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How do we define a Religion?
Posted: 16 September 2007 03:45 PM   [ Ignore ]
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This is a carryover topic from the Intro Forums.
see: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/forums/viewthread/2988/

Doug Asked:

dougsmith - 16 September 2007 09:03 AM

Glad to have you here, Baloo. Perhaps when you feel like it you can talk about Mormonism, a religion with some quite odd beliefs that I’ve never been able to fit my mind around. (E.g., that Jesus preached to the Aztecs?)

This is kind of a heavy topic to start out with, but I think this question touches on a something that rarely gets addressed, and that is ‘How do we define a Religion?’

By way of background, my degree is in Japanese, and one of the more memorable discussions I had in that pursuit was from a question from a Cultural Anthropologist who asked, ‘How do we define ‘Japanese’?’  Is this a Nationality?  Is this a language?  Is this a genetic race?  Is this a culture?  Is this a belief set?  Is this a shared experience?  etc, etc, etc.  For each of the questions you can go through it and test it in a Socratic style, asking if a person can, for example, be a non-citizen of Japan, and still be ‘Japanese’, and if there are cases of someone having Japanese citizenship is also ‘not Japanese’.  You can repeat the process for language, genetics, culture, wildlife, vegetation, weather, geography, geology, etc, etc basically anywhere the word ‘Japanese’ gets used as an adjective.

While some people can accurately identify Japanese People, Japanese Food, Japanese Architecture, Japanese Art, etc, etc, the Socratic method can really put even the most well read scholar to the test when asked to come to any conclusions as to what ‘Japanese’ means.  It also raises an interesting observation that simply because one has the ability to identify characteristics of a specific Culture, you may or may not have the ability to define that Culture.  There are also measurable differences in how people within/without that Culture define the given Culture, as well as the differences in the relative importance put on the different aspects by each individual. The calculations get especially difficult to do when there is a vested interest in one definition or another, as there always is.

So back to the proposition that ‘Jesus preached in the Americas’. 

There may be an implicit assumption in this statement that, Mormonism = a belief set that requires a belief that ‘Jesus preached in the Americas’.  There is also an assumption that I think many people make, myself on occasion, that a belief set is either ‘all valid’ or ‘all invalid’, and, we can test a subset of that belief set to determine the validity of all subsets.

That said, I wonder if this is the right way to define a religion.  For example, if I asked a Japanese person if any Japanese people ever believed that the Japanese Emperor was a direct decedent of god, they would say ‘yes’.  If I then asked, if this was a belief that was unique to Japan, they would also say ‘yes’.  I think its easy to rightly conclude that this belief is a ‘Japanese Belief’.  However, the false assumptions that can be drawn from this are plenty.  A) Because a person is ‘Japanese’ they believe Japanese Beliefs, including the belief that the Emperor is a direct decedent of god.  B) Japanese people are irrational because they believe in statements that cannot be proven.  C) All Japanese beliefs are irrational because the belief ‘that the Emperor is divine’ is older than most other beliefs, and because this belief is often stated near other beliefs in written text, and in fact, this belief is often used as a premise for other Japanese Beliefs. This sometimes leads to: D) Japanese Beliefs depend on the belief that the Emperor was a decedent of god, E) and are invalid if the Emperor isn’t a decedent of god.  It can also lead to dismissing the culture wholesale, i.e. F) Japanese Beliefs have no value to a rational person, because they are irrational.  G) Japanese Beliefs have no value to me, because I am a rational person.

Clearly there are numerous logistical mistakes in the above, though I’ve taken a topic that really should be expanded, and tried to paraphrase it, but I hope you get the gist….

On a personal level, and in a more direct response to what I think the question may have been aimed at, I think that ‘Jesus preached in the Americas’ is a ‘historical’ belief and not a philosophical one.  I also think that its possible to find value in the philosophical beliefs of a source, without agreeing with the historical beliefs generated by that same source.  History may give context to a philosophical argument but I think we take it too far if we use it to discredit the source in an attempt to negate arguments without actual review.  In regards to Mormonism directly, I hear more debate on the validity of historical events, and less debates around the actual philosophy generated by this segment of the population.  Not that I find that all of the philosophy is of value, but rather that I find enough of it valuable to identify with.  Again, I’m not sure that the question of source is all that important in determining the validity if an argument. Would we not be happy to take philosophy from Homer Simpson if it made life better, and would we not reject an argument from Socrates if the evidence showed that it didn’t hold water?

But back to the question, how do we define a religion?  And, why wouldn’t we want to do like a Cultural Anthropologist does when they define a Culture?  Can we really dismiss something as complex as a Culture/or religion based on casual observation and rumor, or by discrediting the source, or even by discrediting prior works? How would we react to someone doing the same to scientific discoveries? 

On the other side, unfortunately, I think that religion too often dismisses some key findings of science, and they do so using very similar logic to the logic used above.  This may be another thing that we all have in common.

-baloo

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Posted: 16 September 2007 04:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Thanks for the long and thoughtful post, Baloo. I imagine what you’re getting at is that one can be, basically, an atheist Jew whose ‘jewishness’ basically amounts to a proclivity to the jewish cultural trappings ... wearing a yarmulke, reading the Torah, celebrating the jewish holidays, etc., without necessarily any false beliefs about science or history. That is, one can be a Jew (or a Mormon) while believing that the ancient texts are partly fictional (or even entirely so in the case of the Book of Mormon, from the little I know of it).

Certainly for many believers religion is a matter of culture in the same way that being japanese is. But I do think it depends on the case, and to the extent that someone really does put themselves and others in difficult situations, one does sometimes begin to wonder if “culture” talk may be protesting too much.

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Posted: 16 September 2007 05:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Welcome, Baloo, and thanks for the interesting post.

I would take some issue with the implication in your argument that historicity is ancillary, and unimportant, in evaluating a belief. Certainly, philosophical and moral propositions must stand on their own merits, and being linked to historically inaccurate stories does not necessarily invalidate them. However, I think many religious believers take certain historical stories to be central to their beliefs and would argue that considering their beliefs only as a philosophical system, as distinct from a set of true facts about the world, is misrepresenting the religion and taking the heart out of it. Many Christians react this way to the idea that one can view the sayings of Jesus as a set of philosophical or moral ideas and treat them as such even while denying the very existence of Jesus as a historical figure. Now I personally, being mostly agnostic, tend to view religions in precisely this way—as culturally-specific expressions of ideas and principles which are not necessarily uniqe to that culture, and which may or may not have value regardless of their historical authenticity. But I would be far more inclined to give weight to some (say Christian) principles if the historical events associated with them (say miracles or the Ressurection) were proven to be factual. And many religious believers would say that any evaluation of their philosophy is impoverished or misguided without an acceptance of at least some historical authenticity.

So while you’re right that we can’t dismiss an entire set of ideas on the basis of certain questionable facts, I would qualify this by saying that in the case of religion such facts are often presented by the believer as indispensible to the set of ideas, and the presence of factual inaccuracies associated with idea certainly does nothing to strengthen one’s sense of their validity.

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Posted: 16 September 2007 06:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Well, look at Bob Price.  He’s a humanist, atheist, and attends the Episcopal Church.  I still identify culturally with the Episcopal church even though I’m a Humanist, but not other X-ian groups.  I just haven’t attend for a few years now.  Culturally, I still identify with the Episcopalians, which is drastically different than my mother and aunt’s church which is Church Of God (an Evangelical Fundie church).  So, I guess in a sense, I could say I’m a Religious Humanist, even though I don’t believe in God and call the Bible a work of fiction.  I study almost all religious texts, not just X-ian, but I do it to answer the questions I come up with though.

I heard this one person, who attends a church that is part of the Anglican Communion, call himself a Christian Atheist.  Not quite sure what that means.  Atheists for Jesus?  confused

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Posted: 16 September 2007 06:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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And FWIW, when people ask about my heritage, I often tell them I’m Irish Catholic, but that’s more a genetic and cultural identity than a religious one. I acquiored a lot of my social and political values, and my sense of aesthetics, from the Catholic culture of my childhood despite being raised agnostic in a strictly religious sense. So sure, not all identities that seem on the surface to be religious identities truly are, and religion intermixes with other aspects of cultural identity.

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Posted: 16 September 2007 07:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Well, yes, if they ask my ancestory I say Irish, Scotish, English/British, Welsh, French, German, and N.A., but that is different from what we are talking about.  Religious culture is another story though and I don’t know of anyone who sees similarities between Anglican and Evangelical- they are totally different worlds.  Now Catholic and Anglican has similarities.

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Posted: 16 September 2007 08:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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My only experience with Mormonism occurred about 53 years ago when I was fourteen.  Two young missionaries visiting a friend’s parents came out to the garage where he and I were playing with some electronics and tried to help me see the “truth”.  I spent a very worthwhile four hours discussing it with them (about 3 hrs 59 minutes more than I would waste now).  As a budding atheist I hadn’t thought through my ideas too thoroughly.  This helped me clarify and solidify my beliefs in the lack of any supreme being.

Well, you’ve heard from the Adminstrator and the other Moderators so I may as well contribute from my curmudgeonly viewpoint.  I have little patience with discussions of the “real” meanings of words, that become interminable.

I get annoyed when theists claim that lack of religion is therefore a religion, that is, a non-theist’s belief that there is no god is a religious belief.  Hogwash.

My view is, religion is like pornography—I know it when I see it.

Occam

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Posted: 16 September 2007 08:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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dougsmith - 16 September 2007 04:02 PM

  Certainly for many believers religion is a matter of culture in the same way that being japanese is. But I do think it depends on the case, and to the extent that someone really does put themselves and others in difficult situations, one does sometimes begin to wonder if “culture” talk may be protesting too much.

Hi Doug,

Agreed.  And if a culture becomes harmful, I don’t think that gives it, or anyone in it a free pass.  I also wonder if there is a way that we could see if religions acted similarly to dis-similarly to cultures?  And what would we conclude if it fell on one side of the fence vs the other?

-baloo

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Posted: 16 September 2007 09:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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mckenzievmd - 16 September 2007 05:19 PM

Welcome, Baloo, and thanks for the interesting post. 

Thanks! Just having fun!

mckenzievmd - 16 September 2007 05:19 PM

I would take some issue with the implication in your argument that historicity is ancillary, and unimportant, in evaluating a belief.
Certainly, philosophical and moral propositions must stand on their own merits, and being linked to historically inaccurate stories does not necessarily invalidate them.

Nor would linking to them historically accurate events necessitate the validation of the propositions or the conclusions.  For example, ‘we believe in god X, they believe in god Y, we won the war, therefore god X is stronger than god Y.  The premises of ‘we believe in god X’ and ‘we won the war’ may be entirely accurate, without the conclusion being valid, or the way that the conclusion was reached being valid.

mckenzievmd - 16 September 2007 05:19 PM

However, I think many religious believers take certain historical stories to be central to their beliefs and would argue that considering their beliefs only as a philosophical system, as distinct from a set of true facts about the world, is misrepresenting the religion and taking the heart out of it. Many Christians react this way to the idea that one can view the sayings of Jesus as a set of philosophical or moral ideas and treat them as such even while denying the very existence of Jesus as a historical figure. 

Now I personally, being mostly agnostic, tend to view religions in precisely this way—as culturally-specific expressions of ideas and principles which are not necessarily uniqe to that culture, and which may or may not have value regardless of their historical authenticity. But I would be far more inclined to give weight to some (say Christian) principles if the historical events associated with them (say miracles or the Ressurection) were proven to be factual. And many religious believers would say that any evaluation of their philosophy is impoverished or misguided without an acceptance of at least some historical authenticity.

Totally agree, and I wouldn’t take my own beliefs as much more than what they are, a survey of one.  That said, this again points to how difficult it can be to define a term like ‘Christian’, does it require one to proclaim the very existence of Jesus as a historical figure?  There are most likely some that would say that you only need to express faith in his existence.  But in a population as large as ‘Christian’, I agree, there are going to be a number who are more orthodox than others.

Back to the Japanese example, if I asked Japanese people if Japanese History is an important building block in understanding what it is to be ‘Japanese’, there are few that would say that it isn’t an important piece of the puzzle.  That said, when you listen to the Japanese News, and they do a story on Japanese Pop Culture, a knowledge of Japanese History rarely helps to understand it.  Again, I think its really hard to say one way or another, where a culture starts and where it ends. 

If the non-existence of miracles is not a good way to invalidate a moral proposition, I wonder if the existence of miracles is a good way to judge the validity.  If Moses really did turn the Nile to blood, would that increase the validity of the next sentence that he spoke? 

mckenzievmd - 16 September 2007 05:19 PM

So while you’re right that we can’t dismiss an entire set of ideas on the basis of certain questionable facts, I would qualify this by saying that in the case of religion such facts are often presented by the believer as indispensible to the set of ideas, and the presence of factual inaccuracies associated with idea certainly does nothing to strengthen one’s sense of their validity.

If a believer is presenting a set of ideas and predicating his belief in these ideas on historical beliefs and calling these historical beliefs ‘indispensable facts’, they had better hope that a) they have the evidence to present the beliefs as facts, and b) hope that the evidence isn’t open to multiple interpretations.  But again, I think all this does is destroy his argument, and it may or may not invalidate the philosophical observation that he made in connection to this historical facts.

-baloo

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Posted: 16 September 2007 10:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Mriana - 16 September 2007 06:45 PM

Well, look at Bob Price.  He’s a humanist, atheist, and attends the Episcopal Church.  I still identify culturally with the Episcopal church even though I’m a Humanist, but not other X-ian groups.  I just haven’t attend for a few years now.  Culturally, I still identify with the Episcopalians, which is drastically different than my mother and aunt’s church which is Church Of God (an Evangelical Fundie church).  So, I guess in a sense, I could say I’m a Religious Humanist, even though I don’t believe in God and call the Bible a work of fiction.  I study almost all religious texts, not just X-ian, but I do it to answer the questions I come up with though.

I heard this one person, who attends a church that is part of the Anglican Communion, call himself a Christian Atheist.  Not quite sure what that means.  Atheists for Jesus?  confused

Ok, this made me totally laugh. Atheists for Jesus? But as I thought about it, I think this makes total sense.  As would the opposite, Christians for Naturalism. As long as each was accurate and honest in what it was they found value in.

I also like the concept of looking for answers to questions in numerous locations.  The likelihood that I am asking a question that hasn’t been asked (and answered) before is fairly low, I would have to imagine. 

-baloo

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Posted: 16 September 2007 10:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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mckenzievmd - 16 September 2007 06:51 PM

And FWIW, when people ask about my heritage, I often tell them I’m Irish Catholic, but that’s more a genetic and cultural identity than a religious one. I acquiored a lot of my social and political values, and my sense of aesthetics, from the Catholic culture of my childhood despite being raised agnostic in a strictly religious sense. So sure, not all identities that seem on the surface to be religious identities truly are, and religion intermixes with other aspects of cultural identity.

  I could not have expressed my own feelings better!

-baloo

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Posted: 16 September 2007 10:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Nah!  I’m serious!  Have you been to Dawkin’s site?  He is wearing a shirt that says, “Atheist for Jesus”!  OMG!  UNBELIEVABLE!  or was that Dan Barker.  One of them was in a pic with that t-shirt

Yup!  It was Dawkins:  http://richarddawkins.net/article,20,Atheists-for-Jesus,Richard-Dawkins  WTF?  :shock:  Whatever!

[ Edited: 16 September 2007 10:08 PM by Mriana ]
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Posted: 16 September 2007 10:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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If the non-existence of miracles is not a good way to invalidate a moral proposition, I wonder if the existence of miracles is a good way to judge the validity.  If Moses really did turn the Nile to blood, would that increase the validity of the next sentence that he spoke? 

Hmm. I guess the question would center on whether the action was a genuine miracle (suspension of natural law directly by God) or just a fancy magic trick. A genuine miracle from God would tend to lend force to any subsequent argument! But then,  how would we know which it was? We skeptics do put the devout in a bit of a bind, since we say “show us the miracles!” but then manage to dismiss any they present as unconvincing. Still, as Sagan suggested, the 10 Commandments carved on the surface of the moon would be a pretty good start. Still, some would remain skeptical, I’m sure, but I’d be willing to reconsider my position if I saw something like that! grin

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Posted: 17 September 2007 12:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Occam - 16 September 2007 08:08 PM

My only experience with Mormonism occurred about 53 years ago when I was fourteen.  Two young missionaries visiting a friend’s parents came out to the garage where he and I were playing with some electronics and tried to help me see the “truth”.  I spent a very worthwhile four hours discussing it with them (about 3 hrs 59 minutes more than I would waste now).  As a budding atheist I hadn’t thought through my ideas too thoroughly.  This helped me clarify and solidify my beliefs in the lack of any supreme being.

Hi Occam!
Yep, talking about your own beliefs with someone who doesn’t believe what you do, seems like a very good way to practice articulating what you do believe, and, at most likely they will ask you the questions that prompt more thinking in places that you have yet to explore.

Occam - 16 September 2007 08:08 PM

I get annoyed when theists claim that lack of religion is therefore a religion, that is, a non-theist’s belief that there is no god is a religious belief.  Hogwash.
My view is, religion is like pornography—I know it when I see it.

I don’t know if anyone has the ability to claim that another’s belief in one area or another is ‘a religion’.  Is ‘Japanese’ a religion?  is American?  The logic that a non-theist’s belief is a religious belief would have everything that has any religious impact on another’s religious beliefs turned into a religious belief.  That said, religious folks aren’t the only ones that like to do this,  Economists like to say that everything that has economic impact is an economic issue, and Psychologists could probably claim that everything that is influenced by thought is a psychological question, etc, etc….

That said, the definition of ‘I know it when I see it’ seems like a sort of cop-out.  In the case of pornography, it was evoked only after quite a bit of study as to definitions that might qualify or disqualify for the final test of ‘I know it when I see it’, but I’m not sure we are there yet in our definition of religion, or ‘Church’ in the ‘Church and State’ use of he word.  I also think that Humanists/Atheist organizations don’t take full advantage of the protections of the law for what seems to be little more than a quest for differentiation from religious organizations that have opted in on those protections.

So, here’s a question.  What would you think about a non-theoist that claimed the right to equal protection under the law for his own beliefs?  Can a single person do so, or does it require an organized group of individuals?

-baloo

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Posted: 17 September 2007 12:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Mriana - 16 September 2007 10:03 PM

Nah!  I’m serious!  Have you been to Dawkin’s site?  He is wearing a shirt that says, “Atheist for Jesus”!  OMG!  UNBELIEVABLE!  or was that Dan Barker.  One of them was in a pic with that t-shirt

Yup!  It was Dawkins:  http://richarddawkins.net/article,20,Atheists-for-Jesus,Richard-Dawkins  WTF?  :shock:  Whatever!

Oh My Dawkins!! That is hilarious!!
And I loved the article.  Its just another brilliant example of surgically acute he is in his objectives!

-baloo

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Posted: 17 September 2007 01:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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He’s something that is for sure.  It’s definitely a contradiction in what he preaches.

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