Noel Cheer thinks about... Religion

The religious lexicon is in a mess. Much of the confusion that we encounter in discussing religion results from simple but significant differences in the meanings assigned to words. It can be assumed that some of the meaning assignments are done so as to gain rhetorical advantage.

This article deals with only one of the many confused meanings, that of the word religion. The article ends with a plea to clarify the meanings that we apply to words so that sensible and essential discourse can take place. Since dictionaries record word usage of the past (and, at best, the immediate past) they are of little help in these fast-chaging times. This article draws on ideas from the late Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a Canadian historian of religion, who held that there is a significant distinction to be made between religion and a religion. The first is an abstraction, while the second is a cultural entity rooted in historical processes.

If we can agree that all humans have a capacity for rising above our animal substrate for example by valuing love over power or mercy over revenge or beauty over ugliness (or even in merely recognising such categories) then we might agree to call this spirituality. Nothing important depends on using this particular word, the main advantage is that it gives continuity with earlier cultures. There is nothing about spirituality that compels us to speculate about other worlds or angels or to employ metaphors masquerading as concrete entities. This spiritual capacity may be unacknowledged, unexercised or even denied, but observation favours us agreeing that it is present in most human beings. Even atheists. Once a person starts to reflect on this urge to transcend the merely animal, then religion comes into operation. By this we mean that religion is the personal belief and meaning system of an individual human being, whether or not it is populated with super-natural entities. It is the umbrella name for our awareness of spirituality and the desire to celebrate and exercise it.

When we talk of a religion (or religions ) then we are talking of a path of faith, such as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and so on. They each have a history and they change over time, usually in response to other historical phenomena. To lessen confusion, there is some value in abandoning the word religion in its several forms and substituting the word faith to name personal piety, and path of faith to name the formalised expression of it the company that we keep while we do. This may bring us into another lexical debacle because many people who are hostile to religion equate the word faith with gullibility. But that is another article.

The neo-atheist assault on all things religious being mounted in the popular (that is non-scholastic) press by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris depends on using the terms religion, belief and faith in ways that label people who act in those ways as intellectually discreditable. The degree to which they misappropriate the meaning of religion is well exemplified in this excerpt from the preface of Dawkins The God Delusion.

Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers', no Northern Ireland `troubles', no `honour killings', no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money ('God wants you to give till it hurts'). Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it.

If Dawkins, and the rest of us, were to use the word religion (or faith) to name, objectively and non-perjoratively, the self-acknowledged spirituality of a person, and to use a religion (or path of faith) to characterise a cultural entitity located in time, and often also in space, then the real discourse could begin. Benefits of understanding could flow across traditional dividing lines between paths of faith and also between those who are dedicated to a particlar path of faith and those who deny that such a course is appropriate. The level of debate offered by Dawkins is banal. The greater debate promises enormous benefits of mutual understanding and world peace and a means to address the excesses in religious expression that Dawkins claims are typical of the depredations that religion brings.

Clarifying our terms of reference will help to see religion as enormously variable in its application from the sublime to the diabolical.


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