It occurred to me that Religious Studies is a field within the humanities, so I decided to pay attention to the postconference. Of course it’s not surprising that the chosen humanities field was Religious Studies, given the (to me, surprising) surge of critical realists revealing the importance of religion in their lives. I would have preferred something like history, however.
My responses to the postconference were naturally shaped by my own religious background and views. I am culturally Jewish: I don’t practice, yet it is part of how I identify myself, how I think about the world, and (I would say) my general style of action. For all intents and purposes I’m an atheist, but as a good fallibilist I officially describe myself as an agnostic.
I have long been struck by the fact that critical realists, as best as I can tell, include very few fellow Jews. It’s odd. We’re widespread in scholarship, both historically and in the present. Now, I don’t go around checking people’s religious affiliations, but it’s not unusual for us to suss each other out. Of course, maybe my impression is simply wrong. In any case, we seem rare within critical realism. I can’t help but wonder why, but I don’t have any answers.
However, a distinctly Christian element within critical realism began to declare itself with Bhaskar’s From East to West. As almost everyone admits, it’s a highly problematic book, but I found the chapter “To the Promised Land” (in which Bhaskar recounts his soul’s supposed Jewish phase) particularly off-putting. Who are the “twelve disciples” (p. 74)? What’s the holy grail doing here, and why is it given him at age 33-4 (p. 75)? Why is his late teacher resurrected (p. 76)? What exactly are these dilemmas of Judaism that somehow need to be resolved (pp. 77-78)? Can the claim that they have been resolved mean anything other than a belief that Judaism has been surmounted by something better, and now can safely be dispensed with? It seems like the basic function of this chapter is to presage the coming of Christianity, and covers a phase to be passed over as soon as possible (pun intended).
Now that a range of people within CR have declared their religious feelings, the “Science and Religion” postconference (which had very little science) was predictably oriented toward Christianity, and – not quite as predictably – blinkered about it. Only Kevin Schilbrack, who gave the day’s best paper, made a substantive effort to include other religions in his compass. (To be completely accurate, I don’t know for certain about one plenary talk because after 10-15 minutes of exasperation I quietly left.) There are many things you can discuss while considering only one religion. You can study its sociology in connection to, say, labor history or gender relations. You can analyze how one religion adjusted its theology in response to scientific discoveries. You can explore how a religion’s institutions interacted with state institutions. Etc. But you can’t analyze religion per se by looking at only one religion. You can only do that by considering numerous religions. The situation is the same in my own work: if I were to use predominantly realistic plays like those of Anton Chekhov or Tennessee Williams as my models for conceptualizing theater, my theory would go far astray, not even capturing Shakespeare. And so it is for religion.
For example, Christianity in all its variants is essentially a religion of beliefs. But the same cannot be said of Judaism: it’s principally a tradition of practices and orientations. Although there are differences among the various branches of Judaism regarding the interpretation of the sacred texts and some doctrinal matters, what distinguishes them most are their attitudes about adapting the traditional practices and laws to the times. Under Orthodox Judaism, one keeps kosher, prays only in groups of at least ten people, and observes a wide number of holidays, including the Sabbath; under Reform Judaism (in the UK, called Liberal Judaism) many such practices go by the wayside. But respect for the Torah and the highest holidays, and for education generally (whether religious or secular) remain central to both. Faith isn’t obligatory: one can be both an Orthodox Jew and an atheist. Conversely, one can follow none of Judaism’s traditional religious practices, yet still share its orientations and relationship with history and knowledge, and thus consider oneself Jewish. A Christian concept of religion as a faith cannot accommodate these possibilities. Indeed, the very notion of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” is objectionable, since it exaggerates the continuity between the two and implies that Christianity has superseded Judaism. Somewhat in the way Bhaskar does it in From East to West.
In short, important as it is to understand one’s own religion, it’s important to understand others’ as well, and to do so in relation to each other – both Self and Other, or perhaps better, Martin Buber’s I and Thou. So a critical realist discussion of religious ideas faces two imperatives: one is to pursue truth, e.g., to develop an accurate and comprehensive definition of religion, which requires a comparative and nondenominational approach; the other is to seek what Bhaskar called “eudaimonia,” a society of universal flourishing, which entails equity – a policy which in these times of intense religious conflict is in terribly short supply.