Why I Eat Fish on Fridays

To say I’m a lapsed Catholic would be an understatement. I haven’t set foot in a church in years, other than for a couple of weddings. I’ve never cared for parts of the official doctrine, and I think they blew it when they made Giblets Pope. In terms of general attitude toward religion, I’m sort of an apathetic agnostic– I don’t know if there’s a God, and I don’t much care.

And yet, I make at least some effort to not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. I don’t do all that well, because I’m a little absent-minded (I usually forget it’s Friday until I’m halfway through a cheeseeburger), but I do make an effort in that direction. My reasons for this aren’t entirely rational, but I’ll offer an explanation of sorts after the cut, along with some armchair sociology that will serve as my comment on the religion in politics thing (alternate post title: “Why I’ll Never Get a Tenth of PZ’s Traffic”). This will probably be somewhat scattered, and not entirely coherent, but it’s a blog post, not a philosophical monograph.

The way I see it, there are basically three things that get lumped together under the heading of “religion” these days. There’s a bit of mythology, a bit of moral philosophy, and a whole bunch of cultural and social stuff.

The mythology part is the “just-so stories” that go along with the faith in question– creation stories, past miracles, present miracles. This is where most of the conflicts with science arise, because most of the mythology associated with various religions is frankly impossible, and the remainder is highly improbable.

The moral philosophy part is the set of instructions about how to treat other people, and what you can and cannot do. There are parts of this that overlap with the mythology, such as the Almighty’s implacable hatred of crustaceans (or various more serious issues that I’m not going to talk about now– one flamewar at a time), but most of it is fairly unobjectionable, at least on paper. You get about the same results, ethics-wise, from following religious precepts that you do from trying to behave in accordance with the ethical principles of your favorite philosopher (which isn’t terribly surprising, as most of it is common-sense stuff).

The cultural and social stuff is, well, everything else. It’s all the accretion of human activity around the various religions. The charitable organizations, and bake sales, and sports leagues, along with the various traditions and rituals. It’s where and how often people go to worship, and what they do when they’re there, and what they do or don’t eat and when. They’re all things that the congregation does as a group.

In my view, this is where most of the good things happen, and cultural and social factors account for most religious people’s attachment to their religion. There are some people out there who are wired a little funny, and pursue religion as an entirely or primarily solitary experience, but for the most part, people belong to a church the way they belong to any other group, and the cultural and social traditions of that church are what hold the group together.

This is all identity stuff, and that’s what I’m honoring when I go out of my way on Friday to find edible seafood, rather than just eating the leftover chicken in the fridge. It’s a cultural thing, a tribute to my parents and grandparents, the same as the oplatek ritual at Christmas Eve dinner, or (for a wholly secular example), saying “Na zdrowie” as a toast rather than “cheers.” My family background is a big part of who I am, and eating more fish than usual in early spring is a nod in that direction.

The social aspect is also, in my opinion, where most atheists run into a wall when dealing with religious people– they misunderstand what people get out of the whole deal. People aren’t religious, by and large, because they need a crutch for their moral sense, or because they derive some existential comfort from the creation story of their particular faith. They’re in it for the benefits of belonging to the group– the bake sales and pancake breakfasts, the charitable organizations and sports leagues, the weekly gathering with friends and neighbors. They get rituals to mark important moments, and a whole community to celebrate births and weddings and other liminal moments, and a whole community to mourn with them over the passing of loved ones.

This is also why aggressive atheism is so radioactive politically. Atheists mostly get worked up about the mythological aspects of religion, but what religious people hear is an attack on the cultural and social aspects of their identity. You may think you’re only denouncing belief in the supernatural, but they think you’re denouncing the church socials and youth organizations, and people coming around the house to visit after a relative dies. And that’s political suicide.

The number of people for whom the literal truth of Genesis is a make-or-break proposition is relatively small, and there are large and successful denominations that happily accept the Bible account as a metaphor. The number of people for whom the existence of church-run social events is a make-or-break proposition is vastly larger. And when you start ranting about the need to expunge all traces of religion from public life, they recoil, not because they’re worried about the mythology or moral philosophy, but because they fear the loss of the social aspects of religion, and there’s nothing on offer to replace them. And that fear can easily be exploited by religious demagogues for political gain.

How do you separate those elements, to make atheism more acceptable, and reduce the influence of the really pernicious sorts of religion in politics? I have no idea. Atheist society picnics and bowling leagues?

I’m pretty sure that the answer isn’t to scream louder and stamp your feet harder, though. Whatever the correct approach turns out to be, it will require some recognition of and respect for the role that the social and cultural aspects of religion plays in determining the identity of the religious. I don’t see a lot of that around at the moment, which is why I find most on-line debates about how liberals should approach religion so incredibly depressing (Dave Munger offers a rare exception). Which, in turn, is why I don’t talk about it much– much as I would like to draw more traffic here, I’ve got enough stress without the attacks that follow any call for moderation.

(Note: this was actually written before Sean Carroll’s recent post, which says some very sensible things. I’m solidly in the “strategist” category of his classification system, and while I have a slight quibble with the use of “intellectual” as the name for the other category (real intellectual engagement precludes contempt), he’s got the split right. This reminds me that I really ought to post something about the student panel discussion on atheism that I went to a couple of weeks back. Maybe later, when typing isn’t likely to screw up my shoulder.)

Comments

  1. #1 Brian Postow
    March 20, 2006

    I agree with you on your distinctions. As a Jew who takes some of the dietary restrictions somewhat seriously (I don’t eat pork or shellfish, but that’s about it) I would put those in the cultural section as well. I guess my point is that where you put various aspects of a religion is also a flexible thing.

    A friend of mine was once trying to figure out the difference between Presbyterians and Methodists. His conclusion was that Presbyterians didn’t have enough covered dish suppers, and were therefore heretical. Again, merging the categories…

  2. #2 John
    March 20, 2006

    What I fear is happening in American religion is that people for whom the last two categories were prominent are falling off, either in practice or in belief. These two are really the moderating influences, I think. So what we are left with is the first – the people for whom the mythology is primary – and I think this group is more likely to be radicalized than the others.

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    March 20, 2006

    I agree completely with the cultural distinction — I’d self-identify as a cultural Lutheran, for instance. But you should also note that the culture war is not being waged by the atheists: all the atheists I know thought the “War on Christmas” peddled by O’Reilly and others was pretty darned hilarious, since most atheists actually celebrate some version of a midwinter holiday as a perfectly reasonable way to embrace cultural traditions.

    I will disagree that intellectual engagement precludes contempt. Often, a solid intellectual foundation leaves room for nothing but contempt for those who disregard it: how else do you handle the KKK, holocaust revisionists, white supremacists, and terrorists/suicide bombers? With deep respect for their profundity?

  4. #4 Jeff
    March 20, 2006

    You get about the same results, ethics-wise, from following religious precepts that you do from trying to behave in accordance with the ethical principles of your favorite philosopher

    Machiavelli…?

    I like your take on these issues, Chad, and I largely agree with your classifications. The problem, as always, comes that the ones with the loudest voices are those firmly on the literal side of the mythology camp.

  5. #5 Sean Carroll
    March 20, 2006

    I have no trouble with the cultural aspects of religion, either; I suspect that most people don’t. (Although, like you say, plenty of religious people feel like their culture is being attacked when atheists are outspoken.) I like the cathedrals and the music, and forgoing cheeseburgers on Fridays is no more or less problematic than green beer on St. Patrick’s day. (Or does that count as a religious tradition?)

    Problem is, both the good and bad cultural parts of religion are justified on the basis of theology. If someone says that gay marriage is wrong because it’s been rejected by their society for thousands of years, we can have a reasonable discussion with some hope of minds being changed. If they say that it’s wrong because it’s in the Bible, there’s no hope. We should just admit that the mythology stuff is mythology, keep the fun cultural stuff (I’m definitely a pro-Xmas atheist), and jettison the supernatural baggage. Easier said than done, of course.

  6. #6 Mike Kozlowski
    March 20, 2006

    So everything you’re saying sounds true to me — but that’s because we’re both lapsed Catholics, and Catholicism these days is a pretty mild religion. When you start talking about the more evangelical and fundamentalist religions, what you’re saying is wrong. They don’t get together in ways that are incidental to the supernatural and “moral” aspects of religion; they get together in ways that are shockingly frequently ABOUT the supernatural and “moral” bits.

    I mean, as a Catholic, the idea of “bible study” sounds preposterous. Grown adults getting together to seriously analyze the Bible in a formal, weekly scheduled setting? No fucking way! And yet, they do that, and they really talk about the Bible.

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    March 20, 2006

    PZ: I will disagree that intellectual engagement precludes contempt. Often, a solid intellectual foundation leaves room for nothing but contempt for those who disregard it: how else do you handle the KKK, holocaust revisionists, white supremacists, and terrorists/suicide bombers?

    I think if you start out approaching them as deserving of contempt, you have no chance of understanding why they believe the obnoxious things that they do. And that’s the important thing, from an intellectual perspective. You don’t have to agree with their views, but you have to be willing to engage with them as human beings, albeit possibly damaged ones.

    Jeff: I like your take on these issues, Chad, and I largely agree with your classifications. The problem, as always, comes that the ones with the loudest voices are those firmly on the literal side of the mythology camp.

    And the anti-mythology camp. Which is why we end up having hand-wringing discussions about liberal attitudes toward religion, and the role of religious liberals in the first place.

    Sean: Problem is, both the good and bad cultural parts of religion are justified on the basis of theology. If someone says that gay marriage is wrong because it’s been rejected by their society for thousands of years, we can have a reasonable discussion with some hope of minds being changed. If they say that it’s wrong because it’s in the Bible, there’s no hope.

    I’m not sure how much hope there is in the face of tradition alone, to be honest. Inertia is a powerful thing. You rarely see the two aspects completely separated, either, so it’s hard to find something that’s just tradition, with no theology, or just theology, with no tradition.

    Mike: So everything you’re saying sounds true to me — but that’s because we’re both lapsed Catholics, and Catholicism these days is a pretty mild religion. When you start talking about the more evangelical and fundamentalist religions, what you’re saying is wrong. They don’t get together in ways that are incidental to the supernatural and “moral” aspects of religion; they get together in ways that are shockingly frequently ABOUT the supernatural and “moral” bits.

    Well, the original context for this was a discussion of liberal attitudes toward religion, and how politically liberal people ought to approach the subject, so I’m sort of implicitly excluding those people for whome the literal truth of Genesis is a bedrock principle. Even in some of the more hard-core churches, though, I’d say that the social parts are more important than most people think– these things are always done in groups, after all.

    I mean, as a Catholic, the idea of “bible study” sounds preposterous. Grown adults getting together to seriously analyze the Bible in a formal, weekly scheduled setting? No fucking way! And yet, they do that, and they really talk about the Bible.

    You might be surprised at how much of this stuff there is in Catholicism these days…

  8. #8 Daryl McCullough
    March 20, 2006

    Chad, your distinction is what I think Chomsky was getting at in the interview discussed here. He considers his religion (Judaism) to be a matter of practice, rather than belief. Of course, the fundamentalists/evangelicals (I’m not sure I understand the distinction) tend to consider the mythology the only important part. A lapsed Catholic is still culturally a Catholic. A secular Jew is still culturally a Jew. But a lapsed fundamentalist is just an atheist. (Not that there is anything wrong with that…)

  9. #9 wolfgang
    March 20, 2006

    I like your post. I would just add that most people (all?) (want to) believe that there is some meaning to (their) life and some reason for the world to exist.
    And religion provides this reason and meaning for many.
    Scientists obviously believe that “the world” makes sense also, otherwise what would be the point of exploring it.

  10. #10 Roman Werpachowski
    March 20, 2006

    Chad, are you of Polish origin? (I ask because of the oplatek you’ve mentioned).

    I think people also use religion as some sort of moral compass, which makes them do what they otherwise think is correct, but sometimes lack the courage or determination to do.

  11. #11 Chad Orzel
    March 20, 2006

    Daryl: Chad, your distinction is what I think Chomsky was getting at in the interview discussed here.

    I hope so, because that’s where I ran across the term “moral philosophy,” which is one of the things that led to this post.

    Roman: Chad, are you of Polish origin? (I ask because of the oplatek you’ve mentioned).

    My father’s family is Polish– my grandfather was born in the US in 1915, a matter of months after his parents arrived, having left Poland to avoid being drafted into the Russian army. A good career move, on the whole…

    They settled in the Binghamton area, as part of a very large Eastern European community, and hung on to a lot of Polish traditions (in slightly modified forms, for the most part). We still do the Christmas Eve dinner every year, and the bridal dance at most of the weddings of kids in my generation (a couple of pictures are here).

    My mother’s family is German and Irish, and doesn’t really keep any ethnic traditions (they’ve been in the US longer, as well). They’re also Catholic, so the religious stuff is the same.

  12. #12 Roman Werpachowski
    March 21, 2006

    We still do the Christmas Eve dinner every year, and the bridal dance at most of the weddings of kids in my generation (a couple of pictures are here).

    It must be some dance unknown to me ;-) Do you do smigus-dyngus, too ?

  13. #13 EdiRumano
    March 21, 2006

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, but this is my first post. I have to say I disagree with your distinction. Or rather, I agree with you that most people join a religion for the social aspects, but I disagree in just how “pleasant” it is.

    First of all, to many people, religion serves as an excuse for many things. Its handy to have a book which you can quote mine to suit your favorite beliefs. Now, anybody can do this with any book, but the fact is that religion provides a justification. There’s a reason why basically all terrorists are religious, and that regardless of which one they actually are, they pretty much act the same. Religion gives them the justification both morally and more importantly culturally.

    Atheism has no distinct culture, and thus you rarely see atheist terrorists. By that I mean a terrorist act in favor of atheism. It may happen once in a while. but the fact that religious terrorism so heavily outweighs it shows that while some people might commit terrorism regardless of their excuse, the majority need some sort of cultural justification for it, and that comes from religion.

    Second, religion just isn’t needed period. All the cultural benefits could easily be gotten from other avenues. And the “side-effects” so to say of religion far outweigh its benefits. I mean if we want to be brutally honest, the bible, koran, what have you are in the end fairy tales. Or in adult language, lies. Lies or heavy distortions of truth. Its morality is stone age, and it only brings harm when applied to the modern world.

    I think in a sense religion is like communism. Every time a religious person does something crazy in favor of religion we all say its not the religions fault, and hes not really muslim/christian/whatever. Religion never seems to fail. All the good stuff are attributed to religion while all the bad is to the person. Even though history shows us when religion actually gains heavy power it brings nothing but terror. So maybe I’ll just say it, communism didn’t work because communism was flawed, and religion won’t/didn’t/isn’t working because it too is flawed. Why should we treat it with kid gloves?

  14. #14 Chad Orzel
    March 21, 2006

    EdiRumano: I think in a sense religion is like communism. Every time a religious person does something crazy in favor of religion we all say its not the religions fault, and hes not really muslim/christian/whatever. Religion never seems to fail. All the good stuff are attributed to religion while all the bad is to the person.

    Sure.
    But this isn’t a trait specific to religious people or communists. Atheists are prone to doing exactly the same thing, in the other direction. When religious people do good things, atheists will say that it’s because they’re good people who just happen to be religious, but when religious people do bad things, it’s because religion is a set of lies that poison the mind.

    Humans are like that.

  15. #15 Roman Werpachowski
    March 21, 2006

    There’s a reason why basically all terrorists are religious, and that regardless of which one they actually are, they pretty much act the same.

    BS. What about Marxist terrorists in Nepal and Peru? What about IRA and ETA? What about PLO?

  16. #16 EdiRumano
    March 21, 2006

    Maybe I should have been a little clearer. Because religion is just institutionalized faith. So to be broader, it is isn’t just religion. But marxism falls under the same banner. Its an ideology that claims to deliever alot, and fails. It isn’t built on logic and evidence but faith. My point is that the problem with all of these beliefs isn’t in the belief its self, but in the justification the communities built around that belief provide.

    So to be clearer, my problem is not with religious belief in and of its self, but rather the justification religion its self provides. And because the belief wasn’t built upon logical, testible beliefs, its prone to being heavily distorted.

    Oh and about the IRA. I wouldn’t exactlly call them athiest…..

  17. #17 Roman Werpachowski
    March 21, 2006

    EdiRumano: Oh and about the IRA. I wouldn’t exactlly call them athiest…..

    BUt there is a nationalist element there, too. I think we would agree that ideology can make people go blind. But that’s truism.

    Mike Kozlowski: So everything you’re saying sounds true to me — but that’s because we’re both lapsed Catholics, and Catholicism these days is a pretty mild religion.

    Not only mild, but also surprisingly (at least for people accustomed to Southern Baptists) educated and self-reflecting. The CC is really trying to adapt to advances in science.

  18. #18 Alejandro
    March 21, 2006

    Aren’t you leaving out the most central part of religion when you list the main parts as “mythology, morality and cultural/social stuff”? I mean, belief in God and the afterlife is not mythology in the same sense as creationism or miracles are (even if we agree that it is no more rationally supported) because it does not conflict directly with science. We could call it the “metaphysical” part of religion, and it is surely the most important one for most if not all religious people.

  19. #19 Chad Orzel
    March 21, 2006

    I pretty much lump “metaphysics” in with “mythology” for the purpose of this classification. That may be slightly unfair (though, really, there’s exactly as much evidence for the existence of the afterlife as there is for any historical miracle you’d care to name), but it gets me down to three categories, and three is the magic number.

  20. #20 Roman Werpachowski
    March 22, 2006

    Chad, you do omit something but not what Alejandro brought up. You omit mysticism. Religion is not just about the question “is there a God or not”, like atheists are prone to view it. It’s about inner experience, too. Maybe this is more prominent in, for example, Eastern Orthodox Christianity than in Protestant denominations, and that’s why it tends to be ignored in blog discussions…

  21. #21 Chad Orzel
    March 22, 2006

    Actually, I think that the mystical/ inner experiece aspect is probably more prevalent in Protestant Christianity, with its emphasis on a personal relationship with Jeeezus, than with most other Christian denominations. I don’t know that much about Eastern Orthodox theology, though.

    That, too, I was lumping in with “mythology.”

  22. #22 Trish K
    March 29, 2006

    Hi
    I’m a graduate student taking a blogging course and our group project is on TABOO subjects such as modern medicine, experimental surgery and theology. Thought your blog was interesting to read through and would appreciat it if you visit our blog and add some feedback if you find anything intersting on there.
    Thanks

  23. #23 John-Michael Caldaro
    March 18, 2008

    All of the above comments surround the attitude of the person posting toward approaching people who are religious or the way the religion acts towards individuals/cultures. It is an interesting discussion. But the reason we are having this discussion is because “organised religions,” and the people who organise around them, have attacked what I would call rational thought for centuries. Galileo is the obvious example. The “Scopes” trial another. Our more recent trial in Dover, PA. With so many people ascribing to the tenets of their religion without looking at the validity of those tenets in light of today’s state of knowledge we have the most industrialized country just above the bottom in rejecting evolution. The PR of corporations is easy to accept when you don’t question the knowledge you accept from your religion. The data that expert climate scientists have presented and analyzed is easily questioned and dismissed if you do not have to question your ideology. I believe it is a grave mistake NOT to attack the blind acceptance of statements that do not fit the facts. Many religious people act this way. And the more fundamentalist the person or organised religion is the more vocal they are. This has taken the discourse in our world steps away from the age of enlightenment. Without demanding rational thought we could see our planet doomed because it is easy to not take action in the face of the facts. How many of you accept that the Earth is warming and it is in part due to man’s actions? Chad, would your attitude towards the person who questions data on global warming or atomic theory be the same as your proposed way of interacting with the religious who accept religious dogma? What would your attitude be towards those who ascribe to astrology or aroma therapy?

    To be honest I do attend a church that does not require me to profess my faith in Jesus. The “community” of people is focused on good works in the world community. The pastor promotes the view of the Bible as stories, with some truth, not fact. It does not offend my sensibilities to interact with these people who engage in meaningful discussions and do not condemn me for my open agnostcism.

    I do not however embrace their attitude when it is not in line with the facts. And I am vocal about it. As a science educator I demand students have data to back up their conclusions. I demand the same from those I interact with.

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