Friday, April 10, 2009

What Does "Religion" Mean?

I was about to comment on a post at the excellent blog Lesswrong, but realized my main point was different than the author's. In brief, the post author asks why rational thinkers find theism such a uniquely well-suited example of bad thinking. The discussion in the comments is definitely worth reading.

One thing we find as atheists is that we continue having to re-invent and reclaim terminology and thought habits that have been polluted or distorted by religion. Even after two and a half centuries of Enlightenment, we aren't nearly done with the housecleaning. An important example is the effort to clearly ground morality in facts, reason, and human biology. As it turns out, reason and fact-based morality is the kind most people practice, whether they're religious or not. In the case of the religious they do so despite confusing input from religion that is either destructive, superfluous, or has to be explained away with complicated theological gyrations. "It's okay to eat shellfish, because Jesus passed on amendment on that in the New Testament." "It's okay to be gay even though it says right here it's an abomination because...hey, look over there!" (Sound of running away.)

The terms which religion uses for itself, and the assumptions folded away inside them, should be made subject to these same secular re-examinations; chiefly among them, the concept of religion itself. I think that what we refer to as religion are really two different things. First, there's the individual spirituality that results from the short circuits of human cognition; it may be influenced by neighbors, and it's often polytheistic (think of deism, New Ageism, or shamanism). Then, there's the monotheistic evangelical organization tool with a political component (Islam, Christianity, Scientology). The difference is bound up in whether the institution seeks political power, and whether it spreads. It's the difference between two little girls with a lemonade stand going through the motions of trade, and General Electric. Yes, both are businesses, of a kind. How useful is it to use the same word to refer to both? Looked at in this way, the period before the spread of Abrahamic religions seems like a theological pre-Cambrian.

The next step is to ask exactly what the word "God" actually means, as Western Christians use it. You'll frequently find that people are completely clueless about the differences between their own sect and others. Then ask people from the same sect to describe the nature of God. Not only will their descriptions contradict each other, they'll likely contradict the basic teachings of their sect on this question. Also interestingly, many religious people shrink from such a question, feeling as if it isn't their place to think about such matters (if you're really serious about your faith, shouldn't you think about such matters every day?) The kinds of answers you will get are Loving, Kind, Vengeful, or the theological CYA that We Can't Understand Him. What we're talking about here lies on a problem-of-reference spectrum. It's somewhere between young children and schizophrenics can tell you all about their imaginary friend's dress and shoes or the physical description of the CIA agent that follows them around, and on the other hand statements like "Romeo and Juliet are Thai". Everyone knows Romeo and Juliet aren't real, so it's okay to give them specific characteristics.

To avoid these philosophical imbroglii, we can think of what God means in behavioral terms – how people observably act when the word is used. From that perspective, for most people who call themselves theists, "God" is a set of sounds with little semantic content, but that signals "I am part of this group, adhere to its values and rituals, and accept the authority of its Scripture and leaders". If you ask people to discuss the nature of their God they generally come up blank, or even say things directly in contradiction to what their religion holds.

Frustrating though this might seem, it's great news for atheists talking to on-the-fence people. An all-out full frontal assault on the very concept of God a) ensures that the shields go up and b) it's not a central concept to most religious people anyway. So focus on the practical benefits of being an atheist. Focus on the things that materialists/rationalists/secularists do to make the world a better place, on the enriching effect of the atheists that you've met since you've "come out", and the fact that they would have (mostly) the same friends if they were to defect. Most of all, focus on how it helps you to be a good person, since this seems to be a big concern for doubting theists. Even if all you do is get them to be a homebody Christian instead of a church-every-Sunday Christian, you'll get them away from their regular reinforcement, and that's an accomplishment.

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