That which is special about religion

What’s Blair talking about?

“For religion to be a force for good, it must be rescued not simply from extremism, faith as a means of exclusion; but also from irrelevance, an interesting part of our history but not of our future.” Too many people saw religious faith as stark dogmatism and empty ritual, he added. “Faith is reduced to a system of strange convictions and actions that, to some, can appear far removed from the necessities and anxieties of ordinary life,” Blair said. “It is this face that gives militant secularism an easy target.”

Militant secularism yourself. We’re not the ones who resort to violence when people don’t agree with us, so don’t be so free with your adjectives, not to mention your mindless clich├ęs. But leaving that aside – if religion is not a system of strange convictions, then what is it? I realize it has other attributes, of course (though it’s hard to specify any that universally belong to religion as such), but which ones are inherent in religion and part of its definition? If you remove all the strange convictions from a given religion, what is religious about what is left? I realize there will be something left, but what I don’t see is what is religious about that residue. It seems to me that what is left is simply a lot of stuff that can just as easily be secular, and often is – belonging, meaning, motivation, community. That appears to be the kind of thing Blair has in mind (though who knows for sure, since as always religion gets the benefit of vagueness when we are being told how wonderful it is), but he has no real right to assume that kind of thing is religious and therefore on the credit side of the ledger for religion.

He went on to argue that religion could help to advance humanity and end global poverty. One of his foundation’s aims is to bring people of faith together in pursuit of the UN’s millennium development goals, which include the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality and combating diseases.

Well sure, religion could do that. But what could it do to do those things that is religious? What is it about what religion could do to help advance humanity and end global poverty that secular or non-theist groups or organizations could not do? What particular, special, irreplaceable quality of religion is Blair talking about here? The article doesn’t say – and I have a strong suspicion that Blair didn’t either.

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