Yesterday, Kate Blanchard--a religious studies professor at Alma College--shot back with a concise but pointed response, one that resonates with my own perspective.
In the course of answering the Raw Story piece, Blanchard makes the following insightful observation about our use of the term "religion":
Some people like to think that the "essence" of religion is all sweetness and light, while the violence and bigotry for which religious people are famous are unfortunate cultural add-ons. The flip side is the idea expressed in the aforementioned post, that the essence of religion is tribalism and violence, while all the good stuff is "our shared moral core."This is a point I tried to make a few years ago, in connection with a debate/discussion between Christopher Hitchens and Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell. In my more academic writing, I've argued that religion has become a "bifurcated essentially contested concept": On the one hand, people use "religion" as a value-laden term and offer competing understandings in part because we disagree about what deserves the value-ascription that goes with religion. On the other hand, we don't agree on what the value-ascription is that goes with religion.
The result is that people can have all the same values and the same assessment of the facts and yet end up seeming as if they fundamentally disagree about religion--when really they're just talking past each other. Joe Shmoe can hate all the things that Valerie Tarico hates, and they can (perhaps) love all the same things about Martin Luther King, Jr. But they disagree vociferously about religion. Why? Because Ms. Tarico attributes the former things to religion (because religion is bad, and these are the things that make it bad), while attributing MLK's virtues to humanism; but Mr. Shmoe attributes MLK's virtues to religion (because religion is good, and these are the things that make it good), while attributing Ms Tarico's list of horrors to the general human propensity for tribalism and the like.
There are ways I expressed myself in the book, Is God a Delusion?, that put me very close to sounding like Joe Shmoe--and were I to rewrite it today, that's one of the things I'd change. What I wanted to say then (at least in my moments of greatest clarity) is what I will say now: It's not that the essence of religion is all sweetness and light. Rather, there is something important that runs through the religions of the world that, if we take it to be religion's essence, provides an internal basis for critiquing the very things that Valerie Tarico criticizes in her piece. And this is a reason to take it to be religion's essence--because it provides a reason for religious people to rethink some of the more harmful things that religious communities have endorsed and perpetuated (if not originated).
What is this thing that I find running through the religions of the world? Well, it's a bit hard to summarize briefly, but here's my best effort: There is this thing I call the ethico-religious hope: the hope that in some fundamental way, reality is not indifferent to moral goodness, that despite the cold indifference of natural laws there is something beyond the empirical skin of the world that is on the side of the good. There is, within religion, a lifting-up of mystical experiences that speak in favor of this hope--even if, of course, they can be explained away as delusional. But one thing that religious communities do is make a decision to live as if this hopeful possibility is true--as if the mystical experiences that speak to it are not illusory, but are rather glimpses into a dimension of reality that transcends the ordinary run of our empirical lives.
One feature of religion, then, is a commitment to aligning our wills and lives to this ethico-religious hope, and cultivating the kinds of mystical experiences that nurture this hope.
I think that if we extract from the religions of the world these elements, it will be hard to blame Valerie Tarico's 12 bad ideas on them. In fact, I think that if we focus on these elements, they provide the basis for challenging such evils. This is one of the things I aimed to show in Is God a Delusion?
But it is also true that real-world religions embody a diversity of features, including our propensity for tribalism and our urgent desire for certainty and easy answers. But blaming religion for these features is itself an instance of falling prey to the desire for easy answers. This is a point that Kate Blanchard makes nicely towards the end of her short piece:
Many of us are willing to ignore the overwhelming evidence that human nature and history are irreducibly complex, in favor of bedtime stories that let us sleep better at night. We blame the worst stuff on religion and dream of a better world without it, as if other factors like land, nationalism, gender, wealth, power, or the desire to be right are unique outgrowths of religiosity. As if heresy, blood sacrifice, glorified suffering, or the desire for eternal life are not equally insidious in their secular incarnations.The result is the naivete of John Lennon's Imagine. A friend recently shared on Facebook his conversation with his young daughter about this song, in which he went into a detailed account of its oversimplified and naive vision of the human condition...putting her to sleep in the process. But maybe it's the song that should put us to sleep. I kind of like the song. I find it pretty--but pretty in the way that oversimplified bedtime stories are pretty. In fact, Valerie Tarico's list of religion's evils and Lennon's wistful imaginings seem to be different ways of articulating some of the very same ideas.
If so, Kate Blanchard's response is not just a reason to resist oversimplified attacks on religion, but a reason to be suspicious of Lennon's more lyrical naivete.
If you haven't read Blanchard's piece, it's a quick read and worth clicking over to.