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.

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