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Friday, October 1, 2010

Defining Religion, Religion as a Generic Concept

This post is basically what should have been the first video of my "Religion Sucks" series.(But the south park mohammad "controversy" was relevant at that time) Also, considering the pervasive ignorance about religion in general(See the recent Pew research poll), I thought I'd start by trying to establish a reasonable definition of what constitutes a "religion".

This will actually help in a few ways. First off, it seems many people throw the term around in inappropriate ways, labelling atheism, science, and political ideologies as religions. With a proper definition established, it will then be clear why these things aren't religions.

It will also help solidify traits that all specific religions will necessarily have in common. The idea of religion in a generic sense, will contain criticisms then of all religions. (Since the definition for what constitutes a religion will have been established, leaving no wiggle room to avoid this conclusion)
This "generic" religion, is what you get when you strip away the specific theologies and concepts from any religion and are left with the basic shared traits which are near-universals among all religions and cultures.

Lastly, upon examining the positive, neutral and negative qualities that this abstract concept of religion contains, we can see if it's indeed possible for a religion to ever be reasonable enough to not be a detriment to the society in which it is contained. (Remember now, that these things will be automatically things any specific religion will have by virtue of the definition of religion established)

So let's get started. Based upon my fair amount of knowledge about specific religions, past and present, I define religion as "a system of beliefs which involves ritual, belief in the supernatural
in some form, and an emphasis on a code of moral behavior." This is not an arbitrary definition which would simply be designed to serve the arguments I put forward in this blog, rather it's one that covers all types of religion from what us Homo Sapiens have had in neo-lithic times(In which we were hunter-gatherers)up to Wicca and even Laveyan Satanism.

Whether we're dealing with ancient feritility cults, ancestor cults, folk religions, polytheistic religions or today's monotheistic religions, they all involve some sort of beliefs regarding human beings and our place in the cosmos. They all have either formalized or perhaps less formalized rituals designed to both pass down traditions and/or invoke some kind of supernatural force.

Now the amount of supernatural claims or beliefs can vary, but to count as a religion there has to be at least a minimal amount of what we would call "supernatural".(It matters not whether the adherents/believers of that religion, use the term or even consider what they are doing to actually be invoking the supernatural) So it should be clear, that both Wicca and Catholicism to use two random examples, both contain rituals. The fact that Catholicism has priests and an orthodoxy/hierarchy of organization and Wicca does not (unless I'm mistaken on that)has no bearing on this fact.

Anything that counts as a religion will have the aforementioned things, plus some code of emphasized moral/ethical behavior. (which needs not be codified in written form) In this regard the religions of primitive tribes living in South America or Africa today, and even Laveyan Satanism fit the established definition.

So to both recap and get more detailed on the matter, what religions have in common and what our "generic" concept of religion will contain is the following:

1.) Rituals that are superstitious or invoke supernatural forces or entities
2.) Superstition in some form.(prayers, invoking spirits etc.)
3.) A code of morality/ethics which involves the supernatural in some way(and need not emphasize the connection to it at all necessarily)
4.) Beliefs that were invented to try and explain things in a pre-scientific era
5.) Shamans, healers, priests, or any"spiritual leaders" who have a role in performing rituals and so on. (no institutionalized, orthodoxy is required however)

Now with that defined, the following things are NOT required for something to count as a religion, and any belief system which has met the requirements discussed above, will still count as a religion despite lacking the following things:

1.) Belief in a deity or deities
2.) Belief in th afterlife
3.) Prayer or any other culturally specific sub-set of superstition
4.)Any specific "values" related to a particular culture
5.) An official, organized hierarchy in an institutionalized form
6.) A sacred text, as opposed to just oral traditions.

So by now it should be abundantly clear why neither science, atheism, or environmentalism count as religions. None of them can fully or even come close to satisifying the definitional requirements. None contain superstitious rituals, belief in the supernatural or stress a set of moral codes.(It could be argued that envrionmentalism does fit the latter, but since it does not satisfy the other two, it does not get to count as a religion.)

Atheism contains no baggage beyond the lack of a belief in any deities. While many atheists are secular humanists, that is a seperate but compatible philosophy, which does not get to count as religion either, because it at best, only satisfies the requirement of an emphasis on morality/ethics and not the others.

Science is the most removed from the definition. Although most scientists(if not all) personally are very moral, with a respectable code of ethics, science itself does not have nor emphasize any moral/ethical precepts. It's a neutral way to learn about the universe in the most accurate way possible.

Now before we continue, I will address a couple of foreseable objections. Mainly the possible argument that no. 4 of the requirements for something to count as a religion above, are not met by later religions such as Mormonism, Scientology or any other obscure religion made up fairly recently, long after science(or at least the rudaments of modern science) were well underway.

The actual date of origin of these religions is not relelvant, since they carry beliefs which are variations, continuations of those in ancient religions, or have been influenced heavily by religions which were constructed in a pre-scientific world.
For example, The Book of Mormon bears the influence of both the hebrew bible and the New Testament. The belief in angels, prophecy, etc. were conceived of in the ancient world, despite Mormonism being a more modern phenomenon.

Scientology perhaps is trickier, and comes the closest to being an exception, however, the concept of "thetans" is nothing more than a repackaging of original sin. It states that human beings are intrinsically corrupted and must seek the remedy provided for them. The belief in the soul predates scientology. In fact any of the "spiritual" elements of this more modern, and sci-fi influenced religion, are just remnants that religions far back into the ancient world touched upon to some degree.(Souls, humans having fallen from grace in some way, and some sort of "salvation" being needed to "purify" them)

Now for another potential objection. What if there are rituals but they do not constitute what is generally considered to be "superstition"? At first, this seems like a possible exception. It is not inconceivable in theory for religions to not have superstition in their rituals.(It is however, very, very unlikely)

In practice though, it seems any religion I can think of right now, even If I might not know every detail about that particular form of religion, definitely has rituals which to some degree are superstitious. Superstition is invoked clearly in any christian mass, vodoo ritual, pagan or neo-pagan celebration etc.

This is not to say that all rituals are superstitious and that secular rituals aren't possible. Secular versions of both funerals and marriages take place, yet when atheists/agnostics take part in them, there is no invocation of the supernatural. (Their religious counterparts are however, chock full of superstitious invocations)

Rituals which have become entwined with any religion, generally invoke superstition to at least some degree, even if in some cases minor and not with much emphasis. To further clarify, I'll work with superstition as defined as belief that the spoken word,(magic)ritual, or invocation of unseen forces(through or beyond nature) can affect the world in some way, despite not having any immediate causal influence.

Thus believing that rain dances can make it rain, that sacricing an animal or a person can guarantee a bountiful harvest season are superstitions. Prayer, inscribing a stone or weapon with runes believed to have some power derived from spirits or some entity associated with nature(which needs not necessarily be anthropomorphized)would also fit this definition.

Now back to the main topic. With the pre-requisite conditions, and allowable absence of certain attributes already described above, the necessary conclusion that is left is that the generic religion, and thus all religions contain the following:

1.) Superstition to some degree in belief and ritual practice.
2.) The rituals to some degree will be irrational.(If not completely so)
3.) Belief in the supernatural.(Even if not emphasized, nor invoked specifically)
4.) Pre-scientific ideas which can't truly be reconciled with modern science.
5.) At least some emphasis on moral and ethical behavior designed with social cohesion in mind.(Even if only for a tribe or small community)

Now for the analysis of generic religion itself.

The Good:

Only number 5 would fit any reasonable definition of good.(Although I'd really like to see someone truly argue otherwise)

The Neutral:

Although, many specific pre-scientic ideas can be harmful, many are simply neutral. Take any native american creation myth for example. On their own they are neutral, just as in any qualitative sense even the creation myth in Genesis would be, if not for the political harm and the injury done to the minds of children by getting creationism/intelligent design taught in public schools. These beliefs certaintly aren't good nor do they help make successfull societies but they are neutral, albeit irrational and outdated beliefs.
I suppose in most cases the rituals of any religion are neutral as well.(although not very rational nor based on a scientific understanding of the universe)

The bad:

Well, its clear that superstition is undeniably negative and not merely netural. Beliefs which stem from superstition and lead to action, and from where values are derived which shape political and moral attitudes, are not healthy for any society.
The belief in the supernatural also is not neutral as it can serve as a basis for anti-scientific attitudes, and get in the way of critical thinking which any intellectually honest person should value. When people believe in demons, spirits, angels, and gods that intervene in the world as causal agents, all kinds of harm can and does follow. (I don't think I need to list examples as they are plentiful)

So this unbiased (or as unbiased as I can possibly be as a human being) look at the generic concept of religion, establishes that religion in the most abstract and stripped down form, is still more harmful than helpful. Now when you add attributes specific to any particular religion on top of these things, the bad stuff and the neutral stuff will surely pile up with the good things not enough to balance them out.
If this is indeed the case and I think it is, based on the information I put forth above in this blog, then no religion will ever be reformed or reshaped enough to not be more of a detriment to society as opposed to a boon. They will only get perhaps less extreme, and made to be less hostile to modern science(through creative and convoluted theologies etc.) but since anything defined as a religion already starts off imbalanced in favor of the negative before any other specific attributes unique to any particular form of religion are added, no amount of making them more reasonable can completely save them.

So does this mean I'm not in favor of religions evolving and reshaping themsevles to make themselves relevant and consistent with modern science? No of course not. However, we should not delude ourselves and think that religion itself isn't part of the problem in achieving global stability. Religions carry so much baggage which is mostly an obsolete remnant of the ancient, pre-literate, pre-scientific world. The point then is that simply stopping religious extremism is not enough. Religions are made up of things which largely are anti-thetical to any reasonable societal goals of the 21st century and beyond. No matter how much change any particular form of religion undergoes, the need for it to be critized and opposed will not dimish.

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