Doubt as Methodology and Object in the Phenomenology of Religion

Malcolm David Brown


      Photograph by Gonzalo Echeverria (2010)

“I must plunge again and again in the water of doubt” (Wittgenstein 1e).

 The Holy Grail in the phenomenology of religion (and, to a lesser extent, the sociology of religion) is a definition of religion that actually works, but, so far, this seems to have been elusive. Classical definitions of religion—substantive (e.g. Tylor) and functionalist (e.g. Durkheim)—fail, in part because they attempt to be in three places at once, as it were: they attempt to distinguish religion from non-religion; they attempt to capture what religions have in common; and they attempt to grasp the “heart”, or “core”, of religion. Consequently, family resemblance definitions of religion replace certainty and precision for its own sake with a more pragmatic and heuristic approach, embracing doubt and putting forward definitions that give us a better understanding (Verstehen) of religion. In this paper, I summarise some “new” definitions of religion that take this approach, before proposing and defending another one, defining religion as non-propositional and “apophatic”, thus accepting that doubt is central to religion itself, as well as to the analysis of religion.

The question of how to define religion has had real significance in a number of court cases round the world, and therefore it does have an impact on people’s lives. In Germany, for example, the courts ruled that Scientology was not a religion, but a business, much to the displeasure of the Church of Scientology (Aldridge 15). In the United States, some advocates of Transcendental Meditation (TM) argued that TM was not a religion and could therefore be taught in public schools without violating the establishment clause in the constitution—the separation of church and state. The courts in New Jersey, and federal courts, ruled against them. They ruled that TM was a religion (Barker 146). There are other cases that I could cite, but the point of this is simply to establish that the question has a practical importance, so we should move on.

In the classical sociology of religion, there are a number of definitions of religion that are quite well known. Edward Tylor (424) defined religion as a belief in spiritual beings. This definition does not meet with widespread acceptance, the notable exception being Melford Spiro, who proposed in 1966 that religion was “an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated super-human beings” (Spiro 96, see also 91ff), and who has bravely stuck to that definition ever since. The major problem is that this definition excludes Buddhism, which most people do regard as a religion, although some people try to get round the problem by claiming that Buddhism is not really a religion, but more of a philosophy. But this is cheating, really, because a definition of religion must be descriptive as well as prescriptive; that is, it must apply to entities that are commonly recognised as religions. Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, proposed that religion had two key characteristics, a separation of the sacred from the profane, and a gathering together of people in some sort of institution or community, such as a church (Durkheim 38, 44). However, religions often reject a separation of the sacred from the profane. Most Muslims and many Calvinist Christians, for example, would insist strongly that everything—including the ostensibly profane—is equally subject to the sovereignty of God. Also, some religions are more oriented to a guru-pupil kind of relationship, rather than a church community.

Weber tried to argue that religion should only be defined at the end of a long process of historical and empirical study. He is often criticised for this, although there probably is some wisdom in his argument. However, there seems to be an implicit definition of religion as theodicy, accounting for the existence of evil and the existence of suffering. But is this really the central concern of all religions?

Clarke and Byrne, in their book Religion Defined and Explained, construct a typology of definitions, which I think is quite helpful. Broadly speaking, there are two types of classical definition. Firstly, there are substantive definitions (6), such as Tylor’s and Spiro’s, which posit some sort of common “property” that religions “have”—“inside” them, as it were. Secondly, functionalist definitions (Clarke and Byrne 7), such as Durkheim’s, define religion primarily in terms of its social function. What matters, as far as a definition of religion is concerned, is not what you believe, but why you believe it.

However, these classical definitions do not really work. I think this is because they try to do too many things. For a strict definition of religion to work, it needs to tell us (i) what religions have in common, (ii) what distinguishes religion on the one hand from non-religion, or everything that is not religion, on the other, and (iii) it needs to tell us something important about religion, what is at the core of religion. This means that a definition of religion has to be in three places at once, so to speak. Furthermore, a definition of religion has to be based on extant religions, but it also needs to have some sort of quasi-predictive capacity, the sort of thing that can be used in a court case regarding, for example, Scientology or Transcendental Meditation.

It may be possible to resolve the latter problem by a gradual process of adjustment, a sort of hermeneutic circle of basing a definition on extant religions and applying it to new ones. But what about the other problem, the one of being in three places at once?

Another type identified by Clarke and Byrne, in their typology of definitions, is the “family resemblance” definition (11-16). This derives from the later Wittgenstein. The “family resemblance” definition of religion is based on the idea that religions commonly share a number of features, but that no one religion has all of them. For example, there are religious beliefs, doctrines and mythos—or stories and parables. There are rituals and moral codes, institutions and clergy, prayers, spiritual emotions and experiences, etc. This approach is of course less precise than older substantive and functional definitions, but it also avoids some of the problems associated with them.

It does so by rethinking the point of defining religion. Instead of being precise and rigorous for the sake of it, it tries to tell us something, to be “productive”, to help us understand religion better. It eschews certainty and embraces doubt. Its insights could be applied to some schools of philosophy (e.g. Heideggerian) and practical spirituality, because it does not focus on what is distinctive about religion. Rather, it focuses on the core of religion, and, secondarily, on what religions have in common. The family resemblance approach has led to a number of “new” definitions (post-Durkheim definitions) being proposed, all of which define religion in a less rigorous, but, I hope, more imaginative and heuristic way.

Let me provide a few examples, starting with two contrasting ones. Peter Berger in the late 1960s defined religion as “the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as humanly significant”(37), which implies a consciousness of an anthropocentric sacred cosmos. Later, Alain Touraine  said that religion is “the apprehension of human destiny, existence, and death”(213–4), that is, an awareness of human limitations, including doubt. Berger emphasises the high place for human beings in religion, and even a sort of affected certainty, while Touraine emphasises our place as doubters on the periphery, but it seems that religion exists within a tension between these two opposites, and, in a sense, encompasses them both.

Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church and arch-nemesis of the conservative Anglicans, such as those from Sydney, defines religion as like good poetry, not bad science. It is easy to understand that he is criticising those who see religion, particularly Christianity, as centrally opposed to Darwin and evolution. Holloway is clearly saying that those people have missed the point of their own faith. By “good poetry”, he is pointing to the significance of storytelling rather than dogma, and an open-ended discussion of ultimate questions that resists the temptation to end with “the moral of the story”. In science (at least before quantum physics), there is no room for doubt, but that is not the case with poetry.

John Caputo, in a very energetic book called On Religion, proposes what is probably the boldest of the “new” definitions. He defines religion as “the love of God” (1). Note the contrast with Tylor and Spiro. Caputo does not say “belief in God”; he says “the love of God”. You might ask how you can love someone you don’t believe in, but, in a sense, this paradox is the whole point. When Caputo says “God”, he is not necessarily talking in the usual theistic or even theological terms. By “God”, he means the impossible made possible (10). So a religious person, for Caputo, is an “unhinged lover” (13) who loves the impossible made possible, and the opposite is a “loveless lout” who is only concerned with the latest stock market figures (2–3). In this sense of religious, a committed atheist can be religious and a devout Catholic or Muslim or Hindu can be utterly irreligious (2–3). Doubt can encompass faith and faith can encompass doubt. This is the impossible made possible. Caputo’s approach here has something in common with Nietzsche and especially Kierkegaard, to whom I shall return later.

I would like to propose another definition of religion, within the spirit of these “new” definitions of religion that I have been discussing. Religion, at its core, I suggest, is non-propositional and apophatic. When I say that religion is non-propositional, I mean that religion will often enact certain rituals, or tell certain stories, or posit faith in someone, and that propositional statements of doctrine are merely reflections or approximations of this non-propositional core. Faith in God is not a proposition. The Eucharist is not a proposition. Prayer is not, at its core, a proposition. Pilgrimage is not a proposition. And it is these sorts of things that, I suggest, form the core of religion. Propositions are what happen when theologians and academics get their hands on religion, they try to intellectualise it so that it can be made to fit within their area of expertise—our area of expertise. But, that is not where it belongs. Propositions about rituals impose a certainty on them, whereas the ritual itself allows for courage in the face of doubt. The Maundy Thursday service in Western Christianity includes the stripping of the altar to the accompaniment of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me”), ending the service without a dismissal (Latin missa, the origin of the English “mass”) and with the church in darkness. Doubt, confusion, and bewilderment are the heart and soul of this ritual, not orthodox faith as defined propositionally.

That said, religion does often involve believing, of some kind (though it is not usually as central as in Christianity). So I say that religion is non-propositional and apophatic. The word “apophatic”, though not the concept, has its roots in Greek Orthodox theology, where St Gregory Palamas argues that any statement about God—and particularly about God’s essence as opposed to God’s energies—must be paradoxical, emphasising God’s otherness, and apophatic, emphasising God’s essential incomprehensibility (Armstrong 393). To make an apophatic statement is to make a negative statement—instead of saying God is king, lord, father, or whatever, we say God is not. Even the most devout believer will recognise a sense in which God is not a king, or a lord, or a father. They will say that God is much greater than any of these things. The Muslim will say “Allahu Akhbar”, which means God is greater, greater than any human description. Even the statement “God exists” is seen to be well short of the mark. Even that is human language, which is why the Cappadocian fathers (Saints Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Naziansus) said that they believed in God, while refusing to say that God exists.

So to say that religion is at its core non-propositional is to say that religious beliefs are at their core apophatic. The idea of apophasis is that by a process of constant negation you are led into silence, into a recognition that there is nothing more that can be said. St Thomas Aquinas says that the more things we negate about God, the more we say “God is not…”, the closer we get to what God is (139). Doubt therefore brings us closer to the object of religion than any putative certainties.

Apophasis does not only apply to Christianity. I have already indicated that it applies also to Islam, and the statement that God is greater. In Islam, God is said to have 99 names—or at least 99 that have been revealed to human beings. Many of these names are apophatic. Names like The Hidden carry an obviously negative meaning in English, while, etymologically, “the Holy” (al-quddu-s) means “beyond imperfection”, which is a negation of a negation. As-salaam, the All-Peaceful, means beyond disharmony, or disequilibrium, or strife, and, according to Murata and Chittick (65–6), “The Glorified” (as-subbuh) means beyond understanding.

In non-theistic religions too, an apophatic way of believing can be found. Key Buddhist concepts include sunyata, emptiness, or the Void, and anatta, meaning no self, the belief or realisation that the Self is illusory. Ask what they believe in instead of the Self and you are likely to be told that you are missing the point, like the Zen pupil who confused the pointing finger with the moon. In the Zen koans, apophasis plays a major part. One well-known koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Any logical answers will be dismissed, like Thomas Aquinas’s statements about God, until the pupil gets beyond logic and achieves satori, or enlightenment. Probably the most used koan is Mu—Master Joshu is asked if a dog has Buddha-nature and replies Mu, meaning “no” or “nothing”. This is within the context of the principle that everything has Buddha-nature, so it is not logical. But this apophatic process can lead to enlightenment, something better than logic. By plunging again and again in the water of doubt, to use Wittgenstein’s words, we gain something better than certainty.

So not only is apophasis present in a range of different religions—and I have given just a few examples—but it is also central to the development of religion in the Axial Age, Karl Jaspers’s term for the period from about 800-200 BCE when the main religious traditions of the world began—monotheism in Israel (which also developed into Christianity and Islam), Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Confucianism and Taoism in China, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. In the early Hindu traditions, there seems to have been a sort of ritualised debate called the Brahmodya, which would proceed through negation and end in silence. Not the silence of someone admitting defeat at the hands of the other, but the silence of recognising that the truth lay beyond them (Armstrong 24).

In later Hinduism, apophatic thought is developed quite extensively. This culminates in the idea of Brahman, the One God who is Formless, beyond all form and all description. As such, all representations of Brahman are equally false and therefore all representations are equally true—hence the preponderance of gods and idols on the surface of Hinduism. There is also the development of the idea of Atman, the universal Self, and the Buddhist concept anatta, which I mentioned, is rendered anatman in Sanskrit, literally no Atman, no Self. But in advaita Hinduism there is the idea that Brahman and Atman are the same, or, more accurately, they are not two—hence advaita, meaning “not two”. This is negation, or apophasis. In some forms of present-day Hinduism, such as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (commonly known as the Hare Krishnas), advaita is rejected. Sometimes this is characterised as dualism with respect to Brahman and Atman, but it is really the negation of non-dualism, or an apophatic negation of the negation.

Even in early Hinduism, there is a sort of Brahmodya recounted in the Rig Veda (Armstrong 24–5), the oldest extant religious scripture in the world that is still in use as a religious scripture. So here we are at the beginning of Axial Age religion, and we read this account of creation:

Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.

Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal.

Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.

All that existed then was void and form less.

Sages who searched with their heart's thought discovered the existent's kinship in the non-existent.

Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?

The Gods are later than this world's production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,

Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

(Rig Veda Book 10, Hymn 129, abridged)

And it would seem that this is the sort of thought that spread throughout the world as a result of the Axial Age and the later spread of Axial and post-Axial religions.

I could provide examples from other religious traditions. Taoism probably has the best examples, though they are harder to relate to the traditions that are more familiar in the West. “The way that is spoken is not the Way” is the most anglicised translation of the opening of the Tao Te Ching. In Sikhism, God’s formlessness and essential unknowability mean that God can only be known “by the Guru’s grace”, to quote the opening hymn of the Guru Granth Sahib.

Before I conclude, however, I would like to anticipate two criticisms. First, this may only be applicable to the religions of the Axial Age and their successors, beginning with Hinduism and Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, and early Jewish monotheism, followed by Jainism, Christianity, Islam and so on. I would like to find examples of apophasis at the core of other traditions, including Indigenous Australian and Native American ones, for example, but that is work still to be done. Focusing on the Axial Age does historicise the argument, however, at least in contrast with a more universal concept of religion that runs the risk of falling into the ahistorical homo religiosus idea that humans are universally and even naturally religious. 

Second, this apophatic definition looks a bit elitist, defining religion in terms that are relevant to theologians and “religious virtuosi” (to use Weber’s term), but what about the ordinary believers, pew-fillers, temple-goers? In response to such criticism, one may reply that there is an apophatic strand in what Niebuhr called the religions of the disinherited. In Asia, devotion to the Buddha Amida is particularly popular among the poor, and this involves a transformation of the idea of anatta—no Self—into an external agency, a Buddha who is “without measure”, in terms of in-finite light and in-finite life. These are apophatic concepts. In the Christian New Testament, we are told that God “has chosen the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong…, the things that are not to shame the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27). The things that are not are the apophatic, and these are allied with the foolish and the weak, not the educated and the powerful.

One major reason for emphasising the role of apophasis in religious thought is to break away from the idea that the core of religion is an ethical one. This is argued by a number of “liberal religious” thinkers in different religious traditions. I appreciate their reasons, and I am reluctant to ally myself with their opponents, who include the more fundamentalist types as well as some vocal critics of religion like Dawkins and Hitchens. However, I said that I would return to Kierkegaard, and the reason is this. Kierkegaard distinguishes between the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. Of course, religion has an aesthetic and an ethical dimension, and in some religions these dimensions are particularly important, but that does not make them central to religion as such. Kierkegaard regarded the religious sphere as radically different from the aesthetic or even the ethical, hence his treatment of the story of Abraham going to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son, in obedience to God’s command. His son was not killed in the end, but Abraham was ready to do the deed. This is not ethical. This is fundamentally and scandalously unethical. Yet it is religious, not because it is unethical and scandalous, but because it pushes us to the limits of our understanding, through the waters of doubt, and then beyond.

Were I attempting to criticise religion, I would say it should not go there, that, to misquote Wittgenstein, the limits of my understanding are the limits of my world, whereof we cannot understand thereof we must remain silent. Were I attempting to defend religion, I would say that this is its genius, that it can push back the limits of understanding. I do not believe in value-neutral sociology, but, in this case, I am attempting neither.


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phenomenology of religion; definitions of religion; apophasis

Copyright (c) 2011 Malcolm David Brown

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