Six Religious Cliches

Jessica at Ask an Islamist is a doctoral candidate in theology at Oxford, studying early Islam and Christianity. She recently took the time to vent about six cliches that crop up in discussions of religion (rather than the study of religions) that irritate her. It’s a wonderful list:

1.) “But isn’t the religion really about …”

2.) “But what about [insert episode of violence here]?”

3.) “I like faith, it’s all the dogma I have a problem with.”

4.) “I’m just really not into organized religion..”

5.) “I’m not into organized religion, but I am really into Zen/Buddhism/Tao/yoga/tantic/Feng Shui/etc.”

6.) “I just feel like we need to get back to the original [insert religion here] of the [insert time period here].”

I particularly like that last one, since I keep running into people who believe we can all embrace a “primitive Christianity” unsullied by 2000 years worth of Christian evolution. Jessica dispenses with the idea:

It’s tempting to look back at the early years of Christianity or the Golden Age of Islam and feel like everything was perfect, but it’s important to remember that 1.) those periods had all sort of faults related to contemporary history and 2.) the very existence of those ‘periods’ of history are a later addition. People in the first century of Christianity didn’t know they were living in the period of the unsplintered church, and probably if we had told them that, they’d chide us, pointing to all of the divisions that we get hints of in the New Testament – debates between gentile and Jewish converts, debates in leadership, debates about practice. And on top of that, they had to put up with Roman repression, poor living conditions, little if any healthcare, and so on.

It’s a long post, but if you’ve ever been pulled into a discussion “about religion” it’s worth a moment of your time.

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Being Agent Scully
  • Anthony Hall

    The question that runs through my mind the most is just how far has humanity been held back in terms of scientific advancement because of religious adherence and superstition?

    • Maurice Smith

      Mr. Hall, If I may have a moment of your time. First of all I would like to say that I am 15 about to be 16 on Feburary 15, and I would like for you to here me out about Christianity. I really would like to express my thoughts and opinions about what is being said. There is a God, He has not turned from us like mythologies and Atheism claim, but rather I know there is a God, and he sent his son upon the earth to die for our sin, because The Blood was the only thing that could from all of our sin, and within his son there was eternal life, there was life with in his bones. I now see how Christianity is not a Religion. I do. It begins in the beginning, when God created the Heavens and the Earth, the moon and the stars, all the plants we see that move in a precise order was not brought about by chance. We Are Not Here By Chance, We Are Here For A Purpose!!! From all the things that I have been experience from back in my childhood up till now, and from all the things that I have heard and thought that God was not there, WE WERE NOT EVOLVED FROM MONKEYS!!! WE DO NOT LOOK LIKE MONKEYS, WE DON’t TALK LIKE MONKEYS, AND WE CAN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY ARE SAYING!!! We were all created in the image of God, not all belong to the father, on this Earth that we walk upon, Satan roams about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, and like a thief who come to steal, kill, and destroy you from knowing God’s purpose for your life. Jesus is the Son of God, He is and you can experience the joy that He had with the Father, if you accept Him into your life. I’m not trying to awe you with words, or make you feel unaccepted. You have family members or friends that done all they could do by themselves, or may be struggling with an addiction, or disease. Can I say another thing: You present situation doesn’t determine your future, You Do!!! God knows the plans that He has for you thoughts of good intention, not of Evil, God doesn’t lie, nor does he Tempt, nor can He be Tempted by Evil. GOD LOVES YOU AND HE WANTS TO LOVE THROUGH YOU. I can only tell you, you have to believe, you at all the things you faced you probably been to church, heard the preacher say something that You did not understand or heard something That was not true, although I want to say something. God speaks, He loves you, He always has and He always will and He wants you to know the Truth. You may be saying “What is Truth”? This is Truth. Jesus said He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no man comes unto the Father, but by Him.

      • UrsaMinor

        What evidence can you offer to support these claims? I.e., why do you believe these statements to be true?

      • Noelle

        Hi Maurice! You are welcome to discuss with us. As Custy reminded us, you are young. So I’ll remind you, we are old. Some more so than others. We are happy to entertain a respectful youth’s questions and thoughts. I do hope you stick around a bit, even if only to read. Please don’t mistake difference of opinion with persecution. They’re not the same. And kid, can ya lay off the all-caps and more than one exclamation mark at a time? People will think you’re smart and thoughtful if you do that.

        I was raised a Christian. Many of us here were. Not all. If’n you’re curious, I extend the invite to the forum. You show up there, and I tell you what I believed at 15, going on 16. Worst year of my life.

        I have ADHD, and am unable to decipher walls o’ text. That’s just me though. There are lots of text-masons here who are happy to slap together brick after brick of knowledge and insight. You’ll get further asking or bringing up 1-3 points at a time. I tried really hard to pay attention to your rant, and I counted 12 points. That is too many. Try 1. Again, the forum would be a nice place to go off on tangents on stuff Maurice wants to know about atheists and stuff he wants atheists to know. It’s trickier blog-side, but your call kid.

      • Theory_of_I

        Welcome to UF!

        You are young, and possibly under the influence of the ministry of a church and involved in Catechesis, an early kind of Christian indoctrination where you are told what to believe and how to indulge in or practice the required obligations of that belief system.

        If the following is inapplicable or plain wrong, please correct me:

        I think it’s safe to say that at some time earlier in your life – a few years ago – you didn’t have any idea what religion was, and certainly didn’t hold any religious beliefs. Now, unless the idea of a supernatural, in other words unnatural or unreal presence of some sort, came to you independently (you just thought it up yourself), you had to have been told that some people think that there is such a thing, and all about what they thought it could be.

        Quite likely, your parents were the first to tell you about it, dutifully repeating all the same things they were told. Then typically when you were old enough, they brought you to their church, where you would have begun the process of being taught the particulars of the supernatural thing they believed in, and that you, too, must believe.

        While they couldn’t show you any actual proof, they did promise you a great reward if you believed what they said…and threatened you with a horrible punishment if you did not. You were probably too young to fully understand much of what you were told, didn’t know that you could question authority, and would not have known what to ask for verification of the declarations they made.

        These are the same people who may have told you to believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny, then later, that the joke was on you. They probably told you that thinking there was a monster under your bed or that playing with an invisible friend were only products of a childs imagination. Now they expect you to believe things for which they have no more evidence or factual explanation to offer…have you thought about that?

        Assuming that’s more or less true, a question comes to mind regarding your
        unquestioning acceptance of what you’ve been convinced to believe:

        Do you think that the sciences, particularly the disciplines that contradict the stories in the bible, are not the result of diligent and honest efforts to better understand our world? Have you made any effort to understand what scientists have discovered and how they test and retest their discoveries to improve our knowledge? Or are you rejecting what has been painstakingly learned just because you feel you are obligated to protect your religious views?

        Although what you wrote could be just a restatement of things you’ve read or been told, you seem fairly articulate for your age. It would be a shame if Christianity has taken your potential to be a promising scientist away from you in order to perpetuate an old myth.

    • Maurice Smith

      This is my Truth.

      • Custador

        Before I start, can I just ask everybody who takes part in this discussion to note Maurice Smith’s age and treat him accordingly. Thanks.


        No Maurice, it isn’t. It’s what you believe, but it is not the truth. “Truth” has a very specific meaning (that which is in accordance with fact or reality), and that meaning has got nothing to do with “that which I really hope is true”, or “that which I’ve always been told is true”, or “that which I emotionally feel is true”.

        Ultimately, the best possible measure that we have of deciding what is and is not true, is physical evidence. Among things that we have a LOT of physical evidence for, is the truth that human beings and monkeys share a common ancestor. Another thing that the evidence shows to be true is, Darwinian evolution is universally accepted by those who understand it, and universally rejected by those who do not. What you have written shows very clearly that you do not. You’re arguing against what’s called a Straw Man; that is, you don’t really know what the other side’s position is, so you set up a Straw Man which you think represents the other side’s position, and you attack that instead. The problem is, your straw man bears no relation to the actual Theory of Evolution.

        I would also like to say that you live in the only country in the developed world where anybody can proclaim young Earth creationism to be the truth and evolution to be a lie, and not get laughed at by everybody who hears them. And that, I’m sorry to say, is because science education in your country is absolutely terrible. And Maurice, that really shines through in what you’ve written.

        If I had my way, I would charge whichever adult or group of adults that brainwashed you so effectively, with child abuse. It breaks my heart to read the words of a sixteen year old boy that show he’s had the necessary tools to understand the modern world withheld from him.

        Finally, I want you to know that you’re very welcome here, and you can continue to read and post (or not) for as long as you like. If you want to continue contributing, can I ask that you read this post first so that we don’t end up getting frustrated at you for repeating the same arguments we’ve had a thousand times, but which might be new to you. One thing though: You’re very heavy on content-less evangelism. Please don’t do that. There’s a space on the forum side to evangelise if you want, but if you do it here it will just get deleted.

        • Len

          Custy, your link is broken :-(

        • JohnMWhite

          That’s a great response. I do hope Maurice comes back and we can have a fruitful discussion. When I was his age, I was a devout believer, though without quite so many capital letters and, being from the UK, I actually accepted evolution. The manner in which evolution is so deeply mischaracterised to young people in the US troubles me greatly. It really is unfair and unhealthy to deliberately cripple a child’s capacity to understand the world around them by plain lying to them. It gets to the point of absurdity, and it is a dangerous power to be able to make a child fully believe that black is white. Maurice argues that we do not look like monkeys. Apparently he has never looked at a monkey. Obviously we are not identical, and appearance isn’t the best evidence for evolution, but our shared ancestry is quite evident, as it is between dogs and wolves, tigers and tabbies. It isn’t healthy for a brain to be shaped into constantly trying to deny facts as obvious and uncontroversial as what things look like and what words mean.

      • Theory_of_I


        How about a factual truth to consider?

        Though it is highly unlikely of course, nevertheless – and thanks to science – it is entirely possible that (with authorization and access) you, Maurice, could control the Mars Curiosity Rover and conduct experiments on the red planet from your cell phone, while you were lying in bed! How awesome is that!

        Now, if you can do that by praying for it, I will immediately convert to your religion, and fervently believe in your God! Because that would persuade me that God is valid. Perhaps you should open your mind a little about the validity of science.

  • kessy_athena

    Roman repression? The Romans repressed the early Christians like the US represses Al Qaeda. They were a bunch of crazy people trying to overthrow the government and tear apart society to suit their whacked out ideology. And poor living conditions? Seriously? The lack of iphones really isn’t a massive deprivation. The Roman Empire had the highest standard of living before the industrial revolution.

    • Michael

      Early Christians were NOT like Al Qaeda. I don’t know where you got that impression. They may have been treated that way, but dissidents in general were treated extremely harshly and all threats–real and imagined–were squashed without mercy. I don’t know that first century Christianity ("The Way") was quite as peaceful as it is sometimes made out to be, but it was hardly a terrorist organization.

      And while the living conditions in Rome were relatively good compared to other parts of the world, that was not the case for most of the Imperium Romanum. The city was not representative of the empire.

      • kessy_athena

        *Political* dissidents and *political* threats were squashed without mercy. Which has pretty much always been true. No society will tolerate an open challenge to the basic order and power structure, not even modern western democracies. We have created a political system that allows for an unprecedented expression of dissent *within* our power structures, but we still won’t tolerate an attack *on* that power structure. Nor should we.

        And while Roman justice may seem harsh from our point of view, it *was* justice. They had courts and trials and the rule of law, just like we do. They used capital punishment a lot more freely then we do, but that’s because they didn’t really have very good alternatives at the time. The idea of prisons as they exist today simply hadn’t been invented yet. And I’ll bet that a few centuries or millennia from now, there will be societies that see our prison system as cruel and barbaric, since they’ve found better alternatives.

        The Romans were very religiously tolerant. They simply didn’t care what gods you worshiped or what rituals you observed. You could find temples to Mithras or Isis alongside native Roman gods. When the Romans built temples in conquered territories, they were typically dedicated to composite deities including both the native deities and their nearest Roman equivalent. The Romans didn’t really care if you wanted to worship Yahweh, Jesus, or your neighbors’ dog. They cared about temporal, political power. And when the Roman authorities went after religious organizations, it was because those organizations were actively opposing Roman political power.

        There are stories of mobs of ordinary people attacking and killing early Christians. People don’t do that to people for just sitting under waterfalls or communing with wild birds and rabbits. Those people believed that the world was corrupt and Jesus was coming back literally at any time to destroy the order of the world and replace it with some weird divine order. They didn’t see the Roman government as legitimate. They wanted to overthrow the government. And to blunt, they got what they deserved.

        As for living conditions, the Romans generally replicated the city of Rome in small scale wherever they went. There were big disparities in wealth distribution, but that was about class, not really geography. And even poor Romans tended to live better then their counterparts elsewhere. Roman cities had more potable water per capita then modern cities do. Sewage systems, mass production techniques, an amazing food supply system, public infrastructure like roads, temples, baths, and theaters all benefited everyone, including the common people.

    • plutosdad

      Um, wow. I don’t know any atheist history scholars that believe that. Really read Carrier as the other poster says, it is a very good book, even though some disagree with him on some points, nobody would say christians were rebels as you describe.

      Amazingly, mobs can gang up and attack and kill people for just about any stupid reason, that’s why they are mobs not reasonable groups of people sentencing others to execution for just causes.

      • kessy_athena

        Think it through from the roman perspective. Sure, mobs can and do target people for all kinds of terrible reasons: out of fear, anger, jealousy, prejudice, etc. And governments can do the same thing. But there’s always a reason; it’s not random. Look at racism in America against Africans. You can quite clearly trace it back to people trying to rationalize slavery, and to the fear of a slave revolt. Then why would the Romans have targeted Christians? As I pointed out before, the Romans were very religiously tolerant. They didn’t target people simply for having unusual beliefs. In fact, exotic religions were quite fashionable in Rome. Clearly, there was something different about Christianity.

        And why would the Roman government target Christians? You’re right that mobs aren’t reasonable groups of people sentencing others to execution for just causes. But the courts *are*. And they were often not just sentencing Christians to execution, but to crucifixition – the most severe penalty under Roman law, reserved for the lowest of the low, the absolute worst society had to offer. And when the authorities went after Christians, they typically didn’t go after the rank and file membership. They went after the leadership. That’s not consistent with a government trying to stamp out a belief system. It is consistent with them trying to stamp out a political organization.

        We’ve had millennia of Christians telling us how mean and awful the Romans were, going after those peaceful, virtuous early Christians for no good reason. I assume I don’t need to point out to anyone here how christianity seems to engender an “us against the world” mentality, or how much christians love to play the persecution card.

  • Jessica


  • David

    This article is fantastic, in particular the discussion of eastern religion in the west. How she ties it in with Orientalism is something I should have thought of, but didn’t.

  • vasaroti

    and now, I feel very fortunate to have a group of friends who have never uttered any of these things.