December 13, 2011

Religion as belief vs practice

Sophisticated apologists for religion will discount almost all the supernatural beliefs of religions because they are incredible and so embarrassing that no one with any pretensions of rational thought can sign on to them. Talking snakes? People dying and coming back to life? Rebirth? Books dictated by god? A supernatural entity who overrides the laws of nature because an individual requests it?

This has led some to try to identify religion with a set of rituals and practices that provide people with a way of viewing the world that does not contradict science and thus can form the basis of common ground between religion and science. In discussions with colleagues, especially in the religious studies department, I am often told that my view of religion is too distorted by fundamentalist Christianity and that most religious people do not concern themselves much with the idea of god at all.

Is that possible? Via Jerry Coyne, I heard of the valiant effort by Julian Baggini in The Guardian to seek the minimal definition of religion would make "religion intellectually respectable, even to the hardest-nosed atheists." Here are what he calls the four articles of 21st century faith that he has come up with as a result of his search:

Preamble. We acknowledge that religion comes in many shapes and forms and that therefore any attempt to define what religion "really" is would be stipulation, not description. Nevertheless, we have a view of what religion should be, in its best form, and these four articles describe features that a religion fit for the contemporary world needs to have. These features are not meant to be exhaustive and nor do they necessarily capture what is most important for any given individual. They are rather a minimal set of features that we can agree on despite our differences, and believe others can agree on too.

  1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices. Any creeds or factual assertions associated with these things, especially ones that make claims about the nature and origin of the natural universe, are at most secondary and often irrelevant.

  2. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles that bend or break natural laws, the resurrection of the dead, or visits by gods or angelic messengers.

  3. Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim, not the religious one, should prevail.

  4. Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.

He points out, quite correctly, that one cannot be ambivalent about the choice of accepting or rejecting them. If you cannot sign on to any one of them, it means that you agree with its contradiction. He says:

So let us be plain that to reject these articles of faith would mean to maintain their contradictions, namely:

  1. Religious creeds or factual assertions are neither secondary nor irrelevant to religion.

  2. Religious belief requires the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth.

  3. Religions can make claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should not be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim need not prevail.

  4. Human intellect and imagination are insufficient to explain the existence of religious texts.

The next task he set himself was to see whether atheists and religious people would sign up to them. While I would have no problem with religion as described by his four articles, I was frankly skeptical that religious people would agree. Most ordinary religious people would reject them outright because they rule out the supernatural while the sophisticated religious would be uncomfortable with being forced into accepting any concrete formulation since they like to live in a world of ambiguity where they never actually come out and say what the believe.

And sure enough, Baggini later reported general failure. A very few of the more sophisticated religious apologists were reluctant to reject his articles but were wary because of the absence of anything that could be described as transcendental. Some religious people, including those who are thought of as 'radicals', rejected them outright. As Baggini says:

If the articles of faith are to provide any hope of establishing the existence of the kind of reasonable faith I think should be possible, we need to get support for them from people who are actually actively and self-consciously religious.

So far, that has not been forthcoming. Theo Hobson, for example, a self-described "liberal" theologian, says: "I'm afraid I don't really sympathise with this. Christianity can't be reformed by the neat excision of the 'irrational'/supernatural. It is rooted in worship of Jesus as divine – the 'creed' side is an expression of this."

Nick Spencer, research director at the eminently reasonable public theology thinktank Theos, was even clearer in his rejection, saying, for instance: "Although religious texts are indeed created by human intellect and imagination, that doesn't mean they can't be taken as expressing the thoughts of the divine … I don't see what's left of the Abrahamics if you do take this out of the equation in this way". Spencer also provides little hope of finding too many other supporters out there, adding that "there would be precious few Christians I know … who could sign up to all your points. To take just the most obvious example: according to mainstream Christian thought, Christianity is founded on a belief in the physical resurrection."

Baggini concludes:

Hence the rejection of the articles suggests that either most liberal religious commentators and leaders are inconsistent or incoherent; or that they ultimately do believe that when it comes to religion, creeds and factual assertions matter; belief that supernatural events have occurred here on Earth is required; religion can make quasi-scientific claims; and that human intellect and imagination are not enough to explain the existence of religious texts. If that is indeed the case then DiscoveredJoys is right that when it comes to belief: the middle ground is virtual deserted.

Religious people, however sophisticated, are unable to break the grip of wanting to believe in some form of the supernatural, some ineffable mystical presence that transcends the material world. This is why there can be no accommodation between science and religion, and in that conflict religion will lose because there is no evidence that such a presence exists.


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Shalom Mano,

I stand by my personal definition of spirituality, and by extension religion, as an individual's emotional response the their reality as they perceive it.

That charismatic individuals are able to convince others of any perceived benefits of buying into their emotional response to their reality and thereby create a like-minded community is a matter of persuasion and not authority.



Posted by Jeff Hess on December 13, 2011 09:50 AM

Several books that I would recommend on the subject of religion, from a more philosophical / theoretical standpoint. The problem with the "science vs. religion" dichotomy, which has been a rallying cry since the Enlightenment, is that it is rooted in the modern metanarrative of secularism and progress. To better appreciate the nuances between religious and secular constructions of the world, I believe we need to approach this question from within a postmodern framework. Anyway, a few good books:

John Caputo: On Religion, (also good - The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event)
Jacques Derrida: Acts of Religion
Terry Eagleton - Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate
Richard Kearney - Anatheism
Slavoj Zizek - The Fragile Absolute

Posted by Ray Horton on December 13, 2011 01:00 PM


I just want to make a friendly suggestion that since you are talking about different aspects of religion it might be clearer if you the precise terms used by historians. For example this post post would have found been easier for me to follow if you had just used the term 'cult', which refers to the set of external rituals and practices in totality.

Here's a few other useful terms:

'Myths' are sacred narratives (usually).

Sacred writings in general are the 'scriptures', while the internal beliefs can be called 'doctrine' if they are codified and 'dogma' if the belief is required. There is no requirement that any of scriptures, myths, or doctrine be dogma.

'Theology' is the systematic study of other aspects of religion.

So, for example, ancient religions often were dogmatic in their cult practices but not so much in their factual assertions. Sort of the opposite of many modern evangelical christian sects.

Sorry if this is coming off as too pendantic--Jared cares a lot about terminology!


Posted by Jared A on December 13, 2011 01:20 PM

Hi Jared,

As a fellow pedant, I appreciate the desire for accuracy and your definitions of terms is helpful and I will bear them in mind for the future.

But is it really the case that rituals and practices are given the name of 'cult'? That surprises me, because cult is see as so pejorative.

Posted by Mano on December 13, 2011 01:55 PM

Yes when I first learned the historical meaning of 'Cult' I was pretty confused, too. It certainly has a negative connotation now, but I guess it has the same root as "culture". I learned these terms in the limited context of introductory art history, so there may be more to it than this.

The wikipedia article seems accurate to me.

"Cult is embodied in ritual and ceremony. Its present or former presence is made concrete in temples, shrines and churches, and cult images (denigrated by Christians as "idols") and votive deposits at votive sites.

By extension, "cult" has come to connote the total cultural aspects of a religion, as they are distinguished from others through change and individualization."

Posted by Jared A on December 13, 2011 03:21 PM

A few links i would recommend for religion would be one about Jesus Christ Jesus Christ, why because he is the main bases behind most religions. Another is for the sake of my religion Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith was the first prophet of the LDS religion and he translated the Book of Mormon, which leads me to my next link the Book of Mormon , the Book of Mormon is the keystone to my religion and holds so many valuable teaching principals. thank you for the opportunity to share, Brandon Lott

Posted by Brandon Lott on January 12, 2012 06:19 PM