Ceci n’est pas une religion

I’d like to thank one of my readers, kamatakki, for turning me onto this guy, S. N. Balagangadhara, putting patterns in place that solve problems I’ve had a long while but basically ignored. He’s rather irascible and sometimes wrong (Balagangadhara I mean, not kamatakki ^_^), but that doesn’t matter, because his most important points are evidential — and anyone can check him. This will not be a long post; follow up as desired.

I’ve always been worried about this week’s question, although never enough to actually do anything about it. Once, in China, I was talking to a local about the temples in Beijing and she said that one in particular was not Buddhist, but Taoist. But then she looked at me in a way that I could not parse. It seemed to be a glance of uncertainty, but what could that mean? She was not quite sure of what she was saying. But even more strangely, it seemed she wanted confirmation from me. How could that be? I was the stranger, she was the local, wouldn’t she know to which religion a particular temple belonged?

An easy assumption to make, but since then I’ve learned what is now quite common knowledge in academia although almost completely unknown outside it: much of what Westerners have been calling ‘religion’ in non-Abrahamic contexts really is their own invention. The Western model of “religions” based on texts and doctrines doesn’t travel.

To attempt to understand religion in China as several systems of doctrine is to read Western experience into a quite different set of circumstances.

— Thompson, Chinese Religion (1995)

The post-Christian Western idea is that doctrines drive everything, so at the base of spiritual traditions must be some belief system holding a relationship of equivalence to their creed — you don’t believe Christianity, so what do you believe? But this is false; it might not matter what you believe. And in China it most often doesn’t.

Thus the hesitation of my Chinese acquaintance was perfectly natural. I think she referred to the Dongyue temple, which is indeed “Taoist”, in the sense of having been built by followers of the Celestial Masters tradition of Daojiao (“Way-Teaching”, a term only extant from the 5th c. CE), but its presiding deity, Dongyue, “Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak”, has been thoroughly integrated into Confucian and Buddhist traditions too. Like earlier examples I gave, this deity has been quite a few things to quite a few people over time.

My Chinese interlocutor knew that calling a temple ‘Taoist’ labelled it with a creed which we Westerners expect, somewhat equivalent to the imported exclusivist Communism under which she lives. The supposedly underlying explicatory doctrine did not matter to her the way it did to Christian scholars. The deity concerned is associated with Taoism in this case (as often), but the temple in Beijing does not represent a model which is followed throughout China in association with Dongyue, or with Taoism. It doesn’t follow what we might call the ‘spiritual franchise model’ of Christian churches. You don’t have to ‘be a Taoist’ to enter.

I'd be careful who you call a religion...

(As for the incredible menagerie of other deities in that temple, check it out. You will love this!)

So the left-brain categorisings of reflexive Western understanding are not used by Chinese people — unless they are Chinese scholars aping Westernism of course, but as the economics continue to seesaw, the power to set agendas will slip away East.

There is no exact word corresponding to English ‘religion’, in China. Our modern assumptions see religion everywhere but initial European observations were quite different. The outflowings of this fact are ridden to exciting destinations by Balagangadhara, who is Indian, but whose ideas link with China (and pagan Europe.) One simply has to observe that:

A standard Chinese response to being queried on “religion” in China is to say that the Chinese do not have one.

— Paper, The Spirits are Drunk (1995)

(Paper’s book is recommended to spiritual explorers wanting academic info on Chinese religion, since he has transpersonal experience and knows how that fits in to his subject — most scholars are still flat-footed on this, including Balagangadhara.)

The Chinese then, even once some word has been found to translate the concept of “religion”, do not recognise it. And interestingly, early Christian encounters often also say, “the Chinese have no religion”, on the record, which may be checked. This is Balagangadhara’s evidential point since the same thing happened in India — the first European arrivals there were clear that no religion was to be found, and in fact it was much the same story with the rest of the world as they encountered it.

Balagangadhara (“Balu” to friends and admirers) simply suggests: if the locals thought they had no religion, and the visitors too, why disagree with them? They were right.

And I think that’s a very good way to look at it. By the time more imperialising assumptions that “everyone has religion since it is a natural instinct” have been unpicked, not so much remains in the Western concept that is mirrored in the non-Western ones. Traditions all over the world do a whole lot of different things, often connected, but those things may in toto certainly be neither equivalent to, nor felt similarly to, what Abrahamic religion does. So it may not be appropriate to call them all “religions”, a Western word which since Christianity bludgeoned Roman pagan religio into submission really has meant ‘something like scripture-based doctrinal Abrahamism’.

So much clicks, then. We as Westerners used to make a distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ ritual in China, for example — conveniently ignoring the fact that the Chinese never made such a distinction. which is valid only for our culture. Chinese rites are more accurately seen as ‘agnostic’ (Paper p. 27), with the emphasis on the actions themselves, not on any object they have in view. The interesting Michael Saso, a Westerner ordained as a priest in a Taoist sect, agrees (1990) that “Chinese religion is not a belief system.”

Other implications… “Interfaith dialogue” for one is probably an Abrahamic model — having participated once I can testify to the falseness of the equivalences it assumes between traditions, although I had no clue why at the time; but if most “religions”, to the extent they even exist as such, can’t really be called ‘faiths’, much is explained. The famous “Belief-O-Matic” quiz over at Beliefnet which claims to be able to stream you into the correct religion on account of “what you believe” is operating on false and falsified assumptions too. The name hints at the link between those false assumptions and the mechanised universe it is still heresy to believe we don’t live in.

Many neopagans have likewise known for a long while that they were after “orthopraxy not orthodoxy”, and I hope many will be proud to say that what they do is neither equivalent to nor necessarily competition for Abrahamism. The initial category equivalence between ‘pagan beliefs’ and ‘Christian beliefs’ was drawn by Christians and was a major plank of the either/or conversion process.

Often, left to themselves, non-Christians would historically be happy to include Christ alongside other deities in a multiplicity. One saw this desire in India as Balu points out — in China too — and one sees the actual living result in the Greece of a century ago according to Lawson, whose book is absolutely invaluable although often overlooked. If pagan traditions were belief systems/worldview-faiths this natural instinct to include Jesus of Nazareth alongside other gods could not arise.

I also mention again my previous review of Versluis’ wonderful and unique book on the nature of inquisitions, with its concept of ‘ideocracy’, rule by correct ideas, acting as driver of a belief-based absolutism and happy to torture those who dare to think differently. Reading him alongside Balu, it becomes far clearer why inquisitions flourished under a “religious” system (and why totalitarianisms are indeed well seen as religions in Balu’s sense and could take over the inquisitions). It’s simply that ideocratic systems claim to own and describe the world for our and its good. One may extrapolate reasons why over-dogmatic dualistic absolutisms are at the root of a lot of the mental difficulties of the modern de-religioning West, which mental health professionals have to deal with. It all fits.

(One may often hear a person speaking of ‘religion’ who is unable to make these distinctions; under questioning they may not only have trouble defining their subject, but also realise they had not even realised they had trouble.)

Meanwhile I will interpret a writer like Patanjali much as Glenn did — psychologically and philosophically. That is my real interest, not “religion”, hence this may well be my last post on the subject of “religion” itself, which I’m sure will please many. :) I may read a little further on the question of “heresy” to see if it bears out the above (there is something similar in Confucian traditions I’m told), but I honestly think that’s a minor point best understood in light of the psychological necessity of individuation.

... mais il existe des alternatives au combat! Thanks to Cryhavok

My life as predicted has been speeding up and I also have a lot of new transpersonal insights to digest, so some posts upcoming may be shorter in the sense of fewer words, but actually will cover more ideas more tersely. As ever thanks for reading, and I appreciate your thoughts if you want to share them, whether here on the ‘Box or in private.

Best wishes,



6 responses to “Ceci n’est pas une religion

  • badocelot

    Excellent post. In some discussions I was having with a friend of mine, a sociologist of religion, he turned me on to the growing number of scholars, such as Russell McCutcheon, who argue that religion is not a natural kind but rather a category we’ve made up in order to talk about it. This explains much of the difficulty defining religion and why something that counts as a religion in one context may not count in another (or why even a paradigmatic secular ideology may still be a functional substitute for religion).

    I’d also suggest that the term “god” and especially “God” is in a similar position. The big-G term has been used to mean everything from a specific Semitic tribal deity to the logical structure of the universe, and there seems to be almost no limit as to what the little-g term can be applied to. Which isn’t to say that either is a useless term. But when it’s important to be clear on what we’re talking about, I wonder if it wouldn’t pay to use different terms.

    • Jason Wingate


      I haven’t read McCutcheon and all that lot and probably won’t, at least not for a while. I did spot Henderson’s book on heresy which goes into detailed comparative fact so that will be my last read on religion for now.

      As I say a ‘paradigmatic secular ideology’ on Balu’s terms is a religion if it fulfills the function of “owning and describing the world for our and its good”. As we know this results not only in the ability to overrule doubt but the injunction to do so.

      I did actually address gods a little recently, eg. here and here… I agree people who use words like that might want to hint what they mean. :) Let me know what you think if you like…

      EDIT: was just reading this by McCutcheon — the argument is of an appallingly low standard and under other circumstances I’d be delighted to rip it apart, but I really will be moving on from religion now so I’ll have to leave it.

      FURTHER EDIT: On other hand, after a long while of other stuff I might revisit this by way of someone like Wayne Proudfoot, but only to dismantle their dismantlings like I say.

  • gleesglen

    Nice post. I’ve been studying Balu’s works for several years and continue to be impressed by the depth of his scholarship. I do have a quibble with one of your remarks. I’m wondering on what basis you conclude that Balu is “flatfooted” on the transpersonal dimension? Because his writing is logical and precise and does not delve into the fuzzy realm of spirituality? This is as good as saying I am disappointed in Balu because he does not address the history of pizza making. Can you see the presuppositions you yourself are bringing in? By the way, Hindus don’t have a word for “spirituality” either, never mind religion.

    • Jason Wingate

      Thanks very much!

      No I’m bringing in no “presuppositions” of the kind that this:

      “Because his writing is logical and precise and does not delve into the fuzzy realm of spirituality?”

      … presupposes! Transpersonal research simply changes the game in cross-cultural religious studies and I root for that; Balu will often touch on places where it is relevant and over-hastily draw culturebound conclusions IMO. But I don’t want to go through examples — and I certainly am not asking anyone to be ‘more fuzzy’! On the contrary, I think there are facts to absorb, also interesting facts so I hope it is not too annoying of me.

      It’s a minor point which is why I put it in brackets. The Jordan Paper book shows what happens when you bring stuff like that in to a pure academic context — usually happens when a PhD is forced to do it by experience, but not until — and it does result in some interesting things.

      By the way, Hindus don’t have a word for “spirituality” either, never mind religion.

      … or for “Hindu” itself in many cases, under non-colonial circumstances anyhow. :)

      (Of course there are plenty of yogic concepts which can’t be correctly translated to english without the word ‘spirit’ being involved.)

  • alex @ skeptiko

    Interesting post… thx Jason.

%d bloggers like this: