In this increasingly complicated world, rapid change has become the norm in just about every human endeavor. Technology advances at a rate that can be intimidating, even frightening. The technological revolution has changed our world forever. For example, the number of text messages sent in one day is double the population of the entire planet. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s knowledge has been accumulated in the last two years. In 1900, human knowledge doubled every one hundred years. Today, it doubles every thirteen months and prognosticators estimate that by 2020, it will double every 12 hours. Our world is changing in numerous other ways. One of these is in what I call the linguistic revolution. Words are constantly being re-evaluated and their meanings changed, affecting each of us in many different ways. Political boundaries are becoming more and more difficult to define. The word family means different things to different people. Even religion has been re-defined innumerable times over the years by people holding vastly diverse world views. These changes are due primarily to the rise of the technological revolution. This article will examine how religion is and has been defined and offer what I believe should be the definitive definition. As we will see, diversity exists not only among those calling themselves religious, but even within the atheist and freethought communities. As an atheist, I am certain that my definition will offend the religious. It will no doubt also anger many atheists. Nonetheless, I feel that the time has come for an objective, no holds barred definition of the true nature of religion.
Let us start off with the definition offered by the Oxford American dictionary. It consists of three separate units, as follows:
1) Belief in the existence of a superhuman controlling power, especially of God or gods, usually expressed in worship;
2) A particular system of faith and worship, the Christian religion;
3) Something compared to religious faith as a controlling influence on a person’s life, football is his religion. (1)
Notice that the first two rest and depend upon a supernatural interpretation of the world and universe. The third is an analogy which has nothing to do with supernaturalism but rather denotes fanatical devotion; hence we derive the word fan to describe a lover of football (or of any other secular interest). Since time immemorial the first two, with minor variations, have been the accepted definitions of what constitutes religion. Notice that these foundational definitions are completely absent in the third definition, which is really nothing more than a secular analogy to the fanatical nature of religion. Unfortunately, there are many today who wish to blur the issue of what religion is; in this country we have Christians who wish to label Humanism (and even atheism) a religion, and we have a minority of atheists who wish to call themselves religious. Both, for vastly different reasons, want to align religion with secularism.
Humanism is a secular i.e. non-theistic philosophy which recognizes that if we are to better the human condition, it is up to us to do it; no god or other supernatural agent is going to save us from our excesses and errors. Humanists can either be theists or atheists; many in the religious community also share Humanistic values. The difference is that they generally accept supernatural premises, while secularists do not. By contrast, the more fundamentalist Christians want to include non-believers in their insanity by labeling Humanism a religion while conveniently ignoring contrary evidence and facts, including the above definitions. Turning the United States into a fundamentalist Christian theocracy is their goal. For those of such a mindset, Humanism is a “worldview” and thus a religion. Their reasons for labeling Humanism (and atheism) a religion are multitudinous, but the main one is that, by doing so, they hope to eliminate all secular influences, particularly philosophy and science, from the classroom. Evolution, their favorite whipping boy, would therefore be labeled a humanistic “faith” and consequently banished from the classroom. Thus we see that any attempt to define Humanism and atheism as religious plays right into the hands of the religious extremists. That is the danger inherent in redefining religion and religious terms.
That any self-proclaimed secular Humanist or atheist would want to call themselves religious defies any kind of rational verisimilitude. To do so, one must ignore the essence of what religion has always been defined as (as shown in the definitions above) and replace these older definitions with some kind of new-age definition that they think works to their advantage and/or to the advantage of society as a whole.
What are the motivations behind this effort? Fear of offending the religious community is certainly one factor. Recognizing that religion has, however wrongly, always been viewed as benevolent by the community at large, secularists who want to redefine and identify with religion are attempting to align themselves with the religious to demonstrate that we all share the same fundamental values. However, such is certainly not the case since the real religious “fundamental values” are all based on supernaturalism, folklore, and superstition.
The historical track record of religion is undeniable: religion has caused more bloodshed, more suffering, and more death than any other idea in human history. The reason for this is inextricably intertwined with the two fundamental definitions of religion offered above. Since no supernatural belief can be rationally defended (or even defined), adherents, failing to persuade outsiders of their faith’s alleged verities, have no alternative other than resorting to force, or to the threat of force. This is the number one lesson to be learned from an objective study of religious history. Religion, by its very nature, has always had violence or the threat of violence as a core component.
But how about today? Certainly, most people today who define themselves as Christians (or of any other faith) are not violent fanatics; they have risen above the primitive morality of their religion’s moral tenets. But this fact does not obviate the true nature of religion. Today’s liberal Christianity is vastly different from the halcyon Christian days of witch burnings and Inquisitions. Is this because the moderates have somehow discovered the “true” nature of religion which managed to escape earlier generations? I think not. Rather it is due to the secular revolution that took place a few centuries ago, which we know as the Enlightenment, based on humanistic principles. Bertrand Russell said it best when he noted that the Enlightenment served to make the dogmatists “less dogmatic.”
Not surprisingly, the Enlightenment was fought tooth and nail by the church. When its advantages became too obvious to deny, the church gradually did an about face and, while still condemning Humanism, quietly incorporated most of its ideas into its own realm. Ignoring their own history and traditions, new religious leaders began insisting that the values of Humanism and rationality were in fact, the core values of religion. This verbal sleight of hand is where the blurring of definitions actually began; for religion, is was a simple question of adapting in order to survive. To cite but one of countless examples, after damning medicine for hundreds of years as being against the will of god, once science proved its benefits Christian hospitals began to spring up and people conveniently ignored the historical animosity of religion toward medicine.
By its very nature, religion has always been anti-progressive and conservative. Those aligning themselves with the religious right-wing today are in fact the most consistent of Christians, at least in this regard. But consistency does not automatically equate either with being correct or with moral rectitude.
The September/October 2015 issue of The Moral Atheist contains two articles that address the issue of how to define religion. The first is by Marie Castle entitled “How Redefining Religion Undermines the Constitution’s Religion Clauses.” In this excellent article, Castle asks why the Texas freethought group known as the “North Texas Church of Freethought” couldn’t avoid confusion by calling themselves the “North Texas Community of Freethought.” (2) This is a crucial point; calling a freethought group a church can only create confusion as it aligns the freethought community in most people’s eyes with a word exclusively associated with the religious community. Since the time of William Shakespeare, the number of words in the English language has quintupled. There is no point in calling atheism a religion or our meeting places a church. Let us instead coin new words for new situations.
Tim Gorski, founder of the North Texas Church of Freethought wrote the second article referred to above. Gorski notes that many secular ideas and pursuits “all fold into ‘religion’ understood broadly.” (3) He notes justice, fairness, and responsibility as among those virtues we all are supposed to share. However, Gorski’s definition is too broad. The problem is that these virtues are not core elements of religion, in any traditional definition of the word; they are secondary at best. This is an example of the fallacy of the stolen concept, first coined by Ayn Rand. This fallacy is seen when one uses a concept while denying or ignoring “the validity of its generic roots, i.e., of an earlier concept(s) on which it logically depends.” (4). In other words, this fallacy means to define words by non-essentials. Gorski wants to redefine the word religion to include these values in the mistaken assumption that accepting them is the essence of what religion is. This if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-em attitude, besides ignoring history, will not work; supernaturalism is the fundamental issue here; it is what separates the secularist from the supernaturalist. This cannot be rationalized away by insisting that secularism and religion are two sides of the same coin. As demonstrated above, this can only be counter-productive and detrimental to the freethought community.
Gorski also says that “It is clear that supernaturalism need not be a part of a worldview that is religious in its character.” (5) It may be clear to Gorski, but he is not speaking for the entire freethought community and should choose his words more carefully. If you have supernaturalism in your worldview, you have a religion; if you don’t, you have a philosophy. It need not be more complicated than that. I have no supernaturalism in my worldview, and I deny that this makes me religious! I have no doubt in saying that most atheists would agree with me. Gorski has unquestionably done much good for the freethought community for which we are all thankful, and he is certainly welcome to call his group whatever he and they wish to call it, but his right to hold a dissenting view on what constitutes religion does not make his dissenting view right. His goal is admirable: He wants to make society more secular. However, I can only see his method giving the fanatics more ammunition and enabling them to call atheism “just another religion.” Is that what we want?
The blurring of word definitions has other ramifications, as Castle notes in her article. She notes “Crosses on public land are declared secular monuments; atheist organizations that protest tax breaks for religion are told to just call themselves a church and they can get the same breaks.” (6) Some of the consequences of all this word redefining are actually comical: The Church of the Latter Day Dude and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are secular organizations that call themselves churches in order to get past the bias against having secular marriages. While this may serve to make the word church appear silly, it makes secularism look even sillier.
I will now offer my own definition of what religion is. Religion is an anti-rational system of thought and action that elevates non-existence above existence and death above life. I have promulgated this definition not only because it is true, but also because I feel that if humanity is still around in future centuries, it will have long since recognized the folly of magical thinking in all its multitudinous manifestations. As Castle wisely noted in an email to me, “religions themselves have created a whole bunch of ‘nones’ by their stupid doctrines and heavy handed attempts to impose them on society.” This is the trend of recent history; across the globe, more and more people are identifying themselves as non-religious. Religions, in their earliest pristine states, set out to destroy reason, making them not irrational, but anti-rational. They elevate gods, which do not exist, above humans, and it posits a pie in the sky reward not here on earth, but, conveniently for religion, after we die. Since there is no life after death, religion is promoting death (which they call an “afterlife”) as the ultimate human value rather than life.
I hold no illusions that mine will become the accepted definition of religion any time soon. But if there are still people around in the distant future, I also have no doubts that religion will be recognized as a philosophy of death (the title of my still unfinished book).
Those of us in the freethought community, more than any other group, need to be exact in our word usage, for our words and documents will be placed under the microscope by our opponents and ruthlessly examined for inconsistencies and errors of logic. I can only wince imagining Christian Right attorneys like Jay Sekulow tearing us apart on the witness stand. Why give them the ammunition to destroy us?
- Oxford American Dictionary. Published 1980 by Oxford University Press, New York.
- The Moral Atheist September/October 2015. Pg. 4
- ibid pg. 6
- The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z. Published by Meridian Books, 1988
- The Moral Atheist September/October 2015 pg. 7
- ibid pg. 5
By: Jon Nelson