Monday, November 7, 2011

Whitehead on Religion: The Evolution of Religion (part 2)

 [This is the second post in a series in which I blog through Whitehead's little book, Religion in the Making.  It presents his theory of religion, tracing the evolution of religion in relation to his metaphysical system.]

Whitehead’s process theory of religion emphasizes the historical evolution of religion: religion is involved in the flux of history like everything else. Whitehead also adopts a view of religion that is basically progressive – in other words, religion generally developed on an upward trajectory towards ‘higher expressions.’ He calls this process the “ascent of man."

Whitehead provides his major definitions of religion early in the book, which are worth quoting at length: “Religion is force of belief cleansing the inward parts…A religion, on its doctrinal side, can thus be defined as a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended…Religion is the art and the theory of the internal life of man, so far as it depends on the man himself and on what is permanent in the nature of things. This doctrine is the direct negation of the theory that religion is primarily a social fact…Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness…thus religion is solitariness…” What he means will become clear as we move on to discuss the evolution of religion from being a social phenomenon based on necessity and instinct with a tribal concern, to an individual phenomenon based on rationality with a universal concern.

Religion developed in four stages: ritual, emotion, belief, and finally rationalization. These develop in order towards greater religious importance, and different periods of religious history are characterized by varying degrees of emphasis on these four factors.

Ritual was the most primitive stage of religious evolution, which are types of organized behavior that are not directly related to survival. They also generate emotions, and in turn ritual and emotion reinforce one another. Whitehead writes, “In this primitive phase of religion, dominated by ritual and emotion, we are dealing with essentially social phenomena…a collective ritual and a collective emotion take their places as one of the binding forces of savage tribes. They represent the first faint glimmerings of the life of the spirit raised beyond concentration upon the task of supplying animal necessities.”

At the level of ritual and emotion, there was an “incipient rationality” that eventually generated myths, which primarily served to explain ritual and emotion. This third stage of belief formation was significant: “For just as ritual encouraged emotion beyond the mere response to practical necessities, so religion in this further stage begets thoughts divorced from the mere battling with the pressure of circumstances.”  However, at this stage, religion remained a social phenomenon.

The final stage emerged slowly as myths were historically and rationally evaluated, re-organized, and turned into beliefs with universal relevance. The result was rational religion, which required a more complex stage in the development of human consciousness. The age of rationalism over the last six thousand years finally introduced solitariness into religion. The various great religions of the world are a result of transforming pre-existing traditions through rational reflection, special intuition, metaphysics, and ethics.

Rational religions moved away from communal towards individualistic forms. While communal forms of religion had fostered social unity, they had lost their ability to stimulate progress and had to gave way to individual forms of religion.

Especially through travel, humans developed the ability to think beyond their local context. An individualized world-consciousness was thus facilitated over a social consciousness. The latter is more concerned with preservation, while the former is more disengaged, and thus, rational. Whitehead explains: “The great rational religions are the outcome of the emergence of a religious consciousness which is universal, as distinguished from tribal, or even social. Because it is universal, it introduces the note of solitariness…The reason of this connection between universality and solitariness is that universality is a disconnection from immediate surroundings. It is an endeavor to find something permanent and intelligible by which to interpret the confusion of immediate detail.”

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