Monday, 20 October 2014

The Religions of Textbooks

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

One of the quickest approaches to understanding religions is the sort of basic facts overview you often encounter in textbooks or encyclopedia (especially
that one) when you first look it up: who founded it, when and where was it founded, how do people practice it, what are their sacred texts (and do they have any). Often such sources present other facts, attempting to address the religion’s particular beliefs and worldviews, but at best these are usually very generalist. It might sketch out a broad understanding, but not one that can really help you anticipate what any individual practitioner believes. I think of this as the textbook approach. Let’s go over a few examples.

In an interview in the back of a later edition of God Is Not One (I’ll update when I get it out of the library again so I can tell you which later edition), Prothero defends his inclusion of New Atheism by noting that particular strands of atheism meet the 3 C’s definition of religion. The 3 C’s definition isn’t one that I remember from my Religious Studies minor, but a Google search suggests it’s pretty common. These C’s are as follows:

Creed – Shared beliefs about ultimate reality, creation and order of the universe, the place and meaning of humanity, and/or the final destiny of humanity and the world.
Code – Behaviours, attitudes, and conducts which practitioners try to maintain.
Cult* – Shared forms of worship, shared symbols, and/or worship of the same being or object.

The 3 C’s are a definition—something is a religion if it has all three C’s—but these features are also a good way into understanding that religion. They are what make up the religion, after all, at least according to this definition. (Note: “Code” is sometimes rendered as “Conduct” and “Cult” is sometimes rendered as “Ceremony.”)

In my Google search, however, I found another document that used 5 C’s:

Creed – as above
Code – as above
Cult – as above
Community – Groups of people which engage in ceremonies together, with a particular organizational structure.
Central Myth – Stories re-told and re-enacted that make the other features of the religion meaningful to the practitioners.

These basic categories might work well for our chart., a platform that describes itself as “Hosting the Conversation on Faith,” has a similar, though more fine-grained, approach. In their Library they have a Side by Side Comparison feature which allows you to compare traditions in a chart. The sorts of information provided include date of formation, number of adherents, place of origin, deity, sacred text, current headquarters, and different aspects of historical origin (including its influences) and development. It also has a few sentences for each religion on different beliefs: Sacred Narratives; Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings; Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence; Suffering and the Problem of Evil; and Afterlife and Salvation. It also addresses issues of ritual and worship and issues of ethics. This can be a very helpful summary, especially if you’re quite new to the religions described, but it lacks any sense of which set of beliefs are more important to practitioners. It’s notable that the categories under “beliefs” seem well-suited to describing Christianity but poorly suited to describing, say, Shinto. Moreover, it does not attempting to describe the sort of “deep” cosmologies that I’m thinking about—for instance, the problem/solution approach does more to suggest the overall worldview, even though it lacks the sort of details Patheos’ Side by Side Comparison provides. This is handy…but it’s way too much for the chart I have in mind, which is already pretty huge.

A common subset of these sorts of questions is to ask what deity the religion worships. This question makes more sense for some religions than others, but since a popular, though faulty, definition of the word “religion” is something like, “belief in and worship of a deity,” I suppose I can see why you’d ask it. So you could have something like the following chart:

Atheist (there are no gods)
Cult of Reason, versions of Zen Buddhism, Daoism
Monotheism (there is one god)
Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Rastafari, Atenism
Polytheism (there are many gods)
Hinduism, Shinto, Neopaganism
Pantheism (all things are God)
Versions of Hinduism, versions of Daoism
Henotheism (there are many gods, but we worship only one or only one at a time)
Versions of Hinduism, versions of ancient Greek and Egyptian religions

But that’s only so helpful, right? I guess if you just didn’t realize there were alternatives to whatever you were used to, this sort of thing might by mind-blowing. And while such details might help you understand where the philosophical texture of a given religion is grounded, it won’t give you access to that texture.

I think one of the most interesting schemas I’ve encountered is Chaotic Shiny’s Religion Generator. Chaotic Shiny is a website that has random generators for writing and gaming. The religion generator has a ~36** fields, so it can produce quite varied religions. A lot of those fields are the same as those above, but there are some interesting ones that start to add that texture I’m looking for: Focus has a number of goals, somewhat reminiscent of Prothero but less problem-based, like “repentance,” “leader worship,” “spreading peace,” or “self-improvement,” that gives a sense of what’s important to practitioners; Deadly Sins (“neglect,” “self-injury,” “wrath”) and High Virtues (“piety,” “moderation,” “tolerance”) give a moral snapshot that goes beyond mere prohibitions; Major Taboo gives a sense of the cultural neuroses the religion might have, including things like “bodily functions,” “sex,” “money,” “strong emotions,” and “mental illness.” This generator is intended to produce interesting and unique religions for fantasy gaming contexts, but its categories could also serve as a template for understanding existing religions.

The problem with such frameworks, of course, is that the sorts of categories chosen usually reflect the kind of religion the person making the categories follows or knows: emphasis on belief over ritual, for instance, or sins over impurities, reflects Christianity, and the world it shaped, more than whatever religion you’re using the framework to describe. Furthermore, it tells us little about individual believers, and their approaches to the religious tradition they live in. But it is still a good, and necessary, starting point.


*The word cult refers here not to brain-washing and isolationist religious groups with charismatic leaders, but simply to religious practice, deriving from Latin cultus, meaning “care,” specifically the care owed to God or gods and their temples, shrines, etc. “Cult” thus refers to worship, to keeping sanctuaries clean and pure, and the performance of proper ceremonies. Think of cultivation. I suspect it was the negative meanings that became attached to the word “cult” that caused some people to shift from Creed, Code, Cult to Creed, Code, Ceremony.

**Some randomly-generated responses affect what fields follow them, so there may not always be exactly 36 fields.



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