World Religions: Comparing Like With Like

This article was published on the Practicum blog, and then reposted by the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. But I’m putting it out here, for my own records. If you haven’t seen it already, enjoy!

Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.” In theory, I prefer some theories of religion to others. In practice, any theory is better than no theory—as long as you apply it.

At Edinburgh, where I teach (but don’t have any input into the curriculum), students begin with a course based on the World Religions Paradigm (this is typical of RS in the UK context, where RS departments are, for complex historical and economic reasons, often offshoots of theology departments and so are often less “theory of religion” and more “the other religions™”). The students’ somewhat breathless tour of the “Big 5” is supplemented by readings from Hinnells’ problematic Handbook of Living Religions. Sometimes I get to teach the sixth block—the “everything else” category—and I’ll smuggle in some material on invented religions to get them thinking about the category, which up until now has never been questioned. I also run a weekly tutorial which is intended to reflect on the week’s lectures and readings, but which I use to construct a “what is it we are actually talking about” meta-commentary.

One of the more effective methods I have found is simply to insist that students “compare like with like”. The theory of religion presented (implicitly) by the book is of an institutionalized tradition of “faith.” Yet this model is abandoned any time it doesn’t fit, and many of the chapters begin by stating the reasons why that particular religion is atypical of the category. So the book will tell us that Hinduism is based on community or that Japanese religions aren’t considered religions by the Japanese.

All I do is insist that the students make fair comparisons. So when a student says that Hindu rituals are geographically varied and are more about maintaining social ties than piety, I simply ask why they are referred to as “religious”? To compare like with like, wouldn’t Hogmanay or the 4th of July would be fairer comparisons, if localized expressions of cultural cohesion accompanied by drinking and eating are what we’re talking about?

Likewise, the book also says that what it identifies as religion in Japan is not recognized as religious behavior to the Japanese, and that “faith is irrelevant” (10). If we insist on comparing like with like, then we would have to describe yoga classes or rituals like graduation in the Western context as religious. Of course, typically, we do not. Yet we seem to have no problem applying the category of religion on other cultures.

When a student describes totemism as a feature of African religion, I like to point out that there is a very good example of totemism in the West too. A majority of people identify with a symbolic, often animal, representation of the inhabitants of a particular geographical area, whose collective identity is reinforced by ritual. So why, then, don’t we consider football religion? Because we already know what religion is?

Now, I’m not arguing that football “is” religion, or that Hinduism “isn’t.” Rather, I think that there’s a problem when theory is only explicitly introduced after the students have already inherited our problematic dataset. They already “know” what “religions” are. By forcing them to compare like with like, however, the students may become aware of the contradictions in the inherited dataset and therefore their own implicit categorization. Then we can begin to put theory into practice.

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