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Monday, January 10, 2011

Religion as Discourse, Performance, and Dogma

If asked to defined religion, many might point out types of beliefs and religious behavior. The more specific one is about the religiousness of a belief and a behavior, the more arbitrary the distinction becomes. For instance, what makes putting water on the forehead religious in one case and secular in another case? The distinguishing factor between is the effort to distinguish the two. When one puts holy water on a child to baptize her, the priest or parents must make it clear that it is a baptism. Generally, many people are told in a ritualistic manner what a baptism is and means to the child and the congregation. The venue must have religious significance like a church or a river. The full context from the time to the people participating all reinforces in the community the identity of religion.

This is the discourse and performance that stabilizes the identity of religion. The discourse also can fail, which leads to inconsistency and destabilization of the religious identity. Some definitions of religion point to supernaturalism, but this requires discourse of distinguishing between the natural and the natural. How is something outside nature, what is the difference between a deity and a natural object? The discourse on the supernatural reveals the underlining acknowledgement of ignorance of something that transcends the familiar.  These unfamiliar outsiders[1] are often either demons or gods. Thomas Jefferson turns this discourse on its head by using the term Nature’s God in the Declaration of Independence. This kind of deism removes a distinguishing element of the religion (i.e. concern for the supernatural), and thus destabilize the discourse which separates the religious from the secular.  Removing supernatural altogether from a religion and still calling it a religion is still possible. Stalinism had its version dogma and worship all without deities, and professors of religion have referred to it as religion.[2]

A secular religion refers to having the concerns about personal development in morality, meaningfulness, and identity without a concern for transcendental objects or entities. By creation of the category secular religion, the discourse makes the word religion somewhat meaningless because there is no clear opposite of religion. Religion could be exchanged for lifestyle or personal philosophy, and the real discourse would shift to supernaturalism distinguished from naturalism.

Another essential to religion are the followers.  To be identified as religious, one has to perform it. To know how to perform, the religion as a powerful entity[3] must provide the means to perform. For Christianity, the early followers created Apostles’ Creed to establish a standard of belief which made one a Christian. The Born-Again have, of course, the born-again experience, which distinguishes them from the Puritans who spent their wholes lives working hard to become Christians without knowing if Yahweh would save them. In short, followers of a religion use creeds, experiences, rituals, and effort to establish their identity as religious.

The ideas, memes, or Power-knowledge which enforces the identity of the believer are born through a type of discourse which aims to cease being a discourse. Dogma is the antithesis and child of discourse. Once a believer accepts the dogma, thought and discussion no longer apply. This creates two identities of religion, the dogmatic and the discursive. A dogmatic religionist can die in the name of the religion because the dogma dictates her actions, but a discursive religionists has her own concept of her religion. In Christianity, the discursive allows for there to be millions denominations with their own ideas about Jesus. The dogmatic element causes evangelism, politicization, and power struggle.

What can be learned from understanding discourse, performance, and dogma: There is nothing that comes from dogmatism except more dogmatism. The goal is to never make that leap of faith, which philosopher Albert Camus aptly calls philosophical suicide[4], so that one can discover one’s own meaning, morality, and freedom. The problem is not disagreement or debate between naturalism and supernaturalism but the lack thereof. When beliefs are not question, they become Truth. When beliefs are questioned, they can become truth.


[1] I say outsiders because agency is often presumed
[2] James P. Carse would be one professor, though retired, who has referred to it as a religion.
[3] I intend to refer to something like Foucault’s Power-knowledge or Dawkins’ Meme.
[4] From Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus

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