The Myth of Religious Neutrality, Revised Edition
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319 pages

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Written for undergraduates, the educated layperson, and scholars in fields other than philosophy, The Myth of Religious Neutrality offers a radical reinterpretation of the general relations between religion, science, and philosophy. This new edition has been completely revised and updated by the author.



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Date de parution 15 mai 2005
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780268077013
Langue English

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An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories
Revised Edition
Roy A. Clouser
University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana
Copyright © 2005 by University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556
All Rights Reserved
E-ISBN: 978-0-268-07701-3
This e-Book was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact the publisher at
2.1 The Problem
2.2 A Resolution
2.3 Some Clarifications
2.4 Replies to Objections
2.5 Some Auxiliary Definitions
2.6 Are All Non-Dependence Beliefs Religious?
3.1 The Basis for Typing Religions
3.2 The Pagan Type
3.3 The Pantheistic Type
3.4 The Biblical Type
3.5 Why Think Anything Is Divine at All?
4.1 Introduction
4.2 What Is a Theory?
4.3 Abstraction
4.4 Aspects of Experience
4.5 Types of Theories
4.6 Criteria for Judging Theories
5.1 Religious Irrationalism
5.2 Religious Rationalism
5.3 The Radically Biblical Position
5.4 Religious Scholasticism
5.5 The Conflict of These Alternatives
6.1 The Mistake of Fundamentalism
6.2 Presupposition
7.1 Introduction
7.2 The Number-World Theory
7.3 The Theory of J. S. Mill
7.4 The Theory of Russell
7.5 The Theory of Dewey
7.6 What Difference Do Such Theories Make?
7.7 The Role of Religion in These Theories
8.1 Some Misunderstandings to Avoid
8.2 The Theory of Mach
8.3 The Theory of Einstein
8.4 The Theory of Heisenberg
8.5 What Difference Do Such Theories Make?
8.6 The Role of Religion in These Theories
9.1 Introduction
9.2 The Theories of Watson, Thorndike, and Skinner
9.3 The Theories of Adler and Fromm
9.4 Human Nature
10.1 Introduction
10.2 Why Are Theories Unavoidably Regulated by Some Divinity Belief?
10.3 A Philosophical Critique of Reduction as a Strategy for Theories
10.4 A Religious Critique of Reduction as a Strategy for Theories
10.5 The Cappadocian and Reformational Theological Traditions
10.6 Replies to Objections
10.7 Conclusion
11.1 The Project of Non-Reductionist Theories
11.2 Some Guiding Principles
11.3 The Framework of Laws Theory
11.4 The Natures of Things
12.1 Introduction
12.2 Fact Versus Norm
12.3 Individualism Versus Collectivism
12.4 Parts and Wholes
12.5 Sphere Sovereignty
13.1 Introduction
13.2 The Nature of The State: What It Is
13.3 The Nature of The State: What It Is Not
13.4 Postscript
Back in the early 1960s someone whose name I can’t recall wrote a review of Dooyeweerd’s four-volume magnum opus, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought . The reviewer acknowledged the vast scope, enormous erudition, and striking originality of that work, but nevertheless closed with a wry observation. He commented that discovering Dooyeweerd’s work in the present philosophical climate was analogous to finding a huge oak tree in the middle of a desert. Although he couldn’t help being impressed by the oak, he said, he was left with the even stronger feeling of puzzlement as to what on earth it was doing there.
In this book I try to plant an oasis around the oak so as to diminish the wonder that it’s there, and thus allow the reader’s attention to be focused where it belongs: on the most original philosophical theory since Kant.
This second edition has allowed me to clarify points that were misunderstood, reply to objections, and offer more detailed arguments for the book’s main claims. The largest changes are to be found in chapters 2 , 4 , 10 , 11 , 12 , and 13 , although there are numerous smaller ones throughout the book. The notes are more complete.
I want to thank a number of people who aided these improvements. Dirk Stafleu and Gerald Barnes read and commented on the entire ms., while Walter Hartt, Bruce Wearne, and Martin Rice made valuable suggestions about a number of issues. I wish also to thank Luz María García de la Sienra for her excellent work in organizing and typesetting the text.
The first edition of this work was dedicated to Professor Dooyeweerd, who endured many interviews with me at his home for four months, and to my wife, Anita, who edited it. I now wish to rededicate this revised edition not only to them, but also to my mentors over many years:

William White
Robert Rudolph
T. Grady Spires
Johan Vander Hoeven
James Ross
Without their influence, patience, and instruction this work would not have been possible.
Roy Clouser
Spring 2005
This book offers a radical reinterpretation of the general relations between religion, science, and philosophy.
Despite the fact that the idea of those relations which is defended here is virtually unknown among professionals in these three areas, it is not historically new. It can trace its lineage through the thought of John Calvin and back to the Bible itself. However, it is an element of Calvin’s thought that has not been preserved by the Protestant tradition, and is based on biblical teaching that has received short shrift by the vast majority of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers. Nevertheless, after undergoing a renaissance led by the Dutch Calvinists Groen Van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper in the nineteenth century, this idea was given an impressive development in the work of the twentieth-century philosophers Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd.
It is the thought of Dooyeweerd in particular that is reflected here, and is introduced in a way that is intended especially for those not already acquainted with its Dutch Calvinist background.
I am grateful to a number of people who have read the manuscript in part or whole and who made valuable suggestions for its improvement. These include Johan Vander Hoeven (Free University of Amsterdam), James Ross (University of Pennsylvania), Grady Spires (Gordon College), Danie Strauss (University of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein), Paul Helm (University of London), Hendrik Hart (Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto), Rev. Richard Russell (St. Thomas a Becket Church, Bath), Jonathan Gold (West Liberty State College), Martin Rice (University of Pittsburgh), James W. Skillen (Association for Public Justice, Washington, D.C.), and Carole Roos, my editor at the University of Notre Dame Press.
Others were also of aid and comfort in their own special way: Dr. Charles Stephenson, Dale and Lorraine Fleming, the late Bea Shemeley, John and Audrey Van Dyk, Gil Hunter, Arnold Olt, and the late Peter Steen.
I also wish to express my thanks to several institutions for their support at various stages of the research and writing: to the University of Pennsylvania for a Harrison Fellowship, to the Free University of Amsterdam for two travel grants, and to the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies and the Andreas Foundation for writing grants.
But above all, I want to express my deepest gratitude to the two people whose help was of the greatest significance to this work. The first is the late Herman Dooyeweerd, who endured lengthy conferences with me at his home, two to three times a week, for a total of four months; the second is my dear wife, Anita, whose editing of the entire manuscript was invaluable. It is to them that this work is affectionately dedicated.
Chapter 1

When we consider what religion is for mankind and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.
Alfred North Whitehead
To what extent does religious belief make a difference to the ways people understand and conduct their lives?
The popular answer is that it all depends on how religious a person is. It makes virtually no difference at all for an atheist, while a fanatic thinks and cares about little else. The popular answer then sees the majority of people as falling between these two extremes, and it takes religion to deal mostly with morality and a person’s eternal destiny rather than with the bulk of the affairs of life. Thus most of the affairs of day-to-day life are seen as neutral with respect to religious belief.
As a result of investigating religious belief and its influences for almost fifty years, I have become convinced that these popular opinions are completely mistaken. Instead, I find that religious belief is the most powerful and influential belief in the world. I further find that religious belief has the single most decisive influence on everyone’s understanding of the major issues of life ranging across the entire spectrum of human experience. Moreover, I find it exercises such influence upon all people independently of their conscious acceptance or rejection of the religious traditions with which they are acquainted.
The enormous influence of religious beliefs remains, however, largely hidden from casual view. Its relation to the rest of life is like that of the great geological plates of the earth’s surface to its continents and oceans. The movement of these plates is not apparent to an eyeball inspection of any particular landscape and can only be detected with great difficulty. Nevertheless, so vast are these plates, so stupendous their power, that their visible effects—mountain ranges, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions—are but tiny surface blemishes compared with the force of the mighty plates themselves. Similarly, the great historic traditions of religious teaching, and the institutions devoted to their preservation, are merely the surface effects of religious belief, which is a vaster and more pervasive force than all of them put together.
Among the reasons this influence is so often missed is that people are prone to two alluring mistakes about religious belief. One is to suppose that all the major religious traditions are basically like the one they’re best acquainted with. The other is to suppose that the likeness between religious traditions must lie in their most obvious and outstanding features. These two mistakes serve to keep hidden from view the true nature of religious belief, and thus most of its influence.
Our first task, then, will be to define the nature of religious belief by seeking common features among the central beliefs of the world’s religious traditions. The definition we arrive at will strike many people as surprising because it will show a number of beliefs to be religious that do not result in worship. For those under the spell of the two mistakes just mentioned, the definition will therefore seem strange and suspicious. In fact, however, one of its greatest contributions lies precisely in showing us why not all religious beliefs have rituals or ethical codes connected with them. Though surprising, this discovery is of enormous benefit as a first step toward exposing the vast array of unsuspected connections between the issues usually supposed to be religiously neutral and the religious beliefs which actually guide their interpretation.
In speaking of religious belief as influential over the entire range of human experience, I do not mean to suggest that we speak our native tongue or add a column of figures differently depending on our religion. Speaking and counting usually take place at a level of experience where our activity in, and acquaintance with, the world around us is remarkably the same for all people. But there is a deeper level of understanding which humans have always sought, a level at which the nature of our world and ourselves is interpreted and explained. In our culture, that level has long been sought through theories . It is by the theories of philosophy and the sciences that we probe the deeper nature of, and construct explanations of, all that we experience.
The central claim of this book is that no such theory can fail to be regulated and guided by some religious belief or other.
To many readers this claim will seem not merely surprising but outrageous. Scientific theories, especially, are supposed to be the most neutral and unbiased explanations of all. My claim may therefore tempt some readers to think that I cannot possibly mean it. So let me assure you right away that I am not overstating it now only to water it down later. I will not, for example, argue that all theories have unprovable assumptions, call these assumptions “faith,” and then conclude that religious belief in that sense influences theories. That would be a huge waste of time. Everyone in philosophy and the sciences knows that theories have unprovable assumptions, but a belief is not religious just because it is unprovable.
Nor will I argue that theory making is influenced by the moral beliefs of theorists, and then try to connect religion with morality. There are notable instances of moral influences on theorizing, and some are cases in which the morality was directly derived from a religious tradition. But such influence is surely not true of all theories and is not the sort of thing intended by my claim. Neither will I merely be pointing to the fact that scientists have at times borrowed ideas from religion or theology which they transformed and employed in theories. That falls far short of the sort of regulation I will argue for, as it is neither pervasive nor regulatory. Finally, the position that will be defended is not just another version of the oft-suggested view that philosophy and science are limited in what they can explain, and so leave gaps in our understanding that religious beliefs can fill. I am not merely claiming that theories “leave room for faith,” as Kant put it. Rather, I will contend that one or another religious belief always functions as a regulative presupposition to any abstract theory, and that this is unavoidable not merely owing to the historical/social presence of such beliefs in our culture but because it arises out of the very process of theory making itself.
To be more precise, I will contend that one or another religious belief controls theory making in such a way that the interpretation of the contents of a theory differs depending on the contents of the religious belief it presupposes . This should not be understood to mean that religious beliefs somehow inspire thinkers to invent just the hypotheses they invent, but rather that the nature of whatever a theory proposes is conceived of differently depending on the religious belief it presupposes. It should be clear, then, that this is not the claim that the proposals of theories are all deduced from religious convictions (though that has happened at times). Rather, I mean that some religious belief or other delimits an acceptable range of interpretations of the nature of whatever a hypothesis proposes. It is in this sense that I find the influence of religious belief to be utterly pervasive. And it is in this sense that virtually all the major disagreements between rival theories in the sciences and in philosophy can ultimately be traced back to the differences between the religious beliefs that guide them.
This means that theories about math and physics, sociology and economics, art and ethics, politics and law can never be religiously neutral. They are one and all regulated by some religious belief. It is in this way that the effects of religious beliefs extend far beyond providing the hope for life after death or the influencing of moral values and judgments. By controlling theory making, they produce important differences in the interpretation of issues that range over the whole of life.
This position is bound to provoke stiff resistance from many quarters, and doubtless one of the strongest objections will be directed against my claim that the influence of religious belief extends to everyone . Do I really mean to suggest that everyone has a religious belief, despite the fact that many people say that they neither have nor want one? On this point, too, I once again disagree with the prevailing popular opinion. Popular opinion says that a person surely knows whether he or she has a religious belief, and that anyone who claims to reject them all couldn’t be wrong about it. Besides, popular opinion says, isn’t it just obvious that lots of people are totally nonreligious?
These popular views appear plausible, in my opinion, because of the two mistakes cited earlier. If religious belief must involve worship and creedal adherence, then certainly there are many people without it. However, once the definition of religious belief is made clear, and its involvement in theories is exposed, it becomes quite plausible that people may hold such a belief without even being conscious of it.
All the same, I will not attempt to prove that all people are innately religious. The project here is more modest, but still significant. What will be demonstrated is that no abstract explanatory theory can fail to include or presuppose a religious belief. In that case, we may say that the only people who could possibly avoid all religious belief are those who believe no theory whatever!
Let me briefly outline how I propose to defend such a seemingly hopeless cause.
After defining religious belief, I will take a hard look at what goes on in theory making, distinguish some major types of theories, and analyze the activity of abstraction that is unavoidable in the construction of any theory whatever. It is the act of abstraction and its limits that will later be shown to be what make the involvement of religious belief in theories unavoidable. We will then examine the most popular ideas of about how religious belief and theories are supposed to relate, and discover why they are deficient compared with the more extensive influence we’ll discover. I will then clarify more precisely how religious belief exercises its influence in theories by offering a casebook of sample theories to illustrate it. The sample theories will be some of the most famous and important ever to be proposed in math, physics, and psychology. They will not only show how the influence of religious belief works, but also make clear why the competing theories in these sciences are ultimately due to the differences between the religious beliefs presupposed by each. The arguments as to why such influence is unavoidable follow the casebook chapters in chapter 10 .
The discovery of this relation between religious belief and theory making is not merely a matter of intellectual curiosity, but is of enormous importance for the whole of life. For if theories differ according to the religious beliefs controlling them, then those of us who believe in God should have an interpretation of all theories we make or adopt which is distinct from interpretations of them that presuppose some other divinity. It is for this reason the book concludes with a blueprint for a program of constructing new theories or reinterpreting existing theories so as to bring them under the control of belief in God. This includes a brief sketch of a God-controlled theory of reality. The results of that theory are then explicated by applying them to a theory of society and to a political theory which are not only generally theistic, but specifically Christian. That is, they will be guided not only by belief in God but also by views of human nature, social relationships, and institutions that are found in the New Testament.
I want to make it clear, therefore, that the primary intent of this book is not to convert readers to belief in God, or to refute atheism, agnosticism, secular humanism, or any other “ism.” Insofar as such isms are mentioned at all, the references to them are always secondary to my main purpose. This book is addressed to those who believe in God. I write here as a Christian seeking to persuade my brothers and sisters in the religious family of those who serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that our belief in a transcendent Creator mandates a distinct perspective for the interpretation of every aspect of life. And this distinct perspective extends to the construction and interpretation of philosophical, scientific, and all other theories because there is no area or issue of life which is neutral with respect to belief in God. In addition, I write to fellow Christians to show how the basically theistic interpretation of theories can be combined with Christian teachings to develop specifically Christian theories.
I realize this is not a position that has ever been held by the majority of Christians or other theists, despite the fact that so many Bible writers repeatedly teach that all knowledge and truth is impacted by having the right God. The failure to take this teaching seriously has resulted in a long history of Christians and other theistic thinkers unwittingly accepting theories that are actually incompatible with belief in God. Moreover, the absence of this insight into just how belief in God impacts theories is responsible for much of the present confusion over the relation between science and biblical religion. The position defended here will make clear why it is not true that science and religion are by nature opposed to one another. But at the same time it will show why holding that belief in God impacts all theories does not require that they are all to be derived from, or confirmed by, appeal to scripture or theology as fundamentalists attempt to do. It will thus present an alternative to all the currently prevailing views of the general relation of religious belief to theories.
The discussion of these issues begins at an introductory level. It assumes the reader to have no previous knowledge of philosophy, only a smattering of high school science, and to be unsophisticated about religion. As the book progresses, however, each succeeding chapter does assume what has been explained in previous chapters, so that it will not be possible to understand the position defended in the later chapters if the earlier chapters are skipped. Even at its most advanced level, however, the more technical points of argument have been placed in the notes so as to keep the text accessible to nonprofessionals.
Keeping the text at such a level of discussion has drawbacks, of course. Many points that could be raised need to be left out, and others that are included need more extensive analysis and argument than can be given at this level. Although this is frustrating, it does allow the position as a whole to be conveyed in one book, and the book to be accessible to readers with little or no philosophical background. My hope is that the treatment afforded the major points will be detailed enough to indicate the lines along which they could and would be further defended were the discussion more extensive.
Despite the limitations of starting at an introductory level, I pray this work will be able to sensitize even the most sophisticated readers to the great influence of religious belief, to encourage all who believe in God to work together to promote this position, and to encourage Christians to develop theories that are regulated by the teachings of the New Testament.
Chapter 2
2.1 The Problem
Defining “religion” is notoriously difficult. The word is used in a large number of ways: it is applied to rituals, organizations, beliefs, doctrines, and feelings as well as to large-scale traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Moreover, the very subject of religious belief is often emotionally charged. This sensitivity is natural since religion concerns people at the deepest level of their convictions and values.
To help minimize these difficulties, let us keep two thoughts firmly in mind as we proceed. The first is that we are not now trying to establish which religion is true or false, right or wrong. We are trying to arrive at an understanding of what religion—any religion— is . In answer to this question I will be proposing and defending what is often called a “real” definition, that is, a definition that is more precise or scientific than those employed in common speech. The second thing to remember is that the definition I will offer focuses on one particular use of the term “religion,” the sense in which it qualifies belief . Our search for a definition of religion, then, will be a search for what distinguishes a religious belief from a belief which is not religious. This is because I take belief to be the key issue, since it is religious beliefs which prompt and guide the persons, practices, rites, rituals, and traditions we commonly call “religious.”
What, then, is a religious belief? Consider the question this way. We all have literally thousands of beliefs about thousands of things. At this moment, for example, I believe myself to be the blood relative of certain other people; I believe 1 + 1 = 2; I believe next Friday is payday, that there was an ice age about 20,000 years ago, and that there was a civil war in England in the 1640s. While most people would probably agree that none of these beliefs is religious, the ancient Pythagoreans regarded 1 + 1 = 2 as a religious belief! So we need to know not only what makes one belief religious and another not, but how it can be that the same belief can be religious to one person and not to another.
As we proceed, we must also keep in mind what any definition must do if it is to avoid being arbitrary. A non-arbitrary definition must state the set of characteristics uniquely shared by all the things of the type being defined. The way this is done is to inspect as many things of that type as possible, and try to isolate just the combination of characteristics which is true of them and only them. This is a difficult thing to do even for objects we can inspect, like computers or chairs, but it is even tougher for abstract ideas such as religious beliefs.
What makes such definitions possible is that we can all recognize things to be of a certain type prior to being able to define the type precisely. We all know a lot of things are trees, for instance, long before we perform the difficult task of analyzing the set of features possessed by all trees, but only trees. So while the process of defining starts by examining an initial list of things of the type to be defined, we need not examine all of them in order to formulate their definition. Indeed, we could not do so because we would already need to have a definition in order to decide whether to include or exclude any controversial or borderline case. So defining starts by examining a list of the things to be defined that leaves out controversial cases.
At first glance it seems an easy task to compile a relatively uncontroversial initial list of religions so as to look for a common element among their central beliefs. Virtually everyone would concede that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, along with Hinduism, Buddhism, 1 and Taoism, can safely be placed on the list. Moreover, just about everyone thinks that the beliefs in the ancient Greek Olympian gods, the Greek mystery cults, the Roman pantheon, Egyptian polytheism, or ancient Canaanite belief in Ba’al were also religious. Nor does it seem objectionable that teachings which have never generated a large following can still count as religions—the ancient Epicurean beliefs and teachings about the gods, for example. In fact, there seems to be a fairly large initial “short list” of religions which further includes Druidism, the beliefs about Isis and Mithra, as well as the teachings of Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, and a host of other candidates. What, after all, could be the reason for refusing to acknowledge that these are all religions and their central tenets religious beliefs? They are (or were) all regarded as such by their adherents, and the adherents of at least the majority of them readily acknowledged others on the list to be alternative or competing religions.
But despite the availability of an acceptable list of religions, it has proven exceedingly difficult to extract any belief they, and only they, share in common. To illustrate this, let us now take a brief look at how poorly some of the most widely accepted definitions fare when applied to the traditions on our list. We will start with what are currently the most popular ideas, and then look at a few of the most influential scholarly proposals.
One of the most popular ideas is that religious beliefs are those that inspire and sanction an ethical code of some sort. In fact, many people suppose that the primary purpose of religious belief is to provide moral direction for life. Although this may sound plausible, the fact is that there are religions on our list which do not include any ethical teaching whatever. Ancient Epicureanism, for instance, made no connection between belief in its gods and moral duties to one’s fellow humans. According to the Epicureans, the gods had no concern whatever for human affairs, so a person could be morally rotten for all the gods cared. Other examples of religions with this same lack are the Japanese Shinto tradition and some forms of ancient Roman religion. To make matters worse for this proposal, there are clearly non-religious beliefs that do inspire or include moral teachings. For example, there are moral codes of honor in schools, sports clubs, armies, and even criminal organizations. This is enough to show that even if all religions did provide ethical teachings, that feature alone would not be sufficient to distinguish religious beliefs from those which are not religious.
Not all religious beliefs inspire worship, either. Aristotle argued for the existence of a supreme god he called the Prime Mover. But since he also held that it would be beneath the nature and dignity of the Prime Mover to know about or be concerned with earthly affairs, he regarded worship as futile. The ancient Epicureans mentioned above agreed. According to them, too, the gods care nothing about the world so the fact that gods exist is interesting to humans, but inspires no worship. Even in our own time, there are forms of Hinduism and Buddhism in which there is no worship.
Sometimes it is suggested that if the last two proposals were just broadened a bit and conjoined, they could form a successful definition. Suppose we take a religious belief to be one that generates ritual and/or ethics where the ritual can be of any sort rather than worship specifically? Won’t that do? The answer is, it will not. In the case of rituals it leads to the vicious circle of needing to know which rituals are religious in order to identify religious beliefs, and needing to know which beliefs are religious in order to know which rituals are. If there were a specific list of rituals generated only by religious beliefs, this could work. But there are many rituals that are at times religious and at others not: burning down a house, setting off fireworks, fasting, feasting, having sexual intercourse, singing, chanting, cutting oneself, circumcising an infant, covering one’s body with manure, washing, killing an animal, killing a human, eating bread and wine, shaving one’s head, and many more. So it seems clear that the only way to know whether a ritual is religious or not is to know what those who take part in it believe about it. If its motivating belief is religious, then the ritual may be. But without knowing whether it is done for a religious reason, even what looks like an act of prayer can be indistinguishable from fantasizing or talking to oneself. And notice that many of the rituals just cited have an ethical code conjoined to them when they are done for non-religious reasons, while others are believed to be unethical unless done for religious reasons! Rituals conducted by clubs with an ethical code or the ceremonies attending induction into an office of a company or government that has a code of ethics are examples of non-religious rituals accompanied by ethical beliefs, while the ritual killing of a human for religious reasons was considered pious by the Aztecs who otherwise regarded it as murder. I conclude, therefore, that this proposal fails. Religious beliefs are not necessarily those that generate ethical teaching and/or ritual; there are religious beliefs that lack both and non-religious beliefs that generate both.
Perhaps the most widespread of all the popular definitions is that a religious belief is belief in a Supreme Being. Many people not only seem to think this covers all religions, but also suspect that all religions worship the same Supreme Being under different names. This is simply mistaken. Not all the traditions on our list include belief in anything that has a uniquely supreme status. What is more, in Hinduism the divine (Brahman-Atman) is not considered a being at all. It is instead an indefinite “being-ness,” or “being-itself.” For this same reason Brahman-Atman cannot strictly be called a god, if a god is taken to be an individual and personal. Buddhism also denies the divine is a being, but goes even further. For fear that “being itself” is still too definite an expression, it insists on such terms as “Void,” “Non-being,” and “Nothingness” for the divine. So although these religions believe there is divine reality, they do not believe the divine is a being at all, let alone a supreme one.
Surprisingly, some of the most widely accepted scholarly attempts to define religious belief don’t fare much better than these popular ones. One of the most influential of the past fifty years was that of Paul Tillich, who declared religious belief or faith to be identical with “ultimate concern.” 2 This expression is supposed to bare the bones of all religions. Tillich contended that all people are ultimately concerned about something, and the state of being ultimately concerned is a person’s religion.
But just what does it mean to be ultimately concerned with something? The most plausible way to understand the expression is to take it as referring to the state of being concerned about whatever is ultimate reality. This, though still unclear as to precisely what “concerned” means, seems to include dealing with ultimate reality in some way and so does sound like much of what goes on in religions. Moreover, there is reason to think that it is what Tillich himself intended. 3 But even overlooking the ambiguity of “concerned,” there is also the problem of how we are to define “ultimate” so as to know which beliefs and concerns are about what is ultimate reality and are thus religious.
Tillich identifies the ultimate with “the holy” and “the divine,” 4 but of course that is not much help. (What do those terms mean?) However, he does add that what is truly ultimate—the only right object of ultimate concern—is “being-itself,” or “the infinite.” 5 Moreover, he makes it clear that whatever is infinite in his sense must be unlimited in such a way that there could be nothing distinct from it. He thinks that if someone were to say that God is ultimate but also believe that the universe is a reality other than God, that person would be inconsistent. For were there anything other than God, God would then be limited by what he is not and thus would not be infinite and so not really ultimate. The result of this, Tillich says, is that anyone ultimately concerned with that sort of god (a god who is a being rather than being-itself) would be putting his or her trust in something which is not really ultimate and would therefore have false religious belief (he calls it false “faith”). 6
But by understanding “ultimate” in this way, Tillich’s definition of faith turns out to be too narrow. Rather than finding a common element to all religious beliefs, Tillich lapses into prescribing his version of what true religion is. Thus he fails to give a meaning to “ultimate” which can allow for false as well as true religious belief. For if religious faith is being concerned about the ultimate only in his sense, then anyone whose concern is with something taken to be ultimate but not infinite as he understands “infinite” would simply have no religious belief whatever. Tillich has therefore actually defined faith so that only his idea of true faith is faith at all. So whether his idea of true religion is right or wrong is beside the point just now, because it is a fact that there are religions which do not believe anything to be ultimate in his sense of “infinite.”
Tillich was, of course, aware of this objection but he failed to realize that it is lethal to his definition. He tried to sidestep its significance by suggesting, as I indicated above, that the religions concerned with something that is not infinite in his sense intend their concern to be for that which is infinite but fall short. His sidestep amounts to saying that true religion is concern or belief which succeeds in being directed to the infinite, while false religion is concern which intends to be directed to the infinite but misses. But this just will not do. For the theistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—hold to the doctrine of creation found in Genesis. They do not therefore intend to believe in anything that is infinite in Tillich’s sense. Instead, they quite deliberately believe in God the Creator who is distinct from the universe He created. They hold that the universe depends on God for its existence because God brought it into being out of nothing, not that it is part of God. Thus, “ultimate concern,” as Tillich defines it, is not a characteristic of these religions and so is too narrow to be the essential definition of all religious belief.
Another influential scholarly definition is this:

Religion is the varied symbolic expression of, and appropriate response to, that which people deliberately affirm as being of unrestricted value for them. 7
In other words, whatever is believed to be of unrestricted value is therefore regarded as the precise core of religious belief. This definition appears more plausible than it really is because of the way we sometimes speak metaphorically of a person’s obsessions as his “religion.” For example, we call a sports fanatic’s devotion to his favorite sport his religion because of the way that devotion is like the religious devotion of a saint or a prophet. But the fact that the fervor or dedication of a sports fanatic is like that of a saint won’t make a sport a religion any more than it will make a religion a sport. And that point aside, there are even better reasons to think this definition is just not right.
For one thing, there are polytheisms in which there are gods who are little valued or even hated. 8 If religious belief were identical with belief in what a person values most, then belief in these gods would have to be non-religious! But if belief in a god isn’t a religious belief, what is? Here, and in all that follows, I will take it as a rule in need of no defense that any definition that makes belief in a god to be non-religious has thereby discredited itself.
Such polytheisms are not the only counter-examples to this proposal, however; Christianity is one also. For while it is surely true that what is of supreme value is an important part of Christian teaching, the proper ordering of values is presented in the New Testament as a result of belief in God rather than as identical with it. What a Christian is admonished to value above all is God’s favor: the kingdom of God and the righteousness he offers to those who believe in him (Matt. 6:33). But the New Testament also stipulates that to please God one must first believe that he exists and rewards those who seek him (Heb. 11:6). Clearly, then, if belief that God is real and trustworthy is a precondition for valuing God’s kingdom and favor above all else, then belief in God can not be the same as the valuing that results from it. In short, God, in Christian teaching, is not a value but the Creator of all values. And the proper relation to God is for us to love him with our whole being, not merely to value him. Thus it follows that Christianity is another counter-example to this proposal since defining religious belief as belief in whatever one values most would make the Christian belief in God to be non-religious. (Of course, this is not to deny that what people value most is often an indicator of what they regard as divine. But the fact that one’s highest value can reflect a religious belief doesn’t show it always does, let alone that religious belief can be defined by it.)
Although there isn’t the room here to examine a large number of other proposals, 9 I don’t think it’s necessary since so many scholars of religion now agree that none of them succeeds and some have even concluded that no precise definition of religious belief is possible. 10 As a result, the prevailing view these days is that religious beliefs have only “family resemblances” rather than any defining features common to them all. To appreciate why so many thinkers feel driven to say that, consider the obstacles to forming a real definition. Suppose, for example, we were to reply to them that every religion is characterized by a belief in something or other as divine. That seems true enough but not very helpful; it simply shifts the problem to defining “divine.” How, they would ask, are we to locate a common element among the ideas of divinity found in only the major world religions of the present? What common element is shared between the idea of God in Judaism, Islam, Christianity, the Hindu idea of Brahman-Atman, the idea of Dharmakaya in Mahajana Buddhism, and the idea of the Tao in Taoism? To isolate a common element among these seems daunting enough, but even if we could do it we would then have to locate that same element in the ideas of divinity found in ancient Egypt, Babylon, Palestine, and Greece; the divinities of China and Japan, of the Pacific islands, of Australia, of the Druids, and in the tribal religions of Africa and North and South America. Isn’t it obvious, they ask, that there is no common feature to the divinities of all these traditions? Posed in just this way, I would have to agree with the negative answer their question anticipates. The putative divinities compared are, indeed, so diverse as to have no common characteristic.
But before we give up on a precise definition, it is worth asking whether the list whose teachings are being compared is as innocent as it’s being taken to be. Granted, the beliefs represented on the list are all prima facie religious, but are they religious in the same sense? Could it be that the list conceals a shift in the meaning of “religious” for the beliefs being compared? To be more specific, I’m asking whether it’s possible that some beliefs on the list are religious in a sense that is basic to others on that list, so that the others are religious only in a secondary sense. If so, the list has failed to distinguish beliefs that are religious in a primary sense from those that are religious only in a secondary sense, and this could be the cause of the failure to obtain a precise definition for the entire list.
Now there are at least two senses in which one belief may be primary with respect to another. One is a noetic sense, that is, a sense that concerns the order of our beliefs. In this sense one belief is primary with respect to another when it is a necessary presupposition to the other, such that no one could hold the secondary belief without already holding (or assuming) the primary belief. The other sense of primacy is ontic , that is, it concerns the order of reality. In this sense one belief is primary with respect to another when the object of the secondary belief is taken to depend on the object of the primary belief for its reality. In each sense, then, what is “primary” is a necessary precondition for what is secondary. In the first case, the primary belief is necessary to hold the secondary belief; in the second case the object of the primary belief is held to be what generates the reality of the object of the secondary belief.
My worry, then, is whether the short list of religions we started with is in fact an admixture of secondary as well as primary beliefs. If so, it may well be the case that the quest for a precise definition has been surrendered prematurely. For it could be that the primary religious beliefs do have defining common characteristics that the secondary religious beliefs do not share, leaving the entire list with only family resemblances.
Consider the following analogy to this point. Suppose we wanted to define what counts as a school, and we tried to do that under the description “educational organization.” Guided by that description we compiled a list of as many sorts of schools as we could think of, but also included in our list the parent-teacher associations (PTAs) formed in many communities as auxiliaries to their local public elementary schools. Suppose we then tried to form a precise definition of a school only to find there are no features shared by all the organizations on our list. The reason would be that although there are common features shared by a kindergarten, an elementary school, a high school, a college, a university, etc., these features are not true of PTAs. But PTAs are clearly educational organizations only in the secondary senses of that term. There can’t be PTAs unless there are schools, and we can’t believe that we need a PTA or form beliefs about what it should do to support a school without believing we have a school and without beliefs about what the school’s needs are. It is clear in this case that our failure to come up with a precise definition of a school would be the result of our listing an organization that is educational only in the secondary sense of supporting schools, along with organizations that are educational in the primary sense of delivering education to students. For while all schools have the common aim of providing education, exhibit the same general internal relationship between instructor and student, and operate with the same notion of authority based on the expertise of the instructor, PTAs do not share any of these features. Thus it would be our failure to distinguish between the primary and secondary senses of “educational” that would have led to the false conclusion that there is no precise definition of a school.
Whether this is what has happened in the case of “religious belief” is a question worth pursuing just because so much is at stake. So we need to re-examine our initial short list to see whether, within the same tradition of thought and practice, some of the beliefs on our list exhibit either dependency on other beliefs, or whether the objects of some of those beliefs are thought to depend on the objects of still other beliefs. Should this turn out to be the case, we can then remove the secondary beliefs from the list and re-examine the primary beliefs to see if they really have only family resemblances or whether they share some defining characteristic(s) after all.
2.2 A Resolution
Out of what we have seen so far, one thing seems clear: all religious traditions center around whatever they believe to be divine, but they disagree widely on what is divine. For example, the divine is variously believed to be one transcendent creator, two ever-opposing forces, a large number of gods, being-itself, Nothingness, etc. It is this great divergence of belief that brings to grief the definitions just reviewed, and which has driven many thinkers to despair of ever capturing a common element to all religious belief. So, in accordance with the distinction drawn at the close of the last section , I now want to inquire as to whether any of the beliefs on our short list is religious in a secondary rather than a primary sense.
The answer can only be, “yes.” In many polytheistic traditions there are accounts of how the gods came into existence. This means that the divinity of such gods is clearly regarded as derived and secondary as compared to whatever is divine in the sense of having unconditional reality and accounts for their origins (from now on I will call this the status of being divine per se). Take, for example, the account of the gods of ancient Greece as found in Hesiod and Homer. In Hesiod’s account, the natural world in an undifferentiated state is what just is; it exists unconditionally and gave rise to everything else after it generated a gap between the earth and the heavens he called Chaos . Following that initial change, all other specific forms of existence were generated including the gods. According to Homer the primordial reality was Okeanos , a vast expanse of watery stuff from which arose all else including the gods. Despite their differences, then, both accounts agree that the gods are dependent on a more basic reality so the gods are themselves derivative realities. 11 This is why no one of them—nor all of them together—could be called “creator” in the sense that God is in Genesis. Moreover, the gods are not only secondary divinities because of their ontic dependency upon something else that is divine per se. They are also secondary in the noetic sense, since the beliefs about them depend upon the belief in Okeanos or Chaos. For no individual being could be believed to be a god—that is, a being with more divine power than humans possess—unless it was already believed that there is a per se divine source of all other things which confers varying degrees of power upon them.
The same is true of the myths of ancient Babylonia. In them, too, the gods acquire their divine status and power derivatively. For according to them,

The origin of all things was the primeval watery chaos, represented by the pair Apsu and Tiamat.… With them the cosmogenic theogony begins. 12
In still other traditions the gods are beings with more power than humans. This is true of the Shinto tradition, for example, in which the divine per se is called “Kami.” In still others a divine power permeates all things but is concentrated in particular objects, places, or humans. The ancient Roman notion of Numen, the Melanesian idea of Mana, and the American Indian beliefs in Wakan or Orenda are instances of this. 13 The same point has been noted about a number of African religions. Even though some of them believe in a supreme god, they maintain that belief in a different way from that of biblical theism, a way one writer has dubbed “diffused monotheism”

because here we have a monotheism in which there exist other powers which derive from the Deity such being and authority that they can be treated, for practical purposes almost as ends in themselves. 14
It is not necessary to single out every case of secondary belief on the short list, since what is important is not how many of them taint the list but that the list is tainted. It has been forcing us to compare beliefs in divinities supposed to be divine per se, with divinities that are believed to owe their existence and superhuman powers to the divine per se; and we have been comparing beliefs which depend upon others as their presupposition to beliefs which are basic. No wonder we have found no common defining characteristics among them!
So what happens if we now remove from our short list all the divinities that are divine in a secondary sense? Won’t an essential definition of the remaining primary divinity beliefs still pose a daunting task? Surely the answer is “yes.” And for that very reason I now want to propose a way of looking at the remaining putative divinities that may help us to focus on what may be common to them all. The proposal is that we think of what may be common to the various primary divinities as the status of divinity , on the one hand, and distinguish that from the specific description of whatever is believed to occupy that status , on the other hand. This is a heuristic device, of course. There is no absolute difference between a thing’s status and its properties; its status surely is one of its properties. But trying to think in this way may help keep us from slipping back into assuming one or another of the definitions we found to be false earlier. It will help focus us on what it is about any alleged divinity itself that makes it divine per se, rather than reverting to focusing on how else humans may regard it (as object of worship, e.g.).
Let me explain this focus by using another analogy. If someone were to ask the question “Who is the president of the United States?” we could quite properly respond in either of two ways. One way would be to describe the person who presently holds the office of president. The other way would be to say that the president is the person who has the following duties and powers, and then go on to describe the office of the presidency. The difference between these two ways of answering the question “Who is the president?” is like the difference between the two ways we can answer the question of the meaning of the term “divine.” We may ask “What is divine?” meaning that we want a description of what it is that has the status of divinity. Or we can take the question to ask for a definition of that status, irrespective of who or what is believed to have it. The difference is important. If there were a presidential election so close that people disagreed as to who had won it, they would then also disagree about the description of the person who was elected to the office. But they would all still agree about the office for which the election had been held.
So the question is: is there anything that can, in a parallel way, be distinguished as the status of per se divinity? Is it possible that although the ideas of what has divine status are so diverse as to appear to have no common element, there is still common agreement among all religions as to what it means to be divine ? If this were the case, the wide disagreements among religions would still be important. They would be disagreements about the correct identification of who or what has divine status, but they would still leave intact the universal agreement on what it means for anything to have that status.
Now this is exactly what I find to be the case! For I have never found a single religion that fails to hold the divine per se to be whatever is unconditionally, non-dependently real .
Please do not misunderstand this point. I am not saying that there are no disagreements whatever about what having divine status means. There are. But they are all disagreements about what else is taken to be true of divinity over and above non-dependence. So even though people may argue about the status of divinity per se, I’m saying that in fact they all agree on non-dependence and only non-dependence. Neither does this mean that every myth or scripture or theology has used the expression “non-dependence” or a synonym for it. Many do, but not all. Some writers speak of the divine as “self-existent” or “absolute” or “uncaused and unpreventable,” or “just there,” for instance. But others simply trace everything non-divine back to an original something the status of which is not emphasized or not explained. In such accounts the original something is therefore left in the role of having non-dependent reality by default: there is nothing it is said to depend on while all else is said to depend on it. Thus it is tacitly awarded non-dependent status. So no matter how little emphasized or tentatively held this point may be, the divine is still being treated as non-dependent so far as the account goes .
This definition seems to me to succeed while no other does. For openers, it can account for a common element among the beliefs in God, Brahman-Atman, the Dharmakaya, and the Tao, which was the brief list that appeared so daunting earlier. Moreover, I find it also covers all of the following primary divinity beliefs: the Nam in Sikhism, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) in early Zoroastrianism or Zurvan in its later development, the soul/matter dualism of the Jains, the high god of the Dieri Aborigines, the belief in Mana among the Trobriand Islanders, Kami in the Shinto tradition, the Raluvhimba of the Bantu religion, the Void, Suchness, or Nothingness found in various forms of Buddhism, and the idea of Wakan or Orenda found among various tribes of North and South America. It also holds for the ancient Roman idea of Numen, for Okeanos in the myths of Homer, and for a host of other ideas. Or, to be more precise, I should say it covers every religious belief I know of with respect to its belief in something as divine per se rather than in something that is divine in only a secondary sense.
That last remark might invite the rejoinder that my reading of religious traditions, though wide, can’t claim to be exhaustive, so that my definition may not be based on a sufficiently large empirical basis. To that I reply that the definition does not rest upon my reading alone. I discovered, after working it out, that this definition is not new but has had many advocates. It is based, therefore, not on my investigations alone, but on the cumulative reading and experience of many thinkers, a few of which I am about to cite.
To begin, virtually all the pre-Socratic philosophers conceived the status of divinity as being that which does not depend on anything else for its own existence, and they then hotly debated just what reality or realities have that status. 15 The Pythagoreans are an example. For them the divine reality was numbers because they thought the objects of our ordinary experience are comprised of numbers and the relations between them. That is, they believed all things are made of numbers. In their view, the number combinations that form objects come into being and pass away, but the numbers that combine to form them are utterly independent and eternal. Both the status of divinity and the ascription of that status to numbers are beautifully expressed in one of their prayers, a prayer to the number ten:

Bless us, divine number, thou who generatest gods and men! O holy, holy tetraktys, thou that containest the root and source of eternally flowing creation! For divine number begins with the profound, the pure unity until it comes to the holy four; then it begets the mother of all, the all-encompassing, the all-bounding, the first born, the never swerving, the never tiring holy ten, the keyholder of all. 16
Here the divine status of numbers is expressed as their being changeless and “the root and source” of all that changes. I take this to mean that all else depends on numbers, while they do not depend on anything whatever. (It’s in this sense that the Pythagoreans thought 1 + 1 = 2 was a religious belief, as was mentioned earlier.)
For Plato it was not only numbers that are divine, but entities he called “Forms.” He explicitly says that these are “self-existent” ( Tim . 50 ff. and Phil . 53–54), and also refers to them as “gods” ( Tim . 37). Aristotle, too, is about as explicit as possible on what it means for something to be divine when he says:

Therefore about that which can exist independently and is changeless, there is a science.… And if there is such a kind of thing in the world, here surely must be the divine, and this must be the first and most dominant principle. ( Metaphysics 1064a33 ff.)
Notice that the divine is here characterized as whatever is able to exist independently from everything else, even though Aristotle adds that it is also changeless—a point not universally shared. He shortly after adds that being the “first and most dominant principle” means that it is “prior to” all else in the sense that all else depends on it. 17
This view was not confined to Greece, however, as several Bible writers make assertions that seem to presuppose or entail it. One of these is nothing less than the most basic teaching about God, namely, that he is the creator of everything other than himself. This entails that he is the one on whom all else depends for existence while he does not depend on anything for his existence. 18 Of course, God also has the status of being redeemer or savior, and of being the only one deserving of worship. But Bible writers regard God’s creatorship as fundamental. It is because he is creator that God can guarantee to redeem all who believe in him, and it is because he is redeemer that believers owe him adoration and thanks. 19
Other biblical teachings also appear to presuppose this definition. One is the way some writers speak of having a false god or “idol.” For although many people today think of having a false god only as having a substitute savior or object of worship, Bible writers did not call something a false god only because it was worshipped (e.g., some of them refer to greed as idolatry). Rather, they call anything a false god or an idol if it in any way replaces the true God. From this point of view, therefore, having a substitute creator is every bit as much a false god as having a substitute savior. This is crucial for understanding the way Bible writers everywhere assume that all people are innately religious—that everyone has either the true God or an idol. For if being religious means only believing in something as savior or worshiping something, then it would be clearly false that all people are religious. But if it includes replacing God with something believed to be the non-dependent reality on which all that is not divine per se depends, then it is not at all clear whether anyone can avoid every such belief. 20
During the Middle Ages, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and philosophers tended to lose the distinction between the status of divinity and its occupant—for good reason. Since all three religions accepted the transcendent Creator as the only divinity, the independent existence which other ancient thinkers had seen as defining the divine status was quite naturally thought of as an attribute of God. But notice that they did not take self-existence to be merely one more among many attributes God possesses. Instead they insisted that it is what is essential to God; God, they said, is the Being whose essence is existence. So they, too, recognized God’s unconditional non-dependent reality as the essential characteristic of His divinity.
And although the Reformers of the sixteenth century had many criticisms of medieval theology, they had no quarrel with that point. Both Luther and Calvin affirmed God’s unconditional reality. “There is nothing so proper to God,” says Calvin, “as eternity and self-existence.” 21 And despite the fact that in theism there is no difference between the ontic status of divinity and the status-holder, Luther went a long way toward restoring the distinction—which is so helpful in understanding non-theistic belief. 22
Finally, in the past century alone this definition of (primary) religious belief has been recognized again and again by a number of distinguished thinkers including: William James, A. C. Bouquet, H. Dooyeweerd, Hans Kung, Paul Tillich, Mircea Eliade, N. Kemp Smith, Joachim Wach, C. S. Lewis, Will Herberg, Robert Neville, Werner Jaeger, and Pierre Chaunu, to name but a few. 23
This, then, is my reply to the suggestion that my essential definition of religious belief is not based on a sufficiently wide empirical base. I think it powerful evidence that all these people, despite their widely varied times, cultures, languages, walks of life, and convictions about the further description of exactly what has per se divine status, all agree with the definition I formulate as follows:

A religious belief is a belief in something as divine per se no matter how that is further described, where “divine per se” means having unconditionally non-dependent reality.
Now although I find this definition captures the essential core of religious belief in its primary sense, it does not yet allow for beliefs in realities thought to be divine dependently rather than per se. Nor does it cover still other beliefs that also deserve to be called “religious” in yet other secondary senses. One such sense is that a belief may be about how the non-divine depends on the divine, and another is that a belief may be about how humans come to stand in proper relation to per se divinity. Such secondary beliefs must also be accounted for by any adequate definition since it is they that constitute the lion’s share of the belief content of most religious traditions. For example, while Hinduism teaches that Brahman-Atman is the non-dependent reality which encompasses all there is, it also includes beliefs about Karma, reincarnation, and various ways of achieving unification with Brahman-Atman. Christianity, too, does not end its teaching with the doctrine that God the Creator does not depend on anything in any way, but includes beliefs about God’s covenant with humans, God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ, and the resurrection of believers to eternal life. Put more generally, the point is that the essential core of divinity is never all that’s thought to be true of whatever has that status. The essential core of divinity is therefore like an empty slot into which various ideas of what occupies the slot are inserted, and a fuller description of what occupies the slot is also conjoined to other beliefs, especially beliefs about how to stand in proper relation to the divine.
The simile of an empty slot should not, however, be misunderstood to suggest that a primary belief about what occupies it has temporal priority with respect to the secondary beliefs attached to it. It is not the case that people first locate the empty slot and then look for the right description of its occupant(s). Rather, it is religious experience that is the source of both beliefs simultaneously. The experience that is taken to reveal what is divine per se always yields some broader description of it over and above the mere status of divinity—even if that description is largely negative (as in Buddhism, e.g.). For that reason every belief in divinity per se arises in conjunction with an idea of how the non-divine in fact depends upon the divine, and an idea of how people can come to stand in proper relation to the divine. Thus religious experience is crucial here because, generally speaking, ideas of how to properly relate to the divine are not rationally deduced from the description of what is divine per se, nor are they purely historical accidents; rather, both are derived together from religious experience.
To be complete, therefore, our definition must be expanded as follows.
A belief is a religious belief provided that:

(1) It is a belief in something as divine per se no matter how that is further described, or
(2) it is a belief about how the non-divine depends upon the divine per se, or
(3) it is a belief about how humans come to stand in proper relation to the divine per se,
(4) where the essential core of divinity per se is to have the status of unconditionally non-dependent reality.
Two remarks are immediately called for. The first is that while I have called the beliefs defined in (2) and (3) above “secondary beliefs,” that was not intended to diminish their importance. As I was saying just prior to the expanded definition, they are secondary only in so far as finding an essential definition of religious belief is concerned but not in actual religious life and practice. In actual life and practice the teachings about what is divine per se are always embedded in secondary teachings of types (2) and (3), and those of type (3) are supposed to make it possible for humans to acquire the full realization of true human nature. I have already made the point that type (3) beliefs are not deduced (nor thought to be deducible) from the description of what has per se divine status. So it should be noticed here, by contrast, that the relation of type (2) beliefs to those of type (1) is often a mixture of logical implication and religious experience. This is because the description of what has per se divine status can’t fail to have some implications for a view of human nature, happiness, and destiny.
The second remark is that it should now be clear why and how including beliefs in gods that are not divine per se ruined the short list of beliefs used to attempt an essential definition of religious belief. These beliefs can now be seen as genuinely religious but only in a secondary sense, despite the fact that many of the traditions in which they occurred paid almost no attention to what was held to be divine per se. 24 The gods in these traditions got the whole focus of attention because they were the only way humans could relate to divinity per se, that is, indirectly. It was precisely because of their enormous practical importance that beliefs in such gods served to obscure what was essential to divinity per se. At the same time, this failure also resulted in not taking seriously enough the obvious meaning shift the term “god” acquired depending on whether it connoted what is divine per se, as it does in Theism, or whether it connoted a reality that mediates the divine per se by possessing more divine power than humans, as it does in polytheism.
2.3 Some Clarifications
Distinguishing the primary from the secondary senses of religious belief now equips us to avoid other sorts of confusions often made with respect to religious beliefs. One of these is the way people often call a belief “religious” when it is neither a primary nor a secondary belief, but is merely altered or influenced by one. Take, for example, the belief of Jews and Christians that slavery is wrong. This conviction is not part of the Judeo-Christian idea of God, nor is it explicitly stated in the Torah, the Prophets, or the New Testament. But when Jews and Christians have examined the institution of slavery in the light of their primary and secondary religious beliefs, they have almost universally come to reject it as incompatible with the perspective on social justice engendered by those beliefs. Such influence was indirect enough that in some places it took a long time for this perspective to take effect. My point here is simply to warn that when people see such a connection between a religious teaching and another belief, they frequently tend to overstate it and identify the belief so influenced as itself a religious belief. (This actually happened during the anti-slavery movement in the United States.) But while the influence of a religious belief on non-religious beliefs can be very significant, it is still conceptually important not to confuse the two; a belief is not itself a religious belief just because it is influenced by one.
Please also notice that there is nothing about this definition that requires there be only one divinity per se. In many religions there are two or more divinities, and they can be thought to relate to one another and to the non-divine world in a variety of ways. For example, there may be something, X, that is regarded as being unconditionally real. But there is no reason this belief couldn’t be conjoined with belief in two other realities, Y and Z, neither of which is unconditional in itself but which together form a second unconditional reality. In that case, X and YZ would each be regarded as divine per se, and such a belief would amount to a dualistic religion in which one of the two divine principles is itself subdivided. Moreover, there actually are religions which believe in a whole realm of beings each of which is considered to have unconditional, non-dependent, existence, and I see no logical incoherence in such a position. And of course there could be an unlimited number of individuals believed to be divine in a secondary, dependent sense.
Moreover, where more than one per se divinity is believed in, it is possible to think of the dependency of the non-divine on the divine in any of several different ways. For example, a religion could teach that one part of the non-divine world depends on one divinity, while another part depends on another divinity. Or a religion could teach that a part of each and every non-divine thing depends on one divinity, while the rest of each non-divine thing depends on the other divinity. So while the sum total of what is not per se divine always depends on at least some part(s) of what is divine, the ways of parsing the dependency of the non-divine on the divine can be highly varied. I will spell out the most widely held of these “dependency arrangements” in the next chapter .
The way this definition allows for variations in the divine/non-divine dependency arrangements also serves to explain a point that is troubling for other definitions. I mean the fact mentioned earlier that there are religions which believe in divinities upon which little or nothing of our everyday world depends. In these religions something is regarded as divine but is not esteemed or worshipped by its believers because it is either idle with respect to their lives, or feared, or even hated. We already noticed some traditions in which there are gods who are thought to be the source of evil, for example. In such cases, if “divinity” is used as a term of honor, such gods may even fail to be referred to as divine. But that will not change the fact that they are being regarded as divine in one of the senses defined above, and so it won’t alter the fact that belief in them is religious. Once again: what makes something divine is not whether it is personal, or good, or loved, or worshiped. It is whether it is regarded as unconditionally real or as having more divine power than humans. And this is so even if a divinity is not honored (think of the remark in James 2:19 that even demons believe in the existence of God though they fail to love or serve him).
At this point it is sometimes suggested that perhaps not all religions have a dependency arrangement. Are there not religions which teach that everything is divine? In that case wouldn’t it be true that there is no non-divine reality to depend on the divine? For example, there are people who say they believe “all nature is god and all god is nature.” And don’t Hinduism and Buddhism teach that there is really only the divine?
Before going ahead with my answer, I want to say that even if this were true it would not really be an objection to my definition of religious belief. According to the definition, something is regarded as divine per se if it is accorded utterly non-dependent reality whether or not other things depend on it. The reason the issue of dependency arrangements comes up in the discussion is that most religious beliefs do acknowledge there is non-divine as well as divine reality, and use that dependency both as the explanation for the existence of the non-divine and also as a contrast which helps to identify the divine. So even if someone were to propose the wildly bizarre position that each and every thing in the universe is self-existent, thus making everything whatever divine, that would not expose any weakness in my definition.
The reason I say that denying any non-divine reality whatever is implausible is because it is so patently obvious that the things we observe every day can come into being and pass away. All such things, events, and situations, are therefore directly experienced to be non-divine. So if someone were to believe that there is nothing other than the natural universe (thus making it divine since there’d be nothing for it to depend on), that person would still have to admit that the things we observe in the universe are not divine. That is why such a belief would still call for an idea of how the individual, non-divine things in the universe depend on the (divine) universe as a whole. And this idea would amount to a dependency arrangement.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, however, the obvious non-divinity of individual things in our ordinary experience is said to be Maya, or illusion. So these traditions do come close to denying any non-divine reality. But notice that calling something “illusion” doesn’t get rid of it entirely; it’s simply a way of saying that it isn’t what it seems to be. For there to be an illusion, there still has to be something that isn’t what it seems to be. So drawing the distinction between the illusory world and the divine reality still leaves the dependency of Maya on the divine to be explained. Hinduism explicitly addresses this problem by teaching that Brahman-Atman generates the illusory world, while Buddhism avoids the issue on the ground that it is spiritually unhealthy to think about the illusory world at all. 25 But neither the person who takes the universe as a whole to be divine, nor the Hindu/Buddhist doctrine of Maya, poses any difficulty for the definition I’m defending.
Quite the contrary, our definition can now be used to settle the issue noted earlier of whether Theravada Buddhism is in fact a religion. A number of scholars have doubted this because Buddha once remarked that he did not know or even care whether any gods existed, and because the Theravada tradition continues that same attitude. Nevertheless, on our definition, Theravada Buddhism is confirmed as a religion—even despite the fact that some Theravada Buddhists themselves have said their belief is not a religion. For surely none of them would say that the Nothingness into which they will all be reabsorbed (the state of Nirvana) depends on anything whatever. Nor would they allow that the state of Nirvana is literally nothing whatever; rather, it is the state of “unspeakable bliss.” In addition, Theravada Buddhists agree that they are engaged in their disciplines and meditations for the purpose of attaining the right relation to the divine, since that right relation is the state of Nirvana. Apparently, then, the Theravada disavowal was motivated by the popular Western belief that a religion must include an individual deity and worship, while they deny both. 26
2.4 Replies to Objections
The first objection I usually hear to this definition is the discomfort it produces merely by its difference from the ordinary ways people use the terms “religious” and “religious belief.” After all, on my definition it turns out that ethics and worship are not essential to religion.
I can readily understand why this can be disturbing, but must remind you that essential definitions almost always produce such discomfort. Consider the example of whales. Many years ago they were defined as fish. The reasons for this were that they were shaped like fish, lived in oceans like fish, and swam like fish. But after more became known of them, they were redefined as mammals. It was learned that they are warm-blooded, lack gills and breathe air, bear their young alive and nurse them. So despite their fishlike tails and fins, and despite the fact that they live their lives in water, they have more in common with mammals than with fish. Perhaps that was disturbing to some people when it was first put forward, since it means that whales’ bodies have more in common with human bodies than they do with the bodies of fish! But precise definitions aren’t wrong just because they are disturbing or because they are not what we already thought was true. We form them in order to learn more about what we’re trying to define, and that can also mean correcting something we’d mistakenly thought to be true. And there are now as good reasons for accepting (primary) religious belief to be belief in something as divine per se, as there were for redefining whales as mammals.
Keep in mind, too, that whenever we try to define a type of things precisely, the definition almost certainly leaves out many features we regularly associate with things of that type. When we think of trees, for example, we usually think of their foliage. But that is not part of the definition of a tree; some trees have no leaves at all. Similarly, there may be features of things we do not usually think are important but turn out to be among the defining features of their type. It is true, of course, that pre-scientific definitions can have genuine practical value in everyday life. I’m not proposing they all be abandoned. I’m only saying that scientific definitions may serve to refine our ordinary notions of things and afford us a greater precision that ought not be rejected just because the more precise definitions differ from our ordinary notions.
The second point to be made about this objection is that it stems from the fact that in Western culture most people’s ideas of religion are derived from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. In one sense that is quite understandable. It is only reasonable that (at first) we think of religious beliefs in ways derived from those we are most familiar with. But it is not reasonable to insist that all religious beliefs must be like those we are familiar with after we are confronted with others that are quite different. This point is especially pertinent to the objection that the definition defended here does not include worship as essential to religious belief. Many people have made such a strong association between religious belief and worship that they want to reject this definition of “divine” for that reason alone. All I can say to that is to remind you that there are religious beliefs embedded in cultic traditions which practice no worship, such as Brahmin Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism.
The case of Theravada Buddhism is also instructive for the issue of whether it makes sense to say that a person may be an atheist but still have a religious belief. We have already seen why people who believe, say, numbers, or a non-individual and impersonal reality, to be non-dependent have a religious belief every bit as much as a person who is devoted to a personal God or gods. And we have seen why the hallmark of a genuinely religious belief is not whether the object of belief is like the divinity of the religion a group of people is most familiar with. People under the spell of that mistake often take beliefs such as materialism to be the very reverse of religion. But that is not even plausible on this definition—and not only because of this definition. In the ancient world there were Greek mystery religions in which the divine was believed to be “the ever-flowing stream of life and matter .” And there is still a form of Hinduism in which Brahman-Atman is identified with matter. Nor can it be objected that materialists are almost always also atheists. It should be clear by now why many people may rightly call themselves atheists but still have a religious belief. In the strict sense, “atheist” means “no god,” and is the denial that either the biblical God or any other gods exist. But our definition has shown why someone who believes in anything whatever as non-dependent has a religious belief whether that is in a god or not. In this respect being an atheist is like being a vegetarian. If I know someone is a vegetarian I know what that person doesn’t want to eat, but not what that person does want to eat. Just so, if I know a person is an atheist I know what the person doesn’t believe to be divine, but that tells me nothing about what he or she does believe to be divine. (“Atheist” in the broader sense of denying that anything whatever is divine per se is a position I will show to be incoherent in the next chapter .)
For those who find this point objectionable the main obstacle seems, once again, to be the assumption that a truly religious belief would have to result in worship even if it was not promulgated by an organized group dedicated to that divinity belief. And surely there is good reason for the strong association of worship with religious beliefs. Feelings of awe and respect seem to be natural human reactions to experiencing something as divine per se, and worship is a natural expression for such feelings. Nevertheless, there are—as we have already seen—traditions that eschew this natural tendency. The reason this makes sense for them is a simple one: worship is surely appropriate when the divine is thought of as personal (or personified). In that case expressions of gratitude, for example, would be part of a personal relationship. But Theravada monks and Brahmin priests do not believe the divine is personal, so they do not worship. Similarly, the materialist who regards physical matter as self-existent may not be induced by that belief to pray to subatomic particles or sing hymns to force fields. Nor will a modern rationalist who regards, say, mathematical laws as self-existent be inclined to develop a liturgy of Quantitative Adoration for their worship—although the Pythagoreans did just that, as we have seen. Nevertheless, these beliefs ascribe to matter or mathematical laws, respectively, the same non-dependent status that a Jew, Christian, or Muslim ascribes to God, or a Hindu attributes to Brahman-Atman. Rather than having no religion at all, such people simply have a very different idea of what is divine, an idea that makes worship seem inappropriate.
Since this last point has such far-reaching significance for the relation of religious belief to theories, and thus to the main thesis of this book, I have only introduced it here and will return to deal with objections to it in a separate section at the end of this chapter.
Another reservation that has been raised about this definition is the worry that taking primary religious beliefs to be the right focus of attention may amount to reducing religion to something mental. It could thus devalue worship and other practices which are as real a part of religion as belief is. And some objectors go so far as to suggest that starting with belief as the key issue is mistaken because it rules out the possibility that religion may be studied by, say, a historian or sociologist.
First, I must say that this is not really an objection to my definition. The definition could be right even if it’s correct that focusing on it could run the risk of devaluing other sides of religious life and practice. Nevertheless, the definition is, as I see it, innocent of this charge. It does not reduce religion to something mental, if “reduce” means that religion is restricted to the mental. I do contend that it is only humans that are religious in an unqualified sense, and that it is their per se divinity beliefs which comprise the primary manifestation of that qualification. All other things which can be called religious are so in a sense derivative from the religious condition of human nature as expressed in per se divinity beliefs. But this does not mean there are no non-mental things that acquire genuinely religious significance in relation to those beliefs and the people who hold them. For this same reason, it is also not true that my definition rules out historical, sociological, or other types of studies of religion. What the definition does show, however, is that for these studies to succeed, we need to be able to recognize which beliefs are religious, and how historical events or social groups relate to them. For unless we are able to distinguish a religious from a non-religious belief, and unless we can then discover the content of the religious belief held by the people participating in the practices or institutions we want to study, we can never be sure of whether a particular practice or institution is religious or of precisely the sense in which it is (think again of the large number of practices cited earlier that can be religious or not).
The fact that we are sometimes able to infer that certain practices or institutions are religious even when we can’t discover the beliefs that underlie them, does not count against this last point. At times we can indeed infer that certain actions are worship even though we are observing people whose customs are strange and whose language we do not speak. But we can do this only because of the likeness between their actions and the actions of others which we already know to be worship . Thus it is still true that we can recognize practices or institutions as religious only by knowing their relation to primary or secondary religious beliefs, whether we know of them directly or infer them by analogy.
For these reasons, I find not only that my definition doesn’t impede sociological or historical studies of religion, but that it alone makes it possible for us to know when a practice or institution qualifies as a specifically religious one. To see how it does this, however, it is important to keep in mind we are still speaking here of whether or not a practice or organization is religious because it is qualified by a type (3) secondary belief (as mentioned already, only people and their type (1) divinity beliefs are religious in the primary sense).
In this sense, an institution or practice is religious if its central purpose is to aid people to stand in the right relation to the divine. Thus a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple would be specifically religious institutions. So would a campground run for the religious improvement of those who attend. Likewise, prayer, fasting, sacrifice, or the celebration of a holy day would all count as religious practices if done for the same reason. By contrast, a family, school, business, or government, even if run differently owing to the influence of a religious belief, is not a religious institution. 27 A school which includes the study—even advocacy—of a particular religious belief is certainly under religious influence, as is a government which outlaws polygamy or a corporation which gives employees a certain holy day off. Such influences would not be sufficient to make those organizations count as specifically religious ones, however, since in each case the central purpose of those institutions remains to educate, to govern, or to make a living, rather than to aid people to stand in right relation to the divine. It is in this way my definition is able to supply an important interpretive key for historical and sociological studies of religion.
With these replies to criticisms, can we now say that the definitions offered for primary and secondary religious belief, and for divinity per se, have been proven beyond a doubt? That, I think, would be claiming too much. Very few definitions can be conclusively proven. So the question should be: have the definitions defended here been established as having an overwhelming preponderance of evidence in their favor, to be better than any other, and very likely correct? I must confess to thinking this is so. I know of no religious tradition to which they do not apply, and neither did any of the other thinkers who have held this view. Nor can I think of any clearly non-religious belief or teaching which the definitions would improperly class as religious (which is the point I promised to defend in more detail at the end of this chapter). Therefore, I maintain that the definition of religious belief defended here is the best way to understand religious belief, and will take it to be correct in all that follows until and unless it can be shown to be faulty.
2.5 Some Auxiliary Definitions
At this point the most important terms used in association with religious belief which are still left unclarified are “faith” and “trust.” In offering clarifications of these terms I will again be concerned with the ways they are used of beliefs. And I will take the position that a belief is an innate or acquired disposition to trust a concept of some state of affairs to correspond to what is in fact the case, and to think, speak, act, or hold other beliefs in ways which trust the linguistic statement of the concept to assert what is in fact the case.
Having said that, it should be noticed that I just used “trust” in a broader sense than it is ordinarily used in English, because I used it to apply to all beliefs. According to ordinary usage, however, the word “belief” has broader application than either “trust” or “faith,” since the latter are only used in connection with beliefs regarded as desirable. Thus it is quite usual for someone to say, e.g., that he believes his medical report will be bad or that she believes she is about to be fired, but it would not be ordinary usage for someone to say that he trusts his medical report will be bad or that she has faith she is about to be fired. In addition, “faith” and “trust” are also usually restricted to beliefs which manifest a strong personal reliance on what is believed, which is yet another characteristic that does not arise in connection with every act of belief. For example, I believe there was an ice age about 20,000 years ago without personally relying on that belief in any way that makes a practical difference to me. So it must be specified here that in the circumscription of “belief” offered in the last paragraph, I was not retaining these restrictions on “trust” so often found in common usage. Instead I used it to mean our reliance on a concept as true, whether or not we regard what is believed to be desirable. For this reason per se divinity beliefs, whether or not regarded as desirable truths, will all turn out to involve trust as I use that term. And, of course, they one and all have hugely important practical results for the lives of those who believe them.
There is at least one trait possessed by religious trust, however, which is not true of non-religious trust. This is that the religious trust in something as divine per se always takes its object to be unconditionally reliable whereas non-religious trust is usually exercised with the reservation that its object is conditioned by circumstances which could affect its reliability. To rephrase the quote from Luther cited earlier: whatever our heart clings and entrusts itself to as unconditionally trustworthy is really our God (our per se divinity). This cannot fail to be right given our definition of “divine.” For nothing could be unconditionally trustworthy unless it had unconditional reality. Thus regarding anything as unconditionally reliable presupposes that it is divine in the sense proposed by our definition. And this remains the case whether or not a believer’s subjective feelings of confidence do or do not correspond to the unconditional status believed to be possessed by the object of his or her trust. It is always possible for people to feel less confidence or more confidence than is actually warranted by the object of their trust. 28
With these clarifications behind us, we may now notice some finer shades of meaning acquired by the terms “faith” and “trust” when they are used of religious beliefs. One of these is the difference between them depending on whether they are followed by the word “that” or the word “in.” For example, we at times speak of trusting that God will help us and at other times of having faith in God. Granted that these two meanings are closely related, there still seems to be some difference between them. 29
As I see it, faith or trust “in” something is the more basic expression, used to signify trust in its central meaning: openhearted acceptance of, and reliance on, what is believed. On the other hand, faith or trust “that” something is the case is an expression which is used with respect to belief which has undergone reflective judgment. It is faith whose content has been analyzed and given a conscious articulation; it takes the form of a statement of just what is being relied on. In the religious sphere, then, “faith that” God will do such and such is often a reflective consequence of our “faith in” God as reliable. I do not mean to suggest, however, that faith or trust “in” is at odds with faith or trust “that.” Since humans cannot help thinking about that which they trust, all trusting has an element of reflection—just as all thinking has an element of trust. So, too, religious “faith in” inevitably becomes also “faith that”; the two elements never exist in isolation. Nevertheless, the two expressions are useful because they allow us to distinguish those two elements and to refer to them separately if we wish.
Closely associated with the difference between belief “in” and belief “that” is the difference between “faith” and “trust” when they are used to refer to the act or to the content of belief. It is “faith” in the sense of the content of belief which occurs in such expressions as “the Christian faith,” “the Jewish faith,” and so on. In this sense “faith” is equivalent to “creed.” This distinction is helpful as we often need to be clear about whether we are talking about an act of trust or a statement of what is trusted. But once again it must be kept in mind that what is being distinguished here are components of all beliefs, components which never really exist in isolation.
Having now defined the most important terms for our discussion of religious belief, I want to dispel a possible misunderstanding which might arise from the way I spoke of people “regarding something as divine.” I did say that whatever someone believes to be non-dependently real is thereby believed to be divine per se by that person. This way of speaking was not intended, however, to suggest that every idea of what is divine is equally right so that all such beliefs are equally true. The mere fact that someone regards something as utterly non-dependent does not make it so; a person’s per se divinity belief may be ever so pious, fervent, and sincere, but still be misplaced and false.
It is important to remember in this connection that the definition of religious belief was a definition of the status of divinity per se. That was the only thing I found all primary religious beliefs to agree upon. Despite this agreement, religions are still very far from agreeing upon the further description of what has that status, or upon how the divine relates to whatever is not divine, or how humans come to stand in proper relation to the divine. Where there are incompatible ideas about these issues, the laws of logic guarantee that they cannot all be true. It cannot be true, for example, that only God as revealed in the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran is divine, but also be true that it is Brahman-Atman that is divine. That could only be the case if “God” and “Brahman-Atman” were different names for the same reality, rather than for different putative realities accorded the same unconditional status . And since God is an individual person who is distinct from all else while Brahman-Atman is neither, they cannot be the same reality; it is logically impossible that the universe is entirely distinct from the per se divinity it depends on (as in the case of God) but also true that the universe is in toto part of the divinity it depends on (as in the case of Brahman-Atman). That could only be the case if “distinct from” and “part of” were synonyms. Thus it is not the case that the biblical God is the God of which all other religions are dimly aware, but about whom they know less or make mistakes. 30
In sum, logic requires that religious trust can be either well-placed or misplaced as can non-religious trust, and that beliefs about the divine must—as must all other beliefs—be either true or false but cannot be both at once. It follows, therefore, that when two beliefs disagree about what is divine, one or both of them must be (at least partly) false. In the next chapter we will see this more clearly when we use the definitions developed here to distinguish the types of dependency arrangements that have arisen in several of the world’s major religious traditions relative to their per se divinity beliefs. As that project proceeds it will become apparent that although there are strong similarities among traditions holding the same type of dependency arrangement, those which hold to different types of these arrangements are hopelessly incompatible. Far from being different paths up the same mountain, they do not agree on which mountain to climb. 31
2.6 Are All Non-Dependence Beliefs Religious?
This is the point I introduced earlier and promised to return to. It deserves separate treatment both because it is crucial to my central thesis, and also because it is bound to be the most contested point for those who wish to contend that religious belief need play no role whatever in theory making. The objection is that even if the definitions offered above are correct, and even if they make an important contribution to religious studies, nothing said so far warrants the conclusion that all beliefs in something as unconditionally real need be religious. “After all,” it may be said, “all dogs are animals but not all animals are dogs. So too, primary religious beliefs may all be beliefs in something as non-dependent without it being true that all such beliefs are religious. And surely they are not! Aren’t there theories in both philosophy and science that clearly teach or assume something to be non-dependent? But surely these beliefs are not religious, and any attempt to make them so by simply defining them that way is nothing more than a cheap trick.”
Now I realize that many people have such a strong antipathy to religion that nothing I could say would ever persuade them that it is important to theories or anything else. I vividly recall the time one of my graduate school classmates said, “Show me any belief I hold that’s religious in any sense and I’ll give it up on the spot!” Nevertheless, the weight of argument is overwhelmingly on the side of the claim that all beliefs in anything as unconditionally non-dependent are in fact religious.
First of all, there’s the obvious point that whatever anyone takes to be non-dependent reality plays the same role in the entire complex of his or her beliefs that divinity beliefs do in religions. For whatever is believed to be non-dependent per se is also given some further description, and that description carries implications that are type (2) or (3) secondary religious beliefs as they include beliefs about human nature, happiness, and destiny.
Take the example of philosophical materialism. It proposes that reality is ultimately physical, so that everything is either matter or dependent on matter. 32 Far from being the opposite of a religious belief, this is itself one possible idea of what has divine status. Recall, in this connection, the examples given earlier of several religions that held, or do hold, matter to be divine per se. Just what is the difference between modern materialism’s ultimate reality claim and the ultimate reality claim found in these religions? I find no significant difference at all. Each implies the same general view of human nature, each sees human destiny the same way, each has the same implications for values, and each has the same general view of human happiness.
This point usually provokes several replies. The first is that the religious traditions append to their idea of ultimate reality a set of type (3) secondary beliefs about how one should conduct one’s life in order to stand in proper relation to the divine, while theories of philosophy and science are interested in explaining the world around us not in putting us in right relation to the divine. In other words, this reply proposes that a belief can’t be religious simply because it’s a belief in something as having non-dependent reality, but is religious only when it is conjoined to some type (3) secondary beliefs—beliefs about how to stand in proper relation to the divine so as to receive personal benefits not otherwise obtainable. And, it could be added, since I already admitted that having both type (2) and type (3) secondary beliefs is common to all cultic religious traditions, I can’t now hope to get away with ignoring the type (3) beliefs.
This reply touches on an important truth while at the same time falling into an important error. The element of truth is that it would, indeed, be a mistake to ignore the fact that in religious traditions some type (3) secondary beliefs are always conjoined to any primary religious belief. The error is to suppose that any idea of ultimate reality really can avoid generating both types of secondary beliefs whether it arises in a theory or in a religious tradition. Let’s stay with the example of materialism. Just as with the secondary beliefs of religious traditions, materialism delimits a distinctive range of acceptable ideas not only of human nature and destiny, but of what can and can’t be done to improve the human condition. Doesn’t materialism require a distinctive view of human values and happiness which is offered as the proper way to live in the light of its alleged truth? Doesn’t it require, e.g., either that there are no real value properties in the world or that they are all physically determined? Have not the major proponents of this position made much of the way it “liberates” us from all its allegedly false alternatives and so yields benefits for our lives not otherwise available? Of course, this does not apply only to materialism; any and every idea of ultimate reality will carry with it the equivalent of type (2) and type (3) secondary beliefs. In that respect, none differs at all from any other, and certainly they do not differ depending upon whether they occur in cultic religious traditions or in theories. 33
Nothing just said is intended to deny there are real differences between a theory and a religion, however. In theories, divinity beliefs are used to construct explanations in which they become the basic assumptions guiding the formation of hypotheses. Religious traditions, by contrast, emphasize bringing their adherents to the actual acquisition of a proper relation to the divine in order to obtain present happiness and (often but not always) an ultimate destiny not otherwise obtainable. That’s an important difference, but it’s a difference of emphasis not exclusion. Divinity beliefs occurring in religious traditions are also used to provide explanations, and—as I’ve been saying—theories can’t avoid implications for the personal attitudes and conduct of those who believe them. The vast majority of philosophers have not only admitted this point, but have gone to pains to point to the personal benefits of their theory’s idea of ultimate reality. They have been anxious to show that their theory does indeed have concrete results for guiding our lives. Theories in the social sciences do the same. It’s the theories of the natural sciences that often seem uninterested in personal benefits to their adherents (beyond knowing the truth). But that surface disinterest will be irrelevant to my claim about the religious control of theories if even theories in the natural sciences can’t avoid presupposing some idea of ultimate reality—which is exactly what I will be showing in the chapters that follow. For if theories in the natural sciences cannot avoid presupposing a view of ultimate reality, then they too carry implications for the personal lives of their adherents whether they spell them out or not.
To be more specific, in later chapters I will argue that all theories are regulated by some per se divinity belief either directly or indirectly. The direct regulation occurs when a theory contains a claim about the nature of reality, since (I will argue) every view of the nature of reality can’t fail to include or assume an idea of ultimate reality. The indirect regulation occurs when a theory doesn’t explicitly contain a view of the nature of reality, but can be seen to presuppose some such view. So if no theory of philosophy or the sciences can avoid including or presupposing a view of the nature of reality, then no theory can avoid including or presupposing some per se divinity belief.
Thus, my answer to this first reply is to agree with it. It doesn’t matter to my definition whether a belief in something as ultimate reality is religious all by itself or only when conjoined with beliefs about human nature, destiny, values, and the right conduct of life. Even if that’s true, beliefs in something as ultimate reality will all turn out to be just as religious when they occur in theories as when they occur in religious traditions.
A second reply against my position is to say that neither core beliefs about ultimate reality nor secondary beliefs are religious if they are accepted on rational grounds rather than on faith. If they have reasons and arguments for them, such beliefs are to be reckoned as philosophy or science and are not religious at all. It is only when they are taken on faith that they have truly religious import. Unlike the first reply, this one wants to immunize theories from religious influence not by a difference in their content, but by a difference in the grounds on which their contents are accepted.
But, in fact, reasons and arguments are not confined to philosophy and the sciences. There have been many arguments offered by religious thinkers and theologians. For example, there are arguments to prove the existence of God and to critique alternative divinity beliefs. And that is fatal to this reply. For it requires that anyone who accepts such an argument would thereby have a belief in God that is non-religious! But, as I said earlier, any view that has the result of making belief in God (or a god) non-religious has discredited itself. Besides, this objection certainly seems to ascribe divine status to the principles of reason and thus itself to be based upon a religious belief. For surely there can be no arguments or reasons for the reliability of reason that could avoid using reason to do so and thus beg the question!
Nor are these the only reasons why this proposal doesn’t work. Notice that it presents us only with the options that a divinity belief can be either based on argument or accepted on blind trust. Now the fact is that no religion I know of has ever asked anyone to believe it on blind trust. All alike insist that people must have the experience of seeing it to be true for themselves. So why think that argued reasons and blind trust are the only options? Both with respect to religious belief and to non-religious beliefs, these are surely not the only options. Many of our beliefs are based on direct experience and so are neither derived from other beliefs by argument nor accepted on blind trust. For example, you are now reading these words. Your belief that you are reading them is not based on other beliefs from which you infer that you are reading them, but it’s not blind trust either. And many thinkers have held that divinity beliefs are accepted in a similar way. The distinguished philosopher Paul Ziff once described his materialism that way. He said, “If you ask me why I’m a materialist I’m not sure what to say. It’s not because of the arguments. I guess I’d just have to say that reality looks irresistibly physical to me.” 34 And that, remarkably enough, is exactly what John Calvin said about his belief in God:

As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that [scripture] came from God… it is just the same as if we were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter. Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth as do white and black of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste. 35
In later chapters I will return to this point indirectly by presenting reasons for thinking that there can be no theoretical justification for attributing independent existence to the various candidates for it that have been advocated by so many theories (rational laws, matter, sense perceptions, etc.). If that is right, then either every such belief accepted by a theory is sheer mistake or blind faith, or there is experiential ground for them—as Calvin, Ziff, and so many others report.
I have made a detailed case for the experiential ground of religious belief elsewhere and there is not the room to repeat all that here. 36 All I can do for now is point briefly to the way experiencing something as divine per se is a better explanation than any other for the universality of religious belief among humans in all times and places. People have always been drawn to the question of their origins, not just in the sense of what processes produced them but also (and mainly) in the sense of what they ultimately depend upon. That is why I have been speaking of the only unqualified sense of “religious” as an existential condition of human beings. It is the condition of the whole human, not just of thought, or feeling, or will, etc. Its primary manifestation is a per se divinity belief, but even that derives from the innate impulse of humans to direct themselves toward the ultimate reality upon which they and everything else depends, and to understand their own nature and the right conduct of their lives in the light of whatever they take that ultimate reality to be. 37 Even without thinking up arguments, people have always instinctively formed such beliefs. So while there is little doubt that they at times invented specific gods as bearers of divine power, they would—as I pointed out earlier—already have had to believe something to be divine per se in order to do that. So although specific gods may have been inventions, religion as a whole was not. It arose from people discovering in their experience something that “just looked irresistibly” non-dependent. If this account is right, divinity beliefs can be “basic” beliefs—beliefs not derived from other beliefs. 38 In that case they are neither blind faith nor based on arguments, so the reply collapses that they are non-religious when argued for in theories. Furthermore, if beliefs about ultimate reality are not capable of theoretical justification (as I shall argue later), and if they are instead the products of direct experience (as I shall premise here having argued for it elsewhere), then the arguments that are proffered in theories are merely consequences, rather than the real ground, of those beliefs.
Meanwhile, the view that divinity beliefs are based on experience is a defeater for the claim that a belief is non-religious if argued for—even for those who may wish to disagree with it! The reason is that the very possibility that the real ground of such beliefs is experience not argument makes the claim inconclusive. The very fact that there is a prima facie plausible account showing those beliefs to be grounded in experience rather than blind faith or argument means it’s not enough just to say that those are the only options. For those to be the only options, arguments would first have to be given to defeat and dismiss religious experience as their real ground. But no one has yet ever come within miles of doing that, and I see no likely prospect anyone ever will. I conclude, therefore, that this second reply to my position is simply not successful.
Finally, consider the objection that my case for the religious nature of beliefs about ultimate reality might just as well be turned around in favor of the philosophical character of religious belief. Why not, it is said, start by surveying philosophical theories instead of religions and find beliefs in something as ultimate reality to be common to theories of reality and knowledge? Then the conclusion could just as well be that religions all share a philosophical assumption as it could be that theories have a religious one. Doesn’t that undermine the case for religious regulation of theories?
My answer to this has two parts. The first is to say that there is an important sense in which I am not arguing for the term “religious”; if someone insists on substituting another term, say, “ultimate reality beliefs,” it won’t make any real difference to my central thesis. For if, as I will argue, such beliefs exercise an unavoidable regulatory influence in all theories, my case will not be altered merely by giving them a different name. My central thesis can just as well be stated as the claim that it’s the same sort of belief that regulates theories as is essential to religions, that these beliefs are incapable of rational justification, and that they arise in human experience independently of theories and so are not derived from them. That being so, nothing truly important about my central thesis would change no matter which term is used for them.
That said, however, there is still a legitimate question as to the most appropriate term for such beliefs. Is “metaphysical” just as good as “religious?” That is surely an odd and unpersuasive proposal. For if beliefs in something as non-dependent not only arise in pre-theoretical experience and are incapable of the kind of justification we seek in theories but have also existed among humans at all times and places regardless of whether metaphysical theories did, what on earth could be the reason for now calling them by the name of a certain kind of theory ?
To see the force of this answer, suppose for a moment that the shoe were on the other foot. Suppose no such beliefs had existed outside theories but had arisen only in the course of elaborate, abstract systems of metaphysics. Suppose that cults then arose which advocated that the independent realities proposed by those theories be worshipped in addition to being employed in explanatory theories. Would it now be convincing to insist that ultimate reality beliefs are really religious rather than metaphysical? Wouldn’t the opponents of religion consider that outrageous? Wouldn’t they say that since those beliefs arose in philosophy it is an arbitrary piece of imperialism to claim that they should now properly be called religious? Wouldn’t they say that attempting to regard such beliefs as grounded in immediate experience is unconvincing in the face of the fact that they originated as postulates of metaphysical theories that were accepted because of arguments? I think they would say exactly that, and that they’d be quite right to do so. But since the shoe isn’t on that foot, I find these same reasons to be compelling in favor of holding “religious” to be the appropriate term for such beliefs whether they occur in theories or not.
With the failure of these final objections, I conclude that the definitions proposed here are left standing. So, too, is the religious character of beliefs in something as unconditionally real, regardless of the context in which those beliefs occur. In the next chapter these definitions will therefore be used to aid our understanding of some of the basic types of dependency arrangements found in the major religions of the world today. The significance of these arrangements is not confined to those traditions, however. Distinguishing them will also prepare us to notice the same dependency patterns in philosophical and scientific theories when we reach the later chapters.
Chapter 3
Let us now turn to some of the major world religions of the present day and see how the definitions just developed can help us to understand them. We cannot, of course, work up a detailed comparison of even two such traditions, let alone five or six, without getting completely sidetracked from our main topic. But it will prove very enlightening if we look briefly at the most influential of the world’s religions by grouping them according to the way they view the non-divine as depending on the divine, that is, according to the dependency arrangements I referred to in the last chapter as type (2) secondary beliefs. Becoming more precise about these arrangements not only will cast significant light on these traditions, but will allow us to be more aware of such arrangements when we find them in theories later on.
3.1 The Basis for Typing Religions
Dealing with the major world religions according to their ideas of how they see the non-divine to depend on the divine is a major benefit yielded by the definitions developed in the previous chapter . It allows us to do better than classify the various traditions according to some arbitrarily selected feature(s). In the past religions have been categorized, for example, by how many gods they had, or whether they advocated a strict morality, and so on. But these ways of typing the major traditions are not only arbitrary but too narrow in the sense that they have a very limited range of application.
Once we take the dependency arrangement idea as our guide, it becomes clear that there are three such arrangements which prevail in the world today. (These are not the only ones possible; I have been able to distinguish at least fourteen possible dependency arrangements.) I will call these three the pagan, the biblical, and the pantheistic dependency ideas. “Biblical,” as I use it, is a blanket term for the theistic belief in a transcendent Creator found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; while the term “pantheist” includes Hinduism, Buddhism, and the more recent forms of Taoism. The pagan type of religious belief covers such a wide variety of traditions that I cannot now clarify it by simply naming one or two of them, although we will shortly examine a few of its most influential representatives. Before doing that, however, I want to make it clear that the term “pagan” is not a derogatory term as I use it. It is not being used as, say, Christian missionaries used the term “heathen” in the nineteenth century. It does not refer only to beliefs that are superstitious or irrational, or which are held only by people deemed to be primitive. On the contrary, we will see that paganism can be quite sophisticated and that its sophisticated forms still exercise a tremendous influence in the world today.
3.2 The Pagan Type
The essential feature of the pagan dependency idea is that the divine per se is some part, aspect, force, or principle in the universe open to our ordinary experience and thought. Put another way, the pagan dependency arrangement takes it that there is only one continuous reality, a part of which is the per se divine on which all the rest depends. Perhaps the following schema will help to make this clear. If we use a solid line to represent the divine and a broken line to represent the non-divine, then our visual aid for the pagan dependency idea would look like Figure 1 .

Figure 1
A wide variety of religious beliefs fall under this pagan type. Nature religions which worshiped a divine power in the earth, the sun, rivers, the sea, etc., are all examples of it, as are most polytheisms. For example, one of the most commonly worshiped gods in the ancient world was the god that controlled storms. It was called Ba’al in the near East, Zeus in Greece, Jupiter in Rome. In each case this god was believed to be one among many divinities that are divine in the secondary sense: they were beings that owed their existence to something that is divine per se, but who had more divine power than humans do. The beliefs in Mana, Numen, and Kami as per se divinities that I mentioned earlier also fall under this type. Although these traditions often disagreed about the names and the precise descriptions of specific gods, and although some have gods others lack, they all held the divine per se to have the same general relation to what is non-divine, namely, that the divine per se is part of every non-divine thing. Thus Werner Jaeger’s characterization of this dependency arrangement when it appears in philosophy due to the influence of Hesiod, applies quite well to all pagan belief:

When Hesiod’s thought at last gives way to truly philosophical thinking, the Divine is sought within the world—not outside it as in Judeo-Christian theology that develops out of the book of Genesis. 1
In connection with my remark that pagan belief is still strong in the world today, we need to keep in mind the point made in the last chapter about religion not always resulting in worship. For as long as we think only of the forms of paganism expressed in ritual and worship it will be impossible to believe that paganism is a significant force in the world today. This is because paganism that includes worship—call it “cultic” paganism—has long been in decline in the face of advances by Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as from the pressures of non-cultic pagan beliefs such as materialism and other theories that regard some aspect of the universe as non-dependent and thus as divine per se. Such non-cultic paganisms, however, have continued to flourish. Many modern thinkers in philosophy and the sciences maintain theories whose assumptions are as much pagan religious beliefs as those of their ancient counterparts. For example, while the religious commune of the Pythagoreans died out long ago, and nobody I know of worships numbers any more, the Pythagorean belief that numbers or other elements of mathematics are parts of a realm of self-existent realities on which all else depends (at least in part) is far from dead. Indeed, it continues to dominate large domains of scientific thinking to this day. 2 And, as we already saw, it is equally a non-cultic pagan belief to regard matter and energy, rather than numbers, as the non-dependent reality on which all else depends. For this, too, is a case of believing some aspect of the natural world to be divine.
It might be instructive at this point to apply my account of the pagan type of religious belief to the theory of dialectical materialism proposed by Karl Marx. This is an especially interesting case since Marxism is an avowedly anti-religious theory. In its interpretation of everything from physics and biology to economics, history, and politics, Marxism professes to be opposed to all religions of whatever kind. According to Marx’s theory, matter/energy is the basic reality, and within matter there is an innate law which drives things to change according to a process he calls “dialectical” development. This law has caused matter to organize into a multitude of forms over millions of years: galaxies and solar systems, living things, humans, and human societies are all products of matter being organized by the law of dialectical development.
The Marxist hypothesis goes on to propose that this dialectical law, when correctly understood, shows that free-market (capitalistic) economics is the cause of unjust and repressive governments and is doomed to pass away. This will take place as there develop governments willing to abolish private ownership, which is the root of all evil. Once communistic economic systems can be established, they will in turn bring about governments which are ever more just, so that there will be continually greater happiness throughout all humanity. The eventual outcome will be the emergence of the final stage of history: the communist society. In such a society the citizens will not only spontaneously eschew private ownership, but never even wish for it. Because of this, crime will disappear and so will the need for government. Society will be free of the alienation of one group from another since there will no longer be classes with adversarial interests. There will no longer be any alienation from nature, or from the means of producing the necessities of life. People will be happy and good, and will live in peace.
It should be clear, however, that although Marx was indeed an atheist, his theories all presuppose the non-dependence or self-existence of matter; physical matter, along with its innate law of dialectical development, is “just there.” 3 Matter depends on nothing whatever, and all of reality either is identical with or depends on matter. For this reason, despite its protests to the contrary, Marx’s theory is based on a religious belief. And, what is more to the point, this religious belief is a typically pagan one since it takes something about the universe (matter and its dialectical law) to be the self-existent segment of reality on which all else depends. We are entitled to this conclusion because our definitions have shown not only why a belief can be religious without involving worship, but why it can be religious whether or not its subscribers wish it or admit it. I mention this again because it is especially true of non-cultic paganisms that their advocates often deny their beliefs to be religious at all, and refer to them as “secular” or “nonsectarian”—terms intended to convey that they are religiously neutral. As soon as we compare these beliefs with our definition of “divinity per se,” however, we can see why many beliefs passed off as humanist or secular are in fact alternative religious beliefs.
The examples of Pythagoreanism and materialism are cases of paganism in which there is only one kind of reality that is divine per se. But the most popular forms of pagan belief throughout history have belonged to a sub-type called “dualism” to indicate the belief that there are two distinct per se divinities rather than only one. According to the most influential beliefs of this sub-type, it is the interaction between the two divinities that produces the rest of reality that is non-divine. The form-matter belief of the ancient Greeks is an example of such dualism, as is the Taoist Yin-Yang doctrine. Figure 2 shows the previously offered schema altered to reflect this difference.

Figure 2
Usually in religions that believe there are two divine realities, one of the divinities is regarded as the source of what is good in the world while the other is the source of what is evil. The dualistic paganism of ancient Greece just mentioned is a case in point. It saw the two divinities as: (1) Matter, an original stuff of which all things are made, and (2) Form, the principle of orderliness which makes the stuff into the intelligible world we experience. Some Greek thinkers understood this divine orderliness as being logical in nature, while others saw it as essentially mathematical. Applied to the idea of human nature, this dualistic faith taught that humans, too, are combinations of form and matter. The human body is constituted of matter, which generates feeling and passion. By contrast, the human mind is an embodiment of form because it is able to reason logically and/or mathematically. On this view, all that is good, beautiful, and true has an essentially rational character and is known by the mind’s exercising rational thought. By contrast, all that is evil and disordered is brought about by the bodily impulses of irrational feeling and passion. Human life is therefore a constant struggle between one’s emotional nature and one’s rational nature, between one’s body and one’s mind.
From the basic duality of its two divinities, this version of paganism saw not only human nature but all of reality as permeated by corresponding pairs of oppositions: good vs. evil, rational vs. irrational, stability vs. change, order vs. disorder, beauty vs. ugliness, etc. This outlook still enjoys great popularity in our culture today. But no matter how comfortable many non-pagans have come to feel about it, this dualistic picture of things is in conflict with both the biblical and the pantheistic types of religious belief.
3.3 The Pantheistic Type
The chief examples of contemporary religions advocating the pantheistic dependency arrangement are Hinduism and Buddhism. This arrangement may best be seen as the inverse of the one held by paganism. Instead of locating the divine as a subdivision of the one continuous reality, the pantheistic belief is that whatever we experience as non-divine reality is in fact a subdivision of the divine reality, which is both infinite and all-encompassing. This last point creates an obstacle for drawing a schema to illustrate it, however, since we can’t draw an infinitely large circle. So I will simply stipulate that the finite circle in Figure 3 stands for an infinite one.

Figure 3
This schema shows that the pantheistic religions share with pagan religions the conviction that there is only one continuous reality. The two disagree, however, over whether there is more to reality than what is divine per se (pagan), or whether the divine is co-extensive with or greater than the non-divine, so that the latter is a subdivision of the divine (pantheistic). Given this difference, we may say that from the pagan standpoint there is a clear-cut distinction between what is divine and what is not, but from the pantheistic standpoint the distinction is a tricky issue. For if the non-divine is in its entirety part of the divine, how can there really be anything that is not divine? And if there is not, just what distinction is being drawn?
The answer given by the pantheistic traditions was already touched on in the last chapter . It says that, yes, the divine is the very essence and being of all things, but that we nevertheless experience individual things and events of our everyday world to be non-divine. So the distinction made in these traditions is not between a portion of reality that is truly divine per se and a portion that is truly not, but between the divine being of all things and the illusory appearance that there are things which are not divine . It is because the difference is so great between our illusory everyday experience (Maya) and the divine reality which lies behind it, that the scriptures and disciplines of the pantheistic traditions do not simply teach this doctrine but are aimed at inducing a mystical experience of the oneness of all things. Only by such a mystical experience, they say, can a person overcome the veil of illusion, see behind the world of mere appearance, and become aware of the divine reality which is hidden by it. This divine reality is called Brahman-Atman in Hinduism; Dharmakaya, the Void, Suchness, Nothing, Nirvana (and other terms) in Buddhism; the Tao in Taoism.
Here it should be stressed that the sense in which most of the versions of these traditions hold that the world is unreal as it is known by ordinary experience and reason is a very serious one, indeed. They do not mean only that the everyday world is less real than the divine reality it conceals; they mean that everything about it is unreal . According to them, mystical experience shows the divine not only to be the true nature of all things, but in fact to be the only reality so that the divine is all there is. Thus, even the most commonplace features of the everyday world are illusory on this view. 4 For example, according to the prevailing versions of these traditions there really are no distinct, individual objects; no real differences of qualities—even including the difference between good and evil! At bottom all things are one; there is only the divine.
This doctrine usually appears strange and unpalatable to Westerners who often point out that it leads to logical contradictions. In answer to such criticisms, these traditions warn that without the necessary mystical experience people will always fail to understand or to believe in the (hidden) identity of all things with the divine. The criticism that this position is self-contradictory, they say, fails to recognize that logical thinking is also part of the world of illusion. As such, it is part of the deception that prevents people from discovering the divine unity of all reality. According to the pantheistic dependency arrangement, therefore, not only is the divine never to be conceived of as any one part or aspect of the world (as paganism does); since logic is ruled out, the divine cannot be conceived at all. This is why the Hindu and Buddhist traditions insist on a mystical experience of unity with the divine per se as the only means for discovering the truth about it.
The difference between the pagan and pantheistic dependency arrangements results in other important disagreements between them. Take, for example, the different type (3) secondary beliefs according to which they interpret human nature and the proper ordering of values in life. According to the influential Greek version of paganism sketched earlier, what is wrong with people is their failure to recognize human reason as the embodiment of the same divine principles that give order to all reality, and to work at overcoming the impulses of emotion by making rationality the highest value both in their personal lives and in human society. On this view, then, to live in accordance with reason is the proper way to relate to the divine, highest value in life, and that which leads to genuine happiness.
By contrast, the pantheistic traditions insist that what is wrong with people is that they believe the illusory world, including human rationality, to be real. Since no distinct part or feature of the natural world is either divine or even real from the pantheistic standpoint, the proper way to relate to the divine is to discover the true (divine) reality by rejecting and detaching oneself from the illusory world of ordinary experience. The highest value for humans, on this view, is not the rational ordering of life, but complete rejection of ordinary experience including reason! This, as we saw, is to be achieved through a mystical experience of complete union with the divine. Moreover, this experience does more than merely disclose the divine, it is also the means of gaining release from the (unreal) world of illusion and suffering. Thus, common to all the pantheist traditions is the teaching that the proper way to relate to the divine and the highest value in life is to seek enlightenment via mystical experience. Failure to achieve that experience in the present lifetime results in one’s being reincarnated into yet other lifetimes of illusion and suffering. And this is believed to continue (usually through millions of lifetimes) until a person is finally enlightened by mystical experience and is thereby exempted from future reincarnations. That is, once enlightened, a person is guaranteed Nirvana: the state in which one’s individual (illusory) self is absorbed into the divine “as a drop of water is absorbed into the ocean.” That is the state of “unspeakable bliss”, and thus the fulfillment of true human nature and of genuine happiness in its highest sense.
3.4 The Biblical Type
In contrast to both the pagan and the pantheistic dependency ideas, the biblical arrangement denies that there is one continuous reality . The Hebrew idea of creation, which is basic also to Christianity and Islam, is that God (or Allah) the Creator is distinct from the universe which he brought into existence out of nothing. According to this teaching, the divine per se is not part of the universe nor is the universe part of the divine; there is a fundamental discontinuity between the creator and all else which is his creation. This basic difference has been well expressed by Will Herberg. Using the expression “Greco-Oriental” to cover both the pagan and the pantheistic dependency ideas, and the term “Hebraic” to refer to the biblical idea, Herberg says:

Hebraic and Greco-Oriental religion, as religion, agree in affirming some Absolute Reality as Ultimate, but differ fundamentally in what they say about this reality. To Greco-Oriental thought, whether mystical or philosophic, the ultimate reality is some primal unpersonal force… some ineffable, immutable, impassive divine substance that pervades the universe or rather is the universe insofar as the latter is at all real.…
Nothing could be further from normative Hebraic religion.… As against the Greco-Oriental conception of immanence , of divinity permeating all things and constituting their reality, Hebraic religion affirms God as a transcendent person, who has indeed created the universe but who cannot without blasphemy be identified with it. Where Greco-Oriental religion sees a continuity between God and the universe, Hebraic religion insists on discontinuity. 5
As a consequence, the biblical traditions neither exalt some part of creation to divine status nor dismiss the created universe as illusory. The universe is less real than God, of course, since it depends on God while God doesn’t depend on anything at all. But although dependent, the universe is real just because it has been created by God. And it is important because it is the arena in which humans are to live in fellowship with, and service to, God. Thus the created world is both important and wholly dependent; there is nothing about it which is not dependent on God. Every thing, event, and state of affairs; every part and property, fact and facet, law and norm—in short, everything other than God himself—has been brought into being by God and continues to depend on God, who is the only divinity there is. Figure 4 represents this biblical dependency arrangement.

Figure 4
It is because of this dependency arrangement that the idea of revelation is so important in the biblical traditions. God is not a reality whose nature and purposes can be discovered by searching the universe or by means of a mystical experience in the pantheistic sense. Instead, the biblical traditions are all anchored on the belief that God has created within the world an intelligible revelation of his relations to the universe, especially his relations to humans. This body of teaching is the authoritative guide for all knowledge of God (including the interpretation of unusual religious experiences). It teaches that only God is divine per se, and also conveys the contents of God’s covenant(s) of redemption which are the (type 3) secondary beliefs necessary for humans to stand in proper relation to him. By becoming subscribers to his covenant, or treaty of salvation, people become members of his Kingdom and receive eternal life. By contrast with pagan traditions, then, the religious experience which grounds theism does not find the divine to be any part or aspect of the natural world, but finds it to be revealed in a book. Hence the Muslim recognition that Jews and Christians, despite their differences from Muslims, are also “people of the book.”
And although biblical religion stresses the role of experience in a person’s belief in God, it does not require it to be a “mystical” experience in the sense that Hinduism or Buddhism require. On the biblical view, since God completely transcends creation, even experiences of unity with God are never taken to be with God’s essential being but are always mediated through (and to) something he has created. Still less does any experience lead to becoming part of God. The promised destiny of believers is not to be absorbed into God’s Being, since in the biblical religions humans are and always will be creatures distinct from God. It is distinct individuals, as members of the corporate body of God’s people, who are the objects of God’s love and forgiveness. And it is as individuals that they will be granted everlasting life in God’s final Kingdom. It is that fellowship with God, and with other humans who love God, that is the fulfillment of human nature and constitutes true human happiness. As one of the Christian catechisms puts it: “Question: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
It is crucial to notice, however, that insisting upon the unbridgeable difference between God and creation does not mean that God cannot enter into creation and act in it; it does not mean he cannot be present with people, or that he cannot communicate with them. It simply means that his presence and communication are always accommodated to human understanding by being mediated through relations he creates and uses for that purpose. Nor does his communication usually set aside normal human faculties; he designed humans so that their capacities to experience and know would be able to receive his revelation as well as understand his world so as to serve him in it. So even when the biblical prophets had unusual experiences in connection with receiving revelation from God, that revelation was never something which abandoned ordinary human experience and reason altogether or showed the world to be merely illusion. On the biblical view the world does not conceal the divine, as is supposed by pantheism, but was formed so as to reveal God. (The reason people fail to recognize God’s revelation in nature and his word is called “sin” by Bible writers. We will return to this point presently.) Thus, while there is always that about God which is beyond human comprehension in biblical religion, humans are able to know truth about God because he has done two things: first, he has structured the universe so that, seen rightly, it points beyond itself to him as its transcendent, divine Origin; second, he has accommodated himself to human experience and reason and communicated his covenants of love, forgiveness, and everlasting life, throughout history. And this includes his bringing about a written record of those communications in scripture.
For these reasons, the experience of God is mediated through his revelation and is never an achievement of unaided human effort—as is taught in the pantheistic traditions. Thus the role of a biblical prophet is not that of a Hindu Swami or a Buddhist Master. In Hinduism or Buddhism the Masters are experts who by their own initiative have found the formula for experiencing the divine. By contrast, a biblical prophet is a deputy chosen by God to deliver his message; he is not an expert who discovered religious truth on his own, but a messenger to whom God revealed religious truth (in fact, the prophets often complained that they did not understand the message they were given). The initiative in all revelation is taken by God, not humans. Moreover, human religious experience itself is never the norm or standard of belief in biblical religions; rather it is the experience of recognizing God’s word as the norm and standard of belief. In other words, the experience itself is not the ultimate religious authority, God’s self-revelation is. And this is the reverse of the pantheistic idea of mystical experience, where the experience itself is the ultimate religious authority.
Corresponding to these differences about religious experience and revelation, there is yet another difference which is important. From the pantheistic outlook, a person must pursue the achievement of mystical experience through many lifetimes. Only when this is achieved will a person see the truth of the unity of all things, and thus attain release from the curse of endless rebirths by attaining Nirvana. But on the biblical view, the provisions of the covenant guarantee that directing one’s faith and love to God already assures the believer of salvation. It is a gift from God at the outset and not an achievement earned en route. The assurance of salvation is thus an integral part of being a Jew, Christian, or Muslim and does not come only after, and as a product of, lifetimes of struggle.
Of course, it is also true that there is struggle connected with serving God in daily life, according to biblical religion. There is effort and sometimes agony in trying to respond to the love God freely offers. And there is a deepening of faith in God and love toward others which can only come about with prayer and work, which are often accompanied by pain. Nevertheless, it is not the believer’s ultimate destiny which is at stake in the daily struggles to serve God, but only the closeness of the believer’s relationship to God and the degree of the reward God will ultimately bestow. For according to the biblical scriptures, any person who believes the truth of God’s revelation and loves God has already received the promise of God’s redemption and the gift of everlasting life.
To continue the contrast, we should notice that the biblical standpoint also has a distinctive view of human nature, which is even more antagonistic to the pagan and pantheistic views than those were to one another. In contrast to the most popular pagan view, the biblical teaching about what is wrong with people is not that they have a body, feelings, and emotions. According to Bible writers, people’s minds, bodies, emotions, thoughts, etc., may all be good or evil depending on whether they are used in the service of God. Once again, Herberg puts the point well:

However familiar and plausible [the] dualistic view may seem to many religious people today, it is nevertheless utterly contrary to the Hebraic outlook. In authentic Hebraism, man is not a compound of two “substances” but a dynamic unity.… The body, its impulses and passions, are not evil; as parts of God’s creation, they are innocent and, when properly ordered, positively good. Nor, on the other hand, is the human spirit the “false divinity” of the Greeks. Spirit is the source of both good and evil, for the spirit is will, freedom, decision. 6
In this connection it is important to notice that the biblical idea of sin is not primarily that of moral wrongdoing. While immoral acts are, indeed, called “sins” (plural) and are condemned, the central idea of what is wrong with people according to biblical religion is religious . That is, “sin” (singular) is the name for the condition of human nature which causes people to fail to recognize the truth of God’s revelation, and thus fail to love and serve God with their whole being. This religious sense of “sin” is the putting something into the place of God, of having a false divinity rather than the true One. This is why the first demand of God’s covenant is we love him with all our heart, to which it then adds that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves for the reason that our neighbor is also created “in the image of God.” On the biblical view, then, sin is only secondarily a matter of immoral intentions and behavior. It is first of all a matter of not directing one’s faith and love to the Creator, and instead regarding something God has created as divine. As one Rabbi put it long ago:

God’s anger is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and wickedness of men who resist the truth… who changed the truth about God into a lie and worshiped and served what God created rather than the Creator. (Rom. 1:18) 7
It is interesting to consider this quote from St. Paul in the light of the contrast between pagan and biblical religion which was drawn by a pagan thinker, Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead quotes from the Bible the question, “Canst thou by searching find out God?” (Job 11:7). Recognizing that the text expects a negative answer, Whitehead makes the witty observation that this attitude is “good Hebrew but it is bad Greek”; that is, it is biblical but not pagan. He then adds the jibe that the biblical position is that of “thicker intellects” who “gloried in the notion that the foundations of the world were laid amid impenetrable fog.” 8 Elsewhere Whitehead returns to this same point, this time rejecting both the biblical and the pantheistic standpoints in favor of the version of paganism which sees human reason as akin to the divine order of the world. He says:

What is the status of the enduring stability in the order of nature?

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