Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Aug/11

20

What religion is all about

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At The American Scene Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry states:

To have a religion is to hold a belief about metaphysics. Either you believe that Allah is God and Muhammad is his Prophet or you don’t. If you do, and you eat pork, this will not make Muhammad more, or less, the Prophet. The two things aren’t related.

There are two issues which I think require some fleshing out. On the specific point about religion being about metaphysics, this is an intellectually respectable position, but I don’t think this describes at all the phenomenon of religion as it manifests in the minds and behaviors of most human beings. As an atheist I’m not too interested in whether God exists or not, I’m simply interested in constructing a model which allows me to describe and predict the behavior of religious people. A fixation on metaphysics, or matters of high philosophy, mislead more than not. From the perspective of atheists I think this presupposition confuses many of us into thinking that we can convince theists of the correctness of our position through argumentation and reason. I don’t think we can (and a theist may have the same problem with an atheist).

A more general issue is that I think it is not informative to reduce religion to some particular aspect or dynamic. For example, religion as belief, religion as practice, religion an expression of social will. Religion can be all of these things. Some of these things may be contradictory with others, but that matters little, as the human mind is a contradictory and slapdash construction.

Religious people who accept the belief propositions of their faith are going to differ with me deeply on the substance here. That’s fine. My main contention is that atheists who have little personal familiarity with the nature of religious faith too often lose sight of what religious people do, as opposed to what religious people say. They can be quite sincere in the latter, but far more relevant to us is the former. Accept not what they say, see what they do!

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8 comments

  • Susan · August 20, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    The irony being that most atheists and agnostics lead their lives according to what we think of as religious precepts: They don’t steal or kill and make a reasonable effort to honor dear old mom and dad and not covet their neighbor’s wife or husband.

  • Acilius · August 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    I strongly agree that it is unwise to reduce “religion” to belief system, or ritual practice, or any other aspect, and just as strongly agree that we can usually learn more about people by looking at their behavior than by listening to their statements.

    In fact I sometimes wonder whether the label “religion” is really a very useful one. Granted that the great monotheisms have a lot in common with each other, do they really have that much in common with Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Confucianism? Do those traditions really have so much in common with each other that we need a single basket to put them all in? My suspicion is that the term “religion” drags together phenomena that are related in only one way, viz, that they are all targets against which evangelists can devise strategies as they try to plant their own ideas in another culture. Obviously that suspicion is off-topic here, so I won’t dwell on it.

  • RandyB · August 20, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    “The irony being that most atheists and agnostics lead their lives according to what we think of as religious precepts: They don’t steal or kill and make a reasonable effort to honor dear old mom and dad and not covet their neighbor’s wife or husband.”

    I think it was Charles Murray who said that the problem with educated liberals is that they don’t preach what they practice. It’s part of their worldview that a person’s behavior is the product of background, so if ghetto kids become street criminals, it’s society’s fault for the existence of ghetto kids.

  • Jonathan Campbell · August 20, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    I think there is a large contingent of religious people who believe that their actions follow from their beliefs, although I agree that they are wrong in believing so.

    The fact of religious people’s believing in this relationship is enough to make it worth it for us atheists to engage them on their religious beliefs (although of course this engagement is not as valuable as if the relationship were as strong as it is believed to be).

    Lastly, with suicide bombers, I think there clearly is a pretty direct relationship between religious belief and action.

  • Susan · August 20, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Don’t you all think that religion was invented as a form of crowd control? Behavior modification? Not so much to explain the (then) inexplicable–although that was certainly a function–but just to coerce people into playing nicely, so to speak?

  • RandyB · August 20, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    “Don’t you all think that religion was invented as a form of crowd control? Behavior modification? Not so much to explain the (then) inexplicable–although that was certainly a function–but just to coerce people into playing nicely, so to speak?”

    I think that would be largely a definitional question about what point does superstitious beliefs become religion.

  • comment · August 20, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    Acilius writes: “In fact I sometimes wonder whether the label “religion” is really a very useful one. Granted that the great monotheisms have a lot in common with each other, do they really have that much in common with Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Confucianism?”

    He’s right, but he doesn’t go far enough. The label “religion” lumps together very different phenomena even for what he calls the “great monotheisms”,

    In this context it is interesting to recall the arguments that other religions
    developed formal theologies mainly in response to Christian challenges.

    I think that “To have a religion is to hold a belief about metaphysics”
    is a Christian point of view.

    You write:
    “Some of these things may be contradictory with others, but that matters little, as the human mind is a contradictory and slapdash construction.”

    You don’t need to invoke the shortcomings of the human mind to support your thesis. Other religions are more interested in actions and ethics, and belief is seen as an aide to promoting correct actions.

    Yishayahu Leibowitz (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeshayahu_Leibowitz)
    brings traditional Jewish sources starting with Maimonides
    supporting the view that practice rather than belief is the core of religion.

    In particular, in “On Just About Everything -Talks with Michael Shashar” he brings 3 quotes from Maimonides that very roughly translate as “legal decisions are given about practical matters, but when there is a disagreement between scholars about the nature of belief, no legal decisions are made”

    and how would your atheism be interpreted according to the following?

    Adin Steinslatz (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adin_Steinsaltz) writes, in “Simple Words” that the essence of belief, “when stripped if verbiage and frills, is simply: existence makes some sense. Sometimes, one may think, probably mistakenly – that one knows exactly what that sense is, while others may ponder it. In any case, there is firm belief – which precedes any kind of thought, rational and irrational – that there is some sense in things. What we experience, through our sense or inwardly, are only disjointed pieces. The act that we somehow connect these particles of information stems from our a priori faith that there is a connection- because it preceded reason. Accepting this assumption is the first, most fundamental “leap of faith”; not an experience but a belief. Of course, people would not call this “religious belief”, nor see it as a point of faith. Nevertheless, when analyzed properly, it becomes- for those people who are afraid of the word -frightfully close to believing in God”

  • Susan · August 20, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    Don’t superstitious beliefs evolve into an organized religion? I don’t know for sure what the official dividing line would be, but perhaps whenever the notion of a deity controlling events (earthquakes, tsunamis) occurred to someone. And it would have to be a deity that, in its inception anyway, was humanoid so that people could to some degree identify with it. The Greek and Roman gods were immortal, and had superpowers, but otherwise they were very human: jealous, petty , spiteful, lustful, and bad-tempered. You would want to placate an entity like that. The God of the Old Testament was a bit peevish on occasion.

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