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  • People say things about religion all the time.

  • (Laughter)

  • The late, great Christopher Hitchens

  • wrote a book called "God Is Not Great"

  • whose subtitle was, "Religion Poisons Everything."

  • (Laughter)

  • But last month, in Time magazine,

  • Rabbi David Wolpe, who I gather is referred to as America's rabbi,

  • said, to balance that against that negative characterization,

  • that no important form of social change

  • can be brought about except through organized religion.

  • Now, remarks of this sort on the negative

  • and the positive side are very old.

  • I have one in my pocket here

  • from the first century BCE by Lucretius,

  • the author of "On the Nature of Things," who said,

  • "Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum" --

  • I should have been able to learn that by heart

  • which is, that's how much religion

  • is able to persuade people to do evil,

  • and he was talking about the fact

  • of Agamemnon's decision to place his daughter

  • Iphigenia on an altar of sacrifice

  • in order to preserve the prospects of his army.

  • So there have been these long debates

  • over the centuries, in that case, actually,

  • we can say over the millennia, about religion.

  • People have talked about it a lot,

  • and they've said good and bad

  • and indifferent things about it.

  • What I want to persuade you of today

  • is of a very simple claim,

  • which is that these debates are

  • in a certain sense preposterous,

  • because there is no such thing as religion

  • about which to make these claims.

  • There isn't a thing called religion,

  • and so it can't be good or bad.

  • It can't even be indifferent.

  • And if you think about claims

  • about the nonexistence of things,

  • one obvious way to try and establish

  • the nonexistence of a purported thing

  • would be to offer a definition of that thing

  • and then to see whether anything satisfied it.

  • I'm going to start out on that little route

  • to begin with.

  • So if you look in the dictionaries

  • and if you think about it,

  • one very natural definition of religion

  • is that it involves belief in gods or in spiritual beings.

  • As I say, this is in many dictionaries,

  • but you'll also find it actually

  • in the work of Sir Edward Tylor,

  • who was the first professor of anthropology at Oxford,

  • one of the first modern anthropologists.

  • In his book on primitive culture,

  • he says the heart of religion is what he called animism,

  • that is, the belief in spiritual agency,

  • belief in spirits.

  • The first problem for that definition

  • is from a recent novel by Paul Beatty called "Tuff."

  • There's a guy talking to a rabbi.

  • The rabbi says he doesn't believe in God.

  • The guy says, "You're a rabbi, how can you not believe in God?"

  • And the reply is, "It's what's so great about being Jewish.

  • You don't have to believe in a God per se,

  • just in being Jewish." (Laughter)

  • So if this guy is a rabbi, and a Jewish rabbi,

  • and if you have to believe in God in order to be religious,

  • then we have the rather counterintuitive conclusion

  • that since it's possible to be a Jewish rabbi

  • without believing in God,

  • Judaism isn't a religion.

  • That seems like a pretty counterintuitive thought.

  • Here's another argument against this view.

  • A friend of mine, an Indian friend of mine,

  • went to his grandfather when he was very young,

  • a child, and said to him,

  • "I want to talk to you about religion,"

  • and his grandfather said, "You're too young.

  • Come back when you're a teenager."

  • So he came back when he was a teenager,

  • and he said to his grandfather,

  • "It may be a bit late now

  • because I've discovered that I don't believe in the gods."

  • And his grandfather, who was a wise man, said,

  • "Oh, so you belong to the atheist branch

  • of the Hindu tradition." (Laughter)

  • And finally, there's this guy,

  • who famously doesn't believe in God.

  • His name is the Dalai Lama.

  • He often jokes that he's one of the world's leading atheists.

  • But it's true, because the Dalai Lama's religion

  • does not involve belief in God.

  • Now you might think this just shows

  • that I've given you the wrong definition

  • and that I should come up with some other definition

  • and test it against these cases

  • and try and find something that captures

  • atheistic Judaism, atheistic Hinduism,

  • and atheistic Buddhism as forms of religiosity,

  • but I actually think that that's a bad idea,

  • and the reason I think it's a bad idea

  • is that I don't think that's how

  • our concept of religion works.

  • I think the way our concept of religion works

  • is that we actually have, we have a list

  • of paradigm religions

  • and their sub-parts, right,

  • and if something new comes along

  • that purports to be a religion,

  • what we ask is, "Well, is it like one of these?"

  • Right?

  • And I think that's not only how we think about religion,

  • and that's, as it were,

  • so from our point of view,

  • anything on that list had better be a religion,

  • which is why I don't think an account of religion

  • that excludes Buddhism and Judaism

  • has a chance of being a good starter,

  • because they're on our list.

  • But why do we have such a list?

  • What's going on? How did it come about

  • that we have this list?

  • I think the answer is a pretty simple one

  • and therefore crude and contentious.

  • I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with it,

  • but here's my story,

  • and true or not, it's a story that I think

  • gives you a good sense of how

  • the list might have come about,

  • and therefore helps you to think about

  • what use the list might be.

  • I think the answer is, European travelers,

  • starting roughly about the time of Columbus,

  • started going around the world.

  • They came from a Christian culture,

  • and when they arrived in a new place,

  • they noticed that some people didn't have Christianity,

  • and so they asked themselves the following question:

  • what have they got instead of Christianity?

  • And that list was essentially constructed.

  • It consists of the things that other people had

  • instead of Christianity.

  • Now there's a difficulty with proceeding in that way,

  • which is that Christianity is extremely,

  • even on that list, it's an extremely specific tradition.

  • It has all kinds of things in it

  • that are very, very particular

  • that are the results of the specifics

  • of Christian history,

  • and one thing that's at the heart of it,

  • one thing that's at the heart of most understandings of Christianity,

  • which is the result of the specific history of Christianity,

  • is that it's an extremely creedal religion.

  • It's a religion in which people are really concerned

  • about whether you believe the right things.

  • The history of Christianity, the internal history of Christianity,

  • is largely the history of people killing each other

  • because they believed the wrong thing,

  • and it's also involved in

  • struggles with other religions,

  • obviously starting in the Middle Ages,

  • a struggle with Islam,

  • in which, again, it was the infidelity,

  • the fact that they didn't believe the right things,

  • that seemed so offensive to the Christian world.

  • Now that's a very specific and particular history

  • that Christianity has,

  • and not everywhere is everything

  • that has ever been put on this sort of list like it.

  • Here's another problem, I think.

  • A very specific thing happened.

  • It was actually adverted to earlier,

  • but a very specific thing happened

  • in the history of the kind of Christianity

  • that we see around us

  • mostly in the United States today,

  • and it happened in the late 19th century,

  • and that specific thing that happened

  • in the late 19th century

  • was a kind of deal that was cut

  • between science,

  • this new way of organizing intellectual authority,

  • and religion.

  • If you think about the 18th century, say,

  • if you think about intellectual life

  • before the late 19th century,

  • anything you did, anything you thought about,

  • whether it was the physical world,

  • the human world,

  • the natural world apart from the human world,

  • or morality, anything you did

  • would have been framed against the background

  • of a set of assumptions that were religious,

  • Christian assumptions.

  • You couldn't give an account

  • of the natural world

  • that didn't say something about its relationship,

  • for example, to the creation story

  • in the Abrahamic tradition,

  • the creation story in the first book of the Torah.

  • So everything was framed in that way.

  • But this changes in the late 19th century,

  • and for the first time, it's possible for people

  • to develop serious intellectual careers

  • as natural historians like Darwin.

  • Darwin worried about the relationship between

  • what he said and the truths of religion,

  • but he could proceed, he could write books

  • about his subject

  • without having to say what the relationship was

  • to the religious claims,

  • and similarly, geologists increasingly could talk about it.

  • In the early 19th century, if you were a geologist

  • and made a claim about the age of the Earth,

  • you had to explain whether that was consistent

  • or how it was or wasn't consistent

  • with the age of the Earth implied

  • by the account in Genesis.

  • By the end of the 19th century,

  • you can just write a geology textbook

  • in which you make arguments about how old the Earth is.

  • So there's a big change, and that division,

  • that intellectual division of labor occurs as I say, I think,

  • and it sort of solidifies so that by the end

  • of the 19th century in Europe,

  • there's a real intellectual division of labor,

  • and you can do all sorts of serious things,

  • including, increasingly, even philosophy,

  • without being constrained by the thought,

  • "Well, what I have to say has to be consistent

  • with the deep truths that are given to me

  • by our religious tradition."

  • So imagine someone who's coming out

  • of that world, that late-19th-century world,

  • coming into the country that I grew up in, Ghana,

  • the society that I grew up in, Asante,

  • coming into that world

  • at the turn of the 20th century

  • with this question that made the list:

  • what have they got instead of Christianity?

  • Well, here's one thing he would have noticed,

  • and by the way, there was a person who actually did this.

  • His name was Captain Rattray,

  • he was sent as the British government anthropologist,

  • and he wrote a book about Asante religion.

  • This is a soul disc.

  • There are many of them in the British Museum.

  • I could give you an interesting, different history

  • of how it comes about that many of the things

  • from my society ended up in the British Museum,

  • but we don't have time for that.

  • So this object is a soul disc.

  • What is a soul disc?

  • It was worn around the necks

  • of the soul-washers of the Asante king.

  • What was their job? To wash the king's soul.