Thursday, May 13, 2004

Religion: Practice or Doctrine or Both?

BigHominid wrote the following in the context of a longish reply to a series of critical points I had made:

I take the empirical stance that a religion is as it is practiced. Broad claims about the religion-- indeed, any claim that treats the religion as a discrete entity seemingly independent of the practitioners who incarnate it-- can never be totally true. On this blog, I've dealt with the question 'Is Islam a religion of peace?', for example. My answer is that Islam is as it is practiced. It's not inherently or necessarily peaceful or violent.

To say that "a religion is as it is practiced" seems to imply that a religion such as Buddhism -- which is what we were discussing --is exhausted by its practices, that it just is the practices in which its practitioners engage. But is this really what BH wants to say? Although practices (prayer, meditation, mindfulness, almsgiving, etc.) are essential to religions, doctrines are also essential. BH seems to admit this himself in his second sentence where he says that it cannot be "totally true" that a religion is independent of its practitioners. This implies that it is partially true that a religion is independent of its practioners, and surely it is: every religion incorporates a doctrinal content which is independent of the religion's adherents and their practices.

I would say that both practice and doctrine are essential to a religion, and that no religion can be reduced to the one or the other. Thus would I oppose both those who attempt to intellectualize religions by turning them into sets of theoretical statements, and those fideists like Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein who attempt to 'existentialize' them.

Grant me this, and I will show you the relevance of proofs/disproofs of the existence of God in the case of theistic religions, and the relevance of philosophical examinations of such doctrines as anattavada in Buddhism.