How Religious Are The World Religions?

How Religious Are The World Religions? November 7, 2017

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How religious are the world religions? Most “religions” do not conceive themselves as doctrinal systems. They are inextricably bound up with other dimensions of culture as ways of life. Nicholas de Lange addresses this subject in part when he writes,

The use of the word “religion” to mean primarily a system of beliefs can be fairly said to be derived from a Christian way of looking at Christianity. The comparative study of religions is an academic discipline which has been developed within Christian theology faculties, and it has a tendency to force widely differing phenomena into a kind of strait-jacket cut to a Christian pattern. The problem is not only that other “religions” may have little or nothing to say about questions which are of burning importance for Christianity, but that they may not even see themselves as religions in precisely the way in which Christianity sees itself as a religion. At the heart of Christianity, of Christian self-definition, is a creed, a set of statements to which the Christian is required to assent. To be fair, this is not the only way of looking at Christianity, and there is certainly room for, let us say, a historical or sociological approach. But within the history of Christianity itself a crucial emphasis has been placed on belief as a criterion of Christian identity. . . . In fact it is fair to say that theology occupies a central role in Christianity which makes it unique among the “religions” of the world.[1]

Was it the case, though, that Christianity was itself essentially theological? In view of a recent study by Peter Harrison, I think it fair to say that Christianity was itself conceived as a way of life (rather than as a doctrinal system) up until the time of the religious wars in Europe. At that point, confessions of faith were developed in service to national territorial interests. These confessions were viewed as objective, propositional statements that were bracketed off to a supposedly privatized sphere of faith to safeguard peace within national jurisdictions.[2] Thus, there were Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic nations, for example. As such, religions could be codified to serve national interests.

The view that makes Christianity a religion, that is, a private system of doctrinal propositions, could be exported to other lands as a vehicle of national colonial interests. Thus, faith traditions, which were themselves ways of life, could be bracketed and limited to the doctrinal, mystical, that is, personal domain. The Hindu way could then be conceived as Hinduism, that is, as a private, objective system of beliefs bound up with mystical experiences that had no relevance to politics, economics, and other spheres of culture. Historically, however, the Indian sub-continent did not see Hinduism this way, just as Islam did not or does not see itself this way. The same went for Christianity. But once this move was made, one could be viewed as a British subject by day (in the public sphere), and as a Hindu by night (in the private sphere), or an Iranian-subject to America-by day (in the public sphere), and as a Muslim by night (in the private sphere). Seemingly secular spheres can justify war against religious fanatics that take over other countries, since secularism is deemed rational and appropriate to political and economic discourse.[3]

How religious are the world religions? Not very, since at their core historically, they are ways of life, which bear on every domain of society rather than private belief systems or mystical experiences. The Roman political system, which we take as inspiration for our own, was not essentially areligious, but involved the pantheon of the gods. Caesar was deemed a deity. Caesar conquered the known world, not in some a-religious manner, but overtly religiously—as a god. Thus, his subjects had to be subject to the Roman pantheon. They were made to be essentially Roman. Colonialism in its global-political or global-economic pursuits is simply a more subdued form of this imperial religious ordering of all of life.

Say what you want, but you can never separate religion and politics. Even the secular is a religious-proxy, just like the puppet rulers who serve on behalf of the colonial political and economic powers past and present in codified theological or non-codified theological dress.


[1]Nicholas de Lange, Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), page 3.

[2]See for example the following works: Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[3]See William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pages 13, 91.

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