“Scholars” explain religion to me

Yesterday I got three longish emails taking issue with my piece on The Conversation in which I argued that science and religion are incompatible. Two of them were incoherent and don’t deserve reproducing here, much less mentioning. The one below, however, came from a person who said he was a scholar of religion, and I wanted to post it to show the kind of criticisms that are arising. I’ve omitted the person’s name. (I checked on who he/she/hir is, and it’s not someone very notable or accomplished, as far as I can see). But on to the argument:

Hello Dr. Coyne,

You make some very good points but I think you have misunderstood the nature of religion.  As it happens, that is my specialty.  I have studied religion for over 30 years.  What most people do not realize is that there is an academic study of religion and we have been at this for over a hundred years now — and its greatest center of study has been at your home university.  Religion is not what most people think, just as you probably encounter people who think they understand ecology but are totally clueless.

The problem with using Dennett for a definition of religion is that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.  I have personally tried to explain this to him but he is unwilling to consider any ideas that are not his own.  And I even use his theory of consciousness in my own work to understand why we have religion.  He is absolutely talking about things that he has no grounds to discuss, totally outside his field.  People do this all the time with religion and as an actual expert it is quite frustrating.  His definition has nothing to do with any scholarly work in the study of religion — and I find it shocking that he makes these claims and astounding that people don’t know better than to listen to ignorance on any subject (even if he is an expert on something else).

Religion is a worldview with a ritual system.  That is the formal definition and it works for all known religion.  The issue you are pointing to is the worldview, and how it is constructed.  Using our naive intuitions to construct a worldview only leads to confusion.  That is true.  But the problem is that the opposite of science is not religion, it is superstition.  Religion can be but may not necessarily be superstitious.  There is no logical reason why the worldview cannot be founded on science.  The trick is the ritual that keeps it religion. [JAC: Not just that, it’s the morality and truth claims (which buttress the morality) that keep it religion.]

The point is religion is not about explaining the world, it is about living in the world.  When people use ignorance to undermine science and claim they are hiding behind religion they are lying.  That sort of thinking has nothing to do with religion, qua religion, it is entirely political. [JAC: I guess this person considers all creationists as motivated by politics, for creationism, he argues, has nothing to do with religion. That’s nonsense.]

The right wants to control people and they understand the science is inherently egalitarian and democratic.  They want to attack science and can use reactionary forms of religious superstition to do this, but that is not about religion, it is about people and politics.

What you need to attack is those who reject science, regardless of their claimed motive.  They are political actors, not religious one.  The religion is cover for the politics.  Don’t get lost in their lies.

Yours,
NAME REDACTED

I don’t want to get into this in detail, as I am not fond of people who tell me I’m wrong because they are scholars in the field and therefore know more than I. This kind of credential-mongering obviates the real issue: the nature of my arguments. In this case the person takes issue with my definition of religion, which was Dan Dennett’s:

“Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”

OF COURSE that doesn’t hold for all bodies of thought that we see as religions (viz., Buddhism), but I qualified it this way:

Of course many religions don’t fit that definition, but the ones whose compatibility with science is touted most often – the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – fill the bill.

The fact is that for most believers that definition holds well, as you can see from looking at the stuff that Americans actually believe. I’ll quote myself again:

And yet, without supporting evidence, Americans believe a number of religious claims: 74 percent of us believe in God, 68 percent in the divinity of Jesus, 68 percent in Heaven, 57 percent in the virgin birth, and 58 percent in the Devil and Hell. Why do they think these are true? Faith.

This is not “a worldview with a ritual system.” Yes, it’s a worldview, but one propped up and justified by belief in truth claims. My interlocutor also argues, correctly, that the opposite of science is superstition, but fails to recognize that for the vast majority of the world’s believers (I’m not talking about Sophisticated Theologians™ here), religion is a superstition, which is defined this way by the Oxford English Dictionary:

A religious system considered to be irrational, unfounded, or based on fear or ignorance; a false, pagan, or idolatrous religion.

That pretty much holds for all religions—certainly the Abrahamic ones, for all are irrational and are based on ignorance, which is the fount of “faith”.

My correspondent, whom I didn’t answer, claims that religion isn’t about truth but about “living in the world,” not realizing that that kind of living rests on claims about what’s true: that Jesus existed, was the son of God, and will send you to heaven if you believe in him, or that Muhammad received the words of the Qur’an from an angel sent by God. (Most pious Muslims are of course Qur’anic literalists.)

The last paragraph of the email above is peremptory, pompous, and pontifical. I am not just attacking those who reject science; I am attacking those who reject the empirical methods of science as a way to find truth—in other words, those who believe things about the divine based on faith. Or, if you will, I’m attacking faith.

The problem with this writer is that he conceives of religion in a way different from most believers, and can’t conceive of anybody who bases their religion on truth claims. The person is, in other words, a self-styled Sophisticated Theologian™ who thinks that his take on religion is the only one worth considering. Everybody else is just WRONG.

 

124 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    It’s important to get this stuff out in the open. I also don’t know where to start.

    I submit my own latest-greatest definition of religion :

    Religion is the product of truth claims produced by scientific illiteracy.

    I’m still working on it.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Selfish bump to see if anyone has some interesting criticism of my definition…

    • Posted December 25, 2018 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      Your definition seems too broad. There are any number of truth claims produced by scientific illiteracy that we wouldn’t usually consider religious. The anti-vaxx movement, for example.

      Your definition also seems to exclude some versions of religious belief that aren’t the product of scientific illiteracy. For example, suppose someone accepts the God of classical theism on the basis of Aquinas’ first way. They would be wrong, but there is no scientific illiteracy involved, since they are making a metaphysical claim which is not testable by science.

  2. W.T. Effingham
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Dennett “is not willing to consider ideas that are not his own.” ??? Worse than WRONG!

    • Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Read: ‘Dennett refused to accept correction from me.’

  3. Posted December 24, 2018 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Well said. You that is.
    This is just nonsense. Who seriously does go around defining their belief system according to the dictats of ‘academic experts’? No one. If he were to argue that most people who follow a religion do so without having dconsidered it deeply, that I am prepared to accept. That is why most religious people stick with the religion they were brought up with – it is easy & acceptable socially, whereas bto change views is difficult. Those who think deeply about their views on religion, even then I doubt if any one other than university theology students (not a proper topic I hasten to add) or anthropology & philosophy students even tries to define their belief system.

    And as PCC[E] says, IT IS SUPERSTITION!
    Sky fairies…

    • Posted December 24, 2018 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      oops – mistyped my email there -I need a Coyynezaa Beer Jerry!

  4. Posted December 24, 2018 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Uh, “Religion is a world view with a ritual system.” Really? According to this definition, the Boy Scouts, the Elks Club, and Walt Disney Productions are religions. This is clearly the case of out of touch academics (I am a retired academic, so I can criticize my own people.) feathering a definition to make it inclusive of all religions and ending up with something far removed from everyday notions of ordinary people.

    Is it even possible to have a ritual system without a world view? I suspect not, so “having a world view” is superfluous, which reduced religion to a ritual system, aka superstition.

    • Posted December 24, 2018 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      Good point!

    • Robert
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      “We save people money, so they can live better”. Walmart mission statement.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      Agreed. Dennet’s definition is a bit too narrow, but this other person uses a definition that is far too broad.

      • Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        And it conveniently leaves out “faith” (beliefs without evidence) which is the one thing that turns a worldview into a religion and its main problem for scientists.

    • prinzler
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      I think the logical error is that, in attempting to craft a definition that is broad enough to include every religion, the definition becomes too broad so it includes things that clearly aren’t religions.

      • Posted December 24, 2018 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        Please try to apply that test to my definition given a couple of times in comments here. Religion is belief for which evidence is not required. That is an admittedly broad definition but I can’t think of anything for which it is true that can’t reasonably be called religion.

        • Posted December 25, 2018 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

          Flat earthers?

          /@

          • Posted December 25, 2018 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

            Maybe flat earthers and the like are exceptions. I don’t know any of them but I suspect they think the round earthers are just in this big conspiracy with map-makers, etc. They kind of fall into a larger category of deniers. What would a flat earther say to someone who offered them a sub-orbital flight that would allow them to clearly see the roundness of the earth? Would they take the flight? I grant that flat earthers might not be a religion but it is hard to find exactly what makes them not part of a religion.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 25, 2018 at 2:57 am | Permalink

      Is it even possible to have a ritual system without a world view?

      Rugby, tennis, badminton, Go, …

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted December 25, 2018 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        Rugby is not a religion, except in New Zealand… 8-(

        cr

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Sanctimony of the religious order. He must feel privileged to step down here and provide guidance to the ignorant masses. How tired he must get explaining religion to commoners such as us.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Damn, if I could buy your correspondent for what he’s worth, and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth, we could use the spread to do up Coynezaa big-time this year.

    • Claudia Baker
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      And have enough left over to build a Wall.

      • Serendipitydawg
        Posted December 24, 2018 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        I thought Mexico was going to pay for the wall?

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 24, 2018 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          I wonder if that’s going to become a meme in future generations. “Mexico will pay for it!”

          Along with flying pigs and gold at the end of the rainbow…

          cr

    • Mikeyc
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Ok, Ive been out of the loop for awhile* and have seen reference to “Coynezaa” several times now. I suppose I can go back through the pages and find the derivation (I can guess, too) but just can’t be arsed to do it. Can you explain or point? Tnx.

      *I’m the kind of guy who’s never really sure of what’s going on around me. *sigh*

      • Brujo Feo
        Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        No doubt a play on Kwanzaa.

      • Posted December 24, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        Jerry’s personal holiday – send him gifts!!!

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted December 24, 2018 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        HERE is a detailed explanation from the horses mouth:

        Many years ago, I decided that if ethnic groups and other minorities could have their own holidays, so could individual people, i.e., me. So I declared the holiday of Coynezaa, a six-day revel extending from Christmas through my birthday (Dec. 30). (Curiously, this holiday always coincides with other people’s festivities.) And when I visit friends, I surreptitiously enter the holiday on their calendars, also adding a note in late November that Coynezaa is coming up in a month, so perhaps they should be buying presents now. (The idea, of course, is that, like Chanukah, Coynezaa presents should be bestowed every day during the entire holiday.) Sometimes this importuning even works!

        • rickflick
          Posted December 24, 2018 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for dredging. I had forgotten some of the details. 😎

        • Mikeyc
          Posted December 24, 2018 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

          THANKS!

  7. Greg H
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    I once put stock in what the “experts” say. And, of course, to some extent one should — at least hear them out, follow their line of reasoning, assess their evidence and arguments, etc. That’s called being open-minded, and thinking critically.

    But I’ve long since come to understand that experts with IQ’s off the charts and 3 or 4 PhD’s can still be WRONG about things.

    I’m particularly annoyed by any frail, finite, limited member of the human species who think they have all the answer to life figured out. I guess that’s why I’m effectively an atheist (in practice and belief), yet don’t discount the possibility that there is “something” (whatever that is) beyond all this that gave rise to it.

    It’s a kind of skepticism, I guess, of all truth claims. All my conclusions are “tentative”.

    • Linda Calhoun
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      The fact that your conclusions are tentative, and that you’re OK with that, is what distinguishes you from religious people.

      As I have argued in other threads, it is that need to have ANSWERS that makes the religious cling to their beliefs. The uncertainty drives them nuts.

      L

      • Greg H
        Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:21 am | Permalink

        Agreed, Linda. Though I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily “okay” with my conclusions being tentative. The uncertainty drives me nuts, too. I would like to know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” as much as any religious person, but I just realize that I DON’T, and I’m skeptical that anybody else does either. I guess it’s an epistemological thing: I’ve never deceived myself into thinking that belief = knowledge.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:41 am | Permalink

          When all of their knowledge originates from untested faith/beliefs, that is the deceived part that blows up the whole concept of religion. This would drive me crazy. Question the belief and they just bear down.

  8. Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    “I even use his theory of consciousness in my own work to understand why we have religion. He [Dennet] is absolutely talking about things that he has no grounds to discuss, totally outside his field. People do this all the time with religion and as an actual expert it is quite frustrating.”

    I imagine Dennet’s theory of consciousness is totally outside the author’s field – hence, should he discuss or use it at all to explain why we have religion?

    The definition given by the ‘actual expert’ (no true expert fallacy?) is, to me, beyond useless as it describes not just religion but almost anything. If someone has a ritualised set of compulsions that inform their worldview, are they therefore religious?

    • Sastra
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      Dennett is himself a philosopher. The idea that “all philosophers agree …” is almost charming.

      • Posted December 27, 2018 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        Yes, imagine asking each philosopher to complete that very sentence! “All philosophers agree that…” I’m sure there’d be unanimous consensus in no time.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      As a philosopher, Dennett serves as a synthesizer of current ideas in many fields. He has seen philosophical progress as dependent on scientific advances. Thus, he is discussing the implications of science for developing a broader perspective, a philosophy ( He’s not a classical arm chair philosopher). This requires a good understanding of the sciences affecting his areas of interest, such as AI, brain science, etc. If you get around to reading him, check out the bibliographies. It is not necessary or possible to have a PhD in each field of science to be qualified to write synthetically about their implications. That doesn’t mean he’s always right, but he certainly has a good chance of making significant progress. Perhaps better than someone who works within narrower boundaries.

      • Posted December 24, 2018 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Dennett is one of the more sciency philosophers which is a good thing. I enjoy his work immensely but he makes a few poor choices, IMHO. One of his big ideas is that consciousness is an illusion. I know what he means by this, and mostly agree, but his choice of “illusion” stirs up misunderstanding and controversy for no good reason. Most people think of an “illusion” as a vision of something that doesn’t exist. But Dennett only means that our own consciousness is not what it seems. He most definitely does not deny its existence.

        • rickflick
          Posted December 24, 2018 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

          There is that…

      • Posted December 27, 2018 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        I agree with you. I was trying to make that exact point in a tongue in cheek way! I read the apologist’s comment as authoritative (i.e. if you aren’t a religious scholar stay out of commenting on religion) whilst also using someone’s ideas from outside, presumably, their own scholarly domain.

      • Posted December 27, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        Oh, and I’be read ‘Consciousness explained’ by Dennett, and it is fascinating!

  9. Linda Calhoun
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Has this guy ever considered the possibility that Dennett HAS considered ideas other than his own, and found them to be full of shit?

    L

  10. Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    What a presumptuous twit who claims his academic specialty is religion. “I have studied religion for over 30 years. What most people do not realize is that there is an academic study of religion and we have been at this for over a hundred years now…”

    See Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_studies. According to this article,the study of religion goes back to Hecataeus and Herodotus, but “Religious studies originated in the 19th century, when scholarly and historical analysis of the Bible had flourished, and Hindu and Buddhist texts were first being translated into European languages… Today religious studies is practiced by scholars worldwide. In its early years, it was known as “comparative religion” or the science of religion and, in the USA, there are those who today also know the field as the History of religion (associated with methodological traditions traced to the University of Chicago in general, and in particular Mircea Eliade, from the late 1950s through to the late 1980s).”

    There have been “academic studies of religion” in various guises for hundreds of years. German scholars were very active in the 1800s. Calling these studies a “science” does not make them one, whereas “comparative religion” and “history of religion” at least make some sense.

    How many other scholars and scholarly areas of study have we discussed in this forum as
    being almost antithetical to university studies? Women’s studies, anyone? I’ll trade you my old literature courses on “Bob Dylan” and “Science Fiction” while holding on to “Shakespeare”, “Chaucer”, “Dante”, “Milton”, etc.

    • Linda Calhoun
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but I’d rather have a root canal than to have to study John Milton.

      L

      • Brujo Feo
        Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        “A long, slow, root canal.” Extra points for the reference.

      • Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        Even Mrs. Milton found him boring. But that doesn’t relieve you of your reading assignment!

        • Ned
          Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

          This is my JOB!

          • CJColucci
            Posted December 24, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

            Many years ago, English majors at my undergraduate institution, which had a well-regarded English department, had to take any two of the following three courses: (1) Shakespeare; (2) Chaucer; (3) Milton. As a college newspaper reporter, I tried to find out how often majors satisfied the requirement by taking Chaucer and Milton and skipping Shakespeare. Department statistics were either unavailable or too hard for someone to find, but informed guesswork said: None.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      I couldn’t read past the point where he showed his profound ignorance of his on field of “study”: “there is an academic study of religion and we have been at this for over a hundred years now”!

  11. Stephen Knoll
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    given the variety of belief systems under the heading “religion”, I doubt a definition that encompasses them all is possible: heck some of them don’t even posit a deity

    given the range of incompatible beliefs that claim the label, I don’t even think a definition of “christian”,can be agreed

    • Linda Calhoun
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      I have said in the past that I will take Christianity seriously when 95% of all Christians everywhere agree with EACH OTHER on what “the truth” is.

      L

      • Brujo Feo
        Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        No…we can only take them seriously when they reach ninety-SIX percent. If you are willing to take them seriously at ninety-FIVE percent, then…DIE, HERETIC!

        • Linda Calhoun
          Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          Snort.

        • Posted December 24, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink

          I’d settle for 51%, but it will never happen.

        • Mikeyc
          Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:18 am | Permalink

          There’s a great Emo Phillips routine about this.

          • Mikeyc
            Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:19 am | Permalink

            Embedded. Damn. Sorry

    • Posted December 24, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      I think it is possible to capture the essence of religion in a definition. It’s the faith: belief in stuff (a partial worldview) without evidence. Every religion has this with rituals to support it.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted December 24, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        I think it’s impossible to make a foolproof definition of religion (or any other phenomenon for that matter). However carefully anything is defined, there will be edge cases that crash across the boundary.

        This is due to the fundamental bloody-mindedness of existence. 😎

        (Of course, insofar as that is a rule, it implies that somehow, somewhere, it will be broken and there will be a set that precisely fits its definition with no exceptions or borderline cases. Just that science hasn’t found it yet).

        cr

        • Posted December 24, 2018 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

          Can you name at least one religion that doesn’t fit my definition? Religions differ in their set of beliefs but they rely on their members’ blind faith in those beliefs rather than shared, verifiable, reproducible evidence. We even use the term to refer to people in non-religious fields (eg, physics) who adhere to their theories in the face of contradictory evidence.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted December 25, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

            I think my beef with your definition is that it is too broad (as you noted). And also, there is almost always some ‘evidence’ (in the eyes of the faithful) which is of debatable validity. Often far too much ‘evidence’.

            Lysenkoism. Free Market theory. Keeping ‘fit’. Diets of all sorts. They all have their adherents who would fit your definition but we wouldn’t normally describe those things (except metaphorically) as ‘religions’. They all lack a supernatural element.

            My point was that, like most phenomena, ‘religions’ are so variable and complex that no one definition would fit them all. (Nobody else’s definition does either, I’m not picking on you 🙂 This is, I think, the common situation. Define ‘cars’ and I’ll find you a hundred borderline cases or wild exceptions that nobody would call a ‘car’ but which would fit whatever definition you could come up with.

            cr

            • ThyroidPlanet
              Posted December 25, 2018 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

              The idea is not to catch all religions in a net, but to find the common denominator(s?). I think that should give show some modern phenomena to be very close to religions – politics, celebrity followings, etc…. btw I think Jesus in his day came across the way modern celebrities do.

              • GBJames
                Posted December 25, 2018 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

                I think Jesus wore pink unicorn underwear to bed at night.

                Sorry… I can’t take descriptions of largely functional characters seriously.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted December 25, 2018 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

                … fictional, I think you mean?

                YOU don’t of course. But, that’s how believers see it – the biggest celebrity. And back than, he was … a celebrity, maybe…

                It’s just a way to get an idea of how Jesus appeals to the religious, how they take it.

            • Posted December 26, 2018 at 9:47 am | Permalink

              I don’t see much faith involved in, say, a follower of a fad diet. I’m sure they really believe the diet is a sound one. If it isn’t, it is simply because they were fooled by someone’s explanation of how the diet works or something similar. They may have unreasonable and misplaced trust in the diet. They may lack the science and rational thinking skills to evaluate the claims made for the diet. They would give up on the diet if a better one came along. Their goal is to lose weight, it is not a worldview in which they place their faith. Someone’s bad choices are not a religion.

  12. alexander
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    ….the Boy Scouts, the Elks Club, and Walt Disney Productions are religions.

    Yes, also the German variety of Carnival with its rituals and dressings is a “world view with a ritual system” (the world view is that there is more to life than being serious). And of course, the corollary: the rituals of the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches are carnival (but no fun!).

  13. CAS
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    But the problem is that the opposite of science is not religion, it is superstition.

    Hard to find systems that we call religion that don’t involve superstition! Possibly the earliest form of Buddhism described in the Pali canon. But this mostly lacks the superstitions that crept into later versions. I’d call it more an approach to human psychology in dealing with existential fears.

  14. Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Definitions of religion come in many varieties. Seems to me the interesting point is the contrast between science and something of value that is not science. Does science explain/contain everything? Even in Dennett’s thinking there are “agents” and “persons” and “the elbow room to act.” By the time we get to The Most Complex Settings and their Objects, scientific understanding is one step behind, and that may be a good thing. A “person” and our social setting has many rules and Reasons of its own; not chemistry’s or physic’s. When scientist’s act they are persons acting for good reasons and how this is ‘caused’ is very hard to say! Maybe Hegel was right (just to seem pretentious): “the owl of Minera flies only at night.”

  15. Posted December 24, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I was tempted to respond to one of the commenters, a Sophisticated Philosophizer™ pontificating about how silly scientists are for trying to establish the truth when Sophisticated Epistemology™ recognizes there is not way to determine truth. (Forget for a moment that the sophisticated version of the ‘study of knowledge’ sez you can’t know anything.)

    But then I realized there was nothing of substance in all that blather & bluster to refute. That, and I forgot my password.

    • yazikus
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      I’m sure you’ve better things to do with your time, Matt! Rejoice!

  16. Serendipitydawg
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I have personally tried to explain this to him [Dan Dennetbut he is unwilling to consider any ideas that are not his own.

    I’m sorry, this nearly made me spit my festive Coynezaa eve beer (Spanish Cerveza De Navidad 2018 – brought by my wife’s brother from Spain as a ‘thanks for looking after my house’ present and highly recommended… who knew they did what would pass for a good British ale? 6.5%, glad I am catching up on recorded TV).

    • Serendipitydawg
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      I’m more drunk than I thought… I couldn’t even get the mark-up right. Oh well, roll on midnight.

  17. JAH43
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    C’mon. Quoting Dan Dennett for a definition of religion is like quoting Jerry Falwell for a definition of science.

    Couldn’t you find a source who was a little less flat-out partisan than one of the self-styled “Brights”?

    Objectivity is the hallmark of science.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Definitions of “religion” run all over the place. I’ve even got a vey large file of collected definitions from various sources. Many of them suffer from the problem of being either very vague or dependent on terms which themselves need definition.

      Dennett’s definition, however, is not out of line with definitions given by prominent believers, respected philosophers, or — yes — the dictionary.

      If the major argument people have with Jerry’s argument is semantics, then they’re quibbling. Someone who defines “God” as “whatever people care about” hasn’t really refuted atheism.

    • Posted December 24, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      I take the last sentence to be a slur, but I’ll ignore it. There is no “objective” definition, and Dennett’s is as good as any. It certainly characterizes the Abrahamic religions, which is what I was talking about.

      C’mon, stop using ad hominem arguments.

      • Posted December 24, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        No ad hominem. It should be possible to critique an argument without it being considered an insult. Not everyone who disagrees means to offend.

        • Posted December 24, 2018 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

          This is ad hom because you’re dismissing everything because the quote came from Dan Dennett–and just because he’s Dan Dennett. You are NOT critiquing an argument, you are dismissing someone’s argument because you don’t like Dan Dennett. Don’t do that.

          • Posted December 24, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

            Actually, I do not dislike Dan Dennett. On the contrary, I admire him a lot and his work even more. I have long used his book Consciousness Explained and benefited greatly from it in trying to understand, from a more evidenced-based point of view, the confused and misguided law regarding mental states in the Criminal Law.

            I do not even critique Dennett’s definition of religion–mostly because I don’t have a better one and. frankly, haven’t really thought about it. But I do think this: If one wants to make a persuasive argument that a system of conceptions is false and irreconcilable with science, and one chooses to start that argument with a working definition of that system, it is best to begin with a definition proposed by someone who is sympathetic to or, at least, neutral with respect to the system in question. Otherwise, the argument risks sounding like a strawman argument and will be greeted with unnecessary (and, perhaps, fatal) skepticism by any who don’t already agree with the conclusion that is being advocated.

            • Posted December 25, 2018 at 4:11 am | Permalink

              No, one uses a definition that makes sense. I have no idea whether Dennett agrees with my conclusion that science and religion are incompatible; I chose the definition because it comports with what most people construe as Abrahamic religion. Should I have used a definition concocted by someone who DISAGREES with my conclusion.

              It’s ridiculous that you beef about my use of “religion” when I chose it because it was concise and made sense. I don’t know whether Dan agrees with my conclusion. Even you say you don’t have a better one!

              That’s enough about this issue.

  18. Colin
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Being a “religious scholar” is like being a professional air guitarist.

    • Serendipitydawg
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      There is a world championship…

      • Serendipitydawg
        Posted December 24, 2018 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        Air guitar, that is, I don’t know about religious scholarship.

    • Posted December 24, 2018 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      No it isn’t! Air guitarists know there’s actually no guitar!

  19. Posted December 24, 2018 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    My definition of religion, at least Christianity, is Santa Claus for grown-ups.

  20. rickflick
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Oxford English Dictionary defines superstition:

    A religious system considered to be irrational, unfounded, or based on fear or ignorance; a false, pagan, or idolatrous religion.

    It sounds to me like a definition trying to exclude the major(including Abrahamic) religions. A Christian can use the definition to argue the term ‘superstition’ doesn’t apply to them since they are not definitionally not pagans.

    Objectively, however, all religions(including Christianity) are irrational and are based on ignorance.

    • Colin
      Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence of a lunatic asylum in Jerusalem.” Havelock Ellis

      • Frank Bath
        Posted December 24, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        Not Tom Paine?

        • Colin
          Posted December 24, 2018 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

          Not sure. I see both (Google) are credited with the quote.

    • Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Only applies to false religions.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 24, 2018 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        We all know which ones they are.

        • Posted December 24, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

          Too bad they did not include the list of the true ones in the definition. That would have cleared everything up for all time.

          • rickflick
            Posted December 24, 2018 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

            Yes, except your use of the plural is unfortunate. I will have to insist that only one can be correct and that’s mine. I.e. Mr. Toppings remark.

    • Posted December 24, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Superstition: See “Religions other than mine.”

  21. Mark Perew
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Defining religion as “a worldview with a ritual system” would allow political parties to declare themselves as religions.

    That is a horrifying consequence of absurd exercise in mental gymnastics.

  22. Sastra
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Unless a definition really misses the mark, most definitions are stipulative.They set out the terms of the discussion. The scholar of religion, by defining religion in a very broad way (or narrow way, take your pick) is simply explaining that he believes religious scholars study “worldviews with a ritual system.” Fine. Apparently that’s what they study.

    That doesn’t mean that Dennett’s definition is wrong. It doesn’t mean your points were wrong or that you”don’t get religion.” The letter write is basically whining about *vocabulary*.

    Big whippy do.

  23. Posted December 24, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the simplest definition of religion is:

    A worldview based on “facts” for which their is no evidence and, therefore, must be taken on faith. And rituals. So many rituals.

    • Posted December 24, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      That is a pretty good definition. It also includes rules and definitions of right and wrong/ethics/morals

  24. Posted December 24, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Indeed, other definitions of religion exists, the main other one is Durkheims. But that’s irrelevant. You clearly establish what you reference, how exactly it is named is irrelevant, making this yet another example of someone who is deliberately obtuse — apparently common among the religiously-impaired.

    Here is another take to counter this obtuseness. I’m confident it leads to only more obtuseness — but it’s entertaining to watch.

    All knowledge ever formulated was gathered and refined by humans. This is the naturalistic view of the world. Many groups exist (p1) who believe (p2) otherwise, namely that that some knowledge has supernatural origin with some important consequences (p3). The New Atheist argument is concerned with these three premises, we consider uncontroversal (note what is referenced: groups, that they believe something, and what those beliefs are, in broadest terms, not whether the beliefs are true).

    The groups are colloquially called “religions” that go by names such as catholics, baptists, sunnites, jews and so forth. If you, dear believer, object to this terminology or you feel this misses many things you hold dear, then consider these unmentioned elements irrelevant to the argument.

    A few caveats: Not all members of these groups also accept p2, and p3 and we‘re not overly concerned with them, however, they still lend support to their fellow religionists who do. Often times, members of these groups, play hide and seek, pretend they don‘t care about p2 and p3 until they are no longer challenged. They may also downplay p1, and make their beliefs and affiliation more general and broad, like pretending they are “Christians” or “Muslims” (implying also that p2 and p3 are unspecific). Those categories only work from the outside, as an attempt to reference a unspecified family of beliefs held by some religious group. It’s dishonest of members of such groups to use these broader categories, because an individual knows damn well what they believe! Enough of this dishonesty. And if they don‘t, they are unfit to argue about something they haven‘t made up their mind about.

  25. Mark R.
    Posted December 24, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I have studied religion for over 30 years.

    Talk about a waste of brainpower…can I haz my 30 years back?

  26. Posted December 24, 2018 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Religion is a worldview with a ritual system.

    Belief in tidiness is a religion then.
    Worldview: Tidiness is good.
    Ritual: Tidying stuff.

    Oh look, belief in education is a religion too!
    Worldview: Education is good.
    Ritual: Learning/Teaching.

    That definition is too broad. It encompasses all religions, sure, but it also includes a lot more than just religions.

    -Ryan

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 25, 2018 at 3:15 am | Permalink

      Hey – that’s not fair. You’re reading his words and not uncritically accepting the pronouncement from the NAMELESS ONE’S august heights. Don’t you realise that you’re disregarding his self-proclaimed GIFT of his career to educating YOU. Ingrate!
      What gives you the right to practice that most profane of practices, “critical thinking” on our NEW SAVIOUR.

  27. Posted December 25, 2018 at 4:40 am | Permalink

    If I were to define religion I would go as follows:

    A system of beliefs with a ritualistic component that grants authority to a priest-class on the basis of the authority of a third party.

    Religions can be both theistic and atheistic, though neither atheism nor theism are in and of themselves religious.

    Deism would serve as an example of theistic non-religion, whereas certain forms of Buddhism could class as example of atheistic religion.

    However the norm is for religions to be theistic and non-religion to be atheistic, thus why anti-theism is in practice an opposition to religion rather than theism itself.

    We don’t really have any problem with people who believe in some sort of higher power, provided they don’t think that higher power grants them some sort of special authority over others, or the ability to proclaim truths for which they have no evidence.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 25, 2018 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Your’s seems to be a particularly idiosyncratic definition designed to remove the idea of spirits and such. Few would agree to remove such “mysteries” from “religion”.

      • Posted December 25, 2018 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        I’m more aiming to keep the definition broad enough to include most religions, while narrow enough to remain meaningful.

        “Spirits” would be an example of those third parties I’m talking about – they may be fictional but they can be used as a source of authority.

        The thing is I’m not sure that they’re absolutely necessary to religion, so I didn’t include them in my base definition for the word.

        • GBJames
          Posted December 25, 2018 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

          “Spirits” is shorthand for “spiritual stuff”. You leave that part out and you’ve broadened your definition to be one that nearly every religious person would object to. (Sophisticated Theologians™ excepted.)

          • Posted December 26, 2018 at 2:15 am | Permalink

            I’m not sure that’s the case – I think they’d object to their religion being described sans spiritual stuff, but religion as a whole?

            I mean we’re talking about a wide variety of ideas and practices here, a definition would have to be very broad to cover it.

            • GBJames
              Posted December 26, 2018 at 9:58 am | Permalink

              If one broadens it enough it becomes meaningless. This is the practice of Sophisticated Theology™, determined to legitimize the beliefs of the theologian by blending faith with all manner of ideas and practices (except for bad practices which are always excluded).

              If you exclude the supernatural from religion you have gutted its meaning for nearly everyone, atheist and practitioner alike. The only people to benefit are those trying to muddy the issue.

              • Posted December 26, 2018 at 10:23 am | Permalink

                I think “supernatural” is really a somewhat derogatory term used by non-believers to describe those things in which a religious person has faith (ie, believes without requiring proof in the usual sense of the word). We nonbelievers use this word in order to stress that what they believe in lies outside the natural world, the world of visual evidence and proof. Believers don’t like this word because they like to pretend that these things in which they have faith are real. They want to reserve “supernatural” to refer to strange things others believe in and that do not exist.

                I’m sticking with faith as the common thread behind all religions.

              • Posted December 26, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

                I agree with GBJames.

                Also: « We nonbelievers use this word in order to stress that what they believe in lies outside the natural world, the world of visual evidence and proof. »

                But this is exactly what many believers claim! “You can’t use science to disprove God.”

                /@

                Sent from my iPhone

                >

              • Posted December 26, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

                I think you guys both missed the point I was making, which I guess means I was unclear. I was talking about who chooses to use the term, “supernatural”, not questioning the supernaturality of religious beliefs. And, as GBJames points out, the religious use words other than supernatural to describe them. And, as I also indicated, we nonbelievers use “supernatural” as derogatory which, of course, is why believers do not use it.

              • Posted December 26, 2018 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

                Ah. Gotcha.

                /@

                Sent from my iPhone

                >

              • GBJames
                Posted December 26, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

                I disagree. I think believers are perfectly happy to own a belief in the supernatural. They may, of course, use other words, too. Like “numinous”, “sacred”, “spiritual”, and “divine”. But there are very few who don’t include these words in describing their faith(s).

                Nevertheless, the word is somewhat derogatory in my lexicon, along with the other linguistic baggage of faith.

              • Posted December 27, 2018 at 6:09 am | Permalink

                I think religion, as I’ve defined it, is almost inevitably harmful.

                Because it bases its authority on a third party – it has to maintain the authority of the third party.

                This means that any threat to that authority is subject to violent reprisal.

                Look at how emotional religious fundamentalists get about defending their prophets from criticism. The emotional link to these figures – to the point where murdering fucks will kill over “disrespect” to them – is rooted in the authority derived from those prophets.

                For the religious extremist it is not God that is threatened by the non-believer, it is their own authority to tell people what to do in God’s name.

                In terms of healthy morality we don’t defend the strong from the weak, we do the exact opposite, yet under religious morality one is obliged to take offense on behalf of a being that is supposed to be able to rewrite the laws of reality itself.

                What do religious apologists have to say about a society without God – that it is supposed to be this supreme hellscape because suddenly they don’t have their source of “objective” morality anymore.

                It is all about maintaining the authority of that third party, in order to maintain the authority derived from it. The specific nature of that third party – whether it is a God or a Buddha or a supreme leader, is less important than the authority granted in its name.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted December 27, 2018 at 6:14 am | Permalink

                Excellent point!

              • GBJames
                Posted December 27, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

                “I think religion, as I’ve defined it, is almost inevitably harmful.”

                I don’t think the goal is to simply define something as harmful.

                If I define religion as rat poison are you happy? I’m not because it fails to capture critical features of religion.

              • Posted December 27, 2018 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                Bruce didn’t define religion as anything that’s harmful. He was just pointing out that religion, based on his definition, has a structure that makes it unavoidably harmful to the society in which it exists, or at least to its followers.

  28. Matt
    Posted December 25, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Nope, he’s not allowed to exclude religion’s supernatural claims from its definition.


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