You can’t go very far in cross-cultural philosophy without quickly running into the category of “religion” – indeed it’s already come up a number of times on this blog. When I was deciding where to do a doctorate studying the questions of cross-cultural philosophy, the most appropriate places seemed to be departments of religious studies; the departments where I’ve taught after graduation were religious studies as well. (This was for a variety of reasons, but the most important and obvious is that very few philosophy departments make any room for non-Western philosophy.)
But to what extent does the category of “religion” help us think cross-culturally – especially the idea of “different religions”? My suspicion is that it hurts more than it helps, because it puts up unnecessary barriers to inquiry; it discourages conversations across the boundaries of traditions.
Now let me be clear: I don’t at all buy the view that all religions are the same – or as Kevin Smith had Chris Rock put it in Dogma, “It doesn’t matter what you have faith in; what matters is that you have faith.” This is a dangerously simplistic move; one can supply countless historical examples of people who have had faith in the wrong thing. (Wilfred Cantwell Smith took a more sophisticated version of this position, but still, to my mind, a wrong one.) The differences in people’s beliefs and practices matter, and they matter a lot.
Still, one should ask: which differences matter? We tend to focus on the differences across traditions – the boxes one checks on the census, the differences between Christianity and Buddhism, say. But the more important differences may be within traditions. It seems to me that on many of the most important questions – Should we live ascetic lives or worldly ones? Should we ever lie, or kill? Should we be politically active? Should we love our own families more, or the whole world? – most “religions” have members taking positions on both sides. The difference between a liberal Canadian Anglican and an Engaged Buddhist, for example, seems to me much smaller than the difference between that same Anglican and an anti-gay Anglican African who believes in magic.
No post this coming Sunday, as I’m moving to a new apartment then.