In the course of talking about other things, Jason Rosenhouse raises a tricky issue:
Fundamentalists are rightly excoriated for pretending that theirs is the only acceptable form of religion. But it is hardly an improvement when academics suggest that real religion is high-minded and metaphorical and intellectually deep, with the more commonplace version being a distracting side show.
This idea of “real religion” is tricky, and is at the heart of a lot of the disputes between gnu/New/extreme atheists – who think religion is bad and favor eradicating it – and “accommodationists” – who don’t think religion is inherently bad, or in need of eradication.
Part of Jason’s point here is that we should put more stock in how religion is practiced and perceived by the religious person on the street, and not get too hung up on the vagaries of academic theology or sociology of religion. There’s certainly something to be said for that position: people who identify as Christian should be in control of that identity (to at least some degree), and not boxed in by holier-than-thou religious authoritarians or wooly-headed academics. It’s no less an imposition on the believer to be told that they have to reject evolution to be a Real True Christian than it would be for them to be told that being a Real True Religious Person requires them to be using religious ceremony and community as a tool for establishing social in-groups and outgroups, patterns of social bonds and hierarchies that will assist subsequent reciprocal altruism, &c.
On the other hand, judging religion on the basis of pop religion strikes me as about as valid as judging science based on pop science. Just because Deepak Chopra likes to abuse quantum concepts, and sources like him or movies like What the Bleep Do We Know? probably reach more people than Brian Greene, doesn’t mean we should judge quantum mechanics to be a failure. Given the abysmal divide between science as scientists understand it and civic science literacy or media coverage of scientific topics, it hardly seems fair to assume that civic religious literacy and media coverage of religion would be any sort of optimal representation of “real religion.”
Then again, the whole notion of “real religion” is badly flawed. As Pascal Boyer observes:
There really is no such thing as “religion”. Most people who live in modern societies think that there is such a thing out there as “religion”, meaning a kind of social and cognitive package that includes views about supernatural agency (gods and suchlike), notions of morality, particular rituals and sometimes particular experiences, as well as membership in a particular community of believers and the constitution of specific organizations (castes of priests, churches, etc.). All this, as I said, is thought to be a “package”, where each element makes sense in relation to the others, given a coherent and explicit doctrine. Indeed, this is the way most major “religions” – Islam, Hinduism for instance – are presented to us, the way their institutional personnel, many scholars and most believers think about them.
But all this is a recent invention. Most of human evolution took place in small-scale communities that did not have any religious institutions. This was also the case of most human groups outside modern economic development until recently, and it is still the case in remote places outside the direct influence of modern states. In all these places, there is no unified domain of “religion”. True, there may be various ideas about superhuman agents, there may be ideas about morality (often not connected with those agents), there may be notions about ritualized sequences that must be performed (some with and many without a connection to spirits etc.), there may be community affiliation (generally unrelated to morality or superhuman agency), but there is nothing that would justify putting all these things together.
“Religion” is the recent invention of special organizations that flourished in early states, typically in literate societies. These institutions grouped ritual specialists who collectively tried to set up a corporate monopoly on the provision of particular services – and gradually associated stable doctrine, ritual standardization, exclusivity of services and other aspects of corporate branding.
If “religion” is not one thing, but a series of culturally-specific phenomena that have distinct traits and distinct evolutionary histories, then of course, we can’t talk coherently about whether “real religion” is what fundamentalists say or what academics say. Some religion is what fundamentalists say, and other religions are what academics say. We can still use terms like “religions” or even the messy category of “religion” so long as we recognize that they are fuzzy terms that can’t be clearly defined or distinguished from other things we don’t usually call “religion” (the same, FWIW, can be said for concepts like “life” and “species” but biology and systematics do just fine as disciplines while the philosophers try to sort those ideas out).
As Tom Rees pointed out a few days ago, in the context of research showing that religiosity and nationalism tended to align less when a nation was more religiously diverse:
it is simply too simplistic to talk about ‘religion’ as if it is a real, single entity (Voicu [the researcher] used a basket of different measures of religiosity, and lumped them all together). Religion is, in fact, a jumble of different cultural and psychological traits some of which (at different times, for different reasons, and in different mixes), we lump together and call it ‘religion’.
This also means it’s hard to talk about “religious people” as distinct from “non-religious people,” a point of contention that came up around Elaine Howard Ecklund’s categorization of religious scientists. She counted scientists as religious if they identified with a religious tradition, even if they didn’t assert any theistic belief. Some people found that inappropriate, especially since many of the scientists thus labeled “religious” are nontheistic Jews – cultural Jews – and wouldn’t likely call themselves religious.
But this gets back to the issues Boyer raises. If you went to the Middle East three thousand years ago, I doubt you’d find Jews making strong distinctions between who was a “religious” Jew and who was a “cultural” Jew. Judaism is what’s called “orthoprax,” meaning its focus is on proper behavior (keeping Kosher, observing the sabbath, covering your head, celebrating Passover seders, etc.), rather than “orthodox” religions like Christianity that focus on proper beliefs (Nicene creed, catechisms, etc.). But in a world dominated by Christianity and its orthodox model of religiosity, Jews who identify as Jews, whose bloodline is sufficient to count as Jewish, and who practice (some?) Jewish traditions might not be considered religious because they don’t adhere to some dogma (note that “dogma” shares a root with “orthodox“). Yet if the world were as dominated by Judaism as it is by Christianity, I have no doubt that those Jews would be considered religious Jews, while Christians who only attend church at Christmas and Easter and can’t identify the apostles would be considered “cultural Christians.”
These sorts of things are only meaningful relative to their cultural context, and we do ourselves and our readers a disservice by insisting that “real religion” is a meaningful concept across all cultures and all religious traditions. We would do them a disservice if we actually tried to force all religious practitioners to adopt the fancy theologies academics study, and we’d do them a disservice if we ignored those academic theologies and pretended that pop theology was all that mattered.