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Identifying Religions to Species

February 3, 2015
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In my last article (rather longer ago than I meant – this is why I should have a buffer) I joked about identifying gods to species. The title came from my insistence that my students identify things to species – it’s not enough to say that something is a beetle, what kind of beetle? It’s a common way I insist that my students get beyond vague concepts and really identify functional units of ecology.

Ironically, identifying what religion a given religion is really is identifying a religion “to species”. I am not here discussing identifying what religion in general is. That is difficult but, as it turns out, almost no one believes in religion in general and so one is normally tasked with identifying a specific religion without having to identify that it is a religion first. This task has some of the same challenges as identifying biological species. Biologists find two issues difficult in identifying species: first, species can be internally quite variable and one can run across cases in which population A can’t breed with population C but both can breed with population B just to make things worse. Second, biologists are generally agreed that any good species definition has to deal with species changing over time. Religion runs across similar issues: some religions are hugely variable (e.g., Hinduism, which has more internal variance than exists between several religions normally considered to be separate religions) and in some cases we have group A who is sure that group C is a different religion (and vice-versa) but both A and C recognize group B as being slightly odd members of their religion. Religions also change over time, sometimes sort of accidentally and sometimes because they announce things like “a new age will come and everything will change” and then someone announces much later that yes, the new age is here.

Religions also get treated like species in another way. The Western world treats religions as both static and inherently worth preserving, much like traditional customs or biological species. We speak of preserving biodiversity (which I’m strongly in favor of) but we also want to preserve religious diversity. This is important because it involves treating religions as mere customs and not as statements about the truth. We allow statements about the truth to fight each other to the death and then we cheer the winner. (This is called progress.)

Before I treat the “how” let me deal with the “why do we care?” The answer is simple: people fight about this quite a lot. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses say they are Christian but many other Christians deny this. A friend of mine recently complained that one group of Christians had effectively disowned another, claiming that they were separate religions. I know someone who is for all intents and purposes a secular humanist but who insists loudly (and angrily) that he is a Christian. (This is hardly an issue for Christians only. I know several Muslims who appear to be Muslim deists and at least one self-identified Muslim who is probably close to Oprah on the religious spectrum.) Some people really fight about this: the Shiite-Sunni conflict involves what Westerners tend to call two branches of the same religion who are involved in a process of disowning and then killing each other.

I outlined above the issues of diversity and change. The diversity issue is pretty straightforward: there are lots of shades of religious belief and so there are a lot of disagreements. There are plenty of people who say they are Christians who I don’t want to share that label with, some because I think they are a horrible affront to Christ (the Westboro Baptists) and some because I think they just need to admit that they are something else entirely and stop using the name “Christian” to give themselves unwarranted gravitas. Some of these people also don’t want to share with me (the Westboro Baptists, I dearly hope) and some do. When they don’t want to share with me that seems simple enough: we’re different and we agree on that. We one of us wants to share things get tricky. One typical way to resolve that fight is to go to gods (one reason we can’t talk about religion without defining gods). If it turns out that we worship different gods we’d be different religions. But, of course, what makes gods different? If we both worship someone named Jesus is that good enough? What if we believe totally different things about this guy (see, again, myself and the Westboro Baptists)? We end up looking at a gradient trying to decide where “off-white” ends and “gray” begins.

A similar, but perhaps even crazier, thing happens when religions change. Most religions have some sort of change mechanism built in. Perhaps some of the Eastern ones with more fixed cosmos don’t but Western (i.e., really Middle Eastern) religions tend to have this idea that God is going somewhere and will occasionally butt in and update us on where we are now. (Take a moment to wonder how many prayers amount to “Are we there yet?” “Tell my brother to stop poking me,” is also a favorite.) Sometimes these change mechanisms are run through a hierarchy and the change seems well-organized and sometimes it comes from outside the official channels and makes a mess.

Imagine, for the sake of having a truly insane example, that a religion exists which holds as its one official and unchanging doctrine that every hundred years the gods rotate and so every hundred years some obscure group of priests identifies the new god on duty, anoints a new priesthood for that god, and then fades back into obscurity. Again for the sake of absolute lunacy we’ll imagine that this religion can change drastically in these shifts – one god might want us to be nice and kind and give to the poor and the next god might demand the still-beating hearts of infants on his altar every morning. Now, we’ll tend to identify this as one religion even through the shifts. Even if the religion changes its name at every shift we’ll give it some unifying name so we can discuss it across history. But now imagine that an issue arises. A change comes up and about a third of the people in this religion say, “You know, I’ve been part of this religion my whole life and I’ve always worshipped Numpy. I don’t know about this new guy T’Kinter and I’m just not too sure about this whole god-swap business. I’m not swapping.” Who belongs to the original religion, the ones who made the change or the ones who didn’t? Both will make the claim that they represent the old ways. One group will say, “We always knew a change was coming and we stayed true to that.” The other group will say, “We’ve always done it this way and we’re staying true to that.” Something like this happens every time a new group splits off an older religion. The new group claims to be the change everyone was waiting for, or a reversion to the way things always should have been, but some version of “doing it the right way that everyone should have known it should be done” and the old group claims to be doing it the right way just like they’ve always done it. This sort of thing leads to a lot of terminological fights.

The reality is that we actually deal with this sort of thing a lot. We just don’t do so in religion. If these were philosophies we’d have no problem identifying all the ideas presented no matter where on the spectrum they lay. “So-and-so is basically an existentialist, however he’s one of the new-school one who follow Bob’s re-reading of Kierkegaard and he’s got a few metaphysical ideas he borrowed from Chuck along with this odd idea about the nature of time that I think is all his own.” When schools split we name them things like “neo-Platonist” and move on.

However, we also treat philosophical schools seriously. We assume someone is right and someone is wrong. With religions the West more or less doesn’t think that any more (unless it thinks that all religions are charmingly wrong-headed). We attempt to line religions up as static entities with clear names but also to let people choose to mix and match from any of the options on the tasting menu and then to tell us what name to call them by. It’s a mess. We can’t do all of these things at once.

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