Resident Expert: What is Religion?

Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at NYU New York.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is Professor of Philosophy and Law at NYU New York. This January, he is teaching a J-Term class at NYU Abu Dhabi called What is Religion? We checked in with him to ask about his course and how it addresses the topic.

Your J-Term course is called "What is Religion?" That is a very big question. How do you approach it?

The course looks at the kinds of things social scientists and psychologists have said about what religions are and how they work. And since what they say is all very different — and they can’t all be right — my students and I are trying to think about what we ourselves think about religion.

It's a terrifically interesting thing to do in a class in which we have students from a wide range of religions and for whom their religious experiences have been different. So we are learning about each other’s religions, as well as what social scientists have said about them.

How is the course structured?

We begin with some classic social scientists, like Émile Durkheim, one of the great French sociologists and one of the founders of the philosophy of religion; Max Weber, who wrote the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; and a man who is less well known now, though he was the first professor of anthropology at Oxford, Sir Edward Tyler, who made the idea of animism, that religion is the belief in spirits, central to British anthropology. Then we read philosophers from the mid-20th century and some contemporary philosophers. Today we’re reading philosophers who were influenced by the thinking of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Do you talk about both religious beliefs and practices?

These different theorists have different views about the relative importance of belief and practice in relation to understanding what religion is. For Tyler, religion is essentially belief, and the rituals and practice flow from the beliefs.

For Durkheim belief and practice are both central to religious life. In fact, Durkheim thought that ritual practices were expressions of facts about the structure of society in which they occurred. So if you looked at ritual you could see truths about the society in question.

And for Weber it’s through the rise of capitalism — he puts a great deal of stress on this fact — that protestants came to see a worldly vocation as a kind of religious duty. So the idea of a calling, which was originally a religious idea — the calling to the priesthood, the calling to the church, for example — comes to be applied, as we now apply it, to vocations. The calling to be a butcher is as much a calling as is the calling to be a priest. This meant for Calvinists that their lives in the economy, their lives in society, were very much part of their religious life.

One question worth thinking about is whether the concept of religion is useful given the immense diversity of what the things we call religions are like.

Kwame Anthony Appiah

The point is that these examples come from European religion, but if you turn away from Christianity and Judaism as they were practiced in Europe in the past, and you turn toward Buddhism and Hinduism, you again see different balances in the importance of belief and the importance of ritual and the practices of everyday life as opposed to practices in a sacred context.

For the last couple of days we've been talking about the work of several anthropologists who study the religions of Africa that existed before Christianity and Islam. In many ways they are like religious practices in Europe in the Early Modern period, but in many ways quite different.

One question worth thinking about is whether the concept of religion is useful given the immense diversity of what the things we call religions are like.

How do sacred texts play a role in your class?

Among religions, the great world religions, that is, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, they have great texts at their center. There's the Torah for Jews, which becomes part of the Bible for Christians, and the Koran for Muslims, which refers back to both the Torah and the Bible. And the Vedas, which are the great Hindu texts, and the life of the Buddha. All of these are absolutely central to what we think of as the religious life for those traditions.

On the other hand, the religions of Africa, which I was just talking about, belong to a period before literacy; there are no written texts at all, and the traditions which they relate to are handed down orally. And as sociologists have noted the intellectual life of a culture without writing is very different from the intellectual life of a culture with writing. And so this makes a difference to culture generally but to religion in particular.

We don't read the texts themselves in class, but there are situations where the texts are mentioned and we discuss them. For instance, the story of the Good Samaritan came up the other day and I provided students with a literal translation from the Greek so that students could know what the story was about.

Do you ever define what is religion and what it isn't?

There are various views in the literature about how important it is to have a definition. You might think for example that it is not important to define sharply between the religious and the non-religious. But again this is something that varies across societies.

One of the things that happened in European society in the 19th century to a certain extent was the separation out of areas of religious and secular life in a way that they are not really so separate in many earlier forms of European society or indeed in some current societies today. For example, a good Muslim in Yemen isn't going to split his day up into periods of being secular and being religious. He won't divide his life up like that. And, of course, if you are a monk, the whole of your life is religious; you're being religious when you're in the kitchen and when you’re in the garden. So part of it has to do with the way religion matters to people in different kinds of societies.

And if religions are significantly different from each other, it might be better not to seek a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions for being a religion, it might be better to see it as what Wittgenstein called a "family resemblance" concept, that religions are like each other in the way that members of a family are like each other, in the sense that there's no one feature that defines family membership. So I think it's important to let the facts, as it were, speak to us, and not come in with a predefined notion of religion.

I hope that through taking the class, one comes to feel that the question "Is Confucianism a religion?" is not a terribly interesting one. Confucianism is like Buddhism and Daoism in some ways, it's like Christianity in others, but it's also different. And the interesting thing is to look at both the similarities and differences.