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Friday, May 11, 2012

Religion, Culture, and Morality

An appendix to my thoughts on the America Religion.  Some definitions.

1.  Religion as an element or aspect of culture.

What is the relationship of religion to culture?

Let me start by defining culture.  By "culture" I mean a society's language, art, science, education, religion and its total symbolic system through which all its activities are expressed.  Culture is a dimension of human social existence and the expression (the expressing and the expressed) of the meaning and values of a society.  It is the "glue" or "bonds," that hold a society together, the raison d'être of a symbolic social order.

Religion is an element or aspect of culture.  It is a system of expressions or beliefs of the ultimate or supreme meaning and value in a society, the measure of all other meanings and values.  Religion is often expressed in stories and rituals.  The stories are of beings, sometimes supernatural, responsible for the beginning and rescue of the society; and the rituals are reenactments of the acts of creation and salvation of the society.  I think it a mistake to equate religion with a belief in supernatural entities, including God or gods.  Moreover, if you define "God" as the "object of ultimate concern" (Tillich), then God, whether a supernatural entity or not, is omnipresent in human existence.  Atheism, as Spinoza demonstrated, is merely the denial of God as a personified, supernatural entity, but not the denial of religion.

In my definition, we are wired for religion as we are wired for culture.  Religion is an integral aspect of culture; and culture is a dimension (along with economy and politics) of the total human symbolic enterprise and system by which we deal with our environment (world, universe, multiverse).

2.  Morality and Religion

Is morality founded on religion?  Is religion necessary for morality?  In my definition, yes.

Morality is the system of mores or societal rules which determine correct or incorrect, good or bad, behavior.  It is the behavior control mechanism of a society.

Culture (as I have posited before) is distinct, though inseparable, from economy and politics, the public and private tensions of our existence.  If there is a social order, there is a culture.  In fact we are recognizing that any social organization (e.g. a corporation, church, tenants association) has a culture which undergirds its goals and activities.  Again culture is the dimension of human social existence that expresses its meaning and value: the answer to our question "why?," the objective of our desire to know.

Religion is the element or aspect of culture that expresses its foundational meaning and value.  It is the predominant belief system of a culture underlying and motivating all its symbolic expressions, and the rules of correctness or incorrectness, blessing and taboo, for human behavior; that is, morality.

While morality is grounded in religion, an aspect of culture, it is not necessarily any particular religion, e.g. theistic or judeo-christian or any particular culture, e.g. western or eastern or indigenous or modern.

3.  Types of religion in culture.

How does religion relate to culture?

In Divinity School I read Richard Niebuhr' book, Christ and Culture, where he showed using Weberian "ideal types" the various role that Christianity has played vis-a-vis culture.  This is helpful for understanding all religions and their relation to culture.

The five types are: (religion) againstofover, along side, and transforming Culture.  Religion can be seen as 1) the ideal that conflicts with and overcomes culture must (e.g. sharia or biblical law), 2) the ideal in the existing culture as accepted by the established order (e.g. morality), 3) the ideal that stands over culture with its own legitimacy and institutions (e.g. supernatural), 4) a parallel ideal and institution (e.g. two kingdoms), 5) an ideal that is in perpetual dialogue, critique, and question of culture (e.g. ethics).

I think it is also useful for looking at various responses to American culture:  evangelism (James Dobson, Pat Roberts), moralism (William Bennett, NYT Ethicist), dogmatism (Catholic and Mormon Bishops), separatism (New Age, fundamentalist sects), social justicism (MLK, Dorothy Day, Paulo Freire).

The source of the religious ideal can be ambiguous in all five types:  e.g. from within or outside nature, from reason (science) or authority (divine revelation), from evolution or creation.  Some would like to say both.

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