Missing the Point about Religion

It should be glaringly apparent to the fives and tens of people who read this blog that I am no fan of religion. More than that, however, I’m generally opposed to lazy thinking, irrationality, and intellectual insincerity. The kind of casuistry that religious cheerleaders like Reza Aslan peddle, as well as the obnoxious fixation with Islam that men like Sam Harris display, are remarkable for their utter misapprehension of the issue at hand.

Their inability to transcend trivial and subjective perspectives leaves much to be desired when we move beyond the problems that bad ideas cause and ask, how do we meaningfully change them? We need to recognize that religion and superstition are representative of our failure to effectively educate in the practice and value of critical thought. Asking questions has always been dangerous, but not half as dangerous as acknowledging their answers once we’ve found them.

Religion, of course, is not the only form of magical thinking that exists. The USSR and North Korea offer prime examples of how entire peoples will worship a man when a god is unavailable. Stalin didn’t so much as defeat religion as he did replace it with a cult of personality. Mao’s methods were similarly palliative. People in the USSR did not walk away from religion because they had discovered truth, but because they were forced to. Even today, one can visit such far-out cities as Penza and see both a statue of Lenin and a flag of Jesus side by side.

Patriotism is yet another example of magical thinking. Americans are a remarkably proud people. We are quick to credit ourselves with the liberation of the oppressed, as counterweights to seemingly evil and imperialist powers like China, and as the bearers of an unquestioningly superior way of life and government. But anyone familiar with real-world history outside of the American classroom, and anyone who has stepped beyond our cloistered borders, quickly recognizes the cognitive dissonance and many inconsistencies American chauvinism presents.

Phobias, chauvinism, and superstition are all failures of critical thought. They are double standards, delusions, and personal preferences that become enshrined as objective facts. This happens when people are fundamentally uncomfortable with truth, preferring to hear what they want as opposed to what was actually said. In far fewer circumstances it is just laziness, the refusal to open a book and understand a complex concept.

I want to examine two prime examples of misguided arguments that aim to explain and ‘deal’ with the irrationality of religion. We’ll start with Reza Aslan. He blithely dismisses religion’s inconsistencies and untruths with the following quote.

Religion is concerned not with genuine history, but with sacred history, which does not course through time like a river. Rather, sacred history is like a hallowed tree whose roots dig deep into primordial time and whose branches weave in and out of genuine history with little concern for the boundaries of space and time. Indeed, it is precisely at those moments when sacred and genuine history collide that religions are born. The clash of monotheisms occurs when faith, which is mysterious and ineffable and which eschews all categorizations, becomes entangled in the gnarled branches of religion.

The word verbigeration comes to mind. Nothing here actually coheres into a meaningful, factual declaration. First Reza tells us not to take any one religion’s historical account seriously, they’re apparently too abstract for that. What purpose this ‘sacred history’ serves remains unexplained and its advantages are not discussed. Religions, he goes on to say, are born at the clash of real and ‘sacred’ histories. Again, no explanation of what this means specifically is given. Apparently this is all really self-evident. We are left with what is little more than a poetic and stupid excuse for religion’s mutable and inconsistent nature, notwithstanding the fact that many people do indeed read into their religious histories literally.

This convenient reduction of religion to the metaphysical and merely abstract ignores it’s consequences and obvious origin. Instead of acknowledging religion as institutions used to explain numinous phenomena and manufacture societal cohesion, Aslan likens it to a harmless and even charming fairytale that humanizes history. He pretends not to notice its sinister and exploitive relationship with politics and power and never acknowledges its intrinsic bad practices.

Sam Harris is much closer to the mark but he still misses the point. Harris acknowledges religion’s origins and its many bad practices and their consequences. He can discuss endlessly the dangers of encouraging faith-based belief, how these beliefs shape and influence action, and how a superstitious outlook on life results in assumptive instead of empirical mindsets. But he fixates too much on the details of specific faiths. He has even gone so far as to construct a kind of hierarchy in which Islam is the most violent overall while Jainism is the most conducive to peace. He’s done this through an ostensibly objective examination of the various doctrines, concluding that some sets of ideas ultimately redound to more harm than others.

What Harris doesn’t seem to get, however, is that even if we take his assessments seriously, how violent religions are or how abstractly or literally they’re practiced, it is all still beside the point.  The point is that they are all untrue. Or in the very least, unsubstantiated to a broad degree. A religion is, at its core, an ideology. It is an explanation of life and how to lead it. Religion’s reliance on superstition and its claim on divine truth is what makes it so balkanizing and pernicious, not any particular doctrine in-between.  Religion shapes how we think, and it does so by condemning skepticism and rewarding intellectual lassitude. That is what needs our focus.

We don’t need to become experts on every religion to critique the concept just as we don’t need to read every fairy tale to comment on the nature of stories. Their value as life-guides are undeniably bad in a world where so much can at last be explained. And their inability to account for themselves further justifies our wholesale dismissal of their legitimacy.

A stance like atheism is so humbling if only because it removes each religion’s claim to divine truth, allowing an objective metric like science to replace them. Unlike these faith based ideologies, you can’t simply ‘know’ you’re right, you have to prove it.

But ‘replacing’ religion is what we keep trying to do and that is why it keeps failing. Take a child’s toy away and he simply looks for another instead of the book you want him to read. This is why I use the word ‘meaningful’ in my question as to how we address this problem. We need to clearly and concisely show why and what is valuable and advantageous about an empirical approach to the unknown. We need to illustrate why critical thought will always lead us closer to truth than superstition. And we also need to demonstrate that knowledge is its own reward while its pursuit is a purpose in itself.

The ‘replacement’ or the goal as it were, should be to create a culture of critical and skeptical truth seekers that are unfazed by uncomfortable and disappointing answers and can grapple with doubt and not knowing. And lastly, to show people purpose is created, not granted. Everything in between is just bosh.


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