The Dangers of Religion Itself

Salvaging Religion

In this post I am going to explore the dangers of religion. For some context, I have written often that I think that there are good things that go by the name religion that atheists should try to salvage from authoritarians, irrationalists and bigots. I am generally optimistic about the idea that we could have numerous kinds of faithless, atheistic, pluralistic, non-sectarian, egalitarian, rationalistic groups that interweave to one extent or another their identity formation practices, their rites for marking major life events, their education of children in values, their rituals for rational behavior modification, their meditative practices for physiological and mental benefits, their celebration of important values with holidays, their open-ended metaphysical speculations about the nature of themselves and the universe, etc. I think if people have groups that combine some significant number of those things together they are, functionally, participating in a “religion”.

As Eric argued in his excellent concluding post of his month long series on atheism and Wicca, it simply plays into a theist’s lie that atheists must be irreligious. I think it is confused to think that the various personal and social practices which I listed in the above paragraph are themselves what’s intrinsically wrong with the irrationalistic, faith-based, regressive, totalizing, politically greedy religions that repulse so many atheists and make them not want to have anything to do with anything that remotely might reek of religiousness. And so I share Eric’s ideal that these tools for personal and group formation be put to the service of rationalistic thinking and acting, rather than abandoned as inherently bad. In this vein, I have argued in the past that religion does not poison everything, but rather it is faith that poisons religion (and everything else)!

And I think there is a lot left to religion even if you gut it of a list of sixteen awful things I came up with which need to be assiduously avoided, which presently make existing religions so noxious. And since I think the good parts of religion are separable from the bad, and that a great many humans (though not all) have clung to various of the good things religion features because they perceive real benefits in them, and that no tools which can help human beings should be discarded entirely, I recommend the hard work of cleaning up the good parts of religion and rehabilitating them and forming what I would call a “true religion”, i.e., a religion which is truthful, which trains people in truth, and which helps people in pragmatic, scientifically and ethically approvable ways to live as well as they can.

So now, in this post, I want to consider how even the good parts of religion can be dangerous. Some things are “just bad”, i.e. nearly always harmful, even if in some isolated hypothetical cases people might dream up they may be the least of all evils. Authoritarianism is just bad. Faith—belief not properly proportioned to evidence is just bad. Sexism is just bad. Irrationalism is just bad. Superstition is just bad. Etc.

But other things are good and can nonetheless be done badly. Governing can be done well or badly so governments can be good or bad. Believing can be done well or badly so beliefs can be good or bad. Basically any activity can be done well or badly.

So, with all these caveats, in this post, I want to explore how religion itself can be done badly. I want to think about how the stuff which is not intrinsically bad in religion can accidentally lead to bad in practice.

What is Religion?

As I have indicated above, I don’t think religion is any one thing. It is not just rituals. There are irreligious rituals. It is not just philosophical beliefs. Nor is it belief in supernatural agents, and nor is it faith, rites, meditative practices, or anything else. All these things can occur without religion. And some religions can lack a normally occurring religious feature.  And sometimes a few components of a religion can be present and yet it still not really be a religion—maybe just a little bit curiously religious.

So what all religions share is not any specific property but a family resemblance between general patterns of developing practices and interconnecting them with beliefs and identities. What all the religions share therefore is the role of interlinking. And it is the practice of interlinking which can go seriously wrong and lead to all the horrors that make many atheists want to avoid the whole enterprise.

Religion’s ability to interlink thought and practice and identity is what makes it so powerful. This is because what you think is integrated with what you do and who you are and each of these things keep reinforcing and magnifying each other. Stating your beliefs becomes much more than an intellectual exercise, it becomes a gesture of solidarity with your group. Rituals and meditative practices tied to genuine beliefs integrate physical ecstasies with the satisfactions of believing what one perceives to be true. The use of rituals to inculcate beliefs sinks them deeper into the brain and the shared rituals link people in powerful ways.

Why religion is so powerful is largely because it creates a way for the various parts of one’s life to reinforce the meaning and experience of each of the others. This is part of how even atheistic religions have sometimes succumbed in the past to totalizing tendencies. When each of the fundamental aspects of the self are bound up in one self-reinforcing perspective—one’s rituals, one’s identity, one’s fundamental metaphysical beliefs, one’s values, one’s politics, one’s community, one’s sexuality, one’s family, etc.—then it becomes harder to detach oneself from any of these things and assess them justly. It’s hard to reconsider a belief when it is systematically intertwined with nearly every other part of your psyche and practice.

We might speculate that the severe cognitive dissonance that modern people of faith experience whereby they live with the most incompatible of scientific and superstitious beliefs side by side is attributable to the fact that they fear more the practical dissonance of severing their beliefs from who they are and how they live. They will deal with a few grossly conflicting beliefs rather than risk deep conflicts in their families and their fundamental identities and their fundamental sense of identity.

So, there is great power in this if people could feel this way about scrupulous truthfulness and humaneness! But the question then becomes whether or not the dangers of people doing it wrongly are worse than the benefits that come from their doing it rightly.

How Religion Goes Bad

So, let’s unpack some more of the problems of this going wrongly:

1. Good believing requires believing in a way that proportions belief to evidence. Ritual reinforcement of a belief can have a brainwashing effect that works against training the mind in dialectic. Connecting metaphysical beliefs to identities and fundamental values makes it harder to reconsider them. People are already prone towards irrationalism and numerous cognitive biases. Religion itself (not just bad religiosity) functions in this way to exacerbate that problem.

2. Rituals are wonderful things. I love creating them for myself personally. And I think that they can be formulated according to the best principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to reinforce constructive habits of practice and thought. But, again, there are dangers in that many human minds are susceptible to obsessive attachments to rituals. Hence the shrieking, violently irrational response PZ Myers received for messing with a ritual object. There is a danger in giving people prescribed rituals to attach to and to bind up their identities and their communities with, rather than just informally encourage people to rituals that fit their idiosyncratic personal psycho-social needs best with none of the pressures that start to emerge when rituals become part of a full-fledged religion.

3. Successful groups are integral to successful human lives. Religious practices are powerful group formation tools. But strong groups risk becoming hatefully tribalistic. And the rituals and the strong emphasis on defining supreme values (even when it is the value of “reason” as it is among us identity-atheists) can risk exacerbating the human tendency towards out-group hatred as the flipside of in-group loyalty. This is another major part of how religion itself has frequently proved vulnerable to sectarianism and exclusivity. It’s not necessary by any means. There are inclusive and/or tolerant religions (or sects of religions that are inclusive and/or tolerant) but when they are not it is partially attributable to religion’s own inner workings that normal tendencies towards hostile behavior towards out-group members gets turned up to 11.

This is also exacerbated when faith beliefs are involved because then the rival groups wind up defining themselves most fundamentally on beliefs they hold most arbitrarily and which are less amenable to rational adjudication.

I could go on with each part of religion and how getting tied too tightly with the others gets dangerous. But to fill out the picture further, there are a few more things to address.

Nothing Can Be Sacred

First, Eric has recommended to atheists that we explicitly treat Being and Truth as sacred and consider the worship of gods or any other particular beings as “idolatrous”. In this, I hear monotheism repeated. Christians have for centuries interpreted the biblical prohibition against graven images as a warning that this would lead people to worship parts of creation rather than the Creator. Now Eric is not advocating believing in the demi-god that the superstitious Christians who think of God as a person like them believe in. But sophisticated philosophical theists also think that that God is an idol, the worship of human beings, and that we should always prevent ourselves from worshiping a god made in our own image rather than the ineffable source of all being God who is beyond all particular beings, even as they flow from Him.

In other words, philosophical monotheists all the time insist against idolatry and elevation of particular artifacts above their limited station. And yet these same religions are rife with superstitions. As Protestants are fond of charging, the Catholics have a long legacy of overly venerating “holy objects” and “holy people”. And the fundamentalist Christians idolize the Bible and the fundamentalist Muslims turn the prohibitions against images that people might venerate into a literally homicidal fanaticism against image makers from filmmakers to cartoonists when they dare depict Mohammed.

In other words, the idea that you can teach people to think of anything as sacred, even the thinnest and most intangible abstractions, and not have them start clinging to objects or people or particular ideas or books as sacred, is disproven time and time again by actual religious human beings’ behaviors.

Nothing can be sacred. Not even truth, not even freedom. There are always limitations on the worth of particular things and particular ideals.

Before Eric, Nietzsche himself warned that atheists were pious towards Truth. And it was his own devotedness to truth that led him to interrogate the limits of even its value. It was what led him to ask the “dangerous” question, “Why truth, why not untruth?” Every value we have must be interrogated for its functional worth for human flourishing. Truth is going to be worth valuing a whole lot. But it’s not sacred. There are times to lie.

Understanding the Dialectic of Secularism and Fundamentalism

Finally, a hypothesis. Religions have lost their iron grip on whole cultures in the West slowly through a process of secularization that has taken literally centuries. My hypothesis is that this has occurred as different aspects of life have gained autonomy. The more that governance was split off from the gods, the more that treatment of the “soul” has shifted from the confessional booth to the psychiatrist”s couch, the more that the study of the universe has left monasteries and happened in self-sufficient universities, etc., is the more that religion has been relegated to dealing with a narrower set of roles until it is left holding the bag of only the most unworldly and unnecessary superstitions and the vaguest metaphysics to prop them up. Sciences, technologies, and practices have replaced distinctively religious thinking and practice stage by stage in the West. Religion is left a ghastly ghost chaser.

Fundamentalists feel this painfully. This is why they want their religions to retake control of the whole secular sphere from politics to sex to medicine to science. In their personal lives they fuse the various parts of their lives as tightly as they can through religious beliefs and practices and community and identity. The fracturing that happens though when they are asked to hold off on religiously doing their psychiatry or their public school teaching or their medicine or their art or their governing, is something they find psychologically and religiously intolerable. They get such immense joy out of letting their religion swallow up all the parts of their lives that they want it to swallow up the whole social sphere as well.

In Western Christianity, this fundamentalist ideal is a reactionary romantic delusion. In Islamic countries that lack sustainable secular institutions that can take over for religion in governing, educating, etc., this delusion is a last ditch nihilistic strategy of people who innately mistrust modernity with all its fracturing to be any good for them.

Your Thoughts?

If you enjoy reading my philosophical blog posts, consider taking one of my online philosophy classes! I earned my PhD and taught 93 university classes before I went into business for myself. My online classes involve live, interactive class discussions with me and your fellow students held over videoconference (using Google Hangout, which downloads in just seconds). Classes involve personalized attention to your own ideas and questions. Course content winds up tailored to your interests as lively and rigorous class discussions determine where exactly we go. Classes are flexible enough to meet the needs of both beginners and students with existing philosophical background

My classes require no outside reading or homework or grades–only a once weekly 2.5 hour commitment that fits the schedules of busy people. My classes are university quality but I can offer no university credit whatsoever. New classes start up every month and you can join existing groups of students if you want. Click on the classes that interest you below and find the course descriptions, up-to-date schedules, and self-registration. 1-on-1 classes can be arranged by appointment if you write me at


God’s Not Dead Typifies How Evangelicals Hypocritically Deny Atheists’ Existences
Why I Support American Atheists Reaching Out To Conservatives At CPAC
Drunken Mall Santa
Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • kreepykritter

    I’ve noticed as I troll (both for better and worse) through FTB articles for interesting discussion seeds, that a good deal of what is cited as being repugnant about religion itself is found, almost exclusively with a few exceptions, in the ‘Big Three’ (Christianity, Judaism and Islam).

    I’ll lob out a few examples that fall outside those three, and hope my fellow commenters look them up before tearing this to shreds…

    The Baha’i Faith — Encourages independant investigation, and insists on: Equality of all people, the alignment of both science and religion, the abolishment of religious rituals and clergy.

    Taoism — Focuses on the unity of the self with one’s surroundings, the world they live in and the universe at large. It’s largely a philosophical system of beliefs rather than a structured religion, per se.

    Buddhism — Actually attributes quotes directly to the religion’s founder that insists that the only reason to believe something is after observation and analysis.

    Just a few examples off the top of my head. I should note that my intention is not to convert anyone to any of the above religions, but after some vitriolic diatribes I’ve seen/heard/been subjected to, I’d encourage people to see the possibility of…

    a religion which is truthful, which trains people in truth, and which helps people in pragmatic, scientifically and ethically approvable ways to live as well as they can.

    • infinity

      The Baha’i Faith — Encourages independant investigation, and insists on: Equality of all people, the alignment of both science and religion, the abolishment of religious rituals and clergy.

      iirc the Baha’i are led by a group of nine men (not sure if women are explicitly forbidden from membership in this nine, or there simply never have been, either way, not exactly “equal.”)

    • kreepykritter

      A quick google search on the subject led me to this:

      Which is in direct contradiction to the above statement.

      As far as who has been voted for, elected to a position, or what have you, historically, I can’t speak to. Though, if the simply haven’t ever been elected that’s no more inequal than the presidency of any given country.

    • infinity

      Though, if the simply haven’t ever been elected that’s no more inequal than the presidency of any given country.

      Precisely, and the fact that, for example, all presidents of the U.S. have been men speaks directly to the inequality of the sexes in this country.

      That’s great that now the UHJ has women members. But I think the fact that now the UHJ accepts women does not contradict the fact that, when the Baha’i faith began, women were not allowed into its leadership — according to this page — specifically because the founder of the faith felt that that would hinder its acceptance in Islamic regions, due to their strict adherence to certain gender roles. Which, I think, speaks to Daniel’s point: religion relies on us binding various aspects of the world together in an inseparable whole, so people cannot accept, say, certain aspects of the Baha’i faith unless it also includes their previous religious ideas of gender roles.

      Also, not to derail further on the Baha’i trajectory, but the Baha’i faith also has a terribly unequal and irrational stance on homosexuality and marriage (see here).

    • kreepykritter

      One thing and then I’ll let the matter drop:

      if women are not elected to the Universal House of Justice than that election shall be declared invalid.

      Which says to me, not only are they allowed but are required. No women, no election. Go back, do it again.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I think you’ll be very pleased with this post, which I consider to be the dialectical counterpart to the one above.

  • Braavos

    Kreepkritter: A former Baha’i and current atheist acquaintance’s (not recently updated) blog frequently addressed Baha’i beliefs. Apparently the Baha’i faith isn’t any more tolerant of homosexuals than most Christian sects.

    Daniel: You are a lucid writer, but I’m still left wondering after this post “whether or not the dangers of people doing it wrongly are worse than the benefits that come from their doing it rightly”. You make a strong case that there are good things to be salvaged from religion, but the “nothing sacred” section of this post seems to me to be in tension with an affirmative answer to the question of the dangers being outweighed by the benefits.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Braavos, I think where I am at is to say that some things that are uniquely religious cannot be redeemed. I consider sacredness to be both dangerous and irrational. It’s bound up with absolutism and all the dangers of authoritarianism that go with that.

      When it comes to the other distinctively religious combinations of component parts, I am open to people’s arguments about whether the benefits are worth the risks. I am also open to arguments about whether religion is, like it or not, capable of being eradicated at all or whether it is as inevitable a part of human social life as politics or functionally necessary for social cohesion in deep ways we don’t yet understand. I also opened the door with my hypothesis about how secularization works the idea that the secular may become totally self-sufficient and need no religious complement in the long run.

    • Braavos

      I think your hypothesis that the division of aspects of life into autonomous spheres has weakened religion is very astute. I hope history continues this trend, and validates your hypothesis, though I can’t say I’m optimistic about it. I fear that the autonomy will be increasingly challenged and weakened in the coming decades, as economic insecurity and all the ill effects of climate change on human society exacerbate people’s tendencies towards irrationalism and tribalism.

    • Sheesh

      I want to voice agreement. I don’t think I’d thought of it this way, and found Dan’s description of this winnowing by secularism insightful (and for me personally, hopeful).

  • Sheesh

    Dan, thanks so much for this post. I consider it a much clearer response than the one you left here to my question about what “things religion uniquely provides.”

    It sort of weirds me out though that describing an institution that by needs is ‘totally faithless, holding nothing sacred, but providing a non-exclusive social club to weakly suggest rites and personal rituals’ could actually be described as “a religion” even if it did interlink some beliefs and practices (and identities).

    Would that be salvaging religion? Can we talk more about how interlinking some beliefs, practices, and identity is better than the alternative?

  • James Croft

    I’m so excited to read this, because it’s rare to read something and think the author has read your mind and expressing similar thoughts to yours in a more cogent and detailed manner! I think it’s fantastic you are raising issues like these on this site, and I’m delighted to see the generally high quality of discussion. Great stuff!

  • rturpin

    Daniel Fincke:

    Good believing requires believing in a way that proportions belief to evidence.

    While this is a common notion of what it means to be reasonable, the more I think on it, the more problematic it seems. People don’t assign any kind of mathematical measure to their beliefs. It’s unclear how such a measure would be calculated from evidence. Evidence is never settled beyond the next re-investigation or just re-thinking.

    Of course, there are a lot of notions of reasonableness for which that description might be an — ahem, reasonable — shorthand. My own view is, you’re never able to get past precisely what the collection of evidence is.

    • Sheesh

      Isn’t it a common sense idea that we all apportion our belief as we go about our daily lives — we guestimate probabilities and prepare for them as second nature. Do I bring along a sweater? Can I leave my umbrella in the car? Can I make rent this month — it’s a good thing I can count on my roommate’s half! All of these are examples of apportioned belief (observing the time of year, the grayness of the sky, the likelihood of future events based on past performance) — and if you ask a person, “on a scale from 1 to 10, how sure are you your roommate will come through?” they will give you a number and that number is a “mathematical measure” in the usual sense.

      How accurate these numbers are depend a lot on expertise, but there’s no denying that we assign strength-values to all kinds of beliefs. There’s definitely a spectrum between flat-out acceptance, firm belief, contingent belief, plausibility, skepticism, etc. Our brains are so good at ‘doing the mathematics’ on the values we assign to belief that we don’t even notice. (Water is wet? 100% certain! Invisible dragon in my garage? Near zero but I’m not ruling it out! Maybe a dragonist will one day provide some evidence — dragon poo perhaps.)

      (Assuming I understood you!)

    • KG

      You don’t need numbers to express different degrees of belief: a partial order is quite sufficient (e.g. one might say: “I believe in the existence of extra-terrestrial life more strongly than in life in the Earth’s core, but I can’t compare either with the strength of my belief that the official account of Osama bin Laden’s death is inaccurate”).

  • Steve Schuler

    Nice article, Dan!

    My short version of ‘Words to the Wiser than Me’ is:

    Avoid the embrace of authoriatarian ideologies and the ideologues that expound them, whether secular or sectarian in nature. Undermine them when you are able to, but remember, discretion is the better part of valor.

    Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’ll just ride this ‘old high horse’ off into the sunset.

    Hasta Luego, Amigo!

  • John Morales

    There are times to lie.

    Maybe to others, but to oneself?

    (That would be perverse)

    • James Croft

      Indeed. Self-deception is a terrible cancer. I speak from ten years’ hard experience.

  • Skeptic Hamster

    Having lived in Thailand I find it hard to see Buddhism as an atheist religion. Although many practitioners were bordering on the atheistic, many more were extremely religious, treating the Buddha as the ‘godhead’ and many monks as Imans. Further more they tend to have incorporated all kinds of superstitions into the belief set. Almost everybody lights incense and ‘prays’ for luck and leaves a food or drink offering to settle the spirits of the house every morning. Those looking for love will pray to an image of Ganesh (yes- a hindu god!).
    And the Buddhist channel on TV shows a graphic (and, indeed, totally fake) anti-abortion programme at least twice a week. And monks speak about homosexuals being infected by demons and ghosts.

    Of course, because I don’t accept some of your examples of atheistic religion does not mean that I disagree with the main thrust of the article; quite the opposite.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, absolutely. I wanted in this article to explore how even with the best and most atheistic and rationalistic intentions (as the Buddha had), religions (even like his) can devolve. There have been superstitious and even violent Buddhists.

    • Dunc

      Well, Buddhism’s a bit of a funny one because it’s not exclusive – you can be a Buddhist and something else – and it’s extremely flexible. Actual Buddhist practice and belief varies enormously, because it tends to integrate whatever other practices and beliefs happen to be around. So whilst Buddhism is not in itself theistic, a lot of Buddhists are still theists. And to be honest, I’ve seen a lot of things promoted in one or other Buddhist text that I have an extremely hard time squaring with what I understand of the teachings of Buddha… But then it’s not my place to tell people how they should interpret their own religion.

      For those raised around the Abrahamic religions, the idea of a non-exclusive religion can be particularly hard to grasp.

      (I am not a Buddhist.)

    • KG

      “Salvaging religion” makes no more sense than “salvaging fascism”: the irrationality and authoritarianism are central features of both.

    • JoeBuddha

      As a Buddhist, I think I can clear up some of this. Buddhism is at heart a practice, not a belief. You can believe anything you want. Ideally, through thought, practice, and experience, your beliefs can approach reality. I said, “Ideally”; there are plenty of counter-examples. Like anything else, it can be hijacked to reinforce your own belief system; replacing “gods” with “buddhas”. I’m an atheist and materialist, but I have a good friend who’s a Buddhist and has spirit guides and plays with crystals. I even met one who was (is) a Mormon.

      I use it as a means of grounding my ethical/moral framework and a reminder to continually develop myself and keep a critical eye on what I DO believe.

    • JoeBuddha

      NOTE: Replies seem to be inserted at random in the comments, at least for me…

    • JoeBuddha

      …or maybe not; it’s confusing… ;)

  • Guillaume Muller

    I have reached a point where I don’t categorize ideology as religious/irreligious because I find it largely irrelevant. To me, the defining criteria is the promotion of Faith itself as a positive value (by faith i mean the act of believing despite lack of external evidence/despite contrary evidence). Any worldview/philosophy/ideology/whatever that place Faith on a pedestal and submits that believing something for the sake of believing it is a good thing that is to be encouraged is harmful in much the same way. Faith in Communism/the White Race/Anghkar/add your own will lead down to pretty much the same kind of path as Faith in Allah/God/Vishnu/Thor… It is also the defining criteria that separate all of those thing from science: science is about doubt, testing, questioning. Faith is its antithesis.

    • Daniel Fincke
  • colubridae

    Allow me to clarify

    The good things people do should be encouraged. The evil that they do discouraged.

    * simples *

    (yes I know you want a list of good/evil. Don’t we all. Go get ‘em tiger.)

  • Marcus Ranum

    I think if people have groups that combine some significant number of those things together they are, functionally, participating in a “religion”.

    The great thing about language is that everyone gets to use it constructively. But if people decide they’re going to adopt uses of a word that are too far from the way it’s generally used, they become confusing and possibly even incomprehensible.

    You’re using the term “religion” so loosely that you’d probably accept “being a football fan” as being “religious”… Following the fine tradition of lesser philosophers throughout history of attempting to sound profound by actually being obscure.

    What is the difference between your “religion” and my “hobby”?? For me, it’s easy – “religion” means that the activity is centered around the belief in god(s) or supernatural being(s). A “hobby” is centered around some activity. I would even go so far as to say that for some people, religion is a hobby.

    You’re simply abusing the word “religion” by hammering it until it fits your needs.

    • colubridae


      It’s either a pointless exercise in semantic gymnastics or some sinister skullduggery designed to white-wash the word ‘religion’.

      If you want a word to describe good non-theistic/deistic activities, make one up. Don’t redefine existing words just to suit.

    • Eric Steinhart

      Why not redefine existing words to suit your own purposes? Why allow your enemies to define the words you have to use? Why do that?

    • Jehne Lunden

      Are you really suggesting we should define concepts subjectively? I.e, I should define religion any way I want because my enemies–whomever they are at the time–don’t use the word the way I like?

    • colubridae

      Why stick at enemies?
      Why not redefine as you go along, willy-nilly

      Or in your-speak:-

      The seven brocade anthem?
      Magpie droop altesch turban charity parsimony trek-trex.

      I get that you want atheists to like the word ‘religion’, but just trying to redefine it under the radar isn’t going to cut the mustard.
      AFAIAC it’s a pejorative and will always be so.
      If you want a word that encompasses the few positive elements of religion without the overwhelming supernatural shite, then as Marcus said use the word ‘hobby’.

      The central aspect of ‘religion’ is a supernatural deity(s).
      Making it a ‘nice’ word by detaching that aspect doesn’t work. You can’t make ‘prison’ a “nice” word by detaching the incarceration aspect. It’s a pointless gesture

      (yes I know there are so-called “religions” without deities, they should not be labelled as religions. Why bring unnecessary confusion?)

    • Daniel Fincke

      I said that there had to be thresholds of the various factors interacting. I didn’t say just anything that had any one or few of the characteristics met that threshold. That said, there can be degrees of religiousness and some football fans may actually exhibit them. It’s not a black and white world.

    • Steve Schuler

      “That said, there can be degrees of religiousness and some football fans may actually exhibit them.”

      Do you think this would qualify as sports fandom taking on religious characteristics?

    • Marnie

      You’re using the term “religion” so loosely that you’d probably accept “being a football fan” as being “religious”

      Figureheads (football players, coaches), regularly scheduled important events (super bowl or college equivalent), rituals and superstitions (including prayer) to help bring about a good end to something you have no control over (results of games). Breaking down otherwise related groups into specific sects (fans for each team) resulting in vitriol and sometimes even physical altercations. There are definitely some sports fans who treat their hobby like a religion, but I don’t think that speaks well for religion :)

    • abb3w

      M. Kenneth Brody seems to have been the first to publish a paper on the particular comparison (doi:10.1177/019372357900300203).

  • KG

    Sorry, the following was not intended to appear as a reply to another comment:

    “Salvaging religion” makes no more sense than “salvaging fascism”: the irrationality and authoritarianism are central features of both.

  • Marnie

    This caught my attention:

    I recommend the hard work of cleaning up the good parts of religion and rehabilitating them and forming what I would call a “true religion”, i.e., a religion which is truthful, which trains people in truth, and which helps people in pragmatic, scientifically and ethically approvable ways to live as well as they can.


    Before Eric, Nietzsche himself warned that atheists were pious towards Truth. And it was his own devotedness to truth that led him to interrogate the limits of even its value. It was what led him to ask the “dangerous” question, “Why truth, why not untruth?”

    I accept that some of what we are doing here is hampered by the limits of language. “Truth” can refer to a lot of things and applies to the most banal (i.e. Is this a good color on me?) to the more profound (i.e. Are you ready to start a family?). Setting aside how “truthfully” one is even capable of answering either of those questions, the implications of your perceived truthfulness in each case are worlds apart. Letting someone buy an item that he/she may not look good wearing, is nothing at all, agreeing to start a family that you know you do not want, has more far reaching consequences.

    It’s easy to compare those who value a scientific/truthful/rational approach of viewing the universe to just another type of religious view but the difference is that someone who values truth and the scientific method, must in turn accept challenges of his or her views. Overcoming biases and embracing peer review are integral to the scientific method in a way that necessarily challenges any religious belief. Let’s look at Wicca, since that’s been a topic here. We are forced to say that there is a “god and goddess.” That is our conclusion. Now we must find a way to work that conclusion into reality and by nature of pursuing the “truthfulness” of that claim, we inevitably hit a point where we have to dilute the meaning of those words so far that they they lose their understood meaning and are just substituting for something else, or we refuse the evidence presented to us and choose dogma. For what reason? “Why untruth?” I might ask.

    This is not to say that groups and rituals aren’t valuable. Go to any Comic-Con or TAM or sporting event or sock knitting convention (it’s a real thing and you’ll find a group of people with some common interest, often attended by people who have developed friendships online and over previous years, and you’ll see people engaging in much of what is touted as an advantage of religion. These groups, by nature of their common interest, develop their own meaningful rituals (ever seen pictures of a klingon wedding? ever seen an online group rally to support the widow/widower of one of their group members) and define values that are important to them. A Klingon wedding doesn’t need to be concerned with “truthfulness.” It’s simply about having fun. No one needs to redefine “Klingon” to mean something that can be consistent with what we know about our physical universe and general ethics. It’s fun for fun’s sake. Religion takes these rituals and elevates them. The Wiccan who believes his spells are genuine is at odds for the Wiccan who believes that “spell” is just an analogy. The Buddhist who believes that karma is real and that the neighboring town of non-Buddhists got what they had coming to them is at odds with the Buddhist who believes karma is an analogy for being kind to others in hopes of getting kindness in return.

    In summation, there are things about religion that can be beneficial, however, those beneficial things exist happily outside of religion and don’t carry with them the baggage that religion can bring to the mix. Once we elevate something above our physical and understandable world, we open the door for greater strife, dogma and divisiveness.

  • abb3w

    I’d suggest adding to your reading list (if you’re not familiar) Dale Cannon’s book Six Ways Of Being Religious: a framework for comparative studies of religion as possibly useful once turned on it’s head. An anthropological framework for analysis of existing religions may also have applications to designing alternative frameworks.

    As to the hazards of religion, I’d suggest Bob Altemeyer’s (free PDF book) The Authoritarians — which doesn’t deal with religion’s hazards directly, but which ties them to potentially underlying factors. The problems of religion may be effect, not cause.

    I’d also add a Gödelian criticism of your “Nothing Can Be Sacred” claim, by noting it looks distressingly like you are trying to set it up as a sacred principle. =)