Welcome to week two of the Masters of Religious Philosophy program. Each week, for 24 weeks, you will receive a discourse that talks about the Philosophy of Religion. You will be receiving an email for this course approximately once a week. If for any reason you don’t receive one, please write to email@example.com so she can re-send your material.
Lesson 2 - Religions, Ethical Systems & Fundamental
Master of Religious Philosophy
Before we can actually study religion, we need to determine what it is we mean when we use the word “religion.” This may not be as straight forward a task as you are likely to suspect. As we move through the later lessons, you will discover that there are many religions that hold views that you might consider very “non-religious” in nature. That notwithstanding, these peculiar organized systems are, in fact, religions. So, how do we know something is a religion? Let’s begin with what the word originally meant.
The Latin word ‘religion’ referred to an obligation or bond. Most linguists believe that this was derived from the Latin verb religionre, meaning “to tie back.” Gradually, the meaning evolved until it came to mean ‘a tie between humans and the gods’. After the legalization of Christianity in Rome during the early 4th century, a shift occurred with regard to what was meant by ‘the gods’. When the ancient Jovian religion (Roma religio) predominated in the Empire, it was clear that ‘the gods’ referred to the members of the Jovian pantheon: Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, etc. Later, as Christianity supplanted it, Deity came to generally be accepted as referencing the God of the Jews and Christians: Jehovah, or Yahweh (same God; just different English renderings of the Hebrew).
As a result, religionre came to refer to a formal tie between devout Christians and their God. The people who exemplified this formal tie were the monks and nuns of the monastic communities. So, from the 5th century, for roughly a thousand years, religion (the Old French form of the word) referred solely to the monastic life.
In other words, the only truly religious people in mediæval Europe were those living in a monastery or nunnery — those who had devoted their entire lives to the church — those who had ‘tied themselves to God’. Then, around the 16th century, the term began to take on a wider, broader meaning.
It was during the 16th century that our modern meaning for religion finally came into use. Initially, this was the service, worship, devotion and faithfulness to God (or ‘the gods’). But, that was a “western” view — one perhaps accepted within Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but not necessarily applicable to numerous other worship systems around the world.
Today, the meaning has been modified to refer to nearly any form of devotion or fidelity. The reason that this was not necessarily accepted by all of the worship systems around the world is that there are those which either do not believe in a god, or which maintain that a belief in god is peripheral or incidental to the real purpose and meaning of their belief system. Westerners often prefer to label these groups as “ethical systems” rather than “religions.”
An ethical system is an organized system relating to moral action, motive or character. Since moral refers to the establishment of principles of right and wrong in behavior, a moral or ethical system would thus be a system organized for, and based on, principles of behavioral right and wrong. If this sounds very much like religion, you begin to see the difficulty that some people have in distinguishing between them. Actually, the reason for this is quite simple: there is only one difference between them to distinguish.
Religion, in the narrower sense, requires a god on which to focus worship, devotion and service; one to whom we must remain faithful. Ethical systems have no such requirement — so long as their standards for ‘right and wrong’ can be derived without relying on deific decree. For those who consider the Ten Commandments a foundation on which all morality is based — ten deific, godly commandments — the idea that one can derive moral direction without involving God seems ludicrous. But, not only are there ancient traditions which do so (e.g. Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, and Buddhism), there are modern examples as well.
Consider the writings of Dr. Peter Singer. Dr. Singer is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading applied ethicists, is the author of the book that became the touchstone of the “animal liberation” movement and groups such as PETA, and is one of the founders of the Great Ape Project (which would have the United Nations issue a declaration conferring ‘personhood’ on the great apes — gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonobos). Dr Singer’s ethical positions may be considered extreme by many average citizens; but, his ethics are consistent, cohesive and logical. The reason this is of interest to us is simple: Dr. Singer is an avowed atheist. So, one of the most academically respected ethicists, and apparently one of the most ethical people in the world does not believe in God. Clearly, it must be possible to derive morality, ethics, right and wrong without pinning it on God.
The perceived differences between religions and ethical systems are derived from defining religion in the 16th century form: “the service and worship of God (or a god)”, while the fact that religion is generally accepted today as any “system of devotion, fidelity or reverence” is simply ignored.
This would be no different than assuming that the only people today who are truly religious are monastic orders. That meaning may have been prevalent at one point in time, but it has long since broadened to include a much wider swath of society. It is simply not acceptable to apply 500 or 1500 year old meanings to a word today. Consider the case of obscenities. The word bitch came into use about 1000 CE to mean a “female dog.” It was commonly used, had no adverse connotations, and could be readily used in polite company.
By about 1400 CE, however, it had started to be used to refer to human females as an insult. By 1800, it was actually considered more offensive to call a woman a bitch than it was to call her a whore. During the 1960s, the FCC would fine broadcast television stations $12,500 per instance for airing an “obscenity”; today, the fine is just $7,000, and the list of words considered obscene has seriously dwindled. Illustrating this, “bitch” is now a commonly used epithet in music, movies, radio, and television. It is also not generally thought of as ‘grossly offensive’ by women today. In other words, both the meaning and the acceptability of the term bitch have changed dramatically over the past 1,000 years. It would be foolish to think today that we should restrict the meaning (and use) of the word to what it was either 500 or 1000 years ago. And yet, that is precisely what many people try to do with the term religion.
This becomes an issue when talking about groups which do not “service and worship” a god. Groups that fall into this category include such people as Confucianists, Taoists, and Jains. The first two of these began as Chinese structures, and neither mentions Deity in their original forms. Both, however, saw later adherents graft discussions of Deity onto them.
So today, there are clearly divisions of adherents which would be classified as a religion even with the ‘God criterion’; however, they also retain large segments of their followers which simply never discuss Deity; and, this often gets them branded as ethical systems in contradistinction to being religions. Jainism is an avowedly agnostic religion, which means that it is also often classified as an ethical system by those who demand the presence of God before something can be declared a religion.
Christian denominations which might fall into this religio-ethical trap include members of the Unitarian-Universalist Association as well as Christian Scientists. In the case of UU, the problem is that it is an inclusive structure which refuses to dictate a creedal position regarding God. So, some UU members might be ‘religious’ while others are humanist or ‘ethical’. The problem with Christian Science is that God is defined in an impersonal form – a form that some more traditional Christian denominations do not consider to truly be God at all. In that case, it isn’t enough to be God-centered, the description of God must also apparently comply with some unwritten set of criteria to qualify.
Absurd? Absolutely. Offensive? Certainly to some. So, why bother to even mention it? Because, when looking at religious philosophy we not only must agree on the method of analysis, but also on what is being analyzed ( i.e. a religion versus an ethical system). For our purposes, there is no difference in these two terms.
Although most people don’t know what it is, there is actually a significant difference between a precept and a concept. And, in the field of religion, this difference can be critical. Consider the dictionary definition of each:
concept n. [L. conceptus, fr. concipere to conceive] 1. A thought; an opinion. 2. Philos. An idea, as distinguished from a precept; also, a mental image of an action or thing.
precept n. OF fr. L præceptum, fr. Præcipere to take beforehand, instruct, teach] 1. Any commandment, instruction, or order intended as a rule of action or conduct; esp., a practical rule guiding behavior, technique, etc. 2. Law An order, warrant, or writ issued pursuant to law, esp. to an administrative officer.
These definitions make it relatively clear; but, just to be certain we have the difference firmly in mind, consider the following example. Each of the Ten Commandments is a precept. Each one is a “commandment, instruction, or order intended as a rule of action or conduct.” According to the story in Exodus, “Thou shalt not kill” isn’t an idea that God had one day that He wants all of us to all think about ( i.e. a concept), it is an injunction, an instruction whereby He has provided a “rule of action” ( i.e. a precept).
The Lewis Carroll poem The Hunting of the Snark contains the lines (verses 6 through 8 of the First Fit):
There was one who was famed for the number of things
He forgot when he entered the ship:
His umbrella, his watch, all his jewels and rings,
And the clothes he had bought for the trip.
He had forty-two boxes, all carefully packed,
With his name painted clearly on each:
But, since he omitted to mention the fact,
They were all left behind on the beach.
The loss of his clothes hardly mattered, because
He had seven coats on when he came,
With three pair of boots — but the worst of it was,
He had wholly forgotten his name.
This is one of numerous examples of what are commonly known as “nonsense poems.” Perhaps nobody was better at this type of poem than Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). On the surface, this may not seem to have any connection to the topic whatsoever -- but, doesn’t it? A concept is “a mental image of an action or thing.” The genius of Lewis Carroll was an ability to paint word pictures that conveyed remarkably detailed mental images — even, at times, of things as nonsensical as this character from The Hunting of the Snark.
This is the very essence of what it means to be a concept. If it is possible to give someone a clear idea about something that is foolish, nonsensical, and nonexistent, then one would assume that it must be a lot simpler to provide an image of something that was important, logical, and real. To adherents of a religion, God most certainly exists; He is supremely important; and, the rationality and reasonableness of a belief in God is to be accepted without question.
So, how does this make these two terms differ when referring to religion? A concept is a mental image of either an idea (e.g. God) or action (e.g. forgiveness). A precept is a rule of action (e.g. thou shalt not steal) or conduct (e.g. love thy neighbor as thyself). We’ll look at some ideas/concepts in the section that follows on Fundamentals. Precepts, however, turn out to be a lousy way to analyze religion. Either they only exist within a specific faith (e.g. atonement – Christianity), or they exist within virtually every faith (e.g. the Golden Rule is found in every world religion). In neither case do they offer grounds for comparison or understanding of religion.
What are the fundamentals, or fundamental concepts, that religions tend to share? These are examined in far greater detail (with examples from the world’s religions) in the Doctor of Religious Philosophy course; but, we should provide at least a basic understanding of these points here as well. Consider the following to be a partial listing of the fundamentals of “what it takes to be a religion.” The notes are minimal, but should provide at least a basic understanding of the questions each raises with regard to religion.
Deity/Reality Most religions accept that there is some form of, for lack of a better term, “spiritual being” — some Ultimate Reality. Where religions often differ with regard to this is in defining how many of them there are; whether they have gender, and if so which; and, what are the attributes of Deity.
Even those that generally avoid discussion of Deity are almost always concerned with determining the true nature of Ultimate Reality, whatever it is (whether spiritual or totally materialistic).
Theophany if some form of Deity is accepted, does that deity ever “come to earth” in physical form? Has it, does it, can it incarnate?
Prayer What does it mean to a group to pray? Is this a process by which the followers petition Deity to act in their behalf? Or, is it simply a means of aligning the individual with either Deity or Ultimate Reality?
Soul Do we have a “soul?” Is there, in the words of the Quaker founder George Fox, “that of God in every man?” Is there a divine essence, a divine spark, an inner essence of spirituality? Do all humans have this? Do animals? Do insects? Do plants? Is this just another term for “life force,” or is it something far more spiritual?
Worship - What does it mean to “worship?” Does it make sense to worship an impersonal deity? Does Deity/Reality respond to human worship?
Sacrifice - Virtually all religions embrace sacrifice as a means of acknowledging the supremacy of Deity/Reality. What forms can this take? What do humans “get out of it?”
Salvation - Not every religion has the concept of salvation. Salvation implies that there must be something from which the adherent must be saved. If there is no sense of impending doom, why must one be saved? How does this impel the other beliefs and practices of these groups?
Mysticism - When is a religion being “mystical?” What does that mean? Is mystical knowledge somehow automatically either superior or inferior to conventional physical knowledge?
Death - What happens after death? This is a key feature in studying religion. There are several possible answers: nothing, resurrection, reward, punishment, corrective penalty, reincarnation. Typically, the views a religion holds regarding death are indicative of a whole host of other beliefs and practices.
Dualism/Monism - Dualism is the basic belief that reality can be seen as existing along a continuum with two opposing poles: good & evil, right & wrong, yin & yang, et cetera. Monism, by contrast, is the belief that all reality is composed of a single essence. This may be material, spiritual, or some third essence underlying both physical and spiritual existence. The impact that this belief has on practice is impossible to overstate; it is immense!
Orthodoxy - Composed from two Greek roots, orthodoxy simply means to hold “correct thoughts.” Most analysts seem to identify the orthodox position by a democratic process; in other words, it is often accepted by outside observers that the ideas held by the largest number are the “orthodox.” Obviously, those within a religion, who may hold to different ideas, don’t necessarily agree.
Orthopraxy - Similar to orthodoxy, orthopraxy (or orthopraxis) comes from the Greek roots meaning “correct practices.” We can think of orthodoxy as ‘what they preach’, and orthopraxy as ‘what they practice’.
Pantheism - Pantheism is another composite word that, literally, means all (pan) is God (theos). Although there have been pantheistic religions for thousands of years, it was the rise of neo-paganism in the 20th century that brought this back into academic discussion.
Universality - Where most religions espouse and practice a degree of universality, there are clearly some that focus on an ethnocentrality. This means that most religions believe they are “the answer” for everyone. To that end, these groups often attempt to convert others to their way. By contrast, some religions accept that there is a strong cultural component to their religion, and that their religion is not the answer for people who do not share those cultural distinctions. Most of these groups would permit others to join with them, but they find it largely foolish, and therefore usually make no attempt to convert others.
Uniqueness - Across the religious landscape, there are a number of religions that hold to unique (or rare) beliefs or practices. These are sufficiently rare to make it nonsensical to make them into a “category” of beliefs to be analyzed; but, they may have significant importance to the group that holds them.
Truth - What is it? Who has it? Is it exclusive? All religions claim that they have access to “the truth”; most believe that they are the only ones who do; a very few acknowledge that truth is a personal and cultural phenomenon, and that there can be many paths to Truth.
As we move through the lessons of this course, we will look at each of these areas to see how religions have dealt with the issues involved. As a result, we will discuss a number of religious traditions in the process. In many respects, this will be similar to a course in World Religions (a common introductory college course); but, it will be our approach that will make this different. World Religions takes each religion in turn, and discusses what they believe, how they act, and what all of this means to their followers. Religious Philosophy looks at different religious beliefs, different acts, how this impacts those who espouse these positions, and then uses modern religions as examples to illustrate the point.
Food for Thought
1) To ensure that you truly understand the difference between a concept and a precept, try the following exercise. Choose a field (perhaps politics, education or work). Now try to think of at least 3 concepts within that field. Can you also think of 3 precepts within the field? To get you started, consider this example: in baseball, concepts you might consider might include a “sacrifice bunt,” a “home run,” and a “base on balls.” By contrast, precepts might include telling a batter to “always take the pitch when the count is 3 balls, no strikes”, a catcher “giving the pitcher the signal to throw a curve”, or having a base runner “take off with the pitch if the count is three balls and two strikes with two outs.” Now can you think of 3 concepts and 3 precepts in politics, education or at work?
2) The statement was made that the impact that being monistic has is immense. This is the belief that “all is One.” If a faith is monistic, what might that mean to them if that ‘One’ is God? Is there any such thing as evil? Is there matter? Do you exist? If you do, what is your true essence? What about the apparently physical world in which we find ourselves? Is it real?
3) Orthopraxy is the “correct practice” of a religion. Think of a religion – any religion. It may be the one you personally practice, or it may be any other that you think better serves to be able to complete this question. What “practices” must followers of this religion do in order to be ‘good and faithful practicing XXX’? For example, orthopraxy for a Roman Catholic might be thought to include baptism, confirmation, confession, eucharist (communion), and regular attendance at mass. There may also be others that you believe are required. Marriage by a priest would be included if a marriage was about to occur, but it isn’t a universal required practice, since there are many faithful, devout Roman Catholics who are unmarried. Now, what can you come up with for the religion you selected?
Dr. Singer is currently both the Ira W DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and the laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne (Australia). He has been a frequent contributor to encyclopædia articles (e.g. Encyclopedia Britannica) on ethics.
------- Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Fifth Edition) Springfield, Massachusetts: G & C Merriam Company; 1948.
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