When I first started at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1978, I had no categories that were useful in terms of what I was learning, in spite of undergrad religion courses in 1958. In fact, when I decided that what I believed (while acknowledging that the human brain is limited) was pretty much the evidence of my senses -- which I thought was more polite than saying I was one of the “a” words (atheist, agnostic) -- they told me this was phenomenology (NOT phenomenal in the sense of praise) and when I told them I loved stories they said it was “narrative.” But the trendy thing was deconstruction and everything was fabulous, but not in the sense of praise. Fabulized, made up. When I insisted that my method WAS phenomenological, dark clouds gathered around their brows and they frowned. “But where is FAITH?” they demanded. “Where is GOD?” Even at my “home” seminary, Meadville/Lombard which was Unitarian Universalist, they thought I ought to define God.
Then I hit upon the formula: comparative religion. This is a key that many scientists never really find. They’re still back in the 19th century when religion was familiarly true (theist) or untrue (A-theist, which is only another word for pagan). At best they would allow that a “true” religion has a written out book and all the others are “mythic,” fabulized, playing at religion. These are OLD categories. (Has anyone written a pagan religious book? Sure. Lots, because this category is “everythingelse.”)
Many problems disappear when one moves to a different set of categories that are based on analysis rather than in/out:
A. Institutional aspects of religion: organizations with books, priests, buildings, political clout, and hierarchies. Theology matters only to the degree it supports the institution. Buddhists have this stuff as much as Catholics. I’ll say to you that even Native Americans and Rastafarians can have these things and when they do, they try to get and keep both power and property, just the same as white Euros with books and cathedrals. As soon as a religion becomes institutionalized, it sets about trying to build itself into the ruling class, the economy and the national dialogue. Scientists ignore this unless it cuts into their funding. After all, they have their own institutions (turf) to protect.
B. Theological content of religion: When the “experts” get together, they talk over the heads of the believers. Process theologians trying to reconcile particle physics with Christianity are no more arcane than South American Indians explaining the revelations of atahuasca in the contemporary world. The inner task is always to try to convert the emotion (the “felt” content) into reasoned theory, usually involving “Theos,” since the Western world with its roots in the Mediterranean desert religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, has always been preoccupied with the powers of the Chief of the tribe. Scientists like this and often want to get to this context. They understand the mode because to them science is a form of theology.
C. Simple confrontation of the great Whatever. This can be mediated by drugs, nature, love, and brain sets so that it doesn’t seem so simple, but most people will grant that the Sacred is palpable quite aside from the question of whether it’s actually there or not. We feel “something” and it’s stronger in some circumstances than in others. The BEST scientists will acknowledge this, might even be motivated by it.
D. Behavior. Esp. the question of how people ought to behave, how they ought to make moral decisions (by rules, on principle, case-by-case, by following role-models), and all the sub-legal (or maybe they’re supra-legal) issues of fairness, compassion, and protection. Scientists are supposed to have Rules of the Game, though they seem neglected lately.
E. Aesthetics. At what point does art become worship? At what point does beauty become God? Or fusion with the universe? Or is the issue what God makes versus what humans make?
F. Ecological origins. This is the one that interests me most. Most religions, it seems to me, are an upwelling of the place where they begin: the sensory material, the weather, the economics, sources of food, and social organization that make it possible to survive there. The ones that stay in place have a “rightness” to them, a “fittingness.” On the other hand, some dimensions of religion are pretty universal. The High Theology of the Trinity makes sense in terms of the Father, Mother and Child and can transfer that dynamic anywhere there are humans. In that place we meet the psychologist, who is sometimes considered scientific.
G. Metareligion, which is itself “comparative religion,” not in the way the 19th century anthropologists began to collect strange and wonderful “religions,” but in the later way that we’ve discover each religion really IS systematic, valid and sacred on its own terms, and are now looking for ways that all religions agree enough to be reconciled so that we don’t have to fight bloody wars. But that 19th century anthropology was wonderful fun and some people don’t want to give up the “natural history” aspect of it, the collection of totems, fetishes, icons, which in the past were often made of skulls and skins. Natural history scientists already had collections of skulls and skins.
H. The attempt to control fate. If we are “good” (meaning anything from virtuous to observant to sacrificing), will things turn out better? So far the proposed cause and effect connections haven’t worked out: evil people do well, good people suffer.
If you are looking for a good book for thinking about religion in these ways, I recommend two books by William E. Paden published by Beacon Press. These small, clear books are for his classes and the reason there are two is that one is a later distillation of the first. “Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion,” (1998) is the early one. “Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion” (1992, 2nd edition, 2002) is the later. Beacon Press is a wholly-owned but separate and subsidiary corporation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which is not quite a denomination because the congregations are independent entities. It was hoped by some that this idea would keep it from institutionalizing and bureaucratizing. Professor Paden, who is my age, is still actively publishing and teaching at the University of Vermont. Here’s the url for his vita: http://www.uvm.edu/~religion/?Page=faculty.html#paden