How To Criticize Religion: Understand Religions in their Contexts

Below is a previously unpublished installment of my “How To Criticize Religion” series. This article is new. This article is self-sufficient. No knowledge of posts 1, 2, or 3 in the series is required to follow this post.

Religions never exist in a vacuum. Whether they lead to good, evil, or neutral results in the world, religions evolve through complex interactions with the raw materials of human nature and with developments in the other major institutions and spheres of human life.

Religions sometimes want to take credit for creating people’s moral understandings or virtues from whole cloth. But they don’t. They are shaping influences. They can intensify some virtues and kill others. They can mold a particular virtue so it is practiced in one set of contexts but not in others, or put to one purpose rather than to others. They create particular systems of regulating moral and social life, but preclude other such systems that may be equally good or even better.

And, on the flip side, opponents of religions often want to blame them for everything wrong that’s done through religion. But, here again, the raw materials of human nature are the starting point. They sometimes exacerbate, cultivate, shape, and intensify human weaknesses and morally bad character traits, even as they restrain others. If we are to really understand human nature, we cannot absolve religions from all blame for the ways that they take what is potentially rotten in human nature and make it worse, nor may we ignore how effectively they can harness and develop good things about human nature.

Serious discussion of religions does not try to protect them from all blame as though they are merely a tool of other forces, or just a function of preexisting human weaknesses, that never makes them any worse than they would otherwise be. Religions are distinctive institutions with distinctive concerns and tools. They have their own realms of dominance over people with demonstrable philosophical, psychological, sociological, cultural, and political effects that would not be were the religions to not exist. Sometimes religions can be primary instigators in conflicts when distinctively religious concerns are agitating people. Religions can also be primary motivators to good when distinctively religious concerns are inspiring people.

But also sometimes religious maladies or benefits are symptoms of other cultural ones. Distinguishably economic, political, social, or psychological problems or strengths can influence how people understand and use religions. Propositions presented in religious language can be disguised arguments for economic, political, or social values that exploit people’s susceptibility to their religions in order to be persuasive. Some might deliberately cast their ideas from another domain of life in religious language with a conscious agenda for using religion as a tool. Others may just do this naturally. Their brains, inclined to integrate all their beliefs, may automatically express what they think in one area of life through the language and logic of another. Or the fervor of their religions devotion might make them deliberately seek out ways to make these integrations. Or in their zeal for their cause their rationalizing brain may cast about for whatever persuasive resources it can get its hands on and find the power of religious appeals irresistible.

And quite often it is the case that simply being habituated according to a particular sociopolitical and economic system so affects the way you perceive the world and values and decision making that when you engage in religious practice and discourse many of those priorities and patterns of judgment influence your implicit religious practices and your explicit interpretations of your tradition. There is a mutually informing process by which our actions and experiences affect our beliefs, and then our beliefs affect our next actions in turn, leading to new experiences and new judgments, which lead to yet new choices and yet new experiences, and continuing so forth, on and on in a feedback loop. And these mutually informing dynamics between beliefs, values, and practices happen within each distinguishable sphere of life and also can bleed into and inform what we do in other spheres of life.

So this means that fully understanding someone’s religion or their embodied religious life means much more than picking up their holy books and finding some one “right” interpretation. It means paying close attention to how their religion interacts with their individual psychology, shaping and reinforcing some strengths and weaknesses while minimizing others. It means paying close attention to how their sociopolitical and economic influences shape their minds and practices when they read their texts and engage with their real live religious communities.

And, on the flip side, religions are not merely a function of other institutions. They have their own realms in which they are the predominant forces holding powerful sway over people. Their institutional pressures, practices, beliefs, values, communities, etc., all return the favor to other institutions and distinctly influence people’s social, political, and economic lives.

So when trying to understand any religious phenomenon, whether good or evil, our question should not be whether religion or something else about psychology or another social institution is to be blamed or praised. The question should be where and how dynamics of human psychology are at work, where and how economic and sociopolitical factors are at work, and where and how distinctively religious beliefs, values, institutions, and practices shape and intensify these other factors or are shaped and intensified by them.

It is important to stress that even when religions are not the root causes of problems and something else is, there can nonetheless be ways that religions themselves can be enabling or exacerbating those problems. That’s why it’s not enough to say, “that’s really an economics driven problem” and let religions off the hook. Religions still need to be assessed for their particular roles in being obstacles or aids to fixing things.

And it’s always important we not give religions the portions of blame that they are not actually due because that just obscures from us political, economic, or social ills that will continue to kill us if we only treat their religious symptoms.

And, finally, even as we denounce their false belief claims, we must pay attention to those good things religions distinctively cause or shape, giving them credit where it can be objectively be ascertained to be due. We should do this not only for truth’s sake, which is intrinsically good and fair, but possibly more importantly for the sake of learning from them whatever insights they have into how to create people who flourish. We need to learn how to replicate the good religions have figured out so that we may create it ourselves in rationalistic ways that dispense with faith and authoritarianism and other common religious vices. Most people probably will not give up on their supernaturalistic religions until they see something that there is something they can trade up to which will retain the benefits they want from religion, while sparing them the drawbacks. Most people are comparison shoppers more than devotees to truth. Secular institutions and academic disciplines have successfully wrenched spheres of life away from religious ones when they’ve provided better services. Anywhere that irrationalistic religions are still in business, there’s a service rationalists should figure out how to provide, if at all possible consistent with their commitment to rationalist values.

We cannot take for granted that everything we want to stay the same will stay the same when major institutions lose their power. We also should be deliberate about making sure that where we undermine religions (or where their grip is loosening with no need of any help from enemies) that whatever genuine goods the religions are contributing to will have some alternative mechanisms to pick up the slack. The fade away of religious influence is not only the advance beyond errors, it’s a loss of whatever valuable functions religions may be serving psychologically or socially, and it’s irresponsible not to be proactive about making sure people don’t suffer as a result. Religion may not be the best answer to people’s needs for morality, community, ritual, identity, metaphysics, or the other things people turn to it for, but if we are not proactive, better alternatives to meet people’s needs may not just emerge organically.

Your Thoughts?

Read more:

How To Criticize Religion: Understand Why and How Metaphors Work in Practice
How To Criticize Religion: Don’t Treat All of Religion as a Monolith
How To Criticize Religion: Address The Question of “True Religion” With Nuance

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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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