It is often said that religion gives meaning to otherwise meaningless things. I’m of two minds about the claim. On the one hand, religion doesn’t add information in the sense of giving you more facts about the universe than you had without religion. On the other hand, it certainly is true that if a person speaks in religious code, familiarity with the religion certainly helps decipher quite a lot.
My tendency, though, is to come down on the side of those who believe it is false to say that religion gives meaning to otherwise meaningless things. This is because knowing the religious codes and conventions does not require actual belief.
I can tell you quite a bit about idioms and speech conventions unique to certain strains of Judaism and certain strains of Christianity. Because of that knowledge, I have access to the same meaning as those who believe in certain versions of the Jewish and Christian gods, and yet I am in no sense a religious Jew, much less a religious Christian. It’s not religion that gives me access to certain meanings, it’s information about religions.
However, there’s another reason to reject the idea that Religion gives access to meaning, and it’s exemplified in this spam I received today:
Assalamualaikum to all. Alhamdulillah. Thank you, Brother Alex for this enlightening article. What you’ve shared is just so realistic, eventhough we live millions of miles apart.May Allah bless you for helping us your fellow Muslims
Now, apart from the “Brother” and “Alex” and “millions of miles” bits which are obviously false, communication (on the internet or otherwise) really does create connections and this spam, which contained no links, could easily seem meaningful to writers other than me. It doesn’t even require that the writer be Muslim, though being a believing muslim might help make someone more likely to believe that this bit of spam represented a real person attempting honest communication. It only requires that the target of the spam think of Muslims as “fellows” and a willingness to overlook certain cues that make this unlikely to be honest.
The thing is that the sentiment behind the statement about religion giving meaning to meaningless things is that it is born out of a fear of Type 2 errors: a false negative, or the failure to recognize something that is actually there. In the case of the statement about religion and meaning, it’s a fear of failing to recognize meaning when present. In the more specific case of this piece of spam, it’s about a fear of failing to recognize when an actual person is making an actual attempt to communicate goodwill, thanks, and possibly even friendship.
But this ignores the possibility of Type 1 errors: false positives, or the belief that you’ve found something (like meaning) that is not in fact present. In the particular case of this spam, it’s not possible that this is a genuine statement of goodwill or thanks or friendship. I’m not sure why spammers would submit comments like this (maybe to identify easy marks?), but we can certainly be sure that anyone who calls me Brother Alex is just not being so realistic, eh? If I were to believe this communication genuine, however, I’d be believing one more false thing than I did previously.
That’s not adding information. That’s fictional world-building.