Many scholars have embarked in the challenge of defining religion. One of them was Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who wrote the book The Meaning and the End of Religion in 1962. Ward (2008) summarises the key points of this author in his book A Case for Religion. The main argument of Cantwell Smith is that the word religion should disappear as in its current form of meaning, the divinity is almost excluded reducing the concept to a set of doctrines that convert religion in a matter of having the correct beliefs about the supernatural (Ward,2008).
Ward (2008) explores Cantwell Smith ideas, emphasising that he is not saying that religion does not exist, but that he is against the current form of its understanding. He seems to expect that people eventually drop the word religion and accept their practices as part of their cultural identity involving their history. He says that this could be separated from the individual experience of faith and the experience of a transcendent reality
Keith Ward agrees and disagrees with Cantwell Smith in several aspects. He agrees with his ideas about rejecting the concept of religion as a fixed and exclusive set of doctrines, rather, religion should be regarded as a complex, fluid, dynamic and culturally influenced relationship of the individuals of a group with the transcendent reality (Ward, 2008).
Ward (2008) seems to find the essence of Cantwell Smith argument when stating that religion should be regarded as the relationship between people and the transcendent reality and not be confounded with the cultural traditions. However, he disagrees that religion should be denuded from the cultural expressions of the different faiths. He argues that religion should be defined as “set of beliefs and practices that attempt to relate human thought, experience, and practice to the alleged referent to [the transcendent reality]”.
Ward also clarifies that the concept of religion should not nullify the different faiths or that people should drop their beliefs, instead he invites to place individual faiths in a wider net where differences and similarities can be observed. He goes on, citing Smart (1998), defending that religion presents seven main dimensions: myth and narrative, doctrine, ritual, ethics, social institution, experience, and the material dimension (art, buildings etc). This concept helps both believers and non-believers to be able to study and compare religions. Ward (2008) emphasises that the common denominator of all religions is the presence of the supernatural or the transcendent reality, which Cantwell Smith identity as what should be the essence of religion.
Ward notes that religion exists and can be delimited by certain characteristics. It is pervasive and found in many cultures, it involves the belief of the supernatural world and of the possibility to relate to it by means of rituals and practices. Having this framework in mind make our awareness of religion as a human practice which objective is to look for a transcendent reality that gives meaning to our existence.
On the other hand, it is an accepted truth that religion has been present in human societies since prehistoric times. It is, therefore, an area of humanities that have attracted scholars from different fields to its study, trying to find an explanation for its existence and its implications for human development. Humanities and other fields of knowledge use different perspectives for the analysis of a matter, so, for example, religion can be studied from a psychological, sociological, philosophical or an anthropological perspective, to name a few. David Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish philosopher and Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) a Scottish anthropologist were two scholars that explored religion as a human response to the chaotic experience of life.
As noted in the case of religion (2014)by Keith Ward, both Hume and Frazer take narratives from several cultures where the relationship between humans and God or gods is accounted, to demonstrate that irrationality is a characteristic of religious thought. Hume argued that humans perceived the forces of nature as expressions of supernatural beings that communicated with them. Polytheism is, therefore, for this philosopher, an early attempt to make sense of different aspects of nature that produced fear and anxiety. On the other hand, Frazer identified an earlier stage where humans attempted to control nature using magic as if the different natural entities could obey to the will of men by means of actions and spells. Both authors coincide in that primitive men understood that nature had its own will, which made them find ways to communicate with it to accomplish their objectives, such as appealing to rituals offered to the gods. Their analyses also point to the fact that humanity is in an inexorable progress to reach rationality and morality, this is to reach to a point where science will be the only tool needed to explain the world around us without the need to resort to the supernatural.
As Keith (2014) mentions and as expressed by Frazer, events in the 20th century contradicted the idea of this linear journey to the human perfection through rational and empirical science, moreover religion did not disappear in the modern times as predicted by them. Science keeps advancing to amazing boundaries, but the understanding of the physical world and human civilizations points to the same questions that primitive men asked, where all of this comes from and what is the meaning of all. The response keeps elusive. As noted by Alister McGrath (2017) in his book The great mystery, scientists have tried to explain our nature in reductionist ways. Humans are only a compound of neurons and molecules, or our DNA has all the information we need to understand our past and future, or our sexual and death drives in interplay with social rules explain our destiny are some of the proposals. McGrath (2017) and Ward (2014) point that humans are meaning-seeking creatures and that we need to be understood as complex creatures that can not be fully explained by any single perspective. Religion can be an object of study, but it is also a perspective to understand human nature.
Our relationship with the divinity has marked human history. Both Ward (2014) and McGrath (2017) present religious narratives as a source of explanation for that elusive answer that makes humans search for meaning. This quest is so important that atheists find similar narratives in, for example, political ideologies and philosophy. Just as Hume and Frazer did, in their idea of a progressive stage like advancement for our not so rational specie. They found meaning in our ability to relate to the world using our senses and our rational mind to find peace and order in the world (Ward, 2014). However, why so many people choose a religion is another question. Ward (2014) does not leave out the possibility that God is real. He takes the arguments of Hume, based on the possibility to organise our lives because of experience. We can not know the future but by experience, we know that every morning the sun rises over the horizon, so we can plan for tomorrow. So, Ward points to the possibility that by experience men know that God exists. It is a blind spot in Hume’s argument against the existence of divinity (UNISA, 2015).
While Ward (2014) criticizes Hume and Frazer positions as value-laden, where religion is just a mechanism to reduce fear and anxiety against what it was not understood by underdeveloped minds, McGrath (2017) points that any human thought cannot be independent of our subjective world, not even science. It is a human limitation. Ward (2014), also argues that Hume and Frazer focus in the irrational traditions of religion where violent acts such as human sacrifices are committed, without regarding the more benign expressions of love and joy also present in many religions. Ward (2014) posts the question whether the more aggressive expressions of religion can be a degradation of an original more benign one, after all our subjective minds will also tint our relationship with God, following McGrath argument.
In conclusion, in the views of Hume and Frazer, religion is a sign of primitive minds of men who need to advance to reach full potential in the realm of science. God does not exist, and it is a mechanism to explain what the rational mind has not grasped yet. Religion will disappear once humanity reaches a modern stage where science is the only tool to explain the world. Ward (2014) opposes such views based on reality as religion has not vanished despite the enormous discoveries by science. Science did not offer a tool to find peace, morality and meaning and humans keep seeking fundamental answers. God is independent of science and is experienced by many people as real, and it is relevant in the lives of humans. Humans cannot be reduced to just bearers of a rational mind. As McGrath puts it, the dialogue between science and religions must continue to keep fanning our quest for meaning and truth.
List of References
McGrath, A. (2017). The Great Mystery. Science, God and the Quest for Meaning. Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. London.
Ward, Keith (2014). The Case for Religion. London: Oneworld Publications.
University of South Africa (2015). Comparative Religious Studies: Introduction to Theory of Religion. UNISA. Pretoria.