Written By: Peter Boghossian
Religion, Culture, History: A Philosophical Study of Religion
Daimonion Press, 2012, 206 pp., $10.00 pbk, 1479109681
Religion, Culture, History: A Philosophical Study of Religion is a new book by philosopher Steven Brutus that takes on not only the entire history of religion, but human religiosity reaching back tens of thousands of years. It’s an incredibly ambitious yet concise book that articulates the immense variety of religious practices and beliefs in cultures from all over the world, and from every period of history. This dense, rich tome, written in the style of a traditional continental philosopher—more a European perspective than Anglo-American—is packed with thought-provoking gems on nearly every page.
Brutus investigates three long tracts of history: (1) The history of ideas that culminates in isolating the subject of religion (pp. 1-36), (2) the history of religion (pp. 37-97), and (3) the history of explaining religion (pp. 98-138).
First, the history of ideas, explains how ancient historians gradually found a way to talk about other peoples’ religious practices, and how thinkers such as Herodotus and Ibn Khaldun connected observations about strange practices carried on in other countries to what people were doing at home. Brutus explicates ideas such as magic, ritual, symbol, belief and ideology and how they came to be used in discussions about religion. He shows how religion evolves from practices like animal sacrifice, communal dance and initiation rites, beliefs in supernatural beings, and demands on the faithful to accept doctrines; he also develops an idea of philosophy that escapes from sectarian thinking and gets to a global perspective that focuses on a “truth-content that survives a planetary scrutiny” (p. 98).
Second, the history of religion, focuses on the history of religion in China (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism), in the Fertile Crescent (Egyptian religion, Sumerian religion, the Gilgamesh epic), the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), religious traditions of India (Jainism, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the ‘Six Schools,’ the Carvakas), the Olympian religion, and ancient forms of religiosity such as the worship of The Great Mother. This history is not meant to be comprehensive. Brutus is trying to draft enough of an outline of religious history to draw out some key problems (pp. 139-162), including the confrontation with death, the contrast between religion that inspires otherworldliness and religion that encourages enjoyment of this life, the conflict between religion as inspiring self-reliance versus reliance on a sacred text, the transition from religious ritual to religious belief (from religion as celebration to religion as doctrine), and the cycle of experimentation, orthodoxy, adaptation, and fundamentalism.
Third, the history of explaining religion, explains different psychological, social and cultural theories of religion. Brutus writes about ideas from “neurotheology” (a term coined by Aldous Huxley) that relate religion to brain states, to ideas from anthropology, structuralism, economics, and game theory. Brutus, a student of the father of hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer, explicates that theory in depth and brings in ideas from Wittgenstein, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich. Brutus also focuses on ideas from Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who adapt Darwinian principles to the problem of religion.
Brutus’ own point of view on these themes emerges in his conclusions (pp. 163-173). Grounding his thinking in skeptical historians such as Plutarch, Ibn Khaldun, Voltaire, and Gibbon, Brutus carries on William James’ pragmatic approach to religious studies found in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He is oriented towards existentialism, and argues that religion draws its power from its ability to satisfy man’s craving for meaning. Brutus calls his own point of view “hardboiled humanism” and argues that a sober, dispassionate, skeptical voice is an essential companion whenever one undertakes a sincere study of religion, history, and culture. The book ends with Brutus’ recounting of his own journey to Jerusalem and the lessons that he was able to take from his experiences there.
Religion, Culture, History takes the reader on a remarkable, sweeping journey. It challenges the traveller with provocative ideas, profound arguments, an intimate knowledge of the subject, and a genuinely thought-provoking inquiry. This is not an easy read, but for anyone interested in these subjects it is impossible to read this book and not come away with a broader and deeper understanding of the subject. Religion, Culture, History is a must-read book for those sincerely interested in grounding their knowledge of the history of religion, atheism, and skepticism.