Catalog Your Account Email Sign Up

Arnold Berleant, Religion and the Religious

Arnold Berleant
Castine Unitarian Church
6 November 2005

Introduction:  Religion without Theology

In this talk I want to look at the difference between religion, in the form of institutions and doctrines, and the religious, in the form of religious feeling and the humane values associated with it.  I’ll try to show how religion, because of its institutional power, may be subverted and used for oppressive social and political purposes, but how keeping the meaning of the religious clearly in mind, one can retain the values in the tradition while exposing its misuses.

Some three years ago I gave a talk from this pulpit called “Religion without Theology.”  In it I described the odyssey that my views about religion took, recognizing the mix of hypocrisy and persecution with benevolence and beneficence, all said and done in the name of religion.  I asked whether it was possible to attain “the beauty conveyed through ritual, the inner peace brought by belief,” and the sense of a benevolent community with like-minded people without assuming the burdens of religion’s history and doctrines.

In searching for an answer, I found it useful to distinguish between religious doctrines and beliefs, rife with supernaturalism and inconsistency, and religious feeling or experience.  This last is difficult to describe, but in exploring the meaning of religious experience I concluded that it consists in a complex feeling that combines both awe and humility in relation to the universe with, at the same time, a respect for its greatness.  Joined with these is the tranquility that comes from accepting such a universe, a deep peace such as that conveyed by the Chinese Taoist concept of tzu-jan or “living in harmony with nature.”

Basing religion on such experience led me to revise the common understanding of basic religious words, like the sacred, faith, and spirituality.  I interpreted the sacred as conveying our sense of wonder and mystery at the preciousness of our highest values: consciousness, personhood, beauty in nature, the life-force.  Basically, the sacred is a sense of the intrinsic worthiness of something, from ordinary objects to the appreciation of the beauty of nature and of works of art.  Faith here does not consist in the blind acceptance of a doctrine or of a so-called sacred text but rather becomes moral integrity and commitment irrespective of consequences, humane values pursued for their own sake.

Finally, the non-doctrinal sense of spirituality, divested of mysticism and supernaturalism, involves the free choice of one’s values, respect for the distinctively qualities of awareness, sensitivity, and subtle understanding that humans are capable of and, most of all, the experience of such sensitive awareness.

“This, then, is a spirituality that is not bound up with theological doctrines of a fine, immaterial substance that is independent of the body.   It joins with faith in the nobler acts of generosity or sacrifice.  It may be associated, too, with the sense of oneness that binds us to others in community and ultimately to the universe in full and willing acceptance.  Here spirituality is allied with music and the other arts in transcending the institutions and customs that divide people from one another” and bringing us in touch with the sacredness of the human universe and everything it contains.  “This is true reverence for the human spirit.”

Marie-France’s response

Let me now relate a personal story.  Quite some years ago I spent part of a sabbatical year in France.  Because I did (and still do) enjoy folk dancing, I did a very non-touristic thing: I sought out a French folk dance group.  The group I joined did dances from Normandy, and its members, none of whom spoke English, were very welcoming and I made several friends.  One was a woman who was a cartographer, and a few years later Riva and I took an unforgettable trip with her and one of her friends around Brittany.  Marie-France and I have corresponded over the many years since then, and in the interval she decided to take orders and joined a Benedictine convent.

Well, in a somewhat teasing spirit I sent her a copy of “Religion without Theology,” curious to know how a sensitive and intelligent person with a profound religious commitment would react to it.  Since Marie-France has only a rudimentary knowledge of English, it took her three years to translate my talk, but just recently I received a lengthy reply (in French, of course), which I found revealing.

There are many ways in which our views differ.  Some I’ll only mention, such as her understanding that religion includes the idea of a divinity, and that what is distinctively human is the capacity to create a symbolic function in the presence of a symbolic universe.  This is done in religious rituals.  Religion for Marie-France, then, consists in a faith in a divinity and the rituals that embody symbols expressing this faith.  But most of all it is living in the light of a Presence, a divine presence.

Furthermore, she finds a profound mystery in human nature:  its gravitation to evil.  Theology is useful, she thinks, because it leads us to God, purifies the heart as a way of balancing this tendency to evil, and gives us hope.  The problem lies, however, in the fact that people use religious doctrine as a means of assuaging their thirst for power and domination.  The answer, she finds, is not to reject doctrine but to purify the human heart.  At the same time, she is gratified to realize that we share similar values— values of humility, harmony, and wonder at the beauty of nature— even though we arrive at them by different paths.

It is not difficult to see our differences clearly, together with the values we share.  I think it is consistent with Unitarian-Universalism, as with all humanistic religions, to reject the doctrine that humans have a sinful nature.  It is a great error to reason from the fact that all of us may at times think and do things that are harmful or wrong and a few people do so consistently, to conclude that all of us, as humans, are evil by nature.  Sometime behavior is not indelible nature.  The unfortunate fact, however, is that religion, itself, in the hands of some becomes a means of doing wrong and creating harm.  This is not because of human nature but it is because some people put religion to the wrong use.

We can see in Marie-France’s response an attempt, successful for her, to combine religion with religiosity.  There is the doctrine of religion, here the idea of sin and of man’s sinful nature. And there is supernaturalism, the belief in a divine presence.  At the same time there is true religiosity in the value she places on harmony, humility, and wonder at natural beauty.  Both are present, religion and religiosity, but they are nonetheless different.  And in their difference lies all the difference!

Religion as an instrument of oppression

In my earlier talk I tried to locate the religious in contrast with religion.  Today I want to look at how religion – that is the doctrines and institutions of religion – may be used as a moral and political force and to mourn the fact that the religious impulse, the heart of religion, which is religious feeling, has been coopted and politicized and thereby lost. Let me use the response of Sr. Marie-France as a way to move to the main topic of this talk, which is about what religion is and who owns religion, that is, who has the right to claim the authority of religion for his or her views.

Central to what I want to say is the difference between religion and the religious that I have been drawing.  After I had begun to work with these ideas, it was interesting to come on the research of one of the most eminent mid-twentieth century psychologists, Gordon Allport.  Allport identified two types of religious commitment: extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic religiosity is religious self-centeredness, the behavior of people who to go church or synagogue to be seen, or because everyone goes, or because it confers respectability and brings them social advantage.  Intrinsic religiosity is different. Those who are intrinsically religious, like my French friend, see their religion as an end it itself.  They are sincerely and deeply committed, and religion becomes the organizing principle of their lives.  Allport found that intrinsic religiosity was associated with freedom from guilt, lower levels of anxiety and stress, better social adjustment, and less depression.  Extrinsic religiosity, in contrast, was associated with increased tendencies to guilt and anxiety.

Allport’s research has important implications.  We can easily see how theology can lend itself to the uses of extrinsic religiosity, where doctrines and religious organizations can be used, not only for personal advantage, but as social and political weapons.  Religion without the religious can become an instrument of control, a dangerous  weapon of oppression.  We can call it “a weapon of mass destruction.” Hiding behind a facade of benevolence and reverence, religion can be turned into a negative force.  It can be subverted into institutionalized violence and used to sanctify oppression.  Proclaiming exclusiveness, some religious groups abjure tolerance and instead foment hate and encourage violence toward individuals who refuse to follow its precepts and toward other religious groups.  Religion without religiosity denies the integrity of the individual person in making his or her own choices and in living as he or she chooses. It denies rights to women and to minorities and promotes prejudicial behavior.  It encourages discrimination against those whom it rejects or who differ.  Most generally, it sabotages social harmony in attempting to preserve its idea of social order.

Religiosity without religion

Religion without religiosity is thus an institution subverted.  Religiosity, whether in individuals or in organizations, can ennoble the world, promoting mutuality, community, and benevolence.  Religion without religiosity can become a form of idolatry, falsely honored and then used to oppress others. We can see this in the blind worship of the Bible as the ultimate authority on moral matters, an authority that is then used as a weapon to beat down freedoms and choices.  We can see this perversion of religion in naming an oppressive interest group “Christian,” as if there were any justification in Jesus’s doctrine of love and universal acceptance with the condemnation and hate promulgated by such groups.

Accepting people who are different, whether in their beliefs, their sexuality, or  their personal practices, promoting human freedoms of choice and of behavior – respecting these is in the noble tradition of religiosity.  Denying the choice to those who differ is in the ignoble, negative tradition of religion:  religion as denial, religion as repression.

Of course, we have seen how the two may be joined, religiosity with religion, in an individual like Marie-France. They can also come together in an institution, as when religious organizations like the National Council of Churches work to promote social justice, or when the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia hosted mass meetings at the start of the civil rights movement.  But it is in recognizing the difference between the two and in calling to account those cases where they are not that has been my purpose.

Let me close with the statement of Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  Suzuki writes, “Religion is not any particular teaching.  Religion is everywhere.” (p.127)  What he calls ‘religion’ is what I have been calling ‘religiosity.’  So let me amend Suzuki’s statement to read, “Religiosity is not any particular teaching.  Religiosity is everywhere.”  Religion without religiosity is nothing but a false mask.  True religiosity embodies the sacred, faith, and spirituality as benevolence in relation to humans and to the world of nature. What there is to praise is not the word but the meaning and, most of all, the deed.