Suppose for the sake of argument that the general category of “religion” did not exist, and the beliefs and activities which comprise religion were considered in isolation rather than within the framework of religion. Imagine that these aspects of religion had to be described in terms other than “religious”. Without making use of the distinction between religion and that which is not religion, how might we instead distinguish beliefs currently classified as religious?
Most obviously, almost all such beliefs pertain to the existence and nature of proposed supernatural entities, such as deities, spirits, souls, blessings, curses, and afterlives. These beliefs also tend to make various statements about the origins of humanity, our purpose in the world, and the general meaning of life. They frequently feature the claim that certain texts are of a divine origin and possibly free of any errors. They often allege that there are laws and moral imperatives which have been put in place by a higher power.
Crucially, these beliefs are usually based in faith – a justification based on the simple fact that the person holding the belief believes it, without consideration for any evidence that may have a bearing on its actual truth. Another common feature of these beliefs is that they can be very important to the people who hold them, sometimes so important that people are afraid they’ll be tortured forever if they do something wrong or endorse an improper belief. While this is only a rough and incomplete overview of the features of beliefs considered religious, it does encompass the major aspects of religion: its claims about the supernatural, its statements of ultimate purpose, its devotion to certain writings, its rules and moral guidance, its basis in faith, and its attribution of cosmic significance to one’s beliefs and actions.
Suppose now that the overarching category of religion is introduced anew, encompassing these beliefs, and manifesting as derivative concepts such as “religious bigotry”, “anti-religious prejudice”, and “respect for religion”. Because these beliefs often pertain to one’s moral responsibilities, purpose in life, and the fate one will supposedly face for all eternity, beliefs classified as religious are frequently considered to possess great significance beyond that of other beliefs. But is this special treatment unique to religion actually warranted?
If someone fears that they may actually face eternal torture for not believing in God, getting a divorce, or masturbating, this is a personal issue for them to work through. It doesn’t obligate the rest of us to treat them any differently for holding this belief – aside from, perhaps, offering sympathy and counseling services. Likewise, one’s endorsement of a certain moral framework is not fundamentally different from other moral proposals merely because this particular morality is allegedly divine in origin. It doesn’t need to be seen as something above or apart from moralities that aren’t based on supernatural claims, and it merits no unique deference simply because of its incorporation of the divine.
And those claims about the nature and existence of supernatural things are still only claims like any other – no extra leeway is necessary just because claims about the supernatural happen to be about the supernatural. Similarly, if someone cites faith itself as a basis for a belief, this justification should hardly be exempted from the appropriate scrutiny just because it falls under the category of religion. A belief that’s supported by nothing more than someone’s choice to hold that belief is certainly not deserving of any additional respect, and calling it religious doesn’t change that.
All too often, the reference to one’s “deeply held religious beliefs” is meant to serve as a conversation stopper – they’ve played the religion card, and the rest of us have to shut up and leave them alone. It’s as though the mere fact that they believe something that’s considered religious is the only excuse they need. But it shouldn’t matter how strongly a belief is held, and it shouldn’t matter that this belief falls under religion. There are many things both religious and non-religious that people believe very strongly, but the strength with which they believe is not a defense or a justification of the belief itself.
When objections to the Mormon Church’s involvement in passing Proposition 8 are characterized as “bigotry”, and Catholics in Illinois claim that they’re “not being tolerated” because their state-funded adoption services are required to treat gay couples equally, the dissolution of the concept of religion helps us to see these statements for what they really are. These religions, while shielding themselves behind claims of religious discrimination, actually just want to be free from following the law and even free from criticism itself. Why? Because they believe they should be, and that’s that. They think that’s all they need to say – and sometimes, it is.
The label of religion and the inordinate respect afforded to it has given them the opportunity to claim that they’re being discriminated against because of their religion, when in fact they’re being criticized for their bad ideas and required to follow the same laws as everyone else. In this way, accusations of prejudice against religion can function as a way of trying to silence those who have simply treated religious beliefs like any other beliefs, and found them lacking.
The unwarranted belief in the supernatural or the moral authority of certain questionable books is worthy of critique whether we call this religion or not, and depicting this as some kind of discrimination against religion means demanding that such claims be granted a privileged status, protecting them from the open debate to which non-religious beliefs are subject. In reality, religion isn’t being criticized because it’s religious. It’s being criticized because it’s wrong.