Seeing that it’s Easter it seems timely to dicuss religion, if only because I feel guilty (Catholic-flavour) for not having posted anything recently (if only I could get my OCR software to work on the new iMac).
So religion. People seem to be bandying the term about a lot, at the moment. Atheism as religion, Science as religion. Consumerism = religion. Naturally, a lot of people are upset by this; no one wants their belief system equated with ye olde oppressive Christianity.
But they shouldn’t be upset. Religion qua theism is simply one use of the word ‘religion.’ Whilst religions have largely been characterised by belief in supernatural powers or agencies it isn’t the only game in town. If being religious is subscribing to a set of beliefs then materialism/physicalism is a religion (indeed, it is my religion of choice).
Religion, as some have said, is simply a doxcastic venture. You subscribe to some set of beliefs and you go where they lead. Christianity is a religion; love it or hate it, in its pure form (practiced rarely) it advocates a particular lifestyle that, if its tenets are to be believed, lead to a better (after-)life. Capitalism is similarly a belief system, a doxcastic venture, as is physicalism.
I suspect a lot of people get antsy about having their non-theist belief system characterised as a religion because they don’t really understand the nature of belief. Whilst I think we can say that we know certain things it is also obvious, at least to my mind, that we also have an awful lot of beliefs that don’t qualify as knowledge but that we hold as being very important in the ‘web of things we think to be important to us’. Beliefs aren’t the same thing as knowledge (well, they might be, but that’s an entirely different matter in a relatively contentious field) and a lot of our beliefs aren’t even justified (or, if we think they are, we claim that a lot of our justification for our beliefs have been passed on from other sources, like experts et al). Still, we string these beliefs together with the things we do know and we try to make sense of the world. Capitalists do this through particular economic theories, theists try to make sense of the world through divine agency, physicalists try to make sense of the world through the application of the laws of nature and atheists… Well, they probably are capitalists or physicalists (or something similar) but sometimes they are just people who fervently believe that the gods do not exist and just want to piss over people who claim otherwise.
The other problem I suspect ‘anti-religionists’ have is that they immediately associate ‘religion’ with ‘fundamentalist theism,’ which is, in itself, interesting seeing that the ‘fundamentalist theists’ seem to have little to no issue with the term ‘religion’ being applied to non-theistic beliefs. It’s a strange dichotomy; I know people who are all for the flexibility and multiplicity of meaning in English… until you get to the word ‘religion.’ That word, it seems, has one meaning only (even if the dictionaries disagree). Yet the term religion hasn’t been all that fixed in history anyway. Religious belief in ancient Rome wasn’t at all like supposed theistic religious belief now, and it’s been well known for a while now that there are perfectly good examples of religious people who have no belief in divine agency whatsoever (you would be surprised at how many atheist priests there are in Roman Catholicism, for example). Indeed, even if the term had been fixed as specifically theistic in the past we could argue that the use of ‘religion’ now shows that we can call non-theistic belief systems ‘religions.’ I have a small, but growing, collection of early Evolution by Natural Selection tracts written at the turn of the last century and the language is remarkably religious in tone. ‘Evolution is the new religion.’ ‘The Gospel of Evolution is now being heard all over the world.’ ‘Belief in the truth of Darwin’s theory is becoming the new religion of Sunday lunch discussions.’
‘Religion’ is a flexible word and we should celebrate it this Easter. It is, after all, a religious holiday and I, for one, am more than happy to have a day off in celebration of my chosen creed. So go, be religious, whether that be worshipping in a church or colliding sub-atomic particles together. Be adventurous in your doxology and never forget; be yourself.