Rees on “Religion”

“Religion” is a deceptive word. When people generalize about “religion” (“religion is…”, “religions causes …”) the deceptive nature of the word soon becomes clear.

Tomas Rees reviews of an article here which tries to correlate a country’s religious diversity with unhappiness.  In his critical review Rees warns us of the deceitfulness of the word “religion”:

“I think that what this really does is show once again that it is simply too simplistic to talk about ‘religion’ as if it is a real, single entity (Voicu used a basket of different measures of religiosity, and lumped them all together). Religion is, in fact, a jumble of different cultural and psychological traits some of which (at different times, for different reasons, and in different mixes), we lump together and call it ‘religion’.”
–Tomas Rees (emphasis mine)

Many atheists misuse the word “religion” when they overgeneralize in order to support their favorite gripes.  Not that their gripes aren’t important, but their misuse of the term delegitimizes their points in their attempts to strengthen their rhetorical flare.

Whereas when discussing other issues, these same atheists may be careful about matters of sociology, linguistics, cognitive science, statistics and science. But when discussing the word “religion”, they turn off their reasoning — almost like a religious person! 🙂

Theists misuse the word “religion” too.  By molding their own definition, they often want to deny that their religion is a religion. So, both Theists and Atheists misuse the word “religion”.  Each imagines their own special definition and use it to serve their agendas.  Abstractions are the favorites of rhetorical prescriptionists.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

17 responses to “Rees on “Religion”

  1. While the general thrust of your thought is correct, “religion” is used a noun in conversation to encompass any organised belief in the supernatural. If, however, you have a better word, then I’m all ears…

  2. Well, john, I’m not sure what “general thrust” you feel is “correct”.

    Because you just did the prescriptive thing and told us what “religion” should be in “conversation”:

    any organised belief in the supernatural

    So I guess you wouldn’t call Western Zen Buddhism a religion — missing the supernatural and all. And many animist and native American worldviews wouldn’t be religion either because of not having “organised belief”.

    Oh yeah, and people who call themselves religious but don’t buy into any organized beliefs — New Agers can be like that. Or how about Taoists who don’t do the supernatural or aren’t organized? Of course you’d led Sikhism be a religion even if it is pantheistic.

    So, if you were to generalize about “religion”, John, we’d know you meant a small subset of what anthropologists mean by the term. So we’ll call that “religion-John” to distinguish it from the other various definitions of religion.

    You see, the “general thrust” of this post would disagree with you.

  3. So, do you have an alternative word, or not?

  4. Love the “or not?”.
    When we use the word, we have to ask why we are using it. At that time, we can come up with alternatives or qualify the word to show our narrow focus.
    You didn’t answer my question — all those “religions” lie outside your definition of religion, don’t they.
    You see the problem, don’t you?

  5. You didn’t answer my question: do you have an alternative word? if not, then this subject is rather pointless, wouldn’t you say?

    But no, i would call those things wisdom traditions, or spiritualist.

    Listen, I know what you’re trying to say, but its a useless waste of time if you don’t have an alternative which enables free-flowing communication. Why do you have to be so anal, Sab? (That’s not an insult, by the way. I like your pedantic nature, but it can verge on the silly sometimes)

  6. John, I have nothing against the word “religion’ — if you think I do, then you don’t understand me at all. I am saying that when people GENERALIZE about religion in derogatory ways, they are usually talking about some subset and being very careless. Not to mention, the studies that do it are usually grossly wrong. In casual conversation among people who mean the same thing by it, it is very handy — but that is the extent of it.

    Is that more clear. Stop overgeneralizing about “religion” — your overgeneralizations tell us more about your narrow world and less about religion.

    I chuckled at your new classification for Buddhism, Taoism, New Ageism and all the rest which in normal conversation most would just call religions.
    Really made me chuckle in a sad way.

  7. Earnest

    “Religion is the recognition of all our duties as divine commands” – Immanuel Kant

    Things that might or might not fit:
    Homocidal command hallucinations

  8. Earnest

    I do like the Rees stance that the boundaries of set(religion a + religion b + ….. + religion n) are messy and unless deliberately codified make subsequent conversation messy.

    So it is much more fair and enlightening to discuss the individual items in the set(religion) than it is to try to generalize about the whole thing.

  9. Yeah, as long as two people in conversation agree on the use of a word, all go smoothly — even if they are wrong in their conclusions. I agree with you, Earnest, thanx for sharing Kant’s definition to show all that he missed. Kant’s position (also solidly ground in Christian presuppositions) sounds very close to John Zande’s above.

  10. Earnest

    @ Sabio agree that Kant is more religion-friendly than many. It is therefore entertaining to see some of the devout, such as Peter Kreeft, attack Kant very aggressively. It is so hard for some people to admit the possibility of fallability and religious uncertainty.

  11. [Censored: violation of comment policy]

  12. amanimal

    Hi Sabio, I found the 2nd just the other night:

    ‘Pascal Boyer: The Fracture of an Illusion’

    ‘Full text of The Fracture Of An Illusion’

    … relevant to this post and a previous exchange.

  13. amanimal

    Hi Sabio, I started read ‘The Fracture …’ in earnest this morning and it felt like something clicked this time when I got toward the bottom of the first page. Robert Burton would call it a “feeling of knowing”(‘On Being Certain’, Burton 2009), what amounts to a little neurochemical cocktail reward intended to keep you on track toward achieving something of an understanding.

    Which is to say I think I’m starting to “get it” and the only difference this time(I’ve read the preview at least 3 or 4x’s) I could think of was my exchanges with you and reading your and Connors’ exchanges – just wanted to say thanks! Cris C’s stuff at GoR helped too, eg animist worldview.

    I also realized I posted the link to ‘The Fracture …’ assuming that you’d not read it. It occurred to me that might not be the case. Regardless …

    Thanks – Mark

  14. Hey Ananimal Mark,
    Not sure what your are thanking me for? What part clicked?
    Thanks for the link, btw.
    Are you saying that you agree with me and why I argue with Conner?
    It is funny, I can’t believe Conner takes the stance he does when he is obviously very learned. I think it is because he is defending the word “Religion” — he is actually invested in the word. Odd, eh?

  15. amanimal

    It’s more than a bit confusing, but I think that confusion is rooted in:

    ‘The Adaptationist-Byproduct Debate on the Evolution of Religion: Five Misunderstandings of the Adaptationist Program’, Sosis 2009

    Click to access sosis-2009-the-adaptationist-byproduct-debate-on-the-evolution-of-religion.pdf

    (this medium, with its limited space and slow back-and-forth, doesn’t help either when trying to discuss subjects of complexity)

    … and New Atheism’s(NA) use of by-product theory to simply write off religion as total fantasy. I’m less sure about and aware of some humanities scholars’ deconstruction of “religion” that Connor referenced in a comment previously that’s now unavailable.

    “What part clicked?”

    “… notions of a religion (the Hindu religion, the Islamic religion) and of religion in general, are the main obstacles to the study of why and how people come to have what we generally call “religious” notions and norms …” – bottom of 1st page, page 9

    … that Boyer sees the term as an obstacle to its study and that is specifically a study of evolutionary origins, while Connor seems to have definite adaptationist leanings and is looking more at how “religion” functions more recently evolutionarily speaking.

    So at the moment I’m agreeing with you both, to a point, because I don’t think that you’re talking about precisely the same thing, which is why I keep trying to get Connor to consider the developing synthesis or dual-inheritance view, eg Sosis/Kiper est May 2014 that I quoted in a comment. While Connor understandably feels obligated to counter New Atheism’s(NA) use of by-product theory to simply write off religion as total fantasy, the theory does have valid explanitory/predictive power and is increasingly being incorporated into a more all-encompassing framework. I know Connor knows this as he has said as much, but he keeps contrasting by-product and adaptationist theory when in fact it seems they may work together to answer different questions about different aspects of “religion”.

    Maybe it’s more accurate to say that “religion” as Boyer defines it is a cultural adaptation based in “innate cognitive content biases”(Gervais et al 2011) or as Matt Rossano describes it in a chapter for ‘The Nature of God – Evolution and Religion’, Frey(editor) 2010:

    ‘Harnessing the Placebo Effect: Religion as a Cultural Adaptation’, Rossano 2010

    Click to access religion%20and%20placebo.pdf

    … then again, maybe I’m just a babbling lay-person that doesn’t know … 🙂

  16. @ Mark Animal
    Thank you so much for taking you time to respond. There is so much here I could respond to, but pretty busy just now. I will, as time allows, post mini-posts discussing your comment here — or discussing issues it touches upon. I hope to continue the talk there. Otherwise, the thread will get bulky and confusing. I like breaking down conversations (and ideas) into components — if you can’t tell.

    Also, thank you so much for the links. I will read it in a while. But I worry about losing the valuable links in my comments.

    So, I have a challenge for you: You are an avid article collector. Please take time and build a WordPress blog. There, build a few posts with annotated lists of articles you find useful.

    Next, build an about Page to tell us about yourself.

    Or, if you don’t want your own blog — though I highly recommend it, send me a list of articles (only those with links), by category. I will build such pages — they will help as a tool to both remember articles and direct folks to them.

    OK, back to you soon.

  17. amanimal

    You’re most welcome Sabio and I look forward to your posts. I’ll give the idea of a WP blog of my own some thought. It might be a great way to reorganize my bookmarks, something that seems needed more and more as each day passes. Thanks again and I’ll be in touch.

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