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  • On Comparing Religions in the Anthropocene
  • Robert McKim (bio)

I. Observations on the Functions of Religions

Whatever may be the correct way to understand their origins and development, the major religions aspire to providing their members with solutions to many problems, and they aspire to satisfying many needs. For example, the religious traditions offer explanations in certain important areas of enquiry. Thus they propose answers to questions such as these: Why is there a universe? Why do we exist? What sort of beings are we? What will become of us after we die? The proposed answers to such fundamental questions as these constitute the descriptive or cognitive part of religion.

The religions also aspire to providing a guide to behavior. They specify how people ought to live, what is important in human life, how we ought to treat others, and what we owe others. The religions also typically provide an analysis of why we sometimes fail to do what we ought to do and of what it will take to reorient us so that we will do what we ought to do. The relevant defect that is thought to account for our failures may be, for example, sin, ignorance, or delusion. So there is both identification of a problem and specification of a solution. The religions also typically aspire to providing guidance, assistance, and encouragement that will help us to do what—it is claimed—we should do. It seems plain, too, that in matters of behavior, many of the traditions ask from their adherents more than they are inclined to give. So it is not surprising that the religions often aspire to challenging people and to shaking them up, urging them to reexamine their attitudes, outlook, dispositions, and so on. To lay some of my cards on the table right away, what I will propose, in effect, is that the religions themselves need to be challenged and shaken up. The upshot of what I am saying is that the religions need to reexamine their own attitudes, perspectives, and practices in some important respects.

In any case, that the religions have a behavioral function seems uncontroversial and unexceptionable.1 One aspect of this behavioral component is that [End Page 248] religions often offer guidance as to how to solve the most pressing practical problems of the periods in which they were established and in which they flourish. Consider, for example, the ways in which both Buddhists and Muslims in India rejected the Hindu idea of caste. Thus the success of Islam in India appears to have been in part a response on the part of people of lower caste who saw Islam as a way out of their social conditions.2 Or consider Wesleyan Methodism’s repudiation of the squalor of early eighteenth-century life in England.3 Examples can be multiplied. The idea of helping us to solve our most pressing practical problems will be central to this essay. Actually I will focus primarily on the question of whether the religions can help us to respond to the currently pressing practical problem of global environmental destruction.4 Some religious traditions may have better resources to help us to deal with this problem than have others. It is unlikely that they are all equally imaginative, equally supportive, and so forth. [End Page 249]

It is, I suppose, possible that a religious tradition would take the position that it has nothing much to contribute to solving a major contemporary problem such as the one I will probe. But this is not typically the way in which the religious traditions proceed. Rather, they propose to be relevant, to have something to say. Indeed a religion may even aspire to providing a comprehensive and complete roadmap for all of human life, with directions for how to act in all situations. If the members of a tradition that has this aspiration to be comprehensive are persuaded of the magnitude, seriousness, and urgency of global environmental problems, they will expect to find solutions to these problems within their own resources, indeed solutions that are superior to those to be found elsewhere. Probably they will feel that if people would just pay attention to the relevant...


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pp. 248-263
Launched on MUSE
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