Wednesday, 30 September 2015

What is religion all about?

That's a big title to use to yoke three minor pieces together.

Let's start here, with TS Eliot talking about a now forgotten attempt by AN Whitehead to reconcile 'religion' and 'science'. It seems that Whitehead had developed some idea to the effect that science requires there to be some ultimate Principle of Concretion, which is what we call "God", and so 'religion' and 'science' sit together very happily. As Eliot points out, a Principle of Concretion is wholly incapable of starting a religion. "If Professor Whitehead were a Christian, instead of what he obviously is, merely the descendant of Christians, he would know that there is no such thing as “religion,” and that to prove the existence of God, even to prove that God is the wholehearted supporter of “science,” is to do nothing at all for religion. ... God is certainly essential to some religions, as the King is essential in the game of chess. But the most important things in any religion, and certainly the most important ideas in the Christian religion, are not derivative from the notion of God." There is more of this, rather Chestertonian stuff, at the link.

So if religion is not so much about God, what is it about? Well, it seems to be about ritual. If you are no more familiar with ritual than with the Principle of Concretion then that might not be a very helpful thing to say. But perhaps you are familiar with computer games? Then might be a good way in: "by offering a voluntary, temporary experience of guidance, of certainty—of purpose, however arbitrary—video games, for Leibovitz, demonstrate “innate theological sensibilities.” Rather than being driven by boredom, or bureaucratic routine, or—as the most alarmist critics have claimed over the years—bloodlust, “video game players are guided by grace.” Indeed, video games are “like religion,” and playing them is like going to church, or even praying: “Video games…are closer in spirit to ritual than they are to any other human pursuit.”" That is from this interesting piece about computer games. (You know Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary killer who really liked computer games? His favourite seems to have been a cheerful dancing game.)

Ok, but what about religion as actually practised by people who actually do it. What's that all about? This is from someone who knows something about it: "My first “welcome to America” moment occurred when I invited an imam to my Introduction to Islam class at Columbia Theological Seminary.The imam talked about the basic tenets of Islam for an hour and asserted, among other things, that Jesus is not the Son of God, denied that he was crucified, and maintained that the Bible has been falsified. My students listened respectfully throughout the lecture. When he paused and invited discussion, the students replied with rather timid and politically correct queries, at which point the imam said: “Why are you not asking me about jihad, about terrorism, women? I know you have all these questions. Why are you not asking me the hard questions?” So one student queried him about Islamic teaching on homosexuality. The imam answered by defining the practice as un-Islamic, not of God, unnatural. Suddenly, the faces of a good number of the students went red with shock and rage. I stepped in and gently steered the discussion away from the topic. ... As I look back upon the whole episode, I think I ended up more unsettled than my students. They were agitated by what the imam said about homosexuality, but seemed wholly at ease with his negation of fundamental Christian beliefs. If this were a seminary in Ghana, my home country, the reverse would have been the case." I don't know how big Dance Dance Revolution is in Ghana. Bigger than the Principle of Concretion, probably, but smaller than the Bible.

And on the other hand, here are some Catholics in New York today and Dorothy Day and WH Auden in New York in the past (and not Doris Day, as I first mis-read).

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