Functioning as Religion

I’m reading William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence. This is one of those books that gets you to re-assess long-held assumptions about the way the world is ordered. I’ll have more to say about Cavanaugh’s thesis; for now, here is a sampling from his chapter “The Invention of Religion.” Cavanaugh is arguing that what counts as “religious” is “any binding obligation or devotion that structures one’s social relations.” Whether such a binding obligation or devotion involves God, or not, is not essential in this definition of “religion.” He then goes on to quote from David Loy’s The Religion of the Market:

Religion is notoriously difficult to define. If, however, we adopt a functionalist view and understand religion as what grounds us by teaching us what the world is, and what our role in the world is, then it becomes obvious that traditional religions are fulfilling this role less and less, because that function is being supplanted– or overwhelmed– by other belief-systems and value-systems. Today the most powerful alternative explanation of the world is science, and the most attractive value-system has become consumerism. Their academic offspring is economics, probably the most influential of the “social sciences.” [I] argue that our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. (Cavanaugh, 107-108)

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2 thoughts on “Functioning as Religion

  1. I guess Cavanaugh’s thesis would extend to addiction, which requires a toxic devotion that structures one’s social relations. But, of course, addiction is not a religion though many addicts attend to it as such. There’s often ceremony and self-inflated grandeur involved, if not some dogma. Nevertheless, it’s a hopeless, self-perpetuating cycle of destruction and not really inspired worship.
    It’s sad when apparently smart people like Cavanaugh play with words to construct new meanings for what everyone has understood concepts like religion to be. I guess my wife would call dark chocolate a religion, too. I could bend words to instill new meanings, but a cat is still a cat and a rose still a rose. Religion is religion. And we’ll still debate whether pagan beliefs like Wicca should be considered a religion regardless of what someone like Cavanaugh wants to call religion.
    Some think AA a cult or a religion, some apparently still think of Mormonism as a cult and less a religion. But I and many others know in my/their heart that I/they should be at church on Sunday or observing the sabbath on Friday night. And for me, the bottom line of religion is a God or gods or universal consciousness — something larger and more powerful than any individual. And something that is not material. Idols don’t count.
    Going to the mall is not my/anyone’s religion and a debate about whether economics is a religion is rather silly and a waste of time. But, of course, anyone can write a book about whatever wants and eventually find a publisher who deems it marketable.
    Please bring on more about the “myth” of religious violence. That should be interesting. Perhaps the Catholic Church didn’t really run the Inquisition and people weren’t burnt as witches out of concern for blasphemy, or that Iran’s theocratic leaders don’t really wish for a new holocaust. Or that radical “islamists” don’t want to terrorize the west.
    Science is not a religion, though some scientists behave as if it can answer all of life’s questions. Silly scientists. But at least they’ve taught us about evolution, if only the evangelical american “christians” would pay attention and stop taking the Bible so literally. But, then again, fundamentalists of any sorts like to adhere to strict interpretation of their texts. It’s not about control, though. Religions have rules, as do the malls and economics and science. But religions seem to have better costumes and incense. Though the malls are coming closer on the latter.
    It’s a good question – what defines a religion. But loosening the strings in the cat’s cradle game of thinking makes me question the true discipline of the argument. I need to hear more, however. I’ll try to maintain an open mind …

  2. Cavanaugh produces enough evidence (beyond what I can include in a blog entry) to cast doubt on what we think we know for sure: in this case, that “religion is religion.” For example, if a god or gods defines religion, that would leave (at least some kinds of) Buddhism out; on the other hand, if “transcendence” is the defining characteristic, then nationalism is in (and probably dark chocolate too….)

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