30 April 2007

A Dangerous Misunderstanding

The religious have a hard time understanding what I do with my time. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve had the following conversation, I’d be a rich man:

Theist: “College, eh? What are you majoring in?”
Me: “Religion”
Theist: “Oh…so you’re going to be a priest (/minister)?”

It makes sense to me that the religious tend to misunderstand me; the idea that religious practices can be studied systematically and dispassionately as fundamentally human endeavors is not generally compatible with personal religious commitments. Any meaningful work in the discipline requires, if not outright atheism, then at least a staunch commitment to agnosticism for the sake of argument.

What I do find hard to understand, however, is when even atheists fail to understand that there is an entire academic discipline (not to mention the related contributions made by cultural anthropology, evolutionary psychology, sociology, art history, literature, and so on) devoted to the study of religion. As an example, several people at the New Humanism conference a few weeks ago asked me why I was wearing a shirt from Harvard Divinity School – as though the only people who were interested in studying religion are the religious. Sadly, I have tended found many atheists to be as narrow-minded in their dismissal of religion as theists are in their acceptance of it.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at some excerpts from the great Dawkins himself (for whom, lest I be misconstrued, I have nothing but respect). Dismissing the argument that no rational theist believes that God is an old man with a white beard, Dawkins starts out promisingly, writing:

“I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented” (36).

Music to my ears! But then, a mere page later, Dawkins commits himself to a ‘true Scotsman’ fallacy that grates on me like fingers on a chalkboard:

“I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism… Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life” (37-8).

First of all, Buddhism is unequivocally a religion. I don’t have the space to make that argument here, but perhaps I’ll address it more completely in a later post. Far more disturbing to me is Dawkins’ offhand dismissal of every “other religion” apart from Abrahamic Monotheism, and the pursuant assumption that Abrahamic Monotheism is somehow representative of religion in general. Even his section exclusively devoted to Polytheism spans a mere 4 pages, most of which he rather bafflingly spends discussing the Christian trinity.

Granted: for Dawkins’ purposes, this is true. Dogmatic adherence to the witchcraft practices of Zandeland isn’t threatening to undermine Western civilization or the rights of the nonbeliever; to my knowledge, there are no Daoist lobbyists in Washington. Because the point of his book is to assert that the supernatural, in all its forms, is not empirically true, his criticism is quite appropriately directed to worshippers of the Abrahamic deity.

While I do not fault Dawkins for restricting his focus to the forms of religion that are the most threatening to our society in the here and now, I would warn him and all of my fellow atheists of the dangers of equating “religion” with “modern Christo-Islamic extremism” or, more generously, with “ethical monotheism” – the specific kind of religion that has a single god who is aware of your inner state and who concerns himself with telling people how to behave in the bedroom. This kind of religion is only a narrow slice of a part of a piece of the earth’s spectrum of religious diversity – but as Dawkins illustrates above, this kind of religiosity is more often than not taken as representative of the whole.

If we want to combat the negative effects of religion in our society, we have to understand it – and in order to understand it, each of us needs to have at least a rudimentary understanding of “religion” that takes the entire breadth of its expression into account, rather than just the handful of forms with which our culture is most intimately familiar.

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