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Religion and A Seat At the Table

When I begin to teach my students about the place of religion in public forums and government, they get upset.—“Religion is for your private life”; “You shouldn’t force your religion on others”; “Separation of Church and State.”

So, I ask them, “What makes something a Religion?”

My students respond—“A belief in a god”; “When you believe in myths”; “When you don’t believe in ‘science’”; “When you believe in something greater than yourself.”  None of these answers work. There are religions that do not have a god or have multiple gods, that do not have a mythology, or that “believe in science”, and everyone believes in something greater than themselves.

Answering The Key Questions

What I tell my students is that religion has three key things: a theory of knowledge, an ethical system, and an idea of what makes up and orders everything.

By theory of knowledge, I mean a theory of how you get and use truth. An ethical system is what you use to judge if something is right or wrong. An idea of what makes up and orders everything is your “metaphysic”. It is what you think lies behind everything.

To help them understand the three, I tell my students to think of an imaginative and well-behaved boy named Philip. Since he loves and trusts his parents, Philip’s main way to learn is to listen to them. His theory of knowledge is “Whatever my parents tell me is true.” He is well-behaved because his ethical system is “It is good to obey and bad to disobey my parents.” Philip also has a metaphysic. After his father gives him the book The Princess and the Goblin, he believes that magic lies behind everything. He says to himself, “Magic has to be real because dad gave me the book.”

I then tell my students that the three compose our belief system; they compose our worldviews.  We answer big questions with them. We also use them in our daily lives. They guide us when choosing a spouse; we decide whether to have children with them; they guide us when choosing a career; we decide how to spend our free time with them; we even get our idea of beauty from them. The three are the tools we use to understand and interact with the world.

To understand how we use the three, think again of Philip. His theory of knowledge, ethical system, and metaphysic compose a parental worldview. He makes life decisions with the worldview. Philip does not cheat in school because his parents taught him stealing and lying is wrong. After seeing The Lavender Hill Mob, his friends want to grow up to be professional thieves. “No”, says Philip, “it’s wrong to steal”. Instead, he wants to be a doctor because his father taught him, “It’s good to help people.”

All three parts of his parental worldview are dependent on each other. If Philip learns at school that “goblins” do not exist, he cannot simply stop believing in magic. He must adopt a new worldview. If goblins are not real, then the book his father gave him is not true and his parents are not reliable.  No longer trusting them, Philip does not obey his parents. He begins to cheat in school and joins his friends in their imitation of the Lavender Hill Mob.

From Worldview To Religion To Public Discourse

Once my students are working  with the worldview idea, I ask them: “Since we all have worldviews, what makes something a religion?” The answer is now straight forward. We label those worldviews that have a supernatural element as a religion. By supernatural, I mean a belief in something beyond the material world or natural order. Buddhism is a religion because it believes in something beyond the material world. Marxism is not a religion because it does not. Though both have a theory of knowledge, an ethical system, and a metaphysic, they have different labels due to their inclusion or exclusion of a supernatural element.

Then, I return to my lesson of the place of religion in public discussions and government. At this point, I hope my students realize that they have been conned. Public discussions are full of groups propagating their worldviews. If you do not want to call them religious groups, worldview groups dominate the public discussion. These worldview groups use public funds and public forums to spread the message of their worldview. For example, as part of the curriculum, public schools teach the worldviews of Humanism and Darwinism. In another example, there are public grants to study Darwinism and Feminism.

Think of the public forum as a dinner party. At the table, there are people from all kinds of backgrounds. There is a Feminist author, a professor of Evolutionary Biology, an Economist, and a Presbyterian Minister.  There is only one rule, “No religion talk.” During the evening, the feminist and economist strike up a conversation. They talk about Marx’s belief that humanity’s future is a classless utopia. Someone else asks, “Is there any other theory about humanity’s future?” The minister tries to interject his belief of Christ’s return. Before he can, the economist cuts him off, “No religion talk.” Then, at another point in the evening, the professor of Evolutionary Biology speaks of his new discovery. He says, “So, it is not East Africa, but lower Asia where ‘Homo Sapiens-Sapiens’ first appeared.” Again, someone else asks, “Is there any other theory about how humanity started?” The minister tries to interject with his belief in the historic Adam. He again is cut off, “No religion talk.

Worldviews are in competition. Remember how Philip had to abandon his worldview because he learned that goblins did not exist.  In the same way, as part of the humanistic curriculum at school, if a Christian child is taught to celebrate gender fluidity, he would have to adopt a new worldview. Since the Biblical ethic (his ethical system) teaches that such behavior is sinful, he would have to adopt a new ethical system. Abandoning the Biblical ethic, he abandons the Bible as his source for truths and its metaphysic.

I said that my hope for my students is that they would realize that they have been conned. That is not true. My hope is that they realize everyone has “a worldview”, that is, “a religion.” And that everyone is trying to spread their religion.


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  • Ceh Dee

    This is really quite good, Armen. The “no religion talk” rule has a lot of explanatory power when it comes to mapping public discourse in the US (and elsewhere). It’s secularism as a kind of ‘religious’ silence, or silence about the supernatural (except what you’ll find on major network TV, a fair share of summer blockbusters, fantasy novels). Isn’t there some other element common among most of what we call religion besides the supernatural? And any ideas as to how this “no religion rule” came about?

  • Ceh Dee

    Just one more thought: does the adoption of any given conflicting belief demand that one casts aside one’s worldview in favor of another? As in: It seems like Philip would be able to accommodate his “parental worldview” by realizing that his trust in his parents does not hinge simply on learning that one belief of minor significance (that goblins exist) is false. Granted, the example is such that the belief in goblins relates to a more all-encompassing “magical worldview”, but wouldn’t that be the worldview he would have to cast aside? I might just be nit-picking here. I think the example is pretty clear. Had the book been the Bible and the belief been “there exist angelic beings,” it would be easier to discuss particulars.

    • Armen Oganessian

      Ceh Dee,

      Thanks for interacting with the piece. Yes, the concept of religion is more complex then the inclusion or exclusion of the supernatural. But, as the state and public in general interacts with it, the supernatural seems to be the defining attribute for categorizing something as such. My hope for the piece is to show everyone has a religion. I think the triangle of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics is the best definition for a religion.

      As I see your other question: of course, Philip could return to his father (his epistemology) and ask for clarification. If his father answers, “that’s just a book, son”, then Philip wouldn’t have to abandon the “parental worldview.” But, if his father doubles down on the accuracy of the book and the magic in it, then he would have to choose. Assuming, of course, he is consistent. People are often inconsistent.

      Thanks again for reading and interacting with the piece, Ceh Dee

      • Ceh Dee

        Yes, the tripartite formulation of religion has a lot of force as well. I suppose the extension, then, is that neutrality can only be reached in public discourse by silencing all “ideological talk” (maybe this is another term for “worldview talk”, though ideology carries an unfortunate, negative connotation) — in which all ideologies are based in their own epistemologies, metaphysics, and ethics. No more clashes of Keynesian and Neo-Liberal economic models with their ethical policy ramifications, so long to debates about Marxist vs.Weberian structures of power and normative claims stemming from them, out with Darwinism and its Creationist counterpart — But what would be the _point_ of public discourse then?

        This is the folly of the “religion talk” rule. Its alleged foundation of neutrality falters when the “religious” character of other (all?) worldviews becomes clear, and its role as arbiter of debate becomes self-defeating when extended to its logical conclusion. If the grounds for excluding religious parties apply just as well to most (all?) others, why have a table at all?