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Response to skepticscott (Reply #8)

Mon May 6, 2013, 09:57 PM

9. There are differences between your views and mine, but I suspect you and I do not even agree

on exactly what the differences between our views are

First, we do not use the term "religion" in exactly the same way.

I think you wish to make general claims about "religion" without having any really good definition of it. I find "religion" as a sociological category to be a vague and ill-defined concept: having trained as a mathematician, I do not believe meaningful generalizations can be derived from vague ideas, so when "religion" is used in a sociological sense, I am often inclined to look sociological descriptions that seem to be more useful.

When I use "religion" as a theological category, I am referring to something rather like "the foundations of a person's being," and in that sense I expect everyone has a "religion" of some sort -- and I am sure you dislike any comments I make in that sense. "Religion" in this sense is not necessarily harmless in my view: people often behave rather badly for various reasons, springing from their choices of what will be important to them, and they are often quite good at providing high-minded-sounding rationalizations for their bad behavior, but their actual "religion" (even if they describe themselves as "religious" may not involve any traditional "gods" and their rationalizations do not necessarily involve any "god talk" -- the actual "gods" they worship (for example) may be themselves, and their actual "religious practice" may be their self-interested greed or it may be their own self-righteousness. In other words, I use the theological category "religion" to include a number of ways of being, many of which I regard as idolatrous and harmful, but in that case the conceptual overlap between your use of the word and my use of the word is rather slight

Second, we do not approach the sociological category "religion" from the same perspective. My development here was influenced by Marx, who is currently unpopular, despite his having had some rather profound insights:

... The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man ... But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world ... This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point díhonneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions ... Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower ...

A Contribution to the Critique of Hegelís Philosophy of Right
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm


Perhaps you have little interest in Marx, but this passage shines as a brilliant landmark in atheistic humanism. Marx is not content with the observation that religion is man-made, and he is not content simply to strip away religious belief: he wants to understand the actual source of religious belief, without losing his ethical stance and without losing his scientific perspective. His idea is to regard religious belief as a psychological projection, that allows people to discuss their hopes and disappointments in a fantastic language that represents both their current suffering and their protest against that suffering. Thus Marx maintains his sympathy with the oppressed in part by decoding their discussion of their oppression. He is not interested so much to destroy their illusions but rather to eliminate the conditions that necessarily produced the illusions

This provides an established atheistic-humanistic approach to the study of problems posed by various "religious" manifestations -- namely, one asks: What is really going on here? What are the underlying conditions that spawned this? That approach has the advantage of focusing attention on genuine material problems that real humans need solved

Third, I think I see interesting problems where you see none. When (for example) communities with a long history of religious tolerance splinter into violent competing factions, I think you feel everything important has been said once you have blame "religion" for the strife -- but since such "solution" seems glib and uninformative to me, I still want to know what has happened

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