How to Criticize Religion. Part 2: Don’t Treat All of Religion as a Monolith.

Below is part 2 of my reprint of my “How To Criticize Religion” series, originally published in the former Secularite digital magazine. This article is self-sufficient, no knowledge of Part 1: Understand Why and How Metaphors Work in Practice is assumed in what follows.

We atheistic opponents of religion often shamelessly declare ourselves to be defenders and promoters of reason itself when we are attacking religions. But it is not just enough for us atheists to tout rationality as a tool that should overcome and replace religions; we must scrupulously embody a commitment to rationality specifically in our attacks on religions themselves. And this can be surprisingly difficult. Because while there is an immense amount of religion that deserves vigorous challenge, criticizing religion well requires some serious precision, care, knowledge, and nuance. As big a target as religion is, we can nonetheless still miss it if we are thoughtless, sloppy, and give all manner of people biased towards religion the excuses they want in order to dismiss us as ignorant and hypocritically irrational ourselves. And if we are truly rationalists and not just anti-religionists, it should bother us intrinsically if our attacks on religion are inaccurate, superficial, prejudiced, or otherwise false. Rationalists care about truth for its own sake, not clinging to and advancing their prejudices through whatever means necessary. That is supposed to be the whole point. And it should matter no less when the topic is religion. So in this post, I want to continue where I left off last month and continue to argue for nuance in defining religions that can make a world of difference in the accuracy of our criticisms.

We atheists should resist the tendency to think of religion as a monolith. Not all religions are the same. What we need to avoid doing is oversimplifying a complex, sprawling, globe-spanning, millennia-spanning interrelated set of socio-cultural and psychological phenomena by trying to reduce them to one defining characteristic. As important as any one specific feature may be to one religion, it may be either unimportant, non-existent, or, even, anathema in another religion.

Not all religions are structurally similar to the handful of dominant religions with which most of us in the West are more likely to be familiar. It is generally futile to say that all religion is at its core any one thing or has any one particular set of priorities. It is particularly worth pointing out in a culture saturated with Christianity that “religion” is not any specific belief or kind of belief. It’s not, strictly speaking, a belief at all. Religions may incorporate beliefs and theologies of greater or lesser abstractness and exactitude, but they are not identical with theologies. In fact, not all religions prioritize having some specific beliefs as the most central and defining thing about them. Religion is not even identical with theism any more than atheism is identical with a religion. There can be theistic religions and even atheistic religions. But the belief in God is not all by itself religion any more than a lack of belief in God is.

And even where some things are very commonly found in religions and very important to them, like belief in the supernatural or rituals, such things are not by themselves “religion.” For example, a particular person could believe in ghosts and yet not belong to any particular religion. Or someone can be religious without believing in any gods.

The way I recommend we define religion, therefore, is along the lines of what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance.”  He encouraged thinking about things’ essential features the way we think about definitive features of a family. Just as members of a family can all be recognized as having a distinctive set of features that characterizes them as all being related, even though it is routinely the case that some people in the family lack one or more of the distinctive family traits altogether, so can religions have overlapping but non-identical features. And sometimes from the pool of definitive family traits, two particular family members may even have no overlap with each other. For example, you may have the distinctive long nose, droopy ears, and high eyebrows common in the family whereas I have none of those features, but I have the family’s well known elongated neck, fiendish dimples, and ghostly pale blue eyes, all of which you lack. Those familiar with many people in the family can readily suspect both of us as belonging to it even though the signature features each of us has that mark us as a family member are not the same. Thus it can be with religions.

There are a number of features that can count towards making something a religion. No one of them in isolation usually makes for a religion by itself, but when enough of them in the right kind of combination come together, there is some degree of religiousness, maybe even an actual religion. Religions are comprised of, or employ, myths, rituals, rites, symbols, ascetic disciplines, purity exercises, prayers, blessings, curses, values, moral codes, faith-commitments, concepts of sacredness, meditative practices, ecstatic experiences, mysticisms, supernatural beliefs in things like gods and spirits, expiations, propitiations, commemorations, possessions, exorcisms, visions, superstitions, worship, mechanisms for inter-generational cultural transmission, authoritative texts, castes and hierarchies, institutions, governmental authorities, prohibitions, sacrificial practices, songs, dances, conjurings, parades, excommunications, pieties, communal identities, ethnic identities, esoteric personal inwardness, abstract theological and philosophical propositions, proselytization, beliefs and practices for dealing with death, etc., etc.

Not every religion need incorporate or centralize all these things. And even where there are overlaps, the distinctive content of any given religion’s beliefs and practices can wind up so richly varied and different than another’s that they have little in common besides a general form. What is repudiated in one religion, whether in form or in substance, may even be central to another religion. What is repudiated in one sect of a religion may be central even to another sect in that same religion.

So, it is important that when we are criticizing religiosity that we home in on our target. If what we’re aiming at are beliefs, values, practices, or structures distinctive to Christianity, we should use the word Christian and not just say “religion.” If what we really mean is narrower and really specific to Fundamentalist Christianity, we should say that; or if Catholicism, we should say that. If it’s about something distinctively shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we can group them together as Abrahamic monotheism.  If we’re criticizing a way of thinking or practicing common to fundamentalist wings across a number religions, we should be clear our target is fundamentalism. If our problem is a frequently occurring aspect of religions, like authoritarianism or faith-based believing, then we can just specify that by denouncing faith-based religions or authoritarian religions.

We also should be careful not to treat religions ahistorically. Religions change with time and place. It’s very shortsighted and ignorant to conflate the very particular and contemporary version of a religion we find in our own time and place with the entirety of that religion across time or even just in other places in the contemporary world.

In my next article, I will talk about whether or in what ways it is meaningful to talk about what any given religion “truly” teaches. Particularly, I will explore what is fair and unfair in calling violent or otherwise unethical manifestations of religions true or false exemplars of those religions themselves. I will explore both what is true and false and what is good and bad in taking sides between religious regressives and religious progressives when they make competing claims to truly represent their religion.

How To Criticize Religion: Understand Why and How Metaphors Work in Practice
How To Criticize Religion: Address The Question of “True Religion” With Nuance
How To Criticize Religion: Understand Religions in their Contexts

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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.


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