Said Simon

My thoughts as a Secular Humanist and student of politics

We need a more nuanced definition of religion.

[Or, as I might prefer to say, ‘Religion is NOT the opposite of atheism.’ And a beliefs-centred definition of religion is insufficient for our analytical and political goals.]

‘It’s a delusion’, comes the pronouncement. ‘Nothing but superstition.’

This appears to be the attitude that many activists within the humanist and atheist movement have towards religion. Consider the following quote by Greta Christina, in one of her favourite (and in my opinion, excellent) essays:

Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die. It therefore has no reality check.

A few short paragraphs later, she clarifies this understanding of religion:

The thing that uniquely defines religion, the thing that sets it apart from every other ideology or hypothesis or social network, is the belief in unverifiable supernatural entities.

The purpose of her essay is ultimately to argue that religion is uniquely armoured against criticism, in contrast to other ideologies, and that armour is provided by the unverifiability of religion’s teleological claims. In her own words:

Religion, and its unverifiability, actively promotes the idea that the invisible afterlife is more important than the life we know exists….What matters isn’t disease and death in this life. What matters is the next life. What matters is God’s will…which therefore, by the horrible freakish paradox of the armor of God, gets priority.

Another popular figure in the atheist movement, PZ Myers, has a similar view of religion. He sums it up in an unusually vitriolic fashion in one recent blog post:

Religion is not some mild happy recreational activity; it is a poison of the brain that taints the vast majority of humanity. It is bad shit….we’ve got the moderate academic types who like to tell us it’s mostly harmless and we’ll never be able to get rid of it, anyway; to them I’d say that, as people who are supposedly dedicated to learning the truth, you ought to be the first to deny religion because a) it’s wrong, and b) it’s a fallacious way of learning about the world.

Both Greta Christina and PZ Myers have written many excellent things analysing and critiquing the harms of certain religious beliefs, and I consider them both to be highly respectable and worthy members of the movement. And their definition for religion is certainly in line with common-language usage of the term, viz., that religion is (1) a set of immutable or dogmatic beliefs about the world that (2) posit and invoke supernatural (that is, ungoverned by normal physical laws as we know them) entities which (3) carry metaphysical authority, and can thus specify right conduct or command obedience. Let’s call this the Supernatural Propositions (SP) definition.

As far as serving as a tool for identifying a set of ideologies with effects on society that they, I, and many others would probably classify as bad, it’s not a bad definition. It is, in a sense, the opposite of atheism. But it informs certain overall goals, too. Consider  Greta Christina’s overall thesis in her essay on the goals of the atheist movement:

For many atheists, the primary goal of atheist activism is to reduce anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and to work towards more complete separation of church and state. Their main goal is to get people to see atheists as happy, ethical, productive members of society, with full and equal rights and responsibilities. They want to counter myths and misconceptions about atheists. And they see angry, confrontational, firebrand atheists as feeding into those myths, and alienating religious believers, and thus making everyone’s job harder.

But not all atheists see this as their main goal.

For many atheists, our main goal is persuading the world out of religion….Many of us don’t just want a world where believers and atheists get along and let each other practice their religion or lack thereof in peace. Many of us want a world where there’s no religion.

Here is where I think that the SP definition is starting to lose its efficacy. Focusing on the propositional aspect of religion helps us identify specific claims that can be falsified, or specific epistemologies that can be criticised, but it fails to specify a good target for activism with the goal of total elimination.

There are two reasons for this. The first reason is that dogmatic sets of beliefs commanding metaphysical authority are not unique to religions describable by the SP definition, but are components of other ideologies which we might also charactise as harmful. Dogmatic Leninism or Randianism might arguably evince similar ‘unverifiability’ in its basic doctrine, lack any ‘reality check’, and specify similarly absolutist versions of right and wrong, or of natural law, etc – just like (3) in the SP definition. If we view (1) and (3) in the SP definition as non-unique to religion, then we are left with only the bit about supernatural entities. While we can dream of educating everyone so well in the methods of scepticism that they stop believing in such absurd things, this isn’t really our main goal. Actually, it’s a means to an end, and that end is to minimise (1) and (3): dogmatic beliefs about right and wrong which aren’t amenable to negotiation, discourse, or alteration.

In short, the stuff people like me, hopefully you, Greta and PZ hate most about religion under the SP definition is the stuff that is non-unique to it.

This brings us to the second problem with the SP definition, which is that it doesn’t give us a social account of religion. As I argued rather more pedantically in a previous blog post, belief and practice are mutually constitutive. In plain language: what a person believes and what a person does are mutually reinforcing. Furthermore, when we look at the appeal that religious practice seems to hold for people, we see that it is not merely the comfortable explanation of the unknown through supernatural propositions, but identity-building activities that foster a sense of community, give meaning to interpersonal relationships, and offer a structure to life which informs daily habits.

These things which we call religion offer deeply satisfying, perhaps even necessary narratives that go beyond ideas – important ideas that comprise a frame of reference for one’s experience of the world – and into real social goods. Destroying religions thus means destroying entire ways of life, with all the complexities and fundamental identities they contain.

I’m one of those ‘moderate academic types’ lampooned by PZ Myers. I don’t think it is even possible to do this. I don’t think these things called religions can be extracted from their cultural contexts and eradicated. But I do think that beliefs in interventionist supernatural powers can be eradicated. Which leaves us with a very important point – those of us who use the common-language, SP definition for religion, anyway:

We need a more nuanced definition of religion.

4 responses to “We need a more nuanced definition of religion.

  1. Patrick Denning December 29, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Let’s take your characterization of SP “(1) a set of immutable or dogmatic beliefs about the world that (2) posit and invoke supernatural (that is, ungoverned by normal physical laws as we know them) entities which (3) carry metaphysical authority, and can thus specify right conduct or command obedience”. You point out correctly that only (2) is unique to religion and I think this is exactly what we ought to expect given that you have called it the Supernatural Propositions definition, furthermore (1) and (3) are not necessary components of religion, although they may be common components, since whether or not a belief is dogmatic really depends on the disposition of the believer not the content of the belief and since one can imagine religiously imagined deities with no “metaphysical authority”, Stephen Law’s evil god, for instance.
    With this in mind it looks tempting to pare down SP to merely (2), you object to this on the grounds that “While we can dream of educating everyone so well in the methods of scepticism that they stop believing in such absurd things, this isn’t really our main goal. Actually, it’s a means to an end, and that end is to minimise (1) and (3): dogmatic beliefs about right and wrong which aren’t amenable to negotiation, discourse, or alteration.”. While I happen to agree that this is a good goal it looks to me like you’re implying that the statement “my goal is to eliminate religious belief” must be equivalent to the statement “my goal is to eliminate irrational and dogmatic belief”. Why can’t we simply say, when we use the word religion in describing our goals, “my goal is to eliminate all types of irrational and dogmatic belief, including religion”.
    Lastly, it is correct that religion often involves social interaction and organization but if one wants to include this in a definition one has to ask oneself whether one can imagine a belief which could properly be called religious but which did not involve and was not related to such activities. I think it’s pretty obvious that one can easily imagine private religious beliefs of this type.

    • Said Simon December 29, 2011 at 8:35 am

      ‘While I happen to agree that this is a good goal it looks to me like you’re implying that the statement “my goal is to eliminate religious belief” must be equivalent to the statement “my goal is to eliminate irrational and dogmatic belief” Why can’t we simply say, when we use the word religion in describing our goals, “my goal is to eliminate all types of irrational and dogmatic belief, including religion”.’

      I think that religion and religious beliefs aren’t all irrational and dogmatic. But I also consider humanism to be a weak form of religion. I’d rather have people identify dogmatism and irrationality (a very contentious term, but I’ll use it here) as their enemy, and add only that major religions seem to legitimate those things in a particularly robust and virulent way.

      I don’t think a truly private religious belief can exist. Supernatural beliefs can exist privately, as can superstitious rituals, but I don’t believe those things alone constitute religion. At best they are necessary but insufficient, and they may even be unnecessary.

  2. John Morales December 29, 2011 at 8:19 am

    Psst: it’s PZ Myers, not Meyers.

    (Or is such a degree of detail too pedantic?)

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