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Monday, March 27, 2006

Oppenheimer's definition of religion.

So what do you think of Oppenheimer's definition of religion? He makes a point of avoiding an essentialist definition and tries to find a descriptive "family resemblance" definition instead. (I strongly favor this kind of approach.) He offers a two-part definition. First, "religion is commitment to a set of beliefs that requires meaningful sacrifice." That should be fun to discuss. Second, in the American context, he suggests that "we know that an American has picked a religion when we see that she does not have two religions." His nutshell version is this: "We may say that a religion is a sacrificial system whose adherents do not ascribe to another religion" (16).

This definition allows him to distinguish between seekers (who can dabble in everything from Yoga to est without necessarily threatening their good standing in a more conventional religion) and joiners, and it allows him to avoid dogmatic definitions that require particular beliefs such as supernatural beings (since there are religions without gods). It presents a real dilemma for some UUs, however. I was especially struck by this statement in his discussion of Jews for Jesus: "It is not that we know a Jew when we see one; rather, we know that they are not Jews when we see them being Christian." That helped illuminate for me the continuing awkwardness many "JewUs" feel about Unitarian Universalism's history, and especially the threat some Jews in UU congregations feel from UU Christians.

But let's play with his definition. Religion is a sacrificial system whose adherents do not ascribe to another religion. Can this definition help us understand Unitarian Universalism?

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 27 March 2006 at 8:10 AM

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Jeff Wilson:

March 27, 2006 09:07 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm afraid I don't have time to read Oppenheimer's book, so sadly I'll mostly be sitting out of what seems likely to be a fun and interesting discussion. But I do think that Mark Oppenheimer (hereafter MO) is already in serious trouble with his definitions. As other academics will know, starting off with the right definition is serious business in the academy; and as they'll also know, it's almost impossible to get a definition 100% right, especially in the realm of religion. Language is just inadequate to encompass the whole human catastrophe. So we do the best we can, and MO seems to have crafted a definition that allows him to look at certain religious phenomena in America. OK, that's his prerogative, and since American religious history is my field of study I've got some sympathy for his project. Unfortunately, I think his definition is seriously flawed, including in ways that affect the small group of religions he's investigating.

I don't think either of his approaches to religion can hold up, even in the American scene, although it is clearly the study of Christian and Jews groups in North America which has shaped his ideas about what religion is. First, he suggests that "religion is commitment to a set of beliefs that requires meaningful sacrifice." There are multiple difficulties here.

1) belief is not the defining characterisic of all religious systems, not by a long shot. For many religions, praxis is the object of concern, with beliefs playing a secondary, sometimes inchoate role. We see this with Shinto, Ndembu religion, and many forms of Buddhism, just to offer a few examples. This stress on practice over belief is far stronger is some strains of American Buddhism than in other societies, in fact--during my fieldwork with convert Buddhist groups (which happen to have high levels of UU participation), followers have always stressed meditation over dogma, sometimes to the point where they are unsure or contemptuous of the traditional belief systems which support meditation practice in the first place. One could argue that they are displaying a "belief" in meditation practice, but then this causes all actions to be beliefs and belief actually factors out of the equation, becoming useless as a determinant. Commitment to belief is a hallmark of some prominent American Christian and Jewish groups--I wouldn't take it further to say it is a defining characteristic of religion as a phenomenon, even in America. If MO wanted to just say that it defines the particular religious groups he's looking at, he'd be able to wriggle off the hook (though UUism may complicate his presentation. . .)

2) How are we to measure sacrifice? What makes a sacrifice "meaningful," as opposed to the apparent existence of a creature called "meaningless sacrifice?" MO here is following a trend of academic religious thought related to Rodney Stark's sociology of religion in America, which suggests that clearly defined boundaries and penalties for staying within those boundaries (aka sacrifices) are what keep healthy religions strong. Stark's approach is informed (one could say undercut if one wanted to) by his personal commitment to conservative Christianity. I would argue that participation in many religious groups for many people does not require significant sacrifice. Indeed, in America it is non-participation in majority religion that most often carries significant social penalties. If sacrifices can be reduced to such aspects as spending time on Sunday at church or paying a membership fee which equals a very small fraction of one's yearly income, then sacrifice--like belief--becomes inherent in all actions, and thus again a useless factor. Maybe I'm making a meaningful sacrifice when I go to the movies on Sunday morning: I gave up a couple of hours, paid a small entrance fee, and had to sit through all the underwear and car commercials they show before movies these days. Or maybe the meaningful sacrifices are commitments to moral values that prevent me from acting in selfish ways (cheating the stock market, stealing old ladies' handbags, commiting adultery, etc). But since we know that on the one hand most such behavior is carried out by people who are indeed religious on some level, and since I may follow moral strictures purely for self-benefit because I see how they can lead to harm to myself, can it be said that there is really meaningful sacrifice here? The fact that Stark's approach to religion begins to break down as soon as he looks at non-Christian groups (such as his chapter on new religious movements in his "The Churching of America," easily the weakest part of an otherwise influential book) should raise a red flag about how universally applicable his ideas about religion are.

His second attempt at definition is actually worse. "We know that an American has picked a religion when we see that she does not have two religions." This statement could only come from someone who works narrowly with Christianity (and maybe Judaism), particularly someone who looks mostly at white North American Christianity. As soon as we begin to look elsewhere, it falls apart completely. People in China (i.e. the place that outnumbers us by a factor of 4:1 these days) were practicing multiple simultaneous religions before Jesus was even born. People there are readily able to tell you that there are three main religions--Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism--and that they actively participate in all three without conflict. And there have been Chinese in America practicing their multiple systems for over 150 years--in what way are they not American? Similarly, we find that commitment to Christianity has hardly kept people from commitment to other systems as well, in America. Many Native American individuals and groups have adopted Christianity without abandoning pre-Christian polytheistic systems. Sometimes this meant being sincerely Christian when in settler environs and pre-Christian when in native towns; other times it meant just being both without bothering to work out the relationship of the two. This continues to some extent today (I can provide citations if need be). Likewise, Haitian-American Vodou is often practiced alongside Catholicism (and is increasingly popular in African-American circles as well, including among Christians); Santeria appears alongside Cuban- and other Caribbean-American Catholicism, sometimes in the heart, sometimes in the home, sometimes at shrines and temples themselves. Many of my American Buddhist consultants are sincerely Buddhist and Christian or Jewish; in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other areas of Southeast Asia it is nearly universal that one practices Buddhism and Hinduism simultaneously (witness the lynching by a Buddhist mob in Thailand last week of a young man who smashed a Hindu statue).

MO's statement can be narrowly construed to say that if one doesn't have two religions, one has "picked" the one religion that one belongs to. Which tells us very little, and certainly doesn't help us define religion. It also follows a Christian model of assuming one "picks" one's religion, something many religious groups (some Christians included) would deny. Did I pick UUism? I was brought up in this religion. Did I have no religion until I was old enough to consciously weigh all my options and "choose" to remain UU? Did such a moment even happen? Does it really happen for everyone? Or are religions as likely to be inherited, unexamined, practice-oriented ("we're Christian because we go to church on Easter"), and comfortable (not sacrificial) as they are to fit the model MO sets up?


March 27, 2006 09:40 AM | Permalink for this comment

I agree wholeheartedly with Jeff's comments. First I stongly took issue with defining religion only in terms of belief. Belief takes precedence over ritual often in Protestantism, but even in the context of this book, ritual played a significant role. MO wrote of how taking communion from a female priest was a different experience than taking it from a male priest for Episcopalians, and how having Mass in the vernacular dramatically changed the religious experience for Roman Catholics, not to mention having folk musicians. It seems rather silly for him to have defined religion by belief only when the focus of the book was, as he himself stated, not on any doctrinal shifts (because there really weren't any) but on new practices.

I also agree about MO falling victim to the Western mindset of religions being mutually exclusive. I find this to be one of the most frustrating things to contend with in Religious Studies. The discipline has been fraught with the problem of Western, nee Protestant bias since its inception. This is especially problematic when 3 of the 5 religions discussed were not Protestant (four if you count Episcopalians).


March 27, 2006 11:08 AM | Permalink for this comment

PeaceBang offers a fresh example of what James Luther Adams called the "costing commitment" of the liberal faith. I count this as an instance of UU sacrifice grounded in belief. It's genuinely religious.

Unfortunately, I took for granted that people will have read Oppenheimer's introduction. Jeff and Ethan, Oppenheimer does qualify his emphasis on membership (and mutually exclusive affiliation) as distinctively American and not applicable to other national contexts, and he talks about how that has changed what it means to be Muslim or Buddhist in the U.S. He grants that there are always counterexamples to every definition, and not having seen a perfect definition, I simply wonder what his definition might illuminate.

As for "belief," I don't think he's picking dogma over action; I took him to be using the word in a more colloquial way to describe commitments or worldviews.

Jason Pitzl-Waters:

March 27, 2006 11:10 AM | Permalink for this comment

Having read the introduction I question his motivations for not covering new religious movements of that era. His excuse that there weren't enough Pagans and Witches around to matter is a cheap brush-off, especially considering the fact that modern Pagans now outnumber UUs in America. As Jeff points out (in a far better manner than I could have) the author is starting right out of the gate with a bias. Oppenheimer cultivates a very mainstream Western Judeo-Christian idea of what religion is. An odd approach for someone who is supposed to be talking about the influence of Counterculture on religion.

He even admits he is leaving Paganism out of his definition for the sake of "clarity", yet his clarity comes at the expense of creating a hierarchy of faith of his own devising.

Dudley Jones:

March 27, 2006 12:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

Is (non-Zen) Buddhism truly completely atheistic, in the sense of the UU atheists I am accustomed to? I recently took a course on tape about Buddhism and it looked, well, religious. (I am not talking about Zen - that is special.)


March 27, 2006 12:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

Again, Oppenheimer is asking how the counterculture affected *denominational* religion. He is arguing with other historians who have (in his view) emphasized new religious movements at the expense of the well-established faith traditions in which the overwhelming majority of Americans live their religious lives. My interest here is that his book is the only book about recent American religious history that I know of that focuses on a story about Unitarian Universalism.

Jason, were there lots of self-identified pagans in the U.S. between 1968 and 1975? I don't actually know -- but the number today isn't necessarily relevant to the number in the late '60s. But yes, we could have a field day picking at his biases. I'm not convinced that they invalidate many of his larger points, though -- and I'd suggest that people who aren't inclined to praise us often have much to teach us.

Jason Pitzl-Waters:

March 27, 2006 12:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

"Jason, were there lots of self-identified pagans in the U.S. between 1968 and 1975?"

There were enough that by 1979 when Margot Adler's "Drawing Down The Moon" was published it was considered a national phenomena with thousands of adherents.

"I'd suggest that people who aren't inclined to praise us often have much to teach us."

I don't mind if I'm praised or not, I just rankle when he states that certain faiths are going to be ignored because they won't fit his larger thesis. That strikes me as bad scholarship.

Jeff Wilson:

March 27, 2006 01:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

I wrote another long comment, but by the time I was ready to hit "send" the conversation had already progressed. I'll just pull out Chris's comment "we could have a field day picking at his biases. I'm not convinced that they invalidate many of his larger points, though" and say that I agree with both parts of this statement. My critical comments are not meant to derail the conversation.

Dudley: Buddhist atheism is in the eye of the beholder. 99% of world Buddhists (i.e. those hundreds of millions in Asia) believe in the literal existence of incredibly powerful supernatural entities whom we in English call "gods" or "deities." On the other hand, only a very small minority of those worldwide Buddhists accept the idea of a single eternal creator God, and basically none believe in an eternal creator and judge of the world. This includes Zen Buddhists, who in Japan are among the foremost purveyors of supernaturalism: Zen priests, for instance, regularly conduct rituals (for pay) to exorcize the demonic haunting ghosts of aborted fetuses, who otherwise can cause harm to their mothers; most Zen temples survive by predicting fortunes and selling magic charms designed to prevent road accidents or bring love. The convert Zen one encounters in America in many ways bears little resemblance to its parent religion in Asia, including its rejection of Asian Zen's normal commitment to religious beliefs in karma, reincarnation, Pure Lands, and mantric spells.


March 27, 2006 01:49 PM | Permalink for this comment

I certainly cannot begrudge MO for not wanting to use a more universal definition of religion when his focus is a very specific time and place. When I get the time I'll have to re-read the Introduction, as I have probably forgotten some important points.

The first part of the definition has, itself, two parts "commitment to a set of beliefs" and requirement of "meaningful sacrifice." Seperately, both of these would be too broad to describe religion alone. Even together they might be seen as too vague by some. People may strive for some aspect of social justice, and in doing so sacrifice some other very important things in their lives like relationships, health or even life itself. So my queston is, does that count as a religious experience?


March 27, 2006 05:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

Back to the question of beliefs: Two two real-world examples Oppenheimer gives of "commitment to a set of beliefs that requires meaningful sacrifice" are: "A belief that you must tithe, or donate a portion of your income to your church or faith community, is religious . . . The belief that you must pray three times a day is a religious belief" (15).

Two years ago at the UUA General Assembly, Dean Grodzins suggested that UUs have often overemphasized doctrine and conceptual disagreements. I reported then that "Grodzins argued that UUs have ignored the history of Unitarian and Universalist religious behavior."

"Religion," Grodzins said, "is above all something that you do." He urged UUs to pay attention to the history of our religious actions—from rituals like communion and chalice lightings to community activities like book groups and sports teams—for signs of Unitarian Universalism's "vital element."

But I'm not sure what actions could be said to unify all Unitarian Universalists, even if we restricted it to congregationally-affiliated UUs.

The unifying behaviors might be joining a congregation, participating in its life, and giving money for its support -- which seem awfully rudimentary -- but behaviors like these might be as close as we could reasonably come to a descriptive definition of membership that embraces contemporary and historic expressions of our religious tradition. The implied belief might be: "You can't live UU values without a community."

Obviously there are other unaffiliated people who also claim a UU identity. They may even have their own UU-identified communities. For reasons peculiar to our history, though, organized Unitarian Universalism is a congregational movement that has evolved a denominational life. And that's the community Oppenheimer examines in his book.

Jamie Goodwin:

March 27, 2006 05:51 PM | Permalink for this comment

Just a short comment, my first reaction when I read MO definition was Nuh-uhh after all I am a UU and a Christian.. but then I really started to think about it. I am not really a UU and a Christian. I am a UU Christian. The two are one and the same, insepratable. I do not belong to two religions or even two faiths. I think the same is true for most UUs i ever met.


March 27, 2006 06:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

The unifying behaviors might be joining a congregation, participating in its life, and giving money for its support --

Another UU behavior is inventing our own theology.


March 27, 2006 09:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jason Pitzl-Waters provides a pagan critique of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" and "Restless Souls," the other religious history I reviewed. Check it out.

Jeff Wilson:

March 28, 2006 12:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

Once more unto the breach. . . I'm reposting this here from it's original place on another, less relevant thread (with the assumption that the original post will then be deleted). I'll take the opportunity to slightly amend my comments.

I'm still not convinced the admittedly inspiring "UUSC $1000" incident at PB's church is a good example of overall UU sacrifice. Absolutely it was a meaningful sacrifice for the man who got up first and was handed the chalice (assuming he wasn't Bill Gates), as well as the woman who got up next. It was clearly motivated by UU religious feelings. I really appreciated PB sharing this moment with us all. But overall the congregation only gave $20 per person--is that a meaningful sacrifice for upper middle class congregants (recognizing that for a few at least, it is--but probably not most)?

So was this a religious experience for all involved, if only a small portion of them sacrificed? Is UUism really a religion with meaningful sacrifice on a consistent basis? Or are most UUs comfortable, with little out of the ordinary asked of them? And not just UUs--aren't most religions mainly comfortable rather than demanding, even when we can point to some that do make significant demands? Do we want to say that the other UUs present at that inspiring service aren't religious? Because that's a clear implication that would arise from accepting Mark Oppenheimer's definition of religion.

Unless it is a meaningful sacrifice to have to sit by and watch somebody else donate $1000 you are unable/unwilling to give, I can't seem to use this example to prove UUism as a whole is a religion by MO's definition. And since we are in fact religious--misers, poormen, and all--to me that indicates a serious flaw in his approach.

I'm wary about this issue of sacrifice anyway. What is a sacrifice? Most people get more out of church than they put in, be it social returns, self-esteem, or eternal salvation. Is this really sacrifice, or is it paying into an exchange that brings one benefit? I know this is drifting from the intent in reading his book in the first place, but it's bringing up interesting issues for me.

I wonder whether sacrifice is a meaningful religious issue for UUs, and if so, how we feel we sacrifice or are called to sacrifice in the name of UUism. Do such sacrifices, if we can identify them, reach MO's level of "meaningfulness"? Are they enough to constitute us as a "religion" as he put it, or does our religiousity lie elsewhere?

And one more thing has been nagging me for a day or two. During my daily walk in the woods, I often listen to UU podcasts, especially Arlington Street Church's. Recently someone yet again mentioned from the pulpit the old chestnut that religion is supposed to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Afflicting the comfortable is clearly the sacrificial side of things. And I think we UUs on the whole are mighty comfortable. But is meaningful sacrifice a part of the religion of the afflicted among us? Do we have a right to call for sacrifice from those who truly are afflicted? And if not, doesn't that drop them from MO's definition of religion, leaving them in some other catagory? It almost turns religion into something purely for the comfortable, AKA those who _can_ sacrifice. When you have nothing, you cannot sacrifice; and if we want to get technical and say you still have your time and your life (though those who have little or nothing are often those who have the least amount of time to volunteer), then we've put ourselves in the place of calling from a place of comfort for the afflicted to give up their lives or last remaining energy/time. Is that really what we want to do? Sacrifice. The deeper I go into this, the more troubling it becomes.

Jeff Wilson:

March 28, 2006 05:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

Well, it's beginning to look like a mistake for me to have deleted my blog, if all I'm gonna do is monopolize other people's. . . At any rate, I was asked off-blog if I might provide another definitional approach to religion. I don't have time at the moment to try to craft one of my own, but I do have an alternative. I was trained in the study of American liberal religion by Thomas Tweed (and Grant Wacker, both of whom were trained by the recently deceased historian William Hutchison of Harvard). Tweed has just released his own theory of religion, called Crossing and Dwelling, and I was his assistant during much of the writing and editing of this work. He provides a very different take on religion than Oppenheimer does. I won't pretend that Tweed's approach is without flaws; rather, I'm presenting it here to give us another angle to chew on in this discussion.

Here is Tweed's official definition of religion from the book: "Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and superhuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries." A wee bit technical, yes I know. Tweed is a geographer of religion, and the book is written for scholars (though it's much more accessible overall than you might suspect). In the book itself he unpacks this sentence quite a bit. For a recent review of the book, which includes lots of useful information about what exactly Tweed means by this statement, you can consult the online journal American Religious Experience. Maybe this other approach will produce some useful insight, who knows?

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