What is religion?

PZ is unamused. I criticized his criticism of prayer vigils in the Gulf, and he responds:

It’s strange how the people who most advocate sympathy and rapprochement with religion are blind to what religious people really think. Here’s another case where Josh Rosenau complains that I misunderstand what the faithful were trying to do with their prayers for the Gulf…and then goes on to do exactly as I said the apologists should stop doing. He ignores the religious part of these prayer events. He says, as if it is refuting anything I say, that prayer reduces stress, has positive physiological effects, brings communities together, etc., etc., etc. It’s utterly clueless, and in a bizarre, twisted way, thoroughly disrespectful of religious thought, which I kind of admire, but doesn’t fit well with his message.

You know why people go off in groups and pray to God to stop the oil spill? Because they really hope that God will miraculously stop the oil spill.

How does he know that? No evidence is offered that people attend these prayer events because they think their prayers can stop the gusher. He might be right, he might be wrong, but he’s not offering evidence to back up the claim. Which leaves us both speculating without evidence. But he doesn’t, and can’t dispute that there are positive benefits to people who take part in these prayer events, even if prayer does nothing for the gusher. So why criticize people for finding what solace they can?

But the interesting thing here is PZ’s claim, which he expands upon, that religion is about theistic belief, not about social connections. And I think that’s just dead wrong. I think both are important, but also that a lot of people go to church primarily for social reasons, and come to associate various views on theism and the Bible with the positive associations they find at church. They don’t pick a theology and then find a church that matches.

To dispute that claim, PZ switches from talking about religious Americans in general to discussing “the local fundie church.”

Josh babbles on about how people go to church for the daycare or the socializing or the activities, and that their “gatherings are about how the community will survive the crisis they’re facing more than they’re about prayer”. Condescending much, Josh? Do you ever talk to religious people? Because no, many of them are quite sincere in their faith and actually do believe their God does something. If I walked down to the local fundie church and suggested to members of the congregation that they were really there just for the coffee and cake, they’d give me that pitying look and tell me I really don’t understand church.

I suppose, but the folks at the local fundie church would also say that about Catholics and mainline Protestants, whose churches are lifeless and dead, and preach a false gospel to boot. Fundamentalism is barely a century old, and judging the diversity of human religious experience by what the local fundamentalist church thinks strikes me as backwards. I tend to think fundamentalism is wrong about just about everything. I know it’s wrong about science, I think its approach to the Bible verges on illiteracy, its understanding of American politics is backwards, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find (if such truths could be evaluated empirically) that their understanding of religion is wrong.

Ask folks at the local synagogue, or the local Unitarian church, or even the Methodists around the way, why they are religious, and I’d be surprised if you didn’t get a lot more discussion of the community they find than of the particulars of theology. Sociologists and anthropologists who tangle with defining religion often incorporate the communal aspect into their work. To pretend that it degrades religion to say that it has a significant social and communal role in people’s lives strikes me as misguided.

If nothing else, the relative importance of the social component can be demonstrated by looking at how people who attend church regularly perform on basic tests of religious literacy. Fewer than half of Americans know that Genesis is the first book in the Bible, only a third can identify Jesus as the presenter of the Sermon on the Mount, etc. Yet many go to church regularly and see religion as important to their lives, despite having little conception of the content of their religious texts. That’s data, and pretending that religion is all about theology runs counter to those data.

Which is why I made the point that a successful atheist movement can’t just be about debunking theology. Many Americans don’t even know about the claims being debunked, and those claims are not central to their religious identity. Replacing the religious community with a vigorous and inviting nontheistic community, however, could change society’s religious bent. I know atheists want to do that, but I think they do it poorly. I live in one of the least theist parts of the country, but the atheist/secularist groups locally are far less effective at organizing themselves than local religious groups. It’s not a lack of desire by atheists, but something is still lacking.

So PZ asks:

And do you imagine that atheists don’t believe that community is important? We know it is. We’d like to build communities that don’t rely on superstition and lies to function, though. We’re also honest enough to state that we think believers are wrong without trying to pretend that they don’t really believe.

The objection I was raising is that there seems to be too much emphasis on the latter, which has a consequence of being uninviting to anyone who might want to dip their toe in and see what the atheist community is about. How inviting is it to see the most vocal atheists reacting to people who have been ravaged by Katrina and now the BPocalypse not by organizing aid, but pissing on them for finding what little solace they can in communal prayer?

Now I’d join PZ’s outrage if I saw people suggesting that anyone turn to prayer instead of taking productive steps to clean the Gulf and protect their beaches and livelihoods. That’d be evil and wrong. But the people PZ was criticizing did exactly the opposite, as PZ himself has noted. So where’s the beef?

Comments

  1. #1 Deepak Shetty
    June 29, 2010

    So in the absence of evidence , lets take a specific case
    Assuming what is reported is accurate in fox news link about Sen Rob adley which its not giving me permission to post
    (accuracy + fox news = miracle right there)
    Do you agree with what Sen Rob Adley says ?(leave separation of church state aside because that is a no brainer) – Whose interpretation is valid ? the community building one or the new atheist one?

    Note also “which invites people of all faiths” – Meaning you are not invited. You aren’t part of the community , sorry.

  2. #2 AnonymousCoward
    June 29, 2010

    From your link:

    The book’s main concern, though, is ignorance about the role of religion in American history. Prothero dates the beginning of the long decline in our religious literacy to the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s. The fervor of America’s periodic cycles of revivalism, rooted in a personal relationship with God rather than in theology handed down by learned clergy, has always had a strong anti-intellectual as well as spiritual component.

    I don’t think this book is making the point about community that you are. He seems to be equating higher religiousity with scriptural illiteracy.

    Also, there’s a bit where the article states that the stats for evangelicals, who we agree credulously believe in an interventionist god, aren’t far from the aggregated stats. That could be further skewed if the poll wasn’t limited to Christians, and considering the article’s author is dismissing a class on ‘religious history’ on the grounds that public schools fail to ‘inculcate’ children properly it wouldn’t be surprising.

  3. #3 NeverTheTwain
    June 30, 2010

    The question is, why does praying reduce some peoples’ anxiety and make them feel better? The answer is, because praying makes those people (even wishy-washy Unitarian types) feel like they’re actually accomplishing something.

    And to get that swell feeling, they don’t have to break out their wallets, get their hands oily or vote differently in the next election! Sumpin’ fer nuttin’!

    In that respect, whatever sense of community or relief of anxiety prayer provides is, in fact, a bad thing.

  4. #4 Lee
    June 30, 2010

    In reading this blog entry and the attending comment, one thing is obvious. You are writing about Theists or Christians without actually talking with them to learn what and why they do what they do. Seems very subjective and unscientific. More speculation than fact.

    To broad brush these groups can be helpful, but also dangerous in possible mistaken conclusions.

  5. #5 Mary
    June 30, 2010

    I’m an atheist scientist who wishes I had an “atheist church” to go to on Sunday mornings because I do miss the sense of community. My father-in-law in a raised-Jewish now-atheist PhD biologist who sends attends Catholic church with his wife every Sunday because all their friends are there (and they send their daughters to Catholic school because the schools are better.)

    My mom is as religiously sincere a Catholic convert as you could ever hope to meet, so much so that she has actually lobbied against the teaching of evolution in schools in Kansas (because — and you don’t hear this one so often — she believes that evolution is just a way of indoctrinating children in the creed of social darwinism, and leads to racism and eugenics.) But she converted as an adult after becoming best friends with another activist and losing a job as a government lawyer. The church gave her a community and mission in life. I, having also been sent to Catholic school, am more “religiously literate” than my passionate-believer mother, in spite of her scholarly, lawyerly personality. She’s just not that interested in the finer points of religious cosmology, any more than she is in physical cosmology. She’s more interested social justice — serving on the board of her local Catholic charities.

    I think the majority of religious people do believe that God is real and does things. Even as an atheist I can see the reasonableness of that position. As my mother says, “How can you believe the whole world, all of it, is just an accident?” The universe seems too remarkable, to many people, to be the result of chance alone. But really I think that’s about as specific as most people’s personal theology gets.

    Assuming you’re not saying, Josh, that most religious people are secretly atheists, I completely agree with your points. (I think they are secretly deists.)

    As evidence in support, I offer this link . It’s from a blog I read by some ex-fundmentalists, and it is from a “FAQ” post asking them how they got into the movement in the first place. “It was all really positive in those early, idealistic years. Loving Jesus, hoping to save the world, helping homeless people, having an abundance of real friends who stood with me through thick and thin: it was all good; really good.” The other stories there are the similar.

  6. #6 Matti K.
    June 30, 2010

    What is the difference in saying “prayer is bullshit!”, “homeopathy is bullshit!” or “astrology is bullshit!”? All these practices bring some sort of positive vibes to those who take them seriously.

    Is it just that one must be careful not to insult the majority, with minorities it is not so important?

  7. #7 Physicalist
    June 30, 2010

    Mary:

    I’m an atheist scientist who wishes I had an “atheist church” to go to on Sunday mornings because I do miss the sense of community.

    If you haven’t, you could check out the Unitarian Universalists. Atheists/humanists are welcome (but you generally will have to be willing to tolerate plenty of faith & religion talk, and maybe new age and even wiccan stuff).

  8. #8 Tulse
    June 30, 2010

    a successful atheist movement can’t just be about debunking theology

    I think the opposite follows from your claims. No atheist cares about the community that religion offers, we care about the truth claims it makes. If religious folks want to get together for bingo and have potlucks and visit each other in the hospital, that’s just dandy. The problem arises when they demand changes to school curriculum or abortion laws or marriage laws based on their theological position. The problem in Western society with religion is not its community aspects, it is the interference in public culture based on beliefs.

    So no, addressing the issue of community is not what atheists need to do — what we need to do is, as a first step, detoxify the theological aspects of religion.

  9. #9 Jon
    June 30, 2010

    A great exchange recently between Robert Wright and Paul Bloom recently on Bloggingheads:

    http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/29090?in=55:35&out=62:03

    Paul Bloom is right about awe being a potent thing, sometimes in a bad way. Lots of people delude themselves, no question. But as this Alternet contributor noted a few years ago there is something definitely *off* about someone insisting that only their brand of awe should be sanctioned by society. Says who? …Says you? This is where we start to get into illiberal territory, with someone claiming authority for *their* awe without even giving the appearance of respect for anyone else’s…

  10. #10 Norwegian Shooter
    June 30, 2010

    “I think both are important, but also that a lot of people go to church primarily for social reasons, and come to associate various views on theism and the Bible with the positive associations they find at church. They don’t pick a theology and then find a church that matches.”

    Talk about an unsupported claim! But to address it anyway, how does your statement jibe with how most people “pick” their theology: from their parents. Now, if “social reasons” means children generally follow what their parents do before the teen years, then fine, that’s the primary reason people go to church. However, then the general pattern is to drift away from your parents’ church in the teens and especially 20′s, most likely to return to church attendance with a spouse and children of your own. Since only a miniscule amount of marriages involve 2 people from the same church still living in the same community, a church choice must be made. If most of these church seekers have a theology at this point of their lives (I would say everyone does, even if very murky), then most people have a theology and find a church that matches. That’s at least an argument. Do you have one?

    Really, the word “fundie” is the least important one in PZ’s quote. Local church would have been better, for sure, but attacking one word in comment isn’t proving much.

    “Ask folks at the local synagogue, or the local Unitarian church, or even the Methodists around the way, why they are religious, and I’d be surprised if you didn’t get a lot more discussion of the community they find than of the particulars of theology.”

    As an UU, I’m so tired of seeing it trotted out for this type of argument. At least with “fundie” PZ is talking about tens of millions of peoples’ beliefs and who proclaim them to tens of millions more. There are around 217,000 American UU’s who are members of an UU church. It is irrelevant to ask them anything about American religious practice in general.

    Synagogues are also a small and unique case. While there are around 6 million Jews in the US, it is explicitly a cultural as well as religious designation. There are lots of non-theist Jews and lots that do attend synagogue for mainly the social benefits. But this is not at all similar to the dominant Christian faith.

    WASP mainline churches fine, a small proportion of a small community will discuss social reasons for attending church. But will they rank it above theology? If they talk about community more, it could mean they understand it and see its impact on their lives more.

    “If nothing else, the relative importance of the social component can be demonstrated by looking at how people who attend church regularly perform on basic tests of religious literacy.”

    Can the relative importance of the Constitution be demonstrated by looking at how people who attend Tea Party / Glenn Beck rallies perform on basic tests of Constitutional literacy?

    “Many Americans don’t even know about the claims being debunked, and those claims are not central to their religious identity.”

    You do know that the primary claim of Christians is that a personal sky god exists and became incarnate in the person of Jesus, right? Praying to this god works is also a pretty common and well understood claim.

    “anyone who might want to dip their toe in and see what the atheist community is about” Just who do you see as the typical “anyone”? A Bible-believing Christian?

    “So where’s the beef?” I ask the same thing of most of your accommodationist posts.

  11. #11 tütüne son
    June 30, 2010

    Really, the word “fundie” is the least important one in PZ’s quote. Local church would have been better, for sure, but attacking one word in comment isn’t proving much.

  12. #12 Jon
    June 30, 2010

    A great exchange recently between Robert Wright and Paul Bloom recently on Bloggingheads:

    http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/29090?in=55:35&out=62:03

    Paul Bloom is right about awe being a potent thing, sometimes in a bad way. Lots of people delude themselves, no question, mixing up the spiritual and the empirical, etc. But as this Alternet contributor noted a few years ago there is something definitely *off* about someone insisting that only their brand of awe should be sanctioned by society. Says who? …Says you? This is where we start to get into illiberal territory, with someone claiming authority for *their* awe without even giving the appearance of respect for anyone else’s…

  13. #13 Physicalist
    June 30, 2010

    Josh, following on Matti K.’s point, do you think we should criticize Dr. Emoto (whose “research reveals that water physically responds to emotions”) when he calls for people to “send the energy of love and gratitude to the water and all the living creatures in the Gulf of Mexico”? Or should we just leave him alone, given the psychological benefits of thinking about love and gratitude (even though you and I agree that it will have no actual effect on the oil, the water, or the sea life)?

    Should we debunk John Edward and other “psychic mediums”? Or should we hold our tongues since undoubtably the cold-reading sessions comfort some bereaved?

    Surely you believe that there are some circumstances in which we should speak truth and correct error, even if those errors are comforting and seemingly innocuous, don’t you?

  14. #14 Zach Voch
    June 30, 2010

    Most of my thoughts have been expressed by other comments, however, I would like to add an anecdote relevant to this mistake:

    If nothing else, the relative importance of the social component can be demonstrated by looking at how people who attend church regularly perform on basic tests of religious literacy.

    That’s data, and pretending that religion is all about theology runs counter to those data.

    This is where you’re mistaken. You’re right to note that many who claim to be so `biblical’ have very little understanding of the Bible. But it is a mistake to assume that one’s ignorance of scripture is supportive of the notion that one’s beliefs about scripture are not a central motivator.

    How do people frequently respond to criticism of scripture nonetheless? Emotionally and reactively. There is a serious emotional commitment to scripture, even among those who have no understanding of the Bible.

    Do people choose churches based on theology? Yes, yes they do. Those who choose churches based on “community” or “culture” will tend to choose UU or synagogue, and there are certainly many churches which have little to do with scripture, but don’t cite these as representative. Not in America.

    You live in a more liberal area, as you said, but I live in the Bible belt. If a pastor here mentions that it’s ok to take some passages as metaphorical, there will be problems and he might well lose members over it.

    Once, at my childhood church, we were auditioning new pastors. One fellow, who felt “called,” decided to use powerpoint presentations during the service as a visual aid.

    He got death threats.

    One of my best friends is a Lutheran minister. I was sitting with him and a youth pastor at Starbucks, telling them about this story, and to my surprise, they weren’t surprised.

    This wasn’t over theology, but reactionary traditionalism alone.

    The recent Dennett/Lascola interviews are also instructive. How did students at seminary react to criticism of the Old Testament? What did these preachers believe would happen if they departed from doctrine?

    Of course community is a huge part of church life. That’s true of all denominations. But doctrine, or rather strong opinions about what doctrine is, has always been a cause for serious rifts in churches. This is the background story of almost every new denomination. These are ideological communities, and we deemphasize the “ideological” portion at the expense of our understanding.

    Let’s look at this (which I think you have correct):

    I suppose, but the folks at the local fundie church would also say that about Catholics and mainline Protestants, whose churches are lifeless and dead, and preach a false gospel to boot. Fundamentalism is barely a century old, and judging the diversity of human religious experience by what the local fundamentalist church thinks strikes me as backwards. I tend to think fundamentalism is wrong about just about everything. I know it’s wrong about science, I think its approach to the Bible verges on illiteracy, its understanding of American politics is backwards, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find (if such truths could be evaluated empirically) that their understanding of religion is wrong.

    Fundamentalism is recent. How about revivalism in general? Reactionary forms of religion are as old as religion itself. They’re always “going back” to something. It’s the Golden Age of Greek Mythology.

    And many mainline protestant churches and many Catholic churches preach the same things about each other. I’ve heard many a Catholic give sentimental remorse over the reformation, even today.

    But this is what you miss. Why do we have all of these sects in the first place? Yes, doctrine is certainly not everything, but let’s not kid ourselves too much about community.

  15. #15 Jon
    June 30, 2010

    The Republican Noise Machine runs on red meat. The New Atheist Noise Machine has its own red meat–psychic mediums, creationists, and televangelists. It’s a bit more highbrow, but still crude in its own way.

    The wide distinction between say, Baruch Spinoza and psychic mediums, or Reinhold Niebuhr and Pat Robertson, is never discussed, because the red meat quotient is so low. It makes the New Atheist equivalent of Fox News viewers bum out and change the channel…

  16. #16 TB
    June 30, 2010

    Zach: I do think the perception of what a church’s theology is plays a huge role in how people choose a church, but I think the community aspect goes a long way to getting them to continue as members.

    I can say that as a personal observation of my fundie extended family.

    But I think I recall that Elaine Ecklund’s recent findings show even non-religious scientists who nevertheless are members of a church cite the community aspect as one prime reason for their involvement. http://www.pointofinquiry.org/elaine_howard_ecklund_how_religious_are_scientists/

    I believe that would jive with studies that show people shop around for churches. It may be that people are looking for a comfortable fit with the theology in the short term and community for the long term.

  17. #17 Zach Voch
    June 30, 2010

    TB:

    I believe that would jive with studies that show people shop around for churches. It may be that people are looking for a comfortable fit with the theology in the short term and community for the long term.

    It goes both ways. Some get involved for the community and grow attached to the doctrine. Some go for doctrine and stay for the community. Many parents I have met go to let their kids socialize in Sunday School. Others start attending so that their children will “learn morals.” The point I make is that these are ideological communities and that both doctrine and community are important. Attempt to do away with the ideology, and the community will fragment and schism. If the community breaks down and there are no activities for members outside of service, then membership will likely decline as well. The degree of importance of doctrine varies between congregations, particularly across the pluralist to fundamentalist spectrum.

    With church shoppers, some are certainly in it for the community. During my senior year of high school, a Muslim parent came in and talked about how she came to Islam. She went “religion shopping” and thought it sounded the nicest.

    I know of similar things with a UU friend. Among “liberal” congregations especially, it has held in my experience that community is far more important than any given doctrine. The pluralistic or otherwise flexible nature of “liberal” doctrines allows for this. In more conservative congregations, there is far more emphasis on doctrine (and sometimes conservative politics, though this isn’t always the case).

  18. #18 Greg Myers
    July 2, 2010

    Josh, I thinks this is the kind of thing PZ had in mind. It is not exactly difficult to come across:

    “Thus far efforts made by mortals to try to solve the crisis have been to no avail,” state Sen. Robert Adley said in a statement released after last week’s unanimous vote for the day of prayer. “It is clearly time for a miracle for us.”

    From a poll conducted by Time in 1999, Adults who believe that God performs miracles – 84%.

    The idea that prayer is only a social activity,meant to provide support and encouragement is true only of a small sub-group of those going to church.

    In fact, this is why science and faith conflict – because religion makes claims that science denies (like a historical Adam and Eve, a global flood, and the healing power of prayer). If you define religion as belief in a god who does not impact the natural world (except maybe as a positive ideal for good), then there is no faith / science conflict. If you view religion has having an alternative, authoritative way of knowing abut the world and how we should live, and that God answers prayer in miraculous ways, then there is indeed going to be a conflict.

  19. #19 MartyM
    July 2, 2010

    I haven’t read all the previous comments, so maybe someone else has mentioned this, but religious groups do believe God will provide; i.e. solve this problem. Whether that’s directly (as in a miraculous event) or indirectly (when someone finally comes up with a solution to the gusher), God will get the credit. This is pure confirmation bias and is propagated in churches and religious groups nation wide.

  20. #20 occanseraser
    July 3, 2010

    What’s the difference between prayer and masturbation? Both feel good, but something/someone actually comes from the latter.

  21. #21 Norwegian Shooter
    July 3, 2010

    Greg, good points.

    Occan’s Eraser, love it!