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Friday, December 1, 2006

The R-word

I would like to make a plea to all philosophers, theologians, and others who would write formally on the topic of religion. But first some background...

Last Sunday my wife and I attended a presentation by Reverend Robert Tucker at a service of the Unitarian Fellowship of Houston. The presentation was, "A New Debate of Religions: Atheism and Belief". His presentation was a criticism of recent atheist authors such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. However it was his juxtaposition of religion and science that got me wondering about the use of the word 'religion'. Certainly, his use of the word was very different from Harris' use of it.

Then I thought about Buddhism. Some say it is a religion and some say it is a philosophy (or both). In another example, we have things like Humanism, which people also debate about as being a religion, or an alternative to religion. Even within the fundamentalist evangelical Christian movement, you have some Christians actually saying they 'aren't religious' - that it's "not about religion but about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ". My wife pointed out that when a person says they are a Christian, we really don't know much about what that even means. They could be a Jeffersonian deist, to a follower of the historic Jesus' teachings, to a liberal traditional Christian, to a fundamentalist evangelical biblical literalist, or anything in between.

More importantly, are the differences of meaning when it comes to serious formal articles and arguments on 'religion'. In some cases, the author may be speaking of a bundle of practices, traditions, and rituals - blurring the line with culture. In other cases 'religion' may mean a community of people. Then there is the 'religion' which refers to a body of beliefs, scriptures, myths, and dogma.

When Sam Harris criticizes religion, he is criticizing things like supernatural beliefs based on no evidence, dogmatism, violence, and so on. When asked, "what about Stalin?" he responds that what he's really talking about is more broad, and that what Stalin was practicing was a 'secular religion' just as steeped in the problems he is attacking as traditional religions are. When someone asks him about his support of certain Buddhist practices, he says that Buddhism isn't really a 'religion' in the same sense.

But consider people like Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) himself. As I have often mentioned, when he was asked about souls and the afterlife and such, he specifically said he had not elucidated on such things. And he said the reason he had not done so was because these things were not relevant to religion. The Buddha seems to have a completely opposite view of religion to Harris. To him, all of that stuff about superstition, dogmatism, and mythology is not religion, but rather true religion are those things which help us experience happiness and contentment in this life.

This is a similar view to that found in a quote often spuriously attributed to Einstein, "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. The religion which is based on experience, which refuses dogmatism. If there's any religion that would cope the scientific needs it will be Buddhism."

So here is my plea...

I would move that scholars, academics, theologians, philosophers, and anyone else involved in formal writing on these matters cease using the word 'religion' altogether. I would have it officially declared a nonsensical word with no formal value.

This would be similar to what has happened with the word "race" in formal biology circles. Race is no longer considered a real concept in biology. It's simply a cultural label applied to certain groups who have shared traits. According to biological science, if we took all the left handed people in the world and considered them "the race of left handed people", this would be as biologically irrelevant as "the race of dark skinned people" is.

Likewise, formal writers on matters of human spirituality should henceforth consider the word "religion" a layman's informal word - a cultural label with no concrete meaning of purpose in serious work.

If this practice were adopted, it would have several effects:

Firstly, we would have to develop a new vocabulary with formal functionality to it. As you can see above, I wasn't even able to write this article without paradoxically using the word 'religion' myself, so that you'd know what I was generally talking about. We have to find new ways of discussing these concepts that are more precise and meaningful.

The second effect of discarding the R-word is what I really like about the idea. That is that when people like Sam Harris and Reverend Tucker converse, it would force them to get on the same page. Instead of saying that religion is harmful, Harris would have to say that superstition is harmful. Instead of saying that religion helps people, Tucker would have to say that fellowship helps people.

I think we could get much further in debates and discussions if we stop relying on such a blunt term, and start focusing on the individual practices, beliefs, traditions, behaviors, and structures. In this way, we could carry on meaningful dialog without being distracted by the war on the side over what religion is or isn't. If we do this, it seems likely that we will be able to save a lot of time and see that we really agree on much more than we think we do.

I seriously doubt the term is actually going to be abandoned, but at least by thinking of the issues I've raised, it's my hope some people may not be so sidetracked by what is, in the end, a word that's more trouble than its worth.

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