Friday, March 25, 2011

Fundamentalism and Liberalism

I am still reading Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999), and blogging about what I find interesting in the book. Before starting to read this book, I wrote about what I read in another book about Fundamentalism and Modernism in Islam. The title of this text is taken from chapter 14 in Momen's book. It should be obvious that I am very much interested in this subject, and so will quote much of that chapter here. Momen begins by explaining the importance of the topic:

One aspect of religion that has come to general attention in recent years has been the upsurge of fundamentalism. The split between fundamentalists and liberals appears to affect almost every religious community to one extent or another, in many different countries. Almost every religious movement, other than the most narrow sects, contains individuals who tend towards either extreme. (P. 363.)

It is often thought that the term 'fundamentalism' cannot be applied to religions other than Christianity. This is due to the history of the term, as Momen notes before defining the term for wider usage:

Historically, many authorities date fundamentalism from the publication in North America of a series of pamphlets, The Fundamentals, between 1910 and 1915. Although to trace the name to this event would be correct, to date fundamentalism from it would be a very limited view of a phenomenon that has a long history in religion. Also limited is the opinion that fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity. This view would restrict the occurence of fundamentalism to modern times (although it must be admitted that modernity has brought fundamentalism very much to the fore). Nor, indeed, should fundamentalism be limited to Christianity or even the Western religions. (P. 363.)

The point is that the phenomenon referred to as fundamentalism is much wider than one religion (or even religions in general), so it makes sense to define the term in a way that allows the student of religions to use it in a wider scope. Momen goes on to analyze the characteristics of both fundamentalism and liberalism, in order to show what kind of phenomenon (or phenomena) we are trying to understand. First, he looks at the attitude toward "holy" scriptures:

The fundamentalist looks to the holy scriptures of the religion as absolute and unchanging truth. [...] Even in religions that have no concept of a scripture revealed by God, Theravada Buddhism for example, a similar attitude towards scripture can exist.

As a secondary principle, fundamentalists also favour a literal interpretation of scripture. [...] [T]he fundamentalist always regards the scripture as referring to real situations and facts. What the scripture says corresponds to empirical reality. For example, even if heaven and hell are acknowledged not to be physical places above and below the earth, these two words nevertheless do refer to existent realities. Barr points out that the importance of preserving the first principle, the inerrancy of the text, will often compel the fundamentalist to relax the second principle and allow some degree of non-literal interpretation. (P. 364.)

Christian Fundamentalists claim to read their scriptures literally and without interpretation (which is really impossible, because even a literal interpretation is an interpretation). In fact, though, they do not. They actually have a set of beliefs that guides their interpretation. But this is rather well known, and besides the point. Perhaps I will write about that some other time. Momen continues to point out one of the biggest problems of fundamentalism, and then compares the fundamentalist view to the liberal:

Another characteristic fundamentalist attitude is that the whole of the scripture stands or falls together. This view maintains that since the scripture is the Word of God and therefore infallible, the inerrancy of every single sentence of the scripture must be maintained, otherwise the slightest error in any smallest part casts doubt on the whole.

By contrast, the liberal is willing to allow that the texts of the scriptures are open to more than one interpretation; parts of the scripture are more 'true' -- in the sense of being more likely to have actually occured physically -- than other parts. As well as truth relating to empirical reality, the liberal is prepared to see other types of truth -- typological, metaphorical or mythological -- in the scripture. Allegorical and symbolic interpretations may be used, particularly of passages that appear to contradict human reason, and social and contextual factors taken into account. [...] As a relative, rather than an absolute, truth, therefore, the meaning of the scripture is not considered fixed but must be reinterpreted in every age, for the concerns of that age.

The liberal is much more willing to view the holy scripture as a historical document, written down by fallible men and women sometimes many years after the events portrayed. [...] In contrast, the fundamentalist, if he or she does accept the historical nature of the scriptures, will insist that they were divinely protected from alteration or error. Certainly, no external factors such as the social conditions pertaining at the time that the scripture was written down, are considered relevant to the understanding of the texts. It is, therefore, a characteristic feature of fundamentalists that they consider that they can derive the meaning of the scriptures directly, just by reading them. No contextual, philological, or historical information beyond what is evident in the text is needed. The plain meaning of the texts is their intended meaning. In contrast, the liberal considers that the scriptures have to be read contextually, taking into consideration historical and philological information [...].
(Pp. 365 - 367.)

The attitude of the fundamentalist is clearly opposed to modern academic (historical, critical) exegetics, as is well known in that field of study. The liberals are much better equipped to accept the findings of exegetics.

Aother source of authority in religions is tradition. Momen justifiably defines two different types of fundamentalism based on their view of tradition, as follows:

When one consideres the traditions of a religion, we find that there are different types of fundamentalists, whom we may define in two major groupings.

Some fundamentalists are conservative and traditionalist. These regard tradition as an element in the religion that is as authoritative as the scriptures themselves. [...] In Islam, the concept of the Sunna (the deeds and words of Muhammad as the perfect example for ll Muslims to follow) and the doctrine of ijma' (that whatever the Muslim world holds as a consensus must be correct) act as a powerful force for maintaining traditional attitudes and positions. If any of the religion's structures or doctrines are in conflict with society, then it is society that must change to conform with what is perceived to be the Divine. [...]

The second group of fundamentalists is of teh evangelical, radical, revivalist type. These regard the traditions of the religion as the main obstacle to a return to the 'pure' original religion. [...]

Radical and traditionalist fundamentalists only differ in how they define the boundary of what they consider to be unalterable and inerrant. The radicals place the boundary aroud the scripture itself, while the traditionalists extend it to the traditions of the religion. [...] In the Christian world, Roman Catholicism holds that the traditions of the Church are of equal authority to the scripture. (This has been the official Catholic position since the Council of Trent, 1563.) The fundamentalists among the Catholics tend to be traditionalists. [...] Radical fundamentalists in the Christian world are to be found among the Protestant sects -- Protestantism being a movement that arose as a reaction to the traditionalism of Catholicism. In the Muslim world, most fundamentalists are traditionalists, since Islam is a religion in which tradition plays an important part. There are, however, a few modern radical groups -- for example the followers of Rashad Khalifa and of 'Ali Shari'ati.
(Pp. 367 - 369, emphasis added.)

Some people think that fundamentalists actually have more in common with freethinkers (non-religious atheists) than with liberals, and there may be some truth to that. The reason is emphatically not that freethinkers are equally dogmatic, as often claimed by propagandists, but the demand for clarity on the issues of religion. Liberals can have very vague ideas about religion, that defy rational criticism by simply avoiding it. This does not seem intellectually honest or sensible to either the atheist, or the fundamentalist. The freethinker wants to know what the claims of the religious person actually are, and the fundamentalist wants to know exactly what her religion teaches, so she can (dogmatically) believe it. It also seems to both of these that the liberal believers can have any number of different ideas of what their religion is all about, which makes them all seem rather baseless:

A more basic criticism levelled by fundamentalists at liberals concerns the arbitrary nature of their view of the scriptures; some parts of the scripture liberals regard as the religious core and therefore to be preserved; other parts are culturally determined and therefore can be dispensed with or interpreted liberally. What determines which parts are treated in which of these two ways? To a fundamentalist, the dividing line appears not to be defined by any discernible logical rules, but rather by whatever happens to be the current social fashion. [...] Are fashion and current secular sensibilities to be the arbiters of the standpoint of faith? If so, will the inevitable result not be eventually to jettison everything? In this sense, we can say that fundamentalism is much more of a reaction against modern, relativizing, liberal trends in religion than a reaction against modernity itself. (P. 370.)

Momen notes that in modern times there has been a linking of "xenophobic fundamentalism to a strident nationalism in many parts of the world" such as the United States (p. 371). I think that there is a similar attitude in Islamism (various forms of political Islam), but it is connected to the presently non-existent, ideal, unified Islamic nation, rather than any of the present nations.

There is marked difference in the attitudes of fundamentalists and liberals towards people of other faiths (or of none), as Momen points out:

The fundamentalist's conviction of possessing the truth leads to a strong tendency to correct the errors of unbelievers. Thus the interreligious activities of the fundamentalist are typically evangelism and missionary work. The interreligious activities of the liberal, on the other hand, tend towards ecumenism and interfaith dialigue. Fundamentalists have no time for such activities. Since their own religion already possesses the absolute truth, there is no point in looking elsewhere for it. (P. 372.)

It is very interesting how these different types of religious beliefs have influenced the political views of their adherents:

In the past, there does not appear to ahve been any characteristic political stance from either fundamentalists or liberals. If anything, both parties often tended to political quietism. [...]

Recently, much of this has changed greatly. Both sides have taken on characteristic political attitudes and fundamentalists have left their social isolation and entered social and political life in every part of the world. In recent times, fundamentalists have tended to be found at the right of the political spectrum, encouraging individual self-reliance and stressing public morality and order. Some fundamentalist groups have even reversed their previous tendency towards asceticism; they now adopt a positive, encouraging attitude towards the accumulation of wealth. These groups have become actively involved in politics. They advocate capitalism and a laissez-faire social philosophy, while raising communism to an almost mythological level of evil. The best-known example of this is the Moral Majority movement in the United States which contributed to Ronal Reagan's electoral success.

An important social and political feature of fundamentalism is the tendency to promote a traditional role for women in society within the sphere of home and children, rather than working outside the home and taking a political role. [...]

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to the political left in modern times, due to their concern with social issues. [...] Liberals have also changed their previous tendency and now incline towards asceticism. They have a negative attitude towards the accumulation of wealth and are supportive of the emancipation of women.

Fundamentalists regard existing political structures with suspicion as the products of human thinking and efforts rather than divine revelation. The extreme wing of fundamentalism would overthrow them in favour of a political structure based on the holy scripture. [...]

The fundamentalists' rejection of all doctrinal positions outside their own leads to highly demarcated, tightly knit, highly committed, socially isolated communities. Liberals, on the other hand, consider the beliefs of the rest of the world sympathetically and are much more integrated into society. The great diversity of beliefs among them, however, hinders the formation of coherent groups. It also reduces the likelihood of a high degree of commitment.
(Pp. 372 - 375.)

It is obvious why fundamentalism is a political danger all over the world. They oppose the idea of a secular state (i.e. the separation of church/temple/mosque and state), and would rather see it replaced by a theocracy. That would mean turning the proverbial clock back to middle ages, which is something humanity simply cannot afford to do. They are such a powerful force because of this commitment and hierarchical organization (not to mention being very well funded). That is why the best hope for the rest of us is to form secular, political opposition to them, and to battle their attempts to bring religion into politics every step of the way (unfortunately, in the United States things are so bad that it's actually a battle to remove religion from politics). Because of the fuzziness of the religious beliefs of the liberals, there is usually much less "friction" between freethinkers and liberals than there is between freethinkers and fundamentalists. This should make alliances in politics between liberals and freethinkers not only the prudent thing to do.

Momen returns to the issue of defining fundamentalism:

For the fundamentalist, the secular world must adapt to and come under the control of the religious world. The liberal considers that it is the job of the religious world to adapt to and become relevant in the secular world. [...]

[A]lmost all Muslims believe in the inerrancy of their scripture, the Qur'an, but this does not make them all fundamentalists. To differentiate between fundamentalists and liberals in the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim worlds, one must examine such factors as social relations and the attitude towards modernity and religious diversity. [...] Thus the arguments presented in this chapter point to a position in which fundamentalism and liberalism are not defined in any absolute terms. Rather, the definition is multi-factorial and relative to the particular religions and historical situation of the individual. In other words, fundamentalism and liberalism must be identified through a pattern that changes from one religion to another [...].
(Pp. 375 - 376.)

Momen rejects attempts to base the liberal--fundamentalist dichotomy on social or intellectual categories or factors, and seems to believe instead that it is likely that the differences between these groups are caused rather by different psychological types (pp. 276 - 378):

In psychological terms we may characterize fundamentalism and liberalism as two different ways of thinking, two cognitive styles. Cognitive style refers to the individual's characteristic and consistent manner of organizing and categorizing perceptions and concepts. [...]

The fundamentalist mentality is characteristically one that sees things in terms of black and white. [...] The liberal is more inclined to allow for 'grey areas', intermediate situations. [...] In this way, we are gradually soming to the point at which it is possible to see that the fundamentalist--liberal split is not something that affects religion alone; rather, it is one facet of a much larger phenomenon in the psycho-social life of humanity.

One of the underlying differences between fundamentalists and liberals is that the former are driven by a desre for certainty. [...] For the fundamentalist, certainty is only to be found in objectivity. The indecisive world of the liberal who is willing to see some truth in all opinions; the uncertain fields of historical and literary criticism, where different opinions abound: these are all tainted by personal opinion, and therefore by subjectivity. This is deeply unsatisfactory to the fundamentalist psyche. The only way of achieving objective truth is to take a standard that lies outside human subjectivity. [...]

The fundamentalist favours absolutes, while the liberal favours relativistic styles of thinking. [...]

It should be noted that cognitive style is not the same thing as personality. Cognitive style is a much more flexible function that can change relatively easily in a person. Although we can define fundamentalism in terms of a particular cognitive style, there is a problem as to which phenomenon causes which.
(Pp. 378 - 380.)

This hypothesis certainly seems plausible. It also points to a possible way of changing the world for the better: children should be taught more open-minded cognitive styles, and possible the same could be done to adult fundamentalists as well. This roundabout approach to the problem might prove more effective than attempts to reason with fundamentalists -- anyone who has tried that knows how pointless it is.

Momen states that "it has been the phenomenon of secularization and religious pluralism in the modern world that has brought the liberl--fundamentalist split to the fore of religious life" (p. 381). This seems obvious enough. Momen gives an abstract, "historical" perspective to the cause of the spli:

At some stage in the development of the religio, its history, doctrines and social laws are written down, thus creating the sacred text of the religion. [...] This process of writing down what then becomes regarded as sacred and unalterable is the historical crux of the fundamentalism--liberalism dichotomy. Two problems arise from this process.

The first and less important problem relates to the question of authenticity. [...]

[I]f particular religious reachings become a source of difficulty as social conditions change, the question of the authenticity of the sources may be reaised by liberals wishing to adapt the teachings to social change.

Much more important for our present concern is that the writing down of the teachings, laws and history of a religion in effect freezes them into a particular setting. Thse texts are written within the worldview -- cosmology, mythology, social concerns and intellectual debates -- of a particular time. This does not mean that the sacred scriptures are necessarily frozen in the worldview of the time of the founder of the religion. Rather, it is the worldview of the time when the scripture is written down that is important, as this is what is fronzen into the texts. [...]

This increasing divergence between the worldview of the texts and the contemporary worldview results in the fundamentalists--liberal dichotomy. The fundamentalist regards the texts as unalterable and divine and so struggles to make the contemporary worldview fit in with the worldview embodied in the texts. The liberal, on the other hand, is striving in the opposite direction, trying to make the texts fit in with the contemporary worldview. [...] We can note, in passing, that those religions in which the tradition has remained largely oral up to the present time, the primal religions, have suffered very little from this fundamentalist--liberal split. Such religions are adapting to new circumstances all the time but this change is gradual and without a written record of the past for comparison, occasions no adverse comment.
(Pp. 382 - 384.)

It remains an endless source of amazement, how some people can actually believe written word so gullibly as to believe that it is somehow of divine origin, merely because it is written, because the text itself claims to be of divine origin, or because they have been told it is of divine origin.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Origins of the Hadith

I'm still reading Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999), and blogging about what I find interesting in the book. Some time ago I was reading about Islam. Now I want to extract a longish excerpt from Momen's book on the same topic, specifically the Hadith, or Traditions about the alleged sayings and doings of Muhammad the alleged prophet:

Of course, Muslims themselves have always recognized problems regarding the authenticity of the Hadith literature. Acknowledging that many Traditions relating to Muhammad were forged in the early period, they developed a whole branch of Islamic science that sought to distinguish between the true and the forged Traditions. They examined the line of transmitters of each Tradition and tried to ascertain the reliability of each person in the chain. They also examined the line as a whole and determined whether the individuals in the chain of transmission could have been in contact with each other.

Modern Western scholarship, however, examining critically the earliest surviving documents, has cast a much more fundamental doubt over the Hadith literature. The first to raise questions about the traditional version of the rise of the Hadith literature was Ignaz Goldziher. He showed that up to three centuries after Muhammad, many individuals, political parties and sectarian movments within Islam were manufacturing Traditions that supported their claims and positions. These Traditions, claiming to be on the authority of Muhammad, gave each faction legitimacy and authenticity.

Joseph Schacht took this line of research further. He showed that the schools of Islamic law that arose were in fact the result of differing sets of customary law in such towns as Medina and Kufa. These centres established what had been the customary tribal law from pre-Islamic times in their area by incorporating it into the Holy Law. It was only at a later date, when it became the norm to trace all law back to the Prophet Muhammad, that there evolved numerous Traditions relating these practices back to him. In this way the customary law of each of these places became enshrined in the Holy Law, the Shari'a of Islam.

We should not see this process of the retrospective attribution of customary practice back to Muhammad as the activity of malicious forgers. Rather, these were the actions of sincere and pious men who regarded their views as the correct Islamic standards. From this it was only a short step to being certain that the Prophet would have acted in the same way if faced with the same situation; and then another short step to saying that the Prophet did act thus; and then yet another short step to creating a Hadith that confirmed that he did act thus.
(Pp. 325 - 326.)

Momen goes on to talk about Wilfred Cantweel Smith's hypothesis about the the origins of the term Shari'a, but since it is apparently not as well established as the above, I won't quote that part.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Trance and Religious Experience

I'm still reading Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999), and blogging about what I find interesting in the book. Momen describes common features of the experience of trance or mystical ecstacy:

  1. Those who enter states of trance or ecstacy report the experience of a monist state (i.e. when the 'me' and 'not-me' division in the world breaks down and they experience an intense sense of unity with Reality). Trance or deep meditation produces a state that appears to correspond in many respects to the 'infantile state' (Piaget), the 'state of hyper- or hypo-arousal' (Fischer), or 'deautomatization' (Deikman). These states result, as described above, in a breakdown of subject--object differentiation. The self and the world around become merged. A monistic state is experienced.
  2. They report the phenomenon of the differing passage of time. Those who have an intense religious experience often claim that time stood still or passed very slowly during this. This, again, was found by Fischer to be a phenomenon associated with altered states of consciousness, hyper- or hypo-arousal.
  3. They report that their intense religious experience is ineffable (its reality cannot be communicated by words). It can only be understood by another who has also experienced the state. This phenomenon can [...] be explained on the basis of state-bound knowledge and meaning. The experiences of a person at extremes of hyper- and hypo-arousal only have meaning in those states. The experiences cannot easily be communicated once the person has returned to the level of everyday life.
  4. They report unusual perceptions: perceptions of infinite energy, dazzling light and so on. In states of altered consciousness, controlled analytical thought is absent. The subject's attitude is one of receptivity to stimuli. There is heightened attention to sensory pathways. All sensations are therefore experienced more vividly. It may also be that psychic phenomena (such as tension, conflict or repression) will be perceived by being translated via the relatively unstructured sensations of light, colour or movement.
  5. They report a feeling of reality associated with the mystical experience. Those who have had intense religious experiences often assert that they do not need external evidence for their reality, because of the intense 'feeling if reality' experienced during the state. In fact, however, this intense 'feeling of reality' has no connection with an objective judgment of reality. It may, for example, be experienced in dreams. On the other hand, objective reality may on occasion be deprived of the 'feeling of reality'. This occurs, for example, in the brief feelings of depersonalization (where on feels as though one's self is unreal) or derealization (where on feels as though the world around is unreal) that most of us experience from time to time (often associated with déjà vu and other similar phenomena). During the early childhood stages of individual development, the 'feeling of reality' becomes fused with the objects of the outside world. In states of altered consciousness, however, the process of deautomatization breaks this link. The 'feeling of reality' can then become linked to the feelings and ideas that enter awareness during this state. The stimuli and images of the inner world become thus endowed with the 'feeling of reality'.

    An additional reason for this 'feeling of reality' results from the process of deautomatization. Due to this, stimuli are no longer systematized and selected before being presented to conscious thought. Therefore all stimuli present themselves equally strongly to the consciusness, which is only able to focus on one unselectively. That one stimulus therefore has none of its features attenuated by subcortical processing. It also has the 'feeling of reality' attached to it and so it appears with a vividness unlike anything that is experienced in ordinary life.
  6. Lastly, it should not surprise us if the mystic describes his or her world as being outside the bounds of reason or not attainable by intellect and analysis. This is to be expected because, as we have noted, in moving away from the level of everyday experience, we are moving away from the realm in which Aristotelian logic and intellectual analysis function.
(Pp. 177 - 178.)

That's an interesting checklist for anyone who has ever had a strange (religious) experience.

Momen notes the "chicken and egg quandary" with regard to the religious experience and the truth-claims of the religion:

Do Eastern religions meditate because it helps them to perceive reality as they consider it really is; that is, in monistic mode? Or do they see reality in monistic mode because they meditate? Similarly, do Western religions emphasize such acts as prayer and ritual worship because they help the believer to see the reality of the theistic mode? Or do they tend to see reality in a theistic way because of the activities of prayer and ritual worship? (P. 180.)

I don't really see that as being a quandary myself, but Momen is being very accomodating to the religious (being one himself), as can be expected from one doing comparative religion (a certain amount of relativism is probably almost a requirement there).

Fischer's work on state-bound knowledge, for example, shows that the aroused state of mind produced by religious experience is also produced by several other mechanisms (including the use of drugs), all of which produce certain common features (time passing differently, state-bound knowledge, and so on). It is therefore reasonable to assume that these features are due to the common result of the differing mechanisms (the aroused state of the mind) rather than the mechanism of arousal itself (mysticism, drugs and so on). In other words, if trance-like states produce several common features no matter whether they are induced by religious mysticism or drugs, then one can assume that these features are a general property of the neurophysiological state induced in the brain, rather than the specific property of the religious experience or drugs themselves. This observation casts no aspersions on the veracity of the religious experience. It merely indicates that these phenomena probably cannot be used as proof of the truth of religious experiences. (P. 180.)

I cannot agree with Momen's politically correct view here: it is obvious that these findings make the claims of religions about the Ultimate Reality even less plausible than they would otherwise be. If one can induce a religious experience with the use drugs, then the experience, reagardless of how it is achieved, is clearly proof only of the fact that people can have hallucinations or other experiences when something strange happens in their brains. No big surprise there. And no gods or ultimate reality are likely to be involved.

The Religious Life

Here's an interesting bit from Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999), about the different ways of being religious:

There are different ways for the individual to be religious, different modes of the religious life. [...] One categorization that is very influentional distinguishes between extrinsic and intrinsic ways of being religious. Persons with an extrinsic religion tend to use their religion for their own ends. Religion is thus instrumental and utilitarian. Thus, for example, such persons may use religion to provide security, solace, or self-advancement. Persons with an intrinsic religion, by contrast, have their religion as an end in itself. They attempt to internalize the beliefs and prescriptions of their religion. [...]

To this, a third mode of religious life has been added by some psychologists, the quest mode. This is characterized by persons who are open-ended and questioning in their approaches to religion. They resist clear-cut tidy answers to the existential questions trouble human beings. [...]

Various studies have been done assessing these three ways of being religious against both individual factors, such as mental health, and social factors, such as freedom from prejudice. The results of this research are complex and some of them are contrary to what one might expect. Extrinsic religion performed poorly in all areas. Individuals with extrinsic religion have poorer results on mental health, are more prejudiced, and are less likely to help others. Taking the mental health of the individual as one's criterion, intrinsic religion scores best of the three types in the various factors that have been eliminated. If one examines what most religious consider to be good relationships with others, however, one finds that individuals with intrinsic religion perform well only in circumstances where they are promoting a positive self-image. When measured by more subtle, covert techniques, they are also prejudiced, they only help others when there is minimal inconvenience to themselves and their help in such circumstances is likely to be only poorly related to the needs of the other person. In other words, it was found that their actions were motivated more by a desire to present themselves as good, caring people than by a concern for others. Individuals with the quest type of religion were found to be less prejudiced than others, even when this was measured covertly. They were not particularly more motivated to be helpful than the other groups but when they did help, their assitance was more closely related to the needs of the person bein helped.
(P. 163 - 165.)

It would be interesting to know how well non-religious people, and especially Secular Humanists, would do in an experiment of this kind. My guess is that non-thinking, non-religious people (such people do exist) would be no better than people on average. But one would expect thinking individuals, such as most who identify themselves as Secular Humanists, would do at least as well as those of quest type of religious people. Of course, thinking people are on a quest, so perhaps they were included in the experiment. I will have to look for more information about this.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Religious Conversion

I'm still reading Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999), and blogging about what I find interesting in the book. This time the issue is conversion. Here's how Momen describes the basic requirements for religious conversion to occur:

When a religious conversion occurs, whether this be in an individual conversion, the mass conversion of society or a religious reform, many of the same features arise. The first necessity is for a sense of dissatisfaction with the old religion. There must be important, 'toublesome' questions that the old religion is either unable to resolve or over which it cannot agree. [...]

An alternative religious viewpoint must be available which addresses these issues (or at least some of them) coherently and in an illuminating manner. [...] One important point of note is that there must be some degree of overlap between the old religious worldview and the new one. [...] A modern European is extremely unlikely to understand, let alone adopt, the religious worldview of a Papual head-hunter, but there is a considerable overlap between the Christian-based European worldview and those of communism, Islam or the Baha'i Faith.

Those who represent the old worldview, in particular the priests or the religous professionals of the established religion, will put up resistance to the new viewpoint. Among other measures, they will adapt the old worldview so as to make it more compatible with the new questions that have arisen [...].

Those who adopt the new religious worldview are, in effect, making a leap of faith. The change from one worldview to another cannot be solely justified on rational grounds, for each worldview is wholly consistent and coherent within itself.
(Pp. 152 - 153.)

This seems reasonable, for the most part. I'm especially glad that communism was counted as a religion here, for it certainly seems to be a religion to some (as are movements like veganism, the Zeitgeist Movement, and the ideology of the free market system).

There are only two squabbles I have with the above. First is that it doesn't necessarily apply to what is often called "deconversion", i.e. the discarding of religion without turning to a new one. But then I suppose this is just about the conversion from one religion to another, and "deconversion" can be dealt with elsewhere.

The second issue is somewhat more serious. It's the claim that all worldviews are internally consistent and coherent. I seriously doubt that is the case. The whole idea that conversion could never be rational, is highly suspicious. Here it may be that the writer's own religion (which is somewhat relativistic, AFAIK) may be influencing how work a little too much. Certainly it cannot be just assumed that all worldviews are consistent and coherent -- they must each be examined on a case by case basis.

Momen then analyzes the causes and requirements of conversion in more detail as follows:

MARGINALITY. Individuals who are at the margins of society (in terms of being connected to the sources of power or being involved in the culture) are more likely to convert to a new religion that is presented to them.

SOCIAL OR CULTURAL CRISIS. Individuals from cultures and societies that are in crisis are more likely to convert than those from stable cultures and societies. [...] A high degree of cultural and conceptual dissonance will inhibit conversion.

INDIVIDUAL CRISIS. Just as social and cultural crises serve to highlight the breakdown of the old order and lead to a search for a new basis for society, so an individual crisis may destroy the old framework of a person's life and open up the possibility of a new worldview. Apart from the usual personal crises in health, finances or family that individuals may experience, mystical experiences, intellectual doubts, leadership crises in their present religion, or dissatisfaction with life can all lead to individual crises that leave a person open to conversion. [...] Of course, both with individual crises and social and cultural crises, the new religion must offer some new vision or a means of interpreting the current situation that offers a better resolution of its problems than the existing religion.

INDIVIDUAL BACKGROUND. Research has shown that those who do convert to a new religion have a much greater likelihood of having had a long history of emotional problems in childhood, adolescence and in the period immediately before conversion (often resulting in problems in making relationships), when compared to those who remain within a religion.

KINSHIP AND FRIENDSHIP NETWORKS. Religious conversion is much more likely to occur within networks of families and friends. The conversion of a friend or relative whom one knows to be trustworthy opens on up to the possibility of converting oneself, especially if one observes a change for the better in that individual. [...] A close personal relationship helps the potential convert to feel accepted; it increases self-esteem and enables the potential convert to overcome conflicts and uncertainties that may block the path to conversion. Of course, those who have experienced emotional and social deprivation in their earlier years will be more attracted to the new religion by the formation of a close personal relationship with a member of the religion. It should be noted that just as frequently, kinship and friendship networks may be a constraint upon conversion. If the family and friends of a potential convert are strongly against the potential conversion, this may be a decisive factor in his or her withdrawal from the process.

CHARISMATIC ATTRACTION. Many converts report that what initially attracted them to a religious movement was the charisma of the leader of the group. The perceived power, energy, and authoritative exposition of the leader can be an important catalyst that opens a person up to the possibility of change.

ENCAPSULATION. I noted above that human beings are constrained in their choices by their background, their culture, family, friends, social roles and so on. [...]

Encapsulation may be of different kinds and degrees. [1.] Physical encapsulation may be achieved by removing a person from all contact with his or her normal daily life. This would usually be achieved by going to a remote location or a physically surrounded building such as a retreat. [2.] Social encapsulation means restricting the access of the potential converts to all normal social interactions. This may be achieved in some groups by filling up all free time with group activities. Christian missionaries usually insist on indigenous converts changing their names to Christian names and frequently even changing their style of dress, thus making the conversion public and, often, isolating the convert socially. [3.] Ideological encapsulation means the creation of a state of mind that resists consideration of alternative religious options. This may be achieved by teaching that the group's doctrines are the only pure and redeeming path and that the outside world is irredeemably evil and corrupt.
(Pp. 154 - 156.)

The above are mostly understandable and only somewhat problematic (for example the idea of following a charismatic leader makes me nauseous), but clearly the last one, encapsulation, is something questionable. It is obviously a technique use by various evil cultists to brainwash people into joining their cult or to remain in it. In other cases it might be used in a less obvious manner, for example as more subtle uses of the ideological encapsulation, but even then it is at least intellectually dishonest. So, encapsulation certainly looks like a harmful feature of religion that just has to go. I will never consider as acceptable a religion that utilizes it.

People often like to depict things like conversion rituals as something wholly good, but they should realize that they exist for reasons that might not be completely nice, when you think about them. This is what Momen writes about them:

The process of conversion is often sealed by a ritual, such as the Christian baptism or confirmation. This serves to give public testimony of the event that has occurred in the convert's life; it sets the boundary between the new and the old and it serves to burn the convert's bridges, thus making it less likely that the convert will return to his or her previous allegiance. [...]

[H]owever enthusiastic the convert may be, a considerable proportion of converts do leave the religion again.
(P. 156.)

Such rituals as baptism are actually used (besides whatever other meaning they might have, also) to bind the convert more strongly to the new religion (and the religious organization, and the religious group). This can be a form of encapsulation. In any case, it is nice to know that people who do convert, are likely to convert again, so perhaps they tend to be thinking individuals, seeking something real?

Although it is convetional to think of a conversion as being a complete rejection of the past and a turning to a new way of life, in fact there is rarely such a complete change. [...] Inevitably, each convert brings into the new religion something of his or her previous religion.
(P. 158.)

This is one reason for the evolution of religions. They don't remain unaltered, especially their everyday practise, which is most likley to change slightly with new converts bringing their own previous customs, values and opinions within the sphere of the new religion.

Moving on, Momen analyzes the experience of conversion as follows:

The experience of religious conversion is reported differently by different individuals. This experience is partly moulded by the expectations of what conversion will be like [...]. John Lofland and Normal Skonovd have described six patterns or motifs of religious conversion.

  1. INTELLECTUAL. This involves an intesive study of a religion, using books, lectures, television, the Internet and other media that involve little interpersonal contact. Social pressure is usually avoided and belief precedes participation in the community.
  2. MYSTICAL. The prototype of this is the 'Road to Damascus' experience. It occurs suddenly and dramatically and may be associated with dreams or visions.
  3. EXPERIMENTAL. This involves an active exploration of different religious options with the potential convert assessing whether a religion 'works' and what benefit it brings. This motif is gradually worked through over a long period of time and participation in the community precedes belief.
  4. AFFECTUAL. This involves the creation of a direct, personal bond with members of the religious group over a period of time, thus giving the potential convert the experience of being loved and nurtured.
  5. REVIVALIST. This is the type of conversion that occurs in a revivalist meeting. It uses crowd conformity and a high degree of emotional arousal to achieve the conversion.
  6. COERCIVE. This is the type of conversion that involves brainwashing, coercive persuasion and thought programming. Although many new religious movements are accused of using this method, it is, in fact, probably rare and is often reversed if the coercive pressures are removed.
(P. 158 - 159.)

Of these different experiences of conversion, I really accept only the first, intellectual conversion. I understand this as meaning rational conversion. It is also what should be (but isn't) the common type of "deconversion", i.e. the discarding of religions altogether.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Acquisition of Religious Belief

I'm still reading Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999), and blogging about what I find interesting in the book. Momen outlines the following three phases of a child's acquisition of religion, based on Herbert Kelman's work:

  1. COMPLIANCE. Initially, a child learns certain religious beliefs and behaviour through a mixture of reward and punishment. [...]
  2. IDENTIFICATION. This way of acquiring beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour involves taking someone whom one admires and trying to be like that person as much as possible. [...]
  3. INTERNALIZATION. While identification involves conforming, in order to think and act like an admired person, internalization involves a process of transforming oneself so that new ways of thinking and acting become a part of one's personality and being. These new ways are thus valued for themselves and can exist independently of what others may say or do and independently of whether an admired person says or does them. Most religious people would say that a person's religion is not trie religion until it exists at this level within the individual.
(Pp. 145 - 146.)

Momen uses James Fowler's work (based in turn on the works of Piaget, Kohlberg, and Erikson) to distinguish "six stages of faith development that are considered to evolve out of the basic pre-stage of undifferentiated faith that is characteristic of the first two years of life" (p. 147):

  1. INTUITIVE-PROJECTIVE FAITH. This is characteristic of ages 3-7. The child's faith is fantasy-filled and imitative of parents and other significant adults. There are the beginnings of awareness of self-identity, death and sex, and of the taboos related to each.
  2. MYTHIC-LITERAL FAITH. This corresponds to Piaget's stage of concrete operations (ages 7-11). It is when the child appropriates the stories, beliefs, and practices of his of her faith community. [...] Interpretation is, however, concrete and literal rather than abstract and symbolic.
  3. SYNTHETIC-CONVENTIONAL FAITH. [Emerges around adolescence.] It is at this stage that deeply-held values and beliefs are established often by identifying with and internalizing those of authority figures and role models: a personal ideology evolves.
  4. INDIVIDUATIVE-REFLECTIVE FAITH. This stage, which may occur in young adulthood, involves the integration of the various roles and patterns that the adolescent has acquired. [...] In relation to faith, this involves a realization of the fact that one's own view is only one of many possible worldviews and a rejection of literal interpretations of narratives and myths learned in childhood. [...]
  5. CONJUNCTIVE FAITH. This stage, which may emerge in mid-life, involves a sensitivity to patterns of interrelatedness. Efforts are made to accept and unify apparent opposites. There is a re-examination of the symbols and myths of the faith community and the development of an appreciation of these as a source of non-logical insights. The dangers if this stage are the development of passivity, complacency and cynical withdrawal.
  6. UNIVERSALIZING FAITH. Rarely, individuals may reach the stage which involves an awareness of an ultimate environment that is inclusive of all being. These individuals incarnate the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community. They not only free themselves from the social, political, economic and ideological shackles that bind humanity but they create this possibility for others. Theirs is a universal, affirming, transcendent viewpoint. Because of this, they are often regarded by social institutions, including those of their religion, as being subversive.
The surveys that have been done to assess Fowler's stages have shown that there is a definite movement through stages 1 and 2 and into 3 in the first two decades of life (probably due to cognitive maturation, as described by Piaget). The evidence beyond this gets somewhat weaker, with roughly equal numbers past the age of 20 being assigned to stages 3 and 4, while 5 is uncommon and stage 6 is rare. [...] Thus it may be that [...] Fowler has taken the different styles of faith that exist in the world and given these a hierarchical value based on his own liberal Protestant Christian background.
(P. 147 - 148.)

Momen writes about what might be termed the context of discovery and the context of justification of religious belief:

William James argued that, in practice, human beings choose a particular conception of the world on the basis of faith and only then do they look for arguments to support the conclusions that they have reached. The work of several writers from fields other than religion seems to support James's view by describing parallel processes in other fields of human activity. (P. 149.)

This is an important passage that I must return to at a later time. It is of great importance to the issue of rationality, another special interest of mine.

Faith and Belief (and Superstition)

Moojan Momen notes in his The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999) that despite many attempts to define religious faith, there is still no agreement on an adequate formulation of it that describes all aspects of faith. He attempts to clarify the matter by using a disctinction between 'immediate and intuitive' faith (or 'faith-in') and 'intellectual' faith (or 'belief-that'). (P. 141.)

'Faith-in' is the disposition to believe in something, or as having a particular, committed worldview. It is thus personal, an individual's commitment. It does not depend on doctrinal formulas and propositions. 'Belief-that' on the other hand "indicates a disposition to believe that a proposition is true; it is impersonal in the sense that it is independent of the person making it" (p. 141).

Momen analyses these concepts further, and I will compile the following quotes from his book. The quotes are not direct, because I want to edit them a bit.

First, 'faith-in':

Faith-in involves an element of trusting in the object of one's faith; it involves the feeling that the object of one's faith is in some way greater than oneself and is able to lead one to greater fulfilment and happiness; that one can trust it to act in a beneficent way.

The factor of trust leads naturally to the feeling of dependence one the object of faith; a feeling that one can, with confidence, rely on the object of one's faith.

Part of the faith-in relationship involves a sense of loyalty and faithfulness towards one's object of faith, together with confidence that this is reciprocated.

Faith-in involves a great sense of love towards the object one's faith and a feeling of being in turn loved.

One aspect of faith-in is the willingness to obey the instructions of the object of one's faith.

One aspect of faith is the feeling that one would be willing to sacrifice for the object of one's faith. There is also often the idea that the sacrifice is mutual, that the object of one's faith has already sacrificed for one.

Faith-in is accompanied by a feeling of certainty concerning the promises made in the scriptures, together with the disappearance of the feeling of doubt and meaninglessness.

The consequence of faith-in should be seen in the life of the individual. Faith-in leads to a focus and direction for one's life. It ats as an absolute standard for one's conduct.
(Pp. 142 - 143.)

Second, 'belief-that':

In belief-that, dependence is expressed in such doctrinal formulas as determinism (that all of one's circumstances and actions are already predetermined by God).

Most religions have a doctrinal formula that emphasizes the need for faithfulness and loyalty. This is often translated into doctrines of faithfulness and loyalty to the institutions of the religion and to the religious community. Laws relating to marriage and the bringing up of children often emphasize the need for this loyalty to the religion.

Love is often emphasized in credal formulas that refer to the mutual love between God and humanity.

Obedience is expressed in the religious requirement to carry out the details of ritual law or spiritual discipline. Any deviation from the laws and rules of the religion need repentance and expiation. This aspect of a belief is also usually extended to obedience to the institutions of the religion.

Sacrifice may be expressed at the simplest level in sacrifices of one's property and wealth to the object of one's faith; it may also be expressed as a state of detachment from material things. From the other perspective, the object of one's faith is considered to have sacrificed also.

The various creeds, doctrines and dogmas express the certainties of the religion.

The consequences of faith are expressed doctrinally as being born again, englightenment, transformation, the work of the Holy Spirit.
(Pp. 142 - 143.)

Momen then goes on to explain:

Thus we can see that religious experience produces a certain disposition in the individual -- faith-in. If the believer tries to express this faith-in, he or she can only do so in terms of concepts that are available to him or her -- this immediately then enters the real of belief-that. We may say that faith-in is analysed by theologians and [philosophers of religion] and piut into doctrinal formulas that seek to express it -- and so becomes belief-that. (P. 143.)

* * *

Momen also mentions in this context the issue of superstition (which is of special interest to me personally):

Magic and religion are not easily separable entities. Most religions have incorporated at least some magical elements, if not into the orthodox religion, then at least into the popular religion. Indeed, if we consider the miracles said to have been performed by the founder of the religion as magic, then almost all religions have what may be called magic even in their orthodox elements. (P. 144.)

I have nothing to add to that statement for the moment, except my endorsement. This is an issue I will no doubt visit again, as will Momen in his book.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Pathways to Religious Experience

The title of this text is the title of Chapter 5 in Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999). In that chapter he goes over the

[...] various pathways that attempt to recreate the central experience of religion in a systematic way in society. These then are the principal forms in which religiosity expresses itself in society. Since the religious experience gives one the feeling of salvation or liberation, these pathways to religious experience may be called pathways to salvation or liberation. (P.117.)

Copied here is a picture from the book (p. 118) that nicely illustrates the author's point:

At the center of the picture is the religious experience, surrounded by all the pathways that lead to it. Of course there are actually several different religious experiences, as has been discussed in my previous posting, and will become apparent later in this one as well. The fact that they are all considered, nonetheless, to be what all religions have in common, could be due to the author's religious (Baha'i) views. Even if that might be misleading in some way, I do find it (for now) a useful way to look at religions.

Below I have copied a table from the book (p. 121) analyzing the common features of each pathway. I hope the writing isn't too small - the picture is as big as I was able to upload here.

The rest of this text will be a digest of the book's information on these pathways.


Ritualism is usually based on theistic assumptions of the otherness of a God or god to whom praise and glorification are due. [...]

The typical religious attitude on this path is that of piety, love and devotion. There is both love and often some degree of awe or fear of the Deity or figure that is the object of the ritual or worship. [...] The typical religious experience of this path is of the regenerative type, confirming and commissioning.
(Pp. 119 - 120.)


This path to salvation is characterized by the belief that the will of a deity has been revealed in the form of a Holy Law. This law determines most of one's actions in daily life. [...]

Legalism is [...] the result of two main impulses in religion. The first is a concern to maintain ritual purity in society. This ensures that the rituals of the religion can be performed in the manner decreed and so be pleasing to the Deity. The second, which is in a sense a correlate of the first, is to maintain the ethics and morals of the society, and thus to maintain the order and correct functioning of society. [...]

In this path of salvation, the religious professional is not, as with ritualism, one who has a mysterious power to transform the ritual act into a path for salvation; rather he [...] is the man of learning who knows the Holy Law. [...]

The religious attitude on this path is one of discipline and self-control. The believer must control his or her life so as to stay within the limits of the Law. [...]

Legalism is usually linked to some extent with ritualism. The Holy Law prescribes rituals that must be performed according to the Law. Religious experience on the legalistic pathways usually arises, therefore, out of the ritual that is performed -- often in the saying of a prayer. [...] [T]he sense of the sacred is evoked not just by the correct performance of the ritual but also by the fellowship of the believers gathered for the occasion. The religious experience on this pathway tends to be of the regenerative type, confirming or commissioning.
(Pp. 120, 122 - 123.)


In this group the emphasis is on the grace and beneficence of the Deity. Salvation is then usually a matter of faith that this grace will be extended to all who seek it with love and devotion. These groups will tend to emphasize a personal relationship with the Deity. [...]

The task of the religious professional in these groups is to make the personal relationship between the Deity and the believer seem real. [...]

The religious attitude of this group usually involves a 'puritanical' approach to the world. It is expected that one's life be lived according to a strict moral code. [...] Another aspect of the religious attitude of these groups is triumphalism, the belief that their religion will triumph in the end over all others. These are also features of fundamentalism, with which evangelism is closely linked. [...] The main religious experience of this pathway to salvation is often of the charismatic type that is brought on by the preaching of the evangelist. Sings of this include ecstatic trance, speaking in tongues, and the otehr phenomena described above. There may also be regenerative religious experiences of the conversion type.
(Pp. 123, 125.)

Social Reformism

Social reformism goes out into the world and seeks to transform it into an ideal society. This pathway has historically been mainly that of the theistic religions. [...]

The religious attitude in this pathway is an outward-looking one that expresses itself in service and shows love and charity towards all, in particular the poor and disadvantaged. The source of religious experience on this pathway is the feeling of unity and fellowship with others who are imbued with similar ideals. Some may have a commissioning type of regenerative religious experience on this pathway.
(Pp. 126, 129.)


Some of those who see the world as the source of evil and corruption have considered that the best means of achieving salvation is to isolate oneself as far as possible from the world. This is often linked to disciplining the body severely, to reduce its dependence on the physical world. [...]

The religious attitude of those who follow this pathway is one of detachment from the world. They put themselves outside the social world in which other human beings participate; they become outside observers. The main source of religious experience in this pathway is the reading of the scriptures, prayer, fasting, and the other austerities that the ascetic undertakes. The ascetic may have any of the types of religious experience, but typically the mystical or charismatic.
(Pp. 129 - 130.)


The monastic community provides the opportunity to concentrate on the religious life for those who see no way of doing this in the outside world. [...]

The religious attitude in monasticism is towards an inward-turning detachment from the world. The source of religious experience is reading from the scripture, prayer, fasting and sometimes some austerities. There may, in some monastic communities, be a religious experience from the sense of community and fellowship. The main types of religious experience on this pathway are the mystical or the confirming type of regenerative experience.
(Pp. 131 - 132.)


The principal idea of the gnostic movements is that the central religious experience is linked to a special knowledge to which only a select few have access. The knowledge usually takes the form of an inner (esoteric) understanding of either the scriptures or the rituals of the religion. [...]

One of the features of this tendency in the West is its eclectic nature. Consequently, many gnostic groups in the West have little connection with Christianity, for example New Thought, the Rosicrucians and Scientology. The approach that has become known as the Perennial Philosophy can also be classed as gnostic.

The principal religious attitude on this pathway involves a search for truth. This search is principally intellectual, a struggle to understand; some would say that it is also élitist. Part of the religious attitude must also be that of obedience to one's spiritual master, particularly in the early stages of the path. [...] The main source of religious experience is the scriptures; it occurs when there is an intellectual enlightenment regarding the true meaning of the scripture. The gnostic pathway is closely linked to mysticism. Many gnostic pathways use the experiential dimension of mysticism, including meditation or chanting, which helps to achieve altered states of consciousness.
(Pp. 132, 134 - 135.)


The term 'mysticism' is used to describe a wide variety of religious phenomena. For lack of a more suitable word, I shall use it to refer to those groups that consider that the central religious experience can best be recreated through achieving altered states of consciousness. Such states can be reached in two different ways. The first is the path of increased psychological arousal achieved, for example, by rhythmical chanting or dancing. This culminates in mystical ecstacy [...]. The second is the path of decreased mental activity leading to a deep state of meditation [...]. Both paths lead finally to a trance state. [...]

This type of religious experience, which can be found in both Eastern and Western religions, is usually closely linked to gnosticism. [...]

The trance-like state achieved by Western mystics is often described as filled with vivid visions and auditions. [...] The trance-like state of the Eastern mystic, however, is usually formless, visionless experience. [...] Western religion is predominantly devotional in nature, and so the product of the trance-like state is a vision of either the object of devotion or something closely associated with it. Eastern religion is predominantly oriented towards achieving an abstract notion - insight. The trance-like state therefore tends to be empty and formless. The main method of achieving altered states of consciousness is also different in the two forms of mysticism. It is achieved by increasing levels of mental arousal through chanting and similar activity in the Western religions, and decreasing levels through meditation in the Eastern religion. This may also have a bearing on the content of the trance.

The religious attitude on this pathway is one that tends to be turned inwards, trying to obtain a direct personal experience of the sacred. Once it is felt that this has been attained, then there is usually a feeling of love and compassion, not just towards other individual human beings, but more expansively, towards the whole cosmos. The main source of religious experience on this pathway is in the achievement of altered states of consciousness by such methods as chanting and meditation. The religious experience on this pathway is of the mystical type.
(Pp. 135 - 137.)

Classification of Religious Groups

The above are the different pathways to religious experience as classified and described by Moojan Momen. There is some overlap between these pathways, and a religious group may exhibit the use of more than one of them. Momen also classifies religious groups according to their utilisation of the pathways as follows.

Some religious groups only exhibit one of these methods of social expression (or possibly two interlinked methods). Therefore their appeal will be to only a narrow range of psychological types from among the general population. We may name these groups 'sects' or 'cults'. [...] In general, the word 'sect' applies to those groups that are more tightly organized and where beliefs are more narrowly defined (that is, they are epistemologically authoritarian); the word 'cult' to the more loosely organized groups where there is not such a strict insistence on adherence to particular beliefs.

On the other hand, any religion that would claim to be a 'world religion' should included all the different forms of religious expression and thus, potentially, be able to appeal to all types of people. [...]

An approach incorporating more than one, but not all, social expressions can be found in intermediate groupings that we might call 'churches' or 'denominations'. [...]

As well as catering for all types of social religoius expression, a world religion must also appeal to all types of individuals at the conceptual level, by its ability to encompass both the theistic and monistic viewpoints. A sect will usually only appeal either to the theistic or to the monistic viewpoint.
(Pp. 138 - 139.)

I was going to make several comments along the way, but this is too long as it is. No doubt I will return to those individual points I wanted to comment on in later posts.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Features of a Religious Experience

This text mostly consists of quotes from Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach, published by Oneworld Publications, 1999.

According to the book's author, there are three features that "apply to phenomenon of religious experience":

  1. UNIVERSALITY. Numerous surveys have consistently shown that even in the highly secularized societies of North America and Europe, a large proportion of the population have had what they describe as religious experiences. The proportion approaches one hundred per cent in traditional societies.
  2. DIVERSITY. Religious experience is unique for each individual. Religions may attempt to impose a uniformity of doctrine or of action upon their followers, but each person's religious experiences, when taken as a whole, will be different to those of another person.
  3. IMPORTANCE. Religious experience is almost invariably very important to the individual to whom it occurs, in a way that other experiences usually are not. A religious experience can result in change in the way that individuals think about themselves, a complete alteration of lifestyle, or a reorganization of the individual's conceptual world. (P. 88.)

I wonder if the secularized society in North America, alluded to in point 1, is Canada?

For someone (like me) who has never had a religious experience, it is difficult to imagine what is being talked about by those who claim to have had it. It is noteworthy that the experience is extremely common in "traditional societies", and less so in modern "Western" societies. It would be interesting to know why it is not so common here anymore. Has it become unnecessary for many of us secular Westerners? What then has taken its place?

Momen lists general features of the experience of the holy, another concept very important to religions, and closely connected to religious experiences:

  1. It is a very intense, energizing experience. It feels important and demands respect and attention.
  2. It is a liberating experience, in that it seems to free on from the demands of the physical world (but, in some, it may induce a sense of dependence on an 'other reality').
  3. It brings peace, joy, exultation, even exhiliration, although this can, on occasions, be mingled with awe and even dread. Some may even report the feeling of being possessed by a spiritual power.
  4. It seems to give on e a feeling of having achieved insight or knowledge, although it is often difficult to specify the content of this knowledge (it is ineffable, incapable of being adequately expressed in words). It is often described as 'confirming', in the sense of giving one the assurance that one's faith is true.
  5. Time may appear to stop and space may seem to become distorted. It may seem that the experience occurs 'outside' time and space.
  6. Many would say that for an experience to be truly religious, it should involve the whole person, lead to some element of personal transformation and result in some outward manifestation of the change in terms of action. Some may report a feeling of having been summoned to a mission through this experience. (Pp. 88 - 89.)

It is important to remember that there are many kinds of religious experiences even to the same individual. Momen speaks of this spectrum:

I have attempted to formulate these descriptions so as to include all levels of religious experience. Many of these descriptions have been attributed to mysticism and states of deep meditation, but I would maintain that it is more useful to see the mystical and meditative experience as being at one extreme of continuum of religious experience and activity. At the other end of this spectrum are the mundane tasks of the religious life, such as arranging the flowers in the church or sweeping out the Hindu temple. As one goes from one extreme to the other, the intensity and frequency of the experience may change, but all the above features may occur at any point in the continuum.

The Experience of the holy is the core of religion and its initiating and driving force. (P. 92.)

Momen analyses types of religious experience.

I. The first is The Regenerative Experience. It is subdivided thusly:

  1. CONVERSION EXPERIENCE. For many people, the experience takes the form of a conversion, leading them to align themselves to a religious movement to which they have not previously been aligned, because they experience the truth of that movement.
  2. CONFIRMING EXPERIENCE. For others, the experience regenerates their faith within a religious movement to which they already belong; the 'born'again' experience in Christianity and religious revivalism in Islam are two common examples.
  3. COMMISSIONING EXPERIENCE. This experience may be in the form of a 'call', a divine commission to carry out some action or take up a new way of life.

II. The second type of religious experience Momen explains is The Charismatic Experience.

This experience makes those involved feel that a gift has been bestowed upon them. This gift may include a feeling of being in a 'wider life than that of this world's selfish interests', a sense of being in continuity with the powers of the universe, and a sense of elation and joy as the sense of self and attachment to this world is abandoned. There is inner equilibrium and calm. It has been described as the experience of saintliness.

Typical this 'gift' gives its recipient the ability to heal, drive out evil spirits, speak in tongues, and perform other miracles and wonders. The receipt of this 'gift' is often marked by trance or ecstacy. (P. 94.)

III. The third type is The Mystical Experience.

This experience is characterized by James as being ineffable (impossible to describe in words), noetic (giving insight and knowledge that feels authoritative), transient (it cannot be sustained for long) and passive (although certain steps may be taken to induce the experience, it then takes over and possesses the person). (Pp. 95 - 96.)

IIII. Finally, Momen also mentions The Paranormal Experience (p. 97) as frequently associated with religious experiences in (at least some) Eastern Religions. He doesn't mention stigmatism, and other alleged paranormal phenomena connected to Christianity, but it's obvious that these things are important to some in the West as well.

Momen states that "very often the precursor to an intense religious experience [...] is a religious crisis. [...] A religious crisis is usually a period of existential doubt; a questioning of one's cognitive structures; a loss of confidence in one's interpretation of the world." (P. 98.) According to him, "there are three possible outcomes to such a crisis":

  1. A RESOLUTION WITHIN CURRENT COGNITIVE STRUCTURES. The person in crisis may eventually be able to resolve the crisis within his or her existing cognitive structures. This may be done by delving more deeply into the scriptures of one's religion and finding an answer there. Alternatively, discussion with one's fellow-believers may result in a solution being found. This may then be reported as a confirming religious experience.
  2. A CREATIVE RESPONSE, CHANGE TO A NEW COGNITIVE STRUCTURE. The inner struggle may reach the point at which the existing cognitive structures dissolve. Since our cognitive structures define reality for us, some report it as a dissolution of reality. At this point, thre religious person often reports a sense of surendering the self (giving up one's existing cognitive structures, which define one's self). Following this surrender, a new vision may emerge, a new way of looking at the questions, a new self, a new cognitie structure, the basis for a new reality. This may be reported as a confirming or conversion experience, but will usually be more intense than the first outcome.
  3. A PATHOLOGICAL RESPONSE, COGNITIVE DISSONANCE. Some react to the threatened breakup of their reality by retreating into denial of the problems that caused the crisis. In effect, they build up a fantasy world in which they create a reality that accords with their cognitive structures. This type of process is usually unstable and eventually breaks down, as such a response negatively affects the way that such people function in society. The process can usually only be stabilized by individuals either retreating from society or finding social support for this pathological response. (Pp. 98 - 99.)

Later, Momen writes about how people in the West tend to think of religious experience as a private affair, while for the rest of the world it usually occurs communally, and how the sense if unity and fellowship amongs the community can itself be a religious experience (pp. 109 - 110).

Momen then moves on to the social influence of religious experience. He notes the obvious fact that "religious experiences tend to conform closely to cultural and religious expectations".

Thus it would appear that religious experiences, no matter how intense and all-consuming, are subject to contraint by the cultural and religious normas of the person to whom they occur. Another way of looking at this is to say that there can be no such thing as a pure experience. An experience always happens to a person, and that person already has an interpretative framework through which he or she views the world. [...]

The most basic interpretative framework is language. We do not have an experience and then find words to describe it. Our language prefigures our experience of the world.

[...] We may think that we are free to choose whatever religious style of life we like, but in fact we are very unlikely to choose some and very likely to choose others, because of our background. (Pp. 114 - 115.)

This should be enough of an introduction to religious experiences in the abstract. What I am left wondering is could there be, or is there even in actuality, a non-religious equivalent for the religious experience? Also, is religious experience among the necessary criteria of something qualifying as a religion? If no follower of a movement claims to have had such an experience, do we have to call the movement something other than religion, even if it fulfills other criteria of religion?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Eastern and Western religions

Moojan Moomen defines two types of religion in his book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999) as follows:

I use the term 'Western religion' to refer to the mainstream orthodoxies of the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim group of religions. 'Eatern religion' refers to Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism, especially of the Advaita Vedanta school. This division is useful in that these two groups of religions hold very differing and even contaradictory vies on the nature of the Ultimate Reality and of humanity's relationship to it.
Regarding the difference with the Eatern religions, the most important point is that in the Western religions those characteristics mentioned above, such as anger and kindness, all make God appear to have a personality, to act as a person. An impersonal entity would not have such characteristics.

In contrast, the Eastern religions, Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism of the Advaita school, have no concept of God as a person; rather their concept is of Ultimate Reality as a process, a truth, or a state of being. This is usually stated as a concept of an Absolute Reality. The phrase 'Absolute Reality' implies that there is a single Reality in the cosmos; everything else that may appear real has only a relative or a contingent reality or is illusory or non-existent. The Absolute is therefore both transcendent and immanent. (P. 31 - 33.)

This bit about God (or gods) being a person is important and worth repeating. It makes little sense talking about a god in any other way, although apparently the word has been used in a more poetic ways (by Albert Einstein, for example), to refer to something like the God of pantheism. Such talk is only misleading and confusing, and will end up being used by theists in an attempt to support their claims. It clearly also makes no sense to pray to a god that is impersonal, while it does make sense to try to connect with such an entity somehow -- assuming of course that one already believes in the existence of such a god.

It also makes sense to seek enlightenment if one believes in the illusoriness of the sensible universe. It is no wonder that belief in paranormal powers goes with such a worldview as well. In Eastern religion, these alleged powers would be clearly magical, derived from the thaumaturgist herself, while in Western religion the power would be from God, and miracles not controlled but only asked for by the believer. Clearly, it is easy for belief systems to incorporate some from both views, as seems (IMHO) to have been done by (some) renaissance "mages".

We can call the view held by many Eastern religions that there is only one fundamental reality in the world, 'monism'. And by contrast, we can call the Western view that God and humanity form two distinct and separate realities, 'dualism'. Alternative names for the two systems would be 'absolutism' and 'theism' respectively. (P. 34.)

One type of religion is perhaps monistic, in the sense that there is only one reality, and the illusion we experience as reality is actually not real, and the other accepts the reality of two categories of entities -- one being everything in the material world, and the other usually being made of just one God; although the latter might comprise all sorts of entities made of spiritual substance. Nevertheless, both do seem transcendental in the sense that followers of both religions are oriented toward the (alleged) transcendent reality, whether it is the Absolute Reality, or the One God (or even just a more vague "hereafter"). This is the usual emphasis of relgion, caused no doubt by the fact that everyone can see (and has always been able to see) that this material world we live in is fundamentally evil, full of suffering and pain, and in many ways displeasing especially to us humans. Because we are naturally fair-minded, humans have decided that there must be some other world or level of reality that will balance this evil.

It is then curious that some Eastern religions, much like the philosophical schools of the Hellenistic period, seem to have also allowed for the possibility of reaching the transcendental goal in this life:

In Hinduism, the final goal is liberation (moksha or mukti). This state may be achieved in life, in which case it is called jivanmukti. Such a person is described as having achieved a state of existence-consciousness-bliss (sat-chit-ananda). For Buddhists, the final goal is the state of Nirvana (which means 'blown out'). This state is characterized by the extinction of all craving and desires, a complete detachment from the world. (P. 35.)

In Western religions, only some saints, mystics, and monks have attempted to reach for the final goal within their lives, and even they have (if I am not mistaken) always believed it to be impossible to completely reach it during their lives. They could perhaps experience Union with God briefly (albeit ecstatically), but only after their deaths would they actually get to meet their maker.

The idea of a living holy man who has reached the heights of illumination of course has the unfortunate effect of making people gullible and thus vulnerable to all sorts of hoaxers and charlatans. One would think that the Rationalists of India will be kept busy as a result, for quite a long time to come.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thematically about religion

I started reading The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach by Moojan Momen, published by Oneworld Publications, 1999. It seems interesting, but there are questionable passages already in the beginning.

The first (pp. 24 - 25) is a claim about religion even in the West not being seen as an individual choice until the rise of Protestantism (it was an important part of Islam before that). If this is taken only to be saying that the surrounding communities did not (usually) allow its members to make individual decisions, then that is a fairly obvious point. But surely it was understood even before the Middle Ages that individuals could and did convert on their own, contrary to social norms. In Medieval times heretical individuals were even hunted by Inquisitors. Usually, I accept, it was whole communities that converted at once, but the existence of individuals who think differently was known.

The author acknowledges in the beginning of the book that his attitude toward religion is broadly sympathetic (p. 3), and according to his homepage he is a Baha'i. I have no problem with that, but I do have a problem with someone presenting religions in general as something good, as opposed to the lack of religion. This is what Momen seems to be doing in the second questionable passage that I've already come across. It is a list comparing worldly values and religious values (p. 29). Among worldly values are listed things like "revel in self-glory" (and others much worse, even amusingly the claim that the worldly "are rigid and self-opinionated", while the religious "are flexible in thinking"). Now, I can understand that this is how the religious believer may think that this is the case, it is not what I would expect to see in an academic work on "religious studies".

I can only hope the rest of the book is of better quality.

I did encounter something better already, about the definitions of religion. Momen lists (p. 27) the following aspects of religion as something definitions of religion have to try to cover:

  • The first, at the individual level, is religious experience. It is what was described at the beginning of this chapter, as bbeing the experience of the 'holy' or the 'sacred'. It is the personal, experiential aspect of religion.
  • The second, at the conceptual level, is the universal idea that there is some Ultimate Reality, and that the most important activity for human beings is to establish and clarify their relationshup with this Reality. This is the conceptual and doctrinal aspect of religion.
  • The third, at the social level, is the fact that all religions are to a greater or lesser extent involved in creating social cohesion and the integration of the individual into society. All of them have created some form of social and institutional order. From this, the ethical and social aspect of religion is derived.

In this book Momen uses a concept of religion that "relates it to a concept of the supernatural or supra-human (or perhaps even supra-scientific), rather than the wider functional definition that would include such secular ideologies as Marxism and nationalism" (p. 28). As he makes the choice while being aware of this problem, it is acceptable. Less clear is whether the reader should accept his intention of distinguishing religion from magic. He notes that they "commonly coalesce and interpenetrate" (p. 28), but will not go deeper into this question at this early point.

I will continue reading the book, possibly commenting on it again in separate posts.