Another argument we get a lot of is the ‘You’re defining religion too narrowly’ one. The ‘Religion is anything and everything that’s not science, not numerical, not proven’ one. Err – that covers a lot of territory! To put it mildly. Let’s see – I like Austen better than Trollope, and I also think Austen is a better writer than Trollope; I think I can offer evidence for the reasonableness of that view, but I certainly can’t prove it, or establish it beyond a reasonable doubt – because it’s not the kind of thing one can prove or establish beyond a reasonable doubt. Just as I can’t prove that I like someone, or that someone is my friend, or that friendship or affection or hatred or enmity exists. I can offer evidence of a kind that they exist, at least I think I can, but the evidence would be far from decisive. The possibility of trickery, self-deception, error would always be there. But does it follow that all those items belong in the category ‘religion’? If my view of what religion generally means is too narrow (which I don’t think it is), isn’t that one quite a lot too broad?
One of our reader-commenters defines religion (somewhat arbitrarily, I can’t help thinking) this way:
Hence I would define religion, in a logically neutral sense, i.e. one that applies to all human beings regardless of their beliefs, religious or otherwise, as the justification of existence: because of the close intrication of agency and human identity and because human existence inn the world is fundamentally exposed to otherness, human beings feel a compulsion to justify themselves in some wise.
Well, I certainly wouldn’t disagree that humans do that. Nor would I disagree with what I take to be the implication: that how humans do that is interesting and important, and that it’s also mostly not the kind of thing one can prove or establish beyond a reasonable doubt, though I would say one can offer evidence of a kind. But what I don’t agree with is that that attribute – the non-susceptibility to mathematical proof – makes it religion. Perhaps it’s some other attribute that makes it religion. But if so, what? What attribute?
I suppose what it boils down to is that most of what humans really care about is subjective rather than objective. Well I don’t dispute that. But what follows from that? People seem to derive several conclusions from that fact which make them resist criticism of the truth-claims of religion: 1) values, judgments, emotions, affections have a different epistemic status from facts about the world, 2) values, judgments, emotions, affections, and ideas of meaning should (because of that epistemic status?) be called religion, and 3) rational inquiry into values, judgments, emotions, affections and religion is mistaken. Well, I think 1 is indisputable, 2 is quite wrong, and 3 just doesn’t follow. If 3 did follow, wouldn’t that mean that we could talk about, say, poetry, art, ethics, psychology, and myriad other subjects only in a carefully irrational way? That if we ever ‘deviated into sense’ we would have to be corrected and steered back to merely making emotional exclamations? But surely we can all think of counter-examples – of discussions of those subjects that were not programmatically irrational, and that nevertheless deepened our understanding of the subject at hand? In short I don’t think it follows from the fact that many subjects are woolly and subjective that there is nothing rational to be said about them. So I just don’t buy the argument that rational discussion of religion is nonsensical or beside the point even if the truth-claims of religion are not part of the discussion.