Religion is an idea about the world

Here’s a quote from Greta Christina that sums up my response to a great deal of backlash against popular atheism:

Religion is an idea about how the world works — and it’s just as valid to criticize it in public forums as it is to criticize any other idea. If you think it’s okay to criticize ideas about politics, science, medicine, art, philosophy, food, and so on… why should religion be treated any differently? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Now I know that for some people, religion is not about belief, it’s about culture, tradition, and ritual. Secular Jews, lapsed Catholics, even cultural Muslims, I know about all of them. I have mixed feelings about religion in that sense, but they’re not what I’m talking about when I talk about “religion.”

But I’m still going to use “religion” to refer to a kind of belief, specifically belief in the supernatural, because that’s what it is for most religious people, and I try to use words in a way that most people will understand me. A 2009 Harris Interactive poll found that 82% of Americans believe in God, 76% in miracles, 72% that Jesus was God or the Son of God, 72% in angels, 71% that the soul survives death, 70% in the resurrection of Jesus, 61% in Hell, 60% in the Devil, and 40% in creationism (compared to 45% who believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution).

In other words, if an American tells you they  believe in God, it’s a very safe bet they mean they believe in a god who can work miracles, not some more abstract kind of god. More likely than not, they believe in Hell and the Devil, and there’s a very good chance they even believe in creationism.

I suspect those findings will be of no surprise to people who live in “red” parts of the country (more conservative, more rural), though they may surprise people who live in “blue” (liberal, urban) parts. So if you’re in the second group, don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you don’t have much contact with such beliefs, it means they aren’t a force in America today.

Another comment from Greta is relevant here:

I suppose that, every time I critique religion, I could instead type the entire phrase, “belief in supernatural entities or forces with some effect on the natural world.” You know why I don’t? Because I’m a good writer. I’m trying to be concise. I know that I’m already a more wordy writer than I ought to be; I’m trying to be as concise as I can. And instead of using a thirteen-word noun phrase, I’m using the word “religion,” the way that it’s used and understood by the overwhelming majority of people who use it.

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