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Secular morality in a nutshell

Someone who commented on a very flimsy piece by Keith Ward at Comment is Free said a good thing.

There is a constant error made in many of these articles regarding the definition and scope of religion. Religion is not the study of ethics, natural science, philosophy or astronomy and cannot generate informed hypotheses on these topics.

The domain of religion is the interpretation of the desires of supernatural beings. It exists to answer the question “what do supernatural creatures want from us?”.

I guess a key point to ask would be “is that a question that really warrants such attention?”

Quite so. Maybe they do want something – tribute, worship, deference, adoration, sacrifice, an ox roasted whole, new clothes. But what if they do? We’re busy. We have natural creatures nearby who want more immediate things from us. The supernatural creatures will just have to take care of themselves.

Comments

  1. says

    I love the general sentiment – that the natural world and the actual human beings which inhabit it should be the focus of our moral and philosophical concern, and that supernatural entities, if they exist (which I frankly consider a logical impossibility) would be of no concern to us. I also agree that the Ward piece is flimsy.

    However, I don’t think it’s possible to ignore the fact that the study of religion has traditionally included study of ethics, philosophy, natural science etc. Theologians and theorists of religion today do indeed concern themselves with such topics very frequently, and the work of religious communities is often ethical in character. And there is a strong strand of thought which redefines religion as a sociological phenomenon quite apart from its supernatural content.

    Furthermore, there are a number of influential religions which are not supernaturalistic in nature. Certain forms of Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism qualify under such an understanding of “religion”, as does Ethical Culture.

    I don’t think we can simply wish this away – I think we either have to deal with the term “religion” in its full and broad meaning as it is most frequently used today and has frequently been used historically, including the sociological, ethical and philosophical aspects, or present a strong case as to why we should limit its definition to “that which deals purely with the supernatural”.

  2. stacy says

    I agree with James. We should remember, and occasionally mention, that we oppose supernaturalism and non-empirical faith-ism, rather than all possible forms of religion.

    That said, the reason such distinctions aren’t stressed more is that such rarefied forms of religion are, well, rare, and not problematic. I suspect that the adherents of elite, philosophical, non-supernatural claims-making Buddhism know we’re not talking about them when we criticize “religion”.

  3. says

    I think we either have to deal with the term “religion” in its full and broad meaning as it is most frequently used today and has frequently been used historically, including the sociological, ethical and philosophical aspects, or present a strong case as to why we should limit its definition to “that which deals purely with the supernatural”.

    I think the strong case is made in this statement right here. As far as I can tell, “religion . . . as it is most frequently used today” includes elements of the supernatural. The very idea that “religion” might not include the supernatural is something I’ve only recently encountered. Prior to that, whether in church, in the news, on TV, or anywhere else, every time I’ve encountered “religion” it has included the supernatural. You say there’s a strong strand of thought which “redefines religion as a sociological phenomenon quite apart from its supernatural content.” First, if it’s redefining it, then isn’t that deliberately taking it away from how it’s most frequently used? Second, is this strand of thought something that the average person in the pew is thinking of when they’re pondering their religion?

    Now, I do agree that religion has also frequently included studies of ethics, issues of philosophy, natural science, etc. Ethics I think has been a very pervasive topic in religion. Whether it’s done a good job is a different discussion entirely.

  4. says

    Oh, and yea. VERY flimsy piece. I kept waiting for an argument to be presented, and while there was one, it barely made an attempt to present itself.

  5. Richard Wein says

    The domain of religion is the interpretation of the desires of supernatural beings. It exists to answer the question “what do supernatural creatures want from us?”.

    This is far too simplistic. Religions don’t exist for any one purpose. People join and remain in religions for all sorts of complex reasons. Finding out what supernatural creatures want from us is just part of it, and probably a small part for many people. (In terms of moral values I think it’s more about getting approval for one’s existing values, rather than finding out what ones God wants us to have.)

    If you think that religion is an evolutionary adaptation you could say (at one level) that religion exists for whatever it evolved for. But that would have been some adaptive benefit like social cohesion. It certainly wouldn’t have evolved for finding out what supernatural creatures want from us.

    I often criticise accommodationists for their simplistic definitions. Let’s not go down that road ourselves.

  6. says

    Well sure it’s simplistic – it’s a brief comment on a blog post (albeit a blog attached to a major newspaper). But it’s a nice blunt pared-down way of looking at religion. Sure religion is other things too, but the interpretation of the desires of supernatural beings is what makes it so dangerous and often harmful.

  7. Your Name's not Bruce? says

    If one strips away or sequesters the “supernatural bits” of religion, then its arguments and claims can be examined on a strictly secular, level playing field. For example, I’ve yet to hear an argument against same sex marriage that doesn’t boil down to “My god does not like it; it says so in this book”.

  8. says

    As far as I can tell, “religion . . . as it is most frequently used today” includes elements of the supernatural.

    Sure, but saying “the term ‘religion’ most frequently includes elements of the supernatural” is quite different to saying “Religion is not the study of ethics, natural science, philosophy or astronomy and cannot generate informed hypotheses on these topics. The domain of religion is the interpretation of the desires of supernatural beings. It exists to answer the question “what do supernatural creatures want from us?”

    The point is that religion is not best understood as ONLY relating to supernatural issues. As the initial post suggests and Ophelia seemed to endorse.

  9. says

    @Your Name’s Not Bruce: regarding same-sex marriage arguments that don’t boil down “god doesn’t like it, says so in this book,” there are some that don’t boil down to that. They’re flimsy, but they are out there. Example: the primary purpose of marriage is procreation and child rearing, and gays can’t do that procreating thing. I’m sure you can spot multiple problems with that, but my point is that it doesn’t quite boil down to “god said so.” (Which reminds me, I need to continue that series of mine at my blog rebutting “secular” arguments against same-sex marriage. Been a while since I posted.)

    @James: if you limit it to “ONLY” relating to supernatural creatures and their desires, then you may be right. But as Ophelia says, the supernatural seems so extremely central to the term and practice of religion that removing the supernatural would make it, well, not religion. Looking at ethics, for example, the ethics of religion tend to boil down to “what do the supernatural entities want?” You can point out some of the other definitions of religion that you’ve shared with me in the past, but as I recall, they seemed to be so broad that even political parties would fall under that umbrella (sorry, I don’t have the discussion at my finger tips, and not all of the proposed definitions were from you; you, I think, were pointing out the redefining of “religion” so it could be understood sociologically).

  10. Rieux says

    James:

    Furthermore, there are a number of influential religions which are not supernaturalistic in nature. Certain forms of Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism qualify under such an understanding of “religion”, as does Ethical Culture.

    I for one would directly deny that Unitarian Universalism, Ethical Culture, and the “[c]ertain forms of Buddhism” referenced above are in fact religions (or religious) at all. I see no point in identifying anything that’s not directly connected to/founded upon supernaturalist belief as religion; certainly that is not the conception of “religion” that, as far as I can tell, any significant proportion of the English-speaking world holds.

    It seems to me that the very attempt to massage the definition of “religion” so that it encompasses naturalist (as opposed to supernaturalist) ideas and systems primarily serves to illegitimately protect religion from criticism; indeed, that seems very often to be the point. It’s a privileged power grab by the religion industry that allows them to pretend that no one has any business criticizing religion, because in their carefully chosen conception of the world, we’re all religious, so “you atheists are just pots calling the kettle black,” etc. It’s chaff that defenders of religion throw in the air to obstruct efforts to point out the severe problems with their own beliefs.

    Religion, as that word is broadly understood by English speakers, denotes something that happens to be a very bad idea, that humanity would be better off discarding, and that badly needs to be openly criticized. Religion as the ivory-tower academics and (many) UUs conceptualize it, meanwhile, is far more thorny and ambiguous—which makes it much more difficult to criticize. That’s not good for a species continually victimized by religion.

    I submit that effectively no one outside of (1) academic ivory towers and (2) the extreme left wing of self-styled religious institutions (e.g., UUism) understands “religion” to encompass non-supernaturalist belief systems or organizations. And I don’t see any point in trying to change that semantic/demographic fact.

    religion:

    1 a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
    b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.

    N-UNCOUNT
    Religion is belief in a god or gods. …Indian philosophy and religion.
    N-COUNT
    A religion is a particular set of beliefs in a god or gods and the activities connected with these beliefs. …the Christian religion.

    n. a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny
    n. an institution to express belief in a divine power

    1. [UNCOUNTABLE] the belief in the existence of a god or gods
    a. [COUNTABLE/UNCOUNTABLE] a system of beliefs in a god or gods that has its own ceremonies and traditions

    1a : the state of a religious
    b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

    1. Recognition of and allegiance in manner of life to a superhuman power or superhuman powers, to whom allegiance and service are regarded as justly due.

    the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or any such system of belief and worship

    belief in or worship of a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny

    [mass noun] the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power , especially a personal God or gods

    Religion is a set of beliefs about God or the supernatural.

  11. says

    I for one would directly deny that Unitarian Universalism, Ethical Culture, and the “[c]ertain forms of Buddhism” referenced above are in fact religions (or religious) at all. I see no point in identifying anything that’s not directly connected to/founded upon supernaturalist belief as religion; certainly that is not the conception of “religion” that, as far as I can tell, any significant proportion of the English-speaking world holds.

    In a certain sense, I am inclined to agree with you – it would be much easier if there weren’t non-supernaturalist religions out there. However, as a matter of fact, this is a difficult position to sustain given:

    1) The analysis of religion as a social phenomenon quite apart from any supernatural elements is not new but is one of the primary ways in which religion has been studied for a while now (at least since Durkheim). The hugely influential nature of this view – not just in academia but in the general social discourse about religion itself – makes it difficult to simply write this trend off.

    2)Buddhism, even non-supernatural forms of Buddhism, is considered a “religion” by its adherents and a very significant proportion of the English-speaking world.

    3) Humanist UUs, are considered “religions” and “religious” by their adherents and by a very significant proportion of the English-speaking world (of those who know about UUs). UUism is hardly a tiny phenomenon.

    4) The existence of Ethical Culture, which is by law and self-designation a religion (this fact has been established and reaffirmed by US law numerous times), and which is non-supernaturalistic, demonstrates that it is possible to build whole social movements out of non-supernatural forms of “religion”.

    Now, we can talk about what “religion” comes to mean in those situations, and we can bemoan the fact that it makes it difficult to mount simplistic critiques of religious practices and beliefs we object to, but I’m not sure we can, by fiat, simply ignore the absolute fact that non-supernaturalistic forms of what is considered by many to be “religion” do exist.

    I only push this because I think it undesirable to tell Ethical Culturists to their face that what they consider their religion they should not consider their religion because it gives us semantic problems. When they are the inheritors of possibly the most significant freethinking social movement ever it seems rather presumptuous.

  12. Rieux says

    In a certain sense, I am inclined to agree with you – it would be much easier if there weren’t non-supernaturalist religions out there.

    Well, that’s a cute way to smuggle in your question-begging—but given that you have not established, in either of your comments, that there are “non-supernaturalist religions out there,” I’m afraid your assertion remains empty.

    1) The analysis of religion as a social phenomenon quite apart from any supernatural elements is not new but is one of the primary ways in which religion has been studied for a while now (at least since Durkheim).

    Which is why I specifically referenced the academic ivory tower as one of the few bastions of the fringe notion that religion can exist without supernaturalism. And it’s not hard to understand why: the denuded conceptions of religion common to the Durkheims and Deweys radically expand the alleged relevance of the academic study of religion. Rather than restricting themselves to the actual elements of human thought that are religious—that is, supernaturalism—an academic pushing an overly broad conception of “religion” can conceivably claim jurisdiction over all of human endeavor. And plenty do. That doesn’t make their power grab legitimate.

    Moreover, it is certainly not the case that religious academia uniformly pretends that “religion” has any non-supernaturalist referent. Hector Avalos and Stewart Guthrie, to name two, define religion in terms that specifically recognize the necessary supernaturalist element of anything that deserves the title. If you’re going to push this Argument from Authority, it’s worth noting that the Authorities do not line up unanimously on your side.

    The hugely influential nature of this view – not just in academia but in the general social discourse about religion itself….

    Oh, really? Let’s see it. Let’s see this “general social discourse about religion” that demonstrates any broad notion that religion can exist without supernaturalism. (Funny, then, that all of the dictionary definitions I could find focus precisely on gods and similar ideas.)

    – makes it difficult to simply write this trend off.

    The point is not to “write” it “off”; it’s just to recognize that academics pushing broad conceptions of religion have an obvious conflict of interest. The niche concept that said academics (and UUs and Ethical Culturists) push certainly exists, but it’s only held by a tiny proportion of speakers of our language, and it’s underwritten by nothing but religious privilege. The question isn’t why it should be rejected, but why it should be taken seriously—why it should be seen as anything but a fringe concept that isn’t held by nearly anyone.

    2)Buddhism, even non-supernatural forms of Buddhism, is considered a “religion” by its adherents….

    Really? Do you have evidence of that? I wasn’t aware that there was even a direct counterpart for the (European) concept of “religion” in any Asian language.

    Then, of course, there’s the inconvenient fact that a huge proportion of Buddhists in the world are supernaturalists. Most of the world’s Buddhism is religious, and it’s an unfortunate but perhaps inevitable product of ignorance and confusion that an English-speaking public that knows little-to-nothing about Buddhism grafts the poor-fitting concept of religion onto the Buddhism entire.

    …and a very significant proportion of the English-speaking world.

    Obviously, “a very significant proportion of the English-speaking world” doesn’t know beans about Buddhism.

    3) Humanist UUs, are considered “religions” and “religious” by their adherents….

    I can tell you from firsthand experience that that’s nonsense. I was a Humanist UU who considered myself non-religious, and there were (and are) many, many others like me. Self-styled “religious humanists” certainly exist both inside and outside UUism, but your notion that UU Humanists uniformly consider themselves religious is simply false.

    Your phrase “their adherents” is ambiguous; do you mean “they” as in UUs in general? If so, you’re more substantially correct, in that the niche overbroad conception of “religion” is the closest thing modern UUism has to a dogma. But:

    UUism is hardly a tiny phenomenon.

    Wow, does your Boston myopia ever show. UUism is a minuscule phenomenon: UUA congregations nationwide total fewer than 250,000 members; survey estimates suggest that there are 3-4 hundred thousand more who consider themselves adherents but haven’t registered with a congregation. By contrast, there are somewhere north of 30 million nonbelievers in gods. (And several million Buddhists… none of these three categories, of course, being entirely distinct from the others.)

    ….and by a very significant proportion of the English-speaking world (of those who know about UUs).

    Are you joking? Anyone who’s been a UU can tell you that the “English-speaking world” in general doesn’t have the slightest clue “about UUs.” To the extent that people have even heard of Unitarian Universalism, misconceptions about it run rampant. As such, treatment of UUism provides no evidence for your argument at all.

    4) The existence of Ethical Culture which is….

    …which is no different from UUism in any relevant respect, for the purposes of this discussion. It’s extremely small, it’s way out on the fringe of the left wing of self-styled religion, and nearly no one in the English-speaking world has any idea that it exists. Our society’s overwhelming religious privilege leads Ethical Culturists, just like UUs, to declare themselves religious, just as numerous other kinds of minorities try to “pass” as members of the privileged majority in order to receive the preferential treatment that the majority gets. That doesn’t make it so, and (perhaps more to the point) doesn’t imply that anyone else agrees with them, or even cares.

    There’s also the problem that Felix Adler himself argued that “Ethical Culture is religious to those who are religiously minded, and merely ethical to those who are not so minded.” Which rather implies that he understood religion is just the same way that the vast majority of English speakers do. It’s a little sad that modern EC has left that approach behind to throw its lot in with religion.

    Now, we can talk about what “religion” comes to mean in those situations, and we can bemoan the fact that it makes it difficult to mount simplistic critiques of religious practices and beliefs we object to….

    You can kindly stick the adjective “simplistic” up your ass. It is very much the matter in question whether a supernaturalism-centered critique of religion is “simplistic” or rather merely accurate—or, on the other side of the coin, whether an account of religion that contends that it (to pick one typically silly UU model) “is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die” makes the slightest sense. I’ll see your “simplistic” and raise you an “imperialistic,” an “arrogant,” a “presumptuous” and an “absurd.”

    ….but I’m not sure we can, by fiat, simply ignore the absolute fact that non-supernaturalistic forms of what is considered by many to be “religion” do exist.

    What is an “absolute fact” is that non-supernaturalist beliefs systems exist. That there is any legitimate basis to call those systems religions is not an “absolute fact”; indeed, you have provided no such basis whatsoever.

    I only push this because I think it undesirable to tell Ethical Culturists to their face that what they consider their religion they should not consider their religion because it gives us semantic problems.

    Religious privilege is not a “semantic problem.” The power that overbroad conceptions of “religion” grant to the atheophobic majority to marginalize, pathologize, and dehumanize irreligious people is not a “semantic problem.” The obstruction that such conceptions present to attempts to show the deep and systemic flaws with religion is not a “semantic problem.” These are social and political problems—big ones—, and the idiosyncratic semantic preferences of a few thousand UUs and Ethical Culturists don’t seem terribly moving by contrast.

    Ethical Culturists can call Ethical Culture a “dog,” a “chair,” or a “1961 Ferrari 250 GT California,” for all I care. They’re entitled to all the in-group lingo they’d like; UUs certainly have plenty of that. But the English language does not belong to them alone, and their pretense that a particular word they like means something that it never meant until some rather potent privilege got at it does not change what any of those words—”dog,” “chair,” or “religion”—actually mean.

    When they are the inheritors of possibly the most significant freethinking social movement ever it seems rather presumptuous.

    Ha! Tell that to Adler!

    But what nonsense. What’s presumptuous is the very language-twisting you are defending here; “religion” never included non-supernaturalist notions until wacky left-wing religious types and academics tried to drag it that way—on obviously religious-privileged grounds—for their own local purposes. And like so much of liberal religion, the end result is that dissenters from religion and critics of religion get baited and silenced. It’s nonsense, and it’s entirely without justification.

    Is secular humanism a religion? Those who maintain that it is religious wish to go through libraries and universities and burn books by secular humanists; this would literally empty the Academy. No, secular humanism is not a religion. For something to be a religion means that its adherents are bound to it, that they have a faith in some unseen power, creator, or cause, and that they have some notion of prayer, devotion, and ritual toward this power, creator, or cause. Secular humanists deny the existence of such a creator and surely are not interested in prayer or devotion to such a being. To say that secular humanism is a religion is to use the term religion so broadly that it means anything. Is feminism a religion? Are we devoted to it? Is communism a religion? Is libertarianism a religion? Libertarians are devoted to the free market and actively support it. Is vegetarianism a religion? It seems to me if we were to use the term religion in that way, its definition becomes so wide that it applies to everything. If you’re a devout pinochle player, if your whole life is spent playing pinochle, are you religious in that sense? By such a definition, religion applies to everything and to nothing. It’s a misuse of the language, and it makes no sense.

    – Paul Kurtz, “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?”

  13. Rieux says

    Quick clarification—I wrote:

    By contrast, there are somewhere north of 30 million nonbelievers in gods. (And several million Buddhists….)

    Both of those numbers are U.S.-specific, as I intended but neglected to mention. There are far more in each category worldwide.

  14. Tim Harris says

    Well done, Rieux. I suggest that James Croft should read some more recent students of religion, such as Pascal Boyer, Harvey Whitehouse and David Lewis-Williams, instead of spending time in the past with Durkheim, Mauss et al (who are of course well worth reading – and if Croft does so like the past then he might care to look at Evans-Pritchard’s studies of Nuer religion and witchcraft and magic among the Azande and his small book about religion). In addition, the original commenter was quite right in saying that religion is not ‘the study of’ (amog other things) ‘ethics’ (which is not to say that religion has nothing to do with ethics – although much of monotheistic religion is concerned less with any searching discussion of ethical difficulties – that has chiefly been the Greek, the Buddhist and the Chinese contribution – than with laying down rules that are asserted to be divine and therefore to be obeyed).

  15. says

    Hah! I enjoyed your response very much, Rieux. Well-argued. I only want to point out that I am not defending the redefinition of religion so much as pointing out that it exists and needs to be contended with when one makes claims about what the proper domain of religion is. One of the primary reasons I am not an Ethical Culturist myself is because I do not feel it useful to engage in the reclamation of the term “religion” to describe one’s worldview. At the same time, I do not find it completely nonsensical. I find the idea that the term “religion” might better be used to describe a certain form of social granita ton with particular goals to be not entirely ridiculous – at least in some contexts I think such a view has value (it makes comparative study of very different religions reveal similarities that otherwise might be obscured by focussing merely on beliefs, for example).

    But we’ve moved into discussing more than the definition of the term “religion” – you’ve raised the very interesting question of the power and privilege associated with the term, and whether redefining it might be illegitimate for optical and social reasons rather than just intellectual ones. I’m not sure I take your position yet, but I do find the concerns you raise compelling. I can’t help thinking of concrete examples of the ECs I know.

    When Dr. Joseph Chuman, for instance, talks about Ethical Culture as his religion, and explains what the word means to him in that context, I do not find his description convincing to the degree that I would take on that terminology myself, but I do not find it so senseless that I feel he is doing damage to the language. Nor do I feel he is doing something ethically suspect, in terms of gathering a certain set of privileges to himself or something. Rather, I think he is trying it describe his commitment to his worldview best he can using the terms he thinks most appropriate.

    Even though I respect the passion in you response, and certainly would not want the broadening of the definition of religion to do damage to secular causes (I am not actually convinced that it does do so – I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this actually), I don’t see that your argument should move me to condemn their choices. I can say, I think, “I do not use the term “religion” in that way, and I think there are better ways to describe what you are talking about, but I understand what you mean when you say it.”

    I suppose what I’m saying is that I would have to be more convinced that such redifinitions do concrete harm to us to be more fired-up about this issue. I am certainly open to being convinced, and you are doing a good job in making me rethink the question.

  16. Rieux says

    James:

    I only want to point out that I am not defending the redefinition of religion so much as pointing out that it exists and needs to be contended with when one makes claims about what the proper domain of religion is.

    Okay. Yes, overbroad fringe conceptions of religion definitely do exist. I spent my seven years in UUism trying not to drown in them.

    I think any assertion that they should be treated as anything but fringe conceptions demands support, though. (And I should add that fringe perspectives on more or less anything are not, by mere virtue of their fringe status, false or illegitimate. They do require some kind of reasoned advocacy, as opposed to bald assertion, though.)

    One of the primary reasons I am not an Ethical Culturist myself is because I do not feel it useful to engage in the reclamation of the term “religion” to describe one’s worldview.

    Gee—that’s certainly not what I took your previous comments to imply. But okay.

    I find the idea that the term “religion” might better be used to describe a certain form of social granita ton with particular goals to be not entirely ridiculous – at least in some contexts I think such a view has value (it makes comparative study of very different religions reveal similarities that otherwise might be obscured by focussing merely on beliefs, for example).

    “Granita ton” = “organization,” correct? (Not a criticism—my comment above is loaded with embarrassing typos, and presumably this one will be as well. And I don’t even have the phone excuse.)

    That seems to me a more respectable point than the ones in your previous comments, but I don’t think it gets you to your (previous) conclusion. Surely anthropologists, sociologists, and those of us performing the amateur armchair versions of their work can make constructive comparisons between aspects of (say) Hinduism and aspects of (say) Lady Gaga fandom without pretending that the two phenomena are equivalent. I don’t see how declaring Ethical Culture (or whatever) a religion is necessary to draw fruitful parallels between it and Quakerism (or whatever). (FWIW, Paul Kurtz proposed the term “eupraxophy,” later re-spelled “eupraxsophy,” as an umbrella term encompassing both religions and non-supernaturalist belief systems, plus the human organizations connected to each. The word hasn’t caught on, to put it mildly, but the general idea seems worthwhile to me.)

    Academics of a certain bent seem to me to be overly eager to pretend that functional similarities imply absolute congruence. Which is silly: there are fairly extensive parallels between, say, American football and war, but that doesn’t imply that they are the same thing. There are major differences between religion-as-broadly-defined on the one hand and, say, secular humanism on the other. Those differences, moreover, are extremely relevant to the gnu atheist (not to mention secular humanist) critique of religion. And that makes the definition of religion no minor issue, as I think plenty of interested parties (such as Kurtz and Richard Dawkins) recognize.

    But we’ve moved into discussing more than the definition of the term “religion” – you’ve raised the very interesting question of the power and privilege associated with the term, and whether redefining it might be illegitimate for optical and social reasons rather than just intellectual ones.

    I’m not sure that I agree with (or perhaps just entirely understand) what you mean by “optical,” but otherwise I think that’s fair. When we’re talking about some very consequential social discourse, semantic issues can have far-reaching political consequences. I’d say the reasons I’ve stated are, in some cases, “just intellectual,” but in other cases (probably the ones I feel most strongly about) they do very much, as you say, involve “power and privilege … and social reasons.”

    I do not find [Chuman's] description convincing to the degree that I would take on that terminology myself, but I do not find it so senseless that I feel he is doing damage to the language.

    Insofar as we’re just talking about in-group lingo, sure, fine; I didn’t spend my time as a UU trying to convince my co-parishioners that their semantics were full of shit. (I had a tough enough time convincing them that mine didn’t make me an ignorant dupe of “fundamentalists,” who apparently are the only people in the world who define religion so “narrowly,” believe in personal deities, think that Jesus died for their sins and thus will allow believers to go to heaven, etc.)

    I don’t really mind the fringe notions we’re talking about as long as they’re not hampering open critique of religious ideas. But all too often they do just that, such as in this passage from my least favorite “classic introduction to Unitarian Universalism,” the infamous A Chosen Faith:

    [After a negative description of “One True Religion” exclusivist theologies:]

    One impartial response to this war of conflicting convictions is to reject religion, to distance ourselves from those who attempt, always imperfectly, to interpret the cosmic runes and gauge their responses accordingly. There are two problems with this approach. One is that such rejection deprives us of a potentially deep encounter with the mysterious forces that impel our being and the opportunity to illuminate, if but partially, its meaning. The second is that none of us is able to resist interpreting the cosmic runes. Consequently, not only the world’s religions, but every ideology, every scientific worldview, every aesthetic school, has its windows in the cathedral of the world. In each the light and darkness mingle in ways that suggest meaning for those whose angle of vision is tilted in that particular direction.

    You can read my criticism of that passage (and 38 others from the book) at the link above, but the very short version is that the author, UU Rev. Forrest Church, is making use of his extremely broad conception of “religion” to disingenuously dismiss the “reject[ion of] religion” in the first quoted sentence above. Whatever problems there are with rejecting religion, the fact that everyone inevitably “interpret[s] the cosmic runes”—i.e., finds meaning and purpose in life—is not one of them. That’s just the old “Nyaah nyaah, you do X, and I consider X a kind of religion, therefore you have no business attacking religion” stupidity I mentioned in my first comment on this thread.

    Nor do I feel [Chuman] is doing something ethically suspect, in terms of gathering a certain set of privileges to himself or something.

    Consciously I presume not, but to the extent he’s overtly advocating this in public discourse, he is strengthening religious power, while simultaneously gaining the benefits of religious privilege (at least from anyone who (1) accepts/supports such privilege and (2) is willing to buy Chuman’s case that he’s religious).

    As I said, he’s trying to pass; passing isn’t inherently unethical, but it has some obvious pernicious consequences.

    I can say, I think, “I do not use the term “religion” in that way, and I think there are better ways to describe what you are talking about, but I understand what you mean when you say it.”

    That is what I said to my fellow UUs. I was a stung that, on prominent occasions, they didn’t return the favor. (Oh, wow—get a load of the Post article that instigated that discussion. This whole topic is starting to resemble a big ol’ boomerang.)

    I suppose what I’m saying is that I would have to be more convinced that such redifinitions do concrete harm to us to be more fired-up about this issue.

    Well, I’m not sure that I need or expect you to be “more fired-up” on this issue—but is it not enough to see how overbroad conceptions of religion serve to obstruct, bait, and/or suffocate criticism of religion?

  17. Rieux says

    Oh, and just out of interest, where do you get your figures regarding the number of no believers in gods in the USA?

    What I said was that “there are somewhere north of 30 million nonbelievers in gods” in the U.S.; that’s a ballpark figure from Pew and ARIS 2008.

    Pew found that 4.0% of Americans are self-declared atheists or agnostics, and 6.3% more are “secular unaffiliated.” 10.3% x 312 million Americans = “somewhere north of 30 million.”

    ARIS found that “roughly 12% of Americans are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unknowable or unsure),” though only 1.6% answered the basic ARIS question, “What is your religion, if any?”, with the words “atheist” or “agnostic.” (Gee, I wonder what could possibly lead an “out” atheist to decide not to answer that particular question that way…?)

  18. says

    Those figures are very high in comparison to more recent ones which ask not detailed questions, which is why I ask. I think you’ll find that a majority of the “secular unaffiliated” probably believe in god, for example. But you’re right in that I also suspect that people underreport their lack of belief. You do know that lots of my/our work at the Chaplaincy is about tackling that issue, right?

  19. Rieux says

    Those figures are very high in comparison to more recent ones which ask not detailed questions, which is why I ask.

    “Not”? Is that an AutoCorrect twisting of “more”?

    As far as I can tell, the finding of both of those studies that 10-12% of Americans don’t believe in god(s) is not an outlier.

    I think you’ll find that a majority of the “secular unaffiliated” probably believe in god, for example.

    Well, gee—that drags us straight back into the previous discussion we were having. (Why would theists identify themselves as both “unaffiliated” and “secular,” when such options as “religious unaffiliated” are available? Perhaps more importantly, would the number of “secular unaffiliated” theists really be greater than the number of nonbelievers in deities who nonetheless identify themselves on surveys like that one as Catholics, Jews, Methodists (UUs, Quakers), etc.?)

    Finally, I’d just point at the ARIS data again, which show more American nontheists than the total of Pew atheists + agnostics + “secular unaffiliated.”

    But you’re right in that I also suspect that people underreport their lack of belief. You do know that lots of my/our work at the Chaplaincy is about tackling that issue, right?

    I did not know that. Sounds cool, even though I’m one of those non-fans of the “Chaplaincy” terminology.

  20. Rieux says

    Hey, wait—last night I posted a (typically lengthy) comment responding to James’ #17, immediately prior to my short bit about poll numbers that’s currently slotted at #20. The lengthy one did have three hyperlinks in it, which leads me to believe that—O woe—the dreaded B&W Spam Filter has gotten me again.

    Well, eventually lurkers (and James) will be able to read that one. Hmph.

  21. says

    Why would theists identify themselves as both “unaffiliated” and “secular,” when such options as “religious unaffiliated” are available?

    I guess because “secular” means “not religious” and they want to say they are not affiliated with any religion, though they may well believe in God (which in their mind, doesn’t make them religious, just believing). But parsing these data is notoriously difficult! Thank you for the links – I love reading this sort of thing, and I look forward to whatever post has been eaten by the filter!

    Incidentally, I think that the fact that many people seem to be happy to call themselves “non-religious” and still say they believe in God or other supernatural concepts demonstrates that the relationship between religion and supernaturalism is not necessarily as close as it may have been in the past. Although Rieux’s responses have (usefully) reminded me not to assume that Cambridge, and Harnvard in particular, is equivalent to the world. The fact I need to be constantly reminded of this says something about my own self-centeredness ;).

  22. Rieux says

    James @25:

    I guess because “secular” means “not religious” and they want to say they are not affiliated with any religion….

    I’m not convinced that that would apply to a meaningful number of theists—but regardless, I refer you to my subsequent points @23 about
    (1) nontheists who tell Pew that they’re Catholic/Jewish/etc. and (2) the complementary ARIS results.

    Incidentally, I think that the fact that many people seem to be happy to call themselves “non-religious” and still say they believe in God or other supernatural concepts demonstrates that the relationship between religion and supernaturalism is not necessarily as close as it may have been in the past.

    I suppose that’s one potential reading. However, I do think that the main disagreement among the common conceptions of “religion” is not anything about supernaturalism (which, as I’ve maintained here, is very widely presumed) but rather about various other qualities. Note, for example, the definition that Paul Kurtz offers in the passage I quoted from him @13: by his account, (a) a supernatural “power, creator, or cause” is a necessary element of religion, but so are (b) having “adherents [be] bound to” the belief system and (c) “hav[ing] some notion of prayer, devotion, and ritual toward th[e] power, creator, or cause.”

    I suspect not many English speakers outside of academia would be able to come up with such a formal definition, but the notion that elements such as (b) and (c) are necessary for something to be “religion” seems to me to have a fair amount of demographic breadth. Which is one reason, I think, you get people declaring that they’re “not religious but spiritual,” and so forth. To many, “religion” implies some level of tradition, organization, and/or ritual, as well as supernaturalist belief.

    Myself, I think supernaturalism is quite sufficient (as well as necessary) for “religious” status, but I’m less interested in pursuing the point, largely because I don’t think that particular dispute gets in the way of the needful exercise of criticizing religion. At worst, it could lead some folks to think that attacks on “religion” don’t implicate their, say, “spiritual” beliefs… when they actually do. Not a big deal, IMO.

    But parsing these data is notoriously difficult!

    Well, yes. I recall reading somewhere (it was at Jerry Coyne’s blog, I think) about a poll that found that some crazy percentage of self-described atheists (30%? it was something big, anyway) said they believed in God. Which is a bit difficult to understand.

  23. Godless Heathen says

    I don’t understand the whole idea that many religious people don’t believe in god or other supernatural things. In my experience, the vast majority of ordinary folk who consider themselves religious hold one or more supernatural beliefs.

    Additionally, I think that if one considers religion a sociological phenomenon, that implies that it can be studied from a sociological perspective. It has little to do with what the people involved in religion believe.

    Unless there’s another definition of sociology that I’m unaware of because I’m not in academia. Which is entirely possible, it’s just not something that I’ve ever encountered before.

  24. says

    @Godless Heathen:

    Additionally, I think that if one considers religion a sociological phenomenon, that implies that it can be studied from a sociological perspective. It has little to do with what the people involved in religion believe.

    I’m not entirely sure if you meant this as criticism or not, but on the chance that you did: I don’t like the overly broad definitions that James has mentioned being used to study religion as a sociological phenomenon, but I still think that it *can* be studied, and have no problem with it being studied as such. It probably should be, in fact. I see no reason it can’t be studied with little reference to individual beliefs. We can study corporations, or team sports, with little reference to the specific industries or particular games involved, while still managing to gain insight.

  25. Rieux says

    @31-33: yeah, no argument here.

    GH @31 more specifically:

    I think that if one considers religion a sociological phenomenon, that implies that it can be studied from a sociological perspective. It has little to do with what the people involved in religion believe.

    Unless there’s another definition of sociology that I’m unaware of because I’m not in academia.

    As far as I can tell from (1) the single (Introduction to) Religion course I took in college and (2) my then-Significant Other who was a religion major, academic departments of religion commonly consider it their bailiwick to mount what looks to me very much like a sociological study of religion, though I don’t remember the word “sociology” ever coming up. And it’s in that context in which said academics commonly (though not always) assert some very broad conceptions of what “religion” is.

    FWIW, here’s an ordinary course catalog listing for a particular undergraduate course (though not the one I took) in a random Liberal Arts college’s religion department:

    The Nature of Religion: Theories and Methods in Religious Studies. What does religious studies study? How do its investigations proceed? Can a religion only be truly understood from within, by those who share its beliefs and values? Or, on the contrary, is only the person who stands “outside” religion equipped to study and truly understand it? Is there a generic “something” that we can properly call “religion” at all, or is the concept of religion, which emerged from European Enlightenment, inapplicable to other cultural contexts? This course will explore several of the most influential efforts to develop theories of religion and methods for its study. We will consider psychological, sociological, anthropological, and phenomenological theories of religion, along with recent challenges to such theories from thinkers associated with feminist, post-modern and post-colonial perspectives.

    (Hey, there’s a little clause in the middle of the above that I could have used against James earlier. D’oh—missed it. And FWIW, “sociology” is in there.)

    Along much the same lines as GH’s, Nathan’s, and Ophelia’s comments, I don’t object to a religion department considering the kind of material described above to be part of its legitimate jurisdiction. There are some particular “theories of religion” that seem to me unfounded and/or pernicious, but the whole enterprise of studying them (as “religious studies”) certainly isn’t per se illegitimate.

  26. says

    Rieux, what do you think of this, from Fred Edwords, a Humanist philosopher and activist?

    “…the true substance of religion is the role it plays in the lives of individuals and the life of the community. Doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, and new doctrines may replace old ones, but the purpose religion serves for people remains the same. If we define the substance of a thing as that which is most lasting and universal, then the function of religion is the core of it.”

  27. says

    Ive been meaning to read this and just never got a chance. Its an issue that Im very interested in, I just started reading and Im glad I did. Youre a fantastic blogger, 1 of the finest that Ive seen. This weblog certainly has some details on topic that I just wasnt aware of. Thanks for bringing this stuff to light.

  28. Rieux says

    James—sure, I know Edwords; I’ve met him a few times, and he’s a good guy and worthy advocate for Humanism.

    Moreover, I know well the essay you’re quoting; it’s “What is Humanism?”, which I suspect is Edwords’ most famous work. I’ve had that one saved on my hard drive for many years, since I first read it on the Secular Web in the late ’90s. It’s very good, notwithstanding my disagreement on this particular point.

    In fact, it’s the treatment of the meaning of “religion” in “What is Humanism?” that I had most in mind when I wrote this paragraph (especially the first 2-3 sentences thereof) upthread:

    Academics of a certain bent seem to me to be overly eager to pretend that functional similarities imply absolute congruence. Which is silly: there are fairly extensive parallels between, say, American football and war, but that doesn’t imply that they are the same thing. There are major differences between religion-as-broadly-defined on the one hand and, say, secular humanism on the other. Those differences, moreover, are extremely relevant to the gnu atheist (not to mention secular humanist) critique of religion. And that makes the definition of religion no minor issue, as I think plenty of interested parties (such as Kurtz and Richard Dawkins) recognize.

    The “overly eager” thing above applies to the work of lots of different people, but it was the following passage from “WIH?”—which ends with the snippet you quoted!—that I had most directly in mind:

    The definition of religion used by Religious Humanists is a functional one. Religion is that which serves the personal and social needs of a group of people sharing the same philosophical world view.

    To serve personal needs, Religious Humanism offers a basis for moral values, an inspiring set of ideals, methods for dealing with life’s harsher realities, a rationale for living life joyously, and an overall sense of purpose.

    To serve social needs, Humanist religious communities (such as Ethical Culture societies and many Unitarian-Universalist churches) offer a sense of belonging, an institutional setting for the moral education of children, special holidays shared with like-minded people, a unique ceremonial life, the performance of ideologically consistent rites of passage (weddings, child welcomings, coming-of-age celebrations, funerals, and so forth), an opportunity for affirmation of one’s philosophy of life, and a historical context for one’s ideas.

    Religious Humanists maintain that most human beings have personal and social needs that can only be met by religion (taken in the functional sense I just detailed). They do not feel that one should have to make a choice between meeting these needs in a traditional faith context versus not meeting them at all. Individuals who cannot feel at home in traditional religion should be able to find a home in non-traditional religion.

    I was once asked by a reporter if this functional definition of religion didn’t amount to taking away the substance and leaving only the superficial trappings. My answer was that the true substance of religion is the role it plays in the lives of individuals and the life of the community. Doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, and new doctrines may replace old ones, but the purpose religion serves for PEOPLE remains the same. If we define the substance of a thing as that which is most lasting and universal, then the function of religion is the core of it.

    I flatly disagree that the relevant content of religion (or any other belief system) is its function; that way lies the madness of considering baseball or Keynesian economic theory or (guh) atheism a religion—and, as I’ve pointed out above, that way lies the smothering of any serious critique of religion and the damage it does to humanity. “The true substance” of a belief system is its content, not its function.

    Several years ago Free Inquiry published one or two opinion pieces taking Edwords and “WIH?” to task on much these same grounds: the one I remember reading that I can find (though only in part) online right now is “‘Religious humanism’ and the dangers of semantic distortion,” by Frank L. Pasquale, from the Fall 2002 Free Inquiry. (The only site I can find that might have the entire article for free is scribd, which is an evil website that invariably crashes my computer. So no link.)

    I think Pasquale’s criticisms are cogent, though I think his suggestion that we create new categories of Humanism for folks like Edwords called things like “Inspiral Humanism” is pretty lame. Then again, I feel the same way about “religious humanism.”

    Actually, though, I think Edwords himself does a much-better-than-average job of explaining the grounds on which plenty of us disagree with him… which is a big reason I like Edwords notwithstanding my disagreement. From later on in “WIH?”, we get:

    Now, while Secular Humanists may agree with much of what religious Humanists do, they deny that this activity is properly called “religious.” This isn’t a mere semantic debate. Secular Humanists maintain that there is so much in religion deserving of criticism that the good name of Humanism should not be tainted by connection with it.

    I think the more precise point at the end there is that the bad name of religion should not be burnished by connection with Humanism or any other reasonable and naturalistic belief system, but it does appear that Edwords understands the general concern. And what follows the above is several paragraphs of very positive commentary on Secular Humanism, so it’s hard for me to be terribly sore at the guy.

    Anyway. I’m entirely confident that Edwords has his heart in the right place with regard to effectively all of this. Nevertheless, lumping rational and naturalistic belief systems in with religion, not to mention the rationale Edwords (among others, including a mess of UUs) provide for doing so, substantially strengthens religion’s claim to power and deference in social discourse. It’s a big shot-in-the-arm for religious privilege, and therefore for the marginalization of anyone who maintains that (s)he’s not religious, especially if (s)he holds and defends that position strongly. The end result of Edwords’ definition is an “all your base are belong to us” moment (or, if you prefer, a “resistance is futile; you will be assimilated” moment) for the sneering salesmen of religion… such as the one quoted below. That’s very much not in atheists’ or Secular Humanists’ interest.

    “I’m not religious,” people sometimes claim. “Then tell me about your experience,” I say in return. We may not be conventionally pious, but we all experience life, and there are religious dimensions to explore within that experience.

    I make the same point to those who tell me, “I don’t believe in God.” “Tell me about the God that you don’t believe in,” I often reply. “The chances are that I don’t believe in ‘Him’ either.” I believe, as Dag Hammarskjöld did, that “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity. But we die on the day when our lives cease to be illuminated by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

    – UU Rev. John A. Buehrens (UU national Association president 1993-2001), in “the classic introduction to Unitarian Universalism,” A Chosen Faith (1998)

  29. Godless Heathen says

    @NathanDST-

    Yep, what you said is what I was trying to say. Religion can definitely be studied in the same way any other organization or group of people can be studied.

    BUT it’s much easier to study it that way in a discipline outside of theology.

    Although…

    @Rieux-I took two class in my religious studies department during college, one on the Hebrew Bible and the other on the Christians Scriptures (aka the old and new testaments). Anyway, after taking those classes, I couldn’t understand how anybody could still believe in god, supernatural phenomena, or religion. The bible was written by various people at various times, it contradicts itself, etc. How can someone continue to believe after studying that?

    Anyway, I’m a big fan of sociology (almost majored in it, but went for psych instead) and I think it’s fascinating to study religion from that view point.

    However, I don’t think that’s how most believers/participants in religion experience it. For them, it’s very heavy on supernaturalism and believing things from a book that they don’t know the origin of (and presumably believe comes from god).

    I don’t know if this makes sense… I have a cold and it’s too early to be up on a Saturday morning.

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