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The Nature of Religion (Lecture 2005)

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Diablo Valley College, 2005

The pages being referred to in this lecture come from the textbook for our course: Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, editors, Philosophy of Religion, Third Edition, (Oxford University Press, 2007).

A definition of religion offered by Peterson, et. al.: “a set of beliefs, actions, and experiences, both individual and collective, organized around some idea of Ultimate Reality that is recognized as sacred and in relation to which persons enter into a transformative process” (page 1).

Religion’s realists maintain that when they discuss the existence of God and the properties of God they mean to refer to a real being with real properties. So, if such a God or these properties did not exist, their assertions would be false (Peterson, p. 5).

There are many kinds of realism; for example, ethical realism is another kind. Ethical realists believe their terms and normative claims pertain to actual realities in the moral realm, referring to something in the very structure of how things are (p. 6). Subjectivists on the other hand, believe these terms and normative claims only refer to feelings of private preference. Right and wrong represent only approval or non-approval as sentiments (Hume).

Some scientists are non-realist instrumentalists. They consider their terms merely convenient constructs that enable a theory to predict testable results.

A non-realist in religion denies that religious belief and statements are about objectively existing entities (p. 6). Religion is a human creation and human beings are not a divine creation. Religion makes people function better in society but spiritual things and events are not beyond ordinary experience. Proponents of this position are Nietzsche, Freud, and William James.

Non-realists ground religion sometimes in psychological experience and sometimes in the structure and demands of society.

Emile Durkheim argues that religion is essentially a social phenomenon. Religion, he argues, lies at the heart of societies that developed. Society uses religion to make people comply and there is no metaphysical ground of religion—it is a purely natural, not a supernatural phenomenon. Religion is created by and for humans and must be structured as a social discipline.

The basic sense of religion changes from this perspective (top p. 7). From my point of view, the mystery of there being something instead of nothing (Leibniz) is placed into human agency, and it is patently false that humans have created the universe.

Wittgenstein introduces a third perspective, both a critique of the realists and non-realists.
We should study the grammar of belief, which involves the dynamic, living context of religion’s application (p. 7). All beliefs and not just religious beliefs find their meaning in their use and not in their relation to an external object.

Returning to the sociologist, Emile Durkheim, he is an ethical and religious realist in another sense, because he considered religion and morality capable of objective study as social realities. Many questioned whether or not he could speak of objective ethical and religious facts. He counters those who argue that “it is not only paradoxical but ridiculous for us to compare the realities of the social world with those of the external world. But our critics have curiously misinterpreted the meaning and impact of this analogy, for it was not our intention to reduce the higher to the lower forms of being, but merely to claim for the higher forms a degree of reality at least equal to that which is granted the lower. We assert not that social facts are material things, but that they are things by the same right as material things, although they differ from them in type.”[1]

If Durkheim would allow spiritual forces in the innermost center of social forces, then although they would have to be taken in faith, a sociological interpretation of religion would not contradict the faith that God created the universe. If sociology claims that religion is a human social product, then Leibniz’s religious question about why there is something and not nothing, how this universe has come to be, and how it is we find ourselves in it, are left completely bereft of the Ultimate Reality, which Paul Tillich would say, is the Ground and source of our being. We certainly did not create the universe and even when we discover some of the physical laws and mathematical equations by scientific measurements, we are still struggling to understand our universe and our lives in it. It is as if we are struggling to understand a great mind that preceded ours with an ultimate epistemology implicit in the ontology of the internal and external realities our conscious scientific, knowledge accumulating minds are awakening in.

“There is a there there,” to quote Gertrude Stein, and we find ourselves as part of it and scientific materialism does not have the appropriate awe deriving from an inner bond with the source and ground of that Ultimate Reality. I believe that this awe is the source of worship and morality. For it to be authentic awe, however, it should never snuff out the quest but motivate the quest for further scientific enquiry, both of human life, nature, and their inter-relationship. Return to the definition of religion above and you will see why Durkheim found religion to be a ubiquitous phenomenon for study throughout the whole world.


[1] George Simpson, editor, Emile Durkheim, (New York: Thomas A. Crowell Company, 1963), page 28.

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Written by peterkrey

May 15, 2008 at 6:13 pm

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