Tuesday, December 7, 2010


So, a recent thread over at Sociological Images has turned into a rather nasty referendum on religion. There's lots of rhetoric about how religion is all about turning people into mindless sheep. Given the numerous atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion, this is understandable. However, I can't help feeling that folks are over-generalizing just a tad.

Religion is an incredibly diverse phenomenon. So much so, in fact, that any blanket statement about religion is likely to be wrong. When I discuss religion with progressives, the same false generalizations come up over and over again. And frankly, I'm tired of it. If you want to critique religion, that's fine. Actually, that's awesome, and can make for some really good debates. But don't use any of these arguments, because they don't hold water.

  • Religious people are sheep.

  • Sure, some of them are. And some aren't. Because religious people are diverse. Imagine that!

    That being said, this generalization isn't entirely baseless. Most major religions expect their followers to take certain propositions on faith. And this is often seen as regressive, full stop. Frankly, I kind of agree.

    At the same time, it's important to remember that many religious people do not follow the dictates of their faith indiscriminately. As a Jew in the contemporary world, I constantly question my religious beliefs and practices. My worldview is informed both by the Jewish tradition, and by progressive values. When the two come into conflict, I do some pretty intense soul-searching; in almost every case, progressivism has won.

    Moreover, not every religious denomination emphasizes complete, passive obedience. Not every religion has a universal creed, or a common set of rules which must be obeyed.

    During my Jewish education, I was taught to value doubt and dissent. I was taught that two opposing views could each have merit. As the Talmudic saying goes, "These and those, both are the words of the living God." Yes, it's true that I take certain things on faith; that I accept the existence of God without direct, empirical evidence. But that doesn't mean that I'm a puppet of some nebulous Jewish conspiracy.

    From a progressive standpoint, the entire notion of faith is legitimately suspect. I understand that. But it's disingenuous to pretend that religious people are all mindless sheep, eager to do the bidding of the nearest religious figure.

  • Have you even read the Bible!?

  • Yes, yes I have. The Hebrew Bible, anyway. And there's some f*cked-up sh*t in there. I completely agree. But here's the thing. The vast, vast majority of Jews and Christians in the contemporary world are not biblical literalists. Many Jews and Christians believe that the Bible is not, in fact, the word of God. Some view the Bible as simply a historical document; others--myself included--believe that the Bible was written by human beings who were divinely inspired.

    In any case, there are plenty of progressive religious people who are willing to reinterpret or reject the portions of the Bible which are--by today's standards--unquestionably horrific.

  • Religious people are racist, sexist, and homophobic (and atheists aren't).

  • Yes, it's absolutely true that religion has been used to justify untold oppression. Yes, that's a bad thing. And yes, there are some deeply problematic ideas woven into the fabric of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But that doesn't mean that all religious people are necessarily tools of the kyriarchy. And it certainly doesn't mean that prejudice is an inherent or necessary part of religion.

    Nor, by the way, are atheists exempt from bias. One of the most hateful human beings I have ever had the displeasure of encountering was--as it happens--an atheist. People of ill-will can--and do--create "rational," non-religious justifications for hatred, faster than you can say "God hates fags."

    It's comforting to think that prejudice is just an artifact of humanity's silly superstitions. If I truly believed that we could do away with baseless hatred, simply by stamping out religion, then I'd be an atheist too. But sadly, that's not how things work.


  1. great post! I also saw that thread on Sociological Imags and I decided not to comment, 'cos I knew it was gonna turn nasty.

    I love all your points, especially the last one. In fact, some of the most racist, arrogant, close-minded bigots I've met, were white male atheists, who automatically assumed they were better than everyone else, and thought it was perfectly fine to launch racist attacks on Muslims and Islam.

    There is a HUGE difference between criticizing a religion as a whole, and then there's attacking a group of people (racist generalization) or a person's individual personal beliefs.

    I am Agnostic-Atheist who came from a Hanafi Muslim family (Hanafi is the most liberal, progressive Islamic school of thought), and I was always taught to think for myself. Not all Muslims are brainwashed zombies. Although I consider myself "Muslim" by culture rather than faith, I don't like organized religion but I DON'T look down at people who decide to embrace an organized religion.

  2. I love this post! I find it just as discriminating when people put down ALL religion and people of faith as non-progressive, you've articulated so well what i haven't been able to.