Sunday, February 24, 2013

Excerpt from "Moral, Believing Animals" Part one

I wanted to share some excerpts from the book Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. By Dr. Christian Smith, Professor and Associate Chair of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This is from Chapter Five

You can find Dr. Smith's book here on Amazon.

I will post another set of excerpts from this book next week.


What is religion? And why are so many people in the world religious? These are old questions, in answer to which much ink has been spilled in recent centuries. To some extent they are simply impossible questions, incapable of being answered satisfactorily. For quite a while now, many scholars have been weary of the “definition of religion” debate. And even more scholars have simply jettisoned the “origins of religion” question. It is all come to seem so antiquated, so futile.

            Yet religion is simply too fascinating a thing to let sit, to not continue to probe fundamental questions about it. We pretty well know what people are up to, and why, when they labor to produce goods and services for consumption. We know why people engage in political life to make collective decisions. We know why they built armies, form families, write laws, and educate youth.

            But why do people, very many people, engage in religion? Why do they take seriously realities that are unseen? What induces people to give away time and money and perhaps much more for intangible things “spiritual"? What are people doing when they pray, and why are they doing it? What is it that gets people out of bed every Sunday morning for their entire lives? Or to abstain from food and sex during daylight hours for an entire month every year? Nobody is finally making people do religion. It does not produce any obvious material benefits. In much of the world, religion is entirely voluntary. In other parts of the world it is actively suppressed. And yet billions of humans profess and practice religion anyway. What an interesting phenomena. [...]
What is religion?

  The definition-of-religion question has frustrated many scholars because of the recurrent problems of categorizing and of drawing boundaries around “religion” that it inevitably raises. Is Confucianism a religion? Is nontheistic Buddhism a religion? Is Scientology a religion? Is Marxism a religion? Is the Carolina-Duke basketball rivalry a religion? Is religion defined by the substance of things supernatural or divine? Or by the particular social functions it supposedly serves? [...]
           It does appear that human communities have since their beginning engaged in various practices that we now normally call religious, but that does not mean that there is some standard social property, Religion, the social equivalent to an element of chemistry's periodic table, that the investigator identifies and researches. [...]
            Furthermore, it is helpful to remind ourselves that as inquirers we can never investigate religion from a neutral and generic perspective, or even think and talk about religion using neutral and generic “language.” Rather, we necessarily approach things religious specifically as secularists, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, and so on who have been socialized either in the United States, India, or elsewhere and who think and speak not in “language” but in English or some other particular native tongue. And all of those particularities inevitably shape how we can and do think about religion, including ways that it might be useful for us to define religion.

            Having said that, I do not think it would be a  constructive move for social scientists to abandon the concept of “religion” altogether. For we do find what appear to be certain common features across the kind of narratives, beliefs, experiences, practices, and traditions that we commonly call “religious,” and we can and do find it analytically useful to categorize them together under this single concept. But what is it that religion share in common, or at least that we commonly think of them as sharing in common? What in our thinking and speech set the parts things religious from other social practices and institutions? I think it most helpful to think about religions in this way: religions are sets of beliefs, symbols, practices about the reality of superempirical orders that make claims to organize and guide human life. Put more simply, if less precisely, what we mean by religion is an ordinarily unseen reality that tells us what truly is and how we therefore ought to live. (p 95-98)

C. Smith. Moral Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. ( 2003, Oxford University Press)

No comments: