The Great Conversation: Religion

By Gabriel Blanchard

Pinning down what religion is can be far more challenging than it sounds.

Religionlike so many ideas from Adler’s Syntopiconis a gigantic subject. The astonishing diversity of religions is only part of the reason for this; we have also to consider what religion is to different people, or even to the same person in different ways.

Folk beliefs and customs, for instance, are sometimes derided with the name of superstition and at other times dignified with the name of religion. G. K. Chesterton gives a more illuminating description: “Men do not believe as a dogma that God would throw a thunderbolt at them for walking under a ladder; more often they amuse themselves with the not very laborious exercise of walking round it.” But even if this is a kind or expression of religion, it is clearly not the same thing as the rationally defined, and positively believed, cosmology of Lucretius or Zarathustra or St. Augustine. Even when a great mind takes up and arranges folk beliefs into a coherent cultural and ethical system, as Confucius arguably did with Chinese religion, the thing made is profoundly different from what it is made of.

And all these thingsunreflective half-beliefs, intellectually defined doctrines, systems that are less creed than cultureare different again from what we may call mysticism: a personal encounter (real or imagined) with the divine, the thing that all these other things are in some sense “about.” Many people with deeply held religious convictions never have mystical experiences; others have such experiences and yet disbelieve in anything that could meaningfully be called God.

It is a saying I once heard from some Hindu tradition; that gods as well as men are only the dreams of Brahma; and will perish when Brahma wakes.

Nevertheless we see these things mingling with one another or turning into each other all the time. Judaism is ostensibly defined by the dogmas and laws of the Torah, yet being Jewish means something much broader and more complicated than those observances. Hinduism comfortably combines every sense of the word “religion” in its varied, often mutually contradictory expressions. Christianity, which originated as a decidedly mystical claim only comprehensible in terms of Judaism, has become sufficiently embodied in cultural forms that there are some people (e.g. Dr. Jordan Peterson) who will claim and defend a Christian cultural identity without even believing definitely in God. Conversely, the Buddha, though a mystic, rejected much of the religious thought that preceded him and even by some accounts the existence of a deityyet later forms of Buddhism have crafted cosmologies of supernatural beings as sprawling as a genealogy of Greek gods, and fused these again with folk beliefs.

Suggested reading:

Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed
St. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
Huston Smith, The World’s Religions


If you liked this piece, try our discussions of ideas like citizenship, monarchy, or the virtue of temperance; or you might enjoy one of our author profiles, like Plato’s or Tubman’s.

Published on 25th March, 2020.

Share this post:
Scroll to Top