“Religion” is a concept that Hegel develops throughout his Phenomenology of Spirit. Here I’m going to look at the most abstract concept of religion that Hegel provides, the most minimal notion of what a religion must be in order to be called a “religion.”
The most fundamental thing that any religion must have, for Hegel, is a concern with a “beyond.” Meaning: a concern with what is beyond self-consciousness. In other words, religion is always concerned with something transcendent. This is Hegel’s minimal definition of religion: there’s always more to religion than this, but religious thought is always concerned with what is beyond consciousness of the self.
“Religion,” in this minimal sense, is opposed to “reason,” as Hegel understands it. This is because “reason” denotes a form of self-consciousness that seeks itself in the here and now, while religion must always seek a beyond. As long as the religious mind is looking out beyond itself for something other than itself, it is neglecting the task of reason, the task of seeking itself in the here and now.
What causes a mind to turn to religion? Why should it seek a beyond? Human beings are confronted early on in their lives with something undeniably beyond themselves: the fact of death. Death is “pure negativity” and the absolute opposite of the being of self-consciousness. The human mind is curious to explore this realm of non-being, and so the first stirrings of religion begin early in human history.
The self only exists in the present. Whatever it seeks beyond, it will not find itself there. Religion is, as we’ve seen, the search for something other than the self, and therefore opposed to reason. Ultimately, Hegel will show that religion and reason are compatible, but the abstract concept of religion will have to develop into more concrete forms before such a synthesis becomes possible.
(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)
‘The self only exists in the present. Whatever it seeks beyond, it will not find itself there.’
Interesting. Is that Hegel’s belief or yours? If the self can’t be aware of the ‘afterlife’ what is the purpose of there being such a place/concept? Do people follow a religion because they want to know they will experience some kind of afterlife, or to just be reassured their atoms and dust continue in some glorious creation? I think most hope for the former. I suppose scientists would support the latter in their beliefs of we being just matter returning to matter.
You read some thought-provoking texts, Lee. I hope you remember to go out for a beer at weekends!
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The answer to this question isn’t a short one! I’m planning to get around to answering it in later blog posts. For Hegel, consciousness’s journey through religion is one of losing itself in the beyond, only to find itself again on its return to the present. And Hegel doesn’t believe in an afterlife exactly, no. Some would argue that Hegel’s version of Christianity is basically atheism, since it seems to cut out so much of what many Christians deem essential, e.g. an afterlife, literal belief in the resurrection, and so on. If all goes to plan I’ll get around to discussing all this in the weeks to come.
Maybe I’ll reward myself with a beer if I get all that done. Thanks for reading!
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