Posted by anya on March 19th, 2009 filed in Uncategorized

In my Philosophy of Religion class, we are talking about Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. He attempts to prove that instead of being something true in and of itself, religion is a natural phenomenon that functions much like a meme. The first aim of his book is to break the taboo of talking about religion in scientific terms. He wants precisely to deconstruct religion in terms of an evolutionary scientific framework. In today’s discussion group, a student said “He is being irresponsible. The first thing anthropology tells you is to study something on its own terms. Therefore, his entire project is flawed.” I responded by saying “But that’s precisely what Dennett is trying to get around. He has a problem with the fact that religion is always studied in its own terms, because it ends up being that the conclusions we reach are always still within its framework.”

So as I was walking from class, I got to thinking about the way we debate things. In order to be fair, do we always need to approach something on its own terms? If that’s the case, there’s always going to be a limit to how far you can push your conclusions. Disputing religion, for example, will involve arguing over religion’s attitude to homosexuality and what God’s relationship to free will is (important questions, no doubt). But we will never be able to question whether God exists, or even whether it (God) is omniscient because there are certain axioms you must believe in order to move forward. To me, questioning something on its own terms predetermines the limits to which it can be questioned. But is questioning something on alien terms an underlying fallacy? Is questioning religion on scientific terms completely methodologically flawed? This is not to say that science is the end all and be all. In fact, it would then mean that science could be questioned on religious terms (as it constantly is). Is questioning something on terms that are not its own completely unfair? It seems to me that when we take something out of its own terms the most interesting critiques come about. And now that I think about it, that’s actually probably where a lot of “fundamental” historical changes have come from (the Enlightenment, for example). Am I missing something here?

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