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19 March 2005

Roots of atheism in “religion”

One of BF’s advisers, the atheism guy, gave a speech in Rome this
.  Father Buckley is fascinating and frightfully intelligent,
and his books have been about how modern atheism and modern religion have given birth to one another, in a sense.

In essence, Buckley argued that by the 19th century, “religion” had
come to mean something very different than it did in the medieval
period for thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas. For Durkheim and Freud,
“religion” was a cluster of beliefs, symbols, and rites, essentially a
subset of the artifacts of human culture. Religion was a genus, of
which the various “religions” — Christianity, Hinduism, and so on —
were species.

From this point of view, “religions” are a little bit like
Pepsi and Coke — specifications of the generic category “soda.” (The
analogy is my own, not Buckley’s). They become separate and mutually
exclusive “brand names.”

For Aquinas, on the other hand, the idea of “a religion”
would have made no sense, Buckley said. Aquinas regarded religion not
as a set of beliefs and practices, but as a moral virtue “by which one
gives God what is due to God, and lives in appropriate relation to
God.” Symbols, hymns, rituals and doctrines are not “religion,” they
are the acts or objects of religion, with God as its ultimate end. This
virtue of religion is universal, even if people and cultures have
different ways of cultivating it.

Buckley argued that the scientific study of religion thus
settled the issue in favor of atheism from its opening move. When one
sees “religion” as instructive not about God but about human culture,
he said, the question of God’s existence is already asked and answered.

“God is either incomprehensibly absolute in his being and in
his goodness and so adored in his self-communication, or God is not at
all,” Buckley said.

It’s an interesting alternative viewpoint to the study of religion
concept.  I often explain to people who ask what BF does that
religious studies approaches religion from outside of any belief
structure while theology is the study of religion from inside a
particualr set of beliefs.

But I have often pondered how the atheism of religious studies is
replicated in other social science disciplines.  Do we political
scientists not believe in politics?  (I think that this may be
often true.)  How does that affect how we study the phenomena?

Posted in Rayleejun on 19 March 2005 at 10:51 am by Nate