Friday, August 28, 2009

Religion, the Examined Life, Oxford Commas and the Problem of Definition

We were having, as a part of our ancient Greeks unit, a sort of directed class discussion last week with the following question as our starting point: is it possible for a religious person to lead a fully examined life? Based upon our initial answers, we were divided in to "yes," "no" and "undecided" groups. I joined the "undecided" group, simply because my answer changes based upon how one defines "fully examined life" and "religion."

I find the idea of the examined life the far less problematic of the two, probably because I choose a fairly practical definition. A few people in our class discussion brought up that, in the course of a human life, it's clearly impossible to examine everything. Now, that's true of course, but I see it as curiously beside the point: no one, to my knowledge, ever proposed that such a thing was possible, or used it as a prerequisite for the concept. My definition of a fully examined life is one in which the individual will subject everything he or she holds true as open questions in principle.

That granted, we are obviously going to have to prioritize which widely or strongly held beliefs we put to the test first. Socrates provides good starting points, like looking at instances in which we believe ourselves or our neighbors believe themselves good or wise. The reason that I like these topics is that there they encompass the most readily identified division of opinion: nearly all of us believe ourselves to be, to some varying extent, good and wise, and yet we are considerably less charitable in assigning these qualities to other people, who, presumably feel the same way regarding themselves and us. The obvious problem, by the numbers, is that we can't all be right, unless the whole essence of goodness or wisdom is simply self-appraisal.

By contrast, a less interesting belief to examine is the widespread moral distaste for murder. In this instance, we again almost certainly feel like our neighbors shouldn't do such a thing, but we also very likely hold ourselves to the same standard. We could all be wrong, of course, but we could also all be right. I am drawn more toward issues on which there is sharp public division, because in these instances, large groups of people (and perhaps everyone) certainly are wrong. Since we're almost certainly ourselves wrong on some of these divided issues, they seem the most useful ideas on which to test ourselves. To sum up: my definition of the fully examined life would require a willingness, in principle, to see the morality of murder as an open question, but one that would follow so many other more interesting questions that we'd likely never get to it.

Now on to religion: this one's considerably trickier. Part of the reason for this is that it's an umbrella covering multiple smaller phenomena and the labels we give them, but that's only part of the problem. Certainly, the size and breadth of the term "religion" gives us more problem than, say, defining the Greater Macedonia Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas (and I swear on a stack of what-you-will that I'm not making that name up), but let's look at another example. "Life" as a term includes bacteria, insects, reptiles, beagles, and philosophy students, but it's expanded size really doesn't make it any fuzzier. With the exception of those contentious viruses, we all know what it is and isn't. The boundary conditions still hold at a very broad level of language. Even in bioethics disputes that are purportedly over life, the definition isn't really at issue: everyone knows, for instance, that a homo sapiens fetus is alive, and by aborting it we are killing something. What we are arguing about is whether it is a human that we are killing. To be frank, if we all stopped killing everything tomorrow, we all starve as soon as the carrion and canned fruit runs out. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, life lives off of life, and there is no evading this inescapable reality. But I digress.

No, religion is difficult to define because it has two major strands that cannot be fully teased apart, yet many choose to identify the term with only one. Is religion right belief (orthodoxy), right conduct (orthopraxis), or both? Since belief and action are mutually constitutive (belief influences action influences belief), even the right answer doesn't solve the problem, but the question itself points out some of the muddle: a "Christian" has been defined as diversely as a Buddhist who coincidentally acts Christ-like to one who interprets the King James Bible as literally as possible. Since several billion people fall somewhere between these two points, imagine how much harder it is to accurately define all religions as opposed to just one, without creating a definition that is so broad as to be meaningless.

That long preface aside, I think it is safe to say that no, a textual literalist of any religious tradition cannot, by my first definition, lead a fully examined life. If you can't give a reasonable answer to: "What would talk you out of the seven-day creation 6,000 years ago idea?", then you value dogma over examination. That's not an insult, because, in theory, dogma may deserve to be valued over examination, but they are , without question, mutually exclusive. We can, of course, substitute in the historical or doctrinal claims of any religious tradition, and I argue the same result: if it's simply not an open question, in principle, no examined life. So, to make an extraordinarily long answer short, no, it isn't possible for a religious person to live an examined life...

...unless, of course, we broaden our definition a bit. Although the doctrinaire definition of religion covers the huge majority of religious believers, it also doesn't cover millions more. There are deists, pantheists, scriptural allegorists, universalists, and many others that appreciate the literary and inspirational merit of scripture and the communal value of religion and yet have curiously individual notions of the supernatural. Are these people religious? Since these worldviews are perfectly compatible with the deepest level of skepticism, then "religion" in this sense doesn't seem to preclude the examined life, as I have defined it, at all.

But then we are led into a related problem: who has the authority to define religiousness? Can the designation be assigned and revoked by others, or is self-report the standard to which we should adhere? Because at the end of the day, a definition of religion that no one recognizes or accepts renders the question meaningless.

Perhaps, then, it is finally best to think of religion as having a continuum of definitions, all of them partially useful, ranging from vaguely spiritual on the left end to scripturally dogmatic on the right. The closer one gets to the left end of the continuum, the greater the possibility of leading a fully examined life. The benefit of such a scale is that is descriptive rather than quantitative: it substitutes "how are you religious?" for the more common "how religious are you?"


  1. Perhaps while your contemplating a fully examined life you should contemplate not eating my clothing... you know just a quick examination of the whole "biting the hand that feeds" thing

  2. We find two chief alternative interpretations to the "examined life" in the AOL tradition = (i) somewhat as you put it, philosophically examining our beliefs and values; and (ii) the ethical model, where we critically review our daily lives by a standard of virtue that we adopt within our AOL. Do you think both are relevant, or just the first?