Saturday, August 28, 2010

Practical Lessons of Reflecting on the Competing Usage of Religion

A recurring question during my philosophy of religion class on Friday had to do with what the practical lessons would be if I’m right (or on the right track) about “religion” being a bifurcated essentially contested concept—that is, a concept which is not only used in competing ways within a community of discourse (based on disagreement over which features of the religion paradigms justify the appraisive connotations of the term) but has come to be used in incommensurate ways by competing communities of discourse (insofar as each community attaches an opposing appraisive connotation to the term).

One of the points I’ve been stressing in relation to this analysis is that, while ordinary essential contestability can be valuable insofar as it prevents legitimate voices in moral dispute from being silenced through definitional fiat, the bifurcation of an essentially contested concept is not similarly valuable—but it may be a reality we have to come to grips with.

But how? Put another way, what do we do in the face of the fact that “religion” has come to be used in such conflicted ways?

After class, in conversation with a few students, I enumerated two lessons, but there are surely more. Here are the two I identified:

1) It is helpful, both when critiquing or defending “religion,” to specify what sense one has in mind and to be clear that what one has to say may not apply to religion in other senses.

2) It is not helpful, when someone else is critiquing or defending religion in some sense that they specify, to say, “But that’s not religion, so you defense/critique is irrelevant.”

(By the way, I suspect I may have been at least occasionally guilty of the latter—although sometimes what I intend to say is, “That’s not the only kind of religion, and so treating your critique as a condemnation of religion in every plausible sense is a mistake”).

But these are hardly the only lessons that might be drawn. So let me throw the question out to readers of this blog: If “religion” is a “bifurcated essentially contested concept,” what steps do we need to take to facilitate productive dialogue about the phenomena that—in competing and conflicted ways—fall within the scope of the term's divergent use?


  1. Eric,

    I have also experienced this problem, as have no doubt most of the readers of this blog. Sometimes, in a discussion, it seems the ownership of the word “religion” is more important than the substance of what is discussed.

    However, in my experience, this problem occurs only when discussing with philosopher friends. I think there is some common understanding of what is and is not religion among non specialists (or non intellectuals maybe). There are variations of course and we will hear some practices qualified as “bad religion” or “extreme” and so on but I don't see a large disagreement. When we consider “freedom of religion”, for example, I don't think there are major issues of definitions involved. I understand your students came up with a wide range of definitions but those who enter a philosophy of religion class may not be representative of the population at large. By the way, do we have any statistical data on the understanding of the word “religion”?

    When I tell this to my philosopher friends I get a quick rebuke but I suspect that a long familiarity with the sophisticated approach taken by theologians and philosophers may give the impression that these views are more widespread than they actually are.

    If my observation is correct, does it mean we should keep the word “religion” for the common sort and use something else for the sophisticated variety? It would certainly make things simpler but I don't see how it could happen.

  2. I have to say that the bifurcated contested etc. terminology describes how religion is batted about in the culture wars and elsewhere, but it fails to actually describe religion. You may have marooned yourself in zone of meta-description.

    Better to accept that religion is hugely multifarious and means different things to different people, and try to draw together a few threads of concrete commonality, like that it involves a story about human existence which goes beyond the purely utilitarian, sometimes far, far beyond. Such a definition can be more or less elaborate, but some basic core of that sort is probably definable.

  3. Eric

    I am inclined to think the problem is not with the definition, but rather the spirit of openness we bring to the debate. So, no matter how carefully we define our terms, if participants bring an essentially tribal attitude to the discussion, seeking not to learn but to teach, then the temptation will always be to wilfully misrepresent the other's definitions.

    The trick then, and I find this extremely difficult, is to enter conversations on religion with no agenda other than to learn. I would have thought that it was obvious, no matter what definition we choose, that religion can be both very good and very bad. Arguments therefore about whether it is good or bad leave me cold, it's like arguing is education bad, or government or family? In those fields we instead ask, what forms of education work best, once we have figured out what we want from education (no easy matter).

    I would have to say that your blog does a remarkable thing in that it engenders a comparatively open discussion about issues that elsewhere descend into bluster and rhetoric very quickly.

    That said clear definitions are still vital. I never finished reading The God Delusion (despite loving Dawkins' science books) because I couldn't get my head around which version of religion he was attacking and so I lost interest.


  4. Bernard: I think you're right about the root of the problem. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if "religion" is indeed a bifurcated essentially contested concept, it has emerged as such fairly recently BECAUSE of an increasingly polarized debate in which each side cares more about winning than about deepening their insight. And I suspect it this unhelpful usage of religion is most common among those caught up in this polarized debate.

    My thinking is this. "Religion" initially came to name a complex cluster of interrelated phenomena that have many overlapping features--that is, it came to be a family resemblace term like "game" (while "peekaboo" doesn't look much like professional football, it looks like things that look like things that look like professional football).

    And, like "game" (or "family" or "government"), the varied things that fall within the scope of "religion" have both good and bad features--some more of the one, some more of the other.

    So how does the bifurcated usage evolve? I think an oversimplied story might help to capture the transition. You have someone whose attention is captured by the horrors done in the name of religion and God. Appalled, the person says, "Religion is evil! Get rid of it!"

    A defender, for whom religion has served a life-enriching role, responds with, "But look here. This religion isn't evil--it is characterized mainly by properties you yourself value."

    The original critic responds with, "Yeah, but that's not REAL religion." The defender replies, "It is. In fact, if anything deserves to be called REAL religion, this does!" (This is where the need to WIN the debate inspires the unhelpful linguistic move, ensuring that from then on the parties are talking past one another).

    And then you have the same conversation in reverse: The person who, say, escapes drug addiction in part with the help of a religious conversion, and who starts sharing the wonders of their faith. A critic comes along and says, "If religion is so great, explain the crusades and the inquisition!" The defender says, "That's not REAL religion at all, but a corruption!" And the parties are once again on their way towards the same polarization.

    I have no doubt that I've played my own role in conversations of exactly this sort. One of my greatest regrets about my book is my naive decision to label the kind of phenomenon I want to defend "true religion"--even though I conceded immediately that it might be presumptuous to do so (and even though I did so in a broader context in which I maintained that religion is a family resemblance term).

    In doing this, I played right into the kind of dynamic sketched out above--and I distracted attention from my main substantive aim of identifying under what conditions theistic religion achieves something valuable while avoiding the harmful implications of so much actual religion. By calling that which fell within these parameters "true religion" I really opened myself up to having my substantive arguments ignored in favor of a linguistic dispute over whether what I was describing was "religion" at all.

    In a sense, I am happy to have such a linguistic dispute with others who agree that there is something deeply valuable about religion that needs to be preserved--because then the dispute IS substantive, insofar as it is really about which features of the religion paradigms are valuable in this way. In other words, under conditions of ordinary contestability, linguistic disputes ARE substantive. But not so with bifurcated contestability.

  5. Eric,

    Concerning disappearing comments…

    The problem seems important. Just in the last few days, one of Burk’s comments and the first part of the last comment by Dianelos have disappeared from the materialist part 1 post. I have experienced the same problem some days ago in another post and I remember that you mentioned not too long ago that the same happened to you. I know about Burk and Dianelos because I subscribed to email updates (these work) for this particular post but others may have experienced the same problem. I have made a quick search and it seems that similar issues have plagued blogger for quite some time.

    I my case what happened is this: the comment appeared on the post page but was gone when I refreshed the page about a minute later. I tried many times with the same result and I had finally to split the text in two to make this work (even then, I had to try twice before finding a split that would work). I don’t know if Burk and Dianelos’s situation is similar.

    I don’t have a better suggestion than submitting this problem to blogger/google. Meanwhile we should certainly check that our comments have really made it.

  6. JP--Thanks for the update on this problem. I'll message blogger/google about it, for what that's worth.