One of my major intellectual frustrations of the last ten years has been the growth of loose—usually hostile—talk about ‘religion.’ The impetus for this seems to be a desire to react strongly against the attacks of 9/11 without singling out Islam in particular.
Religions are too different for this kind of talk to be useful. Some are militant, some pacifistic. Some are charitable, others not. Some are theistic, others are atheistic. Some religions are basically philosophical, others are rooted in historical claims. And for the same reason, there is often no great difference between any given religion and something which we might rather call a value system, or an ideology, or a philosophy, or a set of superstitions or myths.
The truth is that anything that matters to people has all sorts of effects and can be exploited in all sorts of ways, good and bad. This applies to religion, philosophy, ideology, nationality, kinship, love, and so on and on. That is literally the only thing to say about the role of religion just in general. Anyone who tries to make more of it than that is simply not a fit conversational partner for an informed person.
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Edit: Skarphedin observes that people “do not realize the significance of higher and lower groupings of concepts.” For instance,
atheism and theism are the ultimate groupings of ideologies by belief or non-belief in God, and that’s about all one can say. When Buddhism, forms of Hinduism, Secular humanism, Marxism, etc., fall into the atheist category, and Shamans, Quakers, Taliban, and other forms of Hinduism fall into the theist category, then how can you compare one specific ideology of one category with the whole of the other category?