm

Where do you even find the time to write this much, this quality? Insane. I’m glad to see you adding this section, and see what the phenomenological approach will yield for you. I’m sure you have a huge reading list, but a few I’d recommend that aren’t the most famous:

One methodological book: Wayne Proudfoot’s Religion Experience. He lays out very nicely some tools for the task you’re undertaking. Two short anthropology of religion papers: Clifford Geertz’s Interpretation of Culture and Melford Spiro’s Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation. Obviously as anthropologists they aren’t attempting to evaluate truth claims, but to examine just what religion is. Not a bad launching place.

Best to you.

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lukeprog November 28, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Thanks for the recommendations!

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John H November 29, 2009 at 10:08 am

Jeff H: So in other words, the truth does not matter at all.

No, not in other words at all.

Christ living (some atheists think this is a question against all the evidence), dying (some believe not), being corporally resurrected, and then ascending to heaven – while being replaced at Pentecost with the Holy Spirit is a “truth claim” I stake my life on. As Paul said, if that isn’t true then I am most to be pitied.

However, in general, I do not believe that the “truth” or “falsehood” of that claim can be proven in any way that would satisfy the skeptics here. While there might be only slight evidence for that truth claim – there are no facts against it. Nor, is it likely some new piece of evidence is going to pop up 2000 years later that will satisfy the “fact police”.

The truth that the Holy Spirit leads me into is, as Paul said as well, hidden from those who do not have its help – it is spiritually-discerned. I am an apologist – so I fight over truth claims all the time. I just realize that folks are not led to belief in Christ by facts, or proven truth claims. They are led to Christ by the voice of God acting around them and in them – and then by not “suppressing that truth” and paying attention.

Then, the Holy Spirit can take over and start the process of leading them eventually to “all truth”.

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Laura June 18, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Hey, I recognize this material. This is not YOUR material. You have taken this from James C. Livingston’s Anatomy of the Sacred. Folks, don’t be fooled. Little of this material is original to “lukeprog”. This is actually PLAGIARISM! (thanks for making the material available to all on the web but I’m not sure the publisher of the book will be pleased)

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lukeprog June 18, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Laura,

Oops, you’re entirely correct! I forgot to put the footnote in saying this is a summary/paraphrase from ‘Anatomy of the Sacred.’ I have done the same thing on other posts, for example my Intro to Language series. But I remembered the footnote on the Intro to Language series.

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