The Problem with “Religion”
There’s a big problem with “religion”. No, this isn’t going to be a tirade against how “it” supposedly brainwashes people, or how “it” starts wars, or how “it” is a massive affront to reason. No, this is about the actual word, the label itself, and how it’s used – especially amongst the anti-theist and anti-religionist crowd of atheists, because holy fuck those people can be stupid when they want to be.
The problem with “religion”? “Religion” doesn’t exist.
See, people treat “religion”, like it’s a thing.
But it’s not a thing. You can’t find it anywhere. Sure, we might imagine something like a hypothetical “generalised” religion, much like the “generalised mollusc” anatomy, but that doesn’t mean such a thing exists in reality. We’d have a hard time finding this “religion” anywhere. No one follows “religion”. No one is part of “religion”. And if I type “religion” once more I’m going to have a bad time.
No, “religion” is not a thing. It’s more like a bucket.
We put stuff into this bucket based on a few superficial similarities. Things like “believes in a creator deity”, or “provides a moral code”, or something more abstract. But those similarities are superficial and generic, they overlap and criss-cross and can be quite complicated. They’re not universal, they’re not essential, there isn’t even a single common thread uniting everything in the bucket. Not all religions believe in an almighty God. Not all religions propose supernatural processes. Not all religions fleece followers of money, and not all religions profess a love for peace.
Often, the differences are far more striking than the similarities.
When you step back and think about it, it does seem strange what does go into the bucket and what doesn’t. Pick any attribute ascribed to “religion”, and you’ll be able to find a good few exceptions; “religions” that don’t posses that attribute or “not-religions” that do.
Few people ever reach into the bucket to examine its contents; they’re stuck with looking at the bucket and simply declaring universal truths about it as if it was a thing. By no means are these declarations universally negative in the way anti-religionists use them (“religion is against reason”, “religion is harmful”, “religion is child abuse”), many of the positive assertions also do this in exactly the same way (“religion is necessary”, “religion answers the big questions”, “religion should be respected”).
Sometimes this is quite convenient. It would be a pain in the ass to refer to tall wooded objects with leaves if it wasn’t for the concept of a “tree”. But this comes at the price of, on occasion, mistaking the bucket for a real thing and then making mass generalisations about what it holds. People assume animist religions are “bullshit” for the same reasons creationism is total and utter crock. They assume Hinduism is interchangeable with Islam – or that neither have the same kind of internal sub-divisions as Christianity does, completely blind to their own geographic biases. Is atheism a religion? Well, the answer to that is actually far more complicated than “is bald a hair colour?”
Getting rid of the buckets probably isn’t an option. The world is just too big and complicated to go without them. Even fuzzy buckets would just break peoples’ brains eventually. All the inclusions, exclusions, exceptions, partial truths and partial matches would be too much information for us to handle.
Instead, we simply need better, more useful, more appropriate buckets for the task.
It’s a much better approach just to simply categorise things better. But it does require some effort, especially when language and society is already rigged for the inefficient and crap version, which splits the world in to “religion” and “not-religion” and says one is good and the other is bad. You need to look into things and pick out what’s bad and what’s good. Then separate it out, and deal with things specifically. The phrase “all religion is bad” is absolutely meaningless; but if the average non-believer admitted that, and tried to say “behaviour that ostracises and demonises the out-group is harmful”, they they’d run the risk of turning a critical eye on their own behaviour. That’s not a comfortable thought, and it’s no wonder people avoid it.
This is why anger at “religion” is misplaced – and why thinking that anger directed at specific components found in the religious bucket is anger at “religion” is a foul misinterpretation. There is a “bad shit” bucket out there, and it’s something worth getting angry about – in fact, it’s a better question to ask why people don’t feel that these things are worth getting angry about. At the same time, though, there’s a “good shit” bucket (or even a “meh bucket”) and lumping that all in with “stuff worth getting angry about” is, at best, just wasted effort.
But always remember, the bucket itself can’t harm people; its contents do.