Although this blog is titled “Genealogy of Religion,” my choice of titles was driven more by expedience (and ease of reference) than by evolutionary and historical realities. These realities would have impelled me to title the blog: “The Evolutionary Origins of Supernatural Thinking and the History of Shamanisms and Religions.” This is a rather unwieldy title, so I went with the simple (i.e., “catchy”) — though misleading — “Genealogy of Religion.”
I mention this because there is a pervasive tendency to think and talk about spiritual and religious traditions in the singular, as if these traditions were unified, coherent, uncontested, unchanging, and pristine. No spiritual or religious tradition has these characteristics. Spiritual and religious traditions do not exist in essentialized or idealized forms.
Given these facts, it is in many ways and under most circumstances misleading — if not erroneous — to talk generally about the following: shamanism, Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the singular. Attaching the suffix “ism” to these traditions strongly and mistakenly suggests there is an essential and ideal form of these faiths.
In this less than ideal world — where everything is contested, all things are changing, and each generation reconstitutes tradition — it would be far more appropriate to use these words in the plural, so that we are talking about shamanisms, Hinduisms, Daoisms, Judaisms, Christianities, and Islams. Although unwieldy, this usage would remind us that there is no singular or unified form of these faiths.
To use the example best known to Westerners, let us consider Christianity. Beginning almost immediately after the death of Jesus, there were competing versions of what he said, did, and represented. The word “Christian” and the concept of “Christianity” took a long time to develop and was bitterly contested. As “Christianity” developed, it became apparent that there many different types of Christians who had quite different ideas about the concept of Christianity. There were, in other words, multiple Christianities.
To this day, there remain multiple Christianities. Although the major split is between Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, and Orthodox Christianity, there are multiple divisions within each of these Christianities. These divisions are numerous and significant. It would, therefore, be more appropriate to use the terms Catholic Christianities, Protestant Christianities, and Orthodox Christianities. This is especially true of Protestant Christianities.
An even better example comes from “Hinduism.” For nearly a century, religious scholars, historians, and anthropologists have been debating whether there such a thing as “Hinduism,” with the primary issue being whether this word — and the divergent concepts it supposedly signifies — was imposed by Westerners on a spiritual tradition that is incapable of being classified as a singular religion or faith.
I was reminded of these things while reading a recent article by Ivan Petrella. In “Obama, Islam, and a Clash of Theologies,” Petrella observes:
Just because the clash of civilizations [between the West and Islam] is bogus doesn’t mean there’s no clash. There is. But it’s a clash of theologies. Current conflicts are driven by competing theological frameworks, are internal to religions and regions, and at times express themselves globally.
So while there’s no battle between Islam and the West, there is a battle within Islam: a conflict between violent-fanatic understandings of Islam and a broader spectrum of Muslim worldviews over how the religion gets defined. The events of 9/11, which at first glance appear to corroborate Huntington’s thesis [of a clash between civilizations], are better understood as an eruption of the fight over the “true” definition of Islam unto the American stage.
This same clash is found in other religions and other parts of the world. In the United States, the Christian Right rails against progressive understandings of religion and the separation of church and state. This struggle also spills onto the global scene, in the unqualified support by sections of the Republican Party for the extremist Jewish settlers of the occupied territories. You’ll find the same conflict within Judaism as well.
Based on history, Petrella’s argument can be extended to all spiritual and faith traditions. They are never unified, monolithic, uncontested, or unchanging. We would do well to keep these things in mind as we think and talk about such traditions.