Sunday, December 31, 2006

Patterns of Religious Belief

In light of two of my posts last week having to do with religion and politics, I've been thinking about patterns or classifications of religious belief. Part of this thinking stems from having read both of Sam Harris's books (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) in which the author criticizes not only fundamentalist religion (Muslim, Christian and other monotheisms) but also religious moderates for enabling the cultural taboo whereby religious faith is shielded from the need to defend itself from empirical evidence and social criticism. As a religious moderate I've struggled a bit to reconcile my religious affiliation and experience with Harris's challenges, not to mention the need to reconcile it with the problem of religious fundamentalism and religious intolerance in general. What I sketch out below represents an attempt to come to some understanding of the different dimensions of religion and thus partly rationalize my present religious experiences and perhaps shed some light on religion more broadly. Maybe this sort of thinking would be useful for Democratic "consultants" or other politically-motivated persons. Or perhaps not. Anyway, here is my take, subject of course to future revisionisms.

In sum, I identify three categories of believer: the religious fundamentalist; the religious moderate; and the religious liberal. Each form of religious experience is defined primarily by its position relative to religious authority and the nature of religious truth.

1. For the religious Fundamentalist, their religion is the sole basis and rational for the totality of their beliefs, attitudes and actions. For the Fundamentalist, God--as defined by their religious tradition--is the sole, rightful source of authority for their own lives and deserves to be the sole rightful source of authority for the community as well. There is no distinction between the private and the public. The same holds for the nature of religious truth. For the Fundamentalist, religious truth=biological truth=political truth=economic truth. All forms of truth are one and the same and are made to fit within the overarching rubric of their religious beliefs. For the Fundamentalist, the U.S. Constitution is authoritative only in the sense that it is subsumed within the umbrella of (their) religious truth. For the Fundamentalist, every thought and deed is assumed to be determined by their religious beliefs. The important point is not whether the observer reckons the believer's actions or attitudes to be inconsistent with the believer's faith, but that for the believer himself (or herself), their own actions reflect and are determined by their religious life. For the religious Fundamentalist, truth is totalistic, absolute, and fixed.

2. The religious Moderate is similar to the Fundamentalist in that the religious Moderate holds their religion as authoritative for the believer's own life, but differs from the Fundamentalist in that the Moderate does not assume their religion as authoritative for the non-believer. While the Moderate may believe that ultimately every human being will need to answer to the God of the believer's understanding, the religious Moderate does not believe it to be their duty to force their religious authority onto others. For the religious Moderate, there is more of a distinction between the public and the private. For the Moderate also, only some truths are absolute and non-negotiable (say for example, the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin, died on a cross to save them and mankind from a life of eternal death and because of that sacrifice is now preparing in heaven a place for them). Other truths, be they political, economical, biological, or what have you, are seen as largely distinct from that of religious truth and as such, remain open to interpretation, allowing greater flexibility within the religious community and for society.

3. The religious Liberal differs from the Fundamentalist and the Moderate by denying religion any real authoritative role, either for the believer's life or for that of the community. For the religious Liberal, truth is a process of learning and incorporating a wide range of information and life experiences. The religious Liberal may hold to a number of absolute moral truths and values, but does not believe religion itself to be an authoritative or absolute source of those truths. For the religious Liberal, religion is a part of the mosaic of the experience of life, but does not enjoy any privileged status relative to other associations or systems.

I have in my lifetime belonged to each of these categories, although I would now most comfortably associate myself with the Liberal view or experience. But I recognize the limits of any type of classification schema, not to mention the significant limits to defining religious experience especially. Overall, I see religious experience as highly subjective, and open to a range of influences and changes. At the same time, for many of us, our religious experience represents that which is stable and existentially (although not empirically) certain, and for that reason, still viable and valuable.

As noted above, I have found Sam Harris's books to be highly informative. I have also benefited greatly from reading John Shelby Spong--a former Episcopalian Bishop; Philip Yancey, an evangelical author; Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, and a host of other more anonymous and unknown scholars and truth seekers. I'd would also highly recommend Barbara from the Mahablog, whose essay of some months ago helped to clarify in my mind the difference between religion as legalism and religion as mysticism.

Happy New Year

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