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A Lost Word

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Jackson, Ross


Religion 152

A Lost Word

One word in the English language above all others throughout the history has caused more controversy, both in terms of human fatalities and words written about it than religion. Religion has been a subject of major controversy long before there was an English language, long before there was a word for the concept. What follows however, is not a discussion of the controversy, or history for that matter. What follows is a discussion of the word and it's meaning. "Religion" since it's first minting has come to be an immensely broad term. So broad in fact that It defies a singular comprehensive definition. The word has come to refer to a loose and chaotically organized system of aspects and ideas, topics of you will. Many philosophers have attempted to define religion but only succeed in identifying a new topic. Overlap is always the case but this continual attempt to define the word has only resulted in the continuation broadening process.

One such philosopher who sought a comprehensive analysis of religion was Karl Marx. Marx explained religion is economic, social and psychological terms. For his purposes Marx succeeded admirably. Marx held that man creates religion for himself and that when he looks into religion he sees his hopes and desires that have realized themselves through fantasy. Key in Marx's conception is that religion is a construct. Without man there is no religion, that is to say there is nothing behind religion except a reflection of ourselves. The hope that man puts in religion, god, and an afterlife are simple fantasy. This hope is a resignation of the hope that satisfaction can be gained in the immediate world. We believe in a happy afterlife because we have given up hope in this life. The hope is a total illusion. It is the opinion of Karl Marx that due to the nature of religion, specifically its dependence on the fantasized and projected hopes of oppressed people, that when oppression ended, that religion would cease to be a compelling issue to man.

Far from the radical and political atheism of Marx stands Rudolf Otto. Rudolf, rather than examining religion from a secular and economic perspective, Otto focuses on the mystical and personal experience of religion. In fact Otto defines religion as the experience of awe and mystery. Otto describes a feeling of awe in the grasp of what is not so much perceived so much as it is felt. A consciousness of the holy and the sacred although far from an apprehension or understanding. This 'Mysterium Tremendum' was a pre-intellectual consciousness of the great mystery of life. Otto says that these experiences come in many forms ranging from terror to quiet understanding, to ecstatic. All are reactions of the powerful mystery of life. For Otto awe and mystery were the essence of religious feeling. It is clear that this personal experience as religion is not what Marx was talking about. They are talking about two entirely different aspects of the word religion.

Clearly though approaches and perceptions of religion are going to differ among those who believe and those who do not. A secular understanding of religion is going to quite different from someone who is wrapped up in religion. However, not every atheist agrees with Marx's assessment of religion. For example Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology understands religion quite differently that Marx. While Freud would agree that religion is a projection of mans hopes, Freud has a very different conception of what exactly these hopes are. And in general looks at religion from a very different perspective. Freud saw that religion had three major effects to a psychological need. Firstly it satisfied mans desire for knowledge by telling man where he came from, by offering him a cosmogony. Secondly it gave man consul in times of hardship and a reason to persevere through it. Finally, it offers man moral guidance with what to do in his life. The religion that man has created is in response to his psychological needs. Freud talks about the disillusionment of a child about the strength of his father as he grows with age. Freud states that religion is a transference of all the wonderful things we feel about our father and the protection he provides unto a deity figure. He brings up the many parental and patriarchal aspects of god in religion. Freud feels that science will force religion to take a backseat as it takes over the roles of religion, for example supplying a cosmogony and finding real answers for what man should do with life. Religion is a misguided attempt at controlling the natural world. This position differs from Marx in that Freud abandons all of the political pretext of Marx and examines religion at a more individual level. Also the reliance on science differs from Marx's approach.

In addition to different secular perspectives, religious perspectives often differ greatly from one another. Such is the case with Karl Barth. While wholly believing in in god and his revelation to man he has a very different perspective that his other theist colleagues. For Barth the bible is the word of god, it is the ultimate truth. Religion is an attempt to dialogue with god. And attempt to apprehend the divine. This goes against the nature of religion. The attempt to understand god shows a lack of faith in his message. Religion is therefore in defiance of the revelation and truth of god. Barth says that religion true religion is like justified sinners. At the surface the two are contradictory but can exist. Religion is an act of sin, but if the revelation is true it is justified in a sense. For this reason Barth sees Christianity as the one true religion, not because it's not guilty of all the problems with religion but because it carries the one true revelation from god. Christianity remains untrue though because it is guilty of idolatry and self-righteousness. It is both true and untrue. Barth sees religion as a state of mind and a state of non-belief against truth.

Another Christian who happens to have a different understanding of than Barth is Ajith Fernando. Fernando does not vilify religion as Barth does. Also Fernando is more global is his discussion of religions. Barth omitted entirely non-Judeo-Christian



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