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Does Religion Exist?

December 6, 2010

This probably seems like a very strange question to pose on a Christian blog but the question was also posed in a more limited form by William T. Cavanaugh in his article “Does Religion Cause Violence?”. In his article (which is well worth reading) he points out that to make the claim that religion causes more wars than other causes you need to be able to separate religion from those other causes, especially politics. But religion does not always separate easily from these things. Some branches of Islamic thought, for instance, explicitly blend religion and politics. When these branches go to war do they do so on religious or political grounds? Or, to take an example from ground perhaps more familiar to our readers, was the Maccabean revolt religiously driven? The revolt starts because one religion, Judaism, is under threat by another religion, emperor-worship. But emperor-worship mixes politics and religion in some very clear ways and the attempt to impose a religion was almost certainly primarily an attempt to impose culture. Disentangling politics, culture, and religion to determine which one drove the war is impossible.

Really, though, the problem goes deeper than that. As I’ve pointed out before in passing it’s not very easy to define religion in a way that divides the world in accordance with our normal manner of thinking. If a religion is defined as having gods then Theravada Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism are excluded. If religion simply means “belief in the supernatural” then atheists who believe in ghosts are religious and belief in lucky pennies is a religion. (“Belief in the supernatural” is also problematic because it begs the question – it assumes that we know how the world works and that it does not, for instance, include karmic laws.) I personally think that defining religion so that the system which frames the primary values of a person is that person’s religion works best. Let’s use an example: Eleanor believes in astrology. She spends much of her time examining horoscopes and other astrological information in order to learn how to advance her career and find a boyfriend and eventually husband. Is Eleanor’s religion astrology? Under some definitions the answer must be yes – astrology has no place in modern physics and Eleanor believes in it. Under my definition (which is not the only possible one) it’s not. Astrology is, instead, a method which Eleanor utilizes with the hope that this will allow her accomplish her goals more efficiently. Her goals, financial and romantic success, are set by rather unsurprising Western cultural norms. These norms comprise her actual religion given what we know about her from this example.

Having said this it should be clear that separating religion from other aspects of life could be quite difficult. Is decision X made on the basis of religion or politics? Since religion is one’s ultimate system of values then one’s politics are an expression of one’s religion. (Note: an expression of one’s actual religion. This may be at variance with one’s self-identified religion.) Part of the reason this is so difficult is that the whole idea that religion can be separated from other aspects of life is an Enlightenment idea. It is part and parcel of the idea that religion is a private thing you do on your own time which, therefore, exists in its own space. Since it exists in its own space it can be separated from other things you do.

There is a lot to be said about this notion of religion including, first and foremost, that it’s crap. I will skip a great deal of the other smaller points, though, to focus on two ways in which the particular insistence that religion is a separate sphere of life can have negative effects on our life as Christians.

The first one is quite straightforward. In fact, it comes from the original article I cited. If religion is something easily identifiable it is easily attacked. The entire notion that one could disparage religion depends on the idea that one can identify religion and that it’s something not everyone does. Imagine someone disparaging thinking. It happens but it’s done only by seriously nutty people who fail to realize that they are, themselves, thinking. Inherent to the claim of any atheist who dismisses religion is the idea that they are not, themselves, religious. But of course they are by my definition, and while I’m willing to admit that there are other logical definitions one could come up with I have yet to see a decent alternative that exempts anyone from being religious.

If all we walked away from this discussion with was a “gotcha” to use on angry atheists there would be little point to writing this article. While I’m all for apologetics I doubt seriously that the intellectual equivalent of smacking someone in the head with a foam baseball bat and laughing at them will end in their redemption. Instead, I want to direct our main focus at the defensive use of the category of religion by Christians.

One inevitable by-product of atheist attacks on religion is that the divide between religion and non-religion (the imaginary divide) has been used defensively. It’s pretty easy to say, “Well, you don’t understand religious matters.” Sometimes it’s even true. When I listen to some of the more popular angry atheists speak I wonder if we live on the same planet. When they describe religion it is often a beast I don’t recognize. However, one of the reasons they do this is exactly because, “You just don’t understand religion,” has been used as a defense. The problem is that the legitimate uses of this defense are far fewer than the illegitimate ones. Legitimate uses are simply rare. The best one I can think of is the case where one wishes to end a pointless discussion with someone who is unwilling to listen long enough to respond to what one has actually said. “We’re done with this discussion because you don’t understand religion and you clearly have no desire to,” is legitimate and perhaps even wise in some cases. However, there’s no end to the illegitimate uses. Is someone in your congregation questioning your interpretation of the Bible? Don’t defend your thoughts, say, “I’m sorry Henry, you’re an accountant. I’m a pastor. You just don’t understand religion like I do.” Has someone just made a logical case against some particular religious claim which you don’t know how to answer? Just say, “I’m sorry, this is a religious matter. Other rules apply. You just don’t understand religion.” Pretty much any idiotic claim made by a party who can claim greater religiosity than the other can be improperly supported by saying, “I’m sorry, you just don’t understand religion.”

The use of this defense by idiots is one primary reason why people can make claims against religion. If “it’s religion” is always a cover for “I don’t have a real answer” religion means “things ignorant people believe”. This is certainly problematic for Christian witness but it’s also pretty straightforward. Don’t use “you don’t understand religion” to justify being an idiot. We’re done here, right? Not quite. There’s another level yet. This is the level where Christians use “it’s religion” to insulate themselves from changes they should be making.

An example might be in order here. Since I’ve written extensively on the issue of reading the Bible that would seem to be a good example. Hopefully all of us learned, at some point, how to read complex documents well. These skills are rarely transferred to the Bible. The Bible is special – it’s a religious document. The end result is that many Christians use the Bible in ways that just don’t make sense. Atheists seem well aware of this. There is a whole cottage industry of angry atheist websites that all read the Bible in the same way many Christians do. Because they are engaging in aggressively bad reading these websites also find a lot to mock in the Bible. However, it is Christians who trained them to read this way.

The simple fact is that the “religion is just different” idea provides easy fodder to avoid correcting obvious mistakes. All of us have areas where we don’t want to put in good work. Most of us also know better than to justify this in non-religious contexts. “I’m a terrible boss because I don’t care,” sounds awful. “I’m a bad boss because being a religious leader requires no actual leadership ability,” sounds bad too, but not quite as bad. If I rephrased it as, “Christian leadership is not about natural leadership abilities but about the empowerment of the Spirit,” it would actually sound commendable – until you realized that it was being used to say, “I don’t want to work on my people skills so unless God decides to supernaturally intervene in my leadership I’m just going to go on treating you like crap.”

In kicking religion out of all public spheres of life Enlightenment thought also allowed consciously-religious people to ignore any knowledge from public spheres of life. As Christians we should recognize that this brand of religion does not, in fact, exist. Because it does not exist we are called to maintain the same high standards across our lives. We must maintain Christian ethical standards in the workplace and in politics but, equally importantly, we must maintain the various skills we learn outside the church when these skills are useful to the church. As an academic I notice this most strongly in the intellectual life of the church, an area evangelicals have (sometimes deliberately) allowed to sink into serious disrepair. I worry that, should this trend continue, we will simply be bulldozed by those who are hostile to our faith and who realize that our “religious” ways of arguing for and justifying our faith are frequently just a cover for low standards. If Jesus Christ is Lord of the world then He is, ultimately, just as much Lord of footnotes as revelation. And, until we realize this, we can never live a life under His Lordship outside church walls.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2010 3:52 pm

    I believe that religion is a way for people to feel comfortable with their uncertainty. There is no “right” and “wrong” way of thinking and I find nothing wrong with people of similar beliefs to join together and practice their beliefs.

    As long as one doesn’t cast out other ways of thinking or their “practice” of their beliefs doesn’t harm other I think religion is a fine thing and definitely doesn’t cause violence. Fundamentalism is where things start to get violent…

    Most religions at their core have nothing to do with discrimination, harm, or violence…it’s people who attribute them to negativity.

  2. Eric permalink
    December 6, 2010 10:19 pm

    I don’t agree that there’s no right or wrong way of thinking. There are clearly methods of thought that get us further in many area of life. Object permanence, for example.

    More to the point though, to begin to answer the question of whether religion causes violence one needs to be able to identify what is and is not religion. I don’t think this is easily done except in certain modern societies.

    I should also point out that the three great monotheisms, at least, all hold contradictory claims (Jews claim that there has been no Messianic revelator, Christians claim there has and he’s Jesus, Muslims claim that Mohamed is the real deal) and so if we’re to disallow any belief that says another is wrong we must disallow all three of these religions.


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