Why religion is not a group identity

I’ll go ahead and throw it out on the table, because I want to be clear from the beginning. I am an atheist. I don’t think there is a supernatural force at play that comes anywhere close to some kind of father/parent/police figure hovering and presiding over existence. I know that you can get locked-in an argument about how can you really prove anything exists, and it’s a doozy to be sure. Sensory experience and thought/imagination certainly open up the doors for the possibility of things existing, but just feeling and knowing that these things are true on some level can be agonizing.

The level of truth we assign to these things can be achieved by at least two methods. Firstly, we can compare them to other things that we think are true, and arrive at a truth by comparison, or second, we can follow an emotional response that tells us it’s true, just because. These methods of thought are really the basis for how you approach the world, with those adhering to the former being your cynics, rationalists, skeptics, and nullifidians (love this word), and those adhering to the latter being your religious, believers, and the faithful.  Perhaps this is a spectrum that is worth exploring, and make no mistake, both approaches can be deep and involve profound experience that warrants the many hours it can take you to arrive at…. well, more questions.

This is the problem with discussions on belief. I’ve already digressed, shamefully.

The point is, I don’t really see religion as a group, anymore, and this is great because it’s unifying. It’s Catholicism without the voodoo. People the world over are trying to make sense of everything they do by assigning truth to the ideas they have about what they do, every day. In order to make sense of these ideas, as stated in the last paragraph, they will employ a mix of those two methods of thought.  To compare their ideas to other ideas, they’ll need to get them from somewhere. Books, TV, media, friends, and teachers, and these might all take on a particular flavor depending on geography and governance. We’re all familiar with the totalitarian regimes that attempt to control the free-flow of information, as your behavior needs to be manipulated and justified by approved ideas for the sake of obedience and stability.

When you see people the world over, doing this same thing, the tangible and pragmatic nature of the ‘group’ disappears. Nobody is doing the thinking for somebody else. You can be influenced by other people, sometimes strongly, but it’s your thinking that makes you you, no matter what method of thinking you employ. From here, it doesn’t make sense to have religious groups, you just have people making sense of their lives with what’s available. With this in mind, the problem can never be Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism – these are useless and arbitrary lines we draw when pretending to understand human behaviors, and ideas that we use to bolster a sense of identity when we need it. The problem is dangerous ideas and how they manifest in the mind.

The interesting thing about religious identity is that it can involve a lot of truth by comparison. But the core ideas, the ones that form the foundation for the entire faith, they are not established from truth by comparison. They are true just because. In my opinion the core beliefs are accepted at a later date than the first introduction to a particular set of ideas. If there’s something about the ideas you like – I enjoy the company of people at Church, I agree with the things Jesus (allegedly) said, Church has helped me to make sense of my life – these ideas become so meaningful that the core ideas that they are resting upon have to be true… just because. So while religion might not be useful as a group identity, it is certainly a great conceptual and cognitive tool for providing stability and understanding in one’s own life.

8 thoughts on “Why religion is not a group identity

  1. Lynette d'Arty-Cross

    I’m not a fan of religion at all – I see it as having caused a lot of the suffering in the world. Would you say that there is an inherent problem with religion that allows dangerous ideas to develop? For instance, most religions see themselves as “right” – a situation that can lead to all manner of violence and even terror.

    Thought-provoking post.

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    1. Jack Pemment Post author

      I think religious thought is a mixed bag. However, over the last 100 years, with the exception of state religions, I think religious views are often used as a public reason for war (to gain public consent), rather than the private reasons, which are usually economic in nature. Any idea that is accepted without question is dangerous, and religious thought promotes this through faith-based thinking. Christopher Hitchens referred to Heaven and God as a kind of divine North Korea, because you’re forced to accept ideas as truth through faith (although you might agree with some of them). This is the crux of thought-control, accept these ideas or you’re not one of the faithful (and should no doubt meet a wrath of some kind).

      I think there is something about religious thought and dangerous ideas that is terrifying. Most believers will go along with the ideas in various scriptures as right, but there’ll never really act on them. Under the right motivation, these ideas could be seized upon to justifying murder and oppression, but the ‘moderate’ believers will never say those ideas are ridiculous because that would be questioning their own faith. This means that they are tacitly supporting the fundamentalists.

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  2. Jamie

    Great to have you back, Jack!

    I think it’s interesting how religion can warp our concept of truth. A religious person will say and think “I know God exists”, or “I know Muhammed was God’s last and greatest prophet”. or “I know Jesus died for my sins” and literally mean “know”, rather than “believe”, no matter what the truth may be (clearly the last two views are incompatible with one another and all three are incompatible will countless other versions of the ‘truth’).

    I have recently been watching some of those ‘evolutionist debates a creationist’ videos on YouTube, and one thing that struck me is that both sides used the “you might think x, but I *know* y” tactics on each other. (e.g. “you might believe there is evidence for natural selection, but I know God created the earth in seven days).

    It really makes you wonder whether some part of the human mind needs to see its deepest help beliefs as not just strong opinions but as truth. And that undermines not only the concept of truth but (perhaps) renders it unknowable.

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  3. Jack Pemment Post author

    Many scientists won’t even debate creationists (or intelligent designers) anymore, because as soon as they give them the stage, it gives off the perception that the two sets of views are on an even footing. Also, I find debates more enjoyable and honest when the participants are willing to step back from their views and legitimately entertain the views of their opponent. Rarely does that happen in these debates, but then you’ve really got two different fields vying for superiority – academic advancement through the scientific model, and mythology. They’re not really debates, just pissing contests.

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    1. Jamie

      Yeah, they’re not the best examples of fair and reasoned debate. The ones I watched were largely devoid of interesting content, but the idea that ‘truth’ is personal and relative was one idea that arose from watching them.

      I found out that one of the “debates” (Bill Nye vs the proprietor of the Creation Museum, Kentucky’s most ridiculous tourist attraction!) was reviewed in several newspapers, and it was mostly agreed that Nye had won. This was not because he gave a convincing argument, but rather was due to the fact he was a more fluent speaker and was seen to engage the audience in a slicker presentation. Nye seemed more capable, so his version of the truth ‘won’.

      The idea that presentation and perception trump content when it comes to popular persuasion seems to fall into the same school of thought as the Ancient Greek practice of rhetoric, whereby arguments need not say anything of value as long as they are able to manipulate the audience into being persuaded.

      These debates are pissing contests indeed 🙂

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