A friend of mine, in taking me to task for my outspoken contempt for religion, has voiced the odd idea that the good parts of religion are real religion, while the bad parts are a “misuse” of religion.

It’s perfectly true that there are good parts of religion. Charitable giving, consolation in grief, the encouragement to cultivate some sort of mystic consciousness, even the beautiful ceremonies and the great songs — that stuff is all good.

But there are other parts. Burning people at the stake. Genital mutilation. The amassing of obscene wealth. Ostracism of and cruelty toward those who are different.

My friend maintains that those things aren’t true religion. But she’s wrong. She’s wrong for this precise reason: She has no right to define what religion is and what it isn’t. Nor do I. Religious people get to define that for themselves. If they say they’re murdering people for having the wrong religion (or for having no religion), that’s a true expression of their religion, because they say it is.

You don’t get to cherry-pick the good, nice parts and claim those parts are the essence of religion while the rest is human frailty or something of the sort, because you have no logical basis on which to do so. Religion is whatever the religious people say it is. If women’s health clinics are being closed through the industrious efforts of religious people (and they are), and if women are dying as a result (and they are), religion has murdered those women.

The awkward thing about religion, for apologists, is that it’s not fact-based. It’s fantasy-based. That being the case, it’s not possible to make a logical case that activities A and B are true expressions of religion while activities C and D, even though they’re being engaged in by religious people for self-professed religious reasons, aren’t true expressions. There are no facts upon which to use logic. Sorry — there just aren’t.

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7 thoughts on “A Small Distinction

  1. JIm, if I had said what you write I said, you might have a point. But you have completely misrepresented my point of view. I believe this misrepresentation stems from your insistence on defining the two sides of your argument — mine and yours. I don’t think you are interested in other points of view. Much like fundamentalists of all stripes, you seem to only be interested in the absoluteness of your point of view. I think it was John Cage who suggested throwing away the coin so it isn’t only one or the other.
    You have no idea what I have said to you. That is a fact.

    1. A little armchair psychology, eh, Karen? Rather than debate the point I’m making, you divert the discussion (or attempt to) into a personal attack on me. This is cheap. It’s shoddy. It’s unworthy of you, and it’s irrelevant. You’re now saying (a) that I insist on defining two sides, yours and mine; (b) that I am not interested in other points of view; (c) by inference, that I’m a fundamentalist; and (d) that I have no idea what you said.

      I will respond only to the fourth accusation. It is demonstrably false.

      The only quote from you in this blog post is the word “misuse.” Here is what you wrote in the FB thread: “It is a fact that religion has been misused.” That’s a direct quote. And my point (to return, if possible, to the point under discussion) is that when religion is used to oppress or murder people, it is NOT a “misuse” of religion. It is one of the many uses of religion. Those who do it would certainly deny that they are misusing their religion — and you and I have no standing with which to dispute them.

      We can certainly cite examples (pedophile priests, for instance) in which religious people misuse their office and their influence over others for personal and despicable ends. But that’s not a misuse of religion, per se, because pedophilia is not enshrined in Catholic doctrine. It’s a misuse of a social institution, not of religion. That’s not what I’m talking about — unless, of course, the priest invokes “God” to browbeat his victim into submission. That would be using religion.

      But dare we say it’s misusing religion? Clearly, the priest would have no doctrinal support for such a tactic. On the other hand, the Catholic Church quite routinely, and in accordance with doctrine, browbeats its believers into all sorts of unhealthy practices, many of which relate to sex. (Teenagers getting diseases or getting pregnant because they don’t have access to condoms, for instance.) In this case, the priest would be adopting for personal gain a tactic that is hallowed and protected by religious doctrine for many centuries. Catholicism can hardly be held blameless. More to the point, we can’t say that the routine practice of browbeating parishioners into passive obedience is a misuse of religion. It’s clearly integral to Catholicism, which in all likelihood would have died out centuries ago without it.

      If a guy says his religion commands him to kill a doctor who performs abortions, we can legitimately say that he’s a monster — but we can’t say that he’s misusing his religion. On the contrary: He is following what he conceives of as the dictates of his religion, in precisely the same way that someone else feeds the poor according to the dictates of their religion. Religion is whatever religious people say it is.

      We can look at it from the other angle. An Episcopal priest, let us say, officiates at the wedding of a same-sex couple. You and I would agree that this is a wonderful, enlightened, and spiritual thing for the priest to do — but someone else (perhaps from the Anglican community in Africa, where I’ve read they hold less enlightened views) would insist that the priest is misusing his religion and doesn’t understand Christian doctrine and God’s will at all.

      Who’s right in this case, and who’s wrong? As secular humanists, you and I can certainly say who’s good and who’s evil — but we can’t say which of these people (the doctor murderer or the officiating priest) is misusing their religion. They are both using their religion properly, in the manner in which they understand it.

      For you or I to insert ourselves into the theological debate on these questions and attempt to convince one religious person that he or she is “misusing” religion would be ridiculous. We have no standing with which to do so — and indeed NOBODY has any standing to do so, because there is no logical basis whatever for asserting that one religious doctrine is true and another is false.

      I remain hopeful that I’ve explained the situation clearly enough now that you’re able to grasp what I’m saying. If you’d like to discuss the topic further, that would be great. But personal attacks will be deleted.

  2. Jim, you really don’t have any idea of what I’m trying to say because you want to keep the “debate” narrow. I’m trying to get it out of a debate — throw away the coin. Again, I would recommend reading Karen Armstrong. Read her. Don’t read her. The choice is yours.

    1. I take it you have no substantive response to the above. I therefore conclude that either you agree with me, or you feel unable or unwilling for some reason to engage in a discussion of what I’ve said. I won’t try to guess what your reason might be.

      You, on the other hand, seem to have very little compunction about shooting from the hip in assessing what I want or don’t want.

      If you want to say something, Karen, you can avail yourself of a relatively simple procedure: Say it. Keeping your ideas to yourself and then berating others for allegedly not understanding you is not, generally speaking, a helpful approach. Depending on your goal, of course. It may accomplish what you’re hoping to accomplish (whatever that may be), but it certainly doesn’t help people understand your ideas.

      1. So you’re refusing to share your views with us. At best, that’s cowardly. At worst, it’s an admission of intellectual bankruptcy.

        I feel confident that most readers wouldn’t even understand what “parameters” you’re talking about. They exist only in your own mind.

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