Responsible Religious Criticism: Part Two – What is a “Religion”?

Part of a Series on Responsible Religious Criticism
Part One – Questions of Power

Update: I edited the section on beliefs, values, and practices to be more (I hope) accurate to the great diversity of religions in the world

When engaging in any sort of criticism, it is essential to know what one is criticizing. It is not clear to me that many of the discussants in the freethought community who disagree over the correct response to (for instance) “Islam” agree as to what the word in fact denotes, and this is the source of much confusion and acrimony. It is very clear that what many atheists mean by “religion” is often not what believers understand by the term, and the mismatch between how many atheist critics perceive religion and how sophisticated believers (particularly scholars of and within religious traditions) view it is the cause of much frustration on both sides.

The purpose of this post is to try to clear up what precisely we might be criticizing when we engage in criticism of a “religion”. I am not intending here to provide an airtight definition of “religion”, or even of a particular religion. Rather, I hope to explore the various different things within a religious tradition which might in principle be subject to critique, and thereby gain some better ideas about how to engage in responsible criticism.

So what, precisely, is (for instance) “Islam”? I think it will be relatively uncontroversial to start by saying “Islam is a religion” but that does not get us very far. For what, really, is a “religion”? Ask different scholars and you will get a different definition from each. So let me try to make some statements which I believe to be true about religions:

A. Religions Are More Than Sets of Beliefs
A religion is more than a set of beliefs. Although beliefs are important to a religion, they are not sufficient to create one. A set of beliefs on its own is not a religion: for instance, simply the belief that Jesus is the son of God is not “Christianity”, but it is one of the beliefs important to Christianity. Rather, a religion includes at least the following: a set of beliefs, a set of values, and a set of practices. Therefore, when criticizing a religion, one must take into account all those aspects or clearly delineate which aspects you are criticizing.

B. Any Given Religion Comes in Multiple Forms
Religions come in multiple forms and interpretations. There is no one single “Christianity” nor one single “Islam”. Just as there are denominations of Christianity there are denominations of Islam (Sunni, Shia, and Sufi, for instance), and the difference between these denominations matter (they include differences in beliefs, values, and practices). Even newer religions often have multiple forms: there are splinter sects of Scientology and of Mormonism, for instance – including a Humanistic version of Mormonism!

C. Religions do not have an “Essence”
Religions do not have an “essence” or “heart” which represents the “true” version of the religion (I’ve written about this before). It is a common misconception among both fundamentalists and atheist critics of religion that some part of a religious tradition represents what he religion “really is”, when in fact the element in question is just a part of a complex of features each of which have some claim to being part of the religion. This misconception most often takes the form of assuming that the foundational texts of a religion are its “core” or “true essence”, and that they define what the religion “is”.

Due to the central role religious texts play in many regions this misconception is understandable, but it is still a misconception which hampers responsible criticism. This is because: i) there is a long tradition of people supplementing, reinterpreting, ignoring, rewriting etc. their religious texts, so the texts themselves are neither static or immutable (i.e. if you want to say the core of a religion is its text, that immediately opens the questions “which version and in whose interpretation?”); ii) many strands of religious thought and practice themselves reject the ultimate authority of their own texts (prioritizing, for instance, inner experience of god); iii) the history of any textual religion is clearly an interaction between the text and certain human practices and beliefs which relate to the text, and the text has not consistently been seen as primary in these interactions; iv) there are religions without a foundational text; v) all texts require interpretation, and any complex text admits of multiple legitimate-yet-contradictory interpretations (and therefore no complex text can ever be seen as authoritative in a simplistic sense). Thus saying, for example, that “Islam is what it says to do in the Qur’an” is hopelessly simplistic and, therefore, irresponsible.

D. Religions are Complex Phenomena
Religions, as cultural phenomena, interact with a wide swathe of human activities including politics, government, economic interactions, home and family life, community structures, sexual relationships, warfare, and ethical and existential questions. This makes them very complicated.

E. Religions are (Often) Old
Religions are traditions which, in the case of the world’s “great religions” (and certainly in the case of Islam) are very old. This means that there has been a long period of time for the sorts of interactions described in D, and the sorts of textual revisions and investigations described in C, to further complexify matters. Over time strands of religious thought have emerged which (for instance) i) embrace politics and engagement in the political sphere wholeheartedly, considering engagement in politics a requirement of being a good adherent of that religion and ii) reject politics and engagement in the political sphere entirely, considering refusal to engage in politics a requirement of being a good adherent of that religion. And this is in the same religion! Religions are so complicated and so old that they have developed strands, within the same religion, which directly and completely contradict one another as to how they would encourage people to live! Again, religions are really complicated.

F. Religion is (Often) a Core Component of Identity

Some atheist critics of religion write as if being religious is merely a matter of holding certain (erroneous) beliefs about the world. But for many believers, this is not the case: religion is a core part of their identity, linked to their family, their upbringing, their friends, their community, the way they spend their time, and the way they think about the world. When you criticize someone’s religion you are not truly criticizing their ideas alone – you could be criticizing their wedding, the way they raise their children, or other profoundly emotive aspects of their being.  Keeping this in mind is critical if one is to behave responsibly.

Religions Are Complexes of Beliefs, Values, and Actions

So what on earth are we supposed to do about this? How are we to responsibly criticize religions such as Islam, an instance of a category so complex and multi-faceted as “religion”? Very carefully, and very precisely. For, despite their complexity, we can say some general things about religion, about what separates religion from other phenomena, and particularly some things about Islam as an instance of this phenomenon. The following is a general account of “religion”, and there are exceptions to each point made here. Nonetheless, I believe the scheme I suggest here – religions as complexes of beliefs, values, and actions – is a valuable rough guide which will aid responsible criticism of religions. Each religion ha a different relationship to these three categories: in many, beliefs are primary, but in some values or practices may play the bigger role.

Beliefs Are (Often) Particularly Important to Religions

Despite the insufficiency of beliefs as a full definition of a religion, beliefs often are especially important. This becomes clear if we consider what it means to become a member of a religion we previously were not a member of. For we do not simply “join” religions: we “convert” to them. What does it mean to be a religious convert? Clearly, in most cases, it does not mean simply that we take on the practices associated with that religion. I, as an atheist, could go to Mass, take Communion, and make my Confession for years and years and yet, I think most would agree, if I do not believe certain things about what I am doing it would be improper to call me a Catholic. I can even live my life according to the most profound Catholic values, and yet still not be considered a Catholic if I don’t have the right beliefs about why I am doing what I am doing (though generous souls might stretch the definition for me were they so inclined, let’s be very strict here in the name of optimum clarity).

Broadly-speaking, a convert is a convert to a given religion when and only when they express a certain set of beliefs regarding a set of propositions considered central to that religion. In Christianity one must accept some propositions about Christ, in Islam one must accept that there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet. And a person who accepts these tenets has fulfilled a necessary part – perhaps the most necessary part – of conversion to that religion. This explains the centrality of “creeds” to religions: every religion of which I’m aware (except relatively-modern non-creedal religions like Unitarian Universalism and Ethical Culture) have some set of required beliefs (and even UU has a set of statements people are expected to adhere to).

Values are Important to Religions, but (Often) Less So than Beliefs

Many religions, in addition to expecting their adherents to believe certain propositions, also expect them to abide by certain values and live their lives in a certain way. In some religions, demonstrably changing the way one lives one’s life is considered a requirement for conversion (for instance, the renunciation of sin in Catholicism is often understood as an active attempt to change one’s life as well as one’s beliefs).

However, in my judgment this requirement tends to be less strong than the belief requirement. Consider, today it is rare (in my experience) that a religious group requires an extensive period of observation of someone before they are allowed to convert. Even processes like confirmation (in Christianity) tend to focus on philosophical questions, and it would be odd for someone to be denied confirmation as a Christian due to their personal conduct (indeed, some of the most celebrated converts are those whose personal conduct and values seem not to reflect the fundamental values of that religion). [Bar and Bat Mitzvah (in Judaism) may be a counter-example, but Judaism is itself a very special case of a religion in which the ethnic and cultural component is unusually foregrounded.]

Furthermore, apostasy from a religion is generally considered to a consequence of changing beliefs, not changing values. If I commit adultery, it is generally accepted I do not thereby forfeit my Christianity (even among conservative Christians who prize marital fidelity very highly). I can be a drunk, a thief, and even a murderer, and I can still quite uncontroversialy be a Christian. Deny the divinity of Christ, however, or deny the existence of God, and there will be far fewer who would agree that I can maintain that identity (there will be some but, as I said earlier, we are seeking an ability to engage in responsible criticism, not the ability to satisfy every observer). Indeed, what unites different versions of a given religion are shared beliefs and not shared values. This suggests, at least to me, that values are secondary, in most religious traditions, to beliefs.

This is not always true. Some religions, by design, give primacy to values over beliefs: examples include Unitarian Universalism and Ethical Culture. But it is significant that both these traditions consider themselves departures from religious normalcy precisely because they give creedal beliefs a back-seat: they see themselves as doing something different to most religions in this regard.

Practices Are Least Important to Religious Identity

The third aspect of religious identity, religious practices – praying, church attendance, food restrictions etc. – seem to be the least significant element in many religions. Many millions of people claim a particular religious identity while not even regularly attending a place of worship. Millions more play fast and loose with practices which more orthodox believers would consider mandatory. Some versions of certain religions even deny the importance of particular practices altogether, focusing adherents on a personal relationship with the divine which transcends any particular performance of the faith.

Again, this is not always true: some religions (I’m thinking perhaps Buddhism) seem to put practice front and center, and what seems definitional about membership of these religions is precisely performing certain practices. This, I think, is only true in a minority of major religions today, however.


So here’s another set of considerations for anyone wishing to criticize a “religion” in a responsible manner: keep it mind that you are criticizing a complex of elements including   beliefs, values, and practices, and are not just criticizing sets of propositions which people hold. Remember that these beliefs, values, and practices are likely to be deeply embedded in people’s identities and their closest relationships. Note that every religion has multiple forms, and that the differences between these forms matters greatly. Note, too, that religions differ in the primacy they give to the three major component of a religion (for this will alter how you seek to criticize it). Try to be aware of the historical, political, and social contexts in which religions are embedded. Do not over-generalize, and be specific about what aspect of what version of a religion you are critiquing. And tune in next time for more concrete ideas.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Steve Ahlquist

    The differentiation of beliefs, values and practices (in that order) is helpful in targeting criticism, but teasing out where beliefs end and values begin, or trying to understand complex relationships between the three areas you outlined could be problematic. Adherence to right practices in a religion could be highly valued, and are often suggested by religious leaders as ways to power through periods of doubt. Zen seems to me to be almost all value and practice, and Islam puts a lot of stock (value?) in the five pillars, the first of which is belief, the last three of which are practices.

    At some point we have to examine not only the object of our criticism, but our motives for criticism. In outlining our motives, we should avoid easy answers, and be willing to dig a little deeper.

  • swbarnes2

    “It is a common misconception among both fundamentalists and atheist critics of religion that some part
    of a religious tradition represents what he religion “really is”, when
    in fact the element in question is just a part of a complex of features
    each of which have some claim to being part of the religion. This
    misconception most often takes the form of assuming that the
    foundational texts of a religion are its “core” or “true essence”, and
    that they define what the religion “is”.

    I’ve seen another use of that argument. Usually it’s liberal apologist saying that “real” Christianity isn’t about Jesus redeeming fallen humanity from sins, or reconciling people to God, or anything religious, but that “real Christianity” is pretty much just love and caring for other people.

    The idea that “real” Christianity” has nothing to do with the divinity of Christ, and that “real” Christianity is totally compatible with rejecting all those beliefs about Jesus and God that pretty much everyone who self-labels as Christian holds (and that a hell of a lot would define as the central core of what distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian) is just bizarre. If you have to define away the distinguishing features of Christianity to make it palatable, you probably should just give up the endeavor.

    • jflcroft

      Absolutely: this is a trick used by defenders of faiths as well as critics. Another example is saying “Islam s a religion of peace” – this is just an unacceptable and inaccurate generalization, as is “Islam is a violent religion”.

      • Lois Kellerman

        The Dali Lama is highly educated in both Eastern and Western traditions. Yet, he has often said, “I practice the religion of kindness.”
        I don’t think of this (or other such examples) so much as “tricks” as efforts to provide significant entry points into complexities.
        The entry points used may vary to some degree depending on what is being explained/defended. But they are mostly humanistic virtues (love, peace, kindness, inclusiveness) which evoke common and yet profound understandings/experiences of practitioners across the spectrum of articulations. In terms of breadth of reach, such entry points are also more universal, class-wise.

        Thanks James for this piece. I very much appreciate its overall approach.

  • Jonathan Figdor

    I’m not sure you really want to commit yourself to C, James. Replace religions with political philosophies. Would you really want to say that political philosophies have no real essence? At heart, Rawls is about fairness, at heart, Utilitarianism is about reducing suffering, at heart Confucianism is about building a society modeled on an ideal familial relationship. Are you trying to say that religion, unlike political philosophies doesn’t have an essence? Because I’m pretty sure that its advocates believe that there is one.

    Many, if not all, religions do have essences. If Christianity doesn’t have a message at it’s center, then it is meaningless. It is pretty clear that Christianity comes down to three things: (1) belief in God, (2) belief in Jesus’s Resurrection, (3) belief in the ability to be free of sins by repentance. Sure there’s some other stuff there, but you can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe in the Resurrection.

    Now it may be inconvenient to admit that there is a historical “essence” to religion, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pretend like there isn’t one. After all, if there is no essence to religion, then Rabbi Hillel might as well have paraphrased the Bible by saying, “it’s turtles, all the way down,” instead of his famous comment, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation.”

    • jflcroft

      Yup, I do want to commit myself to C because I reject the force of your analogy: comparing a political philosophy with a religion is like comparing a company’s mission statement with the company: it simply excludes so much that is important to the phenomenon in question. It is precisely my argument that religions are very much more than equivalents of political philosophies.

  • asonge

    James, it seems I’m reading more and more of your stuff even though I haven’t subscribed yet. So, I just wanted to thank you for writing so clearly.

    That said, I can’t believe you missed religions as institutions. I find this to be one of the most useful ways to critically analyse religions. Whenever beliefs and practices are untethered from their institutions, they seem to fade away rather quickly, devolve into mysticism, or simply leave the adherent assimilated into their wider culture.

    I like being able to criticize religious institutions as institutions because it can simplify so much. You can “judge them be their fruits”, and not have to come up with ad-hoc rationalizations about which beliefs or values (or lack thereof) are bad and why. You can use these criticisms to see which communities are “healthy” and “sick”, instead of terms like “right” or “wrong” which require a lot more justification.

    So, for instance, the UU I attended, while they don’t match my values perfectly, I would consider one of the healthiest religious communities I’ve ever met. Their children came out of their religious education programs to be religiously literate, and the older kids who had been attending since childhood seemed to be very well-adjusted and mature. Those who had been damaged by other religions were given spaces to heal. People were given opportunities to work on social justice issues. People were given a creative outlet as well.

    Then when I look at the churches of my childhood, their values didn’t always seem to produce great adults. Some people seemed genuinely helped-out, but there are others who didn’t…who felt forced-out because they interpreted their values differently. Projecting happiness was more important than fostering something deeper like fulfillment because having Christ’s “joy” became a measure of how Christian you actually were. Being miserable was shameful and hidden, and some people (like myself) had problems overcoming the shame and getting help because of it.

    I really think the societal institution view of religion is perhaps one of the most powerful ways to be critical about it, and I think (depending on what you use to measure such an institution) you can really address directly on the harms an institution can cause. I think people underestimate what it takes to undergird some kinds of beliefs. Churches have long known that life-changes that result in lower church attendance can compromise the faith/beliefs of their flock.

    • jflcroft

      You are so right and this is so important I may have to edit the post to reflect this – thanks for the comment!

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