Has ‘Religion’ lost its legitimacy as a concept?

I spent some of today leafing through Hitchens’ God is Not Great, which I must admit is not somewhere I would have expected to find inspiration. Strictly speaking, although I was inspired, the inspiration was in reaction to the rather silly argument he uses. God is Not Great, along with The God Delusion, is just one of those books that I find it hard to get through or avoid skipping out huge chapters in. Not out of offence or difficulty, but out of boredom. To be specific, we’ll take the chapter ‘A Note on Health, to Which Religion can be Hazardous.’ The argument is simply:

P1: Some Religious people/leaders/organisations have got in the way of medical help to people who need it

P2: This is not cricket.

C: Religion is not cricket and people really shouldn’t play it.

Or, to rephrase C in the words of the subtitle, which I think Mr. Hitchens is incredibly proud of because he repeats it a lot in italics to make sure you know that he’s repeating it: religion poisons everything! Now, this is not a very good argument and I’m not really going to get into it,especially since Plato refuted that sort of logic 2500 years ago much better than I can right now (see the citation below). The gist being that ‘some’ people acting up isn’t enough to write off ‘all’ people of a particular institution. At the very least you’d need a few extra premises to show that it is the institutions very nature to produce these people, rather than the nature of people to always have fringes who will use any empowering institution to produce harm, for example.

However, Mr Hitchens does think it is a good argument, otherwise he wouldn’t have put his name to it. So, rather than spending time trying to convince us that it is a good argument he simply spends all his time beefing up P1, viz. he gives many examples, ad nauseam, of when religious people have got in the way of medical help: Islamic leaders claiming that western vaccines are tricks to give you diarrhoea and impotence (Hitchens, p. 44), a catholic bishop claiming that condoms have microscopic holes in them that HIV could pass though (Hitchens, p. 45) and other similar stories. I think it is entirely natural that I started to get bored and frustrated as I trawled through example after example while waiting for him to get on with it, viz. to P2 and the conclusion. Admittedly, some of the examples are interesting independently of the argument, but that is besides the point. The examples do not bring any added legitimacy to the argument that isn’t mere rhetorical force. These tactics remind me of what Einstein said in response to the publishing of the book 100 Authors against Einstein: “Why one hundred? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.”

To get back on track, my inspiration for this post came out of my general frustration while reading through this chapter and becoming irritated at how ridiculous it was that I had to wade through a cess pit of examples just to get to a rather silly argument. Then, from somewhere I know not, the question came: “Why is it ridiculous?” Not in the sense of asking for a a demonstration of its ridiculousness, but a philosophical question: “How is this ridiculousness possible? How is it that a thinker can stretch the concept of religion so much that (to him at least) the deplorable actions of those on the fringes are enough to show the whole project to be illegitimate?”

The obvious and tongue in cheek answer is “Mr. Hitchens is an idiot”, but this is rather silly and hardly academic wot wot. It is a genuine puzzle; what is it that is going wrong here that gives such a stretch of logic a chimera of truth? It occurs to me that it might be the very concept of religion itself. Not religion as a legitimate possibility itself, but the category ‘Religion’ as a legitimate tool for understanding the phenomenon to which we try to make it refer. In fact, it is a bit of a push to say we are talking about a phenomenon and not several. I think the problem is this: there is not enough in common between the leaders who lied about the vaccination and condoms and the silent majority of ‘religious’ people who would condemn such actions. Indeed, even to the die hard dogmatic Catholic, the fact that condoms work is not the issue. In fact if they didn’t work, they’d probably like them a bit more (albeit only a little).

Although the reckless and dangerous fanatics and the regular Joes, who have a faith and live it out without causing harm, would both call themselves ‘religious’, I don’t think we can get away with it when trying to understand them; I certainly don’t think that their confession is sufficient to put them in the same box. The constitution of the fanatic is such that he has inherited a dogma, interpreted in a way that he claims to be the only way to interpret it and chooses to force it on others and defend it with a rifle. The dogma is invested with the power and authority of God and must be defended and enforced in his name. Regular Joe just goes to church, believes that there is a God who loves him and that if he plays his cards right he’ll have peace after death. Joe has no political ambition, he doesn’t think that his faith is a political problem at all, he doesn’t think it needs defending (precisely because it has the authority of God) and he certainly doesn’t think he has a mandate to speak for Him, especially since he admits he doesn’t really understand it. He doesn’t really acknowledge a dogma; there are a few things he believes in, a lot more he doesn’t and he doesn’t insist that he is definitely right.

The fanatic and Joe are two utterly distinct phenomena, and to group them together into one category and say “They’re both religious” and to treat them as the same phenomenon requires us to forget most of their specificity. We can be mislead, and not only by those who attack religion but those who defend it. For example, the people who consider themselves to be of different religions and call for them to work together, like the ‘Tony Blair Faith Foundation’ which has an underlying belief that the religions are “saying the same thing deep down”, and they can work together to build a better world, thus proving their legitimacy and relevancy in the modern world. These nonsense talking people who say things like: “all the religions have the same core values”, wittering on about ‘golden rules’ as if the deducted maxims of philosophers like Buddha are the same as the out-of-the-blue, counter-intuitive orders that Jesus demanded of Judea, without sufficient reasons other than his divine authority (which only works if he was God); these people who talk about ‘spirituality’ as if meditation in search of enlightenment is the same as praying to a Father-God for intercession: they should not be trusted. When they bring belief-sets and distinct attitudes towards them together under the umbrella religion (an umbrella of pound-shop quality) they forget more than they remember, they hide more than they admit, and they throw out more than they preserve; subjugating differences to force banal similarities to the front line of the battle with Hitchens, Dawkins, and the like.

In short: there is a reason why there are so many religions and not one: they are not all saying the same thing; deep down, shallow up or otherwise.


The many denominations of Christianity (38,000,  apparently) and different types of Christians are so different that you can’t even really put them all in one category unless your only entry requirement is that they refer to Jesus of Nazareth in some way (compare our Regular Joe to the political heavyweights of the ‘Christian’ right in the US). So, if Christians can’t be put together with each other, how can we put them together with the other world religions?  Whenever we say “religious people” we invoke countless different types of people, distinct phenomena, and blindly call them the same. This might have been sufficient hundreds of years ago when we understood less about other cultures and there were only really two religions: the right one and the wrong ones. However, in a world were we have six religions but as many interpretations and attitudes as there are people in it: it is just silly. Indeed, we have to empty the concept of almost all content in order to fit it to everything we want it to; for all intents and purposes, when we say religion we are saying nothing at all.

Ultimately, I think the problem is that the concept ‘Religion’ works well as a category of comparison, but not as a category of definition. To be clear, it makes intelligible a contrast very well: “Christianity is the religion I believe in: paganism is not”, but it stumbles over itself, as we have seen, when we try to say: “Religion poisons everything!”. It’s only content for the Christian, is that it refers to things that are like Christianity but wrong, (or like Islam, Judaism etc. but wrong for the respective religions). I do not think it is much of a leap to attribute this to the fact that bringing religions together is a fairly recent idea, employed primarily by the contemporary defenders and attackers of religion in general. In the past it was all about: ‘My religion is better than your religion!’ rather than: ‘Religions are good/bad!’ Why would anyone want to bring the religions together and say they are all good or all bad when the cultural worldview is that only one is good and the rest bad? In this competitive mindset the only thing that religions have in common is that they are mutually exclusive and that only mine has any truth in it: the concept ‘Religion’ is constitutively fascist!

It is absurd to say “Religion Poisons Everything” because Sikhism, The Westminster Presbyterian Church of Australia, Neo-Paganism, and the other religions referred to are strung together as arbitrarily as pens, pigs and Tupperware in a rhetorical list of arbitrarily grouped things. If I said to you that pens and pigs and Tupperware poison everything, you’d expect me to mean that each of those entities poisons in it’s own particular way, and it is indeed arbitrary that I’ve lumped them together here. You’d expect me to provide a different argument establishing a different type of poisoning for each different entity mentioned. You would have every right to demand that of me, and if I provided some example of Bic biros poisoning people you wouldn’t be convinced that Berol biros or Parker fountain pens are poisonous, let alone Belgian landrace pigs or the FridgeSmart 1.6 litre rectangle Tupperware box. You’d just ask (hopefully politely) that I keep my mouth shut lest more rubbish spill out of it and dirty your ear drums.

We must also demand this standard of those who make claims about Religion in general, whether they are arguing that religion poisons everything or that religion doesn’t poison everything. Perhaps the issues that Hitchens tries to raise are worthy of debate, I must personally own that most arguments I’ve heard against religion have been either at non-representative fringes or at straw men; I, for one, am yet to be convinced that religion is a social malady. Though, I’m not one to stifle debate. Let people raise the issues, just make sure they raise them in an intelligible way.

Plato Reference:

Plato, Gorgias, trans. R. Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 456d-457a:

Moreover, if someone goes to a gym, gets fit, and learns how to box, and then beats up his parents or some other friend or relation of his, this is certainly no reason for people to bear a grudge against trainers and people who teach others how to fight in armour, and ban them from their communities. A teacher passes his expertise on for his pupils to use when it is morally appropriate to do so […] It is the pupils who corrupt and abuse their strength and their skills.

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