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Post Religion: What is a Religion? (Alain de Benoist, France)
Created by John Eipper on 02/01/09 6:38 AM - religion-what-is-a-religion-alain-de-benoist-france

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Religion: What is a Religion? (Alain de Benoist, France) (John Eipper, USA, 02/01/09 6:38 am)

Alain de Benoist sends his essay, "What is a Religion?" It is an attached file. http://cgi.stanford.edu/group/wais/cgi-bin/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/what-is-a-religion-alaindebenoist1.pdf'>What is a Religion? An Essay by Alain de Benoist This is the longest piece from Alain we've seen on WAIS to date, and far from lost time (see Alain's self-effacing quip, below...), it's well worth investing an hour or so of deep thinking. Alain adds this comment: Religious affairs being frequently discussed on WAIS, I take the liberty to forward this piece of mine (in English), which is a tentative answer to the basic question: what is a religion? It could be of interest for WAISers who have patience, or some time to lose. JE comments: Not a waste of time at all, Cher Alain! In fact, I'm going to assign this essay as required reading for the month of February, as it goes to the heart of the WAIS mission, "A political, economic and religious Forum..." (Truly P.E.R.-fect!) Alain's five sections show the breadth of his erudition and scholarly prowess. He provides an overview of the biological and psychological underpinnings of religious belief, and an interesting discussion of the phenomena of secularization and the individualization of religious experience. He discusses the religiosity of the US, the ever-increasing a-religiosity of Western Europe, and the rise of fundamentalism in the Islamic world. In the best tradition of French philosophy, Alain leaves his essay open-ended. WAISers will find much to think about here. I look forward to responses and comments. To get the discussion started, here is Alain's tentative answer to what a religion is: "I will say, with much prudence, that a religion is a form of human association founded on a set of beliefs and practices, symbols and values, related to the distinction between the visible and the invisible, the empirical and the super-empirical, the profane and the sacred, and, at the same time, a socially established worship which structures individual and collective existence by placing it in a universe of meaning, in a symbolic universe governed by an intangible reality." -- For information about the World Association of International Studies (WAIS), and its online publication, the World Affairs Report, read its homepage by simply double-clicking on: http://wais.stanford.edu/ John Eipper, Editor-in-Chief, Adrian College, MI 49221 USA  




Alain de Benoist


Do we live in the age of the death of God or the return of religion ? Religious beliefs seem to be crumbling, but we keep hearing about the resurgence of fundamentalism. In fact, in Western Europe at least, there is more talk than ever about religion now that it had lost its grip on so many minds. These two facts are obviously not contradictory, since it is probably the relative decline of religious life that creates the mental distance necessary to study it. By venturing down this path in my turn, my intention is not to pronounce on the intrinsic truth of this or that religious belief, but on the meaning and status of religious life itself. In other words: what is one really talking about, when one talks about religion?

Let us admit from the beginning that this approach encounters grave difficulties. In extreme cases, making belief an object of study can seem unbearable to a believer, who is inclined by nature to withdraw everything concerning faith from discussion. Asking about the origin of religion would then amount to adopting an irreligious attitude from the beginning. Here lies a fundamental dilemma. Can one understand a belief without leaving it behind? Isn't speaking about a religion without believing it oneself condemned from the beginning to being beside the point? But conversely, if one believes in a religion, what guarantee does one have of speaking about it objectively?

Another difficulty is that speaking about religious life or the religious realm very quickly falls into anachronism. To isolate religion as a specific realm of social existence a typically modern approach contradicts the fact that, in ancient or traditional societies, religion is precisely not a realm separate from the others, but a dimension that cuts across and informs all domains of collective life. Besides, it should it be recalled that the majority of old languages do not have any specific term for what today we call religion. As Emile Benveniste writes, The Indo-Europeans conceived of religion as an omnipresent reality, not a separate institution, thus they did not have a word for it. And in many cultures today, the distinction between what is and is not religious remains very problematic. In Hinduism, for example, the idea of religion is expressed by the word dharma, which refers at the same time to the guiding foundation of both cosmos and society, and to life in accordance with it.

A religion, finally, is not only a belief, thus it is dangerous to separate religion as social or institutional fact from simple faith, or even religious feeling in Benjamin Constant's sense of the term. Such separation is, however, very widespread today. Marcel Gauchet is not wrong to see this as, the very model of modern ethnocentric prejudice defining the truth of the phenomenon based on subjective or personal feeling. It is the modern individualistic vision of religion projected on the past. Finally, matters are further complicated because religiosity is very unequally distributed among human beings, it can take quite varied forms, and the same religious practice can be lived very differently, even represent different things to those who invoke it.




Inquiring minds have to date counted more than eighty different definitions of religion, half of which come after the end of the eighteenth century. Obviously I cannot examine them all here. But I will observe that explanations of the existence of religion are mainly of three types: psychological, sociological, and biological.


Psychological Explanations

Psychological theories, for example, explain religion through man's desire to understand and control natural phenomena. Religion, by giving a supernatural explanation of such phenomena, gives man a sense of greater control over his environment, reducing his fear or anxiety. Relieving anguish, religion provides hope or certainty that can compensate for the risks and misfortunes of life, or help one bear them; it renders the idea of death less unbearable; in short, it brings both comfort and consolation. But it does so at the price of an alienation of the spirit, one of the first accounts of which comes from Ludwig Feuerbach. Characterizing religion as both a veil of ignorance and a dream of the human spirit, Feuerbach asserted, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, that God is only an idealized man, apprehended in an illusory manner in an objective form. Religious alienation is man's attribution of his own essence to something else.

For Marx, religious belief is also an alienation of the human spirit. Certainly it gives meaning to existence, but by giving men a false consciousness of reality. The religious world is a reflection of the real world, but it is a deformed reflection which makes it possible to describe religion as an ideology. Marx's argument is not about ordinary materialism or atheism strictly speaking. He does not, moreover, raise the question of God. Religious misery, he writes, is on the one hand an expression of real misery and on the other hand a protest against real misery. Religious misery is due to the fact that in religion man strips away his own qualities and attributes them to God, and is himself convinced that his sufferings are in a certain manner justified. In this way, religion is the opium of the people : it facilitates the oppression of the dominated class by making it accept the fate imposed upon it by the dominant class; it disarms rebellious inclinations by giving man the assurance of an imaginary happiness, in fact of a consolation in the beyond. But at the same time, religion also expresses a protest and testifies to an aspiration toward a better world. It is thus fundamentally ambivalent. Hence this other formula of Marx: The abolition of religion as an illusory happiness of the people is necessary to formulate its real happiness.

Freud interprets religion as both the disguised expression of uncontrolled desires that are projected as illusions, i.e., as a repressed hallucination, and as a model of absolute infantile dependence upon a Father in relation to whom humanity has not yet grown up, i.e., as a form of narcissistic regression of adults towards the emotions of childhood. Before the trials of life, man appeals to an ideal paternal figure who is supposed to give him protection and support. Religion, Freud writes in Civilization and its Discontents, is a collective obsessional neurosis universally widespread, an illusion born of the necessity in primitive society for moderating certain aggressive and destructive aspects of human nature. The expression of an interior conflict between our conscious aspirations and our unconscious desires, religion is defined above all as a source of guilt and anguish.

For Nietzsche too, religion is born from fear and need, which make it impossible to think it contains the smallest truth. Nietzsche's approach is both psychological and genealogical: psychological insofar as it wishes to make psychology the queen of sciences, for which the other sciences have the function of serving and preparing, and genealogical in the sense that, for him, bringing to light the origin of a religious belief is equivalent to its refutation. As everyone knows, for Nietzsche, it is Christianity above all that is targeted as a religion whose morals are directly antagonistic to the values of life. Nietzsche judges the Christian religion as pathogenic: it causes a degeneration of humanity by leading it to devalue all that concerns life on behalf of an imaginary netherworld.

Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche all assert that religion has to disappear. To hasten the end of religious beliefs, Freud once even called for a dictatorship of reason, by means of which psychoanalysis would allow man to regain control of his unconscious and finally grow up. The communist revolution, according to Marx, will provide man the possibility of reappropriating his own characteristics and thus destroy the social need for divine compensation for real distress. For Nietzsche, finally, a humanity freed from the illusions of the netherworld will discover that the suprasensible world is without efficient power, that it does not grant any life. Thus we are dealing here with a fundamentally hostile attitude toward religion.

Other psychologists, on the contrary, stressed the psychological aid religion can give individuals. William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book that has remained famous since its publication in 1902, makes religion a source of personal well-being, which remedies morbid inclinations and psychological distress. James defines religion above all as a personal experience, which explains why he is interested mainly in the burning and spontaneous enthusiasm of converts. He asserts that religion favors mutual aid and psychological and social support, confers moral comfort, gives meaning to life, offers emotional experiences that can be a source of pleasure and self-esteem, etc.

More recently, the alleviating virtues of religious belief have also been scientifically recognized and studied. One can demonstrate, for example, that prayer, which is without any efficacy on its object, nevertheless sooths the mind, lowers the blood pressure and heart rate, reduces the level of adrenaline, improves the immune system, etc. If one believes a study published in May of 2000 by Michael McCullough and William Hoyt, believers even enjoy a slightly greater longevity than nonbelievers.

For other researchers, religion has a psychologically positive role because it gives meaning to existence. It answers ultimate questions, thus justifying our presence in the world. This distinction between religion as aspect of mental well-being and as answer to the quest for meaning duplicates that drawn by G. W. Allport in 1950 between the extrinsic and intrinsic value of religion. It is a purely instrumental and utilitarian approach to religion.

In recent years, scientific psychology has taken an interest in religious phenomena. To this end, the most commonly used techniques are measuring cerebral activity by magnetic resonance and studying the effect of certain substances on the brain. One can place in this category all work resulting from progress in the neurosciences, in particular those carried out beginning in the 1990s by Jeffrey L. Saver and John Rabin, which made it possible to determine the cerebral areas most receptive to religious mental activity.

Thus certain researchers, such as anthropologist Alan Fiske, liken mystical transport to temporal lobe epilepsy (for epileptics are often very religious), or even interpret religious ritual as a form benign, but systematized automatic or repetitive behaviors characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The latter is merely represents a pathological superamplification of the former. In both cases, failure creates a feeling of guilt or anxiety.

Other specialists, like Eugene D'Aquili and Andrew Newberg, the inventors of the concept of neurotheology, after having measured the cerebral activity of great meditators Tibetan Buddhists or Franciscan nuns in prayer have identified the neuronal bases of mystical transport in our posterior and superior parietal lobes left and right. The oceanic feeling of fusion with the world frequently reported by mystics corresponds to a specific state of the brain, characterized by a drop in the activity of the area of the parietal neocortex responsible for spatial orientation. In a famous experiment in cerebral imaging carried out in 2001 by Andrew Newberg, of the nuclear medicine clinic of the University of Pennsylvania, the deeper the meditation, the more the zone of the superior parietal cortex situated in the rear part of the upper cranium is deactivated. Visionary mysticism (Theresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, etc.) has also been the subject of many psychiatric studies. Trances, altered states of consciousness, and the like have also being studied in the same way.

Other psychological studies concern the distribution of religiosity. It is known, for example, that in all times and places, women believe and practice religion more than men, a difference that remains unchanged in societies where women work. Various hypotheses have been advanced to explain this phenomenon. One can also demonstrate that neurotic personalities (more numerous among women than men) are also drawn to religiosity, contrary to psychotic personalities (more numerous among men than women).

A Swedish research team has highlighted the role of certain chemical receptors, called 5HT1A. Situated in a category of neurons known as serotoninergic, these receptors lower the quantity of serotonin released in the brain. The lower the level of these receptors, the higher the serotonin level, and thus the greater the propensity to religiosity. The most religious individuals would thus have a higher serotonin level in the brain.  

Twin studies, finally, have also confirmed the strong heritability of the religious temperament.

These explanations of a psychological nature are certainly not without interest, but remain nevertheless not very satisfactory. First of all, as one can see, their conclusions are rather contradictory. Undoubtedly religion can in certain cases alleviate anguish or relieve anxiety, but it can just as easily strengthen them, in particular by maintaining a feeling of guilt. The religious universe can also prove terrifying, as witnessed by the title Fear and Trembling of a book in which Soren Kierkegaard tried to define the true content of Christian revelation. Moreover, one can show that the correlation between mysticism and happiness is actually negative. As for those who find serenity of soul in the religious life, perhaps they already have a natural predisposition to serenity.

On the political level, religion is no less ambivalent. It can certainly be employed by power to legitimize its control for example, the idea of divine right or the appeal to the values of obedience and submission to disarm social conflicts. But many movements of social revolt from the War of the Peasants to liberation theology also found a powerful motive for action in religion. This is why Ernst Bloch refused to treat religion as a simple historical residue founded on ignorance of the true dynamics of phenomena and, developing another aspect of Marx's thought, was interested above all in religion's power to challenge, the revolutionary core of the Messianic promise.

Scientific psychology is only marginally informative. To observe what occurs in a brain of someone who has intense thoughts, and to note that these activate specific neural networks, ultimately tells us very little about the nature of religion.


Sociological Explanations

If psychological explanations deal chiefly with religious feeling, sociological explanations are interested above all in religion as an institution and source of social cohesion. Thus they are systematically more positive toward religion all while retaining an instrumental viewpoint. Insofar as social cohesion is regarded as good, religion appears likely to contribute to it. Perhaps what it says is false, but it still plays a positive role in the life of human communities. In connection with this idea, it is customary to recall that the word religion comes from Latin re-ligere, to connect. This etymology, which first appears in the Christian author Lactanius, is in fact quite probably false. Cicero gave the valid derivation, from re-legere, to re-read, to gather, which refers to the ritual role of re-reading formulas and traditional texts, symbolic acts that always amount to founding religious life on what has already been: the emphasis is upon a tradition to which it is advisable to remain faithful ( fidelity comes from fides as well as the word faith ). However, it is quite true that religion connects, and that it even connects doubly man to man and society to the divine starting from a distinction between the visible and the invisible, sacred and profane.

The prototype of sociological explanation is Durkheim's, in his book Elementary Forms of Religious Life, published in 1912. For Durkheim, social reality is never reducible to a sum of individual realities. Thus, according to Durkheim, men maintain society by religious worship, in a quasi-consubstantial relationship with the sacred. At the risk of falling into circular reasoning, Durkheim thus suggests that there is a practical consubstantiality between religion and society. In religion, he writes, I see only society, transfigured and thought symbolically. Religion is thus defined at bottom as a kind of hypostasis of the social world, as the symbolic representation of a given social order. Fundamentally structuring social life and politics, religion is only a simple projection of society, a simple means of survival.

At first sight, this approach appears more convincing, initially because it highlights the eminently collective dimension of religious activity, and because it is scarcely debatable that religion once played a role in framing and structuring society in general. As Jean-Paul Willaime writes, a religious system produces social bonds, not only by causing specific networks and groupings (institutions, communities), but also by defining a mental universe through which individuals and communities express a certain conception of man and the world in a given society. Religion, in other words, above all gives meaning as it creates bonds. Whatever the truth value of its contents, by creating bonds it plays a positive role in the existence of the human society. This is why, whereas many psychologists see religion as a harmful illusion, many sociologists see it instead as a useful fiction. (It one must note here that an illusion is not the same thing as an error.)

Recently, however, Marcel Gauchet has vehemently protested the idea of the consubstantiality of religion and society. He bases this on the concept of heteronomy. Heteronomy can be summarized as the idea that it is for the gods, for what is beyond the visible world, that men must be what they are, an idea which consequently limits drastically their political ability to govern themselves. Gauchet defines religion as an economy of the subjection of men to what is higher than them, as man's rejection of his own creative power, the radical denial of being for something in the human world, such as it is, the transfer to the invisible world of the reasons governing the organization of the community of the living. Religion, thus defined as the organization of heteronomy, also becomes a fundamental form of alienation.

This heteronomy, adds Gauchet, results from a voluntary initial choice, which led men to place themselves under the dependence of the gods. Gauchet thus disputes that there is a religious disposition in human nature. Religion, according to him, had a beginning and will most probably have an end. It is not an anthropological dimension constitutive of our species, but just a phase of our history. There is, he writes, no form of creative necessity at the basis of religion, such that the collective could not exist without it [ ]. The religious, he says, does not derive from any anthropological facts; it is a matter of convention. Religion is, in the strongest sense of the term, a fact of institution, a commitment of human society to heteronomy. It is this that enables him to interpret Western modernity as a vast process of moving from heteronomy, a slow march towards the acquisition of autonomy.

Gauchet's writings are often remarkable, but this thesis strikes me as debatable. First of all, the idea that if a society is more political it is less religious already gives one pause. For Gauchet, in traditional society there is both total submission to the gods and maximum neutralization of politics. All that is given to politics is thus taken from religion. However, this is clearly not true of the Greco-Roman world, according to Gauchet himself. In European antiquity, one finds an interpenetration of political or state functions and religious functions, as well in the exercise of the civil power as in military functions. In Rome, the very exercise of power is of divine nature. And the Greeks, when they invented democracy in the fifth century B.C.E. did not thereby cease to believe in their gods. To Gauchet's view, one could oppose here the opinion of Cornelius Castoriadis who, far from placing all religions on the side of heteronomy, writes that there is opposition between the monotheist tradition, as a tradition of heteronomy, and the genuine Greek tradition, or democracy as a tradition of autonomy.

In addition, as we have seen, Gauchet asserts that the committment to heteronomy, to which he would reduce religious phenomena, resulted from an arbitrary choice to which the men are not bound at all. Thus one wonders how and why, in the past, the same choice was made everywhere. If there is no universal need for religion, how is it that all ancient societies were religious? Doesn't the fact that such a committment was adopted in a systematic way lead one to think instead that it by no means resulted from a choice, but could only be the consequence of a certain anthropological propensity?

Gauchet h

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