Friday, August 26, 2011

Religion and Essential Contestability: Excerpt from an article

Today in my philosophy of religion class, we discussed the complexity of the term "religion" and the ways in which competing usage leads to misunderstanding and confusion. I talked about religion as a family resemblance concept, and then proposed my theory that in the contemporary "God debates," the concept of "religion" functions (or fails to function) as an "essentially contested concept with a twist."

Some of these ideas will be familiar to regular followers of this blog, since I've discussed them here before (such as the last time the topic came up my my philosophy of religion class). However, since much of the background ideas probably went by quite quickly in class, I decided that I would post on this blog--for my students as well as for anyone else who is interested--the way I described and developed this theory in a a recent article, "Moving the Goalposts? The Challenge of Philosophical Engagement with the Public God Debates," that came out a little while back in  Philo: A Journal of Philosophy. What follows is an excerpt (and may be the penultimate version, since it is what I had on my computer). Those interested in the entire article can find it in Philo vol. 13 (Spring-Summer 2010), pp. 80-93.

In my book I hold that “religion” is a family resemblance term, which makes univocal talk about the merits and demerits of religion difficult. One needs to specify what one is talking about to avoid equivocations leading to false generalizations. A main contention of the book is that the New Atheists fail to do this.

Precisely because I was so explicit about this point up front, the charge that I was “re-defining” religion to make it immune to New Atheist criticisms puzzled me. But then I noticed a pattern. Progressive religious readers of my book had no trouble seeing what I was describing and defending as religion—in fact, their kind. Conservative Christian readers, while unhappy with my failure to defend their religion (and with my heresies), agreed that what I was defending was a species of religion. It was those in the New Atheist community who were apt to accuse me of “re-defining” religion. When I’ve been able to investigate the matter (mainly with my students), I’ve found that those most likely to level this criticism are precisely those who have been most “stung” by oppressively narrow-minded forms of religion (such as those common in the Bible Belt where I teach).

So what are we to make of this? What I’ve concluded is that Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” notion is of less value for understanding contemporary use of “religion” than W.B. Gallie’s notion of essentially contested concepts. Put simply, I’ve become increasingly convinced that “religion” is an essentially contested concept, but with a twist.

To call it an essentially contested concept is to say that part of the normal use of the term is that different users attach different senses to it, resulting in differences in extension. But this competing usage is unified by a shared set of complex paradigms (which embody numerous features) and an agreed appraisive meaning. With an essentially contested concept, the competing definitions represent competing views about which features of the paradigms warrant the appraisal associated with the term.

The idea here is that some terms have come to be so closely aligned with a certain kind of normative appraisal that we cannot sever the term from the appraisal. If anything is univocally intended by the term, it’s this appraisal. Hence, to insist on a specific descriptive definition among rivals is to insist that the extension of a particular normative judgment should have these parameters rather than some alternative. Rather than risk having legitimate normative disputes silenced by an insistence of uniformity of meaning, Gallie advocates treating some terms as essentially contested.

In short, acknowledging essential contestability is supposed to ensure that a normative dispute—about, say, which acts should be condemned in the way that paradigms of terrorism are condemned, or which human creations should be honored in the way we honor exemplars of art—is not shut down by a kind of definition fiat. But unlike “art,” whose appraisive meaning is positive, or “terrorism,” whose appraisive meaning is negative, “religion” has come to be used such that there are two competing communities of discourse, each using the term in an essentially contested way. But whereas one community of discourse treats “religion” as a positive appraisive concept and seeks to gauge which features of the paradigms warrant the positive appraisal, the other treats it as a negative one and seeks to judge which features warrant the negative appraisal. When a concept comes to be used in this way, we might call it a “bifurcated essentially contested concept.”

My book adopts the language game of that community of discourse which attaches a positive appraisive meaning to “religion.” As such, I look at the complex paradigms of religion in the world (which contain many elements I view negatively), and then seek to isolate the elements which justify the positive appraisal. What results is a picture of theistic religion which preserves those features of the paradigms that warrant the positive appraisal while acknowledging that much in the “real religions” of the “real world” deserve the criticisms of the New Atheists.

But if religion is understood to be an essentially negative concept, then if all the features that justify the negative appraisal are purged from it the result will not be seen as “religion” at all. And so the cry of “That’s not religion!” makes sense. It’s as if one community of discourse attaches to the term “sex” the appraisive meaning that typically attaches to “rape,” while another attaches to it the appraisive sense of “making love.” The former group looks at the range of phenomena that go by the label “sex” (ignoring, of course, those phenomena which no one would ever call rape) and tries to identify what justifies the negative appraisal. The latter does the same (ignoring the phenomena, such as rape paradigms, which no one would ever call “making love”), in the attempt to identify the parameters within which the positive appraisal is warranted. The latter holds up its results, saying, “This is the kind of sex (by which we mean making love) that deserves label!” The former protests, “That’s not sex (by which we mean rape) at all!”

Once again Christopher Hitchens offers an excellent case study for this phenomenon. Not long ago Hitchens was interviewed by a Unitarian Universalist minister, Marilyn Sewell—and one of the most striking features of their conversation is just how much they agree upon. Not only do they agree about the presumed offenses of conservative religious communities, but also about the importance, for human life, of a sense of what Hitchens calls “the numinous”—a sense which Hitchens himself describes, at one point in the interview, as the experience or feeling “that there is more to life than just matter.”

But, of course, Marilyn Sewell not only describes herself as religious but is a clergy person for the liberal Unitarian Universalist Church, while Hitchens describes himself not merely as an atheist, but as an “antitheist,” by which he means someone who is actively opposed to religion and belief in God. How is it possible that two persons can have such similar views not only about specific religious communities and their practices but about what Hitchens calls “the numinous” (a term coined by theologian Rudolph Otto to describe the human encounter with the transcendent), and yet can take such antithetical stands towards “religion,” one identifying with a religious community and the other insisting that “religion poisons everything”? If the former attaches a positive appraisive sense to the term “religion” and sifts through the paradigms of religion to identify what justifies the positive appraisal (leaving off what is negative), while the latter attaches a negative sense to the term and so defines it in terms of those things left out of the former’s understanding, we can readily understand what has happened. If, as seems to be true of Hitchens and Sewell, the underlying value systems according to which the paradigms of religion are assessed by each are substantially the same, the one will include in her understanding of religion the very things that will be excluded from the other’s.

And so, from Hitchens' standpoint, Sewell’s religion isn’t religion at all. Likewise in relation to the new atheists, what I defend in my book isn’t religion all. And this may be why I am accused of “moving the goal posts.” While I’m not sure what to do about this kind of “bifurcated” contested usage, there is no doubt that any scholar who wants to engage the God debates needs to be aware of it.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    Sorry if the atheists lump all religion together and generalize too freely. I think we have attacked many forms of religion separately as well, if that helps.

    It is good to hear that your conservative colleagues recognized something religious in the liberal "what my god is, is goodness, sweetness, and light." formulation. I agree that you certainly have a species of religion as well, indeed a particularly psychologically transparent one.

    But the vitriol that Richard Dawkins poured over "religion" was mostly directed at the retrograde, old-testament-thumping, fundamentalist forms which are so harmful in today's world, including those of Islam for good measure of course. So if you are to defend against his attack, it isn't very helpful to start in with.. "well, my religion isn't retrograde, fundamentalist, or extreme ... therefore Richard Dawkins is wrong." He may have been wrong to not single out and deal with every single form of religion in turn, but you may be wrong to think that your defense is somehow universally absolving of "religion" as well. It works both ways.

    In the end, it isn't much of a defense to make a lot of fine distinctions which don't really address the point. Dawkins pours scorn on the philosophical framework of liberal religion as well (as he does in discussion with various congenial Anglican friends). So even though the major ire is directed at the wingnuts, there is, as your book also delved into, a serious case (at least in his mind, whatever the philosophical malpractice involved) made against liberal religion as well, to which making clear that your religion isn't fundamentalist is again not a helpful defense.

    A vigorous discussion admits of specificity and generalization peppered throughout as ideas are exchanged and definitions are refined. As you say, religion is contested, and that is part of the debate, though not a very large one, considering the enormous, even cosmic, even beyond cosmic!, claims that are in play. Atheists recognize that liberal religion is not as anti-intellectual and psychologically damaging as fundamentalism, and indeed are often tempted to make alliances of political/cultural convenience with such groups. Still, it has some problems.

    The bifurcation you speak of certainly is one of them. If one group sees the word "Taliban" as suffused with glory and righteousness, it might be a bit difficult for that group to see the harms that accompany its practices. That is a normal part of group identity and group-think. Saying that you come from a community that attaches positive valence to "religion" marks you as biased first and foremost, making any philosophical discourse a bit difficult. It turns into apologetics.

    "And so, from Hitchens' standpoint, Sewell’s religion isn’t religion at all."

    Correct, it remains a slippery concept. But I think that atheists are clear in critiquing anything that is bad (meta) philosophy, like all the new age stuff as well, whether you would call that religion. Crystals, tarrot card reading, UFOs, sasquatch.. it all comes under the chopper. Religion in its vast variety is just a convenient handle for the most typical and widespread abuse of human credulity.

  2. Burk,

    But the vitriol that Richard Dawkins poured over "religion" was mostly directed at the retrograde, old-testament-thumping, fundamentalist forms which are so harmful in today's world, including those of Islam for good measure of course. So if you are to defend against his attack, it isn't very helpful to start in with.. "well, my religion isn't retrograde, fundamentalist, or extreme ... therefore Richard Dawkins is wrong."

    Clearly, when Dawkins argues that religious belief is pernicious (as opposed to arguing simply that it is mistaken), what he focuses on to justify this label is what you call "the retrograde, old-testament-thumping, fundamentalist forms". The problem is that he treats his case for the perniciousness of these forms as serving as a basis for condemning religion in general. And he deserves to be called out on this, even if his case against the specific narrow form of religion that he explicitly targets is sound.

    But a qualification is in order here. Much of the time, Dawkins case for the perniciousness of religion in general relies on little more than a looseness of argument that fails to make distinctions--in which case the appropriate thing to do is to point out that not all religion has the features which serve to warrant his negative judgment.

    At other times, however, he seeks to argue that even the religion which is not overtly pernicious is covertly pernicious because it promulgates patterns of thought that make the overtly pernicious forms possible. This is a more philosophically interesting claim...and the making of this claim is part of what makes the new atheist critique of religion "new."

    This argument deserves to be taken seriously, as opposed to being judged a simple case of overgeneralization. But at least in the two variants of this argument that are more-or-less explicitly developed by new atheist authors (specifically Harris and Dawkins), my assessment is that the argument relies on the same problem of overgeneralization at a higher level.

    For example, Dawkins makes the case for the perniciousness of religion in general by linking religion to faith and then offering a particular definition of "faith" which is not representative of the range of usage (but is the dominant understanding that seems to prevail in fundamentalist religions), and then attacking this understanding of faith.

    There may be better arguments for generalizing the perniciousness charge across religion generally, but the versions I've encountered so far have failed to convince me. In the end, I think that those who want to level this charge don't see the overgeneralizations in their arguments as all that serious precisely because the species of religion that don't succumb to their arguments are, in their view, not "real" religion... and so it doesn't matter that they're not included within the scope of the charge. And it is at this level that I think the bifurcated essential contestability is really at work muddying the waters.

    I appreciate, by the way, that you don't typically muddy the waters in this way and try to take on progressive religion on its own terms--even if I think your characterization of progressive religion ("what my god is, is goodness, sweetness, and light") is an oversimplified caricature that doesn't wrestle nearly enough with the kind of epistemic situation that religious progressives take to be at the foundation for their approach to religious life.

  3. Eric-

    I certainly hear you. In part, the issue is a rhetorical one. If one is concerned about the influence of Islamic extremism around the world, does one spend one's time picking apart the various defects of Sufi doctrine? Probably not. But at the same time, does one recognize that the sharks of Islamic extremism swim in the ocean of Islamic belief, drawing on the virtually universal "faith in faith" and many other cultural tendencies & myths to conflate ideals of piety with extremism and a political program? Yes, one would.

    Secondly, the general proposition is that "belief" in things that are not true is bad. I think this is commonly regarded as a reasonable position, though one could explicitly make the case that positive thinking, hope in a hopeless world, and similar practices, however untrue, (covering, admittedly, a vast spectrum of beliefs from modest to extreme falsity), are pragmatic and thus positive- justified from a psychological perspective. We atheists certainly get hung up on truth a good deal. But if one sells such positive thinking as defensible philosophy, then distinctions need to be made between the utility of believing things that are not true for pragmatic reasons, and the truth of what one believes.

    An additional distinction might be between beliefs held in an absolutist way and thought to be true, versus watered down "beliefs" that pay lip service to standard doctrine while reinterpreting it at will for temporal pragmatic /psychological reasons, and which progress with the culture's moral advances, yet claim for apparently self-serving reasons to be leading that progress.

    Sorry that this is hard to describe more explicitly, but much of your defense often seems to lie in the practice of very selective "belief", with hell going out the window when inconvenient, god viewed as some pantheistic "everything" non-discrete entity, and so forth. Obviously the atheists are more comfortable dealing with more explicit theologies whose falsity is more clearly delineated. Yet that word "religion" covers all manner of wrong beliefs, whose spectrum reaches all the way to virtual contentlessness, like the way-out mystics of environmentalism, buddhism, and Glastonbury. The line is unfortunately not clean. Atheists don't think god exists and is instead a human creation, however wooly the concept.

    ... cont...

  4. ... cont...

    So, while the perniciousness of religion may vary tremendously over the spectrum, (from mostly bad to mostly good), the wrongness varies less- from, say, totally and egregiously wrong, to perhaps muddle-headedly and vaguely wrong.

    The case for liberal religion should be clearly made- that the cultural propagation of myths of, in this case the Christian sort, can be personally and culturally positive even though they don't have a prayer of proper evidentiary support. And moreover, that they don't contribute to the dumbing down of the population that spends such inordinate amounts of its time / mindshare taking in such doctrines and repeating them to their children. And that they don't participate in the larger Christian culture of the US which makes the Fallwells, Roberstons, Dobsons, and Rick Perrys so comfortable on their various perches of influence.

    To be more specific, I would suggest that the idea that the liberal Christian community plays a positive role by bringing the fundamentalists over from the dark side is not correct. The divide is fundamentally tempramental, not theological. Each side adopts the god it is comfortable with, whether demanding and harsh, or forgiving and good. No one is going to win the battle on theological grounds, or indeed other grounds, given human nature. Thus from the atheist perspective, the liberal Christian community in essence doubles the overall Christian community size, (I am guessing), generating and reaping the benefits of a majority position that significantly amplifies the voices of the most "devout".

    An example is the career of Billy Graham, who was regarded as a national treasure of sorts, almost non-sectarian, while of course promoting the most conservative, evangelical, and political engagement.

  5. Eric,

    I agree with your analysis, but would like to add two remarks.

    First, the fact that complex concepts (such as religion, sex, and even art) can be interpreted both positively and negatively says something not only about these concepts, but also about the people who happen to embrace one or the other interpretation. Thus, for example, the non-religious person expresses a fact about her character, namely to be such as to embrace what is negative, or rather, to fail to embrace what is positive.

    Which brings me to the second remark. The expression “bifurcated essentially contested concepts” may be misleading in the sense that “bifurcation” describes a symmetric separation of paths, which sense I think does not describe well the state of affairs. Thus the fact that there are two valid interpretations does not entail that both are equally appropriate. Here is what I mean: What makes both the positive and the negative interpretation of X valid is the fact that X refers to something that is both positive and negative. But, it seems to me, it is the case that those who embrace the negative interpretation tend to fail to see the positive one, whereas those who embrace the positive interpretation tend to see the negative one, but also see that the positive one is the significant one (in the sense that the negative exists for the positive, that the telos of the negative is the positive). Thus rather than the separation of a bifurcated path we have a deep/shallow separation, or a separation described by clear-sightedness and short-sightedness, or a separation described by holistic versus particularist thinking. So, for example, the educated religious person sees both the mechanical and by itself purposeless order of one dimension of the human condition (namely our living in the physical universe), and also the deep beauty and meaning that permeates the whole of the human condition – the numinous.

    Here is another case in point of a “bifurcated” essentially contested concept from within the theistic community: There are those who see the negative dimension of divine judgment and the eternal and horrible consequences of sin, and there are those who beside that see the positive dimension of universal atonement and victory of the good. The former express a limited and narrow way of seeing; the see eschatology from an individual’s point of view as it were. The latter see in addition and beyond that into the holistic point of view of God. The former see the limitations intrinsic to humanity, the latter see in addition and beyond that into the irresistible force of the love of God. The former focus on the bits of the Gospel which describe failure, the latter in addition and beyond that focus on the bits of the Gospel which describe success. The former see the dark space, the latter see the light that is to fill all darkness. Religion, at its purest, is the message of the good transcending evil, of perfection being born from imperfection. (For, and here I can’t resist plugging in what’s fundamental in theodicy, perfection can only be reached by transcending imperfection. For any perfection which did not come about from transcending imperfection is of a lesser kind. Even God’s perfection comes from self-transcendence. Thus Christ’s humiliation and sacrifice is not only the basis of creation’s justification to God, but also the basis of God’s justification to creation. It is Christ’s sacrifice which binds all creation together, it is the final and fundamental creative act. And is what makes it possible for the greatest possible being to transcend even His/Her own perfection. - Reality is a participatory place, and God is an engaging person.)

  6. Burk, your point seems to be that what conservative and liberal religion have in common is that they are both wrong?