It’s interesting how willing people often are to redefine religion in order to defend it, and how thoroughly they’re willing to redefine it for that purpose. In fact they do such a thorough job of it that one would have thought there was nothing left that needed defending. Who would bother to argue against feelings of awe or wonder, or an appreciation of stories and myths and poetry? I certainly wouldn’t, in fact I think those are fine things. But they’re not what I take religion to be, and I don’t think they’re what people generally mean when they talk about religion, either. If that’s what religion means, then what do we call what I mean by religion, to wit: belief in the existence of a supernatural being who created the universe, and perhaps personal immortality for humans?

Richard Dawkins discussed this issue in his usual incisive way a few years ago in an article that is also included in his most recent book, A Devil’s Chaplain. I urge you to read the article, it makes my point for me. I feel like quoting the whole thing but will restrain myself.

If you count Einstein and Hawking as religious, if you allow the cosmic awe of Goodenough, Davies, Sagan, and me as true religion, then religion and science have indeed merged, especially when you factor in such atheistic priests as Don Cupitt and many university chaplains. But if the term religion is allowed such a flabbily elastic definition, what word is left for conventional religion, religion as the ordinary person in the pew or on the prayer mat understands it today–indeed, as any intellectual would have understood it in previous centuries, when intellectuals were religious like everybody else?

Just so. Very well, if I’m quite wrong about what the word ‘religion’ means, and it’s really just a word for some attitudes and emotions rather than a set of supernatural truth claims, fine. That’s not what I’m talking about then in the ‘Science and Religion’ In Focus. I’m talking about something else – you know – that familiar stuff about God and Jesus and Allah, prayers and the soul and heaven, resurrection and immortality and sin and atonement. I don’t know what the right word for that is if it’s not religion, and I’m not at all convinced that people who claim that’s not what the word ‘religion’ refers to are correct, but at any rate that is the subject I’m talking about.

If God is a synonym for the deepest principles of physics, what word is left for a hypothetical being who answers prayers, intervenes to save cancer patients or helps evolution over difficult jumps, forgives sins or dies for them? If we are allowed to relabel scientific awe as a religious impulse, the case goes through on the nod. You have redefined science as religion, so it’s hardly surprising if they turn out to ‘converge.’

Just so, again. It’s sheer Humpty Dumptyism, is what it is. ‘Religion is whatever I say it is for the purposes of this discussion so that I can claim that atheists and secularists are silly and shallow, dogmatic and ignorant, stubborn and perverse.’ Only in Looking-glass Land where words don’t mean what they mean.

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