What Religion Is

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I haven’t yet seen Bill Maher’s new documentary Religulous, but it’s premise is hardly novel. By now, we know the score.

September 11th and our Born Again President (yes, Bush is still president) brought religion back into public discourse, and this revival also resurrected the cranky atheist.

Hence, the bestsellers from Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and now, the movie version from Maher, which — if the trailer is any indication — tries to put an end to religion once and for all…by making fun of it.

Which isn’t to say that I always disagree with Maher. But trying to discredit religion by going to The Holy Land Experience theme park is like trying to disparage baseball at the Wiffle Ball Hall of Fame.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about while reading Hilary Putnam’s new book Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life.

Putnam is, of course, a renowned philosopher who spent most of his career at Harvard concerned with analytic philosophy. But more than 30 years ago, Putnam started attending the egalitarian minyan at Harvard Hillel and in his last years teaching, he lectured on Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, and Wittgenstein, who are the focus of Jewish Philosophy, as well.

In a sense, Putnam’s very being refutes Maher’s anti-religious absolutism. One can, indeed, be both supremely sophisticated and religiously interested. But more importantly, Putnam’s subjects help us figure out how to do this.

This book and these thinkers are so important because they help answer a question many of us struggle with: What are the foundations of a modern, intellectually credible religious life?

For Putnam, these four thinkers point us in the same direction. While Dawkins, Hitchens, and Maher want to show us that religious theories about the way the world works are ludicrous, these thinkers have no interest in religious theories.

Writing specifically about Wittgenstein, but generally, about the rest of his subjects, Putnam writes:

for Wittgenstein religion, at its best, was not a theory…The idea that religion can either be criticized or defended by appeals to scientific fact seemed to him a mistake. And I am sure that Wittgenstein, like Kierkegaard, would have regarded the idea of “proving” the truth of the Jewish or the Christian or the Muslim religions by “historical evidence” as a profound confusion of realms, a confusion of the inner transformation in one’s life that he saw as the true function of religion, with the goals and activities of scientific explanation and prediction.

Later, Putnam mentions an even more fascinating explication of this. He quotes Wittgenstein as referring to religion as “a passionate commitment to a system of reference…a way of living, or a way of assessing life.”

Religion, then, is not a system of beliefs about the way the world is, but rather a way of being in the world. One can critique this way of life (if, say, it is immoral), but to try to refute its beliefs misses the point of what religion is — or should be.

Posted on October 17, 2008

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