Thick and Clear Religions

One of the most interesting ways to look at and classify religions and philosophical systems (I’m lumping them together because the distinction between the two, a way of life or dharma/din/tao|धर्म/دين/道 doesn’t necessarily exist in the traditional sense in many cultures) is the idea of “thick” and “clear” religions. The distinction between the two was laid out by C.S. Lewis. While he is not always the most objective thinker on religious questions, what he says here is interesting.

We may [reverently] divide religions, as we do soups, into ‘thick’ and ‘clear’. By Thick I mean those which have orgies and ecstasies and mysteries and local attachments: Africa is full of Thick religions. By Clear I mean those which are philosophical, ethical and universalizing: Stoicism, Buddhism, and the Ethical Church are Clear religions. Now if there is a true religion it must be both Thick and Clear: for the true God must have made both the child and the man, both the savage and the citizen, both the head and the belly. (From “Christian Apologetics”)

It does seem to be a point worth considering. At least in the present, successful world religions, in order to have both mass appeal and intellectual endorsement, need to simultaneously appeal to emotion and reason. I think there’s something to this. A religion like Buddhism, is at its core, a “clear” religion or philosophical school that appeals primarily to seekers and thinkers, both in Asia and in the West. In fact, historically, the proper Buddhists have been the monks, with the lay community supporting it and only taking part in some Buddhist rituals mixed with other, local practices. When those practices are broken or changed due to modernization of cultural change, the religion really only survives in the temples and monasteries. The emotional appeal of the grittier aspects of religion does not exist in these places. This is why, I believe, that East Asia is so secular today, or that the most religious people from this region are converts, mostly to Christianity. Alternatively, on the other hand, it is not hard to see how disillusioning it could be for people who follow “thick”-only religions when they encounter systems with more developed metaphysical and ethical ideas.

Of course, its possible to combine the two, and most successful religions grew off adding the philosophical layer on top of the already existing ritual layer while also universalizing the rituals and giving them ethical meaning. This seems to be a common pattern at least in the Mediterranean, Near East, and South Asia (East Asia seems to have adopted a pattern of different schools for the elite and the peasant), and it doesn’t seem to matter if the religion is monotheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic, monist, or henotheonistic (the worship of one god while recognizing others). This point is acknowledged in an article in Science:

Today’s most successful religions have one thing in common: moralizing gods that care about how people treat one another and will punish those who are selfish and cruel. But for most of human history, these “big gods” were the exception. If today’s hunter-gatherers are any guide, for thousands of years our ancestors conceived of deities as utterly indifferent to the human realm, and to whether we behaved well or badly.

While Lewis seems to believe that only Hinduism and Christianity are both “clear” and “thick,” I would argue that there are a significant number of religions that fit this description, including the ancient Greek religion, the ancient Egyptian religion, Zoroastrianism, Islam, and Sikhism. In other words, “belief in judgmental deities was key to the cooperation needed to build and sustain large, complex societies.”

We can see the idea of a religion that appeals to both the “clear” and “thick” aspects of human needs by looking at major religions. Hinduism believes that there are four approaches towards spiritual matters: the paths of action, righteousness/law, philosophy, and meditation. The first two are more “thick” while the second two are more “clear.” This is a religion with a universal, transcendental God that also reveals in the minutiae of local gods and spirits. We see similar patterns in, say, Christianity, where the same being who is described as the light of the universe and the root of reason (logos) also literally comes down to earth and is crucified. In Islam, the same page of the Qur’an often swings from breathtaking poetry describing God as the light of the heavens and earth to detailing the number of lashes proscribed for specific offenses. And the Greeks of course, ranged from simultaneously seeing the world in terms of unison, with everything being part of “The One,” to also participating in Dionysian rituals.

The concept is an interesting one for sure, and food for the mind.



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