Unequal Conversation Partners

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In a recent post over at NPR, Adam Frank reviews Religion without God, Ronald Dworkin’s posthumously published book on religion. In his book, Dworkin attempts to expand the definition of religion beyond its traditional boundaries, arguing that you can be religious even if you don’t believe in God. For Frank, this innovative thesis shifts the ground on which science/religion debates take place.  A broader definition overcomes the apparent cultural rift between “evangelical vs. scientist, believer vs. atheist”: since we’re all religious in some sense, we really agree about more than we disagree about.

In reality, this argument isn’t new. Attempts to claim that religion exceeds theistic propositional content are as old as the discipline of sociology. Durkheim defined religion in terms of ritual behaviors that referenced the sacred and explicitly denied the importance of belief in God. Frank himself references William James’ work on experience and subjective definitions of religion – a line of research that isn’t new but has seen recent iterations.

Attempts to redefine religion can turn the science/religion debate —a debate I havenoted elsewhere doesn’t even need to exist —into a rather unequal affair, for two reasons. First, it assumes that denying the importance of the content of religion does no violence to religion itself. Too often this argument that “we are all just the same anyway” is mobilized to dismiss the concerns of theistic believers. Since we are at our most basic so very similar, why not check your propositional beliefs about God at the door?

Second, defining religion from outside itself places religion in an unequal place from the start. Religion and science have seen numerous attempts at reconciliation, but rarely (if ever) is this done in a way that allows religion equal footing in the debate. Most often it is psychology or neuroscience or evolutionary biology trying to explain religion to itself as if religion were some ignorant child in need of a proper lesson on its own nature.

Dworkin’s book touches on a difficult and perplexing question: what is religion? Scholars have debated this question for centuries. You would think that the difficulty in even understanding what religion truly is, despite its powerfully real and persistent presence, would serve to inspire humility toward it rather than the dismissive contempt it so often receives.

The point is not to be creative in our definitions; it is to be generous with our willingness to understand the other on its own terms and accept it for that difference.

Cole Carnesecca

Cole Carnesecca is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.