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C O U R S E 
Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science
Edward Slingerland, University of British Columbia
C O U R S E   L E C T U R E 
The Definition of Religion
Notes taken on October 21, 2014 by Edward Tanguay
what does it mean to study thought?
it is easier to study thought than practice, especially in ancient cultures
thought travels better
it's easier to learn from thought rather than particular practices of other cultures
studying ancient Chinese thought
we don't know that much about what people were actually doing in ancient China
we have texts, so we know what people were thinking, but not what they were doing
historians see the texts from this culture and era as both philosophy and religion
they can be seen as both
the distinction between philosophy and religion is itself a product of a cultural view
the religion/philosophy distinction emerges in Northern Europe during a particular period in the Enlightenment
it's a result of a particular problem that the French philosophes had
they were trying to formulate an ethic that was free of the Catholic Church
a rational ethic that wasn't theological
one that wasn't based upon Christianity
so they called themselves philosophers to distinguish themselves from theologians and priests
before the Enlightenment
there was little distinction between philosophy and religion
the Greek thinkers, the Medieval thinkers and certainly the thinkers in China
were simultaneously philosophers and religious thinkers
that in ancient China, anything that would be considered philosophy is also religious thought
one of the odd things about religious studies is we don't agree on what we study
there's no universally agreed upon definition of religion
there are opposing definitions of religion but there is not one definition that everyone agrees upon
one definition that is the most useful is the one loosely modeled on that of Charles Taylor
a religion is a coherent framework:
1. of ontological claims referring to a world beyond the physical world which cannot be directly experienced and which by its nature is not empirically verifiable but requires faith for it to be meaningful
2. of normative rules and advice on what is good and morally desirable including how to best live your life and be a good person
3. which advocates a soteriological strategy, which means a specific process having to do with salvation, and being saved within the terms of the framework
every religion thinks we are not in harmony with the described framework
postulates some strategy for moving from a state where we are not in harmony with this framework to one where we are in harmony with it
all religions give you something to do that is importantly related to accomplishing a synthesis in regard to the soteriological framework
the power of Taylor's definition religion is that the ontological claims don't have to be gods
this allows us to capture frameworks which operatively fall under the definition of religion but fall out of a theistic definition
e.g. captures
certain forms of Confucianism which are not religions in a theistic sense
early Theravada Buddism
modes of thought that purport to be not religious but if you look at them more closely, that they have many of the same characteristics of religion
global stories about how to live your life and fit into a larger framework, and what we should be doing and striving for
the myth of secularism
"although there are still religious people running around, humans for the most part have managed to reach a state of metaphysical clarity based on scientific evidence and rationality"
this is one of the most pernicious myths about ourselves that could be perpetrated
even atheists are at some level religious in the sense of committing to some sort of picture of how the universe is, how it should be, and suggesting some kind of normative structure in order to move from one to the other
this is a basic feature of human cognition and psychology and you can't think your way out of it
what it means to live a good life is going to be intimately tied up with metaphysical commitments