What is Religion?

Religion as we understand it today is a modern concept denoting a type of belief system that can in theory be distinguished from Government and culture at large, but in practice is very often not. It is a concept to which we accord undue reverence as a species, a reverence that co-exists with varying degrees of understanding that the factual claims that religious belief systems profess are to be ignored when real decisions about politics or ethics are to be made. In essence, humanity has figured out a system for allowing people to cling on to their superstitions while limiting the damage caused by them. Historically, as various cultures came in contact with each other in the pre-modern age, religions went from being all-encompassing to something sacrosanct and beyond criticism, but limited in their sphere of influence. Unfortunately, this distinction is not very clear in practice, and religious people are constantly fighting to blur the line between their superstitions and society at large.

It is essential to first completely understand what religion is, from a Freethought perspective, before we go any further. Jonathan Smith approaches the idea of religion in a way that enables Freethinkers to understand its objective qualities. He writes:

“Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization.”

This idea has been further expanded upon, breaking down religions to the core traits that make them so incredibly appealing to some and so tragically malignant to all.

I look at religion as an entity in itself, behaving like any other entity that responds to its environment. With this perspective in mind, I look for any personality traits of this entity that may form the inclusive core of what constitutes religion. I submit three propositions which, when taken together, define the essence of these powerful cultural institutions.

1) Religion perpetuates an identity of itself as a group.

2) An authoritarian strain runs through every set of beliefs that can be labeled a religion.

3) Religions submit their believers through volumes of cognitive dissonance.

We can add a fourth proposition to this list: Religions demand special status in modern human society.

Nirmukta and Indian Atheists

One characteristic that makes the modern Freethought movement stand out from the Atheist/Rationalist movements of the past is in the explicit rejection of the idea that certain beliefs about objective reality are sacrosanct and above criticism. The rejection of religion is a core principle of Nirmukta. This idea is also a core principle of Indian Atheists, Nirmukta’s Atheism outreach and activism arm.

While there may be certain beneficial qualities that some of the beliefs and practices of mainstream religions offer to humanity, there are none that cannot be replaced with reason and compassion. While there may be some good that can be achieved by dealing with moderate believers, there are plenty of other groups, both religious and secular ones, that are involved in having these conversations.

Nirmukta and Indian Atheists are opposed to religion in all its forms.

Distinction between Ideas and People

Religions are comprised of ideas, and as with all ideas that Freethinkers deal with, must be scrutinized and dismissed if found wanting. People, however, have thoughts, desires, foresight and the ability to feel compassion, kindness, pain, sadness and empathy, and so must be treated on a different footing. Simply put, people deserve respect, ideas do not. This simple distinction is lost on many people, both religious and otherwise.

Some cultural identities are the target of the ire of Freethinkers, but not all are. Self-identification with certain belief systems is perfectly acceptable, such as in the case of purely political and cultural groupings of people like language and national identity, but is unacceptable in the case of certain malignant belief systems such as religions.  Socio-political identities are usually concerned with inter-subjective truth (claims that are the social, cultural and ethical foundations of human society). Religions go a step beyond cultural categories such as language, because they are comprised of beliefs that make objective truth-claims about the nature of reality. Religious identities endorse specific objective truth-claims that are patently false, often dangerously so. These are claims that are are not supported by the evidence – claims that often run counter to scientific understanding and human progress.

The thing that we call ‘religion’ has hijacked human culture, demanding special status by seeking exemption from scrutiny and criticism. More importantly, the various religious identities have hijacked people, infecting them with a virulent motivation to perpetuate the disease.  Any criticism of these religions- Islam, Christianity, Hinduism etc., is perceived as criticism of the people who subscribe to these religions. Indeed, much of the criticism by Freethinkers is targeted at specific beliefs, and not so much as at the religious label. Yet the level of virulence is so high in many of the believers of these religions that all criticism, whether directed at the religion or at the specific beliefs, is taken as personal attacks.

How Freethinkers practice criticism of ideas depends on the objectives of the group in question. A recent article on Nirmukta discusses the issue of moderating Freethought groups, protecting them from the incessant onslaught of attacks from the religious majority and trolls of all types.

It must be noted that while we are careful to make the distinction between people and ideas, not every person who calls herself/himself a Freethinker does so. Our position at Nirmukta and Indian Atheists is extremely nuanced, given that we are anti-religion, but pro-people of all kinds. We are not anti-Muslim, but are anti-Islam. We are not anti-Hindu, but are anti-Hinduism. Same goes for Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism and all other organized belief systems that seek the protectionist status accorded to this idea we call ‘religion’.

Alternatives to Religion

There is no doubt that some of the qualities that religions have conferred on humanity have served useful evolutionary functions in the past. But today, in almost every aspect of human culture that religion once held monopoly over, there lies the possibility of better, more effective and ethical alternatives that are the product of reason and compassion. Modern Freethought groups seek out these alternatives. Modern philosophies such as secular Humanism and certain socio-political forms of Naturalistic thought offer the most promising alternatives to religion today.

Some of the most essential functions that religions have traditionally provided involve social organization. Although today we seek out secular alternatives to these social roles filled previously by religion, creating social cohesion through celebration of secular culture remains the greatest challenge that we face going forward.

Building effective systems of thought to replace religious systems that are in place is an extremely complicated process. Between the ancient enlightenment periods in the East and the West, and the more modern and universal scientific enlightenment, it has taken a considerable amount of time and effort by the greatest minds that lived, for the ideas generated by reason and compassion to overcome some of the many religious ideas that served us during our primitive superstitious past. The designation of special status to religions has been a stifling impediment to the evolution of reason-based alternatives to any remaining beneficial properties that religions may have traditionally contained. As we fight these impediments, let us remember that there are great rewards to be found in providing replacements to religion. At a personal scale, these replacements provide Atheists and Freethinkers with social systems that bring them together and give them community- something that they have lacked in any meaningful form for much of human existence. The big picture view is that replacing religions with reason-based alternatives is the only way forward if we humans are to co-exist in a scientifically-literate future.