Six Things Not to Say About Religions

Okay, this is going to be a slightly unusual post, but I’ve just started a new job, and as people learn about my academic research, I keep getting pulled into conversations ‘about religion’.  Now, don’t get me wrong – I love talking about religions.  Religions are social constructs with histories and cultures and art and stories and participants.  But talking ‘about religion’ is really only fun if you’re an 18-year-old freshman philosophy major who’s just stocked up on herbal refreshment.

Otherwise, these conversations always go the same way, and since I have a secret addiction to the list posts on Buzzfeed (in particular the DIY ones – so many pallets!), I figured what better way to compile this information.

Thus – six things not to say about religions!

1.) “But isn’t the religion really about …”

So here’s the thing – religions don’t have kernels, or hearts, or centers.  There’s no bare philosophical core that you can uncover (for the record, there’s no core to other philosophical principles, either – Plato doesn’t reduce down to a one-sentence generalization).  In technical terms, this kind of parsing down of a tradition is called “reductionism,” and is generally frowned on.  Reductionism is what allows us to make sweeping generalizations about communities – all liberals hate guns, all conservatives hate poor people, all Christians hate gays, etc.  Reductions ring true because they rely on a small but true aspect of the tradition – *some* liberals do hate guns, *some* conservatives do hate poor people, *some* Christians do hate gays.  They’re hard to fight because they are true, but incomplete, and are often used to paint a minority opinion as a majority one.

When it comes to religions, reductionism is often used to side-step the problematic parts of a religion’s history.  “After all, isn’t Christianity really just about the one commandment, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  Sure.  But that’s doesn’t change the centuries of history in which Christianity has been all sorts of other things.  Frustratingly for people like me, reductionism is also often used to invalidate the voices of actual participants of a religion – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this in discussions about the hijab in Islam, where the experiences and viewpoints of actual hijabis are dismissed by (I’m sorry to say, often men) outsiders as not applying to what Islam is “really about”.

2.) “But what about [insert episode of violence here]?”

I touched on the issue of vague claims in my post on trolling.  This comes up particularly in discussions of violence in religion – I had one conversation where the person I was speaking to jumped from the Byzantine concept of emperor to Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition, and I genuinely felt like I had whiplash.  Yes, every religion has violence in its past.  Let me say that again – *every* religion has some violence.  For that matter, *every* social construct has violence in its past, because humans are (sometimes) violent, but even when we’re violent, we still like rationalizing our actions, and often rely on social constructs to do so.

This kind of fixating on violence in religion is really a type of the reductionism I described above, generally used to claim that there’s something wrong with a particular religion or with “religion” in general (more on that below).  It’s frustrating for all the reasons reductionism is frustrating, but it also has the added irritation that it makes it impossible to discuss either the religion or the individual episodes of violence.

I’ve taught the Crusades, and part of why I love it is that it’s a really bizarre period of history.  That a group of Frankish knights took advice from the Pope and used the Byzantine Emperor’s request for troops as an excuse to invade Palestine and set up a Frankish state in the Holy Land is, for lack of a better way to put it, totally batshit crazy.  And it only worked due to a whole bunch of historical coincidences – the lack of concurrent Muslim interest in the Holy Land because of factional infighting, the short period of Papal authority created as an outcome of the Investiture Controversy, and the influx of residents to the Frankish state of Outremer created by the Frankish kings’ new hardline for inheritance law.  Take away any one of those, and the Crusades probably never would have happened.  But all of that goes unnoticed if the Crusades are just written off as “violence in religion.”

3.) “I like faith, it’s all the dogma I have a problem with.”

Alright, I know it’s because I studied in Oxford and was forced to actually read the Church Dogmatics[1], but I get really cross when people use the term “dogma” as a negative.  Yes, yes, your karma ran over my dogma.  Except that those two terms come from two different languages based on two different traditions of religious identity and … Dogma means doctrine, and doctrines are a basic building block of every religion.  You can’t take them out any more than you can take out a skeleton and still have a person.

That’s not to say that doctrine is the only building block, or even the most important.  In fact, quite the opposite – doctrine is a central aspect of Christianity, developed in centuries of church councils and the resulting sectarianism, and remains a central aspect of the Western teaching of theology, a fact that has often hindered scholars working on other religions, who often search those religions for “doctrines” akin to the kind found in Christianity.  This centrality of doctrine has led many scholars of Islam to argue that there is no “theology” in Islam, because Islam lacks the kind of debate over the precise language of doctrine found in Christianity.

Nevertheless, all religions have some doctrine, in that all religions have some discussion of the nature of the divine and the correct manner of worship or belief in that divine.

However, in the modern age, “doctrine,” and in particular, “dogma,” has become the catch-all for everything bad about a religion.  Indeed, this is a tradition we inherited from the Protestant Reformation, who used the concept of “dogma” to denote what they saw as the excessive traditions of Roman Catholicism.  The Reformation aimed to free Christianity from its “dogma” and return to a ‘purer’ form of Christianity, one that focused on the Bible, without the centuries of writings on the Bible produced by the church fathers.

But that was rhetoric, not reality.  Luther wrote treatises on the Bible, Calvin wrote a new history of the world to replace Eusebius, John Fox wrote a new collection of martyrologies. The Protestants didn’t do away with doctrine – they just wrote their own (which is exactly why Karl Barth called his work “The Church Dogmatics,” attempting to reclaim the word – although really writing a twelve volume work is not the best way to show that dogma is not draconian or unnecessary).  Because again, doctrine is necessary for the stability of a religion.

4.) “I’m just really not into organized religion..”

Oh, if I had a nickel for every time someone responded to hearing what I study with ‘oh, well, I’m just not into organized religion.’  I’d have a lot of nickels.  Which, actually, wouldn’t be very useful.

But seriously, this happens all the time.  You’re not ‘into’ organized religion?  Cool!  Me, neither, at least in terms of my belief system.  I’m also not into Breaking Bad or dubstep, but I don’t feel the need to inform everyone who does like these thing of that fact.

I’m not quite sure when we developed a concept of “organized religion” (but if someone wants to give me a bunch of money, I’d be happy to study it and find out!), but it seems to have developed in the twentieth century, and if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it stands at the intersection of Protestant revivalism and New Age.  As I talked about above, the Protestant Reformation was all about shedding the ‘dead weight’ of Roman Catholicism (Protestant Christianity – all the flavor, half the calories!).  The American Protestant revivals of the seventeenth and eighteenth century often took this a step farther- they rejected much of the church infrastructure, including the training and education of clergy, preferring lay ministers, and the physical infrastructure, rejecting church building in favor of house meetings or outdoor gatherings.  In that sense, the Protestant revivals, and the American religions, like the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Christian Scientists, were ‘disorganized religions’.

The New Age movements of the twentieth century took this ‘disorganized religion’ movement even farther.  They were often a hodge-podge of Western and Eastern traditions (more on that below), and due to close associations to many other ‘counter-culture’ movements, were often resistant to any kind of ‘traditionalism’ or authority.

So that’s my guess for how we came up with an idea of “organized religion.”  What’s especially weird about this rejection of “organized” is that it often comes from within existing religious traditions – Wolfe’s book “The New American Religion” has a fascinating discussion of why so many Americans are drawn to evangelical Christianity because they feel it’s not “organized religion.”  But it has churches, an infrastructure, doctrines, liturgy, clergy.  It’s organized.

Like “dogma,” the concept of “organized religion” then ends up being more of a rhetorical catch-all for bad things about religion, so that a religion can remain good so long as it rejects the concept of “organized,” even while it’s, you know, organizing.

5.) “I’m not into organized religion, but I am really into Zen/Buddhism/Tao/yoga/tantic/Feng Shui/etc.”

Technically this is just an aspect of the above, but it has it’s own pitfalls, so I figure it’s worth discussing independently.

The problem with this claim is an issue of how much you have to take on an identity to have it.  So first off – I wholeheartedly believe that people get to identify as whatever they want.  Consider yourself a Buddhist?  Great!  I’ve known people who identify as Pagan, Druid, Hellenic Polytheist and Witch.  But what I found impressive about those people?  They knew their shit.  They knew which festivals fell on which periods of the moon, or how worship of a god varied from city to city in ancient Greece.

When it comes to the Eastern traditions, however, we’re a lot more lax about how much someone knows about the tradition they’re claiming for themselves.  So here’s the problem – Buddhism and Tao?  They *are* religions.  And Zen, yoga, tantric and Feng Shui are all parts of or derived from religions.  And you know what I said about all religions having doctrines and being violent?  Still true.  There’s been violence in Buddhism.  And Hindu.  And every other Eastern religion.  But our imagination of these traditions tends to be one of pure spirituality and mysticism, free of any actual history or tradition.

There’s also a lot of Orientalism tied up in this idea of the East as being home to all things mystic.  The concept of the mystical East developed in the period of Western imperialism, and was often used to claim the essentially limited nature of the Eastern mind – that Buddhists and Hindus were so mystic and spiritual because people in the East actually weren’t capable of understanding the more complex aspects of religion, like doctrine and philosophy, and so these things never developed in the East.  In turn, this belief was used to defend Western imperialism, that the East would do better under Western rule because they’d be looked after by the smart, philosophically- and analytically-minded Westerners.

That’s, of course, total bullshit – there are Eastern philosophers, and there is doctrine in Buddhism and Hindu.  Seventeenth-century Western scholars just didn’t bother to do their research.  But the belief in Eastern mysticism survives to this day.

The problem with this belief in the mystical East is that people who are “really into” Zen/Buddhism/yoga often feel entitled to speak with expertise on these traditions in their native environment, which in turns reinforces the idea of the mystical East.  American Buddhism is very different from Eastern Buddhism.  Same goes for yoga, tantric and Hari Krishna as compared to the Hinduism found in South Asia.  The Western versions were often imported and forceably stripped of their native history and culture, often through the prevention of native participation (you want evidence for this – go to your local yoga class and see how many South Asians show up).

6.) “I just feel like we need to get back to the original [insert religion here] of the [insert time period here].”

This is another one that crops up both in conversations within a religious tradition and outside of it, and pretty much boils down to the human love of nostalgia.  To quote the Barenaked Ladies (and really, who better, when discussing religion?), “We know our present isn’t half as pleasant as our nostalgia for the past that we resented.”

Our desire to feel nostalgia without any consideration of the more problematic aspects of a given time period is the same thing that fuels our love of Madmen and the Twilight series.  It’s tempting to enjoy the past in an unproblematic way because it gives it a purity and a sacredness that we, as people, often crave.  Dating is hard because people are complicated, so it’s tempting to lust after a 1900s vampire with serious eyebrows, without considering that from his point of view, women shouldn’t vote or hold public office, and beating your wife should be legal.

The same problems apply to nostalgia for religion.  It’s tempting to look back at the early years of Christianity or the Golden Age of Islam and feel like everything was perfect, but it’s important to remember that 1.) those periods had all sort of faults related to contemporary history and 2.) the very existence of those ‘periods’ of history are a later addition.  People in the first century of Christianity didn’t know they were living in the period of the unsplintered church, and probably if we had told them that, they’d chide us, pointing to all of the divisions that we get hints of in the New Testament – debates between gentile and Jewish converts, debates in leadership, debates about practice.  And on top of that, they had to put up with Roman repression, poor living conditions, little if any healthcare, and so on.

I guess with this nostalgia, as with a lot of these points, the problem is the balance between wanting to see a better version of a given tradition, and effectively whitewashing the problems of the past.  It’s noble to want to hearken back to a period before sectarianism if you do so in order to call for compassion and consideration, but less so if you’re doing it to invalidate the opinions of others.

This becomes especially true when you’re talking about the history of any religion but European Christianity, because again, uncomfortable issues like imperialism and slavery come into play.  The shape of the modern Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and Africa has more to do with Western history of the last two centuries than anything indigenous.  Indeed, in many cases, like Jordan, Iraq, Israel, India and Pakistan, the borders of these countries were literally drawn on a map by a Western imperialist leader.  The countries themselves had little if anything to say about it.

Again, it’s tempting to want to talk about “religion” free from all of the realities of history.   But it’s not productive, or even really reasonable.  Intersectionality exists.  The history of religions was written by racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and cissexism as much as the history of anything else.  That’s not a bad thing, or a good thing – it’s a thing.  Again, it exists.  Ignoring it for the sake of having an easier conversation is as ridiculous as ignoring physics for the sake of making building things easier – it’s a cute idea, but it’s really not going to work.

[1] If you read only one twelve volume work on mid-eighteenth century Protestant revival theology, make it this one!

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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19 Responses to Six Things Not to Say About Religions

  1. Ian says:

    This is awesome. Thanks so much! Chuckled my way through it all, and a laugh out loud at the footnote.

    “*every* religion has some violence” – set me on an interesting half hour researching incidents of Jainist violence.

    Another common trope I get is around the definition of religion “{my religion} isn’t a religion its a faith”, or “but science is a religion too”, or “Taoism isn’t a religion, its a philosophy.” Which always gives me a sinking feeling.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

    • Thanks!

      Yeah, come to think of it, “religion” as a term is pretty much taking on a negative connotation. I’m not sure how we got here, but it is fascinating to watch religions fall over themselves to try to redefine themselves as “not a religion.”

  2. Pingback: Six Hoary Cliches about Religion | Irreducible Complexity

  3. You and I independently coined the phrase “disorganized religion.” I suppose that’s not entirely amazing considering that we’re dealing with people who object to “organized religion.” I tell them they’re just the latest Protestants and that they should study some history of religion already. They generally don’t listen to me.

    • I suspect it probably is a phrase, or at least becoming one, considering how common it is to bash “organized religion.” Although as Ian pointed out, even the word “religion” is starting to take on a negative connotation, so maybe we just need to come up with a new opposite to religion?…

  4. Michael Mock says:

    Just caught back up with this, and Ian’s right: this is awesome.

  5. Dan Gillson says:

    Just so you know, having a lot of nickels is quite useful. For instance, one can fill up a sock with a lot of nickels and use it as a mace or a hammer. With a little more ‘Macgyver-ing’, I’m sure you can come up with something else!

    I thoroughly enjoyed the post!

  6. Pingback: Six Religious Cliches

  7. Erik says:

    When I was a Christian I would hear things like, I don’t believe in organized religion, I believe in Jesus. It really confused me because I was under the impression that, being in church, we were practicing organized religion and beliving in Jesus. I never asked a about it, but the implication was there that we were practicing some kind of truer form of Christianity that was more open and free from strict Catholic or fundamentalist rules. Looking back, it sounds like what Daniel Dennett describes as a “deepity”.

    It seems like it’s a mix of numbers 3 and 4

    • Definitely. I can understand the desire to want to free religions from what people feel are the burdens of doctrine or history, but it also bugs me that there’s always something pejorative about it, like you said, that they’re practicing a purer form of the religion than the actual members of that religion.

  8. Zingerific says:

    I don’t know why you have to bash frosh philosophy majors. When I was one, and enjoying herbal refreshment, I would talk about seriously important, logically rigorous topics like “what is true love?”

    Seriously, though, you really hit the nail on the head for me in your discussion of eastern religions. I’ve always had a vast irritation with the people you describe but have never been able to articulate it. Your equation of western interest in eastern religion with Orientalism is something I probably should have thought of but didn’t. Thank you!

    • The really sad part is that one night my friends and I genuinely did have a conversation with the starting point of “so what if this table could travel through time? Well, not *this* table, but more like, the Platonic ideal of a table?” And we were sober!

      Thanks!

  9. Pingback: 6 preconcepții legate de religie

  10. I’m glad to be a visitor of this perfect internet blog ! , regards for this rare info! .

  11. Pingback: Pat Robertson says Islam is not a religion. | askanislamicist

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