Is Religion Good or Bad? Can We Say?

Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that ‘religions’ don’t really exist in that distinct phenomenal way favoured by colonial European classifiers. Because religion is such a loose concept, it is almost meaningless to place such values as ‘bad’, ‘good’ or ‘indifferent’ on it. That is to say it is probably as hard or as silly as trying to categorise a community’s ‘sense of beauty’ as being either good or bad. The object is too ephemeral for that kind of exercise.

You can watch the talk or read the transcript here:…/kwame_anthony_appiah_is_religion_good…

My response:

I don’t think I can agree with Prof. Appiah. The fact that religion can not be defined to fit perfectly within some specific boundary parameters doesn’t really mean much.

Almost nothing conceptual can be defined to that standard really. Not ‘terrorism’, not ‘politics’, not ‘sex’. Everything is ‘contested’. Actually, there was once a very lucrative industry in Academia built on precisely that fact. It was called *post-modernism*.

Imperfect definitions of religion are just as good as imperfect definitions of ‘morality’ or ‘nationality’. But we can make value judgments about them all the same. Or we can’t, in which case both knowledge and debate are impossible, so all this wont matter. But to the extent that we are in fact debating, we can make accomodation for some imprecision.

For instance, in the first half of the 20th century, ‘nationalism’ and ‘nationality’ were ‘good’ things. Now they are ‘ambiguous’ things, and many people around the world are indifferent about them. But few are troubled about the fuzziness of the concepts a la Benedict Anderson. They grasp it intuitively enough when they argue for trade protectionism or internationalism in the face of ‘climate change’, and implicit in their grasp and positioning of the concepts are value judgments.

On Prof’s other point about specificity in certain religions underwriting the generalisation of ‘boundedness’ to other ‘fluid ways of life’, I believe that this is standard in any epistemology. Are notions of aristocracy in Europe identical with that of China? Maybe not, but the broad contours can be useful for a careful analysis of a more universalist frame of ‘monarchy’.

Which is why I also disagree that it was the Europeans who burdened the rest of the world with bounded notions of religion just at the onset of the colonial age. Every explorer worth their salt since time immemorial has done the same.

Herodotus carved a pantheon out of Egypt’s profound complexity of Godhood and built ontological bridges between Mount Olympus and assorted Theban cults and mysteries. Ibn Batuta did similar things between Islam and a slew of African and Eastern rites.

From the moment we seek to explore our common humanity we set out to NEGOTIATE common VOCABULARIES. To the point where this even becomes self-fulfilling. The average Asante person today believes wholeheartedly that Onyankopon has *always* been the same as Yahweh. A God first perceived in the rainforests of tropical Africa unites in oneness with another first described in the shrublands of Mesopotamia. Is this a material fact? Well, it is a negotiated settlement. We are mentally osmotic creatures. Boundedness can be acquired. Most people today can recognise religion as a distinct domain in their own affairs and in the affairs of other people. In that sense there is a clear target that can be subjected to judgment.

The Dalai Lama may not believe in a monotheistic, personal, God, as Prof asserts. But he has pantheistic notions that constrain the operations of life in traditional Lhasa, at least before the Chinese set about denuding the Tibetan culture. Some have called some of this ‘caste logic’. Some say it is ‘feudal’. Much of the logic does definitely owe to a *supernatural* belief in reincarnation. That is religious. Prof might say that it is instead alter-scientistic or proto-scientistic, and not ‘religious’ per se, but that is, with respect, splitting hairs.

A good proportion of religious dietary injunctions, for instance, are proto-scientistic too. But they are ALSO religious because they claim origination from a source that human minds cannot fathom. In that sense they are ‘supernatural’, which in fact is the signature hallmark of religion.

The Dalai Lama can claim all he wants that he does not derive his power and influence from religion, but without an ‘organised supernatural belief’ in reincarnation by a certain community, he wouldn’t even be the Dalai Lama. A Tibetan republican or Anarchist is justified in that respect to blame religion if he so chooses in his pursuit of reform of that society. Whether we agree with the content of such a person’s value judgment or not, we cannot deny that it has a real, definite, object.

There are communities in Ghana that believe in the violent exorcism of witchcraft. Prof might argue that such beliefs are not necessarily creedal. But it turns out in actual fact that they are reinforced by eclectic doctrines from Christianity and native supernatural rites, and so we have seen that as native priests have declined in influence so have these beliefs. When you look at one of the last vestiges of this supernatural tradition, the so called ‘witches camps’ in the North of Ghana, it is hard not to see a strong element of religious control at play. You can certainly see parallels in certain ‘creedal’ Christian churches, and virtually none at all in Islam. But that is precisely the point. Within the same geographical boundary inhabited by people of generally identical culture, Christians, native religionists, Muslims etc., you can witness, evidently, the boundedness of beliefs that are sustained by social hierarchies, whether they are traditional African priests or charismatic Christian preachers, and thus the differential impacts on the behavior of different actors in that community. And when you do see this, you can’t help but marvel at the consistency of the religious experience.

If you are very perceptive, you might even see the same strong gender dimension at play. This was the doing of a religion alright, albeit one that has nearly gone extinct today. Just as the one that burnt witches at the stake in France and Germany not too long ago is also mostly extinct. And for those for whom woman-burning in the name of with-hunting is repulsive, the strong correlation between the decline of certain religious strains and the abandonment of the practice in highly disparate settings in Europe and Africa can only go to accentuate the objectness of the religious form in their mind.

And if they are so minded, an assessment of right or wrong would feel perfectly justified to them. But who can begrudge them?

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