I’ve been thinking, for no particular reason, about an argument that sometimes gets made about religion: by believers, and occasionally by atheists. It goes roughly like this:
“Religion isn’t defined by belief in the supernatural. It’s about so much more than that: community, history, philosophy, music. So it’s unfair to criticize the institution of religion solely by criticizing supernatural beliefs.”
Believer Be Scofield made this argument a while back, somewhat crudely, when he chided me for having “myths” about religion… one of those “myths” being that religion is a belief in the supernatural. Atheist Daniel Fincke made a more nuanced version of a similar argument, when he discussed what would be left of religion if the belief in the supernatural were removed (“potentially a lot”).
I was thinking about this recently, and an analogy popped into my head.
Certainly that’s an accurate description. Baseball certainly is an event at which people eat hot dogs, drink beer, and sing the National Anthem. (At least in the United States: I don’t know what the baseball culinary and musical traditions are in, say, Japan or Central America.) In fact, I’ll go further than that: In the U.S. at least, hot dogs and beer and the National Anthem are closely intertwined with baseball, to the point where each often evokes thoughts about the other, and each tradition has influenced the other in a symbiotic way.
But “hot dogs/ beer/ National Anthem” are not the unique defining characteristics of baseball. Hot dogs, beer, and the National Anthem are consumed/ sung at other events, separately and together. If you were at a Fourth of July picnic at which hot dogs were eaten, beer was drunk, and the National Anthem was sung, you wouldn’t call it a baseball game. It might evoke memories about baseball, or musings about it. Those memories and musings might even inspire picnickers to start a game. But it wouldn’t define the picnic as a baseball game.
And conversely: If a baseball game were played at which no hot dogs were eaten, no beer was drunk, and no National Anthem was sung, it would still be a baseball game. You might think it wasn’t a very fun baseball game; you might even make a joke about how “This isn’t a proper baseball game — there’s no hot dogs or beer or National Anthem!” But in a non-joking context — if you were asked, say, to testify in court about whether you were at a baseball game that day — you would acknowledge that yes, it was a baseball game. Even with its shocking lack of hot dogs and beer and National Anthems.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Yes, religions are commonly associated with community, history, philosophy, music. These things are closely intertwined, and have been for many centuries — to the point where each often evokes thoughts about the other, and each tradition has influenced the other in a symbiotic way. But they aren’t defined by the other. Religion is not uniquely defined as an institution with community, history, philosophy, and music. Many institutions exist with community, history, philosophy, and music, without being religious. And if you come up with a belief system about a supernatural world all by yourself in your apartment, with no community or history or philosophy or music, it would still be a religion.
Baseball is not defined as an event at which people eat hot dogs, drink beer, and sing the National Anthem. That’s not what makes baseball unique. That’s not what makes it baseball. Baseball is defined as a sporting event with certain specific rules, with a pitcher and batters and three strikes and home runs and so on. And religion is not defined as an institution with community, history, philosophy, and music. That’s not what makes religion unique. That’s not what makes it religion. Religion, for the overwhelming majority of people who believe in it, means a belief in supernatural entities or forces with some effect on the natural world.
So if you like hot dogs and beer and National Anthems, but you think baseball is the most tedious sport on earth, you don’t have to go to a baseball game. You can go to picnics, or organize your own “hot dog/ beer/ National Anthem” parties. You can even criticize baseball publicly. Your criticism would generally be seen as a criticism of the game… not as an unfair attack on the fine traditions of hot dogs, beer, and National Anthems.
And if you like community and history and philosophy and music — and heck, who doesn’t — but you think religion is false at best and toxic at worst? You don’t have to join a religion. You can participate in other kinds of communities, or start your own. You can even criticize religion publicly. And it is entirely fair to criticize the institution of religion solely by criticizing supernatural beliefs. That’s what “religion” means. And when believers try to defend religion by saying, “Religion doesn’t mean supernatural beliefs!”, it makes me think that they know, on some level, that the supernatural beliefs are indefensible.
UPDATE: Comment from Nathair that, if you don’t mind my saying so, hit it out of the park:
But you forgot the part about how baseball is therefore responsible for hot dogs, beer, and national anthems and by logical extension responsible for all food, drink and music. Plus, lest we forget, baseball has rules so clearly it’s the basis for all of our laws too.