In my post below I engage with some commenters in my perceptions of “what religion is.” To understand where I am coming from, I thought I would be explicit in some of my assumptions and models.
1) Modern religions often have some very specific beliefs about the nature of God. For example, the Western religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) tend to hod that God
a) is omniscient
b) is omnipotent
c) is omnibenevolent
There are deeper philosophical issues, for example, theologians often speak of the deity in negations because to define what God is is very difficult due to the nature of the subject. Nevertheless, I believe the assumptions above are ground rules which most can agree upon.
2) The process of deduction derives inferences from a set of axioms. Axioms, like the ones above, therefore can be used to generate a cognitive model of how a deity should behave in the mind of an individual. An omnipotent God, for example, is presumably lacking in some of the anxieties in regards to the control of the path of one’s life that wracks most humans. And, as a point of fact, God is often conceived to be “outside” of time and space.
3) Most modern montheists can respond with the above characteristics when queried verbally. In fact, most Christians can repeat the general outlines of the Trinitarian creed in regards to the Nature of God.
4) But, when theists are asked to generate a “story” extemporaneously which involves God, it tends to exhbit features within violate axioms a-c. In fact, the God generated extemporaneously by theists tends to be in contradiction to all of the points above, especially a & b. The reason the narratives are elicited without preperation and requested to be novel is so that the individual can not respond with memorized formulae, but, must take their cognitive model and generate de novo via a chain of implicit inferences.
5) These results tend to be cross-culturally robust. All varieties of theists, and even putative non-theists such as Therevada Buddhists, tend to “tell the same tales.”
6) The implication here is that there is a mental gap between what people say, and what they believe, and, what they believe they believe. This gap can be explained by the fact that there is a decoupling between the reflective conscious mind and the implicit assumptions and beliefs which one brings to the fore in ostensibly conscious exercises. It seems key that the fact is that it is impossible for humans to maintain a concrete model of a divine being of the sort which philosophical theists profess to believe in, explaining perhaps the round about techniques used to ascertain the charater of the deity. In contrast, humans can easily imagine a god which is rather like a super-human. The generation of narratives which reflect a model of super-human gods, as opposed to the God of the philosophers, implies that humans flip to their “default” models which they are primed to respond with their memorized formulae.
7) This is does not negate the reality that humans will kill each other over differences of theology. But, humans will also kill each other over sporting events (e.g. soccer hooliganism). It seems that humans have strong predispositions toward group conformity and affiliation, and notional markers which simply server to demarcate boundaries are crucial to this. A profession of faith which consists of words which are not well understood can suffice in these cases.
8) Why is this relevant? Because when individuals speak of religion they often construct models of human behavior which derive from a-c. To give a precise example, the sociologist of religion turned polemicist Rodney Stark argued that the Trinity was an optimal number of deities in One True God, the unitary God of the Jews and Muslims being too powerful and distant. But, the reality is that Muslims and Jews have almost the same models of the deity implicitly in their minds’ eye, and the veneration of rabbis and pirs serves as a “stand in” for a multiplicity of divine essences. Within Christianity Roman Catholicism’s reverence for the saints is explicitly analogized to polytheism by some thinkers (invariably non-Catholic of course).
9) For models to have inferential power they need to properly take into account all the relevant parameters. The conscious explicit mind is certainly not trivial, but we must not disregarded the framing mental architecture which is universally invariant.
Finally, as a postscript, the fact that theists imbue their beliefs about their beliefs with such ontological, or personal, value is important. Operationally in the day to day world I certainly do not dispute that what an individual says they believe and do is what they believe and do. Only as a matter of further rational analysis do I proceed to enter this mode, but unless we decompose the issues in such an artificial and controlled manner discourse is likely to be no better than gossip.
References: Theological Incorrectness.