Scholar Karen Armstrong, considering questions of what people mean by "religion", starting from a proposed contrast of Buddhism as a secular philosophy: Here we come to the heart of the problem. Buddhism is certainly not a religion as this word has been understood in the West since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But our modern Western conception of "religion" is idiosyncratic and eccentric. No other cultural tradition has anything like it, and even premodern European Christians would have found it reductive and alien. In fact, it complicates any attempt to pronounce on religion's propensity for violence. To complicate things further, for about fifty years now it has been clear in the academy that there is no universal way to define religion. In the West we see "religion" as a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions, and rituals centering on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all "secular" activities. But words in other languages that we translate as "religion" almost invariably refer to something larger, vaguer, and more encompassing. The Arabic din signifies an entire way of life. The Sanskrit dharma is also "a 'total' concept, untranslatable, which covers law, justice, morals, and social life." The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: "No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English 'religion' or 'religious'." The idea of religion as an essentially personal and systematic pursuit was entirely absent from classical Greece, Japan, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, China, and India. Nor does the Hebrew Bible have any abstract conncept of religion; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to express what they meant by faith in a single word or even in a formula, since the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The origins of the Latin religio are obscure. It was not "a great objective something", but had imprecise connotations of obligation and taboo; to say that it was a cultic observance, a family propriety, or keeping an oath was religio for you meant that it was incumbent on you to do it. The word acquired an important new meaning among early Christian theologians: an attitude of reverence toward God and the universe as a whole. For Saint Augustine (c. 354-430 CE), religio was neither a system of rituals and doctrines nor a historical institutionalized tradition but a personal encounter with the transcendence that we call God as well as the bond that unites us to the divine and to one another. In medieval Europe, religio came to refer to the monastic life and distinguished the monk from the "secular" priest, someone who had lived in and worked in the world (saeculum). The only faith tradition that does fit the modern Western notion of religion as something codified and private is Protestant Christianity, which, like religion in this sense of the word, is also a product of the early modern period. At this time Europeans and Americans had begun to separate religion and politics, because they assumed, not altogether accurately, that the theological squabbles of the Reformation had been entirely responsible for the Thirty Years' War. The conviction that religion must be rigorously excluded from political life has been called the charter myth of the sovereign nation-state. The philosophers and statesmen who pioneered this dogma believed that they were returning to a more satisfactory state of affairs that had existed before ambitious Caltholic clerics had confused two utterly distinct realms. But in fact their secular ideology was as radical an innovation as the modern market economy that the West was concurrently devising. To non-Westerners, who had not been through this particular modernizing process, both these innovations would seem unnatural and even incomprehensible. The habit of separating religion and politics is now so routine in the West that it is difficult for us to appreciate how thoroughly the two co-inhered in the past. It was never simply a question of the state "using" religion; the two were indivisible. Dissociating them would have seemed like trying to extract the gin from a cocktail. In the premodern world, religion permeated all aspects of life … a host of activities now considered mundane were experienced as deeply sacred: forest clearing, hunting, football matches, dice games, astronomy, farming, state building, tugs of war, town planting, commerce, imbibing strong drink, and, most particularly, warfare. Ancient peoples would have found it impossible to see where "religion" ended and "politics" began. This was not because they were too stupid to understand the distinction but because they wanted to invest everything they did with ultimate value. We are meaning-seeking creatures and, unlike other animals, fall very easily into despair if we fail to make sense of our lives. We find the prospect of our inevitable extinction hard to bear. We are troubled by natural disasters and human cruelty and are acutely aware of our physical and psychological frailty. We find it astonishing that we are here at all and want to know why. We also have a great capacity for wonder. Ancient philosophies were entranced by the order of the cosmos; they marveled at the mysterious power that kept the heavenly bodies in their orbits and the seas within bounds and that ensured that the earth regularly came to life again after the dearth of winter, and they longed to participate in this richer and more permanent existence. (4-6) If I describe those paragraphs as some manner of introductory subject matter, they are quite literally an excerpt from the introduction of a history book about religion and violence. In a marketplace given to focus on considerations of religion, there are always questions of vector. For the faithful evangelist, a promotional attitude, bearing witness in hope of propagating new fellowship, or securing and even advancing established relationships. Critics, meanwhile, aim for retort and even revolution. But there also remains a question of what actually happened, or what anyone is talking about. To wit, perhaps an answer really is, two, even if the question isn't one plus one. And maybe someone over there says the answer is seven, and the difference is consequential. But if a critique of what went wrong requires the answer be three, that critique is itself wrong. History is a bit more complicated than math, in this context, but the problematic circumstance remains. Historical criticism can be validated within its context, and the imposition of fallacy is as affecting and, thereby, invalidating as requiring a wrong mathematical answer in the course of criticizing another wrong answer. The well-prepared religious evangelist can bring a library of propaganda to bear; a critic might claim expertise in other people's critiques against religion, but what would be most helpful is some understanding of the religion, the object of criticism, itself. Or, perhaps, this returns us to the question of vector; the most obvious response to the proposition that some understanding would be helpful is to suggest that is not what one is after. Thus, sure, religious people, as such, do this thing or that, and other people say it's wrong, but that wrongness isn't itself necessarily a problem if the point is just to have someone to complain about. Still, having a clue helps, because, as I suggested last year↗, I never have understood what so confuses ostensibly enlightened people about the idea that if you disarm the device then it cannot continue to do its damage. Nor can I reiterate↗ this aspect↗ enough↗. However, if pretenses of care about the detrimental impacts religious people visit onto others, or even the harms they bring unto themselves, aren't really the point, then the proposition of a simple idea that renders the word, "God", a rhetorical convenience, might feel unsatisfying compared to the satisfaction of, say, fallaciously contrived judgment. To the other, that old question of rhetorical convenience, reaching back some fifteen years, is a bit simplistic, itself symptomatic of "our modern Western conception of 'religion'", which, in turn, "is idiosyncratic and eccentric". Nonetheless, panentheistic isness is a strange simplification at the end of a long process of complication. It is a rhetorical corner, pompously and monotheistically painted into. And it's a far different outcome than insisting on a simplified definition of religion describing the one thing it is not, which in turn is a political simplification. If the well-prepared religious evangelist can bring a library of propaganda to bear, then the best way to deal with it is to brush aside the fannings and set the terms of discussion according to the historical record. To the other, this route will be problematic for those who disdain the prospect of a psychoanalytical meaning of history, or pretend psychohistorical considerations are already woven into historical assessments that have, for their lack of pathos, been so wrong about so many things. When we stop to take stock of what we know about what we criticize, it helps to actually know what we are criticizing. The upshot is, religion is a fascinating story. That, too, requires pathos. ____________________ Notes: Armstrong, Karen. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.