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Religion and Culture

1947 to 1949
University of Edinburgh

The 'Religion and Culture' lectures are rooted in the strong assertion that the radical positivist and secular inclinations of Enlightenment humanism have failed either to uproot the religious and spiritual tendencies of Western culture or to replace them with an alternative account of moral behavior on the basis of reason. The return of philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries to romanticism and mythology is an indication of this, as is the persistent 20th-century search both for description and transcendence of the depth of human experience.

Dawson maintains that religion has a unifying effect, even in its obvious and inherent dynamism. 'The cultural function of religion is both conservative and dynamic: it consecrates the tradition of a culture and it also provides the common aim which unifies the different social elements in it' (chapter 1, 24). However, religion is also subject to the changes of society through the ages. 'The relation between Religion and Culture is always a two-sided one. The way of life influences the approach to religion, and the religious attitude influences the way of life' (chapter 2, 46). By this argument, Dawson asserts that, just as some social sciences would suggest that religion is merely a product of social conditioning, religious historians can argue that religion initiates profound and even revolutionary changes within culture (chapter 3).

To do this Dawson demonstrates the relationship between religion and culture through: prophecy, mysticism and revolutionary social change (chapter 4); monasticism, priesthood and notions of sacrifice and self-denial (chapter 5); divine kingship and monarchy (chapter 6); natural and sacred science (chapter 7), and sacred law and the social order (chapter 8); and, finally, notions of intuitive and salvific spiritual discipline (chapter 9). The practices of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are considered throughout, while the conclusion emphasizes the current period (immediately following the Second World War) as a crucial turning point in the interaction of religion and culture, especially in Europe (chapter 10).