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.

  • astro

    It’s true. I’ve lived in cities most of my life and am continually surprised that religious folk exist to the extent that they do.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

    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.

    Might it not be better to use “religion” in the way that most actually describes the way in which it functions rather than the way that people think of it? I suspect that religion exists because of the function it performs in structuring human relationships and societies which is a matter of culture, tradition, and ritual. Religion often relies on magical thinking to perform this function but I think one is likely to miss a lot of what is going on by trying to examine the magical thinking in isolation.

  • Steerpike

    You could also phrase it: “Religion is a THEORY”, which is also a true statement, and one they love to hurl at people who “believe in” (read: accept, understand, recognize) evolution. Or maybe “Just a theory”. Or, more to the point, “Religion is just another theory: one with absolutely no evidence, factual basis or empirical data to support it”.

  • cafeeineaddicted

    I wonder is the disparity between the people who believe in Jesus and the people who believe in the Devil is explained by people who conflate ‘believe in’ with “worship / follow”.

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