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Lecture 2

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University of Toronto St. George
Ben Wood

- what is religion? -> as a question, it isn‟t quite possible to answer, there is no one agreed upon definition of religion and across cultures (as well as within them) ideas of religion are vastly different, no one category can account for the vast diversity of these ideas -> one attempt to define it: ninian smart came up with seven broad dimensions of religion -> ritual (attempts perhaps to undergo something mystical, to reenact myths); mythical; doctrinal (those that involve the articulation of beliefs and theories found within religions); ethical; social; experiential (those things which occur in the private world of the individual, feelings evoked perhaps by ritual); material (physical objects and geographical sites, say) -one of the most famous definitions arises out of the work of theorist emile durkheim (1858-1917) -> he argued that one can only arrive at such a definition after taking two important steps -> first, to free our minds from all preconceived notions of religion and, second, to try to identify what all religions‟ common characteristics are rather than to try to pinpoint the „most important‟ characteristic -> underlying this is the preconception that you can indeed find this elusive category of religion and that it is shared by all people -> in his study (did this on the basis of research, geographically, at various traditions as well as across time), he determined that religion is not characterised by the „supernatural‟ nor is it characterised, universally, by „divine beings‟ (i.e. in the case of buddhism) -> his research is of course now debated, but he didn‟t believe that the supernatural and the divine should be counted as the „core‟ of any tradition -> instead, religion, he theorised, always featured two common categories: beliefs and rites -> and, in addition, the characteristics of a) the sacred and b) the profane -> sacred objects (he was looking at the structure of the physical world) he saw as being central to all religions around the world -> and he saw religious rites as informing observers how to comport themselves around sacred objects -> he also thought that social configurations mirrored the physical structure of the world - durkheim took a sociological approach to religion -> he thought that „the divine‟ is actually society, that humans already have an example of the divine in their social organisation (such as a king, given that the people would find a king to be superior to themselves and would feel themselves dependent on him), society is god, the idea of the divine actually arises out of society -> he believes that it became reflected and projected onto the divine, misunderstood -> he looked at totemic clans of native groups in australia, simpler types of social configurations, and found that they saw their social organisation as being divinely inspired (while he believed the opposite, that organisation happened first and was then projected) - karl marx (1818-1883), on the other hand, took a historical and political approach to religion -> very famously argued that religion is the „opium of the masses‟, meaning that those in power feed these ideologies into the working class so as to distract them from their own disadvantage -> religion = ideology -> religion, then, is a tool used to maintain the status quo - rudolf otto (1869-1937) took a phenomenological approach to religion -> from the angle of internal experience, not from the angle of social/political processes -> theorised that religion arises out of an encounter with the numen -in talking of „religion‟ (in terms of belief, say) we have to acknowledge the fact that this understanding is born out of our own western heritage -> we can look into other traditions for analogous terms -> dharma in hinduism means something like: duty, righteousness, or law -> while buddhist dharma refers more to the buddhist teachings, providing the truth of existence and universal law -> the japanese case is interesting -> several terms grew out of it -> ho, meaning buddhist truth or law; do, meaning a practitioner‟s path -> the meiji restoration period (1868-1912), a time when japan opened itself up to the west, attempted to model itself in the image of a western nation, a whole host of japanese terminology took on new meanings, new categories to form fluencies between japanese and western phenomena (including religion) -> shukyo, for instance, which came to mean „religion‟ in the way that we understand it -> important because it demonstrates how „religion‟ is far from a cross-historical/cultural term that everyone implicitly understands -> the term bukkyo, meaning „the buddhist religion‟, only came about after the invention of shukyo -> even just the idea of having a whole body of teachings, a specific distinct category under which these teachings fall, wasn‟t really understood in the same terms prior to this attempt to bridge western and japanese ideas - according to many scholars, the category of „religion‟ itself developed out of a christian understanding in particular which sees the idea of belief as being somehow central to the category -> belief is somehow privileged within this category, denoted by the use of the word „faith‟ as a synonym for „religion‟ in common spoken english -> unsatisfactory when taking into account many kinds of religious activities which are focused instead on orthopraxy (practice) -> gavin flood, for instance, writes that “what a hindu does is more important than what a hindu believes” -> fritz staal makes this same point -> so religion is neither entirely belief nor entirely practice (depending on the case of course) -> and how would one define a „buddhist‟? criteria include „refuge‟ (forestdwelling, symbolic i think), „precepts‟ (adopted types of behavioural restrictions that apply to laypeople as well as clergy, obviously the latter take on more), „birth‟, „membership‟, „practice‟, „belief‟… -> buddhism is particularly interesting because there is no religious hierarchy, no central organisation, no spokesperson -> so in a more categorically rigid faith, there might be fewer criteria (some, for example, are tied to particular places) - so religion can be defined in many ways, many divisions within the category of religion can be made -> „communal religions‟ for example can be considered a form of religious experience marked by life-cycle rituals, as well as ideas that legitimise various sorts of hierarchical social relationships -> the other is what‟s considered to be „soteriological‟ -> everything to do with an individual‟s own salvation, deliverance, transformation -> so we have the external vs. the internal, the public and private - the scholar jonathan z smith argues that it is in fact the scholarly act of reducing and highlighting that creates this idea, the category of religion -> “religion is the creation of the scholar‟s imagination” (in imagining religion, from babylon to jonestown [1982]) -> w.c. smith argues that the study of religion must be studied through religious categories themselves rather than through outside/scholarly categories -> argues for „emic‟ rather than „etic‟ (external) categories (the latter could be drawn from sociology, history, literature, etc.) -> opposes attempts by outsiders to impose their own categories and external structures on native religious traditions -> in the case of hinduism he argues that the very naming of „hinduism‟ was a great error‟, argues that there is no hinduism even in the minds of hindus themselves traditionally
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