Friday, June 22, 2012

How Do You Judge a Religion?

If I think about it for a while, I can imagine a complex portrait of a religion. I can see it as a changing ideology defined by time and place, spanning a varyingly broad and evolving range of regional sects that are influenced by technology, economics, literature, politics, interaction with other religions or cultures, and they can even be altered by seemingly insignificant matters like climate, natural disasters, and celestial events.

But if someone says, “Christianity,” the first thing that comes to my mind isn’t so nuanced. Unfortunately, neither is it so tangible.

Here, terms like “fundamentalism” come up. Typically, a “fundamentalist” is someone who is more religious than you. For the atheist, then, there is quite a bit of leeway here. Many atheists even engage in the practice of comforting themselves with the knowledge that others who disbelieve as they do are more extreme. Almost every atheist wants you to know they aren’t like those “other” atheists: the mean, rude, horrible, nasty, vile, angry, militant, “fundamentalist” atheists.

One problem that seems to be unique to atheists is that they are familiar with several religions. Most Christians don’t know very much about other religions. Perhaps they have a passing understanding of Judaism, maybe they know Jews can’t eat pork, but they don’t know about how they can’t eat shellfish, or that some of the more observant Jews go all Amish and don’t use electricity on Saturday. Islam probably stirs some unsavory images in Christians, often coupled with confusing PR attempts to rebrand Islam as a vague “religion of peace.”

While I know the most about Christianity than of any other faith, I am always learning more about other religions, even those which have few or no living followers. The snapshot of how I see a religion, then, could potentially be informed by a broad range of factors. However, I’ve come to largely see religions in one way.

I don’t focus on the shortcomings of clergy, or the crimes of the organization, nor even the unjust laws imposed in the name of the faith.

I don’t put much stock in the accomplishments of adherents, the success of cultures who adopt the ideology, or the acts of charity carried out by believers.

I don’t rely upon followers or their actions, because judging a religion by its followers is like judging a book by who buys it.

No, the first and most significant thing that comes to my mind when I think about a religion is its mythology. In many ways, this is the most damning perspective of all.

If you let followers define a religion, you are bound to be inaccurate in your assessment. For one thing, you must choose which followers and at which time are you analyzing them. If you restrict your view of a religion to followers, you will undoubtedly end up with a myopic picture of that religion. There’s really very little point in it.

However, if you realize that nearly all religions now have “sacred texts” of some kind, and that you have access to them… you can skip the variable products of faith and go right for the source.

It’s surprisingly insightful to judge a religion by its mythology. One can almost predict the idiosyncratic religious views of some followers before you even know they exist.

After reading the Old Testament and finding no such belief in Roman Catholic ideology, I came to one of the same conclusions that Calvin did centuries before, when I was merely a young child: namely, that one’s success in this life is largely a product of God’s graces. Such an idea is absolute nonsense, both realistically and when taken in the context of Biblical ideology as a whole, and yet in reading the same texts as those before me, I was able to see what they saw.

If you want a truly accurate picture of a religion, the only color palate you should use is mythology. It is the “why” in religion. Mythology is the root cause of faith, and it must be understood if you ever want to really know about a religion, and it will always reveal how a religion came to be so wrong. All the answers are laid out, plain as day, in the stories that religious people believe to be true and worthy of emulating.

It’s not a pretty picture, either. “Fundamentalism” comes to mind. As I mentioned above, I think most religious people actually use the term in relation to themselves when compared to others (a religious person is rarely going to define their views as “fundamentalist”). However, I imagine most people would think of “fundamentalism” in terms of… well… reading “too literally.”

It is some strange rhetorical gymnastics on the part of the religious person. Nearly every religious group can point to another and tell themselves, “They’re taking it too far.” Each is sitting on a sort of imperfect spectrum, some more extreme than others, and each is able to look in the direction of the more “fundamentalist” sects with a sense that they are taking things “too literally.” Meanwhile, in the other direction are those who clearly aren’t taking certain parts literally enough.

Religions, then, are more of less just very serious book reading groups that interpret varying degrees of metaphor. They all work from the same fables, tales which have been demonstrated to be factually inaccurate by anyone with a basic understanding of them and no deep desire to want them to be true. They all read the same atrocities, the same acts of charity, and each religion then goes out and does horrible or kind things to varying degrees. All this because of some stories.

It’s never a flattering view, but it is only through myth that you can ever really know a religion.


  1. You're making this thing too complicated Bret. How to judge a religion? Just like gymnastics... one through ten.
    Think how much the world would change if people realized that "The Grace of God" = Luck.

    1. If I'm going to judge it like an Olympic sport, it would have to be diving. I tend to rate religions highly if they don't make a big splash.


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