Sunday, May 27, 2007

No such thing

There's no such thing as religion. No such thing (in a religious sense) as Judaism, Christianity or Islam. No such thing as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Mormonism, or even (the Pope notwithstanding) Roman Catholicism. To be absolutely honest, there's no such thing as atheism either. As Sam Harris puts it, "Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma."

None of these isms are actually about any thing. There is no "objective" way to discuss any of these isms because there is no object to discuss. Even sports fans—as Jerry Seinfeld so eloquently puts it—have at least the shirts to root for; religion doesn't even have the shirts. Because that's what religion is: When you take away everything, even the shirts, what you have left is religion.

Of course, there is much real philosophy, especially ethical philosophy, that gets thrown in the big box marked "religion". But calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one, and calling an ethical philosophy a religion doesn't make it one either. It's easy to make the distinction: If the idea makes sense—even if it just makes enough sense to be wrong instead of meaningless—when you take "God" (or whatever label the religion puts on its incoherent mystical mumbo jumbo) out of it, then it's not religion.

The same is true of culture and tradition. An atheist Jew can participate in a Seder. Millions of Americans can celebrate Christmas without the slightest connection to Christianity. I myself know the lyrics, melodies and harmonies to a score of Christmas carols and sing them in December without a trace of irony or hypocrisy—it's how I grew up, a connection to my own childhood and family. Anyone can admire the great works of art, literature, architecture and philosophy without believing for a second that a cathedral is magnificent because it honors "God". Again: Take out "God" and leave in the connection to our families, our fellow human beings, our ancestors and our common humanity, and if there's anything left it's culture; if there's nothing left, it's religion.

When you have nothing left but empty words, devoid of meaning, then you have religion.


  1. I think I don't quite understand what you mean. Surely culture, religion and ethical philosophy can all exist at the same time? Isn't their intersection what we mean by the religion as a whole? C.S. Lewis for example advanced Christianity as an ethical philosophy, but he didn't edit the Bible. His ideas influenced a lot of people's ethical practice, and the way they think of God, and also provided some "required reading" for a certain segment of intellectual Christianity. I don't really understand the distinctions you're drawing there.

    Also, these things do have objective definitions. The fundamental religious difference between Judaism and Christianity is the belief in the divinity of Jesus. There's no culture there (although there certainly were some cultural factors when the definition was being created). It's also not a philosophical difference - Judaism does admit that a messiah will exist, he just hasn't arrived yet.

    Your bottom line seems to be "If it makes sense when you take God out of it, it's culture or possibly ethical philosophy, and if it doesn't, it's religion. A lot of the time that works - there's no notion of the divine in Zen Buddhism, which makes it an ethical philosophy. But with most religions, there's a religious component and a cultural component. If you take the notion of God out of Christianity, it may make sense to some people, but it lacks something. If you take cathedrals and going to confession and rosary beads and so forth out of Catholicism, it may make intellectual sense, but it likewise lacks something. So doesn't that suggest that what we mean by "religion" isn't purely supernatural?

    Have I missed your point somehow?

  2. You might want to read my follow-up essay, Some such thing.


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