What is essential to religion?


Tim Crane (who is an atheist but not militantly anti-religion) writes in the New York Times that "it is absolutely essential to religions that they make certain factual or historical claims,"

Really? Is this true? What are the historical claims that are essential to Buddhism, for example? (If Buddha had not existed, would not the same eightfold path of Buddhism still hold true?) What are the historical claims that progressive Christians who do not believe that Jesus was literally raised from the dead are making? Sure, they do assert that someone named Jesus lived a long time ago, but a lot of non-Christians also believe that.

Isn't Crane offering a narrow definition of religion that is informed by Christian orthodoxy?


Scott F said...

Does not Buddhism rest on the claim of reincarnation and the possibility of transcendence from suffering? A non-material mechanism of survival or incarnation is required (if not what we in the west would call a "soul"). These are certainly factual claims if not in the sense that Orthodox Christianity makes them.

Mystical Seeker said...

Scott, I suppose you are right. I was focusing more on the historical claims than on the "factual" claims, but even the eightfold path could be said to be a factual claim.

I think what I was really focusing on was the author's assumption that Christianity rests on certain historical claims about Jesus, i.e., that he was literally resurrected from the dead.

Ultimately, I think the question is whether religion is about factual and verifiable claims about the world, or about how we interpret the world that we see. Are these factual claims essential to religion, or merely props to support the interpretative mechanism?

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

What context did he write this in? Do you have a link to the article? His statement doesn't make much sense to me by its self.

Mystical Seeker said...

Mike, there is a link to the article in my post (the word "writes" has an embedded link to it.)

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Sorry, for some reason the hyper link just blends in on my screen. Thanks for pointing it out.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

It's funny, “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain” is exactly what I was thinking of when I read what you quoted.

Interesting article and I do think his definition is rather narrow. He seems to ignore the elements of religion like the folks at the Creation Museum who do see their religious stories as scientific.

Cynthia said...

What about the idea of the meta-narrative as a way to give meaning and purpose to life? The meta-narrative does not have to be factual or historical in order to give meaning.

I didn't appreciate his comparison of education and technological knowledge of science vs. religion. Once again, I feel as though I am being talked down to, assuming that because I have faith, I must have an unscientific brain.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I know what you mean Cynthia and that's something I try to combat in the discussions I have with other atheists and theists. It's hard to shake some of them out of the "you talk to an imaginary friend" mentality. It does come off as condescending.

Feel free to smack me if I ever do it. ;-)

Jon said...

Hmm, thanks for this, a very interesting article. After a quick read, I think what he says is actually self-evident. Followers of religion are making some kind of factual claim, but he defines "factual" in a very broad way. For instance, religious people believe that the universe is the sort of place where religion makes sense. Or they belive there is a god or gods, even if their precise nature is unclear. All he is really saying is that people of religion believe something to be true.

However, he also says things like

"Religious belief tolerates a high degree of mystery and ignorance in its understanding of the world. "

i.e. religion is different from science.

CT said...

Hey Mystical !!!!
Our local Melbourne, Australia news lead with the story about Terry Jones burning the Koran. This is a HUGE story worldwide.

Sorry its off topic but I thought you'd have a post on it.

Mystical Seeker said...

CT, you're right that I haven't commented on it. I guess I am too appalled by the whole thing to know what to say. :)

CT said...


Here's the story ...http://www.theage.com.au/world/mosque-deal-denied-as-evangelist-abandons-koran-bonfire-20100910-153kz.html?autostart=1

And my 2 cents worth - I think you have to try and go beyond indignation on this. It's easy to label these people as bigots, uneducated, etc....but you have to acknowledge that there are many people out there who feel that way and consider if they have any validity. Reports indicate that many relatives of the WTC victims are against the mosque - I'd say they have a strong right to be heard. Will the mosque promote peace or will it just make a lot of people angry ?

To peacemakers it seems logical to build the mosque as it says the USA values freedom,goodwill and tolerance above all else. But to many others it may have a completely different message. Can we get inside their heads and explain that it is a positive move for world peace ?

Mystical Seeker said...

CT, you've inspired me to write a posting that mentions Jones, although I don't really talk much about that situation specifically.