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 economics, literature, politics, technology, interaction with other religions, and even seemingly insignificant things 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. You know, 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 don’t use electricity on Saturday. Islam probably stirs some unsavory images, coupled with equally confusing attempts by some to rebrand Islam as a vague “religion of peace.”
While I know more about Christianity, 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 rely upon followers or their actions. Judging a religion by its followers is like judging a book by who likes it. I don’t care about 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.
No, the first and most significant thing that comes to my mind when I think about a religion is its mythology. Stories truly define a religion, which is why religions are so difficult to define. Just as a room full of a hundred people can read a poem and interpret it a hundred different ways, so it is with religion.
Even the more legalistic religions, which spell out specific and often intricate rules, still delve into the realm of narrative moral instruction, resulting in what is an often inherently ambiguous ideology. Contradictions arise, and a straight-forward literary approach to religion seemingly always results in a critical analysis of the work as deeply flawed, and unmistakably human.
I don’t recommend one goes into reading mythology with an eye for criticism, though. If you try to read something to prove it wrong, you won’t get anything from it. Mythology is powerful literature, and if you go in knowing that it can enrich your understanding of humanity, you can learn a lot.
Mythology has inspired many great thinkers, as evidenced by how much in science is named for mythological figures. From the periodic table to celestial bodies, the world of science is a modern re-acquisition of mythical vocabulary.
In this respect, every religion may be judged to have some value. I have not come across a religion yet which offered me nothing in the way of new information.
Even Scientology taught me something, namely: you can make a fortune selling people their salvation. Before Scientology, one might not be able to say religion was truly commercialized, but Scientology has successfully blurred the line between church and business, between religion and economics (and that’s if the New York Stock Exchange hadn’t illustrated this plainly enough). That, and Scientology is also full of great tips on how to be a sociopath.
That’s how I judge religions, and I feel I have every right to judge a religion, since they’re always judging me.