From Liberty Street: Misunderstanding A Word

John Turner

Too many people, including some reputable scholars, employ the word “religion” as though it referred to a clearly delineated body of thought and action. The truth, of course, is that “religion” is used to designate a gigantic diversity of attitude, ranging from the most ignorant and vicious superstition to thoughtful efforts to discern meaning in human existence. The word standing by itself means virtually nothing. Consequently, people who praise or denounce it comprehensively are blowing smoke. That’s my main criticism of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion which I read recently. It’s a sprightly book and makes a number of valid points about illogical belief. But too often it descends into a diatribe against all manifestations of religion as though they were all, at bottom, the same thing.

It’s only fair to admit that Dawkins does try to distinguish between worship of god as a big, generally vindictive, guy in the sky and various forms of pantheistic awe. The latter Dawkins is not willing to call religion. And we have to admit that pantheism is not what most people have in mind when they describe themselves as persons of faith. Still, his attempt to limit “religion” to what most well-read people see as gross superstition seems overly restrictive.

There are some words which wear out their useful lives and start to inject more confusion than clarity into discourse. “Religion” is probably one of them. But that’s not going to cause it to be used any less frequently.

Since we can’t escape the term we had best force ourselves to recognize that some forms of religion have stepped well outside the bounds of sanity. Chief among them in the United States is the habit of interpreting ancient texts to support the nastiest and most bigoted sentiments among us. No matter how holy one says a book is, using it to deny decent treatment to any portion of the population or to justify lethal attacks on people outside this country, is the act of an ignoramus, a charlatan, an autocrat, or a mixture of all three.

One of Dawkins’s most fervent theses is the unfairness and illogic of sheltering social and political attitudes under the rubric of religion in order to make them immune to criticism. If you can manage to get an idea labeled as an article of faith, says Dawkins, you have gone a long way towards removing it from critical examination, even if it’s clearly deranged or vicious.  Such special treatment for religious ideas has to stop if we’re ever to have a chance for an equitable political discourse. If people can put their selfish ideas forward in a way that removes them from scrutiny, then more and more political operatives will rush to embrace the technique. We’ve seen that happen with the Republican Party over the past two decades, leading to a political climate both virulent and beyond the reach of reason. The development of intelligent design is an example of deploying fake science to promote thought patterns reflective of a flaccid electorate.

Until recently, I had thought that religious credulity was a harmless, if annoying, habit. So what, I would say to myself, if people want to convince themselves they believe fantastic schemes of history and causation? But a month’s sojourn in Florida’s Hardee County has, at long last, shown me that convictions of that sort inevitably bring forth repressive social values. If a person deactivates his mind in a significant area of inquiry he is unlikely to think intelligently about anything involving human meaning. Non-critical minds can master complicated technical systems -- reflecting a form of intelligence -- but they cannot reason about wisdom or justice. And they are depressingly susceptible to blatant measures of political manipulation.

I’m not such a conspiracy theorist as to think that a cabal of politicians is deliberately deadening the minds of the citizenry in order to push a program of plutocratic control. But a political system doesn’t have to be either deliberate or conscious to behave as if it were. In fact, manipulation works better for people like Karl Rove if they don’t fully recognize what they are doing. They do know, however, that voters who swallow religious doctrines uncritically are less likely to examine the actual workings of government and more willing to accept hierarchical decision-making. So the most poorly informed sections of the population are flattered with smarmy terms like “the heartland” and “regular Americans” and “people of faith” in order that their rulers can push schemes to reward themselves.

I’m not ready to go all the way with Richard Dawkins. There are forms of religion that deepen our minds and urge us towards humane social practice. But there are also forms which do just the opposite. And we need to start calling the latter what they are. “Trust and Obey,” as the old hymn intones, is not a program for building a finer America.

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Harvard Square Commentary, November 27, 2006