Secular Religion

I was discussing religion and related subjects with an acquaintance yesterday, and he said I have a lot of secular religious or quasi-religious beliefs. I was skeptical of this claim, and we wrangled a bit, but didn’t have time to wrangle thoroughly. So I’ll talk to myself on the subject here, and you can listen in.

The argument was that I (and most people – it’s a general point) hold certain beliefs in a quasi-religious way: moral beliefs for instance. I think murder is wrong, and I believe it’s true that murder is wrong, and that is a commitment without reasons, hence religious. But I dispute all of that. All of it. For one thing, I don’t really think it is factually true that murder is wrong; not in the sense of being true throughout the universe. I think it’s factually true in the sense that it’s factually true that it’s wrong for humans, and that (or because) humans generally consider it wrong, for good reasons; but that’s a limited, parochial, contingent sort of truth, so not like religious beliefs, which tend not to be limited to this earth and this species, but to take in everything. Then, the commitment isn’t without reasons; it’s not a logical truth, but it’s not based on nothing, either. There are good reasons for saying that murder is wrong that do not rely on any supernatural beliefs. Then, I don’t think all beliefs that are short of logically necessary are religious or quasi-religious – unless one defines religion in some special or tricksy way, and that is just what I won’t do. I refuse. I’ve refused before, many times, and I’m going to go on refusing.

The other example of one of my secular religious beliefs is that Shakespeare is better than Enid Blyton. I don’t buy it. I do believe that, yes, but I also know perfectly well that that idea is a purely human idea, that relies on all sorts of contingent products of the development of language and what words have resonance; it’s the very opposite of something inscribed in the nature of the universe. It has no meaning at all even to other species on this planet (unlike murder perhaps, which could at least be argued to mean something for some non-human species), let alone anyone anywhere else. So I fail to see what is religious about it. I can see calling it something else, including something pejorative, but not religious. Unless, again, religion is re-defined in a tricksy way.

If I understand the thought, it is that all beliefs (or commitments) that are not completely grounded are religious, or quasi-religious. But what is it that is religious about them? It seems to me rather that they share one feature with religion, the ungroundedness; but just ungroundedness is not enough to characterize or define religion. You need more than that. You need the supernatural, you need a deity. (Of course one can always say ‘No I don’t’ and define religion as ungrounded beliefs; but then it covers a huge amount of territory, and isn’t what most people mean by religion, so the discussion becomes idiosyncratic and somewhat confusing.) Many promoters of religion of course like to define religion as just a feeling of benevolence, or an attitude toward the universe, or a heightened sense of compassion, for the purpose of promoting religion, reverting to the much narrower theistic meaning when the coast is clear. But that’s a ploy to entice people to join the flock, and I refuse to go along with it, because if we do that we acquiesce in the bait and switch.

This is the distinction between onto-religion and expressive religion; I have no quarrel with expressive religion, but I do have a quarrel with the ontological kind, especially when it gets aggressive, as it so often does these days.

The matter interests and concerns me because I dislike credulity: on a very gut level, I dislike it (so there’s another quasi-religious belief, perhaps). That means I really don’t want to have mindless or uncritical or unthinking or unexamined or superstitious or taboo beliefs. But I don’t think I do – not in principle anyway, not that I would refuse to examine or think about if challenged. I no doubt have lots that I haven’t noticed, but not any that I’ve carefully placed inside a shrine.

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