In our current atmosphere of cultural polarization, the term religion has become highly contested. Just how contested was brought home to me in April 2006, when, during a public lecture I gave at the University of Montana in Missoula, a man in the audience sharply questioned my very use of the word. I said that I was simply following a long history of usage, that I knew that some people contrast spirituality, which they see as good, with religion, which they believe is bad, but that I had never found that dichotomy helpful, as spirituality until recently was always considered an aspect of religion, not a rival to it. But he was adamant. Religion, he insisted, is a terrible thing and if I didn’t want to use the term spirituality, I should think of some new word. Like what? I queried. He had no answer but insisted I come up with one. It was his fervor rather than the content of his remark that struck me.

It seems that the biologist Richard Dawkins, the author of the 2006 book The God Delusion, doesn’t just dislike the word religion, he dislikes the very thing, attributing many of the ills of the world to it and advocating its early demise. As one reviewer pointed out, echoing my experience in Montana, it is the strength of Dawkins’s conviction rather than his argument that is striking. Indeed, for a scientist accustomed to arguments based on evidence, Dawkins’s book contains remarkably little in the way of proof. In the case of the man in Montana, I think the problem was that religion to him meant “institutional religion,” that is, churches and such, and institutions are, to his mind, intrinsically alien and oppressive, whereas spirituality is the free expression of individuals. Dawkins’s problem is somewhat different.

Religion for Dawkins is a cognitive system, a kind of science, but bad science with bad consequences. Therefore it should be gotten rid of. For a social scientist, on the other hand, religion is not primarily a scientific theory at all: it is the many ways humans have sought to find meaning, to make sense of their lives. As such, it is an inescapable sphere of life, like economics and politics. Because there is much wrong with our economy—social injustice and environmental degradation, to mention two major effects of our capitalist sytem—can we just abolish the economy? Because there is much political corruption and incredibly incompetent political leadership, can we just abolish politics? Like other spheres of human life, religion—the meaning-making sphere—is often subject to distortion and can become horribly destructive. But getting rid of it isn’t an option. Religion meets a human need, and if you get rid of it in one form, it will come back in another.

Dawkins’s idea of religion as theory is widespread among educated people, and this might partly account for the popularity of his book and other equally silly ones by so-called militant atheists, who are attempting to respond to religious extremism armed only with half-understandings and misconceptions about what religion actually is. After all, they say, isn’t Christianity just a set of beliefs? Christianity has in fact emphasized belief more than any other of the great religious traditions, and Protestantism more than other forms of Christianity, so this understanding has some historical foundation. Yet belief is not the same as theory. Religious belief is not a kind of quasi-science, even though that is how people like Dawkins view it.

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Religion isn’t about theory; it’s about meaning. Religious texts and statements are not, in their basic function, about imparting information with which one must agree or disagree. What they impart is meaning, and meaning doesn’t tell us something new; it seems just to be saying the same old thing, though in a deeper understanding it makes sense of the new. Meaning is iterative, not cumulative. If someone in an intimate relationship says to the other, “Do you love me?” and the other replies, “Why do you ask? I told you that yesterday,” we can say that he doesn’t get it. The request was not for information or some new bit of knowledge but for the reiteration of meaning. Similarly, if someone said, “Why do we have to say the Lord’s Prayer this Sunday?—we already said it last Sunday,” again, we would say that the person is missing the point, that he or she is making what philosophers call a category mistake. For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is not news that we can forget once we’ve heard it; it is an expression of who we are in relation to who God is, and its reiteration is not redundant but a renewed affirmation of meaning, an invocation of a total context.

We are inclined to think that sacred texts, canonical texts, have in themselves an intrinsic meaning and are by nature qualitatively different from other texts, but this is an error. In fact, sacred texts must be read or listened to in the context of a community for which they are sacred: it is in the ritual practices of a living community that they become sacred. Ritual is the place where meaning occurs. Saying “I love you” to an intimate other is indeed a ritual, but it contributes more than we imagine to maintaining the meaning of the intimate relationship, just as the ritual of reciting the Lord’s Prayer reiterates the meaning of our worship of God.

While it is good to regard religion as that sphere of life where we seek to make sense of the world, it is also good to recognize that it is not a neatly demarcated sphere with clear boundaries, even in our society, where we tend to try to separate the spheres more than earlier societies have done. In most societies until modern times, the spheres have largely overlapped. Economics and politics were saturated with religion and vice versa. Because religion gave expression to the meaning of life, it was hard to separate it from a way of life as a whole.

Since religious practices have been central to human life from the beginning of our species, and are really coexistent with our being as a species, they must be considered as a whole. As one of my own mentors, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, put it in Toward a World Theology, they are, historically speaking, singular. This is not to say that all religions are the same. Far from it. Wilfred championed diversity before the word ever became fashionable. His sense that the history of religion is singular does not mean that in their particularities religions are the same. In fact, he didn’t even think the same religions are the same, and therefore he urged the abandonment of such terms as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and so forth. For Wilfred, it would be absurd to suppose that all people have been religious in the same way: “No two centuries have been religious in the same way; certainly, no two communities, in the end, no two persons.” But while recognizing the variety of humankind’s religious life, he also discerned that this life was contained within a historical continuum. To consider religious practices as historically singular is also “to affirm that they are all historically interconnected; that they have interacted with the same things or with each other, or that one has ‘grown out of’ or been ‘influenced by’ the other; more exactly, that one can be understood only in terms of a context of which the other forms a part.”

It is, of course, obvious that while all religions may be related, the family of religion is not a happy one. Even so, without ever denying the enormous complexities in this field, the recognition that we are all part of a single history, may move us closer to mutual intelligibility, even toward a recognition that we are all ultimately members one of another.

In his essay “The Widening Gyre: Religion, Culture and Evolution” (Science & Spirit, July/August 1999), the evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald postulates that religion emerged out of two developments in the evolution of human capabilities. The first of these involves mimesis, “learning by observing a behavior and mimicking it, acting it out, in our own lives.” Mimesis, he writes, “is a whole-body skill, unique to human beings, whereby we can use our entire bodies as expressive devices. It is the basis of most nonverbal communication, as well as art, craft, dance, and athletics. But more importantly, it is the primordial source of our communal cultural traditions.”

The second great evolutionary event in the background of what we call religion is the emergence of our capacity for speech, probably over 100,000 years ago. Donald describes the consequences:

Oral traditions were the inevitable outgrowth of this capacity for language. These traditions may be viewed as gigantic representational conventions that summarize the accumulated wisdom of a people. Such narratives were a great leap from the older framework of simpler ritualized behaviors that had been put in place by mimesis, and served as a kind of collective governor of values, beliefs, and behavior for every member of the society.

However, oral traditions did not displace or conflict with mimesis. They incorporated mimetic ritual under a more powerful system of narrative thinking, which produced “mythic” cultures. Myth, in the sense of an authorized set of allegories and narratives, became the ruling construct in such societies.

Modern society still preserves much of this structure, and still depends upon mimesis as a sort of elemental social glue. The universal form of traditional religion consists of precisely this: a narrative, a sacred story overlying a deeper core of mimetic traditions—ritual and beliefs whose origins lie in the depths of time. These form a “governing hierarchy” that regulates both individual consciousness and public behavior on much of the planet.

But although the deepest truths of our being continue to be expressed in mimetic and mythic forms, another much more recent evolutionary advance has also to be taken into account: the emergence of theoretic culture, the capacity for objective critical reasoning. The beginnings of theory as a cultural form go a long way back, but the first clear emergence of theory as an alternative to mimesis and myth occurred in the Axial Age, the first millennium B.C.E., in Greece, Israel, India, and China, and have to a considerable degree influenced the religions that derive from that period, that is to say, all the great religions that still survive. But just as mythic thinking did not and could not displace mimetic consciousness, so theory did not and could not replace mimetic and mythic culture. It gave the possibility of critical reflection that, at its best, could prevent distortions of older truths, but always with the possibility of adding new distortions of its own.

Theory can greatly enrich our religious life and has done so in all the great traditions for millennia. But theory can’t replace the older forms of human culture that give religion its vitality. When it tries to do that, it becomes a parody not only of religion but also of the realm of critical reason itself.

An example of this kind of parody occured at a recent conference on science and religion at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The discussion, as reported in the November 21, 2006 New York Times, apparently took a turn toward a kind of anti-religious scientific evangelicalism:

Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church…

She was not entirely kidding. “We should let the success of the religious formula guide us,” Dr. Porco said. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome—and even comforting—than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.”

What she wants to “teach our children” is not a theory but, as she says herself, a story, that is, a myth. That the universe is incredibly rich and beautiful I have no doubt, but I know for certain that science is not in the business of telling us that and, in fact, cannot possibly tell us that and still be science. Even more clearly, science is not in the business of comforting us with the glorious and the awesome. All of its great achievements would be undermined if it tried to take on that role. In imagining that science can do what only religion can do, we have once again a category mistake, one that messes up science in the process. Further, it is dangerous to imagine that such a thing could be done while leaving behind the mimetic and the mythic, because what is thrown out at the front door will come in at the back door.

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It’s no surprise that science would be seen as an appealing substitute for religion. Science claims to be universal, the same truth for everyone, whereas religions seem to be indelibly particular, and in their particularity, often deadly: If you are not like me, then I’ll kill you. And if you are a Sunni in a Shi’ite neighborhood in Baghdad or vice versa, you may indeed find yourself in such a situation. Our task, however, is not to deny our particularity in favor of some abstract theoretical universalism. I am not in the least denying that what we have in common is important—it is critically important—as is the search for ethical universals that can appeal across all forms of diversity. But if genuine universality is possible for humans, it must derive from and not deny particularity. The idea of the history of religion in the singular lets us see that, though we are indelibly different, not only from other religions but also from other forms of our own religion, we yet share a common history, and we cannot understand ourselves except in the context of the whole.

To illustrate this point, we can look at two religious rituals that, though they may appear to be worlds apart, actually underscore the very same religious theme. First, a Tewa Pueblo initiation ceremony that Robert Darnton described in his reflection on anthropologist Clifford Geertz in the January 11, 2007 New York Review of Books. During the ceremony adolescent boys are awakened from their beds in the middle of the night and led into the deepest and most secret room in the pueblo. There they wait, in the dark, clad only in ritual loincloths. Suddenly there’s a terrifying thumping over their heads. The overhead door opens, and into the room comes a god in a frightful mask, and he asks if the boys are ready to be “finished” as men. (Although Geertz uses the word “god,” for reasons having to do with the connotations that word has in monotheistic cultures, I prefer to use the term Powerful Beings.) When they assent, he flails them mightily with a yucca whip. Eventually, having beaten and terrorized the youths, the Powerful Being pulls off his mask and the boys see that the man looking back at them, now laughing, is a neighbor or relative.

The important lesson is not that the Powerful Being was Uncle X, but that during the ritual Uncle X was the Powerful Being. After that, he is just Uncle X again. Yet the boys have learned something about the relationship between humans and Powerful Beings, namely, that under certain circumstances they can become identical. But the point I want to make about this “strange” event is that, in its particularity, it tells us something important about religion generally: It often involves human participation in what we can call, for want of a better term, divinity.

The ritual of the Eucharist, if one thinks about it, seems as strange as the Tewa initiation. It is familiar culturally—especially for Christians, obviously—and so many of us tend not to see the strangeness of it. But what is going on here? A narrative account of its institution is an essential part of the ritual, but the event is mimetic, enacted. Ordinary bread and wine become, through the words and actions of the priest, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the members of the congregation approach the altar and partake of that body and blood. In partaking they reaffirm their membership in the body of Christ, their identity with Christ: Though we are many, we are one body because we all share one bread and one cup.

My point is that when we make the effort to understand what may seem strange in the religious practices of others, we may find that it opens the door to something beyond the particular case, something quite general: the capacity of humans to participate in divinity.

The particularities of religions may illustrate their most universal features. All religions involve bodily enactment, performance, mimesis. Even reading, when done as a religious practice, is a form of embodiment. Young Chinese in pre-modern times, for example, began by memorizing the classics before they could understand them. The point was to make the texts a part of oneself so that the poems’ meaning, as it unfolded, did not only come from the acquisition of external knowledge, but also from within. While each religion involves unique stories, narratives, and myths, the centrality of narrative is one thing that all faiths have in common.

The concreteness and particularity of mimesis and narrative seem to limit the capacity for generalization. While all religious people incorporate mimesis and narrative, they do so in very different ways. Theory, as I said earlier, has one great advantage: It can transcend context, it can rise above the particular, or at least try to. The theoretical achievements of the religions transformed in the Axial Age may show us even more clearly that we are part of one history.

Of course, the axial transformations in Greece, Israel, India, and China were not all the same. Far from it; they were each quite different and each led to later developments that took quite different directions. But they were similar, indeed this is what makes them axial, in that they involved a new element of explicit theory: the ability to criticize, to give reasons why certain religious, ethical, or social practices are wrong and should be corrected. It is not the case that narrative religions wholly lack criticism. But they have little capacity to make criticisms explicit; what they do is tell a new story, one that includes what they feel is left out in the old story. Any primarily narrative culture has a plethora of stories, often conflicting, and different depending on who tells them. The myths of women in some Australian Aboriginal societies, for example, kept secret from men, claim that originally they, the women, had all the ritual secrets, that they gave them to the men because the rituals they involve are too much trouble, and that they still know the secrets even though the men think they don’t.

But the kind of criticism I am calling theory moves beyond telling another story to giving reasons why one’s criticism is justified. Axial criticism can be political, ethical, or religious, and sometimes all three at once. Axial societies inherited from their archaic Bronze Age predecessors the notion that the ruler is “the shepherd of the people.” When the rulers are clearly not good shepherds, there is great complaint, but little in the way of argument. In the Axial societies ideas such as justice emerge for the first time. Similarly, in pre-Axial societies, if ritual doesn’t work, the failure will be explained by saying there was some mistake in the ritual, or the people will try a new ritual borrowed from a neighboring people. But in Axial societies ritual itself comes under fire, and its very meaning is altered.

One of the best examples is Amos, one of the great prophets of early Israel. Amos is relentless in his criticism of injustice and unrighteousness, of the oppression of the poor by the rich and powerful. In viewing such injustice, God will not be placated by conventional ritual.

Thus says the Lord: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21–24)

It is not worship as such, I would argue, that Amos criticizes, but worship used to placate or even bribe God into overlooking sins. What we see in Amos and in other prophets is the capacity to criticize the existing order, social and religious, and to offer criteria in terms of which they may be reformed. The prophets do not reject, however, the mimetic and the narrative, but seek to reform them to bring them closer to their deepest meaning. Here theory, critical thinking, is used not as an autonomous basis from which to reject the received tradition, but as a way of opening up the particularity of the tradition to a more general level of understanding.

One could produce evidence of similar developments in ancient Greece and China, but I will give only some examples from ancient India, the teachings of the Buddha in particular. In Axial India, too, a radical critique of ritual occurs, one in which the sacrifice so central to Vedic religion becomes the sacrifice of self in mystical liberation, a development already apparent within the Vedic tradition itself in the Upanishads. But the Buddha carried through the criticism of the received tradition more radically than any other critic in Axial India. Key Vedic terms become radically transvalued. The central Vedic term dharma (Pali dhamma), which originally meant the act of animal sacrifice itself and was then generalized to mean duty in the context of one’s inherited status, was radically inverted to mean the teachings of the Buddha, also assertively called saddharma, the real or true dharma. Similarly, the central Vedic idea of karma (Pali kamma) was changed from a determinative principle focused on meeting primarily ritual obligations defined by social status to a moral principle focused on purifying the intention of one’s acts. To put it in more general terms, one could say that the Buddha gave an unprecedented emphasis to the rational agency of individuals and radically devalued differences of inherited status, including in principle the varnasystem of social hierarchy and any notion of the divine status of kings. He placed the virtues of compassion and generosity at the center of religious ethics and as preparatory to the practice of meditation that could lead to liberation. Although the Buddha, like all the great Axial reformers, took many inherited ideas for granted—above all in his case the ideas of reincarnation and liberation—he brought a theoretic clarity to religious life that undermined all inherited structures of inequality and exploitation, at least in principle. (We must admit, however, that the “promissory notes” issued in the Axial Age were never fully redeemed then or later and remain tasks for our own future action.)

My point is not that all the Axial cases are the same, or even that terms we translate as “justice” and “compassion” are the same. In every case, both ideas and words are rooted in particular traditions. Yet the use of theory, not to replace but to reform social and religious practice, provides a level of generality where we can begin to discern analogies, not just of form but of content, between the traditions. It has been a long hard road even to discern these analogies, and they are still disputed by scholars who argue for radical relativism and even incommensurability. That is an argument I cannot get into in this essay. Nor can I deal with the many ways in which power, economic and political, has used and abused religious belief and practice, a matter that can never be forgotten in any serious discussion of the role of religion in human history.

But if I am right and the objections can be overcome, then, without abandoning our indelible particularity, the fact is that, in a very important sense, we are our history. We can move to a new history in which we see that those of other faiths are not as Other as some like to claim, that we have much in common with them, that, in spite of all the differences, we are part of the same story, the human story. Religion is certainly not the whole story—science, politics, economics, and the other realms of human endeavor are part of it as well—but it is in and through and because of religion that this story is meaningful.

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